It was early morning at General Hu Wan’s residence--a large Pavilion located not too far from Ziming Palace. The 270,000 year old High Immortal, Hu Wan, had always preferred a more discreet location for his warriors to focus on their tasks so they would not lose valuable intel while they worked. This was a more than private location--away from the central Palace, the training arena, the ceremonial temples, and most importantly, the crowd. And the healthy number of warriors was a blessing on its own.
As was his habit during mornings, the General was busy reading the newest intel gathered by spies he had placed in other realms. The number of scrolls piled on the shelves behind his desk were only a small portion that had arrived that week. The number of spies had increased over the years, bringing great volumes of reports to the desk. Even during times of peace, the importance of gathering personal information should never be neglected. One could never know when the next great war would arrive. Allies and foes could change without warning. Brothers in arms could attack without hesitation. But facts were facts, the most dependable variables for a tribe that had lost more than its fair share of lives.
30,000 years... no, to be more accurate, it had taken 25,000 years to restore the tribe to its former glory. And it had taken painstaking work, work that they had all engaged in first hand. The Ghost Tribe Civil War that lasted a hundred years after their Ghost King Qing Cang was vanquished; then the proceeding Demon War some 30,000 years ago had taken another toll on their numbers. Countless lives had been sacrificed for the greater good, and it was worth the cost.
The Immortals of the Ghost Realm now lived in peace, but most important of all, they no longer had to lower their heads before other Tribes.
Gone were the days when they had been used as front line soldiers by others. Gone were the days when they had to live in the fear of possible genocide of their people. It was finally possible to grow, to prosper...to live for the future of their descendants.
All this had been made possible by one person, one woman. Yes, it was never a hidden fact that the Elders had played a major role in stomping out the Civil War from the beginning. But even then, the High Gods and Goddess had not been able to unite the people with their powers alone, especially given their unclear hidden agenda.
In times of civil unrest -- trust was valuable, belief was powerful, and loyalty was priceless.
That was why they had brought her back. The royal who was reluctant. The princess who ran.
They had tried many times before, but she had been adamant about not returning. Who could blame her though--she had lost everything. Princess Yan Zhi was never raised to be Queen of the Realm, given that the Ghost Lord, Qing Cang, was not one to share his power -- even going so far as to using his own offspring as means to an end. But their Ghost Lord had been powerful. So powerful, that even the Celestial High God Mo Yuan had only been able to imprison him for 70,000 years with the sacrifice of his own soul. Though the blood hungry Ghost King had wanted to take over all realms, his thirst for revenge had been even stronger. During his imprisonment, he had made sure if there was the slightest chance he would lose again upon his release--which he had, with the help of their Late Ghost King Li Jing--the Ghost King Qing Cang would take the world with him. The Celestial Bell had been transformed into a blackhole upon his death. If not for the Celestial Crown Prince, all realms would have perished.
Though the past was past, the reputation of their Ghost King would always linger in the mind of those who had seen firsthand his destructive power back in the days. Their Queen could be hostile at times--a reminder that she was her father’s daughter. She was cold to others, ruthless to enemies, but still softened when it came to her only kin, Princess Qiao Xin.
It was she who had brought back their glory. It was she who had made the ultimate sacrifice, and it could only be her who would continue the bloodline, the future... provide the realm with a future King or Queen.
Their Queen might not approve of their underhanded methods, but it was the only way. The fate of the the tribe could no longer wait.
It was time.
Time which he himself lacked these days. Hu Wan reached for scrolls with the newest intel on the first potential suitor, when he heard someone crash into his residence. He knew who it would be well before the intruder made himself present, a sign that these intrusions were routine.
“Can you tell me what happened to the original list I created?” General Yang Jie roared as he stomped into Hu Wan’s study room.
“I don’t see too many changes in the weapon inventory you sent this morning. It’s still the same…” Hu Wan drawled, his eyes never looking up from the scrolls before him -- a habit that infuriated the other man further.
“Cut the pretense, Hu Wan! You know you scrapped my candidates for the Queen!” Yang Ji barked at him.
“I see,” Hu Wan gave the angry man a quick glance, his eyes twinkling with mirth as he unrolled another scroll on his desk. “You meant that list. Yes, I did have to make a few changes,” the General shrugged casually, “nothing major, just a few additions.”
Yang Jie bent across from Hu Wan and slammed his fist on the table. Clearly, he was not amused; the stubborn General Yang Jie was not the type to let the topic slide easily. “You added outsiders! As I recall, our people don’t need a marriage alliance. Why did you include them?” he demanded to know.
Hu Wan gave a light chuckle at the physical hostility, not at all deterred by the accusation. But his gaze finally left the scroll before him and met Yang Jie’s eyes. “As I recall, given my advanced age,” he responded with casual ease, “there is no policy that prevents our Queen from marrying anyone outside our circles. There is no harm in including others. All is fair in love and war.” He leaned back with his left elbow on the armchair, gesturing towards the chair across the table. “Please have a seat,” Hu Wan suggested politely, knowing full well that the best advantage in any debate was to be the one in control of the conversation.
With a low growl, Yang Jie settled himself on the opposite side of the table. He was a man who was loyal to a fault. He was conservative in his ways, yet his discrimination was warranted. He had seen too much; both of them had, whether it be side by side as warriors on the battlefield, or as rival politicians in the court. But through it all they remained close allies behind the scenes. While one became enclosed within his views, the other took a different approach; he had to--because there was no value in a double faced coin when their universe required a balance of yin and yang. Taking a deep breath to compose himself, the General continued, “Hu Wan, we need powerful heirs.”
“Exactly!” Hu Wan agreed. “The more reason to enrich our bloodline. As pure as the bloodline is, it will not do us good to stubbornly remain within tradition.”
“But Demons? Foxes? You included Celestials for heaven's sake!” Yang Jie wailed.
“General Yang, we have had no ill relationship with the Demon Realm for thousands of years. In fact, the Queen is very close to them in terms of business,” Hu Wan reminded Yang Jie, though the wary looked remained on Yang Jie’s face. “The Foxes’ bloodline is powerful if not more than the Celestials’; a great advantage to a future heir. Most importantly, we have to expand our search to increase the chances of a candidate being selected by the Queen.”
“If those listed do not meet your requirements I can expand the search within our realm,“ Yang Jie began to bargain. “A search among our people should be enough, we have plenty of great warriors in our tribe.”
“Yang Jie, you are mistaken if you think it’s the lack of bloodthirsty warriors that I care about,” Hu Wan let out a frustrated sigh, his jaw clenched, his gaze darkened. “This is not about my requirements, nor yours. It’s about hers. If our Queen had taken an interest in any of the warriors on this land, she would have selected at least one as her lover a long time ago. We’re all well aware of the fact that she did not.”
“But we got permission from the Elders--”
“We only received permission to select suitors for her eyes to judge,” Hu Wan clarified. “What if she decides not to chose any of them? What then?”
“Hu Wan, have you forgotten it was a Celestial that caused our Queen to become a widow?” Yang Jie countered. “Why take a chance with another outsider?”
“The mind has a will of its own. We can’t control fate nor can we control whom she may chose,” Hu Wan said. “The future of this tribe depends on our reluctant Queen’s willingness to accept a partner. You are her second-in-command, you saw her on the battlefield. Hasn’t she taken on more dangerous missions as of late? Her life is constantly in immediate danger given her desire to seek death’s door. We can’t afford another civil war no matter how well we have re-established ourselves.”
“I have not been blind to the Queen’s actions since she started her reign,” the General responded with an offended expression. “But once we open our door to other tribes, we can no longer ignore the possibility of repercussions,” Yang Jie emphasized his disapproval. The General had every right to be afraid. It was no secret, any candidate from another realm would try to use the title of Prince Consort to his advantage. They had reason to be cautious in the selection.
Marriage alliances had their risks.
Hu Wan sat back, his hands folded in front of him. “That, you should not worry about,” he smiled with confidence, eyes calculative at future prospects, “knowing her preference, she will choose wisely, as she did in the past.”
“Our Queen does have a type.”
His eyes became alert. “You don’t mean--” Yang Jie barely finished the sentence before he caught the sly look from the elder man. He couldn’t possibly…Yang Jie’s eyes closed in defeat as his hand touched his temple, smoothing the uncomfortable tension that was building. The General found himself cursing under his breath, before finally uttering, “Warriors with a hero complex who seek death to impress.”
It was true, even when the Queen was a young girl, Princess Yan Zhi had loved stories of heroic actions, and admired warriors far different from those in her own tribe. Her interest had always been in the pretty Celestial boys, because the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. The Ghost King himself had been a collector of gorgeous men from around the realms. He even started the War with the Celestials over 100,000 years ago, when he captured the Beauty of Kunlun, enraging High God Mo Yuan. Another reminder that nothing good came by associating with anyone from the Celestial Realm.
“Yang Jie, there is no need to be concerned, we’re currently living in a time of peace. The chances of unnecessary heroic acts are scarce,” Hu Wan assured him with enthusiasm. “Besides, as long as we get an heir before he decides to take that route, the future of the Ghost Tribe should be secure.”
“Let’s keep this one alive, whoever he may be. We don’t want another incident like the last time,” Yang Jie acquiesced grudgingly, yielding for once, his defenses gone.
Realising he had won, Hu Wan smiled triumphantly, and as a result earned a glare from his frustrated opponent. “I’m glad you finally see the light,” Hu Wan couldn’t help but tease. “Any day now, the reports on these highly regarded suitors will arrive at my desk,” he informed.
Yang Jie’s eyes caught on. “Is that why you included the Celestial from Kunlun?”
“You mean the former Disciple, who no longer resides there? He has no clan that we know of -- I am still awaiting the reports on him,” Hu Wan informed before his attention turned back to the reports on his desk. There were a number of backgrounds that couldn’t be overlooked. Especially those who might appear unextraordinary may turn out to be the shadow master behind the scenes.
Yang Jie caught the subtle hint and stood up to depart, but then paused at the entrance. His head turned with an expression of disbelief. “The gamble you have placed upon our Queen, and here I thought you were not a gambling man, Hu Wan,” he remarked.
The General mused upon the statement as he watched his close friend depart from the room. But even he had to admit, the other General was partly right. They would have a devil of a time trying to keep whoever their Queen chose safe, knowing her taste. It’s unfortunate they couldn’t lock up the future Prince Consort like one of their rare beasts.
It would make life simpler…but then, where was the fun in that?
Yan Zhi’s hands clenched the scroll, her eyes scanning the words once more as a dark cloud descended overhead, foreshadowing the darkness that was to come.
Bo, Ying Zhao, Zhubieyu, Dijiang...Zhen...Xiezhi...the list of magical beasts went on and on. Their number was dwindling, and not because of normal hunting or poaching. They were in fact, missing. In large enough numbers to catch the attention of the leaders of Celestials, Demons, and Foxes alike. The message from the Celestial King asked for assistance in the matter, knowing the Ghost Tribe’s reputation as beast tamers. But even if the Celestial King had not proposed such a plan, Yan Zhi would have looked into matter. Something or someone had been encroaching on their land recently.
It had been undetectable at first. All beasts had their preferred habitat, hunting ground, mating season, and migration time. Keeping constant tabs on all species was not possible but their behavior patterns were predictable. The first evidence was that the behavior of well known beasts had differed, such as the Qiong Qi beast’s (a predatory winged tiger) a few moons ago. Normally, such a creature would reside within the inner domain of the dark forest--most lived in the Demon Realm, away from places with the frequent presence of immortals. For the creature to show up unexpectedly in the Ghost Realm and other places within the immortal universe was unusual indeed.
And now that the beasts were disappearing from their own habitat, the missing number could no longer be ignored. All the royals and leaders were on edge because of the phenomenon that was fast becoming common, yet should not be common, especially during times of peace.
“Your Majesty?” Xiu Tao, her personal bodyguard and attendant looked askance. She had served her well since her elder sister, Xiu Yin’s passing. The third daughter of Lady Jing and the Late General Kai, who was the strongest among her four sisters, took her responsibility seriously and without comment or complaint. An expert in martial arts and powerful in cultivation, even surpassing her two elder sisters, Xiu Tao was made to be a protector. Often dressed as a man, she rarely showed her feminine side. But it was her discreet personality that had first drawn Yan Zhi to her, considering that Yan Zhi’s life was often scrutinized by others, especially the meddlesome Generals.
Yan Zhi handed her the message. Xiu Tao read it quickly, her expression becoming grim. “We had our suspicions, but it doesn’t seem like we’re the only ones.”
They were standing beside the purple lotus pond outside Yan Zhi’s quarters in Ziming Palace, the brooding sky with fast moving dark clouds above them. “The wind is picking up today,” Yan Zhi said, her gaze remaining on the pond as the strong breeze made the purple lotus dance against the current. “A storm is not far behind,” she whispered, talking about more than just the weather.
Something sinister was surfacing, like a benign disease that had only just started to manifest; the signs seemed harmless at first glance but if one was not careful there could be consequences.
“What should we do, Your Majesty?” Xiu Tao asked.
“Send a message to General Yang to visit other territories in our realm, I want to know the full scale of the incidents in those locations. And tell General Hu to oversee the underground intel on the missing beasts. They have three days.”
“But Your Majesty, the Generals are busy overseeing the task of the suitors--”
“If they have time to play at matchmaking, they have time to do real work. Tell them I want their reports when I get back,” Yan Zhi ordered.
“Yes, Your Majesty.” Xiu Tao bowed. Her eyes indicated that she wanted to say something more but she kept it to herself, as she often did.
“I’ll be gone for a few days,” Yan Zhi informed her attendant. “If they ask, tell them I’m visiting the Celestial Queen.”
Xiu Tao smiled brightly as soon as she heard of the Goddess Bai Qian. “Safe travels, Your Majesty.”
Yan Zhi turned to leave, but paused, then turned back to Xiu Tao. “Also inform General Zhao to keep an eye on the Princess while I’m away, who knows what that child will come up with to run away this time.”
With that, Yan Zhi cloud jumped away.
Author's Note: Please Read Zi Lan & Yan Zh