written by MiniOrchid
edited by kakashi
Clashing, banging, clanking....sounds from the distant past, yet so intimately familiar. The smell of sweat, leather, and spilled blood filled the training arena, bringing back memories she had once wanted to suppress. But no more, because right now, at the Ziming Palace Arena, she felt more alive and more invigorated than before leaving this place centuries ago. Yan Zhi sat on the high podium with her trusted Generals, enjoying her breakfast, as they watched the new recruits practicing their martial arts below them at the break of dawn.
For the past three days, the warriors had arrived in large numbers from all corners of the realm. Children of Ghost Warriors were trained as soon as they could yield a dagger, it being the only life they knew. Unlike other Clans who valued individual success or enjoyed the comfort of luxuries, these things had never been of interest to the Warrior Clan. The thirst for battles, the thirst for recognition was in their blood. Born to be warriors, worshiping the old gods whose presence was still felt within them, all descendants knew they were to prove themselves to the royals and their ancestors.
By passing of the royal decree, no matter which tribe or status, they were given the opportunity to prove their worth. Selection was rigorous. The trials were overseen by General Zhao, who had become the youngest General of his generation at only 98,000 years of age. Though large, energetic and hot tempered at times - and initially reluctant to leave his own soldiers to work exclusively under Royal Command - he was hard but fair and remained steady in the training he provided.
Yan Zhi observed the sparring from her throne. The noise provided a perfect opportunity to discuss politics, since it was making it impossible for potential spies to overhear much. "The turnout is higher than I expected. I thought the war would affect the numbers negatively."
"These are the daughters of the most outstanding warriors of our time. When they heard about your decree, they rushed here to participate from all corners of our realm. Never before have we made such specific requirements, it surprised the warriors and even some generals," said General Yang, the most diplomatic of the lot.
He was from the new generation of warriors who desired change in Ghost Realm Politics, holding a strong belief in returning to the Glory Days under her father's rule. His respect for the royal bloodline and ancestry had never faltered, and he was the first General who sought her out in the mortal realm.
Yan Zhi turned to General Hu on her other side. "Continue to gather information about their backgrounds, leave no stone unturned. I don't want any surprises from our recruits."
"Yes, Your Highness, the new intel will be delivered to the palace this afternoon," he answered, while enjoying the hearty breakfast in front of him.
General Hu might look easy going, but he was a sly and cautious man, overseeing the royal family's spy network for many millennia. Himself an excellent spy in his youth, he could change his personality at will, depending on what circumstances demanded. He was a great judge of character and enjoyed finding out about the weaknesses of others, more so for personal pleasure than for the mission. He often said that there was nothing more valuable than information, and weaknesses could turn the tide of any battle.
"The other Generals, what is their status?"
"We have identified those who have an interest in siding with Cheng Yin - one of them must be responsible for ambushing General Kai. We also found out that the Demon Yellow King has delivered weapons to our border."
"Weapons?" Yan Zhi scowled. "Of course, an easy bribe for blood-lusting warriors. Cheng Yin always knows what to offer to entice people." The generals nodded in agreement. They all knew they had limited time for preparation, given the traitors had support from the outside.
She changed the topic to what they could control. "We need the tally of our breeding progress, as General Zhao suggested this morning. It is one of the few advantage we have, unless our numbers are still low."
"Using free roaming beasts is an option, but it'll take some time to tame them," General Yang added. Yes, free roaming beasts were indeed a great option. Before the Ghost Tribe started breeding their beasts, they were caught in the wild and tamed to submit to their masters. For millennia, this practice was no longer followed, although it was well known that wild beasts were much more powerful than the ones reared from birth.
"We may have to resort to that, although it would be much more dangerous. Gather the best hunters for the task," Yan Zhi ordered as she continued to observe the practice below. General Zhao had knocked down four more opponents. They got up again, and renewed their efforts. "And our spies?" she asked without taking her eyes off the fight.
"They still continue to monitor the situation in the Celestial and Demon Realms. War is imminent, no doubt about it. Both sides seem to be just waiting for the opponent to light the spark," General Hu answered.
General Yang shook his head with a cynical laugh. "It no longer matters who shoots the first arrow, but the overall outcome will depend on us."
"Since the end of civil war, we have focused on amassing our powers. We've been avoiding conflict or taking sides at the discretion of the Elders," General Hu explained to Yan Zhi.
"Avoiding conflict is strange for a warrior clan. No wonder outsiders can easily manipulate us when our warriors thirst for battle," General Yang said with an edge of anger, making Yan Zhi wince inwardly.
They fell silent, General Hu glared at General Yang, who immediately realized he had misstepped.
"Your Highness, I apologize for speaking out of turn," General Yang bowed.
"No, it was I who has failed our people. The Elders can only do so much to restore our glory."
Despite everything, the Elders were correct. The Ghost realm had been damaged by several wars. Although they were powerful, their numbers had been reduced. Time had been needed to train the new generations of Ghost Warriors, and unnecessary battles would only have done more harm than good.
"Your Highness, another matter: Star Lord Si Ming has come once again to seek an audience."
Her tea cup paused halfway to her mouth before she answered. "Tell him I am unavailable."
General Hu was puzzled by her answer. Seeing that, she further clarified: "For the time being, we do not meet with messengers from the Celestial nor the Demon Realms. Not until our situation stabilizes. Our clan had enough of them pulling strings at their will."
"Understood. But your Highness, what about an alliance in the future?"
"Whether Demons or Celestial, they will have to earn our trust if they want an alliance. We could neither..."
"Get up!" shouted the ill-tempered General Zhao from below, interrupting their discussion. General Zhao had knocked down the remaining opponents. The female warriors all grunted in pain from the impact.
"Pick up the Qiangs," he ordered them. The recruits now trembled in fear from the large, angry, towering man, who could easily crush them.
"General, we're not familiar with the weapon."
"How do we compete when we're not experts?"
"Would that matter if that were the only available weapon?" he asked the recruits.
"Then pick up the Qiangs."
The three reluctant young warriors did and fought with all they could, but they soon fell to the ground again, after their weapons were swiftly taken away, and thrown dangerously near their feet. Fearing for their lives, they immediately bowed.
"We apologize for our failure! We will receive any punishment, please don't make us leave!"
"Who said for you to leave?" he asked.
They stared at him, an expression of confusion crossing their faces.
General Zhao sighed, before starting to chastise them: "An expert in any subject was once a beginner. I expect each and every one of you to excel at what you know best, but also at your worst subject. One does not improve if one does not overcome one's failures. Do you understand?"
"Yes, General Zhao!"
"Pick up the weapon you're most reluctant to hold. You have seven days to practice before your next exercise. And if you're not an expert by then, I suggest you pack your bags and buzz off," General Zhao roared so loudly, the arena went silent before everyone dropped the weapons they had in their hand and went to grab a new weapon as they had been told.
Yan Zhi observed the scene below her. She had agreed not to interfere, before the recruits' arrival. She turned to General Hu. "I have to give you credit for recruiting General Zhao to train our special troops. But I am curious, how did you make him agree so readily, given his personality?"
"Your Highness, as you well know, nothing gets past our spies, and everyone has a weakness," General Hu answered with a shrug.
Yan Zhi arched her brows at him and the General chuckled. "In the case of General Zhao," he continued, his gaze now turned in the direction of the Xiu Sisters, who were training by themselves in the left corner, "I was reminded that no man can refuse a chance to be close to the one who has captured his heart."
It took a few moments, but Yan Zhi finally noticed. It was subtle, but General Zhao did pause a few times during the training to look in the direction of the Xiu Sisters, the daughters of General Kai, who were now practicing with their Butterfly Swords. So this was his weakness! She wondered which of the sisters he had designs for and couldn't help but smile at the young energetic General.
A man will do anything for the woman he loves, even going against his way of life. General Zhao had always preferred to train his own warriors as he saw fit. He was what most would call a free spirited nomadic warrior, who scorned the idea of staying in the same place for too long. Who would had thought he would change his ways for a woman.
Still, Yan Zhi knew too well, when it came to the matters of the heart, a man would move mountains and rivers just for a chance to be near the woman he adored. That thought made her think of Zi Lan. She had left him without a true word of goodbye. Knowing him, he must have been furious once he found out she was gone. Yan Zhi wondered what measures he'd take once he was fully recovered, and what she would have to do to keep him away from danger.
Within the Forest of the Dead lay the Ghost Clan Royal Cemetery, which had not received care or the touch of kin for centuries. It was in a state of neglect, nature had taken hold, and it was barely recognizable when she arrived. Yan Zhi used her magic to clear off the weeds and other vegetation from her family's tombstones. Setting the offerings for each of the graves and burning incense for the lost souls who might still linger, Yan Zhi and Qiao Er knelt before her brother and sister in law's grave.
"Er Ge, Er Sao, we're here," she turned to Qiao Er and handed her three burning incense sticks.
"Father, mother....Qiao Er is here to offer her filial piety. Thank you for offering life to me," Qiao Er placed the incense on the ground, and bowed to her parents three times as instructed.
When Qiao Er was old enough to understand, Yan Zhi had told her she wasn't her real mother. What she hadn't expected was Qiao Er insisting on calling her Mother nonetheless, because she was the only mom she knew and loved. Thus, they remained mother and daughter to this day. The child was her light and joy, the precious gift from her brother and sister-in-law.
On the day of their return, they had been welcomed by all the Generals of the realm. An ancestral ceremony was held, with High Priests from all corners of the Ghost Realm taking part in welcoming the royal bloodline and legitimizing their rule. The land was filled with purple smoke and fire, signaling acceptance of the people.
Qiao Er was nervous at first. She had never been to the Grand Ziming Palace before, which was filled with hardy Warriors, a frightening place if one was not raised there. She feared the men in black clothing and the horns that protruded from their faces, until Yan Zhi showed her that she too had their tribe's horns on her forehead. Qiao Er had two small ones, reminding Yan Zhi of Li Jing's. The brave child even laughed at her own unique look and accepted her title as the Ghost Princess with grace. She had soon learned to get her way with just a few witty words, which again reminded Yan Zhi so much of her brother when he was young.
Yan Zhi had been anxious about how well the child would adjust to the new environment. However, even though Qiao Er had a tendency to be over-cautious at times, she learned to adapt quickly, courtesy of the ghost blood in her: Ghosts were an adaptable clan who thrived in all environments. Her nightmares had yet to return, which was a great relief, seeing how they desperately needed to prepare or better prevent another Civil War, with enemies hiding in their ranks.
Therefore, before their situation had been sufficiently stabilized, Yan Zhi had not been able to bring Qiao Er to the ancestral cemetery. Now, they were finally here - and unchecked emotions she had wished to suppress could no longer be contained. Her thoughts turned to the last moment before Er Ge's sacrifice to stop their father, to his last words that still haunted her to this day.
"I entrust my child to you."
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