The general and his men ran through the Forbidden City as reinforcements rushed to the gate.
“Cousin,” Nianzu said. “All these years I thought you’d lost your mind with tales of monsters in the form of men. I am sorry.”
“Apology accepted,” Tsang said.
“Can they be killed, General?” Weiyuan asked.
“Only if you bash their brains in,” General Tsang said as he fished around in his pocket. “Which reminds me…”
The general pulled out a hand full of chrysanthemum flowers. He bit into one, then passed out the rest. “Eat these.”
“Why?” Tengfei asked.
“An old remedy the Infallible Master taught me years ago,” General Tsang. “It works. Kept me from becoming a heart eater, and it’ll keep you from becoming brain eaters.”
“Brain eaters?” Nianzu asked.
“You wouldn’t think they’d be so tempting,” the General said. “But I’ve seen good men turn into fiends after just one whiff of brain.”
The conversation was interrupted by a loud, guttural, “Arrrrggghhh!”
The quartet looked up to see a large, fiery object streak through the sky. As if that weren’t odd enough, the object was….screaming. As it began its descent towards the Imperial Palace steps, the general realized what had happened.
“What in the…he’s setting his warriors on fire and launching them over the wall!”
“Raargh!” The flaming fighter landed on the steps, then immediately charged at General Tsang. The general didn’t flinch as he lopped off the undead beast’s head with one swift swing of his sword.
Nianzu felt bile gurgle up into his throat as he looked down at the still living head.
“’Join the army,’ you said. ‘It’ll be an adventure,’ you said.”
“Complaints later, cousin,” General Tsang said as he crushed the head under his boot.
The quartet rushed up the steps and into the palace, then made their way to the throne room. There they found Captain Yuen and three of his guards standing at attention.
“Are you daft, man?!” the general shouted. “Do you not hear the commotion outside?”
“The Imperial Guard remains with the Emperor at all times,” the captain replied.
The general lifted a curtain behind the Dragon Throne, then marched down a hallway with his men behind him. Captain Yuen and his men followed.
“Stop!” Captain Yuen said.
“Don’t quibble with me over protocol, Yuen!” General Tsang shouted. “The Emperor’s life is at stake.”
The sound of Captain Yuen drawing his sword brought General Tsang to a halt.
“You joined the pig in his betrayal,” General Tsang said as he turned around.
“No…and yes,” Captain Yuen said.
“It can either be one or the other,” General Tsang replied.
“No, because I took no bribes and I never wanted this to happen,” Captain Yuen said. “Yes, because I knew of Zhen’s treachery and did nothing. I did not want to oppose the Emperor’s advisor.”
“Redeem yourself now and help me,” the general said. “We’ll talk about the shame your cowardice has brought you later.”
“Don’t you see?” Captain Yuen said. “There’s no stopping Dragonhand. He’s grown too strong. His clan is vast. He’ll have the Emperor’s brain whether we live or die…”
Captain Yuen pointed his sword at Tsang. “…and I choose to live.”
“Damn you, Yuen,” General Tsang said as he pointed his sword at his newfound adversary.
The captain turned to his subordinates. “Join the others. Seal off the palace. If Dragonhand wants in, he will have to negotiate with me.”
The Imperial Guardsmen nodded and dispersed.
Nianzu drew his sword. “We’ll make short work of him, cousin.”
General Tsang kept his eyes locked on the captain. “Four against one isn’t very sporting, cousin. You three find the Emperor.”
“If I do not rejoin you, keep him safe.”
“That’s an order!” General Tsang barked.
Nianzu nodded, then headed down the hall with Weiyuan and Tengfei.
The general and the captain paced about the hallway as they eyeballed one another.
“Is that your little plan?” General Tsang asked. “Trade the Emperor for your life?”
“I want my life,” Captain Yuen said. “He wants the Emperor. It’s a fair trade.”
“I’ve already seen one fool who thought he could bargain with Dragonhand die today,” General Tsang said. “Reconsider and there won’t have to be another.”
“Sorry, old man,” the captain said. “But it is decided.”
General Tsang sneered at his opponent. “So be it.”
The general and the captain charged at one another, shouting battle cries as their swords clanged.