Tai Shi saw the village of Lu Tan. An army of over 200 was at his back, one confident and very ready for a fight. The military of Zu had never been challenged, and no force in the region rivaled the host gathered. Tai Shi appreciated the zeal of his men, but he feared for the lack of true battle experience. A significantly smaller, yet better trained military, would have no issue dispatching the green troops. However, it was all Zu had to offer, and only through fire could soldiers be forged.
The sun was warm overhead, a slight breeze creating an idyllic day. If only blood didn’t have to be shed. Looking down from the hill, Tai pondered if it would be required. Children played in the streets. Men sat on the boat decks, lazing the day away. No crew was loading or unloading the merchant ships, which struck a cord with Tai. How would the village financially survive without the support of Bai Ding and Zu? But no matter, it seemed the people were quite pleased with the lot chosen. Yet, why would an entire city decide to become so lethargic? Tai sighed, looking for his own men scouting the city.
The Spring units walked the streets, blending in with the locals. A few men took up the garbs of traders, while others were refugees hoping to find a better life in Bai Ding. The disguises were nothing spectacular, and such an influx of foreigners would have tipped of an alert force. However, the soldiers looked safe enough and no fights had seemingly broken out. The small town looked as if nothing were out of place.
Surrounding the village, off in the distance, other scouts kept an eye on the village. If fighting broke out, those scouts would flee back to Tai Shi to give needed intelligence. However, it seemed each scout was quite content and unworried. The village looked as it should, according to reports of Lu Tan before it disappeared from the map, for all purposes. Tai Shi scratched his chin, “What do we make of this?”
Jung stood dutifully beside his commander, arms behind his back, feet shoulder width apart. He watched the village keenly, but came to attention when spoken to. Jung said, “Not sure, sir. It would seem Lu Tan may not need us.”
“But too many went missing here. And Ming? Something is wrong, we just can’t see it.” Tai rubbed his temples, squinting at the village, hoping to catch some out of place detail. “Spring is moving about as if nothing is wrong. The people don’t seem to be reacting to their presence. I suppose I’ll wait for a report and decide from there.” Tai Shi turned to Jung. “Tell the troops to create a parameter and stay alert.” Jung bowed and went to speak with the troops. Tai Shi meditated, waiting for a report from his scouts.
It was less than an hour before a scout approached Tai Shi. The soldier, Nu, saluted, “Sir, we aren’t sure what’s wrong. The people are strange, but not lethal. Three men have gone missing without word, but there were no signs of a fight. The three missing claimed something about spirits and the bodies being possessed. We think they fled in the night out of cowardice.”
Tai Shi nodded and stood quietly for a time. Finally he said, “Do you think the people may be possessed?”
“That’s absurd, sir. Spirits can’t do that, even if this is caused by them.”
“Private Nu, you have a lot of experience with spirits?”
“No, sir.” Nu went pale.
“Then perhaps you should leave your opinions out of this. You’re dismissed.” The private turned rigidly and marched away. Tai Shi shook his head with a smirk, “Jung, I’d like some tea.” Tai sat down. “Perhaps there’s something to the body snatching. Ming had commented on something similar.” Jung prepared the tea while Tai continued speaking. “Did you know that we have the ability to remove information we don’t agree with? When we see something that isn’t right, or come across the unexplainable, we find a way. I think those three realized something. They didn’t explain it away. Ming realized it too. Prepare the troops. We cleanse the entire village.”
“Sir?” Jung brought the tea to Tai. “We can’t. Those people down there….”
“Have killed or kidnapped numerous merchants, citizens, and soldiers. Nu never commented on the people being afraid, so they aren’t hostages. There were no signs of a fight. The people are strange. I would rather wipe out this entire village and start over than continue to let good men die here.” He sipped his tea. “In one hour, Summer will be ready. I will be at the head. We will march and execute the plan as stated earlier.”
Jung bowed. “Yes, Captain. As you wish.”
* * *
The boat wobbled side to side as five men frantically rowed. The river pushed the boat downstream, towards the city of Bai Ding. Bai Ding would grant safety, or so Tai Shi hoped desperately when he ordered what was left of his army to go north. Either way, fighting the current to reach Zu would have made the men incapable of outrunning the inhuman pursuers. Across from Tai Shi, Jung sat stunned. Since reaching the boat, Jung went dumb, incapable of true speech. It was weight on the boat which was not contributing, something which would likely cost lives.
Tai Shi slapped Jung, “Keep rowing!” More incoherent words stammered out of Jung’s mouth. His eyes were wide, like Ming’s. The color had left him, and it was as if a wasting disease took over his body. It was difficult for Tai Shi to fault his friend the reaction to the horrors which had been witnessed not half an hour earlier, but the creatures were gaining and Jung needed to either contribute or go overboard.
Tai Shi hit him again, “Row or we feed you to those monsters.” Jung shuddered at this. Muscles trembled for a time, then the man shook himself out of his fear and started to row. The strokes with his paddle were too quick, and Tai Shi had to tell his friend to calm or the boat would start to circle. With Jung under control, the boat was able to make some distance between the abominations following them, though not enough to claim any sort of escape.
All seven men could see behind the boat while paddling. It was all the motivation required to keep the strength in their arms. The river ran smoothly over serpentine bodies. Now and then scales would break the water. As if to keep the fear in the prey, one of the snake like creatures would bound out of the water to hiss at the humans, before splashing back under. It was impossible to tell how many bodies were under the surface, but for a long while, countless more slithered into the river from the banks, hissing and screaming at the men rowing.
The creatures had tails as snakes, but at the torso it was human, covered in scales. The beings had two, four, or six arms, and some held crude weapons of bones. Many bones looked to be from fish or animals. A few were certainly that of men. Most of the faces had long snouts with two sharp fangs, a forked tongue, and slit eyes. Some kept human like faces, keeping the fangs, tongue, and eyes of the snake men.
There was no battle. Tai Shi brought men to kill what seemed like women and children. Summer hesitated to strike as they approached. Then women and children revealed long fangs and bit those soldiers close enough. Within seconds the men were kneeling, struggling to breathe. The panic started when children approached with unhinged jaws. Each swallowed a man whole while women deftly put down anyone attempting to slay the wicked youths. By then, the men saw what they faced. Many begged for mercy, or at least a quick death. Others fell on their swords. The small army was surrounded, and Tai Shi fled, ordering whatever men had not been struck senseless to follow him. Jung was at least able to make it to the boat before his wits left. Any time Tai blinked, he saw those monsters swallowing the men.
Tai Shi shook his head, dispelling the thoughts. “Row faster!”
The sun set, leaving stars and a sliver of moon to guide them. Incapable of seeing the surging water, it seemed as if the monsters stopped trailing them. Only when one of the snake men broke the water, hissing and taunting the men, was Tai Shi jolted back to the reality they were being hunted. The reminders became less frequent until the moon was halfway through the sky. Then the hissing stopped. The rowing was as fear driven as ever until sunrise, when it was confirmed the creatures stopped trailing the boat. Hopefully Bai Ding hadn’t been attacked yet, and the army would be more capable than Zu’s.