The old general fumed, his nostrils flaring as he breathed in sharply. Zhao Meng and Seulgi were under his scouring gaze under intense scrutiny. It was clear that Zhao Meng had been defying his orders. The nervous shuffling of feet and glance to the floor was all he needed to know that she had been talking to Seulgi. She may not think it, but Zhu knew her better than she would have liked to admit. Seven years under his wing could do that.
Now as for Seulgi, he was sorely disappointed. Knowing Zhao Meng, she would have told the man about her orders and her desire to defy them. Weak. He scoffed, his eyes rolling to heaven. Not only were women a weakness, it was a plague for the man. Had he no strength around them? General Zhu boomed, "Well? Explain yourselves!"
Zhao Meng grimaced under his thunderous voice, her eyes darting towards Seulgi. She began, "We were discussing a plan of attack."
"Really?" Zhu raised a bushy eyebrow, his right hand brushing his beard unconsciously, "What plan would that be?"
"Whether we should barricade the gates or retreat to the upper floors," Zhao Meng replied quickly, trying to think on her feet. She had to say things that would seem reasonable to his ear given the situation. Zhu would know something was off otherwise. But what she did not know, was that Zhu did not believe a word she was saying. He nodded quietly anyway, giving the semblance of being convinced with her deception.
"Alright then," Zhu said, "Then what have you decided?"
"We…have not come to a decision yet," Zhao Meng answered, looking at Seulgi meaningfully. He stared back at her with wide eyes. What was she doing? Why are you getting me involved? She asked, "Right, Seulgi?"
Oh, fine. Seulgi nodded slowly, feeling agitated in taking part with this act of deception. He did not like this situation, but he doubted the General would appreciate the knowledge that they were discussing a murder investigation and Zhao Meng's suspected part in it. He glanced back towards the woman with a sense of mild awe. She was taking this very mildly. Seulgi was expecting shouting, death threats, and tears, but she stood there and took it all in without so much as a foul word. He was impressed.
Despite her calm reaction, Seulgi could see that she was hurt inside, regardless of how she was behaving towards everyone now. Seulgi felt his heart throb. He was sorry but felt that it was the right thing to do. Despite the pain she probably was feeling, Zhao Meng seemingly accepted it very maturely. He understood. There were things that should not appear on the face should one be feeling intense emotion. Seulgi noticed her fast glances towards her troops earlier and mentally approved of her reactions. She was thinking of her men and how her mood could change the morale of the troops. He would have done the same, but he knew that just because he agreed with her choice, did not make this situation any more acceptable to either party.
Seulgi focused his attention back towards the older general. There was something off with this confrontation. Where was Zhu the whole time? Surely the sounds of battle would have drawn him out or at least send a runner for an explanation. But no runner came, and he did not climb down the stairs until everyone was safely behind the doors. At least everyone who survived made it inside the keep. He frowned. What sort of general was he to not have asked for a situation or report? Then he noticed the cloaked figure behind the broad back of the general, dark veiled eyes boring into Seulgi. Something about that person is not natural, Seulgi said in his mind.
I agree with you on that. Belefidas answered, his demonic voice reverberating inside the walls of his skull, Those eyes…they are not human.
What should I do? Seulgi asked the demon.
I'd see how this plays out, Belefidas answered. Watch what that person does.
Seulgi nodded. He refocused his attention towards Zhu. It was time for some detective work. He asked, "So, General, where were you amid the chaos?"
"Why do you ask?" Zhu raised an eyebrow. It was a sudden question and everyone around them all tuned in. Even Zhao Meng was surprised. What was he trying to do?
"Just curious," Seulgi gave a small shrug. There was a moment of silence between the two men, but Zhu broke the silence with a deep sigh.
"In my office," Zhu grunted, his hand stroking his beard quietly, "A runner burst into my office, spouting some nonsense of an undead mob outside. I came down to investigate and found you two here."
"Really?" Seulgi asked.
"You questioning my word, Kim Seulgi?" there was steel in Zhu's words. He obviously did not like being under the spotlight of interrogation and especially did not like being suspected of lying. Seulgi glanced towards Zhao Meng. She gave him a nervous look, her lips pursed. She shook her head slightly. Don't. Whatever you are planning, don't do it.
"So, who sent the runner?" Seulgi continued on with his questions. Zhao Meng mentally slapped her forehead, letting out a small groan. Could he not take a hint?! Was Seulgi so eager to die? She was trying so hard to get them out of trouble and here he was diving back into the pit again. What did it matter that the General was in…his office during the attack. Slowly Zhao Meng began to track Seulgi's thought path and had begun to realize the abnormality of the situation. She looked back at the General with a raised eyebrow.
"Does it matter?" Zhu scoffed, his armor clinking quietly with every little movement.
"Yes, it does," Seulgi nodded, "Especially the time the runner came up to see you."
Zhu stared coldly at the Man of Joseon. He was not intending to stop his questions and Zhu doubted any amount of threats would stop him. Fine; he'd play along. Zhu answered, "Li Long did."
Seulgi remained silent, casting a sidelong glance at Zhao Meng. She had the same look he did. It wasn't possible, but apparently Zhu did not know that Li Long was still unconscious. Zhu was lying.
"Satisfied?" Zhu scowled, not liking the silent exchange between Seulgi and his subordinate. It just further aggravated his smoldering temper towards their growing closeness to each other. Seulgi asked without even looking at the older man, "When did the runner come up to your office?"
"Again with the questions?" Zhu boomed, his men cringing at the volume of his voice. They did not want to see him angry nor did they wish to see the results of his wrath. But secretly, the Sheng soldiers wanted to see what would become of this conversation and the fate of Seulgi. The cloaked figure crossed its arms over its chest, patiently watching the conversation unfold.
"It is just a simple question of time, General," Seulgi raised an eyebrow, his voice filled with quiet amusement, "I apologize for not knowing that requesting an answer was such a nuisance for you to recall."
Zhao Meng gulped nervously. Oh gods, Seulgi was trying provoking him. It was so stupid…yet so…brave. She flushed quietly, her hand briefly coming up to cover her mouth. Zhu breathed in sharply through his nostrils, steam pouring out from his ears. He snapped, "Noon. Satisfied?!"
Seulgi nodded, his right hand coming up to rub his stubble. His eyes were distant and his mind racing in calculations and thoughts.
"What is it now?" Zhu narrowed his eyes, leaning forward menacingly. His broad form cast a shadow over Zhao Meng and Seulgi like that of a giant. Zhao Meng took a step back at the sight of the angered man, but Seulgi did not budge.
"Interesting," Seulgi simply said.
"What's 'interesting'?" Zhu snapped, "Speak up, boy!"
Seulgi crossed his arms, his eyes staring up at the General with unwavering eyes, "It's interesting how an unconscious man who was only brought in not even thirty minutes ago could send you a runner."
An awkward silence passed through the crowd as all eyes went to stare at the General. The General made a clicking noise in his mouth in disdain, standing himself upright once more. Seulgi continued to give him the same consistent stare the entire time. He caught Zhu on a lie and in front of his men too.
"So why the lie?" Seulgi raised an eyebrow.
"Bah," Zhu spat, "Why does it matter to you? You have no power here."
"Why does it matter?" Seulgi replied, "General, I don't know if you've noticed but we are all in the same sinking ship here. We are trapped in this keep with no means of escape with a horde of undead at the doorstep. Plus, it does matter from when you've known about this undead conflict. They are your men after all."
"That's right," Zhu grunted, arms crossing his torso, "My men. Not yours. Keep your thoughts to yourself."
"So did you know this entire time that your men were being massacred out there in that high tower of yours?" Seulgi was really pushing it now. Zhao Meng almost wanted to tackle him for his stupidity…and bravery. But he was still Zhu's prisoner and therefore, there was no telling if Zhu would just execute him on the spot should he push his buttons too much.
"Still more questions?" Zhu roared, his face red with fury, "If you have this much energy to dump meaningless questions on me, perhaps you should spend it on writing your will!"
"Answer the question," Seulgi said, unwilling to back down.
"You really want to die here, Seulgi?" Zhu snarled, "I can kill you here. It'd be a swift death. Consider it mercy. Better than death by evisceration, no?"
"Answer the question, General," Seulgi repeated. This time, there was an ominous glow to Seulgi's eyes. Zhao Meng could have sworn they were gleaming red. She shook her head and blinked a few times. The glow was gone. She sighed. She was getting delirious.
"FINE!" Zhu shouted, "I did know!"
There was a heavy cloud of silence that crashed down on everyone. Even Seulgi was a bit unnerved with Zhu's outburst. It was one thing to assume that he knew, but for him to admit that he had known of this plight was something completely different. He felt his hands clench into fists against his will and his body begin to shake in silent rage. He knew. He knew and did nothing.
"You knew?" Seulgi growled.
"Yes," the General nodded, "I did know. What are you going to do about it?"
"Why?" Seulgi stared at him with fiery eyes, "Why did you do nothing? Why did you not come down and help them? Fight alongside them, encourage them, and perhaps die with them? You come down here now, but it is nearly too late."
Seulgi took a few steps forward until the two men were nearly a foot away from each other. He snapped, "Those were your men out there! They were fighting for their lives against an undying force and you sat up there doing nothing!"
"Hold your tongue, cur!" Zhu rumbled, his hands twitching and restrained from strangling the Man of Joseon where he stood, "You are the one who knows nothing! Know you not of priorities and sacrifice?"
"Yes," Zhu's eyes gleamed, "Sacrifice. It is something that you seem to have a hard time wrapping your head around. It is expected of all soldiers to give their lives to follow orders and carry them through till death. This is no different. I did not intervene because I trust my men to carry out their duties. Their duty is to defend this castle from all threats whether it kills them or not. Loyalty. That is what this is, Seulgi. Know you none of the sort?"
Seulgi huffed angrily. Sacrifice and loyalty, he says. He knew full well what sacrifice was. He knew the meaning of the word perhaps better than anyone else. She made the ultimate sacrifice. Seulgi recalled bitterly. He could still smell the smoke and the burning flesh. No. He shook his head. He must not remember it now. He snapped, "And what sacrifice would this be? What is more important than the lives of your soldiers?"
"None of your business," Zhu rumbled, his deep bass-like voice shaking the very ground beneath them.
"And this reason is worth such death?"
Zhu glared down at him and spat, "Yes."
Seulgi suddenly felt the urge to impale the General. What could have been more important than his troops? They were people- his people. Surely, the General would take better care of his men!
"I know what thoughts run through all your minds," Zhu eyed everyone who had been listening to their conversation. Their eyes were filled with shock and emotions mixed with rage, surprise, and hurt. He wished that there was a better way in explaining this situation, but Seulgi pushed him. Damn him, Zhu cursed. He knows nothing. He knows not even why we took this castle in the first place…nor his part in it. He could feel the cloaked figure stare into his back, a chill climbing up his spine as its gaze lingered.
"What has happened is in the past," Zhu declared, "What matters now is that I am here and we will defend this keep until our dying breath. So steel your hearts, men. Ready your swords and spears. We will not fall. Dismissed."
The crowd of Sheng troops nodded grimly. Seulgi stared at them all with disbelief, his head shaking left to right. Even after all those lies and empty reasons for meaningless death, they would still follow him. Loyalty indeed, but it is a very blind loyalty, Seulgi thought to himself. He looked at Zhao Meng to see her reaction and was met with her brown eyes. Her face was as rigid as stone and empty of emotion. He could tell she was still processing everything that had just been revealed of Zhu. He could not blame her. Seulgi's secret investigation and Zhu's apparent absence was probably destroying her inside. The timing could not have been worse. Zhu then turned his attention towards Zhao Meng, "You. I am very disappointed in you. I gave you a simple task and you failed it miserably."
"General," Zhao Meng felt a lump in her throat, "I can explain."
"I'm sure you will," Zhu grunted with disgust, "I will hope to hear your case…when we proceed with your trial."
Trial?! Zhao Meng grimaced. He was going to court martial her. Seulgi stepped in saying, "General, you can't do that."
"No?" Zhu raised a bushy eyebrow, "Whose subordinate is she? Yours or mine? Stay out of our business, Kim Seulgi. You've caused quite enough trouble for the both of us."
With that, Zhu briskly marched away from the two of them, his guards following him in formation. The cloaked figure continued to stare at Seulgi with hidden eyes. It was starting to really creep him out. Zhu placed a large hand on the figure's shoulder and proceeded to move them somewhere else. Letting out a sigh of relief as he saw the figure leave, Seulgi turned towards Zhao Meng. If she wasn't already pale, she was certainly freaking out now.
"You okay?" He decided to ask her. He knew it probably was a rhetorical question but he didn't care. He was genuinely concerned. Zhao Meng closed her eyes slowing, a shallow breath escaping from her lungs. She whispered, "Depends. I am honestly surprised he didn't kill you on the spot back then."
"I hear you," Seulgi said, "I bet he really wanted to but killing me would probably have made him look bad."
He gave a brief grin, "Plus, Yul would have something to say about that."
Zhao Meng nodded slowly, her face slowly regaining its normal shade. She wanted to ask him about his reactions towards Zhu's speech on sacrifice, but decided it was probably not a topic to discuss. Judging by his expressions then, she understood that that Zhu's words triggered some terrible thought. By now, she understood that very few things bring out the fury inside him into plain sight, and the concept of sacrifice was one of them.
"Something isn't right," Seulgi nodded, eyeing the cloaked figure who was now conversing with Zhu. Zhao Meng followed his gaze and stared at the cloaked figure as well. Something about that person did not sit well with her. Messenger, my butt, Zhao Meng thought. There was something else going on with that person. She never saw Zhu so tense and wound up like this before. Even just a few moments ago, his anger was a surprise to her. He normally kept his emotions in check, but he didn't.
A soldier ran up to Zhu and saluted him. He regarded the man with a nod, the soldier whispering something into his ear. Seulgi and Zhao Meng saw his eyes widen as big as round shields. Stepping back, the soldier beckoned for the General and the cloaked figure to follow him. Well, what do we have here? Seulgi thought, watching the three people go out of view into one of the many hallways. He moved to follow them, but felt a hand grip his arm. He flinched. It was Zhao Meng's hand.
Flushing slightly, Seulgi pulled his arm away from her, demanding, "W-what?"
"You can't be serious," She gave him a blank stare.
"What?" Seulgi asked again,
"After getting in trouble with him already, you are willing to risk death to follow them to wherever they are going?" Zhao Meng asked with her hands now resting on her hips.
"Are you really going to ask me that question?" Seulgi raised an eyebrow.
Zhao Meng gave him a long drawn out stare before giving him her famous smirk, "No."
"Not liking the looks of that one bit," Yul shook his head. He was watching Seulgi's and Zhao Meng's interactions with each other, and was filled to his head with disapproval. There was no way that Seulgi's verdict was not influenced by his personal feelings for the woman. Yul shrugged quietly. There was nothing he could do nor was he willing to challenge his friend on his judgement. Yul trusted the man with his life, and Seulgi was never one to go back on his promises. He watched as they went together towards the same hallway that the General took. Oh boy.
He saw everything that happened between the General and Seulgi. It was hard not to, considering there were no walls to block their conversation, and they were not exactly using indoor voices. Yul saw how angry Seulgi had gotten and could only hope that he did not rip the General asunder. "Sacrifice" was not a word that Seulgi appreciated being used in the manner that Zhu had described his reasons of absence. The man knows nothing of sacrifice. I know nothing of sacrifice, Yul thought grimly. But Seulgi…
Yul shivered at remembering that terrible day. The smoke and smell of death was wafting in his nose, an image of carnage appearing in his mind. He shook his head, trying to dissipate the scene. Focus. He turned his head towards the gate. The men were getting tired; there was no avoiding that fact. They would soon be overrun. He stiffened his grip on Zhèngyì, his blade hanging by his right side in his hand.
"Hey, you," Yul called out to the woman he recalled as "Shao Yen". Shao Yen turned her auburn head to face the man with a cocked eyebrow. She demanded, "What do you want?"
Did he not know that they were going to be overrun soon? She had to prep the men into a battle formation. Shao Li was preoccupied with finding men for that purpose while Jiang Hua was tending some of the wounded. That let her in charge of the actual gate itself, her body shaking nervously at the roar of undead behind the large wooden doors.
"We need to move the wounded up the stairs," Yul jut his chin towards the stairs, "This place is going to be crawling with those things soon and those wounded troops are nothing but meat on a platter for them to chew up."
"You think we don't know that," Shao Yen grit her teeth, "But how are we going to move them up the stairs in time?"
"How about you stop wasting time talking to me and just do it," Yul replied, hefting his blade up on his shoulder, "I've got this."
Shao Yen pursed her lips in doubt. She glanced all around her at the moaning soldiers that were caught in the struggle earlier. They had to be relocated; he was right. She nodded her head in agreement, her eyes piercing into him. She said, "You better hold this gate."
"Don't sweat it," He gave the woman a small wink, "Me and my men can handle a horde of undead no problem."
Shao Yen opened her mouth to retort, but stopped herself. This was no time to argue even though Yul's answer was very much arrogant. She sprinted away to try to gather stretcher-bearers. Little did she know that Yul was not speaking out of arrogance. Yul and his men faced the supernatural multiple times. Fighting mages and shamans had a way to prepare one of such events. He nodded his head, approving her swift movements in trying to mobilize the wounded.
"Choi," Yul said to the assassin. He did not even have to turn his head to look behind him to know she was there. She was grabbing at her armor straps, judging by what sounds he could hear. She's nervous, he remarked. That was as surprising as it was not. Choi hated anything to do with the supernatural or anything that could not be explained through the worldly means. Just because the gods were in existence did not make demons, ghosts, and zombies acceptable to her ears.
"Did they bring it?" Yul asked.
Choi nodded, knowing exactly what he was asking. She beckoned a few men to come to them, all of them carrying a huge duffel bag in their arms. They laid them on the stone floor, gaining the attention of on looking curious Sheng troops. This included Bao He who returned from the gate, panting and gritting his teeth. He raised an eyebrow at the spectacle, his eyes demanding an explanation. Sensing impatience with their growing audience, Yul motioned for his men to open them to reveal the contents. The soldiers gave each other crooked smiles as their hands dove into the leather bags.
"Blessed Inur," Both of Bao He's eyebrows rose up to the heavens, his men muttering to each other with the same speechlessness. Firearms; and not just any old firearms either. They were of Hanlichen origin which meant that they were of the highest quality. Bao He picked up one of the weapons and admired it with voiceless awe. The sheen of the gloss, the grain of the wooden stock, the steel sights, and the length of its barrel were astounding. Upon closer inspection, Bao He noticed that it was one of Hanlich's famous repeating firearms. Just where did he manage to get these weapons? Bao He wondered, fear creeping into the back of his thoughts. If Yul had these, that meant the Joseon Coalition Forces had even more. These men were not to be underestimated by any means.
"Gentlemen," Yul cracked a maniacal grin, "It's time we brought the thunder."