Part 1: Sakura The petals floated around him, drifting softly. They fell like snowflakes. Pale and pink, they were a stark contrast to the blue granite of the battle-torn leisure district. Qi raised a gauntlet to his neck and unclasped his helmet. The seal of his exoskeleton broke with a short hiss as it vented overflow from the armour's coolant circulation. He lifted the birds-beak pattern helm from his head. The spring air was cold against his sweating scalp, but he welcomed it with each calm breath, respite from the sterile recycled taste of his helm's rebreather. Taking in the scene with all his senses, he surveyed his surroundings. He could smell the burnt ozone of energy weapon discharge, he noticed the metallic taste of blood on his gums. It was the sound, that deafening silence, which unnerved him. It was a scene straight from an ancient tapestry of the aftermath of war, modernised and brought to life in real time. Bodies leant against hastily made barricades and slumped behind bullet riddled cover. An enormous Sakura stood at the centre of the courtyard, some of its branches laying amongst the debris that surrounded it. Charred craters pitted its trunk, some still bleeding thin wisps of smoke. The insurgents’ defences had been improvised and his group had made short work of them, but the ambush had been effective nevertheless. "Captain Jiguang, we've informed the court of your victory. They're sending an envoy and a cube jaeger to process the...insurgents." Qi Jiguang noticed the uneasy pause in the banner troop's sentence, but his stoic features didn't betray a thing as he turned to face the man. That had been what command had ordered them to call their new enemy. It aimed to reduce the emotional fog from the conflict, making it more clinical. Many struggled with the reality of the situation. "Very well soldier, secure our perimeter for the drop ship.” The zhanshi bowed deeply, saluting with his left hand clasped around his right fist and brought to chest height, before turning and attending to his orders. Jiguang noticed that the soldier had fought bravely, as had his fellow zhanshi. This had been their first taste of combat. As much as he'd regretted hearing that his reinforcements were to be from the banner armies, and new recruits at that, they had shown courage standing their ground during the firefight. An admirable quality in a soldier. He made a note to involve himself in their training personally, at least, the two that had survived. Jiguang had walked over to inspect the casualties that lay scattered across the courtyard in their fractured power armour. Haramaki. He'd trained with some of these warriors in the barracks dojo, sparred with them, even laughed with them. He didn't let his mind linger on the decorative patterns of each powered suit he passed, as he knew he'd probably remember its owner by name. His efforts were in vain. What a waste of good soldiers, he thought to himself. The encrypted radio link in his gorget spluttered a short burst of static; "Captain, dropship incoming fast, ready to bring it down on your command." On a rooftop behind him stood a formidable armoured giant, the Yan Huo's single enormous rail cannon tracking a moving object in the distant sky. "That won't be necessary Khodan, we're expecting them this time." The heavy trooper was right to be cautious, the last few days had seen far too many reports of kamikaze attacks using stolen equipment. The Dragonfly gunship landed outside the courtyard, more gracefully than its size would suggest possible. This was one of the newer prototypes, lesser troop transport capabilities, but faster, with improved stealth capabilities. The army hadn’t been able to procure any for active use, but during this…crisis…the Judicial Elite seemed to have no shortage of them. Long and sleek, its black hull was marked with the dark red insignia of the Yuándùn division of the Imperial Service. He’d heard the reports of the butchers on the Mayanet. They had brought him nothing but shame. The cargo doors folded open silently, revealing the red tac-light glow from inside. Out strutted an Immortal, the representatives of the Emperor himself. A step behind and on either flank came a pair of lower rank agents, both appeared to be zhanying. Qi noticed the troops of his squad, they were making an effort to appear preoccupied with their tasks. They didn’t want to get involved in this mess any more than they had to. Qi knew because he felt the same. The Hsien warrior halted before him, with her retinue stopping a few steps behind. She had an intimidating aura, despite standing a head’s height shorter than him. “I heard how you cut down those dogs,” Her voice was deep and distorted from behind her faceplate, its vox equipment designed for intimidation and interrogation. “The reports praise your command of the situation, ‘surgical precision’ they said. We could use a soldier like you in the Emperor’s Shield.” I am a part of the Emperor’s Shield you bitch, he thought bitterly. I hold rank in the Invincible Army. “Thank you, general. I merely followed my training. My squad did the same.” He ignored the praise, and he ignored the invitation. She scoffed. It sounded cold and robotic when projected through her augmented voice. “You mistake your own pride for humility. You are a killer Captain Jiguang, I know one when I see one.” “I’m not a killer, I’m a sold-“ He started, but the Hsien’s right arm had already reached out to his shoulder and pushed him to one side. Simultaneously, the heavy machine gun that was magnetically attached to her left leg detached, and was swinging upwards in an arc straight in front of her. The explosive staccato burst only lasted a second before stopping. She rested the weapon across her shoulder. Qi had reached for a breaker pistol before realising he hadn’t been shot. He turned to see the Hsien walking towards the sakura tree, which was snowing a drift of fresh petals. He followed, the zhanying close behind him. As she walked her faceplate slid upwards before clicking into place outside of her field of vision. She turned her head to look over her shoulder towards Qi. He could see her face, petite, and pale like porcelain, with eyes of pitch black. “These dogs have none of your ‘soldier’s honour’, Captain Jiguang. You would do well to remember it, it might save your life.” Her voice was feminine, but biting and sharp, as if it was used to being cruel. When he reached her at the trunk of the cherry blossom she was stood over a corpse. Two halves of a corpse to be precise. It had fallen unceremoniously from a higher branch, sawn in half by the high calibre rounds of the heavy weapon. The lithe figure wore a tight black bodysuit, and besides it lay an unfolded compound bow. The LED display screen of its helmet showed the flickering face of a Nipponese style anime girl, with crosses for eyes and its tongue poking out, an expression of exaggerated cartoonish death. “How juvenile.” The Hsien spat at the corpse, turned, and strode back towards her gunship, “Bring me their pathetic Nipponese swords.” She called out to no one in particular as she walked, gesturing to the mess of scattered corpses with a lazy swing of her arm. The zhanying obeyed immediately, scouring the courtyard for the katana of the fallen. “And Captain Jiguang? You will be hearing from me again. If I wasn’t clear earlier when I said the shield needs men like you, I meant you. Your service to us isn’t optional, not after this...Uprising disaster.” And with that she disappeared back into the aircraft. Qi knew that the bloodshed would not end in the foreseeable future. He would do what the Empire needed of him, after all he was honour bound to his service. No rest for a soldier of terracotta, he thought as he re-holstered his pistol.