Rustram always felt the same before a battle, a dry mouth and a full bladder, sweat pouring down his neck no matter the weather. Licking his lips, he fought the urge to take a drink as he tried to focus on the task at hand. Gripping his new rapier, still in its scabbard, he rubbed his thumb over the intricate designs etched into the pommel. It was a beautiful piece of workmanship he didn’t deserve, much like his rank. A trusting young man with terrible judgment, the Boss put too much faith in Rustram, but at least he had yet to bind the weapon. If he died today, it would go to someone worthy, someone who wasn’t a colossal fuck up.
Part of the problem was the Boss leading from the front, fighting in the thick of it. It made sense, but it left Rustram managing all the back-end duties. Things like keeping the troops calm while they waited, when to charge or retreat, troop positioning, all tactical decisions he had no place making. He was a logistics and supplies sort of man, ill-suited to command.
Not like the Boss, he was a natural. Along with his chosen few, they left on foot with their giant coils of rope, rappelling down into the valley to take the sentries by surprise. Even with experts like Sumila and Li Song, this was a risky venture, but the Boss was out there himself, working hard to keep his soldiers alive with his crazy schemes and tactics. Asking city-dwellers to sneak up on mercenaries in the forest was a tall order, and Rustram lacked the boss’s optimism, but it was worth a try.
No one wanted to fail the Boss, not after all he did for them, teaching them and helping their families find rewarding jobs, taking nothing for himself. He worked harder than any two of them, even studying while they all drank and rested, how could they not love him? Every single soldier was ready to die for the Boss, but he scorned their deaths, all but ordering them to live, a good man to follow. They all would need to work even harder so they wouldn’t drag him down.
Mentally going over his checklist, he steadied his nerves while looking over his troops. His troops, it was still strange to think. Sitting ready with his crossbow, Saluk caressed it lovingly, murmuring beneath his breath as if to a lover. Relaxed and carefree, Ravil sat with eyes closed, twirling an arrow between his fingers, calm as always. The chosen soldiers clutched their metal buckets like fragile eggs, eyes wide with worry, but the Boss was right, they were well prepared for any accidents. Praying for success but expecting failure, Rustram watched, listened, and waited, the curse of a soldier. Fighting in battle or waiting for battle, Rustram would be hard pressed to say which was worse.
Perhaps he’d find out soon enough.
Stepping lightly through the forest, Bulat steadied his breathing, trying to blend into his surroundings. His heartbeat sounded like drums crashing in his ears, and he worried the sentries would hear him coming from a kilometre away. Or smell him coming, his shirt soaked despite the chill, his body odour cutting through the scents of the forest. He never noticed it before, not until last night when he went to greet Dei An after training, grinning like an idiot, rushing over without bathing or changing clothes, covered in mud and blood and reeking something fierce, it was a miracle she even spoke to him. Tanned-skinned and raven-haired, she had a throaty laugh and fierce personality, nothing like the city girls, all mousy and demure, no not Dei An, she was confident and outspoken, laughing openly at his shy, mumbled greeting, ordering him to walk away and try again, and damn him if he didn’t, willing to do anything to speak with her and to listen to her angelic voice, to lose himself in her beautiful eyes.
Or he might lose his life here. Idiot fool, there will be no wedding for Old Bulat, only a funeral, where all will laugh at his worthless death. Steadying his breathing a second time, he remembered his training and focused on the task at hand. Knees bent, moving heel to toe through the grass and dirt, taking care to avoid branches, a slow and methodical progression. Spotting his target only 30 paces away, he stopped in place, holding his breath for worry of being found. He studied the sentry, a large bristleboar, leaning against a thin tree, inattentive after months of idleness, massive and thick, dressed in leather and covered with dead leaves, an ineffective camouflage amidst the green spring growth. Amateur.
Exhaling slowly, Bulat moved with determination, his steps purposeful and silent, his hand gripping his long knife. Too few to threaten the Sentinels, these bristleboars were no better than animals, here to rape and pillage, daring to interrupt the peaceful serenity of his new home. Unlucky for them, slaughtering animals was second nature to him, farm-boy that he was. You didn’t need a fancy spiritual weapon, no, just a quick bash and a sharp edge.
A low-pitched, whistling fart caused his heart to leap out of his chest, freezing mid-stride. Lasting an eternity, it soon devolved in to a wet, squishy pitch, followed by a low chuckle and nauseous scent. Eyes wide, he slowly angled his strained neck to his left, spotting a second bristleboar sentry barely an arm’s length away. In front of him, his original target snorted in laughter and turned to congratulate his companion. Shocked into stupidity at the sight of Bulat, he blinked in confusion and opened his mouth to speak.
Exploding into action, Bulat jammed his knife into the flatulent sentry’s neck, leaving it buried deep. Dashing forward, he unslung his heavy mace as the second sentry screamed a warning and fumbled with his weapon, struggling to his feet only to be met with Bulat’s two-handed swing. The second sentry fell at his feet with a wet crack, bouncing once on the hard dirt. A second swing sealed the matter. Of all the fucking luck, damn me for being a blind fool. Warning cries rose as the other sentries called out, their voices cut short as they were set upon. With the element of surprise lost, Bulat turned to leave, knowing the plan called for a retreat.
“Sentinels! Advance!” Attempting to roar with authority, the Boss’s voice cracked and echoed through the valley, followed by some quiet cursing and a repeated call to arms. Spotting movement, Bulat ran to follow and joined the Boss as they rushed towards the cave entrance, a devilish grin upon his face at the prospect of further bloodshed. So what if they were expected? That just meant their enemies could look death in the eye. If the Boss wanted to fight, then Old Bulat would fight beside him, tooth and nail.
Besides, now he would have a story to tell Dei An at dinner, about how he fought off the enemies of the People, maybe heroically rescuing the Boss or something. City or village born, all women loved a hero.
All he needed to do was survive, although a small injury wouldn’t hurt. Women do love scars.
Hearing the order to charge, Ravil squeezed his calves together and screamed in challenge. Responding to his commands, Jinx leaped ahead and Ravil’s heart rose in his chest as he surged down the steep incline, laughing maniacally into the wind. The rest of the squad followed behind him, Rustram screaming murderously as they charged forward. Damn if that nervous rich bastard wasn’t the most cutthroat of them all. After months of torturous healing and soul-crushing training, it was finally time to cut loose and kill someone.
Weaving through the forest as if swimming through the currents, Jinx carried him towards battle with a chittering cry, the quin infected by his enthusiasm. Guiding her to leap off a rock, he fired his first shot from mid-air, striking a bristleboar in the face as he stepped out of the cave. Perching his quin atop a fallen tree, he fired arrow after arrow, joined by his comrades as they pinned their enemies down within the cave from over 100 meters away. Killing a man with an arrow was not too satisfying, but it was easy, and Ravil loved all things easy. Easy women, easy money, easy kills, he had no complaints with any of them.
He never trained with a bow before, the son of a whore who abandoned him to the streets, saving him from a lifetime of sodomy. Death was no stranger to him, fighting viciously for scraps of rotting food a daily occurrence, so joining the army had been an easy choice. Too weak to draw the practice bows, he’d been assigned to front-line infantry, where the dregs of the army gathered to march towards death. Now, only three years after enlisting, he sat atop his loyal mount, firing arrows at the warriors of the Society. Chuckling to himself, he ducked to avoid return fire, the Society pushing their way out of the cave to set up a defensive line with their crossbows. No matter, a little blade work was good for the soul.
The Boss had other ideas. “Embers!” Torches were lit and Ravil drew an arrow, the head wrapped in oil-soaked cloth. Lighting it, he drew and aimed as a tiny, porcelain projectile sailed through the air, crashing into the Society warriors and coating them in a clear liquid. Loosing his flaming arrow, it arced towards them and struck one warrior in the chest, the flames igniting in a rumbling blaze of light and heat. Howling in laughter, he watched as more porcelain jars flew out, coating and igniting the rest of the warriors, the heat searing their lungs and leaving them unable to even scream as the flesh melted from their bones. The Boss sure came up with fun ways to kill. If he’d been born a street rat in Shen Huo, then he would’ve been king of them all, a vicious, murderous runt with a smile that could charm the dress off a noblewoman. It was hard to admit, even to himself, but Ravil admired the Boss.
Facing the raging inferno, the Society had little choice but to draw back and turtle inside their cave to wait for death. Orders came for the sharpshooters to approach, and he rode forward and dismounted, standing behind a shield-wall of his comrades. Patting Bulat on the shoulder, he glanced at his quiver of arrows and grabbed one of the special arrows, holding it up to inspect. With no arrowhead, just a tiny silk sac tied to the end, filled with some ground-up plants, he wondered just what sort of chaos this arrow would bring. Smiling in anticipation, he raised his bow and sighted towards the cave opening, only 75 meters away, an easy shot.
Maybe there would be another explosion because damn if they weren’t satisfying to watch.
Ming Zhong Guan placed his journal in his pouch as he calmly gave out orders. “Form a semi-circle around the entrance and hold your positions.” His death poem written, he was prepared for the end. No matter if anyone ever read it or placed it in the Sect’s mausoleum, the poem was written for himself, a method to center his mind and purge his desires. “Rear echelon, prepare to fight the fire, bowmen, shoot anyone who steps through the entrance.”
Months of hiding and sneaking about only to end in failure and death, these Bekhai were hateful to the extreme. Why not face them blade to blade like true warriors? Instead, they relied upon containers of oil to subdue them, a worthless gimmick any commoner could use. Where was the skill or subterfuge, the grace or beauty? Only the enemy had been too eager to use their trump card, killing less than two dozen slaves in the fiery attack. Now, with the water at their backs and armed with spears and crossbows, they would hold this entrance. The Bekhai would pay dearly to cross the 20 paces into the cavern, a fitting place for a last stand.
Overhead, a trio of arrows sailed in through the cave’s mouth, flying past and landing with a quiet plop into the bubbling stream. More arrows followed, a few at a time, and he laughed silently. The enemy commander had all the markings of an amateur, first failing to properly silence the sentries, wasting his fiery charges, and now, blindly firing arrows into the cavern. Although the roof remained level, the floor descended as you entered the cavern, leaving plenty of room between the arrows and their heads, each one sinking into the water with a hiss. Worthless.
Waiting for his enemy to lose patience, he centered himself, taking a deep breath to find Balance, ignoring the sharp scent in the air. Around him, the slaves did the same, well-trained and disciplined, a costly bunch to acquire. Silent but for a few coughs, he approved of their demeanour in the face of death. If not for the lack of footpaths up the mountain, he would have led them to slaughter and raze the Bekhai village, killing all who crossed his path as a funeral gift for his murdered nephew Jun, a perfect end to his decades of service.
Alas, his dreams of perfection would have to change, but perhaps it was for the better. Even after openly renouncing the Society, he still counted himself an Elder of the Arahant Sect, seeking perfection in life and death. If he were to die today, then it would be surrounded by the bodies of his enemies, the kin of those who killed his kin. Poetic. Sword in one hand and gourd in the other, he settled into his stance, channelling his chi to gather the moisture from the air, coating his weapon in a film of water, ready to strike at whoever should step through.
Minutes passed by and arrows continued to fly through the opening, without a single sign the enemy was preparing to advance. Was the commander a coward as well as a fool? Snorting, he coughed, his throat irritated and dry. The slaves were also coughing in increasing frequency, the acrid smell growing stronger by the minute. A slave doubled over, unable to breathe for coughing, blood flying out with each heave of his lungs. Eyes widening in horror, Ming turned to look at the stream only to see nothing strange, no bubbling or smoke, but a quick inner inspection showed the damage to his body, some invisible agent destroying the soft tissues of his eyes, throat and lungs, faster than he could heal.
Insidious poison, he needed to act before too much damage was done. Already the slaves at the back were collapsing and others vomiting, many too weak to stand. Working to heal his injuries, he bellowed his orders. “Rear echelon, lead the charge! Continue forward at all costs! All hands, slaughter the enemy, fight unto death!” Standing aside, he poured the water from his gourd, months spent purifying and attuning the liquid to his chi. Surrounding him in a clear barrier, it would protect him from the heat and most arrows. He only needed to reach their lines for retribution to begin.
The dying slaves ran out in front, too weak to fight, only useful as fodder for the fire. After enough trickled out, he followed them, staying to the middle of the pack. Sunlight seared his eyes as he shouldered past screaming slaves, their shrieks mercifully short-lived. Gathering his strength, he leaped past the barricade of immolated slaves, the flames unable to touch him as he batted aside arrows, his water blade extending to shield the slaves, if only to use them as a distraction. A few arrows slipped past his guard to strike his barrier, only to fall uselessly at his feet, their power spent.
Within seconds, despair threatened to consume him as he stood alone, blood dribbling down his chin, his slaves falling before the hail of fire and the enemy lines still more than 50 meters away. Why were they so far back? Did they not think to secure the entrance? A curse upon all fools. Gathering five drops of water, he flung them towards the enemy, but the distance was still too great, his projectiles only injuring without killing. Another volley of arrows whistled through the air towards him. Redirecting his water barrier to guard only his front, he felt the heat of the inferno behind him as he slashed away at arrows. His chi was finite, draining with every second as his barrier stopped arrow after arrow and he healed his injuries
Moving forward a single step, his body jolted back as a bolt struck his shield with tremendous force. A second bolt hammered into him, breaking his balance and staggering him back a step. His mind screamed to dodge as a third bolt pierced through his chest and exited cleanly out his spine, all three projectiles striking him within the space of a heartbeat. Weightless, his body soared through the air, carried backwards by momentum before crashing to the ground in a boneless heap. Dazed and disoriented, he lay there, listening to the screams and staring at the slaves who died in handfuls as they trickled out of the cave, slaughtered effortlessly.
His eyes grew heavy and the darkness enshrouded him as he lamented his failures, his inability to avenge his nephew, his slaughter at the hands of ignorant savages, his inability to kill even a single enemy. A single sigh escaped his lips, infused with a single thought.
Far from a perfect end.
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