Gao Qiu grimaced as he listened to Jester Wang’s updates, the situation less than ideal, but not outside expectations. The Bekhai moved like phantoms in the woods, Jester Wang unable to spot them, so Gao Qiu ordered him to head straight for the beach. If the Bekhai were already unwilling to engage in the forests, then it was likely their forces were concentrated at the beach, and Gao Qiu would like the support. Fight only when you need to, but when you do, win in an overwhelming fashion so others think twice about challenging you. A lesson Boss Ling taught well.
He’d already heard about the imposing fortifications on the beach from his scouts, and every docking area they sailed past was blocked by stone and mud walls. While he could have them cleared, it would take at least thirty minutes, with only room for a single boat to work at a time. Assuming the fisher-folk were not waiting in hiding with spears and nets at the ready. A hardy people accustomed to attacks from bandits and beasts, else the boss wouldn’t have sent him here with 800 comrades.
One foot on the prow of his longboat, Gao Qiu focused his gaze upon the beach as his boats turned into the last stretch of the cove. Blocking off the entire beach was a wooden wall, a new addition since his last visit. Upon closer inspection, he could see it’d been hastily constructed, built from spare timbers and repurposed fishing boats. Lacking a proper gate, a pair of heavy wagons sat in place to block off the entrance, a makeshift barricade. Close to 200 armed commoners glared at him from behind their walls with a mixture of fear and courage, only a few armoured warriors scattered among them.
Where were the Bekhai and other soldiers? Hiding on the cove walls, waiting to rain arrows down? No matter, his men had their shields for protection from the worst, and the ‘wall’ would only slow him for a few seconds. Still, pitched battle was not ideal, his comrades lacking the guts and grit to face off against real soldiers. A good thing these weren’t all real soldiers.
Signalling for his men to hold, his longboat moved forward at a slowed pace, coming to a stop about 20 meters from the beach. Pointing his battle-axe at the walls, he bellowed, “Ye dare resist before the Butcher Bay Bandits? This granddaddy Gao Qiu applauds yer bravery!”
His voice echoed as he watched the fisher-folk recoil at his name, heads turning to chatter about the Red Devil of Sanshu. Perhaps he should dye his hair red once more, it would be more intimidating. “Ye think yourselves able to hold me back with yer spears and yer wall? I admit this much, with these soldiers there, ye just might make my comrades bleed while we’re knocking down yer wall. Perhaps Gao Qui goes home empty-handed today, a hearty victory.” Pausing, he glanced at a few in turn, lingering on those who stood tallest. “But what happens after the soldiers leave? I’m a man who holds grudges and old as I am, my memory is sharp as ever.”
“Ain’t nothin’ to be scared of if yer all dead and gone!” A brave soul shouted back, sparking a chorus of cheers, but they died down quickly as Gao Qiu’s aura erupted, cowing the closest into silence with a satisfying display of power. Having condensed his aura a decade ago, he still loved to watch it at work, making anyone short of an expert freeze before him.
Laughing mockingly, he clapped slowly. “Ye all know, for decades the Marshal has tried to squash the Butcher Bay Bandits, and for decades he has failed, and still you resist. Brave souls of Sanshu, finally some worthy opponents. Too long has it been since my axe, Soul Reaver. has tasted the blood of warriors, this granddaddy is grateful for the meal.” His bloodlust washed over them as he grinned, standing tall and imposing, larger than life. Releasing his aura, the fisher-folk sagged from the sudden freedom, stark-naked terror on display. “However! Boss Yo Ling is a merciful man and has cautioned me against wanton slaughter, so I must allow you one chance! In a few weeks, these soldiers and pampered nobles will return home and nothing will have changed in Butcher’s Bay. I’ve seen yer faces and marked you all. Resist me today, and not even the Mother herself can save you when I return.”
At his signal, his men roared in challenge, rattling their weapons in a cacophony of metal and wood echoing loudly. “I give ye one path to survival! I ain’t here for yer lives, only food and coin. Leave now, return to yer homes and you and yer families will be untouched. Any person found resisting will be slaughtered, their wives and daughters taken, their husbands and sons impaled while still living, so swears Gao Qiu. You’ve five minutes to reconsider, then this granddaddy comes a knocking with Soul Reaver in hand.” Laughing once more, he added, “If you’ve any pretty wives or daughters, I ask that ye stay. I’m getting lonely in my old age and could do with the company.” His men laughed with him, and he stood calmly in place as his men rattled off a beat, a slow, steady drumming of metal on wood, pressuring the fishermen as they waited.
Quickly checking in with Jester Wang, Gao Qiu felt confident in his assessment. The enemy wouldn’t be working so hard to delay Jester Wang with traps and harassment otherwise. There were likely less than two hundred soldiers present else they would put on a show of force instead of hiding their numbers and bolstering the wall with fisher-folk. The more he learned of the situation, the happier he became. A simple charge through the barricades and his men would be on them like wolves among sheep.
Contrary to his expectations, only a few fisher-folk fled their posts, less than a quarter of those present. The soldiers on the wall cared little, standing stoically, full of zeal and vitality, as if the dozen of them could stand alone. He used the time to probe the soldiers with his chi, singling them out with his Aura to test their reactions, and he quickly found five soldiers to be wary of. One seemed in charge of everyone here, a young man festooned with knives. The other four were dressed differently, wearing black leather armour and headscarves, each one a half-beast. He could feel his Aura’s inability to pierce through their defences, meaning at least one of them could also condense their Aura, although it wasn’t very strong considering they’d all left the fisher-folk unprotected.
He discarded his worries after spotting the young half-rabbit maiden, too short to see over the wall, hopping up and down between the four guards. They were likely bodyguards for some noble’s favoured courtesan, they’d cut and run the moment battle began and the little girl was overwhelmed by fear. Pei, nobles and their worthless lackeys, the Father take them all. Sending out their young talents for experience in an area where failure meant little to them, only costing common folk their lives and their homes. He didn’t want to slaughter these families, there’s no money to be had in it. It’d be years before these fisheries recovered enough to be worth raiding again, a net loss for everyone involved.
But such was the way of the world, the nobles played their games of power, and the common folk paid the price. He waited patiently as Jester Wang kept him updated through Sendings, listening to the tally of dead and injured. Not too many, only twenty nine dead so far, although there were many wounded. No matter, the badly injured could head back to the boats or wait for Gao Qiu to gather them on the way back.
The five minutes ended and he held his hand for silence, the sudden stillness overwhelming as the fisher-folk flinched as one. “Hmph. I see yer all still here, foolish as ye are. Mother knows I tried to be merciful, but it seems I am fated to sin again. So shall it be, but know my hand is forced. On this day, next year, it shall be the anniversary of your deaths. Once more, the Empire will cower at the name of Gao Qiu, the Red Devil of Sanshu.”
A sweet, sing-song voice spoke out. “Red Devil? what Red Devil? Old Senior, you seem to be babbling. Are you confused? You look more like a White Ghost, ya? I know it happens to the elderly sometimes, the mind is a delicate thing. You should have your friends take you home to drink tea and play Mahjong, no sense getting over excited.”
A chorus of nervous laughter sounded out from the fisher-folk and his eyes narrowed on the little maiden hanging off the wall. Sneering, he focused his aura upon her, trying to pierce through her guards defences. “Little girl, ye best run away with yer fancy guards now, because if I catch you, I’ll make ye regret those words.”
His Aura failed to intimidate the maiden who replied cheerily with a grin. “Old Senior don’t be so ornery, I’m only expressing my concerns as the younger generation. An elder is a treasure and broken antiques can never be replaced, ya? Besides, you should just go or else you might not live to regret it. Prattling on about fighting and taking wives at your age, how shameless.”
Leering at the pretty little thing, he licked his lips hungrily. “Girl, I get my hands on ye and I’ll show you what a real man can do. Them little fops and dandies you been with can’t properly satisfy a woman like this granddaddy here.”
The little maiden frowned icily and dropped away, disappearing from sight. Reappearing shortly after, she leaped onto wall’s edge with bow in hand, but a guard promptly pulled her down and carried her away. Many of the villagers fled with them and he chuckled to himself while raising his axe once again. “Comrades, kill em all.”
The longboats surged forward as they rowed with all their might, picking up speed to drag up onto the sand. Leaping with the impact, he laughed wildly as he charged up the beach to the ramshackle wall. With a single swipe, his axe tore through the wood like paper, readied to revel in the bloodshed as he listened to the thudding boots of the fisher-folk moving into place to die. A second and third slash collapsed the wall before him and he stepped through with a roar of challenge, unleashing his Aura.
Only to see the backs of his enemies, fleeing at full speed. Confused, he glanced about and found the wall ablaze in dozens of locations, fire hungrily consuming the dry tinder stacked around the wall. Acting quickly, he cleared the area and rushed his comrades through the opening before the entire wall was aflame. Close to fifty made it through before the heat grew too intense, the conflagration spreading faster than expected, some foul play at hand. If not for his hurried demolition of the wall, he’d have been stuck with his men on the other side, easy targets for the enemy.
Sending orders to his men to turtle up, he brought those with him on a sweep through the area, searching for enemy combatants. The sides of the cove were empty, and after a meandering search of the area, he ordered those trapped to combat the flames and cautiously approached the village, searching house by house. As empty as the cove, he noted where several buildings had been torn down, likely added to the wall. Not a single home was occupied, all their valuables taken away and leaving nothing behind.
Even the warehouse was empty without a single grain of rice. Screaming in rage and smashing through the furniture and walls, he returned to the blazing inferno to help put out the fire. Even with hundreds of men and easy access to water and sand, it would take too much time, the enemy long gone by now. Tricks and games, hiding away their food and coin to flee into the forests, these fisher-folk were ready to poison the wells if it meant he received nothing for his troubles, cutting off their hands to spit in his face. Madness. It would win them nothing in the long run.
Throughout the ordeal, he kept contact with the other force, hurrying them along through the traps and harassment, to check if the first village was empty as well. If so, he would order them back to the longboats and end this fruitless endeavour. After twenty minutes, he received a report from Jester Wang, panicked and afraid. “Captain, they’re here at the village, all of em! At least two-hundred strong! We’re surrounded… they’re too strong, save us Captain!”
Resisting the urge to vent his rage, he ordered his men to redouble their efforts, holding nothing in reserve. The flames finally succumbed to their labour and he shoved through his men and stomped down the beach, speaking curtly. “Set a course for home, quick as you can. We’re done for today.”
Ignoring the incredulous looks, he stood at the prow of his boat, glaring menacingly back at the village. Five hundred comrades lost for nothing, the humiliation he received today was unbearable. After the Warrant Officers left, he was going to return with two thousand of his comrades and burn every last building to the ground, build a conflagration visible from Sanshu. Then, he would gather every man, woman, and child and roast them slowly over the flames, one at a time, all to quench his rage and hatred. Such would be the price for his loss of face.
He’d lain idle too long, grown fat and lazy from age. It was time the North remembered his name once more.
With 500 opponents carrying heavy shields in tight formations, these bandits are the most disciplined group I’ve faced since arriving at Sanshu. Sitting on Mafu’s back, my heart rate spikes as the possibilities flash through my mind. What if we can’t kill them all? We’re outnumbered two-to-one, and even though we have them surrounded, how much of an advantage is that? This isn’t a game, I don’t get any bonuses to hit for flanking or extra sneak attack dice to roll. I mean, if they decided to charge in one direction, can any of us really stop them?
I gotta say, I admire their tactics, standing shoulder-to-shoulder in a shield ring. I think it’s smart, but Mila says it’s stupid without elaborating. I’ve no idea why she’s so angry at these particular bandits, but she leads the way with eerie focus, savagely killing every wounded bandit we come across without blinking an eye. No mercy, no surrender, but then again, I’m not in any position to offer any. After all, to be merciful to your enemy is to be cruel to yourself.
Still, killing men and women who can’t fight back sits poorly with me, but there’s no choice. I can’t risk the bandits learning we’re behind them, else my sixty-man group will be fighting alone against five hundred. My body tenses up at every errant sound, expecting the next rolling pebble or broken branch to alert our enemy to our presence and ruin my grand plans of a three-pronged pincer.
Note to self: in the future, shit before fighting. Nerves do crazy things to my stomach, and as little as I care for face, even I can’t recover from browning my pants in front of everyone. I’d have to dye my hair, change my name, and move south just to escape from the humiliation, become a hermit ranch owner with my cats.
That actually sounds like a pleasant retirement plan.
The bandit force comes into sight and I snap out of my daydreams. My forces silently lay in wait with weapons at the ready. Crouched low to the ground, Mafu silently watches his prey, his body tensed and still. Shadowing them from a hundred paces, the bandits pause at the forests edge, right before the empty fields and village. It wasn’t easy convincing the fishermen to move inland to another village for a few days, the promise of safety not enough to displace them. They wanted to keep fishing right until the bandits arrived, so sealing their ‘docks’ didn’t win me any points, even though I promised to help unseal them afterwards. If things don’t work out, I’m going to look like a total ass.
The bandits march out of the forest, still wary of arrows and traps as they head towards the village. My retinue matches their pace, moving in to cut off their retreat as Huu’s people fire a few arrows to draw them in. Before they’re half-way to the village, the ground begins to shake as a thunderous cacophony rises from the empty village, drowning out all other sounds.
There are certain things you can never understand without experiencing them for yourself. No matter how much you read up on the subject, it’s not until you see it in action that you go: Ah, so that’s what they’re talking about.
A cavalry charge is one of those things.
Fung leads his retinue to battle from atop his massive war-charger, screaming in challenge as the bandits stand before him in a wall of shields and weapons. Blood and bodies fly as Fung crashes into the bandits without a care, running them over as if riding through a field of daisies, his spear smashing opponents aside with ease. Like a god of battle in his resplendent armour, he wheels to the left and his riders follow as if of one mind, their weapons extended to reap lives like wheat as they continue to run roughshod over their enemies.
Broken in an instant, the previously disciplined bandits flee in terror from the vicious charge, heading towards me. Leading the way, Mafu pounces on an unfortunate soul as my blade and shield lash out, each strike taking a life. Panicked and broken, killing the bandits is simple as extending my sword, and I feel more like a lumberjack than a warrior, hacking away with little skill at opponents too frightened to defend themselves.
The slaughter is over in minutes, my men milling about from the sudden end to hostilities, taking prisoners and putting the grievously wounded out of their misery. A verdant, beautiful field on a bright sunny day is now a field of slaughter, blood and dirt churned beneath hooves, boots, and bodies, the iron-rich smell of blood and the fetid stink of shit our reward for a job well done.
Huh… that went better than expected. I still don’t like horses, but damn me if I ever want to stand in front of a charge.
Swallowing my revulsion, I listen to the battle report from Rustram, our casualty list numbering in the single digits among all three retinues. Glancing at Tursinai, she speaks. “Tenjin reports that the bandits at the beach broke through the wall quickly and searched the village, but are now fighting to put out the flames. He’s doing what he can from the shadows to slow them, but it won’t be long before they’re done. The little lady is unharmed, although the bandit leader had a few harsh words for her. Nothing serious.”
“After this defeat here, there’s no way he’ll stay and fight, especially since there’s nothing for him to take. Fung, your men did the lions share, clean and rest up, but be ready. If you can stand on your quin as it swims, you’re with me, otherwise line up at the cove edge and fire at will when you see the enemy. Kill as many as you can before they escape. No sense letting the tiger return to the mountains.” Close to thirty riders follow me on a ride through the forest, and we wait for the sound of arrows before entering the water.
Mafu paddles out to the cove entrance, stopping to block the exit. Their long, sleek rowboats power forward towards us, weathering a storm of arrows and bolts beneath their shields. Mila’s spear flashes through the air, clipping the tail end of a boat with a powerful toss. The wood shatters beneath the impact, splinters exploding as the back section of the boat is destroyed in the blink of an eye. The prow lifts out of the water as the stern sinks, the bandits jumping ship in hopes of finding refuge in another. Two unfortunate ships crash into the sinking wreck, launching several of their occupants into the water and putting an end to their escape.
Every time I think I have a grasp on Mila’s strength, she does something like this. How’d she make the boat explode?
The boats continue accelerating towards us without pause. A white maned warrior glares at me from the leading boat, carrying a wicked double-bladed axe. Panic hits me and it occurs to me I have no idea what I’m doing out here. What was I thinking? I can’t stop the boats, I’m just gonna get run over like those poor bandits. “Scatter!”
The warrior’s axe slashes towards me as Mafu dives down. Blocking the attack, my sword flies out of my hand as I’m launched back into the freezing water. Arms shielding my head, I float about as the oars batter me senseless. Somehow making my way beneath the boat, I panic and punch through the wood with my shield’s Honed blade, carving a furrow through the wood as it streaks away, the cold water rushing past me. My blade twists, caught in boat at an awkward angle and I’m dragged away, moving faster than I can believe while trapped underwater.
Clinging for dear life, my panic rises as I watch the coastline disappear into the distance, the boat heading for open waters. Darting, shadowy forms move in the dark waters below me, either dangerous predators, my overactive imagination, or oxygen deprivation. My arm strapped to the shield, I frantically work at clasps to free myself, but the cold numbs my fingers and the fierce torrent of water renders me unable to open my eyes while looking forward.
Wrenching my body against the pressure, I place both feet on the boat, tugging and twisting with all my might, struggling to free myself to no avail. Honing the blade does no good, as the pressure on the flat of the blade is what has me stuck. My supply of air begins to run short, exertion and panic taking its toll as my foot stomps at the boat. My mind grows foggy and I lift my foot once more, concentrating with every fiber of my being and drawing every ounce of chi I have to bear. Power surges through my leg and it crashes through the boat’s bottom, freeing my shield and my body.
My strength spent and the air in my lungs consumed, I flail uselessly, trying to reach the light, my body sinking in the almost peaceful surroundings. A currents catches me and carries me away as the light dims, the darkness envelops me, my chi continuing to cycle through me, healing myself to stay alive. A warm embrace takes me in as I close my eyes, feeling as if I’m wrapped in a blanket beneath the sun. Safe and comforting, my worries melt away as a wordless whisper tells me everything will be okay.
Sorry Lin and Mila. I guess you’re both going to be widows before marriage.
Please look after my cats.
And uhh… burn the books beneath my bed without looking at them.
– End of Volume 7 –
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