Outside the wood and stone palisade, Xiao HuoLong crouched in the tall grass beneath the waxing moon, his gaze locked on the ramparts. A pair of armoured sentries patrolled the walls, illuminated by the torch they carried. Easy enough to take them out with a pair of crossbows, but there’d be other soldiers hidden in the dark, ready to sound the alarm should any of the sentries fall. The little outpost couldn’t hold more than a hundred soldiers, easy prey for his… associates, for lack of a better term, but why work harder than necessary?
A round of chuckles interrupted his silent vigil, HuoLong ignoring the urge to turn and glare at the offenders. Back in the day, if one of his Firebrands had shown such poor discipline, he would’ve had the idiot beaten like a dog. Alas, these were Butcher Bay Bandits, too high in the pecking order to be lectured by a ‘mere’ Laughing Dragon. An arrogant and disorderly bunch, worlds apart when compared to his Firebrands, but when you had a secret-fucking-island to hide your unruly enthusiasts, then you could afford to lower your recruitment standards.
He almost hoped a patrol would stumble across them so he could see a few Butchers with steel in their throats. It’d serve the noisy bastards right. A time and place for everything, that’s what he told every new recruit. Do your duties, pay your dues, show yourself capable of self-control, and you’d be rewarded. The best wine, choice cuts, first pick of entertainment, this system, along with his carefully crafted reputation, allowed him and his Firebrands to hide in plain sight for years, something he took great pride in, worthy of praise.
A shame no one else saw it that way.
A new pair of sentries began their circuit of the wall, their torch dipping twice in quick succession as they approached his position. At the long-awaited signal, HuoLong let out a relived sigh, glad to finally begin. These Butcher Bay Bastards put little stock in patience. Gesturing for them to follow, he dashed through the grass and across the field, knowing the alarm wouldn’t be raised. A side door waited for him, swinging open with a touch, revealing a single soldier standing in wait over the corpse of his ill-fated partner. Pointing to his white armband, the soldier whispered, “Keep an eye out for these. Friendlies.”
Nodding in reply, HuoLong turned and whispered to Malang, the nominal Butcher leader. “No prisoners, not tonight.”
Spitting at his feet, the pale, heavily-scarred bandit sneered. “Yea, yea, ye told me enough times. Should name yerself Cackling Nag instead.” Malang stepped through the door and skirted into cover, disappearing from HuoLong’s sight as he settled in to wait once more. It pained him to admit, but Malang and his boys were adept at their craft. Armed with long daggers and small crossbows, they moved liked ghosts through the palisade, HuoLong only able to track them by their results.
A lantern snuffed, a door opened, a soldier killed, throughout it all he barely glimpsed Malang or his people, plying their deadly trade unseen and unheard. It was almost magical how they worked, stalking their targets before striking, killing in a single blow and catching the body before dragging it away, their deaths instant and silent. He’d heard tales of Wraiths, the shadowy assassins of North, with their pitch black daggers and inhuman stealth, but seeing it in action left him in awe. It wasn’t a learned skill, no these Wraiths paid a price for their talents, each one sharing the same gaunt, sinewy build and pale skin, covering themselves from the sun with broad hats and long sleeves. Their skills made them less real, their physical strength and stamina diminished in exchange for abnormal speed, dexterity and stealth.
Difficult to say if he’d make the trade given the choice. Though the careful stalking appealed to him, he’d found nothing in life which matched the thrill of open combat. Creeping forward in the Wraith’s wake, HuoLong led his contingent into position on the walls, securing the main gates and the compact, wall-mounted catapults. Loading one in silence, he turned his catapult inwards to face his targets, the mess hall and barracks where off-duty soldiers gathered to drink and carouse, their boisterous laughter filtering out.
Emerging from the night’s gloom with his customary sneer, Malang appeared at his side and nodded. “Works done.” Lighting the pitch-soaked projectile, HuoLong took a deep breath to savour the moment as the other catapults lit up in response. So satisfying, looking around at his true comrades, those who’d been with him for years, illuminated by their blazing gifts of destruction, Firebrands one and all. Even though lately things hadn’t been going his way, he always liked to stop and appreciate the small joys in life.
Pressing the lever with gusto, he grinned at the sound of the catapult leaping into action, the flaming projectile arcing through the air with a satisfying whistle before crashing thunderously into the building. Shouts of alarm sounded as more burning projectiles followed, the barracks and mess hall igniting in flames from the dry tinder and lantern oil scattered by Malang and his Wraiths. So beautiful, the orange-red blaze leaping into the night skies as the screams grew in intensity.
Laughing in time-honoured tradition, HuoLong sauntered down the stairs to enjoy the fruits of his labour up close. Trapped and facing certain death, some braved the flames and ran out only to be cut down by blade or bolt, their futile struggles and inhuman shrieks filling him with child-like glee. The enticing smell of burning flesh produced a hunger in him, so he tore the arm off a smouldering corpse and snacked away. Dinner and a show, not bad for a few hours waiting and a few minutes work.
Sadly, it ended all too soon, the flames sputtering out after consuming all it could, nothing but the blackened stone foundation and charred corpses remaining to mark his little bonfire. Their mission complete, his associates gathered around him, their scowls and muted protests souring his mood. His euphoria tapering off in the face of duty, HuoLong sighed and asked, “What? Ye harbouring a complaint then voice it. None of this grumbling bullshit.”
The Butcher Bay delegation all looked to Malang to speak for them, none brave enough to speak for themselves. Though they liked to mock the ‘righteous thief’ behind his back, they knew their strength was lacking in comparison. Only Malang dared voice his opinion, not out of personal strength but rather confident in Yo Ling’s backing. Running his hand through his greasy hair, the pale Wraith spoke, eyes averted. “Don’t see the point in acting all stealth-like when ye were planning on lighting the whole place up like this. Coulda saved a few for sport is all. I’m thinking the Small Dragon has small ambitions, too scared to let a few soldiers run free.”
Saber in hand, HuoLong answered with a smile. “This is why yer boss put me in charge, because yer skull’s too thick to fit a brain. If left to you, we’d be here all night, stuck in the sticks while glory passes us by. I’ll handle the thinking for you, you’re shit at it. All you lot need do is follow orders.” Knowing it wouldn’t be enough to ease their displeasure, he paused and glanced around, ready and waiting for a challenge.
Pivoting around, he slashed out with his saber, the blade cutting deep into the torso of an attacking Wraith. The bastards were sneaky, but little danger if you were expecting them. The offending Wraith convulsed in the dirt, gaping at its missing arm and exposed ribs. Kicking aside its dagger, HuoLong braced his boot against its throat, slowly choking the life from the pallid would-be mutineer. Speaking over the choked screams, he addressed everyone present, former Butchers and Firebrands alike. “Now see, you all must think I’ve gone soft, getting beat by a young Warrant Officer, ignoring all yer muttered quips and veiled insults, letting all these soldiers die too easily. Now, this is my fault, I accept it. I’ve been too tolerant, too lenient, on account of my respect fer Yo Ling. Here I’ve been wandering the lands with my Firebrands for years and years, never knowing the Spectre was one of my own, a kindred spirit. I’m in awe of what he’s accomplished, and I let that affect my judgment of his subordinates.”
Some of the Butchers looked him in the eye, many smiling from his compliments and even more transfixed on the dying Wraith. Exerting a little more pressure, he broke its neck and shrugged. “See, before we left, Yo Ling asked me who I wanted in my little party. I could have asked for Vithar and his impressive comrades from the North, but I didn’t. I could have gone with Gen and his fanatics, but I didn’t. I asked for Butchers to fill my ranks, because I’d grown up hearing about yer reputation as the biggest, baddest motherfuckers around.” Pausing for effect, he glanced around at the Butchers, meeting Malang’s gaze. “I am sorely disappointed.”
Kicking aside the corpse, he paced back and forth, putting his charms to work. “Though the time for hiding is over and many of you wish to celebrate unrestrained, who among us has not endured? What’s a few days more? Are you all happy with this tiny victory? A hundred odd soldiers, not a single worthy opponent among them? I’m not.”
A handful of muted cheers rose, mostly from his Firebrands, but it was enough. “Even as we stand here tonight, Yo Ling holds the gates of Sanshu open so we can march in and take the city. These outposts are a mere appetizer, bones to gnaw on while we move towards the greater prize, fat, succulent Sanshu. I travel this night in search of new adventure, new challenge, new prey. Who among you will join me?” More cheers in reply this time, HuoLong was satisfied with the results and confident of winning the Butchers over with time. “Good, prove me wrong, show me yer mettle.”
Truth be told, he’d have much preferred travelling with Vithar and his northern brethren, their savage artistry fascinating to behold, but the True Enlightened rode their Garos at a pace too strenuous for man or horse to match. Gen was a different bag, the creepy bastard’s strength continuing to grow by the day while his Demon wife’s perturbing stare was enough to send him away to lead these dregs. A shame, he thought he’d have more in common with the Butchers, but these sheltered children knew nothing of the ways of the world, almost as repressed and anxious as Gen’s newly-turned fanatics.
No matter. HuoLong was content to play his games, leading these fools to take down the outposts while Yo Ling and Gen dealt with the lion’s share of the work. Take Sanshu, what a fucking joke. Even with the gates opened and the bulk of Sanshu soldiers outside the city, twenty-thousand bandits-turned-warriors weren’t enough to hold the city for more than a few hours. More likely, they’d be trapped in the plaza and whittled down while reinforcements came from behind to wipe them all out. Utter foolishness, they’d do more work razing the lands and salting the earth, denying the Empire massive swathes of fertile farmland, but what did a ‘mere’ Laughing Dragon know? His suggestion had been laughed away, Yo Ling smugly claiming everything was ‘within his purview’, the arrogant bastard.
If decades living a double life had taught HuoLong anything, it was how to survive and he intended to do exactly that. Take a few more outposts along the way, deny the Butchers gratification and stoke their ardour until finally capitulating to their demands to feast and revel in blood and death. Then, when the dust settled, they’d hear news of Yo Ling’s defeat and, distraught but undeterred, he’d head North to meet up with the other True Enlightened and join the cause, bringing a few hundred warriors with him. It wasn’t much, but better than nothing.
A pox on two fools with delusions of grandeur, Gen and Yo Ling deserved one another. Taking a swig from his flask, HuoLong gave a silent toast. Here’s hoping they die together, along with that bitch of a Demon wife.
Sleep eludes me.
Emotionally drained from watching hundreds of innocents tortured to death, then physically exhausted from travelling all day at a breakneck pace, you’d think it’d be easy to drift off into nightmarish slumber, but quite the opposite. The hollow emptiness inside me seems to echo my every thought, reverberating through my mind as I lay inside my borrowed tent, staring at the canvas ceiling in uneasy contemplation as the hours pass by.
What would happen if I left? Woke Mafu and slipped away, riding for home?
Mila and the others should be on their way here, but finding them wouldn’t be hard, convincing them to leave even easier. Why should I risk my life and the lives of my friends defending those wealthy parasites in Sanshu, grown fat from leeching the life’s blood of the commoners? Let them burn for all I care. The idiots don’t even house the majority of their soldiers inside their walls. Too many commoners might bring down property values, how terrible for them. Their servants and slaves? No one else cares about them, so why should I? Mere statistics for the people in power to ignore while concentrating on more important matters, like how to save face.
It’s disgusting. What has this Empire, this province, these ‘nobles’ and ‘aristocracy’ done to deserve my loyalty or allegiance?
Nothing is what. Every time I try to do anything, I get shit on by their way of life. A jarring revival leads to nightmarish slavery, a visit to the market results in an assassination attempt, a quiet meal on the road turns into a blood-feud, a ‘friendly’ competition devolves into a murderous manhunt, chasing bandits earns me a bounty, and now a life and death struggle in the wilderness somehow plants the seeds for an unholy ceremony of death and torment, a convenient tool to keep the sheeple in line.
The logic boggles my mind. ‘Your neighbour turned Defiled, so we’re gonna skin you alive and scoop out your eyeballs with a spoon’. That’ll learn em. Next time, be born into a better life you fucking peasant. You gonna turn Defiled? That’s a torturing. The crazy bastard in the next town over acting erratically? Better kill him, might bring down the Purge on our heads. Don’t be Defiled, else we’ll make your shitty life end on the shittiest of notes.
Why shouldn’t I leave? What’s keeping me here? Aside from my family, friends, and pets, I don’t give a shit about anyone else. Fuck Sanshu, fuck the province, fuck the Empire, and fuck this world. They deserve the Defiled, two sides of the same coin, murderous bastards one and all. Yuzhen can scream Martial Law all she wants, but does she really have the authority to conscript me? It’s so hypocritical, riding to save Sanshu immediately after consigning thousands to a needless, insensible death, going along with the atrocity like it’s a normal day at the office. Hell, maybe for her it is. Clock in, file papers, drink tea, order the death of thousands, break for lunch, and so on, same old shit on a brand new day.
My silent dissent (enforced under implied threat of death) is interrupted by a commotion outside the camp, Mafu waking to sniff the air and squeak with joy. Opening the tent flap, I follow Mafu out in my cotton pajamas, curious about the commotion. Only a small sliver of moonlight illuminates the night, more than enough to make my way through the camp. Ever since waking from my water-logged nap, my eyes have been sharper than ever, for distance and low-light. There’s no telescoping action or green tint, my eyes simply see with more clarity than before. Not sure if it’s thanks to Baledagh’s Defiled status or some passive chi thing, though I probablty should find out, but I’ve been busy. Either way, it’s a useful little skill and so long as it works, then I’ll use it. Like I said, two sides of the same coin.
The cause of Mafu’s excitement becomes clear as we come across my retinue setting camp nearby, along with Huu and Fung’s people. Greeting familiar faces as I navigate through, I find Lin leaning on her well-dressed quin, yawning as she holds a bear cub in her arms. Smiling for the first time in days, I walk up and embrace her from behind, my little wifey melting in my arms. “Hiya.”
Her hair mussed from sweat and skin covered in dust, she’s still a sight for sore eyes. “Hi hubby. We rode all day so we could catch up with you. Miss me?”
“More than you know.” Arms still wrapped around her, I gently stroke the cub while Mafu extracts the other cub from the saddlebags. “Not that I’m complaining, but why are you here? We’re riding to battle, you should find somewhere safe and wait for me to come get you.”
“Silly Rainy, where would I go? Don’t forget, a Purge just took place and there are Defiled and Demons running around.” Her toothy smile shining bright beneath the moonlit sky, proud of her thinly veiled excuse. “It’s much safer here with you, this way you can protect me.”
My heart pangs in regret for all those people I couldn’t save. So many of them dying in such horrific manner while I stood and watched, too afraid of the consequences to help. “Your faith is misplaced Lin, I’m incapable of protecting anyone.” Making eye contact with the leader of her guards, I say, “Tomorrow, you will take Mei Lin and ride for the Bridge. I’ll send a few Sentinels to escort you.” Maybe all of them, after I talk to Mila, Huu, and Fung.
Ignoring Lin’s protests, I leave her with a kiss on the cheek and head towards Mila, chatting with one of Yuzehn’s aides. After greeting an over-enthused Aurie and an indifferent Li Song, Jimjam and Sarankho, Mila sends the aide away and strides over towards me, beaming with her hands behind her back as she waits for my praise.
Poor girl, Akanai’s methods have her starved for approval. “Thank you Mila, you’ve done an incredible job.”
“I know,” she replies, “In fact, I should take your Token for myself. I deserve it.”
“You do. You really do.” If only it worked that way.
The smile falls from her face as she senses something amiss, her small, delicate hand reaching for my own. “Is everything all right?”
Pulling her into a hug, I concentrate on my chi, putting my words in before transmitting it to her. It’s a little similar to talking with Baledagh while hiding my normal thoughts, which made it easy to learn. Sending without skin contact is much more difficult, some nonsense about locking onto the recipient and what not. “Try not to say too much, don’t know if we’re being watched. I need to know, on a scale of one to ten, with ten being treason, how bad would it be if we just… left in the morning? Packed up and went home?”
Pushing back from me, Mila’s eyes are filled with confusion and concern. “NINE?”
The sound of her voice explodes inside my head, like a gong going off in my ears. Hiding my wince, I ask, “When did you learn to Send?” Geez, and here I thought she’d be impressed by my new skill.
“NOT LONG, I’VE BEEN PRACTISING WITH TURSINAI BUT SHE SAYS I’M A LITTLE LOUD. SORRY.”
“Didn’t even notice.” My deadpan response earns me a punch on the arm, her pout in full force.
“WHEN DID YOU LEARN?”
“Err… this morning, Yuzhen showed me how.” Another punch. “Don’t be jealous. So leaving is out of the question?”
“YES. WHY DO YOU WANT TO LEAVE? THIS IS OUR CHANCE FOR GLORY, THE REASON WE CAME OUT HERE. DID SOMETHING HAPPEN? TALK TO ME…”
Shaking my head in answer, I pull her close for another hug, her arms squeezing tight around me. “Sorry, can’t talk about it.”
Guess I’m stuck fighting for a cause I don’t believe in. The Empire doesn’t deserve my help, my blood, my sacrifice, so they won’t get it. Fuck glory, let the Defiled and the Empire duke it out, I’ll hang out on the sidelines and pick off targets from range, ready to grab the easy win or run home if things go south.
Honestly, either way works for me.
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