Startled by a resounding crash, Chu Tongzu jolted from his sleep, the ingrained reaction rewarded with a jabbing pain in his side. Drawing a sharp breath, he muttered a string of curses for the ignorant fool who dared disturb his slumber. What a pleasant, peaceful sleep, something he’d had precious little of late. Gingerly holding his abdomen, he waited for the pain to subside with half a mind to call his guards and have them find the noisy offender. Feeling magnanimous from the warmth of his bed, he let the matter drop and shifted to his side. Lifting the blankets, he let loose with a thunderous fart, greatly easing his discomfort and bringing a smile to his face as he chuckled at his prowess. With a smack of his lips, he lightly fanned the blankets while sinking deep into his pillows, allowing the sirens song of slumber to pull him back into its warm embrace.
“Beggin’ your pardon Magistrate, what with this being your room and all, but the least you could do is warn a man. Scared me something fierce.”
For several seconds, Tongzu ignored the smooth, baritone voice, attributing it to nothing more than an oncoming dream. Then, for the second time in minutes, he jolted up in alarm, this time with pillow in hand, ready to defend himself against the unwelcome intruder. Standing at the foot of his bed, a hulking giant sheepishly scratched his dark, unruly beard, facing the wall with his back to Tongzu. “Who are you to intrude upon Magistrate Chu Tongzu? Such audacity, your head will roll for this.”
The giant turned around and offered a military salute, weathering Tongzu’s Aura without effort. “Names Vichear. Good to meet you Magistrate. Sorry for alarming you, don’t you mind me. I shouldn’t have said anything, I’m just here to keep the Wraiths away. You go on back to sleep now, you’ll not hear another peep out of Old Vichy.” With a wink, the giant resumed his vigil, back turned with sword and shield in hand.
The giant was the most polite assassin Tongzu had ever encountered, though he was starting to suspect he’d misread the situation. Tossing the pillow aside and regretting how ridiculous he must have looked, he smoothed out his robes and slipped out of bed, gingerly stepping towards the weapon rack where his maul sat waiting. Although this Vichear showed no signs of aggression, it never hurt to be cautious. With Stoneshaper close by, he felt more prepared to handle the massive giant, clasping his hands behind him as he stood by the window. Though his room showed signs of battle and bloodshed, he put those out of mind and studied his self-proclaimed guard.
By the Mother, the man was imposing. Tonzgu was a man of impressive stature, but this Vichear dwarfed him in both height and girth, a solid mass of muscle from head to toe, girdled in black leather armour. Even at his best, Tongzu would be loath to fight the man head on. “So you’re one of my soldiers?” Impossible, he would remember a man like this. “I never knew I had such an impressive warrior in my ranks. Which unit do you hail from?”
Turning back with a grin, Vichear seemed to have noticed Tongzu’s obvious attempt to probe for information. “Not one of your soldiers Magistrate, you know as much. I served out of Feng Huang at one time, made my way up to Major until I lost most of my command to Defiled around Shen Huo. The army tossed me out on my ass, but Lieutenant General Akanai took me in, so I ride with the Bekhai now.”
The Bekhai again. Try as he might, Tongzu couldn’t see why those barbarians were held in such high esteem by some. True, their youths were talented, but from what he’d seen of Warrant Officers Falling Rain and Huushal, they were hunting dogs at best. Lacking subtlety and common sense, they’d run roughshod through his city, upsetting the delicate balance with all the grace of a rampaging bull. Leaving corpses in the streets to clog his canals, barricading his own building and refusing him entry, those brats gave no face. Skill was one thing, but no man could be an island, and the Bekhai made few friends with their outright defiance of the Society.
Scoffing, he shook his head. “There has to be more to your story, the Army does not toss’ aside talents like yourself for a single defeat. At most, you’d have been relegated to duties outside of command. Did you upset someone in power?”
Vichear’s grin faded, replaced by a grim resignation. “Right you are Magistrate. When I joined the army as a boy, they insisted on a thirty year contract. Wouldn’t take me in otherwise, too much effort to train, they said. What else is a starving half-beast to do? I served for twenty-eight years, held rank three, and was looking forward to life outside the Army. Travel the world, find myself a wife, maybe kids and whatnot, but the Mother had different plans for me. The same Defiled who killed my soldiers also broke me back, and the Army offered me two choices. Spend the rest of my life as a cripple or a soldier, no two ways about it.”
Looking the giant up and down, Tongzu remarked, “You seem to have recovered. I would assume the Herald offered you the same, healing in return for service. Why take up with them and not the Army?”
“True enough except for the order. Lieutenant General Akanai had me healed first, then made her offer, the proper way to do things I say.” Tapping himself on the chest, Vichear’s melancholy was plain to see. “Twenty-eight years of life Old Vichy gave the Empire, and they treated me like an honourless vagrant begging for handouts. It ain’t proper. I served with honour, and when I needed aid, they wanted to make me a slave. Costs and benefits, with no place for honour.”
Sympathizing with Vichear’s concerns, Tongzu nodded in spite of himself. “I was a soldier myself, lost many a comrade in battle, but that’s to be expected. Worse was watching the injured survivors mistreated, but that’s what happens when you have scroll-shuffling scribes deciding the fate of good fighting men. They can’t see past their abacus, every soldier little more than numbers scrawled on a page.”
“Right you are again.” After a small pause, Vichear’s grin returned in full force and Tongzu couldn’t help but smile with him. “Still, things worked out for the best. My oath is lax, I fight only when I want or need to. The Bekhai are a pleasure to serve with and the job came with a nice little home in the sticks to call my own, something worth dying for. I still miss the city sometimes and the Bekhai have no proper opera or theatre, but the wilderness has a certain beauty and poetry to it, no doubt about it.”
“Glad to hear it.” At least the savage tribesmen had honour, if not sense. Healing was an expensive prospect to gamble on, and they didn’t seem to properly attend to the giant’s needs. Perhaps Vichear could be won back with coin and women, Sanshu was dearly lacking in talents. Another crash sounded in the distance, and Tongzu turned to look out the window, searching for the culprit who dared continue to disturb the peace. “What’s going on out there?”
“Well,” Vichear drawled, “I suppose it would be the Defiled.” Tongzu stared at Vichear, blinking rapidly. “Or more accurately,” the giant continued, “It’d be your catapults launching stones at the Defiled.”
Heart lurching in his chest, Tongzu stared out at the walls as his memory returned, gaping at the western wall while imagining the south-western gate, where the battle would be fiercest. A Defiled army, the barbarian Senior Captain, it was all coming back to him. Surging into action, he grasped Stoneshaper in hand and rushed for the door, desperate to defend his city. Vichear intercepted him with hands raised, shaking his head. “Apologies Magistrate, but I don’t think this is a good idea.”
Brandishing Stoneshaper, Tongzu glared at the giant, ready to strike him down. “Oh, are you my guard or warden? Am I a prisoner in my own home now? My injuries be damned, the city needs me and I will not shirk my duties.”
“Er… no, you’re free to go as you please. You’re the bleeding Magistrate, I’m just saying you shouldn’t march into battle wearing your night-clothes.” Vichear’s grin bordered on insolence. “Bad for morale and whatnot, showing up in a floppy shirt with your sausage and eggs poking out.”
After hurriedly donning his armour, Tongzu rode with all haste to the gate, ignoring the pain as he jostled from horseback. Following him were a handful of roosequin-mounted Bekhai led by Vichear, an affront now that he thought about it. Why were Sanshu soldiers not defending their Magistrate, the honour left to outsider barbarians? To make matters worse, Vichear made for a ridiculous sight, his enormous girth perched atop a roosequin no larger than a pony. His skill with Lightening must be phenomenal for the creature to run so effortlessly under so great a burden, its bared teeth and musky scent causing Tongzu’s horse to shy away.
Still, the beast could run, so he put aside the spectacle to concentrate on the matter at hand, defending his city. With luck, Sovanna would have the plaza fortified with barricades to hold the Defiled back. It wasn’t an ideal situation, defending three fronts in such a small area with no way for each barricade to directly support the others, but it was the best choice given the circumstances. As he approached the gate, he found the winding streets empty of servants and civilians, his soldiers and guards scattered about further back into the city than he would like. Every spare soldier would be needed to hold back the Defiled and only a modicum of trust in his interim Guard Captain kept him from ordering every warrior he passed to make for the plaza. Perhaps she had a plan in mind and he was only seeing a small part.
To his enormous relief, Tongzu found the plaza well defended with a makeshift wooden wall in place, his soldiers saluting as he arrived. From the city walls proper, a catapult creaked into action as it loosed a stone, the projectile arcing through the air to crash into the plaza. Things weren’t so far gone then, with no assault on the barricade yet, so perhaps there was time to save the day.
Leaving Vichear behind, he made his way to the military barracks, the same building from which he’d planned his disastrous assault on the gates. Marching into his office, he found Sovanna standing at the window beside a bald tribesman. Disturbingly, the tribesman stood in front with Sovanna looking out over his shoulder, an unequal partnership at a glance. Well, the woman couldn’t be faulted, she was new to command, but this could not stand. Noticing his arrival far too late, she cast him a worried glance while saluting, taking in his puffing chest and reddened skin. “Greetings Magistrate. Ye shouldn’t have come, the healer said ye were to rest in bed, snug and sound.”
“This minor injury isn’t enough to stop me when my city is in danger.” Waving away her concerns, he concentrated on the Bekhai tribesman, Gerel if he remembered correctly. The name brought several rumours to mind, but he dismissed them out of hand. Too slow to salute, as if it were an afterthought rather than obligation, the tribesman stood arrow-straight, showing no intention to kneel or even bow. How arrogant. Nondescript, slim and sturdy, armed with sword, longbow, and glaive, he seemed utterly unimpressive, which was being generous. Dressed in his unadorned black leather armour, with nothing to denote him as the unparalleled warrior the rumours spoke of, he could easily be mistaken for a common mercenary.
No flair for pageantry these barbarians, indifferent as to their appearance. A hero must look suitably valiant, inspiring those around them on the field of battle to draw the Enemy towards them. Such was the burden of command, to risk life and injury to ease the pressure from the common soldier. Then again, the man might be one to hide among his soldiers to strike unseen, the secret to his staggering kill tally.
Resisting the urge to sneer, Tongzu spoke, stressing the other man’s rank. “So Senior Captain Gerel, it seems my city’s safety rests in your hands.”
In a show of outright impudence, the tribesman merely nodded, as if it were nothing out of the ordinary. “I’ll do my best to keep it safe. Major Yuzhen is on her way with well over ten-thousand elite cavalry, likely arriving in a day or two. Then we can cut loose and show our hand.” With that said, the arrogant tribesman ended the conversation and turned back to the window, glancing out at the Defiled marching in through the open gates, jeering as they made their way up the avenue to link up with the bandits holding his gates.
Unable to hold back his anger, Tongzu moved forward and shouldered Gerel aside, taking the vantage point. “Well, you have my thanks for your efforts while I slept, but I am awake now. You may go. Sovanna, a review of our defences and troop count if you please, and ready the troops for an attack. I’ll not stand idle while this filth strides into my city without a care. Mark my words, they will bleed for every step taken inside Sanshu.”
“That would be a mistake.” Gerel’s voice sounded from beside him, the obstinate man refusing to leave gracefully. “Here, in this plaza, they hold the advantage. If we attack now, it will only work in their favour.”
“Then what would you have me do, Senior Captain Gerel?” This time, his sneer came in full effect. “You think your flimsy wooden barricade will hold them back? You’ll be burned out in minutes, at least you could have built a wall of stone!”
“The barricade will fall within the hour. They have a fire-manipulator among their ranks, but with a big enough fire, the Defiled will be forced to wait until it dies.” Gerel answered without hesitation, his gaze locked with Tongzu’s. “The plaza’s design forces us to distribute the soldiers evenly between three fronts, with a travel time of five minutes to reinforce one another. A feature meant to protect the gates, but it works against us now. The Defiled are free to decide which side to attack while holding the high ground, a disastrous combination.”
At least the man had a grasp of basic tactics, though five minutes travel time was overly optimistic. “Then what do you hope to do? We cannot hold, we cannot fight, am I to let them run roughshod through my city unhindered?”
“Yes and no.” The tribesman shrugged, gesturing to the map which sat on Tongzu’s table. “The fight here is not to our advantage, so we only defend it with a token force. Sanshu’s walls and gates are expertly designed, but the city proper is a sprawl of roundabout streets and alleys separated by man-made streams and villa walls. Plenty of places to mount a proper defence or lead them into ambush.”
Tongzu snorted with disdain. “There is no area large enough to accommodate my army aside from the plaza. It would be impossible to attack in sufficient numbers.”
A wolfish look came over Gerel, a smile without smiling. “Exactly. The same goes for the Defiled, and seeing as we’re outnumbered when it comes to quality soldiers, this works to our advantage. We’ll rend and tear them slowly until nothing remains.” Pointing at the map, Gerel marked the major passages out of the south-western district. “The passages through the outer wall have been closed off, so these five bridges are now the only path into the rest of the city, aside from swimming through the ponds or canals. At your Guard Captain’s suggestion, we lifted the sluice gates and flooded the canals, using bloody bait to lure in hordes of carnivorous fish. The majority of the soldiers are positioned to guard the bridges, and should the worst come to pass, they have orders to destroy the bridge. By doing so, we contain the Defiled to the south-western district. It took a little diplomacy to roust the inhabitants, but Guard Captain Sovanna is a… persuasive woman. I only had to kill two people before the rest fell into line.”
“Hmph.” Dreading the fallout from his ‘diplomacy’, Tongzu decided to deal with it after the battle. For all he knew, they’d all be dead and he’d be spared having to eat crow and apologize. Instead, he studied the plan as Gerel continued to elaborate, but though he looked long and hard, he found no obvious flaws. Still, he disagreed wholeheartedly with the strategy, interrupting Gerel mid-explanation. “Your proposal would have me give up an eighth of my city to the Defiled without a fight. Then what? Pray for deliverance? Even after Major Yuzhen arrives, we’ll have no ground from which to mount a charge. What good is cavalry without their mounts? Am I to keep them there and starve them out?”
The wolfish grin seemed to stretch even though Gerel’s lips remained pursed and neutral, the air growing cold and still. “All the Major needs to do is keep the Defiled from leaving through the gate. You want to make them bleed for stepping into your city, but my claim supersedes yours.” Leaning forward, Gerel’s amber eyes promised wanton violence and slaughter, forcing Tongzu to instantly revise his opinion of the man. A dangerous warrior, he’d rather be matched against a dozen Vichears than cross weapons with Gerel. “You look down on a mere Senior Captain and I cannot begrudge you this. Rank holds no allure for me, only battle, but now I have reason to seek it, a promise to keep. Karma has been sown and these Defiled cropped up almost instantly, their lives a gift laid out before me. Do not interfere in my moment of glory. Sanshu is full of danger and your death would mar my victory.”
Repressing his shudders, Tongzu stared blankly as Gerel strode out of the room, unable to formulate a reply until the man was out of sight. Blinking at Sovanna, he asked, “Did he just threaten me?”
“That he did.” Sovanna nodded, bringing a cushioned chair to the window, which he gratefully collapsed in. “An intense sort, I swear if he had a tail he’d be wagging it nonstop right now. Happy as a fox in the hen-house he is, a born killer if I’d ever seen one. Don’t be too cross with him though, he saved yer life last night.” She shivered dramatically, perhaps to ease his guilt over doing the same. “Mark me, but I’m glad he’s on our side, not a man I’d like to cross. The servants say he came in through the window and tore a Wraith’s arm clean off before it even knew what hit him. Killed five in total and walked out of yer room like he’d been swimming in blood.”
From his vantage point, he absently watched as Gerel rode off with Vichear and the other Bekhai. Private First Class Gerel, the unknown, unranked, warrior who, at twenty-seven years of age, took the world by storm when he claimed eleven certified Demon kills in a week, and his numbers continued to rise. Those who saw him claimed he cut Demon and Defiled down like a farmer harvesting wheat, earning him the Name of ‘Demon Reaper’.
Whether it meant ‘Reaper of Demons’, or ‘Demon who Reaps’ was still a matter of debate.
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