Author’s note: Though I hate doing this so soon after the last one, especially since chapter views haven’t recovered from the last time I did, but I’m going to be taking a break this friday. It’s Easter and I’m taking my niece to hunt for chocolate eggs and pet rabbits, though she’s too young for the former and not super interested in the latter. Truth bomb here: the chocolate is for me and so are the bunnies. There. I said it. No shame. (A little shame).
Anyways, this means I’ll be too busy to finish the next chapter in time, so SD will return on Easter monday. Thanks for reading and enjoy! Hope you all have a fun, chocolate-filled easter too! Protip, easter candy goes on sale after this weekend, so join me in splurging to get fat and diabeetus.
Fatigue clung to Sovanna like a desperate man-toy, unwilling to leave her in peace. So much to be done, her abrupt promotion to Guard Captain was more burden than boon, especially considering her chances of survival. With Butcher Bay waiting at their doorstep, Sanshu’s nobles were in a foul mood and in desperate need of someone to trod on. Since the Magistrate was wounded and not taking audiences, they lined up in droves to bother her.
Though the hour was late and sun long since set, she was still stuck in her office tuning out the latest pain in her backside. Another poncy councilman with hands on hips and head held high, making unimaginative threats and ridiculous demands. Despite her reputation for heavy-handed tactics, this fatty stormed right in without so much as a how you do before spouting his nonsense. Every one of these silk-swaddled bellyachers assumed she would instantly recognize them, the arrogant bastards, and only this one’s bodyguards kept her from smacking him upside the head and booting him out of her office. Four skilled warriors standing close by with their hands resting on their Spiritual Weapons, she didn’t fancy fighting any of them, much less all at once.
Truth be told, the noble’s names mattered little aside from noting who to flee from when Martial Law came to an end. All cut from the same cloth, a bunch of pampered, soft-bellied nobles come crying to her about their inconveniences. Servants leaving work to be with their families, bickering over sharing their many mansions with the displaced, how their status was too high to live in a hovel, constant demands to return to their homes in the south-western district, their concerns were all so frivolous and nonsensical she wanted nothing more than to throttle them bloody and toss them to the Butchers and their Demons.
Hopefully when the motherless cutthroats finally got off their asses and attacked, these damned nobles would leave her a moment to rest, something she’d found little of since her undesired promotion. Stifling a yawn, she sat in stony silence as the silk-swaddled councilman continued his rant, spittle flying and face red as an apple. A shame she couldn’t have the Butchers sent down a few certain streets and put these expensive bodyguards to work. If she were lucky, both problems would sort themselves out and the city would be saved. Hell, even if she single-handedly threw the Butchers and their Demons out of Sanshu, none of these poncing ingrates would thank her, behaving like churlish children ignorant of the danger before them.
The walls were tough and durable, and if they held the gates, she had full confidence in her bullies’ abilities to hold back the tide of Defiled Bandits. Unfortunately, Mao Jianghong’s betrayal allowed the Butchers to stroll right through the gates alongside their Demon companions, leaving kilometres of brick and mortar about as useful as chopsticks in a sword fight. Sure, better to have them than not, but you’d still have higher chances of survival if you made a run for it.
A smile squeaked across her face at the absurd thought of escape and it didn’t go unnoticed. “Do you find this amusing woman?” The councilman’s chest heaved with anger as his cheeks quivered, his foul breath and body odour mixing with his flowery perfume in an unholy, stomach-turning blend. “Do you even know how much coin I lose every hour my transport teams sit idle? More than you earn in a year, you cretin!”
Resisting the urge to roll her eyes, Sovanna adopted an air of solemnity, determined to play nice. “My apologies Councilman, but there’s nothing I can do about it.” Gesturing towards the plaza, she continued. “So long as there’s an army of blackguards camped inside our walls, I ain’t opening any more gates fer them to take. Not a single one, not even for a minute, much less the six hours yer asking for. I roll over fer ye and I’ll have every merchant and councilman crawling up me arse, demanding use of the gates fer themselves, and before ye know it, Sanshu’ll have more holes than a sieve. Ye’ll just have to make do until we put them bandits to proper rest.”
Drawing himself up to his full, unimpressive height, the fat councilman seethed with anger. “How dare you speak in such a manner. Do you know who I am?” Sovanna’s small frown and hesitation gave away her ignorance, the councilman’s face turning several shades darker at the perceived insult. “I am Chao Yong, Chief Councilman of the Eastern Prosperity Alliance! For me to grace you with my presence is already more than you deserve.”
As if this fat ponce could ever intimidate her, she’d dealt with the worst of Sanshu. Without missing a beat, she replied, “I’m honoured by yer presence, but the gates stay closed. No wagon or boat leaves Sanshu until the Magistrate says otherwise or the Defiled are dead and gone.” Now shove off and leave me to real work, she added silently, hoping Fatty Yong would get the hint and leave.
Unfortunately, he didn’t. Glancing at his guards for reassurance, he wagged a finger in her face. “Do not think you newfangled rank will keep you safe. I could have you tossed out of Sanshu with a snap of my fingers, you revolting, monstrous ape of a woman.”
Enough was enough. Grabbing the offending finger, she twisted it backwards with a smile as fatty Yong screeched in pain. Using his wide frame as a shield against his guards drawn weapons, she spoke in low tones. “That ain’t no proper way to speak to a lady like meself. I tried to be polite, but ye just trod on me last nerve ye did. Toss me out with a snap of yer fingers will ye? Then get to snapping ye feckless half-wit.” Pulling him up onto his toes, she glared into his eyes, relishing the fear within. “Mother’s bleeding cunt, I’d thank ye for sending me off and bring me bullies away with me. They’re too good to die defending a bunch of quivering piles of shit like yerself. Ye say the word and I’ll happily leave ye to deal with Yo Ling yerself. Ye think he gives a shit how much yer worth? Nah, he’ll carve ye to bits without blinking and with luck, he’ll choke on yer putrid flesh. The world’ll be better of fer it.” Shoving him into his bodyguards, she sneered, affecting an air of confidence. “Now take yer fancy little guards and fuck off afore I toss yer fat ass out the window and put them to real work.”
Any one of those frilled guards were more than her match, likely easily beating her with their hands tied. She was Guard tried and true, and though it was something to be proud of, she was no warrior. Sure, she was tough enough to take on your everyday thug or bandit, but these were all former soldiers, the best money could buy. A good thing Fatty Yong didn’t know as much, eyeing her massive frame with fear as he scrambled out of her office with his guards in tow. One even smiled and offered a small salute before leaving, though she waited a full minute before collapsing into her chair with a sigh, finally able to breathe easy.
Damned bastards and their damned demands, even after all her efforts to play nice, she ended up assaulting another councilman, this time a bloody Chief Councilman to boot. Once again, her foul temper got the better of her. Why’d he have to cross her bottom line and bring attention to her stature? Lamenting her fate, she laid her head on the table to steal a moments rest before returning to work. Even if, through some miracle, she survived the Defiled onslaught, the nobles of Sanshu would have her hung from the walls.
Why even bother?
A thunderous roar woke her from her stupor and she jolted up from the desk, wiping away the drool on her chin. Rushing to the window, she glanced out over the plaza and gasped, her heart seizing in her chest at the sight. Lined up along the parapets, the Butcher Bay Bandits made for an imposing display as they brandished their weapons and armour, voices unified in a formidable bellow of challenge. Packed shoulder to shoulder, her best count had their numbers over fifteen thousand, half in the gatehouses and half camped in the tunnels. Her bullies and soldiers matched those numbers, though they were nowhere near as well armed.
Smoothing out her uniform, she bolted out the door and down to the plaza, Sending orders to her bullies and setting them into formation before taking her place on the wall as she glanced at the moon. Past midnight now, she’d fallen asleep and lost valuable hours of planning, though it wouldn’t have accomplished much of anything. Truth be told, after seeing the Defiled Butchers arrayed in all their horrific glory, she wholeheartedly wished for a return to simpler times, when all she had to deal with were grass stained pants and soiled bedsheets.
The thunderous shouts subsided and Sovanna finally had a moment to think, the stifling silence putting her on edge. Swallowing hard, she glanced at her guards standing in their red and gold armour, lined up at the flimsy makeshift walls with their fears and concerns wholly on display. “Well my bullies,” she said, her voice steely and determined, “We’ve suckled at the teat of Sanshu for years, strutted our colours and thrown our weight around. Glorious times though they were, it all comes at a cost. It’s time to take our lumps and pay our due. Hold the line and follow me orders. Sanshu’s fate lies in our hands now, and I’ll not be known as the Guard Captain who lost it.”
No resounding cheers followed her speech, only a few grim nods and nervous chuckles as they shifted into place. Accepting it for what it was, she unlimbered her mace, a gaudy, shiny mass of iron and steel. Possible the only Guard captain in history to be without a Spiritual Weapon, she was out of her depth here, no hero or peerless warrior of the Empire. She’d grown up in the Trading Square outside the city, working as a washer-woman just like her Ma. After beating a few drunk ruffians who targeted her on a lark, she’d been recruited into the Guard and somehow clawed her way up to Staff Sergeant over the years, lording over her bullies like a mother bear, tough and ferocious. Now in some twisted joke of fate, she was Guard Captain of Sanshu, standing against the Defiled, against the Butcher Bay Bandits and Yo Ling himself.
It all seemed so laughable, like a play about an incompetent bungler somehow succeeding despite her inadequacies. Well, Mama always said, ‘you make do with the hand you’re dealt’, bless her soul. At least she had Gerel and his Bekkies standing at her side, unperturbed by the proceedings. There was a true warrior, stronger than any she’d ever met, and his cronies were no slouches either. They’d have to be some hardy folk, what with having raised the terrifying Undying Savage. She’d seen first hand what that innocent looking boy did to a few dozen hired assassins and hoped Gerel would do the same to the Defiled. Smacking the weighty weapon against her palm, Sovanna dug her heels in and waited, ready to fight and die for Sanshu and its people.
Well… Not all its people, but most of them.
Silence settled over the gatehouse as Gen stared ravenously at the enemy, lining up behind their flimsy wooden barricades in their dazzling armour. Envious of how impressive the weaklings looked, he decided to have his own armour made, something suitably imposing. Not so much for the protection it offered, more to intimidate and awe his opponents, striking a dazzling figure on the battlefield. Red perhaps, not the bright red of the Guards, but a darker, heavier red, the colour of blood and death. Gen was a man of importance now, he couldn’t continue fighting in peasant’s garb, it lacked dignity.
“There you are my boy.” Yo Ling clapped him on the shoulder with a grating chuckle, wearing a suit of black plate armour complete with an unusual, horned helm depicting two bulging eyes and a murderous scowl. It even sported a metal bristled moustache, ridiculous yet fearsome all the same. “I’ve a gift for you, had to torture my armourer three times before he got it right. So hard to find good help these days.”
A pair of slaves carried in a metal breastplate and lantern, holding them up for Gen to study. Complete with plated spaulders and greaves, it was plain and bare of decoration. As the slaves moved the armour back and forth in the lantern light, Gen noticed a dark crimson hue running through the metal, shimmering like illusory flames. Simple, yet elegant, it was a wondrous piece of work. Swallowing hard and fighting his excitement, he asked, “Is this for me?”
If it wasn’t, he’d kill anyone to have it.
“Course it is my boy. Can’t have you going into battle wearing rags. You’re a man of importance, a hero of the revolution.” Lifting his face plate to reveal an almost childish grin, the old man seemed to know all of Gen’s thoughts. Leaning in close, he launched into his narrative. “Listen carefully boy, for you’re about to hear of a secret I kept from all including my old partner. Western Treasures Lake was aptly named. My little hideout sits atop a series of undersea caves, though once in a blue moon the tide would recede and a man might make his way down there. Decades ago, I went into their depths on a whim and found a treasure trove of precious stone and metal, made powerful from soaking in the Energy of the World for thousands of years. I spent many a day scrounging and scavenged through them caves, risking life and limb to collect all the precious objects I laid eye on.”
Directing the slaves to help to put the armour on, Yo Ling continued to speak. “I sold a few and used the rest to arm my Butchers. Fifteen thousand of the Enlightened, each one with a weapon of power, there ain’t another group to rival us in the north. I’d have made you a weapon too, but you’ve got them claws, a neat trick I’d like to learn myself.” Yo Ling’s one eye glinted, but Gen only shrugged, unable to help. He didn’t know how it’d happened himself, his memories of the time were so hazy. Didn’t it have to do with some woman, someone besides Bei? Bah, who even cares? “No matter,” Yo Ling snorted after a short pause, his smile returning in full force. “Come now, let this old bandit take a good look at you.”
Stretching in his new armour, Gen tested his range of motion and familiarized himself with the sturdy weight, his energies thrumming within and without. “It’s doing something, I feel… power rushing through it, like the armour is coming to life.”
“The spirits are attuning to it, taking its form. From there, they will better aid in your growth. Give us a little fire boy, go on.” Flexing his fingers, a flame burst into being with little effort, delighting Gen with the results. So easy and smooth, it was as easy as breathing. “Good flame, but…” Staring intently, Yo Ling put both hands on Gen’s spaulders, his mouth twisted in a small frown. “Somethings not quite right.” Apprehension filled him as he looked at the armour, unable to find a single flaw. Was it because it sat poorly on his scrawny frame? “Ah, I know what it is,” Yo Ling said with a smile. With a snap of his fingers, a third slave rushed in holding an elaborate helm, as fearsome and ornate as Yo Ling’s own. “You need to keep that head of yours protected. Hardy as we are, the brain is a delicate thing.”
Seizing it from the slave, Gen held it to light and studied it with quiet reverence. The mask’s eyes were slanted and fierce, its brow protruding and savage. A silvered metal plume sprouted from the back while its mouth sat open in a silent howl. “It’s wonderful,” he whispered, tearing his gaze away to look at Yo Ling and properly express his gratitude. “Thank you so much.”
“No need for thanks my boy, you’re family now.” The old man waved away Gen’s thanks and waved at the helm. “Come now, let’s see how it looks.” Placing it over his head, Gen found it fit perfectly as he peered through the eye slits. At first, his view seemed confined and narrow, but then his energies flowed into the helm and his vision broadened and settled, unobstructed as if the armour were fused into his flesh. With his claws, his skills, and now his armour, he was finally ready to meet his true destiny.
“Good good,” Yo Ling said, nodding in approval. “Fierce and powerful, a warrior born, you’ve learned how to yield to power without surrendering. Took me decades of practice and you picked it up in months, too impressive. So many secrets, you’ll need to share them with me.” Gesturing at the plaza, he winked with his one good eye. “Some other time though, there’s fun to be had. How about it Gen my boy? How would you like to lead the charge?”
Nodding eagerly, he glanced at each of the makeshift barricades, unsure which path to take. Hesitating a moment, he turned to Yo Ling for guidance. “Which one should I attack?”
“Ha, Gen my boy, isn’t the answer simple?” The old man’s eye narrowed as he pulled down his face-plate, his voice muted behind the thick metal. “Burn em all and let my Butchers sort through the rest.
Gen’s lips twisted in delight, his smile wide and visible behind his mask. Leaping from the gatehouse parapets, he dug his claws into the stone walls and slowed his fall, landing heavily on his feet. He’d forgotten about the extra weight, but it worked out regardless. On both hands, his fingers elongated and fused into twin blades, dragging across the paved ground with a shrill screech, his comrades giving way out of respect and fear. Soon, he arrived at the head of the troops, gazing out over the plaza unobstructed, so close he could taste their fear and apprehension.
Lifting a single blade in the air, he summoned the flame, his weapon glowing red-hot before igniting the air around it. From elevation, he launched a stream of blazing fire at the first barricade, savouring the screams of pain and panic, basking in the ensuing chaos. Without the armour, he’d never be able to throw the flames so far or have them burn so brightly. Truly a magnificent gift. Repeating his motions, he set all three barricades aflame, cackling as he did so, euphoric over this display of might. Chest heaving with exertion, he turned to the Butchers and found respect and jealousy reflected in their eyes, filling him with delight. “With me,” he shouted. “Charge!” The ramps and ropes lowered too slowly as the Butchers raised their voices in sounding the attack, and once again he slid down the stone wall, this time pushing off to a running start towards the closest barricade, well ahead of everyone else. Inside his armour, he needed no one at his side to bring this city to its knees.
Tonight, Sanshu would burn to the ground and tomorrow, he would celebrate in the blood and ashes of the dead and dying, showing truth about Balance to the survivors. This was only the first.
The first of many.
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