Author’s note: Something I realized over the weekend: I kept saying south-eastern gate/district etc.
It should be south western gate/district.
I have no idea how far this goes back, but I’ll fix it. In the grand scheme of things, not super important, but still, kinda important. That is all.
As his soldiers retreated from the burning barricades, Chu Tongzu stood firm while they formed up around him. Turning green with regret, he cursed his failures beneath his breath, determined to never repeat them. A life of decadence was not worth this moment of defeat, better to live moderately and be remembered well than have his name firmly etched in history as the Magistrate who lost Sanshu. If only he’d kept to the Martial Path, if only he’d not handed off his duties to Mao Jianghong, if only he’d retaken the gates, if only he’d not been so grievously injured… So many regrets and no pill to cure it.
Through the dense smoke and fiery flames, the Defiled onslaught marched, weathering the storm of stones and arrows as they screamed of murder and bloodshed. A horde driven into frenzy, despite the flickering light and blazing heat of the fire, they seemed little more than things of shadow and darkness. Packed shoulder to shoulder, their unholy black armour shrouded their forms, blending them together as they moved in fluid coordination, neither aiding nor hindering each others progress. Their weapons of power glinted in the darkness, their teeth sharpened and bellies craving flesh, these bandits turned Defiled were a terrifying sight to behold. An unending stream of cutthroats and murderers here to burn and raze Sanshu to ashes and dust.
For these vagabonds and miscreants to dare step foot inside the city, how could its Magistrate lay idly in bed? Hefting Stoneshaper above his head, Tongzu’s stitches pulled as he raised his voice in heated challenge, his wordless bellow drowning out the Enemy’s war-cries. At his side, his soldiers stood tall and drew courage from his presence, joining their voices to his in a thunderous din, brandishing their common weapons in anticipation of the battle ahead.
Though backed by the Bekhai elites, the city’s fate was firmly in the hands of its most common soldiers, good men and women of Sanshu. Though without significant power to call their own, neither the Fire-Tainted Champion’s harrowing display nor the terrorizing horde advancing towards them were enough to break their spirits. These soldiers were no warriors of renown, no noble scions or wealthy heirs, but each one present was no stranger to adversity, raising themselves up through hard work and merits. Perhaps one in thirty held a Spiritual Weapon and not a single Runic item would be found among them, yet still they stood with him against this heavily-armed Enemy, ready and willing to die for their families, for their city, for their Empire.
It would be an honour to die alongside them.
“Enough waiting,” he said, unleashing the might of his Aura to crash against the Enemy’s. “The Enemy moves too slowly for my tastes. With me my soldiers, tonight we end Butcher Bay’s stranglehold over us and throw back the Defiled from our fair city.” Leading the counter-charge into the scorching heat, he opened the battle with a smash, hammering a Defiled warrior into meat paste with a two-handed swing. The metal clang was lost amidst his laughter, echoing off the plaza walls as his soldiers scrambled and fought to fill the ground he seized for them, holding it with bitter determination. Striding through the Enemy, every step left nothing but the corpses of soldiers and Defiled alike in his wake. Warm, salty blood splashed across his lips as he opened his mouth, shouting his war cry to the heavens. “Victory or Death!”
His soldiers echoed the sentiment as they struggled to keep pace, killing and dying as they held back the tide. His forward progress halted by the press of Enemies, Stoneshaper claimed Defiled lives with every swing, clearing out the area around him for a heartbeat before another Enemy moved into place. Metal cracked, bones broke, flesh squelched, and warriors screamed as he fought, thriving amidst the discordant cadence of battle accompanied by the pungent scent of death. Blood singing through his veins, he succumbed to his lust for battle, hammering his enemies into oblivion while the city burned around him.
“Come you heathens and heretics,” he roared, his voice rising above the din of battle. “Meet your doom at the hands of Chu Tongzu, the Unstoppable.” None could stand before him as he advanced deep into the Enemy lines, though none could match him either, his soldiers falling further and further behind as he sent one Defiled after another into the Father’s Maw. No matter that his elites were out of the city, he stood shoulder to shoulder with the soldiers of Sanshu. Together, they would see the city to safety.
They had to.
Despite the danger, death, and despair, Tongzu couldn’t keep the smile from his face, rediscovering the lost passion of his youth. This was how he first made his mark in the world, climbing over the dead to reign supreme. For too long had he indulged in the succulent luxuries and splendours of wealth, forgetting how it all paled when compared to the heady rush of combat. The Council knew nothing of strength of arms, seeking only a puppet to do their bidding and he’d fallen in line at a snap of their fingers. All for the fleeting pleasures of wine and women, so empty and unfulfilling.
Yet it was not too late to change. Truly the Mother provided, this grave trial forcing him to open his eyes to the truth he’d cast aside so many years ago. Strength of arm mattered more than weight of purse. As he fought to hold back the Defiled, his mind wandered, fixating on the tales of Magistrate Tong Da Hai and his valiant defence of Shen Huo. Would they speak of Chu Tongzu in the same light or would his tale end in utter defeat and humiliation?
His distraction cost him greatly.
Stepping back to avoid a thrust, his foot slipped on a blood-soaked tile. Time seemed to pause as he struggled to keep steady, the noise of battle fading away to leave nothing but the thunderous crash of his armour against the stone, followed by the rush of air vacating his lungs. Laid out across the cool tiles, he stared out into the heavens and took in the sight, panting as he rested his aching head and weary arms, a lump forming on the back of his skull. A sliver of moon hanging in a sea of stars, twinkling so high above him, this vision of beauty and harmony was marred by the dark-iron axe descending to claim his life.
A damn shame for it to end like this.
A resounding clang brought the world back into focus, the axe deflected by a single strike. Stepping past him, Vichear fought with sword and shield, slashing and smashing with careful precision. In jarring contrast to his massive form, the soldier-turned-tribesman seemed weightless as he pranced about the battlefield, his feet never still for more than a heartbeat, gliding about as if standing on a dance floor instead of a field of the dead. Following an unheard rhythm, he moved through the Defiled lines, stepping and twirling in a dance of death, holding the Defiled back long enough for the soldiers to move up and support him.
By the Mother, if Tongzu ever found the ink-stained half-wit who discharged Vichear, he’d have him hung for driving away a national hero.
Closing his gaping jaw, Tongzu pushed himself up, mind still reeling from the fall. Accepting a hand from two of his soldiers, he struggled to his feet and hefted Stoneshaper before stumbling back into the fray. With Vichear and the Bekhai to ease the pressure around him, and his soldiers to support him, he smashed into the Defiled with unrestrained fervour, howling with glee as they fell before the Empire’s combined might.
For long minutes they held the Enemy in place, forcing their reinforcements to stand helpless in the plaza, exposed to his catapults and archers on the walls. The death toll continued to rise on both sides, the Defiled paying dearly for their trespass. With the Bekhai at his side, it was possible to hold the Enemy in the plaza until Sanshu was emptied of stones or Defiled, whichever came first. To think, what might they have done with stone walls to stand behind and his elites to call upon?
A rumbling, inhuman wail cut through the clamour, chilling his blood and cooling his zeal. The Defiled fell back into a battle line as a powerful Aura pressed against his own, threatening to shatter it with an effort. Swallowing his fear, Tongzu stood tall with Stoneshaper held before him, proudly defiant in front of his soldiers. Battles were won and lost through the hearts of the valiant, and he would not falter here, despite the suffocating presence of death surrounding him.
Through the sea of bodies, a hulking form ambled towards them, towering above the Defiled as they parted and reformed around it, moving in uncanny synchrony. Standing on cloven hooves, its knees bent backwards as it lumbered forwards, the ground shaking beneath every stomp. Sickly grey and brown fur covered its body, its torso rigid and muscled. With long, angular arms, its hands dragged across the ground with a grinding rumble, its talons leaving furrows in the stone. A long, veiny neck sprouted from its hunched shoulders, topped by a bestial head reminiscent of a fanged stag, the barbed antlers sprouting from its head sporting too many points to count.
A Demon, ancient and powerful, its black eyes scanned over Tongzu and his soldiers before dismissing them out of hand. Reaching the front lines and unobstructed by Defiled, the Demon snapped its teeth and tensed for a fraction of a heartbeat. Faster than he could blink, it leaped across the divide and appeared before him, head lowered to gore him on its antlers.
Using Stoneshaper to block the brunt of the charge, Tongzu grit his teeth as his feet slid back over the tiles, the Demon pushing him into his soldiers. With a flick of its neck, its antler points tore into the Tongzu’s flesh as it threw him aside. Landing heavily, he rolled to his feet in time to see its talons snapping for his face, promptly falling backwards to avoid instant death. Scrambling over the dead and dying, his soldiers gave their lives as they held their ground, barely slowing the Demon’s advance. Sweeping them aside like mere ants, the Demon lifted an unfortunate soul in the air and tore off his head with a ravenous bite, its jaws opening to roar once again, rattling the nerves of every soldier in earshot.
“Withdraw!” The order barely left his lips before his soldiers broke, though upon hearing his command, they retained a semblance of order. His heart heavy and body exhausted, Tongzu leaned on his elbow and watched as the Demon approached, its face twisted in a savage grin.
Slipping through the lines, Vichear arrived at his side and lifted him to his feet, half-carrying him away as they abandoned the plaza with the Defiled hot on their heels. “Don’t you worry Magistrate,” Vichear said, his chi flowing to Lighten Tongzu’s weight. “Everything is going according to plan. You did well holding them for so long, cost them a hefty bill to break our lines. A right nasty surprise that Demon was, but with luck, they won’t have too many in their pocket, eh?”
Vichear continued run and ramble, though Tongzu tuned him out. Glancing back, he watched the Demon slaughter the rearguard while his soldiers knocked down the supports, causing a prepped building to come crashing down and bar the Demon’s path. It bought precious seconds for most of his soldiers to escape, but his heart sat heavy in his chest. Perhaps in his prime, Tongzu could have defeated the beast, but with its strength and speed, to call it a coin flip was over generous.
To make matters worse, as the Demon howled in displeasure at its fleeing prey, more Demons responded in the distance, a shrill warbling screech and a throaty, gravelly groan. Tongzu’s confidence fled as his sagged against Vichear. So much for luck, just how many Demons had Yo Ling brought? Two days before reinforcements arrived and all the while this ancient horror and its ilk would be free to run amok in his city, his people helpless before its might.
If Major Yuzhen made good time, perhaps she’d arrive to find nothing but the smouldering remains of Sanshu.
Sovanna’s first taste of warfare was nothing like she’d expected. She’d heard tales of the press of bodies the tumultuous clamour, the stench and confusion, but she wasn’t prepared for the waiting. Off in the distance was chaos and pandemonium, the sounds of metal on metal filling the air as the Butchers piled into the other barricades. Stones arcing into the plaza with forceful crashes, soldiers screamed in death and defiance, but here, in her immediate vicinity, the world was silent and still.
Her bullies glanced at one another and gripped their weapons, confusion and trepidation displayed on every face as the Butchers stood across the way. Moments ago, the charging mass of cutthroats had ground to a halt less than fifty meters away, as if hindered by an invisible barricade. Her throat dry, she struggled to hide her astonishment and studied the Enemy spread out before her.
These Defiled were nothing like she’d imagined. No wild savages, their uniform appearance and orderly ranks were more suited for an elite mercenary group rather than a murderous horde. Each one sported armour so black it seemed to drink in the firelight, their weapons emanating power as they silently brandished them from across the lane. Only their macabre adornments spoke to their corruption, stringed hands and dried heads hanging from their necks and belts, gore splattered across the patch of skin visible from behind their helmets. A terrifying lot, she knew her bullies were no match for them in a straight up fight.
So why then were these Butchers so hesitant to cross the gap? As a sergeant in the Guard, she had plenty practice reading body language, and if she didn’t know any better, she’d have thought these Defiled were scared. Nerves too frayed for a Sending, Sovanna shouldered through her bullies and made her way down to where the Bekkies sat waiting on their roosequins. Gingerly stepping through their lines, she sidled up beside Gerel, the bald fanatic sitting straight-backed and relaxed, or as relaxed as he ever was. The man walked like he had a spear stuck up his ass. Coughing to clear her throat, she whispered quietly, “What’s happening here?”
“Nothing to be concerned about,” Gerel answered without looking away from the Defiled, grinning in anticipation. “The fun will begin soon enough.”
The man was loopy as a drunk sparrow flitting through the air, and so were the Bekkies who chuckled with him. Then again, anyone who saw an army of 20,000 Defiled as a gift was missing more than a few marbles. All she could do was close her eyes and pray Gerel’s confidence was well founded and that the stories of the Bekkies prowess were only slightly exaggerated. While asking for miracles, she also begged the Mother to split the earth and swallow the Defiled army whole, or to rain lightning down from above to save Sanshu and her people.
The minutes dragged on while the Butchers stood in place, their agitation growing by the second. Teeth gnashing and hackles rising, they chafed at their unseen reins, a jittery bunch eager for blood and death yet too cautious to proceed. Heart hammering in her chest, a ravenous howl in the distance sent a chill down her spine, while across the plaza, the flames leaped higher into the night sky, a growing inferno which gave no warmth or comfort.
Blasted Defiled, what are they waiting for?
As if in answer to her unspoken question, a massive creature bounded from the shadows, landing heavily between the battle lines. Bald and misshapen, the Demon was three horses wide and a full span taller, its tiny white eyes full of hatred and anger as it stared at Sovanna. No, not staring at her, it glared at Gerel beside her, though the realization brought little relief. Thick, yellow spittle dripped from its maw, revealing four massive incisors as it emitted a chittering cry of challenge. It took every scrap of courage for her not to edge away from Gerel, her throat closing in panic as the beast pawed at the ground, its claws churning through stone like butter.
A small snort drew her attention as she glanced at Gerel, his lip curled in a sneer. “The Father must truly be desperate to choose a mole-rat as one of His harbingers.” A chuckle rose from among the Bekhai and her bullies nervously joined, backing away from the Demon all the while. Shaking his head, Gerel lifted his colossal glaive in one hand, twirling the thick weapon effortlessly, the metal ringing as it cut through the air. “Remember, try not to scare them off, we need them to stay until Yuzhen arrives to cut off their escape.”
Without further preamble, the Bekkies charged, their roosequins closing the distance with a hop and a skip. Dozens assaulting hundreds and it was the hundreds who faltered, the Defiled falling back before the ferocious onslaught. Riding headlong into the Demon, Gerel struck once before moving past and diving into the Defiled lines, the Demon seemingly frozen in place. Several heartbeats passed before the creature lurched to the ground, half its head shorn clean off.
Gaping in disbelief, she blinked foolishly and glanced at her bullies, her incredulity reflected in their eyes. Shivering with excitement, she came out of her fugue and hefted her mace. “Attack, my bullies! Give em hell!” She bellowed, her legs exploding into action. “For Sanshu!” Her bullies followed suit as she led them into battle, coming across a wounded Butcher staggering from the Bekkie charge. Hammering it square in the head, her weapon bounced off the Butcher’s sturdy helm, its inhabitant reeling but unharmed. Cursing loudly, she lifted her mace and stuck again to the same result. Never one to give up, it took her five more strikes before her persistence was rewarded with the muffled crack of bone, the Butcher flopping to the paved road in death.
Wiping her brow with one hand, she watched as Gerel scythed through the Butchers with ease, his mount moving unhindered through the mass of bodies. Glancing at her first and only kill, she chuckled ruefully at her lack of skill before stepping forward to hammer another helpless Butcher. With Gerel and his Bekkies here to hold up the sky, the least she could do was aid in the cleanup.
After scant minutes of battle, Gerel gave the order to retreat and Sovanna jumped to obey, moving to jog alongside his ambling mount. Glancing behind them, she asked, “What happened? Did they send more Demons?”
“No,” Gerel answered, his face covered in blood. “The other barricades are falling back so we must follow suit. Wouldn’t want to get caught alone and surrounded.” Giving her a roguish wink, he almost seemed giddy from the battle, the whites of his teeth in sharp contrast to the dark, sticky blood around them. “It went well as could be expected, though the others took quite a beating. We’ll harass them through the night, force them to climb mountains of their dead to take every choke point. Once Yuzhen arrives, their escape and fates will be sealed, their lives offered as tribute to the fallen.”
Nodding sagely as Gerel continued to give orders, Sovanna’s shoulders sagged with relief. For the first time since learning of the Defiled army led by Yo Ling, she felt Sanshu had a chance. Thank the Mother for Gerel and his Bekkies, Sanshu would have been doomed without them.
Two days, just two more days.
Author’s note: Hope you all had a fun Easter weekend! I’m currently eating my third cadbury creme egg and regretting ever buying them, but they’re so delicious I can’t stop eating…
I was gonna move the second half of this chapter to wednesday, but I ran out of time to write a new bit. So, here you go, a small roller coaster.
Who’s winning? Who knows.
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