Careful to keep his wide sleeves from touching the dishes, Yo Ling smiled with satisfaction as his chopsticks sank into the tender, broiled fish, the white flesh separating beneath his light touch. Stirring a small portion through the greasy juices, he placed it neatly in his tiny bowl, sipping his wine and waiting for the savoury sauce to drip down into the rice. This was to be his first fine meal in ages, and he deserved to take his time and properly enjoy it. Though a man of exceeding wealth and power, his choice of career carried certain hardships with it, such as denying him some of the finer things in life. Today, he indulged, wearing quality silk clothes and eating rich foods with his bandit captains, inside this beautiful private room reserved only for the wealthiest and ostentatious of guests.
Decorated with some of the finest works of art in all the north, a single vase stood out to his untrained eye. Snow-white porcelain glazed in a regal-blue ink, the beautiful piece demanded his attention from the moment he laid eye upon it. Depicting a long, sinuous dragon coiled around the vase, every detail and motion was captured perfectly, the creature so natural and true to life it almost leaped from the porcelain. Its body was an entangled mess, so chaotic and twisted yet hiding a logical pattern within, clear to those who chose to see. From one angle, the dragon soared through the clouds, roaring majestically in all its glory. Turn the vase and the scene changed, now a menacing beast, ready to devour the world. Turn it again and it transformed into a lazy lizard, defeated and railing against its fate. Turn it one last time, and there it lay, face hidden in the dirt, dead and defeated.
Glory, conflict, defeat, and death, a masterful work from an artist with the soul of a warrior. In his youth, he wouldn’t have spared the vase a second look, deeming it lavish and frivolous. Nowadays, he rarely had a moment free of the Spirits’ gibbering, bringing him news from across the lands and leaving him to parse through the torrent of information in search of something useful. Since the attack started, the Spirits’ voices had synchronized into a soothing cry for war, drowning out any useless chatter and giving him peace of mind for the first time in ages.
In a jovial mood, he cleared his throat and raised his cup in toast, smiling at his comrades in arms gathered around the round table. Many were long since dyed in the truth while others were newly Enlightened, but they were his Butchers, his brethren, his family one and all. “We’ve come a long way from our humble roots, and here we are now. To revolution and bloodshed, our reward for toil and trouble.” Downing the drink, he smacked his lips in satisfaction. “Fine wine.”
The humourless Nazier horked on the restaurant floor, clearing his throat before speaking. “Too fruity for my tastes. Where’s the kick, something to put fire in a man’s belly?” Shaking his head, he returned to devouring his food with all the manners of an orangutan in heat. Several murmurs of assent followed, the finest fighting men he could gather, a pack of animals lacking taste. Perhaps he should return to dining alone. It was hard to find good help these days, but one made do with what one could.
Resisting the urge to correct Nazier’s behaviour, Yo Ling returned to his meal, sampling a piece from every dish before these brutes could ruin them. There were only so many ways for his chefs to cook human flesh, so he was taking a break before indulging once more. A cleansing of his palate so to speak, appreciating the novelty of dining in a fine restaurant for as long as it lasted.
Eight bowls of rice and countless jugs of wine later, Yo Ling stared out the window, alone despite his captains laughing uproariously around him, playing at their crude drinking games, treating a finely crafted vintage like common bathtub swill. The room afforded him a stunning view of the city, windows looking out in every direction, yet no matter where he turned, he found himself unable to match anything he saw to the memories of his youth. Resting his hand against the windowsill, he chuckled ruefully at the wrinkled skin and sagging muscle as melancholy overtook him. How time made fools of them all. “You know,” he said, the room falling silent at his words, “Back in my day, this restaurant would have been smack dab in the centre of the poor quarters.”
“Huh,” Pang remarked, still audibly chewing. “Never knew ye grew up here boss, and in the poor quarter to boot. Now ain’t that some shit. Always thought ye were one of them hoity-toity noble types, with all yer fancy book learning and whatnot.”
Suppressing his irritation at the interruption, Yo Ling reminded himself that Pang would be needed in days to come. Instead of imagining the torture and pain he’d like to inflict on Pang, he carried on with his reminiscing, speaking aloud just to hear his voice. “My father was a cooper, my mother a washerwoman. He had a little workshop tucked between an inn and a brewery, which stood where that burning manor stands right now. Mother brought the laundry down to that bridge there every day, where she worked her fingers raw in the numbing cold waters. Any idle time I had, and it wasn’t much, I tell you this, I spent playing round the midden heap, now a lovely little orchard over yonder. It wasn’t an easy life, but it was a good one, a safe one, and I wanted to keep it that way for my family and all the families of Sanshu.”
A small pang of regret coursed through him as he remembered his mother’s tears, begging him to reconsider joining the army, but it was too late. The papers had been signed, and that was the last he’d ever see of his parents. He rose through the ranks of the military, fought at the Wall, and in return, his parents were tossed out of Sanshu to die in the wilds, with nothing to their name. That was the beginning, deserting the army and embarking on a journey spanning eight decades, all to arrive right back where he started. “This isn’t the city I grew up in. I remember a city teeming with life, its bustling population packed shoulder to shoulder on busy days. The Magistrate wouldn’t have been able to evacuate the district if he had two weeks, much less two days, but here we sit in an empty, lifeless shell of a town. A travesty is what it is.”
“That it is,” Nazier responded. “Ain’t no sport to be had.” A few laughs and snickers of agreement followed, the gathered bandits eager for more bloodshed and mayhem.
“You miss my point.” Shaking his head, he gestured towards the walls. “Those sturdy walls were put in place by our ancestors to defend the people, but where are the people now? Outside them, that’s where, living in shanty towns and run down villages, eking out a life in the mud and mines. After slaving their days away all so a chosen few can profit from their efforts, they return home in fear of beasts and bandits. This city has become a utopia of debauchery and gluttony, where the corrupt and unscrupulous gather to extort and exploit.”
“Stealing while barely lifting a finger, laughing as the stupid rubes thank their lucky stars for their gainful employment.” Kaliyan sighed, her lovely red lips smacking as she licked the grease from her fingers. “The fat nobles of Sanshu really had it made.” Another round of laughter followed, though a little lacking as every eye turned to her heaving bosom. If he were thirty years younger, he’d be stupid enough to bed her, but not even the Spectre Yo Ling knew how many died, quivering beneath her naked flesh.
Ah what times he lived in now. Where were the ‘Lu An Jing’s or ‘DuGu Tian Sha’s of today, warriors rising from the ranks to fight for the people? Nowhere to be found, while young upstarts like Situ Jia Yang and Baatar worked towards their own selfish agendas, undeserving of fame or fortune. Here he stood with the younger generation, measuring the Viper Pangs, the Black Hearted Naziers, and the Kaliyan the Despoilers of today against those vaunted heroes of yesteryear, and he found them sorely lacking.
A small disturbance interrupted his thoughts, unnoticed by the others in the room. How interesting, perhaps he could have some fun. Putting it aside, he returned to his musings. Of those who’d been there when he first stepped onto the rapacious path, none were left to him now, dead in the ground or gone to side with the traitorous wretch Liu Gan. His scar ached at the bitter memory, made worse now that Gao Qiu, his last loyal comrade and staunchest supporter was nowhere to be found.
Now there was a man who knew how to inspire fear and dread while still capable of mannerly conduct. How maddening to see the culmination of his plans without the Red Devil of Sanshu at his side. A shame the man never found true Enlightenment, teetering on the precipice for so many years, yet taking his leave the same day Yo Ling found someone to bring him wholly into the light. The stubborn old fool must have sensed something amiss, choosing to flee rather than accept the difficult truth. He should have pushed the old fool harder to accept the truth, but he’d been too afraid to risk losing the last of his brothers in arms.
Closing his eye, he focused his attention, once again searching for those Spirits advising his old friend, but ever since Gen’s arrival, the Spirits had become fickle and troublesome, eager and impatient for the revolution to come. Unable to cut through their meaningless jibbering, he sighed and opened his eye again, only to find his captains staring expectantly towards him? “Well?” He asked, annoyed by their timid gazes, still ignorant of the matters at hand. “Spit it out.”
“You see boss,” Pang began, clutching at his shirt sleeves, “We’ve taken the district, clean and easy. Some soldiers are hiding about, giving us a spot of trouble but they’re nothin’ special. When we gonna stop sittin’ on our asses and push on to take the bridges? There’s a whole city waiting to be plucked, and we’re here sifting through scraps.”
Yo Ling shrugged, glancing at the bridges in question, with all the Empire’s soldiers lined up neat and orderly across them. “We’ll take the bridges when I say we will. Enough, party’s over. Get out there and see to your units.” The boy needed a few days to speak his honeyed words, each sentence bringing those lucky few closer to the light. The progress was slower than Yo Ling liked, but it wasn’t so simple a task to open another’s eyes to the truth. He himself spent long years grooming his butchers, hiding the Enlightened on another island base, but little Gen had quite the talent. One of many, it would seem, truly a soul blessed by the Spirits. In all his years, Yo Ling had only seen two others rise in such meteoric fashion, though he’d met many who’d been gifted with some unique power like Gen’s Oration or his own Eavesdropping.
A handy little skill, the Spirits’ whispers told him where the juiciest targets hid, who to trust and who to kill. It’s how he knew to groom Mao Jianghong and ease him towards Enlightenment, killing the man’s family and bringing him to the edge, all without him knowing. If only Yo Ling could learn how the boy grew so quickly, then his Butchers would become a force like none other.
After the slaves cleared the room and removed the vase for safekeeping, Yo Ling sat in silence, guiding his Butchers from afar while waiting for his guest. Slow and steady, no need to rush, he’d spent fifteen years planning this venture, another day or two would do no harm. His losses were negligible aside from the death of five Transcendents. The enemy counted a mysterious expert among their ranks, cutting down those powerful allies as easily as turning his hand. Costly losses, but Yo Ling still had the Venerated ones to unleash should the need arise, though he hoped to avoid it. Replenishing the Transcendents’ numbers should be simple enough with Gen’s talents, his lovely ‘wife’ was proof enough. What a team they made, the Orator and the Spectre, speaking the truth together, guiding the blind towards the light. A shame the Devourer was so lost and confused, another young talent who showed great promise.
The window burst into a shower of splinters as his guest crashed into the room. The bald assailant landed neatly on his feet, kicking aside the table as his long sword stabbed towards Yo Ling’s face. Ready and waiting, he lifted his hand and warded off the thrust, the sword glancing off his armoured gauntlet. His chair shattered from the impact, taking him by surprise as he fought to keep his footing. Taking advantage, his assailant thrust once more and the strike glanced off Yo Ling’s cheekbone, gouging a channel through his flesh.
Angered by the pain, Yo Ling roared in challenge, staggering his assailant with a thunderous cry. Lifting his mace, he smashed the sword aside and forced his assailant to his knees, kicking him square in the chest. Sliding across the wooden floor, he crashed into the wall as Yo Ling leaped after him, his mace missing the assailant by centimetres and battering a hole through the wall.
Stomping after the scrambling would-be assassin, Yo Ling’s mace tore the room to pieces, the sword unable to stop his assault. His mace struck the man’s right ankle, then the left knee, leaving both shattered and in pieces. With one last swing, he sent the sword arcing out the broken wall and lifted the amber-eyed warrior into a deadly embrace. “You think to kill Yo Ling?” He bellowed, squeezing until he heard the crack of bone. A ferocious grin crossed his face as he took pleasure in his assailants dismay. “Better men than you have tried and failed.”
Opening his jaw wide, he bit down on the warrior’s neck and tore a chunk of flesh out, throwing the choking assassin to the ground. Chewing slowly, Yo Ling towered over his assailant, slowly pulling the sword from his palm and tossing it aside. The door burst open and Nazier rushed in, but Yo Ling waved him back, regretting his rash actions. He should have kept the man alive, to pay for all the troubles he caused. “Yer the one who’s been killing me Transcendents, aren’t ye?” In all the excitement and thrill, his old accent slipped out.
Clutching his ruined throat, the assassin glared at Yo Ling with those curiously coloured eyes, defeated but not broken. With a single arm, he dragged his useless legs behind him, leaving a trail of blood as it spurted through his fingers, his remaining life measured in minutes, if not seconds. Yo Ling followed leisurely, smiling as his blood cooled. “Yer one of the Bekhai, the Undying Savage’s contemporary, yea? Well, ye can’t be lettin’ the youngin’s overshadow ye. Go on and heal up, I’ll wait.”
The assailant backed up until he struck the wall, resting next to the window he’d come crashing through, defiant to the end as he sputtered and coughed. Yo Ling stood back, with no expectations for the man to survive, but it was always pleasant to see the moment of defeat in a man’s eyes, especially one so skilled and resolute. Composing himself, he cleared his throat and fell back into his practised, noble accent. “Speaking frankly, I’m in awe of your skills. You killed my Wraith guards rather easily. None of my captains even noticed your work.”
Teeth bared in a grin, the assailant’s lips moved, and to Yo Ling’s great surprise, a whisper escaped. “Worthless trash.”
“Can’t say I disagree.” He laughed in surprise, delighted by the man’s physical and mental fortitude. Here he lay, back broken, legs useless, and throat torn, yet still defiant to the end. “With skills like yours, I’m surprised you’ve remained nameless. You here to play nursemaid for the Undying Savage?”
A hiss of laughter followed by a cough. “No. Here to kill you and earn fame.”
“Well, it was a good effort, son.” This one would make a fine addition to his brethren if he could be made to see the light, a true warrior down to the core. He even had his own Spirits already, though they were rendered helpless by his foolhardy obstinance. “You almost had me with your second thrust, though it was more luck than anything. Shoddy workmanship, that chair. What’s your name, boy?”
“No need for a dead man to know my name.” Something in his tone warned Yo Ling and he dove aside. Arrows pierced through the air where he’d been standing, crashing through the other wall and sailing out into the city, a testament to the power behind them. In the chaos, the assailant rolled out the broken wall and tumbled down the roof, escaping from Yo Ling’s grasp by the barest of margins. Chuckling, he watched as group of warriors came out of the shadows and caught the assailant. Striking like lightning, they cut a swathe through his Butchers, escaping over the rooftops with ease in a matter of seconds.
Turning to the awestruck Nazier, Yo Ling sighed. His Butcher’s flaws were all the clearer when compared to true warriors. Did all the Bekhai specialize in healing? Less than a minute to heal a torn throat back to working order, how long would it take for him to recover fully? Two, maybe three days judging by the ridiculous speed. How intriguing. “Spread the word, we attack the bridge at midnight. No more waiting.” His poor Transcendents wouldn’t last the week against with that Paragon picking them off from the shadows.
Now that he’d met one of the Bekhai, Yo Ling could hardly wait to meet the Devourer. If some nameless warrior could be this strong, then perhaps the Undying Savage Falling Rain truly deserved his reputation. A young, impressionable mind already encroaching upon the truth, perhaps another talent could be added to the ranks of Yo Ling’s Butchers.
Truly, this was a matter of new waves overtaking the old.
Dabbing the sweat from his forehead, Chao Yong peered out the window of his barge, ignoring the jeers and refuse raining down upon him. Last night, he’d taken a tonic to help him sleep, and this morning had woken to find all his carefully laid plans gone to shit. A crowd of peasants sat outside every city gate, including the river gate he’d intended to use for his stealthy exit. It should have been a simple enough matter to resolve. After sending word to Sovanna of the disturbance, he waited for the hulking giantess and her ‘bullies’ to disperse the crowds. Hours later, the crowds were larger than ever, panic overtaking the worthless rabble as they sought escape from the city. Lazy ingrates are what they were, he had a mind to send his guards to cut a path through them, but those worthless fools were too cowardly to obey. Shrimp soldiers and paper tigers the lot of them, unable to even stand against untrained peasants, but they were all he had.
Day turned to night as the situation worsened, and he could wait no longer. Since leaving quietly was no longer an option, he would leave openly, ordering his barges to set out for the gate. What did the opinion of the unwashed masses matter? So what if word spread of his actions? By taking all his wealth away, he denied those resources to the Enemy, almost heroic if one thought about it. They were merely jealous of his resourcefulness, wishing they too were important enough to warrant rescue.
Unfortunately, Sergeant Yimu reneged on their deal, refusing to open the gates or even respond to Yong’s guards. Turtled inside his gatehouse, the bastard ignored the pleas of the peasants and threats from Yong’s guards, laughing from his safe perch as Yong sat here, exposed and helpless with all his wealth in the open. Worst of all, his guards were busy fighting off peasants trying to board his barges, so taking the gates by force was but a dream.
Opening his window, he shouted to his guard. “Send word to the Sergeant, I will triple my offer if he opens the gates immediately. Should he refuse, I will bring the full fury of the Eastern Prosperity Alliance upon the gates and see him and his loved ones dead before I go.”
Minutes passed without change and Yong fumed in impotence, wracking his brain for ideas. Perhaps cooperation with another councilman was in order, but who? Alone, he lacked the forces to take the gates, but with help…
The sluice gate groaned as the chains turned, slowly lifting out of the water. Thank the Mother and curse that greedy Sergeant, a clean death would be too kind. As he instructed his guards to kill the Sergeant slowly, the words froze on his lips. The ponderous gate rose to reveal a flotilla of rafts and ships waiting just outside the city. Smaller ships glided into the city as its fearsome occupants seized Yong’s barges with ease, clearing the channel so their brethren could enter unimpeded.
Shutting the window, Yong ran to the door and bolted it shut before returning to his cot and throwing a blanket over his head. Teeth chattering and body quivering, he fought the urge to vomit as he prayed for deliverance.
It was too late. The Defiled were all around him. There was no escape.
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