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Though the office of Magistrate was a lofty position, held only by a chosen few and aspired to by many, there were times aplenty when Chu Tongzu would have gladly relinquished the title. The last few days, he’d spent many an idle moment imagining how sweet life would be as a vagrant or mercenary, wandering about the world unfettered and free. It wasn’t the threat of Defiled or the fear of death that fuelled these fancies. No, it was the plethora of minor inconveniences that came with his lofty position. Normally, the benefits far outweighed the disadvantages, but during this trying time, it was difficult to remember just what those benefits were.
For example, though he wished to rush towards his destination with all the speed his legs could muster, a Magistrate should never be seen running, especially away from the battle lines. Doing so would only lessen the status of his commanding presence, not to mention the loss of face from sweating and huffing like a common porter. Simple enough to appear unhurried and nonchalant in times of peace, but at the moment, his heart raced as his mind railed against the leisurely pace, desperately wishing he could instantly appear at his destination through sheer force of will.
It took an eternity to arrive at the building, and as soon as he was out of sight, he rushed up the stairs. Without waiting for Vichear and his guards to clear the way, Tongzu pushed past the heavy double doors, perhaps more forcefully than intended. With a resounding thud, the doors opened to reveal almost twenty Bekhai arrayed before him with weapons drawn, ready to strike down the intruders. Spine tingling at the sight of so many brandished weapons, he abandoned his outraged comment before it reached his tongue as a deluge of powerful Auras struck him in tandem. The blood draining from his face, he stood in the doorway with mouth half-open, frozen like the rabbit caught in the clutches of an eagle, pitifully resigned to its fate.
Stepping in front of him, Vichear drew up to his full, towering height, yet still appeared deferential with his shoulders back and empty palms displayed to the Bekhai. “Whoa, easy now. We’re all friends here.” Even in his shock, Tongzu noted the apprehension in the former soldier’s voice, apparently not entirely confident of their safety. “This is my fault, the Magistrate ain’t used to knocking is all.”
“Stand down, we are still guests in his city, after all.” A hoarse croak sounded from within the room and the gathered Bekhai reluctantly parted, the pressure gradually easing from Tongzu. Though none of them put their weapons away, he was grateful for their mercy. With so many experts, if they’d all removed their Auras in an instant, he might have staggered or worse beneath the sudden freedom. Glancing around the room, he nodded in thanks while memorizing each of their faces, determined to learn the names of these warriors, easily the match of any elite force he’d seen before.
Exhaling to calm his nerves, he froze once more as he looked upon Gerel’s pale, battered form. A cursory glance was enough to steal Tongzu’s breath away, the expert warrior laid out on a table, broken and battered as if he’d been run over by a herd of oxen. A healer stood over him with eyes closed in concentration, Gerel’s body limp and relaxed, his face drawn in agony as he struggled to remain conscious. Fixated on the fist sized chunk missing from the peerless warrior’s neck, Tongzu smacked his lips to wet his parched mouth, mentally detailing all the injuries which would have killed a lesser man. It took several tries to find his voice, finally uttering, “Every tongue out there is wagging about your injuries. What happened?”
Despite his grievous injuries, Gerel smiled grimly as blood dribbled from his ear. “Slipped on a loose tile and fell off a roof. You should keep your city in better order, the fall damn well broke my back. I’ll expect reparations and an apology from your masons.” A few chuckles followed his jest, but the mood quickly darkened again as Gerel continued. “I’d planned to wait until Major Yuzhen arrived to cut off their escape, then kill as many commanders as possible and leave the Enemy without direction. After that, it would be a simple matter of clean up.” An… optimistic plan, to say the least. “Early evening, I received word of their top experts gathering for a meal, including Yo Ling, the first time any of us laid eyes on him. I saw a chance to get close and take out the head and his experts in one strike, so I set out.”
Too afraid to put voice to the question, Tongzu raised a single eyebrow. Immediately shattering his hopes with a rueful shake of his head, Gerel laid back down with a thud, regret etched across his face. “I don’t know how, but the old bastard saw me coming. Baited the trap perfectly too. Kept moving around the room so my archers couldn’t get a bead on him, then he sent his experts away and blew out the lights. I almost abandoned the attempt, but he stayed in the room, alone in the dark. Waited a quarter-hour before I felt confident enough to move in and still barely pinked him.” Determination blazed in his eyes, a warrior broken only in body. “Yo Ling is a formidable foe, ruptured my eardrum with a fucking shout and it was over. I sorely underestimated him and this is the price.”
Tongzu offered no empty condolences nor did any of the Bekhai. Pausing a heartbeat, he asked, “What of Gen, the Emissary? If you can get that close to Yo Ling, then killing the boy should be easy enough. His flames aside, his speeches are stirring unrest among my soldiers, the whispers growing by the hour.”
His brow furrowed, Gerel shook his head. “I thought about it, but someone or something is guarding him, so well hidden not even my best scouts can spot it. Too risky without proper reward, I’d rather fight him in open combat and force his protector to reveal itself.” Everyone stood in silence until Gerel smiled and added, “Never thought I’d say it, but I wish Rain was here. The murderous little foundling would probably pull up a few weeds and whip up a poison, or challenge the Emissary to single combat without looking like a bully. Twisted young man, but handy at times.”
The laughs died quickly as Gerel warred with exhaustion, the healer working to knit bones and mend flesh. Though bladed weapons killed easily with a thrust, any non-fatal wounds were negligible to an expert like Gerel, easily healed in the span of hours, at most. A bone-crushing blow was a different matter altogether. A fatal wound if left untreated, it would kill any but the most expert of healers in days, if not hours. Do enough damage to muscle and bone and the result is always the same, widespread organ failure no matter where the injury was located. So deadly in fact, the go-to field treatment was amputation, removing dead flesh before it could poison the blood. Keeping Gerel alive would take all of the healer’s efforts for the next few days, which meant Sanshu would face its greatest tribulation in history without the aide of the Demon Reaper.
Shaking out of his shock, Tongzu took control of the situation. “Who is next in line for command?” Silence was his only answer, the mood growing darker as every expert in the room grimaced. Worried he’d encroached on some Bekhai taboo over status, he readied to mediate over the ensuing squabble. After several seconds, he continued to wait as the collected Bekhai silently argued amongst themselves, though not to seize control. In fact, as far as he could tell, they all seemed to be refusing the mantle of leadership, one warrior after another shaking their head or stepping back, their discomfort plain to see.
In all his years, he’d never met a people as strange as the Bekhai. Though the situation was dire, what warrior didn’t dream of glory and renown? Here was a chance to be known as the warrior who saved Sanshu and not a single one wanted the honour. Was it fear of failure? A ridiculous thought, Bekhai determination aside, any blame would rest squarely on his shoulders. Unable to come up with another reason for their hesitance, he offered a solution. “Warriors, if none of you are willing, then perhaps it would be best if you all served under my humble self?” With elites like these bolstering his men, he was confident of holding the bridges for days yet, but under Gerel’s command, the Bekhai preferred to strike out on their own.
The burgeoning dream he had of commanding these elite tribesman died in its infancy as they collectively scowled at his suggestion. Too polite to outright disagree yet lacking the social graces to amiably decline, they all pretended as if he’d never spoke, returning to their silent debate, and Tongzu silently accepted their refusal, taking only a little offence.
A strange people. Before today, he’d believed the Bekhai, or at least Akanai, long held aspirations of greatness. Hiding in the mountains for decades to build up their strength and temper their warriors, everyone assumed it was Falling Rain’s prodigious talents which spurred Akanai into action. The Bekhai defiance of the Society brought them into the public eye, while Rain’s four consecutive duels stirred the people’s passions. Everyone loved to see a dark horse win and the stunted, unremarkable looking young man fit the part perfectly. Even better, his cruel actions and ruthless demeanour polarized all who heard of them, causing no small number of bar-room debates regarding whether he was hero or villain.
Regardless of where they stood, every downtrodden individual in the North gleefully spoke of how the Society finally got a taste of their own arrogance. Following his victories, stories of Rain’s prowess spread like wildfire as his reputation soared. What worried Tongzu and his contemporaries the most was the story of Rain’s part in Shen Huo’s clash for the position of Magistrate. It chilled his blood to hear how Rain targeted DuGu Tian Yi, a key figure in the duels to come. At the tender age of sixteen, he taunted TianYi’s sons and tricked them into threatening him in full view of the city guards. He then proceeded to kill the older son like a dog, leaving the younger one scarred and terrified. A brilliant plan to unbalance a warrior before an important match, but Rain’s actions didn’t end there. Risking his life, Rain faced off against the grieving father in single combat, taunting him about his dead son before they began. An obvious trap yet TianYi could not help but step into it, attempting to kill Rain in the midst of the challenge and sealing his fate.
Masterfully done, the story filled Tongzu’s with growing apprehension. With Akanai, Baatar, and Falling Rain together, the Bekhai had a formidable composition for sanctioned duels and contests for Office, with Falling Rain all but guaranteeing one victory out of three. With such strength, they had the freedom to pick any city in the North to settle in, easily installing whoever they wished as Magistrate, much like they’d done with Tong Da Hai in Shen Huo. Worst of all, the boy was only eighteen years old, which meant barring any miraculous youths springing up from Mother knows where, Rain would hold his position as number one talent under twenty-five for another seven years. A dominating position for a rising power, everyone agreed the Bekhai would grow into a force to be reckoned with. In fact, he’d been certain Rain’s actions in Sanshu were a precursor to a Bekhai takeover.
With all these experts jostling to escape from possible fame and fortune, Tongzu was no longer sure this was the case. He noted genuine objection in every expert present, yet not a single shred of fear, more annoyance than anything else. None of them wanted to take command because they found it… bothersome, for lack of a better word. Most soldiers dreamed of a chance to become famous throughout the Empire overnight, while these experts shied away from it.
The impasse continued for several minutes before one expert’s eyes lit up, his lips twisting in a smile as he spoke aloud. “Vichear used to be a Major. Outranks us all.”
With those two short sentences, the status quo was broken as every Bekhai tribesman unilaterally agreed. Smiling with relief, they echoed their support for the former soldier to take charge, who seemed every bit as confused by the Bekhai attitude as Tongzu. “Er… Right you are, but I was discharged without rank, on account of my injuries and whatnot. They made it clear as crystal I wasn’t to title myself ‘Former Major’ like a proper retired officer, said it’d be a criminal offence.”
“Don’t worry about it Vichear,” Gerel said, his eyes still closed. “You’re the right choice for this. I’ll be back in fighting form in twenty-four hours at the most. Until then, fall back, dig in, and hold the bridges for as long as possible, but don’t be afraid to destroy them. Yuzhen will be here by then and we’ll have a grand old time mopping up the Defiled. Easy as turning your hand.”
Tongzu could scarcely believe Gerel’s confidence. Twenty-four hours? Was he mad? Unless this healer was another Medical Saint, or Gerel was another Undying like Rain, it was impossible. Was it the amber eyes a few of the Bekhai shared? Did it offer powers of healing? What if it had something to do with their lineage or their self-imposed exile in the Saint’s Tribulation Mountains? So many questions and no answers to be found, he made note of it all for future reference. Not that it mattered, should Sanshu weather the coming storm, he would owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to the Bekhai for all their efforts. Yo Ling aside, if they successfully killed the majority of Demons and experts among the Butchers, then his soldiers would have a much easier time fending them off. No matter how powerful the Spectre was, one man cannot take and hold a city by himself.
“Beggin’ yer pardon Magistrate, but I’ve news ye’ll be wantin’ to hear.” Sovanna’s charming drawl sounded in his mind as he received her Sending.
“The Butchers have begun their assault. All five bridges are under heavy attack, though no signs of Demons yet. Me bullies’ll hold long as they can, but it gets worse. Eastern River Gate has been opened and a fleet of boats and rafts are rowing their merry way here, round five thousand strong. I’ve no one in position to stop em in time. Smart bastards opened a floodgate to create a current, pushing them towards us. Won’t be long afore they arrive to hit me bullies’ll from both ends. Can’t say I’d enjoy that much.”
Taking the news with stately aplomb, Tongzu smoothed out his robes, his heart heavy and resigned. It seemed fate was conspiring against Sanshu, the Defiled so well hidden among his soldiers they could come and go as they pleased. Though he knew every second counted, he wasted precious heartbeats composing himself before repeating Sovanna’s report aloud, coming to grips with harsh reality. All their struggles were for naught, their plan to delay no longer possible. With a fleet of ships and rafts, destroying the Bridges was a futile gesture. Sanshu was doomed.
Mother have mercy on us all.
“Hold as long as you can. I will arrive shortly to assist. The Mother watch over you Sovanna.”
The Magistrate’s Sending was short, succinct, and did little to reassure her. With a deep breath, Sovanna hefted her mace and bellowed, “Look lively me bullies, the Magistrate’s a comin’ and I’m angling fer a raise.” Her joke was largely lost in the din of battle, but it didn’t stop her from repeating it as she moved down the line. The area before her was quickly turning into a charnel pit as the Butcher’s lived up to their name, carving away at her defensive line in a frenzied effort to reach the bridge behind her. Marching over the corpses of their comrades, the Defiled charged in waves, rotating their warriors while giving her bullies no time to breathe.
Swinging her mace whenever a target presented itself, she idly wondered why Yo Ling was so determined to break through her lines like this. If he’d bothered waiting a few minutes longer for the ships to arrive, then he’d easily take the bridge with fewer casualties. Hell, with so many ships, he didn’t even need the bridge, capable of ferrying his Butchers across to wherever he pleased.
Whatever. Sovanna lacked any training in tactical warfare, so perhaps there was some nuance she didn’t understand. Perhaps Yo Ling was blooding his troops, or after days of standing around, the famed Defiled blood-thirst had taken over. It didn’t matter, her bullies were tough, but they were no match for this unending Defiled assault. With every crash of bodies, her bullies crumbled bit by bit, and in minutes, her line broke as her bullies fled, the Defiled holding at the bridge to consolidate.
Turning to join her guard’s exodus, Sovanna wept as she spied the boats arriving just in time to seal their escape. Shouldering her way to the front, she raised her voice, easily heard amid her silent bullies. “Form up ye worthless craven louts, I ain’t going down without a fight. We’ll show these Butchers what the guards of Sanshu are made of.” At least she would die as the Guard Captain of Sanshu.
It was something to take pride in.
Studying the new threat, she grimaced at their shoddy appearance. The Butchers behind her, they were the elites she supposed, armed and armoured like a proper army. These new Butchers were worlds apart. Few wore armour, though nothing more than a cuirass or breastplate. Most wore shabby leathers or dirty rags, with no two dressed alike. Still a fearsome looking bunch, and dead was dead, so in the end, what did it matter?
Disembarking from their boats, they marched towards her line in a disorderly mob, much like how she imagined bandits to behave. Steeling herself to fight, her legs trembled as the lead bandit roared, his voice booming as it echoed from the walls for all to hear. “Make way!” His wild white hair and scraggly beard made him look like a beggar, but his massive battle-axe was instantly recognizable to all who lived around the city, his name used for decades to scare crying children into silence. Channelling enough Heavenly Energy that even Sovanna could sense it, Gao Qiu roared once more. “Move aside or be moved ye worthless scags! The Crossbone Corsairs are here to hunt Butchers!”
More out of desperation than logic, Sovanna shoved and prodded her bullies aside, pressing them against the manor walls as an army of cheering Corsairs ran past. His voice rising to the night skies, Gao Qiu howled in challenge. “YO LING! Wretched cur, come out and meet your fate. The Red Devil of Sanshu comes to take your head!”
The tide of bandits soon ended and Sovanna stared at their backs in disbelief. Glancing at her soldiers, she saw her astonishment mirrored in their eyes. Shrugging, she gathered her bullies before composing herself to craft another Sending. “Err, Magistrate. Good news this time. I think.”
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