The wounded Defiled snarls in wordless rage and impotence as I stand over him, my foot pinning his one good arm. With a downward thrust, Peace pierces through flesh and dirt with ease, putting an end to his misery. A sense of dissatisfaction washes over me, annoyed he died so easily, and for the umpteenth time, I remind myself to let it go. Don’t enjoy this, do it because it’s necessary. Ignore the Spectres, they’re parasites who have no power over you. Though the Defiled would kill me slowly, it doesn’t mean I have to sink to their level. A quick, clean death and move on to the next, don’t dwell on it.
If Fung is right, Balance isn’t about morals, but rather a proper mind-frame, justification for my actions so to speak. Easy enough, the Defiled are here to kill everyone, so I must kill them. No need to feel bad, it’s us or them, but there’s also no need to revel in death. Then again, everyone around me has no problem with taking great pleasure in slaughtering their enemies, though I can understand why. Ugly, hulking brutes dressed in armour made from human bones, the mere sight of the Defiled is enough to send me into a rage. They’re a true evil in this world, an endless font of despair and destruction. If I had the power, I would scour every last one of them from the earth, but not before making them suffer like their victims have, to know true anguish and have them beg me to end their miserable…
With a dissatisfied snort, Mila sidles up beside me and elbows me in the ribs, her presence jolting my back to reality. Whooo, calm down there edgy McEdgelord. Hatred is a powerful emotion, the weapon of choice for my intruding Spectres. I need to let it go, but that’s easier said than done.
It takes a moment to remember what she said, my mind scanning through the last few seconds. “Boring is good, if only every battle can be like this. The plan went well.”
“What plan? Don’t pretend like you meant for this to happen,” she teases, pinching me on the arm. “We were supposed to wait until they attacked Major Yuzhen’s group, but someone screwed up and gave away our position. Then, instead of falling back, you ordered the chase and failed to kill the scout in time. We’re lucky the Defiled ran so quickly, if they stood and fought we’d have taken heavy losses before reinforcements arrived.”
Her smile fills me with warmth, temporarily banishing my dark mood. All this emotional back and forth is exhausting. “A happy little accident, but we made the best of a bad situation. Besides, if they’d stayed, we’d have wiped them out for good. Anyone find the Chieftain’s body yet? Huu will be happy to hear we pin-cushioned the headdressed corpse-fucker.” The bastard was wearing a quin-fur cloak and I intend to rip it from his cold, dead body.
“I’m afraid he got away.” Emerging from the shadows, Tenjin shakes his head, scraping blackened blood from his recovered knife. “A formidable enemy.”
A chill runs down my spine as I ponder the implications. Between Saluk unloading the Monstrosity and Tenjin’s Spiritual Weapon, I was positive the bastard was down for the count. I guess I’ve been getting cocky, what with being titled ‘Undying’, but damn… Is this what it’s like facing top tier opponents? How am I supposed to kill someone who soaks up massive amounts of punishment and can still carry on, all while worrying if he’ll turn full Demon? Swallowing my apprehension, I gesture at Tenjin’s still smoking blade. “Can anyone do that or is it a part of your Blessing?”
“Part of the Blessing I’m afraid.”
“A shame.” Ah well, I can barely handle all the tools I already have, no need to bite off even more. “I’ve been meaning to ask, is there anything you can do to keep Gen from burning everyone to a crisp?”
With a shrug, Tenjin smiles ruefully. “It’s not so simple.” Satisfied with the state of his weapon, he tucks it into one of the many sheathes on his body, a veritable walking armoury of throwing knives. “From what you’ve told me, Gen is far beyond my meagre skills, but even if he weren’t, there’s little I could do to restrain his powers. It doesn’t work like that.”
“Then how does it work?” Wise to my game, Tenjin grins and ignores the question, stalking off into the woods. Groaning in frustration, I resist the urge to kick a corpse, instead pulling at Mafu’s harness and interrupting his meal. “Stop eating so much, fatty. You’re gonna fall asleep again.”
Cheeks bulging with garo meat, Mafu gives me his best puppy-dog look, reluctant to leave his prize. Laughing at my plight, Mila glances around before giving me a peck on the cheek, blushing deeply. Taking my hand, she Sends, “DON’T BULLY MAFU OR BLAME TENJIN. IT’S DIFFICULT TO EXPLAIN. HE DOESN’T CONTROL FIRE, NOT LIKE YOU THINK.”
“We’ve both seen him throw fire before,” I Send back, “and Gen can spout flames from his fucked up hands. If that’s not controlling fire, then what is it?”
Always happy to flaunt her knowledge, Mila perks up and smiles. “GEN ASIDE, TENJIN’S CHI TAKES ON THE PROPERTIES OF FIRE, BUT ISN’T FIRE, NOT EXACTLY. UNDERSTAND?”
Rolling her eyes, Mila’s fingers idly interlock with mine. “AWAKENING REQUIRES YEARS OF PRACTICE TO CONTROL FIRE, AND EVEN THEN, THERE ARE LIMITS. FOR EXAMPLE, HE CAN USE HIS CHI TO MIMIC FIRE, BUT LIKE I SAID, IT’S NOT FIRE, MERELY CHI MIMICKING THE PROPERTIES OF FIRE.”
“But didn’t he explode a pot of oil?”
“YES, BUT ALL THAT TOOK WAS A SPARK. THE RESULTING FLAMES WERE TRULY FIRE, BUT OUTSIDE OF HIS CONTROL. TO MANIPULATE REAL FIRE, HE WOULD HAVE TO INSTILL IT WITH HIS CHI, WHICH IS MUCH MORE DIFFICULT.”
Isn’t that what I’ve been trying to do? Am I doing things the hard way? Raising an eyebrow at my well-informed betrothed, I ask, “How do you know so much?”
Sticking her tongue out at me, she replies, “How do you know so little?”
Releasing my hand, Mila hops on Atir and rides off with a smile, Song hurrying to follow. At least I have food for thought now, though I don’t understand how it’ll help. Use my Chi to mimic water, but what good is it? Tenjin said water can be used many ways, but honestly, I can’t think of anything useful aside from giving someone a good hosing. Maybe I can force water in my opponent’s nose and mouth and drown them, but how much water and force would it take? How much time to master such fine control? Baatar seemed to think Tenjin was wasting his time learning to use fire, should I avoid making the same mistake and focus on more mundane uses of Chi, like Amplification and Deflection? I mean, near as I can tell, neither Gerel nor Tursinai have Awakened, and they’re damned strong.
So unfair. Reincarnated into a world of wondrous magics and abilities, yet my only talent lies in recovering from a beating. Ain’t that a kick in the nuts.
True power lies within your grasp, Foundling. You only need surrender, and our strength is yours
‘Blow it out your ass.’ Fucking Spectres. Never a moment of peace. Now it’s off to Sanshu, where with luck, we’ll arrive after sunset to find an army of 20,000 Defiled waiting outside the walls. We’re down to around 6,000 soldiers, so I dunno what Yuzhen hopes to accomplish. Whatever it is, it’s certain to be bloody and unpleasant, though who knows. Maybe we’ll get lucky and Gerel will have things wrapped up before we arrive.
…Ha, right. Like I’m ever lucky.
Summoning a gout of flame, Gen cackled as his opponents writhed and screamed before his eyes. Less impressive in the light of day, but still satisfying to watch their skin blacken and peel, flesh melting away with a wave of his hand. Panting with exhaustion, he stepped back while his comrades surged forward, crashing into the enemy in yet another attempt to take the bridge. A tenacious bunch these bandits, and though he never tired of inflicting death and destruction, after two days without progress against the soldiers, he found the Corsair’s unexpected resistance bothersome and irritating.
Moving aside to watch the battle unfold, Gen sat and ate in plain view of the enemy, all lined to await the slaughter. The bridge was long and narrow, neither group able to hold it for long, a vicious back and forth. The Crossbone Corsairs made for worthy foes, far more difficult to kill than the weakling soldiers. Several elite bandits took turns defending the bridge, most notably the antlered Jariad and the aged Gao Qiu. Between those two legendary bandits, they’d held this bridge for the entire night, killing two of Yo Ling’s Transcendents with ease. To make matters worse, off in the distance, leather-armoured soldiers sent arrow after arrow into the Butcher’s ranks from their rooftop perches, the hateful marksmen racking up kill after kill while safe from retaliation, no spear, stone or bolt able to reach them.
Even if he were to succeed and push past their defences, the cunning enemy was prepared to destroy the bridge, the stone supports replaced by wooden blocks. A simple tug of the rope to pull them away, and the bridge would collapse under its own weight, consigning anyone standing above to a watery death. It’d already happened in two other locations and the telltale signs of similar measures were readily visible from here.
So frustrating, why couldn’t they understand? After watching for a few minutes longer, he snarled in anger, pointing at the bridge as flames burst into existence where he willed it, immolating Butcher and Corsair alike. Fuelled by flesh and fat, the flames devoured all it touched, both sides pulling back to either end of the bridge and warily watching as he approached. “I come to free you from oppression and tyranny, offering the gifts of truth and power, and you choose to stand in my way? Fools one and all, you close your eyes and scorn my sincerity, stubbornly defending those who would see you dead. How many among you have bounties on your head? How can you trust the Mongrel Emperor not to hang you all when this is over?”
A hail of arrows streaked through the ensuing silence, bearing down towards him. Ignoring them, he barely flinched as not a single projectile struck true, each one bouncing off his armour or veering away to skip across the stone-tiled streets, leaving him to continue his speech untouched. “You see? The Heavens themselves protect me. No cowardly archer will silence me and no army will keep us from our holy mission. Sanshu is doomed, you only delay the inevitable.” A curious development not limited only to arrows, he’d been blessed by fortuitous luck throughout the night, his opponents unable to land a single solid blow. “So many among you are but a step from embracing the truth. Cast aside the comforting lies, cast aside you fears and doubts, for they will not protect you. My comrades, we are one and the same, I offer you strength and redemption, or death and oblivion. Join with me, cut down the unbelievers, and we will cleanse the world in blood and flame!”
“Bullshit.” Shouldering his way to the front, Gao Qiu’s booming voice drowned out all other sound. His white hair and beard dyed red in blood, he appeared no less fearsome than anyone of the Buchers, sending two flaming corpses into the water with a flick of his axe. More followed, steam and smoke rising as the water churned white, the waiting fishes feasting on flesh and bone. In a matter of heartbeats, the centre of the bridge was cleared of flame and corpses, the massive warrior waving Gen away. “Listen here ye snot nosed brat, this grandfather is sick of yer babbling. Blessed by the Heavens, pei. Fuck off before I come over there and give ye a proper spanking. I ain’t here to chat.” Drawing himself to full height, Gao Qiu pointed into the crowd. “Show yerself, ye slimy bastard. I can smell yer stench from here.”
The Butchers parted as Viper Pang appeared from the shadows, grinning as he brandished his scimitars. “As I live and breathe, if it ain’t old grandpa Qiu. I was wondering where the boss’s dog had run off to, and lo and behold, here ye are.” A slender, unobtrusive man, Viper Pang moved like his namesake, bobbing left and right as he approached, ready to strike in an instant. “Never did like ye, always crying fer ‘the good old days’. If it weren’t fer the boss, I’d have knifed ye years ago.”
Snorting, Gao Qiu hefted his axe with a smile. “Ye see, that’s exactly why I complain about the youth of today. If ye had any balls, ye’d have tried to kill me regardless ye worthless sack of shit. Maybe after I kill ye, that coward Yo Ling will finally show his ugly face. There’s a reckoning to be had.” Bounding forward, the axe cleaved through the air and into the stone bridge, Viper Pang effortlessly avoiding the slash as the battle begun.
Heart pounding, Gen watched as two legendary bandits exchanged blows before him, a childish grin stretched across his face. Viper Pang against the Red Devil Gao Qiu, matches like this were often discussed over a bowl of wine, drunken men arguing over who was stronger. Viper Pang was a consummate swordsman, his jagged weapons coated in debilitating poisons. A mere scratch was enough to spell doom for most men, but this was no mere man he faced today. This was Gao Qiu, the legendary Red Devil of Sanshu, the Spectre’s right-hand man.
Whatever challenges Butcher Bay faced since its inception, Gao Qiu had been there to defy them, his achievements too numerous to list. Time and time again, heroes of the Empire arrived to put an end to the Butchers, and more often than not, they met their end at the Red Devil’s axe. According to rumours, Gao Qiu was single-handedly responsible for Bastard Liu’s failure to assassinate Yo Ling, the Red Devil cutting a swathe through his traitorous comrades to rescue the Spectre. Gen thought himself powerful enough to stand among the likes of Viper Pang and Black Heart Nazier, but watching the fight unfold, he was forced to admit his shortcomings.
In a whirlwind of steel and fury, Gao Qiu struck again and again, unable to land a blow on Viper Pang. Likewise, Viper Pang dared not strike back, unable to meet the powerful Gao Qiu head on. The axe buzzed through the air, the power behind every blow obvious to anyone watching, but Viper Pang was untouchable, leaping left and ducking right, hopping onto the guardrail before flipping off, avoiding every attack with his scimitars held loosely at his sides. Still, with every dodge, the lithe bandit gave ground, backing away from the indomitable Gao Qiu, unable to pierce through the endless storm of attacks.
A ringing crash jolted Gen to attention, the exchange over in a single pass as Viper Pang flew back, rolling across the tiled road. At the edge of the bridge, Gao Qiu stumbled and leaned on his axe, a small trickle of blood dribbling down his cheek. Howling with laughter, Viper Pang leaped to his feet, stalking towards the older bandit. “Fucking fool is what ye are, long past yer prime. Ye feel it, don’t ye? Just a scratch is all I needs and ye’ll be begging me to end yer misery. Come now, ask nicely and I might cut yer throat nice and clean, on account of all ye done fer the boss.” Pacing just out of reach, the slender killer basked in his success, gloating over his defeated foe. “No harm telling ye either, but that there ain’t no normal poison either. A genuine Wraith stands before you, which means ye won’t be healing from that little scratch.”
Gen watched with bated breath, waiting for the sweet moment when Gao Qiu crumbled. A damn shame, the Spirits loved the old man, circling around him and lending him strength, but their voices seemed unable to reach him. No matter, even if they did, it was too little too late. The old bastard insulted Gen, insulted Viper Pang, and worst of all, insulted Yo Ling. He wanted the old man to suffer for hours, screaming for death the entire time. Let these worthless Corsairs see the error of their ways, crumbling before the might of Gen’s comrades.
Sweat dripping down his brow, Gao Qiu’s face reddened as he grit his teeth. Tottering in place, he seemed ready to keel over, taking deep breaths as he fought the pain. Eyes defiant to the end, he raised his head and laughed to the heavens, three, distinct sounds striking Gen like a hammer to the head. Echoing inside his skull, the sound tore his eardrums apart, shaking him to the core. Staggering back, the world spun as the Red Devil of Sanshu leapt towards the helpless Viper Pang, cleaving him from shoulder to sternum.
Without a pause, the Red Devil charged, eyes wild with blood lust as he cut through armour like butter, his mouth opened in muted laughter as the Spirits filled him with strength. Falling to his knees, Gen recoiled in horror when the berserk bandit turned towards him, the blood-covered axe raised to strike. Raising his hand, he threw a gout a flame only for Gao Qiu to stride through untouched, an inhuman grin stretched across his face as his axe fell.
A Devil cloaked in human flesh, how was Gen to win?
The world shifted and Gen found himself lost amid the crowd of Butchers, deafened and panicked as they fought to escape the Red Devil of Sanshu. Her pink arms wrapped around him, Bei held him close to her bosom for a single second before the world shifted again. Free of the crowd, he stood and shivered some distance from the bridge, suckling his wife’s fingers as he watched the carnage unfold. A single Gao Qiu routed their lines, such incredible power and blood thirst. It made no sense, Gao Qiu was so close to Enlightenment, yet wholly rejected it, and still the Spirits were unwilling to forsake him, helping the blind fool to victory. Was there no way to force him into the light?
The ringing in his ears died down and a moment later, his hearing returned, healed by his wife’s ministrations. Patting her fondly on the cheek, he tilted his head and asked, “Were you the one guarding me from the shadows?” A nod. “Good wife. Bring me to Yo Ling.” Dutifully obeying his orders, Bei wrapped her arms around him once more. How wonderful to have found the perfect wife, supporting him from the shadows as a proper woman should. With her at his side, it was only a matter of time before Gen grew strong enough to defeat the likes of Gao Qiu, but until then, Yo Ling would have to deal with his own problems.
Though he liked the old man, there was no way Gen would die for him.
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