Author’s Note: Hey all, sorry to do this, but no chapter monday. It’s a holiday and I made plans. Enjoy Victoria day, or whatever you call it wherever you live, and see you on wed the 24th.
As apology, here’s a kitty demonstrating what a happy Aurie sounds like.
Slouching in his chair, Yo Ling ran his fingers across the windowsill, absent-mindedly rubbing the carved wood while staring out the window. A heady bouquet of rice wine wafted through the air, his cup held halfway to his lips as he pondered over an errant thought. This was to be his crowning achievement, making his mark in history as the man who started the revolution. Here he sat after years of planning, a magnificent warrior and leader, a harbinger of change on the cusp of victory, yet it all felt so… empty. He had no wives to fill his cup or warm his nights, no sons to educate and carry on his mantle, and no friends with which to share his wine and victories.
Surrounded by slaves, subordinates, and allies, yet he stood wholly apart, this much was clear to him after last night’s dinner. Back on the island, this estrangement escaped his notice, all his attention and efforts invested in this venture year after year. Perhaps loneliness was the price of greatness, and a heavy one at that. The cup wavered in his hand as he wondered what to do, unwilling to choke down so fine a vintage past the lump in his throat, yet pouring it back into the jug was every bit as undesirable. A strange custom of the rich, he’d only been joking when he first mentioned it so many years ago, a flimsy reason to keep drinking. Who knew one of the junior officers would laugh in wonder, surprised by the ‘brutish’ Yo Ling’s etiquette. A noble-born ponce, but a good enough kid with only a small stick stuck up his ass. What was his name again? A homonym for a weapon, but not the weapon he used…
Gen’s voice shocked Yo Ling from his reverie, having forgotten the boy was there. Still looking out the window, he combed through recent memory for a clue. Ah right, Gen’s worries and insecurities, inexperienced in the ways of war. Waving for him to approach, Yo Ling patted the boy’s back and handed him the cup. “No need to fret, Gen my boy, no need to fret. Everything will work itself out. Have a drink, relax.”
The boy sipped the wine and grimaced at the taste. How utterly unexpected, a peasant without taste. “So you’ll do nothing?” Gen asked, putting the cup aside. “Your Butchers are being slaughtered, useless though they might be.”
“I am doing something. I’m leading.” Feigning a grin, he winked, playing to his need for a father figure. After years of practise, the role came naturally to Yo Ling, noticing long ago how the army and bandit life attracted the same types, orphans or misfits looking to fit in. He’d learned how to best take advantage, first as an Officer, and then as Boss of the Butcher Bay Bandits. “Listen carefully my boy, this will be handy to know when you’re in charge. Archers stay the safest, cavalry hits the hardest, and heroes like you and I shine the brightest, but in the end, victory depends wholly on standard infantry.”
His choice of words lit a fire in the boy’s eyes, straightening with confidence at the praise. Not even two weeks together and the boy already craved his approval, this was almost too easy. His brows furrowed, Gen asked, “But after Gao Qiu killed Viper Pang, the Corsairs tore through our infantry like paper. It’s been hours now and our people do nothing but stand and stare, too scared to approach the bridge. Does this mean we’re losing?”
“For the moment, but only at the one location. We’re faring well at the other two bridges.” Yo Ling chose his words carefully, so not to spoil the boy’s romantic notions of camaraderie and heroism. Life would do that for him, given time. “There’s more than the fate of a few warriors to consider. Today, we fight to control Sanshu, but what happens after we are victorious? The Empire will not stand idle, nor can we wholly rely on our ‘friend’ in the North to keep us safe. The Uniter makes promises to tear down the Wall, but words are empty air unless backed by action.”
Gesturing at the city, Yo Ling continued his lesson. “Now, I could go on a rampage and slaughter Gao Qiu, Jariad, the fat Magistrate, and even Liu Shi or that damned Azure Asshole if they dare show their faces, but what good will it do? If all I wanted was to indulge in death and destruction, I’d have never bothered coming to Sanshu. Easier to send Butchers in all directions with orders to kill, pillage, rape, and plunder across the province with impunity. But you and I mean to start a revolution, which requires tremendous resources and a base of operations. Where better to start than Sanshu, the heart of industry in the north?”
His eyes lighting up, Gen rummaged through his pockets and pulled out a severed hand, biting into it with relish while Yo Ling explained things further. A terrible habit, the boy had much to learn regarding controlling his urges. With his gift of Oration, he brought True Enlightenment to many of Yo Ling’s wayward Butchers, but these were men and women who’d been groomed for years, if not decades. In time, Sanshu’s defenders might be swayed, but the boy’s performance as a rebel hero lacked conviction, given his open, and frankly, excessive consumption of human flesh. Still, the city would fall eventually with or without the boy’s gift, so Yo Ling was happy to leave things be. Though growing more powerful by the day, the boy only found True Enlightenment a few weeks prior, his mind still fragile from his unfettered impulses. An unstable sort, but perhaps that’s why the Spirits loved him so. No point aggravating him unnecessarily, let the boy eat to his heart’s content. Besides, being so new, he likely burned through his reservoir of Energy in seconds during battle, consuming fat and muscle to fuel his fires.
“So you see my boy,” Yo Ling concluded, “If I want to control the region and all it contains, I need talents at my side to match those of the enemy, heroes to rise to the occasion. I am but one man, and one man cannot guard all the mines, farms, factories, and fisheries we require to support and supply our army. Sanshu is my crucible, its defenders my anvil, and I will use them to forge troops worthy of Butcher Bay’s Banner. They will become my core of elites, stationed in this bastion from which we will overthrow the Mongrel Emperor.”
It was mostly hogwash, but the boy craved purpose even more than human flesh. Absently swallowing, Gen asked, “So why not send one of your Captains to deal with Gao Qiu? He’s been running rampant for hours now.”
Chuckling, he answered, “Because it’s poor leadership to give an order you know will be refused. Even old and poisoned as he is, if Gao Qiu declared himself the weakest of my captains, the others would piss themselves in terror while hurrying to resign, so as not to offend him. The Red Devil is my best warrior, an unrivalled force of nature, and don’t you forget it boy.”
“Was,” Gen corrected. “He was one of your best. He fights for Sanshu now.”
The words filled Yo Ling with melancholy. “Right you are, Gen my boy, right you are. No matter, the poison will sort him out soon enough. Viper Pang’s little concoction won’t kill him, but the pain only gets worse with time.” A tiny shifting shadow caught his eye and he scowled in annoyance, mentally ordering his new Wraith captain to deal with the annoyance. Fucking Pang, letting his ego overcome reason and rushing out to die, leaving Yo Ling stuck with some no-name grunt leading his Wraith guards. Then again, Pang wasn’t too effective at his job, unable to deal with a few paltry assassins, perhaps new blood was exactly what he needed. Casually guiding the boy away from the window, he removed them from danger without the boy noticing anything amiss.
A frantic whisper blathered in his mind, the voice insistent and urgent. Annoyed, he muttered, “Damn, can never find good help these days. Our friend Vithar has found himself in dire straits, courtesy of Major Yuzhen. The bitch has more balls than any soldier I’ve crossed in fifty years. I suppose I should arrange a proper welcome for her.”
“Is Falling Rain with her?” Gen’s voice was a mixture of zeal and trepidation, the Devourer’s name striking fear in his heart. Yo Ling had his work cut out if he wanted to tame both young bucks, but should the worst come to pass, he would happily kill the Devourer. Rain brought nothing aside from the strength of a single warrior, limitless though his potential might be, while Gen offered the power to bring whole armies to kneel at Yo Ling’s feet. The decision was obvious.
Closing his eye to focus, he tried to find the Devourer once again, but the Spirits around Rain were unresponsive, gone silent in days past. Odd, especially considering how he’d been heading west last he checked, but perhaps the Devourer’s absence was for the best. The more Gen’s powers grew, the easier time he would have bringing those like Gao Qiu and Falling Rain into the light. “I’m not sure my boy, but if you’d like, you can join the welcoming party. Go find Mao Jianghong and he’ll see you out with a contingent of his finest.”
“No need, Bei can bring me out.” Leaping to his feet, Gen gestured to his flesh-coloured Transcendent standing in the corner. With hands clasped and head down, it perfectly played the part of demur wife. Newly Enlightened and already capable of controlling a Transcendent, Gen was a rising dragon among men. His ‘wife’ was no paper tiger either, capable of disappearing and reappearing at will to protect the boy from the shadows. Both the Venerated ones and the Uniter immediately took an interest in Bei, but it resisted their attempts at taking control, Gen’s hold over it near unbreakable. No matter, in time, the boy would learn to curb those self-destructive tenancies and rise to prominence, a powerful warrior and Transcendent both firmly in Yo Ling’s pocket.
Pausing at the door, the boy turned and glanced at Yo Ling, hesitation etched across his face. “No need to be shy, Gen my boy,” Yo Ling said with an encouraging smile. “Speak your mind.”
“Why do the Spirits aid Gao Qiu? Aren’t they supposed to be helping us?”
“No my boy, never make the mistake of believing the Spirits are here to help you. They give us strength, but for their own purposes. In return for power, you grant them a chance to live, something they will lie, trick, and steal for.” Gesturing at Bei, Yo Ling explained, “The Transcendents are to be revered, for they sacrifice their fleshly bodies and give the Spirits flesh, but in return, their minds are… locked away. Or most are,” he quickly corrected, seeing the look of distress on Gen’s face. “Your wife seems to be an exception.” Not at all, but let him think her special. “As for Gao Qiu, well my old friend has long walked the razor-thin line between surrender and resistance, unable to see the truth yet coveted by the Spirits. In him, they see a chance for life, but they don’t know the man at all. It is not his nature to surrender.”
Noticing Gen’s discomfort, Yo Ling urged him to speak. Clearing his throat, Gen carefully considered his words. “Everyone knows Gao Qiu’s betrayal saddens you and I think you underestimate the consequences. No one wants to kill him and risk life and limb only to earn your wrath. The man is a like a brother to you and your loyal troops worry how you’ll react to his death.” Gaining confidence, Gen held his head up high. “I understand your pain. I felt the same when my father and Kash refused to see the Truth. It hurt more than any beating, but killing them brought me joy and relief. They were wrong to deny the truth, so they didn’t deserve my love, just as Gao Qiu does not deserve yours. He may be a legend of Butcher Bay, but he rejects the truth, and worse, he exploits the Spirit’s blessings. His existence an insult to.. to…”
Sensing danger, Gen trailed off. For long seconds, Yo Ling struggled for control, his jaw clenched and teeth bared as the boy stood in place, head lowered and shoulders slouched. A good thing he didn’t run, for it would have made Yo Ling’s decision easier, tearing the upstart brat to pieces in a heartbeat. Only the sound of his heavy breathing filled the silence, his anger draining away and leaving him weak, but clear-headed. “Right you are again, my boy,” he admitted with a sigh. “Right you are. It seems I’ve grown sentimental in my old age.” Grinning at Gen, he moved in and clapped him on the shoulder. “Delay your plans to leave the city. I’ve disgraced myself and insist you watch me put an end to the Red Devil of Sanshu. Mark my words boy, it will be a story for the ages.”
Donning his horned helm, Yo Ling strode through the streets with his mace in hand, Gen and Bei in tow. The mere thought of clearing away his regrets had him in a joyous mood, joking with the boy while they walked. Such truth and wisdom from the mouths of babes, how simple yet profound. Yes, better to kill Gao Qiu now and throw away his disappointment, and not let disappointment fester and eat away from within, like Liu Shi’s betrayal. Better yet, all his former comrades were here, a rare chance to fix all his problems in one fell swoop.
Soon enough, they arrived at the bridge, immediately noticed by both sides, standing around in stalemate. Ashamed and embarrassed, his Butchers parted for him, their morale buoyed by his presence as he moved to the front lines. A stretch of ground stood before him, littered with corpses of Butchers and Corsairs, almost a hundred metres between himself and the bridge. Smiling at Gen, he noted Bei’s absence, though he sensed her existence around him. It would be best to determine how she did that, her camouflage superior to any Wraith or assassin.
A matter for another time. Motioning for his Butchers to remain in place, he strolled out into the contested grounds alone, his mace resting on his shoulder and mask hanging from its chinstrap. So many years since he’d stepped into the public eye, he could tell most of the Corsairs didn’t even recognize him. What a shame, but after today, his image would be burned into their memory for the rest of their lives.
However short it might be.
Halfway to the bridge, a ragged form pushed through the Corsairs, growling at Jariad to leave off. The sight sent a pang of regret coursing through Yo Ling, to see the Red Devil fallen so far. Covered in blood like so many times before, he seemed so pitiful and weak as he struggled to walk, exhausted from fighting for hours on end under the influence of Viper Pang’s insidious poison. His determination wavering, Yo Ling waited for Gao Qiu to approach, his old friend stopping thirty paces away with axe in hand, gaze filled with hatred and loathing. Sighing, Yo Ling whispered, barely loud enough for Gao Qiu to hear. “My old friend, why have you abandoned me?”
Spitting, Gao Qiu snarled, “I’ll not listen to yer lies, Defiled filth. Come, the Red Devil thirsts for blood.”
Chuckling, Yo Ling shook his head. “Listen to yourself, ‘thirsting for blood’. How many times have you been accused of being Defiled yourself?”
“Ye deny it?” Gao Qiu was incredulous, his fury building with every word. “After bringing Demons and Defiled into Sanshu, ye deny yer guilt?”
“Guilt is subjective. Have I broken the law? Of course, I’ve done so every day since deserting fifty years ago. This is merely an escalation, but to call me Defiled is to believe the lies of the Emperor. I am the same man who lead you to war, the same man you followed into a life of banditry.” Doubt flashed through Gao Qiu’s eyes and Yo Ling pressed the issue. “My friend, you’ve danced along the edge of truth for so long, why can you not accept it? Throw away your preconceived notions and think for yourself. For decades, we took whatever we wanted whether it be lives or loot, pleasure or plunder. When have you ever felt more alive?”
“I make no apologies for the life I’ve lived.” Stubbornly refusing to think, Gao Qiu stood firm. “Aye, I’ve killed, raped, and worse, but what of it? The laws are fer the weak and the poor, and I am neither. The strong thrive and the weak endure, such is the way of life. But you,” he sneered, “You are an abomination of nature.”
“According to who?” Yo Ling held his arms out in question. “I am strong. I am wealthy. Why should I obey the laws of man? Might as well ask a tiger to change his stripes and become a vegetarian. Yes, I draw strength from the Spirits, much like those savages north of the Wall. Aye, I enjoy killing and torture, but so do you my friend, don’t lie to yourself. You revel in it, chosen by the Spirits themselves, drawing on their power to fuel your legendary battle prowess. You know this to be true. Think, when was the last time you meditated? Years goes by without it, yet you continue growing in strength. Balance is a lie my friend, true power comes from the Spirits.” The blood drained from Gao Qiu’s face as he recognized the Truth, and Yo Ling extended an empty hand. “Come my friend, my brother. Return to my side and all is forgiven. Power is power, no matter its origins, the Father and Mother a fairy tale meant for children and idiots. Defiled or Enlightened, it’s all a matter of perception.”
For a single, heart-stopping minute, Gao Qiu stood frozen in place, his inner turmoil on open display. Denial, anger, horror, depression, the emotions flit across his face in rapid succession, struggling to accept the naked Truth. It was the same process Yo Ling went through so many years ago, a single moment of clarity in which all revealed itself, and he prayed his old friend would reach the right conclusion.
The ragged Red Devil took a single step forward, and Yo Ling’s heart leapt with joy. A second step followed, then a third, his pace slow and steady as Gao Qiu approached, his axe grating as it dragged across the stone. Twenty paces separated them, then ten, then five, and Yo Ling waited patiently, hoping beyond all hope to be reunited with this lost brother.
No such luck.
The axe scythed through the air and Yo Ling blocked, the impact shaking him to the bone. Backing away, he snapped, “Why?! Why forsake me? You know the truth now!”
Eyes filled with blood and the Spirits swirling around him, Gao Qiu cackled in his customary manner, the sound sending chills through Yo Ling even as he guarded against it. A second slash sent him reeling back, Gao Qiu howling with rage as he pressed the attack. Their Auras clashed in a struggle every bit as violent as their physical exchange, two experts trading earth shaking blows as stones cracked beneath their feet, Gao Qiu’s devilish grin burned into Yo Ling’s memory.
After minutes of back and forth, Gao Qiu quickly tired. Sidestepping a lazy slash, Yo Ling struck a decisive blow, the crack of bone audible to everyone watching. Ignoring the pain of his broken shoulder, the Red Devil wielded his axe one-handed and almost took Yo Ling’s head clean off in response, Butcher Bay’s boss reduced to tumbling over corpses to escape. Overcome with rage, he screamed in equal parts fury and misery as he batted the axe aside, bringing his mace back for a crushing, two-handed thrust to Gao Qiu’s chest. The body flew through the air and landed with a sickening squelch, cheers breaking out among the Butchers as they charged into the Corsair lines.
Ignoring the noise, Yo Ling approached his oldest friend as his Butchers streamed around them, giving both a wide berth. Shrouded in Purity as he channelled his Chi, the light slowly faded from Gao Qiu’s eyes. His mouth moved without sound, but his voice rang clear in Yo Ling’s mind. ‘I know my sins and forsake the Father and all his evils, prepared to accept Her judgment. I’ll beg for mercy on your behalf old friend, though I fear you beyond Her help.’
Eyes wide open and lips spread in a grin, the Red Devil of Sanshu died defending the city he terrorized for decades.
Alone in the crowd and without a friend in the world, Yo Ling stood and pondered a single question, over and over again.
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