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Trembling with excitement, Gen crouched in the shadows of the gatehouse, staring out over the treeline in search of movement. Falling Rain was there, he could feel it in his bones. An hour or two at most and that bastard would come riding to his doom. With Vithar and his remaining tribesman hidden to the south, along with a few thousand Enlightened, the ‘rescuing’ army would be caught the moment it stepped foot inside the gates of Sanshu. Gen could hardly wait to show that smug bastard Rain true strength. With his loathsome glances and scornful sneers, he believed himself better than everyone else merely over a quirk of fate, born into a noble family. Hmph, to be a prince of savages was nothing to take pride in, a group of sub-human filth mingling with half-beast curs in the mountains, far from proper society as they should be.
Oh how Gen ached to capture the ‘Undying Savage’ and put his title to the test. How long would the arrogant twit last before breaking? How long before he begged for death? Yo Ling promised to teach Gen all his tricks and techniques, a wealth of knowledge waiting to be shared and experienced. Rain believed himself the noble hero in this story, but Gen would ensure he learned the depths of his villainy in excruciating detail, only dying after he choked on his regrets. Gen dreamed of those amber eyes filled with fear, imagining the pitiful pleas after days – no, weeks of torture.
After all his suffering, Gen stood on the cusp of liberation, ready to mete out justice and cleanse himself of his greatest shame. So excruciating yet pleasurable, he feared himself ready to erupt at any moment. Unable to sit still, he left the balcony and stepped into the nearest empty room, slashing and stabbing in a flurry of motion, fighting against a mental projection of Rain for practice. The actions came readily to him, and though his body was powered by the World’s Energy and guided by the Spirits, Yo Ling said the sooner Gen grew accustomed to controlling his own movements, the stronger he would become. Knowing this, after every clash and skirmish, Gen studied his movements and diligently practised and reviewed, slowly learning the intricacies of combat.
No longer was he the cowardly weakling, scrounging through the forest in hopes of a meal. He’d been chosen by the Heavens to be their champion, soon to rise above those around him and stand at the forefront of the revolution. As he thrust, slashed, parried, riposted, the flames burst into existence around him, consuming his imagined foe. His metallic hands shimmered in the flickering light as he moved in seamless artistry, so quickly his sleeves cracked like whips as they blurred through the air. Faster and faster he moved, striking about with reckless abandon, crashing through stone wall and wooden furniture, his body a whirlwind of destruction.
He was Gen, the Emissary of Flame, and Falling Rain would be a mere stepping stone on his path to glory.
Whirling about with a vicious backhand, he slammed into what felt like a mountain, bouncing away from the impact. His arm smarting, his snarl cut short as he gazed into the dark, steely eyes of Mao Jianghong, palm raised after blocking Gen’s strike and lips pursed in unvoiced disapproval. “You,” he said, making the common label seem like a grievous insult, “are causing a disturbance.”
Biting back a scorching insult, Gen struggled to keep his temper, the spirits demanding he take action and find sweet vengeance. Taking a deep breath, he closed his eyes and smiled, recognizing the wisdom of Yo Ling. Yes, the Spirits gave great power, but the sooner he became self-reliant, the better. They hungered for violence and action, even at great detriment to their host, a threat Gen now knew. Foolish to lash out at Mao Jianghong, the man’s prowess already known.
Opening his eyes, he found the stern warrior watching him closely, his eyebrow raised ever so slightly. “Commendable,” he said with a nod, clasping his hands behind his back, danger still radiating from the neatly dressed warrior. “I thought I’d have to beat some sense into you, but it seems you’re well on your way to controlling your urges.” Glancing about, he moved through the debris of stone and wood, taking a seat on the only chair left intact. “The most important lesson for a soldier to learn is patience. Warfare is no sprint, but a gruelling, drawn out marathon, crawling over mountains of the dead in search of survival and victory. You’ll need your strength soon enough, yet here you are wasting it on… redecorating.”
The words were similar to what his Pa once said. “Ah, yes ser, same goes for a hunter. I’d forgotten in my excitement.” Moving to stand in front of the taciturn warrior, Gen clasped his hands and bowed. “Thank you for your guidance. Please, this one begs for your guidance.” This was a perfect opportunity to learn, and Gen was always hungry for knowledge.
Shaking his head, Jianghong’s lip curled in a sneer. “No need to play the humble peasant, I find it tiring. You are new to your power yet already so far along, I find it most curious. If only I knew your secret…” Unable to answer, Gen could only shrug in reply, those dark eyes piercing through him as if they could see right into his mind and soul. Long seconds later, Jianghong sighed and relaxed, idly stroking his beard. “A mystery. At any rate, it would be a waste to let so talented a youth stumble blindly. Know this: your greatest weapon is not your hands or your flames, but your mind. No need for this idiotic display.”
Feeling maligned, Gen spoke up. “I was merely acclimating myself to the movements.”
Jianghong smiled and gestured around the room. “And what purpose does your errant flailing serve? Will your enemies stand still like these walls and chairs, dying without resistance? A pointless waste of energy. I look at you and ask myself, ‘where did that devious little bastard go?’. Where is the warrior who almost set me aflame, merely by anticipating my reactions? How old are you?”
Surprised by the praise, Gen answered without thinking. “Twenty one, ser.”
“Hmm. 183 centimetres tall. Lean, but flexible.” Gen blinked at Jianghong’s spot on guess, marvelling at the accuracy, but the older warrior continued without pause. “Judging by your age and frame, you’ll never grow into a powerhouse like Vithar or Yo Ling. No, you’re more like me, speed over power, agility over mass. You won’t clash headlong with the likes of them, not if you’re smart.” Tapping his temple, Jianghong smiled knowingly. “The Spirits clamour for chaos above all else, but cunning and discipline are tools that will serve you well. Without them, you’re no better than a mindless animal, easily defeated by any peasant with half a brain and an hour of preparation. Mimicking the movements will only get you so far, you need to understand the reasoning behind each action and decision. Know when to slash and when to thrust, when to block and when to parry. Learn the finer points of positioning and study every possible counter in any situation. Act, never react, and you’ll grow into a power to be feared.”
Scratching his cheek, Gen nervously uttered, “It seems like a lot to process, ser. I wouldn’t know where to start.”
“The same place as always. You start from the beginning.” Gesturing for Gen to sit, Jianghong launched into a lesson on footwork. Though at first, it seemed like a minor matter easily dismissed, the more he spoke, the more Gen realized how imperative it was. Being a single toe-width out of position was enough to give up the advantage, a frightening prospect.
The lesson didn’t last long, Jianghong only explaining a single example, but Gen was captivated by the possibilities. Confused, Gen bit his lip and asked, “Why are you teaching me? Do you think to steal me away from Yo Ling? I owe him much.”
The older warrior shook with laughter. “No, I don’t expect you to kowtow as my disciple, I merely thought this a pleasant way to pass the time.” Exhaling, he shrugged. “Truth be told, I too am eager for this to be over. The sooner Yuzhen is dealt with, the sooner I can join the battle for Sanshu. Every moment I waste here, more guilty merchants flee the city and I risk that pot-bellied disgrace of a magistrate dying without knowing why I turned against him.”
“Why did you?” Jianghong had power, wealth, and position, it seemed strange to give it all up.
“It’s a story I dislike telling, so listen well.” The former guard captain’s eyes unfocused as he lost himself in memory. “Our stories are similar. My Mao family was a small one, but thanks to my parents hard work, we were well on the way towards financial success. I was the oldest, the heir, trained in both combat and trade craft, ready to take the reins of the family business. Unfortunately, as they say, the nail which sticks out gets hammered down. Targeted by the Council, my family suffered a series of ‘accidents’ and ‘bad investments’ almost bringing us to ruin. As if it were not enough, they hired mercenaries to pose as bandits and slaughter my family, while en route to a family vacation. There I was, a young man little older than you, beaten and left for dead at the side of the road, mourning my dead father and brothers while praying my mother and sister could join them soon enough.”
He fell silent, and after a long pause, Gen couldn’t hold his tongue any longer. “And then?”
Another shrug. “The screams attracted a nearby patrol and the mercenaries were killed to the last. None of them could be identified, a band of strangers in these lands. My sister survived only to take her life a few days later, hanging herself in her bedroom. I sold what remained of my family’s holdings and joined the guard, where I spent years searching for the identity of who ordered the attack. The more I learned, the more I realized it didn’t matter. The entire city was corrupt and beyond saving, back room deals carried out each day to satisfy unscrupulous vices and quash growing rivals. Even the Magistrate was firmly in the Council’s pocket, so I decided a new beginning was in order.” He smiled, though there was no warmth to it. “A cleansing of the human race, starting with Sanshu. I reached out to Yo Ling and built a following of like-minded individuals, and here we are.”
“Yes, the nobles of this world are the true Defiled, rotten to the core.” Happy to have found a kindred spirit, Gen beamed with delight. “But how did you come to learn of the Spirits and all they offer?”
Waving dismissively, Jianghong shook his head. “Energy of the Heavens, Energy of the world, Chi or Spirits, whatever you call it, I’ve studied both, and I believe it’s merely a different perspective of the same thing. Anything done with Chi can be replicated by the Spirits. How to best explain? Say, three blind men approach an elephant and work together to determine what manner of creature it is. The first touches an ear and declares ‘this creature is a bird’. The second touches the trunk and declares ‘this creature is a snake’. The third touches a tusk and declares ‘this creature is a boar’. They each fail to understand how large the elephant truly is, and refuse to accept the other’s insights, leaping to conclusions from a sliver of information. No matter what path you take, it all leads to power, pure and simple. The Spirits merely offer more of it at the cost of their bothersome whispers, nothing a little discipline can’t handle.”
Before Gen could ask another question, Jianghong furrowed his brow and held a hand up for silence, glancing to the north. Making a sound of annoyance, he stood and flourished his sleeves, walking out the room with hands clasped behind him. “It seems little XinYue doesn’t completely trust his ‘Uncle Mao’. Strange, I’d never have expected that giant idiot to be so perceptive. I wonder what gave it away? No matter, come along Gen. The Bekhai are with them, which means Falling Rain will be among their ranks.” Moving with unhurried, purposeful strides, Jianghong muttered something about ‘criminals crawling out of the woodwork’, but Gen was too excited to care, running after the former guard captain.
Finally, it was time to fight once more. There would be plenty of time for study and contemplation after killing Falling Rain and the other defenders of Sanshu.
Finally, Rain would pay for all his crimes.
“Hold the line!” Sovanna howled as her mace smashed into a snarling Butcher. The Defiled bandit shrugged off the impact, his dark eyes filled with hatred and blood lust. Pulling back for another strike, she choked up on the mace’s haft and let loose with all her might, perfectly timing her Chi to explode on impact. A success, her Amplified strike hammered home with a resounding clang as her opponent’s eyes rolled back, crumpling to the ground in a lifeless heap. “Come me bullies, show these crooks and thieves the Fury of Sanshu! Hold, damn you!”
Panting for breath, she held her ground not through bravery and courage, but because she lacked the strength to flee, her legs stiff and arms aching as the Defiled surged towards the defenders of Sanshu. Men and women died in droves as two waves of human flesh crashed against each other, her bullies and the Corsairs giving ground centimetre by centimetre while stemming the implacable tide of Defiled Butchers. Emptying her reserves, she hammered away again and again, heedless of her own safety and silently laughing at her hubris. With barely a one in four chance of success in Amplification, already a marked improvement from only two days past, she’d believed herself on the path to becoming a true warrior, a real commander of soldiers. How foolish and arrogant she must have seemed, taking pride in her petty accomplishments while talents like Gao Qiu and Yo Ling watched from nearby.
Well, Gao Qiu wasn’t watching anymore, the duel still fresh in Sovanna’s memory though it’d been hours since. Two legends of Sanshu standing in the square, speaking too quietly for anyone to listen in. For a heart-wrenching minute, she feared the Gao Qiu would turn on her bullies, the Corsairs joining him to slaughter them all, but it was a baseless fear. Not even the Red Devil could stomach the Defiled, and he gave his all trying to take down his oldest friend. What a clash it’d been, gods amongst men exchanging blows faster than the human eye could follow. The walls shook and the air rumbled, stones cracking beneath their feet as they fought, the howling Devil matched against the silent Spectre. She found it strange. Yo Ling was admittedly Defiled yet he seemed the calmer of the two, Gao Qiu unleashing bestial rage and monstrous blood lust, a Devil in every sense of the word.
But a Devil defending Sanshu.
Alas, it was not to be, the Spectre easily defeating the Red Devil, standing over the corpse of his fallen foe like a vengeful phantom feasting on death. She barely registered the killing blow before the Butchers erupted into cheers and threw themselves into the fray, swarming her bullies once again. There was no hope, not anymore. The ropes meant to remove the supports and destroy the bridge had been abandoned the first time she’d fled with her bullies, and soon, she would be sent running in disgrace for the second time today. Assuming she survived of course.
How humiliating, but truth be told, why would anyone expect differently? What did she know of warfare and tactics? She was nothing but a damn washerwoman who didn’t know her place, an upstart promoted through sheer happenstance. If not for Mao Jianghong’s betrayal, Sovanna would have never dreamed of rising beyond the rank of Staff Sergeant. Keep her bullies in line and make sure they never overstepped their boundaries, a simple job any idiot could do, but now she drowned in her ignorance and impotence.
A spear-tip tore into her shoulder and she lashed out, connecting through luck and pulping the face of her attacker. There was no flow of Chi or explosion of power, nothing more than pure muscle, plain and simple. So odd, she wasn’t that strong, was she? Obviously not, to think otherwise was nothing more than a fool’s dream. Opening her mouth to bolster her flagging bullies, the words froze in her throat, unable to utter the simple phrase, ‘hold the line’.
The corpse eating bastard Gen was right. Why bother? They were doomed.
One of her bullies seemed to think the same, dropping his weapon to turn and flee. Unable to move past the throng of bodies, he was cut down from behind in an instant, the battle persisting despite his cowardice. She couldn’t fault him either, she knew the lad. A fruit merchant’s son, not even twenty years of age, as green as they come. He had no place on the front lines of a battle like this. Where were the elites and nobles? Where was the Council or the Magistrate? Tucked away in their manors and fortresses, safe and sound while commoners bled and died for them.
Business as usual in Sanshu.
Lost in her thoughts, the battle continued to rage around Sovanna as she stood like a stone in the river, searching for purpose in all this madness. If she left, would anyone even notice? There was no victory to be won here, the Defiled were too strong. Yo Ling defeated Gerel and Gao Qiu as easily as turning his hand, while Jariad stood back and Bastard Liu refused to even show his face. Who was left to fight the Spectre? The Magistrate was nowhere to be found, presumably fighting at another bridge, but how was Sovanna to know for certain? For all she knew, she’d been abandoned here to slow the Butcher’s advance while the Magistrate fled with the Council and all their ill-gotten gains. Why die for them? She had no stake in this fight, a solitary woman in the prime of life, yet without family to call her own.
“Sovanna, hold on a little longer.” The Magistrate’s Sending sounded in her mind. “Help is coming, hold fast.”
The assurance cleared her mind and renewed her determination. He was still here, fighting for his city as a true hero would. Glancing around at her bullies, she shook off her dark thoughts and grit her teeth. No family? Nonsense. Channelling her meagre Chi, she lifted her mace and strode forth, laying about her in a frenzy, shouting for all to hear. “Fight on me bullies, fight on! Ye gonna let a bunch of pirate filth show ye up? Impossible! For in our veins runs the blood of heroes, our bravery stronger than steel! Stand firm! Fury of Sanshu!”
A resounding cheer followed her words. These were her bullies, her family. She would die for them, and they for her, fighting to defend the rest of their family, still fleeing the city. Buoyed by her example, her bullies fought and died, but they held the line, giving not a single scrap of ground for long minutes. Their battlelines grew lopsided as the Corsairs were pushed back, the Defiled threatening to engulf her bullies, but still they fought on, holding to the bitter end. Laughing in defiance, she crushed one skull after another, determined to take as many down with her, so she could hold her head high and honestly tell the Mother, ‘I gave it me all’.
Blessed Mother, take me if ye must, but spare as many of me bullies as ye see can, I beg ye.
A dark shadow moved in from overhead and the Butchers faltered before Sovanna, glancing up and behind her. Barely registering the pause, she moved to attack, but someone pulled her back just in time to avoid a barrage of projectiles. Stones, arrows, bricks, and spears, someone threw everything but the chamber pot at the Defiled lines, to little effect. Turning to glare at the idiot who ordered a volley so close to her people, her jaw dropped at the sight of the ragged mob, sending wave after wave of projectiles as they marched, drowning the Defiled beneath a volume of fire. She picked out a few familiar faces among the crowd, their likenesses posted in every square and market in the city. Mongrel Kabi, Ulfsaar the Voracious, Light-fingered Yu, Daxian the Virtuous and many more. Whether they were heroes or villains changed depending on who you asked, but one thing was certain: their strength could not be denied.
Leading the charge was the Lord of Thunder, Lei Gong himself, his white hair standing on end as he cackled, sending blinding bolts of power into the Defiled lines. Beside him ran a short warrior, armoured head to toe in shimmering blue scales, with a coiled length of metallic rope in hand. While the other bandits charged the Enemy, the scaled warrior stepped aside, flanked by a giant and a slim warrior, both wielding thick, metal staves and dressed in similar armour, though not as colourful as their leader’s. Glancing at the gathered guards, their saviour reached up and removed his helmet, revealing a pinched face panting from exertion, his rat ears fluttering atop his head. “Woo,” he exclaimed with a toothy smile, glancing at the gathered guards. “Looks like we got ‘ere just in time. Now which one of ye sorry sods is in charge?”
Every head turned to look at Sovanna, and she stepped forward. “I am Sovanna, guard captain of Sanshu. And ye are?”
Leering from below, he grinned and bowed in an almost courtly manner. “What a lovely guard captain, my honour to meet ye.” Straightening up, he put his helmet back on, winking playfully from behind the mask. “I have the pleasure of being Hangman Jorani, and I’ve brought the Mother’s Militia here to scour the Defiled filth from Sanshu. The Mother wills it,” he added, somewhat unconvincingly.
The armoured giant nodded enthusiastically while chiming in, “Don’t forget the Askcends’ and the Bekkies, Jor. They’re here too.”
With a long sigh, Jorani answered, “Yes Ral, thank you. The Azure Ascendants are here too. We stumbled across the Bekhai outside, who say Major Yuzhen is on the way. There, you happy Ral? That’s everyone.” Turning to Sovanna, he said, “You lot take a breather and don’t be stabbin’ me in the back now, we’ll handle this good and proper. Come, lets go kill some Defiled. I need more practice with this damned chain. Worst fucking spiritual weapon ever, how does he expect me to use this thing?”
While they marched off, Sovanna listened to the giant rumble on, chatting as if he were out on a stroll. “Jor, can we go to the market later? Chey said they have candied fruits. I never eated candied fruits before.”
“Sure, I’ll buy ye all the candy ye can stomach. Business first though, don’t ye be dreamin during the fight now, can’t eat no candy without a head.”
“Will do Jor, I’ll be real careful… Do you think Mister Rain will let me pet a roosiequin? They look so soft and fluffy.”
“Ye call him Officer Rain, nice and proper like. We’ll see about the quins, no promises though.”
Sovanna’s mouth opened and closed, then opened again, hanging in disbelief as she slumped to the ground, too exhausted to walk away. What a strange world she lived in, with nobles all scrambling to flee the city and leaving the citizens behind, while almost every bandit and vagrant in the region rushed to Sanshu’s defence.
The Mother worked in mysterious ways, but Sovanna didn’t question Her will.
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