Restless and eager to join the battle, Gen yearned to run ahead but Mao Jianghong held him back. “Patience,” the former guard captain reminded, strolling leisurely through the streets while his warriors marched behind them. “There is a time and place for speed, but not here and not now.”
“Right. Warfare isn’t a sprint, it’s a marathon,” Gen replied, nodding sagely. Better to conserve his strength and stay fresh so he could tear Rain limb from limb.
“Good, I’m not wasting my breath after all.” Gesturing for Gen to come closer, Jianghong launched into another lesson. “A commander must always appear in control, lest your soldiers mistake a sweating brow for worry. Battles are won and lost on morale alone. How you choose to appear calm is up to you. Some, like Yo Ling, affect an icy, indifferent attitude, leading through proxy as if all actions were within his purview. Others, like Chu Tongzu, lead from the front, spurring the troops on through action and example.”
“And you like to appear calm and calculating,” Gen chimed in, catching on.
“Observant. I might make a true commander out of you yet.” Jianghong gave a half-smile and Gen all but beamed with joy. “Whatever your choice, remain consistent else you risk unnerving your soldiers. For example, if Yo Ling were to descend from his restaurant perch and personally take command, some might take it as a sign of weakness and worry the battle isn’t going their way. A soldier only sees what’s before them, while a commander must understand the broader perspective.”
Shrugging, Jianghong answered, “Practice and experience mostly. An able commander requires many qualities and skills. You must be inquisitive and organized, for even the most innocuous details may hold the key to victory. You must be quick thinking and adaptable, for no plan survives first clash with the enemy. You must be decisive and resolute, for even when you make the wrong decision, it is better than doing nothing at all.” Pursing his lips, he shrugged again. “Unless of course, the correct decision is to do nothing, but it’s difficult to teach you all I know in mere minutes, Gen. For now, work on how to Send.”
Jianghong using his name was a pleasant change, as if they were equals. Everyone else called him ‘boy’ or ‘whelp’ or worse. “Could you explain Yo Ling’s plan? All I know is we’re to take the bridges, but the damned guards keep destroying them.”
With another shrug, Jianghong answered, “Not even I am privy to Yo Ling’s grand scheme, the man thinks in circles within circles. I only know he means to take Sanshu and use it as his base of operations, but how he hopes to accomplish such a thing is beyond me. Our numbers are a pittance compared to what the Empire can bring to bear in a matter of weeks, and Yo Ling squanders lives on this… crude brawl. He puts too much faith in his ‘Venerated Ones’ instead of good, solid infantry.”
Gen felt the need to defend Yo Ling, a strange sense of loyalty. “That’s not true, he told me ‘Victory depends wholly on standard infantry’.”
Shaking his head, Jianghong sighed. “If Yo Ling truly believes as you say, then why throw lives away like this? You heard our argument the first day you arrived. To take and hold the city would require far more soldiers than we have, without mentioning the manpower required to subjugate the workforce. At the rate things are progressing, we’ll be fighting off every bandit, vagabond, and would-be hero living a hundred kilometres around Sanshu by the end of the week. I’ll not waste my soldiers on his foolishness, but something must be done. We’ll push into the Southern District and move to take the gate. Judging by the troop counts, there can’t be more than a skeleton crew to defend it. With two gates, we’ll have food and room for all our warriors, enough to hold out for months should the worst come to pass.”
Gen glanced back at the marching soldiers, an impressive bunch so long as it came to marching in tandem. He’d yet to see them fight, but they appeared competent enough. Though he didn’t wholly agree with Jianghong’s plan, he didn’t know enough to argue against its merits. It felt wrong to prepare for failure instead of aiming for success. Changing the topic, he asked, “Who are the Venerated Ones?”
Another shrug. “Some form of Demon would be my guess, stronger than the ones he calls ‘Transcendents’. Too many secrets and schemes.” Jianghong fell silent as they marched onwards, and Gen realized the man was truly worried. Had he truly spent too much time among the sheep, or was he right to be concerned? Unsure who to trust more, Gen threw away all his doubts and let the actions speak for themselves. Time would reveal who was right, no sense worrying about it now. Instead, he turned his attention to the battle ahead, enjoying the aroma of blood and ash as he strolled through the streets of Sanshu.
Entering the plaza, he found a perplexing calm blanketing the battlefield, the Butchers standing in place, packed shoulder to shoulder all the way to the bridge. There was no clash of arms or screams of challenge, only the familiar rhythmic cadence of marching boots to fill the silence as the Butchers stood at a standstill. Without stopping, Jianghong continued forward and as if through sheer force of presence, the Butchers parted ways to allow him through, faces filled with hesitation and concern. Unable to see past the towering Butchers, Gen craned his neck for a better view until Jianghong’s voice sounded in his head. “Appearances Gen. You’re not a farm hand out to sight-see. All will reveal itself in time.”
Sheepishly settling down, Gen cursed himself for forgetting again. Twice now he’d made a fool of himself, and he was determined not to make the same mistake again. Adjusting his helmet, he drew himself to full height, mimicking Jianghong’s relaxed stride, wondering just what caused these warriors to halt the attack.
Jianghong came to a stop next to Ravager Kaliyan, a ravishing sight to behold in her suggestive, skin-tight armour. A beautiful woman, but a dangerous one, Yo Ling warned him never to accept any invitation to her bed and the Spirits agreed. Still, the woman had an alluring presence, winking coquettishly at Jianghong as she stroked his arm. “Well, if it isn’t Mao Jianghong, Guard Captain of Sanshu. Come to check on Kaliyan, have you? This one is honoured by your presence.”
Ignoring her flirtatious fluttering, Jianghong spoke in a commanding tone. “Explain. Why are you not attacking?”
With a one-shouldered shrug, Kaliyan sighed. “Nazier just got himself killed, by a whelp no less.” Affecting a pout, she turned to Gen and said, “A shame little Gen, but your fated nemesis has perished. Thrown over the bridge even as Nazier breathed his last, a meal for the fishes.”
His stomach roiled at the news, unwilling to believe his ears. “Impossible.” Rain killed Black Heart Nazier, a veteran of over two dozen duels? No, it couldn’t be true. “How?”
“The savages took the bridge rather quickly. Brute force, not my preferred method, but it has its place. Then the whelp stepped forward with his Aura ablaze, offering challenge. Nazier saw a chance to add another name to his litany, but got lazy because he was facing a child. Impaled himself charging into the brat’s sword, a foolish end to a foolish man.” Gesturing around her, Kaliyan held her hands up in feigned helplessness. “Those bastards didn’t even blink when Nazier stepped out to fight the brat, so now my comrades are wondering: if the whelp was that strong, then how strong are his subordinates?”
His face twisted in a snarl, Gen pushed his way forward a few steps before catching himself. Taking a deep breath, he calmed his nerves. Patience. Turning to Jianghong, he asked, “Our enemies aren’t the only one with talented youths. I’d like to offer challenge.”
Jianghong didn’t answer immediately, considering the idea while studying Gen. After a long minute, he Sent, “You still have your Demon about you?” Hiding a frown, Gen nodded, sensing her presence nearby. Bei was his wife, a Transcendent woman who cared for him. Demon was the label given to her by the Enemy, but Jianghong lived among them for so long, allowances needed to be made.
Though there were limits to his tolerance. What sort of man would Gen be if he didn’t defend his wife’s honour?
Finally, after another moment of deliberating, Jianghong nodded and spoke out loud, his voice booming in the silence and dripping with scorn and sarcasm. “Hmph. So the ‘Undying Savage’ fails to live up to expectations. How utterly unexpected.” The Butchers silently moved aside to reveal him, and he clapped Gen on the shoulder, still speaking loudly for all to hear. “Gen, show these savages how a true talent fights, assuming they have a soldier brave enough to face a callow youth.”
Enjoying the attention, Gen strut towards the bridge with heroic bearing, mentally commanding Bei to remain hidden. “I am Gen, Emissary of Flame,” he said, grinning as the enemy fell back at his approach. Still, they weren’t fearful enough for his tastes, moving away in an orderly fashion. “I intend to settle my score with Rain, but since he’s dead, I’ve no choice but to kill his companions instead. Who dares face me in single combat? Try not to disappoint.”
The enemy continued slinking back, revealing two young girls peering over the side of the bridge, wholly ignoring him. Their lashing tails were hard to miss, and Gen frowned at the sight. Half-beasts, a feline and some bushy-tailed rodent. Once while on a hunt with his father, they’d come across a babe left to die in the woods, a mouse or vole of some sort. Not even their parents wanted them, half-beasts were an abomination against nature.
A shame Papa put the babe out of its misery. Gen always wanted a slave. Perhaps he’d take these two for himself, they were lovely enough aside from the ears and tails, nothing a knife couldn’t fix. The feline was sublime, but there was something about the rodent that tugged at his heart. Dressed in black leather armour, her neck-length crimson hair was hidden by a fur-lined leather cap. Her pale freckled skin, cute button nose, and puffy, tear-stained eyes filled him with desire, an earthly beauty about her. How sweet it would be to see her on her knees and begging him for mercy, a need to dominate and claim her almost overwhelming him.
As the feline readied to strike, Gen smirked at her stupidity. He could have set them aflame ten paces ago, the animal too dumb to understand. “Are you to be my opponent, kitten? Come meet your new master, I’ll be gentle.” His words struck a chord as the kitten bared her teeth and hissed in unrestrained fury. Uncivilized and uncouth, he would have to correct her attitude. The rodent turned, surprise flickering across her face before her eyes narrowed in anger, her gaze flickering to his fearsome claws. “So,” she drawled, motioning for the other to stand back, “I’m guessing you’re Gen.”
Irked he’d been ignored until now, Gen feigned a smile. “It seems my reputation precedes me.”
“Ha. What reputation?” Twirling her short spear, she settled into a guarded stance, her small, sturdy frame hidden behind her plain, rounded shield, those lovely eyes glaring from just above the rim, the spear held at her side and ready to pierce. “Rain told me all about you, a coward and a bully, trying to bully a poor village girl into becoming his wife. How despicable. Rain should never have shown you mercy, but he is a kind soul.”
Almost overcome with rage, Gen swallowed his words and feigned a smile. No need to argue against a dead man’s lies, the bitch would pay dearly for her insults. “Perhaps, but it’s too late for regrets now. He’s dead, and I still live, and if he stood before me now, I would rend and tear him to pieces.”
“You’re delusional. You lack the qualifications to challenge him.” Raising her voice, she shouted, “I am Sumila, Daughter of Akanai, Student of Husolt, Khishig of the Bekhai. Fair warning, I am not as compassionate as my betrothed. Come, foul Defiled, meet your doom.”
Delighted, Gen stalked closer, his clawed fingers scraping together with a sinister ring. “Oh? How fortuitous, Heaven is truly on my side. To think I would come across Falling Rain’s betrothed. He took my bride-to-be, so I will take you, Sumila.” He savoured the taste of her name on his lips, watching her with hunters eyes. “I will enjoy your futile struggles as I press you to the ground, delighting in your panicked screams-”
Striking without motion, the spear lanced out towards him. Only Bei’s interference saved his life, the tip deflected by her unseen hands without ever touching his skin. Grabbing the haft, he tugged hard, trying to wrench it free from Sumila’s grasp, but the spear seemed rooted in stone. Grunting, Sumila ripped the spear from Gen’s hand as if his fingers were made of wet noodles. A second thrust followed, then a third, and a fourth, all too fast for Gen to follow, relying on Bei to defend him as he fell back. Sumila pressed her advantage, seemingly always within range, her spear a blur and shield ever present.
The black shield grew before his eyes and smashed into his chest, the blow too heavy and wide for Bei to parry without notice. The air rushed from his lungs as he flew back, rolling head over heels. Arresting his momentum, he bounced to his feet only to receive a second bash, this time somewhat dulled as Bei adjusted to the attack. The shove was still powerful enough to shift his feet, and he stumbled over the sweeping spear to land hard on his back. Gasping for air, his eyes grew wide before flinging himself aside, escaping the descending shield only by a hair. The rounded metal edge struck the stone bridge with a thunderous crack, setting the sturdy structure to shaking in a dangerous manner, Sumila’s monstrous strength displayed for all to see.
“Tch.” A small sound of annoyance reached Gen’s ears as he scrambled to his feet, Sumila already in position once again. Shield forward, spear ready, she was a tiny, mobile fortress complete with powerful artillery, able to attack and defend in one strike. This was unfair, how could such an adorable monster exist? How was he to defeat her?
To his surprise, the Spirits responded.
Beware her strength inordinate and skill prodigious. Both shield and spear defend and attack without pattern. Throat, knee, feint, chest, sweep, each action chained together with impeccable timing. Far beyond your skill, beyond the whelp’s. Take your distance, strike with flame, tear the shield from burnt fingers and feast upon flesh.
Acting on their advice, Gen blocked the spear thrust with his bare hands, using the momentum to create distance between them. From barely three strides away, he unleashed a gout of flames at the rodent bitch, lamenting the need to end her so quickly. There was no helping it, the brutish inhuman was too powerful, too skilled, this was the only way.
Twisting violently to one side, Gen spun a full circle before he realized what hit him, Sumila’s spear still shaking as it protruded from his shoulder. So powerful a throw, Bei couldn’t entirely deflect it, though she saved his life, keeping the projectile from piercing his heart. A good wife for a good man, this was the Heavens repaying him for his earlier sufferings. The world shifted and he found himself at the base of the bridge, back among his comrades and wrapped in his dutiful wife’s arms.
His world erupted in pain as the spear wrenched from his shoulder. Gasping for breath, his vision spun as he tried to make sense of the madness, watching the spear land neatly in Sumila’s smoking hand. With reddening skin peeling from half her face, her arrogant sneer burned into his memory, her scorn and disregard striking him to the core. “Hmph. I’ve nothing to fear from you. If not for that Demon protecting you from the shadows, I’d have killed you a dozen times over. You thought to challenge Rain with only your paltry flames and pitiful skills? Pathetic. You’re not worthy to even speak his name.”
Rage overtook him and he shrieked, “Bei, kill her! Kill her now!”
Bei leaped to follow his commands and the Butchers following suit, cheering as they charged the bridge. This was supposed to be his chance to shine, leading his comrades to victory, but instead, he was humiliated and beaten soundly in front of everyone. Worst of all, no one cared. His comrades followed Bei into battle, Gen’s defeat already forgotten, of no consequence at all. Mortified and miserable, Gen stumbled away in search of a better vantage point, hoping to catch Sumila’s last moments.
Once victory was theirs, Gen would lead an army North and scour the Bekhai from this world. No man, woman, or child would be spared, for this was the price for crossing the Emissary of Flame.
Author’s note: Wow that second meme took longer than expected. I’m not even happy with it, total amateur work. Ah well. It’s done, whatever.
Even as I wrote 213, I knew the ordering would suffer. By all means, I should have done Gen’s PoV last chapter, but I wanted to do Rain’s big reveal and got ahead of myself. Meh. I still think it works, but not as well. Something to ponder over going forward.
Anyway, I have a small treat for my supporters. In my google drive (and on Patreon, link is in the newest post), there’s a small teaser for 215, only 650 words. A tiny look at the next chapter. I won’t be doing this often, It’s only there because I wrote it expecting it to fit in this chapter, but it didn’t, so there it is. Don’t get too used to this, as I write on a day by day basis. It isn’t even really edited, so there may be changes to come.
Whatever, have a good weekend all!
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