Author’s note: I’d like to give a shout out to my anonymous donor. Thank you so much for your support!
Also, trips. Check em.
The reports continued to pour in as Tongzu watched the Coalition mercenaries assemble their catapults. Small and easily carried by four soldiers, yet capable of delivering a 100 kilogram payload up to a kilometre away, these weapons were of limited use on the open field, but here, inside Sanshu? He could only imagine the havoc they would wreak. With a spotter to Send coordinates, he could bombard the enemy from out of sight, firing over walls and buildings and easily re-positioning before they respond. These were weapons designed for inner-city warfare and he had to wonder what the Coalition planned to use them for. Was the Council so close to shedding blood in the streets without his knowledge? Did the Alliance and the Union have similar weapons ready? Where were they now? He shuddered at the thought of unemployed, well-armed mercenaries unable to find work once the Coalition took power, a new wave of bandits in the making before the old ones were even taken care of.
A problem for another day, better to focus on one calamity at a time. With any luck, he might not even live to worry about it, dying in a blaze of glory to save Sanshu. Much better than the alternative, falling at the hands of shadowy assassins or even worse, ousted from his Office, either option easily within the Coalition’s power without the Council to keep them in check. A bitter pill to swallow, but all Tongzu could do was move with the wind and pray for deliverance.
Two reports arrived almost simultaneously, each one leaving him wallowing in despair. First, the elements of Defiled outside Sanshu were moving against Yuzhen’s army, giving the exhausted elites no time to rest. They would need to hold on their own, he had no soldiers to spare. The second report informed him the Butchers were on the move, headed towards the northern bridge in force. To make matters worse, the Corsair representative Jariad refused to pull back to bridge or even meet with him in person, going so far as threatening his life should he attempt to force his way in. Jariad didn’t trust him of all things. The bandit unable to trust the Magistrate, how ridiculous.
Damned arrogant bandits, trying to stand alone. Where was Bastard Liu? No, better to call him by name lest he slip up in conversation. Ignoring Gerel’s mysterious veiled Mentor, still sitting next to him sipping tea and eating sweet cakes without a care in the world, and Lei Gong of the Azure Ascendants, Liu Shi was the only other candidate capable of matching Yo Ling in single combat. So irksome to rely on bandits and outsiders to save his city, but somehow, he preferred it to the alternative, letting one of Chief Councilman Xiaobo’s underlings reap the honour and glory of killing the legendary Bandit King of Butcher Bay.
“Tongzu.” As if summoned by the mere thought of his name, Xiaobo arrived with a flourish, the reek of sweat and body odour heavy upon his garish silken robes. The lack of respect was infuriating, but again, there was little Tongzu could do aside from snapping the fat toad’s neck, but there was time for that yet. “I’ve been informed the bandits are massing around the northern bridge. Is this information correct?”
“Then why are you not taking action? Shouldn’t you be encircling them or some other military maneuver?”
Holding his temper, Tongzu grit his teeth and smiled. “Oh? I wasn’t aware of Chief Councilman Xiaobo’s expertise in warfare. Perhaps you’d like to take command?”
“No need to be snide, it doesn’t suit you.” Picking his nose, Xiaobo flicked a green globule from his fat finger, though it stubbornly clung on. “I’m merely curious why you aren’t seizing this perfect opportunity. I thought you’d like a taste of glory for yourself, but I’ll be happy to send a force of mercenaries in your stead.”
“No. Keep your mercenaries here.” Unable to hide his disgust, Tongzu turned to his maps, pretending to study them instead of looking at Xiaobo. “We can hold as we are. At worst, Guard Captain Sovanna can destroy the bridge. I’d prefer the Corsairs fall back before then, but they’ve ignored my warnings.” He gave them enough chances, let them die butting heads with Yo Ling. All the better for Sanshu in the long run. “If Yo Ling attacks here or to the south, we’ll throw them back with the help of your mercenaries. The longer we wait, the better our position. My soldiers and guards are exhausted, I’ve little faith in our bandit ‘friends’, and Major Yuzhen is under attack, unable to seal off the Defiled retreat.”
“So cowardly.” Still digging through his nose, Xiaobo rolled his eyes. “Weren’t you supposed to be some war hero? No matter, I’ll put an end to this fuss. You can’t imagine the amount of money I’m losing every minute the gates remain closed.”
Patting Tongzu on the arm with his filthy hand, Xiabo turned to leave. Madness, if those mercenaries charged in and died then he’d be no better off than an hour ago. Would it be better to let the mercenaries die and fail, or risk his soldiers for a chance of victory?
“I’ll not allow Gerel’s prey to be stolen.” The veiled expert spoke aloud, sipping the rest of her tea. Standing up, she brushed away the crumbs and strode off. “Thank you for the tea and snacks, but I tire of sitting around. Come, gather your soldiers, let us end this farce.”
Unsure whether to laugh or cry, Tongzu shook his head and Sent his orders, making sure Xiaobo would remain in place to guard their retreat. The opportunity to trap Yo Ling and his Butchers between three armies was a tempting one, and with some luck and plenty of hard work, Sanshu would be free of Defiled before sunset. Best of all, the veiled expert seemed intent on joining them, so after Gerel’s second attempt to kill Yo Ling ended in inevitable failure, maybe she would take care of the problem for him.
One could only hope.
The slow march down Sanshu’s paved streets gave Yo Ling time to clear his mind and calm his temper, the last vestiges of alcohol burned away beneath the heady rush of impending combat. The Spirits offered great power, but it came with equal risk, the phantoms forever pushing him towards loss of control and identity. A single glance served as warning for what lay in wait should he succumb to their whispers, the Transcendents nothing more than the Spirits given flesh. Their nightmarish appearance left much to be desired, not to mention the complete and utter loss of will accompanying Transcendence. Worse, they were so easily manipulated once you learned the trick. Such delicious irony, the Spirits realizing their greatest desire and granted physical form only to be enslaved, the puppeteer turned puppet.
Putting those thoughts aside, he turned to study his army. His expectations for his Butchers had been too high, he saw this now. He’d envisioned marching across the Empire razing cities and defeating armies with his Butchers, their dark armour turning aside blade and arrow while cutting down his enemies with their deadly weapons. Instead, they faltered against common guardsmen and mediocre soldiers, unable to deal with a Sanshu deprived of its elites. It’s not that his Butchers were weak, but they lacked unity and direction, his captains unable to use his Butchers to full advantage. Thrown into the enemy lines with little rhyme or reason, it’s no wonder his Butchers faltered before the well-led guardsmen and soldiers of the Empire. A shame the Transcendents lacked even rudimentary communication skills, if only he could turn them into an extension of his will, commanding his army from all fronts.
What might he have accomplished with competent officers in command of his Butchers? The battle for Sanshu would have been long over if Gao Qiu or Jariad led his warriors instead of the likes of Kaliyan or Nazier. A curse upon Bastard Liu for absconding with all his old comrades, former soldiers one and all unlike this rabble of raiders and cutthroats, not a single true leader to be found among them. This was no one’s fault but his own. A band of bandits was no place to nurture commanders, a dog-eat-dog world where ambition needed to be squashed before becoming a threat to himself. His Butchers were no proper army, merely a horde of well-armed pillagers, beaten back through clever positioning and sheer force of will. It would take discipline and education to mould these warriors into the weapon he so desired. To do so, he needed not only their fear and obedience, but their reverence as well.
What better way to start than by crushing his oldest rivals, the traitorous Crossbone Corsairs?
Flanked by his Transcendents and followed by his Butchers, Yo Ling strode at the front, giving orders and organizing his soldiers. No longer would he be a figurehead hidden behind his captains, the master of secrets, the Spectre of Sanshu. The image served him well as a Bandit King, but now was the time for a new chapter in his story, a new beginning, evolving into Yo Ling the General, the Conqueror, and eventually, Emperor of Man. His Butchers raced down alleys and over manor walls, cutting off the exposed Cosair’s avenues of retreat and guarding his flanks from the inevitable attack from Sanshu’s defenders, and Vithar rode out to test Yuzhen’s elites. Though he knew their presence meant little in the grand scheme of things, his Butchers were more accustomed to hit-and-run tactics, and having their retreat cut off put them on edge.
Vithar’s cavalry were a force to be reckoned with, but since their loyalty was to the Uniter, Yo Ling considered them expendable, as were the rabble mobs gathered at his side. Comprised of Enlightened arriving from hidden mountain villages or secluded forest depths, they were little better than fodder and he would use them as such. Wear down the elites and test their mettle, perhaps a few might even succumb to the Spirits and replenish his dwindling ranks of Transcendents. Six were all he had left and the loss pained him, each one meticulously reared or captured over dozens of years.
Hopefully, Gen’s talents of Oration would not disappoint like his skills in combat, though Yo Ling needed a method to ensure any Enlightened or Transcendents fell beneath his command and not the boy’s, especially if another Transcendent as useful as ‘Bei’ appeared. Even he was at a loss to explain how it hid in Gen’s shadow or crossed distances in the blink of an eye, a perfect hidden weapon, ambush assassin, and powerful defense all in one. Add to this its ability to speed Gen’s healing left Yo Ling seething with envy. He’d considered killing the boy before they met, finding his meteoric growth in power concerning, but Gen turned out to be an impressionable young lad who craved his approval. Better to let the boy live and nurture his talents, someone for Yo Ling to shape into one of his future Captains, loyal to the core.
His musings were interrupted by Jianghong’s Sending. “Now that we’re committed to this venture,” he Sent dryly, “Perhaps now would be a good time to share your plans.”
Truth be told, Yo Ling regretted his actions in the restaurant, attacking and outright threatening the man. The lapse in control meant Jianghong could never be trusted, an accomplished tactician and commander forever lost to him. To say Mao Jianghong held a grudge was an understatement, a soul darker than most, hiding his rage and waiting years for vengeance. Unlike Gao Qiu who drew on the Spirits’ power without knowledge, Jianghong was a man whose eyes were opened to the truth, yet abstained from its power in order to display Purity. It was like a man dying of thirst next to a pool of freshwater, refusing to drink until achieving his goal of becoming Guard Captain of Sanshu, a seed Yo Ling planted which flourished into the study pillar of his plans to take Sanshu.
Jianghong would undoubtedly obey orders, the model of a loyal soldier until the second he buried his dagger in Yo Ling’s back. A damn shame, but he would use the traitor guard captain until his value no longer outweighed the risk. Perhaps he’d even confess to murdering Jianghong’s family, listing out in explicit detail all the fun he’d had with the Mao family women. Smiling at the memory, he glanced at Jianghong and Sent, “You wish to know my plans? Very well. I intend to kill the Corsairs and any who stand with them, before taking the northern bridge. Then we will hold our position until their reinforcements arrive and crush the rest of Sanshu’s defenders in one fell swoop.”
Only a minor widening of his eyes betrayed Jianghong’s emotions, the man struggling to keep his anger in control. Such impressive willpower and resolution, if only Yo Ling could be assured of his loyalty, he would make Jianghong his second in a heartbeat. Instead, the man was doomed to die a dog’s death at the hands of the very person he so desperately searched for. “Not to criticize,” Jianghong Sent, his tone respectful and subservient, “But your plan is sorely lacking in details. You might take the bridge with your six… Transcendents, but to hold against the full might of Sanshu’s defenders is… improbable. With the Golden Highland’s Coalition’s forces, we’re heavily outnumbered and my scouts inform me they’re remarkably well armed. Your plan will have us trapped in the plaza and bombarded with stone and shot.”
“Your concern is noted, but unwarranted. We will be victorious.”
Unconvinced, Jianghong continued to pestering for details, and Yo Ling merely smiled in silence, listening to the Spirits whisper of telling Jianghong the truth, that Yo Ling was responsible for the downfall of the Mao Family. Imagining the reaction, his smile widened though he held his tongue. Jianghong wasn’t the only one capable of self-discipline.
After realizing no further explanation was forthcoming, Jianghong tried a different tack. “You must understand how your sudden appearance unnerves your soldiers. They’re unused to you leading from the front. You’ve cultivated an air of mystery over the years, the infallible strategist and spymaster commanding from the shadows. Why throw it all away? You’d be better served using me as your figurehead and leading from the rear.”
And so it began, Jianghong’s attempts to make himself indispensable, worming his way into Yo Ling’s inner circle and earning his trust. Were he a loyal man, Jianghong’s suggestion was undoubtedly worth considering, but Yo Ling had no intention of letting this traitorous wretch be the hero of this narrative. “No need. After today, my Butchers will see I am more than capable of being both commander and warrior.”
With that, Jianghong abandoned his attempts, sensing Yo Ling’s annoyance and worried of taking things too far. Such was the fate of the weak, with no choice but to swallow their pride, but Yo Ling needed to be cautious. If he took serious injury in the battle ahead, Jianghong would undoubtedly turn on him, forcing him to reveal his hand early or possibly even request aid from the Venerated Ones. Best to leave them hidden for as long as possible, as their presence brought too many complications.
Calling his Butchers to a halt, he stood tall and studied his enemies, the Corsairs lined in the streets at what used to be a market, a single long avenue lined with shops and stalls. Arranged behind makeshift barricades in a wedge formation, the Corsairs stretched from wall to wall, barring his path to the plaza and bridge behind them. An unwashed mob of ruffians, these were no true soldiers, the perfect sacrifice needed to raise his Butchers’ morale. Though this position was suitable for defence, they were here alone, the Militia and guardsmen unwilling to abandon the Bridge. Fools.
Still, the Corsairs were well prepared, the buildings and rooftops bristling with bows and spears, ready to shower them in a hail of projectiles. Planks laid out between the buildings allowed for easy retreat and removing them even easier, forcing him to clear the defenders out building by building. Who knew how many traps and ambushes awaited him inside? Even heavily armoured as his Butchers were, a head on attack would be cost him dearly.
Too bad he didn’t intend to attack head on.
Jariad’s antlers stood out from the crowd, moving to the forefront to speak with him, but Yo Ling ignored him. Unless it was Bastard Liu across the way, he had nothing to say. Turning to his strongest Transcendent, he took a moment to appreciate its elegance, power give form. A hulking creature with the head of a stag and the arms of a gorilla, it towered above him on two hooved feet, its taut muscles and dense fur near impossible to pierce. With no preamble, he ordered it to charge and off it went, roaring in bestial rage as stone and dirt rose in its wake, moving on hoof and hand with head lowered, its barbed antlers a sight to behold, gleaming white and soon-to-be dripping with blood.
Ignoring all the buildings, it ran headlong towards the barricades with reckless abandon, shrugging off arrows and stones as it picked up speed, shaking the ground with every step. As it closed the distance, Yo Ling watched Jariad give a signal, and in response, a piddling few Spiritual Weapons shot out to strike the Transcendent, each one caught by the bramble of antlers. Bounding over the last few meters, it struck the barricade head-first with a resounding boom, crashing through wood, bone, and flesh in an explosion of blood and gore.
Amidst the confusion, his other five Transcendents joined the fray, three trailing the first while the others dealt with the buildings, clearing them out with ease as the defenders were petrified by Transcendent Auras. Screams rang out as bodies rained down from above, Corsairs jumping from the rooftops to escape the creatures killing and devouring all before them. Chuckling at the sight, Yo Ling raised his voice above it all. “Forward my Butchers. End these pitiful pretenders and let all the Empire know, Butcher Bay is unrivalled beneath the heavens.”
Screaming in fury, his Butchers set upon the scattered Corsairs with unholy fervour, exerting all their frustrations over years and years of rivalry. Though most of them weren’t present during the schism, his Butchers hated the Corsairs for everything they represented. If not for them, then Butcher Bay would have dominated Sanshu, with no room for smaller bandit groups to be had. Hands clasped behind his back, Yo Ling strolled through the battlefield, watching a wave of Butchers crash into the ruined barricades and hack apart the disorganized defenders, enjoying the carnage and bloodshed. There was no need to lift a finger unless Bastard Liu showed his face, then they would settle their score once and for all. Until such a time, he could sit back and let his Butchers enjoy themselves. After all, once this battle was over, it was possible they wouldn’t have another chance for bloodshed, Sanshu already well within his grasp.
Breathing deep to take in the scent of death, he exhaled slowly, sighing. A damn shame his Butchers didn’t live up to expectations. To forever be surrounded by your inferiors, such was the burden of genius.
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