“Jorani, what in the Father’s Maw we doin’ here?”
Without slowing his advance, Jorani glanced at Kabi, fighting the urge to slap him silly for asking such a stupid question. The former captain of the Mongrels shivered uncontrollably as they marched along the road, tail tucked and dog ears pressed against his skull, and Jorani sympathized with the man. Truth be told, he’d been wondering the same thing, wishing he were anywhere but here. How did he end up in this mess? Two months ago, he’d been a scout for the Freebooters, drinking and thieving while dreaming of moving up in the world. Well his dream had finally come true. Today, Jorani led his bandit crew into battle against Butcher Bay’s Defiled army.
The single thought sent a chill down his spine, but thankfully his armour hid his cowardice. Swallowing the lump in his throat, Jorani answered in the calmest tone he could manage given the circumstances. “You heard the guard captain, Kabi. We’re goin’ to support the Corsairs and pin them in the marketplace. Then the bleedin’ Magistrate comes along to bugger ‘em from behind both ways. Easy is as easy does.” His voice cracked at the second ‘easy’, his terror threatening to burst from his chest and spew all over the road.
A small whine escaped Kabi’s lips. “Yer mad. I know we signed for ten years service with ye, but I thought it’d be banditry, not fucking suicide. We’ve no place bein’ here, let alone fighting Butcher Bay. We’re all gonna die or worse. They’re fucking Defiled, you heard the stories…”
True enough, but with Lei Gong keeping an eye on him, Jorani had no choice but to follow orders and spout rhetoric. “I told you when we started, we ain’t bandits no more; we’re the Mother’s Militia. Our place is here in Sanshu, defending Her children.”
“Mother’s sagging tits,” Kabi hissed, moving close to keep from being overheard. “Enough with the religious bullshit, ye ain’t convincing anyone. This is serious. We both know the whole ‘Militia’ gimmick was you working an angle, a way to rile people up about the Council. I never would’ve guessed it was the Ascendants backing ye, but it doesn’t matter. You’ve got that fancy armour on, but it ain’t gonna keep you safe from Yo Ling. He’ll rip you right out of it like like peeling an orange, mark my words.”
“You think I don’t know that?” Jorani snapped, glaring at his former drinking buddy. “You think I don’t want to cut and run? Thing is, I can’t. We’re here to fight, so deal with it.”
In his anger, Jorani forgot to keep his voice down, but luckily, someone misinterpreted his statement. “The boss is right,” Ulfsaar the Voracious said, marching beside his wife Neera. The two half-bears numbered among the few bandits who bought into Jorani’s pious mumbling. “We leave now and the Defiled win. Sanshu needs us, the Mother wills it.”
Without missing a beat, Kabi replied, “What the fuck does that got to do with us? We’re thieves and bandits, not heroes of the Empire. Even if we save Sanshu from destruction, you think they’ll throw a parade for us? Mark my words, when this is all over, we’ll be clapped in chains without so much as a how you do, all to hide their shame, assuming the bleedin’ Empire doesn’t have the entire region purged. Don’t you see? They won’t admit to being saved by bandits, so they’re sending us in as fodder, a bone for the Butchers to gnaw on while the Magistrate laughs and watches. Lookit what’s happened with the Corsairs, sent out to fight Yo Ling without support.”
“Now don’t ye be spreading yer lies.” Guard Captain Sovanna arrived to chime in, their little discussion spreading among the Militia and guardsmen. “Sanshu appreciates yer help, ain’t no two ways about it. What comes after… well I can’t speak fer others, but you’ve my gratitude. As for the Corsairs, it ain’t our fault. We sent word, but they refused to pull back. Now they’ve been attacked, we’re moving up support em. What more do ye want?”
“Not to put further strain on things, but the Mongrel has a point.” Light-Fingered Yu joined in the conversation, their pace never slowing as they marched towards the market. “What’s to stop the guards from destroying the bridge behind us and trapping us here with Yo Ling?”
Sovanna snorted. “I’m right here with ye, ain’t I?”
Prudently not mentioning how Sovanna might be a dupe as well, Yu shrugged and continued. “Even if we survive, what happens when this is over? A man needs both carrot and stick, else there’s no motivation in continuing. While we are bound to our oaths, we swore loyalty to the Mother’s Militia, not blind obedience. A minor distinction, I’ll admit, but the way I see it, if I wished you all the best of luck while making a run for safety, then I’ve kept my end of the bargain. Am I willing to stake my life on it?” Yu shrugged, seeming wholly unconcerned, a killer well-versed in hiding his emotions. “It depends. Considering we’re facing certain death at the hands of Yo Ling or the Magistrate, versus probable death should we run, it’s not much of a choice.”
Their discussion lapsed into silence as Jorani’s eyelid twitched, pondering the clever killer’s words. True, the oath he’d sworn was a little lax, to never betray the Bekhai and serve for ten years time, while the others swore the same, only to the Militia. If they ran and abandoned the Bekhai or Jorani, the heavens would see it as a betrayal but because of his oath of silence, there was nothing he could say to convince them otherwise. He only hoped Kabi and Yu would stay and fight instead of wasting their lives by running. They weren’t peerless warriors, but they were heads and shoulders above Jorani.
Oddly enough, Jester Wang was the first to break the silence. Ever since learning of Yo Ling’s betrayal, he’d fallen into an uncharacteristic silence, even more so once he learned of Gao Qiu’s death, so to hear him speak came as a surprise. “You all do what ye gotta do,” he said in slow, even tones. “Me and my cutthroats? We’ll be first into the fray, killing every damned Defiled we come across. Way I see it, we’re dead either way and Big Mum don’t take kindly oath-breakers or cowards. Might as well go down fighting. I ain’t strong enough to kill Yo Ling, but he won’t find us an easy meal. It’s the least we can do, in honour of Gao Qiu’s sacrifice. The Red Devil was many things, but he weren’t no traitor and neither are we.”
A chorus of assent echoed Jester Wang’s sentiments, the former Butchers hellbent on avenging their erstwhile captain. More than once, Jorani worried the former Butcher was Defiled, keeping his entire crew at arms length, so hearing him volunteer for the front lines came as a welcome surprise. They were the meanest, most disciplined fighters in the Militia, Butcher Bay’s stringent standards showing through. Sadly, few other Militiamen shared their enthusiasm and everyone fell into silence once more. Wracking his brain, Jorani plodded along, wishing he had a heroic speech to deliver to raise morale and whip his crew into shape, but all he could think of was his impending doom. Hard to argue against Kabi and Yu’s points, but Jorani was in a bind. He was just a sneak thief from the streets of Sanshu, not some peerless warrior blessed by the heavens. How could he possible affect the outcome of this war?
Worst of all, the bleedin’ Azure Ascendant made it clear he wouldn’t help. ‘Too many complications’ according to the lazy old bastard, sending his crew in his stead. The only ones Jorani recognized were Lei Gong and Daxian, the others shrouded in mystery and silence. Lei Gong was the leader, a less than inspiring sight with his beggar’s robes, frayed hair, and tired appearance. At least Daxian looked the part of conquering hero, armoured in striking brigandine, patterned, supple leather over interlocking metal plates. The open-faced helm which he never took off framed a handsome, angular face while his chest sported the character ‘Virtuous’, the origin of his nickname. So far, Jorani found him sorely lacking in virtue and full of vitriol and snide comments, always harping on Jorani’s weakness.
Jealous of the shiny new armour most likely, so he paid it no mind. The other two male Ascendants were dressed similarly to Daxian, one sporting a bushy beard and a massive, double-bladed battle axe and the other unremarkable and empty handed. The sole female of their group wore a black, form-fitting tunic and tights, her shapely legs and assortment of jewellery on full display. Only five Ascendants in total, but Jorani hoped there were more waiting in the wings. None of them bothered introducing themselves, and he speculated over their identities the past few days to no avail. Not like it mattered, every one of them was an expert, making Jorani feel a little safer. Turning his attention to his Spiritual Weapon, he mentally pleaded with the coiled metal rope to let him bind it, praying for a miracle to surpass all miracles. Maybe he’d bind the weapon and become an expert warrior or Awaken to a Blessing or something.
Sadly, the Mother ignored his appeals and his last-ditch efforts were soon interrupted by inhuman screams of pain and misery. Following Lei Gong and Sovanna’s lead, Jorani picked up the pace and ran towards the market, his mind screaming to flee even before his feet turned the corner to show him an unholy field of slaughter. Quaking uncontrollably as an inner voice gibbered in outright terror, he idly wondered if everyone could hear his armour clinking or teeth chattering. How could they not? It was almost deafening, though still unable to mute the tortured cries of agony and despair.
It was too late, the Corsairs were done for, their dead bodies left to rot in the streets while the Defiled toyed with those unfortunate enough to still live. Trying to find somewhere to look without gazing upon some form of unspeakable torture was impossible, but Jorani’s eyes locked on one scene in particular, a Demon waiting at the front of the Defiled army, not even fifty meters away. A massive creature with the head of a stag, it knelt on the blood-stained stones with head lowered in subservience. Nestled within the barbed, bone antlers laid the remains of a man, his body stripped bare of clothes, skin, and notable organs, arms and legs spread wide and impaled upon jagged points. Despite his overwhelming horror and dread, Jorani noticed the corpse had antlers of his own, an odd sort of symmetry. A half-stag killed by a stag Demon, what are the chances?
“Ah finally, more guests have arrived.” An older gentleman stood next to the Demon, arms outstretched in welcome. Smiling as if greeting old friends, his pearly white teeth shone brightly in contrast to the caked gore covering him, not a single patch of skin, hair, or armour untouched by blood or viscera, as if he’d gone swimming in a lake of corpses. How Jorani overlooked his presence was a mystery, but he wasn’t alone. The entire line of Militiamen and guardsmen gasped as they stepped back in tandem, surprised by his sudden appearance. Only the Ascendants remained in place, Lei Gong standing at the forefront of their allied forces, ringed by his companions.
Unperturbed by their reaction, the old gentleman gestured towards the Demon Stag. “Pardon the mess, my old friend Jariad is a stubborn fellow and I lost myself in the work.” With a stately bow, he continued. “This humble one is called Yo Ling, better known as the Spectre. It is my pleasure to meet so many renowned heroes.” His single eye paused on each face as he recited their names. “The Woodsman Yelu Shi, Radiant Fist Wugang, Daxian the Virtuous, Tyrant OuYang Yuhuan, and Lord of Thunder Lei Gong.”
With each introduction, Jorani’s spirits lifted higher and higher. Warning himself to stop leering at the Tyrant Yuhan, it was worrisome how Yo Ling didn’t seem too concerned about the appearance of so many experts. In fact, the Bandit King glanced around in exaggerated fashion, his smile never faltering. “The Azure Ascendants, but not in full strength. Where are the others? I must admit, I’m curious to meet your leader, a man so shrouded in secrecy even I cannot determine his identity.”
“Hmph,” snorted Lei Gong, taking a drink from his gourd. “We’re more than enough to deal with the likes of you, Defiled filth.”
Eye narrowing in anger, Yo Ling recovered from the slight and carried on with his stately greetings, playing the part of host. “And all these familiar comrades here to greet me on my day of glory, it is truly an honour. Forgive me for not taking the time to greet you all one by one, but time is of the essence.” Yo Ling’s gaze landed on Jorani and he felt his legs go weak, though somehow he remained upright. “Besides, we all know why you’re here. Hangman Jorani of the Mother’s Militia, what a curious little puzzle you are. A weakling of no consequence standing at the head of so many Named cutthroats, all dressed up in shiny new Runic armour. I suppose the Ascendant gifted it to you, and two more sets for your little friends, Ral and Chey. He even armed you all with Spiritual Weapons, how extravagant.” Stroking his blood soaked beard, Yo Ling tilted his head, the penetrating stare piercing right through Jorani. How did the Spectre know about Ral and Chey? “I can’t imagine you hold the love and loyalty of all these bandits and thieves, much less their respect. What will they do after I tear you limb from limb and mount you next to Jariad here? I’m guessing they’d thank me for freeing them from their bothersome oaths.”
A gurgling cry emanated from Jariad affixed atop the Demon Stag, and Jorani jumped in fright. By the Mother, he was still alive, who could bear such pain and torture? Tsking in annoyance, Yo Ling glanced at the mangled Corsair. “Come now Jariad, where are you manners? Don’t worry, there’s plenty of room, but please, tell me where Liu Shi is hiding, I would love to have him at my victory feast.” The duality of the statement was the last straw as Jorani threw up in his mouth. With no other option, he swallowed it back down, refusing to appear weak in front of this monster.
A bolt of light flashed across the way and struck Jariad in the chest, rocking the Demon back as a crash of thunder rang throughout the market. Spasming in death, the pitiful Corsair captain was finally freed from his torture as Lei Gong snarled in anger, his outstretched finger still crackling with power. “Enough of yer games, foul creature of darkness.” Twirling his cane, he charged into action, followed by the other Ascendants and met by a tide of Demons.
As if through some unspoken rule, no one else charged in, knowing the battle was to be decided by these few experts. The area erupted into chaos as Lei Gong made good on his name, every strike of his cane accompanied by a blinding flash and the peal of thunder, driving back a Demonic mole and weasel pair. Yelu Shi’s axe swung in a powerful arc, only to be stopped head on by a bestial turtle-shelled Demon, it’s barbed tail and snapping beak putting the Woodsman on the defensive. Daxian and Wugang duelled with their respective foes, two four-armed humanoid demons with faces drawn from nightmare, wielding a bevy of dangerous weapons which restricted Daxian’s spear and Wugang’s fists. The Tyrant fought in a wholly different manner as her jewellery lit up in a dazzling array of colours, conjuring an assortment of Chi attacks which flashed and sparkled as she danced away from the Demon stag’s speedy charges and crushing claws, Jariad’s corpse still perched atop its head.
Six Demons fighting five Ascendants, and Yo Ling still had yet to act, remaining in place with arms crossed and a smile on his face, enjoying mayhem before him. Swallowing hard, Jorani fought to keep from running, the terror overwhelming him. They were all doomed the moment Yo Ling acted, but what could he do? Not even the strongest warriors in his crew would last more than a few seconds fighting against a Demon, and not a single Ascendant seemed to hold the upper hand. The Defiled warriors cheered and shouted from the sidelines, laughing at the struggling Ascendants as the Demons pushed them back, while the guards and Militia stood silent, praying for these valiant heroes to come through.
Watching the display of power and skill before him, for the first time in his life, Jorani hungered for the same. All his life, he’d been happy to rely on others to protect him, rationalizing his cowardice as prudence and caution. He’d laughed at the idiotic brutes who risked their lives for glory and honour, playing at being more than mere thieves and cutthroats, but he finally understood. Sometimes, the only option left was to stand and fight, because the alternative was far worse.
Turning to glance at Ral, Jorani patted his best friend on the arm. “Ye ready for this?”
With a goofy grin, Ral nodded enthusiastically, somehow still calm amidst the pandemonium. “Don’t worry Jor, I’ll keep you safe. Promise.”
The big oaf was probably too dumb to be scared. “Forget about me, keep an eye on yer lady instead.” Swallowing hard, he added, “If I die, then run like hell, ye hear me?” Ral frowned and shook his head, but Jorani ignored him, instead glancing at Chey for confirmation. They still didn’t get along, but they put aside their differences when it came to Ral, the buxom bandit nodding without hesitation.
Turning to face the Enemy, Jorani closed his eyes and took a deep breath. Raising his voice, he shouted, “Men and women of Sanshu. The Enemy stands before us. Kill em all.” Willing his legs to move, Jorani broke out into a charge with Ral and Chey at his sides, screaming bloody murder as he closed with the Defiled. If the Ascendants fell then the Butcher’s would escape unscathed, so the only option left was to kill as many Butchers as they could before the Demons felled their opponents.
He only prayed the Militia were following behind.
Scurrying around the titanic struggle between the Ascendants and Demons, Jorani came face to face with the Defiled Butchers, towering warriors encased in dark-iron and gore. Taking a spear to the chest, he twisted aside as the blade scraped across his breastplate, feeling his Chi reserves dip from the blow. Lashing out with his Spiritual Weapon coiled around his fist, he connected with his opponent’s jaw, unable to even sway the Defiled warrior. Grinning from behind his face plate, Jorani’s opponent drew back for a headbutt. The impact rocked Jorani back, his legs threatening to give out from under the strike.
A hand reached out to steady him before darting past, a flicker of movement faster than Jorani could follow. The Defiled Butcher’s helm split in two as Jester Wang’s hatchet struck home, one of the few Militiamen carrying a Spiritual Weapon. Turning back with a grin, Jester Wang cackled loudly, the sound echoing across the battle. “Boss, how could you? I thought I made it clear me and my cutthroats wanted first crack at these bastards.” Without another word, Jester Wang threw himself into the fray, hacking away at his former comrades with a vengeance.
A quick glance told Jorani all he needed to know, the other Militiamen all following him into battle, even Kabi and Light-Fingered Yu. Swelling with pride, he watched as his crew tore into the Defiled, working together to bring down their well-armoured foes, paying a costly price for every kill.
On impulse, he raised his fist and shouted, “For the Mother!” His crew echoed the call as they fought with all their might, the sight of the Enemy and all their atrocities spurring every person present into righteous fury, himself included. Channeling his Chi once more, Jorani loosed the coil of rope and brought it back, lashing out without thinking. The impact shook his arm his Chi exploded through the rope, sweeping aside a trio of Defiled and continuing onwards, moving as if it were alive and hungry for blood. His mind filled with knowledge as he fought on, falling into a trance as he moved according to the weapon’s will, striking down the Defiled as easily as turning his hand. Finally, he was binding his weapon, the Mother Herself instructing him on its proper usage, guiding him through every nuance and mystery of its function. The knowledge wouldn’t last forever, it was up to Jorani to remember as much as possible, and he lost himself in its intricacies while unleashing Her fury against the Enemy.
Maybe miracles do happen after all.
Thank the Mother.
Though he’d still feel better if the Magistrate hurried his fat ass over here.
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