I’d like to give a shout out to my two latest, anonymous Patrons, and two more anonymous repeat donors. Thank you all so much for your incredible support!
Also, I’m running out of chapters for this volume, but I’m 90% sure I can wrap things up in 4-5 chapters. Well, maybe 75%. Okay, fifty-fifty, but I’ll get it done nice and neat, promise 🙂
Fung’s spear took the leaping garo clean through the throat, sending its rider tumbling head over heels from the saddle to land behind him, trampled beneath the hooves of his soldiers. Undeterred by the gruesome death, Fung put spurs to flank and his mount surged forward, tackling a second garo and toppling it over, his spear making short work of the rider. Driving his horse to continue forward, Fung met the Defiled charge with eager enthusiasm, his Mentor’s lessons echoing through his mind. ‘Always moving, never still, hit hard and fade away’. What the Bekhai accomplished through speed and agility, Fung emulated using pure muscle and determination, barrelling straight through the enemy lines.
With Lady Mei Lin safely away with Mister Rustram, Fung led his retinue clean through the Enemy’s screening cavalry. With garo teeth unable to find purchase through horse barding and Defiled weapons glancing ineffectively off his Runic robes, he was reasonable safe through it all. The thrill of battle rising in his blood, he wheeled around to avoid the Enemy’s second wave, riding through the trees on a pre-marked path, ducking low and signalling jumps when necessary. Behind them, the mounted Defiled rode headlong into strung wires and staked pits, the dying shrieks of beasts and savages music to Fung’s ears. Another curious turn of phrase from Rain, Fung smiled at the thought of his friend making a name for himself on the streets of Sanshu.
Unwilling to allow Rain’s fame to continue eclipsing his own, Fung rode a circuit through the forest and back to the battle, his retinue lining up for another charge. Major Yuzhen had given him freedom to act as he pleased out here on the southern flank, trusting him to keep Defiled outriders from encircling the central position. Dastan was supposed to support him, but the soft-spoken young man disappeared during the duels, likely waiting in ambush. Out on the western flank, Zian and BoShui occupied a similar role while Yuzhen held the centre. A marvellous talent for management and tactics, Yuzhen kept the glory-hungry Warrant Officers out of the way and used their elite retinues to greatest effect, threatening the Defiled wings. Likewise, the soldiers from the four cities would require her unwavering presence to keep them in check, most of the pampered elites lacking in experience and courage. He prayed her bid for Marshall was successful, determined to convince his father to help wherever possible. The northern province would do well under Yuzhen’s steady guidance and Fung looked forward to working alongside her.
Ever the worrier, Fu Zhu Li filled Fung’s retinue with staunch, battle-tested veterans, overqualified for guarding a pampered young magistrate, but now he was thankful for the half-weasels prudence. Before battle joined in full, his retinue clashed with the Enemy skirmishers thrice more, killing dozens of riders and at least three Champions while coming away with minimal injuries. On Fu Zhu Li’s thinly veiled suggestion, Fung called for a break, letting the horses drink and rest while watching the massive block of Defiled peasants crash into the waiting elites, with the main thrust of garo cavalry waiting in the wings. Hard won through Zian’s seven life-and-death duels, Yuzhen put the extra time to good use, digging in behind sharpened stake fences and walls of dirt. It hardly made for the most impressive of fortifications but it served its purpose, breaking the disorganized mob apart and funnelling them into various kill zones.
A Sending arrived from the Major’s aide, ordering him meet with Dastan and a hidden force of cavalry before engaging with the Defiled Cavalry. Happy to comply, Fung rode back to the meeting area with high spirits only to find a grisly scene awaiting him. The corpses of his fellow countrymen were strewn across the glade, some studded with bolts and others viciously hacked apart. Most still had their swords sitting in their sheaths, killed before they could offer resistance. “What happened?” Fung asked to no one in particular, sickened by the sight. Battle was one thing, but this seemed cold and clinical, helpless men and women slaughtered like lambs for the feast. “Did the Defiled slip through our lines?”
One of his riders answered, dismounting to study the earth. “Wasn’t Defiled which did this. Ain’t no tracks of garos or bare feet, only hooves and boots.”
Fung’s stomach twisted at the declaration, turning to glance at Fu Zu Li. The nondescript ‘manservant’ looked out-of-place in his soldier’s armour, back hunched and pinched-face frowning like always. “Do not look for guidance young master,” he Sent. “You are in command, and I but a humble servant, here to pour tea and wash clothes. Perhaps you should inform Major Yuzhen of these new developments and request new orders?”
Shamed by his stupidity, Fung turned to his communications officer. “Send word to Major Yuzhen, we have a traitor in our ranks.” Hissing through the air, a bolt appeared in the communications officer’s neck as his corpse toppled from the saddle. In the blink of an eye, the sky darkened as a hail of bolts rained down upon his retinue. Shielding his face and neck, Fung grunted as the bolts glanced off his flexible armour, the Runic inscriptions drawing from his Chi to repel the bolts. His torso covered in bruises, Fung leaped off his dying horse as it collapsed to the ground, narrowly avoiding being crushed beneath its weight.
More than half his retinue joined the corpses already laying about, a crippling ambush as armoured warriors galloped out of the trees, their crossbows slung and weapons drawn. “Form up,” Fung called, but there wasn’t enough time. Bowling over his surviving retinue, the ambushers wreaked havoc among the rest of his retinue, his soldiers dying in his defense. Incensed by their loss, Fung gathered his strength and charged out, his spear penetrating through the chest of a rearing horse. Following through with the strike, Fung stopped Honing the weapon while palming the base. With the wings of his spear caught on the horse’s spine, his Amplified thrust ejected both horse and rider from the tip of the spear, sending the equine projectile soaring through the air to crush a pair of ambushers.
The impressive display bought his retinue a second to breathe, but only for a heartbeat. Still, it was enough time for Fung to recognize his assailants, his anger soaring at their betrayal. “Dastan,” he roared, cleaving through a mount and rider in a single swing. “Come out here and face me, traitor!”
His challenge ignored, the assailants continued killing his retinue until Fung was the only one left standing. Even Fu Zhu Li was nowhere to be found, likely dead from the first volley of bolts. His spear in hand, Fung spun a full circle to clear the area, tears falling from his eyes over the loss of his soldiers. After the carnugator hunting accident, he’d met with each of the mourning families, apologizing in person for their loss. A harsh lesson, but one he’d learned well, to value the lives of those who served him, for each one was a human being who had loved ones awaiting their return.
At least this time he wouldn’t have to apologize to grieving widows, children, and parents. A haunting experience for sure.
Seconds passed as his assailants surrounded him, leaving him no chance to escape. Striding through a small gap which closed behind him, Dastan Zhandos appeared with axe and shield in hand. “My apologies for the delay in answering your challenge. I couldn’t risk Yuzhen learning of my betrayal while we duel.” Cracking his neck, the somber young warrant officer tapped his shield with his axe. “This one is Warrant Officer Dastan Zhandos, Champion of the Coalition.”
His part said, Dastan stood in wait and Fung used this to his advantage, catching his breath and gathering strength before they began. “Why,” he asked, genuinely curious. “Why turn against the Empire? Was it the Purge?”
Rage flashed across Dastan’s steely gaze, his lip curling in a slight sneer. “In part, but I wouldn’t expect a young master like yourself to understand. What do you know of our plight?”
“Oh yes, such a quandary. You’ve had it so tough, pretending to be human and resisting your urges to kill and torture. You poor Defiled soul.”
Fung’s needling lacked the desire effect, Dastan relaxing as he chuckled. “You know nothing. You think me Defiled?” Channelling the Energy of the Heavens, Dastan displayed his Purity, leaving Fung reeling in confusion. “I am no more Defiled than you.”
“Then why fight alongside them?”
Sighing, Dastan shrugged. “Sanshu has become a haven for corruption and immorality, the nobility preying on the innocent and destitute. Not a week past, I witnessed hundreds of innocents tortured, and for what? A ploy, a play for power. The Purge, keeping the uninformed in line for millennia while the rich laugh at their suffering from behind closed doors. This was only the latest in a long list of grievances, our actions decades in the planning. It’s time for a change, to cast off the shackles of the Empire and start anew. I dream of a free Sanshu, fighting for the downtrodden and oppressed. Yo Ling, the Defiled, Mao Jianghong, they are but a means to an end. Once Sanshu belongs to the Coalition, their turn will come.”
“…You’re delusional.” Even as he spoke the words, Fung regretted opening his mouth. It seemed Rain’s inability to hold his tongue was spreading.
Eyes narrowing in smouldering rage, Dastan clammed up. “Now, I’m afraid there’s no more time for you to rest. Don’t worry,” he added, settling into his stance, shield raised and axe held high. “I won’t use my Aura.”
Gritting his teeth, Fung pointed his spear at Dastan, knowing he was outmatched. Though the sword was better for duels, having witnessed Dastan’s heavy, crushing blows, Fung knew his sword could not stop the young prodigy. Only with his thirty-five kilogram spear in hand did Fung feel confident enough to trade blows. Over the past few months, his Mentor put him through a gruelling training regimen designed to help him wield the ponderous weapon, often snidely remarking how Mila and Rain could handle thrice as much punishment. A harsh Mentor, but Fung’s strength soared underneath Akanai’s tutelage and now was finally his time to shine.
A shame, but even if he killed Dastan here, Fung saw no path to survival. No matter, a glorious death was preferable to an unremarkable life.
Leaning forward, Fung Amplified his footsteps and charged, combining Balance on Windy Leaf and Scrape the Earth. Closing the distance with explosive speed, he still failed to take Dastan by surprise. Catching the thrust with his shield, Dastan’s feet dug two furrows through the dirt as he fought to keep standing. Stopping in place, Fung drew his spear back and bent his body like a bow, thrusting his spear in a second strike which rivalled the first in power, only this time from point blank range. Snake Form – Darting Fang sent Dastan stumbling back, and Fung pressed his advantage, moving seamlessly into Mantis Form – Spear Hand and unleashing a flurry of thrusts. High and low, left and right, Fung struck again and again, controlling the range and seeking to at least injure Dastan, but to no avail. Hidden Ambush, Coiling the Nest, Pierce the Horizon, and Reverse Bite, Fung used every form and movement he knew, yet still he was unable to eke out an advantage, his attacks blocked and parried by Dastan’s shield time after time.
With a masterful hook and step, Dastan reversed the momentum, going on the offensive for the first time. With a simple one-handed chop, like any common lumberjack would use, Dastan lashed out. Blocking with his spear’s haft, Fung’s fingers went numb on impact, his bones shaking as he fell back before Dastan’s might. Unperturbed by the failure, Dastan followed up with a shield bash, aimed at Fung’s hand. Knowing he couldn’t block a second blow, Fung spun aside, his spear lancing out towards the back of Dastan’s head.
Diving forward to avoid the counter, Dastan came to his feet with a smile. “Not bad,” he said, nodding. “I underestimated you.”
Giving his spear a little flourish, Fung aimed the tip at Dastan’s face, saying nothing in reply. ‘Save your breath for fighting’, another scrap of wisdom, but this one from his father, or ‘actions speak louder than words’, as Rain would say.
Ah damn it. Fung now knew what needed to be done.
Bracing his nerves, Fung offered a silent prayer to the Mother and set out, once again taking the offensive. Opening with Greet the Moon, Fung’s spear arced out in an upwards slash, forcing Dastan to dodge to the left. Stepping right to keep the shield out of the way, Fung brought his spear crashing down, aiming for Dastan’s exposed neck even as the axe scythed out towards Fung’s exposed chest.
Like Rain and his retinue was often fond of saying, ‘Give flesh, break bone.”
As the wave of projectiles exploded among his guards, Chu Tongzu felt no fear or panic, only regret and despair. An epic in the making, the War for Sanshu which began less than a week ago was now coming to an end. So many brave men and women of his fair city gave their lives to reach this point, the butcher’s bill numbering in the thousands and still growing. After tasting bitter defeat from his ill-fated bid to retake the gates, Sanshu endured through the slow, desperate struggle to crawl back to this point. Standing on the precipice of victory, they sallied forth for one last battle, following their Magistrate to put an end to the Spectre Yo Ling, Bandit King of Butcher Bay.
Only to fall victim to treachery most foul.
The Heavens were surely laughing at the capricious nature of man, bandits and cutthroats proven more virtuous than the wealthy and highborn. First his guard captain turned traitor and now the entire Coalition, how far did this infection spread? It’s no wonder not a single scout returned with word of the outside world. With the Coalition’s vast network of stores, stables, restaurants, and labourers, it was impossible to escape their notice. Perhaps it was better for his city to fall now that it’d become a caricature of its former self, a beautiful shell hiding its rotten core. Once word of Sanshu’s fate escaped, it wouldn’t be long before the full force of the Empire fell upon Yo Ling and Xiaobo’s villainous alliance and Purged them from this world forever.
A shame he wouldn’t be there to see it. Such was the price he paid for his avarice and gluttony, turning a blind eye to the festering corruption for gold and trinkets. Now, the Coalition’s engines of war sat hidden from sight while raining fire and stone upon his stalwart defenders. Unscathed, the dark-armoured Defiled watched the show with immense satisfaction, their laughs and jeers clashing with the screams of the dying, his soldiers and guardsmen fish upon the chopping block, caught between traitors and the Enemy with no hope for victory, only death.
Then death it would be, but on his terms.
Off to the side, Gerel and Vichear gathered the Bekhai, likely preparing to escape through the alleys and into the canals. Despite wasting all the hard work and effort spent getting here, Tongzu couldn’t blame them for retreating. Silently wishing them the best, he formed the bare outline of a plan, hurrying to action before all hope was lost. There was no point in retreating, weathering a storm of projectiles to attack the Coalition mercenaries only for the Defiled to charge in from behind. Better to take the fight to the Defiled and limit the Coalition’s ability to fire without hitting their allies. Though nothing would change in the end, at least this way they would die fighting. Raising Stoneshaper above his head, Tongzu shouted, “Warriors of Sanshu, heed my orders. Forward into the Enemy!” Without waiting for them to follow, he unleashed his Aura and charged the Enemy, holding nothing back. Hammering into the Defiled line, he set about collecting what was owed. “Victory or Death!”
“Victory or Death!” Echoing the call, his warriors joined him in battle, their rage driving them to greater heights. Explosions continued to fall amongst them, but still they pressed on, following Tongzu’s lead as he carved a swathe through the Defiled. Reinforced and Stabilized, Tongzu waded through the Enemy lines, breaking bones and ending lives with every swing of his hammer. Taking a spear to the gut, Tongzu backhanded his attacker, the Resonating strike reducing the offending Butcher’s brain to a pulp, his eyeballs bursting from his skull. Snarling through the pain, Tongzu plucked the spear from his flesh and flung it back into the crowd, swinging his hammer in a massive arc to clear the way forward.
“Onwards, my warriors,” he shouted, “Onwards! Show these Defiled dogs Sanshu’s mettle, make them regret stepping out from their hidden enclave!” Following in his wake, his warriors drove a wedge deep into the Defiled lines, moving towards their most hated foe: Yo Ling. Only a hundred meters away, the legendary Bandit King had his back turned to them, not deigning to grace them with his attention, fully focused on the Azure Ascendants valiant efforts.
Tongzu never did like being upstaged. He was the Unstoppable Golden Vanguard, Magistrate of Sanshu, and the Defiled would come to curse his name.
Chiming beautifully as it pulverized bone and metal, Stoneshaper smashed aside all resistance while Tongzu strode deeper into the market square. His deafening heartbeat pounding in his ears, the world devolved into violence and chaos as sweat and blood poured from his brow. Stone and dust clotted his throat as he panted for breath, fighting like a man possessed. Ignoring all sense of self-preservation, he threw himself into the fray, lost in a haze of wrath and blood lust. His heavy armour chipped and cracked as he took wound after wound, collecting his tax of blood and death before the Mother reached out to claim him. One Defiled sent to the Father’s Maw was one less to plague his countrymen, every step costing him dearly, every meter hard-fought and hard-won, but still he continued fighting. Sanshu’s heroes died by the hundreds but none faltered, low-born warriors of unremarkable skill rising to the challenge. His guardsmen threw themselves at the Enemy, clutching at weapons embedded in their flesh or the arms and legs of their killers, paving the way for another to finish the job.
Ninety meters, eighty meters, seventy-five meters, every step cost countless lives and brought Tongzu closer to his goal, determined to spit in Yo Ling’s eye. The further he went, the greater the opposition as the Defiled swarmed towards him, thinking to kill him and put an end to Sanshu’s defiance. Fools one and all, even should he fall, Sanshu’s defenders would not falter, but he welcomed the challenge. Disregarding subtlety and finesse, Tongzu met each opponent head on, and each time his opponent was found lacking. With Butcher Bay’s most notorious Captains all dead or injured, there were precious few Defiled Champions left to challenge him. Taking full advantage of Yo Ling’s distraction, Tongzu ran roughshod over the Butchers, meting out divine retribution for their crimes against the Empire.
Though filled with righteous fury, Tongzu was still flesh and blood, unhealthy, overweight and under-exercised to boot. Less than fifty meters from his goal, his body faltered before the Defiled counter-offensive, Butchers swarming in from all sides and cutting him off from reinforcements. Arms heavy and lungs burning, Tongzu stood alone before the hated Enemy, bleeding from a dozen wounds, the pain drowned out by the heady rush of battle. Unfortunately, grit and courage was not enough to win the day, his spirit willing but body spent, barely able to keep Stoneshaper raised. Grinning at the surrounding Butchers, Tongzu prepared to bring at least one more Defiled down with him, ready to meet the Mother and beg forgiveness for his transgressions.
A dark mass of fur and blood catapulted past Tongzu, crashing into the Defiled. Dwarfing the mount beneath him, Vichear cut through the Enemy effortlessly as his roosequin added claw and fang to the cause. The other Bekhai followed closely behind, charging the Defiled in waves as the ferocious, overgrown weasels tore through armour and flesh, their bodies dripping in blood and gore. Unable to hold them back, the Defiled centre crumbled away, ripped apart in a savage display of strength and domination.
Across the way, Tongzu’s soldiers led by Chun Yimu poured into the market, charging through the Defiled to link their forces. At their forefront sat a valiant Bekhai woman, her face and chest charred black as she whirled her chain overhead, clearing the way for others to follow. Knees weak with relief, Tongzu stumbled and nearly fell, but a sturdy hand caught his arm, holding him in place. Unconcerned by the pandemonium around him, Gerel stood with glaive resting on his shoulder, looking unremarkable in his dark leather armour, a fur-rimmed helm covering his bald head. Steadying his breath, Tongzu nodded in thanks, but the amber-eyed warrior barely noticed, his stony gaze fixated on Yo Ling’s back.
It seemed Tongzu misjudged the reclusive Bekhai, mistaking their aloof, lackadaisical manner for indifference and apathy. Buoyed by their presence, Tongzu laughed despite the dire circumstances, thanking the Mother for staunch allies. “Come,” he said to Gerel, hefting Stoneshaper before him. “Plenty of work yet to be done. Let’s get you to Yo Ling while the sun’s still up.”
There was no answer, but none was needed. As he’d done countless times before, Chu Tongzu strode forth to lead his army from the front lines, charging headfirst into the fray.
“Onwards to victory!”
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