Yo Ling’s disgust for his underlings continued to grow as Sanshu’s defenders ran roughshod over his Butchers, a bunch of worthless, good-for-nothing slackers. He’d toiled for years securing the necessary resources in order to equip them with the best armour and weapons, countless hours of sweat and effort, training and moulding them into warriors, yet they still couldn’t be trusted to deal with the Army’s dregs. No, not even dregs, the majority of Sanshu’s defenders were mere guardsmen, trash who failed to meet the already low standards of the army, just barely more than a core and a pulse.
Now, these rejects were dominating the battlefield, his ‘elite’ Butchers comprised of nothing but shrimp soldiers and crab generals. He’d been blinded by his hubris, expecting society’s outcasts and scum to reach the Heavens in a single bound with only his guidance, but it was as useless as drawing legs on a snake. Had he known they would fail so spectacularly, he wouldn’t have bothered arming them so well, a massive waste of time and resources. As things stood, Xiaobo’s catapults were barred from firing into the swirling melee for fear of damaging Yo Ling’s precious armours and weapons, assets still of use to him unlike the incompetents wielding them. Better for them if they died in battle, because the survivors would not enjoy his ‘reward’, determined to wash away the shame of mediocrity attached to his name.
No matter, Sanshu would soon fall, freeing him to start anew. Gen would come in handy rebuilding his forces, but the boy was currently a snivelling mess, off in the corner mourning the loss of his ‘wife’. With Falling Rain marked for death and likely already dead or dying, Yo Ling’s only other option for a successor was the Coalition’s golden boy, Dastan. Far from the ideal candidate, the boy was every bit as deluded as Gao Qiu but nowhere near as talented, a disappointment in every way.
Why did Yo Ling even need a successor? He still had plenty of years left to live and the entirety of Sanshu to scour for talent, perhaps he’d find a crane in a flock of chickens. The Coalition’s forces might make for a good starting point, primarily XiaoGong and his personal guards. Xiaobo was a lost cause, nothing but a stooge twisted by the Spirits whispering in his ears for the better part of a decade. No true Enlightened, the councilman was a pet project of his, one of many seeds thrown to wind which sprouted beautifully. While guiding the no-name merchant’s rise to power, Yo Ling set the Spirits to grind away at Xiaobo’s willpower and self-discipline, turning him to every debased vice and carnal sin, weakening his resolve bit by bit. Now, the fool’s brain was so addled by drug and drink, he accepted Yo Ling’s every whisper as his own thoughts, believing himself still in control. A tool which outstripped even Jianghong’s usefulness, although with the unfortunate side effect of turning the man into an unrestrained, disgusting slob. It’d gotten so bad Yo Ling was forced to manage Xiaobo’s every public appearance these past few years, lest he devolve into another fit of shit-slinging masturbation.
Thankfully, deviant behaviour was often overlooked in the wealthy. With Yo Ling feeding them information, the Coalition grew in power to surpass the Alliance and the Union, hiding their gains and squirrelling them away on his island. Now thanks to all his efforts, victory was finally in sight. With the city cut off from outside contact, once the Magistrate and his soldiers were dealt with, Yo Ling would be free to write his own version of events in Sanshu, spreading word using the Coalition’s far-reaching influence. Something close to the truth, like the corrupt Magistrate rebelling against the Empire, slaughtering citizens and councilmen in the streets. Joined by the Corsairs and Bekhai, their dastardly plans were thwarted by an alliance between Jianghong, Xiao Gong, and Butcher Bay’s heroic Yo Ling.
Turning black to white and up to down with but a flick of the brush, he could hardly contain his glee.
The war was not won yet, the Ascendants still holding out against his Transcendents. Not for much longer though, his puppets served their purpose well, wearing down their opponents with endless stamina and solid resilience, not to mention the ever present threat of their corrosive bodily fluids. Red-faced and dripping with sweat, Lei Gong no longer dominated the battlefield, his bursts of lightning few and far between. Freed from the threat of his destructive powers, the Transcendents pushed the Ascendants to the limits, on the verge of breaking the deadlock to emerge victorious. Still wary of Ouyang Yuhuan and her iron rod, Yo Ling turned and chuckled at the sight of the corpulent Magistrate’s struggles, his jowls quivering as he fought on. With mace in hand, Yo Ling moved towards the Magistrate and the Bekhai, the two forces merging amidst the sea of Butchers, surrounded on all sides yet still desperately striving to reach him.
Their intentions were clear, their fangs bared and claws brandished towards him, staking everything on one throw of the dice in hopes of bringing down the legendary Spectre. Fools and dreamers, but he couldn’t deny himself the pleasure of crushing their hopes beneath his heel. The Bekhai’s charging offensive faltered as his Aura slammed into them, his Butchers parting to let him through. The battle behind him continued to rage, but in front, everything came to a standstill, the silent calm before the storm. Both sides cooperated to make space as he approached, the defenders of Sanshu suffocating beneath his might. Probing their defences with his Aura, Yo Ling picked out those strong enough to resist him, surprised by his findings.
Five Auras too solid to crush, with the possibility of others hiding in wait, far more than expected. The Magistrate was easily handled as was the hefty Bekhai warrior near him, impressively dwarfing the Magistrate in both height and weight. Then there was the burned Bekhai woman wielding a chain and sickle and her dagger-sporting companion, both too young to be of real threat. Last but not least, a familiar, amber-eyed face, the would-be assassin from the restaurant.
These other Bekhai experts forced Yo Ling to rethink his theory regarding these reclusive mountain tribesmen. Between Falling Rain and the amber-eyed assassin, he’d entertained the possibility that the Bekhai were fellow Enlightened and could be turned to his cause, but none of the other experts arrayed before him were beloved by the Spirits. A shame, but these piddling few warriors would fall before his might. Leering at them one by one, Yo Ling spread his arms wide in invitation. “You fought long and hard to get here, and all for naught. Come, let me show you the meaning of ‘People beyond people, heavens beyond the heavens’.”
His Butchers cheered at his words, chanting his name in thunderous cadence, the air buzzing with excitement as the Spirits urged him to bloodshed and slaughter. Stepping out to greet him was the would-be assassin, carrying a massive glaive across his shoulders and sword at the hip, relaxed and at ease. With a spinning flourish of his weapon, he slammed the shaft against the stones, the echoing knock silencing the Butchers’ cheering. “I am Senior Captain Gerel,” he said, voice brimming with confidence. “Khishig of the Bekhai.”
“Ah, so the nameless assassin has a Name: The Demon Reaper.” Yo Ling shook his head, disappointed. “This is the best Sanshu has to offer? A beardless, balding man-child with an over-inflated reputation?” His Butchers exploded with laughter and he waited for silence before continuing. “I already defeated you once boy, and you held every advantage. How do you think you’ll fare in open combat?”
Waiting in silence, Gerel stared daggers at Yo Ling, ignoring the jeers and insults from the crowd. Sanshu’s defenders stood uneasily, all their hopes resting on the shoulders of this unknown quality, their knees shaking and shoulders hunched, despair and desperation thick in the air as the Spirits searched for new vessels to inhabit. Perhaps he might even offer them a place in his new army, on the unlikely chance they survived the next few hours. These men and women showed determination and resolve, which is more than he could say about his Butchers.
A thought for another time, as there was work to be done.
Tossing his helmet to a nearby Butcher, Yo Ling carelessly approached Gerel, ready to put an end to Sanshu’s resistance. Leaping into action, Gerel chopped at Yo Ling who easily brushed the ponderous attack aside, chortling at the futile effort. “Come on boy, show a little more spunk. I’m impressed by how quickly you recovered, but you gotta do better than that.” Gerel attacked again, unleashing strike after strike in a flowing series of slashes and thrusts. Parrying and blocking each one, Yo Ling never stopped chatting, as if they were sharing tea instead of duelling to the death. “Then again, I might keep you around, nothing like a snack which heals itself. I’ll never go hungry again. It’s quite the novelty, I’ve never eaten the same man twice, but you might be a tad too chewy for my tastes. Where’s Falling Rain? I hear he’s undying, and I’d like to put that to the test.”
Gerel fought in stony silence while Yo Ling continued his threats. After letting Gerel tire himself out, Yo Ling seized an opening to smash the glaive into the stones, lifting his foot to kick Gerel square in the gut. Doubled over, the tribesman scrambled back, narrowly avoiding Yo Ling’s follow up, the mace centimetres from ending the duel. Giving Gerel time to recover, Yo Ling yawned and scratched his chin, playing to the crowd. Blocking a weak slash, he grabbed the glaive’s shaft and overpowered his opponent, jamming the butt into Gerel’s knee with an audible crack. Delighting in the grunt of pain, Yo Ling toyed with the tribesman, effortlessly defeating his attempts to free his weapon. Releasing it without warning, Yo Ling laughed as Gerel stumbled away, caught off guard by the sudden freedom and almost falling on his ass, hopping about to keep balance. “This is pitiful. Put away your glaive and bring out your sword boy, then you might stand a chance.”
There was no answer as Gerel lowered his stance, keeping his weight off his injured knee with glaive pointed forward like a spear. Worthless. Dodging the sluggish thrust, Yo Ling closed in, foot scything out to trip his opponent and send him tumbling to the stone. With a casual stomp, Yo Ling pinned the glaive in place as Gerel rolled away, coming to his feet with face twisted in anger and shame. The sword came out without a word and the battle continued in earnest. Cut and thrust, feint and chop, the market square filled with the ringing of sword on mace. The boy was fast and skilled beyond his years, but still no match for Yo Ling. Too predictable, a hot-headed young talent common as the clouds. Show a weakness and it’s all the idiot can see, every strike aimed at Yo Ling’s exposed face. A little trick which turned an easy victory into mere child’s play, able to defend against with minimal effort.
Thoroughly enjoying the theatrics, Yo Ling let the battle continue, staying on the defensive and smiling the entire time without breaking a sweat. Eventually the boy realized his mistake, but it was too late, his stamina spent, still recovering from the grievous, life-threatening injuries suffered not even two days past. Smacking the sword from his hand, Yo Ling grabbed Gerel by the collar and lifted him off the ground. Allowing for a dramatic pause, Yo Ling brought his head back before smashing his forehead into Gerel’s face, savouring the sound of breaking bones. Staggering away with eyes unfocused, blood spurted from Gerel’s ruined nose while Yo Ling stood with mace on shoulder and hand on hip, much to the delight of his Butchers.
A Bekhai warrior caught Gerel before he fell and dragged him back into the silent line. For several minutes, no one else stepped forward to take his place and Yo Ling’s Butchers booed and jeered, denouncing the soldiers and guardsmen for cravens and cowards. Holding his hand up for silence, Yo Ling grinned at his enemies, focusing on the Magistrate. “Well? Who’s next?”
Though he hid his emotions well, Tongzu’s demeanour said it all, glancing around for a saviour as his last hope faded into oblivion. So deliciously satisfying, Yo Ling soaked in all the anguish and misery, waiting for the moment it turned to terror and panic. Driven into a frenzy by the delicious meal, the Spirits whispered to any who would listen, sensing weakness and a chance for life, Sanshu’s defenders’ resolve leaking away with each passing second. Eyes closed, Tongzu took a deep breath before stepping forward to speak, and Yo Ling smiled, knowing victory was at hand. “Warriors of Sanshu,” Tongzu began, pausing for effect. “…Attack!”
Even Tongzu’s own soldiers were caught by surprise, but the Magistrate led by example, oversized belly swaying as he stomped across the open ground directly at Yo Ling. His mood soured, Yo Ling sneered at the fat bastard with more courage than sense. Meeting the strike head on, his eyebrows twitched in surprise, their blows almost equal in force. Granted, this was one hand against two, a casual swing matched with everything Tongzu had, but even then, it was most impressive. Punching the Magistrate in the jaw, Yo Ling lifted his mace for a killing blow, but quickly switched to a block, intercepting the hefty Bekhai warrior’s sword. “The name’s Vichear,” grinned the large man, impossibly light on his feet. “Remember it in death, bandit.”
For all his bravado, Vichear fared little better than Tongzu, sent reeling by a knee to the gut. Interrupted once again, Yo Ling ducked aside as a sickle cut through the air, the burned woman running towards him with her companion. So many bugs to squash, their defiance infuriated Yo Ling, the entire army charging in all directions to fight his Butchers. He’d demonstrated his superiority, shown them their struggles were in vain, yet still they fought on. Why continue to resist?
The chain wrapped around his mace and there was no more time for thought. With a powerful tug, Yo Ling ripped the woman off her feet and dragged her towards him. With a pair of short swords in hand, her companion moved to intercept, but between Yo Ling’s mace and armour, he was free to ignore the savage. The woman was the more dangerous of the two, her weapon unpredictable and unblockable, so best to deal with her first.
Or so he thought. Sensing danger, he glanced down to see the swordsman’s weapons glowing red hot, both cocked and ready to thrust into Yo Ling’s belly. Gasping in surprise, he twisted aside, elbowing the swordsman as the searing blades scored across his armour, overpowering its defensive capabilities in a single blow and partially melting the Spirit-infested breastplate, their wails filling his ears as they fled in search of a new vessel to inhabit.
Freeing her chain with the flick of a wrist, the burned woman took her distance as the swordsman recovered his bearings. Already recovered, Tongzu and Vichear joined in, four experts moving to surround him. Individually they were no threat, but two hands cannot block four swords and his impenetrable armour was now melted slag. Around him, his Butchers fell back before the fury of Sanshu’s defenders, the worthless bandits showing their true colours as they fled in droves. Buying himself time to organize his troops, he glanced at the swordsman and burned woman, growling, “Your names?”
“Tursinai of the Bekhai.”
Their curt response nearly drove him to madness, leaving him no time to give orders as the four experts pressed the attack. Chaos broke out around them, a massive, swirling melee of defenders and Butchers. Circling away, he used the Magistrate’s girth to block the other three and drew in a deep breath and infused it with Energy, unleashing a thunderous, ear-rupturing cry. The Magistrate stumbled away bleeding, but the other three were unaffected, well prepared for the move and blocking their ears with Chi. Damn, Gerel must have told them about this, how frustrating. Tursinai’s chain came crashing down, moving through stone and dirt like water and forcing him to present his unarmed left flank to both Vichear and Tenjin. With the light-footed giant’s massive sword and shield to defend him, Tenjin went all out on offence, every strike lethal and deadly.
For the first time in fifteen years, Yo Ling fought as if his life depended on it, mustering every trick and stratagem at his disposal. His mace struck out as both shield and weapon, his body twisting and slipping to avoid blow after blow, drawing on the wisdom of the Spirits. As Vichear lashed out to kill a Butcher, Yo Ling took advantage of his distraction to stomp on his foot. Clubbing the massive warrior in the chest, he howled as Vichear’s ribs broke before turning to bat Tenjin’s swords aside, the lighter man spinning in place from the overpowering force. Grabbing him by the back of the neck, Yo Ling squeezed until bones cracked, snapping Tenjin’s neck like a twig and tossing him aside. With a scream of anguish and rage, Tursinai closed the distance to attack, giving up her only advantage. Arresting the charge with a palm strike, he grabbed her charred shoulder and squeezed, fingers ripping through half-healed skin and tearing a chunk of flesh away as she fainted from the pain.
The last of his opponents dealt with, Yo Ling turned to take control of the battle just as XiaoGong’s Sending reached him. “We’re under attack at both points! They came out of nowhere, there’s too many of them, we can’t hold!”
Trembling with rage, Yo Ling asked, “Who? Who is left in Sanshu to resist?”
XiaoGong’s answer hit him like a hammer, his shoulders dropping beneath the weight of impending failure. “It’s the Council! The Alliance and Union have rallied their mercenaries!”
Sweat dripping down his brow, Chao Yong urged the mercenaries forward while hiding in a sturdy stone doorway. “Forward! A silver for every Coalition head you take!” His voice cracked at the thought of the extra expenditure on top of the sizable upfront payment to secure their services, but he had no choice. “Ten gold for XiaoGong’s and twenty for the toad Xiaobo! For Sanshu!”
The declaration brought a cheer of joy from the mercenaries, greed urging them to heightened fervour, hacking apart their surprised enemies. Humans die in pursuit of wealth as birds die in pursuit of food, but Chao Yong had no intention of dying for either. Were it not for the damned Corsairs holding all his wealth captive, he would have been kilometres away from the city by now, well on his way to Jiu Lang in safety.
Glancing at his armoured captor, Chao Yong pulled out his pocket-watch to check the time and gathered his courage to speak. Though he knew nothing of martial prowess, Chao Yong knew value, and the sky-blue Runic Armour worn by his captor was worth a fortune. Boots, greaves, breastplate, gauntlets, spaulders and helm, buying even a single piece would beggar all but the richest of noble houses, the entire set equal to a year’s profit for the Alliance. Even Bastard Liu spoke to the armoured captor with deference, and Chao Yong had no intentions of upsetting such a man.
Clearing his throat, Chao Yong bowed to his captor and remained there, not daring to look up. “Is my work to your liking, great one? I’ve done everything you’ve asked, gathering all the mercenaries still left in the city and bringing them here. I’m sure my presence is no longer needed, seeing how I’m no warrior. If you could speak with Bas– Err, the distinguished warrior Liu Shi regarding my boats…”
The armoured figure snorted, his voice echoing from behind the faceplate. “Bah, keep yer shirt on, the battle’s only jes started. Still plenty left to do. Anyway, that’s a right shiny looking piece. Lemme have a look.”
An armoured palm gestured before Chao Yong’s face and he cringed while relinquishing the pocket-watch. “This is a custom made timepiece ordered at great cost, with one hundred and eight various gemstones used in its construction. Please accept it as my humble gift.”
“Silly thing, timepieces, but if yer offering then I ain’t gonna refuse. Never really understood the point of ‘keeping time’ though, seems like a strange concept. Doesn’t matter if yer watching, time won’t keep for no one. Thought about buying one for my boy though, he’s been whining about losing his.”
Perfect, the man was an idiot. Clearing his throat once more, Chao Yong asked, “Regarding my request? Like I said, I’m of no use here, you have things well in hand. I might even have some other trinkets stored on my boats for your boy.” His four trusted guards were also on the boats, please come with me you armoured fool. “How old is the young master?”
“Dunno, like I said, don’t really keep track of time.” Clapping Chao Yong on the shoulder, his captor continued, “Anyhow, we ain’t going nowhere yet. I can’t be caught interfering, rules and such, so yer my cats paw.” Chuckling beneath his breath, he added, “Don’t ye be thinking about running off either, cuz then I’d hafta kill ye.”
Tears dripping down his face, Chao Yong returned to hiding in the doorway and watching the battle unfold, unable to make heads or tails of the mess. The Coalition’s mercenaries looked so ferocious in their green and gold armour, while his mercenaries wore rags and leathers, far from impressive. He could only pray for victory, or failing that, for his idiot captor to keep him safe. Then again, perhaps things were better this way. If they were victorious, than he could claim responsibility for saving the city.
Chao Yong, Hero of Sanshu had a pleasant ring to it.
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