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140 Actual Incinerator Way, Apt. 23
Great Inferno Village, FL
the Dead Man's Crusade
It was the place of lesser men to fear the dead. Harper was above their superstitions, was too great a man to fear the ancestors. Or so he’d believed. As it turned out, the ancestors didn’t give a damn what he’d believed. It was the place of lesser men to fear the dead, but for his trespasses, Harper had been bent and twisted into something far worse than dead.
From the other side of the rise horses whinnied and snorted. No doubt they’d caught his scent on the wind. A hard scent to miss, probably, what with the curse and all.
Harper licked his too dry lips with his too dry tongue. If the horses knew he was here, then the riders soon would too. Just as well, he’d been spoiling for a fight. A warmup would do him good before he attended to the far more important business that waited in the ruins of the summer palace just ahead.
Warriors’ voices carried over the hill as they called back and forth to one another. He didn’t know much of the language of the Ghangerai, but he’d learned enough to understand them now. They knew he was there, and they were ready for him. Or, so they thought.
“I’ll spare all those who have the good sense to run,” he shouted into the cool night air as if the steppe warriors spoke his language. Whether they understood or not, at his words the warriors fell silent. The only noise was the distant howl of a northerly wind as it whipped across the steppe. Best get on with it then.
A few long strides brought him to the top of the hill and gave him his first look at the poor bastards readied to face him. Near two dozen Ghangerai warriors waited in the pale moonlight with bows drawn or swords in hand.
“Last chance to run,” he said, but his heart wasn’t in it. Admit it or not, he wanted this fight. It wasn’t exactly revenge for what the ancestors had done to him, but it was damn close.
He would’ve taken a breath to steady himself then, to prepare for the fight, but breath was not a luxury he’d been allowed for near a decade. And the Ghangerai didn’t give him the chance anyway.
One of the warriors loosed an arrow and it thudded into Harper’s chest to drive him back a step. He looked down at the arrow, at the blood just starting to stain his shirt, but felt no pain. Some men would call that a boon. Some men didn’t know what they were talking about.
A memory flashed in his mind, and for a moment, he was back in that damned valley, ankle deep in blood-soaked snow, surrounded by his dead companions. And then the ancestors spoke through their corpses, returning voice to long dead throats and life to long dead eyes.
For your crimes, you will neither draw breath, nor know the release of death. You will starve and not die. You will tire and not sleep. And you will tell your tale to all you meet. Warn them of your folly, that they may fear and honor the ancestors, as their forefathers, and their forefathers before them.
Harper blinked and he was free from the valley, was back on the hilltop with an arrow in his chest. He would’ve spit had he any moisture in his mouth. Tell his tale to all he met? Warn them of his folly? He could only laugh at the idea. The ancestors had thought the curse would humble him. They were wrong.
He snapped the shaft of the arrow, pulling most of it from his chest, and tossed it away.
“Fuck your ancestors,” he said to the Ghangerai below him, drew his sword, and charged down the hill.
His curse wasn’t their fault, not really. If anyone were to blame, it was him. He’d been warned plenty of times not to anger the honored dead, but he’d always been an ambitious man. His curse was not the fault of these poor bastards before him, but that didn’t mean they’d be spared.
As he charged, several more arrows plunged into his chest. They did little to slow him.
The people of the steppe believed their ancestors watched from the heavens above. Believed that they bore witness to all deeds done under the open sky. As Harper drew in on the warriors, he hoped that was true. The ancestors had cursed him to this damned existence, and he intended to cut whatever revenge he could from every Ghangerai he met. All the better if their ancestors were watching.
His first opponent brought his sword down across Harper’s shoulder, the blade tearing through meat and muscle alike. It finally ground to a halt somewhere above his stomach. The warrior made to pull his blade free, but before he could, Harper’s body had started healing. All along the length of the otherwise mortal wound, the skin pulled itself back together as if sewn shut by the invisible stitches of some ethereal physician. The Ghangerai warrior watched the impossible feat, shock plastered across his face.
Harper waited a long moment, took his time with it, before looking the man dead in the eyes.
“I’ve a message for your ancestors. Can you take it to them for me?” he asked, then slashed him across the face. The blow sent the warrior spinning away, a trail of blood arching out into the night.
And then another warrior was on him, ramming a spear through his ribs, the bones shattering at the impact. A third warrior appeared and hacked down on him with a sword, cut a chunk from his shoulder.
Harper had never been the best swordsman, but seeing as the curse wouldn’t let him die, well, that didn’t matter all that much.
He walked backwards off the spear, pulling the viscera-smeared length of wood from his ribs, hardly even noticing as his broken ribcage snapped and popped back into place and the missing chunk of flesh from his shoulder regrew with impossible speed.
The warriors nearest him backed away, eyes wide.
“Ah, now you’re getting it.” He stepped at the spearman and ran his sword up through the man’s belly. “Your ancestors thought their curse would humble me.” He let the gasping spearman collapse, then slashed at another warrior. “Maybe they thought the endless thirst would bend me.” Another slash and he took off a man’s arm. “Maybe they thought the insatiable starvation would break me.” This time he stabbed in low, caught his target in the thigh and sent him tumbling to the dirt. “Or maybe,” and he stepped over the wounded man, “they thought wrong. Maybe, they just really pissed me off.” He brought the sword down on the cowering man with all his weight. It plunged straight through his outstretched, pleading hand, and into his chest. His cries for mercy turned in a coughing gurgle as blood bubbled in his mouth and on his lips.
Harper pulled his sword from the man’s chest and left him to his approaching death as he turned towards the rest of the Ghangerai warriors. Several had already mounted their horses and disappeared at a gallop into the night. The few that remained looked like they wished they’d followed.
“You can run,” Harper said, finally getting a grip on the bloodlust inside him. “I won’t tell anyone. It’ll be a little secret between you, me, and those ghostly bastards in the sky.” He looked up at the dark heavens and wished once more that he could spit.
The remaining warriors turned tail and Harper wiped his sword on a dead man’s chest. When the blade was clean, he sheathed it and faced the ruins of the summer palace the warriors had been guarding.
It wasn’t much a thing to look at. Didn’t seem like there’d be much reason to guard it, really. But Harper knew otherwise. He’d heard the rumors. Had tracked them all the way here.
Some rogue Ghangerai mercenaries had found a sword in the far north of the Khanate and they were selling it to the highest bidder. But not just any sword, no. This was a sword of legend, if one believed in such things. For the most part, Harper didn’t. But then again, he hadn’t believed in the ancestors either.
Rumor had it the sword was special. Rumor had it the sword belonged to some emperor of old. And most important of all, rumor had it the sword was imbued with the ancestor’s power, could kill any creature, living or otherwise. At that thought, Harper smiled for the first time in a long time.
He’d expected near a decade of cutting his vengeance from Ghangerai flesh would have satisfied him more. But, if he was being honest with himself, he hadn’t known satisfaction since the day he’d been cursed. All he’d known was the crippling delirium of years without sleep, the piercing ache of starvation tearing through his gut, and the constant, looming terror of drowning in air he was unable to breathe.
Some thought life unending sounded a mighty fine thing, but all Harper wanted as he approached the ruins, was to finally die.
* * *
“The steppe was ravaged by storms that night. Winds so strong as to move mountains buffeted the land and rain as cold as the heart of winter lashed at all in its reach. And yet, our heroes were undeterred. So true was their honor, so fierce their resolve, the storms felt no more than a passing annoyance.”
Riding a few paces behind his employer, Chen looked up to the cloudless sky. There wasn’t the slightest sign of a storm. In fact, the wettest they’d been on the entire journey was due to the morning dew.
“You’re making thorough use of hyperbole tonight, I see,” he said as a gentle breeze whisked past.
“Hyperbole? Why, my noble biographer, that’s but one step away from lying!” The man shook his head sadly. “Senesio Suleiman Zhao is not a man to lie. But, he is a man who knows his audience.” He twisted around in the saddle and leaned close. “Call it, oh, I don’t know,” he gestured dismissively, “dramatic exaggeration.” I know it might not sit well with the conscience, but your stories of our travels are growing ever more popular. Our readers demand we up the stakes. A bit more adventure, a heavier dose of daring, and,” he pumped a clenched fist in the air, “a healthy helping of danger!”
Chen thought back to the pile of corpses they’d left behind on their last adventure. Didn’t see how much healthier a helping of danger one could have. Well, and still come out alive anyway.
“You know, speaking of dramatic exaggeration,” Chen said, careful with his words as he drew his horse up alongside his employer’s. “We don’t actually have to do this anymore.” He swept an arm out towards the wilderness around them. “We’ve gained enough credibility with our readers. We could just, oh, I don’t know, disappear into the countryside for a bit, have a relaxing time somewhere quiet, then slap some mud and pig’s blood on us and head back. I’d write another story and no one would have a clue we hadn’t actually killed some monster or saved some shit village.”
Senesio was quiet for a long moment. Considering the suggestion, Chen hoped. When his employer turned to face him, however, his hopes were whisked away on the breeze.
Senesio’s brow was furrowed. He looked genuinely puzzled.
“Are you proposing we lie about our adventures, Chen?”
“I propose we exaggerate. Dramatically.”
“Senesio Suleiman Zhao is not a man to lie.”
Chen felt his own brow furrow at that.
“But you just said—”
“Think of all we’ve accomplished together, my friend!” Senesio cut him off with a firm slap on the back. “We slew the man-eating brush cat of Chobei. We saved the noble citizens of Akeng from the dread wendiguar. And we even cured that plague in Jitan!”
“We…we burned down Jitan. I mean, they’re striking it from the maps.”
“There’s no more plague.”
Chen buried his face in his palm.
“Oh, don’t be so dramatic. Here, I’ve got good news.”
Chen felt his confusion drain into dread. Good news to Senesio was often bad news to anyone who wasn’t Senesio. Still, he couldn’t help peeking a tentative eye out through his fingers.
They were on a ridge line now, looking down at a long stretch of grassy steppe. In the distance, moonlight illuminated the ruins of what once must have been a grand summer palace.
Senesio patted his horse’s neck idly, eyes locked on the ruins.
“Arrived?” As best as Chen could tell, they’d ridden through the steppe for a couple uneventful days, only to arrive by dark of night at what appeared nothing more than the ruins of some noble’s old palace.
“We’ve arrived where, exactly?”
“I couldn’t tell you, honestly. The ruins used to be owned by some fat noble back in Ba Seng. But that’s not important. What is important,” he said, standing in his saddle for a better view, “is what’s inside the palace.”
Chen knew Senesio didn’t want much in life, just wealth beyond measure, fame beyond reason, and maybe a small kingdom somewhere warm. Whatever was inside of the ruins, however, Senesio wanted it. Chen swallowed hard before finally asking the question he knew his employer was waiting for.
“What’s inside the ruins? Some foul monster of nightmare we’ve come to slay? Terrorizing the local goats, perhaps?”
Senesio laughed at that, shaking his head.
“Don’t be so dramatic.” He chuckled again. “There’s nothing so exciting as that in there. No, we’re simply here for a sword.”
“A sword?” Chen was taken aback. Something wasn’t right. Senesio didn’t waste his time on such mundane matters. “You’ve got a sword, and a replacement. And a replacement for the replacement. What do you need another for?”
“Oh, this sword’s not for me. No, no, no.” He looked aghast at the thought. “This sword is for the emperor himself.”
Chen had been around his employer long enough to know when the man had a story he wanted to tell. It was his job, after all, to spread the adventures of Senesio Suleiman Zhao to the masses.
“Care to explain why the emperor wants this sword?”
“Got a good bit of history attached to it, this foul little blade. They say it was forged in hellfire beneath the black sun of an eclipse. They say the iron itself was imbued with the powdered bones of all manner of sacred beasts. They say its blade is black as night and twice as deadly. A single cut from it will kill anything, man, monster, or otherwise.”
“And you believe all this?”
“Fuck no. But the emperor does. I know an opportunity to profit when I see one.”
Chen had to agree there. It was well-known when the emperor of the too-vast Zhong empire set his heart on something, he got it, one way or another. Being the one to bring him that thing, well, to say the rewards were enough to purchase a small army would not have been dramatic exaggeration. Despite himself, Chen was smiling. This was looking to be the least suicidal of their adventures so far.
“So we dig up this sword from whatever cupboard or chest it’s in, then take it to the emperor. That’s it, huh?”
“For the most part.”
Chen nodded. Now this was his kind of adventure. The kind that paid well. And probably didn’t get him killed.
“How’d you find out the sword was there anyway?”
“Overheard the soldiers talking about it in that drink hall a few nights back,” he said nonchalantly as he urged his horse forward, down towards the ruined palace.
“Soldiers?” Chen frowned. “What soldiers?”
“General Ming’s, of course.” Senesio said, shouting back over his shoulder. “The man would be a fool to buy from Ghangerai mercenaries without bringing some protection.”
Chen felt his frown fall deeper and deeper until it might as well have fallen off his face entirely. His mind reeled trying to process everything Senesio had just said. Zhong imperial soldiers were down there? And commanded by General Ming, no less, the notoriously fierce border commander whose punishments were as severe as they were lethal. Oh, and then there was the minor fact that they were buying the blade from the Ghangerai, the most feared steppe warriors this side of the empire.
Chen swallowed hard.
“I don’t suppose that was a bit of dramatic exaggeration, was it?” he called after his employer.
“I told you,” he shouted back, “Senesio Suleiman Zhao is not a man to lie.”
* * *
The Ghangerai warriors had shown the good sense to run. The Zhong soldiers, however, held themselves to a higher standard. Damned fools.
They looked down on their nomadic neighbors, thought them nothing but superstitious savages with a penchant for blood. No, the civilized Zhong held themselves to a higher standard. It just so happened to be an arrogant, foolish standard as well.
The Ghangerai were a bit too fond of spilling blood, Harper couldn’t disagree with that, but their superstition? Well, the arrows in his chest, far past enough to kill any living man, more than justified that. Not as if that was going to deter the Zhong soldiers.
“Look,” he said as he approached the six soldiers that had emerged from inside the ruins. “That last fight was the closest I’ve felt to alive since, well, I was alive. Always feels good to put a few of those Ghangerai bastards in the ground. But I’ve no quarrel with you.”
“Walk away,” the first of the soldiers snapped, lowering a spear in his direction. “There’s no business here that concerns you.” The others followed his lead, drawing swords or nocking arrows to bowstrings.
So be it. Harper gripped his sword tighter and stepped forward, but after a second step he hesitated. Was he so set on more death? Hadn’t he once been a better man than that? The Ghangerai were one thing, but these men were different. They didn’t have to die. He’d killed so many since he’d been cursed, but with any luck, he was ending that curse tonight. The ancestors had turned him into a monster, but they hadn’t taken his humanity, had they?
“Just let me pass,” he finally said, lowering his sword to his side. Maybe there was something left of the old him inside. Some small part that hadn’t been bent and twisted by his curse.
“Walk away, or we kill you.” The foremost of the guards raised a hand, signaling to the archers behind him.
“It doesn’t have to be this way.”
Several bows thrummed in the dark. He looked down at the three new arrows buried in his chest. They were entirely too similar to those the Ghangerai had put in him. He’d stopped pulling them out after the last fight. Didn’t see much sense in it at this point. He sighed.
“You know, I really don’t have a problem with you lot.” And for the most part, that was true. As far as he could tell, it had been the Ghangerai’s ancestors that had cursed him. Though, when he thought about it, the Zhong worshiped the same ancestors, didn’t they? He wasn’t sure. Didn’t really care.
“There’s no need for me to kill you. I—” An arrow caught him in the hip.
“I don’t—” And another in the shoulder.
“I don’t think—” And another in the throat.
Harper sighed again.
“You know what? Fuck it.”
He’d killed so many since he’d been cursed, a few more wouldn’t make much difference.
* * *
“Well that’s inconvenient,” Senesio said, a frown warping his features.
“What?” Chen’s hand went to the dagger at his hip as if he’d ever had the courage to actually use the thing.
His employer had stopped, was standing still in the grass only a few steps from where they’d left their horses, reins tied to a stake in the ground. Senesio tilted his head ever so slightly as if listening.
“What is it?” Chen hissed again.
“Fighting,” Senesio finally answered.
Chen squinted into the darkness ahead of them, towards the ruins. He’d never had the sharpest eyes and now he saw nothing besides the tottering structure of the palace. It rose before them like a giant of old, towering above the steppe even in its dilapidated state. Nothing but shadows and ruins. And fighting, apparently. Chen swallowed hard, and listened closer. Still, nothing.
“I don’t hear it.”
“Every man is blessed with certain gifts at birth, my dear Chen. For me it was unmatched swordsmanship, dashing good looks, and charm. For you—”
“It was my writing, I know. You’ve said it a hundred times.”
“I was going to say the pleasure of being my biographer, actually. But, writing. Yes. Let’s go with that.”
“Wait, what?” Chen began but his words were hushed to silence as Senesio grabbed him by the collar and dragged them both to the ground. Not a moment after, thudding footsteps echoed into the night and several soldiers appeared from the inside the palace just ahead. Chen found his hand reaching for his dagger again, heart pounding in his chest, but all for naught. The soldiers didn’t even glance in their direction as they rushed along an exterior wall and around a corner.
“Joining the fight, no doubt.” Senesio was speaking more to himself than anyone else. “This might be easier than I thought.” He rose to his feet so smoothly Chen hardly noticed. He was there one moment, then gone the next, already fading into the darkness ahead.
“Do keep up, Chen,,” his voice carried back on the wind.
He pulled himself to his feet and hurried after.
Only when they were right up against the old palace did Chen finally hear the fighting. And even then it was faint. Somewhere off to their right, around the corner and in front of the building, he figured. But what else could they have expected? The Ghangerai were a bunch of bloodthirsty savages. The best of them shunned wealth and other such worldly possessions in favor of a life of fighting and conquest. Not much more than beasts, they were. And that was the best of them. The rest had abandoned their ancestral ways, and somehow, that had made them even worse. Most became mercenaries, no doubt like the ones here tonight. When civilization came into contact with men like that, blood was a guarantee. The only question was how much.
“Stay close,” Senesio said, squinting into the night. “There’s a servant’s entrance just ahead.”
“Wait, we’re not actually going in, are we?”
Senesio turned back to face him.
“The sword’s in there,” he said, as if that cleared everything up.
“And ancestors know how many soldiers currently hacking each other to pieces.”
“Right. But the sword’s in there.”
“It’s a bloodbath!”
Senesio waved his hand to dismiss Chen’s fears and just like that he felt better. Except for the way his heart was pounding in his chest. And the way his skin tingled all over. And the way he near jumped out of his flesh with every unexpected sound. So, not much better at all, really.
“Besides,” Senesio said, “those are just men in there. Remember the time we hunted the wendiguar? Now that was a bloodbath.” He chuckled at the memory.
Chen could only stare at his employer as memories he’d tried to repress bubbled to the surface once more.
“What is wrong with you?” he said to the still smiling Senesio.
“I’ve been cursed with greatness, my friend.” And with that he darted off towards the entrance.
Chen had a half a mind to leave the mad bastard. The horses weren’t too far away. He could probably make it back unnoticed. But even as he considered running, he knew he wouldn’t. He remembered all too well the time before Senesio. Sure, it’d been a bit less life threatening, but he’d been nothing more than an exiled scribe starving for any sort of work he could find. And any sort of food he could find too. But now, now he was somebody. He was the biographer and companion to the great Senesio Suleiman Zhao. The great selfish, glory mad bastard that he was. That was something, at least. And damned if it didn’t pay well. But, maybe he could just wait outside, he thought. He wasn’t really needed in the palace, was he?
“Stop!” The command barked out into the night and Chen near pissed himself as he jumped. But the shout wasn’t meant for him.
“A fine evening, isn’t it gentlemen?”
Torch light spilled forth from inside the servant’s entrance, illuminating Senesio a few steps from the door. Two Zhong soldiers, swords already drawn, stood before him, one holding the torch.
Senesio stood up straight from the half-crouch he’d been sneaking around in, and slid his sword behind his back. As if that would hide the blade. The soldiers eyed it warily.
“Another step and we’ll cut you down,” the torch-holder shouted, sword leveled in front of him.
“Well don’t warn him, just kill the bastard,” the other soldier said, taking a tentative step forward.
“Gentlemen, gentlemen,” Senesio gave a big smile. “There’s no need for more violence. It sounds like you’ve enough trouble with that already.” He nodded towards the sounds of fighting around the corner.
“Oh, and I’m sure you had nothing to do with that, did you?” the torchless soldier said.
“Most assuredly not!” Senesio clapped a hand to his chest as if insulted by the accusation. “Why, I’ve never struck a blow against a soldier of the empire in all my days.”
From where he was hiding, Chen wracked his brain. Most things Senesio said were dramatic exaggerations, but as far as he knew, this one was actually true.
“I say we kill him all the same.”
Had Chen blinked, he would have missed it. He hadn’t blinked, and still his eyes felt like they’d only been able to see half of what happened. One moment the soldiers were approaching Senesio, swords in hand, and the next the torch had fallen to the grass and the soldiers were limp on the ground. One of them groaned, a low, animal sound. Senesio put a stop to it with a quick jab from his sword.
“My apologies, gentlemen,” he said, and it almost sounded like he meant it.
A lot of what Chen wrote about their adventures was exaggerated. Played up to keep the audience’s interest. Senesio’s skill with a blade, however, might have been the only thing Chen hadn’t exaggerated enough. Damned inhuman, it was. Didn’t seem right the ancestors would let a man move that fast.
Senesio scooped the torch up from where it was spluttering in the grass and shot a look back at Chen.
“Like I said, just men. Nothing to worry about.”
* * *
The bloodbath Chen had been expecting inside the palace was noticeably absent. In fact, things were quite tame. One could almost say polite. Assuming one could ignore the horse-stench of the Ghangerai.
Senesio led with his sword held loosely in one hand and the torch in the other. They met no opposition, however. Only darkened corridors and empty rooms long stripped of any valuables. It almost seemed the abandoned palace was exactly that, abandoned. But the smell of the Ghangerai was hard to miss. And, no, Senesio was right. That had been voices they’d heard. Quiet, at first, but more and more apparent as they drew closer.
At the center of the palace was an open space. An interior courtyard that may have once been a garden. Now, however, it contained nothing more than a dry fountain and a jungle of weeds. Oh, and the combined guards of both General Ming and the leader of the Ghangerai mercenaries.
Senesio tossed his torch into a basin of still water where it went out with a sharp hiss. Chen flinched at the sound, but his employer hardly seemed to hear it, was already creeping into the shadows at the edge of the courtyard. Chen followed with only a couple looks back at the corridor behind them. If a quick escape was needed, and it was looking more and more likely that it would be, he wanted to be prepared.
They were hardly more than spitting distance from the assembled men now. Must’ve been at least twenty of them in the courtyard, armed and armored, and ready for trouble should it dare to show its face. Based on the fighting they’d heard outside, Chen knew trouble was already close at hand. From here though, deep inside the palace, the sounds were too faint to hear. That didn’t stop him from wondering who had caused all the commotion, however. Was someone else here for the sword? That had to be it, right? The question he feared to ask was exactly who else was here for the sword. Between Senesio, General Ming, and the Ghangerai, it seemed every murderous bastard from here to the capitol was in attendance. He couldn’t see how things could get much worse.
The assembled men in the courtyard appeared to share none of Chen’s concerns, however. In fact, they seemed entirely unaware of anything but each other. How long that would last though, Chen could only guess.
The gathering was split into two groups, the Zhong soldiers on the left, all polished armor and rigid posture, and the Ghangerai mercenaries on the right with their curved sabers and wild hair. Chen found himself wondering once more why he was still there. Surely there was no hope of wresting the sword from so many men at once? He didn’t know what Senesio was cooking up, but if it used the same ingredients as his normal recipes it would involve more than a fair bit of blood. And it was looking likely most of it would be their own.
In the courtyard, the leaders of each group stood before their men. The warrior at the front of the Ghangerai was a big bastard. All muscle and hair and deeply tanned skin. A long, braided beard ran down the front of his chest and most of the way past his stomach. Looked half beast, he did. But then again, so did all of the Ghangerai. Smelled more than half beast, too.
Across from the steppe nomads, however, stood the true man to be feared. General Ming himself. Black hair pulled back in a tight bun, arms folded behind his back, and a cold stare in his eyes. Chen couldn’t help but swallow hard at the sight. During his time as an imperial scribe at court he’d had the distinct privilege of reading more than a few field reports from the man. Generals reported on many occurrences in the districts under their jurisdiction. Crop growth for each season, taxes levied and collected, occasionally the attitude of the citizens if discontent was brewing. General Ming reported on all of these, but it was obvious he cared little for them. No, there was only one section of the reports the general took obvious pleasure in: crime and punishment.
There was undoubtedly bound to be some lawlessness in a border district such as his, but if ever a man had taken greater pleasure in stomping such things out, Chen hadn’t heard of him. It was law that a man’s punishment should match the severity of his crime. General Ming, as it happened, had a rather bloody interpretation of that law. Criminals in his district didn’t last much longer than it took for the executioner’s blade to sever their heads.
“Are you sure we really need this sword?” Chen whispered from where they watched in the shadows. “Ming’s not a man we want to know our names.”
“I’ll refrain from introducing myself, then.”
Senesio was many things, but humble and subtle were not among them. A fonder man of grand entrances Chen had yet to meet.
“You sure about that?
Chen opened his mouth for a retort when Ming cut him off.
“Shall we get on with it, then?”
The long bearded Ghangerai leader grunted to his men, and several shifted into movement. An object was passed through their ranks, hand to hand, until it reached Long Beard himself. A sheathed sword, Chen saw. But not just any sword, this was the sword. The one they’d come here for. From where they were hiding, it looked like just any other sword. But this was the sword of legend, it had to be.
Long Beard held the sword before him and spoke with gruff, broken words.
“The tribes of the long north call this blade It-that-Kills.”
“Forgive me if the creativity of the northern barbarians fails to impress me,” General Ming said, half laughing. “All swords kill. What makes this one so special?”
“No.” Long Beard said, sharp and quick. “All swords kill, but not all swords kill all. This one does.”
General Ming shook his head.
“Superstition and myth. It’s your peoples’ belief in these fantasies that makes you weak. This sword is nothing but a relic of times long past.”
Now it was Long Beard’s turn to laugh.
“A relic, maybe. But a relic you want badly enough to pay for. Where’s your gold?”
The general gestured to his men and a small chest was brought forward. Two soldiers placed it on the ground and one began to fiddle at the lock keeping it closed.
“Looks like we’re too late,” Chen said, tugging at the shoulder of Senesio’s robe. “Best we sneak off now and get a head start before these two finish up.” Or whoever was fighting out front makes it inside. Senesio, however, wasn’t listening. His eyes were fixed on the sheathed sword in Long Beard’s hands. Chen grimaced. He knew his employer. Knew him all too well. And consequently, he knew exactly when he was about to do something stupid.
“Think about this, now, Senesio,” he hissed, tugging more sharply on the madman’s shoulder. “It’s twenty to one. You can’t take those odds.”
“No, probably not.”
The relief swept through Chen like a flood dousing a wildfire. His employer was finally seeing reason. Maybe they weren’t going to end up dead after all.
“Ten to one seems much more doable though, wouldn’t you say?”
And with that he jumped to his feet and strode into the courtyard. At first, no one noticed him, too distracted as Ming’s men opened the chest to reveal a sizable fortune in gold. Enough to purchase a small kingdom, almost. Ming gestured down at the open chest.
“The sum you requested and then some. Call it goodwill, and the hope we can work together again in the future.”
Long Beard smiled and stepped forward to hand over the sword.
“Before we go any further, gentlemen, allow me to counter the honorable general’s offer.”
Chen tried and failed to melt into the stones behind him as every head in the courtyard turned their direction. Senesio, on the other hand, seemed to bloom under the attention. He stood just a little straighter and smiled all the wider.
“I should like to offer you the same sum in gold as the general.”
Long Beard’s hand was at the saber on his hip, but he didn’t draw it. His hesitation betrayed his curiosity and Senesio knew an opportunity when he saw one.
“The same sum in gold, and the general’s head.”
It was no secret there was little love lost between the Zhong and their nomadic neighbors. Senesio was trying to play on the two peoples’ turbulent history with one another, but even to Chen, it seemed a flimsy plan. Bad blood was a strong motivator, but rarely stronger than gold.
If Ming was worried by Senesio’s plan, he didn’t show it.
“Kill him,” he ordered with the slightest of gestures.
The foremost of his soldiers drew their swords and advanced. Several Ghangerai made to do the same, but Long Beard stopped them with a gesture.
“I take it that means you accept my offer?” Senesio said to the leader of the Ghangerai while eyeing the opponents approaching him.
“I appreciate your boldness, but I think it’s all bluster. You think you can kill these soldiers and their general on your own?” Long Beard chuckled. “Well have at it then. We’ll enjoy the show.”
“But I’m not on my own, my noble biographer is here to back me up.”
Chen cursed as several heads turned his direction. Reluctantly, he rose from his hiding spot in the shadows.
“I’m, uh, actually not with him,” he said, pointing to Senesio. “Just uh, passing through, is all.”
“Kill him too.”
Several Zhong soldiers turned towards Chen. He retreated a step, fumbling to draw his dagger and near dropping it entirely. As it happened, he needn’t have worried. A moment later the soldiers facing him were frozen in place, eyes wide. And they weren’t the only ones. It seemed everyone in the courtyard had stopped what they were doing to stare.
Chen frowned, then furrowed his brow. What in the name of the ancestors were they looking at?
“As long as we’re making offers on the sword, I’d like to make one too,” a voice spoke from behind. Chen spun around and backed away so quickly he stumbled over his own feet.
He’d seen more than his fair share of foul sights during his time with Senesio, but this one set a rush of bile to burning at the back of his throat.
The man that stood at the edge of the courtyard stretched the definition of the word near to breaking. He was a man, or had been once, but now he looked nothing more than a walking corpse. A corpse, but not a dead one. So then what? An undead corpse? Whatever the damned thing was called, it was an ugly bastard. A great big mess of blood and scars with sunken, black eyes so deep it seemed even light itself couldn’t escape them.
Dripping with so much blood it soaked into the soil beneath him, the man looked like a walking corpse that simply refused to die. His robe was torn to ribbons from what had to have been at least five arrows in his chest, as well as the broken shaft of a spear. Someone had left an axe in his back, the head buried halfway through his neck, and a sword jutted from his side where it’d been run clear through him. Were he not standing less than ten paces away, eyes rolling slow and lazy from one group to the next, Chen would have never believed such a man — or such a thing — could possibly exist.
Despite the axe half through his throat, the undead man’s voice was clear.
“My offer is simple. Give me the sword, and I won’t kill you all.”
A long silence followed, all bated breath and nervous tension. Seemed everyone had drawn their weapons, but now they were unsure what to do with them. It was all too obvious blades and arrows had been little use against the man thus far. Men might all be liars and cheats, but steel, well, steel never lied. Steel, a man could trust in. It did its job, and that was all. Right up until it didn’t. Right up until, well, now.
“Hmm.” Senesio gave his sword an appraising look, then shrugged. “Kinda makes this seem a bit pointless, doesn’t it?”
Long Beard gave a chuckle of disbelief and sheathed his own saber.
“You’re not wrong.” He nodded to the walking corpse. “You’re him, aren’t you? The Conqueror?”
Long Beard frowned.
As a people, the Ghangerai were known for their bloodlust and their bravery. Neither was on display as Long Beard threw It-that-Kills to the ground and sprinted from the courtyard without another word. His men followed hardly a moment later, scrambling over one another in their haste to escape through what had quickly become a too-tiny doorway.
“Looks like the Ghangerai accepted your offer,” Senesio said, watching the light of their torches disappear down a corridor, then go out entirely.
The undead man turned to General Ming next.
“And what about you?”
“Is that one of my men’s swords in your side?” General Ming asked, voice level even if his face was twitching like a bow string drawn too tight and like to break at any moment.
The undead man looked down at the numerous weapons lodged in him. After too long his eyes settled on the sword, as if he hadn’t even known it was there. He shrugged.
“Might be. I don’t spend much time looking at swords these days.”
“No,” Ming said, sheathing his own, “I don’t suppose you do.” With a gesture he gave a command to his men who snapped the chest of gold closed, and hefted it between them. As a group, his soldiers backed away, shields held in front as if the undead man would attack at any moment. He seemed much more content to merely stand and stare, however.
When Ming’s men had mostly left the courtyard, the general spoke once again.
“Whoever, or whatever you are, I speak to you now as a representative of the emperor himself. Please consider my retreat this night a sign of goodwill. We desire no conflict with you.”
For all their talk of thinking the Ghangerai superstitious fools, Chen knew the Zhong held their own superstitions just as close. Theirs were of cursed spirits and lost ancestors, refused entry to the next world and doomed to wander for eternity. Maybe the general thought that was what stood before him now. For all Chen knew, he was right.
“Go in peace, spirit,” the general said, then bowed low as he withdrew from the courtyard.
In his passing, there was silence a moment. Until Senesio shattered it with a raucous laugh.
“Good show, sir! Struck the fear of the ancestors into their hearts, you did.”
* * *
Laughing? Now there was something Harper hadn’t heard in a long while. There hadn’t been much to laugh at since he’d died. Or, not-died. Or whatever it was the ancestors had done to him. No, he hadn’t done much laughing lately, and now, with the sword so close, he found the sound more annoying than anything he could remember.
“Good show, sir! Struck the fear of the ancestors into their hearts, you did.”
The odd looking man who’d been ready to die fighting the Zhong soldiers had turned to face him now. Even worse, the bastard was smiling. Was this a game to him? Harper tried to put him from his mind. He didn’t matter.
The sword was nearly within reach and he could hardly resist the urge to grab it. Ten years of suffering and damnation was about to end. Ten years of insatiable starvation. Ten years of sleepless exhaustion. Ten years of suffocating in the very air around him. It was all about to end. Just as soon as this smiling bastard got out of his way.
“You should follow your commander and leave,” he said, waving the man away.
“Senesio Suleiman Zhao is not a man to have a commander,” the smiling bastard said. Senesio, so that was his name? For a moment Harper almost cared, until his eyes settled on the sword once more.
“That is my name, of course. No doubt you’ve heard it before.”
“I haven’t.” Harper took a step towards It-that-Kills, the blade still in its sheath and half buried in weeds where the bearded Ghangerai had dropped it.
“A shame,” Senesio said, stepping forward and pinning the sword beneath his boot. “But I’ve heard of you, Harper. Or, at least that was your name before. Now they just call you the Conqueror, don’t they? The Conqueror of Ghairkhan. Your name has spread far, my friend.”
Harper could care less if the God-King of Turja had heard his name. All that mattered now was the sword. The sword, and using it to end his curse.
“I’ll ask you once to give me the sword before I cut you down.”
Senesio hooked It-that-Kills with his heel, then flung it backwards with a sweep of his leg. It was lifted into the air, then slapped into the chest of the small, shaking man who’d thus far been quiet.
Senesio leveled his blade and lowered himself into a fighting stance.
“They say I’m unbeatable with a sword, you know. They also say you’re unkillable.”
Harper growled and raised his own blade.
“Let’s see which is true.”
“I feared you’d never ask.” Senesio gave a wide smile, all teeth and steel as his sword slid side to side in the air, a viper waiting to strike.
Best make this quick, Harper thought. Before the shaking man found his courage and did something stupid like running off with It-that-Kills.
Two quick steps brought him within striking distance of Senesio, and Harper didn’t hold back, swinging forward with all of his might. His sword hissed as it cut through the air. That was all it cut through, however. Senesio was gone.
The sound of a blade slicing through flesh reached his ears, and Harper turned to find Senesio’s blade sliding back out of his chest. He felt no pain, as always. Or at least, not from the sword wound, anyway. It was long past time the smiling bastard before him felt some pain, however.
Harper swung again, this time expecting the man to dodge the blow. Senesio countered instead, stepping into the strike quicker than Harper could blink. Their swords met briefly with a clang, before his jumped back out of his grip. Senesio wasted no time, running his blade through Harper’s chest, then stealing it back and slicing into his shoulder. The sword ground to a stop against Harper’s shoulder joint, and he twisted hard, using his body weight to wrench the blade from his opponent’s hand. As it turned out, being undead had some advantages.
With his opponent disarmed, Harper turned to retrieve his own sword. This Senesio might’ve fancied himself an unbeatable swordsman, but sooner or later, all men died. Maybe, Harper hardly dared to hope, even himself.
* * *
The Conqueror, or Harper, as Senesio had named the undead man, turned to pick up his sword while Senesio was disarmed. Doing so exposed his back, however, and Senesio plucked the axe from it.
Harper had just turned back around when Senesio caught him in the cheekbone with the flat of the axe. The blow connected with a sharp crack that sent him spinning to the ground. Chen fought the urge to rub at his own cheek. It didn’t much look like Senesio’s opponent felt pain, but if he did, he’d be feeling that for the next few months.
Rather than pounce on his downed foe, Senesio stepped back, allowing him to regain his feet.
“Enough,” Harper growled, and turned towards Chen. “I’ll have that sword now.” Chen took a step back, clutching the sheathed blade to his chest, but he needn’t have worried.
The undead man hadn’t taken more than two steps before Senesio took one of his legs off at the knee with a blow from the axe. Harper wobbled once, leaning as if he would fall, then regained his balance. Chen had to blink twice to be sure he wasn’t seeing things. Another leg had already replaced the severed one, sprouting like a bloody shoot of bamboo amid a rapid series of crunching squelches.
“Now that is interesting.” Senesio seemed to ponder to himself a moment. “What happens if I…” He swung the axe at Harper’s neck, a fierce blow that would have undoubtedly beheaded him. Chen had the distinct impression that even that would fail to stop the undead man, but he never had the chance to find out.
Moving quickly for the first time that night, Harper ducked at the last moment. Not enough, though. The axe thunked into the side of his skull and split it near halfway through. Almost looked a melon being cut for a feast. If one could get past the blood and grey matter that oozed out around the axe head, that was.
For a moment, the two stood there completely still. And then Harper’s split skull knit itself back together. Skin stretched and grew, almost flowing around the blade, then pulled tight and clamped his skull closed like an old chest snapping shut. Head back in mostly one piece, Harper took another step forward. The blood must have made the handle slippery, because Senesio looked surprised as the axe slipped from his grasp.
Another step and Harper was far too close for Chen’s taste. He backed away, but the undead man followed.
“Just give me the damned sword.”
“Best I can do is a spear,” Senesio said, ripping the broken spear from Harper’s back and beating him over the head with it. No effect. Another step closer.
Next Senesio ran the spear through the back of the man’s neck. It burst out the front of his throat in a shower of blood. But still, no effect. Another step closer.
Fear had its claws in Chen now and he felt panic rising from his gut.
“Fear not, my friend,” Senesio shouted from over Harper’s shoulder. “I’ve got this under control.” He scooped a rock from the ground and smashed it into Harper’s head. The blow staggered the not-corpse for a moment, but had little other effect.
Another blow and Harper’s skull caved in again, but he didn’t stop.
“Actually, maybe you should run.”
Chen turned to flee and slammed face first into the wall behind him. The collision sent him stumbling backwards. He groped at the wall he knew he couldn’t reach, at the empty air, at anything that could stop him from falling back towards the unkillable bastard a few steps away. All for naught.
The ground slammed into his back, driving the breath from him, and when his vision steadied he found himself staring up at those cold, black eyes. Senesio jumped and stomped somewhere just out of sight, still bashing the rock into the man’s head, but Chen couldn’t see past the void of its eyes. So deep, so black, they were, he felt he could see death itself in there. His own, and all those that had fallen to this monster previously.
One blood-soaked hand reached down towards Chen’s throat and he squirmed to get out from under it. He rolled to one side and the fingers missed his throat. Or, had never been aiming for it, he realized, as Harper gripped the sheathed It-that-Kills. A second hand followed the first and he lifted the sword into the air.
“Not today, bastard!” Senesio shouted and, dropping his bloody rock, lunged for the blade as well. The two collided shoulder to shoulder, then stumbled to the side.
Chen reached for the sword as they fell, finger tips snatching at its hilt. They found purchase and he gripped tight, pulling backwards with all his strength. The blade seemed caught for a moment — the three of them hanging there, all wrapped around the sword, all pulling in different directions — and then it gave way. Senesio and Harper tumbled into a pile of blood and discarded weapons and Chen fell the other way, blade gripped tight in one hand.
He landed on his back, It-that-Kills held above him, the sword gleaming in the scant moonlight that trickled down from the clouds above. It was a beautiful weapon. Or, at least Chen had expected it to be. Instead, it looked rather like every other sword he’d seen. Smooth, thick steel in the middle with two cutting edges that ran the length of the blade on either side. In fact, if he wasn’t sure it was the infamous blade of legend, he’d have half thought it was merely an
“Fucking stab him, Chen!” Senesio shouted from a few feet away, snapping Chen’s thoughts back to the situation at hand. His employer and Harper were wrestling on the ground, exchanging blows back and forth whenever one managed a free hand.
“Stab him, damnit!”
Chen swallowed hard, but he knew what he had to do. He’d always thought he’d never be anything more than a scribe, but now, now he knew otherwise. It had been a circuitous route to get here, but he was meant to be here this night. He knew there was a reason he’d followed Senesio all those years. Had always known he was destined for something greater. He was meant to wield It-that-Kills. Was meant to strike a blow with the blade that killed all, and finally put this undead son of a bitch into the grave.
“Gahhhhhh!” Chen roared as he charged, swinging the sword in front of him with all the precision of a drunk aiming for the piss pot.
“Stab him!” Senesio shouted.
“Stab me!” Harper said, rising from Senesio and turning to face the charge. He spread his arms wide, opening his chest to It-that-Kills.
“Die you son of a bitch!” Chen rammed the sword through the monster’s chest. Or, almost through it, at least. It got in there a little ways. A good hand’s length, or so. Probably.
“With…pleasure…” Harper said, eyes slipping closed as he collapsed backwards. He hit the ground with a heavy thump and lay still. It-that-Kills stuck in his chest, wobbling slightly back and forth along its length.
Chen fell to his knees, breathing hard. The world spun around him, adrenaline pumping in his veins, heart beat pounding in his ears. He’d done it. He’d done it. Son of a bitch, he’d done it!
“I did it!” he yelled, jumping to his feet and pumping his fists. “Yes! Take that you undead bastard!” He jumped up and down, surging with adrenaline and punching the air all around him. “Not so unkillable now, are you, huh? Huh?”
Amidst the celebration Senesio pulled himself up.
“Chen,” he said, waving to the scribe.
“I did it! Ancestors above, I did it!”
“Oh hell.” Chen stopped his celebrations. “I’m going to be famous. Better than that, I’m going to be rich.” The realization hit him like a slap to the back of the head. Or, no, actually that was a slap. Senesio slapped him again.
“Get yourself together, man.”
Chen could only smile up at his dirt-smeared employer.
“I killed him. With the sword, you saw it, right? Ran him clean through.”
“Again? Ancestors be damned.”
“Come again?” Chen asked, before realizing it wasn’t Senesio who’d spoken. The excitement drained from him like blood from a punctured artery. Dreading what he’d see, he turned around to face the undead man.
True to name, he wasn’t dead.
Harper pulled himself into a sitting position and looked down at It-that-Kills in his chest.
“Fuck. Really thought we had it that time.”
“Maybe it’s not in far enough?” Senesio offered, leaning in for a closer look.
“Give it a kick, would you?”
Senesio kicked the hilt of the blade and drove it the rest of the way through his chest.
“Wait,” Chen said, still not believing what he was seeing. “I didn’t do it?”
“No.” Harper pulled the sword from his chest, then spit and tossed it away. “All swords kill, but not all swords kill all. This one does.” Harper said, scrunching up his face in an annoyed mockery of Long Beard. “What a load of horse shit.”
Chen was still reeling.
“I…didn’t do it?” He could feel his wealth and fame slipping away like grains of sand through his clutching fingers.
“Hold up.” Senesio scratched at his head. “You wanted to die?”
“Have you ever been cursed with a century of unlife?”
“Can’t say I have.”
“Suffice it to say, it isn’ all its cracked up to be.” Harper stood and looked down to the already healed wound It-that-Kills had tried to leave in his chest. “In fact, it’s downright fucking torturous.”
Senesio still looked dumbfounded.
“You’re trying to get yourself killed?”
Harper reached up and pulled the axe from his skull, a spurt of blood trailing it as it ripped free.
“Trying. Failing.” He shrugged. “Trying again.”
“Chen,” Senesio said, reaching out blindly behind him and slapping at his biographer’s shoulder. “Chen. Did you bring your quill?”
Chen swatted away the pestering hand and cursed.
“No, of course not.”
“You’d best go get it.”
Senesio turned to him and smiled. A cunning smile. A hungry smile. The smile he flashed whenever he’d had another damned fool idea.
“You’re going to have a lot of new stories to write soon.”
“No,” Chen said, shaking his head. He knew what Senesio was thinking. “No. No no no.”
“He’s a monster! Damned insane, most like. And he could kill us both without even trying—”
“He’s a legend, you mean. The Ghangerai fear his very name, and as soon as Ming returns home, the Zhong will know of him as well.”
“The hell are you two on about?” Harper said, eyeing them with a look of contempt.
Senesio turned back towards the unkillable man, slapped at the mud and blood splattered across his robe to little effect, and drew himself up to his full height.
“Forgive me, my friend. I don’t think we were properly introduced. A horrible oversight on my part.” He swept into a low bow, one hand flourishing several times over.
“I am Senesio Suleiman Zhao, monster hunter, Champion of the People, and soon, the most famous man this side of the empire. And I’d like to make you a proposal.”
“What kind of proposal?”
“The kind in which you join me and my noble biographer on our future adventures.”
Harper frowned even deeper.
“And why would I do that?”
“Because I’m a particularly persuasive individual. And because if you do, I promise I will find a way to kill you.”
Harper laughed. A low, guttural sound. Coarse and rough almost as if he’d forgotten how.
“You’ll find a way to kill me? I’ve been trying for a decade now, and yet, here I stand.” He laughed again. “Kill me? I’d like to see you try.”
Senesio smiled all the wider.
“So would I.” He extended one hand. “We’ve a deal, then?”
Harper stared at the hand for a long moment.
“You’re a mad bastard, aren’t you?” he said finally.
It was dark in the courtyard, and Harper was splattered near head to toe in blood and mud and ancestors knew what else, but in that moment, Chen could swear the man almost smiled.
“I like that,” he said, then clasped Senesio by the wrist and gave it a firm shake. “Here’s to killing me,” he said.
“To killing you,” Senesio agreed, then turned back to Chen and flashed a smile. “I think our days of dramatic exaggeration might be over, my friend.”
Chen shook his head and cursed the ancestors for condemning him to such a life. But later, when no one was watching, he couldn’t help but crack smile. Even he had to admit, this was going to make for one hell of a story.