The Dead Man’s Crusade (Part Three) by A.Z. Anthony
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 value. 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 dowsing 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 in 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 in 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 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.”
END OF PART THREE