The Dead Man’s Crusade (Part Two) by A.Z. Anthony
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 burst 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, something between a whimper and a whine leaking from his mouth. 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.”
END OF PART TWO