The Gilded Road: The Far Corners
Summary: A drunken mercenary, ascetic scholar, and determined huntress race a renegade warlord to a legendary lost city.
A brutish-looking man flying through the flimsy wall woke Meng Gao and the serving girl he had spent the night with. The stunned girl pulled the sheets up to cover her chest while Gao reached for his sword without getting out of bed. The man moved for a bit before falling out cold. He was a bulky, scarred man with bandoleers of weapons across his chest. From the size of the hole in the wall, Gao imagined a beast of a man was the only one capable of hurling the goon like a sack of meat. He looked in a nearby mirror, seeing he was hardly in perfect shape, either. He had a beer gut from his drinking, and his beard resembled a wild animal hanging from his face.
"What is happening?" the girl asked, clutching the sheets tightly.
"Bar brawl," Gao nonchalantly replied as he stepped into his robes and lamellar armor. "Don't worry. I'll handle this."
He confidently strode out of the door, ignoring the massive hole in the wall. Ahead of him was a mess of overturned tables, broken chairs, and spilled drinks. Battered and unconscious patrons were tossed about the place like crumpled toys, and scattered weapons littered the floor. Many of the more savagely beaten bodies had tattoos and scars on them, like the man who had first entered his room. The opened windows let through the rays of the pre-dawn sunlight, illuminating the trashed tavern. The mawkish smell of spilled drinks wafted into his nose.
Suddenly, he heard shouting from outside. Gao reached for his blade as another thug crashed through the front door. Standing in the doorframe was a dark figure, his face wrapped in shadow. His form was lean and limber, like a coiled snake waiting to strike.
"Who are you?" Gao drew his blade. "Do you know who wrecked this place?"
The figure stepped forwards and bowed politely. His head was shaved bald like a monk, and he wore a simple robe. "I have tried to avoid violence," he lamented. "But sadly, circumstances have forced me to employ it."
"You were the one who beat up all those guys?" Gao laughed. "Tell you what, how about I get you a drink?"
He walked up to the now abandoned bar and poured two cups. He slid one down towards the monk as he lifted his own to his bearded mouth.
"I have forsworn alcohol and other intoxicants," the monk replied. "But I thank you for your kindness."
"No fun, eh," Gao muttered. "Now, seriously, what happened here?"
"Some ruffians followed me with the intention of ending my life," the monk said. "While I try to avoid depraved dens such as this, it was the only place I believed I could find help."
"Looks like that didn't go very well," Gao chugged his drink down.
"When one runs into a bar and punches the largest patron, the locals were more than willing to attack anyone who charged in," he pointed to the tattooed thugs on the ground. "Their drinks gave them enough fool's bravado to attack armed men."
"And win," Gao slammed the empty beer down. "Listen, stranger, why are those men after you?"
"They believe I possess something which I do not, good sir," the monk said. "Now, while one band has been dealt with, more will arrive soon. Pray they do not find you."
The monk turned to leave, and Gao noticed two foreign weapons tucked into the man's robe.
"Hey, I don't even know your name!" he shouted.
"I am Sung Zhen," he bowed. "Student of the Order of the Fire Dragon."
"I'm Meng Gao. That's why you've got those, then," he pointed to the weapons. "Not many martial artists use pistols."
"These flintlock weapons were from my Sifu," Zhen explained. "But come. The enemy draws near with each breath we take."
"Hold on," Gao muttered. "The bartender's out cold, I've got a girl in my room back there, and all the booze I ever wanted. Why should I believe you?"
Of in the distance, Gao heard the galloping of horses. Shouting in a guttural language echoed down the street as a look of grim determination crossed Zhen's face. He went back to his room and found the girl gone, undoubtedly run away or hiding somewhere. He grabbed his things, slipped into his armor, and readied his repeating crossbow. Zhen had already braced himself against a wall under a window, pistols in each hand. Gao put his crossbow up against the windowsill and waited.
"You react prudently," Zhen noted. "If you have any doubts as to my word, the actions of these brigands will remove it."
Gao peaked outside and saw the invaders. Only a few other buildings were located in the center of the village, including some shops and homes. As the invaders approached, they closed their doors and locked their windows. If the enemy had gotten this far, they must've slaughtered their way through the local militia. The invaders were a blend of foreigners dressed in ragged white and gray uniforms from their homeland, and fellow Cathayans clad in worn and tattered armor. Their horses were lean and famished, their ribs practically poking through their skin. Their weapons were likewise motley and assorted, ranging from traditional swords and firearms to crossbows and lances. In the center of the unit was a man in an immaculately clean uniform riding a sickly white horse. He slowed his horse to a trot, and came to a halt in the center of the street. His skin was pale and his disheveled beard and hair grew like a tangle of vines. He slowed his horse to a trot, and his men stopped behind him. He brandished a saber in his hands, shouting orders to his subordinates. Behind him was a large Cathayan man with a polearm.
"Tear this village apart until you find him!" he shouted. "A thousand taels and first pick of this village's women to whoever brings him to me alive!"
The men dismounted, readying their own weapons. Some lit torches, and began to barge into houses. A villager tried running away, only to get a crossbow bolt in the back. Two of the brigands slapped the archer's shoulder.
"Can't we just sneak out the back?" Gao asked in a hushed voice.
"No. My creed demands I seek justice instead of cowardly fleeing," Zhen whispered. "You are certainly welcome to try, but chances are they have already surrounded this unfortunate town with their scouts."
"So, the only way out is through them, then," Gao grinned. "You know what? I've done some bad things for money, but this one's for free."
"That is refreshing to hear," Zhen nodded. "Are you prepared to attack?"
Gao nodded. He opened fire with his repeating crossbow, spraying bolts across the street. Two unlucky raiders fell, and a horseman was knocked off his panicked ride. Before they could react, Zhen charged into the street with his pistols blazing. Two enemy gunmen fell, and startled horses reared up. Gao saw Zhen reverse his firearms, and unleash a flurry of pistol-whips upon the closest men to him.
"Hey, over here!" Gao shouted and charged out with his own blade in hand, grabbing another from a fallen foe. His tempest of steel cut through men and horses alike, spraying warm blood over the ground. Adrenaline drove him between foes as he eviscerated anyone foolish enough to cross his path. Just then, pain wracked his body, forcing him to the ground. A crossbow bolt flew into his shoulder, knocking him to the ground.
As his vision blurred, the enemy leader dismounted from his steed, holding his blade up high. "You Cathayans are all spectacle," he sneered, lifting his blade for the deathblow. "No substance beyond your fancy tricks."
Gao used his remaining strength to lift his swords in the air, catching the sharp steel inches from his throat. He saw and opening and kicked the warlord in the shin, using the distraction to leap back up. He slashed at the warlord, only to have him parry each of his attacks.
"Come now, boy," the man taunted. "Did you really think you could best a Ursian Cossack?"
It was then a gunshot sounded, and a red stain spread out from the man's chest, weeping blood. The Cossack clutched the wound with his free hand, somewhere between horror and disbelief. The stock of a musket smashed his head in, and Gao saw Zhen holding the emptied weapon. Almost miraculously, he was not covered by a single cut or scar.
"Thanks!" Gao said. "I owe you one!"
"It is no trouble," Zhen grinned pleasantly, snatching a crossbow bolt out of the air with his free hand.
The remaining bandits backed up, wary of the men that had just killed their leader.
"Who's next?" Gao taunted, twirling both of his blades around. The weaker willed bandits began running away, but a large, tattooed man stepped out of the crowd. From head to toe, he was covered in crude armor, scavenged from dozens of suits. His chest was covered in a Western styled angled breastplate, while his limbs were covered in motley scraps of other armor. In both hands, he hefted a massive polearm, a rusted guandao.
"The boss still wants the small one's head," he twirled the weapon around. "And I'm going to collect it!"
Gao raised his blades, and saw Zhen reloading. He forced a paper cartridge down the front end of his pistol, and somersault backwards as the blade flew at him. Gao let out a battlecry as he charged smashing the polearm aside and chopping across the brute's chest. The large bandit stood as resolute as a mountain, and responded with a kick that felt like a rockslide.
"Zhen, I could use some help!" Gao shouted.
Gao was sprawled out on the ground, watching the titanic thug bring his weapon down. Gao rolled out of the way as the guandao crashed down like a meteor, burrowing itself in the ground. Gao leapt to his feet, and swung at the brute's neck, onto to have the guandao rise to stop him.
"Out of the way!" the thug shouted. "I just want the monk!"
It was then a gunshot rang out, and Gao saw a spark on the thug's armor. There was no hole, only a small indentation where the bullet had been deflected from. Another shot rang out, but Gao only saw another bandit fall. The crossbow that clattered from the archer's hands indicated he was trying to shoot him in the back.
"Dirty cowards," Gao muttered. "Only I'm allowed to fight like that!"
He readied his blades and circled the brute. The hefty bandit kept his polearm's blade up, ready to lash forwards and strike. The remaining bandits began to gather, forming a circle around the two dueling warriors. They kept their weapons pointed inwards, closing in for the kill. Zhen somersaulted into the center, and threw himself into the human noose. His empty pistols became flashing bludgeons, drawing bad guys away from Gao.
The brute raised his weapon, and charged faster than Gao thought possible. The massive bandit charged with the force of a rampaging rhinoceros. He leapt to the side only to have the blade chase him like a ravenous wolf. Time slowed down as the weapon closed the fatal distance, and he tried in vain to knock it away with his own swords.
Suddenly, the blade jerked upwards and angled away erratically. It dug into Gao's arm, drawing a thin line of blood. He looked up at its welder, only to find a corpse staring back at him. An arrow punctured the brute's forehead, causing his eyes to roll back in his head. The brute's body fell like a sack of rocks, causing the remaining bandits to scatter and run.
Gao traced the path of the arrow backwards and up, placing the archer on a nearby rooftop. He saw a figure clad in the leather helmet and outfit of a Bortesian steppe raider, aiming a composite bow at the street. He saw a Palistani kukri hung from the stranger's belt, ready to emerge from its sheath if he got to close. It took Gao a second to realize it was a woman in the uniform, a foreigner with pale skin and golden hair.
"You are welcome, gentlemen," she said in accented Cathayan. "You are enemies of those men, da?"
Gao placed the accent as Ursian.
"Who are you?" Gao asked.
"Alina Orlov," she set the bow down. "Who are you?"
"I am Zhen of the Fire Dragon Order," Zhen bowed and faced her. "I have been the quarry of those savages for weeks."
"I'm Gao," Gao said. "And I just got up."
"Nice to meet you," Alina nodded. "You must have angered Bloody Boyar in big way. I must congratulate you."
"Bloody Boyar?" Gao asked. "Zhen, is that the guy who's chasing you?"
"I am shamefully ignorant of my enemy," Zhen replied. "But madam, if you know more about this man, I would be infinitely grateful for any knowledge."
"His name is Pyotr Fedorov, rogue Ursian warlord," Alina explained. "Exiled traitor who vanished into wilderness with deserters and mercenaries."
"But why march a mangy army of looters out here to rural Cathay?" Gao asked. "There's nothing worth conquering here."
"I do not believe he intends to conquer remote villages," Zhen commented. "A twisted ambition burns within him, seeking something from antiquity and myth."
"The Mad Boyar was obsessed with the eastern legends," Alina climbed down from the rooftop, slipping the bow over her shoulder. "It is hardly surprise he pursues them to far corners of world."
"He burnt down my monastery, demanding something we did not have," Zhen explained. "He seeks the location of the city of Zamindar."
"Isn't the Golden City just a myth?" Gao asked.
"Does not matter," Alina replied. "The Bloody Boyar must die. He killed my father and brother."
"Whether the legend is literally or philosophically true, I care not," Zhen stated. "But this madman will continue terrorizing the countryside until he is stopped."
"Ah, hell," Gao grumbled. "It's because of him I got up early. That's unforgiveable, right there."
The two others stared at him. An awkward silence lingered for several seconds before Gao apologized. "Just kidding," Gao said. "Why would this guy think you knew anything, Zhen?"
"There is a kernel of truth to his delusions," Zhen said. "Our order did not know where the city may be found, but we know of a possible path there, the Gilded Road."
"By the First Emperor!" Gao shouted. "You mean it's real?"
"I have not said that," Zhen stated. "My plan was to follow this path, and draw the madman away from populated areas."
"And then we strike," Alina slammed her fist into her other hand, mimicking a hammer and nail. "Crush him like insect."
"I just want to get out of here," Gao looked back at the town. "Zhen, didn't you say there would be scouts guarding all the ways out?"
"They no longer draw breath," Alina grinned. "If any hinder us, they shall feed the wolves!"
"Yeah, I like her idea," Gao looked at the mess of dead bodies lying in the middle of the road. "Let's loot what we can, steal some horses, and ride like the wind."
As Gao and Alina began to gather rations, Zhen bowed to them. "I thank you for assistance, kind strangers," he said. "You undertake immense risk for the sake of a humble scholar."
"Eh, no problem," Gao replied without thinking. "I'm just glad to be getting some action again. Been getting too lazy."
"All I desire is Fedorov's head," Alina said as she saddled one of the bandit's horses. "He will pay."
Gao was used to the stench of the dead, and managed to ignore it after a few minutes of scavenging. He saw Zhen help himself to more gunpowder and ammunition, carefully reloading his weapons. Alina prepared saddlebags with the efficiency of a Bortesian rider, something Gao had not expected. He took the lead as they rode out of town, taking their first steps towards the Gilded Road.