Slouching Towards Jianghu
Note: Like my other story, The Terminal Correction, this is set in a friend's fantasy world. These stories take place in the dark fantasy world of my friend's roleplaying podcast, "The Sword of Nerdom." If you like this, you'll love that. Go check it out at wwwDOTswordofnerdomDOTcom, and see if you can get all the references I slipped in.
I commit these words to paper, lest madness or the foibles of memory steal them from my mind. My own recollection of such events grows more uncertain with each telling, as I am consumed with demons of doubt that plague even my own jaded mind. I thought I beheld wonders long surpassed, vistas and secrets long concealed, but I wonder if the curiosity that defined my profession is partially responsible for this ironic fate. As I am no stranger to the disdain of academic orthodoxy, I record these words as a warning for all who dare tread in my footsteps.
I still remember departing for what I considered to be a long assignment of tedious beachcombing. What was to be a year-long trek to find traces of a long-lost voyage turned into an unceasing nightmare. I remember the stink of charnel in the Corpsewood. I remember the open sewage from Underbridge, that dark spot in blighted Strova. I remember that endless expanse of drowned blue and muted gray, that ocean horizon with clouds that flew as if fleeing an unseen pursuer. I fear losing myself to those memories, even as I struggle to recall my own identity. Thus, I record my abbreviated autobiography, so you may understand my perspective.
To those few friends who know me in person, I am Doctor Alan Ritter of the University of Newkirk. I have recently entered my third decade of life, following the completion of my thesis research under the supervision of Professor Karina Halstrom. I spent most of my life in the area around Newkirk, save for the occasional excursions for research, conferring with my peers, or primarily professional purposes. It was on one of these sojourns that my fateful encounter occurred. I believed such work to be a polite way of moving me into de facto exile, but my dire financial straits made such work appealing. I fear it may have been far more successful than my employers ever intended.
My thesis research was on the spread of advanced machinery from Xianjing to our own continent, citing archeological evidence and historical accounts from rare sources. I am fortunate a particular volume I sought, Coleus' Codex of Ingenious Engineries, was recovered before a particularly zealous Knight of the White Star could abscond with it. While the University's typical disdain for Church bans on such tomes was invaluable to my own work, I nevertheless faced a different sort of persecution during my own research.
The central point of my thesis was that the recent advancements of the last century all originated in distant Xianjing, rather than being invented by the fools they are typically ascribed to. Am I to believe that Malcom Rendotti, a boorish and unimaginative man by all accounts, was the designer of the flintlock firearm? Was a superstitious scion of a noble family, Sharon Stormberg, the inventor of the first practical magnetic compass? Even the printing press, called an infernal device by the scandal-plagued Strovan nobility, owes its existence to an overpaid pamphleteer like Erina Urnst, according to popular legend.
I believed that all of these devices, as well as the medium I write upon, came to our continent from distant shores. Those rogues we attribute the trinkets of modernity to merely copied (or perhaps even improved upon) foreign devices. My studies lead me to believe that the devices we take for granted today arrived from an intellectual vacuum into a mature, realized technological form. The history of the mechanical sciences owes an unacknowledged debt to unnamed engineers in distant Xianjing.
Long before the Clockfitters Guild built the clocktower that dominates the central campus, or the first cannons thundered across the battlefield, the predecessors of such devices were being honed in a land we know little about. While my recent experiences press upon my mind like a leaden weight, I find it tragic that the newly enriched mercantile houses and avaricious guilds will likely use their influence to squelch any further inquiry into this research. However, my inner cynic leads me to believe that should more inventions (and their inventors) arrive from distant shores, those newly-minted nobles would surely hope for history to repeat.
What opened my mind to that possibility was a book that came into my hands from an Amaranthine trader. While the book was partially soaked and bore the signs of water damage, the worn carried bore emblazoned symbols similar to those used by nobles in distant Xianjing. Within were rich pages, preserved by an alchemical ink unused in our continent, which preserved most of their integrity. I took the book to two independent translators, and much to my shock, I found myself sitting on a compelling piece of primary evidence. The book, to which the fickle whims of fate placed in my hands, was a maritime log.
I remember a sailing voyage I undertook, roughly a decade ago. Unlike the flat-bottomed keelboats that ply the Ornos River, my uncle and I undertook a proper sailing trip on a galleon. We sailed out along the Bathory Coast, avoiding the routes favored by pirates and freebooters. The purpose for our voyage was both scientific and pecuniary, mapping the habitats of coastal sea-birds favored by a particular noble for their plumage. I believe my uncle, the late Professor Stannard Ritter, brought me along as both a student and a sharpshooter. In his advanced age, he bore a slight quiver in his arm. He handed me a blunderbuss, and instructed me to blast those birds from the sky, so they could be stuffed and mounted in a museum collection. While I was hesitant at first, I soon received accolades from the crew. While it was only a week, and we barely lost the sight of land for more than a day, I nevertheless remember it, and all things nautical, with an air of confident pride.
The book I read bore no title, beyond the Log of Admiral Shang He. According to a history book I later uncovered, Shang He was an explorer of a century-fallen dynasty in distant Xianjing, reported by a handful of local sources as even reaching our own shores over a century ago. The immense size he his vessels comprising his treasure fleet was disputed by decades of naysayers, but his visit resulted in little, if any, initial contacts. Some believe the Admiral was called back due to brewing domestic unrest, and others believe it to be him bearing little interest in establishing official relations with backwater barbarians, such as our ancestors a century prior. The log, while missing the first and last dozen pages or so, implied dwindling supplies and the threat of possible mutiny sent them back. Even so, the Admiral wrote about the perilous return voyage with a sense of dread and foreboding. There was a slight sense of relief at the disposal of some unnamed cargo. The following appearance of the disputed inventions, which even skeptics acknowledge as existing in Xianjing, is sudden and virtually explained.
Anyone familiar with the history of technology, and the process of invention, understands each technical lineage undergoes generations of iterations and improvements. The lack of such intermediary steps in the Holy Kingdom of Adelos is telling, especially once one compares the machinery described in the Log with the exact devices we falsely attribute to our forebears. As a historical document, the Admiral mentions little of the country that he's undoubtedly been isolated from for years. Instead, he describes a handful of chance encounters with locals, some of whom match the physical and personal descriptions of those (in)famous inventors.
To validate my research, I recreated functional replicas of each device, using the crude, uncouth methods available a century ago. I made copies of the Log, and ensured the original was deposed deep in the University Library's rare book vault, safe from all who would do it wrong. Sadly, we did not have an official ambassador from Xianjing available to comment on my thesis, but I would later find a similarly qualified individual, whom shall be covered in due time.
During the final stages of my work, my uncle went out on another nautical voyage, this time trying to recreate Marco Trielo's famed voyage across the Aellestine Ocean. Sadly, his vessel was lost with all hands, and I believe he was trying to assist me against the slings and arrows of my critics. While it was the fault of the weather, I've always borne some guilt for his untimely end. I still remember that nightmare, where his waterlogged corpse was taxidermied like the seabirds I shot for him, stuffed and mounted in a submarine gallery beside the remains of Admiral Shang He himself. He may have been the first to die as a result of my work, but he was not the last.
While I was reproducing an early firearm, I made a few improvements on the design for a friend in the Newkirk Guards. I designed a multi-barrel firearm, each of the six barrels ignited by a spark created when the hammer falls, completing a circuit with an alchemical battery in the grip. The complex pistol was too costly to mass produce, but I kept the prototype. Accidental discharges and misfires dropped by an order of magnitude since it was introduced in a simplified, longarm form. Nevertheless, it is a small point of pride that the company-strong Newkirk Arquebusiers use that sparklock system in their namesake weapons. Coupled with the Newkirk Arbalest Corps' recurve crossbows, the troops were protected behind layers of devious mechanical traps and ingenuous fortifications the Newkirk Engineering Corps designed, I would pity any bandit foolhardy enough to test their resolve. While I did not officially serve in the military or constabulary of the city, I nevertheless ended up fighting by their side.
I remember that frantic night, when I stayed late to help a militia armorer finish a batch of prototypes. A guard ran in, clutching her bloodied shoulder, and shouting about intruders in the courtyard. As we were the only other able-bodied adults in the vicinity, I was given a loaded pistol and told to open fire. With the lanterns snuffed by the intruders, I blasted the shadows that writhed like wounded snakes. In that pandemonium, it was a miracle we didn't shoot our allies. The thunderous fusillade of friendly reinforcements was enough to finish the incident, and I later learned I'd unknowingly mortally wounded a man. I never thought I'd have it in me to intentionally take a life, but chaotic circumstance foisted that experience upon me. The burglars, as it turned out, were local gangsters hired by a rival guild seeking to steal the Newkirk Arsenal's designs. The result of that episode was enough to alienate me from the commerce of that city.
Greed and desperation were not the only sources of disgust during those months. A particularly eye-opening and traumatizing episode was my trip to the militia hospital, where a surgeon hacking off a poor woman's gangrenous leg informed me of a particularly disturbing statistic. Of those claimed by the bullet or bolt, less than a third die of the projectile. The remaining two-thirds died of the infections that followed. Despite the lethal and complex weapons Newkirk's intellectuals helped design, I nevertheless found it ironic that disease and exposure are greater killers of soldiers than battlefield casualties. Needless to say, I took more extreme defensive measures during my travels.
When I travel, I feel little different than home, an exile from good taste and polite conversation. I've never considered myself particularly strong, but I've long towered over my peers like an ominous shadow. My former supervisor told me my steely gray eyes are like the terrible reflection of some looming executioner's blade. Recalling the lessons of my uncle and his crew, I made a habit of keeping my dark brown hair short and face shaven. After recalling a hirsute sailor getting his unkempt beard caught in a pulley, I had little urge to flaunt my own facial hair.
What I savor during those travels is the chance to separate myself from the outside world in a directly physical, asocial manner. Recalling those lessons from the hospital, I cover my round face in a green plague doctor's mask, hat, and goggles. I swaddle myself in a thick, padded robe, as green as a night forest, that warms and protects. Beneath that, I keep a survival knife and my pepperbox pistol. Few dared make eye contact with me, let along try to liberate items from my pack. While I try to keep my words to myself, I travel with the occasional caravan or even Amaranthine road folk, as I appreciate their respect for my privacy. I would explain some of the peculiar things I beheld, but I will omit them for brevity's sake. I have my own rules and privacy, but I can respect theirs.
After completing my research, I was offered a job directly by the University of Newkirk. They claimed that in order to follow up on my research, I would be paid to comb the beaches of the Bathory Coast for further evidence of Shang He's voyage. Even then, I was skeptical of the project, as I would have no further official support from University staff or patrons. A proper expedition would take multiple years and large teams of researchers, guards, and laborers, but the stipulation was I had to undertake such work independently of the institution. I would be granted a stipend for comfortable living, but I would be on my own for the rest. Due to my late uncle and other relatives in the University and its attendant guilds, my family was still well-respected, so this was a way of removing me without ruffling too many feathers. As I realistically felt my work blacklisted me from other local employers, I accepted in false hope that they'd recognize the importance of further contributions. Aside from that monthly payment, I heard nothing else from my former colleagues.
I set out that following day, full of naïve optimism and unreal expectations on my future. I traveled with an Amaranthine trade caravan along the trip to Strova, from where I'd continue north until I hit the coast. The trip to Strova would take no more than a week, but it would take us past the infamous Corpsewood. I had traveled along this road before, and I put no stock in the strange tales typically ascribed to that forest. One of the few viable institutions in that cesspit of a city, the Outriders were a volunteer frontier force that kept the roads reasonably clear of beasts and brigands. Looking back, I doubt even they could have handled what transpired.
I remember walking at a brisk pace beside a covered wagon when the caravan suddenly came to a halt. I allowed my mind to wander, taking in the sights and sounds of the forest around me. I noted the ambient birdcalls and droning cicadas dropped as we traveled deeper under that canopy. Skeletal branches strangled the sunlight beyond, as if dragging us further down to the underworld with each step. While it was only the edge of the Corpsewood, I felt the hairs on my neck stand up as we drew deeper into its waiting maul. I wondered if we were like a mouse curiously approaching a wedge of delectable cheese, just before a trap was sprung. I scanned through the woods and remembered that maddened night at the Newkirk Arsenal, wondering if worse things waited in the brush.
A wagon-master I'd befriended over the last few days, a burly Amaranthine man I knew only as Sam, gave the order to halt to the wagons behind him. From the perspiration that soaked his balding head, I could tell that delay was the least of his worries. He spoke in a huddle of dark-skinned Amaranthine adults, and I overheard a few snippets of their conversation. Due to tensions between Strovan locals and another Amaranthine caravan, the Strovan Guard was setting up checkpoints along the major roads. A pair of Amaranthine traders had been turned away from one, and it was unlikely they'd let any more in. As such, the caravan leaders voted to change their route. They'd divert to Westlake, bypassing Strova altogether.
For a moment, I was almost tempted to join them. The time I'd spent on the road was enough to superficially learn the basic etiquette of the Amaranthine travelers. I had no doubt they'd allow me to travel to their new destination without additional fees or charges. From Westlake, it would be a trivial task to find alternative arrangements to reach the coast. However, a bout of impatience inhibited my sound judgement. I wanted to get to the coastline as quickly as possible, so that I could immediately start upon my task. Due to my ill-conceived optimism, I believed I'd be heading back to Newkirk with a proof in hand, in which I'd vindicate my prior work. Despite my earlier trepidation of the Corpsewood, I ignored the parade of imagined horrors. I held my scientific professionalism to a standard well beyond the petty drama of institutional academics, and that was one reason I ended in up my current predicament. In retrospect, it was still a decision I cannot bring myself to regret.
In my ill-advised haste, I traveled north to Strova. As the remaining journey would only take a day, I felt supremely confident in my ability to reach the city. The road was a major trade route, well-patrolled by the Outriders, so I felt little fear trudging alone through the Corpsewood. Should I encounter any wild animals, I was similarly confident a warning shot would send them scattering. I'd earned my keep on some caravans by firing off warning shots at packs of feral dogs and other animals, as the report was loud and frightening enough to send beasts scattering. When I encountered a pack of wolves on that lonesome road, I was enlightened on the limits of my experience. I was too foolhardy to realize how alone I truly was.
The road was muddy from recent rains, and I saw few signs of wagon ruts, hoofprints, or human footprints in the murk. The trees grew more gnarled and bulbous, as though compressed into otherworldly forms by the ambient malignance that seemed to weigh upon that blighted woodland. When I heard gangly limbs skittering across dead leaves, I first thought as though some giant arachnid was descending upon me. Instead, I turned to see slavering specimens of Corpsewood canines. They were the mangiest wolves I'd ever seen, with matted fur like a frayed tapestry. Their yellowed teeth were cracked and bloodied, and I could see their ribcages through their parchment-thin skin. I cocked the hammer to ready the gun with one hand, and I pulled the trigger with the other. I fired into the air, hoping that would send the circling predators scampering back into the woods. Instead, it was like a signal to charge.
They descended upon me from all sides, in a flurry of slobbering mauls and flea-bitten bodies. I fired once, twice, thrice, losing count of ammunition. I wished I'd put that first shot into the face of the largest wolf, rather than frivolously discharging it into the air. For each wolf my frenzied shots claimed, two more emerged to take their place. The lord among those rabid wolves pinned me to the ground, liberating the pistol from my sweat-soaked hands and causing me to curl into a ball on the muddy earth. I struggled to draw the thin-bladed survival dagger from its holster, and I wondered if my destiny was to die alone in a desolate wood. As I laid there, covered with sweat and blood from innumerable wounds, my first thoughts were of how I'd failed to relay my findings to waiting patrons. Imagined disdain of aloof researchers was the last thought that would have passed through my mind, had my fortune not changed them.
I frantically waved the dagger in my hands as the largest wolf circled me. The remainder of its pack stayed back, as if to grant it the glory of the kill. As it charged at me, I abandoned all pretense of fight and pulled myself into a ball, expecting it to savagely rip me apart. I briefly considered plunging the dagger into my own chest, to make my end swifter. Calling forth the last vestige of strength within me, I clenched the dagger to my chest. I prepared myself to meet the ravenous predator, as if to remind him why humans dominated the world. I opened my eyes, and I rubbed them as I focused on my target.
The wolf looked almost pitiful when I beheld it lying motionless on the ground. I saw the shaft of an expertly-placed crossbow quarrel protruding from the side of its head, and my mind struggled to process what followed. I felt my hands, warmed with my own blood, press against the muddy ground. I smelled the coppery scent of spilled blood. I heard the cleaving of sharpened metal through bone and flesh, followed by the yelping of whipped dogs. I saw a distinctly familiar female form move like whirling dervish through the edge of my vision, dancing in a spontaneous ballet of dismembered limbs and flashing steel. My instinct recognized her before my confused mind did, and I saw a familiar body retrieving my dropped items.
I tried to speak, but only unintelligible gurgling escaped my lips. She wore a robe as gray as an overcast sky. The foreign cast of her face was nearly concealed beneath her hood. She wove through the knotted roots and dying wolves with the grace of a lissome dancer. The tip of her longsword traced a line of crimson calligraphy through the air. On her back was a heavy crossbow with a mounted telescope. As silence returned to the woods, she withdrew a poultice from the folds of her robe and knelt over me. Across the edge of her neck was a scar I did not remember. I met her gaze with mine, and stared into brown eyes I'd thought I'd never see again. I managed to say her name before lapsing into unconsciousness. "Jian."
To most in Adelos and the neighboring lands, Xianjing might as well be a myth, on par with ancient necromancers or witch-cults. Even our best translators learned from second-hand sources. From my own research, I know this is not the case. After Admiral Shang He's fleet brought their advancements to the rest of the world, the country turned inward due to domestic political strife. The remainder of the world lagged behind Xianjing technologically and culturally, while the current government became increasingly isolationist and corrupt. A few rebels still resisted, and even made illicit trips abroad.
Those rebels mastered martial arts banned by the government, such that they could never truly be disarmed. Whether they used bows, bullets, or brawling, they were combatants unmatched by the brutish gangs that passed for armies in this land. They called this secret world Jianghu, meaning "lakes and rivers," in reference to the lineage and origins of their martial styles. In the Holy Kingdom of Adelos, travelers from Xianjing were even more mythic than their homeland. Seeing one was akin to catching a rare glimpse of some fanciful, legendary creature.
I met her on the road during my studies, traveling with an Amaranthine caravan. I conversed with h her when the wagon we rode in suffered a delay due to a broken axel. She covered her face with a veil that concealed much of her features, but she lowered it during that lull in our travels, as she examined the broken axel. I heard her muttering something in a dialect I'd only read but never heard, but it took me a while to draw a connection. As time passed during the repairs, I began to read over the Admiral's logbook, and I saw her approach me. She first asked me a question in her native tongue, before speaking to the common tongue. It was from that point on I knew I'd had a friend. I still remembered the valuable feedback she provided on my thesis, and the invaluable support she provided during my most challenging ordeals.
Her name, as far as I knew, was not the name of her birth. Instead, it referred to the ornate longsword she carried, a simple alias from her involvement in Jianghu. I found myself incredulous of several of her claims, but what she demonstrated was more than sufficient to convince me of their verity. I thought she'd returned to her homeland around the time of my thesis' completion, but I was infinitely glad she was there for me once more. Even as I faded in and out of consciousness, I saw the woman smile on her arrow-shaped face. She lifted me with a supernal strength buried within her short form, and the rest was merciful oblivion.
I awoke to the stink of human feces and perspiration. I reached to adjust the plague doctor's mask that I sadly remembered had been removed from my face. I awoke on a bedroll beneath a rotting roof, and Jian sat above me like a guardian angel. She sharpened her namesake weapon, a longsword with characters reading Red Reckoning on the grip. I coughed, and she handed me my plague mask back.
I would have slipped it onto my face, but I was stopped by the injuries on my hands. Rather, I was stopped by the utter lack of injuries on my hands. I began to feel the remainder of my body, searching for the places where the wolves tore out chunks of my flesh. Each time I found naught but healthy, unscarred tissue where I expected to see bloody bandages and tourniquets. I gasped involuntarily, but Jian simply handed me my clothes.
"A kindly local healed your wounds," she said. "But we should depart soon."
I looked up, and I immediately recognized where we are. The ominous shadow of the stone bridge that connected Strova fell upon our hovel, sparing us the direct glare of the sun. I saw the structures around us were a precariously assembled sprawl of ramshackle huts. The rickety shacks were made of discarded wood and scrap metal, each undoubtedly housing desperate souls unable to leave them. The Ornos River ran brown beside them, the mud caking with refuse and human waste from the sea of squalor on the riverbank. The bridge loomed above us like tyrant's monument, smothering hope beneath its shade. With no small amount of shock, I realized we were in the dreaded Underbridge district of Strova.
"These are the worst slums in the entire duchy," I said, changing to my clothes. "Why are we here?"
"The only healer able to mend you was here," she replied. "But we must depart. Given the current climate, outsiders are not welcome."
"Why? What's going on?" I asked, already half-remembering the answer. "Oh, right. Something about an Amaranthine caravan and the locals."
"Which is why we leave now. I understand you have many questions, but save them until we leave the city."
I nodded, acknowledging her request. I realized that my original plans would require adjustment. The coast was less than a day away, although I would want to put as much distance between Strova and myself as possible. Newkirk owed its prosperity to invention and trade, while Strova was blighted with insularity and superstition. While I did not know what method Jian's associate mended my wounds with, but after seeing enough strange things on my own, I was in no position to complain. My one regret was that I could not bring her along, as a healer like that would provide invaluable medical insights. Jian raised her hood, I dawned my hat, and we set out into the streets.
While the Corpsewood was evocative of nightmarish savagery, Underbridge was terrifying for a different reason. It embodied all that went awry with corruption and dysfunction, especially given the ineptness of the hereditary nobility. Civilization required order to function, but Strovan leaders were merely bandits with formal titles. The corruption of wealth is hardly unique to Strova. The guilds and joint-stock firms of Newkirk accomplished with trained barristers what the Strovan elite did with corrupt guards and street toughs. I did my best to avoid eye contact with rough locals, as well as anyone where a Strovan Guard uniform. While they avoided this part of town, they were more likely to shake us down than to listen to our complaints.
Just because the Guard did not regularly entire Underbridge did not mean it was a power vacuum. A man with a simian countenance on his eye followed us as we headed down a side-alley. I saw a stylized dog head etched into a moldering wooden wall, and I saw three more men drinking in a dead-end alley. I remembered the symbol that adorned the wall was the insignia of the Wild Dogs, a criminal syndicate that stretched all throughout the Kingdom.
It was one of their members I'd inadvertently killed during the Kirkwood Arsenal raid. I felt my heart sink as I recognized the greater peril I had just blundered into. They glanced at us as we left the way we came, just before our unwanted tale could surround us. We circled around the block and doubled back, ensuring we'd lost him as we left that accursed district. I espied the distant docks, and I briefly considered my original plan to hire a keel-boat or river ferry to take us further downstream. The amount of guards by the docks dissuaded me from that course of action, however. We left down a muddy, winding road that was half-paved with eroded cobblestones, and half-paved with discarded wine bottles. I found the trash more fascinating than disgusting as we departed the Underbridge. The strange black soil of Strova made anything planted here taste sour, even the most expensive local vintages. I suppose bitter people logically would spring from such bitter soil.
On our way out of the city, a gust of wind carried trash from the Underbridge into our path, as though trying to spite our departure. I saw a newspaper page from six months ago, an article in the Strovan Gazette by a local journalist named Tizi Loneward, discussing a corrupt noble embezzling money for bridge repairs. I was compelled to look at the bridge one last time as we departed that kleptocratic hive, and I realized something. The towers and arches of that magnificent stone bridge loomed over the city like a stone despot, but I saw cracks in the mortar. Big, fat geckos clambered along the underside of those arches. While corruption lingers, it destroys itself in the end. I briefly wondered if engineers would be better at writing morality plays than clergy.
As Strova vanished from view, I slowed my pace to a leisurely gait. Jian did the same, and she opened her posture towards me. The way she looked up at me told me all I needed to know. We walked slowly under that noonday sun, as though savoring every second with each other since our untimely separation two years prior. I had no idea what circumstances brought her back into my life, but I was immediately grateful for the explanation I was sure would follow.
"I thought you left to start a revolution," I said, half-jokingly. "But what brings you back?"
"Honestly, I never left," she said, exhaling a regretful sigh. "I'm not fighting someone else's war. Those days are long gone."
"That doesn't answer my question."
She glowered at me. I expected her to launch into some tirade on the primitive savages of this backwater land, like she used to. I honestly would have welcomed that, as it would've signified the Jian of my fondest memories was back. Instead, I saw a woman weighed down by issues I could never hope to understand. I was just an academic apologist for a land I'd never see with my own eyes, exiled to the barren coasts by those I studied under. I harbored no delusions of recognition or wider support, merely a career spent chasing evidence swept out by the tides a century ago. To have a friend like Jian re-enter my life, however briefly, was one of the best things to happen to me. I decided not to press the issue, at least not immediately.
A few minutes of awkward silence later, Jian opened up. "You know why I'm here?"
"You came seeking allies to help your rebellion, right?" I asked. "But something changed, right?"
"I honestly thought I'd be going back, but my extraction never came."
"Did they abandon you, or—"
"They were wiped out, and now they're coming for me. I came because I need your help."
"They'll want to kill you, too, as you're one of the few locals familiar with Jianghu."
My feet seized up, and I felt my body failed to respond my command. I felt my jaw drop, and my eyes widened like dinner plates. A stream of frantic thoughts raced through my mind, not the least of which was the cosmic irony of my present circumstance. I'd spent a substantial portion of my life and career revealing the inventions we'd taken for granted were imports from a substantially more advanced culture. Now, agents from a country I'd studied for years, but still only had the barest ideas about, were coming after my friend. I hoped it was some elaborate joke, but the look on her face confirmed everything I hoped wasn't true.
I remembered a promise I'd made years ago, back when I first met Jian. In both my professional and personal lives, I've been slow to trust and slower to love. Outside of my immediate family, I'd say I've only loved two women and one man. One of those women was Jian, as you might have presumed. I recall sharing a wonderful day with her two years ago, climbing atop the half-collapsed watchtower outside Newkirk. Night fell, and we made a game pointing out the constellations of our respective cultures in that unmarred sky above.
"That's the Youxia, the wandering warrior," Jian said, pointing at a cluster of stars that looked like a stick figure with some imagination. "One I can always find."
I remembered Jian's mood suddenly turned dour. "Let me tell you a story," she said in a low voice, as though ready to confide some terrible secret in me. "There was once a little girl who lived peacefully with her parents in a small fishing village. She was born in the year of the Youxia, but she thought little of this. Her life was peaceful and simple."
I continued listening. Her sallow face whited, and she averted her gaze to the stars above. "Then one night, on the eve of her fourteenth birthday, soldiers executed her parents for false charges of treason. She saw red, and ran a corrupt officer through with his own sword. She ran for a full night, seeing that constellation in the sky."
"The girl knew what she had to become. She swore to enter that realm of Jianghu, to avenge the wrongful death of her kin. She gave herself over entirely to vengeance. She cut her hair with that sword. She renamed herself for the weapon in her hand, as she was now a tool forged for a particular end. In time, she met others of like mind and skill. She swore she'd go to the ends of the world if she had to."
"And that's how you ended up here?"
I remember her sighing, as though I'd missed some deeper point of her tale. I struggled to come up with some allegorical comparison that would impress her. Wisely, I kept them all to myself. Instead, I put my hand on her shoulder. "You know, if you ever need me for anything, I'll be there," I said. "If you want me to go back and help your revolution, I'll go back with you."
"No, Alan, you can't," she said, leaning closer. "You deserve a better life than that. Stay here, finish your research, and live well."
"I need to research Xianjing in person sometime, and I want you as a research assistant."
"I want to help build a country you can be proud to visit," she said. "But it will take years, and a heavy price in blood."
"If you need my blood or my brain, I'll be here for you."
"You don't mean it."
"Please, Alan, don't mean it," she said. "You have so much to offer the world, rather than dying ignobly in a country where no one knows your name."
"You say that, but I'm still here for you."
"Thank you, Alan," she said, leaning against me. "I fear I can't have you fight my war. This land needs smart people like you. I hope you can build a country to equal mine."
"I'm not holding my breath," I said disdainfully. "But I'm just grateful for the present. How can I ask for more?"
I will not bore you with the kiss, or the droll specifics of long-ago night. In part, I cannot write about that sensation, nor describe that ephemeral bliss, with the poetic words due such writings. As an academic, I pride myself in timely, professional writing, rather than the lurid, bawdy tales of cheap romances. However, I pride myself on upholding my word. At the very least, I would uphold my words to my friends. Jian's war came to my home, and it did not require a hero. It required a professional.
"I believe a single operative, a man I call the Agent, is operating with the Wild Dogs," she said. "The Agent believes an artifact of terrible power was abandoned here by Admiral Shang He, and he seeks to use it against the Jianghu rebels."
"You've been covertly observing me before you saved me, I presume," I said. "Is my assessment correct?"
"As ever," she said. "But we must hurry. The Agent has a supernatural sense of the artifact's location, and he likely has begun excavating."
When I pressed her for further information, Jian explained what she'd been doing since I last saw her. After the ship which was supposed to smuggle her back home failed to arrive, she immediately suspected something was amiss. She narrowly avoided a volley of arrows blanketing the beach, courtesy of Wild Dogs archers. While she hid in a tidal cave, she encountered a man from Xianjing. Despite trudging through knee-high water, he wore and immaculately clean robe. He held a similar longsword to her own, only with an onyx-covered pommel. The moment it cleared its holster, she intuited the man's motives from his immediate hostility. She narrowly escaped with her life, as the Agent's strike against her neck was a glancing cut.
When I asked for information regarding the artifact or its capabilities, Jian only shrugged. Since her encounter with the Agent, she spent the last two years tracking down the Wild Dogs and their smuggling routes. She found evidence a shell company purchased used excavation equipment being purchased in Strova, but she was unable to locate the final destination. I recalled the Admiral's mention of disposing of a particular cargo, and I stressed the need to survey the coast to find it. Once we found it, I would have the necessary evidence to put my critics to rest.
"Trying to get me to do your research for you?" she asked, playfully teasing me.
"Of course. It will be just like the good old days," I replied. "After all, who doesn't like a walk along the beach?"
I was well aware of the sarcasm in my statement, given the imposing hellscape that was the Strovan portion of the Bathory Coast. It was a rocky, barren expanse of sea-cliffs, tidal pools, and hidden coves. It was beloved by pirates and smugglers, and hated by sailors of all nationalities for its erratic winds and hidden currents. The submerged rocks ripped through ship hulls like a murderer's knife, and the riptides made rescue a difficult proposition. The Bathory Coast collected shipwrecks like a miser hoarded gold. The perpetually overcast sky, granite cliffs, and dark blue waters merged together in a muted collage of lurking peril. If there was a place where the drowned dead of a thousand drunken mariner's tales lurked, it would easily be this dreadful place.
It was the perfect place to dispose of unwanted cargo, much to the joy of smugglers. If the Admiral dumped some unwanted cargo here, it could easily be buried on the ocean floor under leagues of silt, or ripped out into the major currents of the ocean. Nevertheless, I felt I had a duty to accomplish, both to spite those that sent me here and to help my only friend in this part of the world. To be honest, I was grateful to whatever powers of providence gave me a second chance to spend time with her. I did not think of the long-term effects of this endeavor, such as drawing the ire of a criminal syndicate or foreign spies. With little left to lose or gain, I threw myself into my mission with the rigor due a graduate of the University of Newkirk.
Traversing the Bathory Coast reminded me of how alone I truly was. Jian and I traveled amongst sweeping vistas that would have reduced a sensate to tears. Despite the bleakness of the landscape, there was a harsh beauty in its features that inspired the surreal artist Nikolai Rowrich. I was reminded of my Uncle Stannard, and how the sea claimed him from me. I was reminded of my old supervisor, Professor Halstrom, and how eager she was to have me accept this work. I remember the insincere smiles from blood relatives and former classmates as I departed from their lives for the open road. When I walked along these forsaken cliffs, I knew the one person in the world on whom I could truly depend.
I will not bore you with the three and a half days of surveying the coast, nor provide you with the specific locations we examined. I floated the idea of a survey by boat, but we quickly dashed that idea against the sound logic of risk avoidance. Any vessels would draw unwanted attention here, assuming we could navigate them in such treacherous waters. The purchase of the mining equipment suggested the Agent started a land-based operation. We instead walked in and out of sea caves we believed the Wild Dogs used as smuggling caches, searching for clues as to the Agent's location. Each time we entered one of those dim grottos, I prepared myself for combat. Jian insisted we combine combat drills into our daily routine, but I had to dry-fire my weapon during those due to my limited supply of gunpowder. I remember those drills about weaving in and out of cover, while Jian ran along walls and bounded down from cliffs with neither harm nor effort. Suffice to say, we were very sweaty by the each of each day.
On the fourth day, we were unfortunate enough to encountered what we sought. We entered a grotto at low tide, through a back entrance used to move supplies. It was crudely hewn from a natural cave, and easily overlooked from either land or sea. I had to duck to safely pass the entrance, but Jian was able to enter without incident. She put her finger to her lips, and I adopted the quiet crouch-walking stance she drilled into me over previous weeks. To me, my racing heart sounded like the constant discharge of muskets on a battlefield. I held my pistol in the two-handed stance I'd developed for it, keeping my thumbs beside the hammer and finger beside the trigger until I was ready to fire. From the voices that echoed down the corridor, I knew that would not be long.
Jian and I correctly hypothesized that the Agent's operation was a skeleton crew. While the Wild Dogs were ruthless and amoral criminals, they were likewise professionals. The Agent would likely want a small operation to avoid the unwanted attention of authorities, pirates, and other outlaws. Logistically, a smaller operation was easier to move through this blasted terrain, and would draw less attention than a parade of slaves. The half-dozen men that comprised that gang were likely tomb raiders, grave robbers, and similarly experienced with expediting exhumation of desired loot. The current must have carried the artifact into one of the caves, where it was buried beneath silt, driftwood, and other detritus.
We hid around a corner leading to the main chamber, a yawning empty space of similar dimensions to a two-level building. Makeshift walkways of driftwood provided a dry way to traverse the muddy tidal pools, which were filled with skittering black crabs like those that dwelt in the Ornos River near Strova. Ropes and pulleys provided support for an elaborate latticework of wooden scaffolding and planks along the walls. I saw the walls had been systematically and expertly expanded with a variety of hand-picks, hammers, and chisels. Bedrolls, as well as a small cooking pot and a cask of black powder for blasting, were placed well above the high-tide waterline in an alcove. Light filtered in through a narrow break in the rocks directly above the campfire. While they were undoubtedly ruthless criminals, they worked like professional miners or masons. The stylized dog's head insignia on leather armor suspended in the living alcove was enough to confirm their guilt to my conscience.
The center of the excavation dominated the entire chamber by weight of presence alone. The Agent was shorter than I envisioned him as, but his clean-shaven face was a mask of resolute stoicism. He had a line of braided hair that ran down the back of his head, and he was clad in a robe as white as virgin fallen snow. The onyx-handled sword sat in a sheath of dark leather, and he handled a strange mechanical device in hand. He placed a pinch of muddy soil into it, and wound a rusted crank that caused a cacophonic sound that seemed louder than a device of that size was capable of.
"Yes, it sounds like we've recovered all the components," the Agent said without any trace of an accent. "My employer will be pleased."
"What now, boss?" asked a burly, one-eyed foreman with a pickaxe in hand. His nose and jaw were both as crooked as a guild lawyer. "Shall we break camp?"
Before the Agent could answer, I saw Jian step into action. She stealthy positioned herself in the loft above the chamber, where she sighted an unlucky target in her crossbow's sights. I heard the distinctive twang of her crossbow as the bolt flitted through the air on a lethal voyage. I saw the Agent pivot slightly with a side-step, which resulted in the bolt missing him entirely. Nevertheless, it struck an unlucky worker directly behind him in the spine. A smirk played across the Agent's face as he turned towards our direction, with his sword raised above his head. I would have hesitated under normal circumstances, but I knew Jian relied on me. I was no longer taking potshots at distant shadows in the Newkirk Arsenal, but people close enough to make eye contact. I opened fire at an unlucky worker scrambling for a hammer, with my first shot striking him in the sternum. My second struck him in the head. He went down, and his companions bolted for cover.
"Ah, good to see you again. My other guests will be arriving shortly," the Agent said as turned to look at Jian's exact position.
My search for another target was distracted by the strange droning from the device in the Agent's hand. It was a low, rumbling tone that conjured forth an iridescent spray across my vision. I saw Jian descend into the fray like a feather falling from a flying bird. She jammed her blade into the clavicle of an unlucky gangster as her feet made contact with the ground. She whipped her sword around her head, splashing the blood across the walls of the grim grotto. The Agent bounded towards her, as the crew reached for any improvised weapons they could.
I advanced further into the anarchic brawl, using the cloud of gunsmoke to partially obscure my movements. The acrid stench of a black powder discharge buffeted my nostrils, and I savored every moment of it. A man swung at me with a shovel, only to have a bullet placed in his kneecap. I originally aimed at his torso, but I felt stress taking its toll on me. I fired again, only for the bullet to fizzle in the chamber. While he knelt on the ground, the Wild Dog sneered at me. Despite his injuries, he positioned himself like a pikeman with his shovel. I would have finished him with the next shot, had I not looked up.
Behind him, I saw the one-eyed foreman charging me with his pickaxe. My cyclopean assailant swung the mining tool like a barbarian berserker, even as I struggled to bring my pistol around. I pulled the weapon closer towards my stomach, as though cradling a sickly infant. The foreman closed six yards with a frightening celerity, but I fired as he entered melee range. The first round struck him in the torso, but he did not even register it. The heavy tool descended on me, but I threw myself out of range of the strike as the weapon impaled itself in the ground. I fired again, my point-blank shot evoking a cloud of smoke like an illusionist's act. My bullet struck him in the chin, causing him to slump down, bleeding but still alive. I fired again, but my gun was empty.
Reaching somewhere between instinct and training, I drew my dagger. Above me, I heard the clashing of those foreign longswords, and shadows forming wisps in the sulfurous smoke that filled the lower level of the cavern. The small, lethal weapon was all I had in the fracas, and I forced myself to crawl along the ground. I wanted to find cover, a safe spot where I could reload and join the fight. I felt a massive hand wrap around my left leg and tug on it, only for me to lash with my dagger. I could not fully see what I was stabbing at, but my dagger struck something fleshy and soft. Immediately, the tension I felt on my leg was released. Crawling closer, I saw the one-eyed man lying motionless on the soggy ground. I gasped and threw up into the tidal pool.
I forced myself to continue onwards, even as the cloud of smoke dissipated around me. No longer wreathed in its protective wisps, I saw the melee overhead was not going in Jian's favor. The Agent launched an almost simultaneous barrage of strikes, moving with an inhuman alacrity I could not hope to match on my best day. Jian kept giving ground as she retreated around the scaffolding above me, launching only a few strikes into the few openings she saw. He cut across her leg, forcing her to hobble towards the edge of the platform. I struggled to reload my pistol, frantically ramming another paper cartridge down the muzzle. Above me, the Agent sneered down at me.
"I have something special planned for you," he said with a dispassionate voice. "So don't you go anywhere."
I heard that sound from the device in his free hand, which was higher in intensity than the previous two times. I could not stop my hands from covering my ears, and my half-loaded pistol tumbled to the edge of a tidal pool. I looked up to see the man I'd shot in the leg hobble towards the other side of the cavern, using the shovel to prop himself up. Each of his steps left behind a sanguine trail. He was the last of the Wild Dogs, but I was more concerned about the Agent than him. As he clutched his wound tighter, I saw something arise from beyond a distant wave. It lashed through the air like a beast-tamer's whip, before wrapping around his other leg. He screamed as it pulled him into the water below.
I could not help but watch, as though compelled by some evil mesmerism. The crabs lined up underneath the walkways like scuttling soldiers, and they marched towards the wounded man. They began to hack at his exposed wounds, exposing more blood and gristle as they ripped his leg open. The poor Wild Dog screamed and shrieked, futilely trying to fight the tentacle and then the crab swarm with the shovel. Ultimately, his hands were so bloodied, the improvised weapon slipped from his grasp. He continued to thrash, but it was all in vain. He was mercifully unconscious by the time he vanished underwater, and I knew he would not come up again.
During the entire spectacle, I saw Jian retreat to the sleeping alcove upstairs. She was trying to escape through the natural skylight, but it was clearly too narrow, even for her lithe frame. I grabbed my pistol and head it by the barrels, as though I was strangling the scrawny neck of some waterfowl. As I did so, I heard the clicking of crab claws draw closer. They advanced in a line like clockwork soldiers, automatons controlled by some unseen, diabolical hypnotist.
I saw a wave of carnivorous crustaceans approaching me, and I briefly contemplated a clean, cowardly death. Hearing the clangor of blades above me brought back to reality. I rammed paper cartridges soaked in my own sweat went down each barrel, as though they were bitter pills refused by some recalcitrant patient. Ignoring the peculiar sea life bearing down on me, I trained my pistol on the Agent as he ran Jian through.
I forgot how many times I fired at him, but it was at least thrice. I remember his hands moving at a preternatural speed almost too fast to notice, swatting at my bullets though they were mere mosquitos. The Agent held out his outstretched hand, and a cascade of bullets tumbled out of his hands into a tidal pool below. He looked at me with a look of pure contempt and disparagement, with his nose upturned. The crabs were now snapping at my boot heels. I realized the splashing of the bullets in the water, snapping of crab claws, and pounding of the distant surf were the only dirge Jian and I would receive. He descended towards me slowly, as if deciding the best way to finish me off. Above, I heard Jian moaning. She was still alive, but perhaps mortally wounded.
"Use this," she said as she rolled something down.
I looked up to see the black powder cask rolling down the ramp. Jian had a defiant grin on her face as color drained from it, and I immediately knew what I had to do. The barrel was directly beside the Agent, who was momentarily distracted. I recalled my voyage with Uncle Stannard, and how I blasted birds out of the air. I surrendered myself to my training, and I fired at the barrel of black powder. My first shot created only a spray of splinters, but the second one struck true. I pulled myself behind a crate as the explosion ripped through the room.
When my ears stopped ringing minutes later, I felt brave enough to venture out. Little remained of the Agent or his bizarre device afterwards. A terrible tranquility had returned to the grotto, devoid of noise save for the pounding of the surf and calling of distant seabirds. The scuttling tide of sea-life, the obsidian-shelled Strovan crabs, ceased to advance. Instead, the creatures returned to their tidal pools, exhibiting confusion as best I could define it for such creatures. I ignored the mangled, waterlogged bodies of the Wild Dogs and their master as best I could, and I forced my memories of the cadavers' creation out of my mind. Part of me was ashamed and horrified at my course of action, and the other part savored it was me who was still standing. There was a perverse pride deep within me, that I had managed to overcome such superior numbers. It was quickly repressed as I turned my attention upwards.
With great hesitation, I started up towards the alcove where I last saw Jian. As much as I feared to look upon her motionless body, I feared to have her die in my hands even more. I did not know which organs the Agent's strike would have penetrated, but I feared even if such a strike had missed her vital organs, the infection that followed would be a far more agonizing, painful end. My fearful mind conjured the thought of euthanizing Jian at her own request. I considered simply leaving the cavern, but I knew I had a duty to her.
Much to my relief, Jian's body was totally absent. Instead, a thin line of blood traced her last known position up the rock chimney above. I exhaled, as though a tremendous burden had been lifted from my chest. I saw the line of blood slowed to a few droplets, and I wondered if, and how, Jian had squeezed through such a narrow gap. Considering the oddities, I saw, I decided to take such happenings in stride. I went to the top of the cliff, and I saw Jian sitting on a ledge overlooking the ocean. Her clothes were shredded, and two glass vials sat uncorked by her side. The scars and damage from the fight were gone, and she greeted me with a sly grin.
"Is it over?" I asked.
"For now. The tide will come in, and wipe away the evidence. It will be as though the Agent never existed."
"Will they send more?"
"Perhaps," she said, looking wistfully out to sea. "But we still need to prepare. You need to prepare."
She extended her hand to me. "Because you are now in Jianghu, whether you like it or not."
We said nothing for a long time, before we returned to camp that night. When I awoke the following morning, Jian was gone. Where her bedroll and pack had been, there was a damaged onyx-handled sword and a letter. For a moment, I feared the Agent had returned, but I calmed down as I recognized Jian's handwriting on the letter. I read it to myself, trying to make sense of where my comrade went:
I am writing this with a heavy heart. We are not safe here, as I must ensure the Wild Dogs will not pursue you. In addition, I fear forces beyond mundane description may be stirring. This is hard to describe, but I know you must prepare. I have provided formulae and schematics I feel you can make better use of. Of us two, you were always better at alchemy and invention. I thought I'd left Jianghu on these distant shores, but we cannot so easily leave this world. Now that it has sunk its teeth into us, it will pull us deeper, like a hungry shark dragging down a doomed swimmer. I will return to you once you are ready. Use the time I provide to live as best you can. Do it for the both of us.
PS: I think the sword should appease your supervisors.
PSS: Oh, check your holster. Welcome to Jianghu.
I set the letter down with a heavy sigh. I uttered a ribald blasphemy at every divinity I could think of, for once more separating me from her. I hurled the letter away as my heart rate returned to a slower, calmer beat. I picked up the letter, gently folded it, and stored it in my pack. I saw there were other pages wrapped around the hilt of the sword, all in Jian's handwriting. I presume she must have written them all before, and intended on giving them to me later at some point, likely when the urgent matter the Agent was resolved. I saw they were chemical equations and mechanical diagrams with some detail, but I similarly put them away. When I looked at my pistol holster, I saw the weapon had been removed. Jian carved Xianjing pictograms into the wooden handle, which I translated as, "Sixfold Reckoning." Welcome to Jianghu, indeed.
In the days that followed, I settled into a new routine. I'd become used to being alone, so it was a triviality to adapt once more to return to solitude. After all that transpired, I was honestly glad to return to a tranquil existence. Nevertheless, I am still technically employed by the University. So, I set about continuing my routine of coastal surveys and beachcombing for long-vanished artifacts. Despite Jian's best wishes, I doubt a single damaged sword would be enough to convince them, especially when the vested interests desire me gone. While I occasionally find an item of interest amongst the flotsam and driftwood, I have found no other artifacts from Xianjing. Despite the occasional temptation, I have no urge to return to try and re-assemble that accused music box the Agent wielded. I only once returned, and found that place swept clean by smugglers, the tides, or both. After all, I have far more important matters.
I pride myself on my professionalism, even alone at the edge of the world. Especially when I'm alone at the edge of the world. I've constructed a shack from driftwood and detritus, which I relocate once I've surveyed another section of beach. I've made a deal with a local Amaranthine trader to provide me with food (although I request to avoid crab at all costs). I've began keeping a notebook on all the fascinating schematics and concoctions arising from Jian's notes. I am honestly not sure how all of them function, but the preliminary results have been fascination. I have developed a method of improving my aim with the pistol, through electrical stimulation of the brain that induces a meditative state. I have tested a chemical substance that enables more naturalistic use of facial and body prosthetics. I have even replicated, to a limited extent, the substance I believe healed Jian after her wounds. There are others, but these are but the earliest results.
Each day is still a burden. I remember the things I beheld, and I wonder if anything worse lurks beyond the mechanical, logical universe I hoped we lived in. According to classical mechanics, energy and matter cannot be spontaneously created, only transformed. These abilities must draw power from somewhere, and as the universe so harshly demonstrates, there are special favors from the cosmos. I wonder if those powers and strange machines I've seen draw powers from within, or without, and what their price is. That is a question I honestly fear to answer.
I write such words as a warning for all who would venture too far in search of knowledge. If my warning fails to dissuade you, I wish you luck. You may be about to enter Jianghu, regardless of your wishes on the matter. A comfortable life and soothing illusions remain behind you. To those that tread on this path, watch your footing. Like the precarious paths I wander these days, a single misstep can consign you to an unwanted fate. Just be sure you do not wander it alone.
[Notes: For Pathfinder, some stats ideas on how I envisioned the characters. Feel free to adjust levels, classes, and stats as need be:
For Alan Ritter, he's a lawful neutral human investigator (steel hound), with a +1 reliable pepperbox, dagger, plague doctor mask, and padded armor. Extract ideas could be: True Strike, Identify, Disguise Self, Longshot, Invisibility, Darkvision, and ones useful for ranged combat, movement, and intelligence gathering. For Jian, she's a lawful neutral human monk (weapon adept) with a masterwork longsword and masterwork heavy crossbow. When both fight together, Jian will snipe the toughest looking opponent with the heavy crossbow, then leap into the fray. Once Jian fires, Alan will start sniping at enemies from cover with his pistol, moving around as the situation dictates.]