In the final decades of the Shan dynasty, the Shuli Go – magic-infused lawmen and women who had kept the peace for two thousand years – were disbanded as a caste. Rendered infertile by the magic that granted them superhuman strength and speed, they gained a reputation for promiscuity as they wandered the Ten Kingdoms in search of work, food, and shelter from the elements.
Qui 20, 3264 – Hobei Kingdom – 12 Years Before Wamai
Bandits, as a catchall for the vagrant criminals of the Central Empire, were largely indistinguishable from one another. Some were murderers first, some thieves, some rapists and drunks, but they all performed the same gambit of atrocities, and they were all one thing first: desperate. Zhao Lian had identified bandits by every sense – smell being the definitive one in many cases – but she knew a bandit best by the look in his eyes when they faced her. Bandits, Lian was convinced, were not bad people. They were desperate people.
That warm summer day it was the smell that first brought them to her attention. She was downwind from them nearly a quarter of a mile on a rarely used path that ran north, towards the coastal city of Chongqing, The smell alone was not definitive though: a group of ten to fifteen men travelling on the road, foul as they may be, was not a clear indication of bandits. It wasn't until she was upon them that she knew what they were.
There were other hints, of course. The sounds they were making – the shouts, the screams of the victims, the sound of cutting and death – were good indicators, but Imperial soldiers often emitted disgusting odors and killed people and animals on long-hidden roads. Lian knew it was bandits only when she approached from west of the road, towards a small clearing where a merchant's caravan had pulled off before being waylaid.
The road was cutting through a jungle that had just started to regrow after a terrible fire had swept through it a decade earlier. The trees were only twice as tall as Lian, and the bushes were few, but she stayed hidden, low to the ground, and took in the scene. Most of the caravan's caretakers had been killed already, five bodies – two women, three men – lay with their throats opened in the middle of the clearing. A single bandit was on top of another woman. The other ten were split between rifling through the covered carts, and threatening the other survivor: a man, somewhat better dressed than the dead bodies, tied up in the dirt, a rag shoved in his mouth and a deep swell around his left eye. He was awake, but barely.
Lian didn't pay much attention to the man though – her first priority was the woman being raped. She considered trying to use a rock to kill the rapist from a distance, but then she looked closer. The woman wasn't just immobile. She, too, had had her throat cut. Lian briefly reconsidered her philosophical stance on bandits and decided to kill this one nice and close.
She walked out of the brush at a brisk pace and approached the necrophilic rapist. He caught sight of her just fast enough to stand and for her to cut him in half just above the hips. His scream, shortened as it was by his organs falling out from inside him after she kicked his torso off, alerted the others. It was a thick scream, guttural and surprised. A scream of desperation.
All ten of the other bandits looked at her, and she looked at them, and recognized the eyes. She fought the instinct, burned into her after years of Shuli Go training, to announce their rights to a fair hearing if they surrendered. Instead, she told them, "If you put down your weapons, you can live for a few days more until you go before the magistrate."
They didn't put their weapons down. Instead they rushed at her in typical bandit fashion, haphazard and uncoordinated and with dulled, third-hand weapons stolen from sentry outposts and farmhouses and roving mercenaries. The ones pilfering the carts were closer to her, so she dealt with them first, knocking the first man straight back into the others, taking three of them down to the ground and allowing her to cut the heads off of the other two. Then she hacked limbs and cut throats of the three on the ground, before the other five approached and she had to turn to them.
The three that rushed single-file fell easily enough as well, losing a leg, arm, and head, respectively. The last two were smarter and more difficult: one a tall man, well built and powerful with a large axe that glimmered with the potential to tear into her body, the other an obvious former soldier who actually knew how to use the single-edged sword he bore. Lian was forced to maneuver quickly to keep one of them between the other one, until she goaded the large one into swinging his axe too hard and she could flirt by him, cutting off his leg at the knee and sending him toppling over. Then it was just her and the soldier, their swords colliding a few times before Lian overpowered him, knocking the sword out of his grasp and spearing her blade through his heart.
She killed the survivors quickly, always a sword straight up through the jaw and into the brain – the way she'd been taught to give a quick merciful death. When she was done her ears were ringing in the sudden silence of the new jungle and echoes of the men's death cries – the two rebounding through her skull at just the right speed to match the throbbing of the blood in her head.
Her pulse was riverlike, fast and strong. Still, even six years after her graduation as a Shuli Go, the denouement from a fight left her trembling and lightheaded. She absorbed the silence outside her and tried to channel it through her nerves, into her hands, which had set her sword trembling.
Then the man they had captured groaned and Lian was given another point to focus on.
After removing the rag, helping him sit up, and cutting his hands and feet free, the man's eyes were still hazy, but he could respond.
"Yes, yes, I think I am alright."
"Who are you?" She asked.
He shook his head, as if trying to swipe away the fogginess of the attack. "My name is Tang. My family name is…" he squinted, trying to remember through the concussion, "…Wei. Wei. I was going to Chongqing with my…" He looked past Lian and saw the dead bodies, including those of his travelling companions. "My family. We are… they were merchants."
He hung his head and started to cry. Lian's heart instantly went out to him, and she placed a hand on his shoulder, squeezing gently and giving him a sorrowful look when their eyes met. He attempted a smile through the tears.
"I… I didn't know them well. My father, he'd sent me away to school when I was very young. I had just come back…" a heavy sob, "to learn the business."
He wept into his hands and Lian squeezed his shoulder. She had done this plenty of times since she'd become a Shuli Go as well. Just like killing, it hadn't become any easier.
After he stopped crying and managed to look up at the bodies Lian asked, "I don't know the customs here. Do you bury your dead?"
"No," he sniffled, "we burn them. We send them to heaven."
Lian sorted the bodies, arranging them carefully to preserve their dignity, and then took to cutting down a few trees to prepare a pyre. Tang eventually joined in, washing the blood off of their faces and saying prayers over the bodies, one by one. The day was getting late when they had finally prepared everything. Before Lian moved to start the fire, she introduced herself.
"My name is Lian. Zhao Lian. I'm a Shuli Go."
Tang's eyes opened wide, and he nodded, awareness in his face. She walked up to the pyre with the five bodies on it, pressed her hand to the wood and quietly recited, "Huono waitu." The spark shot out of her hand and caught on the wood, igniting it instantly.
Tang watched the bodies burn, his head down in prayer, as Lian organized the bodies of the bandits off to the side of the clearing, taking a hand from each: there could be a reward for them in Chongqing, and Lian hadn't worked in almost a month. As the pyre was roaring Tang came up to her and said he was ready to move on. They repackaged as many of his family's goods as they could onto one cart, and pulled it together, back onto the road towards Chongqing.