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. Once arbiters of disagreements and keepers of the peace, their existence outside the law made life difficult for them, and for other parts of society. Possessing greater strength and speed than normal, legend of their abilities persisted long after they had ceased holding official positions in the Central Empire.
Lu Qui 16, 3277 CE – Southern Shu Kingdom
Brilliant River Valley was a small village in the foothills of the Zhosian mountains. It was a village so simpleminded and lacking any real society whatsoever that its entire name was just a description of its geography. It was in a valley near the Brilliant River. It was a small village of maybe twenty-five homes and a single gathering house that quadrupled as the magistrate's office, the courthouse, the post office, and the inn. The inside of this building was little more than a wide dirt floor with a few curtains for rooms and a set of individual tables for serving the tasteless, barren fare that passed for food in that remote part of the Central Empire. And it was there that Zhao Lian was having a very bad day.
"Hey bitch, I'm talking to you."
The bad day was actually the culmination of a very bad week. Lian had left the Zhosian mountains heartbroken. On her way down the mountain path into the Central Empire there had been a small avalanche that had wiped out the road for a few days, and which Lian had helped clear with her bare hands. Then her horse had broken an ankle just at the end of the ride down. She'd been forced to kill the animal and walk the last twenty miles until she reached the first ramshackle little village she could find. The profiteering denizens of which saw a woman desperate for a beast of burden and vastly overcharged her for an old, weathered pony. A pony which groaned, whined, and complained so pathetically under Lian's weight she was almost certain she'd wind up killing two animals in a week. That pony had just barely made it into Brilliant River Valley, the sound of its tortured whinnies Lian's only companion on the long, rough ride.
"Hey! Look at me when I'm talking to you."
Lian's bad week was just a part of a very bad month. She found that despite her best efforts, the rather substantial amount of money she'd acquired the previous year seemed to be disappearing faster than she thought possible, and she was down to the same amount of money she regularly had after leaving the Zhosian mountains for the winter: none at all. The weather the past month had been cold and rainy, and the temple where she slept every night had the unfortunate habit of ringing very large bells at the break of dawn to begin a morning prayer. And that far south, in the middle of summer, dawn started just a few short hours after the bells had previously rung for dusk prayers. Lian had, more than anything, been looking forward to a single night's uninterrupted sleep. Sleep she evidently wouldn't find in Brilliant River Valley.
"You fucking cunt. Turn around right the fuck now."
But actually Lian's bad month had been part of a very bad summer. Flush with what she thought was enormous wealth, much of which she'd already donated to the temple that housed and cared for her son Quan, she'd returned to her twelve-year-old boy hoping to find a way to reconnect with him and maybe even discuss a way he could join her in some way in the Central Empire. She'd returned to the Zhosian mountains and the cold, windy plateau where Quan lived, with hope. Hope that the relationship she'd fractured countless times with her son would somehow be mended into something more familiar and comfortable and loving. She'd left Zhosian heartbroken, her son still living in the temple he hated almost as much as he hated his mother.
"That's it," a thick, meaty hand slammed down next to Lian's teacup, rattling it but not her. "You're gonna fucking look at me or I'm gonna twist your head to do it."
The tea had given her a headache. Shuli Go were allergic to caffeine. Not as allergic as they were to alcohol, which could kill them if they drank so much as a single beer or bowl of wine, but caffeine wasn't pleasant in the least. She'd asked for a green tea, or a herbal one, but in a village as all-round-purely-terrible as Brilliant River Valley, they'd looked at her, confused. So black tea, cheap, dark and burnt, was what she had to drink.
She reached for the tea cup and the rough hand grabbed ahold of hers, stopping her before she could take a sip. She exhaled loudly. The day was not getting any better.
"What was it you were asking?" She asked, making no attempt to hide her boredom, or the fact that she wasn't actually looking up at the beast of a man who was looming over her with a hand wrapped around hers.
"I was asking if it's true," he responded with a thick, nasally voice. Like the scent of the rest of the village, she could smell the stupid pouring out of this man.
"If what's true?"
"If you Shuli Go can sit on a man's dick and pull him up off the ground with your fuckin cunt?"
So enthralled by the exceptional quality of his insult, he and the two men he'd been sitting with in the gathering house all laughed aloud, and he released Lian's hand in order to laugh all the harder. Lian took a moment, then responded in a sad, defeated voice. "It's true." The laughing altered, half-scared, half-raucous. Lian took a sip of the bitter, burnt liquid, then set the tea cup down and finished her thought. "Of course it'd take a cock a lot bigger than you've got for me to hold on to."
The big man took a swing at her, but Lian had seen it coming so far away she could have mailed a letter across the Empire and picked it up on the other side before it hit her. She swayed to the side and he tumbled past her. She stood up as he turned around to face her.
She'd seen him and his two friends when she walked into the room, gambling over one of the tables, but this was her first chance to inspect him. He was a beast. At least a foot taller than Lian and well over 250 pounds, all muscle that bulged and twitched with every movement. He was unarmed but dressed well for that part of the Central Empire. Based on the diet he'd need to keep that body intact, she assumed he was some sort of minor nobility. The yes-man attitude of his two companions cemented Lian's interpretation. He was a very, very big fish in a very, very small pond.
She'd met men like him in the past, and never felt threatened by them. They were school yard bullies whose yards had grown to tiny fiefdoms owned, most often, by their parents. Since the Shuli Go had stopped policing the rural parts of the Central Empire, she'd found more and more of them popping up, trampling the weaker men and women around them for the sake of a few cheap laughs and the cheaper thrill of watching someone do what they wanted. Lian watched them operate, but she didn't usually care enough to do anything about them. Walk away, let them keep their dignity, and there was no problem.
That was the rational reaction. And Lian never managed any emotional response to these men. She couldn't even muster pity: they were too simple for something as draining as pity. The simple truth was as soon as someone a little bit stronger than them walked in the door, they needed to beat that person down. It wasn't just a desire, or an instinct, or even a necessity. It went deeper than that. Their entire existence was based on being the biggest, strongest, most powerful person in any dirt-floored room they walked into, and when that existence was challenged they reverted into an animal state. She'd seen it in bears, monkeys, tigers and eagles. The terrifying notion that they, at the top of the food chain, could become a prey to someone else, terrified them so completely they had no choice but to fight back. They were simple creatures.
Lian had no problem letting them believe whatever they wanted to believe, and she usually didn't want to correct the mistaken thoughts of someone like this hulking man. Walk away, everyone stays calm, no one gets hurt. It was foolproof actually. Worked every time. Walk away, no one has any problem.
Except Lian already had a problem. She'd had a very bad summer.
"You shouldn't have tried to do that," she informed him quietly as the room, including his two associates, grew quiet. "You shouldn't have tried to hit me."
She saw it in his face, the terror that gave way to the kind of rage required for survival. His voice quaked with anger. "You should have shut your fucking hole."
Lian felt her own rage shaking underneath her skin, the way her vision was narrowing in on this man. He wasn't a threat, but she wanted to kill him just the same. She wanted to break every bone in his body. Not because of what he'd said or done, but just because she wanted to do something about the avalanche and the dead horse and the annoying pony and the son she was absolutely sure didn't love her.
If she was anyone else and still as strong as she was, that would have been it, he would have died right there. But Lian had been well trained, and just as her body experienced the rush of adrenaline and endorphins to prepare her to fight, her mind recognized that it was losing control and reasserted itself. Just like his anger, her re-centering was not conscious – just the by-product of preparing for moments like this her whole life, when letting her emotions and physical responses take over could result in her making the wrong decision. It was automatic and almost instant.
So instead of drawing her sword and killing him, she forced herself to breathe deeply, to wash out the adrenaline and center her mind back on the task at hand: making sure no one died.
"You think you can make me fight you by insulting me a little bit?" She asked him, making sure her voice was calm and even. "You think I'm as dumb as you? Like I'm going to bite into some third-rate piece of shit bait like that? You have no idea what I can do to you and you don't want to know. So take you and your two friends and back the fuck away, so I can leave. Ok? You win. I leave. Nobody gets hurt. You win."
She saw his face register the victory, his eyes clear out the anger for a split-second, and the edges of his mouth distort back into their usual states of dominance. But something – maybe the way she insulted him as she conceded defeat, or the way she'd still insisted she could beat him, or maybe just the fact that she was a woman – rekindled his anger almost immediately.
"That's right bitch," he roared, smiling with a victory he knew would be temporary. "You take that useless fucking pussy of yours out of my land before I let every man in town fill it up."
Lian swallowed and began her usual exit strategy. She kept her eyes on him and walked on a path that would take her just past his large frame. She walked slow, keeping one hand on her Wamaian sword in case he tried something stupid. She made it to him, barely avoided brushing against his clothing as she walked past, and continued on, his insults continuing the whole time.
"I guess I'll have to wait to find out what a Shuli Go pussy feels like it. I always imagined it has to be dried up and crusty like the rest of your insides. Of course a pussy that can't give you any kids isn't much of a pussy at all. Can you imagine? Fuck. A Shuli Go kid? That fucker would be just as useless as the cunt it fell out of."
Lian stopped. Her mind was overtaken as the rage of her very bad summer overwhelmed almost every defense it had ever prepared. She breathed in deeply again, hearing his lips form into a smile as he finally got what he wanted from her: a fight. Her final mental defenses allowed her to pull her two swords off of her body, then place them on the ground as she turned around to face him.
"I'm not going to kill you," she said calmly as her mind reoriented itself away from avoiding the fight and on to ending it as quickly and painfully as possible. "Consider yourself lucky."
The rage reappeared on his face just as she set her weapons down, and when she looked up she saw the look she wanted to wipe from his face: the drive to survive, to dominate, to stand atop the bodies of the fallen and peer down at the ones weaker than him. She was going to make sure he was the weaker one at the end of the fight.
They rushed towards each other. Lian took in his movements in a second and knew how she would beat him. He was big and probably just as strong as her in terms of absolute strength, but Shuli Go were also two or three times faster with their movements compared to normal humans. In comparison he was slow and every swing was telegraphed. She recognized the first punch he threw at her as part of the Southern Shu adaptation of boxing where two contestants generally stood as close to one another as possible and just hit each other until the loser fell. It was the exact opposite of the techniques Shuli Go were taught, and that's how she would beat him.
She ducked the first easily predicted punch and closed the distance between them, delivering two quick punches to his abdomen and liver, before following it up with a flying knee into his chest that hurled him backwards and onto the ground.
As expected, the two lackeys ran at her as well because no bully ever actually bullied on their own. Lian moved swiftly, twirling into a side kick that struck the first, much smaller man, just below the ribs, deflating his lungs and sending him back onto the dirt ground. The second man was stunned by Lian's speed and barely reacted to his friend being taken out before she punched him hard, down and across the temple, smashing his face towards the ground and knocking him out cold. Neither of them would be fighting for several minutes.
She turned back to face the bigger man. He could take a hit, that much was certain. He got up and faced her, his hands up in a traditional defensive position this time, his own defeat seemingly dawning on him. He approached Lian more carefully, taking timid steps forward and being sure to keep her limbs in sight at all time.
It didn't matter of course. Lian was simply too fast and strong for him to keep up. She bounced in and out of his range, daunting him into throwing a slow, ill-informed punch or lumbering kick, then responding with three or four direct strikes of her own. At first his defense was too solid for her to hit him in the face, but after two or three series of rapid hits, his hands began to droop and his breathing grew laboured as his giant body struggled to keep itself fed with oxygen and energy. She had to stretch with every punch that went to his head, but even at full extension she managed to deliver enough force to set his nose and mouth bleeding. Then she delivered a kick into his eye socket, breaking his cheek bone and starting the eye to swell almost at once. He began coughing up blood, but he still stood up and lumbered towards her, the desire to win, to dominate, still pulsing underneath the pain and fatigue. She kicked him hard in the knee, wrecking the ligaments there as his foot remained planted and the knee bent. He groaned in pain but his mouth was so full of blood the sound almost didn't register.
Limping, exhausted, and having failed to hit her even once, the push for survival in his face had transformed into that of the tiger right before the hunters hit it with the final arrow. Almost any other time, Lian would have taken pity on such a creature, but not this one, and not this time. She continued with the beating, hitting him over and over again in every part of his body with as much force as she could muster. Finally his hands fell to his side as he became unconscious on his feet. Lian didn't stop. She jumped into a straight kick that fully extended through his face, the ball of her foot crushing deep into his jaw and skull. He finally toppled over and hit the ground on his knees, his face falling forward and striking the dirt, leaving him like a monk in prayer, his hands at his feet and his head prostrate.
Lian knew it was over. She'd won. If he remembered the fight at all he'd not only know he'd lost, but that he'd lost so badly he would never be able to think of himself as the strongest person in any room ever again. Not after a woman half his size had destroyed him so utterly.
But she still vibrated with rage. It had been the comment about Quan of course. Not that he knew about Quan, but he'd struck the nerve he couldn't possibly have known would exist. All she was thinking about was her son, and his last words to her before she'd left Zhosian at the start of that terrible week.
"I wish you weren't my mother."
She stepped into the final kick, delivered to the prone head on the floor, with all her strength and venom, she kicked through his head, twisting and turning it across the dirt floor. Something broke. Lian didn't care what. The breaking felt good, as if it had finally snapped away the pain of Quan's comment. As if anything could take that pain away.
Her clothes were covered in blood, the dirt was coppery with it, and the room was utterly silent. After the final kick, an old man wearing slightly more formal clothes than the rest of the old men in the village ambled forward, terrified of Lian. She looked at him as her breathing calmed down and recognized him as a magistrate. His weathered face reminded Lian of the magistrate she'd worked with when she was a proper Shuli Go: concerned, but unsurprised. He'd seen it all in his age. Local bullies, and the ones who beat them.
"You should probably go child," he said quietly. "I'll have to tell the local detachment what happened here. They might hold you if they find you. His family…" he let the thought carry out on its own.
Lian eventually nodded. The rage was quieting down and she didn't want to be there anymore anyway. She'd prefer the sound of her pained pony over the shithole that was Brilliant River Valley. She picked up her swords and stomped out of the place. As she threw open the door and reached the outside, a young girl, maybe ten years old, ran into her and was knocked over. The girl's expression was terrified and hurt, so she looked to the man who was ten feet behind her for reassurance. This man's face was calm but concerned, and vaguely familiar. Lian didn't care about any of them though. She just walked past, trying to scrub the blood off her knuckles and shoes as she went. She got back to her pony and cursed at it when it complained about carrying her weight yet again.