Rising To Jianghu
Note: Like my other stories, Slouching Towards Jianghu, The Terminal Correction, and The Ashport Diaries, 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.
Summary: A soldier faces a strange cult and evasive superior on his first deployment.
The Captain always gave me the worst jobs, and it took me a while to realize why. If you can do the small things well, you can also do the big ones. Only now, far away from everyone and everything I've ever known, do I see the wisdom apparent in that. If I had some fresh recruits to drill, I'd start them the way the Captain started me: digging latrines. It was good practice for digging graves.
This time, I had no choice but to leave them where they fell. The crew I'd hired fell like puppets with cut strings. I shouted orders over the clangor of steel, but I was honestly unsurprised. I got what I paid for, which was nothing. A few half-truths were enough to get their captain believing me, back before his entrails were scattered across the foredeck. I nearly felt guilty for it.
The pirates blasted the deck with grapeshot before boarding, and he delayed joining the rest of us belowdecks. The buccaneers wanted to loot the ship, so they won't send us to the bottom yet. Another cannon blast thundered above us, and I hoped my assumptions were right. I heard their boarding party's footfalls stop at the top of the stairs. A small, spherical object bounded down the stairs, its fuse hissing.
I dove for cover behind a barrel. The grenade exploded a moment later, impaling broken ceramics, nails, and other shrapnel deep into the walls. My ears rang, but my vision stayed true. My first mate, the closest thing I had to a sergeant, laid motionless in a pool of his own blood. Another sailor laid screaming in agony, driving the shards deeper into his skin as he writhed like a snake with a broken back. I kicked his cutlass out of the way as I moved, bringing my crossbow up.
"Fire!" I ordered the two survivors.
I heard neither the twang of bowstrings nor the report of guns. I turned to see the fat sailor I called Big Belly, a typically jovial man, struggling to reload his blunderbuss. A crossbow bolt from the top of the stairs prevented him from completing that endeavor. I ran back further, searching for the sailor I called Limper. He was a tall, middle-aged man with a cutdown crossbow he'd earlier salvaged from the hold.
I found Limper living up to his nickname, with his lame leg blown off by the grenade. He gasped weakly, and I saw him sobbing pathetically. One look at the wounds showed he'd not be long for this life. I would have put him out of his misery myself, since the alternative would be worse. I'd lacked the fortitude for such euthanasia before, and never forgave myself.
"End of the voyage?" he asked weakly, a smile on his bloody face.
I would have replied, but a bullet answered that question for me. I turned to see a pirate with a smoking flintlock pistol, flashing his toothless, yellowing grin. A gunshot sounded somewhere behind him. I felt a musket ball bounce off my armor, staggering me for a moment. The corsair dropped his pistol and drew a dirk, closing in to finish me. I smashed my unloaded crossbow into his temple, shouting like a maniac when he dropped. I stomped on his head, and I charged into the mob of pirates descending the stairs. That was for Limper.
I rammed the nearest corsair against the wall, and I ripped his hand with mine. Using his elbow like a hinge, I hurled him down the stairs. He struck the floor head first, but I was already onto my next victim. The musketeer that shot me struggled to reload his weapon. I relieved him of it, yanking him down the stairs in the process. I had gravity on my side, even if I had nowhere to go. I saw the pirates hesitate and step back, and I knew my next path: through them.
Dropping my empty crossbow, I drew my favorite weapon: the heavy hammer from my side. It was a thick metal head on a wooden handle, and I clenched it tightly it in both hands. My hammer Master Key would be tight quarters, but nothing I hadn't dealt with before. By the time I'd remembered when I'd last fought this close, I'd bashed three more pirates to death. What was left fled screaming around that time. Shame, too, because I could've used the bounty.
I've never been much for travel, but my job left me no choice. I was lucky to escape from the place I was born. My family was three generations crammed into a rat-filled hovel beneath an ancient aqueduct my neighbors all used as a septic sewer. Stories upon stories of scrap metal, mud, and trash houses grew beneath the legs of that great structure, built in a golden age that ended centuries before my birth. The aqueduct flowed into the slum's water supply, but we still treated it like a toilet. It was a miracle anyone survived childhood at all, with all the disease and danger there.
My lucky break came when an army recruiter came marching through town. With him were guards ready to pressgang anyone that crossed their path, as they had a conscription quota to fill. The starvation and disease was so bad, many of my family eagerly volunteered for corvee labor or military service. I know the traditional saying goes good iron does not become nails, as good men do not become soldiers. But I never said I was a good man. I was just lucky the draft officer chose me over my older brother at the time, who was sick from some waterborne infection. As I marched out of there, I knew I'd never see my family again. I did not realize how distorted such opinions were, relative to my peers, until the end of my first year in the army.
I remember we marched deep into an ancient fortress, built in a similar style to the aqueduct of my half-forgotten home. It was in far better maintenance, despite bearing the scars of a thousand battles. I could easily imagine where rams once struck the gates, or where cannonballs buckled those heavy stone walls. Guard towers were staffed by soldiers more well-armed and well-fed than anyone back home. The rectangular walls had guard towers at regular intervals, which communicated via a series of mirrors and semaphores. As we approached, a horn sounded. Gates almost as tall as my entire tenement opened up, and I realized I was home.
Within Stonebreaker Fort, I met the Captain for the first time. He had a lower rank back then, but he possessed an unmistakably dominant presence. His black hair was parted evenly down the middle. His armor was polished to a mirror sheen. His face was that of a fresh-faced teenager, but his build suggested a more advanced age. He made an inspection of the new recruits being marched in, and he divided us into groups for training. He ran us through each movement, breaking it down to the simplest steps until we mastered it. He introduced himself as Lieutenant Ren Jingwei, but that was the last I would see of him for years. I remembered him, but he did not.
The soldiering life comes problems most people don't think about. Everyone thinks we're just a bunch of ignorant lunkheads who exist only to kill what's in our way. That's part of it, but hardly the whole story. Most of the army needs camp followers and other support. Each logistics unit must provide water, food, weapons, equipment, fortification, sanitation, medicine, accounting, and even the seedier comforts. We were deployed for decades to forsaken frontiers, so we'd rather be overprepared than underprepared.
My first deployment was to the Western Wastelands garrison, on account of barbarian and bandit raids. I saw a superior officer on his horse, trotting slowly beside us. From the marks on his crisp uniform, I read the characters 上尉, for Captain. There was something familiar in his haughty posture, the way he rode with chin high and senses sharp. I recalled seeing the man again then, discussing how the barbarians were getting bolder with his servant. I turned to listen in, and the Captain made eye contact with me.
"So, you are interested in our conversation?" he asked. "What are your name and rank?"
"P-private Liu Haofeng, sir," I stammered in reply.
"Tell you what, Private Liu," he said. "You're on latrine duty tonight. I'm going to inspect it to make sure you do it right."
Some of the other soldiers laughed, but most did not want to risk drawing the officer's attention. I could not blame them, as my young ego was too focused on my own shame. I forced myself to focus on the march, on the heavy gear and armor, but my apparent shame continued like a festering wound. I was honestly curious as to what my punishment would be, or how creative the Captain would get. I heard he was a real stickler for discipline, even more than the Colonel. I've seen men lashed for stealing extra rations, tortured because of some general's whim, or outright executed to motivate the rest of us. The older soldiers I asked said not to worry too much, but the younger ones simply ignored my questions. As we made camp beside an ancient crossroads, I honestly bore more trepidation than curiosity.
I finished nailing my last tent peg into the ground when he came to meet me. He was clad in his red uniform and armor, polished like a silver mirror. He wore a longsword, a jian, on his left hip, and a hand-crossbow holstered on the other. As he approached me, I realized he was a head shorter than me. I immediately imagined why he rode along on a high horse. I would have laughed had he not been directly in front of me. I immediately tensed up, unsure of what the Captain intended. I'd met disciplinarians, but none as well-groomed as the Captain.
"Private Liu," the Captain said, his eyes sizing me up like a steak. "The Colonel has given me permission to discipline you how I see fit."
"Yes, sir," I said, simultaneously gulping and saluting.
The Captain led me towards the edge of the camp. I walked past the Cook's tent, smelling the fresh meat inside. I'm sure the Captain didn't bother to eat at the same shit as his lowly enlisted. We walked past another long tent, crammed full of bedrolls for the enlisted. I was fortunate to have a smaller tent, but the officers had their own servants. We walked past a wall where a camp follower was in mid-thrust. Neither cared to note our passing, but I recalled the more expensive courtesans that obeyed the officers' every decadent whim. We walked by the earthworks and palisades, built around the camp's perimeter. I took a quick glance at the officers' section of the camp, protected by its own smaller defenses to protect from mutinies within as well as attack from without. On closer reflection, personal discipline was one of the only times the officers gave enough of a shit about us individual enlisted. I just wish it was for different circumstances.
The Captain led me towards a stinking hole. He knocked a bit of dirt in with his boot, and bidding me to do the same. He handed me a shovel, and I began to fill it in. The first few scoops were easy, since I was just dumping dirt from a nearby pile into the hole.
"You know, it's not just for sanitation," the Captain said. "If you don't cover up your shit, the enemy can track you more easily."
"Yes, sir," I said, continuing to shovel. Anything else I said could easily mean more disciplinary action.
"Private Liu, you can speak freely," he said. "Unless another officer comes by."
"Yes, sir," I said, continuing to shovel. The Captain clammed up, likely expecting me to say something to shoot myself in the foot. I've heard of officers playing mind games, and it was clear the only winning move was not to play.
"Eh, quiet type?" he asked. "You know, latrines are where we bury cowards and traitors."
I said nothing, not wanting to end up in one. He wisely changed topics.
"Private, you know how rare this is?" he said, looking towards the walls. "Few Imperial citizens have ever been this far from civilization, and even fewer have returned."
"Private, I knew you came from Lèsèjing. Real trash heap of a city," he said. "A lot of us did."
I said nothing, but I continued my shoveling.
"It's lucky you got out when you did. I've heard of a plague outbreak back there," he said. "But can't say I'm surprised."
I continued my job wordlessly, but I saw my mound of dirt was almost gone. I'd been working at a brisk pace, and the hole was almost completely filled.
"You know, that place used to be known as the Garden of the Empire, back a century ago," he said. "We were the birthplace of explorers, like Admiral Shang He and his top officers."
"Who?" I asked.
The Captain sighed. A crestfallen look crossed his face like a victorious foe. He leveled his gaze at me, and he blinked a few times. I tried to ignore him, tapping down the earth with my spade. The look on his face was a terrifying mix of anger and fury I'd never seen on him, nor anyone else for that matter. At that moment, I was half expecting from him to either run me through or cut me down with a thought.
Instead, he drew a small scroll from his belt. His lips moved up and down like marching boots, but no words came out. He mouthed that silent mantra, and I stared without an idea of what he said. I'd never learned to read lips, but I saw his posture immediately change. The Captain's posture immediately relaxed, but I had not. In the time he started chanting, I realized I'd taken a step back and released the shovel in my hands.
"Sorry, Private," he said, his voice now in a consolatory tone. "Can you read?"
I shook my head.
"I should have known," he said, sighing. "But I can fix that. Are you interested in learning, Private? About reading, about history, and things that will make you a better soldier?"
I nodded, partially out of respect and partially out of fear. The Captain must've read my body like his scroll, since he already had moved onto his next order. He stepped onto a fresh patch of ground, a few steps beside the latrine. He paced in a square, each side about a leg-span apart.
"Dig a new one along these lines, Private," he said. "You have until dawn."
With that, the Captain wordlessly walked away. He vanished from my vision with his hands folded behind his back, almost walking into a supply crate on his way back. I chuckled to myself, and mercifully, the Captain didn't hear. He vanished around a corner, and I focused once more on digging. I never went to a proper school, but I did know how to use my hands. As I was eager to get to bed, I was proud to say I completed the hole at least two hours before dawn.
I didn't get much rest, but I was glad I didn't dream that night. My encounter sent a thousand thoughts racing through my head, none of them positive. While I didn't know him well, I never heard of an officer react so negatively to a soldier's ignorance. We were just livestock to them, sent to be trampled beneath raiders' horses or cut down by bandits' blades. They gave each other medals, and they gave us early graves. As horrible a life it was, we at least had the training to protect it. The poor other bastards in Xianjing didn't.
We broke camp that morning and marched deeper into the wastelands. My encounter with the Captain was banished like a bad dream, and I fell back into the mindless, mechanical obedience of the sergeants' orders. That blessed numbness was preferable to individual drama. Even as beads of sweat poured down my face and soaked my armor, I did not hesitate. I became a tree in a forest of spears, marching to our destiny at the Empire's end.
The terrain around us turned a sickly shade of brown. First, the scrub brush grew sparser and thinner, before vanishing entirely. The baked topsoil turned into golden mounds of sand, rolling down the dunes. The sand dunes themselves surrounded us like a legion of slumbering titans. The roads we marched on turned from old grazing trails to dark defiles. We marched through those narrow, mazelike valleys of meandering streams and choking dust. Nothing felt right there, for every blind corner could hide a bandit ambush or booby trap. Out here, the very supplies we brought with us would make us targets to the locals. We acted accordingly.
During the remaining weeks of that march, the Captain tried approaching me two times. The first time, I genuinely did not hear him over the drill instructor's commands. I was too cornered with my battle drills to notice him beckoning me from the corner of our camp's parade ground. The second time, he passed me a letter that I could not read. I wished I could, though, for no other reason than sating my curiosity. No other soldier I talked with seemed to know anything on why the Captain would act like that, so I stopped asking after the first week.
We came to our destination three months after our march started. It was Fort Unity, named for the symbolic pacification of the territory during the Unification. This wasteland was the farthest western frontier of the Seven Nations that were united into Xianjing, but I doubted anyone ever truly controlled it. Barbarians, bandits, deserters, and their descendants lived out here, sometimes raiding other lands when their numbers swelled. That was why we were here, from what the officers said.
Fort Unity itself was a perfect metaphor for the state of the army. The stone walls had fallen. The palisades were rotten. The trenches were filled in with ditchwater and dirt. The hinges on the massive gates were almost rusted shut, so the garrison had to send out a dozen men to force them open. A military band, consisting of a withered old man with a bugle and young man with a broken drum, sorrowfully attempted to play our marching song. Even our Colonel covered his ears as we approached. Like a rotten apple, the insides were far worse.
Officially, Fort Unity was garrisoned by the 12th Border Battalion. Attached to them was the 53rd Noble Lance Cavalry Squadron, the 44th Mobile Infantry Reserve, the 8th Archers, the 19th Precision Arbalist Unit, the 25th Arquebusier Company, and the 4th Logistics Corps. Inside, there were barely two-hundred soldiers assembled. While the units still technically existed, they might as well be walking ghosts.
The infantry bore spears and pikes of varying lengths, clad in mismatched armor. There were about two dozen troops with ranged weapons, including termite-eaten crossbows, jury-rigged muskets ready to explode, and bows with strings fraying like a hag's hair. We saw five horses, only three of which had riders. One had a brace of rusted pistols, the other a bent lance, and the last burdening his mount with his tremendous girth. The old man had a chest full of rusted metals, and a lecherous grin that turned towards our camp followers. A soldier beside me whispered this was our new leader, General Fei.
I wondered how a man could grow so fat out here, even while his troops starved. The horses all had a skeletal appearance and visible rips, and I doubted they'd been on any battlefields in a long time. Looking over that pathetic fortress, I immediately understood why so many on border duty deserted. I saw those soldiers with empty faces and growling stomachs, and I recognized my future staring back at me. As the understaffed band attempted to play a traditional greeting tune, I immediately remembered the Captain's offer. He saw something of interest in me, enough to want to teach me reading, history, and more. Whatever he was offering, I knew that it would be better than rotting out here.
While the Colonel argued with General Fei in the bowels of the fortress, we enlisted were largely left to our own devices. The sergeants had us make camp, and they ordered others to sure up the old fortifications as best we could. I was sent to survey the fortress walls with two others, and it was then the Captain approached us. He pulled me into a small storehouse, closing the door so we might speak in private. This time, he was far calmer and more collected. A sly smile played across his face, as though a torrent of secrets would spill forth from like a dammed river.
"Well, Private, I would like to apologize if I startled you earlier," the Captain said, bowing. "It's just you reminded me of someone I knew once."
"Someone you hated?"
"It's complicated," he said, putting his hand on my shoulder. "Have a look at this, Private."
With that, the Captain pressed a small slip of paper into my hand, like clandestine love letter. I'd known my share of freaks and weirdos, but the Captain was something else. I'd never attended a proper school, but I could tell he was about to talk my ear off, if I gave him the chance. I was not sure I wanted to give that to him, at least not yet. Nevertheless, my curiosity prevailed, and I looked at the letter.
I held the paper in both hands, and I felt it for any irregularities. The paper was dry and crumbled at the touch, like ancient parchment. I thought for a moment it might contain some sort of invisible ink or similar cipher, like the sort spies and criminals communicated with. I saw nonsensical symbols finely written along the edges. While I could not read, I immediately recognized these were not the typical Xianjing characters. They had a certain mesmerizing effect, and I brought it closer to my face. The paper curled in on itself, blackening as though singed by invisible flame. It slipped from my grip, and I stared at the Captain, vainly expecting an invasion.
Instead, the Captain pointed to a shelf beside me.
"Private, can you tell me when this storehouse was last replenished?"
Without thinking, I pulled the worn, leather-bound logbook of the shelf. I'd never read one of these, but I'd seen them used countless times before. I flipped through the creaking pages, until searching for the boundary between blank and filled pages. My finger found that ink-stained border, sliding down the page until I saw the last day.
"A month ago," I said.
The Captain grinned. He said nothing. I expected him to. That's how dense I was, until it hit me a moment later. I thumbed through the pages, frantically trying to make sense of it all. Letters, words, and their meetings were stripped naked before me, as bare as a cheap strumpet. Written language was no longer a cipher beyond my comprehension. I heard the book thud as it hit the floor. I staggered for a moment, and then caught my breath.
"You're welcome, Private," the Captain said. "I've reassigned you to my squad, so see you on the parade grounds."
"What do you do to me?" I asked, stepping in front of the door.
"Given you a taste of power, the likes of which have not been seen for centuries."
"What?" I asked, growing irritated. "Tell me!"
"We start with the basics, Private," he said. "Now, would you kindly step away from the door?"
I crossed my arms and used my massive frame to block the door. I was getting to the point I wouldn't mind a few lashings for striking an officer. My mind told me to stand down, but my pride kept me standing tall. I raised my arms and prepared to come to blows. The Captain simply sighed. I thought I felt the gentle press of his finger against my forearm, and the next thing I realize, I was laughing uncontrollably. I heard the door open and close behind me, as the Captain said something. "Never knew you were ticklish, Private."
I laid on the dusty floor for a moment longer, until I heard commotion outside. The war gong sounded, and I heard the musters for soldiers to assemble into our assigned squadrons. I did not revel at the thought of seeing the Captain again so soon, but my curiosity was unsated. I'd gained the literacy of a scribe by means of some power, although I wondered what the cost was. No longer was I some blissfully ignorant grunt. Some supernatural agency, something beyond the world I'd thought existed, was real. Either that, or I was very, very drunk. The fact I could read the banners posted around the fortress was strong evidence to the former.
The Colonel sat beside General Fei on a stage above the parade ground. It was clear who won the argument. The Colonel glowered none too happily, while the fat General grinned exuberantly. His corpulent bulk strained the chair as he rose from it, to address the assembled soldiers as he spoke. His voice was like a barking walrus, and I found my mind drifting as he rambled. He garrulously explained we would launch a punitive expedition against some bandits holed up in ruins to the northeast. We'd deploy the following morning, after a hearty breakfast.
I didn't remember much about the following morning, save the drills. We ran through the close combat drills we knew better than walking. We breeched the door with a hammer or axe, sent in arquebusiers or arbalists to engage standing enemies, and then charge in with melee weapons to finish off anyone still standing. We trained to recognize a few common traps and tripwires of the sort the local bandits used. As we trained, I noticed the soldiers in our unit were far faster and more efficient than the General's men. I remembered how obsessively the Captain drilled us, and I understood why. The alternative was to end up like General Fei's pathetic rabble. In his own way, he cared for all of us. I'd see how far once we reached the battlefield.
Despite my strange new gift, I was in no hurry to let others know my newfound skill. The Captain was well-respected among both the officers and enlisted. I marched in the second rank behind him, and he paid me no more attention than any other member of his unit. He no longer had his horse, and I saw he'd taken a pack of standard rations instead of the decadent treats the officers ate. I wondered just how many of my assumptions were wrong, or what kind of man he truly was. I had no doubts he'd rush into combat himself if he had to, but I questioned what sort of powers he'd employ in those ends. I convinced myself I'd see more shortly.
"Company halt!" shouted Major Lian, as she conveyed orders from the front. "Brace!"
I saw dark shapes rise over a nearby hill. I raised my shield above my head, pressing it against my colleagues'. A rain of arrows and stones fell on us, bouncing off our shields like steel droplets. A man in the row behind me panicked and dropped his shield, only for an arrow to plunge through his neck. His two comrades stepped up to close the gap, but it was too late for Ah Meng. At the very least, I didn't owe him money for that beer he'd smuggled in. He'd come all the way from Guonan to die in this hellhole. As we got the order to advance, I knew he wouldn't be the last.
I wondered why bandits would be so eager to stay and fight, but my mind came up with a few theories. One was they were trying to by time to relocate their loot. Another was they'd already slipped out, leaving behind a token force to distract us. From experience, most bandits would rather flee than fight the army. I ordered the troops in my rank to hold fast, since the bandits could not match us up close. I honestly hoped they'd route after seeing we didn't break like General Fei's pathetic band. Against my greater hope and logic, they continued pelting us with projectiles. It was like they'd been planning this for a long time.
Whoever they were, they were well organized. I caught a few glimpses of our tormentors up close. We saw a dozen archers and slingers moving along the crest of the nearby hill, clad in worn black robes and nevertheless managing to drop a regiment's worth of ammunition on us. Either they were very well trained, or we were just that outmatched. They stopped once they vanished on the other side, despite being in range of us. I sensed something was amiss, and I was not alone. The Captain halted our advance, and we gazed upon what the hill hid.
It was no structure of modern Xianjing, but radiated a certain terrible antiquity. Its façade was smoothed basalt stone, seemingly smoothed by eons of erosion. The sand and wind claimed its outermost coating, but those dark walls still obscured the interior. Instead of the flowing pagodas, rounded arches, and stern stoneworks of Xianjing, this was a squat, evil interloper upon the landscape. Its shape was vaguely pyramidal, but it was far longer than wider. Near the front were signs of excavation, picks and shovels strewn about like a careless child's toys. While there were no apparent openings or slats from which the enemy could return fire, we nevertheless hesitated. I saw the Captain look ahead to the Major, and he gulped with the rest of us. We were going in first.
So, we descended the hill with shields raised and spears ready. We briskly crossed the treacherous patch of open ground between the hill and structure, certain another salvo or ambush awaited us with each step. Out of curiosity, I looked at the excavation site around us. It must have been abandoned in due haste, owing to the sheer amount of abandoned tools and footprints. There were some casks of black powder and pitch, but even less what I'd expect to see in a similar mine or excavation elsewhere. Either they did not use much, or they had some substitute. Regardless, we took up sentry positions near the entrance to the structure, a triangular portal too large for human dimensions.
The rest of the army saw our safe crossing and marched quickly across the plain. It was as though they sensed the enemy was holed up, and they wanted to surround the accursed structure and besiege it. I hoped they'd raze it to the ground, given how uneasy it made me feel. I rarely had such a sensation before or since, such as when I was stuck cleaning up the mangled dead after a battle. Once the bulk of the army was on the plain, I realized what they were planning. The apparent lack of explosives. The disciplined archers. The feigned withdraw. Luring us into open ground. I shouted something to the Captain, but it was too late.
I never saw how big the explosion really was. I just saw the ground rise up, and a stone hit my helmet. I remember blacking out, and waking up with the Captain and remnants of our unit just inside the entrance of that structure. He poured water over my face, washing the blood away and bringing me back to the land of the living. I felt around for my spear, but I saw it was blasted in half, both ends splintered too badly to hold. Outside, I saw the remnants of the army, rallying into defensive lines as the torrent of arrows resumed.
"We have to help them!" one of my comrades shouted.
"Stand down, Corporal," the Captain said, his cool demeanor returning. "We will. The enemy isn't expecting an attack from within."
The Corporal claimed down, and she loaded her crossbow. The others drew their crossbows, loosened their willow leaf dao sabers, and formed ranks. I searched around for any weapon I could find, and I staggered towards a pile of abandoned tools. Of them, I saw a thick handle half-protruding from the ground. I struggled to pull it free, and the hammer flew free from the ground. The head was a thick, black alloy I'd never seen before. The Captain walked forward, effortlessly picked it up in one hand, tapped it with his other hand, and handed it to me.
"A star-metal hammer would suit only the strongest of us," he said. "And so, I believe the Private will make the best use of it."
I'd never thought star-metals were real, much less whatever powers the Captain called upon. It was getting harder to dismiss them, now that a star-metal hammer filled my hands. To my great surprise, it felt as light as a piece of wood. The mallet I used to drive tent pegs had more heft than this, but the head split stones in the floor with barely an ounce of exertion on my part. With no other weapon, I knew I would be on point. I called the hammer in my hand the Master Key, since it would soon unlock anything between us and the enemy.
The Captain's lantern lit the way down that bizarre hallway. The corridor's hexagonal profile was peculiar enough, if not for the small triangular doors on other side. The bandits had set up rickety wooden doors on these smaller side rooms, partitioning the inner space into a series of smaller rooms. Once we formed up outside the first one, instinct and training took over, and the Captain's drills guided our every movement. As the arbalists stacked up behind me, I raised my Master Key to the door. I felt their hands on my shoulder. Three. Two. One. Breach.
The flimsy door flew right off its hinges. The muzzles of those loaded crossbows vanished into the first room, and I heard the release of strings. The Captain charged in with his hand crossbow in one hand and sword in the other, and I heard them shout clear. I turned to look inside the room, and I saw the first of many curious sights. A black-robed bandit, perforated with crossbow bolts and clutching a dagger, laid dead in front of a strange idol. It was illuminated by some strange blue candle that cast strange shapes on the floor. The eidolon was of four robed figures sitting around a pillar carved of whittled human bone. Beneath it where strange runes I was cursed with immediate comprehension of. I read it silently to myself: Praise the four servants of God King Ten-Tei,
"They're cultists," I said, muttering to myself.
"Good observation, Private," the Captain said. "But we must press on."
The next few encounters with cultists were like the first. They'd sit mediating on most of the rooms, utterly obviously until provoked. Seeing us provoked a murderous frenzy in them, during which they'd grab their ritual daggers or any nearby weapons to try and resist us. The Captain tried taking one alive, but he poisoned himself before we could restrain him. The second room we cleared had a banner reading, "Restore the One Great Nation." The third had a bloody altar in it, with chains and blood drains clogged from frequent use. The fourth room had a map of what I presumed was the world, with small dots marked all over it. The Captain pointed out one that he thought corresponded to our location, on a continent he said was Xianjing.
In the fifth room, we found less passive opposition. It was an armory of sorts, with weapons, armor, rations, gems, and other loot haphazardly shoved into crates. The cultist archers and slingers were descending from a staircase that exited from the top. The others engaged the cultists with crossbow fire, but I charged up the stairs with my hammer raised. I'd seen it work on flimsy doors, and I was pleasantly surprised to find out it opened human heads just as easily. In that mad melee of bashed brains and splattered organs, I left the cultists a blood sacrifice for whatever sick gods they worshiped. In that mad moment, I felt an exhilaration like no other. In the minute after the last one fell, I threw up.
The Captain called out to the surviving officers from the battle outside. We stopped the storm of enemy missiles, allowing our allies to close the distance. We had no reports of survivors, but I was still restless. I wanted to know more about this cult, or bandits, or whatever they were. The Captain gathered any books or printed materials he could, as well as strange relics and items from the dead cultists. He touched on of their ritual knives, and I saw his eyes roll into his head for a moment. I called out to him, but there was no response.
"No worries, Private," he said. "I was merely gaining some insight into our late foes."
I asked him to clarify. While the superior officers and other troops tore through the strange ruin, he pulled me off to the side. After checking to ensure no one was listening on us, he produced the map from earlier. "Private, these men are no mere brigands," he said. "I fear they have powerful friends."
"What do you mean? What was that thing you did?"
"You might have noticed my…knack, as I call it, for sensing an object's history," he said. "Among other things."
"It's hard to explain. It's a sort of psychic echo, if you believe in that sort of thing," he said. "I am not quite sure how it works, either, but I know it works."
At this point, I was ready to believe anything. "And what does it tell you about this place?"
"This is an ancient place of great evil, a place from before the Unification. However, it is a place of dark power, which brought them here."
"But why the excavation? Why raid villages and travelers?"
"I think they needed slaves and sacrifices to dig for things, relics from the Old World."
"Before the Unification?"
"Long before the Unification," the Captain stopped himself. "Listen, Private Liu, Xianjing was not the first nation to inhabit this land. Before some great disaster annihilated them, these first humans worshipped strange entities, and drew power from them."
"Hence the creepy idols." I presumed this was what their banners and prayer-books referenced, with the pleas to God King Ten-Tei and restoring the One Great Nation.
"Even today, corrupt nobles and government officials know of that accursed time. They train cultists in dark arts, and they send them abroad to find these artifacts. They've had to be more secretive since the times of Shang He."
"The man you brought up earlier, right?"
"Yes, the Admiral who lead the treasure fleets to the other continents. He found them to be barbaric backwaters, and he also found things from the Old World. He wisely discarded them abroad," the Captain said, his face changing to a more relaxed look. "But he's also from our hometown. You might say, our city was made to battle these cursed relics and dark powers."
"Well, we certainly cleaned up here."
"Private, they knew we were coming," the Captain said. "Don't play dumb."
I stared at him, thinking about the evidence. The enemy knew our approach, our tactics, and the perfect ways to harass us. I looked through the gathered documents, and the Captain's strange rants suddenly made a lot more sense.
"The cult would need someone powerful to cover for them. Someone who can afford to lose vast quantities of personnel and gear," he explained. "And ultimately, someone who wanted to cut them lose."
At noon of the following day, General Fei was dead. Officially, he'd choked on a bone from soup he was drinking. Unofficially, no one cared to investigate. Evidence of him selling supplies to smugglers and embezzling funds was found when the Colonel searched his quarters. His body was buried in the largest latrine I'd ever dug, one I still take pride in it today.
The Captain took me on as his apprentice scribe, and he told me more of his covert war. There were others like him in Xianjing and beyond, practitioners of occult arts and fighting styles. These cultists were but neophytes in these traditions, but were still able to stand up to an army like ours. This realm of covert styles, this Jianghu, was one I was just taking baby steps into.
Since that time, I've served on other fronts and frontiers. The Captain provided official cover, and I do the deed. I've unleashed a salvo of bolts from a repeating crossbow at a cavalry charge of steppe nomads. I've hunted pirates through the malarial marshes of the far south. I've even been so lucky to put down cells of this cult whenever I find them, eradicating them from this earth. However, purging them from one country is not enough.
The tentacles of this dark brotherhood span the globe. If we are to stay against them, we must find our brethren in foreign lands, those capable of standing against those ruinous, otherworldly powers. I've always considered myself just a soldier, but I can't just blindly obey. The fight never ends for a warrior in Jianghu. I know I'm never going to retire to a village beneath Mount Shiyi, nor return to that diseased slum I left long ago, but I know what I can do. I can rise to the right, rise to Jianghu, and give it all I got. I have no home, but I have a war. That's all I ever wanted.