For High Plains Samurai‘s first stretch goal of $5,000, Fraser Ronald will provide an origin story for Black Scorpion, a central villain in the One Land who threatens to destroy everything the warlords built. Each Thursday of the Kickstarter campaign, we’ll post one of the first four chapters of his story, Ballad of a High Plains Samurai.
Chapter Two: Raised A Scorpion
When “Fireball” Zuo burst into the inn, she surprised the six members of the Desert Sun Gang busy with violence, debauchery, and crime. Her swift entry left Zuo’s long, tan duster billowing behind her. In each of her hands she carried a lever-action rifle cut down to the size of a large pistol, the butts of two other full-sized rifles apparent over her shoulders.
Her chin tilted up a fraction as her dark eyes considered the bandits from under the wide, flat brim of her hat. “I don’t suppose you’ll tell me where I can find the bandit known as Ho-Sun.”
They proved her right. Big Blast Jung swivelled her shotgun – barrels cut down to barely the length of her forearms – from the card players she had been threatening, and unloaded at Zuo. Silver Claw Ka released the young woman he had restrained, and two knives flashed from his hands. Lightning Xi left the money he had been taking from the strong box and drew his six-shooter. Oak Fist Chen stopped beating on an unfortunate magistrate and leapt at Zuo, fist outstretched to deliver a strike that could crack stone. Golden Flower Woo threw the bottle of whiskey he had half-finished and dove for his rifle, which leaned against the wall behind the bar. Little Boss Feng did not free the innkeeper whom she held, nor did she untie the whip from around the innkeeper’s daughter’s neck. Maybe Feng thought the idiot looking for Ho-Sun would soon be dead.
Shotgun pellets, flashing knives, deadly fist, bottle of whiskey – none of this hit Zuo. She had launched herself the instant she saw the bandits move. Streaking through the high-ceilinged common room, she fired the cutdown rifle in her right hand and the bullet streaked like a comet into Big Blast Jung’s chest. He died, the blast as big as his name. As Zuo spun the firearm in her right hand, she triggered the one in her left, and another fiery bullet punched through Silver Claw Ka’s eye, crashing out the back of his head and taking much of his brain with it.
Half-way to the centre of the room, left gun spinning, ejecting a spent casing, Zuo aimed down as Oak Fist Chen sped along beneath her. Zuo felled that tree with a blazing round to the back of his head. Right spinning, Zuo’s left spat flaming lead through Golden Flower Woo’s neck, leaving a blossom of blood on the wall above his untouched rifle. Zuo landed in the middle of the room. Lightning Xi was not as fast as his namesake, and had not yet raised his pistol to aim at Zuo. He never did, fiery death bursting through his heart.
Zuo spun her two weapons and then holstered them at her hip. Of the Desert Sun Gang present only Little Boss Feng still breathed. Her eyes narrowed as she considered Zuo. She dropped the innkeeper.
Taking out a thin cigar, Zuo lit it from a flame dancing on her fingertip. Her eyes did not leave Feng. She puffed on her cigarillo. “Shall I ask again?”
Feng began to unwrap the whip from the innkeeper’s daughter’s neck. “I can see why they call you Fireball.”
“Do I need to make another example?” she tapped the customized rifle on her left hip.
“I do believe it is time for an example to be made.” Feng started to gather up her whip.
Glass shattered. Two figures dressed in black, hooded and masked, burst through the front windows of the inn. Metal streaked through the air along with the shattered glass. In a blur of motion, Zuo had drawn her weapons. From above, two more flew from the landing that framed the large common room. Rather than fire her guns, Zuo used them to block the metal spikes, the black resin on their tips slick in the inn’s dim light. The two attackers from above landed beside their brethren. Zuo took aim, but her weapons were jammed.
“The Desert Sun answers your challenge.” Feng chuckled.
The four black-clad assailants charged at Zuo. She tossed her two guns up into the air, then she too leaped. She spun like a top, a vortex of dark hair and tan coat. Her two weapons joined the vortex as it began to glow. The assailants staggered back, covering their faces. The vortex burst into flame. In its wake, Zuo crouched on the floor, holding her two guns by their barrels, her fists wreathed in yellow fire.
She did not wait for her attackers to recover. She launched herself, one leg tucked under, the other extended and on target for one attacker’s head. The attacker blocked her, but the power of the strike still pushed him back. He grunted. Zuo deflected off of him and landed in a crouch, barely raising a cloud of dust. Without hesitation she began swinging her two weapons in tight arcs like clubs. With each block, one of the attacker’s bones broke. In a heartbeat, both arms hung limp at his side. The last blow dropped him to the floor.
The other three waited no longer. They drove in, attacking with feet and fists. Each thrust struck an anvil, each kick broke on a hammer. Zuo moved like a hurricane, a blur of speed and fire. Her attackers began to tire, the blood misting the air and staining clothes did not come from her. As they slowed, Zuo took the opportunity. She flung one weapon, making the target sidestep, his focus away from Zuo for the moment. Her hand flat, flames dancing along it, her fingers rigid, Zuo struck a pressure point just below that attacker’s heart. She punched through his chest, the wound smoking, the blood sizzling. She withdrew her hand quickly, stepping on his already collapsing body to propel herself into the air. She somersaulted, landing behind another attacker. He turned but only in time to have his throat crushed by the butt of the weapon she still held. The last attacker jumped back, but Zuo followed him, leaping into the air, foot extended. The attacker landed just as Zuo’s foot impacted on his face. Bone cracked, blood spewed, and the last assailant fell to the ground.
Zuo looked around for the boss, but Feng had fled. Zuo picked up her still-burning cigarillo , and took a short draw, its embers flaring just as her own flames died.
Days later, a young woman climbed a small hill nestled against a high, dark cliff in the Wastes. The sounds of the Desert Sun gang enjoying their leisure rose from a sprawling camp the size of a large village in a slight valley along a dry riverbed at the foot of the hill. The warlords did not travel so far into the unforgiving Wastes, even to seek out the most powerful and dangerous of the various bandit gangs, so the Desert Sun drank and feasted, sharing their minor wealth with their camp followers – friends, lovers, and family.
Ho-Sun remained apart as he always did, as much a general as a bandit chief. He sat before his shack built from scavenged resources – lumber from railway ties, pieces from broken rail cars, tin from the roof of an abandoned building in a town the Wastes had claimed. Just as the Desert Sun were castoffs from the Five Cities, so to was their general’s home the detritus of civilized lands.
A small fire burned and a pot of coffee steamed on one of the stones framing the firepit. Ho-Sun sipped from a cup as the young woman approached.
“Feng arrived.” The young woman knew no better way to begin her message.
“She failed.” Ho-Sun smiled. “You would have made mention of Zuo’s fate if Feng had been successful.” He put down his cup. “Not that it matters. She’s one bounty hunter. She’s annoying, but she can’t break us. Feng got her feelings hurt and thought she’d get some payback. It just didn’t work out.”
“I could go after Zuo.” The young woman stood across the fire from Ho-Sun.
“You are good, better than anyone else, a true Scorpion.” Ho-Sun reached down and refilled his cup. “Better than me. But you still aren’t trained. You still don’t have real access to your qi.”
“Do I need it?’ The young woman known as Scorpion thrust her hand into the fire. “You’ve taught me so much already. Maybe I don’t have your skill, but you said I’m strong.”
Ho-Sun reached down beside the log on which he sat and pulled up an empty cup. He slapped it into Scorpion’s hand, which the fire had not marked, pushing it out of the flames. He gestured to one of the large rocks assembled around the pit. Scorpion sat and Ho-Sun filled her cup.
“We’ll enjoy our coffee and then we practice,” Ho-Sun said. “We practice until I get tired. I’m old, so that won’t be long.”
“You need a real master, someone who can teach you to control your qi, who can lead you to your true potential.” Ho-Sun picked up the sheathed sword leaning against his shack. He tossed it to Scorpion who caught it with one hand while still holding her coffee in the other. “Someday, you’ll wield that sword and lead the Desert Sun. That day, we’ll be invincible.”
“I have a blade of my own.” Scorpion put down her coffee.
Ho-Sun watched Scorpion over the rim of his cup. “The captain of the Desert Sun wields that sword.”
That drew Scorpion’s attention. “You’re the captain of the Desert Sun.” She reverently placed the sword on the ground, leaning it against the rock beside Ho-Sun.
“And what have I achieved?” Ho-Sun touched the pommel of the sword. “We are bandits, but we’re nowhere near as predatory as the warlords. Someday, they will come for us. More than just bounty hunters, they will send their armies. Not today and not tomorrow, but someday. The Desert Sun needs a true leader, a leader who can lead them to victory when that time comes. That leader is not me.”
“And you think it’s me.” Scorpion scoffed at the thought.
“With the right training, yes.” Ho-Sun stretched his arms wide. “Look at what I have created: a pack of bandits. This is not what I wanted. I wanted an army that could shake the warlords, shake them out of their complacency. Challenge them? No. That will never happen, but I want to worry them, make them think. I want those who toil under them to realize there is something else. Maybe not better, but different.”
Scorpion’s eyes drifted away from Ho-Sun. “I’ve known nothing but the Wastes. I never had a full belly until you found me.”
Ho-Sun leaned forward. “Now imagine that, but also constantly living in fear that everything will be taken from you.”
“Everything was taken from me.” Scorpion frowned. “I was a dog.”
“You bore that name but it was not what you were.” Ho-Sun’s voice became quiet. “I remember well the day the Dog started on the road to becoming the Scorpion.” He pinched the bridge of his nose and closed his eyes. “We have all lost something. Like you, I lost everything, and like you I found hope with the Desert Sun. But this was not my vision. This was not my dream for the Desert Sun. The sun can kill and it can bring pain, but it also brings life. I had thought this Desert Sun could bring hope. For some it has, but they are very few. I am not the one who will shake the thrones of the One Land.” Ho-Sun pointed at Scorpion. “That will be you.”
“Not me.” Scorpion’s shoulders slumped. She sank in on herself. “I’m not you. I don’t have a vision. I don’t have a dream. I want food in my belly and a safe place to sleep. That’s all.”
“You can lie to yourself, but you can’t lie to me.” Ho-Sun gestured to the camp at the bottom of the small hill on which his shack sat. “I’ve seen them when they are with you. You restrain them. Not by word, not by command, but by example. You seek justice. You harm none who don’t seek to harm you. You protect your people, but you also have mercy for those who suffer. They see that. Our reputation grows because you have brought something to them which I didn’t. Inspiration. They aspire to be you.”
Scorpion spat off to the side. “They worship strength. Power is not hope.”
“But it can protect hope, it can instill justice,” Ho-Sun picked up his sword. “You lead by example, and despite all the injustices committed on you, you have preserved your sense of justice better than anyone I know.” Stepping around the fire, Ho-Sun held out the sword horizontally before him. “And with this sword, you’ll be able to bring justice to the Wastes. The warlords will see. Their people will see. And the world will shake.”