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 Three: Destined To Lead
Chaos. The chaos of a battlefield. She did not know it well, but she knew enough to know she did not like it. Too many moving parts meant too many surprises. The unknown was a constant, but one survived by limiting uncertainty, by preparing – and when everything fell apart, as it had, by being flexible. On the battlefield, too often one needed to rely on luck, and that did not suit Zuo Chi at all.
The village roared with gunfire, war cries, and the screams of the dying. Mostly tents and unstable shacks made with whatever debris the residents could find, it was the base for a small mining operation on the outskirts of Hunan’s territory. The Desert Sun Gang had attacked believing the village had just received supplies and payroll. Fireball Zuo had set up the ambush. She had included Grandfather of Hunan in her planning because a source had told her the gang was interested in striking at Hunan’s mines near the Wastes. She needed Grandfather’s permission to operate in Hunan. It was Grandfather that had hired extra mercenaries, Grandfather who had decided to spring the trap early, and it would be Grandfather’s fault if she got killed.
No. Not entirely true. She had thrown in her lot with the warlord knowing that he would control events. She had accepted that as a necessity. Only with the warlord’s cooperation could she spring this ambush, capture Ho-Sun, and break the power of the Desert Sun Gang. She had made the choice and the repercussions were hers to savour – or regret.
The Watchdogs of Hunan and Grandfather’s mercenaries had waited in the tents and shacks of the village, intimidating the residents, threatening dire repercussions should they not cooperate. They had not waited for the Desert Sun to reach the village, to be separated by the buildings, to lose cohesion. No, Grandfather had told the lead Dog – a lean, chiseled piece of desert stone known as Farquhar – to attack as soon as Ho-Sun came into view. That had been a mistake. Rather than surprised, the Desert Sun were wary. Rather than a quick and decisive blow, the ambush had become a melee of close fighting with the ever-present danger of poorly aimed bullets streaking around the combatants and innocent bystanders.
The Watchdogs had their uniform dusters, but she couldn’t discern Desert Sun from Hunan mercenary, and she didn’t really care. The Watchdogs might be ruthless, but they were also efficient. The mercenaries? Animals. They cared for nothing but satiating their greed and their bloodlust. Animals were fine on a leash, but when they started shitting on your boots, that’s when they got a good kick.
Ducking behind a wagon on the outskirts of the village, she reloaded her two signature cut-down rifles. Bullets ricocheted off the armour of the wagons and the stones lining the riverbed. She heard people die around her. That did not make her happy. She didn’t like senseless deaths. She always gave her quarry the chance to surrender, and if she could, she’d subdue rather than kill. The Watchdogs and mercenaries had no such qualms.
Moving out from cover, Zuo’s gaze quickly took in the bedlam. She saw him – her quarry, Ho-Sun. Surrounded by mercenaries, he was either impervious to bullets or moving so fast he threw off his attackers’ aim. Ducking under a discharging rifle, he drove his sword – shining like silver – through the mercenary’s belly. Pushing his opponent off his blade, he twisted to the side as another shot at him. A lunge and that mercenary gurgled out his last breath along with a flow of blood.
Zuo pushed her way through the throng as she focused her qi. Fire began to blossom around her. Those who might have denied her advance seemed to think better of it. The fire rode along her shoulders and down her arms. It illuminated her eyes.
Ho-Sun turned just before she reached him and swung out his sword in a crisp, tight arc. She brought up her rifles and blocked the blade, but the force of it checked her progress and vibrated up her arms. Strong. Her appearance did not faze him. He took a new stance, bringing the grip in close to his body, the blade horizontal and parallel to the ground as he considered her.
She did not give him time. Slapping aside his sword with one of her guns, she followed the momentum with a high, round kick. He crouched and slid under it, spinning and bringing around his sword. She caught it on her second weapon. She struck out again with her foot, using the solidity of him to propel herself back and cartwheel through the air. Landing, she fired both weapons at him. He leaped into the air, spinning, then landed in a crouch, sword at the ready.
He was good. Very good.
She began to fire one weapon after the other, twirling a fired weapon to reload it as its mate spoke. Ho-Sun shifted, he leapt, he crouched, he never remained in the place the bullet struck. But she had not expected him to. When she was close enough she fired again. As he leapt aside, she caught him midair with a roundhouse kick. The impact threw her back, off-balance, but it also drove the air from him. He landed hard, coughing, his sword held loose.
She recovered first and kicked the sword away from him. It didn’t matter. He came at her with fists moving so fast she heard the snap of a whip as she slid away from the strikes. She wove like a snake. He struck like lightning. Just as the bullets never found him, his fists never found her. Unlike him, the attacks did not distract her. She waited, she calculated, she divined his technique, and then she dropped one of her rifles and drove her hand, fingers outstretched, palm flat, thumb tucked in, catching his arm at the wrist. The other fist streaked towards her just as she disabled the first. She could not react in time and he caught her in the chest. She heard a crack and felt something give. A rib?
Pushing down the pain, she threw herself backward, somersaulting away from him. The fire of her qi diminished only a modicum as she sought out the injury. She landed in a defensive stance. Ho-Sun had not advanced. One arm hung at his side, the hand limp. She noted his breathing did not change – steady, resolute.
When he came, it was like facing an oncoming train. Did she actually feel the air around her change, as one did before an oncoming storm? For the first time in years, she felt uncertain. What would it take to stop him? She prepared, let him gain speed, focused her qi, then she lunged with a forward strike, putting everything into her fist.
He was already sliding under her, his elbow crashing into her knee, throwing her into the air. He tucked, rolled, and righted himself, turning to face her. She had regained her feet but hobbled. How had he not shattered her knee?Her qi? Maybe because she had been in movement and the leg gave rather than broke? It didn’t matter, he had almost removed her greatest advantage – her mobility. Slowed but not stalled, she considered her next move.
In her peripheral vision, she saw it coming. An attack. She rolled out of the way just as the body hurtled past. Those knees would have struck her right in the side of the head.
“Be careful, it’s Zuo.” Ho-Sun kicked and his sword sailed through the air. She hadn’t noticed it there.
The young woman, lithe but knotted with muscle, skin baked by the Wastes, shaggy, dark hair and ferocious dark eyes, snatched the blade out of the air. She performed some quick maneuvers, cutting the air, eyes steady. Zuo exhaled slowly. Something cold touched her, something she did not know, was not familiar with. Her heart began to pound and not because of exertion. Her mouth went dry.
The shot rang out – not hers – and Ho-Sun’s head wrenched to the side, a plume of blood extending from it. He dropped. The young woman screamed. Zuo’s fear washed away, leaving behind confusion. Zuo saw the Watchdogs begin firing on the young woman as she charged them. Bullets struck the woman, but she did not slow. Then, the woman was among them, a whirlwind of flashing metal. In a heartbeat, only the woman and the lead Watchdog, Farquhar, remained standing – he was evident from his distinctive black duster with its high collar. Farquhar opened his mouth to speak. The young woman’s lunge sent her blade through the open mouth and out the back of Farquhar’s neck. The body hung on the sword, but the blade did not bend and the young woman did not falter as she stared at the carnage around her.
Zuo did not wait to see what would happen next. She wanted no more of this. She had led Ho-Sun to his execution. It had not been justice. It was not even order. It was just violence.
They were welcome to reap that whirlwind.
Scorpion could not count the dead. Young, old, those with weapons, those without – none of the villagers had survived. Many of the Desert Sun lay with them.
“I heard them saying it was a shame what the Desert Sun did, but it’d be a good lesson to other villages.” Jo-Chul leaned on the shovel as he paused from digging. “I guess we’re to take the blame for this.”
Kneeling beside Ho-Sun, Scorpion wondered why she could not cry. There lay the closest thing she ever had to a father. Her mother, her father, even a dog that could have been her brother – they had all died and yet she lived.
Jo-Chul, the same height as Scorpion, with a slim build and a scar running along the side of his neck, mopped his brow under his wide-brimmed hat. “What now? Back to camp once we’ve buried them?”
“Why would we?” Scorpion touched Ho-Sun’s hand. “Ho-Sun is gone.”
“But we’re here.” Jo-Chul stepped up out of the mass grave he had helped dig. Others paused and watched. “He wasn’t going to be the captain forever. You know that.”
“I can’t watch any more of you die.” Scorpion wouldn’t look up, wouldn’t face him. She wanted Ho-Sun to share a secret, tell her what to do, continue to lead. Her head knew the man had died, her heart refused to accept it. “I can’t do what he did.”
“We’re going to die whether you’re with us or not,” Jo-Chul said. “Maybe you can save some of us. Maybe you’ll send us all to hell. I figure you don’t have anywhere else to go. Most of us don’t.”
Bolo, one of Ho-Sun’s lieutenants, a big, brash ex-soldier who had marched as a mercenary before joining the Desert Sun, pushed her way through the gathering crowd. “You planning on making your lover captain now, Jo-Chul.”
That got Scorpion’s attention. She glanced from the red-faced Bolo to Jo-Chul’s snide grin. The false accusation didn’t seem to bother him. Jo-Chul gave Bolo a wink. “You jealous?”
“I say we fight for the leadership.” Bolo took out her mace, flanged with sharp edges and covered in blood. In her other hand she held her leaf-bladed short sword.
“I don’t want it.” Scorpion rose. “You have it.”
That made Jo-Chul’s smile vanish, and he jabbed a finger at Scorpion. “That’s not what Ho-Sun would have wanted and you know it. He figured you’d follow him. Most of us figured the same.”
Bolo began twirling her mace, holes in the flanges making it whistle as it spun. “You aren’t just going to take this from me.”
The speed with which Jo-Chul moved shocked even Scorpion. He kicked Bolo’s mace out of its orbit and then drew his pistol – a six-shooter, blue-steel engraved with white dragons – and shoved it under Bolo’s chin.
“We fought. You lost. Want to argue?” He snarled out the words.
For a moment, Scorpion thought Jo-Chul would kill Bolo. Scorpion reached out, intent on calling Jo-Chul’s name. Before she could do so, Bolo released her blade, dropped her mace, and closed her eyes.
Jo-Chul took his pistol away from Bolo’s jaw and eased the hammer closed. “But I don’t want to be leader either, because I’m not smart or strong enough for it. That’s Scorpion. We all know it.”
Bolo picked up her mace and slid her blade into its scabbard at her back. “Next time let her fight her own battles.”
“Haven’t you seen what happens when she fights battles?” Jo-Chul pointed to the pile of Watchdog corpses. “I just saved your life.”
“I don’t want this,” Scorpion said. “I don’t want to lead. I don’t want people fighting over the leadership.”
“Do you want us to die?” Jo-Chul holstered his gun, a fist on his hip. “You aren’t Ho-Sun. We know that. Now isn’t the time for him. It’s the time for you. They just declared war on us. If we’re going to fight a war, we don’t need a father’s philosophy, we need the venom of the scorpion.”
She still held Ho-Sun’s sword, its weight a reminder of its past master. Around her, the bandits of the Desert Sun – her sisters and brothers – watched her. Some strained forward, still eager after the bloodshed. Some wouldn’t meet her eyes, shattered by the conflict. And there, growing cold, lay the body of Ho-Sun who had told her she would one day lead this army. This family.
Scorpion would abandon neither them nor Ho-Sun’s dream. “Let’s prepare for this war.”