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 Four: Condemned To Die
The campfires burned deep within the Wastes. Thousands of them illuminated a place where nothing was supposed to live. But the Desert Sun Gang survived there. It had learned to endure where everything else died, be it in the Wastes, near the borders of the Five Cities, or under the baleful gaze of the warlords.
Voices carried deep into the desert. In the centre of the camp the light of the many fires drowned out all but the brightest of stars, hot against the cold desert night. In that aperture of warmth and illumination, the chief of the Desert Sun Gang addressed her followers. Once Scorpion, she now wore a distinctive black duster with a high collar which she had taken from the Watchdog who had killed Ho-Sun, her adoptive father and former chief of the Desert Sun. Under the leadership of Black Scorpion, the Desert Sun had grown and amassed both wealth and power.
“Nothing travels between the cities now except for the Salvation.” Black Scorpion spread her arms wide to embrace the multitude around him. “We now number thousands. We are an army. We rule the Wastes and we rule the borders. Every coach, every caravan, everything that moves outside of the Five Cities pays our tolls.”
Scarred from battle, lithe but knotted with muscles, Jo-Chul rose, his laughter reaching his bright, green eyes. “You should say that with pride. Where’s your joy? Your pride?”
A cheer went up. Drinks were raised. War cries and curses against the warlords echoed through the night. Black Scorpion waited for it to die. It took some time. She raised her arms and slowly the camp grew quiet.
“Today, I have little joy.” Black Scorpion shook her head. “We have grown too large. We are a lumbering behemoth. We are a nation without a government. We are an army without a banner. And have become like a champion who draws challenge.” She ignored the yelling, the denials, and the rejections. “Today we need to make some choices. We need to choose our future. I believe it is time that we divide our people and our territory. We must again become the gangs that haunted the Wastes in times past. If we don’t, we’ll face a lifetime of fighting.”
Black Scorpion’s lieutenants joined the general and very vocal defiance.
“This makes no sense.” Jo-Chul stepped closer to Black Scorpion. “We finally have the power to defy the warlords. Why would we give that up?”
“We can defy one of them, yes.” Black Scorpion moved as she spoke, pacing around the centre of the camp. “We might even be able to defy two of them together, but not more. And soon they will come. Alone or together, they will come. And they don’t care how many of their own die, as long as they kill some of us. There will always be those willing to take the warlords’ silver in payment for our death. Sooner or later, we will fall. The numbers will tell.”
Bolo held her mace high above her head as she strode forward into the circle around Black Scorpion. “If you don’t have the stomach to lead, step aside for one who does. Let the warlords come. Let them bring their mercenaries. We will bury them all.”
Black Scorpion held up her index finger. “Just one warlord, just Grandfather, almost destroyed the Desert Sun.”
“But he didn’t.” Jo-Chul tapped the high collar on Black Scorpion’s duster. “And we buried all of the bastards he sent against us. Now? Now we have ten times the swords we had then. Maybe someday it’ll be a hundred times.”
“And he’ll have a hundred times more than that,” Black Scorpion said. “It wasn’t just Watchdogs we faced, and it won’t be next time either. How many will fall when we go to war?”
Bolo lowered her mace, leaning close to Black Scorpion. “Let them fall. Let them all fall. The strong will survive.”
“Like Ho-Sun?” Black Scorpion scowled, her eyes growing tight. “Or is that the hope?”
Bolo only smiled.
Jo-Chul pushed Bolo back, and she stumbled from force of it. “Then let’s decide. You said it’s time to choose. We choose.” He turned to the assembled mass. “Who chooses the way of caution? Who says we should break the Desert Sun?”
Black Scorpion drew Ho-Sun’s sword, the blade she had named Vengeance, and raised it above her head. Some shouted and a few presented their own weapons, but only a few.
“And who wants to remain an army and dare the warlords to stop us?” Jo-Chul drew his pistol – a six-shooter, blue-steel engraved with white dragons – and fired it three times into the air.
The night erupted in the bellows of the Desert Sun.
Jo-Chul flipped out the pistol’s cylinder and replaced the three spent bullets as he considered Black Scorpion. “They love you, they just don’t agree with you.”
Black Scorpion scratched her jaw as she considered the army that she could not disband and which would not abandon her. “And so now?”
Her smile less predatory, Bolo advanced from the edge of the circle. “I have an idea.”
They retreated from the ambush, mostly in good order. Bolo’s idea to show the Desert Sun’s strength by robbing the Salvation had led them into a trap. Maybe if it had been only Black Scorpion and her most trusted warriors, as Bolo had planned, the warlords would not have caught wind of their exploit. Instead, Black Scorpion had listened to Jo-Chul, and the whole of the Desert Sun descended on the Salvation at the most remote point of its transit through the Waste.
The Desert Sun didn’t have surprise and it didn’t have the numbers. It didn’t face a poorly guarded monstrosity as it dragged itself along a set path through the desert. No. they faced an army. Hunan’s duster-clad Watchdogs, Monsoon’s stoic soldiery, Yung Zhi’s disparate mercenary assassins, and the raving barbarians of Khar-tep surrounded the Desert Sun, forcing them east. Tall cliffs of the Gods’ Reach Range barred their way south. Every warlord had come to bury them, all, it seemed, save the Minister of Rust. But even that did not last. Their retreat led the Desert Sun into a line of metal behemoths, machines of destruction designed as armour but powered by obscure infernal science.
Black Scorpion pulled up her horse at the sight of these giants, almost twice the size of the tallest person she had ever seen, belching smoke as they slowly advanced.
Jo-Chul dismounted, always more ready to fight on the ground than from horseback. “Well, that’s unusual.” He emptied the cylinder of his pistol and began sliding in bullets. “Might prove a bit of a problem.”
The Desert Sun, thousands of bandits, milled around, some still on horses, some dismounted. The cloud of dust raised by their pursuers approaching from the north and west while they confronted a black wall of smoke to their east. To the south, reaching higher than either, a stone dagger stabbing into the sky above the cliffs: Heaven’s Peak. The Monastery of Divine Hope would not accept them, but it put rock at their back, and Full Heart Pass, leading to the valley of the peak, was defensible.
Black Scorpion grasped Jo-Chul’s shoulder. “Rally them. Take them to the peak. I’ll hold them here with my one thousand. Bolo should delay them at the pass with her thousand. Rally the last at the peak and try to survive. The monks cannot deny the dying entry, so there’s a chance some of us can survive.”
“You can’t surrender.” Jo-Chul snarled out the words, not hiding his frustration and anger. “The fight hasn’t even begun.”
Black Scorpion pointed west. “We left a hundred or more in the dirt back there that would tell you otherwise. There’re too many to count, more than there are of us. And those things?” She jabbed her thumb in the direction of the metal giants. “How do we fight those? No, do as I order. You wanted me to be leader, I’m leading.”
Jo-Chul growled rather than reply, then shook her off and looked around him. “Where’s Bolo?” He grabbed a tall, broad young warrior who held a long rifle with a scope and had a pair of handaxes at his hip. “Na-in, where’s Bolo?”
“I haven’t seen her since the Salvation.” The young man spoke with crisp precision, any fear or uncertainty hidden.
The comment made Black Scorpion pause. Bolo left her thousand un-led? But Black Scorpion had to shake off her concerns – she had not time to consider them. “You’re in charge of her thousand, Na-in. Make for Full Heart Pass and cover the retreat of the rest of the Desert Sun. Fall back once the Sun are in the valley. You need to protect them until they reach the peak. Don’t turn your back on the enemy. Don’t abandon your comrades.”
Na-in scowled at that mention. “I know my duty, captain.” He vaulted into his saddle and with a whoop, went to rally his warriors.
“I need your obedience as well, just as I’ve always needed your counsel.” Black Scorpion drew Ho-Sun’s blade. She offered it to Jo-Chul. “You are captain now.”
He smiled. “You give me that sword, you give me command, and then you’ll be the one leading the Sun to the peak. No. that’s yours or it’s nobody’s.” He held his saddle’s pommel and had one foot in a stirrup. “You are what Ho-Sun always hoped you would be. Don’t lose heart. Don’t doubt yourself. Life is adversity. We must persevere.”
Black Scorpion opened her mouth to reply, but found she didn’t have the words. Jo-Chul offered her a wink and then spun his horse to the north to gather his thousand.
She watched him depart as her own thousand assembled around her. They waited for her orders, straining against their impatience for action.
“We hold here until the others are well into the pass.” As she spoke, she saw no hesitation, no doubt. Fear? Yes, of course. They knew what she asked, but they swallowed it and hardened themselves. “Bolo’s thousand will hold the pass, and we will fall back to them. We do not flee, we do not retreat – we withdraw.”
That brought predatory smiles and nervous chuckles. They readied their swords and checked their rifles. With bullets and blades they would make the warlords pay dearly for every inch, but in the end they would die. She knew that. They knew that. None ran.
The metal giants of Rust reached them first. Slow and laborious in movement, they brought with them both swords and flame. Tubes at their shoulders spewed forth fiery liquid while each bore a blade the length of a person. Black Scorpion’s thousand reacted with practiced violence, moving to skirmish, knowing any concentration of bodies would be a target for the flames. But bullets and steel glanced off the armoured monstrosities, so even though few of the Desert Sun fell, they could not reach the men inside the armour or halt their progress.
One of Black Scorpion’s best, a sword-saint named Reed, found that the tubes through which the liquid fire pumped were not as sturdy as the rest of the armoured suits. Once those tubes ruptured, the flames spouted without direction. It cost Reed his life to learn this, but he took with him the lead giant. Word quickly spread, and soon the metal machines became moving torches, and once ignited, the flames did not die.
The hope that filled Black Scorpion dissipated as the rest of the warlords’ army arrived. She had Ho-Sun’s blade in her hand, and she drove into the oncoming horde. As each of her comrades fell, Black Scorpion’s rage increased. And as her rage increased, the numbers that fell to her sword multiplied. Her blade a blur of motion, severing limbs, opening arteries, deflecting bullets, she cut across the vanguard of the warlords’ host, hoping to relieve some of the pressure on her comrades.
She did not stand alone. Honed by constant adversity, the Desert Sun did not bend, it did not break. There, to Black Scorpion’s left, Halyk’s inhuman speed allowed her to cut through the enemies as though they stood frozen. Firing with a weapon in each hand, Shinsong would empty a revolver then drop it to replace it with another from under his voluminous cloak, each bullet finding its mark. Ahead, deep within the enemy numbers, Jorge changed with each kill, growing larger, stronger, and hairier, earning his moniker ‘the Beast.’ But even supreme skill must bow to sheer numbers. If only one in every one hundred bullets or blades spills blood, when there are ten thousand, the multitude overcomes.
Maybe some of the blood that covered her was her own, Black Scorpion couldn’t say. She didn’t care. With her right hand, she sliced through the neck of a Watchdog of Hunan. Her left foot connected with the face of a mercenary assassin of Yung Zhi. A barbarian of Khar-tep bellowed out a warcry that became a whimper as Black Scorpion’s left fist crushed her windpipe.
A flare rose up from the pass. Na-in was in place. Black Scorpion breathed hard, taking air deep into her belly. Her enemies had left a space around her, a circle into which none dared enter. The bodies of her thousand lay on the field, some close by, others deep within the warlords’ army. How many of the enemy had she killed? Not enough. It would never be enough.
Into the circle stepped two: a man and a woman who seemed almost doubles, scrawny and pale, but with jade eyes and bright rose lips. Their dark hair was gathered in queues and they wore the robes of lesser nobles. Black Scorpion’s eyes narrowed as the twin adversaries split, moving along the edge of the circle. They moved with casual grace, watching her with bland disinterest. She twirled the blade Vengeance in her hand, loosening her grip, finding her breath. They had flanked her completely, but she backpedalled, not allowing either to move behind her. The warlord’s army surged back wherever she moved, always allowing her space.
The man flashed forward, dirt and dust kicking up behind him. He pulled one hand back and fog formed around his fingers, wisps trailing off as the scrawny apparition gained speed. Black Scorpion moved into a defensive stance, trying to keep both in sight.
She blocked the man’s fist, knocking it aside with her forearm. But where the two touched, she felt a kind of freezing cold she had never experienced. The shock of it made her stumble back. Frost had formed on her sleeve. The man’s momentum carried him past, although Black Scorpion’s block had knocked him off balance. He fell to the ground and rolled. The woman leaped over him, moving fast, letting forth a battle cry that Black Scorpion felt reverberate through her chest.
When the woman landed, she struck the ground, which erupted into flame. The sleeve that had frozen shattered as the fire touched it. The skin on Black Scorpion’s arm cracked and a sharp pain lanced through it.
The pain brought clarity and focus. For a moment, Black Scorpion stood in the middle of an unmoving tableau. She noted the man had righted himself and seemed ready to charge again. The woman’s legs and the tilt of her shoulder told Black Scorpion she was about to roll to her left. Black Scorpion readied herself, deciding she would not let the man touch her again until the woman was out of the equation.
They were in motion – the woman rolling to her left, the man charging past her, Black Scorpion launching herself at the woman. As they passed, the man and woman touched hands. Then he slid to a halt, down on one knee, all but submerged in a cloud of dust. He let out a similar battle cry while spreading his arms wide. His hands came together in a thunderous clap from which sprang a tongue of fire. It caught Black Scorpion, disorientated her. She landed roughly, but catapulted to her feet in an instant, trying to shake off the flames that hung around her. The woman dove in, striking Black Scorpion’s arm, touching the wound left by the last encounter.
It froze. That which had withstood the flames gave to the frost. Black Scorpion had never known such pain. It let loose her rage. The woman had moved past her but not far enough. Black Scorpion spun to her right, leaving the blade Vengeance twisting upright in the air as she let her damaged arm fall to her side. As her spin brought the sword in reach of her left hand, she enveloped its hilt and brought it out, parallel to her shoulders. The blade parted the woman’s neck, sliding through smoothly. Black Scorpion finished her spin, going to one knee, steadying herself with the sword thrust into the ground.
She heard the body impact with the ground.
Anger burned in the man’s face, but nothing else. He leaned forward, straining, and brought forth his battle cry. Feeble, it sounded like a strangled shout. Black Scorpion provided her own war cry. “For Ho-Sun!”
It blew the man back like a hurricane, buffeting the army behind him. Black Scorpion charged, teeth clenched, nostrils flared. The boils and burns on her left arm began to recede, leaving behind unblemished skin. The man stumbled as Black Scorpion reached him, then he moved no more, Vengeance sprouting from his back.
“For the Wastes.” Black Scorpion whispered that as she let the corpse slide off her blade. She closed her eyes for a moment, basking in her anger, in the fury that geysered out of her. She looked up at the enemies who encircled her. This time, she shouted. “For the Wastes!”
Black Scorpion launched herself at them, fighting her way to the pass, needing to be there to support Na-in. She could hold the pass. Her alone. No more of her warriors, her soldiers of the Wastes, needed to die. She moved through a sea of the enemy, straining to break through them, to move past them. Any who faced her fell back, eyes wide, screaming. Some died. Some merely went mad.
Like a wave, the warlord’s host broke on the shoal of Jo-Chul and his thousand. Na-in lay dead at his feet, one of many, but Jo-Chul and the few of his thousand that lived remained firm. Black Scorpion struggled to reach him, to cut her way through to him, but her arms had become heavy and her legs dragged. Her rage had not diminished, but her body could no longer ignore her many wounds. Wherever her gaze fell, there her enemies cowered and collapsed. But she was surrounded, the air filled with bullets, and every spear reached for her.
Black Scorpion stopped, confusion like a wall before her. Jo-Chul fought Bolo. At that moment, the lieutenant’s absense in the fight made sense. Betrayal. Bolo had not hidden her disdain when Scorpion took Ho-Sun’s place as leader of the Desert Sun, but who could have believed she would betray them? All of them? Not just Black Scorpion or Jo-Chul, but thousands of her sisters and brothers.
Bolo swung her mace, but Jo-Chul leaped over it, stepping on Bolo’s head to somersault and land at her back. He spun, foot swinging high, smashing into Bolo’s ear and knocking her off her feet. She slammed into the ground. Still prone on her back, Bolo stabbed upward with her leaf-shaped blade, but Jo-Chul had a curved sword that deflected it. He then drove the sword into Bolo’s shoulder. He spun away from an unfocused swing of Bolo’s mace. Landing lightly, he emptied his pistol’s cylinder and started sliding in bullets. Black Scorpion could not hear what Jo-Chul screamed at Bolo, but swinging the cylinder back into place, he levelled the pistol at Bolo.
A red plume blossomed from the side of his head. Jo-Chul toppled, dropping straight to the ground, almost as though collapsing in on himself.
Black Scorpion could not contain her anguish and hatred. Rage propelled her through the throng of Watchdogs, mercenaries, barbarians and warriors that separated them. She reached him just as a spearman of Monsoon raised his weapon for the coup de grace. Black Scorpion bowled into him, brute force her last option. She grabbed the soldier’s ears and smashed his head back against the rocks of the crag that walled the pass.
Jo-Chul didn’t breath. Black Scorpion had thought she would hear his final words, say something, anything to him before he died. They had robbed her even of that. She took the pistol from his hand and rose, unsteady, seeking Bolo. She had done this. She had betrayed them all. Whether for greed, ambition, or jealousy, Bolo had murdered them all.
The bullet only grazed her head. Slightly more to the right, and it would have smashed through her forehead and put an end to her agony. As it happened, it only postponed it.
When she woke, Black Scorpion had no idea how much time had passed. She could still hear fighting, but far away. The sun had set but she could see no moon in the sky, only stars. By their light, she couldn’t make out any details of the bodies around her. She didn’t know which was Jo-Chul. She realized it didn’t matter. It was just a corpse now, empty of anything that had been her trusted friend. She no longer had him. She only had her anger.
Heaven’s Peak. They could not turn away the dying and no warlord would dare shatter that sanctuary. Would they? She had little choice – drag herself to the monastery or die in the Wastes, because she would die, and she imagined it would be soon.
She should have been dead already. Maybe she would have been if her rage had not denied her the ease of surrender. She would not lie down because if she did, she would never have her revenge. And that she would have. She would have revenge for Ho-Sun, for Jo-Chul, for her mother, even for Brightness, the dog she had lost in her childhood.
So she wasn’t going to die. She would make the warlords and their armies pay. She would exact a tribute in blood and suffering. And she would find Bolo and kill her with Jo-Chul’s pistol.
But first, Black Scorpion needed to reach the peak. She needed to enter the monastery. She needed to survive and grow strong. If she failed at any of this, she would be denied vengeance.
And this time – she promised herself – this time she would not be denied.