Chapter 16: The Only Question
Bao wasn’t sure how long the fighting lasted. It seemed like hours, and at the same time, seconds. Screams and howls of rage rang out in the hall. Blood flowed.
Bao helped Mao Yun to fell one of the Demon Emperor soldiers who Bao knew to be a ranking officer, based on his uniform. He fought with seemingly supernatural power and abilities, and they won only because of a lucky stab by Bao that punctured a major blood vessel in the man’s leg.
Soon silence filled the hall.
Bao looked around to see bodies everywhere, and the stone floor tiles smeared with blood and gore.
Only around twenty bandits remained standing. Clearly, if she and Mao Yun hadn’t managed to bring the Ogre down so quickly, then the bandits would have been slaughtered.
Bao glanced at the pile of rubble that was the Ogre’s burial mound, and her heart began to pound.
In the heat of the moment, she hadn’t hesitated at all to cut the creature down. And really, there had been no other choice. However, Bao knew that the Demon Emperor viewed each and every one of his Ogres as precious.
There was a fairly common story that Bao had heard recounted on more than one occasion, about the city of Yun Hu. There were different versions of the story, but most involved an Ogre that died of a broken neck after being bucked off of a local horse. In his rage, the Demon Emperor ordered Yun Hu burned to the ground, and all of its inhabitants slaughtered. The city was later rebuilt, but it was a chilling tale, and Bao was fairly certain it was true.
She wasn’t sure why an Ogre had been sent here to handle some petty bandits, but the fact that the Ogre had been killed would not be overlooked. People even said that the Demon Emperor cast spells on his Ogres so that if one of them died, he would be instantly informed.
The surviving bandits looked around blankly at the carnage. All of them were injured in some way, some worse than others. A few even lay on the ground moaning lightly.
Everyone seemed confused, unsure of what to do.
As time trickled by, Bao began to grow more and more nervous.
We need to get out of here, and fast. She glanced over at Mao Yun, but he seemed as much in a daze as everyone else. Finally, she gritted her teeth.
“Alright, listen up people,” she said. “You, you, and you–” she pointed to three of the bandits with her knife “– bandage up the severely injured. You five over there, go prepare the horses. You three, gather together all of the weapons and armor you can find and get it to the stables and packed onto the horses. You three, pack some food, as much as you can. Get everything ready, we need to leave as soon as possible. The rest of you, prepare travel supplies. Tents, cookery, lamps. You have the time it takes three incense sticks to burn! Now go!”
Whether it was her terrifying, blood-soaked appearance, or the fact that she had been the one to kill the Ogre, the bandits all looked at her in a different light than before.
No one questioned her orders, and in fact, as soon as she said “go,” everyone sprang into action.
“Mao Yun, you come with me!” With that, she spun on the balls of her feet and headed toward Chief Wang’s quarters.
Mao Yun hurried to join her, walking by her side and asking, “What’s the plan now?”
“Leave,” she replied. “There will be repercussions because of this, and we need to be gone from this place as soon as possible.”
It only took a minute to wind through the stone corridors until they reached Chief Wang’s room. Reaching into her sleeve, Bao pulled out a set of keys, which she had taken from Chief Wang after decapitating him. It only took a moment to find the correct key to unlock the sturdy bronze padlock, whereupon the door swung open.
The room was luxuriously decorated, and very messy.
“Find the strongbox,” Bao said, and immediately began to rifle through the room. Mao Yun quickly joined her.
A minute or two later, they uncovered a sturdy wooden chest, which contained the main accumulation of the bandits’ wealth. There were numerous strings of cash and silver taels, and even some gold taels. It was quite a sum.
After opening the chest, Mao Yun and Bao exchanged a glance.
“We can’t just carry haul this chest out there,” Mao Yun said.
“I know.” She stood up and looked around the room, quickly spotting some leather satchels piled in the corner. “Split it up into those. One bag of you, one for me, one for everyone else.”
He nodded, and they set to work.
After enough time passed for three incense sticks to burn, the surviving bandits were gathered in the stables.
“Alright, listen up,” Bao said. “I’m sure most of you have heard the story of Yun Hu. The Demon Emperor will not ignore the fact that one of his Ogres was killed. If the rumors are true about the magic he uses, then he might already know. There could be soldiers on the way here right now. I plan to go to the north, where the Demon Emperor is weak. Supposedly, the Hen-Shi Empire still rules there, and even has entire cities like Daolu and Nansun, in which not even a single Demon Emperor soldier can be found.
“The rest of you have two options. The first is to come with me. Travel north to where there is still freedom from the Demon Emperor. The second option is to go your separate way. Head south, east, west… wherever you want. The choice is yours, but you need to make it quickly.”
Not even a second passed before Mao Yun said, “I’m with you, big sis Bao. Let’s ride to the Hen-Shi Empire.”
Bao looked back at him and nodded, then turned to the rest of the bandits.
A moment passed, and one of them spoke up. “I have no friends or family anywhere else in Qi Xien. I’ll ride with you, big sis Bao.”
“As will I,” said another.
In the end, only one bandit chose not to join them, a jovial fellow known as Fatty Bo. “I wish you all the luck in the world, big sis Bao,” he said. “But I have a sweetheart back in Yu Zhing, I can’t just travel to the other end of the world and leave her behind.”
Bao nodded. “I understand.”
There were only fifteen horses. They gave one to Fatty Bo, and then split the others between the remaining bandits, with Bao getting the finest of them, a Harqan steed from the Kushen basin that was likely worth ten thousand spades or more.
And then, they rode off into the night.
Once again they were traveling through the country. This time, though, they didn’t live off the land. They had plenty of supplies, and were well equipped with tents and other traveling equipment.
They stayed away from the roads, which wasn’t too difficult in the lands north of the Fei River, which were mostly wide grassy plains. Before long, they were in the foothills of Mount Dao, about a day’s ride east of the city of Tung-on, where they set up camp.
As they were eating dinner, the bandit known as Third Zhou cleared his throat and said, “Big sis… er Chieftess Bao… the road leading from Fan to Tung-on is sure to have plenty of merchant caravans. Should we maybe… get back to work?”
Bao didn’t respond at first. She had been pondering this issue for the past days as they fled north, and had even discussed the matter with Mao Yun. Considering the wealth that Chief Wang had built up, their little group could definitely be considered rich. However, that wouldn’t last forever. They needed some source of income, some way to survive, especially once they reached the Hen-Shi Empire.
Banditry was an option, but to both Bao and Mao Yun, it was a distasteful one at best.
A long moment passed, after which Bao said, “Third Zhou, let me ask you a question. What did you do for work… before?”
Third Zhou frowned for a moment before replying, “I used to be a pig merchant in Xuanlu.”
“And why did you turn to banditry?”
“The Demon Emperor accused the pig merchants guild of conspiring against him. Most of the other pig merchants were killed, but I fled north to Yu Zhing.”
Bao nodded, then turned to another of the bandits. “How about you, Second Zhou?”
The bandit called Second Zhou replied, “I was a soldier in Qi Fao. After the Demon Emperor conquered the city, I managed to escape south.”
“And you, First Zhou?”
“My family was killed in the purges in Yu Zhing.”
Raising her voice, Bao said, “How about the rest of you. How many of you became bandits because of the Demon Emperor.”
Of the twenty bandits present, nineteen raised their hands.
“Think back to your life before the Demon Emperor ruined it. Did you ever imagine that you would be a bandit? Did you ever want to be? No. None of you.
“Things happened, your life changed, and in order to survive, you became bandits. Well I say, the time has come to rise above being bandits.” For some reason, it seemed almost as of some of the things Bao was saying were being spoken to herself.
“The common people are suffering because of the Demon Emperor, so there’s no need for us to cause them more suffering. We have money now. We have horses. We have weapons. Why not use them for good? Or at least, refuse to use them for evil!
“We are only a few days’ ride from the Chezhou River, beyond which is the Hen-Shi Empire, and Nansun. I say that tomorrow, we go into Tung-On to resupply. If we can, we sell our services as escorts. Instead of robbing the merchants, we make money off of them, open and aboveboard. If no such work is to be found, we make haste for Nansun.
“We have plenty of spades in our coffers, plenty of money to last for many many days without having to resort to banditry.
“When we get to Nansun, I will find a way for us to earn money, in the righteous way.
“What do you say?”
This time, Mao Yun held his tongue, for which Bao was grateful. The other bandits exchanged glances, and a long moment passed. Finally, Third Zhou broke the silence. “Very well, Chieftess Bao. I’m willing to try.”
One by one, the others voiced their consent.
Later that night, Bao and Mao Yun were sitting on a boulder, drinking together under the moon.
“Nice speech,” Mao Yun said. He held his drinking glass up. “To you. Bottoms up!”
Bao nodded, and together they drank. Wiping her lips dry, she sighed and said, “The only question, is it really possible to make money the righteous way?”
About that same time, much further to the south, at the base of Mount Jing, a camp had been set up. Numerous tents of varying sizes could be seen, horses were neatly hobbled on the western side of the camp, and guard posts had been erected.
In the central tent, the largest of them all, a long table had been set up. Tied down to the table with thick hemp ropes was an overweight man, whose eyes bulged with fear.
A hulking figure loomed over him, a figure who was clearly not human. He had broad shoulders and wicked, protruding teeth. He wore a helmet that appeared to be fashioned from the skull of some bizarre creature, and his armor was apparently constructed from the rest of that creature’s skeleton.
“Do you know who I am?” the figure asked in a growling voice. His accent was strange; clearly this was no human, but an Ogre.
The overweight man nodded, and sweat dripped down the sides of his face.
“That’s good,” the Ogre replied, slowly drawing a long knife out from his belt. “Then you’ve no doubt heard why they call me the Bone General.” He rested the knife on the man’s forearm. “Now, tell me who it was that killed the Ogre five days ago. And where is that person now? The sooner you tell me, the less pain there will be.”
A moment later, a blood-curdling scream ripped through the night.