Concept and Characters by Zhan Zablan
Written by Louis Ortal
Daylight found Zai in an unknown room, not an unusual state of affairs for the vagrant mercenary. He looked around without sitting up. The sunlight that had awakened him filtered through the dirty window on his left. Beneath the window lay a dusty wooden desk and a chair, and with a glance to his right he found the door. He had no memory of how he got here, but he fully intended to find out. Freeing himself from the threadbare blanket that covered him, he got up from his bed, or rather tried to, until a reminder of the previous day’s adventure sent him dropping back down, clutching his chest. Broken ribs, he thought, mustering his energy for another attempt to get out from the bed as he recalled what happened yesterday.
It was mainly bad luck that had injured him. On their way to fulfilling a contract, Zai and his partner Rei had arrived at a village hounded by bandits almost just in time to be caught in a siege. Most of the villagers had luckily gathered to gawk at the pair they thought would be their saviours. When the bandits had arrived, almost at their heels, the two and almost the entire village took refuge in the village’s monastery, the only stonewalled structure to be found there. While Rei and Zai helped to prepare the village’s counterattack, the bandits had broken the monastery’s heavy wooden doors, a fragment of which caught Zai full in the chest. He had managed to stand up and help the villagers repel the onrushing bandits, oblivious to his injuries until the battle had been won, after which the full rush of pain assaulted him, making him fall unconscious. He checked his chest—it was bandaged up, and he felt no bumps nor did he feel anything sticking into his lungs, so Rei must have cursorily healed him before renting a room in the village’s inn.
With much effort, he finally managed to sit up. He reminded himself that this was nothing, that he had had worse wounds, ones made by steel and stone and not mere wood. He hoped to encourage his body to shrug off the pain, but to little avail. The mind may have memories of such events, but the body had long forgotten old wounds that have already healed, remembering only the injury that currently afflicted it.
It was another long struggle to get dressed; he put on a black vest and trousers, both allowing for a great degree of freedom of movement. He took a sack that rested besides a wooden clothes chest and slung it on his back before heading out the door. Judging from the pain, he felt he needed perhaps another day of rest before healing fully, but he was hardly one to lie indolent the whole day. Besides, he thought, I need a meal. Taking slow, painful steps, he finally reached the inn’s main hall. The innkeeper, upon seeing Zai’s shambling form, rushed directly towards him.
‘Sir, your companion, she told me—’ he began, but Zai cut him off.
‘To stay in bed the whole day—or at least until she returns,’ he said with a frown.
‘Until she returns, yes, sir,’ the innkeeper said with a nod. ‘And I won’t disagree with her. After seeing you fight through your wounds, and I’m thankful for that, sir, I’m surprised to see you alive.’
‘Where is she, anyway?’ Zai asked.
The innkeeper shrugged, saying, ‘She said something about gathering information, but sir, you really must return to your room and rest.’
‘Tell you what,’ said Zai while rummaging through his pockets for something, ‘if she comes back before I do, tell her I was too stubborn to be held down.’ he placed a small bag of coins in the innkeeper’s hand. ‘That’s the truth, anyway,’ he added with a smile before heading for the inn’s door. The innkeeper stared at Zai’s back, wiping his brow, before remembering the rest of his chores.
Zai quickly found a food stall near the inn. Taking slow, measured steps, he approached it while trying not to betray a hint of his current state. But as soon as the man behind the stall had seen him, he rushed over to his side in a manner that reminded Zai of the innkeeper’s frantic anxiousness.
‘You okay, sir?’ he said, extending a hand out to steady him.
Zai sighed in his thoughts as he shook his head and said, ‘I’m fine.’
‘You sure, sir? You looked bad yesterday.’
‘I heal quickly,’ Zai said with a jaunty smile and a thumbs-up.
‘If you say so, sir,’ he said, apparently unconvinced. ‘Well, sir, if you’re hungry, you take anything you like. On the house.’
‘Oh, no, that won’t do,’ said Zai as he began to take some coins out of his pocket, but the man pushed them back.
‘No, sir,’ he said with some dignity.
Zai shook his head. ‘Look, we’ll be asking you to pay for our services as soon as we’ve done our job. What we’re doing, this ain’t for free, so take what you can get from me.’ He took a stick of skewered meat with one hand and dropped a coin into the man’s hand, then closed it firmly with the other.
‘Tell you what,’ he said after taking a bite of the meat, ‘once we bag those bandits I’ll help myself to your food, if you still want to treat me. But not before the job’s done.’ The man nodded tremulously in agreement before returning to his stall.
Zai sat down on the bench in front of the stall, taking time with his meal. Since the stall was on the edge of the village square, he was able to observe most of the village from where he sat. He saw herdsmen guiding their flock to pastures on the outskirts of town. He saw the children running around, weaving through houses during their game of tag. He heard the ringing of hammers from the town’s only blacksmith, mending the pitchforks and ploughshares broken during yesterday’s fighting. His face broke in a frown; he felt the sound of heavy footsteps.
Zai had acquired some skills during the course of his career as a mercenary, one of which was his extremely quiet footsteps—even Rei, with her heightened senses, had told him how unnerving it was for her to know he was walking with her, but not to hear his steps. It complemented his sensitivity to ground vibrations. He had often seen Rei put her ears to the ground in an effort to hear the footsteps of a pursuing or a fleeing bounty, but he could do the same standing up.
He felt the vibrations of heavy footsteps, almost thunderous, through his feet. He estimated that there were about thirty of them—are they on horseback? He had a terrible premonition. They’re back!
He turned so fast that a jolt of pain from his chest ran through his body. Ignoring the pain, he said urgently to the man in the food stall:
‘The bandits are coming! Spread the word! Arm yourselves!’
The man did not need to be told twice. Despite seeing no sign of an attack, he ran through the streets, spreading the warning from the black-clad mercenary to the other villagers. Zai ran as fast as he could to the village’s entrance, heedless of the agonising warning his battered body was giving off. Thirty well-armed bandits on horseback against the roughly hundred able-bodied men from the village, wielding pitchforks and ploughshares and wooden planks. No good, Zai thought. I have to even the odds. He drew a thin blade from a pouch hanging from his belt. Where the hell is Rei?
A couple of tense minutes passed. Zai could now see a cloud of dust by the road to the village, heralding the approach of the feared bandits. A dozen of them had attacked the village yesterday, and it was only with Rei and Zai’s help that the villagers were able to drive them back with minimal losses. Now they had to fight more than twice that number with lesser strength, since he was injured and his partner remained nowhere to be found. Zai gritted his teeth as the bandits came to view. He drew his weapon from the sack slung on his back. It was a crossbow barely shorter than his arm, made almost entirely of metal save for the string. The thin blade he had drawn earlier had a notch on its hilt; this he hooked on the bowstring, pulling it taut as he did so, wincing all the while from the pain, until he heard a click signifying that the crossbow was ready. He then raised the bow to his eyes, aiming at one of the bandits in the front of the mob. His finger pressed the trigger; a few seconds later the unlucky bandit tumbled out of his saddle, a strange arrow sticking out of his right eye socket. Two of those behind him, caught unawares by the attack, stumbled upon their comrade’s corpse. One bandit managed to avoid those two and with a shout urged the others to ride faster.
‘There you are,’ Zai muttered, having discovered who the enemy leader was. His injuries have drastically slowed down his reloading speed, which mean he could fire only two more shots before the bandits bore down upon his position. He wanted at least their leader dead to disorganise their attack. The bandits caught sight of him, a black figure standing alone on the road to the village, and as one, they drew their swords and pointed them towards him, roaring curses. Zai fired his second shot, one aimed at the leader’s head, but his target saw the glint of the quarrel being fired, and he quickly dropped low on his horse. The arrow struck a man behind him, but he was safe, and he told his men to ride faster still.
Zai cursed as he reloaded his crossbow. The bandits were close enough that he could hear their cries over the crashing of the horses’ hooves. He aimed at their chief once more, who wore a cruel grin on his face as he looked directly at him. Zai fired, and the bandit leader urged his horse to dodge left. But Zai had aimed at the horse, not the rider, and it had not swerved fast enough to avoid the arrow completely. The horse was struck on its right flank, and the stricken animal tumbled to the ground as its rider jumped away, rolling to the left to avoid being crushed under his mount. Zai similarly rolled to the left as the rest of the bandits bored down upon him. They turned as one to try to ride him down once more, but their leader urged them on towards the village, brandishing his sword as he walked towards the black-clad bowman. Zai spared the glance at the village, and he saw the defenders massing at the main road, with the mounted horde charging towards them. He could see the fear in their eyes as they pointed their crude spears and pitchforks at the onrushing bandits. Hold your ground, he thought.
The bandit chieftain came within shouting range of Zai. ‘Your opponent is me,’ he cried as he rushed towards Zai, sword held high. Zai blocked the blow with his crossbow, and sparks flew as metal met metal. He then drew another arrow from the quiver with his free hand. The reason for the arrow’s strange design could clearly be seen now; it doubled as a dagger for close-range fights. The bandit jumped away as Zai slashed at him with the blade.
The bandit chief suddenly realised the difference in their strengths—his two-handed blow was blocked with just one hand—and in combat experience—the lightning-quick riposte knew exactly which spot to exploit; only his instincts had saved him from death. He stood there warily as he considered his situation, as his opponent stared at him, breathing heavily. The bandit chief still had some advantages—he had a longer reach, since his sword was nearly thrice as long as the man’s dagger/arrow, and more importantly, he had time. His battle-tested men would surely prevail over the ragtag defenders of the village, after which they would come to the aid of their leader. After considering the possibility of victory, he made a series of feints and probes, never letting himself get decisively engaged, but never giving his opponent a moment’s repose. After some time he realised that the man was slowing down, and that his breathing came in gasps. Is he wounded? With this bit of information his attacks came faster, stronger, bolder, putting Zai on a defensive that his strength would be unable to sustain. He inwardly praised the man’s strength of will and considered offering saving his life in exchange for his fealty. But his current situation forced him to throw honour aside, so his blows kept on coming.
It was a losing battle for Zai, as his desperate defence took an increasingly heavier toll on his gravely weakened body. Finally a strong downwards stroke, though blocked by his crossbow, brought Zai to his knees. Too exhausted even to lift his head, he waited for the final strike.
It never came; a second shadow stood over him, appearing seemingly out of nowhere, and with a single punch, knocked the bandit chief down.
‘What the hell, Zai,’ said a harsh, hardly feminine voice.
Zai looked up. It was a girl in her late teens, her red hair cut short at the shoulders, although a bit of it covered her left eye. She wore black coat that seemed out of place in any weather, and in her left hand she wielded a longsword.
‘Rei,’ he said in relief.
‘I thought I told you to stay in bed.’
‘Ah, life’s too short to spend healing in bed,’ grinned Zai.
Rei proffered her hand. ‘Be glad your life ain’t shortened today.’ Zai took the hand and got gingerly to his feet.
‘The village?’ Zai asked.
‘Safe,’ said Rei. ‘It was a pretty quick battle after we got them off their horses.’
Zai looked at the village. The corpses of about twenty horses lay by the main road, where Zai remembered the villagers’ ragged line stood. He founded dead bandits lying singly all across the square, and in groups of ten the villagers roamed, looking for those who have escaped them.
‘They held up pretty well, for inexperienced folks—killed off a third of the horses during the first charge but they took a beating, too. They were barely holding it together when the bandits formed up for a second charge. Good thing I showed up just in time.’
‘Yeah, by the way, where the hell were you?’
‘Yesterday, after the battle, I healed you then I followed them. They must have been in a hurry to attack the village, because I wasn’t more than three hours behind them, but when I reached their camp, it was empty, so I came back soon as I could.’
Zai glanced down at the bandit chieftain.
‘Hey, isn’t he that centurion from Sepphoris who was accused of corruption?’
‘Hm, yeah,’ Rei nodded.
‘He has a pretty large bounty on his head, if I remember right.’
Rei nodded again.
‘Heh, I guess we can spare this village from having to pay the fee.’ He laughed heartily, or at least tried to. The pain came rushing through him, a debt collected over the time of his intense fighting suddenly demanding payment. He was unconscious before he hit the ground.
‘You fool,’ said Rei quietly. ‘You should’ve been fine in a day, but now it’ll probably take a week to heal.’ She sighed as she placed a hand over his chest, transferring some of her healing energy to Zai. ‘I guess that’s just the way you are .’ Taking one of Zai’s arms over her shoulder, she walked slowly backed to the village’s inn.