A Short Story Ballad of a
High Plains Samurai

Written by Fraser Ronald

There are few threats in the world to make a warlord nervous, save for the other warlords. Yet there was a time when all of them feared one name: Black Scorpion. While it has been many years since that name was spoken aloud and even longer since the General of Monsoon sent in an army to wipe her and the Desert Sun Gang out of existence, rumours have been heard of a powerful qi warrior wearing the mask of the deadliest bandit leader to ever walk the One Land. 

The tale of Black Scorpion is a work-in-progress. What you see below is the first half of her saga, the one known to all. Soon, we will learn the rest.  

  • There are many stories about Black Scorpion, the outlaw who stood against the warlords of the One Land. There are many tales of how she became the leader of the Desert Sun and the ruler of the Waste. Like the best of them, this one is true.

    Her world was one of browns and tans, sunbaked earth, scrub, and stone. She tasted thirst and hunger, and she knew fear and nightmares. A child, she was shunned, outcast even among outsiders. Alone, she buried her mother. She had no tools, so she could not provide a deep grave. Over that shallow pit covered in loose earth, she piled those stones she could find – a simple mausoleum in the desert.

    Her mother had been the only constant in the child’s life. Her voice soothed fears, her touch banished pain, and her smile fueled joy. Her loss taught the child that all people stood alone. Her mother had only ever tried to protect and nurture the child. She never took that for which she did not pay. She shared what she could in times of plenty. She had illustrated nobility for the child, but when they were in need, no one came to their aid. They rejected the mother because she would not abandon the child.

    Small, wiry, burnt dark by the sun, she sat vigil at that grave. And why wouldn’t she? She had no place to go and no one to seek. Alone. Truly, completely alone.

    The wind brought her their calls before it brought her their smell. Wild dogs or hyenas, it amounted to the same. They would seek to dig up her mother’s body and feast on it. The cairn might deter them, but not for long. The child had not found rocks heavy enough for that task.

    She picked up her mother’s walking staff and readied herself, breathing deep, taking it to her core, seeking power. She had no training, no knowledge of her qi and how it could aid her. She only knew how to fight. One did not survive without knowing how to fight. She had endured the harsh lessons of the liminal communities on the edge of the Five Cities, those places without the protection of a warlord but outside the embrace of the Wastes’ vast desolation. She might not have faced a pack of hungry hounds before, but she had faced many other foes with as feral a countenance and as violent a hunger.

    Her bravery gave them pause – six massive canine beasts of a kind she did not know. They growled. They paced. They surrounded her. She spun the staff around herself in unhurried patterns, finding comfort in the movement. The air came in through her nostrils, filled her, steadied her. She released it slowly, carefully, exhaling through her mouth.

    One beast leapt. The girl twisted one foot, shifting her weight, putting her being and her essence into the swing of the staff. She felt the animal’s skull give on impact. She sidestepped the corpse, propelled forward by momentum but nothing more. Once more she crouched, ready, breathing deep. Unafraid.

    Another hound charged her, eyes bright, mouth wide, teeth ready. She stepped forward, a lunge, her foot slamming to the earth, punctuating the sound of bone cracking as the staff went through the thing’s mouth and crushed its spine. The girl spun as she withdrew the staff, letting the body roll past her as she met the eyes of the largest of the remaining three dogs. The other two padded around her, heads low, no longer growling. She took a step, planting her foot, finding stability. The leader of the pack lay down, transfixed by the girl’s stare. The girl took another step, digging her toes into the sand and gravel. The lead dog whined. The other two fled.

    The girl stood tall, not taking her eyes from the dog. “You see it, don’t you? You see I’m an animal like you. I’m not a person, not a human. I’m a dog. I’m a beast.”

    At her voice, the dog stood. It approached, pausing just within reach of the staff. The girl did not react. The dog came closer. It licked the girl’s hand.

    “Are you mine now?” the girl asked the dog. “What did you see in my eyes?”

    She named the dog Brightness, caring for it just as her mother had cared for her. Like the girl, Brightness proved loyal and brave. In the Wastes, the girl became known as the Dog, a minor legend, an amusing story traded by caravaneers, a curiosity to those who knew only the Five Cities. She drifted from settlement to unanchored community, working at what she could, finding food and shelter for herself and Brightness.

    The fear of her, the distance between her and others never lessened. Even though pity and empathy might lead a trader to allow her and Brightness to sleep under a cart in the rain, or give her the hardened, old bread that no one would buy, never did momentary compassion turn into understanding or acceptance. More often than not, necessity forced the girl to steal.

    Always, she saw fear. Only Brightness provided her love, just as her mother had.

    And then came the day of the Iron Beggar.

    The Iron Beggar ran the parentless street urchins who stole and begged to survive in the rover community of Gears. Gears followed the route of the Salvation, seeking for cast-off pieces of the massive engine that it could repurpose and sell. Filled with engineers and inventors, Gears sometimes caught up to the Salvation, joining in its entourage of lesser engines and wagons. When the Salvation slowed or its machinery broke, the mechanists of Gears would swarm it to lend their aid, worshiping the greatest technical marvel in the One Land, and revelling in celebration when it finally moved on.

    The girl and Brightness intersected Gears unintentionally. The smoke of fires attracted the girl’s attention. Hunger impelled her forward even though Brightness, perhaps with precognitive awareness, followed her uncertainly. Without funds, lacking mechanical skills, the girl had nothing to trade for sustenance.

    So she stole.

    And gained the notice of the Iron Beggar.

    The Iron Beggar’s fame rested on two things: a sword of unblemished steel and his desert spider technique. He could not use the two together, the technique requiring open hands to properly apply, and so the sword became a mark of authority in Gears while the technique became the means of maintaining that authority.

    Along with a handful of followers, most of them thin, wretched, and desperate, the Iron Beggar cornered the girl and Brightness. Brightness put himself before the girl, growling, teeth bared.

    “You didn’t ask permission to work in my town, you didn’t offer respect, and you didn’t pay me my due.” The Iron Beggar pointed to Brightness with the tip of his sword. “Plus, you have a rude dog.”

    The girl held up her hands, showing them empty, her mother’s staff at her feet. “We were hungry.”

    “We’re all hungry.” The Iron Beggar took a step forward.

    Brightness went for him. The dog leaped, speeding for the Iron Beggar’s neck. The sword met Brightness first, all but severing his head. The blow knocked the body back. The Iron Beggar’s followers scattered out of the way as the corpse hit the ground.

    Fury welled through her, fury like she had not felt even with her mother’s death. She had no focus for the anger when she lost her mother. Here, though, she had a target. The Iron Beggar ceased to be a person, ceased to be human. He was death and injustice incarnate.

    Flipping it into the air with one foot, the girl grabbed her mother’s staff. “You son of a bitch!” She screamed out the words, flashing forward as she did.

    The Iron Beggar only barely blocked the first strike of the staff. A chip flew off the staff where it impacted the sword. The Beggar’s followers surged forward. Some had clubs or knives, some just had fists. They distracted the girl. The pressure of their presence forced her to leap over their heads, land outside the circle of them, spin and strike with her staff – once to the left and once to the right. A neck snapped with one strike while a skull cracked with the second.

    That made the followers stumble back, mouths agape. Those that met the girl’s gaze froze, eyes wide. They gobbled at their words, weakly raised their hands in supplication. One of them screamed and dropped to the ground, his mouth frozen as his last breath escaped it. The girl did not slow her attack – the staff jammed into a throat, her foot caved in a chest, the staff swept up to catch a jaw and drive it up into a brain.

    Through all this, the Iron Beggar backed away. For just a moment, his eyes met the girl’s. A shock went through him. He dropped his sword, backpedalled as the girl tore through his followers.

    And then there was just the Iron Beggar and the girl. The girl paused, breathing hard, the fury in her unabated. The blood spilled all around her, though, made her stop. She had fought before. She had even killed. But never like this. Never with such ease and never so many.

    That moment gave the Iron Beggar the time he needed to rally. He began a kata, breathing deep, and even the untrained girl could see the aura about him change. Qi. Powerful qi. The Iron Beggar began scuttling, side to side, his hands moving with such speed that he appeared to have multiples of each. And then he struck. He moved fast, his hand open, his middle and index fingers rigid. Releasing the staff, the girl grabbed the Beggar’s arm, wrapped her own around it. She held it, pulling herself closer, eye to eye with the Iron Beggar.

    “What are your webs compared to this venom?” The girl hissed out the words.

    And the Iron Beggar collapsed. Tears streamed from his eyes and spittle from his mouth. He gibbered. On the ground, he curled into a ball, weeping and groaning. The girl left her mother’s staff and retrieved the unblemished steel sword, still slick with Brightness’ blood. Grasping Iron Beggar by the hair, she pulled his head up, baring the neck.

    In a growl, the girl spoke. “Let me pay you your due.”

    She took the Iron Beggar’s head.

    Her breath released as a long sigh. The fury spent, she dropped the head. The girl staggered back. The populace of Gears had gathered, had witnessed the slaughter. She saw fear in them, disgust in some, just as it always was. Except for one man.

    Broad of shoulder, bronzed by the sun, his head shaved bald but his beard luxurious, wearing dirty robes and a sword at his side, he parted from the crowd.

    “That was not the performance of a dog,” he said.

    The blood, the bodies, the execution the girl had just performed – none of it registered in the man’s voice or in his eyes. Others like him, hard men and women who spoke with harsh dialects, spat profanities as they dispersed the crowd, leaving the man and the girl space to talk. She ignored him and went to Brightness, kneeling down, desperate to cling to him but knowing he was gone.

    “Who are you?” the man asked. When the girl did not reply, the man crossed his arms over his chest. “I haven’t seen anything like that. Not ever. Your qi is strong.”

    The girl coughed, finding words caught in her throat. She forced them out. “I don’t have qi.”

    The man looked back over his shoulder then returned his eyes to the girl. “Oh, you have qi. Strong qi. Untapped perhaps, but no person could do what I saw without it.” He gestured to the dispersing people of Gears with a thumb. “They called you Dog. I know the name, I’ve heard of the orphan and her mutt. This, though, this is not a dog’s work. Not even a snake.”

    Her hand had rested on Brightness’ side but now she rose, teeth grit. “I’m not a dog.”

    “No, you are not.” The man smiled. “You are a lion. No, not a lion. A scorpion. You are a deadly scorpion with venom more potent than any I’ve witnessed. If you are the one they called Dog, you have no home and no family. No clan or kin.” The man offered his open hand. “I can offer you shelter and food. I can even offer you some coin. But I need your venom. I need a scorpion.”

    The girl wondered at the man’s smile, at the warmth in it. It reminded her of her mother – or at least memories of her. That shook her. This hard man and her soft mother, how were they alike? But her mother survived the Wastes, and none did that without becoming hard. “Show me who you want dead and I’ll do it. So what? The world is all about death, so why not? ”

    “Why not indeed.” The man’s smile faded. He took a long breath, his eyes narrowing. “I am Ho-Sun. I offer you a place in the Desert Sun Gang. Take my hand and recognize me as your chief and you will be one of us.”

    She had nothing. She had no one. The girl did not hesitate to take his hand. She silently sent her farewell to the shell that had been Brightness.

  • 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.”

    Scorpion laughed.

    “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.”

  • 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.”

  • 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.

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