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.