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Never Die
Author: Rob J. Hayes

Prologue

 

Itami Cho woke to the screams of her own death. She remembered it all.

 

 

Chapter 1

 

The walls of Kaishi had fallen before the first wave of bandits reached the gates. It was clear from the outset that Flaming Fist had sent men in the day before. They hid in the dark places, alleys and sewers, and waited for the signal to climb the walls from the inside and kill the city defenders before opening the gates. No one suspected the attack to come so soon. Cho hadn't expected it to come at all. Flaming Fist was little more than a bandit with a following, preying off small villages and those who couldn't defend themselves. He simply didn't have the numbers to assault a city as large as Kaishi, no matter what recent reports had said. Cho re-evaluated that opinion as soon as the first cries went up.

They rushed from the wine house into a dark street thick with fleeing citizens. Rich and poor alike were shoving each other aside in an attempt to get to the sanctuary; some carrying the most valuable things they owned, some carrying nought but their own lives. They flowed around Cho and her comrades like a river before an island.

Oong, Cho's comrade, known as the Red Bull of Fades, grabbed at one of the fleeing citizens, pulling the panic-stricken fellow from the crowd. "What's happening?" the Red Bull slurred. He was already well into his third jug of wine and he wasn't the only one. Even Cho was feeling a little lightheaded from the drinking.

"The gates are down," the terrified man shouted. "They're in the city. The Flaming Fist has come for his daughter!"

The Red Bull let the man go and leaned upon his great iron-shod staff. "Daughter? No one said anything about a daughter."

Cho shrugged. "We have been paid to defend Kaishi. What does it matter why Flaming Fist is here?"

Qing, often called Hundred Cuts, pouted. "It matters to me," she said. "I like to know which side of the fight I am on."

"The side that is paying us," Oong said.

Cho shook her head. "The side of innocence and justice. Not the side of slavering bandits." No matter what his reasons for attacking, Flaming Fist was attacking, and Cho would defend the city and its people.

"But they are paying us?" Oong asked to no reply.

The sounds of battle were close; the clash of steel, the crackle of fire, the screams of the dying. Cho pushed her way into the crowd towards those sounds, forcing the people of Kaishi to move around her. One man caught at her yukata, trying to pull her away from the fight. Cho brushed him away with a flick of her wrist, but not before she heard a rip. She glanced down to find a small tear in the hem, splitting one of the sunflower designs in half. She counted it a shame, it was her favourite yukata.

Kaishi was a rarity of squat buildings and cobbled streets, the roads were wide and the houses far apart, no doubt to stop fire from spreading. Of course, that didn't account for a band of pillaging bandits purposefully torching everything. The first of Flaming Fist's soldiers they came across were busy slaying the city's guards as they tried to intervene. Cho wasted no time in rushing to their aid. Her slippers breezed across the cobbled streets and her robe fluttered. Her first katana, Peace, slid from its saya with barely a hiss, cutting a silent bloody arc. Two more Flaming Fist bandits went down before they realised they were beset, each one dying from a single strike. Precision was as important as strength when it came to battle. Often more so.

The Red Bull of Fades charged past Cho with a bellow of rage, flailing his staff left and right, caring nothing for precision. The iron rings on either end of his staff made each blow a killing one. Qing held back, her steel fans ready should any of the soldiers make it past the Red Bull and Cho. None did.

Even as the last of the Flaming Fist bandits fell, Cho let out a deep breath and wiped down Peace before sliding it back into its saya next to its partner. It was a cleansing ritual following the kill, as much for Cho's soul, as for her swords. She whispered a prayer for those she had slain, knowing full well the stars were deaf, and those men didn't deserve it anyway.

The surviving soldiers stammered their appreciation. They were not eager to stay, fleeing towards the sanctuary with those they were employed to protect. She couldn't blame them, they were poorly trained and just as likely to get in the way. They needed as much protecting as the townsfolk.

"We should go," Cho said, turning with the fleeing soldiers.

"What about all of those left in the city?" Hundred Cuts had a reputation for lost causes and Cho could now see why.

"They will either hide, flee to the sanctuary, or die. We cannot save everyone. Our efforts are best spent in protection of the sanctuary." It was a reasoned argument, they could not save everyone. Cho chose not to add that they had yet to be paid in full and the men with the coin would be cowering in the dark corners where it was safest. The difference between the rich and the powerful was always made so much clearer by walls. The rich hid behind them, the powerful tore them down.

Hundred Cuts hesitated, still chewing over the idea of leaving so many people to their own fate. Cho felt a tug of her conscience; it had not been so long ago that she might have thrown herself into the city to protect everyone she could. It was, after all, the mantra of a Shintei to protect the weak and to honour any oath sworn, no matter the cost. Maybe this time would be different. Maybe this was one oath she would finally keep. Good sense won out and Cho turned towards the sanctuary. The Red Bull fell in line straight away, Hundred Cuts was not far behind. Some were born to follow, not lead. They rushed through dark streets, ignoring the bright embers floating up into the night sky as the town burned around them.

The sanctuary, as the people of Kaishi called it, was actually a temple dedicated to the stars. From the outside it was a tall pagoda of several floors, with a commanding view of the city around it. Inside, however, there was a hidden basement containing a network of tunnels that led out to the nearby cliff side, emerging behind the Fury Falls. A secret passage hidden behind a waterfall seemed a little obvious to Cho, but the city officials claimed it had never once been discovered.

The steps leading up to the sanctuary from the city were already littered with bodies, some of Kaishi's citizens, but many more of Flaming Fist's men. Amid the corpses stood Murai, the Century Blade, the greatest living swordsman in all of Hosa.

Despite his ancient body, the Century Blade moved as slowly and deliberately as oil over stone. Cho recognised one of the corpses; Wandering Spear, one of Flaming Fist's greatest captains lay dead at the sandaled feet of the Century Blade who bore not a scratch to show for such a memorable kill.

Cho bowed as the Century Blade descended the steps toward her. He was not her master now, nor had he ever been, but he deserved respect and she gave it freely.

"You do this all yourself, old man?" The Red Bull of Fades asked. Cho winced at the disrespect.

The Century Blade smiled and ignored the Red Bull. His wrinkled skin and wispy white beard made him appear kind, almost gentle, though the bleeding bodies nearby said otherwise. Cho wondered how he could have achieved such a feat without a single spot of blood on his white robes.

Flakes of ash were drifting into the clearing in front of the sanctuary. Kaishi was burning. Flaming Fist loved to burn things, most notably his own hands. The Century Blade stopped before Cho and bowed low, ever humble despite his age and experience.

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