The Brilliant River formed out of sixteen separate flows that came down from the Zhosian mountains, but the unimaginatively named Brilliant Falls were considered the true source of the water that slaked the thirst of a third of the Central Empire. They were a towering drop of over a hundred yards that fed a river basin two hundred yards wide, and the sound of the crashing water could be heard from half a mile away.
Lian and Quan heard the sound just as the sun was beginning its long descent beyond the horizon, though in the summer the night never truly turned black. “We’ll go see it in the morning,” Lian insisted, “you’ll want as much light as you can get for the falls.”
They camped for the first night in the Empire, out in the open, on the crest of a small hill too steep for the wheat and millet fields around them to reach. Eating a small meal of their prepared provisions, they were feeling safe enough to sleep without watch, and they awoke in the morning well rested. Quan, in particular, was energetic, the excitement of seeing his first natural wonder hitting him that morning. He was not disappointed.
“Wow,” was all he managed, over and over again, as they stood on the edge of the Brilliant Falls and watched the water cascading down into the deep gorge that had been hollowed out by thousands of years’ worth of water.
“It’s pretty great, right?”
“That’s just… incredible.”
Lian let him stare until the smile faded from his face, replaced by the dumbfounded look of wonder that she’d expected.
“Let’s go. We can stop back here on the return trip.”
“Yeah. Yeah, sure,” he mumbled back, remounting his horse and following his mother back towards the well-trampled path that headed back towards the main road.
They rode in silence for the rest of the morning, the steep foothills gradually turning into more undulating rows of crests and valleys. The main road was about a mile from the river, but roughly tracked its course, meandering northeast towards Daming, still a few days ride away.
Lian’s stomach was starting to ask for lunch as they approached a small grove that had been cleared away where two roads met – their road north and south, and the other east and west. The fields astride each road were growing tall with golden and pale crops, and they almost didn’t see the young woman leading her donkey along the east-west path, until they all entered the clearing at the same time.
The young girl startled at the sight of the pair. She was slender and poorly dressed, a typical peasant from the area, but the fear in her eyes surprised Lian. The Shuli Go smiled, trying to reassure the young girl, who quickly bowed her head and quickened her pace, heading west.
“Is she ok?” Quan whispered to his mother. “She seems nervous.”
“Just smart. It’s not a good idea to trust travellers in these parts.”
Quan though, saw his first opportunity to talk to an Imperial citizen who wasn’t also in charge of a garrison of soldiers. A citizen who appeared close to his own age and whose fear offended him in the way those from close-knit communities tend to distrust fear of their own. His every instinct told him to try and assuage this girl’s trepidation. As the pair reached their closest point to the young woman, he said, in his most non-threatening voice, “Good day, ma’am.”
She froze for a split second and turned to look at him, but his attention had had the opposite of its intended effect. Instead she seemed more terrified than ever, and practically started running down the western road.
Lian smacked her son on the back of the head, toppling the Zhosian hat he wore to keep out the sun.
“What?” He turned to her, stunned. Surely not all Imperials were so unkind as to not even return a greeting.
Lian was shaking her head, thinking of how to explain the young woman’s situation to her son, when the cries started.
They were vociferous, heart-stopping shouts that straddled the line between human and animal. And there were many of them. Everyone stopped in their tracks, except Lian, who recognized them at once, who recognized too late the girl’s terror.
As Quan stood frozen in place, and the young girl clutched to her donkey with the fear on her face multiplied a thousand-fold, Lian sprinted her horse into the millet field to the southeast, where there was a small rise in the land. Once there she saw them, and could echo-locate their cries. There were about twenty of them on horseback, a half mile to the east, trampling through the grain fields and heading straight for the clearing. Fast.
From her high position, Lian turned back to look at Quan next to the pack horse. “Get the girl on the other horse! Now! And then head west.”
Quan was frozen in place for a second, but before his mother could repeat herself he snapped out of the surprise, adrenaline already starting to seep into every part of his body; he couldn’t think clearly, but he could obey orders. He led the other horse towards the young woman. Her terror was sending shocks through her body, her hands quavering even when pressed against the flesh of her donkey. Quan brought the other horse in front of her and shouted, his voice far more shrill and scared than he would later admit, “Quick, get on!”
She looked at him, their eyes locking but hers failing to understand his instructions. He shouted it again, trying to put more authority in his voice. She nodded as he was yelling, but looked at her donkey and stopped.
“You have to leave him!” Quan tried to push down his own fear that they were wasting precious time.
She nodded again, then stepped up to the horse – luckily the smallest of the three, though it was still a foot and a half taller than her – and hoisted herself onto its back. Quan was worried she wouldn’t be able to ride without a saddle, but she took the horse’s reins from Quan without a second thought and pushed the horse in the flanks with her feet, propelling him into action.
“Go! Now!” Lian shouted down again before deciding on a course of action. She set off back onto the north-south road and sprinted about a hundred and fifty yards south, where she went off into the field, pointed her right hand down at the ground, and invoked a spell.
“Huono liuba,” she whispered in ancient Imperial, and a stream of fire poured out of her palm, straight into the crops to her right, igniting the dry stalks into flame. The sudden appearance and heat of the fire scared the horse, and Lian encouraged its fear, kicking it into a sprint. As she moved across the field, she set the crops to her right ablaze, creating a perimeter of fire that she hoped would be enough to keep the bandits’ horses from approaching directly.
She pushed her horse as fast as it could go, forming an arc of flames in the field. When she reached the east-west road, the flames found no purchase, but she kept the stream of fire going as she leapt onto the northern field, and until she’d completed the arc on that field, creating a 180 degree shield from the approaching bandits. Her horse was tired by the time she finished, so she let it trot back to the central clearing. Now there was only one direction the bandits could easily approach, right down the middle of the east-west road.
She stood in the clearing as the flames crackled and burnt, and the cries of the bandits changed from aggression into confusion. She didn’t know how fast the young girl would be able to ride and how far away they would have to be to reach safety, but she didn’t like their chances with only a minute or two of a lead. She’d have to hold the bandits off for a while.
She waited patiently in the clearing, her eyes down the eastern road for the sight of horsemen. As the first one came into sight two hundred yards away, she drew her Shuli Go sword from her back and stood, waiting. She would draw them as close as possible to her so that they wouldn’t be able to reinforce quickly and she could deal with them one at a time. On horseback most of her strength and speed advantages were moot, so she would have to manage the battlefield carefully.
The first bandit obliged almost to a tee, sprinting towards her with a sword drawn, aiming to take her head off in one swipe. As he closed down to the last dozen yards or so, Lian pushed her horse forward to match the speed of his approach. The man wasn’t much bigger than Lian and the sword was heavy in his grasp. He swung it ineptly towards her horse’s flank, and Lian parried with her own blow that was much more direct and powerful than the bandit’s. Their two swords met with such force that the sword flew out of his hands and he was knocked off-balance on his horse, forcing him to pull hard on the reins and turn his horse around. Lian, expecting this movement, had already turned hers as well, and before the bandit could regain control of his animal, Lian had circled back and skewered him in the throat. His hands went up to his neck, and a second later his body went to the ground, where he died in a pool of his blood.
Lian turned back towards the road where the second bandit was approaching. This one was brandishing a bow and arrow, but had the same direct mentality as the first. He sprinted towards Lian with an arrow knocked, and let it fly when he was still a hundred yards away. It sailed harmlessly overhead. His second arrow came at half that distance, and missed Lian by only a few inches. The third came when he was close, and forced Lian to deflect the arrow with the flat of her sword, sending it careening into the nearby fields.
By the time the archer was readying his fourth arrow, Lian saw it was actually a she, and the she had realized she probably shouldn’t get too close to someone who could deflect arrows with a sword. The archer slowed down but was within fifteen yards when she released the fourth arrow. It was close enough, and the arrow was shot with enough force Lian could finally and fatally prove one of the legends of the Shuli Go: she directed the arrow back towards the archer with a flick of her wrist at just the right moment. It was a dangerous gambit – often the arrow would go off into the wrong direction, potentially injuring the wrong person. But in this case Lian’s accuracy was true, and the arrow went straight back into the astonished woman’s chest. It hadn’t retained enough energy to penetrate very far, but it stunned the woman enough for Lian to close the distance and cut off her head.
It had been only a few more minutes, but Lian still didn’t like how close Quan and the girl could be. The flames all around had grown though, feasting on the crops and sending dark smoke up into the sky, sowing even more confusion amongst the bandits. Lian could make out shouts saying they should retreat, and these voices followed their own command, beating a trail away from the burning lands and towards the east.
But a few voices cried for calm instead, repeating a name over and over again that Lian couldn’t make out. Then he appeared at the end of the eastern road. A single rider who approached Lian’s clearing with neither urgency nor indecision, but a steady, measured gait. Lian let him close in without any concern. Every second he sauntered towards Lian was a second Quan and the girl would be further away. When the man finally got close enough for Lian to make out clearly, she saw he was armed only with a large metal staff laid across his lap, and was dressed in all black. His robe was thick and he had a long beard with short, thinning hair on top of his head. He was not intimidating looking in the least, but his quiet approach and the look on his face spoke of a confidence that had been tested and upheld many times in the past. Even Lian’s horse seemed to pick up on it, braying and stamping as if it wanted to run. She held the horse firm and stared this new threat down.
When he was about fifteen yards away, just past the headless body of the archer, he dismounted off his horse and Lian saw him struggle to lift the metal staff. It was almost six feet long, and with two bulbous ends that had been stained with small cuts and marks of blood. It was heavy enough he required both hands to take it down off the horse with him, and it vibrated when it struck the ground, sending a hum into the air.
Lian said nothing, even more confident after he’d dismounted. Then he leaned the staff against his horse, stared Lian in the eye, and began chanting, quiet and low, almost under his breath. She discerned six sounds, over and over, a phrase in ancient Imperial, but she couldn’t make out any of the words, just the pauses between them and the steady rhythm of those pauses repeating after every cycle.
She considered striking him right then, before he could finish casting whatever spell he was conjuring, but she didn’t want to rush into a trap, so she stayed still, her eyes focused, her body tense, her son another moment closer to safety. The smoke from the fires in every direction were settling down, obscuring the clearing in a dark, sooty air. She kept her breaths short, avoiding the dirty air while keeping her eyes firmly on the man. It was almost half a minute of this, her staring, him chanting. Then he started moving his hands around his body as he chanted: wavy, slanted drawings through the air and smoke, a pattern of six movements that matched the six words. Lian considered it, and considered how quickly she could sprint away if he truly had power enough to injure her with a spell.
She didn’t have a chance to run. Abruptly he completed his chanting, stood upright, clapped his hands together, and shouted something in ancient Imperial she couldn’t hear. The reason she couldn’t hear it was because all the air around her rushed by her ears, drawn in by his clap. And not just the air, the fires too. They were suddenly extinguished as far as she could see. The smoke too, had dissipated. Her horse shrieked and reared up, forcing her to take her attention away from the man. When she’d calmed the animal enough to stand still, she looked back and saw him twirling his staff around as if it were made of light, delicate wood. She had a vague sense of what had just happened, but was too surprised by it to react. It almost cost her dearly.
He rushed towards her, closing the first ten yards with ease, then flew towards her, his staff leading the way, threatening to strike her with the bulbous end. She brought her sword into play at the last second, deflecting the staff but not the body that followed it. He crashed into her, his momentum carrying her right off the horse and sending her spinning, crashing to the ground.
He rolled a few feet further than her, giving her distance to push herself up off the ground before he came back at her, swinging his staff down right where her head had been. Another vibration, much louder than the first, rang through the air and into Lian’s ears, almost deafening her. She scrambled to her feet and brought her sword back up just as he swivelled his staff back towards her, knocking her down again as it made contact with her sword and her sword threatened to cut into her, prompting her to roll backwards.
She continued the roll to create space between her and the bandit, but even that wasn’t enough for safety. He continued pressing, swinging his staff in whirling circles before slashing out at her as she stood up. She made a pointed effort to block this strike, meeting it with her sword and both hands. Even then the sheer weight and speed of it knocked her slightly off balance. It must have weighed over eighty pounds, and he moved it with ease, manipulating and teasing its weight to do his bidding.
He struck towards her in a series of quick movements and Lian just barely met them, avoiding the staggering weight of the staff from making contact. She tried to strike back, thrusting her Shuli Go blade over and over again in a sequence that forced him to defend without forcing her to advance, giving her room to separate. Once she was finished they both had a moment to eye the other, and Lian saw a twitch in the man’s shoulders and hands, even as his eyes stayed implacable and his breathing was barely altered. He was stronger than her, and more importantly, they both knew it. She could mount a defense, but if they continued exchanging blows, eventually he’d get the best of her.
She attacked all out, her sword cutting wide arcs and driving with short jabs in equal measure, changing angles and peppering her assault with punches, kicks, and even short bursts of fire from her palms when she could manage. The bandit handled it all with relative ease, parrying, shifting, and dodging each of her attacks. But her true intention wasn’t to strike him at all, but to draw him away from her horse, and back down the eastern path. Even when he thrust back towards her, she pirouetted away, always to the east, until her horse was ten feet behind her.
She finished a flurry of attacks and he blocked each one except the last, a short kick that pushed him a foot further away but left him unhurt. They stood apart once again, examining one another for weaknesses. Lian saw this one man wasn’t even her greatest worry; in the distance to the east the sounds of encroaching bandits reappeared, with no fire to halt them.
The powerful bandit in front of her stood patient, happy to wait for the arrival of his allies. Lian too, was happy to wait. She measured the sounds of the stampeding bandits, calculated how long her escape would take, adding the time Quan and the girl needed.
Finally, when she could wait no more, she attacked once again, these attacks designed to force him to defend low, his staff gradually dropping lower to meet her swipes. His hands also fell lower to more easily pivot the staff, exposing more of the staff at the top. Once she saw his hands were suitably low, she swung as hard as she could towards his head.
The bandit stopped the attack, but the impact of Lian’s sword on the long end of the staff set it vibrating, the air coming alive with the hum of two metals meeting. Without pausing at all, Lian leapt backwards, held her hand out, and shouted another spell. “Qitu heba xieba!”
It wasn’t a Shuli Go spell. She’d learned it from someone she’d rather not have ever met, but whose skill with magic was second to none. Even as she cast the spell, she couldn’t help but picture his smug, pretty little face: the mischievous grin, the glinting eyes, the mopped hair. Quan’s father had many effects on Lian, top of which was a desire to vomit. But in that moment, she was glad to have met him.
The hum of the staff’s vibration amplified a thousand-fold and its pitch changed, shrieking high. Lian had already turned and started running towards her horse when the air reached its highest register and Lian went deaf. The spell could manipulate any vibration in the air, increasing the volume and changing the tone into one that rattled the inner ear, rendering a person without hearing and temporarily destroying their sense of balance.
Lian nearly toppled over, but she’d been expecting as much. The moment the intense dizziness hit her, she closed her eyes but kept stumbling her way towards her horse.
The bandit was more adversely affected. Surprised, angry, and wanting to punish Lian, he took one step forward and promptly fell over. He held on to his staff and tried to use it to prop himself up, but that just resulted in him spinning around the pole before falling onto the ground. He yelled and shrieked but couldn’t hear himself in the least. His dizziness grew so overwhelming his stomach began to heave and that day’s breakfast quickly joined him on the floor of the clearing.
Lian fumbled her way into her horse, opening her eyes just enough to pick out her footholds and grab onto the reins. She shouted and pushed the horse onward even before she’d fully mounted, not wanting to risk an extra second. Thankfully she’d judged the distances correctly and the horse hadn’t actually heard the explosion of sound, so it ran quickly and freely. Having experienced the effects of the spell before, she knew when she could open her eyes a hundred yards down the road, and when her hearing finally returned into a high-pitched scream, she knew she could turn her head and look back at her attackers without getting sick.
They weren’t following. They’d reached the clearing but had circled around their leader, the staff-wielding man. Lian finally let out a sigh and felt all the bruises and scratches she would have from their battle. It wasn’t a victory, but she had done everything she’d aimed to do. They’d all gotten away, and they were all alive. As she began tracking Quan’s trail of hoof prints, she hoped that would be the only victory she needed against a foe that powerful.