Ruo-jian Chao walked slowly down the road in the early afternoon toward a device intricately made; a machine whose origins were of an alien design, one combining the majesty of clockwork mechanisms and the power of steam engines. Though Qin had both types of devices, they were never used together and never as weapons of war. The West had different sensibilities, it seemed to the old man.
The device was a giant. It stood twice the height of a tall man and as wide as a man was tall. It moved on two legs, its gait before it stopped was surprisingly swift despite is mass and its wide feet managed to move through any terrain without difficulty. It was made of an orange metal which might be brass, except it was far too red. It wasn’t purely copper either because no verdigris addressed its joints or extremities, areas known to rust on machines made from copper. The machine had a unhealthy shine, something about its appearance drove the eye away from it, making you unable or unwilling to focus on it.
The old man stopped and adjusted his chakra, his inner Qi energies and made a single handsign. Suddenly he could see the enchantments on the armor. A large rune was hidden in its ornate carvings, a powerful but primitive rune of misdirection. A warrior who trusted only his eyes might swing wide or aim too high as the rune altered their perception of the target.
Despite its cunning design as a mighty weapon of war, it was little more than a blunt instrument, like a sledgehammer made for destroying rocks in a quarry. Hardly the right tool for a threat such as he. It was not a tool he would have to fear. He would flow like water around it.
He approached within thirty yards and stopped. “I have no quarrel with thee. Go in peace. Return from whence you came and no more will be spoken of it, no honor lost.” Ruo-jian Chao’s accent was a bit thick but he thought it should be understandable to the drivers of the mechanism. He used the formal speech of the Western Kingdoms as he had learned when they came to this land so long ago.
The device, which looked so much like a man, had a face molded into the area where the head would be. The mouth opened and the clever device appeared to speak much as a man would, its mouth moving in syncopation with its words. “We will pass and you will allow it. You are one and we are as many.”
“Thou means to say, your power is as many, so I should allow thee to pass since you have the might to do so?”
“It is our custom to reveal your name so that a warrior may tell your kin of your deeds in battle. You may call me Ruo-jian Chao. This province belongs to my family and in the absence of its garrison and guardians, I will send thee away or to thy doom.” The old man seemed to stand straighter, his cloak which he had kept over his slumped shoulders, fell away, revealing a thin shirt and a powerful chest. His arms and shoulders were covered in scars. His legs boasted an equal number of such scars and his brown skin was lined like a worn parchment. His wide and shoeless feet slid into the grass, feeling the earth and knowing its density, its resistance and how it would aid or impede his movement. The quiver of arrows were low-slung so they did not interfere as his cloak fell away.
“We have no such custom where we come from, but know this: We are not alone. You mistook our statement. Behold.” Two dozen men appeared as if they stepped from the shadows. A rune appeared on their armor for only a moment as they appeared, cloaked by magic. Each wore the livery of the Clockwork King, a great gear, a hammer and a sword on their tabard. They were lightly armed, a hardened leather-like armor, much like a fish’s scales. They wore a strange mask similar to the clockwork device’s face, their emotions hidden from view.
Ruo-jian Chao watched their movements, they moved as a unit, familiar with each other, trained together. The archers maintained their distance, while the swordsman, using two swords, one long and the other short approached in a crescent formation. The giant stood at the center of their attack wedge. “Can we broker no peace?”
“None. If you will not yield, you will die.”
The archers tightened their draw. The swordsman waited until the first volley would incapacitate their foe. The Clockwork raised its right hand and a small cannon protruded from its palm.
“So be it.” Ruo-jian Chao launched his first arrow before anyone saw him move. The Clockwork device fired its cannon a split second after he loosed his arrow.
Dà Gōng Nán sang a song of power. The release of the bowstring gave forth a musical note which caused everyone who heard it to hesitate, such was the power of the vibration from the bow. Its first arrow penetrated the great cannon and when it fired, the arm exploded from within. Shrapnel from the explosion caught two of the swordsmen closest to it and blew them from their feet. Their torn bodies were still landing before Dà Gōng Nán sang again. The archer farthest from Ruo-Jian flew from his feet as the arrow caught him in his eye, his turning head caused his arrow to be loosed and strike another swordsman in the back. Spinning from his shooting position, he heard seven arrows pass where he was a moment ago. Two archers held their shot.
The swordsman were fast, two of them closed the old man and their swords were flashing slivers of light as they attempted to carve Ruo-jian apart. Normally he would have had his own sword and they would already be dead. Instead he disarmed one by stepping inside of his swing and turned him around into his companion who would stab him. With the short sword released by the dying man, Ruo-jian spun and stabbed the second swordsman in the neck.
The release of two arrows. The old man dropped as the two swordsman were now pinned together by the remaining arrows.
Breath. Roll. Throw. The long knife flashed into the mask of an oncoming swordsman.
Ruo-jian grabbed his body as a shield when the next volley of arrows flew. Four found their mark in the swordsman’s flesh. One nicked Ruo-jian as he spun away. The last archer was slow in his firing and shot after his fellows. The old man plucked his arrow from the air and flipping it with his fingertips, restrung and fired before the archer had realized he missed.
They were moving slower. More disorganized. Not used to having to work. What’s that?
A click preceded the explosion of the ground front of him and only his quick reflexes spared him from the worst of the damage. The other swordsmen who were closing on Ruo-jian were knocked down and away from the old man who had landed in the tall grass at the edge of the road. Only one swordsman remained on his feet as the second arm cannon of the Clockwork fired into the midst of the attacking soldiers. Monstrous! They would kill their own to destroy an enemy.
Face down, Ruo-jian had held on to his bow, the mighty Dà Gōng Nán. As he brought the weapon to bear on the Clockwork device, it had opened two more gun ports on its chest plate. He would have to choose. Before he could make the shot, the Clockwork device exploded as the one of the two bolts from the ballista tore through one of its legs. Realizing the Clockwork would now spin to the left, its aim would be off. It’s chest cannons roared as its two shells streaked off into the distance. The old warrior didn’t have time to wonder where they might land. Ruo-jian sprinted and shot at one of the remaining archers who had maintained his presence of mind and was shooting at the same time.
Their arrows passed each other in flight. The old man shot better. Taking the younger bowman in the chest his arrow went completely through him. Ruo-jian was already taking his next shot. The now dead archer, however, did hit his mark and the old man’s thigh also had an arrow protruding from it. Their bows were less powerful and lacked penetrating power. Dà Gōng Nán sang again making one more shot and taking one more life before its bowstring broke, damaged by shrapnel in the explosion.
Ruo-jian watched as the remaining five archers sensing a momentary advantage rallied to fire again. The lone swordsman looking at his stunned and downed fellows hesitated, hoping the archers might take the day. Ruo-jian held Dà Gōng Nán out in front of him and with his free hand made a rapid handsign. He planted the end of the bow in the ground as the archers shot collectively. Dà Gōng Nán sprouted five arrows, seemingly drawing the arrows to it. Ruo-jian was already on the move, scooping up a longsword and short sword as he ran toward the archers.
Slowing down. Chakra disrupted by arrow. I need to end this now or I’m finished.
The old man could feel his jutsu’s failing, but he only needed a few more seconds. The short sword was thrown with speed and accuracy taking out the archer closest to him. Using the other longsword he parried two of the arrows as the third caught him in is upper arm, the fourth flew wide and that archer was the one closest to him. A single slash of his sword and his head was gone. Ruo-jian turned to face the remaining three archers and single swordsman. Blood flowed down his face from a shrapnel injury, multiple cuts across his upper body as well as the two arrows made him appear more monster than man. For a second the four of them stood motionless, each evaluating the other.
The crash of the Clockwork device as it toppled decided the battle. The last four fled without looking back.
Ruo-jian watched as they fled down the road. Then his chakra ran out and he collapsed where he stood.
When he awoke, his grandson Chen stood over him, a smile beaming on his face. “The last four were headed toward the White Mountains. We think they’re going to try and desert. There were two other survivors from the shell that exploded in the group. We tied them up and put them next to their machine. The rest of the dead have been taken off the road as well. We’ve stationed the ballista so they point down the road, but there have been no other sightings of anyone else coming that way for the moment. We have people keeping watch.”
“Which of you missed with the ballista?”
“I did, grandfather. Pa-mel’s shot was excellent. She is helping with their setup.”
“You might want to get more practice.” The old man noticed he had been patched up relatively well and would be adding a few more scars to his collection. “Where is Dà Gōng Nán?”
“Right here. We couldn’t remove the arrows.” Chen demonstrated by pulling each arrow as hard as he could.
“There’s a jutsu on the bow, so you won’t be able to pull them out. Only I could. The arrow shield jutsu made sure no arrow would hit me as long as I held Dà Gōng Nán.
“If no one could hit you as long as you were using the jutsu, then why didn’t you carry it with you to protect you from their arrows?” Chen looked at his grandfather with a look of profound confusion.
The old man reached over and grabbed one of the Clockwork archer’s bows and quivers. He hobbled away from his grandson who was still holding Dà Gōng Nán. He fired an arrow at the boy. Chen reflexively held the ancient weapon in front of him. The arrow found itself embedded in the bow. “Try to move with the bow in your hand,” Ruo-jian directed. Ruo-jian fired again as Chen tried to take a step. The bow caught the arrow again and Chen had not moved. Not a single step.
The old man dropped the foreign bow and was helped over to his grandson. “I told you when we first discussed handsigns and jutsu, every jutsu offers an advantage and a price for using it. In this case, the arrow-shield sacrifices mobility, a pure and nearly perfect defense but no offense. Since they could not know about it, they would not realize what they were seeing until it was too late. I used their surprise to my advantage.” His grandfather made a handsign and stroked the bow gently. The seven arrows dropped to the ground, unbroken. His face hardening, he looked at the wreckage and then at Chen. “Take me to them.”
Chen hoisted his grandfather onto his back and walked to the still smoking wreckage of the Clockwork device. His grandfather felt lighter and more frail. His old body was cold and trembling uncontrollably; the price of using so much chakra at his age. He would probably sleep for a week.
The two swordsman sat with their heads slumped forward and unmoving. Chen put Ruo-jian down next to the men who lifted their masked faces and appeared startled as the still bloody and bandaged old man sat before them. Trying to use the informal speech of the West, Ruo-jian spoke to the two soldiers, “This battle is now over. We offer you a chance at peace with us, or at least a return to your people.” Ruo-jian invoked the ritual of hospitality with reluctance. He had seen these people in battle and knew they would never keep their word as a native of Qin might.
“We refuse your offer. Our God-King will come to this forsaken land and cleanse it. He will build our factories of war with your bones as our fuel. Your blood will be used to drive our infernal devices giving them the life they need to continue our conquest of your land. Your people are nothing before our might.” The last statement trailed off as if he were embarrassed he had made it.
“My grandfather destroyed your machine and your men alone. He is nearly seventy summers old. Your might has not impressed us much.” Chen’s thoughts left his lips before he considered them seriously. His grandfather’s stern and reproving look said as much.
“Tell us of your advancing army, how soon before they arrive here?” Ruo-jian had no hope they would tell him anything useful. If there was anyone else coming down the road soon, he was in no shape to contend with it. The ache went all the way to his bones.
The second swordsman who had remained silent up till now, raised and cocked his head. “Our army is still quite a ways off, old warrior. We were sent to test the mettle of those we encountered along the way. When we met resistance and did not return, they would send the forces required to pacify this region, nothing more. When they return, there will be machines far more powerful than this training weapon and warriors far more seasoned than we. They will show no quarter. Expect none. I have told you more than I should but your skill in defeating us warrants my respect.”
Together in unison, they shouted: “We are from the Machine by the Machine and of the Machine. We return to the Machine. All hail the Clockwork!” Then the two soldiers began to scream as smoke rose from inside their armor and masks. Their bodies shook violently as they began to smolder and burst into flame. Suddenly all of the soldiers bodies did the same thing, exploding into flame. The farmers moved away in horror as the bodies of their enemies caught on fire. In the distance, four distinct screams echoed off the White Mountains, agonized screams which carried on the wind and too eventually stopped.
As the fires died, Ruo-jian took off one of their masks. The seared flesh peeled away from the bone beneath the mask. The stink of burning flesh rose into the late afternoon air.
Archer, a Tale of Mythic Qin © Thaddeus Howze 2013, All Rights Reserved
Archer © JOOse, Deviant Artist, All Rights Reserved