With some of the Bannermen retaining strategic positions along the hangar walls, their rifles primed and ready, their leader and a dozen or so of the others drew their swords and advanced on the bandits, their expressions unreadable behind black goggles and armored masks.
Huang drew his own sword and, taking his place at Zhao's side, prepared to meet the charge.
Swaddled in his thermal suit, hidden behind mask and goggles, Huang could hear only the distant echoes of battle sounds through the thin air. It was as if he fought underwater. When he moved, it felt like his muscles were several steps behind his thoughts, dragging sluggishly through heavy mud.
Since he'd taken over as strategist for the bandits, Huang had fought face-to-face only infrequently. He'd sparred with Zhao on a regular basis, teaching the bandit chief the formal fencing techniques he'd learned while Zhao in turn instructed Huang in the use of more dubious tactics. But those had been only practice matches, with the only blood drawn from nicks and scratches gotten by accident.
Now Huang found himself fighting for his life, with his sword the only thing between him and capture, or the grave. Perhaps even stranger, in fighting for his own life he might be forced to deprive an opponent of his.
Huang had never killed another in close combat, so far as he knew. He'd injured other swordsmen, that was certain, as he had when the bandits had taken him prisoner when raiding the supply convoy to Far Sight Outpost, all those years before. But none of those injuries had been fatal, and many of those opponents had gone on to become close friends when Huang joined the bandits' number himself.
He'd been responsible for death before; at least, it was almost impossible to imagine that he hadn't. He liked to entertain the fantasy that all of those within the crawlers he exploded, or the mines he sealed off, or the refineries he blew to pieces, had somehow miraculously escaped just in the nick of time. It was a ridiculously implausible fiction, of course, but a comforting one, and it was a fiction that he clung to, particularly in the long, dark watches of the night.
In the present circumstances, though, Huang defended his life and liberty, and in doing so was faced with an inescapable decisionâfight and live, or surrender and die. And in fighting, there was the very real likelihood that he would have to take another's life. Without any conditions or exceptions, without the chance that his opponent had secretly survived the encounter and sought medical attention. Without the slimmest possibility that he and his opponent might one day be friends, and that Huang would be forgiven for injuring him in close combat. No, he would have to kill, and see the life leave another's body, never to return.
The only problem was, Huang wasn't sure he could
As it happened, Huang was not forced to discover whether he could kill. At least, not yet. He found himself facing a Bannerman who wielded his sword like it was a club, with considerable force but no finesse, and after parrying a few attacks, Huang was able to knock the sword from the Bannerman's hand. Then he'd simply stepped in and delivered a blow with a balled fist to the side of the Bannerman's head, sending him crumpling to the floor.
Tightening his grip on his own sword, Huang turned to see how his fellow bandits were faring.
Not well, it was quickly apparent. Already a handful of bandits were on the floor in various states of distress, some still moaning and twitching, some silent and unmoving. Those bandits who remained standing were holding their own, but the Bannermen's continued attacks were pressing them together in a knot at the center of the hangar, making it difficult for each of the bandits to fight without risking injuring their fellows.
Zhao was only a few paces away, crossing swords with the leader of the Bannermen. And though the cross-shaped scar over his right eye flushed red with exertion, it was clear that the Bannerman was far from exhausted, though the same could not be said for Zhao. The bandit chief turned aside the Bannerman's thrusts, but with less energy and enthusiasm with each exchange. And if the opponent whom Huang had faced was clearly ill trained in the use of the blade, the same could not be said for the Bannermen's leader.
There was something familiar about the way the Bannerman handled his blade, but Huang didn't have time to dwell on it. Another of the Bannermen rushed him from the other side, saber in hand, and Huang was forced to turn and face the attack.
While not as skilled a swordsman as the Bannermen's leader, Huang's new opponent was more adept than the fallen opponent who'd swung the blade like a club, and Huang was put to considerably more trouble to keep from being skewered on the point of the Bannerman's blade. At one point, Huang batted the Bannerman's blade aside and for an instant had an opening that would have allowed him to end the contest, but the only attack available to him would have required a killing blow. Huang hesitated, not eager to try his hand at murder, even if it would be justified in self-defense. Instead, he continued to trade blows with the Bannerman, parry and attack and retreat and attack and parry. Finally, he was able to score a painful but nonfatal wound on the Bannerman's upper arm, a long but shallow cut, freely bleeding, that caused the Bannerman to drop his sword and clutch his arm in agony. Huang followed with a kick to the Bannerman's midsection, driving the wind from him and forcing the Bannerman to his knees.
Huang turned back to see what assistance he might offer Zhao, just in time to see that contest, too, come to an end, though not in any way that Huang would have hoped.
Just as Huang was taking a half step forward to close the distance between him and the two opposing leaders, the Bannerman slashed down with his saber, the blade biting deep into Zhao's forearm and the hand that held the red-bladed saber. As Zhao's saber clattered to the stone floor, the Bannerman pressed his advantage, lunging forward and burying his own sword halfway to the hilt in the bandit chief's chest. Behind his grimy goggles Zhao's eyes widened, and as the Bannerman yanked his sword free once more, the bandit chief fell forward, face-first onto the ground.
Huang stood frozen for a long moment, watching the tableau before him, the Bannerman with the cross-shaped scar standing over the fallen body of the bandit chief, a man who in recent years had been as much as father to Huang as his own parent once had been, if not more. Then the Bannerman stepped over Zhao's fallen body as though it were only so much refuse scattered on the floor, and turned his attention to another of the bandits, who was fighting a Bannerman a few paces away.
Later, Huang would curse himself that he didn't immediately race after the Bannerman and avenge Zhao then and there. In the moment, though, his only thought was to help Zhao. Dropping his own sword to the ground, he rushed to where the bandit chief lay. Gingerly, he turned the bandit chief up on his side, his front already sticky with the dark blood that pooled beneath him.
“Zhao! Can you hear me?!”
The bandit chief's eyes rolled from one side to the other, half-lidded, and finally focused on Huang.
“Ouch,” Zhao said absently, as though he'd just discovered a tiny splinter in his foot. “That hurt.”
It wasn't until the bandit chief started shaking with laughter that Huang realized that Zhao was joking. But he didn't laugh long, since doing so forced him to cough, a pink-flecked foam gathering at the corners of his mouth just visible through the breather mask.
“Hold on, Zhao, we'll get you help!” Huang gripped the bandit chief's shoulders, trying not to stare at the sucking wound in Zhao's chest.
“No,” Zhao said, and was once more racked with a fit of bloody coughing. “No help . . . Too late . . .”
The bandit chief lifted his head, glacially slow, as though looking for something, and then pointed to where the red-bladed saber lay. His eyes flicked from the saber to Huang, lids dropping farther.
“Sword . . .” Zhao said, his voice now barely a harsh whisper.
Huang straightened and went to retrieve the saber, then came back and crouched beside the bandit chief once more. He could only imagine that Zhao wanted to end his life as he'd lived it, with a sword in hand, but when Huang tried to press the saber's hilt into the dying man's hand, Zhao pushed it away.
“No . . . Hummingbird . . .” Zhao managed, but barely. “Yours . . . You lead . . . now.”
Huang held the saber in both hands, shaking his head. “But Zhao, what . . .”
“Lead ...” Zhao said, interrupting him. “... our brothers. Look after ... them ...”
Another racking cough caught the bandit chief, and his eyes squeezed shut with pain.
“Safety . . .” Zhao croaked, almost below the edge of hearing. “Lead them . . .”
And then the light went out of the bandit chief's eyes, and he was gone.
Huang straightened and stood at the center of the hangar, the red-bladed saber in his hand, while all around him the bandits fought for their lives.
Here and there on the hangar's cold stone floor were fallen combatants, bandit and Bannerman alike. But while the bandits were clearly giving as good as they got, the Bannermen had the advantage of numerical superiority, and it was only a matter of time before the bandits found themselves completely overwhelmed.
If any of them were to survive this encounter and escape death, capture, or worse, they would need to get out of the hangar and away from the Bannermen.
Huang realized he was waiting for someone to tell him what to do. Even all the seasons he'd acted as strategist for the bandits, it had still been Zhao who had made the final decisions, and in the end Huang merely had to follow orders. He had been following orders his whole life, in one way or another. As much as he had liked to think himself the footloose free spirit when he was younger, carousing through the streets of Fanchuan, hadn't he just been his parents' dutiful son, even then? Oh, he might have preferred sport, wine, and women to his studies, but when his parents snapped their fingers and said it was time for him to go off and join the Green Standard Army, had he stood his ground or tucked tail between his legs and gotten himself fitted for a uniform? And in the brief time he was actually
the Army of the Green Standard, he was following orders then, as well. As the bandits' pet he'd had no ability to exercise his own will, and when he had opted to join the bandits' number he'd suborned his own will to that of the bandit chief, Zhao. But now, it seemed, there was no one left to tell him what to do.
Of course, Zhao
told him what to do, at that. The dying chief's last command, his last instruction to his prized lieutenant, had been for Huang to take his place as leader, and to lead the other bandits to safety. Huang was going to have to decide just
to accomplish that on his own. But now he found it difficult to remember the last time he'd made his own decision and followed it through.
There was the moment he turned on the trio of soldiers who'd plundered the airship; he'd chosen the life of the bandit. And before that, when he'd attempted to escape from the Aerie, and gone through the hangar into the . . .
Into the cave system!
was the solution. If there was any avenue of escape to be found in all of Mount Shennong, it would be in the winding tunnels carved in Fire Star's ancient past by gases escaping through molten rock. Years ago Huang had tried to escape from the bandits and back to his life as a soldier by fleeing into those same tunnels; now he would try to lead the other bandits safely away from soldiers the very same way. Hopefully this time his breather mask would survive the journey and he wouldn't asphyxiate in the process.
There was no time to lose. Only a fraction of the bandits still remained standing, and if any of them were to escape, it would have to be
“The tunnels, Jue!” Huang leaned close, speaking just loud enough to be heard. “We've got to reach the caves!”
The two bandits stood shoulder to shoulder, fallen Bannermen at their feet but more still coming to take their place.
“What about Zhao?” Jue followed Huang's haunted glance back to where the bandit chief lay lifeless on the floor, and then glanced down to see the red-bladed saber in Huang's fist. Then Jue nodded, his brows knit. “I'll pass the word.”
“Wait for my signal, then everyone form on me. Got it?”
Behind his breather mask, Jue flashed the hint of a smile. “Seems simple enough. But you might want to include ânot dying' in the plans, as well.”
With that, the scar-faced Bannerman turned and began slashing his way toward the nearest of the remaining bandits.
In a matter of moments, the word had passed from bandit to bandit. There were maybe ten of them still standing now, the rest fallen before the Bannermen's swords. There was no time to lose.
“Now!” Huang shouted as loud as he was able, then took to his heels, pounding toward one of the largest of the fissures in the hangar wall. The nearest sniper Bannermen were a good two dozen paces away on either side, which was why Huang had chosen this cave over other, larger ones. He only hoped it remained as large as they descended.
As Huang threw himself into the cave mouth, he heard a rifle shot
off the wall just above his shoulder. The Bannermen were firing into the cave. Huang wasn't sure if the Bannermen felt they'd already captured enough bandits alive, if injured, and were ready to dispatch the rest of their quarry with firearms, or if they were simply unwilling to allow the slim chance the bandits might escape, and any hypothetical orders to take some of them alive be damned. Of course, for all Huang knew they'd never received any such orders, and had only closed with them in sword-to-sword combat because the Bannermen's leader had wanted a bit of sport.