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Sunday, January 20, 2019

Exclusive Chapter Excerpt: Never Die by Rob J. Hayes

Official Author Website
Pre-order NEVER DIE over HERE

Some fight for honour, and some for reward.

Some for glory, and others for a cause.

Some fight for freedom, from tyranny and hate.

And some fight for love, not for a person but a name.

With death as their guide, their companion and goal.

They cross all Hosa, spirit, flesh, and soul.

Hounded by demons, from the pages of lore.

What starts with a whisper, must end with a roar.

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.

"Whispering Blade," he said in a voice like cracked leather. "Can you hold here while I escort those inside to safety?"

Cho nodded. "Why not help me fight Flaming Fist?"

The Century Blade bowed again and turned toward the sanctuary. "The truer test is to do nothing when called to action. Though the reward is often thankless. I will protect those in need of it, and leave the glory to those more suited to it. Good luck, Itami." He stopped at the foot of the first step and turned back for a moment. "He favours his left side. An old injury given by an older opponent."

There was a still a trickling stream of citizens flowing towards the sanctuary, and Cho let them through. Hundred Cuts even half carried an old man up the steps. As the fires grew higher and hotter, the sounds of battle receded, eventually vanishing all together. Cho waited upon the second step, sitting with her saya pulled across her lap, her hand on the hilt of her first sword, Peace.

The first few Flaming Fist soldiers dashed into the courtyard and made a poor attempt to gain the first step. The Red Bull threw them back with his staff, breaking bones and silencing cries of pain. Still Cho waited. Only when Flaming Fist himself appeared, did she rise from the second step.

He was a large man with not a single hair on his head. He rode in the square astride a horse that seemed ill-equipped to carry his weight. Each of his hands was a mess of puckered scars, and weeping wounds. Such is the price a man pays when they regularly light their own fists on fire.

Bandits emerged from dark streets and alleys, following Fist toward the sanctuary and surrounding the three defenders. So many flowed into the clearing that Cho was certain her eyes were playing tricks on her. Hundred Cuts cursed and backed up to the fourth step. Cho smiled and walked down to meet them head on. Even the Red Bull seemed unusually quiet.

"Where is my daughter?" Flaming Fist's voice was a booming thunderclap. Despite the city burning around him, and all the death carried out in his name, he seemed bored. "I don't know." Cho refused to raise her voice.

Flaming Fist drew in a deep breath, his face curdling as though he smelled something unpleasant. "Kill them."

The soldiers came forward in a wave, some with spears, some with swords, closing in from all directions. There were no tactics to give, no special orders that could turn the tide of the battle, so Cho gave none. She drew Peace into both hands and charged into the oncoming wave, crashing against them, and weaving into their ranks. She dodged, ducked, twirled, and even jumped. Each stroke of Peace was a death, each counterstroke just as deadly. A circle of bodies quickly formed around her, and others rushed in to take their place. She couldn't allow the spears to stab at her from range, so she kept advancing, always closing in on her enemies. Steel fell towards her, clumsy and hacking; she stepped away from some, and brushed others aside. The cobbled streets ran crimson, soaking her sandals and staining her yukata.

The Red Bull of Fades just beyond the first step, his staff a whirling bludgeon that made corpses almost as easily as Peace. Hundred Cuts danced around the edges of the attacking swarm using her steel fans to injure rather than kill. Injured enemies were often even more useful than dead ones, but not in Flaming Fist's warband. They were not so much soldiers, as bandits drawn together by a strong will and murderous purpose. They didn't stop to give their injured comrades aid, but stepped over the wounded to join the fight.

Cho knew the Red Bull had gone down when the first cheer went up. There was no fighting to his aid, and between sword strokes and bodies dropped, she glimpsed Hundred Cuts die in the attempt. One moment the woman was dancing around steel, flipping over her enemies and leaving slashed faces in her wake, the next she had a spear erupt from her throat. Cho saw the look of horror on Hundred Cuts' face. It was a vision that would stay with her for the rest of her life. There seemed no end to the bandits crowding in to kill her, and no relent to the crazed blood lust, no matter how many she killed. Through it all Flaming Fist sat atop his horse and watched, his face a picture of scarred boredom.

Cho brought Peace close to her face and spoke to it, a whispered word none other could hear. The blade hummed in response. Her next strikes cut through swords and armour both, sheering them apart as though they were rice paper. Men died grasping at gushing wounds, falling beneath a shimmering, whispering sword they couldn't block, wielded by a master whose skill they couldn't match. But numbers, Cho knew, counted for much, and she was hopelessly outnumbered. As each man fell to her hissing blade, another rushed in to take his place, clambering over the dead bodies to get to her.

It seemed an inevitability when Cho took a glancing sword thrust to the leg. She slashed out at the swordsman, rending his face in two, but the damage was done. Cho could feel herself slowing down. Peace no longer cut through flesh so easily, the edge dull with so much killing. She backed away, parrying and thrusting, as she cut a path towards the sanctuary. Another strike took Cho in the side, the blade tangling in her yukata, but scoring her ribs and pulling a shout of pain from her. Then she was free of the crowd and staggering towards the steps of the sanctuary. Her foot hit that first step and she turned to find the soldiers weren't following. They waited, a bristling thicket of sharped steel pointed her way. There were bodies littering the clearing, flames rising high from the city behind them into the night, ash falling all around like black snow.

Flaming Fist slipped from his horse and pushed aside his warriors as he made his way toward Cho until there was nothing but charged air between them. Each of his fists was wrapped in an oily chain, but he had yet to set fire to them. "Is this the way you wish to die, Whispering Blade?"

Cho drew herself up, standing straighter again despite the pain. Her breathing was laboured and her leg was wet with blood. She glanced down at her second sword, bound into its saya, but she wouldn't draw it. Not even with death staring her in the face. She had sworn an oath never to draw that sword, and it was one oath she intended to keep. Perhaps the only one she had ever kept. She tightened her grip on Peace, and set her stance, ready to repel a stronger attacker. Flaming Fist snorted and threw his chained hands up. "Kill her."

His men flowed around him like a wave and crashed upon Cho. She took down two of them before the first sword slid between her ribs. The wielder hit the ground before she did, Peace lodged in his neck. The second cut took the fight from her, the pain as it pierced something vital inside beyond maddening. Two more swords thrust into her chest and Whispering Blade died with a scream.



John Kang said...

I'm 2/3 of the way through the book, and enjoying it!


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