Hardcore: Qi Worlds

Chapter 63

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 The city Vaugend was eerily quiet. As the Vanguard walked down the deserted streets, a dog crossed in front of them, shooting from one side of the road to the other with its tail between its legs. It was a thin and mangy beast.

 The burnt buildings, with no roofs, began to become sparse as they headed towards the centre of the city, where the old baron’s keep was situated. The buildings which were present were boarded up with no visible activity. The streets were still empty.

 “Let’s head to Master Gilford’s estate, it had a spiked iron fence surrounding it, there may be someone holed up there,” Benzhi suggested.

 “The Red Cloak?” Reyas asked.

 “Yes, that’s him, the old mine owner,” Benzhi said.

 “I wish him to be gnoll poo,” Reyas replied scathingly.

 Benzhi shrugged, he didn’t blame her for not forgiving the former mine owner. The man was lucky to escape with his life. Since the battle, he had been somewhat useful acting in the leadership of Vaugend and giving them information on Loctris when asked.

 The Vanguard arrived at the mansion belonging to the Red Cloak leader. The lower floor windows were all bordered and the gate locked. What made it look like there may be life inside where the second story windows were only partially bordered from the inside, they were made into a gallery for archers. The space between the mansion and the iron spike fence was a killing field.

 The killing field was not littered with corpses, but it had a vegetable garden.

 “I have a feeling this building is not abandoned,” Benzhi said.

 “I can hear them talking,” Gisael mentioned, she tilted her head.

 Benzhi just stared at her, ‘just how good were her senses, geez.’

 “Can you hear what they are saying?” Benzhi asked.

 “No, it is not clear, but I did hear your name,” Gisael answered.

  “Wait here, I will see if they want to talk,” Benzhi said. He proceeded to run at the eight-foot-high fence and lept, pushing qi out the soles of his feet, he lept and tumbled when he hit the ground on the other side. He stood up when he reached the front door and proceeded to knock.

Anastasia whistled at the leap, she had not seen him do something like that before.

 “Hello, is anyone home,” Benzhi called while knocking loudly, “we just took care of a hundred gnolls and would like to chat, that is all.”

 Now Benzhi could hear muffled voices from inside. After waiting patiently for a minute, as that is a fairly high bar for Benzhi, the door creaked open.

 “What do you want,” came a gruff voice.

 “Well,” Benzhi said. It was kind of lame to offer help now, he was just curious to how Vaugend had fared and if, now that his goals coincided with gaining cores, hides and training he could possibly assist the beleaguered city.

 “I just wanted to see how Vaugend was coping with the portal spawn, now that we have things in hand in our territory we have come to take out the Gnolls if possible.” Benzhi summed up what was in his head.

 “You are Benzhi aren’t you?” the gruff voice had toned down the aggression a few notches.

 “Yes, and who might you be, what happened to Master Gilford?” Benzhi asked.

 “He ran like all dem noble types, but at least he let us move in, gave us the keys an’ all,” the gruff voice answered.

 “Where did they run?” Benzhi was confused, they was nowhere to run, and they hadn’t come to the Alpine Forest.

 “Well, they be more scared of you den dem Gnolls, so dey ran to Loctris,” the gruff voice answered, “and I be Glem. Do you want to come inside?”

 “No, I am fine out here. Do you need anything food, water?” Benzhi asked Glem seemed like a nice fellow.

 “No, dats why we held up ‘ere. Gilford has a well, and we scrounge enough food to get by,” Glem answered. “So you took care of the morning’s raid?” asked Glem.

 “One hundred Gnolls, is that the morning’s raid?” Benzhi asked.

 “Aye, but if defeated dey will send a couple of hundred in the afternoon and with some elites too,” Glem said.

 “Ok, we will take care of that, you can get some stuff done outside if you need to. Take this opportunity to gather supplies,” Benzhi said and proceeded to ask, “are there other groups like yours across the town?”

 “The keep be the main lot, but dey be the where all the attacks head. We are safer here for the most part,” Glem said.

 Benzhi scratched his head, thinking. His white hair was getting longer each day, at first, when she first saw it, Reyas had teased him, saying he was getting old.        Anastasia had never seen him look any other way. Gisael just took it in her stride, like nothing had changed.

 “I will come back for another chat later,” Benzhi supplied, “oh, one last question, do you know where the Gnoll portal is?”

 “Portal?” Glem queried, “they just started invading from the west, I think there is a Gnoll camp there. I have never been outside the city since it started.”

  “Thanks,” Benzhi said and ran back to the warrior women.

“Let’s scout the city. Apparently, there will be another two hundred invading Gnolls this afternoon, and their main camp is to the west,” Benzhi informed them.

 “How many alive in there?” Anastasia asked.

 “I didn’t ask, and Glem probably wouldn’t have said anyway,” Benzhi answered. Benzhi could have used qi sight and counted qi cores, assuming he spent the time circling the mansion, but he didn’t care that much.

 The Vanguard swung around the mansions of the former rich quarter, now occupied by the denizens who probably were not allowed in this section of town previously unless they were a servant or providing some sort of service to the residents. There were a half a dozen similarly defended mansions.

 But for a town of ten thousand, the survivors were few and far between. Until the Vanguard made it to the Keep.

 The Keep was overflowing with people, there could have been a thousand, squished into the five-story building. The streets outside were littered traces of battle and blood amongst the defences. There were wooden spikes assembled into barricades and rubble was piled between the buildings surrounding the Keep.

 The defences must have been effective to a degree, as there were survivors, Benzhi had yet to see the warriors who must have been killing the Gnolls for these people to survive.

 Suddenly, as the Vanguard approached within a couple of hundred paces of the Keep a horn sounded and then a second horn from further away. There were two long blasts.

 Men and women started moving, archers appeared in the windows and rooftops surrounding the main street. Men with long spears appeared behind the barricades surrounding the Keep.

 Benzhi just stopped and waited, his group were obviously not Gnolls, but he would rather not frighten the defensive force into an action they would regret.

 Benzhi played with his spear, to pass the time, spinning it, throwing it up into the air. It was a thing of beauty. It was light, strong and insanely fast, Skandear was right when he told Benzhi that a spear suited his style more. He could wear his new ebony sword at his hip, but Paphyra had also adjusted the rear of his shield, he could slot the sword there as well if need be.

 As the spear arced in the sky, the light would bounce off its shiny silver surface, the runes which were intricately carved and looked like an artistic pattern to enhance its beauty.

 “You like your spear?” Reyas asked as Benzhi played with it to pass the time.

 “Very much, did you see me skewer three gnolls in three seconds with it? It is insanely fast,” Benzhi said.

 “No… I was busy killing four Gnolls,” Reyas boasted elbowing Benzhi as his caught his spear. They were discussing the point in the fight where the gnolls attempted to overrun the Vanguard, they were appallingly unsuccessful in that attempt, losing almost thirty Gnoll warriors in less than a minute.

  After what seemed hours to Benzhi, it had only been ten minutes, a group of Vaugend defenders approached the Vanguard warily.

 “Some people recognise you,” the older man said. He was dressed in a battered chainmail shirt and wore leather pants and boots. He held a long thick spear, he had no shield.

 Benzhi looked different, he had bleached white hair, and he still wore his white robes from the Grey Elf Tailor, they were not clean though. They were already attacking dirt from the travelling and fighting they did today. However, it was Reyas and Gisael which were highly recognisable, and they probably gave him away by association.

 “I am Benzhi,” he stated simply.

 “And what do you want Benzhi?” The older man asked, not with fear, but with a little trepidation. Benzhi did have a reputation.

 “Nothing, I just came to look around, and we are fighting the Gnolls. I thought I would let you know you can probably have a break for awhile,” Benzhi said.

 “So this morning’s raid was averted by you?” the older man asked.

 “Yes, we spoke to Glem at Gilford’s old mansion, and he advised about another raid this afternoon. We will take care of that as well,” Benzhi stated. “Have you been killing these bands each day?” Benzhi asked.

 “We have found the best strategy is to repel them and allow them to raid elsewhere in the city. If we kill them, they come in greater numbers. So I would like to not thank you for doing that,” the older man said impolitely.

 Benzhi shrugged. “If they are not defeated you will continue like this,” he pointed to the defences and the keep, “forever.”

 “Are you going to defeat them?” the older man asked sounding slightly hopeful.

 Benzhi looked at the people standing with the old man, the archers on the roofs and hanging out the windows, he felt a little guilty by allowing this to go on for as long as it had. These were not his people, but they were still people. These were not the ones who started lumber mills and logging in the forest, nor the ones who decided to mine the mountain and invade Gael land.

 “Sure, why not.” He said simply. “Assuming we can.”

 “Just the four of you?” the older man asked.

 “No there are others, you can send a force for the latter fights if you like too, but it is not necessary. It looks like you have lost enough and I don’t think you will be the difference.” Benzhi said patronisingly.

  He received a small amount of displeasure from Reyas through there connection, and he sent back his sentiments on the difference between the commoners and the nobles and their roles in past events. It was a complex thought but easily conveyed in the context of who was standing in front of them now and the lack of the nobles.

  It was the older man’s turn to shrug. “So be it, for what it’s worth we wish you luck.”

 A young woman ran out from one of the buildings, bow in hand. “I will go with you!” She exclaimed, and another boy ran forward as well. “Me too! I am coming.”

 “Seems like you have deserters in your midst old man,” Benzhi said.

 “They are free to do as the please, they do not follow my orders until the battle starts,” the older man said.

 “Very well,” Benzhi called out, “any one who wishes to fight the Gnolls can gather at the gates tomorrow at dawn. Take the time now to eat, rest, wash and pack.” Benzhi directed his gaze at the older man again, “do they have food?”

 “Not much,” the older man said.

 Benzhi sighed, he could supply food, but one thousand was too many, he would have to limit the number that he took with them. That would be seen tomorrow morning at dawn.

 The young woman approached Benzhi. She had red hair, a small amount of freckles across her nose and cheeks and was dressed in tight brown pants with a leather tunic. She was tall, almost six foot with green eyes and a bow on her back.

 “Those creatures killed my ma, my pa and my husband,” she spat.

‘Husband? What was she like eighteen?’ Benzhi thought, ‘oh well, guess that is normal here, Reyas was like eighteen as well.’

 “And you will have your turn at vengeance tomorrow, our defenders will be able to offer you some protection, I am not leading a rag tag bunch of Vaugend survivors to their deaths. We will do this my way or not at all,” Benzhi glared at the young woman hoping she did not intend to follow them now, not that it mattered too much they could easily outpace her.

  She winced, “I not lookun to anger you, I wanted you to know, I am willin to fight.”

 Benzhi nodded, “be outside tomorrow at Dawn, where the north gate used to be. Bring as many arrows as you can if you are going to use a bow.”

 Benzhi looked at Gisael, Reyas and Anastasia and sent through the link. ‘Let’s move quickly.’  They all sent back affirmation.

 As one they turned and ran up the street and over a building, using the structure and their speed to ensure they weren’t followed by overzealous survivors.

  The Vanguard headed to the west, it was after midday so the second wave of Gnolls would be incoming soon. If the two hundred Gnolls were spread out the Vanguard could use their speed to pick them off or simply collect all the bodies at the same place as the mornings battle to make things easier for the Gatherers.

 Benzhi opted for the latter.

 After scouting the perimeter and outlying region of Vaugend, the Vanguard returned to the northwest corner of the city and waited.

 They only had to wait an hour for the Gnolls to come into view.

 “See if you can spy the elites Glem was talking about,” Benzhi asked no one in particular.

 “I see them,” Gisael said immediately.

 “Damn woman, you have super eye sight, show me,” Benzhi responded. Rather than pointing them out, Gisael focused on the elites and Benzhi used the connection to see what she was seeing. This would also work for Reyas and Anastasia, although Anastasia was still a novice and only able to pick up a small portion of what Benzhi and Reyas did.

  ‘Very good,’ Benzhi said through the connection, ‘Gisael, Anastasia take as many out with your bow as possible, Reyas and I will assault and retreat back to here if needed.’

 Gisael sent another image of a few Vaugend archers atop one of the outskirt buildings, one which still had a roof.

‘Damn,’ Benshi sent, ‘I guess we sat around here for over an hour it was only a matter of time they would show up, if they were stubborn and motivated, which they are.’

 ‘Anastasia, save your arrows only shoot if you think you cannot miss,’ Benzhi sent.

 With that, he and Reyas skitted over the rubble as if it was not there, taking long nimble jumps, barely touching before leaping again.

 Benzhi and Reyas had Gisael’s vision of the elites guiding them, they were at the front, four of them. They wore splint mail armour, and each had an average qi core, Benzhi had enabled qi sight.

 Reyas had not learnt qi sight yet, she could only focus on one new qi technique at a time, and Benzhi prioritised combat techniques, if she had learnt qi sight, she probably would not have learned anything else much at this stage, and if she had, they would be at a very elementary level.

  The elite gnolls carried different weapons, two had large shields, one with a wicked club and the other with a large axe. Of the other two one had a two handed scythe weapon and the last one had two crude scimitars, similar to a curved machete.

 Benzhi would take the two on the right while Reyas would take on the other two. Gisael and Anastasia would target any regular Gnolls who go close to the fight.

 Benzhi angled towards the elite Gnolls and was about to Shunpo the last twenty paces when…

‘Benzhi, we need to talk. I have news,’ Huineng sent.
‘I’m kinda busy right now old man,’ Benzhi sent back.
 ‘It is important,’ Huineng sent
‘Hold on,’ Benzhi sent

 Benzhi shunpo’d to the Elite Gnoll with the two crude scimitars, all offence and no defence. There was nothing special about any of their armour, the only qi ability Benzhi could see was some sort of body technique and probably an enhanced sense technique due to the qi patterns surrounding their eyes, ears and nose.

 He launched into the air, veering out of reach of the scimitars, striking down with the spear as his momentum carried him forward and away. Before he left the reach of the Gnoll Benzhi’s spear struck its neck driving deep into the top of its chest. The same instance Benzhi pulled out the spear, it left a gaping whole which spurted blood, he had hit the main artery to the brain. Qi and blood gushed from the Elite Scimitar Gnoll, it would be dead in moments.

 Benzhi landed on one foot, turned by swinging his other leg round before taking three shunpo steps to drive his spear through the shield and into the heart of the second Elite Gnoll.

 It had reacted by bringing its shield to bear, which showed great reflexes. Unfortunately for it, an ordinary shield would not stop this spear, the qi pattern on the tip assisted the already incredibly strong and sharp mithril plunge right through its shield, splint mail and chest.

 Benzhi’s momentum and strength fed the impact of the blow, the Gnoll flew backwards smashing into the Elite behind it as Benzhi’s spear came free tearing and even larger hole from which blood gushed forth.

‘Ok, what,’ Benzhi sent Huineng as he watched Reyas deal with her elites.
‘They know you are alive and are looking for you,’ Huineng sent.
 ‘Who?’ Benzhi sent
‘All of them,’ Huineng sent

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