The sun fell quickly in this part of the world. Cheung blew on his hands in a vain attempt to keep them warm. Lee willed chi to heat up his hands. Lee still felt the drop in temperature, but his fingers would be able to pull a trigger.
Cheung ignited the wagon’s acetylene lamps. The light was weak, illuminating maybe ten feet beyond them, just enough to watch the road. The road wound and twisted unpredictably through the forest and around the hills, and Cheung slowed further.
The night was quiet. No birds, no nocturnal animals, not even insects. Or maybe Lee just couldn’t hear them over the steam engine’s growl. All the same, he checked his Volition rifle by feel, ensuring its safety was still on, and patted his cartridge pouches, verifying the flaps were still closed. It didn’t hurt to be careful, and animals only go quiet when there’s a predator around.
The Volition rifle was a long gun, just a bit too long to handle comfortably inside the cab of the wagon. Keeping it slung around his neck, Lee twisted in his seat, slowly easing out his Webster revolver and placing it on his lap.
“Expecting trouble?” Cheung asked.
Revolver in right hand, left gripping the Volition’s forend, he cast his gaze beyond the lamps’ cones of light and listened to the world. Something…felt…off.
A lantern appeared in the distance. In the circle of light, Lee saw bunches of saplings bundled across the road, forming a makeshift barricade. Just beyond the light, he sensed human-shaped shadows. And the trees around the barricade were packed too tightly for the wagon to drive through.
“Diu!” Lee cursed.
The shadowed men stepped out. Two of them, silhouetted against the light. Both pointed long guns at the wagon.
One of them shouted something.
“What did he say?” Lee whispered.
“Stop your engine!” the highwayman repeated, this time in passable Kuoyü. As the bandit spoke, Lee cocked the revolver, the clicking muted by the grumbling engine but still too loud in the dark.
The merchant glanced desperately at the shootist.
“Do it,” Lee said.
Cheung gulped audibly, but he hit the brakes and flipped a switch. The engine cut out and the wagon rolled to a stop.
The bandit on the left stayed where he was. The one on the right sauntered over to the driver’s side, keeping away from the lamps’ cones where he could be blinded. Or recognized. He said something, again in the Northern dialect. Cheung shouted something back, and the bandit switched to Kuoyü.
“Your money or your life, merchant!”
“We’re just simple travelers,” Cheung replied. “We don’t have much of value.”
“Lure him closer,” Lee whispered. “When he comes to the window, get down.”
“Give us everything you’ve got and we’ll let you go,” the bandit replied.
“Okay, okay! I’ll get my purse.”
The highwayman chuckled. “Good boy.” He circled around the cab, pointing his weapon.
“Duck,” Lee said. “Pretend you’re going for your purse.”
Lee pressed his rifle against his side, concealing it as best as he could. He drew his chi in, making himself look small, insignificant, just an ordinary passenger. He wasn’t sure how the bandits had missed the rifle next to him, but he’d take every advantage he could get.
The bandit circled around the cab, weapon at the ready. Cheung folded himself down, clearing the glassless window. Lee tightened his grip on the Webster.
The outlaw stopped and stooped over, peering through the window. He opened his mouth just as Lee raised the gun and fired.
In the brief light of the muzzle flash Lee saw the bandit’s head snap back, the target dropping straight down. Keeping his head down, he opened the door and leapt out. The bandit’s partner shouted. Running for the nearest tree, he squeezed off three more shots in the robber’s general direction.
“Tung! Bandit in front!” he shouted, pressing himself up against the tree trunk.
A shotgun blast split the night. Another. “More behind us!” she replied. “We’re surrounded!”
A heavy bullet slammed into the tree trunk and exploded out of it, showering him in dry dust. Cursing, he leaned out and fired his last two shots into the dark.
“Hold the line!” he called. “I’ll deal with this one first!”
Tung’s reply was drowned in a flurry of high-pitched pistol cracks. Lee sprinted for the thickest tree he could make out in his limited sight. The bandit to his front fired and yelled what sounded like an insult.
Lee thumbed down the revolver’s hinge, breaking the weapon open. Six spent casings popped out of the cylinder. His left hand opened his revolver cartridge pouch, withdrew a LaCroix device, and inserted it into the hungry cylinder. It took him a moment to correctly align the bullets before the speedloader went in. He twisted a knob and deposited all six rounds at once. Replacing both empty LaCroix and full Webster, he brought his Volition rifle to his shoulder and looked at the night.
He extended his senses, feeling the chi of his surroundings. The bandit was in front of him, maybe fifty feet away. Now the bandit advanced towards his previous position, discharging a round into the air. Lee circled the tree as quietly as he could, transferring the rifle to his left shoulder, and waited.
A dark shape appeared, surrounded in a red aura. He fired. The bandit dropped with a loud cry. He worked the lever, fired another shot into the body. No sense taking chances.
Behind him, a brilliant flash lit the forest, rapidly followed by thunder. But it was no ordinary weather phenomenon. Lee sensed waste chi drifting towards him.
And just like that, the forest went still again.
“Ms Tung!” Lee shouted. “Are you okay?”
“Yes!” came a far-off reply. “I got them all. And you?”
“I think we’re clear! Meet up back at the wagon!”
Everybody was materially unhurt. A stray bullet had zinged above Ayan’s head, but close was no cigar.
“Thank you, thank you,” Cheung said, his voice shaking.
“Just doing our job,” Lee said. “Let’s see what kind of damage the bandits did.”
The wagon had two lanterns in the rear. The civilians took one to inspect the wagon, while the risk takers took the other to gather up the bodies. They also took the time to search the pockets and empty their purses. Dead men needed no money.
There were five bandits. They resembled each other enough that they must have been relatives, brothers and cousins, perhaps. None of them had died clean. The one struck with the lightning bolt took the worst damage, an ugly tunnel burned clean through his chest.
Lee had seen worse damage during the Uprising. Tung didn’t flinch at the sight. She was looking at…
“They were using Sachsen guns,” she said.
Lee picked up one of the bandit’s rifles. It was a Roster Model 1898, among the most common Sachsen bolt-action rifles available.
“It doesn’t mean anything,” Lee said.
In the early days of the Hsia Dynasty, the first among the Emperor’s reforms was the Self-Strengthening Movement. Prince Hsihui was charged with reorganizing the army. He had invited Western representatives to produce new rifles for testing. Roster won the initial contracts, in large part because the Sachsens claimed to have no imperial designs on the region.
Then came the I Chuan Uprising, the colonisation of Chiaochou and the Nanking Reprisals. Enraged, the Emperor looked to Columbia instead, what he called the least aggressive of the Western powers. While the Roster rifles were officially abandoned, they were still made in small numbers for private buyers. The old Linghsi armory, in fact, used to produce copies of Roster firearms.
“The Yemai adopted Sachsen weaponry too. And see this? The weapons do not have serial numbers or manufacturer markings,” Tung said.
Lee shook his head. “Politics.”
The boiler sprung to life. “Hey!” Cheung shouted. “The wagon’s fine! But we need to clear the roadblock!”
Cheung stretched. “Well, let’s go.”
Lee held up a hand. “Allow me.”
Walking up the makeshift wall, Lee gathered chi in his tant’ien. Stopping three feet away, he rooted his feet to the earth and held his hands at chest height. He took a deep breath, supercharging himself. He concentrated, willing the chi to bend to his will. A blue-white ball appeared, framed in his open palms. He shouted explosively, stepping forward and shooting both hands out. The chi ball obeyed his will, rocketing towards the obstacle. It exploded in a blinding flash of light and thunder.
When Lee’s eyes readjusted to the dark, the saplings were little more than ashes.
“Show-off,” Tung said.
“You fired that lightning bolt earlier. I figured you were drained.”
She smiled ever so slightly, and walked away.
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