From the Journal of Lang Ku of Kugane, Sixth Astral Era, 1562. My name is Feng Lei. 冯磊, in the old script. After my family passed, there was nothing left to keep me at home. I bounced around various trading companies for a while, but it was difficult to hold down a job. Bosses in the East preferred their workers composed and subservient; I was quick to anger, and preferred to resolve conflict with punches rather than words. But after years of transience, I found stability in the Ming-Hua. It was less of a company, and more of a collective, made up of people like me. No homes, no masters. My distaste for the rigid formality of the old ways had frequently got me and my loud mouth into trouble. And every boss became a stand-in for my father, stern and merciless. As a child, no matter how small the transgression, my punishment was unarmed combat. I always lost. But after a decade of losing to the White-Robed General, I learned a lot. How to fight. How to push through the pain. And after the tenth time our elderly neighbour treated my wounds, I learned that the only bonds that matter are the ones you choose. So I chose the Ming-Hua, and together, the ten of us roamed the countryside, buying and selling, drinking and fighting. What more could a man want? I’d fought drunks to end trouble, gladiators for a quick buck — hell, even Garleans, if not before running the fuck away. But always back to my people. My people. But it was amongst that chosen family, cresting a stone path with our five wagons, that I found myself truly fighting for my life. The bandits that attacked us were eight strong: two archers from high ground to the right of us, and six brutes. I’d spoken enough with the military traders to recognize the tactic. Disable the front and rear carts to box the rest in. Two groups of three, working from each end of the convoy. Two chock the wheel spokes with blocks of wood, one takes out the driver. They move up and disable each wagon, killing everyone as they go, the archers above skewering anyone who resists. And no-one ever gets away. On the road, whenever someone would get into trouble, I was the first one to throw myself at the problem. The guys always joked that if we were ever raided, I’d be the one to save us. “Don’t worry about getting in a fight, Feng Lei would fight the entire bar if you’d let him!” “You’re a madman Lei, but you’re our madman.” The bandits sprinted towards us, the leader of each group carrying a curved shortsword and shield, with two more in tow holding chocks in both hands. I looked up and down the caravan. Everyone was either frozen in fear or screaming in terror. It was up to me, just like we said. I wasn’t ready. I guess no-one ever is. My hands were shaking. I’d forgotten to breathe. I couldn’t lose my family. Not like this. “It’s up to you, Feng Lei”, I whispered to myself. “Win or die. Win or everyone dies.” A rush of energy ricocheted through my body, and I knew what to do. I dove into the back of the wagon, searching for something, anything, to use as a weapon, and digging through the junk we sold, I found a pair of training weights. Heavy, circular discs with a hole in the middle. Grasping one in each hand, the memories of ten thousand hours on the sandbags came flooding back, every punch a step closer to freeing myself from my father’s power over me. I was home. The fear left me as quickly as it had come, my mind cleared to a singular focus. Win or die. Win or everyone dies. I tumbled out of the back of the cart, and ducked around the left side of it to keep cover from the archers, then sprinted toward the front of the caravan, heart pounding in my chest and feet pounding on the ground even harder. The wheel-blocker on the left side was too busy fumbling with the chocks to see me coming. I tossed the left-hand weight in the air, used my now-free hand to rip off his helmet, and brought the right weight crashing into his skull, crushing it like a watermelon. The left weight landed back in my hand with a thud as he hit the ground. Yufan screamed from the driver’s seat, desperately trying to fend off the swordsman, and I launched myself towards the attacker mounting the front of the cart. The brute heard the crash and turned, but it was too late. I was already on top of him. Winding my body into a spin like a dancer, I windmilled the weights across him, left then right, knocking him off the cart and onto the ground. Taking a step up off the cart wheel, I leapt into the air and brought both weights crashing down on his neck with a sound like cracking bamboo. Arrows whistled and thudded into the cart, but they were too slow. I dropped a weight, grabbed the brute’s sword, and slid underneath the cart towards the second wheelman. I wound up as hard as I could and slashed through his ankles just below the shin armor. He fell to the ground, screaming and scrambling backwards as best he could without feet. The head of the rear group heard the screams and jumped down, abandoning his role in the holdup and running towards me with his sword drawn. In one movement, I tossed the weight into my right hand, sword into my left, spun, wound up, and pelted the 20-pound disc directly at his face, shattering his nose, breaking his guard, and opening his midsection to be skewered, and with a deep thrust, the stolen sword did just that. His momentum carried him all the way to the hilt, his legs failing as it pierced his spine and mouth trickling blood. The wheelmen, however, had reacted too, and before I could get the sword out of his gut, they tackled me to the ground and began pounding on me. I wrestled and grappled through the blows to little avail as they rained down hits with their chocks, wood hitting flesh and bone. But through the pain, a sound rang out. It was Jingyi, the third-place driver, screaming at the top of his lungs. “Lei, the archers are coming!”, he shrieked. Four of them, one of me. That’s when I knew. I needed to win right now, at any cost, or we were all fucking dead. A wave of adrenaline coursed through my body and I grabbed blindly into the air, catching a beard and pulling as hard as I could. His face crashed into mine and when my teeth felt skin, I bit down like a rottweiler, tearing a chunk of flesh from his cheek, and his beard from his face, spraying blood into my eyes and mouth. As the man missing part of his face rolled away screaming, I flailed wildly, blinded by the blood, until my left hand caught fabric. I pulled my feet under me and launched myself upwards, my head colliding with his open jaw, cracking his teeth and knocking him off balance. Grabbing him with both hands, I pounded my skull into his face — once, twice, three times, four times — before he stopped struggling. But I wasn’t fast enough. Two arrows landed an instant apart, one piercing my shoulder, the other burying itself in my lower back. A shockwave of agony exploded through my body. Scream through the pain, Feng Lei. Just like your father taught you. With a shrieking howl that threatened to sunder the heavens, I turned and sprinted towards the archers, throwing myself at them before they could nock their next arrows, and sent us all crashing to the ground, scattering their weapons. Dragging myself onto the chest of the one on the right, I mounted him, his arms pinned under my knees, and unleashed a raging hellfire of fists pounding into his face as he bucked and struggled. I was still screaming, louder with every hit. Left, right, left, right, left, right, left, right, left, right. The skin sheared from my knuckles, but I didn’t stop. The second archer tried to pull me away, but his hands slipped uselessly across my gore-slicked face. There was no stopping me. Left, right, left, right, left right. And as it slowly dawned on him that he was powerless and alone, his courage left him; he slowly backed away, turned, and ran. The man underneath me stopped moving long before the blows stopped. It’s hard to say how long. Painted sanguine, my eyes blind from blood, cut, bruised, broken, and pierced, all I can remember is the sound of my breath heaving in a growl. Every part of me was shaking. I screamed again, still straddling the corpse like a lover. It nearly killed me, but I’d done it. I was alive. The caravan was safe. Everyone was safe. I’d protected us. I’d protected everyone. As the adrenaline subsided and the pain returned, all I could do was sit there, immobile, slightly convulsing every few seconds. “Feng Lei …” The voices of my friends ran sweet in my ears, but quickly turned bitter. “You’re a monster … “ The words faded in and out as my consciousness began to slip. “…..inhuman … how … we should have just let them .. “ “We can’t keep …….. did you see what…… what happens if ….” I didn’t understand. I’d saved everyone, hadn’t I? Gone to terrible lengths for them, pushed myself beyond every limit I thought I’d ever known. Why weren’t they helping me? My body slumped slowly forwards. The people I thought were my closest friends — my family — shuffled past, staring in horror. Why weren’t they helping me? “How could ………. what kind of demon …..” As the world got darker, I could hear the sound of horses moving. I felt my body crumple down over what was left of the archer. One word lingered in the air as my friends disappeared into the night. The Ming-Hua were gone. “Ruthless…” I remember repeating it to myself as the colour faded from my vision and everything went black. I don’t remember what happened next. They tell me that Doman Trading Company merchants found me on the side of the road, still hunched over the last bandit. The caravan was long gone, as was much of my blood. I hadn’t moved, my mind still in shock, body still pulped and pierced with arrows. Still staring into the distance where they’d left me, mumbling to myself. “Hey, HEY one of them’s a merchant! He’s alive!”, they shouted in the common tongue. “What’s your name?” They tell me I didn’t move or react at all. Just sat there, broken, repeating the same word over and over to myself, delirious. “Ruthless..”, in the Far Eastern tongue. Lěngkù. 冷酷. “Lang Ku huh? Okay Lang Ku, let’s get you out of here .. this is no place to die.” This is why no-one speaks Far Eastern around Domans. The tones are too confusing. I remember the world flaring into a nightmare of pain as they pulled me to my feet and dragged me into a wagon. Someone shouted, “Get the chirurgeon! He’s alive!”, and everything went black again. When I woke, every bone in my body felt like it had survived an earthquake, but I was alive. The sounds of Kugane chirped through an open window, and I looked around. “Welcome back, Lang Ku. Didn’t think you were going to make it for a while there. Guess you had something to hang on for, huh?” I tried to correct him, but no sound came out. “Don’t try to talk. You’re full of a lot of painkillers, nothing’s going to work right for a bit. But you hang in there, okay?” As the weeks passed and my ability to speak returned, I tried to tell people that my name was Feng Lei — but they wouldn’t hear of it. They’d issued me refugee status under the name Lang Ku, and recent imperial activity had everyone on edge, and the Sekiseigumi on the lookout for spies. A false name? At best, deported. At worst, disappeared. Lang Ku it was, then. Somehow they managed to say it differently every time, always wrong. Domans are notoriously bad at the Far Eastern language. The tones are too confusing. Lang Ku. Always some variation of Lang Ku. “狼酷.” “狼苦?” “狼哭!” Wolf, cruel. Wolf, bitter. Wolf, cry. Goddamn right I was bitter. Every day: wolf bitter, wolf cruel, wolf cry. They never quite managed the original “Lěngkù”, but I’m glad they didn’t. I never wanted to be ruthless. But that word repeats and echoes over and over in my head when it’s quiet, whether I want it to or not. And Lang Ku is enough to start over. So it will have to do. Cut out the past like a broken arrow. Amputate it like a snakebitten limb. Feng Lei is dead. I’m Lang Ku now.