Chapter 6 A Harsh Lesson
Standing on the road before Arran and Master Zhao were six men. They looked like soldiers or mercenaries, carrying swords and axes, and wearing battle-scarred armor.
Arran tried to control his fear, but only partly succeeded. "Are they from the Academy?" he asked, voice shaking.
"Just some common bandits," Master Zhao said dismissively. "Deal with them." He did not seem the least bit concerned.
"Deal with them?" Arran's eyes went wide. Even if the men weren't from the Academy, there were six of them, all armored. And Master Zhao expected Arran to deal with them?
There was no time for Arran to object. Already, the men were in front of them.
"We'll take the cart and the horses, and any coin you're carrying." The man who spoke was tall, with a bald head that bore several deep scars. "Hand them over, and we'll let you leave with your lives."
"We can't do that." Arran had drawn his sword and was standing in front of the six men, alone.
"Kill them." The bald man said the words calmly and without hesitation, as if he had ordered the other men to butcher a chicken.
Immediately, one of the bandits rushed at Arran, raising an axe above his head.
Before the bandit could bring down his axe, Arran's sword darted forward, tearing through the man's throat. Blood gushing from his neck, he collapsed, face twisted in shock.
Arran did not have time to savor his victory. Instantly, the sword of one of the other bandits came crashing down toward him. He barely managed to parry it, but the force of the blow made him stumble backward.
He feinted toward the bandit's face and the man flinched, raising his arms. Before he could recover, Arran hacked into his wrist with a fierce cut.
The bandit's blade was sent flying, severed hand still grasping it. Arran followed up with a sharp thrust to his opponent's face, his sword plunging a hand's length into the man's right eye.
A third bandit stumbled back in shock, clearly not having expected the young man to put up such a fight. Before he could move out of range, Arran's sword cut deep into the side of his neck.
Arran yanked his sword free, and the bandit's bleeding body fell to the ground.
Stepping back, Arran breathed loudly. Without thinking, he had relied on the techniques Master Zhao had drilled into his head during the past three months.
Only now did the gravity of the situation set in, and Arran's body trembled as he felt his heart pound in his chest.
Undeterred, the three remaining bandits stepped forward. Moving deliberately, they spread out around Arran, one on either side of him, with the third — the tall bald man Arran thought was the leader — at the center.
Briefly, Arran had hoped that the deaths of the other three would send these men running in fear. Instead, they seemed to have been filled with a cold rage.
The bandit on Arran's right moved suddenly, his sword swinging at Arran in a brutal slash. Arran very nearly botched his parry and came close to being cut down right there.
At the same moment, the bandit on Arran's left struck at him with an axe, exploiting the opening the man on his right had created. With his sword occupied by the first man, there was nothing Arran could do to block him.
Arran thought his final moment had come, but somehow the man missed, instead stumbling as if he had tripped. His momentum carried him head-first into the other bandit as he fell to the ground.
The man with the sword managed to stay on his feet, but it took him a moment to regain his balance. A moment was all that was needed. Arran struck several wild cuts to his neck, and he went down.
In the blink of an eye, only the bald leader remained standing, his expression filled with murderous intent.
The bald man did not hesitate in attacking. Immediately, his sword swung forward in a slash that Arran only narrowly parried. Without a moment's, pause he struck again, then again, leaving Arran no time to recover as he stumbled backward.
Arran knew he was losing the fight. Any moment now, the bald bandit's sword would slip past his defenses and bring him down.
Recognizing that he could not continue like this, Arran suddenly unleashed a series of wild blows. The man parried them with ease, but before he could counter, Arran suddenly rushed forward, ramming his shoulder into the bald man's chest.
The bandit staggered, and Arran saw an opening. Before the man could recover, Arran's sword found his neck, cutting clean through. The man's bald head toppled to the ground, and his body collapsed next to it. Blood began to spread out over the road.
Arran stood motionless, panting. He was still alive.
Suddenly, a yell sounded behind him. When he turned around, he saw a man lying on the ground with a large hole burned through his chest. It was the bandit with the axe who had stumbled earlier.
After defeating the leader, Arran had forgotten all about the man.
"Next time, don't be so careless." Master Zhao's voice was calm, sounding no different from when he instructed Arran.
"Why didn't you help earlier? I almost died!" Now, with the danger finally gone, Arran found himself flooded with the fear and anger he had suppressed earlier.
"You think I didn't?" Master Zhao responded calmly.
Arran fell silent, remembering the man who had stumbled just as he was about to hit Arran.
"That was you?" he asked.
"I intervened several times," Master Zhao replied. "You didn't think bandits were usually this slow and clumsy, did you?"
"Then why did you make me fight them?" Arran asked the question, but he already knew the answer.
"No amount of sparring can replace real combat," Master Zhao answered. "With these men so willingly offering themselves up for your education, how could I reject their generosity?"
With a sigh, Arran turned to look at the aftermath of the fight.
He felt little sympathy for the men whose bodies were now lifelessly strewn across the ground. His father had died to a bandit's arrow less than a year earlier, and to his mind, every dead bandit was an innocent life saved.
Nevertheless, the sight shook Arran. Just moments ago these men had all been alive. Now, they were dead, and by Arran's sword.
It took him some moments to regain his composure.
"Time to collect your earnings," Master Zhao finally said.
Arran knitted his brows. "Earnings?"
Master Zhao pointed at the bodies on the ground. "They should be carrying plenty of ill-gotten wealth," he said. "Not to mention the loot they have at their camp. I imagine it shouldn't be far from here."
Arran went through the men's possessions, trying not to be sickened by the stench of death.
Eventually, he gathered up their weapons, as well as a nice bit of coin. The armor he left behind. Valuable though it might be, it was covered in blood and gore, and the mere thought of stripping the armor from the corpses made him queasy.
After that, the search for the bandits' camp was a short one. They found it just a few hundred paces from the road, barely hidden among a copse of trees.
As they searched the camp, Arran quickly excited. The bandits had left a small fortune behind in jewelry and other precious goods, and it wasn't long before his pockets bulged with gold and silver.
Arran's excitement dimmed somewhat when he reminded himself where the bandits had gotten their possessions, but that did not stop him from taking them.
"Now this is interesting," Master Zhao said, holding up a green jade amulet.
To Arran's eyes, there was nothing special about the amulet. It looked somewhat valuable, but no more so than the other jewelry they had found.
"What is it?" he asked.
"It's a Memory Amulet," Master Zhao answered. "Mages use them to store spells and techniques. And this one…" His eyes went blank for a moment. "This one is filled with enchanting techniques."
Looking quite pleased, he tossed the amulet to Arran. "Keep it. In the future, it might come in helpful."
"I can't use it now?" Arran asked.
"It requires magic to use," Master Zhao explained.
He gave Arran a thoughtful look.
"But perhaps…" Master Zhao hesitated. When he finally spoke, it sounded as if he had reached a decision. "Perhaps it's time that you learn magic."