Ba Renzhong took a fresh horse from the military district and set out for Spotted Turtle Valley alone. A short distance into his journey he spotted a cloud of dust behind him. The Purple Demon tied his horse to a tree, unsheathed his sword and hid up the road, ready to ambush whoever was tailing him.
He kept his eyes fixed on the road, gazing like a hawk focused on its prey. But when the approaching horsemen drew near, instead of Colonel Ho, Ba saw men who had fought alongside him at White Wood Fortress.
“What are you doing here?” Ba called, emerging from the rocky wayside and sheathing his sword.
The soldiers, perhaps fifty in all, turned to face him. “Colonel Ba! We received a message from Major Cho to come and reinforce you, to help you recover your brother’s body.”
Ba mounted his own horse and beckoned for them to follow. “Good. But stay behind me if it comes to fighting. I’m going to get Ba Jiang’s corpse even if I have to carve my way through a thousand men.”
The sun was high in the sky when the Purple Demon laid eyes on Spotted Turtle Valley. A stream meandered down, fringed by small trees and grassland. Between the trees, a canvas village of tents had sprouted. Brigands stirred when they saw the soldiers.
Ba dismounted and wandered towards the few dozen bandits. “I have come for the body of Ba Jiang, my brother. Give it to me, and I’ll be on my way. Refuse, and I’ll water the valley with your blood.”
The lead bandit, resting a huge halberd over his shoulder, smiled. “We were told to expect the dog after we killed the pup. Don’t worry, Ba Renzhong, you’ll be with your brother again before too long!”
The Purple Demon’s sword flashed like lightning, cutting the lead bandit in half before anyone could move. Ba Renzhong stabbed high and slashed low, blood spraying with every stroke. Soldiers charged into the fray and bandits ran to meet them with steel kisses.
Ba was surrounded by enemies, but for the murderous criminals it was like trying to drown a fish. The Purple Demon parried some blows and dodged others, and every time his sword sang another man hit the ground, never to rise again. The bandits’ courage fled, and their legs soon followed. They ran away so fast their feet hit the back of their heads. Ba watched them go, only to make sure they weren’t carrying his brother’s body with them.
After checking the soldiers were in good health, he began to search the tents. Many were filled with ill-gotten gains, strings of cash and ingots of silver. Ba distributed the treasure to the soldiers and kept searching. In one tent he found scrolls listing villages the bandits were permitted to raid and people they were permitted to kill without fear of punishment. The Purple Demon flitted through a dozen of them before he found one about the murder of Ba Jiang and plans for his own death. That scroll was signed by Colonel Ho. Ba smiled grimly and ordered a soldier to take the papers and keep them safe.
One of the men burst into the tent. “Colonel Ba, I think we’ve found him.”
The Purple Demon followed his guide to another tent. Inside were two coffins: one with the lid shut, the other open. The open coffin had Ba Renzhong’s name written on it.
“Leave me,” Ba commanded.
Once the soldiers had given him some privacy, he opened the coffin. There lay his little brother, so peaceful he looked as if he might be asleep. But the spirit had fled, and the skin was cold to the touch. Ba knelt beside the coffin.
“Forgive me, little brother. You came to support me in a dangerous place, and I failed to protect you,” Ba said, letting the tears flow freely. “I will avenge your death on all those responsible and protect your wife and unborn child. May your spirit embrace tranquillity and see that Lina and your child live safe and well.”
The Purple Demon ordered the soldiers to take Jiang back to Ganyang. The ride back was slower, for several of the men were wounded. Not that it mattered. Ba needed to think about his next step. By the time he reached the city gates, night had fallen and his mind was made up. He dispatched half the men to take Jiang’s body to his house, ordering them to guard Lina and send Iron Belly to join him.
It did not take his friend long to arrive.
“I hope it won’t come to that, but be ready to use your sword,” Ba told him.
Iron Belly nodded. “This has been a day long coming.”
The Purple Demon rode through Ganyang into the military district, his companions close behind. He dismounted in front of the Hall of Righteous Bloodshed and marched inside. The evening meal was halfway done, but the merriment and chatter fled at Ba’s approach. He ignored the questioning looks coming his way and strode to the high table where General Gao and Colonel Ho sat. The pair of villains glanced at one another, their faces red with intoxication.
“Confess! Did you have anything to do with my brother’s death?” Ba demanded.
General Gao wiped the grease from his lips. “Your brother was a damned fool, exile. Pretty wife, though. Do not worry, I’ll give her shelter in my harem. Now scurry off, dog. Your stench is spoiling my appetite.”
Fury burning through his veins, vengeance pounding in his heart. What did Ba Renzhong do next? Read on to find out.