Chapter 9
Scylla and Charybdis

Xiaohe (Arroyo), Jitian County, Shannanxi Province

It had nearly been three weeks since they first came to Arroyo. Batista didn't mean to stay so long, but they just needed a little more money to get them out of the province. He'd been thinking about sneaking over the border, but having a legitimate pass document would make everything so much easier. Also, waiting out the less committed bounty hunters had some appeal to it.
Batista didn't mind the work so much, but he'd be more than happy to not have to hear Masako bitch about sleeping in the stables. At least it was dry and it was starting to get cold enough that you didn't have to worry as much about bugs and snakes, but there was no pleasing some people.
In all truth, she was getting better about accepting her circumstances and dealing with them. The Wo were said to be a reserved, stoic people, so she must have finally started tapping into those qualities of her longsuffering ancestors. She was even starting to be less clumsy in her work in the kitchen. It had been a good four days since the proprietress bawled her out for breaking something.
There was the sound of something breaking.
He spoke too soon.
Those four days hadn't caused the proprietress to forget how to bring the storm and the fury. Cue the familiar sound of her polyglot screeching. Because the proprietress had been saving it up, Masako would probably have to suffer through a good half hour of browbeating. However, it had barely started up when everything went quiet.
That wasn't good.
At the risk of getting caught in the middle of the latest little tempest in a teacup, Batista left his woodpile and went to check it out. As he turned the corner to the kitchen, he saw an unfamiliar person in a longcoat, heard a short hiss and felt a sharp pain in his chest. He looked down to see the dart sticking in his pec. Whatever was in the dart worked quick. The feeling of numbness radiated from his chest down his arm and into his legs. He dropped to one knee, struggling to maintain control of his body.
There was another one near the sink by Masako, who was already crumpled on the floor. The proprietress was down too, only in her case--judging from the bruise forming on her cheek--it seemed that they just cold-cocked her instead of using a dart.
"You better put another one in him, Chary," the second one said. "Just to be sure."
"I put two in him and his damn heart might stop," the one who shot Batista replied. "Helluva way to lose ninety dan."
Two women. Their clothes didn't make it obvious, so it wasn't until they spoke that Batista realized it. The one who shot him--Chary, apparently--stepped toward him, saying, "A good old-fashioned pistol whip should do the trick."
Batista still had his ax in his hand, gripping it tightly even as his muscles were failing him. Doing everything in his power to fight whatever drug was in the dart, he swung sideways, catching Chary in the shin. She screamed in pain, losing her balance and falling over. Before she could get up, Batista swung again, this time burying the ax in her skull.
Her partner didn't seem to fully register what had happened.
"Chary? Chary!"
Of course, Chary wasn't going to be answering her. The immediate shock passed and her partner changed in an instant, drawing the machete at her hip and charging at him.
He narrowly dodged her thrust and the first slash that followed, but then she swung back and cut him across the belly. While she was open, Batista pulled his left arm out of the sling and punched her in the gut. This staggered her, which gave him the opportunity to grab her by her hair and yank her down to the floor. He got on top of her and punched her in the face--this was no time for chivalry, after all. She tried to swing at him with her machete but he caught her arm. The rush of adrenaline was helping him move better, but he was nowhere near peak performance.
When the woman saw she wasn't getting anywhere trying to overpower him, she punched his wounded stomach with her free hand. It hurt like hell, but Batista didn't let go and gave her another punch to the face for her trouble.
She tried kneeing his back, but that didn't get her anywhere. Batista gave her a punch to the shoulder, forcing her to drop the machete. Without giving herself even a moment to react to the pain, she reached for her shoulder holster with her free hand, but before she could draw, Batista grabbed the machete thrust it into her neck. Even as she started convulsing in her death throes, she was still trying to draw her gun.
Batista couldn't waste time staring at his handiwork. He had to hurry. The adrenaline would be wearing off soon and the drug would start taking effect again. He didn't know how long it'd stay in his system. Given how quickly it took effect in the first place, he figured it didn't last long. It was just a way to bring down the target quickly, then a different drug with some legs to it could be administered at the bounty hunter's leisure. Then again, he could be wrong. He really didn't know too much about drugs and such, just some basics about the uppers and downers the medics would hand out to wire them up for an extended battle and bring them back down afterward.
He looked at the cut on his stomach. It wasn't that deep. It went down into the fat--not that he had that much, but a little padding was better than none, as it turned out--, but it didn't go far enough to open up his guts. That was good. He probably wouldn't make it otherwise. Still, he needed to patch it up. He wouldn't be able to do it if his hands started seizing up and he didn't trust anyone else to do it.
What about Masako? He sure as hell couldn't carry her, but he didn't want to leave her either. What if these two had partners? No, if they had backup, they would've showed up by now, wouldn't they?
He wasn't getting anywhere worrying about it. He had to do something about this gut wound. He tied his sling around his belly to slow the bleeding, pressing down with his forearm while holding the machete in his left hand. Although he preferred his right for fighting, he needed it for something else.
Getting up off the second hunter, he staggered over to the bar and picked out a bottle of kaoliang, then made his way out the front door. Along the way, he noted that the young couple who helped out the proprietress had been darted too. He couldn't worry about them right now, though.
His legs were already starting to feel rubbery as he got out into the street. Good thing the general store was just across the way. As he went through the door, the owner greeted him.
"Welcome, welcome. What can I get for you tod--Oh, my God!"
When his wife saw Batista all bleeding and carrying a bloody machete, she screamed. Batista tried to hold up his hand to get her to calm down, but that hand was currently holding the bottle of kaoliang, so the gesture didn't quite come off as intended.
"Calm down," he said, not that that would help much. "Bandidos tried ta rob the inn, but I fought 'em off." He pointed to the owner. "I need a needle an' some catgut." Not expecting the owner to be too handy with a needle, he told the wife, "I need ya ta calm down an' thread that needle for me."
"Just do what he says, dear," the owner told her as he was going through the shelf looking for the catgut.
When he found a spool of catgut and a needle, he offered it to his wife, who fumbled a few times because her hands were shaking so bad. Not wanting to hand the needle to Batista directly, she gave it back to her husband. Batista struggled to take the needle and thread without dropping anything.
He went to a corner behind the counter which at least gave him a little cover while he went to work. His legs were about to give out on him anyway, so he went ahead and plopped down. He set down the machete, then opened the bottle, taking a swig for himself before dousing the needle and catgut. Now came the fun part.
He untied the makeshift bandage, then split his shirt down the middle and tossed it aside. He was still bleeding but not too badly. He gritted his teeth and poured the kaoliang all over the wound. He stifled a scream and pounded on the floorboards with his free hand.
With that done, he took the needle in his unsteady hand and jabbed it into his flesh. He wished he had though to get something to bite down on first. He might well smash his molars by the time he was done. He could feel himself going lightheaded as the numbness was creeping up on him. His fingers were barely cooperating as he made the stitches one after another.
He tried to count the stitches as he went, but it seemed to have more of the effect of counting sheep. At first, the pain of each fresh stab gave him a bit of a jolt, but after about twenty-four stitches, the effect was lost. At least it didn't hurt anymore...

* * *

Batista woke with a start, or something like a start as he couldn't really move. He couldn't feel much of anything either. His eyes could move, though, and he looked down to see his right hand still holding the needle, just two or three stitches away from having finished his work. In his left hand he was holding the machete. He must've instinctively went for it as he was passing out.
He looked up to see the owner still standing behind the counter. A sawed-off shotgun was resting close at hand. Batista had a feeling it wasn't there because the owner was cleaning it.
"Don't worry, Mr. Marques," the owner said. "You've only been out about twenty minutes. Honestly, I'm a little surprised you're back with us so soon."
Juan Marques was the assumed name Batista used. Out in a place like this, it wasn't like anyone was going to check your papers or anything. He certainly couldn't risk giving out his real name.
One of the obvious consequences of not being able to move hardly a single muscle in in your body was that you couldn't speak, but the owner was more than willing to take up the slack and kept on talking.
"I had my boy go over to the inn when you passed out," he said. "Poor kid came back smelling of puke, all tears and snot running down his face. Seems like you did some pretty terrible things. I don't think he'll sleep for a month."
It's not like Batista had time to clean up afterward and it was the owner's own fault for sending his kid in there.
"You know, I've been hearing these stories from folks coming back from Lago," the owner continued. "Talk of deserter with a hundred-dan bounty on his head. Traveling with a woman. Happened out in the borderlands. And then you come into town with your woman, both dressed like a couple Yue. Not too many Yue this far east."
He was trying to sound more confident than he was. After all, he was just a shopkeeper, but that didn't mean he wasn't dangerous, especially with Batista paralyzed.
Eyeing Batista knowingly, he said, "Those two weren't bandidos, were they, Mr. Marques? They were bounty hunters." He nodded to Batista, adding, "Must've been pretty good to do that to you, but not good enough, huh?"
His fingers crept toward the shotgun.
"I heard you killed eight men out in Montevideo. Some people said it was more, but you know how stories like to grow. You'd think that'd discourage people, but with that kinda bounty..."
He paused to take a drink from a glass, probably a little liquid courage.
"A hundred dan is a lot of money," he continued. "Enough for me to take my family to the city. Not Lago, but some big city. I don't even know the name, but I'd find out. Might even be able to buy third-class citizenship. Just think of what that'd do for us."
And that was the genius of Coronel Obrado's plan. The hundred-dan bounty didn't just attract the greedy. It was a temptation for anyone who wanted out of the shit lot of the average Infernal, from those damn conscripts to this guy. No matter how you prettied up your motivation, you were still trading in blood, not that a mercenary like Batista had any place to talk.
Batista tried moving. His left hand wobbled a bit, but he couldn't be sure that was even due to any conscious effort on his part. It was still enough for the owner to notice.
"They shot you up with some pretty good stuff, huh? I wonder how long it'll last."
He shook his head.
"Honestly, I don't know what to do. I don't even know how to turn you in. I can't ask anyone for help because they'll want a cut and for a hundred dan, they'd probably just as soon kill me and take it all for themselves. Then there's you. Once that stuff wears off, I imagine you're going to put up quite a fight."
He looked down at his shotgun.
"Maybe I should just shoot you now. Ten dan is still a lot of money. Not enough to do everything I was thinking about, but it'd give me a place to start. And then there's the girl. That's fifty. Sixty dan sounds pretty good."
This was bad. The owner was greedy but not too greedy and was rather surprisingly deliberate about everything. Killing Batista was the most effective route and unless the drug started to wear off, there wasn't much he could do about it.
He tried moving again. All he could manage was ineffectually wobbling his arms and legs a few millimeters back and forth.
"I wish I had a car," the owner said, mostly to himself. "Even a horsecart would be fine. I suppose I could borrow one and it wouldn't look too suspicious, not that I borrow horsecarts ordinarily. Sure, I hitch a ride into Lago every now and again, but I can't let anyone else see you and the girl..."
That's right. Keep hemming and hawing. The owner was too smart for his own good. All this time he was wasting overthinking the problem, Batista was slowly starting to get sensation back in his body.
He didn't want to kill the owner if he could avoid it. He just needed to get him away from that shotgun. Without it, he wasn't a threat.
The owner continued to mutter to himself for several minutes. All the while, the numbness continued to diminish until Batista felt like taking his chances. The owner was distracted. He might not get a better opportunity.
He tried springing too his feet, but it didn't go quite as planned. There was a shock of pain from his stomach wound and his legs were none too steady. It didn't help that the owner had faster reflexes than Batista was anticipating. As soon as Batista was on his feet, the owner scrambled for his shotgun and let Batista have it with both barrels right in the chest.
Batista was thrown back into the wall and it certainly hurt like a sonuvabitch, but his chest was still unexpectedly intact, albeit somewhat shredded.
"Oh, damn," the owner said. "I still had it loaded with rock salt."
While Batista was busy writhing on the floor, the owner was fumbling through the drawers behind the counter looking for shells. As much as it hurt, Batista knew he couldn't let the owner reload. He dragged himself along the floor and brought the machete down on the owner's foot, cutting down to the sole of his shoe. He took it about as well as you would think.
He stumbled back, falling over, catching a shelf only for it to give way and dump its contents on him when he hit the floor. Batista got on top of him and raised the machete again, but instead of trying to split the owner's skull, he had a last-second change of heart and back-handed him instead. That shut him up.
Batista pulled himself up and loaded the shotgun. There weren't that many people in Arroyo, but everyone within several klicks would've heard the shotgun go off and some of them might get it in their head to investigate. If any of the curious decided to come armed, he wanted a credible deterrent to keep them from getting any ideas.
Batista didn't have much time. He needed to patch himself up, get whatever supplies he could carry, get Masako and get out of town. He went over to pick up the kaoliang, took a swig, then splashed the remainder of the contents on his chest.
He threw the empty bottle at the wall, smashing it. He finished stitching up his stomach, then went over to the drug shelf. Most of it was homeopathic remedies and other such garbage that was only good for tricking little old ladies out of their money. He did get a couple spools of bandages at least.
He found himself moved by a stupid sense of pity and used some of the bandages to bind up the owner's foot. He might still die of blood poisoning or something like that, but so could Batista. He found a pair of tweezers among the tools for pocketwatch repair and went to work picking out the chunks of rock salt from his chest. There was some carbolic salve over with the horse stuff, which was better than nothing. He smeared it over his pock-marked chest and his stomach wound and then bandaged them up.
He remembered seeing a bottle of medical brandy among the drugs, so he went and got it and took a long pull on the bottle before continuing his work. He took a hand drill and made a hole in the buttstock of the shotgun, then ran a leather thong through it and made a loop so he could hang it off his arm. That way his hands would be free and the shotgun would still be handy.
He picked out a change of clothes for himself and Masako, making a point to get a red shirt for himself. There weren't any boots in his size, so he was stuck with the sandals he took from the rice farmer.
Speaking of rice, he got some rice, beans and some other food items that would keep for a while. He didn't get too much. After all, in the shape he was in, he couldn't afford to weigh himself down any more than he had to.
Tempting as it was to raid the register for some money, he refrained. Why he was going out of his way to be considerate to a guy who had tried to kill him was a question he couldn't begin to answer.
It was a good thing he didn't drink any more of the brandy to dull the pain, because if his reflexes had been any duller, he would've taken a bullet the moment he tried to step out of the door. As he feared, some of the neighbors had come to investigate and they were armed. Even though they wouldn't have anything more than single-shot rifles, a lot of these old farmers could reload almost as fast as a magazine could feed a new round into the chamber.
"The next one's goin' right 'tween yer eyes!"
Batista went over to the cosmetics and grabbed a compact. He used the mirror to see what was waiting for him outside. Just one man.
Batista called out to him, "I'm givin' ya a choice! Ya go on back home an' don't come out or you're the one gettin' it 'tween the eyes!"
The man responded by taking another shot. If it had been a military-grade round, it would've gone through the wall and Batista too. He didn't have time for this.
There was a gun rack with two rifles. Locked, of course. He picked up a hammer from the hardware section and smashed the lock. It took a few hits. It would've only taken one if he used an ax or sledgehammer, but the swing would've popped his stitches. It hurt enough as it was.
And of course the ammo was in a cabinet with its own lock. He broke that lock too and took a box of rifle bullets. Small caliber and weak, but it would be enough to kill a man.
He went back to the door and checked outside with the mirror. Sure enough, the fool was still standing there like a big target.
"This is your last warning!" Batista shouted. "You clear out or I'm puttin' a bullet in ya!"
He didn't take the hint and once again took an ineffectual shot in Batista's general direction. That was it.
Batista popped out and took a shot, dropping him. He put two more round in him for good measure. If he wasn't dead, he wasn't too likely to be taking any more potshots at him.
He scanned around for any sign of another shooter lying in wait. If there was anyone out there, they weren't making their presence known. He had to risk leaving cover to get back to the end.
Fortunately, there were no further shots. Back in the inn, he headed to the kitchen. Masako, the proprietress and the two dead bounty hunters were right where he left them. He did notice the trail of puke the shopkeeper's son left behind when stopped by.
He went to Masako, plucked out the dart that was sticking in her back and rolled her over. Her eyes were open, but that didn't necessarily mean she was conscious.
He patted her cheek to get her attention.
"Come on, princess, get up. If I'm already up an' movin', so should you."
Of course, she had quite a bit less weight on her and hadn't been riding an adrenaline high, but he didn't have time to coddle her. Then he remembered his plan.
"Maybe it's just as well I get this done while you can't gimme a lotta fuss."
He took a big handful of her hair and started sawing away with the machete. She made this whining sound, the kind little kids make when they either can't or won't put their displeasure into words. He of course didn't let that stop him. He had most of her hair hacked off by the time her tongue loosened up enough for her to speak.
"Wh-what are you doing!?"
"Settle down, princess," Batista grumbled. "A man an' a woman. They're lookin' for a man an' a woman. I shoulda thought a' it sooner. Well, you're a boy now. I got some clothes for ya. May be a bit big for ya, but that can't hurt, even if ya don't got much on ya."
He pulled the shirt and trousers out of the bag he'd prepared and told her, "Get changed."
"I need ta know where ya are. I've already been shot at an' I don't know if anyone else out there means ta try their luck. 'Sides, it's not like I ain't seen ya undressed before."
She blushed at this, stammering, "W-well, I would rather not make a habit of it."
"You don't have much to look at anyway, so don't worry."
Masako took offense at this and proceeded to demonstrate that she wasn't just a flustered girl completely out of her depth.
"Have you ever wondered why you have to pay women for their company?" she asked sharply.
"If you've got energy enough ta sass me, you've got energy enough ta get changed. So get to it."
Realizing the fight was going nowhere, Masako sulkily started to undress. Honestly, she wasn't that bad to look at, but Batista had more important things on his mind. He went over to the body of the bounty hunter who slashed him with the machete and started to go through her stuff. Pass document, weapons permit, all good stuff. To say nothing of money. A fair bit of cash and a thousand taels in Gangshan scrip.
"What are you doing?" Masako asked as she was buttoning her shirt.
"These bitches are gonna help us on our way," he said.
He checked the pistol the bounty hunter was going for when he killed her. It was a Type 9 revolver or a reasonable facsimile. Her belt had four mounts with two stacks of moon clips apiece. Plus what was already in the revolver, that made fifty-four rounds. He took the belt and the shoulder holster and while he was at it, that longcoat looked handy. It was a little too big for Masako and would probably be a little too small for him, but it was still wearable and he'd rather keep his little arsenal concealed for the most part. Thankfully, the longcoat was oilskin, so the blood didn't soak in for the most part. He'd have a hard time being inconspicuous if half the damn coat was soaked in blood. The thought of dyeing the rest of it with whatever blood was left seemed excessively morbid, so thank God for oilskin. It'd also be nice if they were ever caught in the rain.
He then went over to the other bounty hunter. He pulled the ax out of her skull to spare anyone else the task, then started to search her as he did her partner. He considered her dart gun for a moment, but decided it wasn't all that practical. She carried a Type 9 as well. Crisscrossing two shoulder holsters was a bit of a pain, but he had the feeling he would need every shot he could get before he delivered Masako to Lingmu.
Speaking of doubling up, she had a matching machete. It wouldn't be that much extra weight and Batista was pretty good at dual wielding when the situation called for it. Drawing it out of its sheath to inspect it, he noticed the name 'Charybdis' etched in the blade. Charybdis... Chary...
He looked at the machete he had been carrying all this time and saw a similar inscription, 'Scylla' in this case. Scylla and Charybdis. Funny names. Were they supposed to mean something? They were decent names for the pair of blades if nothing else.
The second hunter didn't carry as much money on her, but every chip helped. Also, a second pass document would be quite useful. While he was at it, he decided Masako could use the second hunter's longcoat. He took the two longcoats to the sink and rinsed them off, then handed the smaller one to Masako.
"Here," he said. "I damn near couldn't tell these two were women, so maybe it'll do the same for you. And it'll keep the rain off ya too."
Masako grudgingly accepted the longcoat, saying, "It is not honorable to loot the dead like this."
"These're bounty hunters, princess," Batista replied. "Honor's got nothin' ta do with it. Ya ready?"
Masako looked to the proprietress and asked, "What about her?"
"She'll come 'round on her own. The others should be up by now too."
"What do we say?" Masako asked. "What do we do?"
"We say nothin', get outta town, that's what. Now come on."
Unsurely, Masako followed him out of the kitchen. As he expected, the husband of the young couple was weakly dragging himself over to his wife. Batista didn't say anything, didn't pay them any more than a passing glance. The less they saw and remembered about them leaving, the better.
When they got to the door, Batista motioned for Masako wait while he checked things out. No signed of anyone else. The one man he shot was still lying in the road.
"Let's go," he told Masako. "We need ta put as much distance 'tween this town an' us as we can."
Although he was hurting from all the damage he took, the feeling of empowerment that came with being well-armed more than made up for it. Crossing the border ought to be no problem now. So long as they could avoid any more surprises, things might just turn out all right.