Sitting in what may be the bumpiest wagon ever, I stare out the back watching the forest scenery pass us by. The long-awaited contest is finally about to begin, all the built up tension and anticipation, ruined by a three-hour wagon ride. Terrible planning. The entire contest is kind of built on an idiotic premise, to be honest. They decided to put a bunch of young idiots with weapons into a forest, without supervision but plenty of dangerous animals, and make them compete with each other for amazing prizes. Whoever came up with this idea should be dragged out onto the streets and beaten. As if a stern warning is going to keep us in line or from being eaten alive. Hopefully they have some other method of keeping me alive, because without Taduk around to heal all my injuries, I’m actually kind of really nervous. There are other healers of course, all made available to us should we incur any injuries, but how many healers can be as good as my Teacher? I haven’t heard any of them referred to as ‘Medical Saint.
We’re sharing a wagon with Fung and his team, consisting of three surly looking bald dudes, and a lovely little raven haired, pale-skinned girl named Ong Jing Fei. She didn’t seem very happy to meet me, however, so at least she’s consistent with almost all the other women in my life. I had one wild night out on the town with Fung and Huushal, hitting the bars and blowing off some steam, but the rest of the time was spent in focused training, my self-pity party over. Besides, Fung is a bigger training freak than I am, just not as good at healing himself. He has a team of healers that do it for him, one of the many advantages of wealth. Sitting next to me, shoulder to shoulder, he clutches his long sword, dressed in something he calls ‘flexible armor’. It pretty much looks like his normal clothes, if a little less embroidered, but a bit shinier as if made from metal threads. For all I know, that’s exactly what it is, metal cloth. I want some, to wear under my leather armor. It looks nice, but not very safe. I wouldn’t mind one though, just to wear under real armor. Can’t hurt to layer.
My armor is made of dark yet shiny green leather and scales, almost black, fitting my slender form perfectly. It comes complete with matching pants, gloves, and boots, all tough enough to stop arrows without being pierced. It’s made from layering several carnugator pelts together, so there’s a very good chance that I am wearing both gators that chomped me. I don’t know why that makes me feel safe, but it does. The helmet is the crowning piece, and I’m wearing it now, even though it’s a little uncomfortable. A metal shell lined and covered with leather, it features two ‘eyes’ on top of my head, amber gems with a black line running through them, reminiscent of the carnugator eye’s themselves. Mei Lin called me a young dashing hero, and I chose to ignore the fact that she says that about everything I wear. Alsantset and Charok really went all out with this armor, and that thought alone makes me feel protected. And the fact that I tested it with an iron sword. Didn’t even leave a mark.
For the contest, we required a five person team and Mei Lin filled in for our fifth spot when we registered. I protested letting her join but was overruled, Alsantset claiming I should be more worried about myself. The person in question sits behind me, back to back, leaning against me, singing quietly without a care in the world. I’ll have to keep her close by, make sure she doesn’t get hurt. I wouldn’t be able to face Taduk if she did, the man has a serious daughter complex.
They handed out our numbers, a simple wooden tag for each of us, while they explained the rules of the contest. I already noted how dumb it was. They had given it a tagline: skill, survival, and luck. Scattered around the forest are various tokens. When we arrive at the forest, a lottery takes place, and we enter the forest based on our draw, ten teams at a time. Collect a token, complete the mission carved on the back, and return to the starting area, within five days. No killing and the prizes gifted depends on which token you found. There’s a damn good chance to complete a mission, and get a junk prize, and there’s also a good chance that large animals devour my bones, leaving me without a corpse. I hate this. It isn’t the entire contest, but just phase one. Anyone unable to complete a task and return on time is eliminated. What’s more, there are only 17 tokens, so there’s a maximum number of teams that will pass. I don’t know why they chose such an odd number, but whatever.
The tags are just a round piece of wood, with our number scrawled on it. They stressed that we keep the tag on us at all times, and if they’re broken, we’re out. According to Mei Lin, the Elders can use them to find us. She has no idea how it works though, and Sumila wouldn’t answer me. I should do something nice for her, like get Huushal to take her to the opera or something. I overheard her talking about it earlier. I’m sure she’ll enjoy it, and maybe it’ll get me back on her good side. I’m also pretty sure Huushal has a crush on Sumila, with how he keeps glancing at her, so it’s two birds with one stone. Ah, young love.
We finally arrive at our destination, the wagons stopping and the proctor’s gathering us all up. I give Fung a hug, saying, “Good luck. Are you sure you don’t want to work together?” There’s no rule against it, and I’m confident Sumila and Adujan can protect us all. I feel no shame cowering behind them. It’s much better than fighting against them.
“I need to stand on my own feet, Rain.” Smiling, he pats my back and leads his team off to wait. Truly a Young Hero.
Standing around, I shift my feet back and forth. I have to pee, but this armor is a little tricky to get out of, and I’d rather hold it for a while, at least until I can get some privacy, away all these people. Adujan is pacing a little, probably nervous, while Huu and Sumila stand stoic, arms crossed, like tiny little mirrors of each other. The three of them are dressed in standard Sentinel gear, brown, fur-lined leather armor, and faceless helmets. Mei Lin is dressed in more comfortable leathers, the same ones she travels in, her hair done in simple braids without adornments, wearing her white scarf, wrapped around her waist. We’re all fully armed with shields, short spears, bow and quiver, as well as our own spiritual weapons. Sumila is lucky, nothing extra to carry besides the bow. Adujan is the same, but Huu has a honking big sword, the blade almost a meter long and as wide as my hand, with a single, slightly curved edge. The handle is extra long as well, perhaps a third of the length of the blade, with a ringed pommel. I have a minor case of sword envy, but at least my hilt is nicely wrapped.
None of the other contestants really catch my eye, and no one bothered doing any research on our opponents, because there are just too many of them. We are team number 88, while Fung is 126. A minimum of 630 contestants, traveling from all over the province, here to prove their prowess in combat… with a scavenger hunt. Just complete and utter horse shit.
Rocking back and forth on my heels, I whistle along with Mei Lin’s singing, impatiently waiting for our number to be called. This is fucking boring as hell.
Adujan stood, arms crossed, watching, waiting. Thirty groups had gone already, with the next ten being drawn. The tension was aggravating, the contest format idiotic. She had spent the past few days hard at training, practicing with her new weapon, trying to familiarize herself with it. Her branding ceremony had been exquisite, a dance with a shadowy partner, moving and fighting in tandem. It had been graceful and powerful, and felt so natural to her, as if her own body were guiding her in the movements. The freedom from her thoughts, the release of control, it was wonderful and soothing. She had woken from the ceremony and immediately gone to the training yard to practice, almost in a trance, desperate not to forget any of it, angry that she could not hold on to that feeling. Even after several days she still had not remembered everything, but some had remained behind. Honing the edges of the shield was as simple a breathing, the chi flowing through her weapon without interruption. A few other techniques and movements had been retained, but nothing like the fluent and nimble movements she had dreamt, none of the coordination she had experienced. It frustrated her to no end when she dwelled upon it.
“Nervous? I know I am.” Rain patted her on the shoulder, almost causing her to jump. The nerve of this bastard, acting so familiarly.
“I am not fucking nervous, just ready to begin. I’m here to win, make a name for myself, and don’t you dare hold me back.” Adujan snapped the words at him without thinking, immediately regretting her tone. She had repaid his generosity with a beating, albeit a well deserved one. Mistaken for a boy, at 18 years of age, it was mortifying how often she had misunderstood his intentions. She wanted to apologize, to make up for her gaffe, but he had already moved on, with an easy smile and careless shrug, flirting shamelessly with Mei Lin and Sumila, telling them to be careful. Why didn’t he tell her to be careful? So she was not even worth a small word of warning? Men so terrible did not deserve to look so good. It was unfair. Adujan gave a short protest to the Mother, asking her to fix the imbalance.
Big Huu stood determined, just like her. After being humiliated in that spar, she would have thought him an ally against Rain, but the two of them were like brothers now, along with that idiot young master, bonding in their perverted tendencies. They had disappeared for an entire night and morning, returning close to lunchtime the next day, reeking of perfume. That one though, Fung, was very handsome, and judging by his gaze upon her, not as blind as Rain. Perhaps that would be worth pursuing, although nobles tended to be a mule-headed bunch. She was almost 20, of marriageable age, and with no one to help find a husband for her, Adujan could only rely on herself. She had fancied big Huu for a short time, when she had first joined the cadets, but he was a bit of a bore, once past the handsome and rugged exterior, always nagging at her about her language. It was who she was, and she would change for no man.
“Numbers 37, 9, 124, 88 …”
As soon as their number was called, Adujan bolted forward, the rest following closely behind. This was her first step on the path towards victory. The others followed, but only because she was fastest. She honestly had no idea where to go, having just picked a general direction. They ran forward, following her as minutes passed, and she was still unsure of where to go. Hesitation gnawed at her. Should she stop and discuss with her team?
“This contest is really stupid. How are we supposed to find 17 hidden tokens in a giant forest? Besides wandering around and getting lucky, that is.” As much as he annoyed her, she agreed with Rain this time. Fucking dumb contest.
“Don’t be silly Rainy.” Mei Lin ran alongside Rain, holding his sleeve as they went, as if this were some lover’s stroll. How she managed to remain so dainty and endearing while running was a mystery to Adujan, almost as if she were floating alongside. “They said the tokens were scattered in the forest, not hidden, ya? Skill, survival, and luck, that’s what the Elder said. Luck has the least to do with it. Adujan has the right idea.”
Mei Lin continued, unaware of Adujan’s distress. “She’s been leading us to the tallest tree we could see from the starting point, an Empress Tree. There’s a good chance there’s a token there, since it’s an easily visible landmark. If not, we can climb it to see the surroundings and try the other landmarks.” Oh. Adujan looked around, zeroing in on the tallest tree, visible through the leaves and branches. She picked up the pace, now with a destination in mind. Thank you, little Mei Lin.
They ran for several more minutes before reaching their destination. Adujan raced around the thick trunk, looking under the roots and stones in the surrounding area. Sumila and Huushal aided in her search, while Mei Lin hopped up, beginning her ascent in the same graceful manner she ran. It was so illusory, it was difficult to believe her eyes.
“How does she do that?” Adujan mumbled under her breath, while Rain asked the same question out loud. Thankfully, no one noticed she had echoed him. It annoyed her that they thought alike at times, made her feel less of herself for being so much like the idiot.
“Oh wow!” Rain’s voice sounded out from nearby, and Adujan raced to his side to look at his findings. She saw nothing of note, and scowled at him. “Fox-glove roots. Great medicinal value, plus real coin value.” He grinned, and set to harvesting. The idiot brought along a herbalist toolkit in his pack. Why was he even here, did he think this was a camping trip? Was he purposely trying to aggravate her? She resumed her search, but to no avail, pounding the tree trunk in frustration. Idiotic contest.
“Hmph, to think someone had the same idea as us.” An arrogant sounding youth stepped out from the forest, followed by his teammates. “Just count yourselves lucky, having left before us.” His face lit up as he looked at them. “Your luck has seem to have run out, but ours seems to just be beginning. What a fortuitous event for us to find you all so quickly.” He grinned, his companions fanning out, weapons drawn. Sumila and Huushan immediately came to her side, weapons drawn. Rain ignored the proceedings, continuing to harvest his plants. “Rain.” Sumila hissed. “Get up.”
“Why?” He didn’t even look up. “Killing isn’t allowed, they stressed that quite often. Just let them search around, don’t be so competitive. We can all get along.”
“Idiot. Killing might not be allowed, but fighting is. They mean to beat us unconscious.” Sumila sounded as if her teeth were grinding to nubs within her mouth. Adujan was sympathetic, she understood her frustration. A sister in the stand against Rain.
He finally looked up from his gathering, looking at Sumila and his surroundings. “Oh. Ohhhh okay, I thought this competition seemed a little tame. I should have known better.” He grumbled under his breath, an annoying habit. “So, what’s the policy on crippling? Dismembering? Where exactly is the line? If I beat someone half to death, and they starve in the 5 days, am I held responsible for their death?”
Adujan could not bear the tension or the idiocy any longer. She ran to the right, charging at her opponent, spear and shield in hand. They were four against five, and Rain was still kneeling in the dirt. She needed to even the odds quickly. Feinting high, her spear lanced towards her opponents knee. Scoring a superficial wound, she pressured her opponent, a combination of feints followed by a thrust to the very same knee, this time piercing through the muscle. Her shield crashed into her opponent’s face, who grunted in pain, a hook catching his cheek as he fell backwards, leg unable to support his weight. She coldly noted to take care not to accidentally remove anyone’s eye with her shield. That would be troublesome.
Turning quickly she moved to find her second opponent, only to find there wasn’t one still standing. Two were unconscious, helmets shattered, bumps forming on their heads. Sumila stood over them, unconcerned, while Big Huu held a third in his grip, punching his prisoner repeatedly in the head, almost seeming to enjoy the game. The last one remaining, the leader who had spoken, was on the ground, whimpering in pain, Rain’s sword pierced through the flesh and bone of his calf. Rain himself was again kneeling in the dirt, having returned to harvesting his plants. The battle had lasted less than a minute.
Unbelievable. Adujan frowned, her mood darkening. Once again, it was clear who her greatest rivals in the contest were, her own party. Rain was especially ruthless. That injury he gave his enemy would be weeks in healing without the intervention of a top class healer like Taduk, far beyond the reach of most. The poor bastard, weeks of travel only to have his hopes dashed within the first hour. Pitiable.
Adujan shuddered. She hoped to the Mother that she would not face any of her comrades in combat. Down that path lay defeat.
Baatar stood and laughed at the incoming hordes of the Enemy. Too weak, too weak! He rode atop Balor with pole-ax in hand, scattering their corpses before him like flower petals, trampling them beneath him as he searched for a worthy enemy. His Bannermen rode beside him, killing enemies like killing chickens, filling him with pride. Ten days they had attacked, before retreating again, and now, after ten more days of boredom, they had finally returned, this time in full force. True battle, true combat, so great was the thrill he was almost giddy as a child, roaring his challenge to any who could hear him, as the blood and dirt churned to mud around him.
Finally, he spotted a misshapen form ahead of him, a hulking monstrosity of flesh and chitin, arms covered in thick plates, with claws sharp as any blade. He charged forward, his foe met with a clash that shook the earth, the shock nearly sending his weapon from his hand. Laughing maniacally, he drew The Fang, tossing it high into the air, his halberd crashing down upon the demon, glancing off its shell, Balor leaping about, avoiding its blows, dancing about the mammoth brute. With the weight of a mountain behind it, The Fang shot back to the earth, his chi igniting it within, crashing down upon his foe, yellow-white ichor spraying about. Unworthy, too weak! Smashing the battered corpse aside, Baatar willed The Fang back into his grasp, riding forward, searching for yet another foe, a stronger foe, one to challenge him. He had no time to waste with these weaklings. He needed to find more demons quickly.
It would do him no good to allow Gerel to keep his lead. The boy’s head grew too large.
Author’s note: I like to take a moment to thank all my donors. It means a lot to me, that there are people willing to part with money for something I created. It’s a great feeling being paid for something you enjoy doing, and I truly thank you all for allowing me to experience that.
As always, thanks for reading and for the kind comments and reviews. I’ll do my best to keep up with everyone’s expectations.
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