Huushal punched his opponent in the face, shaking his head as he did. His teammates were simply too vicious. Two laid out cold, clubbed without mercy by Sumila. She had broken their steel helmets with a single powerful blow each, possibly even cracking their skulls. She normally was so sweet and kind, but once battle began, she was merciless. Adujan was no better, eagerly rushing into battle for first blood, maliciously targeting her opponent’s knee, ending his chance to compete any further, unless he found a healer. Rain was the worst, callously throwing his weapon like that. How much control did he have with his chi, to be able to Guide the throw like that? The sword pierced straight through the shin, cutting vertically, in the center of the leg. If the blade had been horizontal, the leg would have been lopped off, and his opponent would have bled to death. It was difficult admit, but his Pa was right, he was far less skilled than Rain. The amount of control required to Hone a spiritual weapon was already impressive. To do so without holding it, as well as Guide the trajectory? That was just too far beyond Huushal’s ability.
His opponent continued to struggle in his grasp. Frowning, Huushal punched him once more, lightly, trying to knock him out without hurting him too badly. Unsuccessful, the bastard continued to squirm, trying to break the hold on him. Huushal needed to punch him four more times before the struggling finally stopped. Knocking someone unconscious was much harder than he had anticipated. In the future, he would hit harder, just the once. That was the best method, with the least amount of suffering. Putting his opponent down, patting him in apology, Huushal looked up, to try to spot Mei Lin.
The tree was impossibly tall, the top so distant he could barely make it out. He could see movement, Mei Lin still making her way up, quickly at that. Hopping from branch to branch, like a squirrel, unafraid of the height. How did she do that? It was astounding. Huushal mused about what it would be like to move like that, chortling at the mental image of his large, stocky frame, gliding on the treetops, arms extended. Absurd.
“Alright. I think that’s enough harvesting. Can’t take it all.” Brushing his pants off, Rain stood and stretched his lower back, grunting at the effort. A smile on his face, he sauntered over to his victim.
Huushal was alarmed. If Rain killed someone, Pa and mom would be executed by the Society. “Wait, what are you doing?”
Rain looked at him quizzically. “I’m taking my sword back. I have a feeling I’m going to need it.” A grin, maddeningly likable. He was like that, once you got past his indifferent exterior. The magistrate’s son, Fung was the same, seeming cold and overbearing, until Rain had introduced him as a friend. Fung immediately brightened and opened up, seeming like a real person, different from the other young masters that looked down on their whole group. Too polarizing, the both of them, seeming passionless and arrogant at first glance, warm and brotherly once befriended.
“Hello there.” Rain greeted his victim with a smile, as if meeting an acquaintance. “I need my sword back. Thanks for holding onto it.” He chuckled. It was sort of funny. “Now, I have some pills here, that will numb the pain, made from Sweet Moss, Butterfly Shagbush, Wall-climbing Weeping Vines, and Night Ivy. Guaranteed to let you have a nice, dreamless sleep.” He held his hand out, thumb rubbing his fingers. “The problem is, they’re very expensive and from my personal stash so, not to say I don’t trust you, but I will require payment in advance. Two gold coins, and I give you this pill, and all your pain fades away. ” His other hand held a round brown pill between his fingers. “It’s a great price, the same you would pay in any pharmacy.”
“Pl-please Young Hero, I have no money on me, I left it all with my retainers. This is a survival match, we only brought what was essential.” His victim whimpered, shivering in fear. “Please, it hurts so much.” Tears leaked down the side of face, a pitiful look. Sighing deeply, Rain handed him the pill and his victim tossed it into his mouth, swallowing it quickly, as if afraid his tormentor would change his mind and take it back.
Rain was a good person, willing to sacrifice two gold for his enemy. “Remember, my name is Rain, and you owe me two gold. I will find you after this, I never forget a face.” Never mind that. A terrible miser. Huushal had seen the coin Rain spent on his lunches and baths. He could afford two measly gold, especially considering it was his own fault the enemy was in so much pain. The pill worked quickly, and a short minute later, the victim was asleep, laying in the grass.
Sighing deeply while he rummaged through his victim’s bag, Rain grumbled beneath his breath about his loss of coin. Huushal frowned, unable to condone stealing. He should know better. Pulling out a shirt, Rain draped it over his sword, before unceremoniously yanking it out. Blood spurted from the wound, staining the shirt and little else. Ah, now Huushal understood the need. Blood was damned hard to clean. He made note of the trick, for future reference.
While Rain set to bandaging the wound with a strip from the shirt, he spoke to the group. “So, what would have happened if I let him bleed out? Or if they get eaten while unconscious?” Good question, that. The elders in charge had warned them that the crime of murder would result in execution. No one answered, perhaps all unaware themselves.
Sumila rummaged through their clothes, snapping their tags. Huushal found and broke the one from his opponent as well.
“Hey, how do those things work? Can I see it?” Rain abandoned his patient midway through bandaging, rushing over to snatch the broken tag. Sometimes, the simplest things would draw his attention, like sealing stamps, pet animals, local fruits, chi locks, and now, locator tags. He was like a child at times.
“Rainy, look at what I found!” Mei Lin landed lightly, panting from exertion. She grasped a token made of jade and gold, the words ‘Arahant Sect’ engraved upon it. “I did good, ya?”
Rain smiled at her, broken tags still in his hand. “Good work Mei Lin. Your hunch was right, Adujan, amazing.” Mei Lin beamed, while Adujan ignored him as usual. Sumila snorted daintily, an adorable sound. “What are the instructions?”
“I haven’t read it yet.” Mei Lin handed the token to Sumila, who turned to study it, her cute lips moving as she read.
“Hmm… It says we need to retrieve a number of plants. I recognize all of them except for a Lunar Awakening Rose. The instructions specify it needs to be in bloom.” Sumila glanced at Mei Lin. “Any idea what that is?”
Rain was the one who answered, having returned to bandaging his victim. “Wild flower, blooms at night, difficult to make out during the day, looks almost like regular grass. At night, they bloom into beautiful, wide petaled flowers, a soft purple. No medicinal use, but they do look and smell nice.” Huushal scratched his chin, feeling put off. How did Rain know so much, fight so well, and heal so quickly? Did he just never sleep, practicing all the time? The Mother is truly unfair, giving so much talent to one person. He even looked the part of a hero, a fearsome combatant in his black carnugator armor. Huushal made a note to go gator hunting next time he went to the city. The stories must be exaggerated. How hard could it be, if Rain had done it last year? Perhaps Rain would even take him, and they could drink and laugh through their hunt. A near endless source of the most ribald jokes, Rain was a boisterous companion to drink with.
Sumila asked, “You know where to find them?” Mei Lin nodded at the inquiry. Sumila was so focused, determined. Perhaps only Adujan was more so, but she was unwilling to communicate with this new team. She was normally so talkative too, it was as if she were a different person this past month, sullen and closed off.
Landing softly, a grandfatherly, long-haired Elder appeared, looking around, quickly checking the injured and noting the wounds. He had a soft, wrinkled face, with bright eyes and curved horns sprouting from his temples. “Good children, binding their wounds, giving them medicine.” He laughed heartily. “Perhaps better to not injure them so badly in the first place. We are all children of the Mother, and you are all the future of the Empire.” He spied the Token in Sumila’s hand. “Oh ho ho, The Arahant Sect Token. How fortuitous. I am Elder Ming, first name Zhong Guan, of the Arahant Sect, or ‘Those Who Seek Perfection’.” Stroking his beard, he laughed once again. “May I inquire as to the names of you heroic youngsters?”
“Too polite, Elder Ming, there is no need. My apologies for not greeting you immediately. My name is Rain, Sentinel of the People.” Clasping his hands, the spitting image of an obedient child. The fraud. All good manners, until a cup of wine was in him, then he turned belligerent to any who irked him. If not for Fung’s standing, they would have gotten into at least six bar fights. The memory of the fight in the restaurant still brought a chuckle to him, Rain diving head-first into the fray like a mad dog. The rest of them greeted the Elder, although not as prettily as Rain had.
“Ha ha ha, good skills, good manners. Good, good. Excellent. I will hold you back no more, young ones. Hurry on now, I wish you the best of luck, and caution you to take care. Perhaps it will be you who is granted our prize when this contest ends.” Shooing them away, the Elder gathered the injured together, standing guard until more arrived to help carry them back. The five of them headed off, following Mei Lin.
A few minutes away from the Elder, Mei Lin turned and hopped onto Rain’s back. “I’m tired from the climbing Rainy. Carry me please.” Patting his helmet, she pointed. “That way!”
Envy brimmed up within Huushal. Mei Lin was an adorable young lady, round-faced and wide-eyed, with many young men in the village wishing to court her. While Huushal preferred someone taller, with more meat on their bones, it still was upsetting to watch another in the springtime of his youth. At 19 years of age, he had yet to touch a woman until Rain had shared his wealth and invited him to the bath house. Such a paradise, Huushal had never dreamed it could exist, and Rain was so experienced, to hear him talk of his adventures. Perhaps he should visit the Golden Swan Pavilion as well. Shaking his head in sorrow, he grimaced. It was a year’s pay for a single night. Where would he come up with that sort of money? His single visit to the baths had swallowed most of the fortune that Rain had gifted him with, and earned him a scolding from Mother. Pa had laughed, but didn’t help, just grinning at his misery.
Huushal had no skills to earn coin with, beside his martial prowess, and his Ma had threatened to hunt him down should he join the army. She was more terrifying than a horde of Defiled. Huushal prayed that she didn’t find out about his adventures with Rain, or she’d break out the strap. Lamenting his woes, he continued to follow the happy couple. That lucky bastard Rain, he had the adorable Mei Lin wrapped around his finger, while Sumila latched on to his every word. He even seemed to be making advances on Adujan, cold as she was to him, gifting her with a spiritual weapon, a princely courting gift. Three completely different women, Rain was a man of varied tastes. Grinning to himself, Huushal found he could not hold that against him. It wasn’t Rain’s fault that Sumila had no interest in Huushal. He would just need to work harder to impress her.
They continued for hours, jogging through the forest, following Mei Lin’s directions, collecting flowers along the way. They encountered three more groups, and Huushal found it odd how hostile they were, immediately charging them with reckless abandon, not even trying to speak. They put their opponents down easily, destroying their tags and waiting for an Elder to arrive before moving on.
Huushal was getting closer to perfecting his knockout punch. The last opponent only required two punches to render unconscious, although that one had been rushed away in a hurry by an Elder, earning him some reproachful glares. Rain didn’t even put Mei Lin down for the fights, throwing his sword and letting the three of them handle the rest. It was rather simple, Sumila and Adujan fiercely putting down their opponents, while Huushal gently tapped his into oblivion. They were too savage, these women, nothing like the soft, sweet ladies of the bath house. His mind worked fiercly, trying to remember every detail of his encounter. Who knew when he would be able to afford such a trip again?
Pain tore through his shoulder, a weight landing atop Huushal and sending him to the ground. Screaming in an unmanly fashion, he scrambled in the dirt, feeling something clawing at his legs. Kicking wildly, without feeling an impact, he turned to face his ambusher. A wildcat, long of fang and yellow eyed, was shredding his armor as if it were paper, swiping closer and closer to his belly. Huushal struggled backwards, getting his shield in front of him. The wildcat batted it away with a powerful paw, sending him sliding across the dirt.
An arrow hissed into the wildcat’s side, followed by a spear, thudding into flesh, eliciting a frenzied yowl. Rain appeared in front of him, shielding him from attack. A hand dragged Huushal back, Adujan’s, swearing and grumbling under her breath. Rain backed away as well, a few steps ahead, warding off the dying attacks of the wildcat. The pained screams seemed unreal to Huushal, as if far away. Blinking to clear his eyes, his vision turned blurry, before finally blacking out.
It was nighttime when he awoke again, wrapped in a travel blanket, inside a cave. It was raining outside and Adujan sat, sullenly poking a fire, sitting on a stone. “What happened?” Huushal croaked the words out, gratefully drinking from the proffered skin.
“You were pounced on by a wildcat, Big Huu. A real lady of the night. Skin is over there, it’ll make a good blanket for you to piss all over when you have your nightmares.” Adujan spoke as if making up for the past month of silence. She had bestowed that nickname on him her first year as a cadet, when they had worked together. “You lost an ear, and your pants.” Grinning lasciviously, she added, “You lady-killer.” Handing him a bowl of stew and a spoon, she continued. “Sumila wrecked the fucking cat, terrifying doesn’t describe her well enough. Formidable woman, she is. Rain and Mei Lin looked after your cuts and gashes. Don’t worry, Rain did your legs and ah, manly regions. Little Huu is still there, no need to fret, too small for the cat to get at. Armor took the brunt of it, it seems.” Shrugging, she turned back to the fire. “Maybe you can go kill some carnugators, get a new shiny set, just like the ‘Young Hero’ Rain.” She grumbled to herself some more, an annoying habit.
Huushal ate his stew slowly, difficult with one arm in a sling. It was delicious, and he savored each bite, perhaps his only chance to eat food cooked by Sumila. It had to be her, Adujan and Mei Lin definitely didn’t know how to cook, and Rain probably didn’t either. When would he have the time to learn? The perfect woman, Sumila could even cook well, the food heavenly, almost as good as Charok’s. His wounds all itched fiercely, but his Ma said that was how he knew they were healing. Sighing deeply, he reflected on the afternoon. Almost died again today. That made it the fourth time. The first was an arrow from a sneak attack by bandits, his first foray as a cadet, a feeling he would never forget. It was getting easier to shake the dread, the fear that always followed a close brush with death. Rain would probably be laughing by now, the maniac. Looking around, his eyebrows rose. Where was Rain? Or Sumila and Mei Lin, for that matter?
“They’re off looking for the moon flower thing. Rest your big head, Big Huu. If you need to take a piss or shit, try not to, because I don’t really want to carry your big heavy ass outside.” Huushal preferred the quiet, sullen Adujan that he had traveled with the past month. It was a blessing, not to listen to her constant mocking and cursing, so unladylike. Now that they were alone though, it was back in full force. She seemed in good mood, at least, and it was good that she didn’t mock him in front of his parents. Or worse, in front of Baatar. Huushal laid back down, seeking balance. He might as well do his best to heal what he could, be of more use. He’d be damned if he let Rain carry him while he was conscious. That was an embarrassment he could live without.
“Have you found them yet?”
Situ Chiang shook his head at Situ Shirong’s inquiry. Close to 800 people were scattered throughout the forest, and Xiang had to search for certain animals to hunt, to fulfill their mission. How was he to find one specific group of barbarians? His cousin was too entranced by the reward. Five thousand gold and an unnamed favor, to cripple some savages. It seemed like an easy job, but the forest was vast, and their time limited. They could spare no time to search for mongrels.
Shirong smacked his hand against a tree, frustrated. Chiang didn’t even know what he needed coin for, in any case. As a favored son of the clan, Shirong and he enjoyed luxuries beyond the dreams of most. What was a thousand gold to them, once split between their group? A few days at the brothels, or a single night with one of the top courtesans. A pittance. Even worse, it was an open bounty that anyone could claim. The chances of them finding the savages first were slim to none. He said as much to him, but that only earned him a disdainful look.
“It’s not about the money, cousin, it’s about the favor owed. To have the Canston Trading Group in our pocket would be a boon. They are a growing power, and I intend to buy their favor cheaply whilst I still can. They have secured the aid of an ancestral beast! A free one, at that. Even our clan only has the aid of five, all slaves procured at great cost.” Shirong grinned, punching Chiang in the shoulder. “They have more half-pig soldiers than they know what to do with. I wouldn’t mind having a bristleboar guard, they are intimidating to look at, fierce and powerful.”
Chiang sighed inwardly, keeping his thoughts to himself. Such greed and shortsightedness. If Shirong would just work at finding another tablet, he could just sell his reward for all the slaves he wants. Why chase after favors from a middling merchant company. However, Shirong was more favored within the clan, his father the vice-leader, while Chiang’s father was a mere guardian. Even worse, their cousin Gulong was just as determined to find the savages, one of his random indulgences. Dejected, he returned to searching the forest, fantasizing that perhaps if they found them, the savages would have a token and the mission completed, allowing Chiang to reap without sowing. The OuYang clan token they had found was most likely worthless, their patriarch a notorious miser. The prizes were handled by a double-blind system, all held together, guarded by a mixed collection of warriors chosen by lottery, all sworn to secrecy, no clan or sect knowing what the others had prepared. Many of the sects and clans of the Society used it as a way to gain face, giving out incredible prizes, showing off their wealth in front of the entire province. He salivated at the thought of being able to claim two prizes, a dream that would not likely be realized.
Skulking off into the darkness, his teammates beside him, Chiang continued on his hunt, for token or savage, it mattered not. Either would do nicely.
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