Stalking my prey in the darkness, I move slowly through the dense forest, silently, too afraid to breathe. Step by step I inch closer, my heart hammering away in my chest and ears, the sound so loud it’s a wonder it hasn’t scared away my prey. I flex my hand, held close over Peace, ready to draw at a moments notice. Failure is not an option. With one more step, my prey finally enters my range. Drawing my weapon, I move, Balance on Windy Leaf, which turns into Swiping the Rushes, and my prey falls dead, silently, unable to even react at my charge. With a flick of my wrist, the blood flies off Peace and I return it to my scabbard. Fatality. I chuckle to myself, unsure of what the joke is. Whatever, it makes me smile. Who cares why.
Grabbing my hunting knife, I kneel down over the rabbit I just killed. This dumb fat bastard will make for delicious breakfast. I can already taste the greasy skewers of tender meat. Working quickly, I bleed and skin the rabbit, packaging it with the other two rabbits, while Sumila and Mei Lin wait patiently nearby. This is the most use I’ve been all day, besides stitching up Huushal’s legs. He’s going to need to eat to heal, he got torn up pretty well by the mountain cat, but nothing life threatening. If the cat had clawed just 5 centimeters higher though, he would have become at least half a eunuch though. Shuddering at the thought, I say a small prayer of thanks to the Mother. That would be a terrible thing to regrow. My arm and foot felt like they were submerged in broken glass and then rubbed with it. Hey… I wonder if I can regrow it … bigger? Hmm… I should find out. Not by asking Taduk though, he’ll tell everyone he knows, a real Chatty Cathy. Not sure if it’d be worth the pain either.
Even though it’s a new moon, the stars are bright enough to see by. It’s not bright enough to be able to read, but with the State of Enlightenment, I can make out enough of the surroundings to get by easily. I can’t keep it up forever, but for more than enough time to skin a rabbit. It’s really all I can do, honestly, having been largely useless the whole time. Sumila and Adujan have dismantled most of our competitors, while I just look on with nothing to do. I’m literally their baggage boy, first carrying Mei Lin, then Huushal. I was totally right about being sent as bait. They could win this thing with just the two of them, it’s completely unfair how strong they are. At least Huushal is in the same boat as me, just as useless. That really shouldn’t make me feel better, but it does. Misery loves company.
Finishing up, I signal them quietly and we move out, returning to our base camp. Sumila and Mei Lin both look adorable, each with a Lunar Awakening Rose in their hair, and Mei Lin carries a bundle in her arms. I have one in my lapel. The instructions were only for one flower, but no harm in being safe, and I can sell them for some coin. It’s a rarity, and the roots are still attached to most of them, so maybe someone can grow them at home.
Shaking my head, I refocus my attentions on my surroundings. Leading the way back to our cave, I keep my eyes and ears open, searching for danger in every shadow. If it wasn’t for these dumb flowers, I wouldn’t even be traveling in the dark. I can’t shake the feeling that something is off right now, odd, but I can’t quite place it. We enter a small batch of trees, and I hold my fist up, Sumila and Mei Lin freezing in place immediately, on full alert. Better safe than sorry, and something is gnawing at my brain, trying to tell me that things aren’t right. I just can’t quite figure out what.
Standing in place, hidden, we wait as the minutes pass by, with nothing but low forest sounds to fill the night. Slow, agonizing, minutes, filled with fear and anticipation as I ready myself for flight or fight. In a moment of clarity, I realize the problem. It’s the sounds. The bugs and frogs are still around, buzzing and croaking, but there are no birds hooting or animals scurrying. Something has scared them off. I take my bow in hand, drawing an arrow from my hip quiver, and wait. Patience.
That’s what 90% of hunting is, patience. You just need to wait in the right place, and good things will come. I glance back, and Mei Lin has her bow out as well, perpendicular to me, covering my angles. Sumila has her spear in hand, ready to launch. I hope they don’t fire off into the dark without confirmation. I don’t want them to accidentally kill someone because of my nerves. We all stand stock still, both of them trusting me, or having noticed the problem as well. Something that scares the birds and mammals, but bugs and small reptiles don’t give a fuck about. Most likely a large carnivore or some sort, but in this world, it can be anything. I can see the campfire we lit, just up the cliff in the distance, a short minutes walk away. We didn’t bother hiding it, since there shouldn’t be anyone stupid enough to launch a night attack in this darkness.
I reach for Enlightenment once more, and the sensations rush into me. My breathing slows, heartbeat receding, as I parse through the multitude of new information, my brain adapting and filtering out whatever is unnecessary. Just the faintest of sounds, but I can hear it. A click on hard dirt. Faint, but there, a talon or claw. An abrasive sound, something rubbing against stone. A short, chesty exhale, from a large animal, shuddering out of its mouth, moving about in the darkness. A cloud passes overhead, blocking out the starlight, plunging us into even darker shadow. Looking straight ahead into the darkness, I feel uneasy once again, fear of the unknown drying my mouth. Something is out there, but where? I steady my breathing, trying not to pant, giving away my location.
The clouds part and I realize I can pant all I want. They know where I am already, and have already surrounded us. Sleek, black-and-white bear-cat-weasel looking animals, maybe 500 kg in weight, and easily 3 meters long. There are at least two that I can see on the ground, but I can hear more of them in the trees above. They’re sniffing the air, staring directly at all of us, seeming docile. They can’t be that bad, they’re sort of cute, with long whiskers and eyelashes, little bandit-like markings around their eyes. I wouldn’t mind one as a pet, if it were smaller. Unless I can ride one, but roosequins seem the superior mount. One bear-cat-weasel thing directly in front of me, arches it’s back, yowling at us loudly, revealing a mouth full of massive fangs, the sound sending shivers down my spine. Fuck, nothing can just be cute and harmless. Speaking out of the side of my mouth, I try not to alarm the giant cuddly monsters. “Sumila, kill it quickly. Please.”
“Rain, don’t fight.” Sumila speaks slowly and softly. “There are three more that you can’t see. They want the meat, so just toss the rabbits away. Far away.” I can hear the quiver in her voice, which turns my legs almost to jelly. If Sumila is scared, I should be terrified.
Reaching back slowly, I unhook the twine carrying my catch, before carefully lobbing the rabbits away, arcing through the air, landing somewhere in the darkness with a thump. The bear-cats sniff the air, noses following the meat, before they amble off after their easy meal. As soon as they shuffle off, the three of us slowly step away, trying to make as little noise as possible. By the time we reach the cliff side, my breath is coming in shudders, nerves frayed.
This fucking contest is shit, sending us out into the night to pick flowers, while massive apex predators roam the forest. How is that even remotely safe? At least the animals were lazy. I’m just going to carry Huushal away in the morning, so we can get out of this forest of death. Walking slowly up the slopes, knees shaking, I shamble into the cave and stop, staring down the length of an arrow. Adujan holds it at me for five, very long, tense, breaths, before lowering her bow. I guess she’s still mad about the whole ‘thought she was a he’ thing. That was like… yesterday, just let it go. Afraid to unclench my asshole for worry of shitting myself, I curl up on my laid out bedroll, and close my eyes. I wonder if this counts as a near death experience? Why am I even here? They didn’t even announce the prizes in advanced. It’d be nice to know what I’m out here for.
“Hey, shit-stain.” I did not shit my pants. Right? I try to check as inconspicuously as possible as she continues. “You didn’t bring anything back to eat? Fucking useless.” I liked it better when Adujan was cold and silent. Now she’s loud and rude. The woman has the most foul mouth I have ever encountered, it’s no wonder she kept silent for the entire trip. Akanai would have literally washed her mouth out with soap, it’s something she and Baatar do. It’s highly unpleasant.
“Sorry, Yan-Yan, we ran into some Binturongs. So scary! We almost died.” Mei Lin launches into an exaggerated re-telling of our adventures, while Sumila sits down beside the fire, exhaustion and worry etched on her face. Poor girl, between her mom and dad riding away into danger and the stress of managing our team, she looks like she’s been burning the candle at both ends. Sitting back up, I give her a small smile, and start boiling some water to make some herbal tea. Fresh picked bissap, soothing and relaxing. While the water boils, I check on Huu, making sure everything is copacetic. He looks scarier now, with the addition of some facial scars, and having lost an ear like a grizzled veteran, rather than a fresh-faced kid. Hopefully the healers are good enough to fix him completely. His healing skills are decent, but I doubt he can regrow an ear on his own, at least not in a few days. He mumbles a bit in his sleep while I poke around his cuts, but everything seems fine.
Handing out tea as I pour it, I take my turn at watch while everyone else sleeps. Keeping myself in the darkness, with the fire behind me, I scan the area, waiting for my night vision to return, while my stomach rumbles. We ate the jungle cat already, but it was stringy, without much meat, with a sour taste to it. Not a fan of cat meat. Those rabbits would have been delicious, and we could have eaten, then headed back to the starting area in the morning. I swear I eat too much, but I’m still always hungry. I hope I have more growing ahead of me, I hate being shorter than everyone else. They’re just all too damn tall.
It’ll take us at least half the day to return, since we travelled quite some distance to find those stupid flowers. They only grow in ravines or other dark, damp locations, and Mei Lin could only spot one area, at the other end of the forest. On the plus side, there aren’t that many other groups around here. Earlier, every group we ran into acted like crazed bloodthristy animals, pointing at us and attacking without provocation at first sight. I don’t understand the reasoning, it’s not like we advertise that we have a token or anything. Just thinning out the competition, I guess. Kids and their bloodthirsty games.
My watch ends without incident and Sumila comes out to relieve me, so I walk back to my bedroll, collapsing into it, falling asleep within seconds.
Chiang broke camp at dawn, leading his four guards with him, quickly heading to the predetermined location to meet with Shirong.
“Cousin, good news! We spotted the savages close by. Come, come, I send my guards to inform the others. They’ll be on their way shortly.” Shirong was enthusiastic, hurrying them along. “We need to seize the opportunity, before someone else finds them and snatches our prize from us.” The six of them ran to the east, Shirong leading the way. Before long, he slowed down, eyes open, searching for his man. A clan member waved them over, signaling for stealth, and they slowly made their way over.
Less than 100 meters away, walking along the riverbed, were the bumpkin mountain dwellers themselves. The most dangerous looking one was injured, being carried by a runt, while the two of them were protected by three women. One of the women, a waifish rabbit child, wasn’t even wearing armor, out in her traveling leathers, skipping about as if on a mid-morning stroll. It was laughable. This was too simple, like picking apples. Chiang silently motioned for them to split up and approach them, ensnaring them and backing them against the riverbed. It was fast flowing and filled with carnivorous fish, a death trap should the savages jump in. Seven against four, three perhaps considering the little waif. An easy victory over some mud-dwelling fools who knew not how large the world truly was.
Making his way closer as quietly as a shadow, Chiang stepped softly towards his prey. The little waif carried a variety of flowers, perhaps for their mission. The prize grows even sweeter. It seemed they had a token, and judging by their course, completed their mission and were returning to the staging grounds. Truly, it would be the Situ Clan to prosper during this contest. Barely 30 meters remained between him and his prey when they stopped, the runt placing the giant on the floor, the waif and the antlered woman drawing their bows, arrows nocked.
“If you’re human, you should stand up, or else we might accidentally kill you, mistaking you for wild beasts.” The runt spoke loudly, almost gleefully. Chiang remained in a crouch, certain they wouldn’t shoot. The risk of killing someone was too high, and murder would be punished harshly. A whistle of an arrow quickly proved him wrong, ending with a scream from one of his clansmen. The little waif nocked a second arrow, turning to point directly at Chiang.
“Wait- wait!” Chiang quickly stood, spear in hand, palms forward, his clansmen echoing his sentiments. “Don’t sho-” another arrow came whistling at him, faster than he could react, piercing him in the leg. The pain was excruciating, more than he could bear. Tears leaked from his eyes, disbelieving what just occurred. Holding his injury, he remained prone, until the runt barbarian approached him.
“Hello there.” The barbarian squatted next to him, handling Chiang’s leg roughly. “I see that you’re in terrible pain. That is truly a shame.” This insolent, audacious scoundrel, smirking at his suffering. “ Luckily, I have just the thing for that. A pill -”
“You dare to shoot at me!?” Chiang screeched at him, voice strained, spittle flying out. “I’ll have you whipped and flayed! You are truly seeking death, attacking a favored son of the Great Situ Clan! I will have those women raped and beaten, you uneducated, shit-eating, horse-fucking -.” His rant was cut short, turning to a horrible scream as the runt ripped the arrow out of his knee, crimson blood spurting from the wound, leaving Chiang reeling in agony, black and white spots in his vision.
As his head struck the dirt, the last thing he heard before passing out was the runt speaking. “Ya, okay, I understand, not everyone is comfortable with pharmaceuticals. I can respect that.”
These idiot young master types. It’s like they don’t understand the real world. Here they are, sneaking up on us to assault us, but we attack them first, and we’re seeking death? C’mon son. I bandage the unconscious idiot up, and a search of his body comes up not only with his tag, but with a token as well, made of smooth white jade, ‘OuYang’ inscribed in gold. Ca-ching. Do we get to keep the tokens? I wonder how much one of them would sell for anyways. Flipping it around, I read the mission. Furs from a list of animals. This whole cluster-fuck is just a series of fetch quests. 2/10 theme-park gameplay, would not play again.
Moving along, I fix up the other fallen contestants and luckily, not only do they have all of the required furs, these mooks even have coins on them. Six pills sold, for an easy twelve gold. The pills are pretty easy to make, just some common plants that grow around the village, and a few hours of grinding per 20 pills. I have hundreds of them, from my practice in pill making. I thought they would make me money, but no one would buy them from me, not trusting my work. The pill was too complicated to make they said, requiring very strict amounts of each ingredient in the correct ratio, or else it could cause significant damage. It’s made much easier with proper measuring tools, like Taduk has, rather than the favored ‘eyeball’ method that everyone else uses. You need to work under a respected pill master, marking the pill with some symbol to show it’s yours, but Taduk won’t let me use his mark, even after verifying my work. My symbol is the side profile of a bunny. It made me chuckle for some reason, but Taduk loved it. Luckily, I use them sometimes to get to sleep, so not only are they tested, I also had a lot on me. What was once a failed venture, is now a thriving business. I’m not even overcharging them, but I should. It’s supply and demand. I have the supply, and I create the demand.
Chuckling to myself, I stand up from my last victim, pockets jingling, and inform my comrades of our great luck which is met with a cheer. Easy pickings. I didn’t even have to fight, Adujan and Mei Lin are sharpshooters, taking everyone out with arrows to the knee. Guess these little young masters can’t be adventurers anymore.
“Oh, ho ho, we meet again, children of the People.” Elder Ming lands softly, but I have no idea from where. I didn’t see him float down, I just saw him appear and land. I want to learn how to do that. “Oh, Seven victims this time.” He looks them over. “Arrows, my my my, such skill and accuracy. Good, good.”
Clasping my hands and bowing, we leave the Situ idiots behind with him, strolling away as I carry Huushal. He grumbles a lot about it, but tough shit. What does he expect, Sumila to carry him? Actually that might not be a bad idea. He’s heavy as hell, and Sumila is stronger than me. I open my mouth to suggest it, but before I can speak, someone interrupts me.
“You scoundrels! Stop right there! You have guts, assaulting my cousins and clansmen like that.” Putting Huushal down gently, I turn around to meet with the next band of idiots. Probably the remaining three we missed. Might as well pick up the spare. I’m greeted instead by at least fifteen angry-looking youths, brandishing some very heavy-looking clubs as they rush forward to surround us.
God damn it.
Author’s Note: Some picture references, just in case I didn’t do a very good job describing them. Also, they’re adorable. I just grabbed them off google images, if anyone has issue with me using them, leave a comment or email me.
My inspiration, Binturongs, or the Asian Bearcat. Genus name Arctictis which is greek for Bear-Weasel. Ya, not super imaginative naming, on anyone’s part.
|Previous Chapter||Table of Contents||Next Chapter|