Gulong led his clansmen against the fur-clad barbarians, charging towards them. For them to dare humiliate the Situ Clan, it was up to him, as the little patriarch, to regain the face of the Situ clan. His iron club in hand, he ran towards his enemies, yelling fiercely as he descended upon them. The yokels were armed with real weapons, but there was no need to fear injury, the foolish idiots risked too much with them. Swinging his club, he descended upon his first victim, a lovely little red-panda girl, grinning at the thought of subduing her. Perhaps he could even make her into a slave after this. Her parents would probably trade her for a few shiny baubles, the backwards idiots.
As soon as he approached, his club in mid swing, the girl booted him back, sending him to the ground gasping for air. He coughed, tears filling his eyes as he watched the bitch mercilessly tear through his cousins and guards, causing serious injuries, breaking helmets and bones with every swing. A madwoman, that’s what she was, bloodthirsty and crazed, she risked killing as she fought in a frenzy of strikes. He would have her beaten by his fathers guards when the contest was over. Struggling to stand, he charged at a different target, a little runt of a child, strapping on his shield as he stood in front of an injured wolf-boy. Easier prey, his guards could deal with that crazy bitch.
The runt suddenly appeared before him, faster than possible, shield slamming into his chest, sending him back three steps. No chi in the attack, but a ferocious charge, leaving him winded once more. Wheezing hard, he raised his club once more, but again, the runt charged him, striking him in the face with his leather gauntlets. Tasting the salty blood flowing from his nose, Gulong grew enraged. How dare this brute injure his face! Tossing the club aside, he drew his longsword, ready to cut the insolent shrimp soldier to pieces. The savage was fast, but that wouldn’t save him from death. Gulong’s father would keep him from getting into too much trouble, especially if he made it look like an accident. It would be worth it, to see the smug look off his face.
With a charging thrust, he aimed it at the lout’s throat, deflected by his opponent’s sword, a tiny thing barely longer than a dagger. Longer is stronger, as they say. Grinning maliciously, Gulong contemplated how to best carve up the boy as he traded blows, each one as ineffective as the last. Sweat had begun to run down his neck as he moved about, striking high and low, each time failing to connect. He struck out with his most powerful moves, only to be answered in kind. Swiping the Rushes, countered by Hanging Branch Grasp, Traverses the Mountain defeated by Darting Fang, Striking Fury deflected by Fluttering Raindrops, every cut and thrust met easily as the savage continued to smirk, enraging Gulong even more. Twenty passes of his weapon, and he had yet to scratch his opponent, who continued to stand there mocking him, unwilling to strike at him, just toying with him, humiliating him. He grew unhinged, his strikes growing more deadly, no longer trying to pretend, his full power behind every attack, and still the runt smiled at him, as if to say ‘this is your level of skill?’
Soon, his energy was spent and he stood still panting, sword lowered, glaring at this hateful bastard. “What’s taking you so long?” An unfamiliar voice, not someone of his party. Glancing around, he looked in horror at his clansmen, all brutally beaten, lying upon the ground, pitiful moans and gasps coming from their lips.
“You fucking savages! Do you know who we are? Who I am?” Gulong screamed at them, before screaming in pain, the runt’s sword piercing his shin, the pain unlike anything he had ever felt before. Screeching and crying, he fell to the ground, cursing the damn trash that didn’t know their place.
The runt approached him, squatting down, a mocking smile upon his face.“Hello there. I see that you’re in terrible pain. That is truly a shame. Luckily, I have just the thing for that.”
“Fuck you, you sheep shagging, shit-eating, backwoods, barbarian. Someone else will hunt you down for the bounty, and we’ll see who’s smiling then.”
The runt clamped his dirty hand over Gulong’s mouth, leaning into him. “Shhhh… Why are all you young masters the same? We’re just having a little friendly competition here, no need for all the name calling. Now, what’s this about a bounty?”
As soon as he removed his hand, Gulong spit in his face, hitting him just beneath the eye. “I’ll have everyone you love beaten and whipped, before I shove a spear up their asshole and feed them to the dogs. The pretty ones I will have raped by every man in the city, before I -” The runt’s fist smashed into his face. Spitting out his teeth, he began to yell again, but a second blow landed, harder this time.
“I can see that you’re loyal, that you’d rather be beaten than betray your source. I can respect that.” A third strike landed on his eye, and the world began to spin. He tried to speak, but was interrupted by another punch. “Don’t talk, I wouldn’t want you to bite your tongue.”
It takes six punches for me to knock the entitled little bitch unconscious. It should be a good lesson for him, to keep his anger under check, or at least his mouth shut. He’s skilled, aggressive and strong, but a little too obvious about his attacks, easily read. It was a nice match until he started his little hissy fit at the end there. Everyone screams about rape, it’s incredibly unpleasant. I’m just glad I reincarnated as a guy.
Huushal is unable to control his roaring laughter, hollering in glee, gasping heavily. The man can’t read the mood, I’m trying to be intimidating. Standing up, I look around at the others, taking note of what emotions I see in their faces. An example had been made, so now to find the weakest link. A lot of rage, and stubborn faces. I need a different target, someone timid and vulnerable. I spot my target, a wide-eyed girl, perhaps 18 or 19 years old, cradling her broken shoulder as she sits on the ground, shivering in fear. Reaching down to grab the beaten young master, I drag him forward and take a knee in front of her, flashing my most charming smile. “Hello. My name is Rain, of the People. What’s your name?” She begins to hyperventilate, panicking at my approach as she tries to move away from me. I picked a good target. I do my best to calm her down while keeping her close, smiling with my hands held unthreateningly in front of me.
Eventually, I manage to coax a name out of her. Sniffling, she mumbles out, “Situ Ji Yeon.” She hiccups, still fearful of me.
“That’s a very pretty name, Ji Yeon.” Smiling gently, I speak in the most friendly tone I can manage. “You’re a very lovely young girl, long, ebony hair, pale skin, with high cheekbones and a refined nose. I bet you spend a good amount of time everyday, making sure you look lovely.” I give her a tiny tap on the forehead, and she flinches back. “I want you to take a look at this one.” I lift the young masters beaten face for her to see, her eyes widening in fear. “His jaw and cheekbones are broken, eye is swelling up, nose almost deformed. Doesn’t he look terrible? Barely even recognizable anymore, hardly even human.” I continue after a pause, giving her time to study him. “I don’t want to do that, not to you, a pretty young girl like yourself. I’m not a monster. I just want to know about this bounty business. Why don’t you tell me what you know, Ji Yeon?”
She spills everything, speaking as quickly as she can, tears and snot dripping from her. “I don’t know the details, just that someone will reward us with 5,000 gold, all we needed to do was- cripple all of you.” She quickly continues in a panic. “I was just following my clan orders, I don’t know who or why, please, you have to believe me! Please, please, please!” Not so pretty, screeching and dripping like a faucet. Giving her a clean handkerchief, I pat her head soothingly. Damn, 5000 gold… why so much, just for us? I doubt she’s hiding anything, the poor little girl is terrified. I feel terrible for doing this, but I needed to know. Who would even put a bounty on us? That’s so random, we haven’t really offended anyone since coming here. Whatever, it’s not important. I should thank them, if it wasn’t for the bounty, we might not have gotten a second token. Easy money.
Taking a pill from my jar, I place it in the girl’s hand. “A pragmatist, that’s what you are Ji Yeon. I respect that.” Sumila chortles and Huushal roars in laughter once again. Ignoring them, as well as Ji Yeon’s wide eyed stare, I convince her to swallow the medicine, remaining at her side until she passes out, laying her gently on the ground.
Damn, I keep meeting pretty girls in bad situations, first cat girl, now this little beauty. Wiping the frown from my face, I once again put on my selling smile, raising my voice for everyone to hear. Time for them to show me the money. “See how effective my medicine is? Asleep and painless, within a few heartbeats after ingestion. This too can be yours, for only te – twenty five gold each.” These assholes were going to cripple us, no need to go easy. “I accept coin, silks, jewelry, really anything of value. No change or credit.”
Rich young masters are truly rich. A total of 18 defeated, but only 16 paid, since two were already unconscious. Those without coin pleaded from the others to borrow. I think my beating scared them, but I wasn’t going to beat them if they didn’t pay. That would be extortion. I didn’t say anything to clear up the misunderstanding, however. I want the money. Two of them had the most money, each handing me a card of solid gold worth 100 gold coins. The rest is paid in coins and bars, worth 10 coins each, for a total of 400 gold. A lovely little profit, business is booming, and my money bag is delightfully heavy. They all pass out, none of them in dire need of assistance, but a search of their belongings turns up zero tokens. Can’t win every time, I guess.
A few minutes after we break all their tags, several elders arrive, some walking out, some running, some landing down lightly. I was watching closely this time, and it just looked like they appeared, just a step off the ground, and landing. So awesome. One of the Elders, a bald crowned man, massive in size, begins frantically checking a few of the young masters. Roaring in anger, he points at us, yelling, “You audacious little bastards! You dare to hurt the Situ clan’s youngsters, acting so viciously!”
“Now, now, Situ Bolin, no need to lose your temper.” Elder Ming appears, looking calm and grandfatherly. He has a big smile and his eyes almost disappear when he speaks. He needs some grooming though, the man has eyebrows longer than most people’s hair. “This is simply called ‘weeding out the weak’. It is what this contest is for, or have you forgotten?” Burn. A laugh escapes my lips, but I immediately cough, pretending to have swallowed something wrong. I don’t need a repeat of the Brigadier.
Clapping his hand once, so hard that he lifts his leg to do it, Bolin points at me, red-faced, ignoring Elder Ming. “You are seeking death, to dare not give the Situ clan face. Such a brave youngster, do you dare tell me, Situ Bolin, your name?”
Why does everyone single me out? Do I just look like an asshole or something? Sighing inwardly, I clasp my hands at him and simply state, “Rain, Sentinel of the People.”
“Hmph, brat, know this. The Situ clan will find you for a reckoning of today’s actions. You just wash your neck and wait. To brutally beat the First Young Master so, the Patriarch will have you whipped and flayed.” Why ask for my name and not use it? He’s cradling the young master I punched unconscious, holding his beaten face for everyone to see. Young masters should be more like Fung. There’s a stand up guy, polite and conscientious, commanding without arrogance. His daddy raised him right. “Well? Have you nothing to say, or are you green with regret?”
How does one turn green with regret? Isn’t it green with envy? “They were going to cripple us for 5,000 gold. A light beating is hardly anything to cry about.” His injuries will take a day to heal, maybe two if he’s terrible at healing and no one helps him. I don’t see what the fuss is all about.
“Slander and lies!” Bolin turns even redder, an impressive feat. “Worth nothing more than dog farts! What need would the young masters have of a mere 5,000 gold? They only need ask this uncle here and I would give them 50,000 gold each without blinking an eye. They would be well within their rights to cripple you, you insolent bastard, to dare slander them so. I’ll have you beaten until your own mother won’t recognize you.”
What, is that like chump change to them? Should I have charged more? Economics is hard. “I’m unsure about the details, but they claimed there was an open bounty on us, for anyone to cripple me and my party. That’s what they were here for.”
Elder Ming claps his hands twice. “I am issuing an inquiry. All of the Situ youngsters are to be taken in for questioning by an impartial party.” He looks at me, no longer kindly grandfather, but impartial judge. “Allegations of misconduct are taken seriously, and anyone who put a bounty on you will be dealt with harshly. The Society frowns on match fixing.”
Bolin’s protests are ignored, and the five of us are each separated and questioned, and after telling them the little I know, I am reunited once again with everyone, and sent on our way. It takes us six hours of hiking to reach the starting point, where an elder congratulates us and takes our tags, tokens, and materials. Damn, I wanted to keep the tokens. Those furs aren’t free either. They have some food for us, just cold meats and buns, as well as healers to care for everyone’s injuries. Huushal’s ear is even regrown, rather quickly at that. It seems there are other Medical Saints around. After thanking the healer as graciously as possible, we’re sent on a wagon home with a single elder to escort us. Settling back, I let myself be slowly lulled to sleep by the gentle swaying of the wagon, with Mei Lin nuzzled against my shoulder. It must have been hard on her, these two days in the forest, scared and tired. At least everything’s over, and she wasn’t hurt. A few days of quiet rest, and the next part of this hellish contest should begin.
Vivek Daatei sat and waited, patting his Garo on its snout to calm it. Too much excitement and too well fed these past days, the beast was anxious for more bloodshed. His tribesmen awaited his orders as he watched the verdant green sea of life, amazed by all the trees. He had seen scrawny little things, spindly and easily broken, but these majestic giants of wood and leaf were alien to him. He had killed three prizes before realizing they were not lying to him, that they truly were trees, just simply beyond compare with anything he had seen before. Higher than even the walls at the bridge, a verdant green fortress filled with more food and natural treasures than the entire tundra, this was truly a land of near endless bounty. He and his people were well fed, sated for the first time, more food than they could consume, a wondrous feeling welling up within. His son slept close by, a happy look upon his face, clutching a corpse as if it were his wife, a warming sight indeed.
He had ridden by the Bridge for a glimpse at the back of the massive walls that had held his people back for centuries, the same walls that stood in all their stories for as far back as could be told. Perhaps he was the first, to be born in the northern wastes and gaze upon the south end of the walls, and the very sight of it had shook him. Behind the great barrier was a second, of almost equal size, a massive number of troops marching through its gates, ready to throw back the Uniter. No wonder they were not attacking the Bridge. It would take months for enough warriors to move through the mountains before they had the strength to even threaten that fortress.
Still, the Uniter’s plans were not flawless. The wraiths had failed, only a few returning with the news. Having demonstrated their worth, Vivek had them fed to the Garos, mute and emotionless as they were devoured. Made of shadow and death, barely even men, just cowards skulking in the dark. Vivek spit on the very idea of them, an affront to true warriors of the north. Were it not for the orders of the Uniter, he would have used the wraiths as sport. Instead of charging the city and taking them by surprise, the guards were now readied, their shiny red armor seen from a distance, bows at the ready. The Uniter had made a mistake. Had the devils only charged and taken down the walls while the enemy was still unsuspecting, Vivek and his 30,000 tribesmen would have torn the city apart. So many soft southerners to kill, once past that hard turtle shell, it would have been glorious, taking lives and loot, burning and rampaging through all in their path. They were weak, hiding behind their walls, unable to face his people on the open plains.
He studied the devils once again, fascinated by their power. One of them had invaded his mind and allowed the Uniter to speak through it. A curiously painful experience, as if the words were shouted directly into his ear, reverberations running down through his bones, his entire body burning as his mind almost melted. It was an experience he did not wish to repeat often, but the plan had been long in the telling, the Uniter seeming to delight in drawing it out.
“War Rider.” As if drawn by his thoughts, the Uniter’s devil spoke once more, sending him into spasms of pain. “My infantry will arrive in five days. Continue as you are, and converge upon the city at the appointed time. You are to follow the orders of my general, who is in route. You do remember your orders, correct?” The bastard repeated the entire plan, knowing what it cost Vivek. When the conversation ended, he lay upon the floor for several breaths of time, staggering to his feet and wiping away the blood flowing from his nose and ears. Five days and the city would fall, this the Uniter had promised. He ordered his son away with a third of his men, to clear away the wooden camps and take the road so that the enemy reinforcements would be slowed, freeing them to overrun the city once the Uniter’s hordes were in place.
He was no fool, he knew the Uniter thought too little of him, disdained him, and he would make that bastard pay for it. The man was not all-powerful or all-knowing, a coward who hid behind his devils. Eyeing the devil, he studied it once again, thinking of a weakness, a way to kill them. Vivek Daatei would not be a slave to the Uniter forever. He would unravel the secrets of the devils, and his people would flourish, perhaps even living in a city of their own.
He would follow his orders, for now, playing at being the loyal Garo. It would not always be so, for there would be a time for reckoning. Everyone knew there was no such thing as a loyal Garo, only a sated one. He was Vivek Daatei, the destined one, the conqueror, he who would devour the world.
Starting with this first city, Shen Huo.
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