Fung struck out with all his might, chopping the arm off of his final opponent. The onlookers gasped and cheered, the bloodthirsty crowd delighting in his display as the judge stopped the match, healers running out to save his opponent. Stalking off to the side of the stage in a foul mood, he stood beside his teammates, fuming in anger. The competition had been a farce, all the strongest opponents eliminated in the preliminary match, leaving only dregs and cocky nobles. He had Rain and his comrades to thank for that, but he could not face any of them at this competition.
After the event with the carnugators, Fung had refocused his efforts towards training, driven forward to gain strength, acknowledging for the first time that he was truly too weak and did not know how high the sky was. A frog within a well, thinking himself impressive. He had always enjoyed training, but since turning 16 he allowed his indulgence in pleasures of the flesh to supersede his training, since he was stronger than his peers of the same age. After meeting Rain and the other Bekhai, and chatting with his curious minded friend about how to truly become strong, Fung no longer slacked, and began desperately training. He had injured himself over and over again, feeling his wounds knit together stronger than they were before, suffering through the pain and agony, all for this moment when he could face someone of true strength without embarrassing himself.
Instead, his opponent had been chased away by the greed of the Society, and Fung had loosed his anger upon the worthless remaining competitors, taking a limb from each competitor he faced, to the delight of the crowds and the anger of the Society. Hmph, those bastards deserved no face, and Fung would not pretend otherwise, whatever the cost.
“You frown too much, Young Master Fung.” He could hear the sarcasm in her words. Ong Jing Fei, a lovely and venomous young lady, she terrorized him just as her mother terrorized his father. She smiled and waved at the cheering crowd, jubilant and contented with their new champions. “You’ll lose those handsome looks you’re so proud of. Why are you not strutting about like a peacock, celebrating our victory?” She fluttered her eyelashes at him, the urge to throttle her rising in him. The bitch knew why, she simply enjoyed needling him. “We are the champions of this contest, to be bestowed with wealth and honor. You should be happier. It must be difficult, without your little barbarian here to celebrate with you. You aren’t as much fun when he isn’t around.” She patted his arm, sending shivers down his spine. He loathed her with every ounce of his being and she knew it, still playing at being the dutiful wife-to-be. Her voice lowered as she leaned in close. “Could it be true, the rumors that the consummate playboy Tong Da Fung has succumbed to the pleasures of another man? A shame your little barbarian cock-boy will be dead soon.”
Fung backhanded her across the face. The silence of the crowd was deafening as she tumbled to the floor and lay sprawled on the ground, her pitiful cry reaching the heart of every watcher. Immediately, he regretted acting on his anger. The bitch was a thespian, faking the extent of her injury. He could strike at her with all his might for an hour and she would emerge unhurt. He felt her twist away from his strike, throwing herself down, playing at the maiden in distress. Ignoring her antics, Fung signaled for the Master of Ceremonies to continue. The damn Society, he spit on their honor, and when he returned home, he would have their growing factions in Shen Huo stomped out. Then, once he was personally strong enough, he would divorce the horrid bitch, and have her exiled from his city as well. Fools without ethics is what they all were, and he would have none of that in his home.
He could only pray to the Mother that Rain and his family still lived and would make it home safely, as he cursed at his own helplessness.
He needed strength, and playing at these games of war were of no help.
Situ Bolin sat still while the healer tended to the little Patriarch, his own wounds stinging as he slowly mended it. Such humiliation, to be injured by these damn pups, to have suffered so much from worthless savages. They had dark magics, to allow them to control such fierce beasts like the binturongs and their unholy two-legged mounts. He would capture the damn witch that protected them and have her flayed alive, bit by bit, until she revealed her tricks. To dare use such evil, they were likely half Defiled as it stood, the reports placing their village north of Shen Huo, a desolate and cold place to live. That area was a zone of death, the territory of a powerful Ancestral Beast, and if not for dark magics or sacrifice, how else could they live there? Their unholy practices had made these barbarians strong however, and the Situ clan had sorely underestimated their opponents.
No matter, they would fall before the might of the Situ Clan in the end. As much as it shamed him, he had sent out several Elders to chase down the slave girl. There had been no sighting of her, so it was likely she was with the others, the weaker members of their party. While Bolin wanted the combatants alive, he now also wanted all of them alive, so that he could vent his frustrations on the families of those who vexed him so. It would not end there, no, he would torture the location of their backwoods village from them, and take his warriors there for a visit, wiping their tribe from the continent, letting them fade into obscurity. Only then would his rage be sated, the fire within him quenched.
The little Patriarch moaned as he was treated, his injuries severe. The little horned cunt had trampled him with her beast, breaking bones without killing, intent on crippling the boy. Such viciousness, if only Bolin could stride backwards through time and snap her neck when he first lay eyes upon her. The boy would be weeks in healing if they meant to keep him whole and strong without overtaxing his body. In such a time of strife, to not be able to send the little Patriarch to battle, allow him to be seasoned in combat, it was truly the shame of the Situ clan, something that would be talked about by his peers within the Society for years to come. Unforgivable, for them to be so remorseless, humiliating them time and time again. Better if they had killed him, so that the Patriarch could act himself, sparing the boy this shame.
“Uncle.” Little Gulong spoke through his pain and Bolin rushed to his side to hear his words. His heart rent at the sight, the boy’s face fractured and swollen, missing a large patch of skin, an ugly sight to behold. “Uncle, it hurts.”
“Hush now, little dragon, you will heal and the pain will fade. You are strong enough to bear it, do not shame the Situ name. This Uncle here has raised you from birth, and he will not allow this insult pass without vengeance.” He smoothed the boy’s hair, careful not to exert too much pressure on the poor child’s wounds. The healer continued his work, but he was just an incompetent half-beast slave, the more skilled, human healers having left with the army or remained in the city. It would be days before the little Patriarch could be healed enough to be moved comfortably. He had sent messengers back to request for one to return, but it was unlikely the Patriarch would allow his only healer to leave his side, especially with all his enemies watching for weakness. The competition results had been disastrous for the Situ Clan, one of the three great powers of the Society, unable to have a single group pass through the preliminary event, a black mark on the face of every Situ clansmen. The vultures were circling, sensing weakness, and the Patriarch would be hard at work keeping the pot from boiling over.
Bolin needed these savages in hand, so that their broken corpses could be shown to the Society, so that all would know the Situ clan was still strong, able to lead them for centuries yet. He had used his authorities to command all the elders present to chase down those barbarians, with Guardian Chilok leading them. If they failed, then Bolin would need to answer to the Society as a whole, but these barbarians would not escape from so many experts.
Mila stayed as still as possible, ready to flee at the first sign of trouble, watching the Society clansmen move through the trees. She had already dealt with one group of clansmen this night, while Alsantset brought Rain and the others to attack the camp. Now they were already being chased by a second group, far sooner than expected, less than an hour of rest attained. Song crouched next to her, an ever silent presence at her side since she’d taken the chain away from Rain. She felt her face heat up at the memory of her misunderstanding with him, the horrible thoughts she had of him. She had wanted to make up with him, her earlier anger at him seeming foolish, and they had sat so nicely together to watch the sunset, a romantic atmosphere. She had lost her head when he mentioned Song, mad with misplaced jealousy at the lovely young woman. While Rain had his flaws, he was, at his core, a kind person. He has seemed so worried and frantic when he was treating her wound, it had brought a smile to her face. He normally seemed so indifferent, but at that moment it seemed he truly cared about her, as he worked quickly and gently, cradling her as he saved her life.
Almost everyone she had met at the contest was even worse, all entitled trash, snobbish and prideful. Why did they all refer to her as a barbarian or a savage? Just because she wasn’t dressed in silks, or didn’t have her hair elaborately done, or lacked the painted lacquer nails, that was grounds for insulting her? Worse were the calls for rape and torture. They were the savages, for how they treated people. They had made a game of this hunt, disrespecting both Mila’s people, and their own by sending out these weaklings. Outer branch members who had yet to truly be accepted, expendable, unskilled, and hungry for advancement. The inner branch members would be sitting back and laughing at the other groups failures, expecting things to be different when their turn would come. Fools, all of them.
At least Alsantset would bloody them tonight, wound them, madden them. The Society would learn they dealt with true warriors, not easy prey. Then again, they may have learned that already, her current pursuers movements far more skilled and graceful than any who had come before, silent spectres in the night. It was still easy to track them, since they chose to move above the treeline, their dark outlines easily seen against the light of the moon. Warriors they may be, they lived in cities, lacking the proper field-craft or skills for mountain pursuit. They also lacked numbers, with only a handful of warriors this time. Perhaps more would be coming, but once again, their pride drove them to ruin.
Things had already gotten too far out of hand, escalating into what would soon erupt into a legal feud, requiring Justicar intervention. Mama would have many headaches over this in the future, but it was all the fault of the Society. While perhaps Sumila had gone a bit too far in the competition, giving no face to any of her enemies, but they were just all so foul of mouth. She had her fill of listening to spoiled fops offering to buy her during the days leading to the contest, unable to even walk about the market without being leered at. Worse was the memory of her time at the park with Mei Lin. They’d had no time to themselves at all, continually being approached by servants, with demands, offers, and propositions from their dog masters. It was infuriating. She could see why Mama didn’t want her to travel, especially alone. The world was a terrible place, wild beasts and Defiled only a part of it.
“Master, they approach. Your orders?” Song whisper brought Mila out of her trance. Song would not change her form of address, no matter how much Mila asked her to. An order would be needed, but that defeated the purpose of changing it at all. Song rode awkwardly on her own quin, still bouncing in her seat, too accustomed to riding horses. Roosequins did not jar their riders like those grass-eating, bony-backed herbivores did, but the habit was ingrained in her.
Mila rode off atop Kankin, making enough noise for their pursuers to notice, but not enough to be obvious. It was bothersome, being inept enough to be tracked, but not too much so that they grew suspicious, a skill taught to her by Mama. ‘Let the enemy think themself clever, rather than think you foolish’. The darkness of the mountain forest hid her from their gaze, but the noises she purposely made giving away her location, a small jangle of her harness, an errant gasp of breath, a light impact onto stone, all done to lead them to the slaughter. Without her careful hints and pace, she would lose them in the forest and be unable to guide these idiots towards the others.
Their pursuers caught on faster than any before them, the sounds of cloth whipping through the air as they followed, abandoning ‘stealth’ for speed. Most likely Elders of the Society, a position earned with skill and service, like the members of the Iron Banner. The best warriors, although even among themselves, their skills varied. The ones chasing them could not be among the most talented, for with true skill came great pride, and what true warrior would find pride in chasing and killing children, or being bodyguards to a group of fops, out for a ‘pleasure hunt’? No, these would be the scum, the dregs, the lap-dogs of the Society, and she would take great joy in seeing them dead. Better that they slaughter the younger generation and destroy the future of the Society, but that would likely bring down harsh Imperial Justice upon them. The Emperor protected the young, deeming them the ‘future of the Empire’. The Elders would have to do.
Mila increased her pace, Kankin easily outrunning the other quin despite his old age. Mila had fond memories with Kankin, being carried around in his arms as a child, napping with him in the warm afternoons, learning to ride atop his wide back. Now she could add memories of battle with him, of her first true martial confrontation. While not as warm and friendly as the other quins, Kankin was still her oldest companion, a trusted friend.
A piercing whistle was heard, and Kankin dodged without even needing a prompt, leaping sideways down the mountain, his sure footed claws finding easy purchase. Song’s quin was not as well trained, one of Taduk’s cart pullers, but still agile enough to avoid the incoming attacks, thrown weapons of some sort. Kankin huffed as he moved ever forward, tiring from the days of being chased, eager to sink his fangs into flesh. Rain had fed him too well on human flesh, and Kankin was growing far too zealous in the hunt. She patted him on the shoulders soothingly, urging him forward, keeping him from turning on her pursuers. The point was up ahead, a clearing in the forest with a cave that looked capable of containing all their people. Guiding him to leap into the cave, she rode a short distance in before leaping off, taking shelter behind a boulder, loosing arrows towards the entrance. Song stood beside her, firing away as the quins settled in beside them, ready to kill any who approached.
Their pursuers had stopped at the entrance, unwilling to venture into the dark cave, finally wary of an ambush, noticing the trip wires. She knew they would be conversing with one another, silently arguing among themselves, none willing to die for the others. Not a simple thing, to watch for traps while blocking arrows. Smiling to herself, she waited with her bow in hand, firing arrows at the empty entrance in a calm, orderly pattern with Song, allowing them to grow accustomed to the sound of being shot at. They had already stepped within the trap, their deaths soon approaching, and still they hesitated and argued at the front of the caves. Fools.
A piercing scream was heard, followed by more grunts, the sounds of arrows raining upon them as their pursuers tried to fight free. She could hear the movements of the fighters, crisp and clear, the power behind each action apparent from the sound of air breaking as they moved, but it was not enough. Held in place, they could do nothing but die. She could see nothing in the gloom, only a sense of moving shadows, as a fierce battle raged in near silence, experts falling like overripe apples. Soon, there was only the sound of gurgling blood and falling bodies, before silence consumed the night once more.
Mila waited patiently, arrow at the ready, until she heard the whisper. Lighting a torch, she brought it out to the cave entrance, illuminating the scene. Three elders were dead, pin cushioned with arrows, an ugly death for a warrior, but these scum were not deserving of the title. She studied their faces, trying to match them to a clan or sect, but there was no memory of them in her mind. It was not the Society as a whole that fought them, but rather a few factions acting in self-interest, and each would have sent nameless, faceless warriors. If they were caught assassinating citizens in good standing, it would strike a heavy blow to their reputation, and the Society would face Imperial Justice.
One was still alive, croaking and gasping as he slowly bled to death. Alsantset was the first to arrive, the others filing in slowly from their hidden perch. Rain crouched down to stare in the eyes of one of the dying, a disturbing habit of his. Why stare at death so closely? Rain ended the man’s suffering, a mercy this worthless trash did not deserve, to die by the blade of a true warrior.
She crouched down and searched each body, rewarded with two tokens of wood, shaped like an arrow, with carved runic symbols stained in blood. Song’s blood. Burning them with her torch, Mila prayed that these were the only ones. Hopefully, the Society no longer had a means of tracking them, and they could lose themselves in the throngs of civilians in Feng Huang, so long as they hid the roosequins. She could finally see an end to the chase, a path towards survival. She picked up a spear, a heavy weapon, ornately carved, belonging to one of the dead. Rain had been complaining about a lack of a longer weapon, although he did just fine with his sword.
Mila grimaced at Yan and Huu’s injuries, both looking like death warmed over. Rain wasn’t much better, grim and haggard, his armor long destroyed, dressed in bloody rags as he always was after a battle. His eyes were sunken, his muscles withering, the lack of food and overtaxing of his body costing him dearly. They all needed rest and food, but they were unlikely to find it soon. Despite his obvious exhaustion, Rain looked… hungry for more battle. It was unsettling, not the joyful desire for challenge, but the fatalistic urge for it to be done with. Either kill all his enemies or be killed.
Once he lost his hesitation, Rain was a fearsome opponent. He fought almost recklessly, closing in without fear, every strike of his threatening to kill, ready to trade heavy injury for a death-blow, something few warriors had the determination to accept. To even find a warrior willing to trade their life for their opponent’s was a rarity, how could they be willing to give their life to cause a mere injury?
As she listened to Alsantset’s report of the situation, she smiled as Rain studied his new spear and silently praised her. Their situation was dire, but no matter. The Society had already paid dearly for a harsh lesson. The People were not to be treated lightly, and even if Mila were to fall here, Mama would crash through their gates and burn the grounds, salting the earth behind her. The thought warmed her as they rode in the darkness, forwards towards another day of battle.
They had been riding for less than 15 minutes when a voice rang out in the darkness. “By Imperial Order, the People tribesmen are to appear before this Justicar. Make yourselves known within the hour, and you will be collected.”
Mila felt her fear creeping down her spine, an urge to vomit almost overcoming her. A Justicar. That meant this was no longer a private battle, that it would be a public feud brought before Imperial Justice. Without Mama’s protection, they were simply civilians in the eyes of the law, doomed to be sentenced to execution for killing members of the Society. Tears welled in her eyes as she despaired. All their hard work, the desperate attempt to escape, all of it was for nothing.
They could not run from Imperial Justice, for that would bring extermination down upon the People. They could only accept their fate, and pray for Mama to avenge them.
Situ Chilok fled from the ambush, arrows digging into his flesh, hampering his movements as he stumbled down the mountainside. It had gone disastrously, the five of them stepping into the trap so easily, fools all of them. Those worthless branch family elders were useless. He cursed his idiot son Chiang, and that idiot little patriarch Gulong. Those children had brought disaster upon them. He needed to return, to warn the Clan. If they were forewarned, then they could prepare and fight accordingly. The Situ Clan still had strength to call upon, they only needed to be aware of the need.
He hurried as quickly as he could, falling as much as walking, crying as he moved, knowing death had already arrived for him, but still he struggled. He was an Elder of the Situ Clan, a guardian no less, he could not die in vain. Hearing his opponent arrive, the sound of cloth breaking through the air, Chilok turning to face his enemy. If he was to die today, then he would at least die fighting. Leaping towards his opponent with weapon in hand, he died well before he could come within reach, before ever truly sighting his killer.
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