Alsantset lamented her fate as she made contact with the enforcer. He arrived within moments, gliding through the trees, and began leading them down the mountains towards their judge and executioner. At least Charok and her children would be safe, hidden with Huushal’s parents. Hopefully they could escape and return home, telling Papa about this, so that he may take vengeance for them. She had not expected that the Society would seek legal recourse, having been the instigators of the events. It was likely they had fabricated some evidence, and without any backing, their little group would be summarily executed. They had all done her proud, her little band of young warriors, striking fear into the hearts of their enemies. Their stories would end here, but hopefully, they would be told to the People and immortalized in memory.
After two long hours of travel, they reached the camp of the Justicar, several Enforcers and Adjudicators present, each stiff backed and gazing sternly. With the full authority of the Empire behind them, the ability to have anyone executed, regardless of standing, Alsantset felt herself quail before them. The Society members were present, standing to one side, while the Justicar stood waiting, fully dressed in the black robes of his office, an ornate feathered headdress covering his face. He probably had stood there for the entire time it took to find them. Justicars were not known for being leisurely.
Alsantset brightened, spotting a familiar face. Tanaraq was here, leaning against a horse, waiting patiently. Why was she here? She should have been with Akanai, returning home to rally the troops. Alsantset dare to hope. If Akanai was here, they could demand a trial by combat. She looked frantically, but Akanai was nowhere in sight, Tanaraq shaking her head. Cruel hope, dashed upon harsh truth. The Justicar spoke as soon as they were dismounted. “As Justicar of the Empire, I declare this mediation in session. Which of you is Alsantset?” She, it seemed, spoke with a feminine voice, distorted and echoing in her helmet, her boredom evident. Alsantset stood forward, acknowledging her name. “Speak of the events these past days.”
Alsantset gave a clear and concise presentation of the facts, starting from the displaying of prizes at the Society, ending with the attack she had launched only a few hours ago. The Justicar interrupted often, asking pertinent questions and for clarifications. Rain fell asleep on his feet during the proceedings, leaning against Zabu, his light snores earning him many glares and scowls from the members of the Society, and no few from the Enforcers. They mistook exhaustion for arrogance, but it mattered little. Rain would not survive long enough for it to cause him difficulty.
The Justicar did not seem to mind, ignoring him completely, fully focused on Alsantset’s testimony. Tanaraq disregarded the entire proceedings, cooking a large amount of food while she waited calmly. It drove Alsantset mad to the point of distraction. Her good friend was ignoring them, but for what reason?
When she had finally finished, more than an hour had passed and her throat was dry from speaking. The Justicar turned to the Society members, speaking to Elder Situ Bolin for their version of events.
Bolin sported an ugly scar upon his face, Rain’s work. “We were out here on a hunting trip, for some of the youngsters who were eliminated from the competition. It was to allow them to relax after their vicious treatment at the hands of those savages.” He shot a glare in their direction. “This morning, without provocation, we were attacked by the People, killing several of our guards, and grievously injuring the little patriarch of the Situ Clan. We of the Society humbly ask the Justicar to judge fairly based on the evidence provided.”
Shameless. Alsantset fumed, knowing the Society would get away with its lies. They would have been careful to separate themselves from the actual assassins, all warriors not truly associated with them, only a loose bond tying them together. The work of individuals, they claimed, and would even be able to swear by, and Alsantset had no way to prove otherwise. Most vexing.
After a period of questioning, the Justicar paused shortly for deliberation before speaking. “It would appear there is no proof of wrongdoing on the part of the Society. I rule that the Society of Heaven and Earth are the victims of an unsubstantiated attack from the People tribesmen. All those who took part in the attack, please step forward.”
Cursing inwardly, Alsantset stepped forward, Huushal and Adujan waking Rain to join her. At least it was only the four of them, perhaps the others would be spared. Eyeing them, the Justicar asked, “Lieutenant Tanaraq claims that you are all members of the Imperial Defense Forces. This is true?” Their affirmation kept them from immediate execution, but not much else would change, as the Justicar turned to Elder Bolin and asked, “Does the Society wish to formally press charges?”
Bolin looked darkly at them, scowling. “I cannot speak for the Society as a whole, but the Situ clan will press charges.” A few other elders spoke up, the Baiji and the White Lotus Sect, as well as the Lin and OuYang clans.
Stirring a pot from her seat by the fire, Tanaraq yelled out, “They demand the right to trial by combat. Their chosen champions are Lieutenant General Akanai, Major Baatar, and a third yet to be determined. Probably one of those kids, who cares anyways. It won’t get that far.” Akanai had been promoted, but Tanaraq was being foolish. She must not know the laws well enough. Neither Baatar, nor Akanai were here, nor would they arrive in time to stand for them.
Unperturbed by the disturbance, the Justicar looked to Alsantset, who simple shrugged. “As she said.” They had better odds in a duel than if they left things for the Justicar to decide. They had no choice but to forfeit the match for over 100 years of age, but Alsantset would fight the under 100, and if she won, they could win the under 25 as well. It was a slim chance, but the best they had.
“Preposterous.” Red-faced Bolin laughed, hearing the named champions. “Shameless dogs. Why would these vaunted heroes of the Empire choose to stand and defend you savages?”
“Are you fucking serious?” Rain was incredulous, almost mocking. “You’ve been chasing us for days, and never bothered to find out who we are? How arrogant can you be?” He sneered while presenting her with both hands. “This is Alsantset, daughter of Baatar.” A second flourish. “And this, is Sumila, daughter of Akanai. So ya, I’m fairly certain they’ll stand for us.” His voice was dripping with sarcasm and venom, his anger at being taken lightly showing. He was finally taking pride in his people, but she quickly clamped a hand over his mouth before he could begin cursing and openly disrespecting the Society. That would earn him lashes for insubordination if any member present held rank, and she would be forced to wash his mouth out with soap, something neither of them enjoyed.
The reaction from the clansmen was a mix of disbelief and shock, all of them muttering amongst themselves. Sputtering as he pointed, Bolin managed after several tries to speak. “Th-That may be so, but they are not present, nor will it be know when they will be available, as they are both engaged in combat against the enemy. We have the right to a timely decision.”
“A State of Martial Law in the Northern Province was declared earlier this evening by Marshall Shing DuYi. The cities of Shen Huo and Shen Mu are under heavy siege, with all available forces ordered to march to their aid. As per Imperial Regulations, during Martial Law, personal duels between units of the armed forces are to be suspended until a time of peace.” The Justicar spoke with a banal tone. “As such, I declare this mediation at an end, until such a time when the duel between the various Society factions and the People tribesmen can carry forward. Any actions from either party exacerbating the situation will be punished according to Imperial Regulation. That is all.” The Justicar promptly turned and left, retreating to her tent, an abrupt dismissal. Within moments, the clansmen were all riding off, returning with the news of their folly.
Hardly believing their circumstances, Alsantset smiled until her cheeks hurt as she hugged Rain and Sumila. Ignoring the fleeing clansmen, they all rushed to Tanaraq who only said, “You all look like shit.” Brusque as ever, she handed out food and all of them ate ravenously, Alsantset remembering to message Charok, who waited close by with the others. Tanaraq was horrible, not simply telling her to begin with, worrying her so. Her little babies would be delighted at the hot meal despite how tired they were. It had been difficult for them, hiding in the dark, scared by every noise, watching their uncle Rain come back injured and defeated every day. It was thankfully over for now, a blessing from the Mother. While a duel would still need to take place, it was a small matter with Papa and Akanai, and perhaps even Gerel and Husolt. Even if one of them were to lose, they would easily win the third match. Their problems were solved, for now.
“So, did Akanai get a promotion or a demotion?” Rain spoke around a mouthful of food, looking content. “And how did you know we were in trouble?”
Laughing, Tanaraq slapped her leg as she howled. “Boy, you’re always in trouble whenever you leave the village.” Her smile faded as she told her story. “We also ran into trouble on the way home, Defiled riders attacking the camps.” She nodded at Sumilia. “Your parents made it through fine, as did Taduk, but Orgaal and me are the only surviving Sentinels. He headed home with a small escort, with orders to rally the village troops. When she found out Shen Huo was under siege, Akanai rode right off with every mounted warrior she could gather, right after she field promoted me and sent me to collect all of you. She thought to save you the trouble of taking the long way back. A good thing she did too.” Fortuitous indeed. Alsantset was ready to slaughter her way towards Shen Jin, and it would have been a bloodbath indeed.
Snorting, Tanaraq continued. “As soon as I heard about the shit-storm you all stirred up at the contest, I requested for a Justicar and rode out here looking for you. We found their camp in shambles.” She glared at Alsantset, and she smile shy back at her. “You haven’t changed since we were kids, always so reckless. If you hadn’t attacked the camp, this would have been done and over with. No ties to the Society would have meant they would had no legal recourse about their dead. The worst that would have happened is wasting a Justicar’s time. Now, we have some foolish duel ahead of us because you wanted to hurt them openly.”
Alsantset had the sense to look sheepish. While this was true, it was impossible to have predicted Tanaraq’s arrival, and the raid had been a last resort. They had been running out of options, and it was better to fight whilst they were still strong, rather than in a few days once they were further weakened from the chase. No matter, the wine was spilled, and she would have declared a blood feud regardless. These bastards had hunted her children, her family, and she would not soon forget it, and never forgive. She would see those responsible dead at her feet.
Charok and the others joined them shortly, all of them happy and relieved to be safe once more. Huushal’s parents fussed over him, while Rain, seeming more his old self already, helped Mei Lin look after Adujan. Alsantset liked the gruff little soldier girl, a no-nonsense type that would make a good friend for Rain, perhaps even a good wife. He needed someone to drive him forward at times, to rein him in at others, and Adujan seemed a good fit for the role. Mei Lin indulged him too easily, and Sumila tried to browbeat him into submission, a tactic that would only bring her frustration. Rain was very good at ignoring what he chose to.
It mattered little, the boy would choose according to his heart, ignoring all other suggestions, no matter who they came from. Or with his loins, more likely, but that wasn’t the worst thing he could do. They continued to eat together, rejoicing in the end of their hurried flight, and for the first time in days, Alsantset slept well, curled up with her precious babies, with a full belly and few worries. They had all survived, whole and unbroken, safe within the presence of a Justicar. The Mother had truly smiled upon them
Situ Bolin rushed into the mountains, following the tag of Guardian Chilok. The Guardian were the single link that would connect the Society to the attacks on the Bekhai clansmen, and Chilok needed to be warned before he inadvertently exposed them to the Justicar. Moving as quickly as he could, Bolin rushed towards his destination, following the indicator upon his compass.
It was terrible, terrible news. Akanai had gained the respect of Marshal Shing DuYi, who promoted her as soon as he heard the report, without even meeting her. The Marshal already disdained his own clan, and the Society with them, and this would only serve to further alienate him. The man should have been a top supporter of the Society, a clan member as the Marshal of the North, but instead, every move seemed to set him more against them instead.
Even worse, Baatar and Gerel of the Iron Banner were seen as heroes of the citizens, peerless warriors who came from the outer villages. While a large number of people lived in the cities, a majority still lived out in the wilderness, farmers and woodcutters, shepherds and herdsmen. For those people, Baatar and Gerel were an inspiration, and for the Society to challenge them so soon after their emergence would reek of squashing rivals whilst they were still weak. To do so, and openly at that, would earn the Society the scorn of the Empire. While the strong ruled, the weak provided, and even the weak had say in who they would sell to. This fiasco could even invite an Imperial Inquiry, considering a Lieutenant General was now involved. The entire endeavor had been a disaster. Why had those damn savages acted so lowly, with so great a backing?
Without warning, the needle on his compass reversed itself and Bolin came to a stop. He had passed Chilok? Returning slowly, he scanned the area slowly. Returning to the ground, he walked a circuit around, watching the compass closely, fixating upon the location of the token.
His chest tightened when he spotted it, a patch of loose dirt. Chilok was dead, and it could bring retribution down upon them. Digging with his hands, he frantically moved the earth aside, ignoring his pride and scrambling in the dirt, near panicked. After minutes of clawing, he reached the body, pulling it from its impromptu resting place. Chilok, dead, bisected at the waist. If Chilok was dead, then it was likely the others were as well, but how? If the savages had the strength to deal with five elders, it was unlikely they would have been pressed so hard. A hidden expert, or reinforcements brought by that Lieutenant? Bolin checked the body, praying as he did so, almost shouting in joy when he found the clan token. They had not checked the body, and left behind the only proof tying the Situ Clan to the attacks. Falling back onto the ground, he sat for minutes, giddy in relief.
Taking the two halves of the body with him, Bolin returned home, new worries fresh upon his mind. There would be harsh punishments for this failure, and Bolin was the only surviving Elder to accept them. If only he could step back through time, and slap himself across the face.
Tong Da Hai stood with Brigadier Xue Chang in the command platform, both men exhausted from five long days of combat, yet still fighting and keeping up appearances. Both of them were injured, Chang’s arm in a sling, while Hai had half his face wrapped in bandages, the result of an errant spray of demon ichor. There were fewer and fewer orders to give, every person capable standing upon the walls by now. In a mere day, they had suffered numerous casualties, the enemy relentlessly charging the walls. He had witnessed new groups of Defiled arrive throughout the day, joining the fray as they were reinforced from behind. The enemy chose to grind the city beneath the bodies of their solders, and Hai was glad to oblige them. Even if Shen Huo were to fall, he would make them pay dearly for it.
His eyes were scanning the enemy for the hidden threat, a single Demon, a stocky red creature, almost human in appearance. A single combatant, yet it had almost single-handedly won the battle for Shen Huo. Appearing without warning, it killed Exarchs and Officers with ease, turning the tides and crippling their efforts at stemming the horde of demons and the Defiled experts. It was hunting down experts, striking while they battled other demons or Defiled martial masters, a coward of a demon. Even without the advantage of surprise, it was a difficult opponent as Hai found out first hand, his attacks barely able to leave a mark on it’s hard blood-red flesh, its face twisted in a mockery of human emotion as he fought it back. Chang had ordered the Exarchs and officers into pairs to help deal with the threat, but still it managed to kill and slip away.
The enemy horde seemed near endless, even with only the infantry charging forward, carrying ladders and rams. The demons had managed to break through three sections of the northern gate, with two more remaining. Should those be broken, the enemy would send its cavalry and monsters through to rampage throughout the city, and Shen Huo would be lost within hours. Hai watched as wave after wave of Defiled scum crashed into the walls as the soldiers of his fine city threw them back, again and again. The demons were dwindling in number as Hai and Chang hunted them down over the past day, killing when they could, throwing back when they could not. The other officers had done well, Man Giao having killed his fourth demon only hours earlier. The nobles of his city had turned out in full force as well, holding the other walls, sending fresh guards to relieve his soldiers. It truly took a common enemy for them to all come together. That didn’t stop them from secreting away their heirs and wealth, all being ferried to Shen Bin, but if his son were here, Hai would do the same.
A crash of flesh and metal sounded by him, several Defiled experts fighting their way to the command platform, more of them coursing their way up the ladders. They broke through, charging towards him, hoping to take his head. Smiling at them, Hai incinerated them to ash, taking great pleasure in their dying screams, while more continued to charge in. Chang brought his axe to bear, crashing forward into the line, fighting alongside his soldiers as he barked orders.
A flash of red crashed into the Brigadier, the two of them sent rolling to the floor as they struggled to kill one another. Their hunter had appeared, along with two bestial demons, one graceful and sinuous, the other large and lumbering following close behind. Moving to intercept them, the Divine Flames tore into the smaller demon with a wave of his hand, sending it reeling from the room. The second demon charged him, a slow speed that matched its size. He danced with the beast, burning its flesh as it smashed about, killing soldier and Defiled alike in its frenzy to injure Hai. A simple pattern of attack, the beast was easily avoided, but proved difficult to kill, an appropriate creature for this task of distracting him. He needed to aid Chang, but could not do so until he dealt with this nuisance. Drawing all the strength he could muster, his palm struck the beasts shoulder, sending it prone to the ground, as Hai brought his foot down upon the unholy monstrosity, smashing through close-packed flesh and compact bone, crippling the creature before him.
A heavy impact landed on his back, the second demons fangs tearing through his flexible armor to find purchase in his flesh as he stood. With a roar of pain, Hai pierced his hand into the beast’s snout, and with a thought he ignited his chi, exploding the creature into a mist of acidic fluids and jagged flesh, injuring all around him. The power of the Heavens surging through him, he threw out a line of focused flame, wrapping about the Red Demon as it tried to eviscerate Chang, the flames barely able to mark its skin. Chang stood and lifted his axe with his single good arm, bringing it crashing down upon the demon, driving it through the floor. The brigadier swung again and again, unable to kill the demon as it struggled against Hai’s bindings.
His strength failing, Hai pitched the creature from the platform, his remaining flames igniting as it sailed through the sky, erupting in an explosion as it crashed into the Defiled. Too strong, it seemed near unkillable, they would not survive another encounter with the Demon. Hai stood feebly as healers and soldiers rushed in, and they finished off the crippled demon, killing and pushing back the remaining Defiled, once again taking the wall. Struggling to stay awake, Hai watched Xue Chang stride about with his guts spilling out, giving orders with a vigor so at odds with his grievous injuries. The man was steel, unbreakable. Hai collapsed into the arms of his healer, unable to stand any longer, listening carefully as his eyes began to close, not sure if he was imagining the noise. It was a beautiful sound he had heard in his youth, a sound he would never forget.
The piercing cry of several thousand arrows, arcing through the air in unison.
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