Author’s note: A big shoutout to my newest Patron’s Thrask, and anonymous, as well as my anonymous donor. Thanks for all the support!
I would also like to present the Cast List. Made with a tonne of help from Aapjuh who did all the heavy lifting, there are minor details of all the characters to help you keep track of everyone. Enjoy!
Sitting atop his docile mount, Du Min Gyu calmly peeled a pomelo whilst the storm raged around him, his guards struggling to hold up their makeshift canopy in a hopeless effort to keep him dry until they reached shelter. The wind whistled through the mountain passes, the raindrops almost falling horizontally as his party traveled northward through the torrential downpour, meter by arduous meter. At first glance, the province seemed a beautiful place, full of majestic vistas and uniquely colorful landscapes, but it was better seen in paintings or described in poetry, not worth the hardships of travel.
Tossing a section of the fruit forwards, he smiled as he watched his precious mount snap the treat out of the air with its jaws. As always, it calmly removed the treat with its paws and fed it to his student’s mount in a noble effort to keep its mate and unborn children well satiated. Good animals, these roosequins, more virtuous than most humans he had met, and he hoped to find some in the wild so that he could capture and possibly tame them for his own use. These two belonged to Adujan, and while what was hers was also his, Du Min Gyu had too much honor to misappropriate his student’s belongings, no matter how much he wanted them.
After a half-hour of hard trekking, his guards finally found a suitable campsite and he dismounted with a small hop, leaving the beasts to run about happily in the rain, largely responsible for their own meals, another useful detail about them. Feeling the ache in his ruined hip and knee, he grumbled beneath his breath as he limped towards glorious shelter and the promise of warmth and comfort. The injuries were remnants from his last duel, the worthless healers unable to fully fix the damage of his shattered bones, leaving him in pain for more than a decade now, a constant reminder of his advancing age. The storms made the ache worse somehow, twinging in advance notice of the downpour, but he had misjudged the time frame and pushed ahead against his student’s warnings. Now he paid the price, sitting and shivering in a cave that stank of cat piss, desperately wishing he were back in Yantai where the summers were warm as the Mother intended.
They had already travelled for two, long weeks without a single day of rest, the joys of working with a brilliant young student quickly overshadowed by the rigors of travel and the inhospitable weather. By all accounts, they should have long ago reached the Flying Tiger Fortress, but eight days ago his guards had found some promising spoor, and thinking it would make for good training, he ordered the pursuit, chasing his quarry without rest. What had begun as a promising venture had devolved into a frantic, miserable experience as the weather took a turn for the worse, each day their suffering increased as they continued northward, hopelessly lost if not for the sure guidance of his student, a disgraceful developement. It was a wonder that his student did not hold misgivings over her new teacher, with how vulnerable and frail he had seemed these last few days.
Freezing nights and arid days had sapped the strength from his guards, the dips and peaks in elevation causing even more delays as his party suffered from altitude sickness, all with the exception of his new student, who incessantly poked fun about their slow progress. Hardy stock, these children of the north, even now humming beneath her breath as she busied herself about the cave, making efforts to remove the stench, unaffected by their hard travels. Even with all her skills in woodcraft, it had been a miserable experience for the rest of them, although she had found some chicken mushrooms that had been a delight to eat, the fungi’s texture and flavor almost an exact match for the bird it was named after. Worst of all, when their quarry seemed to be within their grasp, this hell-spawned storm had erupted, clear skies breaking apart into stormy clouds with little warning aside from his pain, and come morning the beast would be long gone, with all of its tracks washed away. A shame, but such was life.
As soon as the partition was set up, he had Kyung aid him in disrobing, changing into clothes that were only slightly damp, as even the best waterproof fabrics were unable to keep his clothes dry through the heavy rainfall. His medicinal herbs also soaked through, an obstacle preventing him from alleviating his pain, although he was also running out, having gone through his supply faster than anticipated, a worrisome prospect. Stepping out from behind the partition, he motioned for his student to enter and change, not wanting the girl to catch cold, another thing healing could not fix, a maddeningly inconsistent profession.
“Kyung, would you like to come back here and undress me as well?” His student cackled as she stepped behind the strung up blanket, lingering behind to give poor Kyung a suggestive look. Indecent is what it was, the lusty girl incessantly teasing the wretched guard in front of all of his subordinates, who ignored her as ordered, suffering her attentions stoically. This simply could not continue, a product of the girl’s poor upbringing, evidenced by the fact that were it not for his insistence, she would have changed in full view of everyone. The girl had not a single fiber of modesty in her, and coupled with a devilish humor that a hardened sailor would find distasteful, she made for an interesting and challenging student.
She was well and by far his most talented pupil, of that he had no doubt, having spent only a single day and night helping her Awaken. Whilst she was immersed in the Blessing of the Divine Wind, he had even managed to glimpse at hints of mysteries that extended far beyond his own comprehension, the parsing of which kept him up late at night for many days now, although that could also be attributed to his pain and advanced age. If only he could live for another 400 years, then perhaps he could truly master the usages of the Divine Wind, but he had only barely scratched the surface in his advanced age.
As soon as she exited from behind the partition, his student skipped forward and set to work starting several bonfires, using some cotton and jelly mixture she extracted from her pack to quickly set wet wood to flame, the warmth flooding into his damp bones to his great relief, almost enough to offset the stinging of the billowing smoke. Settling down, the girl pressed up against him, sharing her warmth in her too-familiar fashion, something he was still acclimating to, but tolerated only because he knew she missed her tribesmen and their cultural niceties. He had never taught a girl, and he was rather fond of this one, putting his arm around her to help keep her warm. Perhaps it was because she made him smile, the thought of stealing this talented youth away from Akanai bringing him great joy.
Once the air within the cave had warmed to suitable levels, he turned towards his student and gestured for her to display her progress. Smiling widely, the girl held her palm out and sank deep into concentration, while the guards gathered around and watched with intense focus. While it was unlikely for them to gain an Insight from his student’s efforts, Du Min Gyu was a man who disliked waste. So long as there was a chance and nothing better for them to do, his guards would be tasked with learning. Any guard that received a Blessing would instantly soar in value and prestige, a valuable asset to have in any endeavor. If, for example, he had a guard who could command the Divine Flame, he would already be dry instead of slightly moist and exceedingly uncomfortable, a most convenient and welcome addition to his party.
It took 15 minutes for him to notice his student’s efforts, the air within the cave moving about sluggishly, and another 15 before it was strong enough to affect the smoke from the fires, the heavy plumes rising from the flame beginning to curve towards the girl, struggling between two areas of differential pressure, until finally, it began to pull downwards, heading towards the girl’s palm and coalescing into a slow, lazy spiral. She held the smoke there for several seconds before her concentration broke and she let out her breath, the tiny clouds of smoke dissipating in moments as the pressure once again shifted, and with a small effort, he forced the unpleasant smoke out of the tiny cave.
Sitting in silence, he watched the sweat dripping down his young student’s face as she reviewed her work, looking for signs of comprehension and finding only gloom and disappointment. It was always a struggle deciding what to do in these moments of failure, a fine line to walk. Too much coddling and the student might never learn, but too much derision and the student would be discouraged and resentful. He decided to be tactful today, motivating without encouragement. “Vocalize your problems, the better you understand them, the easier it will be to find an answer.”
“The wind feels… stagnant. Listless, unwilling to move until I exert enough force, and then without warning, it escapes me, overpowers me in an instant, like an ill-tempered quin turning on its rider.”
“So you seek to tame the wind, make it heed your every wish? Well then student, that will only end in abject failure, just like it did today. The wind is a selfish presence, domineering and uncaring, doing as it pleases. You do not tame the wind, at best, you shape the setting so that the wind chooses to follow your will.” Now that his student’s demonstration was over, he had Kyung bring over hot tea, which filled his belly with a satisfying warmth, the last of what he had procured from Akanai. A shame the girl was not too well-informed about teas, her knowledge limited to that which kept her alive, a harsh upbringing that had molded her into the warrior she was. She held her teacup in both hands, untouched by her lips as she furrowed her brow in thought, trying to come to terms with what he had just said.
Another tricky thing, to guide without obscuring, as the wrong turn of phrase could send a student down a dead-end path, or worse, an unending circle of contradictory logic. Each person’s ability and comprehension differed, and what might work for one might only confuse and hinder another. Philosophical statements and abstract concepts were all he could offer at the moment, his relationship with the girl far too shallow for him to risk the dangers of directing her spiritually, something only used as a last resort, or with someone of great familiarity. While such treatment was generally reserved for disciples, his only living disciple was already well established and learned, no longer requiring his aid, so all of his resources could be devoted to this student. Her talent demanded it, and he was no miser to hoard his wealth in his old age, only to have his ‘family’ squabble over it all once he was dead and gone. Perhaps he should look into building a grand tomb for himself, an ornate, expensive tomb, just to spit in his cousins’ faces from beyond the grave.
The smell of his dinner cooking made him salivate as he eagerly awaited a hot meal, the first in several days. Tomorrow, they would resume their journey towards the Flying Tiger Fortress, pick up that idiot brat Kang Bing and then finally be on his way back towards civilization where hot baths awaited, hearty meals were aplenty, and he could sink into a feathery mattress to sleep in comfort.
Morning found him already awake and meditating, sleep having eluded him once again, the rising sun painting the skies red and orange with a beauty that once had him so entranced, only to be slapped across the face by the uninviting climate and rigorous requirements for survival. Standing gingerly and stretching, his body began to shiver involuntarily, his thick furred robes still damp from the rain, an entire night not enough to dry them. Barely able to force down his breakfast, he set off atop the quin in a foul mood with his pipe lit, letting the breeze take away his stress and anger, the medicine working quickly as he puffed away, easing his pain and discomfort and allowing him to fully enjoy the scenery as it rushed past.
All too soon, Kyung interrupted his delightful morning ride with a bothersome report. “Master, we have found signs of the beast, a half-finished meal with the blood only just congealing. It must have hidden away from the storm just as we did. Your orders?”
Running his fingers through his ragged beard, he cursed his facial hair for the umpteenth time, lamenting at how his once fine, silky beard was reduced to this tangled mess upon his face. Were it not for the long years required to grow it once more, he would have shaved every whisker right off weeks ago. Grumbling beneath his breath, he struggled to come to a decision, unable to choose between returning home a few days earlier or pursuing this beast that he had already invested so much time into. Sighing deeply, he spoke. “Student, make the decision. Chase the beast or move on?”
“We should follow the trail for now, since it parallels our heading. If it breaks off west then we will abandon the chase, but there is a good chance we can catch it. It’s too valuable to simply give up, especially since we’re so close.” The thirst for the hunt shone in her eyes, and he could only chuckle wryly at her enthusiasm. The strength and boundless energies of youth, he could barely remember a time when he had been like that. “Allow me to lead the hunt Teacher Du, your guards seem sturdy enough, I’m sure they can keep up with Shana and Zabu.” Springing down the mountain path, she spearheaded the charge after their quarry, and Min Gyu had little choice but to follow, his quin frantically chasing after its mate, the click and slap of claws and paws echoing through the peaks while his guards desperately tried to keep pace, months of built-up fatigue taking its toll on them.
After more than an hour of frenetic chasing, just as he was about to call off his bloodthirsty student, she whooped in joy and drew her bow, loosing an arrow in the blink of an eye. Shortly after, a resounding, trumpeting call echoed out, followed by the thunderous sound of a charging Meng-Zhua. A shot fired from almost 300 meters and still managing to penetrate its thick hide, his estimation of the Akanai’s Khishigs climbed a few notches. Terrifying enemies to have, especially in guerrilla warfare, it was little wonder that the Society had failed in apprehending his student and her cohorts.
A ferocious, solitary beast, the Meng-Zhua or dream snatcher was a fearsome opponent, with two enormous, ivory-white tusks and a long, sinuous trunk capable of crushing a grown man in its grasp. Facing it head on was a risky prospect, with wide, scaled ear-flaps, a powerful tail for balance, as well as a thick, brown-furred, hard-skinned, cat-like frame and claws, it was a beast that looked built for war. A shame they were untamable, ferocious and bloodthirsty predators that roamed the mountains, devouring man and beast alike.
“Guards, spread out and encircle the beast, keep it from escaping. Student, dispatch the beast on your own, I will not lift a finger to aid you.” Ignoring her sour look, he continued. “Also, dismount and leave your bow behind as well, I’ll not have you running circles around it atop your quin, filling its valuable hide with holes.” It did no good to coddle children, an element of danger was required for students to become full-fledged warriors, but neither did he wish to lose his prized pupil so quickly. Silently Sending to his guards, he added, “Be prepared to protect her life at risk to your own, but do not act unless absolutely necessary.”
Outwardly calm, yet filled with both apprehension and excitement, he stood on his mount’s back as he watched his student charge down the rocky slope towards the Meng-Zhua, closing in at an angle and hoping to target its exposed flanks. A standard stratagem against the beasts, but this particular specimen was far too clever, an aged beast almost twice the standard size, more than 3 meters tall from foot to shoulder, with tusks at least half that in length, it spun in an impossibly nimble turn for its size and speed, its claws digging into the stone as it bore down upon his student.
In an acrobatic display, his student dived across the rocky ground, the tusks and nose narrowly missing her as she deftly avoided death, springing to her feet and loosing her shield, the edged weapon spinning end over end and embedding itself into the beast’s hide. Foolish! She had but the one spiritual weapon and she had risked so much only to panic at the worst possible moment. With only a short-spear of wood and iron, the risk to her life grew enormously. With a loud trumpeting cry, the beast turned towards her once again, charging headlong without a care for the injury it had suffered, deceptively fast for its size.
So too was his student, who back pedaled furiously, her chi Lightening her body as she sprung away from the beast in almost weightless, one-footed hops, deftly parrying each swing of the beast’s nose as she retreated back up the slope, deflecting all of the power with precision. Were she to continue backwards in this manner, she would soon run up against a boulder, stopping her retreat and quite possibly ending her life. Resisting the urge to warn her, holding out until it was certain she would make such a horrendous mistake, his eyes widened with alarm as she closed in towards her unseen doom.
Just as he was about to shout a warning and send Kyung to intervene, the beast made one more swing, his student directly blocking with her spear as she hopped forwards, the impact sending her flying aside and tumbling down the rocky slope in a barely controlled spin, a soft block that allowed her to absorb most of the impact into her flight. Meanwhile the beast crashed into the boulder, breaking off a large section of the stone and staggering backwards before finally collapsing to the ground, it’s weight dragging it down the gentle slope, its death calls weak and pitiful. Even in his agitation he found it odd, the Meng-Zhua far too agile to have made such a gaffe, but he soon puzzled out the mystery, laughing uproariously at the clever girl. Blood spurted from the beast’s wound, coating the beast’s flank with his student’s shield embedded deeply in its neck, having severed an artery with a single throw. She had killed the beast in their first exchange, risking all for the clear shot at a vulnerable point. Guided, Honed, and possible even Amplified, her control over chi was growing by the day, a byproduct of her advanced chi manipulation practice.
Lightly sitting back down, he directed his quin down the slope towards his student, the other quin following behind as the Meng-Zhua stumbled about, his guards closing in around it and letting it bleed out slowly, the pitiable beast unable to dislodge the shield and heal its wound. Upon reaching his student, he leaped down and helped her battered and bruised form up, the girl’s mount sniffing and chirping in concern. Grinning up at him, his student dabbed at a gash on her forehead, looking every bit like the proud idiot she was. Infuriating. “That went well, right Teacher Du?”
“Hmph. Foolish girl, the point of this was to hone your skills in true combat, not to gamble foolishly with your life. A single mistake would have seen you dead a half-dozen times over.” Signaling for one of his physicians, he inspected the girl for broken bones or deep wounds, and upon finding none his shoulders sagged in relief. “With your speed and control, you could have shorn through the beast’s tusks and snout, no need to take so great a risk. Better yet, use your damn spear to kill it, you’ve enough power to do that, pierce it through the eye.”
“Respectfully, Teacher Du mentioned the value of the hide, but the skull and tusks are even more valuable.” Her eyes gleamed once again, this time with avarice. “A Meng-Zhua tusks do not grow so quickly, and with tusks so long, it must be centuries old, perhaps even over a millennium. It might even be used as a Heart! Even without that, the materials are highly sought after and will fetch a pretty penny.”
Snorting as he helped her onto the quin, he fumed with anger. “For this you risk your life so recklessly? If you want another Spiritual weapon, I can have one ready for you as easily as turning my hand, and there is no need to even mention coin. Do not waste my efforts in guiding you by dying young, you must live a long and healthy life so that my name will be spoken of for centuries still.”
Still smiling foolishly, she nodded, brimming with elation as she stared at the dying beast, ignoring the ministrations of the physicians as they cleaned and bandaged her cuts. Chuckling to himself at the sight, he resisted the urge to whoop with joy and dance a little ditty. Talent and guts, instincts and determination, this student of his would truly be remarkable. He had claimed he would make her a crane among chickens, but it seemed that he was a liar.
She would be a dragon among men, unparalleled beneath the heavens, of this he was sure or else his name was not Du Min Gyu.
Author’s note: The creature in question is called a Baku, but I just pulled a name out of my butt, something that fit better with the chinese/mongolian/khazak theme I was going for. It’s chinese for dream catch, because the Baku are japanese monsters that are said to devour nightmares and aspirations.
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