Sitting nervously atop Shana’s back, Adujan made her way to the Iron Banner’s compound, praying to the Mother that they were staying in the same manor as before. Without any other clue as to their whereabouts, it would raise suspicions if she were to ask for directions and Teacher Du had been adamant she remained unnoticed. He had even ordered her to enter through a different gate, concocting sort of plan to deal with the Society, but shared no details on the matter. Even the Divine Blacksmith was without knowledge, camped out in the mountains to delay his arrival, more cloak and dagger nonsense that Adujan did not understand.
The odour of burnt flesh and wood-smoke permeated the air, the wind changing often and bringing a fetid stench to her nostrils, the rancid stink of death and decay. Soldiers and civilians alike filled the streets, each person moving with distinct purpose, the ever-present threat of attack hanging over one and all. She had seen the Defiled army while traversing the mountains to reach the western gate, an endless horde of unclean warriors milling about just outside of bow-range, seeming wild and ferocious even from a great distance. Just the memory of the sight was enough to send a chill down her spine, her eyes able to pick out the hulking forms of a number of Demons.
The scars of battle were clear to see, wounded soldiers put to use as coolies and messengers, battle-scarred armor and weapons close to hand. The two walls of the Bridge were all that held back the swarm of Demons and Defiled, and every person here was willing to lay down their lives in defense of the Empire, heroes one and all. If the Defiled were not stopped here, the Province would fall with little resistance, no city able to withstand that massive torrent of warriors. Not even the massive walls of the Society Headquarters would be able to hold, giving the Defiled clear access to the heart of the Empire, a disastrous result that would see hundreds of millions dead and worse.
Dismissing her memories of the tiny, burnt out village, she glanced back at her shadow, Kyung, impassive as always. She wondered if it was a natural or learned trait, his stony features a rugged mirror of Li Song’s neutral expressing. Riding atop of Zabu, the fussy quin seemed none too happy at the constant change of riders, his body language clearly displaying anxiety, ready to lunge at anyone who approached him. Clicking her tongue for his attention, she tossed him a piece of dried fruit, smiling as he ran beside her to feed Shana, fondly patting his furry head as he squeaked in delight. With the eighth month almost halfway finished, Shana would be ready to lay her eggs within a handful of weeks, the sweet quin fatter than ever as her body prepared for the arduous task ahead. Hopefully, they will have returned to Teacher Du’s home by then, else it would be difficult to ensure the eggs were well protected on their journey.
A few missed turns and panicked moments later, she stood in front of the Iron Banner’s lodgings, nervously knocking on the door while Kyung stood back with the quins. The door opened to a somewhat familiar face, the same attendant she had met on her first visit five months ago, a good sign. “Hello, I’ve a message for Capta – err… Major Baatar of the Iron Banner.” Or maybe he’d been promoted again, who knew. She had little interaction with the valiant hero, her entire journey with the Banner spent tongue-tied and skittish, unsure how to act around them.
After stabling Zabu and Shana, she followed the attendant with Kyung in tow, entering the common room of the manor where the members of the Banner sat together, mingling and resting until their next shift. Sitting by the fire was Tenjin, his multitude of daggers decorating his body, each one a Spiritual Weapon, while reading in the corner was Tursinai, idly twirling her sickle through her fingers. More Bannermen were strewn about the room in ones and twos, overwhelming her with excitement at seeing her heroes once again.
While she gawked about the room in awe, a polite cough grasped her attention and she turned to face Major Baatar himself. The Bloody Fang strapped to his waist, his pole-axe, the Crescent Moon, leaning against the wall, the hero of the People sat at a table, eating his meal and staring her down as if she were prey for his cooking pots. “You’ve a message for me?”
Cursing herself for being an idiot, she fumbled for the sealed message in her pouch while nodding repeatedly, her shaking fingers having trouble grasping the wooden case. Holding it out respectfully in both hands, she half-bowed as she presented the message, wishing her body would stop shivering. After reading the message, the Major spoke again. “You are Adujan?” She responded with more frantic nodding, unable to speak.
Before she could even register a movement, a loud thud sounded from behind her, and the Bloody Fang rested against her neck. Glancing down, she saw Kyung prone on the ground, Gerel pinning him down with ease, despite only having a single arm. “Clever of you to do your research, Adujan is indeed the student of Du Min Gyu, but you made a simple mistake.” Baatar leaned forward, the promise of violence displayed in his blue eyes and wolfish smile. “Adujan is a boy. You will tell me who your employers are and how you came about your information.”
“Tch, take yer sword away from the girl ye mule-headed, dim-witted twit.” A meaty hand shoved the Major away and Adujan was encompassed in Ghurda’s warm embrace. “Ah little child, look at you, not even half a year and you’ve blossomed into a lovely lady, how wonderful. You look better now, more plump and no longer slouching, although your pant’s do seem a bit too tight to be proper.” Adujan’s cheeks burned with her embarrassment, her awe of Baatar dropping several measures as she hid inside Ghurda’s arms. How could her hero be as dense as Rain?
Roars of laughter accompanied them as Ghurda ushered them to a private room, and Adujan sipped her tea slowly, sitting across from the Major, a hangdog look upon his face. With an embarrassed cough, he began their conversation once again. “I apologize for my mistake and for assaulting your companion.” Clearing his throat, he seemed to regain his poise as he continued. “Nonetheless, since I am sure my Mentor has failed to mention it, we celebrated the news that you have found a Teacher for yourself, and wish you all the best in your endeavors. She has a weakness when it comes to social graces.” A stern look crossed his face as he leaned forward, and Adujan steeled herself to keep from shying away. “Remember, you are a Sentinel and one of the People, now and always. Should you ever need help, make your way back to us or send word, and the Sentinels or the Iron Banner will ride to your aid.”
Gratified by his words, she mumbled an incoherent reply into her teacup, hiding her tears. She had worried that her decision to leave had displeased the Chief Provost, only receiving a curt dismissal, but Baatar was not one for empty promises. Patting her back, Ghurda comforted her, speaking softly. “Ah, there there little Adujan, no need to be sad, it will be some time yet before yer departure and yer Teacher wants you to stay with us. That means for a few days, you’ll be riding with the Banner eh?” Smiling mischievously, she continued. “Tell me about yer companion, he’s a handsome lad, isn’t he? Would he be the reason for your transformation? Ye can always tell when a maiden’s in love.” Ghurda continued without allowing Adujan to speak, pinching her cheeks lightly. “Almost makes me want to weep, I’d hoped to bring you into my family as little Huu’s wife, yer that shy boy’s only female friend. What am I to do with him now?”
Sputtering on her tea, Adujan choked on her laughter, and coughed out, “Oh you won’t need to worry about Huu, he’s quite the ladies ma…” As soon as she uttered the words, her eyes widened in horror, her hand clamping her mouth shut.
Mentally apologizing to Huu, she cringed as Ghurda carefully articulated a single word, her voice hard and demanding, her grip firm and unyielding.
His hands tucked inside his sleeves, Du Min Gyu did his best to keep them from shaking as he watched the two youths square off, slowly circling the room and staring at one another like lovers. Fools the both of them, and he impatiently waited while cursing the afflictions of old age. Not only did he suffer from constant pain, but he had now also acquired full-bodied shivers, sweating despite the temperature as his body shook uncontrollably. Cycling his chi throughout his body, he attempted to find the cause of his symptoms with his meagre healing skills, but found nothing, only the familiar wounds and aches that would never be fully restored.
Beside him, the Marshal coughed wetly into a handkerchief, staining it with fluids as his servant looked on with concern, a portent of Min Gyu’s own future, with only Kyung at his side as he died. A bleak image, indeed, better to have died in battle, perhaps after killing the Butcher of KunLun. Now there was a worthy opponent, a true match between good and evil, without the grey matters of conscience to bother him. A murderer and rapist, half-defiled himself, the Butcher had died hard, the injuries he inflicted persisting to this day, the Hero Du Min Gyu his last victim, leaving only a cripple behind.
Working free of his maudlin musings, he focused on the matter at hand and studied Jia Yang, the little upstart Lieutenant General who had stolen his chance at a glorious return to duty. Was the rank easier to earn now or did Yang truly have the skills deserving of it? Difficult to say at a glance, only seeing a younger, prideful man who had learned to hide his anger well, only visible deep within his eyes. A troublesome opponent, especially with his own failing health, and though he had promised to help the Bekhai with their troubles, he had little left to offer. At least he could test the skills of a single youth and needle the man who would be their primary opponent, but other than that…
After prancing about for a full minute, the two children finally clashed, Fung’s spear lancing out only to be easily parried by Zian’s twin sabres, a simple exchange that spoke volumes. A second too late or a few centimetres off-target and Zian would have stepped aside, counter-striking to win the fight, but Fung’s measured aggression and boundless confidence paid off, winning him a superior position. Zian’s skillful soft deflection was equally arrogant, catching the heavy spear with easy and poise, instead of taking a the advantageous route and stepping back. The older boy could easily win, far more skilled than Fung, but instead he chose to display his technical skills and prowess, thinking to impress Min Gyu.
These youths of nobility were always the same, wanting to seem elegant or powerful, always in control. This was not true battle, the rhythmic trading of calculated strikes, no, true battle was to fight with everything at hand, a frenzy of decisions and actions, with only death or victory to end it all. In comparison, these two youths may as well be dancing with one another for all that they accomplished. The newest champion of the Contest set against the former, an event that would have filled the seats in any arena, but to Du Min Gyu, it was unbearably tedious.
Both youths displayed their abilities, neither one lacking talent. Zian focused on the Forms of the Oriole, his footwork impeccable upon the flat stone floor, but how would he fare in an uneven dirt field or on a muddy embankment? Fung had no focus in the forms, picking and choosing the movements that fit him which resulted in a style that screamed of multiple teachers, yet to find his own approach. That in and of itself was not terrible, but for him to have won the Contests with his skills showed an appalling lack of talent in today’s youths. Or perhaps he was being too exacting, his standards too high.
No, it was the children who were weak. His standards were fine.
Their exchanges continued in a back and forth manner until, unable to bear it any longer, he spoke gruffly. “Enough , enough.” Looking surprised, both boys lined up before him and saluted, holding their weapons prettily in what they assumed was a heroic posture. Laughable. Time to pluck some feathers, and see if he drew blood. “Zian, your body is too frail and slight, you over-emphasize mobility for power. Not a problem in a duel but on the battlefield, what good are you? You will have soldiers around you, enemies before you, with no room to maneuver, what then? Your attacks rely on momentum to build power, because you have none in those wet noodles you call arms. You have skill, but lack foundation.” A pinch of sugar to coat the shit, and the whelp smiles and nods in thanks. No fire in him, worthless.
Turning to the other one, he studied the heavy spear, a beautiful weapon, but too heavy for the boy at the moment. “How long have you had that spear?”
“Almost three months.” The reply surprised him, Fung having acclimated well to the weapon in so short a time. A shame he was the Magistrate’s only son, humble, persistent and talented, he was the model of the perfect student if not for that minor detail. The only heir of a Magistrate would not be allowed to leave so easily, and the sun would sooner rise in the west before Du Min Gyu chose to live in the north, this hellish province a place of misery and suffering. A good thing the boy had agreed to the duel, it kept the illusion in place, hiding the girl from prying eyes.
Changing what he was about to say, he instead asked, “You have another weapon? Good, I was beginning to lament the fate of the Empire, thinking you had won with that monstrosity. Use your other weapon and spar again.” Turning to Zian, he added, “No more fanciful displays of skill, fight to win. This isn’t a display for the damsels.” Turning to the Marshal, he shrugged his shoulders apologetically, having wasted so much of the man’s time, receiving an unspoken assurance in return. There would be many enemies made here in the north and the Marshal could soon be one of them, the Society too well entrenched in every facet of the Province. The logistical nightmare of escaping the province had begun to plague him, but he still had a few friends to call upon.
Carrying a double-edged long sword, Fung looked far more confident, charging forward without hesitation. Darting Fang into Slithering Pursuit, countered by his opponent with Gliding Wing, their first exchange was once again in his favour, but this time it was not wasted. Pressing his advantage, Fung’s sword smashed aside Zian’s sabres, forcing the older boy backwards. Sticking close, he continued his assault with measured cuts and thrusts, keeping his opponent off-balance. With a change of pace, his sword drew back, surprising Zian for a single heartbeat, his blades moving in the wrong direction to parry, and a powerful thrust from Fung pinked Zian’s shoulder as he stepped aside, the fury on the older boy’s face ugly to behold. First blood to Fung, but Min Gyu kept silent, allowing the match to continue.
An impressive display from Fung, but in the end, his opponent was more experienced, the five years age difference too steep for him to surpass. A flurry of attacks from Zian’s sabres bought him room to recover, Fung unable to stop two swords with one, a series of light cuts showing through his expensive robes. Gamely fighting on, Fung blocked strike after strike, their weapons clashing in a concert of steel, frustration mounting on Zian’s face as he struggled to end the fight in a suitably impressive manner, the girlish idiot not taking Min Gyu’s words to heart.
After twelve more frantic exchanges, a lull in the match saw both participants heaving as they regained their breath, their weapons held at the ready, neither one willing to show weakness as they stood across from one another, and Min Gyu fought to keep from yawning. The match should have ended long ago if not for Zian’s obsession with winning cleanly, Fung gamely holding on with scant hope of winning. The difference in skill was simply too large.
“Enough of this.” His handsome face twisted in anger, Zian had apparently had enough. “Foolish child, you think you can match me? Let me show you the true difference between us.” Rolling his eyes, Min Gyu sat back with a sigh, shaking his head slightly while he inwardly delighted at Yang’s dismal look. Idiotic to chat in the midst of a match, but it was a sin many youngsters committed. Better to save your breath for fighting, but pompous children so loved to hear the sound of their own voices. That was the worst part of his epic, the Battle at KunLun. The playwrights had depicted him as a singing warrior, exchanging verbal quips with the Butcher in the form of opera songs while they gently tapped weapons, utter foolishness. Were it up to him, he would have all involved strung up and tortured for degrading his last battle, but the nobility and citizenry had loved it, the idiots that they were.
A wave of power disturbed his imaginings of screaming writers and crying actors, and he focused his attentions once more on the match before him. Not good, Yang seemed to have noticed his distraction, peering oddly at him. Was this what it was like to go Senile? His eyes narrowed as he studied Zian, the ripples of chi surging out from him in a crude manner. Hmm, 24 and able to condense an aura, passable, but his control was lacking.
The bare minimum requirement for facing a demon, condensing one’s aura was a feat beyond most warriors, not something easily taught. Tied directly to emotion, it required a build up and release of it through the surrounding chi, a defense against the vile corruption that followed Demons about, tainting the very air around them, bringing lesser men to their knees. Zian was attempting the same thing, but without being able to direct his aura, it was largely a wasted effort.
Moving stiffly, Fung put up a valiant effort as he struggled against his opponents aura, but with his primal instincts fighting him, screaming at him to flee, it was all but finished. With a fanciful two-sword flourish, Zian disarmed Fung and slapped him across the face with the flat of his blade, before returning his weapons to their sheaths in a display meant to impress, Fung’s sword still clattering as it slid across the floor. Arrogant but skilled, prideful and careless, too headstrong and easily pleased. 7 points out of ten, failure.
“You may leave now.” Sitting back into his chair, he organized his thoughts for the coming trial, rethinking his plans with this new information in hand. Were Zian paired against his student, she would have a 75% chance of killing him if she struck viciously as soon as the match began, but should that gambit fail, his student would be left without her spiritual weapon and facing an opponent beyond her skills. What to do now? Three matches and he could guarantee victory in one, but with five separate trials, Kyung could at most find victory twice, and that was being optimistic. Perhaps he could smuggle away with his student, leaving Kyung behind to fulfill his obligations, but that line of thought sat poorly with him, the coward’s way out.
“…Hero Du?” Interrupting his musings, Yang stood before him, with none of the empty flattery he had entered the room with, anger clear in his tone. “You are rejecting my nephew?”
Time to insult them overtly, perhaps planting a seed of doubt in Zian and inciting rage in Yang. “I see deafness runs in the family. Your nephew is unable to follow the most basic of instructions and too weak for me to overlook his glaring flaws. Inferior in all aspects to Fung except in age, he is not worth the effort to teach. Leave or be removed, I care not either way.” Waving them away, he froze as he spied his trembling hand, quickly concealing it away in his sleeve, but it was too late, seen by both uncle and nephew.
Eyes narrowed, Yang retorted, “Come Zian, you don’t need a feeble old man to teach you how to fight. The stories of his past glories blinded me, unable to see the simple truth, shivering before me.” As he marched out, he added, “I pray you have a safe journey home, the North is full of dangers for an aged gentleman such as yourself.”
Damn, a moment’s carelessness had ruined his plan, no longer able to use his support for the Bekhai to cause a panic among the Society factions. Before the night fell, news of his weakness would spread far and wide, urged on by Yang until every soldier and citizen at the Bridge knew of Du Min Gyu’s ailing health. Sighing deeply, he sank into his seat and closed his eyes, once again cursing his old age. Well, at the very least, he could now die in combat once again, Yang’s poorly veiled threat instilling some hope in him, the thought of fighting off Society assassins reason enough to smile. Perhaps it would even inspire another epic, his heroic escape from the clutches of the corrupt Society, a harrowing journey across the inhospitable Northern Province, without all the appalling opera singing.
Then again, since he would not be alive to suffer through it, it hardly mattered.
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