Patting his pockets for a handkerchief, Shing Du Yi fumbled one out just in time to catch the globule of bloody phlegm, taking care not to dirty his robes as he awaited the Bekhai delegation. He had overstayed on this visit north, the bone-chilling cold bringing him closer to death each day, but in remaining here, his bureaucratic-minded peers were left with no choice but to join him in protest. The effect was two-fold, bolstering the defences with their private armies and lowering their opposition to increased military spending. Du Yi possessed a mediocre talent at cultivation and no skills as a warrior, his meagre life all he had to offer to help keep the province safe.
Death would need to wait a little longer before collecting him, Yuzhen working frantically to keep him alive with herbal concoctions and remedies. The province was still in turmoil, the loss of Shen Mu city forcing Shen Yun and Jiu Lang to augment the patrols of the north-eastern quadrant, keeping the Defiled contained while the Central Province reinforcements moved in to cut them off at the source. Retaking the border fortresses was slow going, with a host of ‘unanticipated’ issues cropping up, the greatest of which was lack of any forethought on the part of the military leaders. With summer coming to an end, the dropping temperatures meant that the poorly dressed soldiers were freezing, their metal armor sapping the warmth from their bodies and thin tents unable to cut the chill of wind. Not so simple to issue 500,000 sets of layered clothing or new tents, especially with Martial Law repealed and the various contractors around the province dragging their feet.
Wiping his chin, he took several feeble, wet breaths, hoping to get through the meeting without appearing too infirm. A fierce warrior culture, the Bekhai likely held physical weakness in contempt and Du Yi would need every advantage he could find to settle this dispute without bloodshed. The Society had demanded near everything he had presented to them, which was why he had kept most of his findings undisclosed. The Bekhai were sitting atop a literal mountain of treasure in natural resources, all untouched likely due to lack of a suitable workforce. It would do them little harm to give up a few locations at the edge of their territory, less than a tenth of what they held, a reasonable and peaceful solution to this senseless squabble.
Then again, reasonable people would not bring a small army to a mediation, appearing ready to fight head-on against a foe many times their size. He quickly muttered a prayer to the Mother, hoping that cooler heads would prevail.
With little pomp, the Bekhai representatives entered the room and he cordially stood to greet them as Yuzhen introduced them one by one. Akanai entered first, a formidable woman, the highest ranked half-beast in the province, possibly the Empire. Impassive and collected, she nodded gracefully at him, her body language alert but unconcerned as she took her seat at the table. Baatar and Ghurda of the Iron Banner sat on either side of her, both tired and worn out, the constant battles weighing heavily on both. Heroes both, they would have been promoted several ranks by now, along with a handful of the other mercenaries in their employ, if not for the Society supporters actively quashing all requests. A band of ferocious tigers lead by a dragon among men, the Society truly kicked a board in upsetting these fierce warriors.
The next person introduced almost caused him to gape in bewilderment. Medical Saint Taduk, a folk hero to the masses, distributing cheap and effective medicines for the common people while charging exorbitant prices to the wealthy. DuYi once sought his aid, summoning him to the Society Headquarters to meet, but the reclusive healer declined the request, stating an inability to travel away from his patients. Truth be told, he was a little upset over the refusal, but it was difficult to hold a grudge against a man so self-sacrificing. What was he doing here with the Bekhai? How many more hidden dragons lurked in the wilderness of the Saint’s Tribulations Mountains?
The remaining representatives composed of the accused, a Senior Captain Alsantset and six children, one more than expected, choosing to stand behind the others. Examining them briefly, Du Yi did not know whether to laugh or cry; of the 6 children, only two appeared to be warriors, a hulking half-wolf man and a frigid half-cat woman. Fresh faced innocents, the other four included a sweet little rabbit girl and a scrawny runt of a boy. These were the fearsome competitors who had run roughshod over the Society’s elite youths?
Once everyone was seated at the table and tea served, he eschewed the pleasantries and jumped right to the crux of the matter. “I see you brought an army.”
Blowing gently on her hot tea, Akanai answered in a casual tone. “Colonel Nian Zu sent out a request for mounted units, and I am here to answer the call.”
“Strange, that was precisely the answer Brigadier Man Giao gave me earlier this morning when he arrived with more than 5,000 heavy cavalry.” Bringing his cup to his lips, he paused and tilted his head in question before continuing. “In total, almost 10,000 mounted soldiers, one group to guard and the other to fire arrows in safety, is that not your signature combat formation?” His only reply was an indifferent shrug, the woman letting her silence speak volumes.
There would be nothing gained in continuing this line of thought, so he moved on for now. “This feud brings no benefit to either of our groups, so I have called for this meeting to find a peaceful means of reconciliation. Before we begin, I must ask, before you took part, were you not aware of the… hardships which befall the victors of the contest?” Hardly a secret, it was viewed as a trial by fire for the young warriors, with most escaping with their lives, the only serious injuries dealt to their pride.
“Of course, and I went along with them to escort them home with their grand prizes safely in hand.” Confident and without conceit, Akanai spoke as if describing going to the market to buy cabbage. “Circumstances with the Defiled invasion conspired to bring me away from the Society before the contest was over, leading to this… unfortunate turn of events.”
The woman had a talent for understatement. “An argument could be made that your people responded with unwarranted aggression in defending themselves against the… bandits. Senior Captain Alsantset opened fire on her pursuers, killing without hesitation before opening a dialogue. What if it she had been mistaken and the group was a Society escort?”
“Oh? Are you claiming that to be the truth, or are you saying she should have relied on the kindness of ‘bandits’?” A single raised eyebrow punctuated her sarcastic response. “Her party consisted of her husband, five young, untested warriors, two civilians and her twin five-year-old children, known to be carrying items of incredible value. Your argument is asinine and would be laughed at by any reasonable person.”
A smug smile on her lovely face, the young woman in question chimed in with, “Besides, I fired a warning shot.”
It seemed the Bekhai were unwilling to acquiesce so easily, but that was to be expected. Face had to be given to the Bekhai, and the first offer is never accepted by anyone with an inkling of how to negotiate. Allow them a small victory to lower their guard before directly crushing their confidence.
“The death of bandits are of no consequence, I was merely attesting to Senior Captain Alsantset’s mindset at the time and suggesting the possibility she may have seen enemies where there were none. She attacked the Society hunting party under the cover of darkness and killed several disciples and elders in an unwarranted attack, based on suspicion alone.” She was correct in her suspicions, but that was not the point, an outright attack could not go unpunished lest the Society lose all face. Such was the way of the world, the strong thrive and the weak endure. It was time to hammer his point home.
“I will be blunt: you cannot win against the Society in open combat. Even including the forces loyal to Du Min Gyu, you have less than 20,000 soldiers at your beck and call, a paltry sum in the face of the hundreds of thousands loyal to the Society.” There was no reaction to the revelation of their ties to the aged hero, something best kept secret. Why Du Min Gyu had not carefully hidden his ties to the Bekhai was a mystery, openly marching his student Tong Da Fung about in plain sight. Any idiot could have made the connection, the relationship between Akanai and Tong Da Hai common knowledge. A foolish move at best, perhaps he truly was going feeble-minded in his old age. “Soldiers might have once flocked to fight alongside The Sanguine Tempest, Great Hero Du, but few are willing to die for ‘Decrepit fossil Du’.”
It brought him no joy to do this, but the Bekhai needed to see the futility of their conduct and realize he offered them a way out without bloodshed. At his signal, his servants distributed copies of the contract he had written. “I have no wish to see heroes of the Empire die for this absurd vendetta, but the fact of the matter is, Senior Captain Alsantset and your five youths killed 17 Society disciples and 5 elders, also causing significant injuries and financial damages while escaping unscathed. Reparations must be made.” Seeing Akanai read through the contract, he began to make his pitch to sell her on the idea. “This is only a first draft, there is room for negotia-”
“No.” Her copy of the agreement landed with a flop onto the table, thrown away without turning a single page.
Her tone gave no room for deliberations, the talks concluded in a single word. He opened his jaw, and shut it with an audible click, taking a moment to collect himself before replying. “What?” Perhaps he should have taken more time to think.
“I have no authority to grant land rights or working permits within the Saint’s Tribulations Mountains, and even if I did, I would refuse all the same.” Leaning forward, her aura erupted forth in a violent display of anger, the pressure violently pressing down upon him, freezing him in abject terror. Leaping to her feet, Yuzhen tried to defend him, but even she was no match for the formidable warrior before them, despite her expert training and experience. Glowering in undisguised rage, Akanai spoke in measured cadence, her tone barely restrained. “The Society attacked my people, nearly killed my daughter, and you expect compensation? I agree, reparations must be made, and I am here to collect.”
As suddenly as it had appeared, Akanai’s aura rescinded, Yuzhen staggering under the sudden freedom. Coughing violently, his chest heaved as his body spasmed in fear and relief, Akanai taking her leave without another word. His chin stained in blood, he leaned forward on the table and tried to call out to them as they marched away, to beg Akanai to reconsider, but his body failed him in his time of need, gasping for air that would not come.
Leaning back heavily, his eyes closed in surrender, his body ragged and spirit battered. The Bekhai would clash head on with the Society, to no one’s benefit. In victory or defeat, the trials would only give rise to open warfare between both groups, further weakening the Empire in these troubling times.
A curse upon ‘honourable’ warriors everywhere, too bull-headed to see the greater good.
The hacking coughs of the aged Marshal follow us as we make our way down the stairs, marching resolutely past the guards and out of the gatehouse. I’d like to offer medical advice, it sounds like his lungs were filled with fluid, which could be anything from pneumonia to a failing heart or liver. Without an examination, it’s impossible to decide, but I don’t think Akanai would look too kindly on me for ruining her dramatic exit.
From the concern she displayed, it was obvious Yuzhen really cares about that old man, so she probably isn’t a slave. How should I approach her? Is it even possible, or prudent, seeing as we’re on opposite sides in this feud of ours? Ah, the beginnings of an epic romance, star-crossed lovers from feuding factions… I should write her a letter, maybe some poetry… no, details about how to treat the Marshal would probably be better… and less embarrassing.
Meeting up with the Sentinels, Zabu chirps happily at seeing me once again, holding two kittens in his arms. Adorable as it is, my eyes are drawn towards Kyung, who sits atop Zabu impassively while holding the last kitten in his meaty hand. I want to switch mounts with him, but I’m under strict orders to remain silent, so all I can do is grumble beneath my breath and stare enviously at sweet Zabu while he nuzzles the kittens. And to think, I was worried he was going to eat them.
Making our way through the armed city, the silent procession of 4,000 Sentinels draws a number of stares, a few hostile but mostly neutral interest. The overall mood at the Bridge is muted, soldiers moving around with the thousand-yard-stare, no idlers standing about, every soldier and civilian carrying out their assigned duties with an eerie focus. The smell of death lingers in the air, carried on a greasy cloud of smoke, a perpetual haze which dulls the colours all around us.
Five months of unending siege really puts a damper on the ambience.
Upon reaching our quarters, Akanai brings Baatar and the others into a closed-door meeting, while Ghurda drags Huu away by the ear along with his two ladies, leaving me with nothing to do. Standing around awkwardly, I glance at Mila, Lin, Song, and Yan, all four of them watching me, displaying minor hostility. Did I do something wrong? “Hey Yan, how have you been? I missed you.”
Flashing me a flirtatious smirk, she hugs me gently. “Oh, that’s good to hear, because I wasn’t sure you even noticed me, what with you staring at Yuzhen.” Upon closer inspection, I spot the dangerous glint in her eyes and pray she’s not as abusive as Mila. “A little look never hurt anyone, but try not to go overboard. I hear you’re betrothed to Mila now, and only a few days after I left. Congratulations.”
Uh Oh. Why do I feel like I’ve been caught cheating? “Er… the betrothal with Mila wasn’t really my idea, Akanai just sprung that on me with no warning.” Why am I making excuses?
Pouting adorably, Mila points accusingly while Yan watches on with a dangerous smile. “So what? Our betrothal is just an inconvenience to you? And to think, only yesterday you promised to keep your indiscretions to a minimum, and today I find you ogling a complete stranger, like a starved animal. You’re incorrigible, beyond redemption. I don’t know why I believed you.”
“I wasn’t ogling, I was listening intently.” Was I super obvious? But I was so careful, keeping my head down, only glancing up now and then.
Turning to Lin for support, my cheerleader betrays me, her sad brown eyes looking up at me in heartache. “How many wives are you expecting to have Rainy? You need to show some restraint, don’t be so greedy.”
“Enough.” My salvation arrives in the form of the bald, one-armed Gerel, his fierce glower scattering my accusers. “Adujan, bring Healer Taduk to your teacher and see if he can be of aid. Mila, the others are busy so make yourself available to settle any disputes. Rain, follow me, the Blacksmith wishes a word.”
Grabbing me roughly by the neck as if to make sure I can’t escape, Gerel leads me out into the streets with an escort of Sentinels, coldly rebuking Lin who tries to follow. The poor girl waves sadly as we leave on foot, marching along as quickly as I can, my legs moving furiously to keep up with Gerel’s longer strides. “Err… So what happened with your arm? I lost the same one too.” I kind of want to see his face when I tell him I fought a demon AND healed my arm on my own.
“I was careless. Stop talking.” His eyes continually scan the surroundings as we move, alert for any sign of danger, so I quiet down and do the same. I don’t think the Society would outright assault us in the open, but then again, what do I know?
Leading us towards the heart of the city, Gerel brings me to a pub and after speaking silently to the bartender, we head down into the cellars. Moving through a winding path of connected buildings, we emerge in what appears to be a butcher’s shop, the inhabitants showing no sign of surprise, barely even acknowledging the existence of a dozen armed men stomping out from his cellar.
After several more similar ‘shortcuts’, we finally arrive at our destination, a small, isolated forge room close to the outer wall of the fortress, hewn from the same material as the wall. Greeting me with a tired smile, Husolt lifts me into a warm embrace, squeezing the air out of my lungs in a massive hug. “Ah, Lad, greet yer Father-in-Law. I danced a little jig when I heard the good news. Welcome to the family.” Giving me no time to speak after putting me down, his two meaty hands clamp down hard on my shoulders, his glowering face held close to mine, forcing me to stare into his one good eye. “You’re a good lad and this need not be said, but I’ll say it anyways to be sure. You make Mila cry, and I make you cry, that’s the way of it. Understood?”
Nodding respectfully, I swallow my fear and do my best to appear innocent. I’m dead unless Mila decides to break off the betrothal, that’s the only way I see out of this dilemma. As nice as a harem is in theory, I am nowhere near competent enough to pull it off. One wife, two kids, and the cat. That’s the new dream, abandon all hope otherwise.
Laughing ferociously, he claps me heavily on the back, the pain resonating throughout my body. Dear sweet Mother, that hurt so much, and he was showing affection. What will he do if I actually hurt Mila? “Now lad, last time you rejected my work, but I learned from my mistakes. It was too fancy and complicated, this time I went for something simple, yet still aggressive. A bit heavy, but you’re a sturdy one, and you’ve got plenty of growing to do yet.” Leading me into the back room, he pulls off a cloth from atop an anvil, and I stare in undisguised longing at a round buckler shimmering in the firelight. Polished silver with white studs, a hand guard protrudes from one end with a pair of silver tusks affixed to it, almost 30cm long, a single edge honed on each end and sharpened to a double point.
At Husolt’s urging, I fasten the shield to my left wrist, my hand resting comfortably inside the armored grip, the heavy weapon ringing faintly as I slowly move it in arcs. Glancing in confusion at Husolt, I shake my head slowly, overwhelmed by the craftsmanship. “This is for me? Did Baatar gift this to me? I can’t accept another weapon from him, Akanai was clear about that. I need to earn my second Spiritual Weapon.”
“It’s not from the pup, this here weapon is a gift from the little lass Adujan.” A second heavy clap on the shoulder turns me towards him, a dangerous smile on his face, not entirely friendly. “She’s a lovely girl, that one.” After an eternity, the sense of danger fades away, and his grin breaks out from ear to ear as he glances at his work. “She brought a Meng-Zhua skull for me to work with, her teacher used his connections and got me a top-quality binding reagent, and I did the rest for no charge. You earned it boy, she’s just repaying you for her own weapon.”
Now I feel terrible about our reunion, I could have at least smiled at her first or something. “I love it.” It’s like a bladed glove and shield, a little short in the blade, but it compliments my sword well. The buckler is wide enough to cover my head and upper body, and it’s heavy, thick frame make it perfect for slamming into my opponents. My wrist is locked in place, so I lose some flexibility there, but it’s still incredible.
A cool stream of Energy enters me, Husolt doing a quick scan before nodding in approval. “Good, your core is much more stable than before, good, good. Hurry up and bind it, the trial is set for tomorrow morning and you might be called upon to fight.” The mood sours, his expression grave as he pats my cheek. “You don’t worry too much about it, if things are looking too dire, we’ll turn as one and fight our way back home. My wife will see us through this.”
“Hope for the best, plan for the worst, right?” His only answer is a knowing smile, leaving me alone in the cramped room to bind the weapon. After a brief review of what to do, I settle down to meditate. I am one with the shield, the shield is me, I am the shield. Cycling my chi, I dedicate my mind to the task at hand, ignoring all else.
The Energy of the Heavens rages around me, crashing against me in torrents, but I am unmoved and unyielding, a rock within the storm. Sometimes, to find peace, you need to exert some force, and that’s why we are here, to show the Society that the Sentinels are not to be taken lightly. I wanted to be a defender, a protector, and this is my chance.
An ethereal opponent appears in front of me with sword and shield in hand, his face blurred and familiar all at once, eyes red as blood staring me down in open challenge. Charging forward, I strike with both weapons in perfect unity, leading with the shield, bleeding him with the sword, getting in close and personal to limit his options. Losing myself in the dance, I flow gracefully in movement, yet remain unshakable once rooted. Ebb and flow, give and take, a simple trade of blows, trusting in my endurance and healing ability to see me through to victory.
We exchange hundreds of blows in the blink of an eye, and a thousand more with every breath, neither one gaining advantage over the other. Without warning, a thunderclap resounds inside my skull as my mind unifies with my body and I burst into motion, batting aside my opponents weapons and stabbing him in the chest with both blades. Leaning in close, I see his face for the first time, a mirror of my own, twisted in death. His blood flows down my weapons and into them, my chi igniting within them as my double breathes his last, his red eyes staring at me hatefully as the light drains from them, leaving them dead and amber, with a small doubt seeding into my mind. I am victorious, but was I the original, or the copy?
Jolting myself conscious, my eyes open and I am seated, my chest heaving with exertion, my clothes soaked in sour sweat. My weapons sit in my lap, sword still sheathed and shield strapped to my wrist, no signs of any destruction around the tiny, cramped room. A small yawn disturbs my observations, and it takes several glances around the room to realize that I am alone. A familiar voice echoes inside my head, sounding as if he had just woken from a nap. “Hello brother. Where are we? Did you push Mila down and have your way with her? Tell me the details, or better yet, show me.”
Other me is kind of perverted, but I feel a little relieved now that he’s back. With my new weapon and old friend, I’m as ready as I’ll ever be.
It’s time to kick ass and chew bubblegum, and I’m all out of gum.
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