Spearing the fish with his chopsticks, Jia Yang ate his breakfast slowly, his mind empty of all else but the meal before him, a customary ritual on a day of confrontation. The soft texture of the meat almost melted on his tongue, mixing delightfully with the fragrant grains of rice, prepared to perfection by his chefs. To gain strength, red meats were best, but for endurance, there was no better substitute than a belly full of rice. Delighting in his morning meal, he focused on nothing else but the parsing of his five senses, attuning them to prepare for the battle ahead.
His meal completed, Yang moved to his meditation mat, reaching for Balance as he went over his plans. The most troublesome opponent was Akanai, a warrior of repute, all of their spies unable to offer a clear impression of her strength. While there were several Elders present who could likely deal with her, the prudent response was to send slaves to test her. Even with an overwhelming advantage, Yang was never one to rush into battle, always carefully considering all options.
All it would take is a single lost trial and the Bekhai would be found guilty of assault, the perpetrators beheaded and their bodies put on display to show the world the consequences of going against the Society. With three matches per trial, he would wear down their strength fighting disposable slaves, even better if the slaves were to win. There was little glory to be gained in fighting barbarian mercenaries, but tongues would wag if all he sent were slaves. After victory in the trials, the shadow warriors would be let loose to wipe out the Bekhai, stem and root, ridding the Society of a future nuisance. Simple, easy, effective.
A pounding at his door interrupted his meditation, irritation flaring up within him. Without displaying his anger, he calmly called out, “Enter.”
Rushing through in a flurry, Bolin appeared with his clothes and hair a mess. “Bad news, cousin, bad news. Du Min Gyu is not so frail as you believe!”
Snorting loudly, he waved aside Bolin’s concerns. “Do not fall for his devious tricks, he is a feeble old man, shaking at the thought of confrontation. I saw it with my own two eyes.”
Eyes wide, Bolin shook his head vigorously, the sweat flying off his brow. “No cousin, he is hale and healthy as can be. He was sparring with the officers this morning, offering advice while defeating one after another with ease. He even sparred with the husband and wife pair, Exarchs Bralton and Erien, both at once, finding victory in three moves!”
Holding up his palm for silence, Yang closed his eyes and carefully considered his options before him, quickly discarding any notion of victory in the over 100 age group. To wear down both Akanai and Du Min Gyu within five matches was hopeless, and it was possible the barbarians had more half-beast warriors of their caliber, hidden from sight. For the under 100 age group, there were plenty of experts available to the Society and he was confident in his ability to handle Baatar, the strongest of the Bekhai. Yang intended for the feral half-beast to be his stepping stone towards fame in the Northern Province, soon dislodging Nian Zu from his place as General at the Wall.
The under 25 age group was even more in their favour, as not only was Zian domineering, but two of his rivals were also present, one from the OuYang clan and another from the Baiji sect. While neither were as strong as Zian, they were close enough to be stronger than any barbarian children, no matter how talented. Two of three matches was still possible, although they could not claim total domination over the Bekhai, not here, not today.
Frustration welled up inside him, and an angry roar escaped from his throat, his face twisted in ugly hatred. Venting his anger with his shout, he quickly calmed himself, taking slow, deep breaths while smoothing out his robes before sending Bolin away and returning to meditate. Nothing could be done about the old man, but at some point, Du Min Gyu would need to pass through Shen Yun or the Society Headquarters, and Yang would deal with him then. Until that time, he would simply have to swallow the loss of face, writing off the over 100 group matches as a loss.
His servants came for him at the proper time, dressing him for battle. Made of the finest materials and forged by the greatest craftsmen in the Empire, his plated armor was rune-carved to offer protection, capable of stopping a mounted charge and a Honed weapon, his greatest trump card. Looking like a fearsome god of war, he made his way to the training grounds where the trial was to take place, basking in the adoration of the common soldiers, their worship and envy on naked display.
Standing on the stone square stage, Akanai, the Senior Captain, and five children all awaited his arrival, the herald of their doom. The Society clansmen all gathered on one side, dwarfing the opposition in numbers, the Bekhai who were joined by those loyal to their cause, a smattering of soldiers and mercenaries. A pitiful display, he could only dream that the Bekhai would be foolish enough to fight their way out, allowing him to crush them where they stood and openly lead an army to burn their village to the ground. A grand cheer rose up as he stepped onto stage, the delegation of accusers following close behind. Standing with poise and dignity, he awaited the arrival of the Justicar.
Minutes passed as the Society adherents jeered and taunted their opponents while the Bekhai’s faction remained silent as the grave, too ashamed to even say a word. Smirking to himself, he glanced over at Akanai, but she kept her eyes forward, likely sweating as she came to terms with her death. A scrawny little runt glared back at him, and he toyed with the thought of pressuring the savage child with his aura and watching him piss his pants. According to Bolin, the boy was ferocious for his age, a talented warrior, but all that skill was meaningless before the finer manipulations of chi. If the boy stepped up to fight, Zian could cut him down without breaking a sweat.
With little fanfare, the Justicar arrived in his official robes, the metal mask of his office prominently on display. Surprisingly, two more joined him, the three officials making their way to the stage, the fearsome, neutral features of their masks giving no hint towards their thoughts. The lead Justicar held his hands up for silence and the crowd quieted, every ear straining to listen.
“As Justicar of the Empire, I declare this mediation in session. We are gathered to witness trial by combat between the Bekhai and the Society.” A deep, booming voice emerged from behind the mask, his words enunciated clearly. “The depositions have been taken and reviewed, the case deliberated by we three before you. Five separate charges of assault on the Society, with five separate trials requested. We ask, is there no way to end the enmity between your two groups? We all are but servants of the Emperor, and these are trying times, the loss of each warrior is felt deeply.”
Saluting the Justicar, Yang stepped forward to speak. “The Bekhai have offered grave insult to the Society, and it cannot go unanswered. In hopes of peaceful resolution, we asked Marshal Shing Du Yi to offer terms, but our proposal was coldly rebuked. The Society of Heaven and Earth serves the Emperor’s will, we only ask for the opportunity to defend our honour and avenge our fallen comrades.”
The Justicar turned to look at Akanai who merely shrugged in answer. “They might as well have asked for the moon on a plate. I am unable to give away that which I do not have, and even if it were otherwise, I would not pay them a single copper. My people were attacked and reacted accordingly.” Idiot half-beast, unable to even show proper deference to the Justicar. Worse, her actions made him look like a groveling toady in comparison. He silently added this insult to his tally of grievances, to be ratified on the field of battle.
Nodding, the Justicar stood still as he conversed his peers in silence. After a short pause, he spoke once more. “Very well. We will allow this trial by combat to proceed, but in light of the trying times, we will be placing strict limits on this trial, at the suggestion of Colonel General Nian Zu.”
A drop of cold sweat trickled down his neck as the crowd burst into mutters at the unusual practice. Surely not even Nian Zu was arrogant enough to stand openly against the Society? What did that meddling old man do? Glancing over at his counterpart, it seemed that Akanai was also surprised, tense and ready to act instead of feigned relaxation.
Signalling for silence once more, the Justicar continued. “We offer three choices. The first, is for both parties to submit to enforced mediation, in which the Disciplinary Corps will conduct a full investigation and carry out Summary Justice.” A terrible option, as they would immediately request for oaths, likely finding both the Society and the Bekhai guilty of transgressions and enslave all offenders to service or worse. He would never accept it and Akanai was already shaking her head, indicative of her refusal.
“The second choice is for the five trials to take place without death. The matches will be fought until one party yields or cannot continue, the defeated party submitting to the slave corps, devoting their life in service to the Empire. In the event of an accidental death, the killer will be forced to take the place of the defeated.” A second terrible option, swords and spears have no eyes, what warrior would risk fighting in a match where killing your opponent meant slavery? Better to die than to submit.
“The third option is one I hesitate to offer, but it seems neither party is satisfied with the first two.” The Justicar sighed, a rare display of emotion, shaking his head and gesturing towards the Bekhai children. “As this feud began with the youngsters, let them be the ones to end it. Each trial will be decided with a single match to the death, both participants under 25 years of age. You may have your bloodshed, but it will be the young who pay the price. Their loss, while tragic, is … tolerable, compared to the alternative.”
Glancing at his nephew, Yang saw the young man’s eyes flashing with anticipation. His peers standing to either side of him were also filled with visions of victory and glory, their hands resting eagerly on their weapons, acknowledging his unasked question and nodding vigorously. This couldn’t be considered a limit, in fact it was almost an advantage, avoiding single combat with Akanai and Du Min Gyu. Although Yang lost out on the chance for personal glory, new waves were destined to overtake the old. Turning back to the Justicar, he spoke grandly. “The Society accepts your limits and chooses the third option. Blood must be repaid with blood. To choose otherwise would be an insult to our dead. Let those gathered here today gaze upon the heroes of tomorrow, and bear witness to their rise to prominence.” Turning to Akanai, he sneered at the half-beast, pleased with the turn of events. The children she strove to protect would die first, and then he would lead the shadow warriors to the Bekhai village and burn it to the ground. Such was the price for offending the Society.
The woman ignored him, looking intently at the children, most who nodded in acceptance, the runt shrugging and speaking out loud. “You know my thoughts on slavery. Send me out to fight and I’ll kill them all.” His words, though softly spoken, were heard by those closest to the stage, his confident declaration repeated back through the ranks, and the crowd’s reaction was one of laughter and jeering. The child looked no older than 15, his gaunt frame bent beneath the weight of his armor, a short sword on his hip and a buckler slung over his shoulder, toys more than weapons. Even those standing on the Bekhai’s side were unable to muster any support save for a few scattered cheers.
Akanai turned to the Justicar to clarify the rules of engagement, and he stepped forward to join in the discussion. Five matches, and should the Bekhai lose a single one, the Senior Captain and five youths would be executed immediately and heavy fines levied upon the Bekhai. An attempt was made to reduce the number of accused, but Yang stood firm and refused, challenging her to prove their lack of participation in assaulting the Society, smiling inwardly as she dropped the matter without a fight. The rest was standard, no delay between matches, participants could fight consecutive battles, but not step down and return for a later match, and exiting the stage during a match meant defeat.
All in place, he strode off the stage and clapped his nephew on the shoulder, grinning from ear to ear. “Good, good, you will earn glory for the Society here. From the way things appeared, Akanai is not confident of victory, the woman was already trying to reduce the number of casualties. It will be a delight to watch that arrogant bitch’s face as we hang her daughter.” Glancing at the other two young prodigies, he asked, “Which one of you would like to go first?”
Neither one willing to step back, he made them flip a coin, and the swarthy, heavy-set young man from the Baiji Sect won. Making his way onto the stage, he raised his arms to display twin, dark metal gauntlets, heavy weapons that covered his fists and forearms. Wearing a yellow armored shirt that prominently displayed his affiliations, he exulted in his moment as tens of thousands of his fellow adherents cheered him towards victory.
On the other side, the runt pushed his peers aside and stepped onto the stage, ignoring the recriminations from his elders, Akanai looking on furiously. Dressed in simple leather armor and canvas trousers, even from a distance it was clear his opponent dwarfed him in size and girth. He walked forward to stand centre stage before being directed back to his corner by the Justicar, laughed at the entire time. Outrageous, it seemed this was his first duel and not even his own people had confidence in him.
Standing at his corner of the square stage, the Baiji Warrior raised his deep voice, playing to the crowd and building up their excitement, his weapons crashing against his chest in a booming greeting. “I am Captain Teng Wei Chuan , 23 years old, Disciple of Major General Teng Wei Sheng, member of the BaiJi Sect, and Adherent to the Society.”
“I am -”
Wei Chuan laughed loudly, interrupting the boy’s introduction. “No one cares about your name, runt. It is insulting for me to fight you, but I will allow you the honour of knowing my name before you die. You can only cry of this injustice in the Mother’s embrace, and perhaps in your next life, you won’t be born into a pack of savages.” The crowd laughed and jeered, the anger displayed on the runt’s face mirrored by many in the crowd of Bekhai supporters.
Seeing the runt remain silent, the Justicar moved on with the match, raising his hand for silence. “Let this first trial of the Bekhai, begin!” As soon as his hand dropped, Wei Chuan raised his gauntlets, displaying the customary stance of the Eight Extreme Fists, moving to meet his opponent. The runt’s weapons hung loosely at his side as he strolled leisurely forwards, seeming unconcerned of the approaching behemoth of a warrior.
Picking up his speed, Wei Chuan’s lumbering steps seemed to shake the very ground itself, closing the remaining distance with an enormous leap, his weapon raised high to smash the runt into a paste. Soaring through the air, he seemed a magnificent warrior leaping down to crush an ant, the runt stopping to stare stupidly, his weapons still lowered. Yang smiled, anticipating the sight of the runt’s splattered skull, inwardly lamenting over a minor detail. He should have told Wei Chuan to keep the boy’s eyes intact so he could have them pickled and displayed on his bookshelf. Amber eyes were a rarity, and it would make for a good conversation piece. No matter, the ‘fearsome’ Gerel had the same coloured eyes and would make for a more impressive trophy.
Landing heavily, Wei Chuan’s fist smashed into the ground, sending broken stone and dust into the air, obscuring all vision of the arena. Cheers broke out from the Society’s side, applause and adulation at the young man’s fearsome prowess. As the dust settled, the cheers died out, only one figure could be made out. His sword still held loosely at his side, dripping with blood, the runt stood slack and unimpressed. Beside him knelt Wei Chuan, his face covered in dust, his lifeblood cascading down his side in slow spurts, pooling in the small crevice he had only just created, a fatal cut in through the left abdomen spelling his doom.
Silence suffused the area, the laboured breaths of Wei Chuan echoing loudly as the crowd collectively held its breath, questioning their own eyes as they watched the scene before them. Leaning over the dying warrior, the runt smiled toothily and spoke, his voice audible to all present. “I will allow you the honour of knowing my name before you die. I am Falling Rain, 17 years old, Student of Medical Saint Taduk, Disciple of Major Baatar, Grand Disciple of Lieutenant General Akanai, Khishig of the Bekhai.” Placing his sword on Wei Chuan’s neck, his smile grew wider and his eyes gleamed with self-satisfaction. “Perhaps in your next life, you won’t be born into a pack of worthless scum.”
“Wait, don-” Ignoring Wei Chuan’s protest, Rain lightly slit the young man’s throat, contemptuously kicking the body away. Sliding across the stone with a wet smack, Wei Chuan struggled for breath, gasping as his lungs worked uselessly. The seconds passed slowly as the crowd watched, his arms flailing about while his face twisted in an ugly grimace. His body squirmed about, voiding his bowels and bladder, shaking in the throes of death, his gauntlets clattering against the stone stage floor for all to hear.
It seemed an agonizing eternity before Wei Chuan stilled, the finality of death gruesome to look upon. The crowd turned its attention to the fiendish child, grinning happily as he looked proudly upon his handiwork. Not even his own people cheered for his victory, stunned by his ruthless manner in refusing a quick, dignified death.
Glancing up, Rain stared into Yang’s disbelieving eyes with a grin and asked, “Who’s next?”
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