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Humming along with Tali’s off-key singing, Charok followed Tate on their way to visit Rain. His duties at the restaurant had increased of late, taking on the monumental task of feeding the newcomers. Rain and Gerel’s arduous training regimen meant each trainee required hearty meals to keep them from withering away. Although his pay had increased, coin was of little value to him, having built up a substantial nest egg during his time in the Banner. Spending time with his children was more important to him, but lately he only had a few hours after lunch with them now that they were in lessons, work keeping him well past their bedtime.
Spotting the wildcats, Tate ran ahead to greet them with arms wide open. “Jimjam! Aurie!” Stopping short, little Tate waited patiently for the animals to come to him, per Rain’s instructions. Well-trained as they were, they were still wild animals. Auric happily ran into Tate, butting his head against the child in a show of affection while Jimu reacted with typical feline indifference.
A deep, rumbling growl emanated from Auric’s chest, raising the hairs on the back of Charok’s neck. Although it was a sound of contentment, it was learned and not instinctual, the cat’s responding to Rain’s delighted coo’s whenever they growled at him, the foolish young man mistaking it for purring. Even after so many months, Charok was leery of leaving the children alone with the animals, but they loved them fiercely. Charok’s heart still froze when his children turned their backs to the animals, but no harm had come to them yet and there was no indication of any hunting instincts in the lazy, well-fed animals.
Tali shrieked in delight as Pafu ran up to them, snuffling and squeaking for treats. Placing his daughter onto the inquisitive quin’s back, Charok smiled as his daughter buried her face in Pafu’s fur. Rain had mentioned having the children ride the wildcats, but Charok chided him for filling their heads with nonsense, citing the famous proverb, ‘unable to dismount from the tiger’s back’. The quins would make excellent mounts and companions for his children, growing along one another like Alsantset and Suret.
The thought of his wife brought both joy and sorrow, their current separation a trial of his sanity. Almost an entire year aside from a brief reunion in Shen Huo, their time apart weighed heavily upon him, wishing he could share the joys of raising their children or be at her side to protect her. A single year was almost a fifth of their time together with the twins, his wife missing so much of their growth.
Suppressing his melancholy, he followed his children as they herded the animals into the training camp to find Rain. Exhausted trainees lay strewn about the field in varying stages of distress, numbering almost 200, with more than a third under Rain’s direct command. They were a pitiable bunch, and as much as he respected Akanai’s wisdom, Charok could not help but feel that giving Rain so much authority was a grave mistake. Too willful and stubborn, almost fanatical in his pursuit of strength, those qualities showed in his methods of training. To have an entire cadre of new Sentinels following in his footsteps seemed ill-conceived, and Gerel did little to curb Rain’s enthusiasm.
In fact, Gerel not only allowed Rain’s militant exercises, the fool encouraged them, zealously working alongside him to push the trainees beyond human limits. Horrific stories made their way to his ears as the trainees ate their supper, tales of vicious beatings and pointless, exhausting activities. From crawling through jagged rocks on their elbows to self-inflicted puncture wounds, Rain and Gerel pushed the trainees to the brink of madness. Charok worried for Rain’s safety until he realized that the trainees idolized their young hero in some sick twisted way, speaking in hushed whispers of his prowess, taking great pride in boasting of the immense suffering he put himself through. Watching Rain and Gerel endure more punishment than anyone else gave them hope and inspiration, the results of their torturous training right before their eyes.
The trainees politely guided him to Rain’s location, and as always, watching him spar with Gerel brought a sense of pride and awe. His frail little brother come into his own, a powerful warrior who stood at the forefront of his peers, a hero of the People. Determined and strong-willed, Rain weathered Gerel’s attacks, but the older warrior dominated their match up through superior skill. Sensing Gerel’s Aura, an ice-cold killing intent crashing into Rain, Charok narrowed his eyes as he exuded his own, protecting his children from the powerful assault and resisting the urge to put an end to this torment.
It was too much. Just because a man could endure the heat did not mean you roasted him over a flame. As soon as Rain learned to condense his Aura, this ‘training’ would be made moot, there was no reason for Gerel to make him suffer so. Seeing Rain fight unhindered filled him with misery, wondering what his little brother had experienced to be able to move despite feeling what should be soul-crushing terror.
The spar came to an abrupt end as Gerel’s sword smashed into the crown of Rain’s head, dropping to the ground in a boneless heap. Concerned for his safety, Charok ran to his side, Rain blinking in confusion at the sudden change in perspective, eyes barely able to focus. “Hello brother, when did you get here?” Giggling like an idiot, he grimaced at the sudden pain, cradling his head. “Dammit, that’s the second time today I fractured my skull.”
Glaring murderously at Gerel, Charok helped Rain up and into the shade, burning with anger at being ignored by that arrogant bastard. Wiping away the blood, he fumed quietly as Rain healed, Rain’s daily injuries only surpassed by his growing appetite. Almost 175 centimeters tall, with broad shoulders and a thin frame, Rain was experiencing one last spurt of growth. Still short compared to the other Sentinels, there was sturdiness to him now, power and strength hidden beneath his sinewy form, a handsome young man by any measure.
After a few minutes, Rain opened his eyes and smiled as he stood. “Hey, sorry for keeping you waiting. Now where are those little terrors?”
“The children can wait, we must speak.” Considering his words carefully, he studied Rain, a young man standing before him in tattered clothes, with an easy smile and trusting gaze, it was difficult to match him to the stories of the ‘barbaric savage’ who brutally defeated four Society champions in single combat, a ‘devil in human skin’. Alsantset had written of his feats and her worries, and although he did not agree with her about forcing him to stay in the village, something needed to be said.
Clearing his throat, he placed his hand on Rain’s neck, forcing the young man to look him in the eye. The hesitation was gone now, no discomfort or unease, only confidence, love, and minor confusion. “No one can force you to fight, not Akanai, not Baatar, not even the Emperor. You made plenty of money and Taduk has said that if you applied yourself to your studies, you would be the youngest healer in history. Three years, he says, and you’ll earn the title. Why not stay here and focus on becoming a healer?”
With a warm smile, Rain shook his head sadly as he glanced over at the twins. “You too, huh? Taduk asked me the same thing. I’d love to stay here and get fat, but I don’t think I’d be able to enjoy myself. You didn’t see the horde of Defiled waiting beyond the wall. I have to do something.”
“The wall has stood for millennia and is defended by the greatest heroes of the Empire. You need not worry.”
Smiling wryly, Rain sighed. “If the Defiled obediently lined up for me to kill, I could swing my sword day and night without rest for a year and still there would be more Defiled standing than I could count. An endless horde of bloodthirsty animals, ready to ravage and murder, gathered only a few dozen kilometers away from where we stand. I can’t ignore that, not when I can help.”
Chuckling helplessly at his resolution, Charok hugged his brother, the little hero of the People. To watch a little mouse of a slave grow into a commendable warrior was a source of great pride. “Very well, I only mention it because I could use the help at home. Do what you must, but return whole and unchanged. Remember who you are above all else: Rain, uncle to Tate and Tali, Brother to Charok and Alsantset.”
“I wouldn’t have it any other way.” Grinning cheerfully, Rain bounded over towards the twins, grabbing them in his arms and roaring playfully as they squealed in delight. Pausing briefly in his play to greet Mei Lin as she arrived, Rain kissed her on the cheek before returning to rolling about in the grass without a care, the very picture of joy and love. From here, the four of them would have dinner with Taduk before returning home, a family meal together that he wished to join every day.
Catching Mei Lin’s eye, he gave her a small smile and a thumbs up, smirking at her shy blush. Rain had been far more affectionate of late and it seemed only a matter of time before the two were betrothed. Little Rain, soon to be married with two wives, three if Adujan returned unwed. All would be well so long as Rain survived the coming storm.
War was a harsh and unpredictable mistress, who knew what the future held in store?
After marinating the meat and washing the rice in Taduk’s kitchen, Li Song arrives just as I settle down to watch the twins, running around with the pups and flying their kites. Marching in without a greeting, she speaks in her customary monotone. “Master and The Divine Smith would like to speak with you and Lieutenant Rustram immediately.”
“Hi there Li Song, I’m doing great, thank you for asking.” Smiling without missing a beat, I stretch languidly, taking pleasure in watching her flare her nostrils. She shows emotion, it’s just hard to spot if you aren’t looking. “Would you like some tea? It’ll only take a few minutes to get a pot on, it’s no trouble. You look lovely today, did you polish your armor again?”
I shouldn’t tease her, but I’m a little resentful of her, not to mention how adorable she looks when angry. Looking splendid in her shining, shimmering armor, Li Song puffs her cheeks in irritation while ignoring my questions, struggling to decide how to proceed. The armour I spent so much effort to obtain ended up in her possession because she was the only person it fit. I originally wanted to stretch it out, but apparently, that destroys the Runic Imprint. I couldn’t even copy it to study the Imprint, portions covered by welded plates on the interior. Supposedly there is a rigid sequence to follow when inscribing, as well as certain chi manipulations to carry out, making it impossibly to replicate even if I did have the entire layout.
I should have asked for books about runic inscription instead of gold. That would have been the smart thing to do, but I was blinded by greed, or I would have noticed it wouldn’t fit me. Bah, it’s not like it’s perfect, the Runic armor constantly draws on the user’s chi to block impacts, so if you run out it might as well be scrap metal.
I’m not bitter or anything.
After delaying for another minute, Li Song looks ready to explode in tears or murderous rage, neither of which I am equipped to deal with, so I prudently leave with her in tow. Auric and Jimu follow behind, happy to reunite with their sister, although the pretty, fluffy cat ignores them both, stepping lightly with her nose held high as she follows beside Li Song, well-behaved and well-groomed. In contrast, Jimu bounds through every bush, coming out more ragged and tangled each time, while Auric repeatedly tries to capture Li Song’s thrashing tail. “So, have you chosen a name for your kitten yet?”
Ignoring me once again, she bolts ahead, taking a shortcut by running gracefully up a steep cliff side, the cats having little trouble following her. Grimacing slightly, I circulate my chi and use it to Lighten my body, scrambling up the cliff in a far less elegant display, relying on momentum and desperately grabbing the edge to keep myself from sliding back down. Another skill I need to practice more, getting around the village is much easier when not constrained by stairs.
After stopping briefly to grab a drunk and belligerent Rustram, we wait patiently outside the bathroom for him to sober up, listening to his loud grumbling about wasted money and waiting women, mercifully obscuring the sounds of urination. As the minutes pass, the grumbling quiets, as does the steady stream of urine until finally, Rustram emerges, red-faced and sheepish. “Err, sorry about what I said boss, I’ll accept whatever punishment you believe necessary.”
Waving dismissively as I turn to leave, I answer, “Don’t worry about it, I already forgot what you said.” I’d prefer if he was boisterous with me all the time, they were a lot more fun to be around when they were all crippled. Now it’s ‘boss this’ and ‘young hero that’. “You hear from your father lately?”
“Yea boss, the payment arrived and was distributed yesterday. Father says the cosmetics are selling instantly and people are paying to be put on a wait list for the hair growth formula. We’ll be stepping up production soon as the harvest …” Rustram continues to report enthusiastically, going over the minutia of supply chains and workforce and whatnot, but my eyes start to glaze over.
The families of the trainees were mostly unskilled labourers, many single mothers and young children, so finding them jobs to do was troublesome. I suggested they help mix simple cosmetics and balms to earn some coin while they learned proper skills required to live in the village. It turned out to be far more lucrative than I expected and a flood of new arrivals and villagers arrived at my doorstep, clamouring to take part. In stepped Rustram who worked out the logistics of it all, organizing everything with some sort of managerial sorcery, ensuring everyone could earn some coin. As the ‘boss’, Rustram insisted I take a portion of the profits, but I told him to pass it along to the orphanage. In retrospect, I should have taken the money for food bills and passed the rest along myself. The orphans idolize Rustram and Bulat who bring them money and toys, and I get left with growing debts. Sad times.
Striding through the double doors leading to Husolt’s workshop, I’m greeted with the lovely sight of Mila quenching her thirst. Her blue silk undergarment peeks through her too-large sleeveless shirt, her bare shoulders glistening with sweat after a hard day’s work at the forge. Drinking greedily from her cup, a tiny stream of water spills out the side of her mouth, dribbling down her chin and splashing onto her heaving chest, her womanly charms having grown more notable of late.
… I really need to get laid.
Almost a year since my last ‘indiscretion’ and more than two years until marriage, I have a long, arduous dry spell ahead of me. Think unsexy thoughts, like what Husolt would do if he caught me perving. Or worse… What Akanai would do.
I should stick to thinking about Husolt.
With a satisfied gasp, Mila opens her eyes, the personification of serenity, basking in a job well done. Skipping lightly towards me, she throws her arms around my neck, giggling with her face buried in my chest as my arms encircle her slim waist. It’s funny, I hate giggling, but when she does it, I find it endearing. “You’re finally here, I’ve been waiting forever for Rustram.” Rolling her eyes at my displeased look, she pinches me on the cheek. “Don’t be jealous.”
Running back to grab something, she presents it to Rustram with a flourish. In her hands is a thin rapier, beautifully crafted and glinting in the lamplight. “Sentinel Rustram, this weapon do I bestow unto you, for use in defence of the People. Accept it, along with the burden of responsibility it represents.”
Blinking in surprise, Rustram stammers, “But… I’m just a merchant’s son, there are others more skilled and deserving than me.”
Glancing briefly at me, Mila smiles and shakes her head. “You’re Rain’s second-in-command, and knowing him, he’ll lead you right into the thick of battle. I’d feel better knowing a warrior with a spiritual weapon will be fighting at his side. Just take it, I crafted it especially for you after talking with Gerel, and skill will come with practice.”
Struggling internally for a second, Rustram drops to his knees and bows his head, raising both hands to accept the weapon. Frowning, Mila barks out, “Stand!” and he bolts to attention, confusion pouring from his eyes. “A Sentinel kneels to no one, a warrior unto his own, defending his people and homeland. Remember this.”
Handing him the weapon, she begins lecturing him on its proper usage while Husolt pops out from the forge room, waving me over. Closing the door behind me, his low chuckles turn into a braying laugh, overflowing with joy. “Ah, my little girl is growing up. All I need now is a few grandchildren, but that’ll come soon enough, right lad?” His massive bear hug forces the air out of my lungs as my bones creak in protest, my feet dangling off the ground.
His mood is infectious as we saunter out the back of his forge room, stopping in front of a table. Hefting a massive creation, he displays it proudly. “Take a look at my latest work, what do you think?” It’s not my fault, even if I had all my memories, why would I know how to make a crossbow, much less a repeating one? All I asked was if it was possible to make one, and Husolt’s eyes glimmered at the challenge, resulting in the metallic monstrosity in front of me. Over a meter in length and almost half that in height, it is essentially three colossal crossbows stacked atop one another, complete with three separate bowstrings.
Beaming with pride, Husolt begins to describe his creation. “The bows are made from an iron bamboo core, reinforced with ram’s horn and ursadon sinew. Combined with a sturdy steel frame and a bowstring made from Terror Bird neck tendons, that gives my baby here a 1.25 tonne draw weight and an effective range of 280 meters. It’s front heavy and kicks like a mule, so it isn’t the best for mounted combat, but give it a try.” Working a tiny lever back and forth for a full minute, he slowly ratchets the three bowstrings until they lock in place, before loading the enormous steel bolts, each as long as my arm.
I feel like Husolt misinterpreted the repeating part, but at least he went full-out on power.
Passing me the Monstrosity, my arms sag beneath the weight of the weapon. Leaning forward to set its base on the table, I brace it against my shoulder and aim for the target, a batch of iron plates more than 100 meters away. Loosing a single shot, the crossbow leaps up in place with a metallic screech, slamming against my shoulder before crashing back down to the table with a heavy thud.
Ignoring my incredulous stare, Husolt roars with laughter, clapping me on the back. “See that boy? The shaft is buried at least 30 cm deep, that’s 10 iron plates! Impressive, isn’t it?”
“Err… Yea, impressive.” He’s not wrong, but the growing bruise on my shoulder dampens my enthusiasm. “It’s too heavy and the recoil knocked the other two bolts free. Isn’t there some mechanism or method to have one bow and quickly load the string? This lever thing is a great idea by the way, maybe use that for a faster loading more… normal powered crossbow.”
“Bah, I told you, you need to steady yourself.” Grabbing the weapon from me, he grumbles beneath his breath, unhappy at my lack of enthusiasm. After reloading, he fires three shots in quick succession, the weapon steady between each shot. “See?”
Right, so I need to put on 100 kilos of muscle, no problem. Trying a different tack, I point out, “It takes a full minute to load. Sustainable rate of fire, that’s what we’re aiming for.” Seeing my argument take root, I push the issue. “How long does it take you to make one and how much does it cost? Remember, the idea was to mass produce these things. There were thousands of soldiers standing on the wall with nothing to do, imagine each of them with a rapid-firing, long-ranged weapon.”
“That’s a daft dream, no crossbow will ever fit your requirements. You should just learn the bow, that’s what you’re describing lad. For a crossbow, you pick two: too expensive, too weak, or too slow. Nothing wrong with powerful, slow and expensive lad, you can afford it. This beauty will last longer than any armour I make for you, I can promise you that.”
After dragging out a promise from him to keep trying, I invite him to Taduk’s for dinner, discussion, and drinks, making sure to bring the Monstrosity with me. It is impressive, and I can just give it to Pran or Saluk to use, they have the build for it and more power is always nice. Hopefully, Husolt comes up with some more powerful toys for me, because even with this thing, we’re still fucked if we run into a Demon. Best case scenario, the crossbow injures it badly enough for someone else to end it.
Not me though, I’m never charging headfirst at a Demon ever again.
I learned my lesson the first time.
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