Author’s note: A shoutout to my latest Patron Lighting Breeze and my latest anonymous donor! Thank you both so much for the support.
Small aside, I found this article on reddit about ancient giant otters and made girlish squeals thinking quins could be real. Unfortunately, they were wolf-sized otters, so a little too small to ride, but still cool.
Tyrannasaurous Otter, you’ll only live in my dreams…
Watching the trees rush by as he jostled within his carriage, Situ Jia Zian reflected on the horrid twists of fate which brought him low, cursing his foul luck and foolish dreams. That damned bastard Nian Zu, convincing him to accept the Token of Office against Mother’s wishes. Given the chance, Zian would shove this cursed Token down his throat. Then there was the wily old Marshal and his half-beast bitch, deceiving him into thinking fame and fortune awaited him here in Sanshu. An entire month chasing shadows in the sticks, and what did he have to show for it? Nothing but tick bites and saddle sores, the cowardly bandits gone into hiding at the first sign of danger, neither hide nor hair of the Crossbone Corsairs to be found.
It was all Mother’s fault. If not for her overprotective coddling, he wouldn’t have found the need to escape her stifling embrace. Even here in the middle of nowhere, her presence could be felt from the looming bodyguards taking root in his carriage instead of his customary courtesans. That couldn’t all be blamed on Mother, Uncle Yang had a hand in that, but having four burly men within arms reach at all times was less than ideal. Their foul stench aside, how was he to grow as a warrior without experiencing danger and peril?
Glancing at the sun hanging high in the sky, his stomach rebelled at the thought of another meal of cold meat and dried bread. Calling for a stop, his carriage lurched to a halt, almost throwing him from his seat. Normally, he would have gone with it and landed himself softly in the bosom of a lovely young attendant, but he’d rather die than land in the chest of his bodyguards. ‘Discipline and moderation’, Uncle Yang’s two favourite words, going so far as to make sure Zian’s retinue consisted of nothing but men. Burly, unattractive men at that, as if worried Zian would slip so far. Loneliness and self-discipline, such was the arduous path towards martial excellence according to Uncle Yang. No flowers to gaze upon, no music to appreciate, no poetry to analyze, Zian craved stimulation, both mental and physical.
Riding to the carriage window, his second-in-command Jukai clasped hands and bowed in the saddle, his salt and pepper hair emitting a cloud of dust and dandruff. “Young Master, this lowly soldier awaits your command.”
“I’ve told you before, you will call me Officer Zian.” It was a pointless argument, but Zian was nothing if not stubborn.
“Young Master, this lowly soldier cannot comply for he serves the Young Master, not a mere Warrant Officer.” Head still bowed, the tone was unapologetic and if not for the man’s rank and martial prowess, Zian would have him whipped for insubordination. A career soldier with the rank of Colonel, the man was without flaw, the perfect soldier aside from his sycophantic need to call Zian ‘Young Master’.
The old man was utterly transparent, volunteering for Zian’s retinue in hopes of ingratiating himself with the Situ Clan heir. An odd course for a man so near his twilight years, he’d likely be dead before Zian took power, but it’d be foolish to turn away an asset like Jukai. “Break for lunch, it’s been days since I’ve eaten a hot meal.”
“As you wish, Young Master.”
Stepping into the light, Zian flicked his sleeves and clasped his hands behind him, head held high as his soldiers erected an awning. Taking a seat in the shade, he mentally composed a poem while his meal cooked, enjoying the peace and solitude. An impotent endeavour, for poetry was to be shared and discussed over fine food and wine. Instead, he had four uneducated blockheads watching his every move, far from the niceties of hearth and home. He craved the taste of soft-shell crabs, fresh from the Azure Sea, or a tender duck, marinated in soy and garlic, roasted to perfection. Instead, he ate some gamy salted bird and buckwheat noodles in watery broth, the epitome of luxury here in the woods.
After finishing his meal, Zian found Jukai already mounted, his retinue ready to leave. Waving him down, Zian ordered, “Come, spar with me, I grow weary of travelling.” Not only was he an expert who fought in the same style, he was one of the few men in Zian’s command with the courage to risk injuring the Situ Clan heir.
Leaning over, Jukai spoke softly. “Young Master, as much as it would please me to guide your progress in the Martial Path, Major Yuzhen mandated we arrive with all haste. We are already well behind the other Warrant Officers and will be last to arrive.”
Something snapped inside him, and he grabbed the older man by the lapel. “Doddering old fool, someone has to be last, who cares if it’s us? That arrogant bitch sent me North to beat the grass while she curries favour with the Bekhai, and now she thinks she can whistle and have me come running like some trained-dog? She can go eat shit, this is an abuse of her authority! Now, I am ordering you, come down and spar with me.”
Red-faced from his outburst, his anger quickly turned to shame as Jukai gazed in disapproval, his voice barely more than a whisper. “Young Master, the reason is irrelevant. Major Yuzhen issued an order backed by Marshal Shing Du Yi’s authority. We are but soldiers, to follow orders our lot in life. The same can be said for Clansmen and Society Adherent, so should you ever find the burden of rank, clan, or society too onerous for your tastes, then relinquish them. Until such a time, our orders must be obeyed, but whatever path Young Master chooses, this lowly soldier will serve at your side.”
Left with no choice and no face, Zian stepped back into his carriage and suffered in silence. A disgraceful display, allowing his anger and frustration to get the better of him, throwing a tantrum like a child. He could only quietly thank Jukai for handling things quietly, without mockery or ridicule. Perhaps he was right, perhaps it was time for Zian to relinquish his ranking. Accepting it was a mistake to begin with, another childish tantrum born from the desire to adventure and escape from his shame.
As for abandoning Clan and Society… Impossible. The Situ Clan paid dearly for his failure and his life, in more ways than one. Loss of face, loss of status, loss of reputation, though Mother hid these tidings from him, Zian knew they were reeling from their defeat. Now, with Nian Zu and Du Yi publicly declaring Baatar and Yuzhen their successors, the Society was rife with dissension and discord, squabbling amongst themselves instead of uniting to face their enemies.
All because Zian lost to Falling Rain.
Had he lost to the better warrior then Zian would not be so plagued with guilt, but while rested and fully armoured, he was defeated by a scrawny child five years his junior, one wearing nothing but rags and exhausted from three prior death matches to boot. It should have been an easy victory for Zian and the Society, but the cold rain sapped his strength, loose stones impeded his progress, and slick tiles threw his balance, all while the Undying Savage continued his relentless assault with a bloodthirsty grin. His arm twinged at the memory of its loss and the torturous treatment which followed, unable to comprehend how Falling Rain reattached his foot during a match and managed to continued fighting afterwards. He was a fucking monster, but one Zian should have defeated nine times out of ten under the same circumstances.
Because of his weakness, his failure, the Society was now a laughing-stock, a thousand years of history forgotten by the people. Perhaps in a few hundred years, scholars would pinpoint his defeat as the exact moment when the Society’s star began to wane and he would go down in antiquity as the Society’s downfall. A degenerate womanizer and dandy, a shrimp soldier born with a silver spoon in his mouth, a good for nothing wastrel, this was all that could be said of Situ Jia Zian.
Disregarding face, Zian sought out Jukai the moment the day’s travel ended, sparring for hours before falling into exhausted slumber. The next morning, he ordered Jukai into the carriage to keep him fresh for further sparring, the two of them suffering through the uncomfortable ride in stony silence.
Days passed in the same manner, with a growing stream of pilgrims making their way to and from the Sacred Groves. His retinue made good time and with only a half-day’s journey to their destination, they caught up to the other Society Officers. Though night had yet to fall, he came across his peers making camp and ordered his men to do the same. Though he held the highest status, he was the least experienced of the bunch and chose to follow their lead.
Sang Ryong of the Seven-Star Sect was first to approach, wearing a repugnant smile as he clasped his hands in greeting. “Good to see you Officer Jia Zian.” A bear of a man with a neck as thick as most legs, after OuYang Yu Jin’s death at the hands of Falling Rain, Sang Ryong was indisputably the second strongest of his generation. Between his gargantuan physique and colossal double-headed hammer, Ryong was a force to be reckoned with, only his lack of Aura keeping him from taking the rank of first from Zian. Unfortunately, the Seven-Star Sect was ostensibly allied with the Situ Clan, which meant cutting Ryong’s throat to keep him from becoming a threat was out of the question.
Skipping the pleasantries, Zian jumped straight to the point. “Why have you stopped here? If we press on, we can arrive at the Sacred Grove by nightfall.”
“Err…” Sang Ryong’s smile slipped as he struggled to find an answer, exercising a muscle he rarely found use for. “Well, we ah…”
“We’re waiting for you, fool.” Scorn dripping from his voice, Han BoShui strode up with his nose pointed towards the sky, insufferably arrogant ever since the debacle of a trial at the Bridge. “Did the great Situ Jia Zian lose his way in the forest? We slowed our pace for days waiting for you. If I’m to be sanctioned for this, I’ll see you pay dearly for it.”
Sneering at the older officer, Zian dismissed his threat outright. “And how do you intend to collect? Piss on my tent while I sleep? You lack the courage to face me in single combat, even after your uncle spent all his efforts helping you condense your trifling Aura.”
“Now boys, that’s enough bickering. We’re no longer alone and must present a united front.” Arriving behind BoShui was Jin ZhiLan, the sole female Warrant Officer in their group, a human puppet for her half-beast masters in the Harmonious Unity Sect. “Please join me in my pavilion for tea and snacks, we’ve important matters to discuss.”
After confirming with Sang Ryong, Zian followed behind the older woman as she lead the way, taking in her sweet scent and the seductive sway of her hips, her pale nape enticingly on display. Ordinarily, he wouldn’t give ZhiLan a second glance, their relationship no less strained than the one he shared with BoShui, but the past two months of celibacy had eroded his self-control. Since his first experience in the pleasures of flesh, this was the longest he’d gone without female companionship, his mind clouding over at the barest hint of flesh.
Sitting atop a hill, the pavilion was in a poorly defended position, one which offered complete privacy unless some bored supreme expert hid nearby. Observing the barest courtesies, Zian sat down at the four-person table and wet his lips with tea before forging on. “Delicious, now what are we here for?”
“So impatient Zian, so different from what I’ve heard of your… prowess.” ZhiLan smiled sweetly as she waited for the servants to disperse, his gaze straying as she leaned forward for a biscuit. The bitch didn’t miss a thing and knew he was suffering, hoping to eke out an advantage using her feminine charms. “First things first, my informants inside Major Yuzhen’s camp have sent me news. I’m sure you’ve all pieced together as much, but I now have proof of her involvement with the Mother’s Militia. With Falling Rain as her probable intermediary, she’s been robbing shipments from the Council and rerouting them around Shen Yun to the Bridge.”
This was all new to Zian but he cared nothing for the Council’s woes. Killing Hangman Jorani was counterproductive for the Society’s reputation, the bandit too well liked by the general populace. Even killing Laughing Dragon would raise less of an outcry. Odd though, why had Major Yuzhen not asked for his help? “Why go around Shen Yun? My Mother could have easily facilitated the transfer of goods.”
Ryong and ZhiLan glanced at him uncomfortably as BoShui sniggered. “A blockhead who knows nothing but how to swing his swords. She avoids Shen Yun because she doesn’t trust you or your Mother.”
“Enough.” ZhiLan cut in before Zian could retort. “She trusts none of us, which is why she sent us away to Eastern Prosperity. It was the correct choice at the time, with no support aside from the Marshal’s. Things have changed now.”
“So what now? We threaten her? I’ve been dreaming of pulling the ice queen down from her high horse, the arrogant whore.” Ryong’s disgusting leer betrayed his intentions, almost drooling at the thought.
“Don’t be foolish.” Zian put an end to this line of thought. “You think the Marshal a paper tiger? Without support from Clan and Society, he took and held the highest position of authority in the North for nigh on thirty years. Not a man to be trifled with, no less dangerous than Nian Zu.”
“Wise words.” Zhilan fluttered her eyes at him in teasing. “And who’s to say we need do anything? Her actions were brilliant, costing only the Council. Moreover, since her arrival in Sanshu, bandit activity aside from the Mother’s Militia has all but stopped, earning the Society much-needed respect from the citizenry.
“Much needed after your clan’s failure at the Bridge.” Never one to miss a chance, BoShui delighted in bringing up Zian’s defeat. “The great Zian, defeated by a nameless savage. For shame.”
Taking a deep breath, Zian sat in silence as Zhilan and Ryong leaned back, removing themselves from the matter at hand. Realizing he’d overstepped, BoShui paled and sat up straight, feigning confidence as he tried to resist Zian’s cold stare and suffocating Aura. His own Aura shattering beneath Zian’s assault, BoShui glanced away, shivering in fear as Zian spoke calmly, choosing to take the high road. “Nameless savage no more. Since you think so little of him, I’ll await your challenge to the Undying Falling Rain. I will be the first to thank you for regaining what face I have lost.” The little runt would tear BoShui to pieces, laughing all the while. Even Ryong might not be a match for the ferocious warrior, to say nothing of Zhilan and BoShui.
Leaving his Aura to suppress BoShui, Zian reached for his teacup and drank slowly, placing it down with an audible clink before releasing his Aura. “So, we are in agreement, the matter of Yuzhen and her indiscretions will be left untouched.” His tone left no room for argument. “What else?”
Collecting herself, ZhiLan answered hurriedly. “This must stay secret under threat of summary execution.” Peering around the table for agreement, she took a deep breath before continuing, her voice a bare whisper. “There’s been a Demon sighting along with a band of Defiled. Our purpose in coming here is to aid in the Purge.”
Breaking out in a cold sweat, Zian’s stomach flopped as his mouth dried up. “How reliable is your report?”
“Beyond reproach. I received a sealed missive from my Sect Leader informing me the Purge has already been called and the Society has deployed the Shrike. We must all tread lightly.”
The Shrike, the Sanguinary Priestess, the Painted Inquisitor, the Mad Dog of the Society, whatever name she went by, it brought to mind tales of brutal bloodshed and appalling atrocities. Responsible for overseeing three Purges in the last decade, once set on the trail of the Defiled she never stopped until the deaths numbered in the thousands, ranting all the while of carrying out the will of the Mother. Her rallying cry, ‘Better Dead than Defiled’, was often followed by a massacre, caring little for nuances like her victims backing and allegiances. Hiding his shaking hands, Zian calmed his nerves as best he could, clearing his throat before speaking. “Might I impose on Sister ZhiLan for a drink? Something stronger than tea perhaps.”
Ready for the request, ZhiLan poured out four measured cups herself, the harsh smell filling the pavilion and stinging his eyes. Raising the glass briefly, he tossed back the drink in one gulp before refilling it, saying a brief prayer for the citizens of Western Treasures Lake.
Poor souls, bear no grudges for you have nothing to blame but fate. May you find joy and riches in your next life.
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