Hours after separating from Huu, my scouts come across tracks leading towards our destination. Finding the trail was simple enough, considering whoever it was flattened everything in their path, but I don’t understand how they can tell the group numbers around a hundred strong. Asking only earns me an uncomfortable shrug and a gesture towards the mess of footprints, like it’s spelled out in plain common but I’m too stupid to read it. Mila takes the information in stride, but Rustram’s poorly concealed confusion makes me feel better, proving I’m not alone in my ignorance.
Sucks for the rest of my retinue though, they’re being led by incompetents.
Mila’s pointed elbow brings me back to reality and I find myself blinking too much while glancing at my waiting retinue. What’s happening? Oh right, I’m the leader, I need to lead. Well, what I need is a nap, but I might as well wish for a space-capable battleship. “How far ahead of us are they?”
After a short discussion, my retinue slips into the forest and move parallel to the trail, keeping out of sight as we pursue our prey. Although the majority of the work is shouldered by the quins, the former Shen Huo soldiers move almost as well as I do, silent and swift. However, the few mountain-born warriors under my command are on a different level, their camouflage cloaks turning them into corporeal ghosts who melt into the forest. After so many years with the People, I’m more convinced than ever I was adopted by mountain ninjas, which is awesome until I realize I am, at best, a ninja foot-soldier. You know, the ones who show up in droves and die so the Main Character gets to show off how cool and powerful he is. Not exactly confidence inspiring, but at least I’m the leader of the foot-soldiers. It’s… something, I guess.
Mafu’s steady gait eats up the kilometres and within the hour, my scouts inform me we’ve almost caught up to our quarry. Calling for a halt to outline my instructions, Mila and Rustram move off while Lin falls back with her guards. I should send the guard leader in by herself, she could probably slaughter thousands of them before getting tired.
Glancing around at the seventeen familiar faces of my squad, I see their nerves betraying them as they shift about. Deciding a pep talk is in order, I keep my voice low. “Now, technically, everyone here is a failure.” That got their attention. “You were too clumsy to become scouts and too lousy a shot to become archers. You weren’t skilled enough to be my vanguard or strong enough to be my hammer.” Okay, enough salt, a little sugar now. “Your talent lies in taking abuse, just like me. We don’t win because we have superior skill or tactics, we win because we survive where others die. I expect to toast each one of you with a drink when all this is over, so don’t disappoint.”
Not exactly awe-inspiring, but it’ll do. Besides, I’m out of time, the others should be in place. With a deep breath, I signal Mafu who runs down the trail left behind by the Defiled war-band, abandoning stealth while his feet slap loudly against the dirt and stones. We’re not 100% certain it’s a Defiled war-band, but given the circumstances, I can be forgiven for making assumptions.
Studying them as they come into sight, they’re most certainly bandits but whether they’re Defiled remains to be seen. Either way, they need to be dealt with. The rearmost members sound the alarm as my squad approaches, and moving with surprising discipline, they settle into a group with spears and pole-arms pointed outwards, seeking to blunt the charge of my Anvil and encircle my heavily outnumbered group.
Too bad, that’s not how I roll. Calling for a halt around two-hundred meters away, I unlimber my bow and fire, the hiss of arrows filling the formerly tranquil forest as my squad spreads out into a skirmish line, keeping our distance while we pluck away at our bow strings. They aren’t the greatest shots, but at least a handful of enemy combatants go down from our barrage.
Reacting aggressively, the enemy screams and charges before I can fire a third arrow, brandishing their weapons as they sprint forward faster than expected. Still, it’s all in line with the plan, just moving ahead of schedule. No problem. Shouldering my bow, I draw Peace and Tranquility before handing control over to Baledagh, who immediately howls back a wordless expression of challenge. Mafu lunges at the closest enemy who falls beneath the fangs and claws of my normally affectionate mount. Peace slices through the neck of a Defiled warrior and Tranquility deflects another’s spear, and the battle erupts into chaos.
Laying about left and right as Mafu moves to avoid being surrounded, Baledagh unleashes hell upon the enemy while I watch the battle unfold with clinical detachment, focused on my part. My determination and courage radiates outwards like ripples in the water, carried away by my Chi and striking fear into the hearts of my enemies. Baledagh takes full advantage of the enemy’s hesitation, guiding Mafu through the crowd unhindered while cutting down multiple enemies with every swing, still screaming bloody murder as he vents his frustrations for the first time since losing Ai-Qing.
Sweet Mother above, having Aura is like cheating. These mooks ain’t got nothing on me.
As if summoned by my delight, the enemy boss makes his appearance, slamming into Mafu shoulder first and sending the fat quin tumbling to the dirt. Leaping from the harness, Baledagh flips through the air to avoid the follow-through, a massive two-handed sword scything through the area our torso occupied only a split second earlier. Landing neatly on his feet, Baledagh charges in to trade blows while I clash Auras with the enemy boss, a grizzled, ruggedly handsome older gentleman wearing a dashing red bandana.
The push-pull of our Auras matches the back and forth of our weapons, Baledagh matching speed against power while I cling on by my fingertips. My Aura compresses against Red-Bandana’s pressure, my mind reeling from the impact, but it’s nothing compared to what Lin’s guard dished out. The ring of metal echoes in my ears as Baledagh ups his tempo, stronger and faster than I could ever manage. Like two drivers in the same car, our performance vastly differs depending on who’s in control, Peace and Tranquility moving in coordianted one-two strikes.
Ducking beneath an errant swing, Baledagh seizes the opportunity to counter even as I spot the trap. Spinging forward as Red-Bandana’s hidden dagger flies towards our face, but Baledagh barely flinches, intent on the kill. Channelling my Chi into a torrential whirlpool, it Deflects the dagger aside, spinning as it gouges a deep furrow across my cheek instead of piercing through my face. Peace bites deep into Red-Bandana’s chest, his smile slipping from his handsome face as the life fades from his crystal blue eyes.
Evil shouldn’t be allowed to look pretty, it’s not fair.
Heaving with exertion, Baledagh rips Peace out of Red-Bandana’s corpse and looks around, the battle all but over. After my squad baited them into a charge and strung out their battle-lines, the bandits were struck from the rear by Mila and Rustram’s squads, who rode through and cut them down with impunity. A pout splashed across her gore-speckled cheeks, Mila rides up and pokes Red-Bandana with her spear. “Congratulations, you killed ‘Hideous Helvend’, a Butcher Bay Bandit worth eight gold. Tch, you always take the fun parts, when will it be my turn to fight a duel?”
Baledagh slips away without a word, exhausted by his efforts and probably drained of his emotions. Reaching up to poke the finger-wide gash across my face, I wince and shake my head. I swear, I’ll never understand the warrior mentality. Still, from what I can see, it didn’t go half bad.
Of course, I don’t have a list of casualties yet, but… things happen. This is war, after all.
I hope Huu is doing okay… Bah, knowing him, he’s doing even better than I am.
Nothing to worry about.
The brat’s mockery cut deep into Xiao HuoLong’s pride and the mention of Rain drove him mad. Lashing out with the flat of his saber, the oversized lout’s jaw shattered as his head crashed into the wall. Damn it all, should have known better than to start with the head. Even if the victim isn’t knocked out, like this sturdy brat, the shock numbs the sensation of further injuries, a rookie mistake. Prodding the fallen brat with his boot, HuoLong grinned at his handiwork, the boy’s eyes unfocused as blood dribbled down his chin. “Yer gonna die slow and hard, I promise you this, but first, lets deal with yer soldiers.” Exhaling deeply, he pulled the brat up by the hair and marched out the barracks, using his massive body as a shield.
The scene which greeted him did not inspire confidence, most of HuoLong’s bandits laying dead in the outpost. A few dozen Bekhai soldiers milled about as his Aura overpowered them, treating him to delightful expressions of shock and fear. The mounts ran off as he approached, but truth be told, it was a relief. Animals reacted poorly when trapped by Aura, usually going into a frenzy instead of freezing up, and he’d learned firsthand how fucking vicious the Bekhai mounts were.
Cautiously striding through the outpost with his saber resting against the brat’s neck, HuoLong readied himself for the real threat, searching for the unwelcome sensation of another expert’s Aura clashing against his own. Surely the wolf brat would have an expert or two in place to guard him. The seconds dragged as he continued his search, watching each soldier’s reaction and gathering the precious few bandits who’d escaped death. Most of his people were injured, staggering towards him in search of safety, a few venting their frustrations by striking the helpless soldiers.
Malang revealed himself in the shadows, unwilling to be seen by the Bekhai as he quickly flashed ten fingers then five before fading away. Fifteen surviving Wraiths, down from twenty two, which meant the cowards likely slipped off to hide at the first sign of danger. After counting his remaining men, HuoLong’s face twisted in displeasure, less than forty in total if he included the Wraiths. A hundred and twenty bandits killed in a handful of minutes, by less than half that number of Bekhai who apparently lacked an Aura-capable expert. Fierce as the Bekhai were, his fucking sentries must have been slacking, how else could the Bekhai have arrived unseen? So hard to find good help these days, he should have stationed his Firebrands to keep watch but he hadn’t expected the Bekhai to arrive so quickly. Snarling in anger, he tossed the brat in front of him. “Group em up, nice and gentle now.”
Once all the soldiers lay before him, HuoLong smiled and eyed them closely, still wary of a concealed expert. The brat didn’t seem to expect someone to save him, but HuoLong had come across too many covert guards in his day to relax just yet. Perhaps a little show was in order. Sneering at the gathered soldiers, he spoke loudly enough for all to hear. “My reputation must be slipping. A brat who barely needs to shave thinks he can kill Laughing Dragon? This cannot stand, a lesson must be made.” Ready to guard himself should the need arise, he raised his saber with a theatrical flourish before chopping down towards the brat. At the last moment, he turned his blade aside and nicked the brat’s ear off, eliciting a choked gurgling cry from his mangled mouth.
Nothing. A few gasps and defiant glares, but no actions taken and not a hint of resistance against his Aura. Did the boy really not have any experts guarding him? Clutching the side of his head, the brat panted like a dog as blood seeped through his fingers and down his cheeks, his yellow eyes blinking groggily as he slurred, “You’re not long for this world. Rain’ll send you to the Father’s maw, easy as turning his hand.”
A tough bastard. “Big words from a big man.” HuoLong smacked the brat’s cheek and chuckled at the pained gasp, placing the blade across his neck. Openly staring at the soldiers, he licked his lips and smiled before drawing his sword straight across, slicing a thin red line across the collarbones. From the angle, it appeared as if he was cutting the brat’s throat, but still, none of them moved, though a few closed their eyes to weep.
The brat ruined it by speaking. “Fucking coward, can’t fight me without your Aura.”
HuoLong snapped, “No one talks to me like that and lives.” Without warning, his blade flicked down and pierced the brat’s belly, a shallow thrust before bringing his weapon back to defend. Tense seconds passed as he crouched in wait, before finally letting his guard drop with a laugh. “Shit, seems the Bekhai ain’t too keen on protecting their younglings, sending em off alone into the jaws of a Dragon.” Leaning over, he grinned down at his helpless prey. “Ye done fucked up boy.”
A glob of bloody spit arced in the air and fell at his feet, the brat still defiant. Casually backhanding him, HuoLong chuckled. “Yer hoping to make me angry enough to kill ye clean, but it ain’t gonna happen.” Punctuating his point, he lashed out with a bone-cracking kick to the ribs, eliciting another delicious cry from the brat. Grabbing him by the hair, HuoLong pulled the brat close to look him in the eye, watching for the sweet moment when defiance turned to fear. “All brawn and no brains, running in here to kill my men. I’m gonna make ye curse yer bitch mother for a slut, regret she ever spread her whore legs, but not until every last one of yer people begs me for death.” The brat’s eyes flickered and HuoLong’s smile widened, having found a weakness. “Oh, that scares ye does it? I was gonna deal with you first, but now I think I’ll start with yer little toy soldiers.”
Dragging the brat behind him, he paced back and forth before the soldiers, enjoying the foreplay as he picked out the women among them. “Which one to start with? I bet yer sweet on one of these girls, ain’t that right? Don’t be shy, let Uncle Dragon know and maybe I’ll let ye have a go at her before I cut yer cock off and feed it to ye. No, better not to spoil the surprise, it’s more fun finding out for myself.” Reaching out to stroke the cheek of an alluring female soldier, he decided to claim this one for himself. Running his fingers over her lips, he watched the brat’s reaction. Anger, but not panic, and besides, this one was too old for a youngling. He’d come back for her later. “Lovely girls, me and my boys are gonna have fun with them, but don’t you worry, I’ll take real special care of yer sweetheart. I’ll even let you watch, cause I’m such a kind soul.”
The brat tensed in his grip and HuoLong pretended not to notice, walking past a pair of shivering twins. As the brat relaxed, he paused for a long second, letting the despair sink in before stepping back to stare at the twins. “My my, I always wanted have a run at twins.”
The brat struggled uselessly and roared, “Keep your hands off them you filthy bastard!”
This was almost too easy. “You sweet on both of em? Damn boy, yer eyes are too big for yer stomach.” Throwing the brat aside, HuoLong lazily reached for the girls, savouring the fear in their eyes. “You wouldn’t know what to do with fine women like th–”
The world erupted into pain and shot past him, his breath emptying from his lungs as he crashed into to the ground. Staring up at the endless sky, he heard weapons clanging and people shouting, but no matter how hard he tried, his body refused to obey, hands clutching his chest as he wheezed in agony, fighting to draw breath. What’d happened to his Aura? He had to rekindle his Aura and protect his people. Drawing on the power within, he willed his emotions into existence and felt them explode, an intangible wave of gut-wrenching terror and paralyzing panic rippling outwards from his body.
Only to crash into an unmoving wall, solid as a mountain, snuffing his Aura out like a sputtering candle.
The sounds of battle quieted and HuoLong lay prone and helpless, dread and apprehension welling within, his head spinning and lungs burning with effort. A shadow fell over him and he looked up into the yellow, hate-filled eyes of the Young Wolf, grinning darkly as he slowly lifted his massive boot. The boot stomped down towards HuoLong’s face and an involuntary scream slipped from his lips. The world exploded into pain once again, teeth rattling inside his mouth and tasting of metal as a high-pitched ringing set in his ears.
Even in his disoriented state, HuoLong fought to remain conscious, unwilling to surrender to the darkness. A massive man appeared in his vision, dwarfing the burly Young Wolf. “Enough, nephew mine.” Where the fuck did this bulky bastard come from? He hadn’t been in the crowd…
“Uncle Kalil, when did you get so strong?” The Young Wolf leaned into the large warrior, looking like a child in his embrace. “Why didn’t you act sooner?”
“How are you expecting me to save you while this coward holds blade to your throat? Your Ma’ll beat me senseless if you came home with a mark on you, so you best get to healing now.” Sighing as he shook his head, Kalil prodded HuoLong with his foot. “If this is what amounts to a Dragon around these parts, then I’m sorely disappointed.”
“He’s mine, Uncle.” The Young Wolf’s glower set HuoLong’s body to shivering. “He killed Jaga.”
“No, boy.” Kalil patted the Young Wolf’s head. “It’s a harsh truth, but you must hear it: your actions cost Jaga his life. You let your lust for battle overwhelm you and rushed ahead without aid. You knew Laughing Dragon might be here and took no precautions. Not to mention, what sort of half-assed plan is ‘move in and kill them all’? You can do better than that, you need to do better. I won’t always be here to guard you. Temper your blood lust and learn to unleash it at the proper time, or it won’t just be your quin who pays the price. Would Rain have attacked so heedlessly? Perhaps he would, but Rain condensed his Aura and can handle a worthless bandit like this.”
“Worthless?” HuoLong croaked. “Do you know who I am?”
“I do, I’ve seen your type hundreds of times before. You’re a coward.” Another prod from Kalil sent waves of pain through his body, his ribs broken cleanly. “You condensed your Aura – no, you cheated your way into obtaining a facsimile of Aura through the Father’s sacrilegious powers, and since then you’ve harboured delusions of grandeur. You’re a bully and like all bullies, you pick on the weak and are terrified of a fair fight. A narcissist too, considering your crafted ‘heroic’ persona. You make me sick, so shut your mouth before I shut it for you.”
Unable to help himself, HuoLong quivered before Kalil’s oppressive Aura, unable to resist it for more than a heartbeat. “I still want to kill him,” the Young Wolf said. “We have enough prisoners for the Marshall.”
“I said no. Regardless of his true nature, this bastard is the public figurehead of the Defiled incursion and the Major will have questions for him. Besides,” Kalil added, “you forget who rides at the Major’s side. A fate worse than you can imagine awaits him once we hand him over to the Shrike.”
An impotent wail burst from his throat at the mention of the Sanguine Priestess and HuoLong finally lost his nerve. “Malang! You bastard, save me!” He repeated the cry until another boot to the head granted him the merciful oblivion of slumber.
Please, no, it can’t end like this…
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