Sitting next to the bed, Baatar stroked Sarnai’s cheek and channelled his Chi, giving all he could as he prayed for her to wake. A crude imitation of the boy’s healing method, barely enough to close a puncture wound much less anything more serious, but it was all he could do for his foolish wife, his beautiful rose. Seeing her like this pained him more than any injury, so still and silent, unlike her usual spirited self. Even as a child she was full of fire and vinegar, the terror of the village with her capers and pranks. More than once he’d found himself at her mercy, until he learned it was better to stand at her side than in her path. From then on, they’d been inseparable.
He never should have accepted this posting, especially without consulting her. His hunger for glory and battle forced her from their safe home and onto the front lines, filled with peril and treachery. Even a quiet evening in celebration of their marriage was denied to them, turning into a desperate struggle for both their lives. What had he been thinking, asking her to leave their peaceful home, putting her and his family in harm’s way? Gently taking her hands, he kissed them lightly and whispered, “Please wake up my love, I’m lost without you. I promised to bring you home and I mean to keep it. We’ll live out our days in the village, no more Iron Banner, no more responsibilities, just you, me, and our family, together. Please…”
His Chi exhausted, he smoothed out her blankets and slumped in his chair, his cheek on the pillow beside her as he struggled to find Balance and replenish his reserves. How long had he been at this? A new day had dawned, which meant it was now the first day of the seventh month, two nights since Sarnai took injury. Sleep called to him, but he shook it off, careful not to disturb her. Now more than ever, his love needed his support and nothing would tear him from her side. How silly he’d been, believing they still had decades of life together yet, wasting so much time away from her. He knew now, every spare second should have been spent with the love of his life, cherishing and spoiling her with all his affection, instead of riding about with the Banner and gallivanting without her.
Stubborn, quarrelsome woman, it would be like her to die before her time just to win an argument.
A light knock sounded on the door, startling him to vigilance. “Papa?” His precious daughter Alsantset peered in before entering, carrying a tray of food. “Taduk mentioned it’s been a while since you ate, so I had Charok make you something.”
“My girl, come in.” Sparing her the briefest of smiles, he pulled a chair next to her. “I’m not hungry, but come, sit with your mother.” No need to admonish her, but he’d be lying if he said he wasn’t a little disappointed. True she had her own family to look after, but how was it she couldn’t spare a few hours for her ailing mother until now?
“Papa, you need to eat, your wounds have yet to fully heal. When was the last time you slept? Properly slept, laying down in a bed? You should really let Taduk take a look at you.”
“Bah, I’ll not listen to anything that hare-brained fool has to say.” Though Baatar overlooked the first mention, the girl insisted on bringing that overblown braggart into the conversation. “Medical Saint my ass. How many times have you heard him boast of healing anything ‘short of death’? Yet where is he now, when Sarnai needs him most? Nowhere to be found, a charlatan is what he is.”
Putting aside the tray, the girl sighed as she sat down beside him, leaning against his shoulder. “He’s busy helping soldiers Papa, your soldiers. So many healers were targeted in the first wave of attacks, every spare hand is needed.”
“Strangers and outsiders,” he snorted, wrapping his arm around her. “Enough girl, I’ll not argue with you at your mother’s sick bed. You’re just like her, vexing me as always.”
“I miss her too Papa.”
“Do not speak of her as if she were already dead,” he hissed, more harshly than intended. “Your mother yet lives and will continue to do so. She is born of hardy stock, you know? They passed before you were born, but your grandparents were incredible warriors, taught her everything she knew. If not for-” He cut himself off and shook his head, letting sorrowful memories lie buried. Taking Sarnai’s hand, he let out a hopeful sigh. “She’ll wake soon, I know she will.” Mother help me, please let her wake. “When we were young, Master called us the twin terrors of the Bekhai. You should have seen us, me leading the charge while she guarded my flanks, a harmonious duo both on and off the battlefield, we were matched by the Mother herself.”
“Papa, look at me.” It took several moments before he could tear his eyes away from Sarnai, turning to look at his daughter. Usually so proud and strong, the girl sat with tears in her eyes, dark rings beneath them, her clothes stained with marks of battle as she silently pleaded for help. So weak and vulnerable, he hadn’t seen her make a face like this in years, not since she threatened to elope with Charok. “Do you think me unfilial? Do you believe that I, your daughter, care nothing for Mama?”
Pulling her into a hug, he patted her hair. “Course not girl, you’re a splendid daughter. Your mother and I are so proud of you, we love you dearly.”
“Then why do you suppose I waited so long to visit?”
Surprised by the question, Baatar shook his head and pinched his girl’s cheeks, just like he did when she was a child. “No need to fret girl, you’re here now. That’s all that matters.”
The girl took his hands in her own, so small and dexterous compared to his own. So strange, a daughter not of their blood yet so much like them. His forthright attitude and passion for training combined with Sarnai’s kind soul and indomitable will, Alsantset had the best of both parents, a treasured child they’d raised well. “Papa,” she said, rubbing her tears away on her shoulder, “Mama’s fate is in the hands of the Mother now, you need to accept this.”
Snatching his hands away, he gasped in shock. “Foolish child! Your mother lays here healthy as can be. She’ll wake, don’t you dare say otherwise.”
The girl shook her head. “She died in your arms Papa, long before you found Taduk. He tried to explain but you insisted he heal her regardless. Her body is healthy but her soul is gone. This is nothing but an empty shell. Perhaps her soul will return in time, but there’s nothing you can do to help her.” Tugging him gently, she reminded him a time when she was young, begging him to let her ride the quins. “The Wall is in danger of falling. You need to do your duty and defend the province.”
“My duty is to my wife, your mother.” Turning back to Sarnai, he resumed channelling his Chi to heal her. “The Wall has stood for millennia without me and will stand for millennia more. My place is here, at her side.”
“With Colonel General Nian Zu injured and out of commission, Situ Jia Yang has taken command. It’s a disaster Papa, the man has no skill in commanding soldiers, continuously on the back foot against the Enemy. Han BoHai is trying to get him to see reason, but Jia Yang is not only incompetent, but stubborn too. We need you Papa, even though you don’t outrank him, control of the Wall and its soldiers are yours, so long as you are there to take it. Then, Jia Yang will have no choice but to fall in line.”
“Enough girl, I won’t be leaving.”
“Papa, you don’t understand–”
“No, you don’t understand!” The girl jumped at his roar, hurt and scared, but he pushed on. “Don’t you see? She’s here because of my pride, my hubris. I brought her to the front lines, I exposed her to danger.” His voice quieted as his throat closed, reaching for Balance to continue caring for Sarnai. “While we were fighting inside the restaurant, I wasn’t concerned for her safety. No, I was elated to have her fighting by my side. It made me feel young again and I lost myself in the memories of a better time.” His shoulders shook as tears streamed down his face, Balance just out of reach. “And she paid the price for my distraction. If not for my wounds, she would never have let her guard down. Always in control, your mother, unless someone she loves is in danger.”
The girl rested her head on his shoulders once more, linking arms with him as they cried together. “You can’t blame yourself for this Papa.” They sat together in silence, a family united in hardship. “Then what should I tell the others? There’s talk of evacuating the civilians.”
“Do what you must, I trust your judgment. Seek Ghurda for guidance if you need it, she understands the situation better than I.” After a few more minutes of silence, the girl kissed her mother goodbye, squeezed in one last hug with him, and left. By then, he’d calmed enough to resume healing her, continuing the treatment despite his pitiful skills and drained Chi reserves. So long as she still drew breath, he would not leave her side. When she opened her eyes, he would be here waiting. It was the least he could do.
No matter if the province burned to ashes around him, he would remain here, tending to his love, his wife, his beautiful Sarnai.
The forest came to life in the early evening, the creatures of the night emerging to stalk their domain, the new moon barely lighting the sky. City born and raised, Tong Da Fung found the woods so nerve-wracking, his teeth already touching his thumbnail before he caught the frown of his ‘manservant’, Fu Zhu Li. A mild reproach to be sure, a slight pursing of the lips, the rounded ears atop his head flicking lightly, not exactly a glower and a snarl, but any negative attention from a master torturer, no matter how loyal, was… unpleasant.
Lowering his hand, he nodded in thanks to Zhu Li, earning him another frown on top of a silent sending. ‘A thousand pardons, but young master, this one must speak. It is a grave error to display anxiety in front of your soldiers. A commander must present a calm, controlled demeanour at all times. Nor should young master ever thank a mere servant, it is essential your soldiers see you as more than a man, a paragon who lowers himself to walk among them. This one cautions young master to take better care with his actions.’
Halfway through his second nod, Fung winced and closed his eyes, resisting the urge to sigh. At least the half-beast torturer wouldn’t expect an answer, what with the entire retinue waiting in complete silence. This was by far the worst part of battle, the waiting, with nothing but his doubts to occupy the silence. So much time to examine the plan and imagine everything and anything that might go wrong, all the more troubling considering it was his plan, albeit heavily modified during discussions. How did he, arguably the weakest among them, end up in a position to lead? It boggled the mind.
Stop, fool. Would Rain be falling to pieces in a situation like this? No, he’d be chomping at the bit, ready to dive into the fray. Besides, when you get back, Mentor will have a conniption at Rain’s explosive growth and redouble your training, so don’t give her any more excuses to make you miserable. The reminder of Rain made him shake his head, putting his friend’s safety out of his mind. A leader must remain cold and dispassionate, for lives hang in the balance of every decision. Rain’s fate was in the hands of the Mother, there was nothing Fung could do except tackle the problem before him.
To the North, Situ Jia Zian laid in wait with his veteran retinue and opposite him, Dastan Zhandos mirrored his actions in the South. Including himself, waiting in the east, their three parties awaited two things, first for Han BoShui’s retinue to get into position, and second for the advanced scouts to finish picking off the enemy sentries. Everyone was on foot for this, the plan called for stealth and a single horse’s snort would give them away. A tricky prospect to approach undetected, considering the enemy’s excellent choice of campground, a small, hidden clearing at the top of a hill with escape routes in all directions. Thankfully, the forests of Sanshu were thick and verdant, with plenty of shadows to hide in even for this ragtag collection of city-dwelling soldiers.
Idly, he wondered how the other Officers were handling the pressure. Strange how the Purge seemed to bring the four young Officers closer together, especially Rain and Dastan, with their shared glances during the meeting. Truth be told, Fung felt like an outsider among them, which compounded his surprise when the others readily agreed to his plan. Jia Zian was the same as always, cool and aloof, while Dastan was more eager and animated, a fire burning inside him since taking part in the Purge. BoShui changed the most however, his impish, mocking tone all but gone, especially in the face of his cousin’s betrayal. Little wonder he volunteered for the most dangerous position, Fung was sweating bullets even thinking about it. He and the others would attack from three directions, killing by surprise and herding the enemy west, instead of forcing them into a trap and fighting them to the last man. The anvil to their hammer, BoShui was tasked with holding the fleeing enemy in place until Fung and the others finished cleaning up the camp, a difficult prospect considering their foe’s level of skill.
The plan wasn’t even in place yet and still so much could go wrong.
Fung’s second-in-command, Man Guo Er, Sent a message. ‘Young magistrate, Officer Han is in place and the scouts report the sentries have been dealt with. We await your order.’
Nodding in answer, he held his hand up and made a fist, the signal to proceed, Guo Er relaying the order to the other retinues. Moving through the dark forest, Fung’s retinue sounded like a rampaging bull to his ears, though it was only his overactive imagination. The enemy isn’t used to the forests either, they aren’t master woodsmen like the Bekhai. Calm yourself, slow and steady, they’re tired, ready for sleep, believing themselves well protected. The element of surprise lies in your hands, use it to your advantage.
Hefting his partisan in hand, he took comfort in the weight. Thirty-five kilograms, a little excessive considering even the heaviest of maul’s usually weighed less than twenty, he’d spent months moulding his body to better wield the impressive weapon. Though he’d used it on raids before, this was his first time using it without Mentor at his side, and during his first plan set in motion no less, the stakes at hand were enough to paralyze a lesser man with fear.
Luckily, he was no lesser man. He was Tong Da Fung and nothing short of absolute victory would satisfy him.
A shout sounded from the south, some luckless soul stumbling across Dastan’s forces, and the enemy camp came alive. Well trained, these were worthy foes to test himself against, no barbaric savages of the north, but skilled warriors. His blood igniting within, he lifted his partisan and sounded the charge. “To victory!”
Light as a feather in his hands, Fung’s pole-arm pulped an enemy warrior with a single strike. His pride quickly sapped away as the dead man’s comrade erupted in rage, an Aura crashing into Fung and filling him apprehension for a brief second. Standing behind him, Zhu Li’s Aura stealthily protected him while beside him, Guo Er’s Aura jostled with the multiple Auras of the enemy. The Aspirants were elites, their skills honed through arduous practice, an ascetic lifestyle, and ardent faith, but unused to fighting against soldiers.
Fung’s retinue held the best soldiers Shen Huo had to offer.
The metallic whirl of his weapon sang to him as he thrust and swept, slashed and parried, fighting his way into the heart of the camp. Jumping forward, he lunged and brought his weapon in an upward arc, shooting past the guard of an Aspirant and piercing through his head. A single shake of the haft was enough to tear his weapon from the dead man’s skull, and with the point held high, he lifted it into a two-handed smash, landing atop another Aspirant’s braced sword and driving it into his face. Whipping it to the left, he swept two Aspirants off their feet with a satifying crunch of bone.
The Forms spoke to him as he danced with death, spraying blood and viscera around him like a young god. His breath caught as he glimpsed Jia Zian emerging from the north, his face stony as ever. His twin sabers whirled around him, scything down his opponents with ease, the pattern of his twinkling blades barely deviating as he fought, graceful and calm in the midst of chaos. No wet-nurse for him, Jia Zian had his own Aura to protect him and fought alone, killing with impunity as he approached.
To the south, Dastan howled in bestial fury, hacking apart an Aspirant with frenzied urgency, screaming of retribution and reckoning as his axe rose and fell again and again. Though not as impressive as Zian, Dastan’s soldiers were a cut above when fighting in groups, expertly setting up their leader to strike the killing blow. Two differing styles, one solitary and elegant, the other crude and collective, both rivals worthy of Tong Da Fung.
In time, with hard work and Mentor’s guidance, he was certain he would surpass them both.
Zian spotted an enemy and charged him, bellowing in challenge to the Sanguine Priestess. Fung leapt to his aid, not out of worry for Zian but because he saw Rain’s still form slung over the back of her horse. The woman screamed and raved about her duty, carrying out the will of the Mother, but Fung closed his ears to her nonsense and killed his way towards her. Rallying in defence of their Priestess the fanatic Aspirants redoubled their efforts, blocking Fung and Zian without care for their lives while the Priestess rode west into the woods with Rain and a handful of Aspirants.
The battle at the campground ended in mere minutes, the Aspirants dying to the last man to give the Priestess time to escape. Chest heaving as he glanced about the battle-field, Fung bellowed his orders. “Any soldiers too wounded to run remain here, the rest with me.” Sprinting into the woods, he prayed to the Mother that Han BoShui would carry out his duty and save Rain, maybe even take the Shrike hostage. If not? No matter. The Sanguine Priestess thought she could steal Rain away to torture him to death, but she was wrong. Let her death, and the death of any who dared aid her, be a warning to the world.
Falling Rain, martial nephew of Tong Da Fung, the Unstoppable Tempest, was not to be touched.
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