Author’s note: I’d like to give a shout out to my repeat donor, Matosch. Thank you so much for your continued support!
A scream pierced through the hushed tranquility of night, abruptly ending in utter silence which hung in the air like a dagger over Song’s head. Bolting from her bedroll, she blinked as her eyes adjusted to the darkness and the world came into focus, saber drawn and positioned to defend Master, her heart pumping life and energy through her veins. Years of training and ingrained reflex prepared her for this and Song was determined to see Master safely through the tribulation ahead.
For a fraction of a heartbeat, the stillness of night lingered and Song’s mind raced through the possibilities. Had she merely dreamed the disturbance, jumping at shadows? This would not mark the first time Song had woken in a fit of anxiety, though it’d been weeks since her last. Yes, perhaps she’d only imagined the brief scream, the small disturbance nothing but the product of stress, exhaustion, and poor diet. Still unconvinced, Song steadied her breathing, ears flicking left and right. Roused by her disturbance, Master shifted beneath her blankets. “Song?” Master asked, her voice filled with confusion and mild alarm. “Are you alright?”
At the sound of Master’s voice, the pets stirred from their slumber, Sarankho’s high-pitched yawn and the cubs grumbles bringing a modicum of normality to the situation. Embarrassed by her behaviour, Song opened her mouth to beg forgiveness. Before she could speak, a cry rang throughout the camp. “To arms!” Accompanying the shout came a clamour of thundering strides, followed by the clash of blades and screams of challenge and death.
“Lin, wake up and get dressed.” Throwing aside her blankets, Master placed aside the cub and threw on her clothes, the tiny creature whimpering in protest, seeking comfort and warmth. All the animals felt the tension, their fur bristling as they gathered together, Jimjam standing guard over his family much like Song stood guard over Master. Good animals, she prayed they’d have enough sense to stay out of sight; from what she knew, night battles were riotous, uncoordinated affairs, difficult to differentiate friend from foe.
Still half asleep, Lady Mei Lin rubbed her eyes and yawned while Master struggled with her trousers. “What’s happening Mi-Mi?”
“The Defiled are attacking.” The response came from outside the tent and Song recognized the Leader’s voice. “Time for us to leave. If your friends survive the night, we’ll meet with them in the morning.”
The growing din of battle drowned out Lady Mei Lin’s reply, though Song could see from her narrowed eyes and set jaw it was less than agreeable. Shaking her head, Master squeezed Lady Mei Lin’s shoulder. “Lin, look after the animals and listen to your guards. Stay safe my friend.” Without waiting for an answer, Master strode out the tent with Song at her heels.
The transition over the threshold was jarring, emerging from the calm to find chaos and anarchy in all directions. Smoke billowed and obscured vision while panicked horses and scattered quins moved in every direction, fleeing from the heat of the blazing fires which illuminated the carnage and confusion. Outside the tent, Song found herself ringed by Lady Mei Lin’s guards, none of the garo-mounted Defiled daring to approach as they moved about in small groups, barrelling through the camp and trampling over surprised soldiers, killing with impunity.
Unperturbed by the disorder and discord, Master ran out into the unruly melee with spear and shield at the ready, her voice raised in a bellow. “Soldiers of the Empire, Khishigs of the Bekhai, rally on me!” Several familiar faces joined them, but Master’s voice was largely lost in the commotion without Chi to augment it. Still, heedless of the danger, Master led them into battle, saving one man by tackling a charging garo shield first. With a resounding boom, the massive garo shrieked as it tumbled across the dirt, crushing its rider beneath its bulky mass. Sprinting to keep up, Song ended the life of both rider and mount in one fell swoop. Master helped the rescued soldier to his feet and he nodded his thanks, joining the ranks with his chi-augmented voice booming across the field. “Soldiers of the Empire, rally and fight!”
Heeding his call, more joined as Master took control, leading their rag-tag unit to intercept another group of Defiled. Lashing out, her spear swiped the legs out from under a garo as its rider’s blade glanced across her shield with a metallic shriek. Bones shattering on impact, the garo flopped down and slid as the rider flipped head over heels out of the saddle. Stomping down, she elicited a scream from the rider and ended it with a thrust of her spear. With a small snort, Master set off in search of more lives to end and save, the elite soldiers falling in line, marking Master as a leader worth following.
Unfamiliar pride surged through Song as she strode at Master’s heels, saber lashing out whenever the opportunity presented itself. Her body moved without thought as she killed, reflecting on Master’s coming rise to glory. Though yet to be discovered by the world at large, Song knew Master deserved more fame and recognition than any Warrant Officer in Sanshu. If Rain or Officer Huushal tried to tackle a charging Garo, they’d be nothing but a smear of meat paste in the dirt. Master did so easily as turning her hand, there was simply no comparison. Yet martial skill was not all Master offered, as the Lieutenant General’s daughter she was a born leader and talented tactician, a far cry from Rain’s untested methods. Even as they moved to repel the Defiled, Master constantly barked out a stream of orders, setting Khishigs to task as scouts while scattering the elites out among the unit, forming small kill teams within their ranks. Even if Rain continued to reveal one talent after another, it was only a matter of time before Master overtook him in both strength and skill, her name spreading far and wide throughout the Empire.
A far more fitting and praiseworthy representative of the Bekhai, in Song’s opinion.
An unstoppable pair, Master and Song set about smashing and stabbing in a frenzy of motion, facing the Defiled head on while continuing to rally the soldiers, their numbers growing in twos and threes. “Spread out in skirmish formation. Work together to bring down the riders, foul their legs, slow them even for a moment and their heads will roll.” As Master turned to deal with her soldiers, Song’s saber slashed through the throat of a Defiled, his weapon poised to kill Master. Her efforts earned her a smile which set her ears to fluttering, and Master’s voice rose once more, steady and assertive. “The Defiled hold the advantage but we will not falter. Fight on!”
The soldiers cheered in response and redoubled their efforts, the battle continuing in a grand melee. Soldiers and Defiled alike died in droves, with more to take their place. After an arduous back and forth, a lull fell over the battlefield as the Defiled circled around, gathering for a concentrated charge. Wasting no time, Master shouted, “Close in and form ranks! Polearms to the front and sides, wounded to the centre. They mean to break us. Hold the line, blunt their charge, and victory is ours!”
With a few simple sentences, Master wove a pocket of order amid the raging chaos, her orders obeyed without hesitation. Over three hundred soldiers were gathered around them, with a few familiar faces. Spears and halberds bristled outwards as the soldiers set their weapons, daring the Defiled to charge into them while those without polearms braced themselves behind the others, ready to rend and tear once the Defiled reared. Shoulder to shoulder, wearing bloodstained nightclothes if dressed at all, they made for an uninspiring sight. Still, they stood tall, resolved and tenacious, unblinking before their foe.
Wiping the blood and ashes from her face, cold determination settled in as Song watched the Enemy mass in greater numbers. It was her purpose, her privilege to guard Master’s life, without thought of reward or recognition. Even if she gave her insignificant life, she would not want Master to feel any gratitude or grief, and Song was ready to offer it without hesitation should the opportunity arise. So long as her kind and talented Master lived through the night, Song would be content.
The Enemy finally decided they had enough and with a thunderous bellow, charged as one. The garo’s strides covering the distance in seconds. Standing firm, Master held the line as the Defiled crashed into them, her small stature doing nothing to diminish her presence as she fought valiantly at the front. Giving herself fully to the Forms, Song’s saber twinkled in the starlight and flames as she set upon the Enemy, a watchful eye turned towards Master. Not every strike was aimed to kill, no warrior was an island in battle. Dancing through the lines and around Master, Song moved to hamper and threaten the Enemy, drawing their attention while leaving herself vulnerable. While taking advantage of her weakness, the Enemy opened themselves to attack from Master and the soldiers around Song, surrendering their lives for a chance to take her own, a good trade no matter the outcome. A thrust to the shoulder, a cut to the cheek, a gash across her forearm, she took one injury after another, but in return claimed nine lives with her blade while countless more fell to those around her.
Still her efforts weren’t enough. Caught unaware and drained from their travels, they held no advantage over the mounted Enemy, their paltry defence threatening to crumble before the onslaught despite all of Master’s efforts. Her strength flagging, Master stumbled in the churning mud. Leaping to her side, Song desperately intercepted the axe meant to take Master’s head. The powerful blow sent her saber flying from her numbed fingers. The garo’s jaw lunged towards her throat and Song stood firm over Master’s fallen form.
Satisfied with her fate, Song’s lips stretched in a smile as she welcomed death. Having witnessed the rise of a young hero, Song was now free to find peace into the Mother’s warm embrace.
Gripping his saber until his fingers turned white, Huushal controlled the urge to rush out into battle, growling beneath his breath as he waited by his tent. His retinue would know to come looking for him, so here he must stay until they gathered. With his wives at his side and retinue filtering in, he stood with hackles raised, staring out into the camp. The Defiled had yet to penetrate this far, his retinue camped on the southern fringe while the Enemy rode in from the east, spreading out to sweep across the camp in complete disarray.
Were it him commanding this attack, he would have split his forces in two and moved to encircle the camp, while leaving an avenue of escape, cutting soldiers down as they fled. Instead, the Defiled put too much stock in the element of surprise, penetrating into the heart of the camp in scores of small parties to sow confusion and chaos, leaving themselves too spread out to deal with a rallied defence. Even as he watched, pockets of resistance gathered amid the fire and smoke, soldiers grouping together to stand and fight. Though partially due to the soldier’s elite training, it was equally because that they had nowhere to run, with chaos and death in every direction. Even a trapped rat will bite back.
Huushal was neither a rat nor trapped. He was a wolf, free to do as he pleased, and the Defiled would come to regret their folly.
Uncle Kalil arrived with the last of the retinue in tow, riding their quins. A twinge of guilt plucked at Huushal’s heartstrings, wishing Jaga were still alive to accompany him in battle. Worse, Laughing Dragon had escaped alongside the Shrike, the idiot woman believing a Defiled coward’s lies. Without his death, how was Jaga to rest in peace?
Shaking with righteous anger and bitter regret, Huushal mounted his borrowed quin, a skittish creature named Jinx. A timid, untrained wagon quin with an ill-fated name, she was unhappy bearing his weight, but she was the best that could be spared. “Sentinels,” he said, his voice cold and steady. “Come, let us show the Defiled how to conduct a raid. Keep in formation and follow my lead.”
Silent assent and eager smiles was all he received in response, his troops too seasoned to break noise discipline. Uncle Kalil nodded in approval and Huushal guided Jinx into a steady trot. One hundred strong, his retinue slipped into the shadows in a loose line, skirting silently around the edge of camp. The quins padded over the hard packed dirt, the creatures eager for blood and death, though whether Jinx quivered in fear or anticipation, Huushal could not tell. Still, she obeyed his directions without hesitation and he patted her neck to soothe her nerves. ‘Don’t worry little quin,’ he thought. ‘I’ll not let you come to harm.’
No Defiled would come within the range of his saber and live. Tonight, he would slaughter the Enemy and send them back to the Father’s Maw, a tribute to Jaga who watched from above, snuggled in the Mother’s embrace.
The battle loomed to their left as they arrived at their destination, east of the camp and standing behind the Defiled lines. From this vantage point, he gazed upon the destruction left in their wake, and a righteous fury ignited in his chest. With a touch of his knees, Jinx bounded out of the shadows with his retinue at her heels, a silent column of death snaking through the debris. In seconds, they came across the first group of Defiled, over a dozen riders laughing as they trampled the dead. His lip curled in a sneer, Huushal guided Jinx directly towards them.
Let them have a taste of what it’s like to be trampled.
The first Defiled died instantly, Huushal’s saber cutting through flesh and decapitating the garo in a single swing. Too fearful of crashing, Jinx darted through the Defiled ranks, avoiding snapping jaws and swinging blades while his retinue dealt with the Defiled. It was a little jarring for Huushal as he jolted left and right, but such was his penance. Gritting his teeth, he flourished his saber about as they rode, doing his best to keep the little quin unharmed.
His saber dripping with blood, he guided Jinx through the smoke and flames. Together with his retinue, they made short work of another five groups in as many minutes, easily dispatching the divided Defiled. Directing any surviving soldiers to head towards Major Yuzhen’s tent, Huushal continued to ride throughout the camp in search of worthy challenge. Though his zeal for blood urged him to split his retinue to better hunt down the scattered groups, he tempered zeal with prudence, keeping his Setinels close.
Perhaps he was being overly cautious, but he was loathe to repeat his mistakes and lose another quin, or worse. Then again, as he scattered the Defiled before him and ran them down with ease, he decided discretion was the better part of valour. This wasn’t the time for duels and glory, this was merely a hunt, a cleansing of the camp. Splitting his retinue would mean making the same mistake the Defiled had, spreading themselves too thin. Better to present a united front until a better image of the Enemy numbers presented itself.
Riding past the lines of burning tents, he emerged from the smoke and came to a skidding halt, thanking the Mother he’d reined in his impulses. Arrayed before him was a column of Defiled, at least five hundred strong as they rode down the remnants of an Imperial defence. From across the distance, he watched as the Defiled Chieftain, marked by his elaborate, horned headdress, turned towards them. Even from here, Huushal saw the disdain in his eyes, and with a wave of his hand, half the Defiled riders turned and charged, whooping and hollering as they bored down upon him.
Grinning, Huushal raised his saber and shouted, “Retreat!”
Not his first instinct, but outnumbered five to one and facing a chieftain, he disliked those odds. Melting away as quickly as they arrived, Huushal threw his pursuers off and led his Sentinels in a tight circle, using the smoke and cover to hide their movements. In this, Jinx was supremely talented, sticking close to ground as she scrabbled over dirt and mud. Emerging almost three hundred meters west of where they last appeared, Huushal drew his bow and lifted it to the sky, firing blind on memory alone. His retinue followed suit and their arrows shrieked through the night sky, arcing over the flames to come crashing down on where he hoped the Chieftain stood.
He didn’t stay to find out whether the barrage was successful. Riding off, he repeated the maneuver twice more before falling back, unwilling to press his luck. Chuckling beneath his breath, he patted Jinx as she carried him away. With a name like hers, luck was the last thing to rely on.
Jaga’s loss was painful, but it taught Huushal a valuable lesson. He was not a rampaging bull, charging headlong at every problem. Out in the wilds, a wolf put survival above all else. Whittle away at your prey, pick your battles, and fight as a pack. He wasn’t the most skilled tactician or the quickest learner, but so long as he survived, he would have time to grow.
The Defiled Chieftain burst from the shadows and fell upon him in a heartbeat. Battle broke out around them as Defiled met Sentinel in a flurry of clashing blades and gnashing teeth. Huushal’s saber blocked the first blow by reflex and the impact shook him down to the bones. The arrows poking from the Chieftain’s flesh did little to slow him, relentlessly pressing forwards. The crude axe smashed Huushal’s saber aside whenever they crossed, barely able to keep a grip on his weapon. Though still able to trade, it was evident he was outmatched. The Chieftain’s garo bit into her shoulder and Jinx screeched in fear, reeling back and throwing Huushal from the harness. Landing with a thud, he wheezed as the air exited his lungs, watching Jinx scamper away. Then all he knew was talon and fang, rolling away as the garo rent and tore at his flesh, his world exploding in pain and suffering.
A taloned claw stomped onto his chest and his ribs cracked beneath their weight. Staring up at the slobbering beast, he looked past the fangs and saw the Chieftain’s cruel smile. Yanking at the reins, the Chieftain pulled his garo away and left Huushal to bleed, likely saving him for a tortuous death.
Blood dribbling down his chin, he struggled to draw breath, every cough wracking his body with pain. ‘Damn me,’ he thought, staring up into the heavens. ‘So this is my penance for letting Jaga die, thrown from the back of his replacement. Fitting. That cowardly beast truly is a jinx, but I hope she survives.’
With a shuddering breath, he closed his eyes to rest.
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