Standing amid the chaos and carnage, Rustram rose from the ground and shook his head, reeling from the impact. The garo-mounted Defiled barely clipped him in passing, yet it felt like half his torso had exploded, the pain causing him to swoon in place. Lungs burning and arms weak, he found his bearings and watched the Defiled circle around after their charge, the barbaric northerners grinning behind their crude masks of bone and leather. A few even had the temerity to laugh or wave as they rode into the black smoke, the thick clouds obscuring his vision as they re-positioned for yet another devastating charge.
Hit hard and scatter the infantry, riding away before they could counterattack, the Defiled were untouchable. Three exchanges and not a single Defiled had been killed, while Rustram’s ranks laid in tatters, dozens dead and more wounded. An amalgamation of soldiers and Sentinels, Rustram looked upon the men and women around him, their resolve fading as they came to grips with the futility of resistance. The Defiled were toying with them, disgraceful is what it was, almost a hundred soldiers of the Empire helpless before a fifth of their numbers. Such was warfare, where infantry held no advantage over their mounted counterparts, less so when the Enemy rode man-eating, scale-skinned garos.
Someone had to take command, someone strong. Any one of the assembled soldiers were likely stronger than Rustram, each one capable of displaying their purity. Unfortunately, they all milled about the field, waiting for the next assault. Only uncertainty and lack of an escape kept them from breaking, every soldier looking out for his or her own skin. Since no one else was stepping up, he dug deep into his reserves, eking out what courage and strength he could muster. “Form up you gutless cowards,” he yelled, his voice raw and rasping from the smoke. “You gonna let a little love tap keep you down? Meet them head on and we will cut them down!”
Only his Sentinels moved to form ranks, the crowd silent but for the anguished groans of the wounded and dying. Two or three murderous glares turned in his direction, and he silently cursed his choice of words. These were experts and elites, more accustomed to fawning and praise, not verbal abuse. They’d snap right to it if Ravil were here, the man was a natural at instilling fear and discipline. Not through sheer size or strength, no the man was slim of build and short of stature. It was something about his manner, perhaps his twitching hands never far from his knives or those dark eyes, blacker than night and promising worse than his foul mouth could ever speak. Rustram wasn’t ashamed to say he feared the former thief, a young man who flourished and thrived in the unforgiving streets of Shen Huo.
Hard to believe his transformation since joining the Sentinels, Ravil becoming the de facto bully sergeant of Rain’s retinue. A repeat offender during his stint in the army, Ravil was always playing an angle with his partner-in-crime Bulat, with Pran and Saluk as muscle to back them. Whether it was running games with loaded dice, selling rotgut wine distilled in the barracks infirmary, instigating feuds between rival squads, or countless schemes and ploys to pass the time, those four troublemakers had been at the root of every one of Rustram’s headaches since the day he’d been assigned their unit.
How things had changed. Now, he’d pay any price to have those scoundrels at his side, if only for their unwavering calm in the face of danger. Instead, they’d been sent away or were missing in the chaos, replaced by these unfamiliar elites. Those who recognized him probably were sneering at his status, the second in command of an absent Warrant Officer, assuming someone even recognized him at all. His Sentinels were no help, only his squad and the boss’s squad present, unable to find the others in the chaos. Though Pran and Saluk would be most welcome, Rustram would trade an arm and leg to have Lady Sumila and her squad at his side, the true elites of Rain’s retinue. Nothing like these dispirited and uncooperative ‘elites’ from the cities, hoping to sacrifice the others and save their own worthless hides.
Something snapped inside him, rage and apathy fuelling his actions. “Enough dancing around,” he snapped, flourishing his rapier and taking his stance at the head of the formation. “We’ll handle these Defiled ourselves. Sentinels, what’s the boss’s favourite phrase?”
“Give flesh and break bones,” came the unenthusiastic reply, disjointed and dispirited, the twenty odd warriors lacking confidence.
Sneering at the watching soldiers, Rustram let his disdain show, speaking loudly for all to hear. “These ‘elites’ are too afraid to take injury, scattering before the outnumbered Enemy and praying for survival. Are we so craven and hopeless? As the retinue of the Undying Savage, will we shame his good name?” His Sentinels straightened, their courage returning at mention of the boss. “Who among us has not suffered through pain and torment, hopelessness and despair? What are a few paltry Defiled in comparison? This is what we trained for, struggled for, persevered for. Give flesh!”
“Break bones!” The reply was louder now, their spirits lifting.
“Give Flesh!” He roared once more, beating his chest plate with the hilt of his rapier.
“Break bones!” Voices rising in a clamour, his Sentinels responded with a resounding cry, beating their weapons against shield and armour as they chanted the boss’s advice like a mantra. “Give Flesh! Break Bones! Give Flesh! Break Bones!”
His confidence restored, he joined the chant as the Defiled emerged from the smoke, their garos closing the distance with their long-legged strides. Seeing their united defense, the Defiled veered towards them, cackling all the while. Rooted in place, he continued to chant as the world shifted and he found himself suspended in the void. Time appeared to slow as he took a deep breath, pointing his rapier at the Enemy. “Charge!”
He felt no fear, no apprehension as he watched himself rush the mounted Defiled. Light as a feather, he ran a full three strides ahead of his Sentinels, his face carefully neutral, neither enthused nor afraid. Within the calm of the void, he filtered out the distractions. The heat of the flames, the choking smoke, the howling wind, the bone-numbing fatigue, none of it mattered. Nothing but the sword and its target, a slobbering garo and his grinning rider filled his mind, all his focus on one thought.
I am the sword, the sword is me.
With a basic lunge, he pierced through the garo’s skull, the attack practised ten-thousand times over. This wasn’t enough, Li Song’s sparring taught him the recovery was just as important, if not more. Snapping back into an upright position, he stepped aside as the blade carved through bone and flesh with ease. Emerging from the garo’s flesh, he intercepted the Defiled weapon and gave it the barest of taps, send it flying from his enemy’s grasp. Locking his shoulder in place, he smiled as the rider’s momentum met the blade’s edge, barely noticing the impact as armour, flesh, and bone parted around it. The garo brushed his sleeve and crashed into the dirt, sliding to a stop while the Defiled torso hung briefly in the air, sliding off his weapon and tumbling down as if attempting to reunite with its legs, still sitting in the dead garo’s saddle.
Behind him, the other Defiled wave crashed into the Sentinel wall. Garos snapped and weapons swung, Sentinels injured and dying from the onslaught. Tense heartbeats passed as the Defiled pushed through the throng of bodies, bogged down by the dead and living alike. Their forward momentum spent, the Defiled reeled as the Sentinels roared in collective fury, dragging the mired riders from their saddles. Though his Sentinels carried no Spiritual weapons, they were hellbent on retribution, Defiled dying one after the other in a frenzy of hacking and stomping.
Moving without thought, Rustram sliced through a garo’s leg and nailed its flailing head in the dirt. What a difference Honing makes, like wings on a tiger, he moved through the press of bodies, dispatching the creatures one by one. His warriors gave flesh to keep the creatures in place, and Rustram moved faster than he’d ever moved before, struggling to save as many lives as possible.
The last garo died and the dust settled, Rustram gasping as his vision swirled and he fell out of the void. Surveying the carnage, he felt the weight of responsibility pressing against his shoulders. The Sentinels stood victorious, the Defiled all dead or fleeing, but victory came at great cost. Less than a third of his Sentinels still stood ready to fight, the others dead or wounded. Reaching for his pack, he pulled out the precious medicines and smelling salts within. “Treat the wounded,” he croaked, unable to revel in the empty victory.
All this to kill perhaps twenty Defiled, at best a shameful one for one trade. After today, how many of the original sixty-seven former soldiers would be left? Far too few by any count.
While waiting for the medical paste to bond, a shadow fell over Rustram’s patient. “Move aside, you’re blocking the light,” he snapped.
“… My apologies.” Strangely enough, the speaker truly sounded remorseful. Rustram glanced up to find a silk-robed soldier shuffling aside, hands clasped in greeting. “This one is Senior Captain Chu XinYue of Sanshu. Might I have the honour of knowing your name?”
“Rustram, second-in-command of Officer Falling Rain’s retinue, Sentinel of the Bekhai.” Raising a single eyebrow, Rustram kept quiet, letting the silence prod the other man into speaking.
Thankfully, father’s little games of power weren’t wrong, XinYue appearing flustered by the awkward pause. “…I uh, came to inform you, the Defiled are gathering in greater numbers for another charge.”
Sighing, Rustram waved one of his Sentinels over to take over, but the silk-robed soldier moved to stop him. “No. Tend to your wounded, we will hold the line. Your courage has inspired us all. No Defiled will bother you, this I swear.” Saluting sharply, XinYue turned and raised his voice. “Come soldiers of Sanshu, you’ve borne witness to Bekhai courage, now show them your own!”
The surrounding soldiers cheered in response, falling into line in front of Rustram and his wounded. Other shouts joined in as the soldiers from other cities followed, standing shoulder to shoulder to block the Defiled charge. Chuckling beneath his breath, Rustram shook his head and watched the battle rage on only meters away. These were true elites, their strength and skill far above his own, but today, he learned who’s tenacity was greater.
The thought filled him with a strange pride, taking perverse delight in his willingness to die. What else could you expect from the retinue of the Undying Savage? Perhaps given enough time, Rustram and his soldiers would even make a name for themselves, the fearless warriors who followed the Undying Savage.
Assuming they all survived the night, of course.
Though her mind was resigned to death, it seemed Song’s body had yet to concede. Leaping towards the garo’s jaws, she cried in pain as its teeth closed around her shoulder. Only bruising the muscle underneath, the creatures attack slid off her Runic armour without leaving so much as a scratch. She disliked relying on this gift from Rain, though a princely gift it was. Something about being in his debt sat poorly with her, though she couldn’t explain why. She was merely a slave, pride something she could ill-afford.
Easier to pretend the gift was given to Master, who gifted it to Song. Yes, that made it more palatable. Tackling the garo, she held it in place for a single second before its neck muscles flexed and pushed her away, flinging her back into the crowd of soldiers. The single second was enough however, as Master’s spear pierced through the garo’s chest, drenching her in its blood. Unarmed but for a singled dagger, Song rejoined the fray at Master’s side, thrusting towards another Defiled rider.
Before her blade touched its scale, a flash of light smashed into the garo’s head, snapping it aside like a hammer strike. As the rider’s head detached from his torso, she saw Ser Tenjin and Lady Tursinai emerge from the smoke and shadows, followed by the marching members of Rain’s retinue. Most notable were the twin bull-brother’s Pran and Saluk carried their massive crossbows, firing bolts of death into the Defiled, though she saw no sign of Mister Rustram.
Thankful for the timely intervention, Song uttered a sigh of relief, her shoulders dropping from pain and exhaustion. Bare chested but for a bandolier of knives slung across his shoulders, Ser Tenjin made for an impressive sight. His teeth bared in crazed delight, he hurled a blade with every step, each one finding its mark in a charging garo or its rider, an inhuman display of power and accuracy. Wearing a light shift which barely kept her decent, Lady Tursinai danced around her lover in a seductive display, her pale shoulders and smooth thighs gleaming in the moonlight. Whirling in her hands, her chain and sickle moved unseen, humming as it scythed through air and flesh with equal ease. Any Defiled who approached was met by thrown blade or whirling chain, the two lovers working in perfect harmony to kill any who barred their path. As if out for a midnight stroll, they sauntered through the Defiled lines, leading Rain’s retinue on a direct route towards Master, the others in their rescue party left with little to do but twiddle their thumbs.
Sensing victory, the soldiers spirits surged and the tide turned against the Defiled. Dozens fell before their nerve broke and the survivors fled, escaping into the night. The Enemy broken within a dozen paces, Song gaped as she failed to find a single drop of sweat or blood marring the bodies of the two experts, though they were covered in ashes like the others. With a feigned cry of despair, Lady Tursinai checked Master for injuries. “Have mercy dear Mila, don’t go running off into danger by yourself. The Herald will tear me limb from limb if harm comes to her precious daughter. You idolize me, yes, but the sad truth is I’m no match for Akanai.” With a fake shudder, Tursinai turned and pinched Song’s cheek lightly, also checking her for injuries. “And you silly girl, good job keeping Mila safe but keep a hold of your own sword. Better yet, you should both learn enough sense to wait at your tent until we arrive. I mean, of all the officers in Rain’s retinue, only Pran and Saluk had enough sense to gather there.”
Face reddening as the two simple-minded brothers grinned, Master stood tall, short of breath and skin stained with blood, but unharmed and full of heroic vigour. Around them, the soldiers spread the news of Lieutenant General Akanai’s daughter standing among them, eyeing Master with approval. Strength of arms was one thing, but leadership was sorely lacking amongst these elites, something Song noted early on. Why else would they fall in line with a young half-beast girl? Then again, such was the way with the extra sons and daughters of noble families. Spoiled beyond compare, if they had the qualities and drive neccessary for leadership, they wouldn’t have become career soldiers; they would have become heirs instead.
Ignoring their whispers, Master spoke with confidence. “This is only the first wave, a probing attack. The Defiled will link up and make a second, concentrated strike, seeking to sweep away whoever they find. We must collect the survivors and link up with Major Yuzhen, form a united defence.”
Glancing at the approving soldiers surrounding Master, Lady Tursinai’s lips quirked in a mischievous smile. “Ah how quickly the years pass by. Seems like yesterday when I watched this impish little child running around the village, and soon I’ll be riding on her coat tails to fame and fortune.” Spinning on her heels, she pinched Ser Tenjin on the buttocks. “With me, my heroic, handsome husband. We’ll take a look around while Mila sorts things out, then we’re off to save the Major.” Giggling with delight, Lady Tursinai skipped off into the darkness, her sickle and chain singing as it whirled to life.
Though not the only one to gape at her unseemly behaviour, Song had little time to process it. Wrapping her in a two armed hug, Master squeezed a little too tightly. “Thank you for saving me, but you need to be careful. I need you to live a long, healthy life. I’d never forgive myself if you died because of me.” Putting her down, Master barked out orders while Song followed closed behind, using the time to parse through her emotions.
Though freedom was denied her yet again, there was no crushing disappointment accompanying today’s failure. In fact, she felt at peace, satisfied even, her body full of energy despite her days of hard riding. It would be wrong to rest so soon, the battle was yet to be won, with many more Defiled to kill. Perhaps she would still find freedom tonight, but for the first time, she was uncertain death was what she truly wanted. After all, Master had finally given her first order: Song was to live a long life.
Not so terrible a thing when spent at Master’s side.
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