To Vithar’s great surprise, instant victory was denied him as his axe collided with a spear. Finally, a worthy opponent capable of defending against his strike, he’d almost abandoned all hope of finding proper challenge among these soft-skinned weaklings. Since coming to the south, every exchange he took part in ended with a single strike and he was excited to match blades against someone capable of moving beyond the first pass. How pleasant to find a true warrior among these scurrying southerners, firing their arrows of wood and iron before fleeing into the night. Though a cowardly strategy, it had killed several of his riders and even managed to injure him, a notable accomplishment by any means. Worried this would be the best of the lot, he resigned himself to sacrificing the youth who rode at their head, leaving him broken and beaten in the dirt for later.
But now, a more worthy sacrifice revealed himself to Vithar. How fortuitous, the ancestors grew irritable when not properly honoured.
Reining in his garo, he circled his opponent with a smile, relishing the heady rush which accompanied the prospect of death. A warrior in armour of leather and fur, a powerful Aura emanated from his aged body, at least fifty summers judging by the streaks of grey in his beard. Past his prime, were this warrior one of Vithar’s tribesmen, his bones would have long since been picked clean and given to the ice, his spirit taking its rightful place alongside the ancestors. Better to die in battle and move on to guide a younger, stronger warrior than slowly succumb to the rigours of age.
There was no such practice here in the merciful south, with its gentle weather and abundant sustenance. In fact, they held their elders in high esteem, everyone aspiring to grow frail and feeble before dying in bed. Perplexing, especially how the young fire-shaper, so blessed by the ancestors and marked by the Uniter himself, surrendered to the aged thief instead of seizing power. A strange bunch these southerners, so fearful of death they disregarded common wisdom, fostering weakness instead of embracing the struggle for survival. If not for the Uniter’s command, Vithar would have no part fighting alongside unbelievers, but it was a small thing to suffer. So long as he had enemies to kill and food for his people, the rest was of little importance.
Sorely hoping this one would entertain him for more than a handful of exchanges, he tore the arrows from his shoulder, allowing his arm to move freely. Tapping his chest, he spoke in their unfamiliar tongue. “I am Vithar, Chieftain.” Too many homonyms, this strange, tonal language was difficult to learn, but Vithar was determined. Besides, it was better to know what his victims were saying when he tortured them.
The aged warrior blinked in surprise, his lip curling in a sneer. “So you know how to speak. How disgusting, feral Defiled playing at games of men, hoping to exchange names before exchanging blows. You’re a mockery of all that is natural, pretending to be what you threw away.”
“No exchange, no games.” Vithar shook his head, disgusted by the southerner’s ignorance, patiently explaining the ways of life. “You tell ancestors Vithar kill you. They know to fear me and aid my enemies, give me great challenge. Only though struggle will I stay strong.” How pitiful for a warrior so old to know so little of the world.
“Haha, arrogant Defiled.” The aged warrior laughed in defiance. “You think I’ll die so easily? Perhaps you will be the one to fall today. Know my name then and pass it on to your Ancestors in the Father’s Maw. I am Kalil, Khishig of the Bekhai.” Their pleasant conversation ended with a furious charge. Polished metal struck treated bone with a hollow ring, the soothing vibrations travelling up Vithar’s arms, accompanied by chills of anticipation. Kalil did not disappoint, his powerful lunge made possible by the curious beasts these southerners rode. Compact, hissing things of fang and talon, these creature were as much a weapon as Vithar’s garo. The one Kalil rode showed signs of age, with streaks of white amid its dark brown fur, so thick his garo’s fangs had trouble piercing through. The creature pawed at the garo’s face, pushing it aside while its jaw clamped down on scaled flesh, its fangs scoring the armoured garo hide and eliciting a hissing cry.
The beast would make a fine meal and Vithar made note of its markings, intending to find it after the battle’s end. A marvellous thing this practice of cooking, a luxury only weak southerners could indulge in. Vithar was accustomed to eating whatever was on hand as quickly as possible, whether it be rival tribesmen or aged seniors. Having the freedom to choose not only what to eat, how to prepare and enhance its taste was a strange concept, a simple pleasure he’d have never known existed if not for the Uniter. Though made weak by their forgiving lands, these southerners produced some incredible things, like delicious food, soft beds, and intoxicating drink.
A cunning feint nearly pierced his throat and Vithar chuckled at his own distraction. Too long since he’d faced a proper foe, these bad habits might be the death of him. A ferocious pair, aged warrior and aged beast working in flawless synergy. Kalil’s forceful thrusts hindered Vithar from aiding his garo, the furred creature gaining the upper hand in the clash of mounts, using its grasping claws to great advantage. Kalil enjoyed a similar edge, guiding his mount with only his knees which left both hands free, leaving Vithar defending two-handed strikes with only one hand. Good, a minor handicap to make things interesting. Tugging the reins, he guided his garo back but Kalil pressed on, darting in to score a glancing hit across Vithar’s injured shoulder. Clever warrior, using all the tricks and stratagems learned in his decades of life to fight back, Vithar took great pleasure in this first true contest of strength.
Their exchange continued back and forth for many minutes while he enjoyed the sensation of fighting from disadvantage. Too long since he’d fought a true warrior, he used this opportunity to hone his skills, testing his strength and pushing himself to the limits as the spear came perilously close to ending the match time and time again. So many variations on a simple thrust, the spear point curving in unpredictable manner, Vithar felt there was so much to learn from this aged warrior, it was a travesty he had yet to join the ancestors.
A shame their exchange had to end so soon. Kalil held decades of personal experience, but he was no match for the combined millenia of wisdom granted by the ancestors. Drawing back, Vithar touched the axe-blade to his injured shoulder, allowing the weapon to draw on his blood, empowering the ancestors and through them, himself. Strength surged through his body as his muscles bulged, his skin stretched taut over his bulky frame. His axe transformed with him, the haft thickening and blade elongating, the weapon growing solid and weighty in his grasp. Surrounded by the flames and carnage, he roared and chopped at his opponent, no subtlety or guile at all, aiming for the warrior’s chest.
Horizontally held before him, Kalil’s gleaming spear bent underneath the force of the blow, reeling away from the impact as his mount slid back. Taking a moment to savour the surprise and fear etched across Kalil’s face, Vithar urged his garo forward for another chop. With a shrill shriek, the creature darted away and he pushed the advantage, his axe singing as it cut through air. Unable or unwilling to meet him head on, the warrior ducked and dodged while his creature bobbed and weaved, bringing Vithar around the battlefield on a merry chase.
How disgraceful, a warrior who knew nothing of shame, continuing his struggle despite being outmatched. This was no true battle, only a fool striving to draw breath for a few heartbeats longer, unwilling to gracefully accept his end. Around them, his tribesmen were in similar straits, unable to engage their fleeing enemies as the furred creatures ran circles around the less manoeuvrable garos.
Frustration mounted as he continued the chase, the aged warrior taunting with his half-smile, unwilling to strike even though Vithar left himself vulnerable. Fully aware of the time constraints, he sought to end this fight as quickly as possible. Though weak and scattered, his tribesmen were still outnumbered, the advantage of surprise fading quickly as the enemy rallied across the camp. His blood pounding in his ears while the ancestors demanded victory, Vithar sighed and did something he was loath to do.
Fully giving himself over to the ancestors, he watched through his eyes as his body fought. There was no satisfaction in this, no glory to be found. The ancestors’ experience and skill made him powerful, but Vithar could not call this victory his own. Though it was his axe swiping right while his legs guiding the garo left, it was not his mind that directed them. It was a clever manoeuvre though, and Vithar marked it as one to remember, meant to force the enemy to engage or retreat. Unsurprisingly, the aged warrior retreated. A second similar exchange took place, and then a third and a fourth. Teeming with impatience, Vithar urged the ancestors to hurry, concerned his tribesmen would abandon reason in the heat of battle without his commands to temper them. If they chased these southerners too far, they might find an unwelcome surprise lying in wait.
Heeding his instructions, the ancestors ceased their dallying. Vithar felt no joy as his axe crashed into the creature’s neck, sending the warrior tumbling from its back. Batting the spear away, he felt empty while caving in his opponent’s skull, the warm spray of blood across his face not enough to improve his mood. What should have been a jubilant victory was now a mere distraction, no pleasure derived from watching the life seep from of the aged warrior’s eyes. Reclaiming control, Vithar snorted while he took in his surroundings, absently dragging the corpse onto his garo and directing two of his tribesmen to collect the fallen beast.
The ancestors would be appeased for a time and there was much strength to be gained from devouring the flesh of these enemies. Perhaps boiled in a stew or spiced and roasted over a flame, he would leave it for the slaves to decide. There would be no more glory today, the battle here had taken too long. More soldiers emerged from the smoke to engage his tribesmen, riding horses and the furred beasts, picking off those tribesmen still mired in battle. Patting the fallen warrior’s shoulder, Vithar chuckled beneath his breath. Perhaps not a coward or failure, this warrior delayed long enough for reinforcements to arrive and save his comrades.
Turning his garo away, he rode off while bellowing his orders. “Withdraw! Bring what you can carry. Those who fall behind will be left behind.” Though he had hoped to gather for one final sweep of the camp, the chance was lost to him now. Truly a worthy foe, losing the duel only to win the battle. No matter, a new day would bring a new battle, and another chance for victory.
Tonight, Vithar would feast well and honour his opponent’s victory, while praying for more worthy foes to follow.
Fatigue and gratification warred within Gen as he surveyed his surroundings, basking in the warm glow of the flames. For hours now, he’d run through the streets, killing and burning to his heart’s content. Drained from his endeavours, he teetered on the brink of exhaustion, but still he defied the enemy, standing tall with his comrades while the enemy lined up in their finery across the bridge. Craven cowards, the soldiers of Sanshu spent the entire night fleeing before the Butchers, unwilling to stand and fight like true warriors until now. It disgusted him to think he’d once respected these soldiers, aspired to become one of them. They were nothing but ashes to grind beneath his boot.
Not today though, rest was needed. His stomach grumbling for sustenance, Gen strode into a burning building to find something to eat. Wrenching an arm off the corpse of a soldier, the thing was blackened and charred beyond recognition. Reluctantly biting into it, the horrid taste made him gag and spit in disgust, lamenting the situation he found himself in. The flames were an enchanting, mesmerizing thing of beauty and destruction, but the blazing inferno ruined all the corpses. Something tender and raw was what he craved, a bleeding, screaming meal to satiate his appetite, but it was denied to him by the very weapon he wielded.
The horns sounded, a call to regroup, and Gen exited the burning building untouched, resplendent in his armour. As he joined the line of retreating Butchers, he noticed the gaping soldiers gesturing towards him, astonished by his incredible prowess. Pausing mid stride, he turned towards them and opened his arms wide, his voice echoing throughout the city. “Citizens of Sanshu, I am Gen… the Emissary of Flame.” A fitting title, one he’d only just come up with. If that halfwit Rain could have one, why shouldn’t Gen? “Rejoice, for I bring you truth and freedom, sharing with you my tale of struggle and adversity.”
Aside from the crackling flames, the bridge sat in utter silence, thousands of Butchers and soldiers waiting for him to continue. Fear and tension were palpable among the soldiers, and Gen sensed many who might hear the truth among their number. “Two months ago, I was just like you. Less even, I lived a life outside the city on the shores of Western Treasures Lake. I styled myself a hunter, but truth is, I was little more than a scavenger, eking out a miserable existence in the wilds. Like many of you, each day, I would set time aside to meditate, seeking calm and Balance so I might become strong.”
Losing himself in the oration, Gen moved closer the bridge and removed his helmet, revealing his handsome face beneath. Let them gaze upon his youthful vigour and see the truth for what it was. “I have felt the Energy of the Heavens, a bare wisp of power which gave me a small advantage over my peers. Not strong enough to become a soldier, but enough so I might move through the forest with a chance of survival. I lived as a good son of the Empire should, caring for my fellow villagers, sharing what little bounty I could find, hoping for a better life for all my people.”
Holding their full attention, he glaced over the soldiers, many of them turning away from his eyes. Those who held his gaze were marked by the spirits, hovering about in search of an Enlightened comrade. “Then, little more than a month ago, I stumbled across the young ‘hero’, Falling Rain of the Bekhai.” The crowd stirred at the name, hushed whispers cropping up as they hung on his every word, and Gen did not disappoint. “Succumbing to his lust, he stole away my betrothed and, when I tried to protest and defend her, beat me half to death.” A few gasps arose as the soldiers glanced at one another, unsure of what to do. They would understand, he could feel it. “While I lay in bed, broken and crying, the man who raised me, my Father, sat at my side. He wept and told me I should be grateful for the great Falling Rain’s act of mercy, to go bow at his feet and thank him for not ending my worthless life.”
The spirits stirred above the crowd, silently rousing their anger and emotions, aiding Gen in his story. “How many of you have suffered like I did, at the hands of those in power? How many of you have known loss like mine, or have heard tales of torture and rape carried out by those like Falling Rain? These hallowed ‘nobles’ we so revere are no better than beasts, vicious and bloodthirsty as any bandit or murderer, yet we are told they are paragons of Balance, at peace with themselves and in harmony with the world. Does this ring true to any who are listening?”
Pausing to allow his words sink in, he cocked his head at the crowd in exaggerated question, enjoying the uncomfortable shuffling and muttered dissatisfaction. “I share with you what I learned in a moment of clarity, lying beaten and bloody on my bed. Balance is a lie, spread by those in power to limit the strength of the masses. We are many and they are few, so they fear the truth coming to light and robbing them of their lofty positions. They warn you to reign in your anger and swallow your hatred, accepting things as they are because you lack talent.”
Calling on the energy of the world, he fired a gout of flame into the air. “I say again, I have felt the Energy of the Heavens before, and I still feel it now, only greater than ever! The injustice I suffered caused me to give in to my anger, and here I stand, stronger than ever. Balance is a lie spread by the Nian Zu’s and Du Min Gyu’s of the world. They would have you believe those who lack Balance are ‘Defiled’, destined to become hideous and twisted, but I tell you this, we are not Defiled. We are the Enlightened, our eyes open to the truth! We welcome you to join us, and together we will usher in a new era. A world in where all men and women stand on the merit of their own deeds, where those in power are held accountable for their actions. Cast aside your fears and embrace your anger, seize the power-”
An arrow whizzed out from among their lines and Gen slipped aside at the last second, the projectile piercing through the meat of his shoulder. Falling to one knee, the Butcher’s converged around him, dragging him away as he screeched, “You see? They wish to keep me from spreading the truth so they may continue treading over the populace! Join us in revolution and together, we will roust the Mongrel Emperor from his throne!”
Allowing the Butchers to escort him away, Gen glanced back to see the Spirits whispering in the ears of many a soldier. Satisfied with his work, he struck up a small tune, whistling as they turned the corner. After a few minutes of marching, he spotted movement from the corner of his eye. Casting aside a piece of flaming debris, he found a soldier pinned beneath, still breathing and only half burnt. Setting to with enthusiasm, Gen muffled the soldier’s screams as he sated his hunger alongside his comrades, a fitting reward for a job well done.
Truly, the heavens provided for those in need.
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