Despite my exhaustion, peaceful slumber escapes me as I drift into the void, appearing next to Baledagh’s entranced astral form. Too tired to care, I sit next to him and lean in close, resisting the urge to wake him from his sleep. As much as I’d like his help, I don’t think he’d be much use considering the current fragile state of his psyche. The Spectres buzz with subtle suggestions to end his misery, but their whispers fade into the background noise of my troubled thoughts.
Watching Baledagh’s dreams almost feels wrong, voyeuristic even, his innermost desires on naked display. Only it all feels so real, so immersive, I cannot help but lose myself in the beauty of his perfect world, no matter how much I criticize how shallow and vapid it seems. Sitting in my favourite spot, a peak overlooking the village entrance, Baledagh snuggles with Ai Qing beneath a blanket, warding off the cold spring chill. Leaning against Zabu’s flank, they hold hands and share warmth beneath the morning sun. Zabu’s soft fur tickles my skin as the cool breeze passes over us, our eyes glued to a mob of children bustling about on the fields below. Today is a day of cheer and joy, and we’re here to share in it, though we both thought it best to step back on this first day of quin riding lessons.
Though titled as a lesson, it’s mostly an excuse to let the children frolic and bond with the playful creatures. Not every child is blessed with wealthy parents, so these lessons help the Sentinels find talents worth grooming and let the quins bond with the villagers. Even from this distance, the children’s peals of laughter and shrieks of delight are readily audible, a massive grin stretched across my face as my eyes follow my young namesake. Standing atop a suspiciously fat quin, young Rainy howls with glee as we watch from afar, his mother wracked with fear and apprehension.
“Dearest,” she says, her nails leaving indents in my skin, “Isn’t that dangerous? What if he falls?”
Chuckling beneath my breath, I pull her close to nuzzle and kiss, breathing in her soothing, herbal scent, my eyes never leaving my son. “No need for alarm Qing-Qing,” I say, though I share her fears. “Your Teacher Taduk is standing by just in case, as is your senior sister Lin. Besides, nothing will happen, look how he stands. Knees bent and back straight, he’s a born rider.” Best to keep to myself how many times he fell when I taught him this trick, or how often Taduk had to cover up his bruises.
Pressing closer, Qing-Qing sighs, her death grip relaxing ever so slightly. “Our little terror is growing so fast. He’s just like his father, so talented and brave. I only wish he paid more attention to his studies. He has a gift for memorization and a flexible mind, he’d make a wonderful herbalist. There’s no need for him to join the Sentinels.”
I laugh and kiss her on the cheek, my heart skipping a beat at her smile. “He’s but a child learning to ride and already you’ve planned his future for him. Who says he’ll be a Sentinel? Have you picked a wife for him too or will you wait until he has all his teeth?”
“Hmph. My sweet Rainy is so handsome and charming, he’ll have his pick of the ladies.” Sighing, she shifts and wraps her arms around my waist, pressing her cheek against my chest. “We must decide soon, before he turns six. Isn’t that the way of your people?”
“Our people, my love. You are one of the Bekhai now.”
Hugging me tighter, she kisses me and smiles. “Well? Stop dodging the question. Is he to be a warrior like you or an herbalist like me?”
Unyielding, my stubborn, beautiful Qing-Qing. Stroking her hair, I shrug and smile, watching my boy laugh as the fat quin ambles about. Though Mafu moves at a slow pace, to a child like Rainy, it must seem so exhilarating. A steady gait and calm demeanour, Mafu is the perfect mount for Rainy to learn on. Perhaps I should buy the quin, since Zabu has yet to father any pups. “Why not continue as is? The son of Falling Rain and Ai Qing is both talented and hardworking. Let him continue his studies for now and decide his own path in the future. A warrior healer isn’t so far-fetched.”
Giggling, Qing-Qing looks at me with love and mirth. “Baledagh. The son of Baledagh and Ai Qing, you silly man. Falling Rain is our son.”
Her words hit me like hammer to the gut, throwing me from the illusion. Bewildered, I watch from the void as Baledagh shakes his head, chuckling nervously. “A slip of the tongue,” he says, though still uneasy, kissing Ai Qing on the temple.
Their perfect life continues while I sit in the void, heart hammering and mouth dry. Dammit, even knowing it was a dream, I let myself be drawn in, almost losing myself to the illusion. Beside me, Baledagh’s ‘real’ body sits with furrowed brow, slowly relaxing as the aftereffects of my incursion fade away, peace and serenity stealing away all his worries and woes. That’s how it goes, he won’t dwell on this disturbance any longer than necessary, his questions buried under a lack of concern. Why ruin a good thing? Things are good, no need to find reasons to be unhappy.
For one brief moment, I was Baledagh and he was me, and it felt so… right. No fear, no worries, no exhaustion or pain, nothing but love and happiness neatly bundled with security and serenity. Even knowing it wasn’t real, my heart pangs over the loss of my – no, Baledagh’s perfect little life.
You mourn the loss of the Warrior, or perhaps envy his satisfaction?
Twitching in surprise, I glance around the empty void, searching for the intruder before it clicks. Fucking Spectres, seems they’re bored of whispers and suggestions and have moved on to booming-voice jump scares. Don’t engage, ignore them and leave it be.
You desire peace of mind. We can grant you what he has and more. Surrender, and all you desire will be yours.
“All for the low low price of eternal damnation. Limited time only, so act now!” Fucking hell, why can I never stick to the plan?
Mock all you want, Foundling. We are patient. We are eternal.
“Yea and you don’t forgive or forget either, right? You could use some new material, you’re already repeating yourselves.”
Our power is endless, our victory inevitable. Why struggle against fate? Give in to your desires. Surrender.
“So inevitable that the Empire has stood for millennia. You’re nothing but parasites and charlatans. I won’t let your lies unbalance me.”
Your friend is wrong, there is no Balance, only power. This you soon shall learn. You live your life cloaked in fear, uncertainty and doubt your constant companions. You will seek our aid soon enough.
“Dream on. I’d rather die.”
Brave little Foundling when safe in your tent. How will you fare on the field of battle?
A low, rumbling horn sounds in the night, a single note which hangs in the air. Leaping to my feet, my heart pounds in the darkness as I stand hunched and ready, Peace and Tranquility in hand. Li Song crouches nearby, ready and alert, while between us, Mila rubs her eyes and yawns. “Stupid Defiled, interrupting my beauty sleep,” she grumbles, putting aside her shivering bear cub and reaching for her armour.
Already dressed and ready, I collect the bears and soothe Aurie, my big scaredy-cat kneading away as he suckles his paw. Poor thing, even my Aura isn’t enough to calm his nerves, eyes wide with concern and shoulders shivering as he follows me from the tent. In a whirlwind of activity, the camp stirrs alive as soldiers scurry about with purpose, putting to practice the hard-learned lessons of yesterday. Braziers and torches flare to life, throwing back the darkness to reveal readied and armoured soldiers passing out conventional spears and polearms, the weapons laid out around the tents in preparation for this very scenario.
My retinue gathers around me with their quins, Tenjin giving me a wink and a nod of thanks while Mila and Rustram do a quick headcount. With a hug and peck on my cheek, Lin whispers, “Good luck Rainy,” before gathering my bears in her arms and skipping away, all the cats following behind but only two guards in tow. Where are the other two slackers? No cries of battle or clash of weapons reach my ears, and we ride out to our designated defence posts in silence. Upon reaching the line of wooden stakes, we find a strangely peaceful front waiting for us, no sign of the Enemy, though oddly enough, the soldiers salute at my presence. No not my presence, but Mila’s and Rustram’s. Nice to see them garnering proper respect, it seems they made a good impression on our allies.
Eagerly stamping his feet, Mafu squeaks in anticipation as I settle in to wait, my fingers clenched around Peace and Tranquility in search of either of their namesakes. Everything’s fine. You’ve fought plenty of times without Baledagh’s help, no big deal. Hit them with the sharp bits, easy as pie. You can do it. The seconds tick by in stillness as every soldier and Sentinel stands ready, waiting for the Enemy to emerge from the trees. Our weapons bristling outwards to receive them, the seconds turn to minutes without change, feet shuffling and weapons wavering as stress takes its toll, tension mounting while we wait for chaotic battle to erupt.
A second horn sounds out, with two clear, distinct notes. The entire camp holds its breath, waiting for a third note which never comes. After long seconds, a collective sigh is heard as the pressure eases. Two notes means an end to the alert, three for a retreat. Everything’s fine, a false alarm. My relieved grin doesn’t match Mila’s sour grimace, and I tilt my head in wordless question. Rolling her eyes, she says, “The Defiled mean to wear us down. They only need a handful of riders to keep our entire camp on alert while the others rest. We’re already tired and exhausted, but coupled with this alert and yesterday’s heavy losses, none will sleep well tonight even if they don’t attack.”
Hmm, can’t have that. Raising an eyebrow to Tenjin, I say, “Send word to the Major. I’d like to take the quins out for a ride, see if we can’t find these hooligans interrupting my beauty sleep.” A few Defiled corpses should perk everyone’s spirits right up, and if we stumble across a Defiled army, well, knowing is half the battle. Mila scowls and pinches me lightly for mocking her, even if no one besides Li Song would have noticed, but her shoulders relax at my verbal jab. Heroic, brave, and unstoppable though she my be, Mila is still human, prone to doubt and nerves. I won’t ask her to sit this out, she deserves to be here even more than I do, but I’d never forgive myself if something happened to her.
We can give you the strength needed to protect her. Free us and we shall aid you.
The Spectres grow quiet, realizing their mistake as my laughter rings through the void. “So you’re actually trapped. Good to know.” Guess I did something right. Wish I knew what it meant though, what would they do once set free? Go away on their own? Bother me even more? Call their cronies to overwhelm me? Since I can trap them, can I kill them?
I need a ‘Defiled for Dummies’ or something, all this guesswork is making my head spin.
Giggling like a girl half her age, Tursinai twirls her sickle between her fingers, the weapon passing dangerously close to her cheek. “Major Yuzhen says ‘good hunting’. Oh Rain, I knew it was the right choice to follow you. Fighting at the Wall is so terribly boring, this is much more exciting. A night fight in pitch darkness, how splendid.”
Well… guess it’s too late for regrets. Stomach sinking, I ride into the woods with my retinue behind me, slowly spreading out as our eyes adjust to the dark. Mafu’s squeaks fade away as his hunting instincts take over, and I give him free reign to choose our path. Padding through the pitch black forest, he moves without hesitation, bounding past our sentries unseen and unheard, his nose raised to sniff for prey. A short ride later, he comes to a halt and tilts his head, gazing off to the north. It seems another quin has caught the scent and sub-vocalized its discovery, alerting it’s pack mates to follow behind.
Briefly glancing for permission, Mafu runs towards the trail, my enhanced night vision barely picking out other shadows around me. Leaning close to Mafu’s neck, my eyes stare ahead in search of the Defiled, weapons at the ready. Though playful and loyal, the roosequin is a killer at heart, a group of apex predators in a world filled with danger. Last night, these pack animals suffered an intrusion to their territory and few predators will tolerate such disruption lightly. The garos’ scent is strange and foreign, easily picked out among the familiar forest scents, and the quins converge upon the intruders in utter silence.
With little warning, Mafu stops in place, flattening his furry body to the dirt. The quiet forest overwhelms my sense, my heartbeat hammering in my ears and every breath echoing into eternity, or so it seems. Resisting the urge to wipe my sweaty palms, I lay stiff and still on Mafu’s back, waiting for Mother’s knows what in the darkness.
Pitiful. So much fear when you need fear nothing with our power at your beck and call.
We wait, little Foundling. Surrender to us and your enemies will fall before you.
“But wait, there’s more! For only three easy payments of unhinged violence, we’ll throw in all your dreams and desires. Our parasitic agents are standing by, so call now before this once in a life-time opportunity slips by!”
Confused by my ranting, the Spectres quiet down, and not a moment too soon. A shrill, chittering cry echos from ahead, a quin sounding the charge, but Mafu holds in place. The forest comes to life as creatures skitter and flap away, and within seconds, I hear the heavy footsteps of several Garos headed directly towards me. Faint and stealthy, but not stealthy enough, their position given away by broken branches and clicking talons, they flee from their pursuers right into the quins waiting trap.
Lunging from his prone position, Mafu’s attack is rewarded with a dying shriek as the pungent scent of garo’s blood fills the air. Peace pierces through the air where I’m guessing the rider would be, the Honed sword glancing off something solid with a twisted screech. With a shuddering croak, the garo collapses to the ground and its rider tumbles off its back. Leaping from Mafu, I follow the moving shadow in to the forest.
Movement through beams of moonlight give his position away, and I leap into action. Crashing into him shield first, I shove him off balance as Peace misses the mark. His weapon lashes out, a bare flash before my eyes before Peace intercepts, my arm quivering from the powerful strike. Pressing the attack, my opponent swings wildly towards me and I hunker behind Tranquility, staggering back as he lands blow after blow, somehow accurate despite the near complete darkness.
A hand grabs the edge of my shield and pulls forward, throwing me to the ground face first. Going with the impromptu dive, I tuck and roll as the Defiled weapon slams into the dirt behind me. Confused and disoriented, I spin and slash, hitting nothing. The cutting air gives away my position and a heavy boot collides with my knee. A probing sweep, the following chop comes dangerously close to cleaving me in two, only Tranquility’s sturdy frame keeping me alive. Hiding behind my shield once again, I stand in place and weather the storm of blows, slowly forced to one knee, then both.
Worthless Foundling, so much promise yet so little skill. A gift for you then, a taste of what we offer. Your opponent strikes with measured blows, but a simple Deflection will leave him open to riposte. Follow the weapon’s path in reverse and find your foe standing at its end.
Fuck my idiot brain. Channelling Chi through Tranquility, I create a storm of swirling energy at the shield’s centre and wait for the next blow. The Defiled weapon hammers into my shield with a resounding clang before sliding across its surface, sent flying away by the whirling Chi. My opponent gasps and struggles for balance, the noise cut short as Peace bites deep and opens a slash across his chest. A stream of hot blood splashes my face and neck, cooling to a sticky mess before my opponent thumps to the ground. Kneeling heavily atop him, I frantically stab with Peace again and again until I’m certain he’s dead, panting as the adrenaline drains away and leaves me a stiff, shaky mess.
We can offer much more than obvious advice, Foundling. Think on it.
The skirmish won, my retinue gathers the corpses as Mila brings a detachment to continue scouting. For the low price of a few scratches and one badly injured Sentinel, we killed ten Defiled, not much in the grand scheme of things, but at least it’ll make the Enemy think twice about using more guerrilla tactics. Dragging his prize, Mafu snacks away on the garo corpse as we ride into the firelight, and I can’t help but notice the soldiers staring at my blood-soaked self. Can’t blame them, I know what they’re thinking: This is the number one talent in the North? I probably look pathetic, battered and bloodied by a single Defiled.
In the chaos and fear, I forgot all my training and practice, standing in place like a wooden dummy. Without Baledagh, I need to concentrate on fighting and using Chi in tandem, something I’ve never had to do aside from Honing. I didn’t even use my Aura, how idiotic is that? Then there’s Deflection, which takes serious concentration and effort to set up, but used properly, it’s a powerful tool capable of taking my opponent off-guard. A parry without using too much physical power, meaning I’ll be able to strike back in an instant. Not just defensively, but what if I used Deflection offensively, lending power to my strikes?
God dammit. I need to be better than this or I’ll end up begging the Spectres for help.
Carrying a basin of water, Lin crinkle’s her nose and shakes her head. “Hubby, you need to fight more elegantly, without getting so dirty, ya? I’m not doing your laundry either, so hmph.” Sticking her tongue out, she smiles and hands me a wet cloth. Smiling at her adorable actions, I wipe away the blood and steady my resolve. I’ll never ask the Spectres for help, it’ll only put those I love in danger.
I’d be better off dead than Defiled.
Wait, isn’t that the tagline to the Purge?
The longer I stay in this world, the less I like myself, and that’s saying something.
Truth be told, I never liked myself all that much to begin with.
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