As a child, Jorani often shirked his chores and one of his favourite things to do was sneak off to the park. Once there, he would climb the wall and hide in the shadows, watching whatever play or opera being performed that day. His favourite story had one battle scene, made out like some honourable ceremony with lines drawn, speeches given, and challenges offered. Then everyone paired up to trade blows, taking turns swinging one after another. When someone ‘killed’ their opponent, the victor stood and waited for a free partner, showcasing their courtly manners. One by one, the bit characters fell until at the very end, only the main character and villain remained standing, followed by more banter before the final showdown.
Only now did he realize it was all a load of horse shit.
Trapped inside his helm, he peered out from minuscule eye slits, trying to make order of the chaos he’d gotten himself into. The clamour of weapons clashing and warriors dying filled his ears as the current of flesh carried him through the crowd, caught in a riptide of sweating bodies and writhing limbs. His towering foes blotted out the sun as he fought to keep his head up, gasping for air as if drowning on dry land, his heart pounding like a thousand tiny drummers beat upon it with iron rods. The sour stench of sweat mingled with the foul aroma of blood and shit as he screamed in a mixture of rage, fear, and frustration, a crazed gibbering echoing inside his helm and skull.
Frantically squirming and shoving in search of sweet safety, Jorani stumbled into the open and gasped, steadying himself in time to catch glimpse the saber flying towards his face. The world went silent and white upon impact, and a for a moment, he drifted in a sea of calm and tranquility. Swaddled by wisps of cloud and carried on silken winds, he soared high into the sky, weightless and free. Then his world came crashing down, his stomach lurching as he landed on his feet, head spinning and a high-pitched ringing in his ears.
A second strike knocked him away, his torso bouncing off a solid mass of flesh before being pushed back into the fray. More out of desperation than anything, he lashed out with a punch, his new chain wrapped neatly around his fist and connecting squarely with what felt like a brick wall. Jamming his wrist, he yelped in pain and fell back, only to be shoved into battle once more. This time, he went with the push and tackled his opponent’s knees, bringing him to the ground. Wrangling his opponent’s arms away, Jorani’s metal-encased fingers closed around the Defiled’s throat, the sharp tips digging deep into tender flesh. His opponent broke the embrace with a powerful kick, and Jorani came away clutching two fistfuls of flesh and skin. His opponent gasped, eyes wide with desperation as he struggled for breath which would never come.
Trembling from head to toe, Jorani scampered about in search of safety, avoiding friend and foe alike. He was a thief and scavenger, not a fucking soldier. In the Freebooters, he’d been nothing more than a lookout. He knew nothing of fighting or leading nor was he good enough to fake it. Though Ravil and Bulat worked to keep the deception alive, every bandit in the Mother’s Militia knew there was something wrong with the way things were, only their oath of service keeping them in check. They all played along with the charade but somewhere along the line, they’d lost all respect for him. ‘Hangman Jorani’ was all a crock, a flimflam, a dupe, and they all knew it.
Damn Rain for making him do this and damn the old man for forcing him to keep it up. Giving him these cursed gifts and sending him here to be a hero, as if a Runic Armour and Spiritual weapon were enough to buy forgiveness and make up for a lifetime of disappointment. Accepting the gifts had been a mistake, especially considering they were more trouble than it was worth, attracting all the wrong sort of attention as the Defiled swarmed his position, believing him an expert warrior that needed killing. No matter how one dressed him up in fancy Runic Armours or armed him with a beautiful Spiritual weapon, Jorani was little more than a common thief.
How the fuck were you supposed to use a chain anyways? You can’t swing it around at random, doing that was a good way to brain your allies or yourself. Apparently, he was supposed to Guide, Reinforce, Amplify, and fucking Lighten the damned thing all at once, but he couldn’t do any of those things individually, much less all together. Why couldn’t it have been a nice spear, sword, axe, or anything but a fucking metal rope? At least the armour was self-sufficient, drawing on his Chi whenever he took a hit, but the weapon was a mystery. He hadn’t even bound the damned thing yet, and he was terrified someone would take notice and rob him. Jorani was determined to divest himself of these items at the earliest opportunity, freeing himself from their curse.
Though it’d probably be best to wait until after the battle for Sanshu was won.
The battle for the bridge continued as Jorani struggled to stay alive, his mind firmly on the moment and nothing else. Attack after attack ricocheted off his armour, bruising his tender flesh and chipping away at his paltry Chi reserves. Once he was drained dry, the armour was nothing more than high-grade steel, offering little protection against the Enemy’s razor-sharp weapons. With the chain wrapped around his arms, he used it as an impromptu shield whenever he could, relying on the Spiritual Weapon’s sheer durability to stay alive. The Militiamen around him were not so blessed with weapons or armour and died in droves against the Defiled offensive. Though the Militia counted no small number of elites among them and had the support of the Azure Ascendants and Crossbone Corsairs, his rank and file comprised mainly of impoverished bandits and shabby thieves much like he’d been only a few weeks earlier, no match for elite Defiled warriors.
A furious roar shook him to the bone and he swivelled to find a Defiled Champion bearing down upon him. A gargantuan warrior wielding an equally immense axe, his bloodshot eyes gleamed with crazed hunger as his weapon cleaved through the air. Raising his arms to shield himself in a futile gesture of resistance, Jorani cringed and waited for death to come. Even if the axe didn’t cut him, the sheer power behind the blow was enough to pulp his innards.
Howling in bestial fury, Ral lunged and intercepted the Champion’s strike with ease, towering above the intimidating Defiled. “You don’t hurt Jor!” Snarling, Ral’s meaty hand shoved the Defiled back, sending him stumbling away. Wielding his staff in both hands like an oversized club, Ral bashed the Defiled over the head. With a sickening squelch, his opponent’s neck retreated into his torso, forced in through sheer power. Though the armour remained undamaged, the body beneath it was no match for Ral’s immense strength.
While Chey cleaned up the Champion’s retinue in a far more elegant manner, Ral flipped his visor up to reveal a goofy smile. “Sorry Jor, got distracted and couldn’t find you, but I done good, right? We gonna go to the market soon?”
Still recovering from his near death experience, it took Jorani several seconds to answer. “Yea Ral, ye done good. Lets finish this up.” Directing his friend to sweep away the Enemy, Jorani felt proud of Ral’s newfound prowess. Dog’s and their sticks, it wasn’t fair. While Chey had always been one hell of a fighter, her skills improved dramatically after binding her weapon, the task accomplished in a single day. Ral took three days longer and his skills didn’t improve at all, but his strength was many times higher than before. Reinforcement probably, but Ral didn’t know enough words to properly explain it.
There was a joke here about dumb dogs and big sticks, but Jorani was too terrified to think.
With Chey and Ral at his sides, Jorani felt much better about his chances for survival, even recovering enough to shout some words of encouragement. “Fight on my Militiamen, victory is in our grasp.” Damned if he knew who was winning, but telling lies was Jorani’s greatest strength. “Suffer not the Defiled presence here in beautiful Sanshu! Send em back into the Father’s Maw from whence they came!”
The bitter fighting continued for a few minutes more until, without warning, the Defiled broke and fled, retreating over the bridge and into the South-West district. The Corsairs gave chase but Jorani called for the Miliamen to hold and Lei Gong echoed the order, his Ascendants gathering outside of a mostly intact building. Pulling off the stifling helmet, Jorani made his way over, carefully stepping around the corpses as his Militiamen cleaned up. The sight of so many dead made him sick to the stomach, and after a dozen paces he couldn’t hold it anymore, doubling over to empty the contents of his stomach.
“Pitiful.” Daxian The Virtuous sneered at Jorani’s display of weakness. “So much wasted on a pitiful excuse for a man like you.”
Spitting to clear the taste from his mouth, Jorani rolled his eyes, too numb to care about the stuffy warrior’s jab. “Waste or not, it ain’t fer you to decide, now is it? Ye want this armour? Then come take em.” He regretted taunting the powerful warrior in front of everyone, but Jorani finally had a backer and it would be a shame not to use it to his advantage. Confident Daxian wouldn’t act out against him, he sniffed dismissively and said, “If ye lack the courage, then quit yer bellyaching. There’s work to be done.” Ignoring Daxian’s glare, he nodded at the smiling Lei Gong, seemingly amused by their little exchange. “So? What now?”
Shrugging, the eccentric old warrior turned the question over to guard captain Sovanna, a woman more than twice Jorani’s size, but that didn’t keep him from imagining what she looked like underneath the armour. Frowning, she coughed and answered, “Keep yer britches on, I’ve sent word to the Magistrate. Until then, I suppose we hold the plaza.”
“Well, let me know when ye make up yer minds. I’ll be here.” Shuffling to the side, Jorani leaned against the wall and closed his eyes, still shivering and shocked he survived the battle.
Lei Gong’s voice sounded in his head. “Ain’t no time to rest, lad. I know this be yer first battle and ye done good, but there’s still work to be done. Don’t yet worry too much, we’ll make a warrior of ye soon enough. Try to not push Daxian too far, a man can only take so much.” A list of commands followed and Jorani inwardly groaned, taking a second to collect himself before turning back to his Militia, barking orders and keeping up appearances. What he wouldn’t give to go back to being a simple thief. He might have been a nobody, but at least he’d been free to do as he pleased. Now, he was trapped in the role of Hangman Jorani, Leader of the Mother’s Militia. If the world ever discovered the truth, the bounty on his head would be collected in a heartbeat. He’d already mounted the tiger, so all he could do was cling for dear life and pray he learned to ride before everything went to shit.
A pox on Falling Rain and a pox on the Azure Ascendant. Bastards, the both of em.
Stretching to relieve his tired arms and aching back, Bulat shook his head and focused. This was pitiful, he was probably one of the most well-rested Sentinels here. Sure, sifting through corpses in search of survivors wasn’t easy or pleasant work, but things could be worse. He could be like that ruddy bastard Cham there, doing the same back-breaking work after days of constant riding and fighting. Steeling himself, Bulat set to his work with renewed vigour, determined to earn his keep.
The little hero Rain had it hard these past weeks, while Bulat ate well and counted coins in relative safety. If Bulat were a better warrior, then the little hero wouldn’t have been forced to send his elite Sentinels to help babysit Jorani and his cutthroats. Lovely Dei An deserved a better man than Bulat, so a better man he must become. Though they’d only shared a single meal together, he’d been smitten with a single glance. She’d made no promises to wait and might even already be courting another man, but it didn’t matter. So long as she was unwed, he’d go to any lengths to win her heart.
Noticing movement, he readied his hatchet and dragged a corpse aside, uncovering a Defiled warrior with a gaping chest wound. The bastard jabbered of murder and bloodshed but Bulat paid it no mind, his hatchet striking the bastard in the face and ending his life. This was all he was good for, firing arrows and putting the wounded out of their misery, but it wouldn’t always be like this. Bulat had aspirations of greatness, working harder than he’d ever worked before, pushing himself to the limits in his training while babysitting Jorani.
A strangled cry sounded beside him. Turning in place, he saw Cham keel over as a wounded Defiled warrior stood over him. Leaping into action, Bulat lashed out with his hatchet, but the Defiled warrior’s saber sliced the weapon’s haft in two, almost taking Bulat’s head with it. Ignoring the setback, he stepped in close to the Defiled warrior’s chest and grappled with the bulky bastard. Back and forth they went, each one struggling to gain the upper hand in a struggle of pure muscle. Pouring all his Chi into Reinforcement, Bulat reversed his momentum and pulled, lifting the Defiled warrior from his feet before throwing him to the ground with a howl of victory.
A little premature it would seem as the Defiled warrior jumped to his feet, his face twisted in anger before exploding in a mess of flesh and bone fragments. The boss’s sword emerged from where the Defiled’s nose used to be, and Bulat grimaced as he wiped his face, cursing his own inadequacies. All those weeks of hard work and practice and he couldn’t even handle a rank-and-file Defiled, needing to be rescued by the little hero himself.
Looking frail and exhausted, Rain collected his sword before checking on Cham. Clutching a gaping stomach wound, he was pale as a sheet as Rain unsuccessfully attempted to stem the bleeding. “We need a Healer here! Cham, listen, you need to stop the bleeding.”
Feebling shaking his head, Cham whispered, “Can’t. Hurts too much.”
“Yes, you can. Focus. The healer’s on his way, but you need to buy a little time. Concentrate, you can do this.”
Cham shuddered as the tension left his body, staring up at the bright blue sky. Bulat swallowed hard, knowing the ruddy bastard was done for. “Boss, maybe you should step away and let Old Bulat handle this.”
“Shut up and gimme your water-skin.” Upending the container, Rain poured water over Cham’s wound while channelling his Chi, creating a powerful torrent of energy around him. “Come on,” he muttered beneath his breath. “Work damn you. Save him.”
Bulat’s face twitched in sympathy as he watched the little hero fight to save Cham. Kneeling down, Bulat took his old friend’s hand and waited, hoping against all hope for Rain to defy all odds once more. After several seconds, the flow of water ended but still the little hero was unwilling to give up, continuing to channel his Chi, but to no avail. It was an exercise in futility. Talented though his might be, Falling Rain still needed a few years yet to master Healing.
Coughing, Cham shuddered and griped Bulat’s hand tightly, pulling himself up closer. “I’m scared,” he confessed, shivering violently as his body struggled to stay warm. “What if the Mother don’t want me?”
Bulat had no answer for him, gaping like a fish on land. With a long sigh, the little hero closed his eyes and breathed deeply, his torrent of Chi fading as he trembled with rage and impotence. Swallowing his bitter disappointment, he looked Cham in the eyes and said, “Don’t you worry about a thing. Close your eyes like you’re going to sleep, and when you open them again, you’ll be in Her warm embrace, safe and sound. If she won’t accept you, then you wait for me. I’ll march right into the Father’s Maw and pull you out myself.”
Cham smiled and nodded, squeezing Bulat’s hand once more before closing his eyes. The blood flowing from his belly had already slowed to crawl, and after a few minutes, his body shook one last time before stilling in the finality of death. Loosening his hand, Bulat laid Cham’s arms across his body, taking solace in the peaceful manner of his death.
His voice cracking with grief, the little hero asked, “Why didn’t a healer come?”
The gathered gawkers glanced at one another until Senior Captain XinYue answered. “They’re all under guard and out of the way, on account of the risk of Wraiths. I doubt the message has even reached them yet.”
Deflating, Rain shook his head, silently recriminating himself. “I’m getting sick of losing Sentinels.” Glaring at Bulat and the other Sentinels, he added, “So work harder at staying alive. Understood?”
With the little hero’s help, Bulat carried Cham’s body across the bridge and placed it with the other fallen Sentinels. Rain was a good kid, but too kind, taking the loss of his soldiers hard. He’d need to thicken his skin if he wanted to be a leader of soldiers, but Bulat almost didn’t want to see it happen. It was refreshing to fight for a man who cared about his soldiers. Speaking to fill the silence, Bulat said, “Wasn’t yer fault ye know. I’m to blame, I should’ve been watching his back.”
“No. The Defiled are to blame.” Placing a hand on Bulat’s shoulder, Rain continued, “I saw you lose your weapon back there. You put up a good fight regardless, but I’ve been meaning to ask. Why didn’t you take one of the Spiritual Weapons stolen from the Council? I know I told you to make Jorani look like the boss, but giving him a Spiritual…” Rain trailed off as he studied Bulat’s face. “What?”
Sighing, Bulat shook his head. “We didn’t steal the weapons or armour from the Council, but I can’t say any more. I took an oath. I can say that ye should probably avoid upsetting Jorani too much, fer… health reasons.”
Rain blinked in confusion as he struggled to piece things together, his eyes lighting up in understanding. “So… if you didn’t steal them, then someone gave them to Jorani. Lei Gong would be my guess, or maybe whoever his boss is? But why? Who’s the leader of the Azure Ascendants?” Massaging his temples, Rain sighed. “I need to talk to Gerel or Yuzhen. This is way above my pay grade.”
Ah, if only the little hero knew how true his words were.
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