Author’s note: Hey guys, we have some more fan art, drawn by NicholasExxonite. This time, we have a portrait of Rain himself, complete with Peace and Tranquility. Thanks so much for the art! I’m always happy to see any fan made creations!
The lively, upbeat drumming grows louder and after a few minutes, I feel the beginnings of a throbbing headache. Sighing, I ask out loud, “What’s taking so long? They’re already late to the defence of their own city and still dragging their feet. Why all the grand spectacle? I’m thankful for the reinforcements, but our people need rest.”
To my left, XinYue shrugs in apology but doesn’t speak, his expression one of resigned sympathy. A rotund, armoured man standing to XinYue’s left snorts loudly, not bothering to even look at me while retorting, “The Golden Highlands Coalition will arrive precisely when they intend to and not a minute earlier. If you lack the patience and manners to wait gracefully, then begone. Your presence is neither required nor requested.”
Huh. There’s gratitude for you. In a rare moment of forethought, I study the speaker before answering. His fancy armour and flapping cloak mark him as a man of wealth or rank, probably both, while his attitude screams haughty conceit. With his hands behind his back, chest puffed out, and nose pointed comically high, he’s almost a caricature of an arrogant noble. I might as well be polite though, courtesy costs nothing, right? With a military salute, I greet the fatty with my most winning smile. “I’m sorry, we’ve yet to be introduced. I am Warrant Officer Falling Rain of the Bekhai, and you are?”
I should not have done that. My polite query earns me a venomous glare, not helped by the snickers from Argat and Jochi standing behind me. With eyes wide and moustache a quiver, the fatty inhales slowly, and exhales noisily, his face turning several different shades of red. Awkwardly frozen in place, I ponder over exactly what social blunder I committed while trying to silently will the two idiots into silence.
Coming to my rescue, XinYue steps forward, not quite standing between me and fatty but near enough. “Ah, my most humble apologies for the delayed introductions. Warrant Officer Falling Rain, might I have the pleasure of introducing Major Chun Yimu, the commanding officer.” A follow-up arrives via silent Sending. “Please do not antagonize him any further.”
It takes a moment for me to understand why fatty is so upset. I suppose my question must seem mocking, what with having saved the day and all. I probably should have guessed he was in charge, but in my defence, I left all the communications to Tenjin and XinYue and I didn’t see him out there fighting. Trying not to die of shame, I squeak out, “Pleasure to finally meet you.”
Again, apparently the wrong thing to say. I should never open my mouth. Chun Yimu’s red face darkens to purple, his eyes straining in their sockets while XinYue almost physically face-palms and Sends, “What gain could there possible be in criticizing his absence during the battle?”
Why does everyone always think I’m being sarcastic? Is it my tone or my expression? Maybe my smile isn’t as winning as I was led to believe. The blood drains from my face while Argat and Jochi choke on their laughter. I should have left them in the barracks and come alone, their tittering is gonna get me beaten or worse. I wanted an honour guard with me to greet the reinforcements, and while they’re nowhere close to Tenjin and Tursinai levels of awesome, I was suitably impressed with their skills, figuring they’d be better than nothing.
Timidly retreating from the awkward standoff, I return to waiting for the reinforcements in silence, hoping my actions aren’t taken as another insult. I’d apologize, but I don’t wanna give him a gift, the next fancy watch I steal is mine. Tense seconds tick by as I stare out the plaza gate, wholly aware of Chun Yimu’s heated glower focused upon me. Thankfully, nothing comes of it and the Major growls beneath his breath before turning away, resuming his ‘heroic’ bearing. XinYue Sends, “Thank the Mother he has more pressing matters to deal with. While I applaud your courage, I would caution you to pick your battles wisely. We still have need of the Major, if only as a buffer between us and the Coalition.” Reading my confusion, XinYue patiently explains the situation through Sendings.
Ugh. Politics. As a sitting member of the Union and loose relation to their Chief Councilman, Major Yimu is right to be worried about his fate, especially considering the general propensity for plucking problems out by the root. Best case scenario, Yimu convinces the newly empowered Coalition he has absolutely no desire for revenge and gets to live his life out in some other city, far from here. Worst case, he winds up buried beneath the pile of corpses stacked up just out of sight.
Turns out, Tongzu has less power in Sanshu than I expected. 15,000 mercenaries from the Coalition alone, and assuming the Union and Alliance could call upon approximately the same number, this means there were close to 45,000 warriors sitting on their asses for the past few days while Sanshu teetered on the brink of destruction. The only reason the Coalition is coming out to help is because with their enemies dead or gone, they now have more to gain by staying in Sanshu. It’s asinine, especially considering all the dead we left in our wake while riding to Sanshu’s aid. Instead of working together from the onset to defend their city and fellow citizens, all three faction were ready to cut their losses and run, waging war among themselves while Defiled ran rampant through their city.
These are the people my Sentinels died to save.
Struggling to control my anger, I close my eyes and clench my fists. I can’t think about it like that. The Council is in power here, but I came to help those who cannot defend themselves. I’ve done my part though, so it’s the Coalition’s turn to bleed for Sanshu. It’s a beautiful city, but rotten to the core, and I’ll not risk anymore of my people to help pad the Coalition’s bottom line. My decision made, I open my eyes and wait, counting the seconds before I can leave.
The reinforcements take their sweet time arriving, finally moving through the plaza gates after half an hour of parading. Looking resplendent in their gold and green armour and sporting numerous Spiritual Weapons, these mercenaries look nothing like the rag-tag group of misfits I was expecting. ‘Personal security’ is what XinYue called them, supposedly caravan and manor guards, but these warriors conduct themselves like professional soldiers. Without audible orders, the mercenaries file into the plaza and spread out in formation, two, neat, orderly squares on either side of the road, their movements practised to perfection. No whispering or gawking, each mercenary stares straight ahead while standing at full attention, weapons at the ready. Their discipline is impressive, if not overkill for what are essentially glorified bodyguard, but if they can fight half as well as they parade, then Sanshu’s victory is a done deal.
A dozen men carrying a massive palanquin makes its way the front, the poor souls sweating with the effort of keeping the vehicle level. Slaves probably, and my jaw tightens at the thought, hand itching to draw Peace and act. Don’t be stupid, Rain. You can’t save them. Even if you did, they’d be replaced in a matter of minutes. This is the world you live in. Accept it. Focus on something else, like the covered wagons coming in behind all these mercenaries. Please let there be food and medical supplies, we’ve been eating dried jerky and stale bread for days now, aside from the odd, guilt-inducing meal of slaughtered horse.
The palanquin comes to a stop and turns so the exit is directly before us. Wouldn’t want the rich bastard to take more than a few steps, that would be unseemly. A brawny, bald man emerges from the dark interior, fully armoured in golden plate mail and carrying a massive pole-axe. No wonder the slaves were sweating, he must weigh 300kg easy with all his gear. With his helmet in hand, he strolls up to Chun Yimu wearing a self-satisfied sneer, looking down at our rotund commander. “Major XiaoGong of the Golden Highland’s Defence Force. I am taking command here.”
Short and to the point, XiaoGong shows no respect for anyone present, all but spitting in Yimu’s face. Technically, Yimu outranks XiaoGong since it’s army vs defence force, but considering the circumstances, Yimu has no choice but to swallow the insult and jump to obey. While listening to him list off the available forces, XiaoGong nods at XinYue before looking me over, the sun reflecting off his oiled forehead and into my eyes. “Who,” he says, interrupting Yimu’s report, “is this?”
Squinting in the brightness, I keep my mouth shut and wait for someone to explain, until XinYue urgently instructs me to answer. For fucks sake, it’s not like the question was directed at me, I thought he was asking one of you. “Warrant Officer Falling Rain, Sentinel of the People.” At XinYue’s request, I belatedly salute, but in all fairness, I didn’t mean to be rude. It’s just that between his bald head and golden armour, the sun is freaking blinding me.
Moving closer, XiaoGong towers over me, studying me with a twisted frown. It’s like he hates what he sees and is trying to look past my skin and into my soul. After what feels like an eternity, he purses his lips and steps back. “You are… not what I expected. Fortunately, you were foolish enough to refuse our offer of cooperation.”
Biting back a scathing retort, I stand in silence with my head up and eyes forward, neither challenging nor cowering before him. After a few seconds, he gestures for Yimu to continue and strides off, leaving me behind with XinYue. Not what he expected… is he calling me short? Bastard shows up days late to defend his own fucking city and has the audacity to insult me? If he wasn’t a Major like Vichear, I’d have a few choice words for this fucking baldy. His mother was probably a gorilla, the no-necked, hunched-back, cue-balled shit eater.
Okay, so I’m a little touchy about my height.
It takes several deep breaths before I regain my calm, flashing the concerned XinYue a smile. “Could have been worse.”
“That it could. On behalf of Sanshu, I apologize for his actions.”
“Don’t worry about it,” I say, waving away his salute. “Not your fault.” Nodding towards the mercenaries, I ask, “Is this normal? Having such well-trained and well-armed guards?”
Shrugging, XinYue answers, “With all the bandit activity in these parts, allowances were made for the Council. Most are little better than normal farmers, but while these ones are better trained and equipped than most, they’re probably the best the Coalition has on hand, XiaoGong’s personal forces.”
Hoping to pack up and leave as soon as possible, I ask, “What about the Union and the Alliance? The council members are missing in action but their mercenaries might still be around. Any chance of rallying them for the fight?”
“Unlikely. Their contracts would have been with the Union or the Alliance, and with all the councilmen dead or missing, we have no legal recourse to command their mercenaries. While the Magistrate could issue a general call to arms or declare a state of emergency, doing so might cause more harm than good. We’re holding the Defiled in place and the voluntary evacuation is proceeding orderly, so there’s no need to take drastic measures which might send the populace spiraling into panic.”
“Fair enough.” Not really. Tens of thousands of warriors idling around the city, and I’m here risking the lives of my Sentinels like a doofus. It’s the definition of unfair, but lucky me, as a Warrant Officer pledged to Yuzhen, I’m technically outside the chain of command. This means I’m free to tell XiaoGong to piss off if I don’t like his orders. It has to be within reason of course, else I’ll probably find myself charged with insubordination or something, but still, I have the option.
The mercenaries march across the bridge, pulling small catapults and boxes of ammunition to set up on the rooftops and digging in to wait for Yuzhen’s arrival. Finally, glorious ranged weapons. If he’s smart, XiaoGong will use his ranged superiority to leapfrog forward, driving the Defiled back to the South-West gate. From there, it’ll be a simple matter of starving the Defiled out and holding against their last ditch charge. With luck, I’ll convince Gerel to leave and head back to the Wall, where I’ll be free to reevaluate all my life’s decisions. I’m done with this shit-hole of a city, we’ve bleed enough for Sanshu and the Council. Ambling back to our building to pass on the good news, I eagerly anticipate the well deserved nap I’m about to take. If they call me to fight? Then maybe I pretend I don’t hear them.
From here on out, it’s easy street for Falling Rain and his Sentinels.
With the walls of Sanshu rising in sight, Yuzhen fought back the urge to rush ahead, keeping the pace steady and light. Her horses were in poor shape with precious few spares to go around, and her people were doing little better. With little over six-thousand elites, she’d finally made it to Sanshu, although the situation was far more dire than she’d expected. According to the Bekhai scouts, Yo Ling was already inside the walls and thoroughly pushing the defenders.
While Mister Rustram’s report was criminally short of details, Yo Ling’s actions made little sense to her or Jukai, neither of them able to reason out his goals. Worry gnawing at her belly the entire ride, Yuzhen barely kept her nerves about her, the gravity of the situation finally dawning on her. The Spectre Yo Ling, legendary bandit leader turned Defiled warlord, was rampaging inside Sanshu and it was her job to stop him. Succeed, and her bid for Marshal was all but unassailable, the heroic Major who defeated Yo Ling. Fail… well, better to concentrate on not failing. Better to die in Sanshu’s defence than to survive and become the scapegoat for its fall.
Before exiting the woods, she came across the remnants of Falling Rain’s retinue and two of Chu XinYue’s officers, and their report left her shaking with fright. Stay outside and guard the South-West gate? This was madness. What’s more, the possible betrayal of a Staff Sergeant was disturbing enough, but for a bleeding Guard Captain turned Defiled… This was a position that required verification of Purity once every decade. Suddenly, the Shrike’s insistence that Purity was no longer proof seemed less crazy than before. Did Mao Jianghong turn Defiled after taking his last test or did he turn before? If the Shrike was to be believed, then no one could be trusted. What if Falling Rain was Defiled and lying about Mao Jianghong? What if he was feeding her the truth, but luring her into a trap by instructing her to remain here? What if he was tricked by the guards at the East gate and slaughtered upon entry? Who could she trust to verify these orders? If Falling Rain was Defiled, it’s possible Gerel is also Defiled…
No. Stop being silly woman. Work with what you know to be true, not what might be.
Setting her soldiers to dig in and scout the area, she sent a few experts out to contact Sanshu in both directions, ready to act accordingly to any new information as it arrived. On Jukai’s advice, she made a circuit around the camp, stopping to chat with the soldiers and check for flaws in their defences. Weary and worn, her soldiers required more supervision than expected, this army of elites used to having menial chores done for them. What she wouldn’t give to have the five-thousand soldiers she’d brought from the Bridge, a well-disciplined army of solid infantry. Unfortunately, she’d been forced to leave most of them behind, her infantry unable to keep up. It’d still be a handful of days before they arrived and until then, she was stuck with these pampered elites who couldn’t be bothered to set up a line of stakes.
Not all were pampered elites, some were literally children. Stationed with young magistrate Fung at the edge of the southern flank, the Bekhai rested their weary mounts while Rain’s rabbit-eared betrothed played. Dragging a string with a rock and three feathers tied to it, Mei Lin skipped and laughed around in circles. A wildcat followed closely behind, batting at the string like a common kitten. What was Rain even thinking, bringing an untrained civilian and his pets with him on this operation? The Bekhai were a tenacious people; Yuzhen expected the poor girl to be terrified, but Mei Lin seemed lively and carefree despite their perilous circumstances.
Inwardly sighing, she idly wondered if Gerel expected to take multiple wives. Most likely, a talented, handsome man like him would have women throwing themselves at him, wide-eyed girls like little Lin. So adorable, with her charming round cheeks and soft, brown skin, though she was betrothed to Rain, how was Yuzhen to compete with hundreds just like her, all vying to win Demon Reaper Gerel’s affection? Not only did Yuzhen lack their youthful vigour, as a half-beast, she was cursed by the Mother and unable to bear children.
All great men wished to see their descendants prosper, it was only basic instinct. How long before Gerel succumbed to his?
“Hi Yu-, ah, sorry. Major Yuzhen.” Beaming cutely, Mei Lin skipped over to Yuzhen, while the cat’s body language went from playful to guarded in the blink of an eye, teeth bared and back arched. Gently stroking the cat’s nose, Mei Lin said, “No teefies Jimjam. Be nice, ya?”
Jimjam’s transformation was instantaneous, the ferocious wildcat almost appearing remorseful as it sat down and rubbed against Mei Lin’s palm. Blinking in surprise, Yuzhen smiled at the sweet sight, though still wary of the ferocious predator. “You and Rain are well suited for one another.” The compliment made Mei Lin smile so hard her eyes almost disappeared, the sweet girl standing taller at the praise. “I was thinking, perhaps you’d be more comfortable in the centre of camp? You can set your tent up next to mine, instead of out here with all these soldiers.”
“Tent?” For the first time, Mei Lin showed concern. “We’re not going into the city?”
“Not today.” Unless something changes. “Come, you’ll be safer with me, leave the soldiering to the warriors like Mister Rustram and young magistrate Fung.”
Vehemently shaking her head, Mei Lin answered, “No thanks.” Turning to the side, the adorable girl spoke to empty air. “Can you bring me inside? And the pets too, I wanna go stay with Rainy.” So brave, marching into danger for love. No answer came, but Mei Lin scrunched her nose, pouted, and stamped her foot. “Why not?” Again, no answer, but Mei Lin responded to her unseen companion, pleading to go into the city.
Straining her eyes and ears, Yuzhen still couldn’t spot Mei Lin’s companion. How many experts did the Bekhai have? Shaking her head, she left without another word, leaving Mei Lin still trying to convince the shadows. Wandering into Dastan’s camp, she was delighted to see a unit of elites who carried out their duties without nagging, a trench dug out and stakes set, ready to defend against any garo raids. Officer Zhandos dug alongside his men, a warrior with a magnificent work ethic. A good seed, he showed promising leadership qualities. The army needed men like him, an empathetic young hero of common origin, though sadly he was locked in service to the Golden Highland Coalition.
Leaving him be to work, she continued her circuit around the camp, waiting for news from inside Sanshu. Hours later, her scouts returned with a scroll sealed by the Magistrate himself, reaffirming Rain’s instructions to dig in and cut off the Defiled retreat, and an accounting of everything that transpired inside Sanshu, just in case the city should fall. A second letter came shortly after, a succinct message from Gerel that read, “Working on my promise. Wait a few days more.”
Clutching the letter to her chest, Yuzhen stared out at Sanshu, trying to will her eyes to see past its walls. Foolish man, what did she care of fame or glory? He was an idiot to try and assassinate Yo Ling by himself, how was she to marry a corpse? Just like that, her decision was made. So long as Gerel would have her, then Yuzhen would be his bride.
All he needed to do was survive.
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