Tong Da Hai was pleased. The Herald was even stronger than he remembered. Man Giao was one of the fiercest of the competitors, and she was able to defeat him with a single thrust. How fortunate for him that she had agreed to aid him. The asking had been on a whim, the clear memory a battle forgotten by the Empire, fought in his youth, at a small backwoods fortress, guarding a pass through the mountains. The garrison had been struck by Wraiths in the early morning, officers targeted for assassination, an army of the Enemy appearing soon after. He had just been a youth then, a lieutenant, barely avoiding his death through pure dumb luck, some sour wine churning his bowels. Disorganized and demoralized, a fortress that should have been impregnable, was barely managing to hold out for a single week, 10 long harrowing days.
She had appeared through the morning fog, her tribesmen behind her, a fierce cry emanating from their throats. Riding those ferocious mounts of theirs, circling the enemy, arrows filling the sky, her weapon taking heads as easily as killing chickens. The sight of her filled the soldiers with courage, who fought with renewed strength to hold the walls. Through four hours of battle, the Enemy charged her again and again, and each time she threw them back with pure martial strength, eight Demons falling before her in single combat, tainting the ground where they died, hundreds of Defiled ground beneath her mount. The tides turned and the Enemy was overrun, a battle near defeat turned to complete victory by a group of barbarians. 3,000 charging into 50,000, and the Enemy broke.
He had knelt before her in gratitude, as had every soldier still alive. When she removed her helmet, he had thought her the Mother incarnate, given form to destroy their foes. Every soldier under his command had received a promotion of two ranks on their return, heroes in the eyes of the people. Ten-thousand soldiers, turning back five times their number at the gates, with only two thousand survivors. It would have been a month before a reactionary force could have been assembled to turn back the incursion, and longer for them to chase down the Enemy. Only those present knew just how incredible those tribesmen had been.
Her accomplishments following the battle reached his ears as time passed. She chased down every single group of Defiled that managed to slip past the defenses, eliminating them all. Under her direction, her surviving warriors hunted down over 20,000 Defiled soldiers in the coming weeks, an incredible feat of planning, tracking, and sheer willpower. Their efforts kept the Enemy from razing the surrounding farmlands and villages, saving the surrounding cities from starving through the winter. From a Major in the Defense Forces, she was promoted to Major General, jumping four full ranks, and bestowed with riches and accolades. Her title rang throughout the empire. The Herald of the Storms, for when she appeared, arrows would rain down upon her enemies. After that brief moment of fame, however, she had returned to her home, disregarding fame and fortune, living a simple life, close to his home city.
He had thought himself forgotten by her, until the return of his missive. The Herald of the Mother, to stand as his champion. The Medical Saint Taduk to heal his defenders. Truly, the Mother looked favorably upon him. He owed so much to The Herald. Not only his life, but for everything that came after. His promotion had catapulted him ahead of his brothers and sisters, his father choosing his most heroic son to succeed him. His sweetheart's family, who sneered at a third-born son, were rushing to have them married quickly, after his succession was announced. And now, she championed his cause, her title alone causing more than 20 noble houses to forfeit their bid to the position. Eight measly challenges, easily won.
He watched the challenges proceed, delighted at the results, The Herald dominating her every match, winning in the same manner as the first, with a single thrust. The under 100 bracket was won, hard-fought by his seven subordinates, immaculate warriors each. While not as domineering as the Major general, they each won their hard fought matches, their injuries healed by Medical Saint Taduk. Seven challenges won, without a third match in any of the challenges. Even should one go so far, the Herald had all but guaranteed victory for him in the under 25 bracket, assuring him she had brought a supreme warrior of young age.
The eighth challenge was proving to be a bit of a puzzle though. Ong Ruo Mei, that viper. Her champion lost the first match against the Herald, but how that viper had managed to convince DuGu Tian Yi to champion her was a mystery to him. Luckily DuGu Ang had been killed, or else he worried even the Herald's chosen would have not be able to compete against that young terror, another thing to thank the Major General for. The killing had been legitimate, witnessed by citizens and guards alike, and how she had managed to arrange for that, Tong Da Hai was in awe of her skills and manipulations.
But who to send against DuGu Tian Yi? His subordinates would not take kindly to being sent to their defeat. A warrior can be killed, but not humiliated, and he required their services, for years yet. One or two might have been able to win, were they in their best condition, but now, even his best would be fodder before their opponent, tired and spent. He hesitated, unsure of whom to call.
“Is there a matter, Hai?” The Herald spoke to him, noticing his dilemma. He quickly explained to her, and she shrugged. “I am wholly confident in winning the under 25 bracket. If you are willing to lose this match, then allow me to make a suggestion on your choice.”
“Of course, of course! Who shall I call to fight this match, Major General?” He followed her pointing finger, to Taduk's student. “But... the boy is under 25. Do you mean for me to call him in the next match?” It would be spitting in the face of DuGu Tian Yi, a reputable warrior. Even if Tong Da Hai were to hold the position of Magistrate, angering a man such as Tian Yi was not wise. His future was limitless, with his current talent, perhaps even rising to the rank of Exarch if given another 20 years.
The Herald smiled, a rare and lovely sight. “No, call the boy for this fight. Tian Yi is motivated to fight him, and my former pupil's disciple requires a baptism in blood thirst. It is something lacking in the spars he has had so far. It will be a good opportunity for him, and there is no threat to his life here.” She smirked. “Besides, for Tian Yi to defeat him quickly is no easy task.”
He stared at the boy, who stood there, slack faced and eyes closed, leaning on his spear, as if asleep. This boy is the disciple of Captain Baatar? The Captain exuded power and confidence, ferocity leashed lightly. This boy was a timid creature, bowing and smiling, little confidence in his stance or gait. Tong Da Hai looked at The Herald once more, who nodded. He gave his choice to a guard. In all of the years since he took office, the Herald had asked for nothing, even refusing special treatment for her people within his city. Even now, she came at his request, aiding him without demands. How could he deny her this request? What was a mere Tian Yi when compared to the Herald? Tong Da Hai could handle it.
The guard approached the boy and was duly ignored, until little Mei Lin poked the boy in the cheek. He came to, startled. A skittish child, Tong Da Hai thought. He revised his opinion almost immediately, seeing the smile break out on the boys face, wolfish and predatory. He was happy to have been called to fight, not nervous or afraid, as most children would be. He followed the guard, and took his place, stretching and warming up.
DuGu Tian Yi's face turned purple at the sight, his visage fearsome, glaring at Tong Da Hai. Arrogant fool. “You think to insult me, to send a child against me? I should thank you though. This one cost me my son, Ang. I will enjoy hurting you, boy. Do not forfeit too easily.”
The boy stood taut, spear across his shoulders as he stretched. “I didn't kill your son. Ang asked for death with his own actions. He threatened my friends, and was killed for it. Raise Ren to be a better man than his brother.” His voice became sorrowful. “I am sorry for your loss.” He truly seemed to mean it.
Those last words seemed to enrage Tian Yi even more. “I am DuGu Tian Yi, Warrant Officer of the Imperial Army. I stand for the Ong Family, to challenge for the position of Magistrate of Shen Huo city. I am 38 years old.” He drew his saber, two-handed and single-edged, and stood ready. 38 years old, a respected warrior and veteran of many skirmishes. His weapon had won him many accolades, its Heart made from the bones of a 1,000 year old Defiled beast he had slain in battle. No demon, but a fierce opponent nonetheless.
Opposite him, the boy wielded a spear of wood and iron, not even a Spiritual Weapon. “My name is Rain. I am of the Bekhai. I stand for the Tong Family, to defend the position of Magistrate of Shen Huo City. I am 16 years old.” A lamb for the slaughter, the crowd had decided, based on their jeers and laughs. Taking his stance, spear held before him, he stood ready as well.
“Begin,” came the prompt from Xue Chang. Tong Da Hai braced himself for the boys defeat.
The boy charged forward, spear surging towards Tian Yi, striking him solidly in the stomach. Tian Yi stood firm a moment, the spear bowed, until no longer able to resist and falling back 5 steps, winded. His armor intact, the look of surprise on his face was mirrored by almost everyone present. The strike was almost an exact copy of the strike The Herald used to defeat Man Giao and every other competitor she faced. The power and speed were a much lower level, but still incredibly domineering, especially considering his age. The same thought was on the mind of all present: if the boy held a Spiritual Weapon, Tian Yi would be laying upon the ground, bleeding to death, in a single strike.
A laugh sounded from the Herald, a sultry sound, causing the Magistrate to feel like a man fifty years younger. “As I had hoped, you had an Insight from my battle. I was going to scold you for ignoring all of my fights, but it seems you were in study. Good, good.” She spoke to the boy loudly, the entire gallery hearing her comment, whispers of amazement and disbelief echoing through the hall. An Insight from the first match? Less than an hour had passed since then, and the boy managed to comprehend the attack to such a degree? Even after seeing her perform the same move another seven times, Tong Da Hai was still unsure how she moved so quickly and struck so powerfully, yet the boy figured it out from one look?
If any criticism could be leveled at the boy, it was his complete lack of follow-up. He had backed off, returning to his original position, spear held before him once more. Tian Yi stood straight once more, and cautiously approached, no longer looking down on him. A second charge and thrust was deflected, but the power required to do so left Tian Yi unable to follow up. Exquisite spear-play and footwork kept him defensive, unable to bring his great strength to bear. The boy's style was not yet distinct enough to see the Forms within, but he was close. A rough, unpolished style, but accurately striking at awkward angles, without a predictable rhythm.
Tong Da Hai could hardly believe his eyes. Tian Yi, a warrior well-regarded throughout Shen Huo city, was being pushed back by a child. While no consummate master, Tian Yi was still a Warrant Officer in the Imperial Army. Although lacking any specific duties, it still required some skill to obtain the rank. DuGu Ang receiving the honor at the age of 21 had been a celebrated success, one in ten thousand, yet this scrawny child made Ang look like a rank amateur. He fought on par with the enraged Tian Yi, striking without being struck, leveraging his advantage in range.
After warding a number of strikes, unable to retaliate, a roar of frustration emanated from Tian Yi and a swing of his weapon shattered the spear shaft to pieces, its tip flying into the crowd. Such was the advantage of a Spiritual Weapon. The boy retreated quickly, sword already in hand, face bleeding from struck splinters, mouth drawn in a smile. He was enjoying the fight, the thrill, and seemingly even the pain.
“Such a terrible look to fight with. Always smiling.” The Herald was commenting, quietly, to her husband. “Ghoulish is what it is. Especially since he gets hurt so often.”
Her husband laughed, a manly, heroic sound. “Seeing it again... Ah! the difference is truly too great. That polite little brat looks like a damn fiend.” Another laugh. “He didn't fight this well against the bandits!”
“He fears death too much. It cuts his strength to a tenth of what it should be. He knows killing is prohibited here, so he has no fear.” The Herald chuckled. “I sparred with the boy for five days, and regardless of the injury, he would stand again, scowling. When the fight began again, he would be smiling once more. The boy is an interesting puzzle. Too little chi to be of much practical use, but exquisite Insights and instincts. I have great hopes for his growth.”
Engrossed by their conversation, Tong Da Hai was unable to blink, for fear of missing a single moment. Why did the boy have so little chi? The fight continued, the boy hopping about, almost awkwardly, yet still avoiding Tian Yi's strikes, waiting for him to tire. Still too much wasted movement, with room for improvement. Sidestepping a vicious kick from Tian Yi, the boy retaliated with a slash across the calf before retreating to a safe distance, watching intently with teeth bared in a grin.
Frustration and anger was clouding Tian Yi's judgment, each wound adding to it, as if being spit at. He needed to calmly approach the fight, use his advantage of Chi, corner the boy and the fight would end, but instead he was wildly swinging away, with no thought, unable to find Balance. Even then, a single strike would end the fight, the difference in physique evident. Boy and man breathed heavily, both taxed physically and mentally in this match. An erroneously timed charge from Tian Yi left a gash in his shoulder as the boy circled away.
“Enough!” Bellowing in rage, Tian Yi twirled his saber about his body. Oriole Form, Raising the Winds. His blade lashing about him, he threw a barrage of fatal attacks aimed at the boy, who desperately weaved and blocked. For several seconds he resisted, before finally succumbing to the onslaught of strikes, a bloody furrow left from shoulder to hip as he staggered to the ground, falling to one knee. Tian Yi tiredly raised his sword a final time for a fatal blow.
“Stop!” Xue Chang commanded, and the city guard rushed forward to block the fatal strike with their weapons. A resounding clang reverberated through the room, their weapons bent under the force of the strike, a roar and a wave of the sword sending them tumbling back. Tian Yi raised his saber once more.
And stood there. The boys sword stuck out of his chest. It had perforated his armor and punctured a lung. Deer Form, Pierce the Horizon. Beautifully performed. His sword falling from his fingers, clanging to the floor, Tian Yi fell to his knees, blood dribbling from his mouth, eyes wide in disbelief. The boy stood, panting, as he tore the weapon out of his opponent, spraying his face and clothes red with blood.
“Take him to the healers, then throw him in the dungeon, where he is to await a Justicar.” Xue Chang ordered. “Combatant DuGu Tian Yi is disqualified for attempting to kill a fallen opponent, and placed under arrest for assaulting the City Watch. I declare the match winner to be Rain. This challenge is won in favor of Tong Da Hai.” While technically the boy lost, with the decision an extremely loose interpretation of the rules, it helps to have befriended the referee. The Magistrate smiled, hearing no objections forthcoming. They were all still too shocked by the events of the match. No wonder the Herald was so confident.
The boy walked out of the square slowly, a garish grinning specter. Settling down in front of Medical Saint Taduk, who immediately began treating him. The boy's eyes closed in meditation, his face relaxing, once again seeming timid and gentle. Such focus and skill, to be so calm after battle, an incredible young man, Tong Da Hai knew that the story of this match would be told over and over again in the coming weeks, exaggerated in each retelling. He grinned inwardly, delighted in the outcome. While Tian Yi could not be executed, he would likely lose his status as Warrant Officer, greatly reducing his influence and authority within the city. The DuGu Family was dealt an almost irreparable blow. The boy would have to be rewarded well, kept close, and The Herald even more so. He chuckled inwardly, while remaining dignified and solemn on the outside. His son had a keen eye for friends.
Xue Chang turned to kneel before the Magistrate, the city guards kneeling with him, token presented in both hands. “As there are no more challengers, by the authority given to me by The Divine Emperor, I appoint Tong Da Hai to the position of Imperial Magistrate of Shen Huo city, the position to be held by him and his family for the next 100 years.”
There was a cacophony of applause, from those who supported him, and those defeated as well. All were eager to have the challenge forgotten, their attempts to overthrow him forgiven. We will not hold it against them, The Magistrate decided. It is only natural for them to covet our position. He smiled and waved at the nobles and guards of his city. A weight had been lifted from his shoulders. His future, and his children's futures had been secured. All thanks to the Herald.