Blinking my eyes, I try to raise my arm to rub them, but it's stuck, tangled in my blankets. I'm laying on the ground by a fire with Taduk sitting beside me. It's night time, and we're in a campsite, walls and soldiers all around. “My boy, you gave us all quite a scare.” He pats my head gently and checks my health, while I lay still, bundled in blankets with no strength to move. When he finishes, he helps me sit up which immediately makes me nauseous.
“How long have I been unconscious?” My voice croaks, and he holds an open water skin to my mouth, and I drink slowly.
“A week.” Fuck, 10 days? That's a damn long time to be unconscious. “It took 8 days just to heal you completely, and you didn't wake even once during the entire time. It was worrisome, I could find no physical reason for it. We had to force broth and medicine down your throat, just to keep you from starving.” I try to struggle out of my blanket burrito, and Taduk loosens it for me. I'm light-headed, rubbing my eyes with both hands. “Wait here, I'll fetch you something to eat.” Not like I'm going anywhere.
I pull my shirt forward, looking at my unblemished skin. I'm completely healed, not even a scar remaining. My ribs are showing, abs missing, muscle mass devoured during my recovery. Noooo, I worked hard for those, sort of. At least I wasn't wearing my new armor, it would have sucked to have ruined it before even getting to show it off. I guess I have to reset the count now. Starting tomorrow, zero days without dying. Unconscious and recovery days don't count, I think. I haven't worked out all the rules.
Mei Lin rushes towards me in tears, kneeling down and taking me into a tight embrace, face pressed into my shirt, screaming at me for sending her away. Patting her head, I do my best to soothe her, her sobs making me feel guilty. Poor kid. It must have been really tough on her this time, with the coma. I got half eaten by gators and she was happy and chipper just a few hours later. The twins run up to me and hug me around Mei Lin, the four of us in a big circle. It's a game to them, but I don't mind. We stay like that for a long time, and I savor the warmth.
Akanai, Husolt, Alsantset and Charok approach, each offering me encouragement and congratulations, all carrying food for me. Taduk pulls the twins and Mei Lin away so I can eat, while everyone sits around watching me. All the attention is super uncomfortable. In between bites, I ask, “What did we do with the snake?”
Charok grins and points at my bowl. “We smoked some of the meat, and we've been eating it slowly, saving some for you.” Mmmm, snakey snake stew. Spooning more the zesty stew into my mouth, I savor the taste, made all the more delicious knowing that stupid snake is filling my belly. True satisfaction. We could have been awesome together, Snakey Snake, but instead, you can be awesome in my belly, with some pepper and wingort.
“What kind of snake was that? I've never seen anything with a tail like that.”
Everyone looks away from me, no one wanting to answer. I look around and pick my target, staring intently at Sumila. She'll crack. She always does, because I know she loves answering my questions, regardless of how annoyed she acts. She turns red, suppressing her urge to tell me, to show off her big brain, but it's too strong and she gives in. “It was just a grass snake. Usually harmless and tiny, but that one was old, at least 1000 years, but most likely more.” A fucking garden snake? Like the tiny one I fed to Zabu? Fuck even the tiny critters can grow into fucking terrifying monsters. I hate this place.
Wait. 1000 years old? I look at Husolt for confirmation. He grins at me. “Yes lad, it can be used as a Heart. I have it all packed away, and I'll make something for you when I get to the city. It wont be a problem, those Blood Needles you found will work perfectly with the scale. It won't be a top quality Spiritual Weapon, but it'll be decent enough. A shield, I'm thinking, but a chest plate could also work. It would only guard the front, and it's a bit small for even that. Your call.”
“We can't make a spear? With the fangs or something?” Damn you snakey snake, why didn't you have strong bones? I really want a longer weapon. I hate having to get so close to kill things, it's terrible for my life expectancy. Throwing my only spiritual weapon isn’t exactly a repeatable attack.
Shaking his head, Husolt grins wryly. “That’s not how it works lad, the tailpiece is where it focused all its chi into, not its skin, fangs, or bones. Those are all the same as a regular snakes, if a little larger and tougher than normal. The scales will make for some good clothes though.” He brightens a little. “No need to worry, I know you like a good, close, scrap up, I'll make the shield nice and sharp, just for you.” Great, an even shorter ranged alternative to the sword. Well, maybe I can Captain America it.
Akanai chimes in. “You are lucky it just woke from hibernation. After you disturbed it, it's reflexes were slowed, it's body unresponsive. If it had pierced you through the neck, it could have killed you instantly. You were too lax, giddy even, after finding that Blood Needle.” I hate when she's right, and she's always right. “This doesn't excuse you from the competition either. If you don't place within the top 10, I'll have you run back to the village.” Shit. I didn't even think about forfeiting. I can't do that though, I need to make Baatar and Alsantset proud… Akanai too, I guess. I swear I'll make her praise me. Barely passable my ass. “Just remember, tell no one about this, don't even speak the words spiritual weapon. It will be unbound, and it will most likely take you a long time to bind it, if history is anything to go by. Your core might not even be stable enough yet, it may be a year or two before you can even fully bind it.”
Ah... right, binding it. Fuck, I hate the feeling of uneasiness, carrying around an unbound weapon. It'll be even harder this time as well, since I will need to harmonize with both weapons at once. A year? Dammit, why can't anything ever be easy? Ignoring my difficulties ahead, I eat every scrap of food they bring me, travel bread, stew, dried rations and more. Using my chi to speed through my digestion, fitting a few kilograms of food into my stomach is simple. I need the nutrients and proteins to rebuild my muscle mass. It's all been cannibalized by my healing, and I lost even more weight while I was unconscious on a soup diet. Not a great start for a martial competition, but I have a few days to bulk back up. Leaning back on my elbows, I settle down comfortably, satisfied and full.
I honestly feel like shit, tired and battered, but at least I'm not all mopey. I think I managed to sleep through that phase. I'm actually a little happy, what with finding a Heart and binding material, both at once. What are the odds. Oh right, I had help. “What about making a chest piece for Mei Lin? It would be the right size for her, right?” Husolt nods, eyebrow raised. “Then it's settled, make that for her. She needs protection, it's far too dangerous for her out here.” I can find something better for myself, and I'd feel better if she were armored. I have a year to look anyways. Why didn’t anyone tell me this earlier?
A clump of dirt sails through the air and hits me in the face. Sputtering and blinking dirt out of my eyes, I scowl at Mei Lin. “Stupid Rainy. You're the one that almost keeps dying. You use it. I don't need your concern, just look after yourself.” That was rude. She stomps away, and Sumila chases after her. The others just smile and laugh, but at least they stop the twins from copying her. I'm just trying to look out for her, she has no Spiritual Weapon at all. She just carries a knife around most of the time, sometimes a bow. I have no idea how she stays alive. Shaking my head and dusting myself off drains my energy.
“You mean well, but she is right. Trouble and danger seem drawn to you, little Rain.” Charok helps me pick dirt out of my hair. “You will require a shield, more than she. Arguing with her will do you no good.”
“Thanks.” Fine then, I don't care. I'll use it. I'll try to win something for her, the little brat.
Wandering away from the fire, looking for Huushal, I thank him for the help, his family sitting together. People are close around here, big on cuddling. It might just be the cold though. I try to thank Adujan as well, but he acts like a little bitch, complaining about food falling from the skies, almost ranting at me. A weird guy, moody and sullen over things that happened forever ago. Get over it bro. Sumila and Mei Lin are chatting against the wall, heading over towards me when I approach, scolding me for wasting my energy, bringing me back to my bedroll. We've been camping in the open air every night, and today is no different. There just aren't any free rooms, too many people headed for the Society. We could pay for privilege of sleeping in a common room with 30 other people, but I'd rather fight another 1,000 year old snake than cram into a room with that many people again. Camping beneath the stars is luxurious in comparison.
I asked Taduk about the healing I witnessed, but he just smiled at me and told me to explore it. My respect for his skill grows every time I learn more about it, but I hate everyone for their stupid obsession with keeping things mysterious. I can never get a decent explanation. They keep telling me it's because I need to come to conclusions on my own. Sure, everyone has their own methods, but I still want to know how they do it. It's frustrating sometimes, like grasping at straws in the dark and I always worry I'm on the wrong track. I'd like corroboration, peer reviews, someone to substantiate my research and theories. I just want reassurance that I'm doing it right, and not wasting my time. It's like learning math, but instead of someone giving you any of the formulas, you need to prove everything on your own. To make things worse, while everyone uses the same number system, even if you use their formulas, you won't get the right answer 99% of the time. It's bullshit.
I lay back down, staring up at the night sky, and just watch the stars, too tired to even train mentally. I don't recognize any of the constellations. There's no big dipper, but that's about the extent of my previous knowledge. I should learn the new star patterns though, it couldn't hurt. I make a mental note to ask Sumila or Mei Lin later. Another brush with death, another day of life. A razor's edge I walk every day, it seems. I'm safe here though, with walls all around me and soldiers guarding. I close my eyes and drift back to sleep, to the same tired dreamscape as always. 56 days. A new record. A new goal to surpass.
Adujan sat at the fire with the Sentinels, seeking Balance, and watching Rain as he laughed with his family. A preposterous life, that pretty boy Rain had lived. Brought to the village at 12 and adopted by the daughter of Baatar. Lucky enough already, to have a loving family. Taken in for lessons by Medical Saint Taduk, who taught no one but his own daughter. Chosen as the first disciple of Baatar as well, and gifted with a beautiful spiritual weapon, a duplicate of the Blood Drinking Fang itself. Already with that much, Adujan was at the height of jealousy. Family, a trade, strength, he would have it all, but that was not the end of Rains fortuitous events.
Adujan had worked hard to become a cadet, training every day until exhaustion, pestering everyone who would listen for advice. It was the only way to learn to ride a quin. They were the best animals, furry and soft, affectionate and protective, with a stable gait and seemingly endless endurance. Besides, there were not many other choices of trade for an unskilled orphan, and the army only rode horses. A dream realized, almost taken away by that shit-stain Rain who lucked into being a cadet, pulled onto a mission to the city that Adujan had to earn the right to join. Too good to gather with the cadets at the campfire, given special treatment, sitting at the center table with Taduk the Medical Saint, even making friends with the magistrate's son, Adujan had almost gone mad with rage watching it all, until seeing Rain fight. So talented, matching blades against a Warrant Officer, with more skill than any his age should have. That had put an end to the anger, although the jealousy continued to grow. A goal emerged, and Adujan trained even more fiercely than before in order to defeat Rain.
The competition was announced, and Adujan thought there would be a chance to face him during the selection. Instead, Rain had been fucking chosen for the competition. He didn't need to take part in the selection, just had to show up the day they set out, even more special treatment for the favored foundling. To make things worse, as if to mock Adujan, now Rain had managed to randomly find a Heart and a binding material on the trip. Rain still not blessed enough by the Mother, no, treasures sought him out, leaping into his arms. A second spiritual weapon, while Adujan still dreamed of having a first. It was almost criminal how unfair the Mother was.
Thinking of the calm, easy smile and bright eyes that Rain always had, Adujan shuddered. His face was like that after killing the snake, so at odds with the terrible wounds he sported as he lay coiled in the snake's corpse. They'd pulled him out, his legs broken and bent at odd angles, a fist sized hole in his chest and belly, so large you could look through it, and still he smiled, eyes close and face relaxed, like he was sleeping peacefully. He was a monster in human form. Ten days he slept and then waking as if the entire bloody scene had never happened. There he was laughing like a jackal, a more jovial and cheerful person Adujan could not name. A fucking madman. One who seemed to have interests in Adujan, if his actions were anything to go by, continually trying to make conversation, asking personal questions, trying to find shared interests, and the damn touching. Nothing overt, just a hand on the shoulder, a pat on the lower back, sitting too closely. Shivering at the thought, Adujan prayed it was not the case. His attentions could mean nothing good. A well-known lecher, his visits to the brothels were the talk of the village.
It didn't help that he was so pivotal in killing the snake. Big Huu couldn't dent the snake with his massive sword, unable to Hone his spiritual weapon in the chaos. He might as well have been waving a giant flaccid dick for all the good he did. Sumila could injure it, but it's hard to kill a snake with a spear, you would need to get the head or heart for an instant kill. Adujan only had the bow, useless in the fight, but Rain? He carved the snake apart as easily as carving a damn roast pig, moving faster than should be possible with a hole in your chest. He was even able to Hone the blade without touching it, throwing it for the kill. Too skilled, too much improvement in such a short time, Adujan was dejected by how far away her goal seemed.
Blowing out a long breath, Adujan sought to regain Balance. Every advantage would be needed for the competition, and winning would mean wealth and recognition, things Adujan had craved for years. Returning home, victorious and celebrated, Adujan would show all those adults in the village that they were wrong. She wasn't a worthless child, unworthy of love or family. She had grown strong, and upon proving so she would truly belong to the People. She tried to concentrate, but her mood was turbulent, unable to settle. She stood and stretched, taking a short jaunt around the camp.
A pittance of protection, the camps were only there to soothe the scared masses. Walls barely 6 meters high, easily jumped by most monstrous creatures, the tower built only to view the surroundings and send fire signals. Only a fool would feel safe in here. She wandered about, no destination or purpose in mind, until she spied Mei Lin and Sumila, sitting together against the wall. Mei Lin waved her over, and she approached, taking a seat.
“Hiya, Yan-Yan. It's rare to see you not training in your spare time.” Mei Lin flashed her a smile, looking adorable in her leathers. A true little lady, Adujan wished she could be more like her, so feminine and soft. That was a luxury she couldn't afford though. Strength was needed, so she could stand on her own. No time or money for the lotions or skin treatments, makeup or dresses. She was coarse and rough, lanky and dirty. She had even cropped her hair short, not allowing the vanity of longer hair, a weapon that could be used against her. “You're just like Rainy, ya? You both have a lot in common, you know.”
Frowning, she shook her head. “I don't want to speak about Rain.” She was nothing like him. “I couldn't concentrate, and thought I would stretch my legs. I'm eager for us to reach the Society. I'm ready to win.”
Sumila smiled, a sweet, humble girl despite her strength and accomplishments. “I believe you will bring pride to the People, Yan.” Not if Adujan was matched against her. Or any of their group. Adujan was the weakest one present, which was difficult for her to admit. Mei Lin was not worth speaking of, but Sumila was simply too skilled, a true prodigy. Big Huu was too strong and tough to beat, an endurance match Adujan had lost time and time again, lacking the power to put him down. And Rain? Rain was even tougher than Huu, almost as skilled as Sumila, and fucking insane to boot. She smiled a grim smile, saying nothing in reply, listening to them continue their conversation.
It didn't matter that they were stronger than her. The contest was her last chance, her only chance, and she would return to the village victorious, or she would never return at all.
Vivek Daatai rode silently through the gloom, his tribesmen behind him, 30,000 strong. Rallied to the cause of the All Father, kneeling before the Uniter, riding to war under his command, all was done for his tribe, his people. The Uniter had promised victory to those who joined him and brought death to those who opposed. What was a man to do, faced with a man in command of such a horde? He had no choice but to bend the knee for a promise. It grated on him, to serve another, but for the tribe there was nothing he would not do.
So he played his part, followed his orders, joining his people to the horde, the promise of succor and plunder ringing in his ears. He marched south with all his people, fed well with the flesh of their enemies, given gifts of steel and slaves. Many joined his tribe, filling the ranks, warriors one and all, and here on the orders of the Uniter, he was finally able to take the first step out of the frozen wastes, into paradise. The bones of seven children he had given to the ice, dying so that others may live, robbed of the death of a warrior. A ruthless, cold, uncaring land they had been birthed in, but it had made him strong, determined, and fierce, unlike these weak southerners.
Even here, at the fringes of their territory, the land was alive and vibrant. What would it be like beyond, in the heart of their lands? No longer would his people need consume the dead, no longer would he hear their cries of hunger as they slaughtered one another. Instead, in this land of plenty, his people would thrive, children growing happy and fat, basking in the warmth of the sun, living in nirvana. They only needed to take what lay beyond these walls, and it would all be theirs.
The horns sounded, the drums beat, the order given, and his tribesmen charged. Vivek rode at the head, leading them forward towards their future, following the Uniter's devils, none two alike, but each was death incarnate. The devils charged straight through the stone and brick walls of the enemy, collapsing them as they passed, a fortress no more as the battlements crumbled to ruins. There was little for Vivek's tribesmen to do, trampling the dead left in the wake of the devils, savoring the screams of the broken, anticipating the slaughter to come. It was a good decision to bend the knee, for the devils were fearsome indeed, creatures of power and nightmares. Vivek could sweep the enemies from the land, from the entire world, with these devils at his side.
He followed through the newly made opening and his blade tasted blood, tearing through armor and flesh. Howling in glee, he slashed and he cut, carving apart all who crossed his path. The southerners died easily, too weak to do anything else. His tribesmen fell upon them, the Garos delighting in fresh meat, tearing them limb from limb, devouring them as they screamed. The ground soft beneath their claws, muddied from the pooling of blood, covering him in its cold embrace, Vivek reveled in the bloodshed. This was his purpose, to lead his people to glory and the promised land.
The battle over too soon, his tribesmen raised the bodies of the still living, nailing them to what remained of the walls, cheering as they screamed, laughing at their pitiful cries. They poured jars of oil over them, soaking them in pitch, an enemy too weak to even eat. A torch was thrown, and the screams intensified, the warmth suffusing him. The fight was done, but the fun was only beginning. The devils would be enough to finish here. Soft flesh and great wealth awaited them in the large village below, hidden inside their wooden huts. His tribesmen eager for more bloodshed and pleasure, and the first taste was always the best. Leading them down into the undefended town, he smiled as some tried to run, his tribesmen encircling them easily, dragging their newfound toys away to play with, men and women alike. Some may escape, but only to spread word of his prowess, of the devils of the Uniter. Perhaps the southerners would flee, but Vivek prayed to the All Father that they would stand and fight. A man was measured by the strength of his enemies, and so far, his measure was lacking.
This was his calling, his destiny. With him at the head, his people would rise, stronger than ever, and they would take everything from these lands, leaving nothing behind. The Uniter had promised this, and more, and Vivek was, for the first time, sure that he would deliver. Grasping a treat in each arm as they squirmed and screamed, Vivek stepped into a wooden hut, the amber glow of the burning fortress lighting up the morning gloom, as if the sun were rising on the dawn of his new era.
An era of bloodshed and prosperity.