Sneaking forward, Adujan moved slowly, centimeter by centimeter, closer towards the quin pups. There were three of them, each the size of a large dog, still with their young coats, looking plush and soft. She wanted to pet and hug them, but Rain's mount was having none of it, hissing at her whenever she approached. Zabu was his name, and he had a vicious temper and terrible breath, almost attacking her when she first drew near. She usually spent her free time with the quins, but in a month of travel, she had been unable to win Zabu's trust or affection, denied the pleasure of holding a pup.
The hissing was getting louder, Zabu wary at her approach, and she froze, staring at his beady eyes. Roosequins were incredible animals, capable of using Heavenly Energy on instinct, tearing through armor like soft cheese with their sharp fangs and disemboweling talons. Swallowing her fear, she backed off slowly, trying not to panic at the threat contained within those beady brown eyes. Zabu bared his teeth at her, opening his mouth wide as if flexing his jaw, ready to tear flesh and bone. She had seen roosequin tear through flesh and it was a grisly sight, something she hoped to never experience firsthand.
“Zabu, heel.” She tried not to jump at the unexpected voice, Rain entering the stables. “Good boy, Zabu.” The quin ignored his rider, still focused on Adujan and she did her best to seem unthreatening. Roosequins were adorable, but deadly as well, and she had a healthy respect for them. Rain walked in front of her, scratching Zabu's nose, and the quin immediately calmed down, sinking into the caress. Zabu seemed as friendly and affable as any other quin, a change so fast, Adujan almost worried she'd imagined the blood thirst in his eyes.
When she was confident her voice would not shake, she asked, “What are you doing here?” It was harsher than she intended, considering he had just helped her, possible even saved her life. Then again, if he trained his mount better, she wouldn't have needed his help.
“Husolt is back, and he'd like to speak to you in the common area.” Rain smiled at her, a big grin that made him look so handsome, so at odds with his terrible personality. She turned to leave the stable, heading straight for the common room at almost a run. Why would the Blacksmith wish to speak to her? She hadn't done anything improper, she hoped, or upset him in any way. She composed herself outside the door, before stepping through and saluting.
The Chief Provost was there as well, sitting beside the Blacksmith on a divan, carrying a plain wooden box. They both stood as she entered, returning her salute with a nod. Handing her the box, the Chief spoke. “This weapon do I bestow unto you, for use in defence of the People. Accept it, along with the burden of responsibility it represents, Sentinel Adujan.”
Quaking with excitement, barely believing her ears, Adujan opened the box to see a wonderfully crafted, small, six-pointed shield. Rather than a smooth polish, the steel was uneven and porous, as if water would seep into it, a scale, colored silver. Each of the points were double-edged, with two hooks on either side close to the base of the shield, made to catch and break blades. Putting the box on the ground, she lifted the shield up carefully, feeling the smooth roughness of the material under her palm, admiring the beauty of its plain simplicity. The spikes were not all the same size, the two horizontal spikes a bit longer than the four spikes on the top and bottom. Flipping the shield over, she placed her hand in the grip, hefting the shield before her, testing the weight and balance. A single grip, off centered, the bulk of the shield covering her entire forearm, she noted the lack of a strap, glancing at the Blacksmith with the question in her eyes.
“There's no strap so that the shield can be thrown, but it will take some practice to not cut yourself when throwing. The two horizontal points are for puncturing, with a punch or an elbow strike. Take care not to cut yourself with the back point, it's a close thing. The grip is positioned so you can use your wrist more freely, giving more range of motion to the shield. You should wrap your wrist when you fight, give it more stability, and work on some strengthening exercises for it in the future. My wife will help you with that. It is both weapon and armor, and will take a bit of creativity to master, but you're a clever lass. I believe you will have no difficulties with it.” He patted her on the shoulder gently.
Adujan looked back down at her new spiritual weapon, her emotions in chaos. “Why are you gifting this to me? I thought it was to be Rain's second weapon? You made this for him, I cannot accept it.”
“He asked me to gift it to you.” The blacksmith had a brash laugh, loud and endearing, jovial in nature. “The boy knows his limits, and thinks towards the future. You will need to be armed, the journey home will be dangerous. Made worse by the fact that you all might be carrying Hearts home, or whatever prizes you may earn. Greed is a powerful motivator for many, and we won't be there to protect you. I know you can take care of yourself, and I hope that this will aid you in protecting the others.” Knocking at the shield, he added, “It's a piece of Inspired work, you know, some of my best. Be proud, lass, I know you will use it well, and bring great honor to the People.”
The Chief briefly explained a few exercises and tips for using the shield, before leaving her alone with her tears and thoughts. Rain gifted this to her? Why would he do that? Was the lecher looking for her to join his harem? She would refuse him if he was, it wasn't worth being the third wife to a playboy. Who knew how many wives he intended to take?
Anger mounting in her chest, she gently placed the shield back into the box and marched back to the stables carrying it. She was not some slave to be bought. Rain was there, sitting on the floor, his quin's head in his lap, speaking gently. He smiled at her, and motioned for silence. Mei Lin was beside him, grinding herbs in a mortar, a bowl of steaming water beside them.
“Good roosey.” Rain cooed sweetly. “Goooodd Zabubu. Just let me … look in your mouth.” He gently lifted the flap, revealing a blackened, infected tooth. No wonder the quin was so angry, it looked terribly painful. Her heart ached for the furry creature. There was nothing that could be done, no one in their right mind would work on a roosequins teeth. It was tantamount to losing a hand. Rain kept soothing the quin, one hand patting its head, the other reaching for a pair of pliers. Adujan held the box higher, shielding herself partially from the sight. He was insane. That was the only explanation. The quin would tear him apart. Continuing to coo and speaking sweetly, he lifted the flap of Zabu's mouth, examining it gently. Gripping the pliers in hand, opening and closing out of sight of Zabu, Rain took a deep breath and brought them to Zabu's mouth, yanking quickly.
Zabu shot up hissing, teeth bared at Rain, but stopped short, smacking his lips a few times, shaking his head, examining his own mouth. “Ya, you had a rotten tooth. Must've hurt, right? You big fluff, come back so I can finish fixing you okay?” Rain held the finger sized tooth, almost black in color in front of Zabu, who gingerly laid back down onto Rain's lap. He continued administering treatment, squeezing out puss with a cloth, washing it away with hot water and herbs. He packed a few cloves into the breached area, and patted Zabu on the head. “Good boy. All better now.” The quin remained on his lap, eyes closed in contentment. “No wonder you were such a little bitch.” Rain's tone never changed, high-pitched and sickly sweet. Disgusting. She ignored the fact that she spoke to the animals the same way.
Tears began to fall down her face once more, her emotions overcoming her once again. It was so unfair. Even loved by the roosequins, he just seemed to have everything. The idiot led a Mother-blessed life, now he was ripping teeth from a battle-trained mount. Even her own mount Shana loved him, approaching him for hugs on her own volition. Sobs escaping from her chest, she crouched down, hugging the box, crying away her frustration. She wanted to hate him so much, but he made it so difficult at times. He was generous, good with children, polite to everyone, diligent, hardworking, and skilled. Mei Lin was patting her back, giving her a hug. So sweet and kind, Adujan could never be graceful and pretty like her, just an abrasive and angry woman. No man would want her, just like no family did. She would be alone, for the rest of her life. She cried and cried, her shame making her sob even harder.
It was a long time before she stopped, Mei Lin still holding her, Rain sitting awkwardly in front of her, still patting the contented Zabu. She cleared her throat a few times before the words came out properly. “Thank you, for the weapon. It means everything to me. Ask for anything, and I will comply with your demands.” She sat resolute in her statement.
He waved at her dismissively. “Don't worry about it, you were there for the fight too, I'm not even sure why everyone just assumed it was mine. I'm not too excited about a shield, and I don't have enough chi to use two Spiritual weapons anyways. I have time to grow, and I'll probably find another Heart. We're family, and family looks out for their own.”
He always managed to sound arrogant without even trying. Not too excited? Will find another? This ass. “I am not your family.” She said it quietly, without anger. Was this his roundabout way of proposal? Did he truly mean to force her to marry him? If so, would that really be so terrible? She had only just worried about being alone, and now, there was someone who wanted her, despite her tall, gangly form, and lack of feminine charm. She wouldn't be his only wife, but to stand beside women like Mei Lin and Sumila was not so terrible a thing.
“Everyone in the village is my family.” Her face soured at his words. This idiot. “So just consider yourself like my brother. Err, are you older, or younger than me?”
She placed the box aside, standing while Mei Lin sat onto the ground, open-mouthed. “Brother?” Her voice came out more calmly than she expected. His idiotic grin and nod filled her with so much rage. “Brother? You think I'm a fucking man?” The smile disappeared, replaced by confusion. With a snarl, she launched herself at him, punching and kicking his smug fat face as he curled up to defend himself. She hit him until her arms were tired, aiming for his vulnerable spots as he rolled about trying to escape her wrath.
“Calm down, Yan-Yan, Rainy wasn't being malicious. He's just a little silly, ya?” Mei Lin had her arms around Adujans waist, feet planted, pulling her back. Rain was bruised and defeated, looking miserable and aggrieved, hiding behind the quins. Zabu remained still, soft snores escaping his lips. Breathing heavily, Adujan glared at Rain, picturing the multitudes of pain she wished to inflict upon him. Leaning down, she grabbed the box and stormed out to her room, prepared to bind the weapon. That damned bastard Rain, she'd take the weapon he gifted to her and use it to carve his heart out from his chest.
Akanai and the others left first thing in the morning, and as soon as they were gone, I went back to the stupid metal post, trying to perform Amplification. After hours of punching, my dedication is rewarded with a second fist shaped dent in the metal post. Holding my pained fist in the air, I revel in my success. I'm still unsure as to exactly how I succeeded. It's a long way off from being used in real combat. Huushal is training next to me, so it should be a good time to ask for help.
“Err, sorry Rain, but I'm no better at it than you.” He shrugs his shoulders, looking sheepish. “I actually still have trouble with Honing. To be honest, I wanted to ask you for help with that.”
We sit down and I do my best to explain the process. “It isn't about coating the weapon in chi, but more like... arranging the chi in the correct orientation. The way I do it is I picture my chi as a very thin chain, made up of tiny little sharp links of chi. The links spin individually, and the chain moves along the edge of my sword, in a constant stream of motion.” Looking at Huu's scrunched up face, I can tell I didn't do a good job. I try a few more times, using props and drawings, and eventually he wanders off to practice on his own. I think I may have made things worse. I understand a bit more now why everyone tells me to figure it out on my own.
I stand back up, ready to try Amplification again. Adujan walks out, with her shiny new shield in hand, looking like a giant six-pointed shuriken on her wrist. I knew these lying assholes were ninjas. How is that in any way, shape, or form, a shield? I feel cheated, it was just a stupid triangle, why does it look like that now? Huushal stops his practice and backs away from me, shrugging apologetically. I'd told him about my misunderstanding with Adujan, and he had laughed heartily. How was I supposed to know that the pretty boy with a crew cut was a woman?
Actually, now that I know, I feel like an idiot for ever thinking she was a boy. She's tall, thin, and flat, but her shape is womanly, curved and soft with a little peach of a butt and long shapely legs. Breasts aren't everything. I spent a good chunck of time yesterday feeling incredibly humiliated, and the repeated retelling of the story didn't help at all. The jokes I made in front of her, the things I talked about, the offers I made. I'd asked her if she wanted to join me at a private bathhouse, flashing her my homemade Viagra! No wonder she head butted me.
She strides past me without a word, taking stance at another metal post. Bringing the shield up, she backhands the post, cutting it in one strike with a shriek of metal on metal. She does this a few more times, slicing the post into thin strips, before bringing her weapon overhead and chopping the post in two. Fucking hell. She can already Hone it? That took me months to learn.
“You already branded it? That's amazing, Yan!” Huushal cheers from the side, trying to win some points, while I stand in shock. She harmonized with it in a single night? Or did she go to bed, and just wake up this morning to start? This is ridiculous, frigging OP deer-girl. Watching her lithe body as she moves through a series of strikes and blocks, they seem familiar to me almost, as if tickling a memory. The Forms are already taking shape in her movements, but I can't quite pick them out. She moves like a boxer in one moment, dancing away like a ballerina the next, one moment crude and abrasive, the next graceful and fluid, her right hand moving as if she held a second weapon, working in tandem with her shield.
Enraptured by the demonstration, I stand still in awe of her prowess, at the speed at which she has adapted to using an unconventional weapon with her off-hand. She finishes her warm-up with a toss of the star, which sinks deep into a target across the yard. Dammit! I regret everything! That could have been my shuriken shield of death! Offering her a weak smile as she glares at me, I slink off dejectedly. She doesn't even seem grateful. She could at least say thank you.
I have no talent, it seems, except for taking punishment. What a shitty thing to be talented at. Well, I can also be a damn good nanny most of the time. Grabbing Tate as he runs by, I ask, “You want to go out for candy? I need something to cheer me up.” His enthusiastic nodding puts a smile on my face. I'm in no mindset to work after that awe-inspiring display. Taking the twins out to play is good for the soul.
In the middle of helping Tali get ready, I hear a familiar voice. “You talk about those children so much, it shouldn't surprise me that you braid their hair.” Turning with a smile, I greet my guest. Fung has finally arrived for the competition. Thank the Mother. I'm starting to feel a little overwhelmed by all of the hostile, powerful, females in my life. I could use another friendly face, a comrade in arms.
“Fung! Took you long enough to get here. I have a friend I want you to meet.” I just know Huu and Fung will get along famously. I might as well just fucking give up on training. I just have no talent.
Tong Da Hai sat grimly at his desk, reading report after report. The news all spoke of great tribulations ahead, but such was life. The Flying Tiger Fortress was fifteen days march from his city, and the initial survivors had reported 30,000 enemy cavalry and ten demons. In the twelve days since, his scouts reported that the host had split, rampaging through the surrounding towns and villages, taking the outposts dotting the plains, raping and pillaging with no one to keep them in check, while infantry reinforcements flooded through the mountain passes, 45,000 at the last count, and ever-increasing. The army units stationed within his city numbered 25,000 soldiers, along with 15,000 city guardsmen, so even if he were to lead every single one of them out onto the plains, the Defiled still had him vastly outnumbered. His orders were to hold and await reinforcements, but it grated on him, hearing of the deaths of the citizens on the Empire.
Refugees flooded his city, soon bursting at the seams, while more continued to arrive each day. He could not shelter them all, and would have to begin sending some away, pushing them towards the coastal cities, or inland towards the societies. It would be a difficult journey for them, and he could not spare the troops to guard them. Too shameful, he lacked the strength to protect the Empire. He leaned back in his chair and clapped for a servant, to bring him some tea. When no servant entered, Hai furrowed his brow in annoyance. Was his manservant asleep? Old Toumo was getting on in years, but Hai had not the heart to replace him. Toumo had been here for decades and had served him faithfully all this time, an old man without family, where would he go without this job? Here, he lived in comfort, and his only responsibilities now were to bring in food and tea. Hai stood and stretched, walking to the door of his office with a smirk. No matter, a simple thing to get his own tea.
The door shattered inwards, covering Hai with splinters as he fell back, yelling, “Guards!” Rushing into his office, pale and unclean, stringy hair and ropy muscles, came two Wraiths, eager for his blood. Tossing chairs and reports, anything he could reach, scrambling backwards away from their black knives. Grasping the arms of one of his attackers, his fingers crushed the bones, warm, meat paste squeezing out from between his fingers. Flinging the would-be assassin into its comrade, Hai roared his defiance. No longer was he the young lieutenant, terrified of the tales, cowering within the jakes, hiding from pale-faced masters of death. He was Tong Da Hai, Magistrate of The Divine Fire. With a deep breath, his skin turned red as his chi circulated through him, raising the temperature of the room by several degrees in an instant. More wraiths filtered in, each one burning away before his palm strikes, withering away before him, as he circled around the room, stringing his attackers along. Fire and fury filled him as he fought for his life, the divine flames circling him as he drew upon them, burning all who came before him.
The struggle was over quickly, Hai panting like a draft horse, the various wounds across his body already beginning to fester, the work of dark magics, imbued within their weapons. Too lax, he had been far too lax lately with his training, seeping himself in his work and luxuries. Burning away the impurities in his wounds, he stepped through the corpses as they crumbled to ashes at his touch, marching out to the antechamber and placing his hand on Old Toumo's corpse, lying upon the floor, killed at his post. Poor old man, Hai decided to place him at rest within the royal mausoleum, as family should be. Striding forward with new resolution, he barked his orders at his guards, raising the alarm within the city and assessing the damages. Hai would wait for his reinforcements and then he would ride at their head and personally crush this Defiled incursion, grinding them beneath his heel like the pests they were.