Alsantset sat in the stands with Tate on her lap, awaiting the moment for glory for the People. She was so proud of this group of youngsters, having made it through the mass eliminations. She herself had participated 10 years ago at the age of 19, but it had been an abject failure. Her group had been eliminated in a free-for-all match up, with four teams fighting at a time. The other three teams had banded together to defeat them, but even then it had been a close match. It had been a disappointing time for her, with no close friends within her group, just four brash young men all vying for her affection and not a single one of them worthy. She had been lonely, with her father off fighting and mother unable to leave her duties, but the only one she could think of during the entire trip was Charok. Even then, she had been in love with him, marrying him as soon as she had returned, the trip solidifying her love. Leaning onto his shoulder, she was happy that she had received this chance to come here with him and their lovely children, making up for her terrible memories of this beautiful city.
Pendants and banners hung from the stands, as people of all castes crowded around to view the wealth and power on display, the contest a chance for the Clans and Sects of the Society to engage in a purse-measuring contest of their own making. The stage was one used for combat, with the master of ceremonies standing in the middle, table set out for displaying the gifts. The earlier gifts sat on display on other tables scattered around the arena, frivolous luxuries such as slaves, silks, ornaments, and treasures, nothing of use to the People, or even the young heroes who had won them. Such things had no place being gifted to young warriors. They needed weapons and armor, diligence and dedication in training, not these extravagant, self-indulgent items of wealth. She was conflicted about what to do should Rain receive something like that, perhaps spoiling him even further. He enjoyed his comforts far too much already, almost seeming half a fop at times.
The crowds were impatient as each group stepped forward to be introduced, only a footnote compared to the display of prizes. Their accomplishments during the test were lauded, polite applause or raucous laughter coming from the crowd as differing factions quarreled in the stands. Only nine groups had made it through the 'great hunt' as they called it, and Alsantset was more than a little annoyed by Rain's performance. According to the others, all the work was done by Adujan and Sumila, the other three simply tagging along. It was disgraceful for Rain to rest on the laurels of the two ladies, and even worse, exploit his defeated opponents for gold. She had scolded him harshly when she found out, taking away the ill-gotten gains, intent on returning them. She had been rudely dismissed at the Situ compound however, so the gold would be held for Rains future. That irresponsible wastrel would just drink and whore it all away, as if gold were of no value at all to him. She grimaced, hoping that little Rain would find a wife capable of reining in his terrible habits.
It was all the fault of that Magistrate's son, Fung. An infamous scoundrel and flirt, but his strength was impressive. His group had earned a spot on stage as well, defeating the youngsters of the Han Clan and the Seven Star Sect to take the Xue Clan token in a drawn out battle, as narrated by the master of ceremonies. Alsantset chuckled at the sight of the young man standing proud, one who had the gall to attempt to charm her on their first meeting. She had quickly put an end to that, enjoying the scene of the young master panicking as she held him still for Suret to nibble on. The quin had grown too soft and sweet in their years of rest, Rain spoiling the formerly bloodthirsty beast, so much that Suret didn't even draw blood during the demonstration, even with a stranger present in front of her pups. Rain spent too much time coddling those as well, three tiny quins of thoroughbred pedigree, each almost too friendly to be properly battle-trained. She should look into getting him a pet, something more suitable than a quin.
Finally, it was the last group to be called, the time for the People's strength to be shown. The master of ceremonies spoke for all to hear. “For our last group, they have earned the greatest accomplishments from the hunt. Two Tokens they've earned, completing both, winning the prizes from the OuYang clan, and the Arahant Sect.” Applause rang out as attendants carrying covered prizes came forth, setting them on the table. The first prize was revealed with a dramatic flourish. “From the OuYang clan, we have five rings of jade, each in a different, vibrant color. Made with the greatest care, these intricate pieces of jewelry are carved from the purest jade available, semi transparent and single colored, a mark of status for these young heroes. Furthermore, each ring is inscribed with a single rune, made with great care by Patriarch Yu Sheng himself, aiding the wearer in their cultivation so long as it is touching bare skin.” A collective murmur broke out among the crowd, everyone too shocked to applaud, discussing the incredible value of such a prize. While not unheard of, for the Patriarch to be capable of creating five such treasures meant the OuYang clan would rise quickly in the near future, the citizens of the Northern Province no longer needing to travel vast distances in order to obtain one. The Patriarch in question was standing and saluting the crowd, a smile upon his face, advertising his presence and ability, perhaps hoping to entice customers.
“A wonderful prize for our talented youngsters, now let us see what the Arahant Sect has prepared.” A second flourish, and a collection of jars sat on the table, of low quality pottery. Jeers broke out among the crowd, disdaining the Arahant Sect for their shoddy-looking prize. A hand went up as the master of ceremonies read the scroll, explaining the gift. “Within the jars is a medicine know as Rising Dragon Elixir. When ingested in small amounts over a long period of time, it will strengthen the inner and outer organs, as well as increase the effectiveness of strength and endurance training.” A hush fell as the crowd processed his words, before thunderous applause and cheering broke out once more, the value of such a gift overshadowing all the others. A gift like this was rarely given, typically reserved for the true elites of powerful groups! Even Alsantset was cheering loudly, for these prizes well suited for all of them, especially for little Rain. His cultivation and his body's foundation were the most lacking parts of him, and these would speed him along, allowing him to match, and eventually overpass his peers.
She turned at Charok's tugging, only to see Elia and Chakta already leaving. “We must prepare to escape immediately, my love. Treasuring a jade becomes a crime, these gifts are too precious and without Akanai, it will be our deaths if we remain.” Alsantset came to her senses, the previous joy quickly fading, as she realized the implications. The rings and medicine could be used by anyone, and such a gathering of treasures would attract trouble, especially as they had no backers present. She hurried out of the stands as the master of ceremonies listed their achievements, listening intently. How had they managed to eliminate the youngsters of four prominent groups? They had even wiped out all the participants of the Situ Clan. Not good, not good, just more of an excuse for them to be attacked. Even Fung would be killed if they sought his help, a magistrate's son had no power within the Society. They had to flee, but Charok and herself were the only ones here to protect everyone, and they could not even head home directly, facing the threat of a Defiled army. The future looked grim with turbulent times ahead.
Patriarch Situ RangMin fumed at the sight of the five scoundrels upon the stage, smiling and waving at the crowd. Not only had they eliminated all his young clansmen, his own son had been beaten thoroughly, humiliated before his peers and future subordinates. He had already needed to smile politely through several veiled insults and false condolences. It was unacceptable! They had even stolen the OuYang token from them, and for once that useless miser had presented an incredible gift, second only to the gift from the Arahant Sect, which these savages had also won. Fuming with anger, he ordered his Deputy Leaders, “Capture them and take everything. Bring the youngsters back alive, kill the rest.” He would have those children beaten and worse, to dare humiliate him thusly.
Patriarch OuYang YuSheng was joyous at the turn of events. His gift was greater than any others, only rivaled by the gift from the Arahant Sect. No more would there be whispers of him being a miser or a hoarder, laughs about his penny-pinching. What was wrong with saving the best for your own people? This was simply a principle of the heavens, to see to your family first. The strong survive and the weak die, so why weaken yourself for empty pride? His gift this time had shocked them all, and he had already received multiple offers to dine, attempts to entice him into creating other similar rings. Things were good indeed, especially when he had learned some no-name yokels from the sticks had won his gift. None would be left to cry over their corpses when his men took back what was his. Those rings would be wasted on trash like that, and the medicine as well. Greeting his newest prospective client, RangMin clasped his hands, a smile upon his face. Life was looking good.
Jin Sui rode in his carriage, choosing to return home immediately upon hearing that the Situ clan youngsters had been taken for questioning. The Society took the integrity of their contest very seriously, and allegations of match fixing would have seen him executed in the shadows. As long as he avoided returning, it was likely that the Society would simply quietly cover everything up. The Canston Trading Group would deny all allegations, and the Society would not bother chasing him, not over the attempt to injure some barbarian children, nor would they raise issue with Kai, a career soldier. His nephew across from him, Jin Sui enjoyed the quiet ride back into the Central Plains, confident that he had avoided all repercussions. While he lamented his losses, money was easily recouped, but his life was irreplaceable.
Various clans, sects, groups, and gangs conferred with their own people, discussing the best course of action to take regarding these frontiersmen, with their impressive showing and incredible luck. The less honorable among them were already making plans and taking action to divest these youngsters of their gifts. The more sympathetic ones shook their heads, saddened at the loss of such talent, but even they would not reach out to these youngsters, for in doing so would invite calamity into their own homes. Not even one of the three higher powers could save them, and they had already made enemies with one of them, the Situ Clan. The Han clan would not help them either, the youngsters were seen in the company of the Shen Huo delegates, who had been pivotal in eliminating the Han youngsters. Such was life, to be raised up into the heavens, only to be dragged down back to the dirt. A shame, for these Bekhai youngsters seemed quite skilled indeed. The talented truly die young.
Akanai cursed her misfortune, having to deal with Cho Jin Kai. Of all the officers in the vast Empire, the only one she had issue with was in command of the last outpost she needed to resupply at. Almost 150 kilometers from Shen Yun, the camp was to be used as a staging area for retaking the border forts. Only the Brigadier and his unit were stationed here, the other units still on route. She should have stopped longer in Shen Yun, but impatience had driven her forward. All of her requests for supplies and weapons had been denied by that smug bastard, citing useless regulations and issues that would have taken too much time to argue. She had stormed out, leading her people out of the camp without rest, a mistake made in the heat of anger. Her people were tired, their tenth consecutive day of hard travel, all of them caked in dirt and sweat, fueled by dried jerky and hard biscuits.
Annoyed, she corrected Mila's quin Atir on her course. A young quin, still too curious and playful, lacking discipline. She'd had to leave Kankin behind, he was too old to suffer the rigors of hard travel like this. She should have gotten a new mount ages ago and allowed Kankin to retire in peace, but she was a sentimental fool. She had earned her title sitting atop his back, and she enjoyed cherishing the memories of victories she had won when she saw him. As a matter of fact, she was getting too old for travel like this, her back sore, head addled from not enough sleep, irritable for the food. Traveling with Charok was just too delightful, the man could make stones taste good.
They rode through the forest, leaving the main road after the last outpost, favoring speed over stealth, traveling where no horse could, moving up cliffs and over mountains with ease, the mobility and endurance of roosequins unrivaled by any other mount. It had only been a few hours since the outpost, but they were still far from the Bridge and from where the Defiled had broken through. Three forts had fallen, but they had only secured two paths, one blocked by Shen Huo, the other by Shen Mu. The two cities would contain the Enemy yet, their walls well fortified and manned. The Enemy would be weeks in reinforcing their positions, gathering enough soldiers to assault the Wall. The Empire had time yet to prepare.
The contest in the Society should have been through its first phase by now. She speculated over which method was used to filter out all the chaff this year, removing the unworthy from competing. Best if they had single combat elimination, but it was a method rarely chosen in the past, as it simply took too much time. When she had competed so many years ago, it was a mass skirmish, eliminating other contestants through group combat, a collecting of tokens after beating their opponents senseless. Those with the most tokens, moved on. That had been a grave mistake on the planners part, as the young often lose control of their inhibitions. The People had been the only ones left after five days, and with no other contestants, the Society had no choice but to declare the People the winners. She grinned at the memories of the scoldings and their hurried flight home, fleeing from would be robbers and assassins. They had made few friends on that trip. It had been decades before they returned to participate again.
She snapped out of her thoughts as she sighted movement up ahead. One of her forward scouts, Tanaraq, was returning at a breakneck pace, waving them back. Without hesitation, Akanai turned to a southwestern bearing, everyone quickly following suit. Tanaraq gave her report, hand signals, rather than broadcasting through her chi. Defiled, several thousands, Demons, at least two, approaching on a south-east bearing. How had the Enemy managed to slip so far away from Shen Huo without anyone reporting it? A chill went down her spine as she realized their goal. They were moving for the outposts, meaning to cut the road in half, stopping the supplies and reinforcements to the Bridge. If they were successful, it would delay the Empire's responding armies, perhaps long enough that the Defiled could launch a successful attack at the bridge. She could not allow that to happen, not while the pup was there. She would save him, or she would die trying.
Turning her party back towards the outpost, a grim, resigned smile set on her face, she rode hard in order to rescue that scum of a man, Kai. The province depended upon it. The pup depended on it. They quickly reached the field, the camp gates closing as she rode up, flashing her token at the gate guards, demanding they let them in. “Belay that order men.” Thumping up the stairs, a familiar hated face appeared, sneering down at them. Brigadier Kai. “We can't risk opening the gates for a few savages, not with the enemy so close and about to attack.” He peered over the wall at her, smug as can be. “Who knows, they might even be Defiled themselves, with how uncivilized they are.”
Suppressing the urge to kill the man with an arrow to the throat, Akanai wasted no time, leading her people around the eastern camp wall. Hopefully the enemy was only coming from the west. They could not be caught out in the open but her luck did not hold true. The camp was large and before even halfway around, the Enemy was charging towards them, screaming their war cries atop their bipedal mounts, furred lizards with their teeth gnashing, drums beating, the dried fetishes of human remains hanging about their bodies. Arrows flew through the air, from her Sentinels, from the soldiers, from the Defiled, a back and forth of hissing death. Her weapon twirling to block what she could, she continued to ride in an attempt to lead her people to safety, cursing Kai's idiocy, swearing vengeance upon him should she survive.
Bellowing orders and organizing her people into formation, she led the way, killing her enemies with every sweep of her ax-lance. Her husband's roaring could be heard behind her, the crash of metal on bone as he crushed his enemies, the whistling of his staff moving through the air, music to her ears. It had been some time since they had fought alongside each other and she had missed it, in some odd, twisted sense of nostalgia. She watched as the enemy leaped over the short walls, barely 6 meters tall, the Garos jumping that height easily, the sounds of slaughter and death following shortly after. Kai was a foolish commander, to turtle atop the wooden walls. He should have gathered in the campground, an open field of death before him, setting fire to the buildings to block their path.
A number of the Defiled veered off, charging directly at her, beasts ready to lunge forward. With a grin and a squeeze of her calves, Atir launched forward faster than the lizards could react, leaping across the distance in a single bound, her weapon tearing Defiled and beast alike, coating her in blood as she tore through her enemies. More approached, and they died by the handful, her weapon taking heads, Atir tearing through flesh and scale, and still the enemy came on, a lightning fast raid upon the camp.
“Half Moon Formation!” Akanai halted her forward process, swinging her weapon about, unable to push forward any further. Her Sentinels fought behind her, their small group arranged in a shifting semi-circle, the camp wall at their backs, weapons flashing like silvered death, as the screams of the dead and dying surrounded them. A cool stream of energy enveloped her, closing her wounds, and she continued to fight, her strength surging. Taduk's work, keeping her people alive and strong. She fought beside her husband, holding a swath of land, killing all who tried to push through her territory, her blood singing in her veins. Screams of rage and defiance, mercy and pain, the tempestuous song of battle drove her into a frenzy of motion.
This was her battle and she was the Herald, of storms, of victory, and none could stop her. She would hold this camp, because if she failed, if the Defiled succeeded, then the pup would die. She fought for minutes on a single breath, no time to even exhale as she held the line, knowing the consequences if she stopped. The dirt around her was littered with the dead as she fought, the energy of the Mother surging through her, with no end to the enemy in sight. Her husband at her side, the two of them were invincible, untouchable as they danced together to the song of battle.
Finally, a lull in the fighting occurred, the Defiled lining up around her and her warriors, staring at them with hatred and apprehension. Gasping for air, she grinned at her enemies, shoulders heaving with exertion, taking stock of her people. Even Taduk could not heal death, with four of her own laying in the dirt, never to stand again. Good soldiers. Tanaraq and Orgaal, Taduk, and her husband were all that still stood. The camp still held, but she could not aid them anymore than she already had.
Two hulking behemoths approached, Demons, one a four-legged lumbering creature, armored and black, like a dragon headed turtle, spikes protruding from every surface. The other was a bull like monstrosity, standing upon legs that bent backwards, massive spiked horns atop his head, goring tusks protruding from his mouth, four arms each carrying a different weapon. Good, good, it had been decades since she had killed a true Demon. Hefting her weapon, feeling the pull of her freshly healed wounds, she guided Atir forward slowly, ready to meet her foe. The bull would be hers, she decided, a more worthy looking opponent. It was no fun just killing a mere beast.