Standing over her defeated foe, Akanai's chest heaved as she panted, blinking blood out of her eyes. The other demon had been dealt with, its massive corpse leaking ichor from every orifice. Her own enemy had died much harder, its limbs strewn about and chest carved open by her weapon. She had been thrown from Atir in the fight, the quin retreating from the fearsome beast as soon as she was out of Akanai's control. A timid little quin that would require more training. Mila deserved the best.
Once again, the cool energy flowed into her, sealing the stump of her arm closed, keeping her from bleeding to death. It was a boon to have Taduk with them, they would have died a dozen times without him. Her husband reached her side, lifting her into his arms, cradling her like a princess from a children's story. She smiled, nuzzling herself into his chest, comforted by his presence, the blood loss making her tired. “Old wife, you have grown soft. There was a time when you could have killed it without so many injuries.” His deep rumbling voice was pleasant to hear, the vibrations of his chest soothing her. His words were a nuisance, however. If only he learned to speak more sweetly, like Charok did to Alsantset.
“It was a difficult foe, its shape well-formed and suitable for battle. It had even mastered several weapon styles. Who knows how long it had roamed the northern wastes? I could barely cut through its armor.” If the demons killed by the pup were as strong as this one, then she would be impressed. It was true that she had grown old, but her skill had not declined. This demon was truly powerful, and if there were others like it, then the province was at great risk.
He brought her into the camp, the battle over, the Empire victorious, but just barely. Taduk left to aid with the healing, all the soldiers respectful and grateful. She received her fair share of salutes as well, personal strength always respected within the Empire.
“Colonel Du Kang Bing reporting to Major General for commands.”
Damnation. “The Brigadier?”
“Heavily injured and unconscious, Major General. You are the ranking officer present. This one is awaiting your orders.”
She held back a sigh, motioning with her stump to be put down. She could not afford to look weak in front of her soldiers, carried by her husband. A bothersome business to take charge, but it needed to be done. She set about organizing the camp, sending reports and riders, annoyed that she would be delayed in her return home, as well as the need to work with that damn worthless Jin Kai. If only he had died, instead of his men, that would have been justice.
At least now she could send soldiers to protect Mila and the rest. Alsantset and Charok likely had things in hand, but she still worried about leaving them behind. The tournament should be ending soon, perhaps they had even won, already preparing for the hurried flight home. She smiled at the thought, a time-honored tradition, for it was the hottest fires that forge the strongest steel.
Standing over the body, I look down at my opponent. I don't know if I could have killed him as he sat on the ground, shivering in fear. At least he died like a warrior, but that's not any comfort to him, dead is dead. Alsantset claps me on the shoulder, smiling at me. “You have done the People proud at the contest, little brother. No need to be sad that you could not compete further.” I smile at her, but it doesn't reach my eyes. She doesn't understand, not really. No one does, not here. Killing is second nature to them, just another thing that needs doing. Life is cheap, and this is just an ugly reminder of something I would much rather ignore. It makes it difficult to enjoy myself when needing to worry that every stranger I meet is willing to kill me in an instant, if not for fear of death or reprisal.
Alsantset moves away, pulling out her knife. “Butcher some of the horses for meat, we'll smoke it tonight. We'll need provisions.” Squatting down to work, I watch Zabu feasting on one of the horses, lips smacking as he rips away chunks of meat, face covered in blood. The other quins are gathered around the same horse, teeth tearing through skin and bone like butter. I can't believe I put my hand in Zabu's mouth and ripped out a rotting tooth. I almost pissed myself when he lunged at me, thinking he was going to eat my face. On the plus side, he really has mellowed out after I pulled the tooth, not quite friendly but much less moody, which is great.
I've never fought from the back of a quin before, and never realized how deadly they are. From a flat run into a long-reaching lunge, the burst of speed surprised me. Against a prepared enemy, carrying spears or lances, it's probably not a great idea to charge, but in this forest, with the limited visibility and difficult terrain? It was domineering. Arrows on open ground, spears in the forest, they are more impressive mounts than I'd ever realized. I guess just another thing to practice, mounted combat. And archery, I want to be as impressive as Alsantset.
My butchering completed and the meat packed onto Zabu, I start to rummage through the dead bodies, eager to find some loot. They aren't very wealthy looking, dressed in rough clothes and straw hats with cloth masks for their faces. Nothing identifying what faction they are either, only a few coins, silvers. No jewelry, no tokens, no secret manuals, nothing. C'mon son. Bring out your precious treasures when you go hunting. How's a man supposed to make a living, if all you carry is junk? I'm just a poor, savage child, just trying to make ends meet.
Alsantset grabs my ear, pulling me up onto my feet, my chuckles turning to pained noises. “What do you think you are doing?”
I hold back my tears, unable to escape her death grip. “Uh... checking for loot?” Why does this hurt so much? I think she's going to rip my ear off!
“Aaii, I have failed in raising you properly, failed in teaching you to behave honorably, like a good man should. First the drinking, then the whoring, I blamed it on that brat, Fung. But with the extortion in the contest, and now to find you robbing the dead? I must accept my failures and discipline you properly.” I stand on my toes while enduring a lecture from her, my ear throbbing from her vice-like fingers. I don't understand the problem. Killing them is fine, but taking their coin is no good? Those are some messed up priorities. Sumila giggles while Adujan watches happily, Huushal doing his best to look sympathetic, but failing miserably. Traitors.
We carry as much meat as we can, heading deeper into the forest, Alsantset guiding us towards the others in some unknown way. It could just be tracking skills, but I don't see anything worth noticing. The mood is light, the others chatting softly, smiling, happy at a victory, and to be honest, I'm happy too. It's an exhilarating feeling, winning a life and death confrontation, and this is my first one where I remained uninjured. A few bruises and small scratches, but nothing even worth noting. No one else was injured badly either, the worst being a gash on Huushal's arm. Not bad for being terribly outnumbered. Mostly thanks to Alsantset though, and of course, the quins. Hopefully, the worst is behind us now. I mean, 40 odd dead people is a pretty high body count so hopefully everyone else just backs the fuck off, and we can have a nice calm ride around the province before going home. Doubt it'll happen, but a man can dream.
We found the others after a short ride, camped out in a cave, the skins and bones of two large bears outside. I guess we took their home, poor fuzzy wuzzies. I will gratefully eat your meat though, bear stew is delicious. Their meat was being smoked inside the cave, a natural chimney dispersing the clouds of smoke, hiding us from our pursuers. I've never eaten horse and I try to imagine the taste as we add the meat to the impromptu smoker. They seem stringy and chewy though, probably not that great. Everyone takes a spoonful of the elixir as well, except Mei Lin, who gives hers to Song. The little brat knows what's in it, but she hasn't told anyone else. I keep my mouth shut as well, not wanting to discourage them. I guess I should eat some too. Grimacing at the smell, I choke down a small spoonful. This goop better work. Gall bladders, fetal creatures, and ground up animal cocks, fucking disgusting. Where's the science behind it? There is no warm feeling of surging strength, no tingling throughout my body, just an uncomfortable rumble in my belly. Fucking hell, I hope I don't get dysentery.
The warm afternoon sun still hangs in the sky as we gather around Alsantset to hear her speak. “We need to plan our next move. The obvious choice is to head to Feng Huang city and resupply, before heading on to Shen Yun. While the threat of Defiled is high, I am more concerned about the Society for now. I am unaware of the politics surrounding this area. Song, do you know of any connections those cities have with the Society?”
Song remains quiet, and only speaks after I ask her to answer the question. Her voice is dry, uninterested, mote regurgitation of facts. “The Feng Huang city Magistrate is neutral with the Society, but they have a heavy presence within the city, while the Shen Yun city Magistrate is from the Situ Sect.” Well there goes that plan.
At my prompting, she reveals all the ties she is aware of in the cities of the Northern Province. We would need to travel to Shen Jin in the west or JiuLang in the east, before reaching a city that isn't controlled by some Society faction. 1,600 kilometers to Shen Jin. JiuLang is a bit closer at 1500 km, but it doesn't get us home safely, as we would need to cross directly into the area that Defiled are currently rampaging in. No ocean boats either, and everyone looks at me like I'm an idiot when I suggest it. Apparently, the ocean has monsters that make Saurophages look tiny and friendly in comparison. It's safe to take a ship in the Azure Sea, riding along the coast, but the Society has ties in every port city, so that was a no go. Since the inner parts of the province belong to the ancestral beasts, that way is also blocked. So it looks like our decision is made, heading west to Shen Jin by default. The scenic route around the province, not a terrible thing.
The plan is to avoid contact while traveling, and sneak Elia and Chakta on foot into Feng Huang to buy supplies, before heading to Shen Jin. It will be a long and dangerous journey, with more responsibilities on me and the other cadets, now that Akanai and the others were no longer with us. Just thinking about it makes me anxious, two or three months of hard travel, while being hunted for our loot and hostile armies march around.
There isn't much to do besides sit around and wait. Unless they send some rock climbing ninja-assassins, we're pretty safe here considering they don't have our location. Song squats close by, eyes on the floor, facing me. She is a lovely young woman with cute triangular cat ears and a restless tail, golden brown fur contrasted against her darker brown hair. She just sits there unless I tell her to do something, almost like a robot, unable to make decisions on her own. I asked her what she wanted to do, and all she would answer was, “I wish to serve.” No enthusiasm, just … the proper response, as she see it.
Slavery is more ingrained to the Empire than I first imagined. The army even has slave corps, soldiers brought up from birth to fight and defend the Empire, until the day they die. As soon as they're able to manipulate Heavenly Energy, they are made to take an oath to the Heavens, swearing obedience to the Emperor, forcing them into slavery for life. Song is like that, but privately trained, her oath made to the chain in my pouch. Whoever holds it is her master, making her very convenient to sell and trade. Destroying the chain makes her a slave, permanently, to whoever last held it. Song will be a slave until the day she dies. She can't even be more than five kilometers from the person holding the chain, or she dies. She was left behind only because she was participating in the contest, her chain held by one of her fellow competitors. It seems my experience as a slave wasn't as terrible as it could have been, as I was deemed not good enough, or too old to train. At least some good luck came from being scrawny.
“Hey.” She flinches at the sound of my voice, turning towards me, eyes on the ground. “Um, I don't really know much about your former situation, but things will be different now.” No response or change in her at all. “Do you have anyone you can trust with your err.. chain, I guess?” I can't come up with a better sounding word, and Song simple shakes her head, still silent. Not real chatty. “Look, just... you're as free as you can be, I guess. You know... just... don't... kill us all in our sleep, please. You're stuck with us, but...” Shit I'm terrible at this. “Uhh.... just... try to forget about it, and act as if you're a free person. And if you meet someone you want to uhh... stay with, just let me know, and I'll give them your... chain.” Holy fuck, what the hell is wrong with me? I'm asking a person to pick their own master, while hiding in a cave from assassins and robbers. How did my life get so fucked up?
Still no response from her. I might as well have just told her that it was raining, for all the emotional depth she showed. Whatever. Maybe she just needs some time to process it all. I walk off outside the cave and find a place to start practicing, punching large rock, over and over again. The movement calms me down, centers me as I continue to try to Amplify my strike. When my fists are bloody and bruised, I sit down and heal, standing up as soon as they're fixed, to continue again. The sun begins to set, and still I continue to punch, succeeding more than a dozen times. I'm getting better at it, at least.
“You're trying too hard, idiot.” Sumila walks up to me and grabs my arm before dragging me off. “I've told you this before. You're unbalancing your chi with how forceful you're being. Take a break with me.” She takes me to the edge of the cliff, sitting down with her legs hanging off the incline, and patting the rock for me to join her. Honestly, I'd rather not. I'm fine with heights, just not with hanging out on a cliff edge. I have limits. Gingerly scooting towards the edge, I sit with my legs crossed, not quite at the lip. Sumila rolls her eyes and moves back to sit next to me. She doesn't say anything, just looking out at the scene before us.
It is a beautiful view, facing the namesake of the continent, the Azure Sea. A massive body of water that spans across four provinces, North, west, south and central. It almost splits the continent in two, requiring an incredible amount of time to traverse, but it is as clear and blue as the name would imply. The tiny sails of far off ships dot the orange-red horizon and I can almost make out the movement of the oars, propelled by unlucky slaves. Fuck. What am I going to do about Song? We sit there for several long minutes, enjoying the serenity together. “What are you thinking about?” Sumila leans in to me, shoulder to shoulder.
Absently, I reply, “About Song.”
She remains silent for a long moment, just sitting next to me while we enjoy the view, comfortable in each others presence. It's nice that she isn't mad at me anymore, but I still have no idea what I did. “Give me the necklace, Rain.” Necklace! why didn't I just call it a fucking necklace?
“Ya sure.” Weird, she wouldn't take it back earlier, when I was panicking over having a slave. Placing it into her hip purse, she stands and leaves without another word. I guess sightseeing is over. Staring at the view for a moment longer, I return back to my training, trying to be less forceful, to try less hard. Not very helpful advice. I continue to punch, my anger mounting. Between being dragged out here, left behind for war, targeted by the society of assholes and scumbags, and dealing with Song, I have plenty to spare. After a few dozen strikes, the rock begins to shatter apart, every strike successful, the stone crumbling before my power. Breathing heavily, I pick shards out of my fist and face, wiping the blood as best I could. I think I'm getting better at it. It seems tied to my emotions. I need to be angry for it to work. I think. Needs more testing.
Sitting down and closing my eyes, I begin healing the worst of my injuries, my broken knuckles and a deep gash from an errant shard. When my eyes open again, Charok is standing in front of me. He seems upset, but doesn't say anything for a long time. “You are training incorrectly.”
“I know you're concerned about my injuries, but I'm old enough to make my own decisions.” The anger is still there, and I'm more harsh than I mean to be.
He knocks me on the forehead hard, instantly deflating my anger and bringing tears to my eyes. “Not that, little brother.” He gestures for me to stand. “You're training to fight angry. You need to practice in the state of Balance. Too much anger is of no use to you, as is too little, and the same with any other emotion. You must hold to the middle way, in more ways than one. Do not force your emotions out of balance for the sake of combat.”
Holding up a rock shard for me to see, Charok turns towards the treeline. Holding it between his thumb and middle finger, he flicks the shard away faster than my eyes can track. A thud is heard in the gloom, and he leads me over to a tree more than 15 meters away. The rock shard is embedded within the bark, digging maybe 10 centimeters deep. “Amplification isn't about power, but control and timing. The easiest way to train is with small, simple movements. Your punches have too many moving parts to them, shoulder, elbow, wrist, waist, complicating the issue.” His grin is visible in the dim light, teeth almost glowing as much as his eyes. “With a flick, you can wait until you feel the chi explode before taking action. The more you practice and become familiar with the sensation, the easier it will become.”
I stare at him, then at the hole he made with just one finger, then back at him. What. The. Fuck. That's terrifying... what can he do with a throwing knife? Or darts or whatever. “Why didn't you just tell me this sooner?”
He shrugs at me and flicks my forehead, still grinning. I almost pissed myself for a moment there. “Despite your insistence otherwise, I am not a mind reader. I thought you were just strengthening your fists again. You have odd training methods, and you still have not learned to ask for help, little brother. Besides, it's best if you make mistakes on your own. Only then can you learn from them.” His smile disappears, turning into a frown. “This is not why I am here. I wish to speak with you regarding the slave girl.”
Perfect. “Oh good, I thought you wouldn't want to talk about her. I'm at a loss at what to do, with all the restrictions, how can we help her live a normal, happy life?”
Letting out a sigh, Charok remains silent for a long time, before taking me into a hug. “You're too kind, little Rain, It is one of the best things about you, but I worry it will get you killed one day. Just treat her as you would anyone else, and let time heal her. Do not push yourself too hard with training. There will be long days ahead." He turns and leaves, letting me stew in my own thoughts.
I'm not too nice. I can ignore the suffering of the slaves in the ships, or in the mines, or anywhere else, because it's not my fucking problem. It's sad, but what can I do about it? There's no ignoring this though, no matter how much I'd like to. I can't just hand her off to someone, or sell her, or kill her. I'd never be able to sleep at night if I did. Not without a pill at least.
Wandering back to the pile of rock shards, I pick a handful up to practice with. The stones flick out, arcing to the ground, and I continue until I have no more stones, my fingers bloody, nails beginning to peel.
This hurts worse than the punching.