Alsantset rode through the dense mountain forest, knowing she should rest for the coming days but unable to stop herself from continuing to prepare. Although the chances for a night attack were low, she meant to take every advantage she could. The Society of Heaven and Earth was not only a major power in the Northern Province, it could be considered a top twenty power in the entire continent. If only more of their members were like Elder Ming, honorable and forthright. While such a grand foe would not stoop to sending their greatest experts, they would have a large supply of troops to draw upon, even in a time of strife like now, with Defiled roaming the province, Papa fighting for his life at the wall, all while she was out on pleasure trip, taking her children to play.
It was unavoidable, the province forever at risk of attack, but the few years of peace following Rain's arrival had lured her into a false sense of security. Before he had come, she would never have thought to bring children so young out into the world, especially not so far. She had wanted to watch Rain rise to glory in the competition, or be there for him should he falter, and the only way to do that was to bring her precious babies out as well. The two little sweetlings had been so excited and happy, amazed by every sight and experience, it was an endless delight traveling with them. Charok had been supportive of her decision, but Papa had disagreed, a fierce and protective man.
A warm feeling overcame her as she remembered her first year with him on the Banner. He had fussed over her so much, helping her with everything, keeping her safe and comfortable. He had even helped do her laundry, earning him teasing laughs and comments from the others. He accepted them proudly, happier being a father than a mercenary, but he could never just stay home, never remain still. He had tried when she had asked him once, when she was twelve, and watching him pace back and forth, unable to ever sit still, quiet and sullen... it had hurt her to see him so. That was when she decided to become strong, to serve on the Banner, riding next to him. She would do so again when her babies were grown and married, perhaps after finding a second wife for Charok. Mama had it difficult at home without anyone to care for her, and she could not do that to Charok. She only needed to find someone appropriate.
Pushing the thoughts out of her mind, she continued with her bloody work, preparing the area should the Society find them. Alsantset had asked for every scrap of information in Li Song's mind about the surrounding area, looking for any advantage or boon she could. The poor slave girl was a pitiful thing, jumping at shadows and fast movements, always aware of anyone around her, especially the men. It was better for Sumila to hold the necklace, even if the change in ownership was prompted by a misunderstanding from Sumila, the little girl worried Rain would take advantage. Thankfully she had sent Charok to speak with him, rather than go scold him herself, and the problem was cleared up without issue. She was upset at herself for thinking so little of Rain. He treated Song with an awkward kindness, unsure of how to act around her, and both Sumila and she had mistaken it for lust. At least Rain was focused on training and had not realized their gaffe. He was quite foolish at times.
While their greatest strength lay in the roosequins, speeding through the terrain was not enough. Even if they rode hard each day, there would come a time when the mountain range ended, transitioning into open plains, and it was there they would fall. The Society had use of military messengers, and the cities ahead would have a warning of her party, possibly have members patrolling and horsemen waiting. The prizes were a compelling temptation, but this conflict was entirely about their pride and face. The youngsters had all but spit on five factions within the Society, brutalizing their opponents without mercy. A shameful thing for the Society to cry about, as what was the point of competition if you fear to lose? While the children could have fought with a lighter touch, spared their pride a bit, why should the People need lower their heads to those weaklings? The children were the future, and with these seedlings, the status of the People would rise within the Empire.
So long as she was able to bring them home safely.
Her trap laid out, she returned to their cave, well hidden by the darkness and branches. Letting off a low bird-call, she entered slowly so as not to be shot by Adujan or Huushal. They were both nervous, young and untested in true combat, but she had confidence in both of them. Confidence that they would fight well, but not so confident they would not shoot her in the dark. Huushal was a fearsome combatant, just like his mother, subduing opponents through raw power and economy of motion. The lovely little orphan was quite different, a mishmash of styles that she had made her own, speed and power intricately tied together. Alsantset simply could not believe that Rain had mistaken her for a boy, a revelation that had brought much laughter to the group. Cuddling with her babies, she closed her eyes and drifted to sleep, confident in their defense. She was Alsantset, Bannerman of the People, Daughter of Baatar and Sarnai, and her enemies would learn her name and fear it.
A fierce yowl jolted her from her sleep, rising up and reaching for her bow and spear. Elia scurried over with Chakha, bundling the twins against them, ready to give their lives to protect them. They were not warriors, but they were both of the People, and Alsantset was proud to call them friends. Padding out towards the cave entrance, she smiled as she listened to the screeching and screaming as the binturongs tore into the Society clansmen who dared to disturb their meal. After hearing about their presence, Alsantset spent a few hours killing and bleeding prey, scattering their corpses about their position. The creatures fiercely guarded their meals and were difficult opponents to fight, especially in the dark. An early warning system that had worked wonderfully.
With a few moments to spare, she quickly checked her gear, readying herself for the battle ahead. Her cross-bladed spear had served her well in the Banner, and it would once again taste the blood of her enemies. Jamming the butt into the hard stone, she let it stand upright as she readied her arrow. Charok and the cadets spread out, keeping lines of fire clear as they moved stealthily about their position. It was too dark, the trees too thick for moonlight to shine through, but even then it cost them little to fire into the dark. A movement in the treetops, one of their attackers fleeing upwards away from the predators, gleaming in the moonlight, quickly brought down with a single arrow from Charok. He always was the better bowman, but even as the weakest member on the Banner, that still counted him as one of the most fearsome in the village. More clansmen shot up into the trees, and she loosed, several arrows following hers, arcing into their opponents. Even wounded, it would be their deaths, the pain and distraction enough to send them crashing into the ground. If the fall did not end them, the binturongs would. The sounds of fierce combat ensued, giant creatures crashing about the forest as human warriors sought to fend them off, a futile effort with so many gathered by Alsantset's hunt. Her face hurt from smiling so much, as she had not dared to dream that it would work so well.
Dropping her bow, she grasped her spear and began the dance of combat, the beat flowing through her body as she moved about, her blades slipping through flesh and bone as if it were water, always moving about. Too weak, these warriors, too frightened, with pitiful human eyesight, unworthy to face the daughter of Baatar, not in these conditions. She would allow them the honor of her spear, to find the embrace of the Mother, and tell Her it was Alsantset that sent them to her side. With an easy spin balanced on a single foot, she cleared the area around her of enemies, their bodies dropping to the floor in twain. Leaping forward, she moved through the enemy, her spear moving and spinning, dicing and stabbing as she struck down these faceless assassins. She would see them all dead, with no mercy in her for any who threatened those she loved.
A cry sounded nearby, Sumila injured in combat against three foes, falling to the ground. Alsantset rushed forward to aid her, but Huushal arrived before her, a mute berserker waving his saber about, spinning it while holding the pommel ring. A single strike killed two, crushing them beyond recognition, sending the survivor flying back. Charging forward, Huushal crashed his weapon down on his opponents blade, smashing again and again until the crack of bones sounded, his foes arms dropping uselessly before a final chop violently snuffed out his life.
A fierce warrior indeed.
Killing the remnants of their attackers, Alsantset glanced about, listening for more enemies in the night. Cowards, not even willing to openly attack them, wearing masks and disguised as bandits. She heard nothing but the feeding of their massive, involuntary protectors, who remained with their new-found meals, unwilling to abandon fresh meat. An easy meal was one thing, but with a hard-earned fresh kill came unrivaled satisfaction. With a prayer thanking the Mother for Her creations, she set about checking the injuries of her party. Sumila's was the worst, rent from shoulder to chest, Rain and Mei Lin already rushing to her side, a deep wound gushing with dark blood.
"You're going to be fine, Sumila, it's just a small injury, nothing to worry about." The boy lied to her as he worked frantically, his training showing through as he moved quickly and efficiently, aiding Mei Lin to save the girl's life. Alsantset watched Sumila's eyes, so focused on Rain as he worked, tears gleaming in the moonlight. The girl could not admit her love for him, not even to herself, not yet. She would come to terms with it, in time, as long as she lived through this dire injury.
Her fate was left to the Mother now, and Alsantset could offer nothing but prayers. Beasts die for food, humans die for greed, an unfortunate truth of the world. Re-entering the cave, she set about gathering the others of their group, readying themselves to leave as soon as they could, for better or for worse. The enemy had found them, and it mattered not how or why, only that they could not remain here. The meat was dried enough, a little spoilage of no danger to them, and they gathered it up, splitting enough for each of them should they be separated. Giving her children a quick kiss each, she mounted onto Suret, bringing the rest of the quins out with her, ready to learn the fate of little Sumila.
Situ Bolin looked at the outer clansmen before him, bloodied and injured, worthless cowards who had fled. He had sent the best available, and they had failed him horribly, shaming him and the Situ clan. They cringed before him as they realized their error, having given their panicked report loudly in front of everyone, compounding their cowardice with foolishness.
“Hahaha, it seems the lower ranks of the Situ clan have little promise. A shame, a shame.” An Elder from the OuYang clan laughed in delight. “The future of the great Situ clan seems to be in jeopardy. It is these youths who shall be the leaders of tomorrow, and it seems they are sorely lacking.”
“Well, I had thought this would be a wasted trip, that the Situ clan would have claimed all the prizes.” The White Lotus Sect representative joined in, her laughter chiming like bells. “It would seem that my turn has arrived. Do not worry, Elder Bolin, I will reserve one of the children for sale to the Situ clan. You need not worry about punishment from your Patriarch.” The mocking laughs infuriated Bolin, but he did nothing. What could he do, but endure?
“You remember the rules?” The mediator spoke once again, his anger showing on his face. “The youngsters are to be taken alive, and it is important that you give nothing away.”
Waving his concerns away, the White Lotus Elder began to gather her troops, sending them rushing off into the night, chasing after the barbarians, while the Elder remained to mock and jeer with her peers.
“Hmph.” Bolin sneered at the survivors, and gave his orders to Guardian Chilok. “Execute these worthless fools. Blabbering about controlling binturongs, cowards all of them.” He turned and strode back to his tent to tell the little Patriarch the bad news, and await the results of the White Lotus Sect.
Magistrate Tong Da Hai stood at the walls, hands clasped behind his back, staring down at the enemy arranged before him, illuminated by torchlight. They spread out along the grasslands, 120,000 strong, infantry and cavalry arrayed before him, their weapons held ready. Uncountable and various, several large creatures of fur and chitin moved about, never still as they were held back by their handlers, fierce and vicious to gaze upon. Twenty two demons were scattered about the lines, easily picked out as none stood close to them, each able to kill a thousand men on their own without rest. He had perhaps a dozen warriors capable of handling them, Xue Chang and Man Giao chief among them, ready to lay their lives down for the Empire. Each one would be a valuable resource in the fight ahead.
Reinforcements had arrived, but not enough, two Majors and their divisions, a mere 10,000 cavalry lancers, their officers mostly untested. It took too much time for infantry to reach him, the roads having suffered various attacks in the past days, harassed by the enemy and their fierce beasts, several camps torched and burned. Brigadier Chang stood atop the battlements, within the command tower, a steady stream of reports and messengers moving in and out of the area. 50,000 soldiers, and whatever guards and militia he could scrounge up, against 120,000, without adding in the strength of the enemies monstrous hordes and demons. Things did not bode well for Shen Huo, but they would endure behind their walls. The lives of millions depended on it.
A lone rider approached the walls, a large Defiled tribesman, wearing armor of bone and scales, mounted atop his nightmarish Garo. Two legged and long snouted, with fearsome teeth, giant horns, and thick armored hides, they were fast and difficult to kill, as his scouts and the surrounding camps had learned. Hai could only pray that a messenger would make it past them, able to reach someone for aid. The rider shouted in his incomprehensible language, guttural and harsh, his horned helmet swaying as he rode across the front of his horde, battle-axe raised as he whipped his soldiers into a killing frenzy. Their commander, their mouthpiece, he would stand at the back, his cavalry arrayed around him, watching the battle unfold. The horns sounded and they marched forward, following slowly behind the demons, a steady, rhythmic beating of their feet upon the ground, the behemoth demons rumbling forward while the more lithe ones walked almost leisurely.
The order was given and arrows loosed, a scattered rain of arrows falling upon his Enemies. Hai smiled to himself, fondly remembering the sight of the Herald, leading her people to his defense. They would not be coming today, however, and it was left to him and his city guards to defend his city. The rumbling grew more frantic as the enemy began their charge, the vibrations felt even through the thick, reinforced walls, their screams of rage and violence reaching their ears, as his soldiers continued to discharge arrow after arrow.
Too soon the demons reached the walls, some crashing into the gates, trying to bring them down, others leaping up to climb, while the Defiled attempted to scale the walls with ropes and ladders, while soldiers fought them off, pouring boiling water over the battlements, the smell of cooked flesh filling the morning air. He stood back and out of the way, awaiting the approach of the enemy.
Before long, a demon rose from the battlements, scattering the guards before him, a mockery of the human form, dark, willowy, and deadly, oblong blade-hands tearing the throats out of his soldiers as it cleared a space upon the wall. Hai stepped forward, the Divine Flames igniting, striking the creature upon the chest, sending it back over the battlements. Returning to his post, Hai centered his chi, awaiting the next demon to arrive. He could only delay them, injure them enough to make them retreat, as a full on combat would cost him the walls, the soldiers unable to throw back the Defiled whilst he did battle.
Too soon, the demon returned, this time charging directly at him, blades elongating to pierce his body. Detestable. Clapping his hands, Hai sent a lance of white-hot flame towards the creature, enveloping it in the liquid flames, again sending it stumbling back, burning its blades, melting to drip upon the stone. A second strike erupted from him, destroying the Demon's arm, the resulting ichor unable to even spray as it crumbled to ashes once meeting the super-heated air. Sensing a chance, he focused the flame upon his index finger, and closing the distance in a single bound, he thrust his finger forward, piercing the demon's chest. It erupted in intense heat as its innards were broiled, the body blackening into ash, staining the battlements. A cheer erupted as his soldiers fought with renewed vigor, the first demon defeated raising their morale to new heights.
Hai stepped back once more, again finding Balance, drawing all that the Mother could give him. Too wasteful, killing the creature had cost him too much. He drank deeply from the proffered glass, the cool liquid soothing his dry throat as an attendant slathered cream upon his hands, cracked and bleeding from the intense heat. He cursed his impetuous actions, foolhardy and reckless. He was no longer a young man desperate for glory, he was the Magistrate now. There would be many more demons to deal with as his officers and Exarchs fell and his zone of defense grew wider. Clearing his mind of doubts, he resolved himself to the plan set forth by Xue Chang. Defend the walls, delay the enemy, await reinforcement. The large walls worked against them at times, but it was the only way to protect so many people, always more civilians than warriors.
A second Demon arrived, metallic and warped, undulating shrieks issuing forth from its throat. Hai step forward once again, the Divine Flame rising at his call as he met the creature in battle.
Delay, and victory would be theirs.
Fall, and millions would die.
Tong Da Hai fought, defending his people, the weight of his city upon his shoulders.