“You need to be careful when you go fighting, ya? You don't need to be a hero Rainy, you just need to survive and come back to me, ya?” Mei Lin straightens my collar, fixing imperfections that aren't there, her big brown eyes dripping with tears, sending them down her lightly tanned skin in streams, as pangs of guilt move through my chest. “You remember to eat well, and keep safe, and write me often. Akanai will send messengers to the city, so you just give your letters to Mi-Mi, and she'll have them sent.”
Patting her on the cheek, I give her a smile, sad to see her so distressed. “Don't you worry. I promise I will write at least once a month.”
“Once a day.” She stamps her foot, pouting.
“Once every two weeks?” Hugging her tightly, I smile at how adorable she is. Her little hands clutch at my shirt, unwilling to let go so that I can join the rest of the Sentinels. On the journey here to Shen Huo, Taduk informed her that they would be remaining within the city, as Taduk would be helping with all the injured. Mei Lin has been begging and pleading him every night since, wanting to go to war with everyone else, the foolish little girl. She spent every other waking moment stuck at my side, trying to convince me to help her sneak away, but I was adamant not to. Poor sweet little angel, I'm relieved that Taduk had the ability to stick with his decision, because war is no place for Mei Lin. As much as I like having her around, I'll rest easier knowing she'll be safe in the city.
She continues to cry and offer advice, most of it amounting to 'don't die', which is fair considering how often I come close to death. It's a great feeling knowing someone loves you this much, but I think some separation is good. Maybe she'll meet a handsome young man in the city and fall in love. She's in the springtime of her youth and she's spending it in love with me, instead of with someone more age appropriate. Soon, her words are incomprehensible as she cries into my chest, tears staining my shirt, her tiny arms wrapped around me as I pat her back and try to comfort her.
The new moon is once again upon us, and after a day of rest inside Taduk's villa, I now march to war. Well, ride to war, marching would be the worst. Poor soldiers, walking to battle. I'd hate to face one of those hulking monstrosities the Defiled ride without Zabu. Furred reptilian beasts, running around on taloned legs, with razor-sharp teeth and horns longer than my sword, just seeing their corpses make me nervous. Plus they have other monsters, and demons sound crazy scary too. I don't really know how massed warfare works here, but I can imagine it won't be pretty, especially for those at the bottom of the pyramid like me. Like, what the fuck am I supposed to do if I run into the Defiled counterpart of Akanai? Killing is easy, surviving is the difficult part.
“Are you sure I can’t go with you? Daddy will let me if you just speak to him.” Mei Lin's sad, hopeful eyes stare up at me.
“Yes, I'm sure that you cannot come to war with me you silly little girl, and no, I will not speak to him about this. You will remain here, where it's safe.” The rest of my words are lost in her wailing, as she cries harder than before. It takes several minutes for her to stop sobbing, and I gently disentangle myself from her and hop onto Zabu. Waving goodbye as Taduk holds her close, I ride off to join the rest of the Sentinels, ignoring their smirks and jeers. I'd already said my goodbyes to Charok and the twins last night, the two sweetlings unable to wake up to see me off. They've had a rough two months of hard travel, which can't be good for their growth. At least they'll be staying at Taduk's villa, where they can have fun and get fat, with plenty of people to look after them. Between Akanai's army, all the reinforcements, and two other armies nearby, Shen Huo is the safest place they can all be.
“What a heartbreaking goodbye.” Adujan mocks me as I fall in beside her, hands clasped together as she pretends to swoon. “The little lady, sitting in her manor, jilted by her beloved, yet still awaiting his return. Ah, the stuff of tragedies.”
“She's not my beloved, Adujan, I've said it before. There's been no jilting, she's like a little sister to me.” I need to remain as neutral as possible, or the comments and teasing will never end. While it's nice that she doesn't hate me anymore, she is a font of mocking quips and foul language, especially when out of earshot of the twins and Akanai. We quickly catch up to the marching soldiers, awaiting our turn to ride out on scouting duty.
“You should make your intentions clear to her, Rain. She is only worried because you have not yet agreed to marry her. You do her no favors, setting her aside for prostitutes and serving women. You should stop with your wretched ways and accept her. She loves you so much, yet you treat her so terribly.” Sumila lectures me on the immorality of my actions, a long, loud sermon that brings delight to the other Sentinels around us.
It's not even fair, I haven't slept with anyone since leaving the Society. I don't see no ring on my finger, why does everyone feel the need to address how much I enjoy the company of women? Huushal is no help, as he actively avoids eye contact with me, riding a small distance away. I can't blame him for that though, he's endured more than one lecture from Sumila as well, which might be my fault.
Suffering silently through her lecture, I watch the surrounding Sentinels ride about. Who knew there were so many? The village only has like three or four thousand people, with maybe three hundred Sentinels. The other 4,700 are from other various villages inside the Saint's Tribulation Mountains, not part of the People, but allies, I guess. Each village looks after their own, but they all work under Akanai, the only person in the mountains that held a rank until the recent string of promotions. By joining the Sentinels, their villages are allowed to more or less govern themselves, as well as protection under the laws of the Empire. With no service, there would be no protection, meaning anyone strong enough could simply enslave their entire village. I have no idea how strong these newcomers are, but they all have bows that look exactly like mine, as well as many very well made spiritual weapons, so they're well equipped, and they all ride roosequins as well. Forget the soldiers, 5,000 roosequins are terrifying enough.
As member's of the army, we've all been arranged in small units, 1,000 five man units. It seems incredibly unwieldy to me, but then again, what do I know about war? From what I've learned from asking Sumila, massive battles generally follow a simple pattern. Everyone lines up, and we charge, the entire thing turning into a massive, melee cluster fuck. Sure, there are deployment tactics, arrows flying, and all that, but things like that tend to fall apart in the face of super elite fighters, like Demons. When one creature can wipe out an army of 1000, strength in numbers don't mean as much anymore. Sure, you might kill the Demon with 1,001 soldiers, but who would willingly stick around to be slaughtered? Worse, the Demon might just kill 900, then run off, rest, and recuperate.
Battles are all about the strength of the individual, but individuals get tired. You can't have the strongest warriors waste all their energy killing weaklings, so you take five soldiers, and pick the strongest, who becomes the leader. The other four soldiers protect their leader, fighting until they meet an enemy that is too strong for them to handle. In a perfect world, the leader steps in and kills the enemy, and you move on. For my little group, I have Sumila at the top, while Adujan, Li Song, and Huushal make five. We didn't want to break up the band. I wanted to hang out with Alsantset, but she has her own crew, and I'm not strong enough to join.
Repeat the same method of thinking, only on a larger scale. Two five-man groups link up, creating one Ten-man group, ten Ten-man groups link up, and you have one 100-man group, and so on and so forth. Essential, the strategy is kill what you can, until you meet something you can't. Then you hope someone strong enough notices your dilemma and saves your ass. It seems like a really shitty strategy to me, especially since I'm so low on the totem pole. Alsantset is close to the top, only overshadowed by one or two others, and Akanai. That's my sister, top-dog. Or top-tiger. Whatever.
Nothing I can do except aim to become stronger. Or just learn to aim. Archers don't fight in melee combat. I'm finally getting the hang of standing on Zabu as he moves. Still a bit shaky, and still terrible aim, but it's progress. I need to be able to stand and loose arrows as Zabu moves at full speed, in an erratic pattern. Tall order for a guy that can barely hit a target from 50 meters.
Sumila is still lecturing me, having gone through my vices once already. Prostitutes, alcohol, bad manners, bad posture, lack of self-control, and my slovenly appearance. She's starting to repeat herself, and it's been less than an hour. I should just take up gambling and hard drugs, so she has more to talk about. Adujan chimes in with an unhelpful comment every now and then, reigniting Sumila's vigor whenever it seems to have run its course, smiling all the while. Li Song is silent as always, her personality yet to develop. She's the most boring person I know, and I have no idea how she does it. All she does is follow Sumila around, and in her spare time she likes to stare silently at the ground, occasionally jumping when I try to make conversation. I've given up trying to be friendly, but she seems to be opening up to Sumila at least. I continue to nod in agreement with Sumila, my eyes on the horizon, while Huushal does all he can to ignore the proceedings.
Fifteen days until we reach the fortress, barring any interruptions. It's going to be a long ride.
Urging his horse faster, Fung galloped towards the Bekhai army with his guards in tow behind him. He had ridden hard as soon as his father had informed him of their recent departure, only 6 hours behind them. A fortuitous coincidence for harmonization to end so quickly, allowing him to catch up after half a day of riding. He sighted their scouts, slowing to show his new badge of office, enjoying their reaction at seeing such a young Warrant Officer. Not yet twenty years old and a Warrant Officer, his father had smiled so proudly at him. The two of them made an odd pair, Fung missing a patch of hair from almost being scalped during the contest, while his father was completely hairless, having singed it all off in battle. Rain had made a cream and gifted it to Father and himself, apparently able to regrow lost hair. If it truly worked, Rain would be a rich man in the future. Many men would kill for such a miracle medicine.
The Defiled horde had been beaten back due to the stalwart city guards and the timely reinforcement of Lieutenant General Akanai. It had been a close thing to hear of it, both his Father and Brigadier Xue Chang almost succumbing to their wounds. Luckily with Medical Saint Taduk around, they were both hale and healthy as ever when Fung had arrived, rushing home using military resources. A difficult journey, switching horses every 50 kilometers, the rush of air that came with the speed he traveled at was exhilarating at first, but the constant jarring quickly wore down his enthusiasm and tailbone both. If not for his promotion to Warrant Officer by Marshal Shing Du Yi himself no less, Fung would have found himself in dire straits. Even a Magistrate's son was fair game when carrying five mid-quality Hearts, not to mention their other valuable prizes, but a Warrant Officer was off-limits, protected by the Emperor's Justice.
An outrider led him to where the Khishigs were camped and he was quickly guided to Rain, all of them seemingly aware of his friendship with the odd little warrior. Fung would be hard pressed to name a man who complained more than Rain, but Fung knew his worth. He smiled at the memory of Rain fighting his way through carnugators, losing limbs without blinking as he struggled for survival with nothing but a skinning knife. Rain had complained endlessly afterwards about being dragged to the island, and truth be told, Fung felt rather guilty for underestimating the dangers.
“Hey, congratulations on becoming the champions! I hear you were awarded a military ranking, Warrant Officer Fung.” Rain grinned, taking the token in hand to study, a rude gesture but Fung was well versed with his lack of manners. Handing it back, Rain glanced at Fung's new weapon, naked excitement shining in his eyes. Fung proudly hefted his new partisan from his saddle holster with both hands, the polished steel gleaming in the firelight, with a marbled pattern of black, wavy metal within. With a sharp point and wide, double-edged blade, as well as a crescent double-axehead as a cross guard, it was a thing of beauty and precision. Shorter than he would have liked at only 180 cm in length, but that it could be made so large already was a testament to the skills of Father's blacksmiths. He had immediately sat down to bind it as soon as it was forged, and only emerged when he was done. As the saying goes, a sword for duels, but a polearm for war.
Fung handed the weapon to Rain, who stepped back and displayed a short series of the forms. Committing every movement to memory for future study, Fung was once again amazed by his friend. They had not been able to spar in almost a year since Rain last visited Shen Huo, and he had improved in leaps and bounds. There was little ceremony in his movements, direct and simple as they were, yet deadly all the same. Power without excess, a wonderful economy of motion, every movement a fatal strike. Little wonder the Society believed that their youngsters were brutalized by the Bekhai, but that was how Rain's people showed respect to a fellow warrior. They were a strange people, seeming curt and unfriendly, but Fung admired their skill in warfare all the same.
The Bekhai were a tribe of warriors, through and through. When Rain had spoken of his practice, Fung had thought him lying. Nowhere else other than the Imperial Slave Corps would you find so many young children practicing the Forms. Even just feeding that many children the appropriate diet would beggar most organizations. Meats, grains, and vegetables, enough each day to feed a single peasant for a week. Every facet of their society seemed to have been engineered to support the warrior class, and in return, the warrior class supported the village. Where else could you find experts willing to donate their time to teach so many children the forms? They were such complicated movements and methods, to describe every single aspect as well as the multitude of minor variations available, it would take a tremendous amount of time. According to Rain, they didn't even focus on a subset of the Forms, learning them in their entirety. It was astonishing in scale and cost. If all the villagers of the mountains were trained in such a manner, then the Society had truly made a blunder, and had awoken a slumbering dragon.
Fung himself had received the dedicated teachings from three instructors ever since he could stand, listening to them expound on the Forms, guided by them in his training, and still he had not the insights that Rain did. A simple two-handed thrust, into a vertical guard. A twist of the weapon into an overhand thrust. A smash to the ground, followed by a twisting strike. All very normal movements, not too quick or slow, but power infused in every strike, the weapon reverberating with the vibrations sent through it, a low soothing hum as Rain continued his display, instinctively drawing out the strengths of the weapon. After a few more moves, the demonstration ended as Rain struck the butt of the weapon into the earth, abruptly cutting off the rumble of the metal. The weapon should have been his, Fung noted grimly.
Handing the weapon back to him, Rain grinned, without a single sign of envy. “It's a wonderful weapon, but a little light.” The joke was evident. The Heart that Fung had received was a 15x5x5 cm brick of Taglian stone, which was mined from the depths of the Azure Sea. A material famed for its density, after soaking in heavenly waters for likely tens of thousands of years, the small brick weighed 20 kilograms on its own. With the steel mixed in, the weapon measure at just under 35 kilograms, a weighty weapon indeed. While easily carried, to swing the weapon for hours on end in battle would be a test of endurance.
Clapping his friend on the back, Fung greeted the others that he knew, nodding politely at Sumila, grinning at Huushal, and giving Adujan his most charming smile. A lovely, pale-skinned woman, with beautiful, long legs, wide hips, and a slim waist, Fung had laughed uncontrollably when Huushal had told him how Rain thought she was a man. A blind idiot at times, a training maniac. “How are you faring, Adujan? Father told me some stories of your adventures, and he mentioned you were injured badly. I hope you are doing well.”
She smiled saucily at him with a seductive look. “I'm in good health, Taduk even healed the scars so I've nothing to even show.” So bold, this one, with her pink, full lips, in a seductive pout, and for a moment, Fung lost himself in imagining her pale, silky-smooth skin beneath the armor. Swallowing his saliva, he stammered out a reply. Fung was not used to women so brazen, and he found he rather liked it. She had a low laugh, and her short hair make her look fresh and inviting. “I had terrible wounds all over my body.” She continued to tease him, his face growing heated at her descriptions of her wounds, her hands tracing the areas she was injured as she spoke, low and close to her hips, high up upon her thigh, across the side of her breast.
Rain's laughter snapped him out of his fugue, and he closed his too wide jaw, quickly saying his farewells as he rushed off, dragging Rain along. “Quite a lady, isn't she? She seems interested in you. You better treat her right.” Rain was teasing him of course, always seeming so worldly when it came to women.
Fung felt his neck flush even more as he thought about 'treating her right'. Father would be delighted if he took one of the Bekhai as a wife, but it was not so simple a thing. Ong Jing Fei would not accept being the second wife, and would likely terrorize any other wives or concubines he took. She had even followed him along on this journey, inserting herself into his Honor guard. To have a woman like her as his betrothed was his greatest regret, but the alliance would keep their houses close. Her mother Ong Ruo Mei was too much a creature of the shadows, and only through their betrothal would she keep her assassins in check. For now, the viper would keep her daggers hidden, until a child was born between himself and Jing Fei. “It is not so simple. It would be … difficult for me to marry for love. Let us speak of something else.”
“Sure. Why are you here? In case you didn't notice, we're headed for war. Shouldn't you … I don't know, not be here? I'm not complaining or anything, just concerned for the future Magistrate, who is also the only heir.”
Always so blunt. “I am a Warrant Officer now, fool, and war has been declared. I'm here to serve, and I need your help asking the Lieutenant General. I'd like to serve at her pleasure, working as her aide.”
Frowning, Rain appeared to be in thought, silent for a few moments. “I can help you ask Akanai, but you need to promise to do something for me.”
Oh? It was rare for his friend to ask for compensation, one of the reasons they got along so well. They ignored social standings, each paying their own way, or treating with no expectations of repayment. “Ask.” Fung dreaded it, but people grow older and change. He was the future Magistrate, as Rain had just pointed out, and favors were a currency he would need to grow accustomed to dealing in. It saddened him a little that his friend was learning the ways of the world.
“You must swear … to not flirt with or ogle her.” Rain seemed more serious than Fung had ever seen him. “I know you'd like to 'serve at her pleasure', but be warned: she is terrifying, and her husband is as well. You need to be on your best behavior, or not only will you regret it, I'll be scolded for associating with you. Or worse, executed by your father, for letting his son walk blindly towards certain death.”
Laughing uncontrollably, Fung put his arm around his friend. “I'm able to control myself around pretty women, unlike some people I know. Besides she's far too old for my tastes.”
“Really? She's still gorgeous though.”
“Enough, you dog. We march to war, and the Typhoon brothers will soon sweep the Defiled from the lands. They cannot stand before the Great Wind and the Falling Rain.” Fung walked off with his friend, in search of the Lieutenant General as they traded stories of their recent adventures, full of danger and embellishments. As if Rain could have killed a dozen Society assassins, fighting atop a plateau alone. He needed to make his stories more believable.