This contest is total bullshit. A couple ugly rings and some jars of foul medicine. That's what I risked my life for? Fucking hell. I made more profit scamming the injured, even if Alsantset took it all away from me. I made more killing that fucking snake and picking herbs! What a bunch of bullshit. Rising Dragon Elixir, I read what's in that trash and there's no way I'm drinking that. It's just disgusting, and from what I've read, there isn't even any documented proof that it works, just hearsay. Some guy drank it, became a peerless warrior, then spent his life extolling the virtues of his elixir. Who knows if it even works? How many others have drank it over the years and remained mediocre?
The rings are alright, but nothing amazing. They help you draw in more Heavenly Energy, but you run the risk of taking in too much, which can cause massive blow-back damage, injuring your internal organs or cooking your brain. No thank you, I don't pay enough attention when I'm cultivating, I use that time for self introspection and image training. Or honing my imagination. Life is difficult without pornography.
I just wasted half a day, standing around while some old man praised and equivocated over all the prizes, telling ridiculous stories about how the contest had progressed. I didn't realize we beat up so many clans and sects. Baiji and White Lotus Sect, Lin clan and of course, the Situ Clan. I guess they were all after the bounty.
I wonder how the MC knows what happened, anyways? I guess they had watchers or something, little ninja spies. Everyone else got awesome prizes, like fancy clothes, armor, and villas. We totally got shafted with the shit prizes, just like I thought would happen. The MC didn't even mention our names, just called us 'nameless youngsters from the People tribe'. Get it right, MC, you're terrible. Worst of all, when we finally got on stage, Alsantset and the others were already gone, and I had no one to wave to. Even Huushal's parents were missing, raising concerned glances from him. I missed lunch for this bullshit, and I don't even get to see the twins smiling at me, or Alsantset and Charok all proud. Fucking hell.
Walking off the stage with our 'prizes' in hand, Fung hurries over, carrying his new multi-jeweled crown, which looks expensive as hell. I bet he could trade it for a watch. The lucky bastard is wearing a rakish bandanna, having almost gotten scalped during the contest. It took a chunk of his hair, which can't be healed back, leaving him quarter-bald, hence the need for the bandanna. It was good for a couple laughs. He walks beside us, speaking without looking at us, ignoring my wave. “Rain, you and your people need to leave now. Return to your quarters, I saw your families leave immediately after the prizes were announced. I'm sorry I can't help you, but if you make it to Shen Huo, Father will see you safely home. Go in safety.”
Before I have a chance to ask what's going on, Mei Lin grabs my arm and rushes me away. I look at Fung quizzically, but he just looks grim and shakes his head ever so slightly. Running alongside the rest of my team, I ask, “So.... What's going on here?”
“We're leaving the city, idiot.” Sumila, curt as always.
“Not that I really mind but uh... what about the rest of the tournament? The Hearts are the final prize, or something. I didn't see any handed out earlier.” They're pretty much 100% of why I'm here. And because it's impossible to say no to Alsantset. Or Akanai.
“We need to leave the city before someone murders us in our sleep for our prizes. It was some dog-shit luck winning them both." Sumila speaks quietly, whispering for only me to hear. "This is the Society's territory, and they protect their own. They'll cover up our murders from outside investigations, make everything look like an accident, or bandits, or something. No one will speak ill of them without proof.” Everyone else seems to have figured it out on their own, scanning the guards and surrounding people, alert and wary of anyone coming close. No one approaches us, probably afraid to get caught in the crossfire. That makes me appreciate Fung's warning a bit more, as well as making me feel stupid for waving at him. “There won't even be anyone who looks too closely at our deaths, since we have nobody of importance with us. Mama and Papa and Taduk all left already. It will be months before they even learn of our deaths, and by then, all they can do is avenge us.”
This contest really is the fucking worst. We're being targeted for murder, for these shitty prizes? What the fuck?! Go after the guys that got the pretty clothes, or the vases or something, those are valuable. I can't have any fun without the threat of death and violence. “Can't we just sell the prizes?” Coin can be spent, and publicly at that.
My question earns me a look of scorn from almost everyone. Mei Lin smiles at me. “Silly Rainy, why would they buy from us when they could just easily take it from our corpses? Besides, the prizes give them a legitimate reason for killing us, which they probably all wanted to do anyways. We humiliated so many of their youngsters in the forest.” She skips along as we move, like we're just strolling through the city. It'd be endearing if I wasn't so nervous. “You have a bad temper sometimes, Rainy, and so does Mi-Mi. Don't worry too much about it though, we're in public, and there are too many visitors here. The Society won't be able to act freely until we leave.”
God fucking dammit. I thought this place was safer, but it turns out, it's just corrupt! At least in Shen Huo, someone has to actually break the law before being killed. It was a CONTEST! Why participate if you can't stand losing? Where's the fucking sportsmanship? Picking up my pace, I run full speed towards our quarters, parting through the crowd of onlookers, who hope to watch our grisly deaths. We're slowed down considerably at each of the bridge checkpoints, the message already being spread about us as the guards delay for no apparent reason. Well, no good reason, since I see them eyeing our shitty rings and shitty jars, buying time for their respective groups, probably to ambush us outside the city. What a bunch of assholes.
By the time we return, everyone is waiting for us, with the quins all saddled up, packed, and ready to go. Mounting up, we move towards the city exit, again, stopped again at a checkpoint. Shifting in impatience, I spot Elder Ming while glancing around, headed straight for us with a contingent of his sect members. He stops before us, his companions strong arming the checkpoint guards back, away from us. Are they gonna take us away and murder us? Shit, I kinda liked this old man too.
Cupping his hands, he speaks to Alsantset, introducing himself. “I have word about the bounty placed upon your team. It was ordered by one Cho Jin Sui, a merchant.” It takes me a moment to remember who he's talking about, some no name character I'd forgotten about. Wow, lose one little fight and get mad enough to shell out 5,000 gold for a crippling? Overreaction much? What an asshole.
Elder Ming continues on. “Unfortunately, he escaped before our investigation could discover the party responsible for mediating the transaction. What properties he left behind have been seized and liquidated. As the aggrieved party, you are entitled to a share of the proceeds.” He hands Alsantset a small wooden case, which she quickly opens and closes. I see a flash of gold, cards or bars, before it is stuffed into her pack. Shiny... but that's just more bait for bandits and thieves. Can't spend it if we're dead. Elder Ming waves and the cute cat-girl from the bar fight is brought forwards, looking forlorn and lost, hugging her sword and scabbard. I should comfort her. “This slave's testimony was key in convicting Cho Jin Sui. I believe that she will be of value to you, a strong warrior. Perhaps not as fierce as the rest of you youngsters, but useful even as a distraction. She also has a grasp on the surrounding geography and politics, which could be helpful.” He hands Alsantset a fine chain necklace with a small gemstone, and the girl moves forward to follow, staring at the jewelry.
Alsantset tosses the chain to me, and speaks. “The girl is oath sworn to follow the commands of the bearer. You decide what to do with her, little Rain.” Wait, what? Holy crap, I beat up a slave? Why didn't anyone tell me she was a slave? Holding the chain out, I try to hand it to the cat-girl, but she simply stands there, staring at it. “She can't touch the chain little brother, it's part of her oath. It's slavery until death for her. You must look after her well.” Why does Alsantset say that like she's a pet? What the fuck am I supposed to do? I don't want this responsibility, this is way out of my comfort zone.
Elder Ming breaks the silence while I panic internally and unsuccessfully try to offload the chain to someone else. “My apologies to you youngsters, it seems my clan's gift has caused you some strife. Unlucky that you had received two of the greatest prizes.” He laughs regrettably, shaking his head. “Were it only the medicine, I would be able to protect you, but now, escorting you from the city is the most I can do. Come, time is of the essence.” Oh thank god, a decent person for once.
Tucking the chain into my pocket, I follow as the Arahant Sect members escort us all the way to the front gates, bullying their way through the various checkpoints when the stationed guards don't cooperate, wasting no time at all. Once outside the gates, Elder Ming salutes us once more, which we all return. “I hope that you all survive, and that we one day meet again.”
I cup my hands and bow the best I can while still mounted, grateful for his help. At least we're ahead of any possible ambushes. “Thank you for your help, Elder Ming Zhong Lang. You are a good man. I hope to meet you again in better circumstances, and share a drink and a story with you.” He smiles at me before turning to leave. I guess being seen with us won't win him any popularity contests.
Alsantset leads us away, as quickly as the quins can carry us, heading north along the road, grass stretching around us, the sea off to the west, questioning the cat-girl as we ride. “Song, was it? I require an area where horses cannot travel easily. Mountains, rocky cliffs, heavy forest, something. You know of such a place?”
Song nods, swaying atop one of Taduk's well-dressed quins, grasping the fabric of its vest. “The northeast border of the sea, it's an hour and a half away.” She speaks in monotone, a bored timbre to her voice despite the circumstances. Pointing awkwardly, she tries to lead the way, but her lack of skill in riding keeps her from doing so. Alsantset reaches over to her and lifts her by the belt, moving her onto Suret. We pick up the pace, riding hard, while I keep glancing back, fearful of pursuers. Quins can run, but not faster than a horse can in short bursts. They can easily run at 10 km/h for 15 hours a day, every day of the week, but their top speed is only around 45 km/h, more than half the speed of a horse at full gallop. Their strength lies in endurance and mobility, able to move through forest and mountains with ease, scaling rock and cliffs like flat ground.
It isn't long before I spot riders in the distance, whipping their horses with weapons in hand as they hurry after us, at least forty in number, possibly more. Well, at least they made it obvious they're here to kill us. “Alsantset!” She turns to look, motioning me to close the distance between us. As soon as I do, she tosses Song onto Zabu, landing roughly onto my lap. My arms go around her, steadying her. Well, hello there, pretty lady. Not the time, Rain, not the time. Flight, fight, or fuck. Pick one, and you don't get the other two. Besides, she's a slave! Don't take advantage of her, that's a terrible thing to do. I'll figure out some way she can be free, or at least keep as few restrictions on her as possible. So long as she doesn't murder us all in our sleep. What the fuck am I supposed to do with my hands in this situation?
Suret falls to the back, Charok now leading the way on Pafu, veering us off the road, into the grass and dirt. Our safety lies in the forest several kilometers ahead, but our pursuers are gaining on us quickly, and will catch us before we reach it. The twang of a bowstring draws my attention, an arrow whistling off into the distance. Craning my neck, I see Alsantset standing on Suret, like a heroine in a story, facing our enemies. She draws a second arrow, aims carefully, fires, and a horse rolls end over end, crushing its rider as it goes down. The scene repeats, our pursuers slowing down, scattering and weaving, but each arrow lands true, driving deep into a horses chest. The closer our pursuers get, the more quickly Alsantset fires, beginning to aim at riders, the power of her bow, combined with their speed kills them almost instantly, sending the dead flying from their mounts. When her quiver is emptied, a full 24 arrows, Alsantset gracefully turns and seats herself back onto Suret, as easily as sitting on a couch. Seeing my awed look, she smirks and winks at me, Suret easily carrying her forward with a pup in her arms, its furry butt swaying back and forth as they run past, grabbing Song as they move. Unbelievable.
Our pursuers are still coming, but in their attempts to avoid Alsantset's deadly shots, they've fallen behind. Within minutes we reach the treeline and the quins slow their speed, zigging around trees and zagging around rocks, heading ever forward at Li Song's directions. The forest grows darker and thicker, and Alsantset speaks softly, but the words reach my ears as if she's whispering directly into them. “We need to kill these pursuers, and then escape into the mountains to rest. Huushal, Adujan, Sumila, and Rain, come with me, the rest slow your pace and head deeper into the mountains. Do not get too far, or the girl will die.” A handy trick. I should learn that. I watch her toss Song to Charok, and she breaks away while I follow her with the other cadets. Circling around, I pull out my long spear, settling it into the crook of my arm. “We hit them hard then disengage. Then we come at them from a different angle.” We line up, single file, myself at the rear, and Alsantset leading the charge, the quins breaking into a forward sprint.
Our enemies come into sight almost immediately, moving at a canter through the forest, their eyes widening in panic as we charge into them. The quins leap forward several meters in unison, each of them targeting a different rider. My spear rams into the chest of the leading rider, snapping as I sail past atop Zabu, my stomach flopping around. Just as quickly, the quins all make a hard turn away, bringing us back and disappearing into the trees. Screams of surprise and death echo behind us, as we move through the forest, circling our prey. I'm not even directing Zabu, the quin taking his cues from Suret, and all I have to do is aim my weapon. A short minute later, we make a second charge, appearing from the other side of our pursuers, surprising them once again. This time my short spear is lost in the fray, embedded in the shoulder of another opponent. The amount of power Zabu puts into his pounce is enormous, tearing the weapon out of my hand, driving it deep into the flesh and bone of my enemy. Our attack done, we slip away to the cover of the forest, untouched by retaliation.
“Spread out this time, charge on my command, then we stay and end it this time. Eight left, simple enough.” Simple my ass, we took them by surprise, but they should be ready now, right?
Splitting from the group, I bring Zabu around, positioning myself at what should be their path of retreat. My hands sweat as I grip peace, listening to them talking among themselves in the dense forest, arguing about their next move, as Zabu quietly makes his way closer towards them.
Zhong Lang sat nervously on his horse as his fellow disciples shouted at one another, unable to decide on their course of action. All the senior disciples were dead, either shot by that bitch of a woman, or impaled by the lightning fast-charges of those furred beasts ridden by those barbarians. He was just a normal disciple, only 25 years old. His wife was at home, their daughter just born. Why had he volunteered for this mission? It was supposed to be an easy task according to his uncle, hunt down some bumpkins who didn't know their place. How had this happened? These fucking barbarians were too savage, too strong.
Jun was urgently shouting, “We need to run before they return!” Lang agreed with him, but he would never voice it aloud, the man was a disgrace and a coward. His mouth dry, eyes frantically looking around him, trying to spot from where the barbarians would come from. Jun's nerve finally broke, turning his horse to return the way they had come, dashing off into the forest. Almost as soon as he was out of sight, his scream was heard, cut short in an instant. The enemy was upon them, charging out of the trees once more, a young man, his sword dripping with blood, yellow eyes glowing in the forest gloom, his blade piercing into another disciple with yet another impossible lunge of his beast.
His saber in hand, Lang slashed at his opponent, glancing off the barbarians armor. It shone like black obsidian, and he barely left a mark upon it, his panic causing him to fail at grasping Balance. The beast tore into his horse which reared in panic, throwing him from his seat, his weapon lost in his tumbling. Scrambling on the ground he flailed frantically, trying to find his saber amidst the dirt and plants.
The sounds of fighting ended around him, the dying gurgles of his brothers filling his ears. Looking around, he saw five barbarians, covered in the blood of his brothers, staring at him, cold eyes without mercy. His body shook as he sat on the floor, weaponless and afraid, tears streaming from his eyes. The yellow eyed youngster dismounted, grabbing something from the ground before tossing it to Lang. His saber. “Stand up, state your name, and fight.” Taking a stance, he waited for Lang.
The feel of the cold steel of his weapon calmed him enough to stand, his body still shivering uncontrollably. A proper duel, a fitting death. Something to be thankful for. “I am Zhong Lang.” A name was a small enough courtesy.
The young man spoke quietly, “I am Rain, Khishig of the Bekai, Disciple of Baatar. Whenever you are ready.”
Lang widened his eyes at the name, often spoken and lauded these past days, a new rising dragon, a true hero of the Empire. No wonder these children were so fierce, to be connected to one such as Baatar. The Sect had chosen poor enemies. Taking a deep breath, he calmed himself, remembering his training. They were still children, the eldest among them only slightly older than himself. Even if he died here, he could not shame the Sect or his child. He would kill this savage child in single combat, because if he did not, it would be akin to returning a tiger cub to the mountains, to grow older and stronger, perhaps even strong enough to threaten all the people that he loved.
The boy would charge judging by his stance, a thrust. Foolish and inexperienced, despite what talent he may have. Lang took his stance, raising his sword in two hands, readying himself to trade his life for the life of this child, to cut the boy down even as he died. It was all he could do. “I am prepared.”
The boys sword pierced his throat a mere second after he uttered the words, his arms still held above him. His strength faded, his sword dropping from his grasp as he joined his brother disciples, to meet the warm embrace of the Mother.