Standing on the windy plateau, I shiver as I wait for our pursuers to reach me. I have no idea how these assholes keep finding us, but every day, they're right there, on our asses. We fought them off four times in two days already, and here they are again. Today, we're going to find out how. They move fairly quickly through the mountains, albeit on foot, doing the same thing that Mei Lin does, hopping around as if weightless, with short bursts of gliding. Not a single one of our dead pursuers has looked under 30, which tells me that Mei Lin is impressive, to say the least. She won't tell me how it's done, just says that I need to learn one thing at a time, which is true. All I can do is Hone my weapon, which is kind of basic.
My right hand grips my sword familiar and comforting, while a looted saber in my left, with all my other weapons lost or broken. The saber and sword seem to be the most popular weapons used by the Society, none of our assassins carrying shields, spears, or pole-arms, which sucks. I need replacements. It's a steel saber, but it's heavy and not very sharp, a former spiritual weapon, and with its previous owner dead it's now just normal steel. A little worse possibly, since it isn't even pure steel. Holding it by the cross-guard, the dull edge is lined against my arm as a replacement shield. Better than nothing, I guess. Crouching down, I try to cuddle into Zabu for warmth, as he lies on the ground prone, almost flattened, eyes closed in contentment. He loves it up here, stretched out on the rocky cliff side like a rug, chest rumbling with pleasure as I scratch his neck. He's almost adorable like this. If only he didn't smell so bad, I'd use him as a pillow. I have the only quin in the world that hates bathing.
We spotted our pursuers on the way up several hours ago, so here we are, ready to fight. Charok is in charge this time, Alsantset's turn to protect the non-combatants. As the worst shot of the group, I've been chosen for the least favorable job: meat shield. Taking advantage of this single plateau path deeper into the mountains, the others are behind me at different vantage points, bows ready. The open area I'm standing on is a kill zone, with no cover whatsoever. Supposedly, our enemies won't risk running right past me, because fighting while weightless is too difficult and risky. They'll have to kill me while running up the only footpath available, before they can reach the others. It's a decent plan, assuming they ever reach us. These fuckers are so slow, we could be kilometers away by now, but they'd catch us eventually, following us like bloodhounds.
After remembering about the tags used in the contest, we ditched everything from the Society, went through all our bags and gear, even throwing away the case that held the gold and all of Song's clothes, and still they keep finding us somehow. It can't be our scent or regular tracking methods, according to Alsantset, so there has to be some sort of hoodoo that we don't know about.
Song is dressed in some of Sumila's spare leathers, the two of them getting along well, Song feeding Sumila after she was injured, helping her get dressed, even sleeping together at night. Song learned to ride rather quickly in the last few days, and is quite skilled with her saber, and a better shot that I am to boot. She's a great addition to our forces, and I'd rate her skills about on par with Adujan, tied for second place. I'd put myself at fourth, behind Huushal, sadly enough. I beat him in a spar, but he's a monster carrying his long-handled great saber, crashing through the enemies, smashing them into a pulp, a crazed look in his eyes. I wouldn't be able to block even a single strike from him, and the women are even scarier.
They're all proficient killers, while I still look and feel awkward in comparison. Even with her terrible injury from the first night, Sumila is still more useful than I am, often splitting off with Song to lead our pursuers away, or into an ambush. Mei Lin and I managed to patch her up with some stitches and a poultice, putting her arm in a sling, but it was a close thing at the time. Her red jade ring has been helping her heal, supplying her with more chi in a shorter amount of time, and she should be 100% by tomorrow, already healthy enough to pull a bow. I may have underestimated the effectiveness of the rings, but the risks in using it is still very high. She comes out of her meditation exhausted and sweating, rather than relaxed and calm.
I thought we were on better terms for a bit, with our nice cliff side moment, but Sumila is back to being sour faced and frosty, sometimes ignoring me completely when I approach her. It's probably the tension getting to her, none of us are very chipper besides Mei Lin.
Speaking softly under my breath, knowing Charok is listening, I make nervous conversations.“I don't think they're coming.” I really hope the enhanced hearing is selective. It would suck if they heard my... nightly ritual. It's difficult being in a teenage body. I wish there was a book I could read, like Chi for Dummies.
“Worry not, little brother.” Charok's voice is clear, like he's standing right next to me. Alsantset always sounds like she's whispering when she does this, and I can't tell if it's because Charok is better at this, or if Alsantset just has more control. “They are hesitating, knowing this for a trap, but they have no options but to spring it. Their only other option would be to call for reinforcements, but we can outrun them if they do.” He chuckles a bit. “Speak, and it shall be so. They are coming, brother. Fight well.”
I spot movement below, several warriors wearing robes with straw hats and face coverings approaching, leaping across the mountain from tree to tree, ninja-ing about. It's fairly impressive, but kind of stupid, exposing themselves like that. Foolish city ninjas, no match for mountain ninjas. It doesn't matter how strong you are, an arrow to the heart will kill you all the same. The general consensus about bows is that it's a peasant's weapon, unfit for true warriors. Which is pretty stupid, in my opinion. If a farmer who practices two hours a day with a bow, can kill a martial warrior who practices twelve hours a day with a sword, I feel like the bow should be called the king of weapons. Even if it doesn't kill you, fighting with an arrow stuck in you is difficult, to say the least.
Case in point, tree leaping ninja-assassins die just as easily as farmers do when Charok and the others fire their arrows. Three drop out of the sky, limp and dead, their corpses rolling down the mountain. The others drop down into the trees, running up the thin pass on foot, hoping to avoid further barrages. Others leap around the sides, scaling the rock cliff to get around and surround me. Cracking my neck and limbering my shoulders, I stand ready to block the way. They shall not pass. TeeHee.
My first opponent arrives, Peace ramming into his chest as he leaps up, killing him in mid-air. Two others land beside me, and the fight begins in earnest while I dodge and block as their honed weapons take large chips out of the saber. Arrows fly around me as I fight, a thrust slipping past my defense, stabbing straight through my armor into my shoulder, only stopping at the bone. Peace slashes through the chest of my attacker, while the second tries to chop my head from my shoulders. Zabu pounces on him mid-swing, my furry little bodyguard doing work. The other quins join in, their near suicidal charges taking our opponents off guard, their thick fur and skin difficult to cut or pierce, a pack of natural monsters, screeching and killing with reckless abandon. I'm the bait, and they're the trap, while everyone else provides fire support. It's a little embarrassing to be less useful than the mounts.
More assassins continue to arrive, some shot as soon as they expose themselves, others slipping past the barrage to meet me head on, as I trade blows with experienced warriors, giving flesh and taking lives. A chop to the arm, a thrust through the flank, a cut to the face, I take minor wounds, while my opponents expose themselves for a killing blow. An easy trade, one I'd take any day of the week. I'm no match for them otherwise, yet here they die and I live on. The forms come naturally to me, my weapon making short thrusts and small arcs, each strike taking a life, each cut wearing me down as I kill enemy after enemy, hacking and slashing away at them as my blood runs hot with anger.
After what feels like an eternity, but could not have been more than five minutes, the stream of assassins ends, and there is only one left to fight, the others dead or dying, keeping the quins at bay. My weapon pointed, I stand panting, trying not to pass out. My remaining opponent carries a light, double-edge sword, a Jian. The metal whistling through the air as he swings it around, every strike is aimed at my vitals. This one learned from watching all my other kills, knows he's dead if he doesn't kill me in one hit. With no more need to keep lines of fire open, I expand my range of movements, circling him as I try to give someone, anyone, a clear shot. He presses close as I move about, refusing to let off, slicing my shoulder pad off of my armor with one slash, a deep furrow across my thigh with the next, his weapon twisting and slicing about in an unpredictable manner. I block the next slice, our swords ringing in unison, a melodic chime that's repeated again and again as I desperately fend off his attacks. Too skilled, too fast, too agile, too strong, I'm outclassed in every way, but soon, his time has run out. I smile at him as Zabu leaps into the air, locked onto his target, crashing into my opponent in full fury, tearing him apart with tooth and claw, a savage creature unleashed. MVP DPS Zabu.
Sucking in a lungful of crisp, cold air, screaming my defiance into the sky, I revel in the feeling of surviving yet again. The adrenaline fades from me slowly as I stand there, slapping myself in the face so I don't black out. Taduk isn't here, so I need to heal myself, but too much running and not enough food make it difficult. Falling into the state of Balance, I note that my wounds aren't as bad as they seem, the worst a small nick in my intestines, from a slash I don't remember taking. Allowing my chi to mend what it can, I stand there, knowing I am safe with Zabu and the others looking after me. I just need to take care of the worst, the rest can be stitched and healed later.
My eyes open, and I see Charok interrogating a pair of tied-up survivors, arrows sticking out of them, while the others stand by, their quins waiting patiently. Surprisingly difficult, taking people alive, I actually forgot to try. Approaching from behind him, I watch their eyes narrow as the two of them glare at me. I make a sorry sight, my formerly shiny new armor all torn up and ragged, hanging loosely from one shoulder. It's disappointing, to say the least, this fight putting the final nail in the coffin of my lovely outfit. Dismissing the thoughts of my fashion woes, I concentrate on the two people before me, a man and a woman, both rather nondescript and plain, two people I would probably forget immediately if I saw them on the street. “So what did they say?” We need to know how they keep finding us. While we're able to move fast in the mountains, we don't move faster than messengers along the main roads, switching horses every 50 kilometers, or the ships carrying messages to the cities ahead of us.
Charok shakes his head at me. They won't speak, which has been the general theme among our survivors. Threats of death don't shake them, and we lack the necessary time or inclination to torture them. I squat down to look at them, staring each in the eyes, Peace in hand. We've rummaged through all their belongings before, but none of them are carrying anything suspicious. Sighing in front of them, I speak softly. “You assholes have been chasing us for four days now, and it's getting tiresome. How do you keep finding us?” They answer me with spit, in unison even. Yep, that seems par for the course. I'm getting sick of this bullshit. Time to try something new I thought up. Man or woman? Fuck it, let's make them compete. Taking one boot from each prisoner, I slice their pant legs up to the thigh, exposing their skin. “You are both going to die. I can see you've made peace with that. The question is, how would you like to die?”
Motioning to Sumila, she brings Zabu and her quin over, a white-whiskered terror named Kankin. Akanai's mount, and he suits her personality. Roosequins will eat anything, including humans. Zabu will at least drop human flesh for different treats, but to Kankin, human flesh is the treat. He likes to start with the intestines, while his food is still alive. Freaking Akanai, leave it to her to raise the most terrifying pet in existence. Lifting the prisoner's feet, I hand one to each quin who grasps it in their hands, claws digging into the skin, hissing in anger when the prisoners struggle. Commanding the quins to wait, they both salivate, smacking their lips while they hold their next meals.
I hate doing this. “Both of you are going to be fed to these quins. The first person to tell me how you keep finding us, gets to die before the meal begins. The other... well, they like their food fresh. You have ten seconds.” Kankin is a mean looking bastard, grizzly and scarred, hissing in delight at his anticipated meal. I begin the countdown, the quins playing their parts perfectly, looking eager and ominous, grasping at the legs, scratching them eagerly with their claws, Zabu's face covered in congealed blood, a gash running down his cheek, a terrifying sight for both prisoners.
I barely make it to six when the man begins speaking. “The slave girl. After the contest, the healers had her blood, and we had a tracking matrix created from it when they learned she was with you. The leaders are taking turns hunting you, so there is no dispute over claimed goods.” His sweat drips down his face in rivulets.
God, fucking dammit. They made a game out of this? “How do we stop them from tracking us?”
The mans eyes never leave Zabu, who stands in front of him, snarling in impatience. You don't make eye contact with a predator, that's just basics. C'mon Son. “You can't block it, you need to burn the tokens containing the blood, that's the only way.”
Charok asks a few more questions, and the situation looks grim. The matrix determines our location through two wooden pieces, both pointing towards us, and they simply find us at the intersection of the lines. The guides fall back, and the highest bidder takes their shot at killing us. At least they aren't teaming up, each unwilling to share in the looting. Song stands to the side, emotionless and unmoving, apathetic to the news, despite the horrible implications it has for her. I don't know if it's because she doesn't know, or if she just doesn't care.
“Did they take your blood?” She ignores my question, weapon lowered but still in hand, back stiff, eyes low, never looking in anyone's eyes. She remains silent until Sumila prompts her to speak.
“I was badly injured from my lashing, unhealed as per my former masters orders. My injuries were healed at the end of the competition, despite mentioning my punishment. I thought little of it. This slave has shamed her master with her ignorance and begs for punishment.” An emotionless delivery, a robot repeating as she's been programmed. Is her life even worth living?
The squealer continues to speak,the dam on his silence broken, more information flowing out than we need. “The orders are to take the youths alive, as well as the half-tiger. You are all to be made slaves, or examples should you refuse. We have multiple groups, ready at all times. There will be another coming shortly.”
“What clan or sect are you from?”
“They are camped close to the base of the mountain, less than 10 kilometers north from here, easily found. Please, that is all I know, just kill me cleanly. Don't let them eat me, I beg of you.” My hand pats Zabu on the head, and he snaps at me, angry I may take his food. The man repeats himself, begging not to be devoured. Despite that, he won't say what sect or clan he's from, or even acknowledge that he was sent by the Society, loyal to the end. I actually respect that. At Charok's nod, I kill him with a thrust to the heart, before I turn to the woman.
The woman looks stout and resolute, glaring hatred at her dead companion, face white with terror despite it all. “So... anything to add?” A second barrage of spit, less this time, fear having dried out her mouth. Her courage is praiseworthy, especially since Kankin is still holding her leg, crouched low to the ground, ready for his meal. I even somewhat admire her calm, but she's still someone who has been hunting us for days now. If she had won here, we would all be dead or worse. A quick thrust ends her life, and I give Kankin the go ahead to eat. I'm not a monster, not yet at least. I got what I needed. I toss Zabu a large round fruit, the thought of him eating human flesh sickening me. He's happier with the fruit anyways, nibbling away happily, crunching and squeaking in delight. Kankin makes the same sounds.
Charok stood aside the entire time, watching the proceedings. I can't bring myself to look him in the eyes, keeping them low to scan the ground for a new weapon. “What would you have done if they did not speak?” His voice is neutral, but I feel the judgment, know that I've disappointed him.
“I don't know.” I lie easily, the words coming out without hesitation. How quickly my morals shift when I'm under pressure.
We ride back in somber silence, the victory doing little for the overall mood. Here I thought I was so clever, getting injured to kill my opponents. They were trying to just disable me, for the reward. That takes the wind out of my sails a bit, thinking I was hot shit. Pride cometh before the fall, and that works both ways.
Alsantset's reaction to the news surprises me. “Then we are left with no choice but to fight. We rest for a half-hour, then move out once again.” She pats Song on the head, the two cat-girls having bonded already. Am I a horrible person, for immediately thinking of ditching her? A few days ago I wanted to save her, but now I'm ready to sacrifice her for a better chance of escape. I left the decision to the others because I thought they would make it for me, saving myself the grief. Fuck. I'm a terrible human being.
Alsantset looks me over, checking my wounds and patting me on the face. “Little brother, you punish yourself too much when you fight. You must learn to parry and dodge.”
Trying to smirk, I keep my words as light as possible. “Oh, is that what I'm supposed to be doing? I've just been jumping into their weapons, stopping them with my flesh and bones. I'll remember your advice sister. Just dodge.” She pinches my cheek, a wry smile on her face. The lines around her eyes makes her look older, her endurance flagging. Between the two of them, Charok and Alsantset have been working non-stop since we left the city, acting as both leader and rearguard, but they both still have the time to worry about me.
Taking off the ruins of my armor, I run my fingers across the black glossy exterior of the vest, the helmet lost a day ago. Was it only yesterday? It feels like forever ago, the saber slashing across my head as I stumbled over the uneven footing, saving my life. Forget a daily count of close deaths, I can barely do 8 hours without a close call. Mei Lin helps me with my stitches, leaving nice, neat lines in my skin, chatting at me while I pretend to listen, worrying over the problems at hand. We're out of the unguent that we use for cuts, having run out after just a single day. We took a beating soon after our night ambush, our pursuers arriving quicker than we expected, bogged down with a heavily injured Sumila. Everything is running out except fruit and fresh water, the mountains teeming with both. We haven't risked lighting a fire since, and all the bear and horse meat we had is almost gone. We're even running out of arrows, our pursuers no longer carrying them when it was evident we out-ranged them by a large margin. Why bother just supplying us with ammunition?
Alsantset returns before the half hour is up, hurrying us along, as more enemies have been spotted. We're all exhausted with not enough sleep or food, running on fumes, but the attacks keep coming. I have no idea how we're going to make it through this, and I can barely even stay awake as we ride off, once again slipping into the trees, fleeing from our ever persistent hunters.