“What do you mean you've lost them? They're a bunch of ignorant Defiled!”
Cho Jin Kai raged at his new subordinate, some no-name, paper tiger of a Major, an incompetent buffoon. The heavens seemed adamant to work against him, the Mother no longer smiling upon him. It had all began when he first laid eyes on that bitch, Akanai. Since then, nothing had worked in his favor. First, he had been ordered to fight for this hell pit of a province, away from true civilization. Then, his brother had been driven from the Society, losing thousands of gold in property over something that should have been so simple. A few savages are beaten soundly in the contest, no one would have looked twice. Instead, those bastards had run rampant through the preliminaries, and now the entire province was talking of their exploits. Worse, his family's holdings within the Society had been confiscated, costing them tens of thousands of gold in property and goods, over allegations of match fixing. When he returned to the Central province he would require an armed escort, just to make sure he did not run afoul of Society blackguards.
Now, this incompetent Major, Vicar or Vichy, some northern barbarian name, was telling him they lost sight of the Defiled they had been chasing for days, as if they suddenly sprouted wings, and flew off into the air. Maddening. These worthless northern soldiers. His own company had been taken away by that bitch while he lay recovering from his injuries, and the Marshal had reprimanded him, an elderly man, not even a warrior, yet he still had the gall to look down upon a Brigadier. Kai had earned his rank, killed a Demon in close combat with his bardiche, his strength further proven by his exploits against the beasts and rebels of the Central Plains. He had worked his way up to the rank of Brigadier through life and death duels, as the Eastern nobility did, emulating them in his rise to power. His father was only a merchant, but Kai had dreamed of so much more.
His dreams would have to wait, seeing as he stood in some dark forest, chasing shadows, freezing despite his layers of clothes underneath his metal armor, saddled with 15,000 worthless incompetents. All this just to pursue cowards who fled from the battlefield, moving deep into the northwestern forests, where no one of value lived. His mission should have been to retake the fortress, or aid in the subjugation of the Defiled army still at large. It was a disgrace to be chasing these dregs, and one he would remember and repay.
“Every scout was caught and killed. By the time we realized, the trail was lost.” Yes, Vichear was his name, a half-beast imbecile, it was a wonder he could dress himself. Large and lumbering, dumb as a rock, his bear blood did nothing for his wits, only giving him a uselessly large frame. It took humans to lead, true humans, and half-beasts soldiers should only follow orders, and nothing more. It was uncivilized, allowing the cretins to run about unchained, even giving them rank, all due to the half-beast loving Marshal, Shing Du Yi.
“Get out there and find them. Use every available tracker and scout we have. If you cannot find their trail by evening, I'll have you whipped for dereliction of duty.” Kai dismissed the Major with a wave of his hand, returning to his warmed tent, where his servants had a pot of tea waiting. At least that bitch had left his household staff, only taking his soldiers. He grumbled to himself as he sat upon his chair, motioning for another brazier to be brought to him.
This forsaken land was too damned cold. Even now in the midst of summer, a constant breeze of cold air chilled the bones as it rained heavily, and the nights were even worse. Kai desperately wished to return to the warm city of Yantai by the sea, to eat the seafood delicacies of his hometown, hold his concubines in his arms, to laugh and drink with the nobles of the central plains. If it were not for his brother's merchant dealings in Shen Yun and little Tok’s begging to travel, he would never have come here to this backwater province.
These northern barbarians knew nothing of how true citizens of the Empire acted, with the collective manners of a goat and the smell of one to boot. They dressed in fashions outdated for years, with their patterned robes, lacquered nails, and half shaved heads, looking ridiculous. Where were the jade hairpieces, the ornamental bracers, the palanquins, or the perfumes? Their plays were dated and terribly performed, their singers lacking skill, their stages poorly adorned. Their paintings were nonexistent, and even the food was terrible, bland and without spice, an affront to the palate. The entire province should have been abandoned and given over to the Defiled, allowing them to fight it out with the plethora of Ancestral beasts that roamed about. Who would even be left to care? No one of importance.
It was aggravating how little power humans held in the Northern province, all due to their inability to curb the Ancestral Beast population. They ran about unchained, free to attack at any time, carving out their own swathes of land, spitting on the strength of the Emperor. In the civilized Eastern Province, all the Ancestral beasts were chained as soon as possible, using them to spawn the Slave Corps of the Emperor, the way things should be. These Beasts were far too dangerous to be left on their own, not to mention their half-beast spawn. It was a miracle that any cities here stood at all.
It all came back to that damn bitch Akanai. She had not only humiliated him at the restaurant, she had also taken all the credit for his defense of the camps. That damn Marshal had whinged and moaned about Kai's losses and unit arrangement, but this was war. Of course soldiers had been lost, they were soldiers. A worthless lot, dying in droves to the Defiled and their mounts, unable to defend even with walls and numbers on their side. How was it Kai's fault that the soldier were of such low caliber, or that there had been two Demons, both too monstrous for him to fight alone, much less together? That Akanai had killed them both was a ridiculous claim, the bitch lying in her report. Kai had laid eyes on both those Demons, and the aura of death about them was thick enough that he could barely breathe, both likely thousands of years old. It would have been impossible for her to kill them alone, she likely had three or four more hidden helpers.
It mattered not. His brother would have returned home by now, and Mentor would send his household troops to aid him, perhaps even enlisting help from his allies. The Marshal would soon be ordered to release Kai from these dreary duties, and he could then return home to plot his revenge. He drank his tea and waited for news to be brought to him, dreaming of the punishments he would administer to that blond bitch, dreaming of sinking his hands in her soft, pale flesh as she begged him to kill her.
Li Song sat atop her ferocious mount, sitting as still as possible so as not to disturb it. She had seen what the creatures had done to all the bandits sent after them, and she had no wish to join them in their manner of death. Vicious toothed, beady eyed, grasping hands that could slit throats and crush stones, powerful legs that they used to leap majestically towards their prey, these roosequins terrified her. Every night she laid down to sleep, worried she would wake to one of them, devouring her innards. She was only a lowly mountain cat, and these beasts were likely worth more than her. The costs of raising and training such a fiendish creature could not be low.
The sun was on the cusp of rising, the fearsome Khishigs waiting around her in the rainfall, each one a hardened warrior, on par with any of the soldiers her former master commanded. They were well armed and well equipped, each a silent spectre of grim death, their steel armor polished and smooth. Master's armor was washed clean of the ashes from the village they had burnt down, three days past. The gesture confused her, burning the hamlet, and then spending hours fighting the flames, but Song would stay silent, asking no questions. To speak without Master's permission was to be punished.
Her orders were to ride with the Khishigs, to fire arrows upon the Enemy, using their positional advantage. Their bows were well made and treated, the bowstring as pliant dry as they were wet, made of some strange material she had never seen. These Khishigs seemed well versed in warfare, their weapons all of better make than Song's saber, which had earned her a whipping for being so expensive. Song hoped that they would charge deep into the enemy, so that she could draw her blade and fight in close combat, but it mattered not what she wished. Master would lead, and Song would follow.
Master sat close by, looking properly heroic in her armor, straight-backed and disciplined. Very different from old Master's son, he was always slouched, and slovenly, his hands grasping about her body. Master was a kind young girl, pretty and freckled, soft and warm, but she had little use for Song. Master's mother was the general, meaning Song was owned by one with power, which made her feel safer. Those with power would have many slaves, her former master had only a few, and she had received the lion's share of his attention.
It was a blessing that Master was not interested in Song for things other than battle, nor did Master give her out to others for their pleasure. There was not much for Song to do which unnerved her, Master still unsure of Song's loyalty, testing her by asking confusing questions, trying to make Song confused. Song craved for a task, no matter how simple, and she strove to prove her worth, but there was nothing she knew to do but fight and be used. Master still made Song sleep with her, but that was all they did, sleep. Song did not mind it much, the nights were cold in the far north, and Master kept her warm. There was even elixir, fed to Song to make her stronger. She was a kind Master, and Song enjoyed being in her hands. It was much better than in Rain's.
The savage little warrior sat stoic nearby, his eyes eager for battle. Song could not understand Rain's position within the Bekhai. Master was the General's daughter, but he spoke harshly to Master, and remained unbeaten. Perhaps they were lenient due to the fact that he was simple of mind. He spoke haltingly as if uneducated, making almost no sense at times, and often trained in the most basic of things, like standing atop a mount. He was still a fierce combatant, mostly used as a sandbag, taking damage so that the others remained unharmed. Perhaps he had taken a head injury at some point, and they kept him around for lack of better options.
After his return he seemed in a terrible mood, always snapping at Master when spoken to, growing increasingly feral once he had tasted blood. Song wished master would order her to cut Rain's throat, end his life in the dark of night, end his suffering. She had heard talk of his work with the deer-woman, Adujan, of their rampage through the Defiled scouts. Even with the roaring fire, the sounds of battle and screams of the dying had sounded, and the two had returned ragged and injured. They had both been assigned to digging latrines for the soldiers each night, but other than that, they had remained unpunished, no beatings or whippings. Odd for a military unit, these Khishigs were far less disciplined than she was accustomed to, with almost no deference shown to superiors, and a lack of social courtesies. No bows or salutes, the most respect they showed was calling the General by title.
Still, now with battle nearing, the Khishigs showed surprising control, each seeming to know their role. They waited for the signal to attack in complete silence, their enemies a short ride down the mountains from them. Song had not been included in the planning, that was for people greater than her, but her master had explained everything to her. A Tiger Fortress filled with bad people for Song to kill, Master's first real task for Song. She wanted to look upon this fortress that was so like the big cats she so envied. Old Master had always scolded her for her low, mongrel birth, for not being a tiger, but Master had a tiger woman companion, fierce and beautiful. Master called her Alsantset, who would always pat Song's ears whenever she passed. Song had watched her kill a half-dozen assailants with a single sweep, only then understanding why old Master was so angry. Song would never be that strong.
Drums began to beat, the Enemy sounding the alarm as armored boots marched towards the fortress. Master began to ride forward and Song stayed close by, gently urging her fearsome mount forward, unlimbering her bow. She carried three quivers of arrows, as did each Khishig, and they moved up over the mountain peak in an orderly fashion, where Song received her first glimpse of the Tiger Fortress. It looked nothing like a tiger, disappointing Song, a place of ruins, the walls in shambles as the dead lay strewn about, decorating the area with their desecrated remains. The entire fortress had been gutted and destroyed, a large open area for the Enemy to march through, and they stood about in the open, screaming a challenge in their guttural tongue.
Following her Master's actions, Song loosed her arrow, along with every other Khishig present, the hiss of their barrage raining down upon the Enemy. Tightly packed and wearing patchwork armor, the Defiled died in the hundreds, if not the thousands. They rode around the peak as she continued to fire death down upon them, until the fortress was no longer in sight. She followed Master at a steady pace, and within a minute, they were turning out over the lip, the Enemy once again before them. The creatures they rode were a great boon in warfare, allowing for travel upon such a steep and high incline. The circular movement was necessary, the creatures unable to simple stand upon the slope, but it was an effective maneuver nonetheless.
As the Khishigs held the attentions of the Enemy, several groups replicating the same maneuver from several locations, firing down from different angles, the soldiers below marched steadily forward towards the fortress. Each pass Song took around the mountain peak saw the soldiers slowly closing upon the Enemy, until on her twelfth revolution, the soldiers roared and charged forward for combat. Master put away her bow, and Song followed suit, drawing her spear as her mount took a gut-wrenching dive down the mountain, her inner organs almost overturning within her. The furred monstrosity ran towards battle, making sounds of delight as it descended upon the enemy, eager for blood and flesh, the Khishigs around her somehow able to move into formation, a tight line of spears held forward. She grasped her spear tightly in her hand, readying herself for the great clash, expecting to be bogged down in melee, hacking and slashing into the seemingly endless horde.
She prepared herself, remembering the all-too-brief training she had received. Loosen the thighs, sit as if squatting, calves relaxed to absorb the impact of the charge. Master expected her to learn just from the description, without setting time for her to practice. Song had little of that lately, as Master was disinclined to set a schedule, and without one, how was Song to know what to do? She took a breath as she neared, the scowling and screaming faces of the enemy coming into vision at a breakneck pace. All too soon, the creature lunged and her weapon crashed into her foe, the ribs impacting upon the crossbar, the body thrown back. Battle was met, as she stabbed and swung at any who approached, the Enemy regretfully held back by the lengths of their spears. Her mount pressed forward, working in unison with her, leaping when she was ready to thrust, backing when an enemy approached, so agile it was as if it knew her thoughts and refused to obey them, teasing her with the lack of danger.
Dismayed by the skill of her mount, Song forgot to keep focus upon Master, almost falling from her seat as it turned away to follow its alpha, every other Khishig moving in unison as well. It was too soon, Song had yet to truly fight. Fear ran through her as she watched Master, looking for an indication of anger or displeasure at Song's mental defiance, fear coursing through her. They rode back, away from the hordes following them, their bows in hand, several riders turning to fire as they escaped. A quick clash, and now they would fade away, fleeing back up the mountainside as the Enemy attempted to close in upon them. She watched, too unskilled to join the others in firing as they retreated, looking around at the rest of Master's companions.
“Where is Rain?” Master noticed as well, and Song could do nothing but apologize.
“This slave has failed you, she is unaware. This slave is prepared for punishment at Master's convenience.” Song was largely ignored, thankfully. Master had yet to punish her, and while it was a blessing, at times Song was apprehensive, worried that her infractions were being remembered, and punishment delayed until the war effort over. She was a weapon, and Master was far too clever to break her weapons before battle. She followed Master up the incline, gnawing at her lip, unable to focus on the task at hand. Perhaps fortune would finally favor her, and Song could finally die in the next charge.