Cho Jin Kai cursed his worthless half-beast healer for a fool, a worthless idiot who was unable to properly do his job. Kai's facial injuries had healed well, but his arm felt like it was on fire after it was regrown, the pain near unbearable. Even the slightest breeze upon his bare skin was enough to send him reeling in agony, so wearing clothes was obviously impossible. His cloak was wrapped around his bare chest, his servants holding the cloth so it would not rub against his arm as he stood before the hated, half-beast bitch, Akanai. The barbarian did not even deign to use the command tent, holding her meeting in the healer's tent.
It was an utter humiliation, his sentries failing miserably at their duties, the Defiled somehow managing to take the camp by surprise. Worthless northern soldiers, he had lost almost his entire allotment of troops, 12,000 dead, including a dozen junior officers. It was another black mark upon his military record in addition to his failure at the camps. Even worse, he had suffered a humbling defeat in single combat, albeit by the most fierce Defiled warrior he had ever met, requiring aid from Major Vichear, disgrace heaped upon disgrace.
To rub salt upon his wounds, as if the Marshal himself had a grudge against him, the one to relieve him of his command was none other than Akanai, and the woman did not even bring his troops back with her, leaving them further north. She sat upon her beast, reading the reports in silence, as he stood at attention, waiting for her to sneer at him, humiliate him even more.
After an eternity, she finally spoke. “Where did they retreat to?” She did not even bother raising her head to look at him, and to make matters worse, he had no answer to give her. How was he to know? They had fled in the night while he lay injured, his skin melting, his eyes damaged, arm chopped off, and his command had been reduced to a single Field Officer, Major Vichear.
“They moved west, on foot, two days ago. We lost most of our horses and scouts, so we've been unable to track them since.” Vichear replied to the general. The Major had earned Kai's reluctant respect for saving his life, but it was all instantly lost upon watching the half-beast curry favor with his own kind as he lay pitifully on his cot. A shame that Defiled Champion hadn't removed Vichear's head from his shoulders, only badly injuring the Major.
“Pack everything up, we move camp immediately. The Defiled attacked here once, and I will not sit idle so they can attack again.” Hmph, the bitch had the gall to insult him, to say his choice to remain was wrong? What else could he do? There were too many wounded to move. “Anyone that cannot fight and anything that cannot be carried by a single soldier is to be returned to Shen Huo, along with all the wagons.” What? His tent was carried by wagon! How dare she expect him to sleep upon the ground, like some common animal? No, calm yourself, seek balance, do not allow her to throw yourself into disorder. He took a deep breath and centered his emotions as Akanai continued on. “Major Vichear, you will lead the convoy back to Shen Huo, and report to the Magistrate. Give him my name, he will see to your injuries.” Another half-beast loving disgrace in power, the north was as good as lost. “Brigadier Kai, break camp and follow Senior Captain Alsantset and her division to the new encampment.”
Unable to contain his rage any longer, he smacked his uninjured hand upon the map. “You wish for me to tend camp and take orders from a Senior Captain? Do you know who I am?” The barbarian probably couldn't even read, playing at being a strategist.
“Indeed I do. I also know your worth and worry for the safety of the camp, but I cannot be bothered to hold your hand at the moment. Your orders have been given. Leave now, before I truly lose my temper.” She glared at him, and suddenly he could hardly breathe, her intense gaze stifling him, smothering him with her chi, snuffing out his rage. A display of power, but Kai had suffered worse. Snorting, he turned and left, calling for his servants and ordering the soldiers to begin packing. Were it not for the half-beast loving Northern Marshal, it would be unlikely that Akanai would have ever been made a lieutenant, much less a general. This entire province was a backwater and should have been burnt to the ground years ago.
The barbarians sat around the command tent, likely having heard the commotion. He glared about, daring them to smirk, hoping to make an example of one, but they all treated him as if beneath their notice, ignoring his stares. As he surveyed the mass of unwashed brutes, he spotted a familiar face. “Song! What are you doing here?” His anger mounted as he marched towards his slave, who sat silently on one of the beasts, the fear in her eyes plain to see. Pulling her off of the animal, she struggled in his grasp as he hissed at her. “Calm yourself slave! Answer me!” Loosening his grip to allow her to compose herself, she scrambled away from him, silent and fearful. Annoyed by her defiance, he strode after her, intent on crippling the little worm and letting her crawl back to Yantai. He had spent time and gold on her, purchasing her, training her, even buying her a spiritual weapon. She had been an investment for his son, so that Tok would have a suitable attendant and bodyguard. To have all his efforts snatched away by barbarians drove him to near madness, his rage beginning to smoulder.
He stopped in his tracks as a half-dozen spears leveled at him, a savage at the end of each. He studied them closely, and noting none held a field officers rank, he snarled, “You lowly soldiers fucking dare? Pointing your weapons at an Officer of the Imperial Army is tantamount to treason. I'll have you all arrested for this.”
The mouthy runt laughed, the same little bastard that had humiliated him at the restaurant. “I'm going to enjoy watching you die, Brigadier.” The runt sat close by, his mouth full of dried rations as he watched the proceedings. “Try to put on a good show.” Kai glared at the brat, vowing to kill him in the worst way possible. Only then would his anger be quenched and his mind returned to Balance.
Another barbarian spoke up. “Martial Law is in effect. Assaulting a soldier in the field is punishable at the discretion of the Justicar or Adjudicator sitting in judgment.” He stared at the woman speaking to him and his eyes drawn to her ears. Orange and black striped, with tufts of white fur, a genuine Half-Tiger. He studied the rest of her, a pleasing, round face with almond eyes, she could almost pass for human if you hid the ears and tail. She was full-bodied and toned, pleasing to look at, with ample breasts and curves, her auburn hair almost shining in the morning glow, a beauty that would easily cost him 10,000 gold if purchased. She even had her own Spiritual Weapon and a rank, a Senior Captain. Kai immediately decided that he would own her.
Clearing his thoughts, he narrowed his eyes at the Half-Tiger. “I have assaulted no soldier, Song is a slave, simple as that. I demand that my property be returned to me, or I will have you all in chains before the Justicar.” He enjoyed watching her glare at him, and looked forward to owning her, a lively, defiant lass. Song could be gifted to little Tok, Kai was growing weary of her anyways. Song had arrived broken in spirit, but this new slave would be more resolute, and he would delight in taming her, teaching her the ways of the civilized world.
“Li Song is a Khishig of the Bekhai. Lay a finger on her again, and I will kill you myself. That is a promise, Brigadier.”
Kai laughed at the idiot half-beast. “You've condemned yourself with your own words. Threatening a superior officer over a slave?” He turned to the soldiers in his command. “Arrest her. We will bring her back to Shen Huo to seek justice.”
“Belay that order.” Akanai stepped out in front of the command tent, her icy cold glare once again affixed upon him. “If you have grievance with one of my officers, then you will bring a Justicar here to mediate. Until such a time, you have your orders. Since you seem to have issue with Senior Captain Alsantset, then you will follow Private Dagen. Senior Captain Alsantset, you have the vanguard. Leave.”
So the half-tigress was Alsantset, a hideous name. Kai sneered, taking one last glance at her before he left. Akanai's voice rang out behind him. “And if you ever lay a hand on one of my Khishigs again, I will gut you and leave you for the crows.” Hmph, fools all of them, to threaten him so. Were his arm not injured, he would have challenged that damn half-tiger and beaten her soundly, given her a taste of what was to come. He would have to rename her to something more appropriate, something civilized.
The Khishigs rode off in short order, scattered and in disarray, a shameful display of disorganization. No discipline, no formations, just a scattering of small groups, running head on towards the Enemy. It hardly surprised him, as discipline was a trait of man and these savages were hardly worthy of the designation. They left him an escort of ten mounted Khishigs, each waiting at the edge of camp for the soldiers to make ready, with a feral-looking, wild haired barbarian in charge.
Barking his orders, he set about preparing his troops and packing the camp, grumbling to himself in displeasure at the thought of having to ride to their next destination, likely in pain from the jostling of his mount. His Mentor's troops would be arriving soon, after which he would be freed from his service here in the north. Then, he could have them aid him in arresting Akanai and Alsantset, and kill that mouthy little bastard as well.
Alsantset was fuming as she rode away, furious at her inability to act. Akanai's harsh glare had spoken volumes, a silent reprimand reminding Alsantset that they yet required the Brigadier to command the soldiers present. Without him, Akanai would be required to remain in command of the infantry, limiting her usefulness in the coming forest battles. Even if Major Vichear were healthy enough to take command, Alsantset still would not be able to do anything to Kai, her words spurred by her anger. A Brigadier was the pinnacle of rank available to those without the skills to command, and it was impossible for Cho Jin Kai to have earned the rank without strength, no matter his connections. The man may be an incompetent commander, but he would not be a simple opponent to defeat.
Turning to pat Song on the head as she rode by, she reassured the quivering child. “Do not worry, little Song, that man cannot harm you any longer, I will not allow it.” The girl remained silent she always was, but her eyes spoke volumes, appreciative of her words, yet apprehensive of hope. A grown woman of nineteen years, Song was still very much a child in many ways, and most of the blame for that lay squarely at the feet of Brigadier Kai.
If only Alsantset were stronger. She had once been the pride of the village, but she had spent the last five years teaching children and raising her family, unable to devote enough time for her own personal training. While she had once been Gerel's equal, hearing of his achievements had disheartened her, knowing she had long been surpassed. Alsantset was not even sure she could kill a single Demon, and Gerel was killing them like plucking chickens. She now held the same rank as him and the knowledge that she did not deserve it irritated her to no end. She did not regret how she had spent her time, for the past few years were the happiest in memory, watching her children grow, seeing Rain develop into a splendid warrior, spending time with her Mama and her beloved. She only wished that she had more time, to also have been able to train as a Martial Warrior, to be worthy of the Rank of Senior Captain. Papa had fought for decades as a Captain, and he had been far stronger than her when he had been raised to the rank. She felt ashamed, unfit for the honor, but Akanai had insisted, claiming she was needed.
Alsantset was ill-suited for command, the intricacies of leadership causing her no end of frustrations. She would rather be at Rain's side, keeping him safe whilst he charged into the front lines, watching his flank as he fought, but with her rank came responsibility to others, not just Rain, but to the other 1,000 lives under her command, a number which had only shrunk since she began. All of her focus was on keeping her soldiers alive, and she could spare no time to personally see to Rain's safety, the stories of him fighting on foot with the army causing her to worry and fret. At the end of the day when her reports were given and Sentinels tended to, only then could she be selfish and ask of his condition, and the tales of his exploits had her gasping in fear.
Regardless of the circumstances of his foolish bravery, Alsantset was proud of Rain's accomplishments, for there was no denying that he was a splendid warrior. It was the product of his hard work and dedication, at the cost of friends and leisurely activities. Rain had trained to the point of exhaustion most days, injuring himself again and again, only to study by candlelight deep into the night. All of her attempts to dissuade him from working so hard had been met with smiles and assurances, until the next morning when he would set out once again, to begin training anew.
Truth be told, she had not persisted with her objections for long. While she had never spoken of it aloud, Alsantset dreamed that when she returned to ride with Papa, Rain would be there as well, their happy little family protecting the Empire together, raising their names across the land, Papa to lead and Rain to heal. Then a few years after that, her two babies would join them along with her beloved, three generations of family riding together beneath the Banner. That dream seemed a little closer each day, Rain finally able to harvest the fruits of his labors.
While Rain had been impressive against the Society, once he joined in the war effort, his strength seemed to have dramatically increased, his attitude shifting as well. The common soldiers spoke of him in the same breath as the Magistrate's son, Rain considered a rising dragon to stand at the forefront of the next generation of heroes. They spoke of how he fought fearlessly, leading by example, killing without blinking as he strode about the battlefield, challenging Defiled champions to single combat and emerging battered and bloody, but victorious each time. Five Champions in three days, his exploits would reach the ears of the Marshal, perhaps even earning him a rank. Brigadier Man Giao had personally spoken to Akanai about his accomplishments, his endorsement of Rain booming and enthusiastic.
To think that it had all begun when Akanai brought him to Shen Huo, the news that Rain had finally shown interest in something besides training causing Alsantset to nearly swoon with joy. To be a Sentinel was an honorable calling, where he could make friends and companions of like mind, and if he wished to become a battle healer, combat experience would be required. The month-long separation had been agonizing for her, and when he had returned so badly injured, she had been so distressed that she had almost asked him to abandon his dreams of strength. She had even marched off to Akanai's office, scolding the old woman for not properly looking after her precious little Rain. That had been a terrible and terrifying mistake, one she hoped to never repeat. It was no wonder Papa was still so obedient when Akanai was around.
They rode through the morning until they reached the predetermined campground, a grassy hill with a stream to the east and south, and mountains to the north, it was unlikely that the Defiled would be able to take them by surprise here. The day passed quickly as the Sentinels under her command prepared the camp, putting up embankments to hide their fires, and palisades to impede any charges by Defiled beasts, as well as trip wires and hidden spiked barricades. The infantry joined them by nightfall, the soldiers looking weary and exhausted, unused to marching through the forests. They would likely be used to guard the campground, while Akanai led her Sentinels through the forest in the morning, hunting down the Enemy.
As soon as she found free time, Alsantset wandered towards Rain, watching him at practice. He was performing Oriole Form, Fluttering Raindrops, a series of rapid and abrupt sweeps and spins, as if flinging droplets of water about. He seemed on the verge of Enlightenment once more, his face frowning in concentration as he repeated the motion in different variations, trying to comprehend the movement. Enlightenment through battle, something that occasionally occurred, but Rain seemed to have troubles grasping the lessons according to Sumila. Alsantset settled down, water skin in hand, a meal ready for Rain when he finished, glowing at the scene of her little brother growing stronger by the day.
“Senior Captain, may we speak?” Yan slipped in from the darkness, standing nearby, looking grim and determined.
Alsantset patted the ground next to her. “Little Yan, it is only the two of us. You may call me Alsantset. Sit, I would love to chat with you.” Putting her arm around the too-thin young woman, Alsantset grinned lecherously. “So, I've noticed that your quin is in courtship with Zabu. Am I to expect that you and Rain are in a similar situation? Should I be asking you to call me Sister instead?”
Little Yan blushed furiously at her direct questioning, vigorously denying the claim. “No, not at all Senior Cap...” She paused at Alsantset's look. “Err.. Alsantset.” Another blush. “Rain is unaware of the implications, only thinking it is sweet that Zabu is in courtship.” Yan looked displeased at the declaration, causing Alsantset's grin to grow wider.
“But you are agreeable to a possible courtship with Rain?” Alsantset could not resist pressing further. Yan was a good match for Rain, with their mutual love for the quins and similar temperaments, the foul-mouthed little Sentinel would keep Rain honest, her attitude reminding Alsantset of Mama. It did not hurt for Yan to admit interest, and then Alsantset could begin to gauge Rain's reaction to a match.
All she received in reply was a frown. “I don't know. Sometimes, I think about him in a romantic light, but I do so for many of the men I meet. How am I to know if my feelings are love or lust?”
Poor girl, with no one to give her advice. “You will know when you are ready to know. If you wish to speak of it, or anything at all, you can always come to me. We have spilled blood and shared hardships together, little Yan.”
Finally, a smile from the girl. “Thank you, Alsantset.” She scratched her blushing face before continuing. “I want to speak about Rain actually, but not about courtships. I'm worried about him. About his behavior lately.”
“Of course. I worry about him too, but this is war. He is well equipped to survive, but the reality is that there is little you can do, but pray. Help him if you can, mourn him if he falls. That is the truth of the world. His way of fighting is fearful to watch, but he is more careful with his life that it would appear.” Although she spoke the words, Alsantset knew that should Rain die in battle, she would be inconsolable.
Shaking her head once again, Yan pursed her lips. “No, that's not what I'm worried about. Well, I am worried about that, but that's not why I wanted to talk. It's about what happened at the hamlet.” The girl paused, chewing her lip. “When he was setting the fire, Rain was seething with hatred, I could see it in his eyes, he was unhinged and murderous in his rage. I thought he would be inconsolable afterwards, but when we came out of the forest, he was calm and collected.” She paused and looked around, before leaning in to whisper. “He was going to torture a Defiled, just to get it to scream, so it would bring more Defiled down on us. I stopped him before he could, but if I were not there, he would have. I didn't notice at the time, but his rage had already been swallowed, and he was just... cold. The change in him was unsettling, after I thought about it. I think that... something ... may have happened.”
The blood drained from her face as a heavy knot of worry began to grown in Alsantset's stomach, understanding what little Yan was implying. “You have not spoken your suspicions to Akanai, or anyone else?” Even to suggest that he could have been Defiled could be enough to have Rain ostracized from the People, as few would want to live so close to one that was possibly tainted.
“No, of course not! I mean... I wasn't sure, so I've kept an eye on him, except when he rides off to battle. He hasn't done anything troubling since then though and he even seems normal now, but I'm still worried. He's just... too calm now, too relaxed after every battle. Remember, with the Society? Once blood had been spilled he was as heroic as any, but skittish whenever we weren't fighting. His eyes were always darting about, looking for avenues of escape and attack, almost jumping at every noise and shadow, rings forming underneath his eyes. It's just too great of a change in personality in such a short time. The only thing that hasn't changed is how much he practices.”
“People adapt during war. Those that cannot adapt, die.” Even as she protested, Alsantset knew Yan's words had weight to them, but still she could not accept them. “He has shown no signs of instability, cruelty, or apathy, and while he seems withdrawn, that is simply who he is. Papa watched him for years, making sure that nothing was amiss. Rain is fine.”
“It could have just recently happened, in the early stages. The other signs are there, Alsantset. He is confused at times, I've seen it. He will sit there, brow furrowed, trying to piece something together in his mind. He is sensitive to the light, always covering his eyes from the glare of the Sun, and itching all the time, as if his blood were turning. He's not sleeping very much either, I've seen him hard at practice when I leave for my watch, still there when I return, and at it when I wake.”
There was more, Alsantset could see Yan holding it back. Gesturing for her to speak, Yan looked distraught as she asked, “Has he sought you for help with finding Balance, to use the ring? I've watched him, and he doesn't meditate anymore. It could be that he meditates in his tent, but Huu hasn't been sharing Rain's tent for the past few days. He ah, found other accommodations, so all could be well.” Yan sounded hopeful, and Alsantset wanted to believe as well, but if he were truly unbalanced, then even as much as she hated to think it, it was possible that something was amiss. “I was almost sure that he was fine, that I was only worrying for nothing, but the fact that no one has seen him even trying to find Balance is what brought me to you.”
Other warning signs were apparent to her now that she thought on it, the change in personality, the increased skill and strength, his lack of displayed emotions. “You were right to speak to me, Yan. Please, do not tell anyone else. We must be sure beyond all doubts. He could just be unbalanced, and unwilling to seek help.” Alsantset's eyes locked onto Rain, who continued to perform Fluttering Raindrops, unaware of her gaze. She sat there praying to the Mother that he was still the same person, her precious little brother, that he was only having some difficulties. Tears began to fall from her eyes, but hardening her heart, she focused on the task at hand, turning to discuss with Yan how to best approach Rain. It was possible that the two of them were only overreacting, but all the same, she prepared herself for the worst.
If her little brother were Defiled, then the Rain they all knew and loved was already dead, and she would kill the creature that wore his flesh before he could mar her memories of him, or worse, endanger all the People. The Emperor had exterminated villages for less.
If he were Defiled, then it would be a mercy killing.
Why did she ever let him become a Sentinel?