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Benzhi lay unmoving on the surface of a pool, contemplating his existence, ‘was this his antechamber pool? Seemed that way. How did he get here? Oh, that’s right the shaman fired some lightning bolt at him which stopped his clock. How the fuck did he do that? Perhaps he could ask the shaman to demonstrate a few hundred more times so he could watch, there was indeed more to it than qi manipulation, qi manipulation was at its foundation, but the shaman pulled lightning from somewhere, and it wasn’t from his arse or was it.’
Benzhi wondered how he ended up in his antechamber pool, his link to his body on Earth had been severed, so why was he here? And what was this place, really?
He stayed floating in the qi pool, it was comforting, it was relaxing. Wait! His companions, more than companions, were in real danger. He could not relax, he had to help them.
Benzhi shocked himself into action, he had to find a way to heal the damage which put him into this position. Or at least return and then qi heal himself. He sent a stream of qi down to the bottom of the pool. When the troll had almost killed him or had killed him, he returned by exiting the pool through a hole at the bottom.
He searched the base with his qi stream, his knowledge of portals had increased dramatically and what once he thought of as a drain hole now seemed to be a permanent portal. It was small and circular it stopped the watery qi draining out of the pool.
Benzhi just had an epiphany. This place, this pool. It was his core! It did not make sense in relation to physical size, but what made sense regarding travelling across planes and running up trees using what was essentially magic?
‘So did that mean when he entered his antechamber he was effectively going inside his own qi core and he thought of it as a place in between the planes, his own personal place, one once shared by his lump and his body on earth. Well, it was a place. It was kinda weird but made perfect sense at the same time. So how did this help him?’
If it was his qi core, then he was still inside his body, sort of. Benzhi attempted to send his stream out through the portal, the qi umbilical cord to his body, and his qi thread pushed through to the other side…
He was right, about the portal leading back to his body at least, Benzhi searched for the damage done by the Gnoll Shaman. There did not seem to be any, apart from the fried skin where the lightning made contact. Benzhi sent the stream of qi to his heart, surrounded it and squeezed, he was attempting to resuscitate himself. Pump, pump, beat damn you.
After an indefinite amount of time, Benzhi got his heart going, his blood was pumping, his body began to breath own its own accord. It was time to return, he dived through the portal at the base of his qi pool, his core.
Benzhi lay still and blinked. The connection with Gisael, Reyas, and Anastasia was broken. He pushed qi streams out to the three immediately, reigniting the link.
Feelings of relief poured through the connection. Gisael and Reyas were on the ropes fighting the Alpha, both had injuries, and the Alpha seemed unhurt or at least unphased by its injuries. Anastasia was hammering ineffectively away at the Shaman, it was only a matter of time before he struck her down with lightning as well.
Benzhi studied the Shaman, who seemed unaware he was alive and awake. Its shield was like the web he had encountered in the tower in Dawnharbour. Threads of qi formed an impenetrable lattice, even with qi weapons. Its totem was the source projecting out the shield in directions and number of the Shaman’s choosing. It must be a qi crafted object to allow the Shaman to concentrate on other techniques, as the web would undoubtedly require a tonne of mental focus.
While he was unnoticed, Benzhi sent out a stream to unpick the web, create a small hole, he pulled with his qi in four directions, he sent an image to Gisael, she needed to shoot an arrow through the hole. He showed her where it was, the Shaman would notice Anastasia drawing her bow, not to mention her accuracy was not up to the task.
Gisael lept and rolled away from the Alpha, Reyas launched a ferocious all-out desperate attack on it, pulling its attention onto herself.
Gisael fired through the tiny hole created by Benzhi. Lightning was collecting on its staff and was about to render Anastasia unconscious, at least, when the arrow struck it in the chest, Gisael had altered the trajectory of the arrow once it was through the hole, it was enough to hit and stun the Shaman. It was not expecting that!
Its shields dissipated as the Shaman screamed at its injury, the lightning at the end of its staff fizzled. Anastasia shunpo’d in to strike, she brought down an overhead slash with her massive two-handed sword. The Gnoll Shaman’s head split in two, all the way down to its shoulders.
Benzhi wasted no time, he lept to his feet, grabbed his spear and charged the Alpha.
Now that the Shaman’s head was carved into two, the hundreds of service Gnolls, who were most likely ordered not to interfere with the battle, stood and were contemplating intervening. It was at this time Skandear engaged them, he had been waiting and only committed when necessary. His role was to prevent this mob of a few hundred gnolls from overwhelming the Vanguard. Although there was only fifty in his force, fifteen were elites where the gnolls were not even warriors, they were labourers.
Benzhi lept high reaching out with his spear fully extended, the Alpha had sustained lacerations and incisions all over its body. But nothing slowed it down, the damage Reyas and Gisael had done were mere flesh wounds to the gigantic beast.
The Alpha sensed Benzhi’s assault, it turned sweeping a massive claw in his direction, he would not be able to dodge the claw, he was mid-flight, he altered the spear’s thrust, directing it at the Alpha’s paw. Benzhi thrust with all his strength, backed by his most savage qi strike at the incoming paw. The impact was violent, the quality of the masterwork spear and its runes penetrated through the Alpha’s paw, however, Benzhi was mid-flight, he had no purchase and was sent flying. It was either that or hold onto the spear and be turned into a ragdoll.
The Alpha roared in pain; finally. It had a qi spear embedded in its paw, half sticking out on each side. Reyas attacked with her picks at its hindquarters, Gisael slashed with her swords at its other paw, Benzhi shunpo’d between its legs, holding his sword up and using qi blade to slice its groin in two.
Between the three of them, the Alpha was being whittled down, one chunk of gnoll meat, fur and bone at a time. Benzhi planted a foot on its back, launching upwards to gain access to the rear of its neck. The Alpha twisted, trying to dislodge him, and it only succeeded in opening itself to attacks from Gisael and Reyas.
The pair were largely ignored by the Alpha, it was incensed with Benzhi and the damage he had done in a short space of time. But, now that they were ignored, the Alpha opened itself to the devastating damage they could inflict. In unison the three attacked, Benzhi the back of its neck, Gisael attempted to sever its leg, and Reyas aimed a pick directly into its lower back aiming for its kidney.
The Alpha roared and fell under the onslaught, its death cries caused the remaining gnolls to panic and flee.
Benzhi continued to view it under qi sight, ensuring it did not heal itself.
Reyas stuck a pickax through its brain, for good measure.
The ordinary gnolls were routing, the Shaman and now Alpha were dead, and the portal which granted them access to Basal was closing.
“Let’s see to your wounds and make this place safe for the gatherers,” Benzhi said to all and sundry. He proceeded to attend to Gisael, Reyas and Anastasia, all acquitted themselves above and beyond. What impressed him the most was the teamwork, it was an area which improved more than their individual skills.
Of all the qi techniques, from enhancements of physical prowess to senses, the link was proving to be one of the most formidable if not the most. Both the Shaman and the Alpha died to teamwork.
Once he had attended to the wounds of the Vanguard Benzhi surveyed the supporting force. Although they had not done the same amount of fighting, they had incurred severe injuries.
Benzhi depleted his shield ensuring everyone who could, survived, there was two Vaugend militia who had died before he got to them.
As he attended the red-headed young woman he asked her name, she reminded him of Reyas, she was fierce and strong-willed.
“Me name be Carnelian, after da gemstone, for me red hair. Most folks call me Carney,” Carnelian said while indicating her hair.
“Well Carney, what will you do in Vaugend now the Gnolls are no longer a threat?” Benzhi asked.
“I be looking for a job, what else,” Carney answered.
Benzhi contemplated Vaugend and its people. They were a turd when he first visited the city, that was for sure. But since they had been put through the fire, and all the crap had been burnt away. Should he offer them a home? Leave them be? Or assist them to rebuild?
“If there was a place for you to live in the Alpine Forest, would you consider that?” Benzhi asked Carney.
She thought about it for awhile. Her face took on a cute countenance when she was thinking, she was like a wild thing trying to look studious.
“It be a safe place, clean and work for the likes of me?” Carney asked.
“More than you have ever experienced I would wager,” Benzhi replied.
“You are a better man than the old duke, I think most would follow you despite the small war,” Carney answered seriously.
“I will consult with the Stoneskin Clan, for it is they who will be building a new township for you. Once it has been decided and assuming it is a yes, I will invite you and the fighters here first,” Benzhi stated earnestly.
Benzhi viewed Carney with qi sight, she had so much spunk, but no qi ability to speak of. Bloody Vaugend.
Once the logistics of the harvesting and the area scouted for possible threats, Benzhi opened a portal to the Stoneskin Clan taking Skandear and a couple of wounded with him. Leaving Gisael and Reyas in charge.
Benzhi called the leaders of the Stoneskin Clan together and told them his idea.
“I noticed you are partial to your ledger, keeping track of all the trades, which were supposed to be gifted by the way,” Benzhi started.
“After witnessing the devastation of Vaugend and the quality of the people who are left alive, I would like to extend an invitation for the survivors to abandon Vaugend and come and live here.
“My idea is that the men would live outside the stronghold here and create farms down on the plains below and a trade centre here, where merchants could travel to and from, one day when the roads are safer.
“Where once the trade went to Vaugend, it would now come here, and the primary goods to be traded would be your crafted goods. Let the men travel far and wide, let the men purchase from you and sell in distant cities and to bring back supplies and products that you desire.
“Let the men farm and feed you and allow you do what you do best, mine, build and craft.” Benzhi finished.
“And fight,” said Skandear.
“And fight,” agreed Benzhi.
“I dinnae have to think about it,” Kindeag stated, “agreed.”
“Sounds troublesome,” Bhar said, “but, as long as you keep the men in line, agreed.”
“Who am I to disagree,” Barrin voted in his thick accent.
“Then it's unanimous,” Skandear added.
Benzhi nodded. “That was easier than I thought. I will make the offer, I am not sure how many will come, I guess we will see. Start planning a township outside the main gates down the mountain slope. At most, it will be a thousand men, but it will need room to grow.”
While the activity took place in Vaugend, Benzhi visited the three Gael Chieftens to ensure they were not against the plans. It was not that long ago they evicted the men from Vaugend, and now they were inviting them back in.
The Gaels had no issues, the land had significantly increased in size since the Alpine Forest was created, they had more room and food than was necessary by a factor of ten. Once Benzhi assured them the nobles had run and it was only the lowest of the society which remained and they were the ones invited, the ones who had no stake in the events from a few months ago the Gaels were satisfied and agreed.
They even asked for a section of the new city to be set aside for them, they would also like to trade furs out of the city and use the proceeds to purchase luxuries that could not be found in the mountains.
Before leaving the Clan leaders, he was not remiss in informing them the return of the Seer. Explaining the healing and the Seers travels. And since the Seer had been healed, he may want to move into close proximity of one of the strongholds. This, the clan leaders were to discuss directly with the seer.
He ran from the edge of the Alpine Forest back to Vaugend after a day of talks with the leaders of the Alpine Forest, only the elves were excluded, but they did not mind, they were secluded in the Glade cut off from the world who did not possess tree-run. Until the pass was complete in any case.
Benzhi arrived back in Vaugend to witness everything was going to plan. The gatherers and grey elves had made short works of literally thousands of dead gnolls, gathering bag after bag of gemstone cores.
The Shaman and Alpha were skinned as were the fifteen elite gnolls, these skins would provide the material for the runic amour, with the Alpha and Shaman being mystical grade and the elites merely being adequate and practice material.
Benzhi asked for the men of Vaugend to all assemble, at the keep, as word quickly spread of the victory, it was likely everyone would attend the celebrations and to listen to the speech from him.
All the Alpine Forest people, who were in Vaugend at the time, attended as they were celebrations of the victory that they made possible.
The men were not pompous, they were thankful and gracious. The change from the old regime to the current folk was like chalk and cheese. Benzhi was impressed that the trials of the city had made its people more resilient and amiable. Perhaps it was because now that they understood the power of the Alpine Forest’s people they show them respect, but, it didn’t feel that way.
It felt like the wheat had been separated from the chaff. And what remained were the best of men who had once been held down by the worst of men.
When it finally came time for Benzhi to address the crowd, he stood on a table, shouting for the thousand men to listen to his offer.
“I am not going to talk about the battle, I will leave that for others, I wanted to talk to you about the future,” he began. “The last couple of days I have been in talks with the people of the Alpine Forest, to gain support for the offer, I am about to present to you.
“There is a place being prepared for you in the Alpine Forest, for all here who wish to emigrate. There will be jobs, food, farms and land for any who wish to take up the offer. You are all welcome, and you will prosper, as do all the people. You will have to follow our rules, but that is the same as any place, our laws are to make our home safe and fair for all.
“Anyone who wishes to take up this offer, and knows now, please stand to give us an idea, of course, you can take the next few weeks to move, stripping this place of whatever you see fit as it was abandoned by all others. You are also welcome to strip the gnoll burrows of anything of value. This is important because the main occupation of the residents of the new city will be traders. Once safe routes can be established.” Benzhi finished his speech and waited for men to stand.
At first, not many stood, Carney and the tag along boy stood immediately, and after a couple of minutes nearly everyone was standing. Nodding to each other, speculating it was as good an offer, as they had ever had, in their lives.