Chapter 75: Kingdom 17
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It was mid-morning, a day and a half of killing hellhounds had finally finished off the first wave. The Vanguard handled the huge beast-dogs with much more aplomb than their first encounter many months ago, but, they were still the most dangerous first wave creature on the plains. Especially considering they came in packs of up to six.
Their new weapons and armour made a huge difference, claws and bites could only bruise. The mundane natural weapons could not penetrate the qi powered stoneskin leather armour. The protection offered did not diffuse the sheer bulk of a hellhound and the fact that if they pinned you to the ground, they could chew off your unprotected head. If they knocked you out, your qi powered stoneskin leather armour would become mundane leather armour.
Nonetheless, the Vanguard took down the hellhound packs one by one. Keann would not skin them for hides unless he needed more bags, which he did not since Benzhi had learned how to condense the harvested qi solid cores now known as kernels.
Benzhi had created ten, condensed, fist-sized kernels. One alone could be used to create a small Land Core and therefore domain, wasteful for purely portal purposes. Benzhi would just create an anchor for that, it would entail a much lower risk and cost. He estimated the domain size, with one of the ten qi kernels, would be a couple of thousand paces in each direction, or sixteen kilometres square. But that was a guess, and he wasn’t going to waste one to find out.
“Now we wait,” Anastasia said to no one in particular. The Vanguard had approached the portal, camping a few hundred paces off waiting to see what sort of creature would venture forth as the second wave.
Benzhi perused Anastasia, she had a long way to go physically, her speed, strength and natural athletic ability were improving, but amongst the elite of the vanguard, she was slow and weak. Where she did not lack was in qi manipulation, her manipulation skill and core was the equal of Gisael and Reyas.
And she picked up new techniques with much less difficulty than Gisael and Reyas, who had until recently relied on their innate talents.
“These beasts are on another level compared to our earlier skirmishes,” Benzhi began, “I want you to be cautious, you have come a long way, but you are still at risk.”
Anastasia nodded, she knew better than anyone the gap in combat experience and reflexes between herself and her companions. Through the shared link she could see how the other three moved when a strike was directed at a vulnerable location. The awareness was both inspiring and depressing at the same time.
“I will come in when the way is clear, and,” she hefted her sword, “use this beast of a weapon to end things quickly with an overhead strike,” Anastasia sounded like an old Gael warrior, at odds with her appearance, that of a pretty young Russian woman.
“You are adjusting well, the month of training and the weeks of real combat could not have been better for your development,” Benzhi said sincerely.
“I thank you for the opportunity and the support,” Anastasia said emotionally.
“Don’t thank me, you deserved and earned it. I have not seen anyone from earth with your potential,” Benzhi replied graciously, “and now you help us, it is a good relationship.”
“Talking about potential from Earth,” Anastasia said, “there has been something that has been bugging me for a long time.”
Benzhi tilted his head, curiosity playing across his face, “mmhm?”
“Remember when I told you I was tested, and isolated with ten other people from that section of Harbin and then a hundred, and then a thousand from the Heilongjiang province,” she began. “Heilongjiang is a small province.”
“Wait, didn’t you say only the young were tested?” Benzhi said.
“Ah, that is the part I lied about, everyone was tested, I did not want you prejudging me based on my age, as others had done,” Anastasia said. “I did not know you. Otherwise, I would not have bothered lying. You just look at people with qi sight and then judge them.” She smiled weakly.
Benzhi motioned for her to continue, he didn’t really care, he cared more about what was bugging her. “Well,” she said, “I found out, after coming here, that you left not just because of the grey elf slaves, but, because of sacrifices. I had not put anything together until much later, and it has been bugging me ever since.”
“Did you notice how many talents, like me, not guests, sponsored by the QWP there were attending the academy?” she asked.
“About one in ten if I recall, so, thirty?” Benzhi answered uncertainly.
“Yes, thirty, yet all of us were put onto buses, to go for special training and testing. We were told our families were paid, in advance, for our time and consideration, six months good wages. It was done in such a way, no one refused, it seemed we did not have a choice and our families would benefit greatly with our cooperation.
“So what has been bugging me, I was one of the thirty, probably because my test scores were better than most, what happened to the other, quite literally, tens of thousands?” She finished.
Benzhi hung his head solemnly, “it’s a leap, but, it seems we know where the “sacrifices” are sourced from and their purpose. These people tested, like you, and were shown to have a qi core. Just as I was tested and put into the program. The Myrkalfar definitely trade in solid qi cores, kernels….” Benzhi retched, “it’s completely disgusting!”
“Wait,” he said after a mournful pause, “they may not be dead.”
Anastasia looked at him quizzically, “uh, sacrifices?”
“Is a word, that can mean a few things, not necessarily death. It doesn't make sense to kill someone for a once off qi kernel,” Benzhi started. “When they become part of a domain, they can be syphoned daily, over a period of time they would add more to a Land Core than their once off kernel. Remember the grey elve’s cores were imprisoned and their qi regeneration forcibly removed, not to mention their circulation totally blocked.”
Anastasia nodded, “So they could be alive, somewhere, not because of mercy, or right or wrong, but because they are more valuable alive than dead? How horrible!”
Everyone was quiet, Reyas and Gisael started to listen intently when the conversation turned to the sacrifices and Myrkalfar.
“What will we do?” Anastasia asked distraughtly, she was kind-hearted and she was one of them in a way, she only escaped that fate through her prodigious talent.
“Ah, I don’t know,” Benzhi had no idea where to start. He sat still thinking for the longest time, he had not come up with any good ideas when the portal flared. The second wave had arrived.
Three black horses galloped through the portal, as expected they were not normal horses. Fire licked their mane and flared from their nostrils. With each step, fire streamed from their hooves.
One word spread through the connection.
If they weren’t so scary, they would have been beautiful. Benzhi wondered how tough one would be, let alone three.
The Nightmares sensed the Vanguard even at three hundred paces range, they veered towards them, fanning out, charging the Vanguard down. An unusual feeling swept through the companions, it was usually them doing the charging, it was a turnaround to be the target.
There was no time to work out strategies based on the abilities of the Nightmares, they would be upon the party in seconds. Gisael and Anastasia loosed arrows, Benzhi and Reyas ran forward. Engaging qi sight, Benzhi realised the extent of their core, they were Mystical beasts. Three friggin mystical beasts. Other than the third wave of the Gnolls, they have never fought more than one Mystical beast at a time.
Gisael’s qi arrow penetrated into a Nightmare, it whinnied and the wooden arrow burnt away to ash, but it had done minor damage. Anastasia, who was effectively a mundane archer, attempt turned to ash before impact.
‘Heat shield,’ Benzhi sent through the link. The Nightmares were surrounded by intense heat, the grass under their hooves disintegrated, turning black. The arrow just confirmed the suspicion.
The two forces clashed, there was no defence against the intense heat, Benzhi and Reyas grimaced under intense pain, their skin turning red, blistering. The charge and carnage were over in moments. Benzhi impaled the first Nightmare on his spear, it did not dodge, it relied on its pure blistering, unadulterated heat to burn away its opponent.
It’s bite, kick and charge were secondary to its fire. Benzhi and Reyas were the toughest of the four companions of the Vanguard, they withstood the pain, the injury and quickly dealt mortal blows. It was a war of attrition, a clashing of two unstoppable forces.
The third was slowed by Gisael, Benzhi did not allow anyone else to be injured, he charged in with his spear, using its full reach, he lept and thrust down into the Nightmares skull. Benzhi could see its qi flows, severing a mass in its head which was connected to its mouth and nostrils was not a mortal blow. The Nightmare thrashed.
His skin began to scream, to peel from his body, blackened and burnt, first one layer now a second. Anastasia lept to his aid, slicing through the Nightmare’s neck, severing the injured head.
That was enough to quiet its core and the searing heat dissipated quickly.
Benzhi sat, closed his eyes and focused his qi as best he could through the pain. He could not sever nerves to reduce the torrent of misery because it was everywhere.
He got to work before passing out. Repairing burnt nerves, muscle and skin. The pain slowly receded, enough for him to stand and make his way over to Reyas. She was in a bad way as well. Fortunately, her Nightmare died quickly, compared to Benzhi she was in good shape.
After the immediate danger was over Benzhi suggested, “we need to kill on the first strike, anything else and your life is in danger. Sever the head, or pierce the heart.”
Grim nods all round.
“Take care of yourself,” Gisael bent over Benzhi inspecting his wounds, “stop talking and fix this.” She dared not touch him, she pointed and ordered him to go back to qi healing his wounds.
Benzhi closed his eyes and did as he was told.
The portal shimmered.
It was going to be a long day.
That evening each and every one of the Vanguard straggled into their camp. Their day had been brutal, everyone was red raw, battered physically and mentally. The pain of being burnt, and then burn again on the new baby-like skin, was not like anything they had endured before.
Benzhi had eaten through a fist-sized lump of concentrated kernel, just to fuel the qi consumed during the healings between each battle. Fortunately, the Nightmares were mystical and would yield slightly more than they had used.
“I will be glad when this is over,” Benzhi said to no one in particular, lying down, he was not capable of lifting a finger to help in the camp. His day had been more taxing than anyone. Not only did he have the strain of healing, but he had also taken the most damage.
Reyas stroked his head, his hair had been singed back to nothing, he was bald again. Although he had healed his skin, he was not going to expend any energy on hair, Benzhi wasn’t that vain. On the other hand, he has saved Reyas’ and Gisael’s hair on more than one occasion. Call him a chauvinist, he thought their hair was more important than his. That being said, both of them had a significant haircut through the experience.
“My Benzhi,” she bent down and kissed his bald head. Then she lay down, with the side of her head on his chest, closing her eyes.
Gisael, who was usually fastidious in helping with camp duties lay down on his other side, her face to his shoulder.
It was left to Anastasia to explain to the support crew the struggles of the day, and apologise for not helping prepare meals, set fires, gather wood etc.
Keann, Skorrick, Flek and Carney just nodded and smiled weakly offering sympathy. They took on all the tasks themselves. Leaving the Vanguard to rest.
When they settled down for the evening meal, Carney tried to wake the trio to see if they wanted to eat.
While Reyas sat up and scoffed down some food, they others were out.
“I am truly thankful for the Vanguard,” Skorrick said earnestly with his dwarven accent, “the do the impossible and apologise for not helping cook a meal.” He laughed and was joined in by the others.
“Has it always been this way?” Carney asked she was a relatively new resident of the Alpine Forest.
Keann looked to Flek, she had known Benzhi longer than any of them, she was from the Glade.
Flek nodded, “they always train, or scout, or fight. It has been this way since I arrived from our old world,” she was quiet for a while before adding, “Mother named Benzhi Protector, which is the highest honour for a Guardian. They have done things, which are not normal for guardians, tales are being told and shared about them already.”
“Wow,” Carney said, “these tales, will we be in them? Where are they told?”
Flek giggled, “I doubt we will be in them. But it is possible, depends on what happens on this expedition. They will be told where wood elves live. Eventually, one clan’s stories spread to another and so on.”
“I wish I could be in the Vanguard,” Carney said wistfully.
Skorrick chuckled, not unkindly and said, “methinks it has more to it than just being beautiful. Each one of them is talented with qi. Even Skandear, our best warrior, cannot keep up with them in sparring.”
Carney nodded sadly, she knew this was the case, she was just dreaming out loud, “then I will do my part as a trader.” She smiled shyly looking at Reyas and Gisael snuggled up to Benzhi. It was not to be for her, this romantic, adventurous lifestyle no matter how much she wished it.
The next day the Vanguard rested until mid-morning, Benzhi meditated for four hours after sleeping for eight. They took their time taking down the rest of the Nightmare spawn, resting between each battle. While the battles themselves were over in moments, the healing and recuperation from the burns took a long time.
“I will not sit close to the fire, no matter how cold, for a month,” Benzhi said.
“I fear what comes next,” Anastasia spoke out loud what they were all thinking. So far this region had been the most troublesome by far. The third wave was anticipated with trepidation.
The morning of the next day was upon them, the Vanguard camped the portal, anxiously awaiting what it would spew forth.
The sun was peaking between clouds, it was threatening to rain. The wind was picking up, and although the weather was mild, this wind was chilling.
The Vanguard waited, and the clouds rolled in the sky darkening. Before any drops of rain hit the ground lightning shot through the sky with thunder following shortly. Although it was midday, darkness descended on the plains. The portal shimmered.
It strode through the portal, looked directly at the Vanguard and its deep voices carried over the three hundred paces separating them, “I’ve been looking forward to this meeting,” it said. Its smile was predatory.