The following days went by quickly. Initially I was still weak from whatever ordeal had injured this body. I could only spend a few hours a day up and around, but as time passed I was able to regain some strength. So I'd spend most of my time in the hut with Cali as she tried to teach me the language. Things weren't going too badly on that front.
I'd always heard that full immersion was the best way to learn a new language and that appeared to be true. A month here had done more for me than a semester of Spanish had back on earth. I was now able to understand quite a few words, if the person didn't speak too quickly. My own speech was broken and heavily accented but I could usually make myself understood.
Over the last few weeks I'd learned quite a bit from observation and the snaches of conversation I could puzzle out. Apparently this was Mountain-Sun village which was under the rule of the Mountain-Sun clan. The clan worked under the a feudal system. They owned the village and all the surrounding lands and the people would work the land for them in exchange for their protection and strength. Strength was king here. There was basically no law and everything was settled with Martial arts. As a consequence the population was stratified based on their abilities.
My parents and therefore I was in the lowest caste. The people who had no talent for martial arts, or cultivation as they called it. We were basically slaves. If someone from a higher class told us to do something we had to do it or be beaten. Since the clan owned most of the food that left us in a very rough spot. My family were mostly farmers. Although, how anyone could farm anything in the rocky mountain soil up here I hadn't figured out. Being from the midwest I knew what good soil looked like, and this was not it. I still hadn't figured out why the clan had set-up on the mountain instead of down in the valley where the soil was obviously much more fertile.
The middle caste was made up of people who had average martial talent or who were good craftsmen. Blacksmiths, leather-workers, and most of the clan's soldiers and guards were in the middle caste. The upper caste was made up of the elite martial arts families. I still had no idea how one's talents were measured but I was pretty sure it had something to do with the tattoos all the fighters had.
Children weren't required to work until they turned 12, and since I was only 11 I could pretty much do whatever I wanted for most of the day. Honestly, that fact this body was 11 had shocked me. I didn't look more than eight or nine, but children who looked small and sickly were extremely common in the lower caste since we never had much to eat.
Technologically the clan was pretty bad off. Everything was done with carts and hand-tools. There was no gunpowder and no running water. Medicine, at least among the lower caste, was non existent and sanitation was terrible.
So in a nutshell. Life sucked. I lived in a dirt hut. I had to go dig my own hole to take a crap outside in the freezing wind, and all the hot girls always got snatched by the men of the middle or upper class as concubines, so there weren't even any decent girls to look at. Granted, I wouldn't be chasing skirts for a few years yet but still.
Currently I was staring down at my reflection in the river below the village. My family didn't have a mirror so I still didn't know what I looked like. I had tried to try to sneak down to the river a few times to look but every time I did mom had caught me and yelled a lot. She didn't want me down here for some reason but today she'd had to take a load of vegetables up the the main house so I'd taken the opportunity to run off.
It was odd to look at the reflection of my new body. I was a cute kid, high cheekbones a decent jaw. It was hard to tell how I'd look as I grew but hopefully I wouldn't be too ugly. The most interesting feature was I'd kept my own eyes. The light-blue orbs looked odd in my dark-skinned face but they made me happy. At least I had something from my old-life besides memories.
I was tilting my head from side to side to inspect myself when a voice spoke up from behind me me.
"What are you doing?" I turned curiously and saw a small girl standing a few feet away and looking at me curiously. A group of warriors walked in a double file line toward the boats tied along the river a quarter mile away. The girl must have been walking with them and wondered what I was up to.
She was a cute kid. Her face was dirt smudged but it was obvious she'd be pretty enough when she grew. I put her around my age. She looked older but if she was with the warriors her father must be from the middle class, and she wouldn't be as stunted as I was. Her appearance was a bit odd though. She had the same dark-skin Asian looks as the majority of the clan but her hair was a fiery orange-red that clashed ridiculously with her dark brown eyes.
On earth those genes would have never mixed that way, but I'd noticed other strange colorations within the clan. There was a black-skinned man with blonde hair who was a smith in the village, and I'd seen a girl of the upper-class whose hair was naturally leaf-green.
I looked at the girl for a moment then replied in my broken speech. "I look". It was about the best I could do under the circumstances. I'd only caught 'what', 'you' and 'doing' from her, but her meaning was fairly obvious. That was the worst part about not being able to speak properly. It was so much more difficult to be a smart ass.
"What are you looking at?" She said with an exaggerated eye roll. Seems even in this life I can infuriate women. It was good to know the talent carried over.
"Me" I said simply. Mostly it was because me was easy to say but it served the dual purpose of being intentionally obtuse.
She scowled heavily at me. "What's your name?" She asked as she sat down beside me and looked into the water. I only caught what' and 'name' but answered dutifully. .
"Chok" I said simply. Then added "You?"
"I'm Shimak. You shouldn't be down here. It's dangerous near the forest. The beasts down here could kill you with a look." She explained. I caught almost none of it. Besides her name, but I did perk up at 'danger'.
I looked around cautiously wondering what the problem could be. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary.
"Not now dummy, The warriors are here. Beasts don't come across the river often but they have before. If one sees you they might decide to take a swim." She explained is a sage tone. I caught very little, but 'beast' I understood. I'd learned this world had some crazy powerful wild animals but I'd never seen one. I'd heard the clan sent people down to hunt but this was the first time I'd ever seen it. Meat was a rarity in the clan and in the lower class we only ever got scraps.
The girl sat down next to me before speaking again. "Dad won't let me go. He says I'm too little and I don't have my first beast yet." I had no idea what she said but I could sense her tone and I nodded in sympathy. "If they do well today he said he might even be able to get me a beast core. I was supposed to get it last year but the Fire-Cloud family took it for Drikal's cultivation instead. The kids a half-wit but the Fire-Cloud family hasn't produced a Spirit-rank warrior in years and they keep dumping money on Dirkal hoping he'll turn their fortune."
Her second statement I caught even less of than her first so I went into active listening mode, hoping she wouldn't ask me a question directly. The warriors down steam had finished loading the boats with supplies and men and soon they put ores to water as they guided their boats across the river.
The river was massive. Easily a half-mile wide and it took the warriors a quarter hour to cross. Shimak chatted happily beside me apparently unknowing or uncaring that I wasn't really listening. We watched as the warriors landed on the other side and started to unpack their gear and supplies. They wore little armor, but had a variety of weapons. Everything from a simple sword to one of the crazy omega shaped Asian pole-arms. They looked rather formidable with their serious expressions and tattoos.
Speaking of tattoos....
I turned to Shimak and ran my eyes over her looking for tattoo's. She noticed my look and blushed before she hit me. The blow wasn't that strong but I was a weakling and it knocked me off balance, making me fall over.
"Who the hell do you think you are? You think some Low-caste trash like you can look at my body?" She shouted angrily.
I frowned as I sat up. I didn't understand her words but I got the message. I wasn't looking at her in a sexual way. Christ, the girl was under 12 and I was 11. I wouldn't have any real libedo for years yet and I sure as hell wouldn't stoop that low.
I shrugged and held up my hands in surrender. She huffed but didn't move away. She didn't seem to have any tattoos I could see. Most of the middle class, and all of the warriors, had them on their arms and chest, but I still couldn't figure out what the significance was.The ones I'd seen were always animals, and the bigger and more intricate ones were usually on the higher-classed warriors.
I was trying to puzzle it out when there was a loud roar from across the river. The sound was so loud the surface of the river rippled. The men across the river started to shout and I snapped my gaze in that direction. There was a wide clearing between the river and the trees and as I watched in horror as massive beast slunk out of the forest toward the warriors.
It was huge. Even from this distance I could tell it was at least eight feet at the shoulder. It was shaped like a wolf but on a massive scale. Bright blue fur covered its body, but the tufts of fur that would usually be around a wolf's neck were replaced with a mass of snakes instead. They weaved around it's head crazily and their beady eyes were all locked on the warriors who were now looking at the monster in horror.
"Centurion rank beast....." The girl said in a whisper, obviously terrified. I could agree with the sentiment completely.
What in the holy hell is that thing?...
The warrior's apparently agreed as well because they dropped the gear they were unloading and immediately all dove for the boats. The beast charged forward and started to massacre the men. Blood flew in every direction while they frantically tried to push the boats off the bank before a strong looking man with red hair turned back toward the beast. Even from here I could see his jaw set as he drew the axe from his back. Light flashed and suddenly two beasts appeared next to the man. One was a large bear with long metallic claws. The other was some sort of big cat but it's tail was made from pure flame.
I watched utterly amazed. The man's beasts were impressive but obviously much smaller and weaker than the wolf. The man charged forward with his beasts in tow and attacked the wolf as it continued to decimate the other men.
"NO DAD!" The girl screamed from beside me. The beast was distracted and the man's axe glowed with red light as it bit into the wolf's flank. His beasts circled the monster snapping at it and trying to distract the thing for their master but the fight was a hopeless one. The wolf turned and smashed a massive paw down on the cat pulverizing it. The attack seemed to stagger the warrior and he fell to his knees as he coughed up blood.
"NOOOOO!" The girl screamed again and stood up like she was going to rush into the river. I stood quickly and tried to grab her. She fought like a demon, but I cheated. I stepped onto the back of her knee driving her down then slapped an arm over her eyes. The girl scratched and bit at me but I held firm as the Wolf howled again. It whirled on the bear and the snakes around it's head seemed to glow for a moment. The bear turned to grey stone as it was inundated with green power. .
The wolf turned slowly towards the downed warrior, the motion almost lazy. The man was now on the ground curled into a ball. The wolf made a single sharp movement and bit the man completely in half. It howled in triumph but the man's sacrifice hadn't been in vain. The survivors had made it into the boat and were paddling towards us like hell was chasing them. The wolf watched them go before it sniffed disdainfully and walked back into the woods.
The girl sobbing in my arms finally gave up her struggles and collapsed. I just sat beside her, lending her what comfort I could until the warriors came and took her away.
The entire village was in an uproar for days after the failed hunt. I, on the other hand was grounded. Mom had been furious when she found out I was down by the river during the wolf attack. Honestly, I was pretty damn embarrassed. I hadn't been grounded in ten years at least. I sat sullenly in the small hut for a week while mom and dad went to work everyday.
Weeks went by and the frenzy around the failed hunt died down. My speech improved more every day and soon I was able to understand pretty much everything being said around me. My mother was ecstatic with my progress and although I could tell she was upset I couldn't remember my childhood at all. She at least had a healthy son now. I spent my days tagging along with my mother or father as they worked. There wasn't much else to do and now that my speech had improved I could pepper them with questions I'd wanted to ask and couldn't.
"What's a Centurion-class beast?" I asked as I helped my father hoe a field. The weather was warming up and he'd have to plant soon. In a few months I'd turn twelve and be forced to start working as well. I figured I should use the opportunity to practice my drudgery. The only real benefit was that the hard work was getting me into better shape.
"Ahhhh, remembering the wolf are you?" Dad said as he wiped sweat from his brow. "As a wild beast absorbs the world's essence it becomes more powerful and more violent. When it becomes powerful enough it grows a monster-core and becomes a Soldier-rank monster. The ranks go Soldier, Elite, Centurion, and Warlord. There are ones above that, but I can't remember them. Not that it matters too much. Anything above Warlord could crush this small village in an instant. Even the clan elders couldn't stand up to it." He said as he finished a row and started on the next.
"Don't human's use the world essence for Martial arts though?" I asked confused. The world essence was kinda like magic. It had taken me awhile to piece it out, since it wasn't something that was easy to explain, but it seemed to be some mystical power than covered the world. Everyone said that the marital artists absorbed it to strengthen themselves but for someone who grew up on earth the concept was pretty wild. Then again we didn't have 10 foot tall snake-wolves that could turn people to stone either.
"That's where summoned beasts come in. Legends say that long ago man could absorb the world's essence directly and use it to strengthen their bodies Qi. However, a powerful cultivator rose to unimaginable power and tried to topple the gods. To punish man for his hubris the gods corrupted the world essence and made human's unable to cultivate. The beasts continued to absorb the corrupted power and it warped their bodies and their minds. It made them powerful, but also twisted and violent.They attacked the humans and without power the humans died by the millions."
"When Banon, the God of Life, saw this tragedy he decided to give man a second chance. He gave humans the ability to cleanse the world essence and bind their souls to beasts. The beast can absorb the world's essence for the human and the human can cleanse it nurturing both bodies with clean essence. Only this way can man cultivate the arts and grow in power. Banon hoped this would lead man to value cooperation and peace...." Dad explained. His expression grew bitter at the end of his explanation.
"How do you bind a beast?" I asked completely interested in the story. It was fascinating to learn the legends and history of another world. That and the information he gave me explained a lot about what I'd seen. This world was an extremely dangerous place. No wonder the clan was hiding on a barren mountain instead of down the fertile valley.
Dad let out a bitter laugh. "That's the question every low caste child wants to know and that's why Banon's plan failed. In order to bind a beast one must have sufficient Qi. However, the only way to get enough Qi for that is to absorb a monster-core. However, even soldier ranked beasts are immensely powerful compared to man. Without cultivated strength killing one is impossible."
"So the only people that can kill a monster are the people with bound beasts, and the only way to bind a beast is to kill a monster." I nodded understanding."So those with power keep it, and those without it get stepped on." I said with a chuckle. Seems like this world and my old one aren't much different after all.
"Exactly" Dad said sadly. "People in the middle-caste are usually allowed to buy monster-cores for their children but the lower caste can never afford it." Dad said sadly as he looked at me. I could tell he regretted he'd never be able to give me a better life. That was every parent's dream. I could still remember the look on my real mom's face when she was trying to help me pay for college but didn't have the money. It was the same one my new father was wearing now.
"It's alright dad, I understand." I said. As a gave him a pat on the back and started to hoe the field again.
What I understood was I needed to get my grubby mitts on a monster-core. Other-wise I was going to spend my resurrected life hoeing fields and spreading monster-dung.
"I know that look son. I had the same one when I was your age. Dozens of the low-caste die every year in the forest looking for monster-cores. Sure someone happens upon a wounded or dying beast every decade or so, but most of the time they die. You've already seen the kind of things that live in the forest. And even if you don't run across a high ranked beast, even a Soldier Ranked monster is more than even a skilled fighter can handle if he doesn't have enhanced strength from cultivation. A regular sword wouldn't even pierce their skin. " He said in warning.
I just nodded. What dad didn't know what that I was from a different world. Where I was from you could make a bomb that could blow-up a tank with ten bucks worth of chemicals. I was pretty sure I could come up with something that would kill a Soldier Ranked monster. Even without explosives it shouldn't be too bad. I hadn't seen any warriors with a crossbow yet. If I could get a some money I could have a smith make me one. I'd have to design it for him probably or I could just get the metal and try to make it myself. Then again, maybe this world had some crazy materials for making weapons. Maybe a normal bow with a strong enough draw would work.
Thoughts and ideas swirled through my mind as my brain started to churn up a plan.
I spent the next few weeks with dad asking more questions and discarding ideas. Each plan I came up with was exceedingly dangerous and would most likely result in my demise. I still wasn't sure about how strong a Soldier rank beast really was and without specific information it was hard to plan an effective trap.
I was wondering aimlessly around the village while I continued to create and discard plans when I saw Shimak nearby. She was carrying a basket with some food in it and didn't seem to be aware of her surroundings. Her head was down and she looked so listless that I went over to her. I'd lost my parents too after all.They hadn't died but I still could see them anymore, I could sympathise with the girl a little.
I walked next to her and gave her a slight bump with my shoulder. Her balance waved for a moment and she looked over at me with lifeless brown eyes.
"Oh.... It's you." She said without a hint of emotion. I frowned slightly unsure how to proceed. My conversational skills with women were practically non-existent and my skills with children were even lower than that. I honestly had no idea how to handle this situation. So instead of saying something idiotic like 'what's the matter? I just kept my mouth shut and walked beside her.
We continued like that for most of an hour before I realized she was walking us in circles. Apparently, she just didn't want to go home. After another few minutes I couldn't take the silence anymore.
"Common." I said as I took the lead. She didn't look at me but she did follow. So I lead her to my favorite spot. It was down the mountain a mile or so from the village. There was a raised rock formation that jutted up from the rest of the stone and I'd moved some of the smaller rocks around so they formed a bit of a seat. From the improvised chair you could see down the mountain and it offered a perfect view of the river and forest below. I lead her over the the chair and plopped down. There was just enough room for two of us to squeeze onto it.
We sat their for a long time as the sun rose slowly towards its zenith. Then without warning the girl beside me started to sob loudly. She made long loud wails that echoed off the hard stone around us and filled the entire area with sounds of despair. She cried herself to exhaustion before she finally spoke in a croak.
"It's not fair. There taking mom away." She said with a choked sob.
"What do you mean?" I asked puzzled. I was trying to figure out if I'd misheard her but she quickly explained.
"Mom isn't from the Village. Dad found her wounded and alone when he was out on a hunt. He rescued her and brought her back the village. Dad married her and they had me but know that he's gone, we've got nothing. Mom can't cultivate at all and I never got my monster-core." She told her story with tears running down her young face.
"One of the young masters from the Upper-caste wants mom as a mistress. Since she's an outsider she doesn't have any status at all and can't refuse, but the lord doesn't want a bastard daughter in his family so he's going to kick me out. Then I'll be alone and mom...." She broke down crying again, and I patted her back awkwardly as I tried to process everything she'd said to me.
That was a pretty screwed up situation even for this place. The strong really could do whatever the hell they wanted and no-one would say anything to them. The upper-class were a bunch of spoiled assholes. The problem was all of them had been cultivating since a young age and they could crush anyone who tried to stand up to them.
I wanted to help the girl but I had nothing to offer. I was a low caste child. I had no money, no status, and no strength. I frowned and set my jaw. My determination to get a monster core was stronger than ever and the girl might be just the ticket I needed.
"Alright, let's go" I said as I stood up. The girl followed without saying anything but she looked a little better now. Apparently she'd needed to tell someone. I couldn't do much for her but sometimes you just need to talk to someone who gives a crap.
We walked back up the mountain and though the low caste section before the middle area. I got a few frowns since I obviously didn't belong but continued as if I was oblivious to the glares. I'd grown familiar with the village during my daily rambles and headed toward the eastern part of the village. The ring of hammers and smell of sawdust lead me until we came to the woodworking shop. Bows weren't a terribly popular weapon for most martial artists but I'd seen the old man making one before.
I walked up to the shop and stood outside like I was a customer. Shops in the village almost never got customers directly. Everything was property of the clan after all. Only occasionally would someone for the village try to barter.
It only took a few minutes for the woodworker to notice me and as soon as he did his eyes went cold. He was a tall skinny man but still looked imposing. He he didn't have any tattoo's I could see, so likely couldn't cultivate, but he was still fully groan while I was a shrimp. He had his black-hair clubbed back in a warrior's knot and if he wasn't covered in sawdust he would have looked like some angry samurai lord.
"This isn't some playground kid, get the hell out of here." He said dismissively as he turned back to his work.
"Respected elder, I've come to request a boon." This people here seemed to place a great deal of emphasis on rank, so I spoke in formal tones while being as respectful as a could. The man snorted disdainfully.
"And why should I give something to a low-caste brat like you. Leave now...." He said angrily as he looked up from his work.
"The boon is not for me, it's for my friend." I said as I drug over Shimak to stand next to me. "Her father was killed during the last hunt and she wishes for a weapon to have her revenge." The request was obviously ridiculous but I hoped he'd think of it as youthful ignorance.. Hopefully the man might feel bad enough for the girl he'd let me work off the price of the weapon over time.
The man looked over to the girl with a scowl but as he saw her his expression softened. "That hair.... Are you hefeng's daughter?" The man asked no longer cold and haughty..
"I was...." The girl said as another tear slid down her cheek. I felt like such a dick using the girl's grief for my gain, but good lord. She couldn't have nailed her part better if she practiced for a year.
The man looked at her and his stony face cracked into a look of sympathy. My brother Banok, was on that hunt. Your father's sacrifice saved his life. "Name your boon and you shall have it girl."
I was dumbstruck. This was way better than I'd planned. I figured I'd have to slave away for a year for the man to pay off the debt but instead he was going to give it to me. "Respected elder, She requires a bow, one strong enough to slay a Soldier Ranked beast. Only then will she be able to gain the power she needs for vengeance." I said solemnly.
The man looked at me incredulously. "There's now way she could use a bow with that much draw even the weakest Soldier ranked beast would need at least a hundred fifty pound bow, You'd need one over 200 to be safe. Even if there we ten of you, you wouldn't be able to pull it." I winced inwardly. That was a lot. I was hoping 150 would be towards the top-end not the bottom.
I walked over toward the older man and whispered conspiratorially. "I know her request is unreasonable but she needs a goal. If you give her a bow she can't pull she'll work hard to improve her strength every day. Even if she never succeeds it will still do her good."
The man looked thoughtful for a moment then nodded resolved. "If the daughter of my brothers savior wished for a bow that would slay a god then I Granok would build it. You shall have your bow girl."
I raised an eyebrow at the outburst but couldn't conceal my happiness. I grabbed Shimak and tugged her away from the shop before the man changed his mind.
"What was the point of all that?" Shimak asked as we made our escape. "I never said anything about wanting vengence. Against a centurion ranked beast even the clan head would be outmatched."
"Look," I said stopping in the gap between two huts. "If you and your mom separate your going to end up in the low caste. Without cultivation your life will be awful beyond imagining. You'll spend every day doing back-breaking work and things will only be worse for you at night." The girl wasn't a beauty but compared to most of the low caste women she was gem. The world would not be kind to her when she grew a few years older.
"You and I both need the same thing. Power, and to get power we need to kill a beast. Can you kill a beast?" The girl scowled at my question but answered.
"Dad taught me to use an axe and I'm pretty good, but it would be useless against a beast." She said not understanding. "Neither of us can pull that bow, both of us together can't pull it, even an adult couldn't pull it. What exactly do you plan to do?"
I smiled at the girl as she finished her rant. "Obviously, we cheat."