It was two hours into the hunt that Sechen realised she had a rival.
It amused her at first – the tracks imprinting the loose, thin soil of the Steppes were so deeply indented and obvious that she had disregarded them initially as that of an unfortunate outsider wandering aimlessly in the wilderness. She had been certain that she would eventually stumble over their corpse, at which point she could have used it as bait for her hunt, but, after a while…
Sechen rubbed her fingers into a fresh track – less than an hour old – smoothing out the grooves that the sole of her rival’s boot left in the dirt. They were quite small footprints, wearing the strange footwear of the foreign Spoken, but widely spaced in a way that signified they had been running. Not to flee, but to chase, for it lacked the wildness a desperate retreat would have – her rival was comfortable at long-distance running, it seemed, and doing it quite gracefully too.
She brushed the dirt off her fingers, rising smoothly to her feet. Her Khatun had tasked her with the duty of slaying the Maneater for the tribe – for Sechen was a Huntress of many lifetimes who never failed a pursuit – so she could hardly let some outsider beat her to her prize, but she would be lying if she said it didn’t fill her with excitement. It had been several generations since she last had to race a hunt.
She broke into a loping run, her feet easily keeping purchase with the loose soil as she skirted the boundaries of Nhaama’s Retreat. The Maneater had made its home prowling this boundary, which would normally be tolerable – but its hunger was insatiable, and it had consumed and consumed and consumed until the local wildlife and game had fled to less fatal areas. The Dotharli still needed to eat, and raiding other tribes only offered so much in the way of sustenance when they too were struck by this dry hunting season. Difficult to burn your soul bright when your body was too weak with hunger to lift a blade, so for the good of the tribe, the beast had to be slain and devoured in turn.
The tracks of her rival mingled with that of the Maneater’s – the large, splayed prints of what seemed to be a Baras of monstrous proportions – weaving and bending, but continuously bearing south, deeper into the sands and towards Yanxia. She slowed her pace when the tracks started to become too muddled to know what belonged to who, joined by another few sets belonging to Steppe Gedan. Scavengers. Always dirtying a good trail.
Eventually, the tracks led her to a looming outcrop of rocks, its shadow an ominous, dark thing. She followed its perimeter, steps feather-light and silent as she bent her head low, breathing in deep. The scent of blood and offal hung heavy in the air and she wondered – who would it be? Her rival, slain? The Maneater, heaving its last? Or the scavenging Gedan? Oh, the anticipation was positively thrilling.
She turned the final corner, silent as a wraith, and let out a small tut at the scene before her.
Her rival was a Miqo’te – those queer, Baras-like creatures with tails – leaning casually on a sword larger than himself embedded deep into the sand. Around him were the remains of Gedan – literal remains. The beasts were positively butchered, their bodies crushed or split apart, leaving beautiful arcs of red and brown in the sand. It was a morbid piece of art, but one that Sechen admired for a moment, before letting her gaze land on the Miqo’te.
He was staring back at her.
“Hm,” The Miqo’te was smiling, showing off sharp looking canines, “Why, hello there, Dotharli.”
Sechen didn’t return the greeting, studying him for a moment. He seemed… familiar, somehow. Was he…?
“Khagan?” she guessed, tilting her head in open curiosity, “Khagan Aza?”
“Oh, you all still remember that?” The Miqo- no, the Khagan straightened up from his lazy slouch over his blade, his expression becoming a littler friendlier. His tail curved upwards, a perfect arc, and his ears flicked forwards. Sechen recognised it as Baras for ‘curiosity, interest, attention’.
“It will be spoken about for a long while, that Nadaam, and difficult to forget,” Sechen said, fascinated enough to be distracted from her task. She only saw the Khagan from afar last time, and the Miqo’te really were a strange, curious race. So much like animals, but keen with the intelligence of a Spoken race. She heard tales, though, of the Khagan’s tenacity and ferocity during the Nadaam, where he soundly crushed whoever dared rise against him under his heel – even those brutish, ignorant ‘Imperials’ that attempted to despoil the Nadaam. His soul must be a blazing beacon of purpose.
“Heh, true, it was very memorable,” The Khagan said, his grin reminding Sechen sharply of her Khatun. Hungry, bloodthirsty, satisfied… “It made dealing with that Magnai worth it to attend.”
Sechen scrunched her nose up at the mention him, but did bring up a question she had longed to get an answer to; “Why did you not oust him from the Sun Throne, Khagan?”
“Hrrrmm…” The Khagan made a curious noise – a low, murmuring purr that pricked Sechen’s instincts, “He wasn’t worth the effort of dealing with, to be honest. I had bigger fish to fry.”
The idiom was new to her, but she caught the meaning. “Oh? And did you fry that fish?”
A shadow passed over the Khagan’s face, his yellow eyes like flint when they stared at her. His ears flicked back, his tail lowered, fur fluffed – Baras for anger, to intimidate, to threaten. Sechen made sure to keep her hands relaxed at her sides, body loose, dropping her gaze to his shoulder instead, how one would appease an aggravated predator.
“Yes,” his reply was clipped, “Are you hunting something?”
She didn’t let the subject change trip her up, “Yes, Khagan. A Baras known as the Maneater. My Khatun has tasked me to hunt it for the tribe.”
“Ahh, so that’s what I’ve been chasing,” The Khagan instantly brightened, his bad mood vanishing so abruptly it kept Sechen on her guard, “I ran into a bulked up Baras earlier, and he was rude enough to injure my Chocobo.”
Sechen rifled through her memory, and ‘Chocobo’ brought to mind a giant horsebird with legs powerful enough to kill a man with a single kick. Formidable creatures, despite their odd appearance, and the main mode of transportation for those strange Eorzeans, “And the Gedan?”
“Pests,” The Khagan said dismissively, shooting a frown at the mutilated bodies at his feet. “They pounced on me when I went to take a leak… ugh. Now I’ve lost the trail.”
Sechen hummed, considering her options. She was a huntress of several lifetimes, and hardly needed any assistance… but to see the Khagan in action, up close, and to see if Miqo’te really were as beastly as they appeared… “I will be able to pick the trail up for you, if you desire my help, Khagan.”
The Miqo’te turned back to her, his head tilted – one ear flicked forwards, the other back, hmm, confusion? “Oh? That’s a kind offer… what’s the catch?”
“I want to watch you fight,” Sechen said plainly.
The Khagan didn’t seem to know what to do with that information, scrunching his nose up in a frown.
“…really?” he prompted when the silence lingered between them awkwardly, “That’s it?”
“Well, alright,” The Khagan looked suspicious, but his expression blanked into something more neutral quickly enough, “I’ll make sure to put on a show when we catch up to the beast.”
Sechen watched as the Khagan heaved his blade out of the sand in an effortless show of strength, swinging it one-handed over his shoulder and against his back. Something clicked, audibly, and when he moved his hand, the blade stayed in place. It really was almost the same size as himself.
“Isn’t that cumbersome?” she asked curiously. Magnai, the brute, flailed around with a block of stone he generously called an axe, like some primitive caveman, and that large blade looked equally inelegant, despite its beautiful markings and design. Why, one only had to look at the butchered Gedan to realise that.
“What, this?” The Khagan jerked a thumb over his shoulder, at the hilt of his blade, “Not really. It’s lighter than it looks.”
Sechen took his word for it, turning away to inspect the area around them. The tracks really were spoiled by the massacre that happened here, but perhaps they could use all this raw meat lying around. The wind was blowing lightly, erasing what slight signs remained, but the sun would be setting soon and with it, the winds would pick up. If the Khagan had really been chasing it for most of the day, it would be starving by now, so…
“We will set a trap,” she decided, “You’ve ruined the tracks too much with your messy kills.”
“A trap? Hrm,” The Khagan sounded displeased, but he made no verbal complaint about it, “Anywhere specific?”
This area was too enclosed – with tall, sheer rock on one side and jagged clumps of stone on the other, they would be boxed in when the beast came prowling. While the Khagan would probably delight in such handicaps, Sechen was not an arrogant fool, “There is a place further along that has a natural crater. We can lie in wait there, so long as we stay upwind.”
The Khagan hummed in acknowledgement, his gaze lowering to the slain Gedan. After a moment, he picked up the most intact one, heaving it over his shoulder. Blood spilled over his armour, running rivulets over the metal and seeping into the chinks and edges of it – he didn’t seem to care. Instead he just stared at her, expectant, the corner of his mouth curled up into a smirk.
“Are you going to grab one?” he asked lightly.
“Just one will do,” Sechen returned with equal lightness. The Khagan seemed so savage like this. There was a thin line of blood still gleaming bright red over his cheek, emphasising the light, red face paint adorning his skin. She wondered if that was intentional. “After you, Khagan.”
“Hmm, I feel like you’re mocking me, somehow,” The Khagan complained without heat, turning away from her to march towards the crater, “No respect in these lands.”
“You are Khagan, but you’re not my Khatun,” Sechen said, shadowing the Miqo’te well out of arm’s reach as her keen gaze scanned the horizon for any beasts.
“I suppose I’m not as terrifying as Sadu,” The Khagan admitted, and Sechen frowned at how casually he referred to the Khatun, “Very intense, that one, able to strike the fear of the gods into any man. I like her.”
Sechen slanted a sideways look his way – for a moment, she entertained the thought of the Khagan and her Khatun pairing together and had to fight off a full-bodied shiver. Their children would be monstrous little beasts… powerful and great, beautiful additions to the tribe.
“You like her?” she finally asked.
“Not like that,” The Khagan huffed, easily catching her meaning, “Fuck no, she’d sooner stab me than sleep with me. No, I just like her style.”
Oh, no terribly strong children for the tribe, then.
“Hm, do you prefer meeker women, Khagan?”
“No,” The Khagan sounded amused, his tail flicking from side to side with the graceful sway of his hips. He had a surprisingly curvy body for a man, with powerful, shapely legs, but she supposed that it was just how Miqo’te were – it was pleasing to look at, at least, not like the boring, angular lines of the Steppe Au Ra men, “I have a partner already. A man.”
Oh? “Is he strong?”
“Mm, in many ways, yes,” The Khagan’s voice softened, “He’s stronger than me.”
The Khagan must enjoy having someone to overpower him, Sechen thought – and damn it, he really would have been a wonderful partner for their Khatun. She shelved the fantasy, though, content to watch how he moved, sure-footed but heavy, over the shifting sands, compensating for the weight of his blade and the Steppe Gedan. He really did remind her of a Baras, with their powerful bodies and proud steps. She wondered if Miqo’te had the capacity to roar.
“I can practically feel you boring a hole into my back,” The Khagan said after a few minutes of silence, “It’s weirding me out.”
“I’m watching how you move,” Sechen admitted, seeing no point in hiding her interest, “Can you roar? Like the Baras?”
“Uh, no?” The Khagan glanced over his shoulder, but the hilt of his blade and the collar of his armour blocked most of his face from view, “Why?”
“You’re very much like the Baras,” Sechen said, “And you’re the first Miqo’te I have ever met. I was curious to know if your kind share traits.”
The Khagan made an odd noise, like a mix between a choke and a laugh, “You- really? The first Miqo’te?”
“I have never seen one,” Sechen said, “Not in all of my lives.”
“Well. Hm,” The Khagan faced forwards again, “Sorry to say, but most Miqo’te aren’t like me. I’m a tribeless, half-breed bastard that was pretty much raised by wolves, so I’m a poor example of my kind.”
His voice was light, carrying a hint of amusement, despite his declaration. Sechen tilted her head in curiosity, wondering. Everything about him did give off the impression of something feral barely tamed – a being of pure violence, carefully contained by something. By his man? The thought of it drew her in; a powerful warrior wrestling the savage, feral Khagan under control, giving him worth despite his otherwise worthless beginnings. But, she knew from experience that wild animals were rarely, if ever, fully tamed.
“Can you growl?” she asked instead, “Purr? Meow?”
“You’re very insistent about this.”
“I want to know.”
The Khagan didn’t answer her. She took the hint, quieting until they reached the natural crater. It was a shallow dish, with a squat cliff overlooking it. No one knew how the crater had formed – its walls were smooth as if they were carved, slippery with a strange material different to the stone that sat beneath the desert’s sand. Otherwise it was utterly unremarkable: a hole in the ground, used mostly to trap beasts.
The Khagan peered down into its shallow bottom, his expression unreadable.
“This the crater?” he asked.
“Yes. Its smooth surface makes it difficult for beasts to escape.”
“Hmm,” the Khagan lightly kicked a loose pebble, watching it clatter its way down the crater’s side to sit at the very bottom. He stared for a little longer, expectantly, before looking away dismissively, heaving the Gedan corpse off of his shoulder and into the hole.
They watched the corpse roll and flop clumsily down to the bottom, leaving a bright, glistening red streak on the stone. The stink of offal was thick in the air.
“Well, let’s go to that cliff,” The Khagan said, “When the Maneater comes I’ll jump on its back.”
That sounded like an incredibly stupid idea and Sechen made sure her expression conveyed her feelings, “Why?”
“Hm, seems like it’d be fun.”
The Khagan’s mouth was curved into a crooked grin and he practically pranced his way to the cliff, stepping lightly on the balls of his feet. Sechen followed at a more sedate pace, keenly watching the Miqo’te stop at the base of the cliff, consider its surface, bending slightly at the knees, tail curved up, backside giving three firm wriggles before-
With a powerful leap he swiftly scaled up the rugged cliff-face, not impeded in the slightest by his weighty armour and greatsword. It took less than a minute for him to reach the top, vanishing over the lip of the cliff with a playful flick of his tail. Well then. Colour Sechen impressed.
She scaled the cliff a little slower than the Khagan, mindful of how the rock crumbled in her grip in some parts. It wouldn’t be long until it eroded to the point of collapse, probably another few years or so.
“Lovely view up here,” The Khagan told her when she reached the top. He was sprawled out on his belly, chin propped up on an up-turned palm as he gazed out across the Steppes with a distant expression. There was no awe there, despite his words, and there was something dark in his eyes – heavier than bitterness. She frowned.
“Yet you don’t seem pleased,” she noted.
“…it reminds me of something long lost, is all,” he said vaguely. His gaze dropped to the crater below, at the Gedan corpse, “Anyway, I’m going to take a nap. Wake me up when the beast comes.”
And with that, the Khagan neatly crossed his arms on the dirt and pillowed his head on them. It was a clear dismissal of the conversation.
Sechen didn’t mind. She had been getting tired of talking. She settled herself comfortably on her belly, staring out over the Steppes and able to see the sun making its journey to settle behind the Tall Mountains. Next to her, the Khagan was deceptively relaxed, but the hairs on the back of her neck rose, like what happened when she was far too close to a predator. Every instinct was aware of the Miqo’te’s powerful body within arm’s reach, that, if this wild beast only half-tamed decided to turn on her, she really wouldn’t be able to do anything about it.
It was a thrilling feeling, really. She smiled to herself and focused on the horizon, waiting for their prey.
It came at dusk.
The stars had only just started to blink down on them when the monster padded out of the shadows. Its towering, hulking form made it look like the abominable off-spring of a Baras and a Behemoth, its head bent low to the ground as it followed the thick scent of offal and congealed blood. Its fur was pitted with deep scars, muscles bulging with its powerful, yet relaxed stride – definitely an apex predator far too used to being at the top, Sechen concluded.
She didn’t move as it approached, except to lightly prod the Khagan next to her with the tip of her tail. From the corner of her eye, she saw his ear flick in acknowledgement.
The beast – Maneater – paused at the lip of the crater. It snorted, loudly, pacing along the perimeter, hesitant at scrabbling down the smooth surface even for an easy meal. Sechen held her breath, aware of the wind blowing against her face – downwind, so Maneater shouldn’t smell them, and as a Baras, its eyesight was poor long-ranged…
A low, rumbling growl – and Maneater prowled over the edge, its large, splayed paws slipping against the smooth surface as it carefully, slowly, stalked down to the Gedan corpse.
The Khagan slowly pushed himself up, and in the darkness his eyes flashed gold, reflecting the pale moonlight as he stared down at their prey. Sechen waited, her heart beating with excitement as the Khagan’s body tensed like a Baras prepared to lunge, his tail curving up slightly as Maneater drew closer, closer, almost directly beneath the crumbling edge of the cliff and-
The Khagan vaulted over the edge of the cliff with predatory grace.
Sechen was up on her knees in an instant, her bow in her hands and drawing back an arrow before she was fully aware of the motion, staring as the Khagan landed, neatly as he pleased, on the beast’s broad back. A flash of silver, quicker than a split-second, and Maneater screamed in pain as the Miqo’te plunged what seemed to be a hunter’s knife right between its shoulder blades.
What an insane, crazy fool, Sechen thought with amazement, as Maneater began to thrash and rear up, trying in vain to dislodge the Miqo’te on its back. She could hear the Khagan’s wild laughter, clearly enjoying life to the fullest as he stayed on just long enough to work the beast into a right frenzy before – he nimbly leapt off, feet catching easy purchase on the smooth ground as his greatsword was drawn in the same movement, his golden eyes flashing.
Bathed in the moonlight, his armour and blade glinting, his body leaning into an aggressive stance – a perfect picture of strength and bloodlust. Sechen held off the killing shot, watching as Maneater twisted around to face the Miqo’te with a low, deafening snarl, the knife still lodged deeply in its back. It will lose, she realised abruptly. Already wounded, blinded with pain and rage – and the Khagan, confidently staring it down with a hungry, savage smile.
No, not tamed at all. This was a beast that played nice because it felt like it.
“Now, this is what you get when you hurt what’s mine~” The Khagan crooned, his voice rumbling with a low, purring noise that made every nerve in Sechen’s body shiver. Some primal instinct in her registered ‘threat’ and she went unconsciously still, gaze fixed on the shadowy form of the Khagan, “Attacking my Chocobo was very stupid of you.”
Maneater simply growled, uncomprehending of the threat before it, and lunged forwards in a powerful burst of speed.
It didn’t save it.
Almost contemptuously, the Khagan side-stepped the lunge, his greatsword flashing upwards in a powerful swing. There was a sickeningly wet ‘thud’, a throaty, sharp whimper and – with a loud squelching noise, Maneater collapsed to the floor, unmoving. In the dark, it was difficult to tell but… the beast was now in two pieces.
She stared blankly.
“Wow, okay,” the Khagan sounded put out, “I thought your hide was sturdier than that. What a disappointment.”
He toed the beast’s corpse for a moment before he sheathed his blade against his back. He looked up at her, easily spotting her in the darkness. His eyes were like twin, opaque glints of light. “Dotharli, looks like I was too quick. Sorry about that.”
It took her a second to reply, trying to understand what he was talking about before she remembered.
“It’s fine,” she called out, slowly releasing the tension of her bow and holstering it, slotting the arrow back into its quiver. After a moment of hesitation, she clambered down the cliff-face, even if her shoulder blades itched at putting her back to the Khagan. But, he politely did not move as she returned to ground level, watching her with an unreadable stare as she approached – and stopped just outside of arm’s reach.
“At least it was an easy hunt, huh?” the Khagan said playfully, smiling at her. This close she could see the blood splatters across his face, across his armour – a vivid arc from where his blade had severed through Maneater and doused him in its arterial spray. It was compellingly beautiful… and terrifying in equal measure.
“That’s not always a good thing,” Sechen said, “The spoils belong to you, Khagan.”
“What? No, what would I do with a Baras corpse?” The Khagan scoffed at her, “The satisfaction of the kill is enough for me, even if it was disappointingly easy.”
It rankled at her to accept the beast, but – it would be wasteful to leave it out here, when food shortages were so rife back in her tribe. She swallowed down her distaste, but felt no gratitude for the Khagan’s ‘generosity’. “What will you do now, Khagan?”
“Hmm, good question. I suppose I’ll go bother Magnai for a bit,” The Khagan hummed thoughtfully, tapping a bloodied finger against his bottom lip. It left a stark smear against his skin. He ignored it, “See how poorly he’s faring in his love life.”
“It’s still poor,” Sechen said.
“Hah,” The Khagan chuckled, half-turning from her, “Is that so? Hm, then maybe… ah, nevermind. Well, Dotharli,” he tipped his head to her, lips curved in a pretty smile that was accentuated by his blood-soaked visage, “Thanks for letting me get my revenge on the beast there. Give my regards to Sadu!”
Sechen said nothing in response, watching as the Khagan turned away and disappeared into the darkness, whistling a jaunty tune. It was only when she could no longer hear him that she let herself relax, releasing a shuddering, tight breath. Her pulse was still fluttering, trembles of excitement moving through her – a wild, untamed creature, their Khagan.
She wouldn’t have it any other way, she thought gleefully, bending over the Baras corpse to begin carving it down for transport. The Azim Steppe needed something like that, prowling its lands – if only to keep them on their toes. Oh, if only he was a single…
Oh well. Perhaps in another life, they could cross paths again. She’ll try her luck then.