Akanai dismounted and walked forward, her husband beside her. The house guards held their weapons up to stop them, dying before the words could leave their mouths. The double doors flew off their hinges at a single strike from her husbands staff, steel unable to stand before the divine smith. The two of them stepped through, gazing about the courtyard, six of her Sentinels following behind, a grim expression on each of their faces. More guards came out, yelling at them to halt, and the sentinels made short work of them all, the new guards putting up no more of a struggle than the ones at the gate, easily dispatched, their blood staining the garden red. The eight of them split up each taking a different building, in search of their prey. Crashing into the main house, Akanai grabbed a fleeing servant and asked through clenched teeth, “DuGu Ren?”
The servant babbles, unable to form words. A wet stain forms in his pants, and the reek of urine fills her nostril. Tossing him aside with a crash, Akanai growled. Useless. She grabbed a second servant, this one hiding under the table.
“The master’s bedroom! A hidden passage!” The new servant shrieked without even being asked. Spineless cowards, all of them. Akanai dropped her and turned to leave. A signal from her, and her husband and the Sentinels fell in behind her, thumping their way up the stairs to the master bedroom as quickly as they could.
They had come for blood and vengeance and Akanai would not be denied it.
Kicking the door down, eight guards stood, ready to defend. She charged in without hesitation, her ax-lance swinging recklessly, killing with every stroke. Within seconds the guards all lay dead and she charged through the opened wall, down the hidden wooden stairs. She caught the scum halfway down, shoving him hard into the wall. The boxes he carried fell, tumbling down the stairs, breaking open and scattering gold and jewels. She turned him to face her, his face bleeding, some teeth knocked out from the impact, moaning and whimpering in pain.
“You seem to have been expecting me.” Akanai hissed. “You thought you could run from my vengeance, little mouse?”
DuGu Ren could only piteously mewl, unable to speak through the pain. This worthless fop was the source of all her woes, a foolish child with foolish plans, thinking himself more clever than he truly was. She snorted, removing his weapons and dragged him up the stairs and back out to the courtyard, passing through the broken gate. Tossing him onto Kankin, she mounted up and rode off, her people close behind. At a smooth gait, she led them through each checkpoint without stopping, brandishing her token before her, as if she would club them with it should they dare to stop here. None did, whether due to her token, her expression, or their bloody weapons in hand, Akanai cared not why.
The scum continued to moan and cry, claiming innocence. Akanai had not yet accused him of anything yet, further solidifying her conviction of his guilt. She thought about swinging him out, dragging him along beside her as she rode, delighting in his screams as his feet were torn bloody. She shook her head. That was not who she was, and besides, it would not amount to a tenth of the pain he would suffer, in the coming days. The Empire was harsh on those who break their laws.
They arrived at Taduk’s villa, riding straight into the courtyard. Akanai threw DuGu Ren to the ground, at the feet of the Magistrate. “He was fleeing when we arrived, carrying coin and jewels out an escape path.”
Tong Da Hai’s face was purple with fury, starring daggers at the whimpering Ren. He spoke haltingly, stilted in his delivery. “Audacious. To dare think, that you could attack mine own flesh and blood? Within MY CITY!?”
“I have been wronged, I am innocent, your loyal subject, DuGu Ren is innocent. I had nothing to do with the gators.” Ren was pleading on his knees, the words coming out slurred. “Please! Don’t leave me with these savages.” His voice was pitched, almost screeching.
“There has been no mention of gators.” Akanai sneered. The idiot gave himself away. Word of the attacks would not have spread so soon, so quickly.
Ren ignored her, continuing to plead and cry to the Magistrate. Tears streamed down his face as he crawled on his knees. “Please, you can’t leave me with them, they’re all monsters!”
“Cut his tongue out. His voice offends my Imperial Self, to insult the Herald and her people thus.”
Two guards stepped forward and lifted Ren up on his knees, stepping on his calves. He was screaming, no more words, just primal screams of terror.
“Allow me, please.”
Mila stepped forward, a glint in her eyes and a hunting knife in her hand. The guards held Ren’s mouth open, and Mila pried his tongue out, carving it away in a single motion. She tossed it to Kankin, who ate it with relish, smacking his lips, and eagerly wanting more. Ren’s eyes rolled up into his head, blood flowing from his mouth. A healer stepped forward at the Magistrate’s order and set to work, to keep Ren from bleeding to death. Mila stepped back, grim satisfaction displayed upon her face. It was good that she could work out her anger, lest it consume her, or worse, cripple her.
“I would ask that you leave him to me, Herald. I understand your anger, but I… require him.” The Magistrate bowed to Akanai, eye’s hardened. “It will not be gentle, and his final days will be public. As a warning to any others who would dare.”
Akanai nodded. “I will visit him at the grounds later. I return home soon, so you take care of yourself, little Hai. For this child to act so rashly should mean you have many enemies, and I cannot remain to protect you. Send a missive should you require my presence again.” She patted his shoulder. “I’ll not abandon an old comrade.”
His chest puffed up, and he smiled at her, grateful. “Herald, you have granted me and my family my continued position for 100 years. Without your tribesmen, my only son and heir would be dead. If there were still need for your help, I should just cut my throat and give the position to another.” His eyes steeled. “I will forever be in your debt. Ask for anything, and you shall not want for it from me.” He turned and marched to his litter, his guards carrying the immobile Ren behind him.
Akanai placed her arm around Mila’s shoulders. “My little Mila, you should go rest. It has been a difficult morning for you.” Mila nodded, concentrating on wiping her hands of the blood. Akanai kissed her on the temple. “You were very brave today, my daughter. I am very proud of you. You did well to return to me.” Her first brush with death and she had handled herself beautifully.
Mila began crying, sobs escaping despite her best attempts to hold them back. Akanai held her little girl in her arms, soothing her, murmuring, “It’s going to be all right, child.”
I sit up in bed, panting, back dripping with sweat. What the fuck! My arm. I grab my right arm, feeling it, skin and flesh, pain surging through it. Oh thank god, I still have two arms. Lifting the sheet, I wiggle my toes, watching them go back and forth. Two feet. Holy shit. Falling back into my pillow, I stare at the ceiling. Still alive.
Wait, I didn’t die, right? Did I reincarnate again? I pinch my cheek hard, wincing at the sensation. I need to find a mirror, to see if I’m still Rain. Oh please let it be something better than last time. Don’t be a slave again, I can’t handle that a second time around. Rolling out of bed, I try to stand, collapsing to the floor as spasms shoot up my left leg, screaming in agony. My arm flares in pain as well, and I lie there, crying and gasping, barely able to keep conscious, wishing I couldn’t. Like blades scraping the insides of my left foot and right arm, it’s unlike anything I’d ever felt before.
“By the Mother, boy, what are you doing?” Taduk gently cradles me, and lifts me back into bed. He wipes my face with a handkerchief, soothing me with his words. It’s Taduk. I try to speak, but no words come out, gasps all I am capable of. “You’re alright, boy, you’re alright. Just go back to sleep. You aren’t dead, I told you didn’t I? I can heal anything. It’s alright. You just need to rest.” He pats my head, kneeling by my bed, holding my hand, speaking softly to me. The pain fades, and I close my eyes, falling asleep.
Waking up once again, this time far more peacefully, I find myself ravenously hungry. My arm is in a sling this time. I check my injuries, with my eyes and with my chi. Nothing is out of place. Everything is fine. “Hello?” I shout weakly.
I hear footsteps running, and Mei Lin bursts into the room. “Rainy! You’re awake finally.” She hops up and down at the side of my bed, too anxious to stay still, smiling and crying at the same time.
I smile at her. “I’m so glad you’re alright. What happened? How did we escape? Is Sumila alright? What about Fung?”
A snort comes from the door. Sumila is standing there, looking in. She sounds exactly like Baatar and Akanai. It’s like Akanai has a lesson plan for how to properly snort. “At least you asked about me before asking about that womanizer. He’s fine as well.”
Mei Lin beams at me, wiping her tears and launching into a story. “After you killed that second gator, we dragged you to the boats, and the guards got Fung to the boat as well. Most of them stayed behind, to try to keep the gators from following. We got far enough away that they wouldn’t follow. They were too scared of the saurophages.” So why the fuck were we out there on a boat?! She claps her hands together, holding them to her cheek. “Rainy and Mi-Mi were so heroic, fighting gators like that.” Her face turns into a big frown. “You keep almost dying Rainy. I worry about you.” She fusses around, smoothing my blankets. “You need to be more careful, ya? Maybe stay in the village a bit longer.” She pats me gently on the cheek.
“I do keep almost dying, don’t I?” I start laughing. I can’t stop, I don’t understand it.
Mei Lin wipes my tears with a handkerchief. “It’s okay, Rainy, I don’t mind if you cry.” Damn, this is embarrassing. I turn away from her, trying to stifle my tears. “You almost died, very close. Daddy says that when someone so close to death is healed, sometimes their mind has trouble adjusting.” She pats my back. “You’ll be fine though. You’ve done this before, remember? Rainy is strong.”
We stay like that until I calm myself, and I rub my eyes with my left hand. “How long have I been asleep?” I sit up, and move to leave the bed. “I’m starving. Let’s go find some food.
“Rainy! No, lie back down” Mei Lin gingerly pushes on my shoulders. “You can’t walk yet, or move your arm Rainy. Growing new limbs leaves them very tender. Try not to use them until you can spend some time cultivating. It will take a few weeks, but then you’ll be good as new.” She smiles and reaches for a water skin, uncapping it. “Until then, just rely on me, ya?” She holds the water to my lips, and I realize just how parched I am. I grab it with my left hand and drink deeply, cool and refreshing. After a few gulps, I hand it back, breathing hard.
I glance at Sumila, leaning in the doorway. She was awe-inspiring, fighting on the island. “How do you put so much power into your strikes, with those skinny girlish arms?” Does she eat a lot of spinach or something? I start laughing at the mental image of Sumila with giant forearms and a pipe in her mouth.
“What’s so funny?” Sumila makes a face at me. “Asleep for more than a day, and all you have for me are questions and hysterical laughter.”
“I’m strong to the finish, cause I eat my Spinach.” I sing out, and continue laughing. I don’t even think it’s that funny, but I can’t stop.
“He’s just a little loopy from the healing Mi-Mi. Maybe you should come back later.” Mei Lin is looking at me like I’ve lost my mind. Maybe I have.
Sumila smiles. “Can’t. Mama’s orders. If he wakes up, she wants me to bring him to her, no matter what.” She moves aside, and two sentinels bearing a stretcher come in. I follow their directions, and they set me onto the stretcher, carrying me outside where they transfer me onto a rickshaw, with a well padded footrest for my new foot. Mei Lin climbs in with me, bundling me up in a blanket. The driver takes us out of the villa, Sumila, Tokta, and two sentinels riding alongside. I should learn their names, maybe they won’t end up like all the redshirts. Poor guards.
I feel the cool air on my face and breathe deeply, watching the sunset. Still alive. Almost died again. That makes it… 4 times, in the last month. I’m too weak. More than three years, and I’m still too weak. Tears form in my eyes again. Mei Lin dabs my face with a handkerchief. “Don’t worry Rainy, it’s just from the healing. Cry all you want. A few more days of rest, and you’ll be better, all strong and dashing.”
“I’m not though.” My voice is rough, the words catching in my throat. “Sumila is strong. She was calm and in control, killing gators left and right. Even you were the same, almost relaxed, firing arrows. I shoved my arm into an open gator’s mouth.” I sneer. “I panicked, and became a burden. Three years or training, and I’m still a burden.” The tears stream down my face, unchecked.
“Don’t be mopey. You aren’t a burden. You are very good at fighting. You were so heroic, fighting Tian Yi, and smacking gators around with one hand.” She pats me on the back gently. “Mi-Mi is a special case. You’ll catch up with some more practice, Rainy, you just need more time.”
Next to us, Sumila snorts. “Idiot. Think clearly. You didn’t dodge the carnugator because if you had moved aside, then it would have killed me or Mei Lin. Instead, you just stabbed it and killed it, sacrificing your arm without thought. You saved us, fool. Don’t be so conceited, to think you could have done more.” She smiles at me. “You may be an idiot, but you’re a brave idiot, at least.”
“You’re the best, Rainy. Be more confident and less silly.” Mei Lin leans gently on my shoulder and begins singing, a little nonsense song I used to sing to the twins. They’re wrong though. I need to get stronger. This isn’t enough. It nice that they’re trying to make me feel better though. It’s good to have friends. I close my eyes, listening to the sound of her voice, drifting off to sleep.
Haunted by razor-sharp teeth, accusing green eyes, and a young man with a hole in his chest, I snap awake in a cold sweat.
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