Du Min Gyu sat motionless, his back hunched as he watched the joss sticks burn down slowly to nubs, the last moments before burning out always the most difficult, as if they suddenly began to burn slower as they reached the end of their life in a struggle to remain burning as long as possible. Even after living for so long, his impatience still troubled him, his greatest weakness as he was reminded time and time again.
Seven days of mourning, that was the standard duration of a funeral for those who could afford it. The direct family, husbands or wives and any children would remain beside the coffin, keeping the incense burning for the seven days, sleeping beside it in a symbol of solidarity, but any other mourners were free to come and go. Without any direct family present, he had decided to stay for the entire time on his own, only sleeping for a handful of hours while his slaves took over his duties each night, his tent set up beside the incense burner.
It had been a terrible mistake, well-meaning, but still a horrible decision. It was the middle of summer and still his breath turned to cold mist with every exhale, this land was a beautiful and heartless mistress intent on making him suffer for the pleasure of her sights, a hateful, vindictive bitch. It would have been better to not go through with this, the experience having tainted his memory of Kai, as now when he would think of the boy, he would first remember this mockery of a funeral. As much as Kai had meant to him, the boy was dead and were he present to see his Mentor shivering in the cold morning air, keeping watch over an empty patch of grass, he would likely die of laughter.
Standing up, he felt his knees creak as he shuffled forwards and accepted new joss sticks from Kyung, lighting them in a nearby brazier and placing them into the burner before returning to his seat. A terrible mistake. Settling back against his chair, he glanced over at Akanai, chuckling as she sat stiff backed in her stool. A small victory, it seemed she was too stubborn to bring her own chair, or simply didn’t have one to bring. That was one glaring downside to the roosequins, for as mobile as they were, carrying a soldier in full armor was already the limit of their strength. Add on the increased amount of rations required to feed the creatures, there was very little that each Khishig could carry with them while traveling, requiring multiple supply mounts for each soldier, an expensive prospect.
Still, he wanted a few for his own personal use, far more comfortable than riding a horse and they seemed like rather affectionate creatures, one of them curling up around a new half-beast Khishig who had joined them today, getting her hair cut by Akanai’s ‘daughter’, as if they were out of the city on a lark, and not in an armed camp of soldiers who were meant to hunt down Defiled warriors. An appalling lack of discipline, it seemed as if every single one of her soldiers sat idle in camp, joined by more than half of her Khishigs, the woman acting unconcerned about the safety of the Empire, allowing Defiled scum to run free as she slowly took her time dealing with them, so slowly that she had not left the camp since his arrival. Admittedly, if he were in her place he would have done the same. It was unpleasant work, not fit for true warriors, and it would have been foolish to leave him here unsupervised with how he had acted.
His provocation had begun simply to injure and humiliate her, never truly meaning to kill her, but her strength had surprised him, a more capable warrior than he would like to admit. Were he a gambler, he would offer conservative 60:40 odds in his favor, little better than a coin flip, a far more powerful opponent than he expected to find this far north. With Akanai here and if the rumors of Baatar and Gerel were not overstated, then these Khishigs were formidable indeed, with even the children displaying fearsome prowess with Akanai’s daughter able to easily disperse his Killing Intent, an impressive display of control, especially for one so young.
Much of his time the past few days had been spent in self-reflection, wondering why he had acted so viciously over a slave, one of great value and high pedigree, but still a slave, not worth squabbling over. Despite that, he had simply given in to his sorrow and rage for the second time that day, Kai’s death affecting him far worse than he thought possible. It was the damned pipe smoke, a blend of herbs meant to dull the pain of old age, but it also had the unfortunate effect of lowering his inhibitions, seemingly to the point of entertaining thoughts of murdering a Justicar, something that would have seen his entire lineage cleansed to nine generations, killing anyone with the barest hint of familial relation to him. It was only through Akanai’s lie that he had escaped such a fate, and he was… grateful for her intervention. He had tried to go without the pipe, but after a single day his body had been wracked with shivering and he had succumbed to the heady smoke once again. Better that he had died in his prime than to be reduced to this pitiful state.
Feeling maudlin, he sat there listening to the children chat about boys and nonsense, barely paying attention to Kyung and his opponent as they endeavored to outperform the other, almost to the point of impractical, pretty movements. Hearing himself mentioned, he said a few words to rile up the little girl, smiling to himself as he watched Akanai’s stony features twitch as she fought for control. He had found that the simplest way to agitate her was to speak to her daughter. There was no need to be outright hostile, any words said to the girl would displease Akanai, and he gave them sparingly, but still at least once a day. Grateful he may be, it was difficult to like the woman, a stern, unyielding attendant who sat ready to attack only an arm’s length away while she ignored all his attempts at conversation through Sendings. He could not show deference before the soldiers or his slaves, and to speak out in apology would shame him far too much, yet she refused to give him any other avenue to save face.
Grumbling over his frustrations, he took solace in the fact that it would soon be over, his vigil over after today and able to set off in the morning. He planned to find Kai’s former armed escorts and bring them home with him, not willing to return without them. Were he to do so, the entire trip would have been for nothing, and that simply could not be allowed. At the very least, he could put on a show of aiding in the defense of the north, perhaps kill a few Defiled while he was at it, relieving himself of some of this guilt he felt for having failed Kai.
Four hours later, the time passing slowly, he stood and lit the incense once again, moving towards the burner to place them down with as much reverence as he could muster under the circumstances. Pausing as he turned to shuffle back to his seat, his eyes narrowed as he noted the trails of smoke, drifting away in a small, thin stream, pulled to the left instead of floating up with the slight breeze. Curious. Gathering his chi, he reached out with his inner senses, feeling the wind move about him in tiny currents. Many believed that the wind moved about as a singular stream, a mass of air traveling from one destination to the next, but the truth was far from it. Every tiny change had an effect, whether it be from the wings of a butterfly or a bird, the tiniest of movements could have an impact on the wind, heightening in intensity as it built up slowly until it was a raging gale.
His senses directed him towards the daughter’s friend, a deer girl, her prominent, sharp horns an obvious sign of her origins. Intrigued, he approached her slowly only to be intercepted by Akanai, who quickly darted in front of him, staring down at him as she protected the child. Waving her aside, he snorted as he circled around her with a single step, leaving himself wide open to an attack, but unconcerned. “I just want to take a look.” The words were Sent to Akanai and she appeared to hesitate before conceding, not bothering to continue their little match.
The deer-girl sat cross-legged, her palms folded in her lap as she meditated, her face calm and tranquil. Flicking a single finger, he sent a lash of chi to cut a small patch of grass, the cuttings floating up in the air and circling the girl lightly, falling aside with the barest of breezes, bringing a look of disbelief to his face. The girl was unconsciously manipulating the wind, albeit with very little force or control, but it was a spectacular first step as the blessings of the Divine Wind settled upon her. It was likely his match with Akanai that had inspired this and unsure whether to laugh or cry, he lamented his part in strengthening someone who could become his enemy, but still took great pride is seeing a young warrior blossom. Turning to Akanai, he raised an eyebrow and hinted that she should do something. A Spiritual Awakening was difficult to process without aid, especially for someone so young, but with proper nurturing, this child would undoubtedly grow into a true treasure. Two talented youths, the luck of the Akanai was near unbelievable.
After a few minutes of staring, his frustrations mounted as it became obvious that she would do nothing and he snorted in disdain. “Why?” As soon as the word left his mouth, he began cursing at himself for not making Kyung ask in his place, but there was no pill to cure regret. “You can not be so foolish as to leave this child unaided because of my presence?”
“In this instance, your presence has no impact on my actions.” Staring at him as she stood at ease, his breath came in nasal puffs as he struggled for control of his temper, his hands clenching and unclenching as he envisioned striking the arrogant woman down. Swallowing his rage, he continued to glare at her, wordlessly demanding an explanation. To be so callous with this youth was to throw away the future of the Empire, as today’s talents were tomorrow’s heroes.
After some time, the hateful woman finally spoke as she lazily shrugged. “I am not equipped to properly aid her, nor am I in command of anyone who is.” She gave him a knowing look. “The girl will have to succeed or fail on her own, as she has for her entire life.”
His rage washed away with that single sentence, and he shuffled back to his chair to ponder on her words. The girl Adujan was a talented youth rarely seen, one in tens of thousands, and Akanai dared to hint that he be the one to help her? Since the girl had not accepted him as her Mentor, he refused to expend effort so that Akanai could reap without sowing, and he saw no scenario where Akanai would allow him to take the girl as a slave without contest.
The day wore on as he watched the girl, only able to offer prayers and well wishes as she continued to meditate, the wind swirling around her lightly. Dinnertime arrived and he watched in eager anticipation as Akanai went to wake her, his hopes dashed upon the sight of her disappointed grimace, a clear sign of her inability to Awaken, the secrets that had been known to her fading away from memory.
Remaining in his chair, he silently contemplated his options while watching the girl stroll off, lamenting at her failure. The Divine Wind could be a fickle mistress, who knew how many more chances the girl would have?
The smell of crushed herbs and medicinal oils fill my nostrils as I rack my brain. “Uhh… the Laogong and the… Quchi acupoints?”
“Are you asking me, or telling me?” Tokta sits slumped in his chair, his voice muffled by the desk his face rests upon. It has been tough for him the last few days, riding out with the Sentinel’s, in joint-command with Alsantset now that Akanai was babysitting Kai’s crazy Mentor.
Lifting his head to shoot me a look of disapproval, he lets out a sigh. “Correct. Be more confident in yourself, boy. You are quick to memorize, and more importantly, you are able to make use of your knowledge. Finish up here and come with me.”
Putting aside the mortar and pestle, I stand up and follow him out of the tent and towards a secluded, rocky area. Unrolling a woven, bamboo mat, he gestures for me to lay down on it. “You’ve been pestering me to move your studies along, and your progress has suitably impressed me. Your technical knowledge is adequate, so today, you will begin your attempt at regenerating your arm. I say attempt because it is not only possible for you to fail, I expect that you will fail today. In fact, the best case scenario would be that nothing happens and we try again tomorrow.”
Well… That’s not demoralizing at all. “Okay… so, what do I do?”
Yawning, he stretches out as he sits on the ground a short distance away. “Prepare. Meditate. Examine. Control your Chi, visualize, then regrow the arm. Simple to explain, difficult to do. Don’t lose focus.” Laying back, he places his hands on his stomach and closes his eyes, falling asleep almost immediately. Tokta isn’t exactly the most hands on teacher in the world, preferring to leave me to figure everything out on my own. Even the book he gave me was just full of information, but nothing about actually healing. Essentially, he gave me a book on numbers and wants me to figure out calculus. That’s real helpful.
Control will come with practice, so I guess it’s a good time to try, with other me napping after our morning bout with motion sickness, unable to distract me. He’s really only ‘awake’ for a few hours each day, which is fine by me. I’ve felt crowded out by him lately, almost resentful of his presence as I really do prefer solitude in all things, although having Adujan around isn’t too terrible. Taking one last look at the orange-blue sky before I begin, I close my eyes and breathe, slowly reviewing the steps required, from the shapes of the bones, the location of muscles, orientation of tendons, time passing by as I prepare.
When I finally feel that I am ready, I slowly reach for Balance, letting my chi circle around my body slowly as the Energy of the Heavens welcomes me, a gentle, languid pool for me to relax in. I decided long ago to not wear the ring for this, allowing myself to work on control without having to worry about killing myself from taking too much Energy in.
Interestingly enough, as my chi flows through my body, it feels as if my arm is still there, the imagined sensations of cool air flowing over it, tickling the hairs on my arm as it rests next to me. Tokta calls it ‘Phantom Sensation’, something that is not truly well understood, but I’m guessing it’s one reason why I can’t modify my arm as I regenerate it, because it still exists in some metaphysical sense. Any deviation from what is there will apparently results in an explosive growth of tumors, an unpleasant thought. I’m drifting, I need to focus. Letting myself rest while I meditate, my mind empties itself of all but what is required and I wait, my chi circulating about my body while Heavenly Energy begins condensing into my core.
When the flow into my core slows almost to a stop, I let the Energy of the Heavens continue to wash through me, surrounding me in a tranquil state of suspension, and my mind turns to my arm, chopped off only five centimeters from the shoulder. That joint and the muscle connecting the stump are still in place, I only need to work outwards starting from the humerus. The deltoid muscles will need to be regrown and connected to what is still in place, a good first step. Moving my chi towards the arm, it sits there, doing nothing as it can find nothing to heal, no work that it can do, and my mind goes through the possible options.
Tentatively, I start with something familiar, repairing the bone, and I push my chi to begin working, blood rushing into the tissue surrounding the clean shorn bone, inflaming the area as it clots in predetermined pattern and preparing the way for a stable framework, each step carefully guided with the utmost attention. The clotted blood grows in size and is re-purposed into a soft, fibrous tissue, a tiny cap on the bone less than a millimeter in thickness as I repeat the process again and again, thickening and compressing, hardening the cap into bone and marrow.
Time has no meaning here, but it feels as if I’ve concentrated for hours, my mind already weary but there is still more to do. My throat burns from thirst as I move on to the next, unpleasant step: the endosteum and periosteum, the nerve rich membrane layers that line the inside and outside of my bones. Pain flares through me at the creation of new nerves, thousands of them in an area smaller than a drop of water, firing off for the first time as it signals at injury where there is none, and will continue to do so until they acclimate.
Falling out of Balance, my eyes snap open to the dim evening light as I jolt up, sweat running down my brow as my arm screams in agony. Short of breath, I check the stump for any visible change despite knowing that I won’t see any. A water skin lays next to me and I greedily drink from it as I search the surroundings, Tokta still laying down where I last saw him, a blanket over him. There is a blanket over me as well, the almost-full moon moving its way through the night sky as Tokta snores away, indicating that I’ve been here for at least three hours already.
Great efforts for little gains, it would almost not be worth it until I remember that I’m growing a fucking arm. Of course it isn’t easy. After a few breathing exercises, the pain subsides to a more manageable level, feeling as if there were a tiny, burning hot coin attached to the stump of my arm, a minor inconvenience. Shuddering at the memory of the pain of my newly grown arm, I take some time to convince myself that this is worth it, that I need to know this, and that I really need to thank Taduk the next time I see him. He regrew my arm and a foot in a matter of hours, the man deserves a hug.
How did he heal me so quickly? It cannot have been through micromanaging like I’ve done, because at this rate I’ll have a new arm in a decade or so. If only I could have an arm just spring out fully formed from the stump, or at least speed this along somehow. Glancing at Tokta for a moment, my decision is made rather easily; since he was sleeping when I started, I might as well keep practicing until I pass out. After taking a few minutes to compose myself, I lay back down on the mat, my sweat-dampened shirt feeling cool against my skin, and I reach for Balance.
Picking up where I left off, I continue to pour my chi into my arm, moving from the bone, through the muscle, fat, and skin, a slow, arduous endeavor, my progress spiraling out from the tiny center until after an eternity, a thin cross-section of new arm has been regenerated, my stump now almost an entire millimeter longer. Internally inspecting my work, I cannot help but feel disheartened at the amount of effort required to do this, unable to glimpse a future in which this goes quickly. There has to be some trick that I am not seeing, some method that I can apply.
Thinking back, Taduk had worked on multiple areas at once, regrowing my liver and ribs at the same time, as well as patching up the holes in my chest all at the same time, the chi splitting into thousands of different sections to do a single purpose each. That isn’t just a matter of practice or multitasking, there is simply no way he could have directed everything at once. There had to be some degree of autonomy, it seemed as if every tiny stream of chi knew exactly what to do. Is it possible for me to lay out a series of instructions for my chi in advance, and simply let it go to work?
Putting my theory to the test, I set to work trying to duplicate Taduk’s efforts on a smaller scale, just trying to automate the process of growing a new cap on the bone, but no matter how I try, as soon as I stop focusing on a single process and move on, the first process halts in it’s tracks. Exasperated, I decide to go all in and try something drastic, visualizing the entire cross-section that I am attempting to regenerate, holding the entire concept in my mind before directing all of my chi to realize the concept, make it a reality all at once. As I watch, the small disc of arm grows faster than before, the excruciating pain almost secondary to my elation, the sweet vindication of knowing that I am doing something right fills me with pride. Soon, another millimeter is added to my arm stump and going for broke, I escalate and try for a larger section, almost three millimeters thick this time.
The process continues as I congratulate myself on being amazing, hardly able to wait to shove my success in Tokta’s face, his annoyed, disdainful attitude having gotten under my skin lately. I shouldn’t gloat, nor should I really call myself a genius, but I wonder how he will –
My mouth rips open and a tortured scream bellows out from my lungs as a violent, intense pain explodes from my arm as if it was submerged in acid and set aflame. Staring at the stump of my arm in the moonlight, I watch in agonized horror as a fist sized lump of flesh and bone bursts from the skin, looking nothing like it is supposed to, growing before my eyes in a terrifying amalgamation of sinuous meat, my inhuman howl echoing through the night.
A heavy hand shoves me down and a weight holds me in place, Tokta’s knee jammed against my chest. With a flash in the moonlight, the lump is severed from my arm yet still continues to grow as it twitches and flops in place. Tokta’s hand covers my eyes and I hear his dry, nasal voice as I sink into sweet unconsciousness.
“Congratulations boy, your failure was far more spectacular than expected.”
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