A shoutout to my newest Patron OniAisu! Thank you for the support.
Author’s note: I’m back, but my break was not very productive, though it was relaxing.
Enough about that, enjoy the chapter!
“Bad Jimu! You shitty cat, I’ll cook you in a fucking stew!”
With a meaty pork bone clamped between his jaws, the feline bandit leaps gracefully out the window, stopping to glance back at me in smug victory. I blame the twins, they’re always feeding that fatty, giggling when I attempt to scold them. I have no power over them and they know it, those little terrors getting away with everything they can. Alsantset was the disciplinarian, and Charok is mostly content to let kids be kids, leaving me to fill in as bad cop, a job I’m ill-suited for. A single pout from either of them is enough to break my heart, and they’re old enough to know how to take advantage.
Slamming the shutters closed, I return to cooking breakfast in the dimly lit kitchen, muttering obscenities beneath my breath. Cat doesn’t taste very good but I’m harbouring thoughts of cat hot-pot every day, if only to relieve my financial burdens. I should have kept more money instead of giving it all to Akanai, over a thousand gold packed neatly in a compact case. In a few short months, those tiny, adorable kittens have grown into hulking beasts, 200 kilograms of fangs and muscle with plenty of growing still to be done. Keeping them well fed is a full-time job, but with so many other things for me to do, I’ve resorted to outsourcing their meals, burning through all my coin. If not for Mila and Li Song adopting one and easing my workload, I would have gone broke feeding these stupid cats. Huu is a smarter man than I, choosing coin over these bottomless pits of debt and suffering.
A snorting chuff draws my attention as Auric rubs his head against my leg, eyes wide as he begs for a treat. Helpless against his charms, I toss a bone out the kitchen and he pounces after it with a happy yowl. Named for his golden fur, Auric still prefers to sleep snuggled against me while Jimu has his own place in the quin stables, getting along fabulously with the pups who are close in size. Pafu and Suret are teaching the pups how to hunt, unlike the worthless thief and beggar cat duo who play around all day, napping wherever they please.
Once breakfast is almost ready, I make my way to the twins’ room, walking in and waking them gently, grinning from ear to ear at their sleepy faces. “Good morning my little sweetlings, how are you today?”
“Morning Rainy.” Tate rushes out the room as soon as he’s dressed, full of energy and calling for the cats, who react accordingly and ignore him. Tali is more subdued, leaning sleepily against me as I dress her and insisting I carry her to the dining room. Tate joins us shortly, followed by a train of cats and quins as they settle around the table, hoping for scraps as they lick their lips, fangs protruding as their mouths hang open, panting in anticipation. One pup rests his head on my thigh while Auric takes the other thigh, both staring up at me as I eat. It was cute when they were tiny, but their heads now weigh about 30-40 kilos a piece, their begging ways cutting off blood circulation.
After a simple breakfast of salted pork bone congee and fried dough fritters, the three of us walk hand in hand to the training grounds, followed by our menagerie of pets. Everyone we pass stops to greet us, most trying to make inane conversation about the weather or their gardens or some other boring topic. All the social niceties are starting to get to me and if it wasn’t for the twins, I’d choose to live on the outskirts like Taduk, avoiding all the small talk and obligations that come with living in a small community. It’s mentally exhausting.
Waving goodbye as Tali and Tate run off to join their friends, my heart clenches in a moment of grief. They grow up so fast, already learning the Forms, firing arrows and practicing meditation, all the skills necessary to survive in this harsh and bloody world. I had hoped Auric and Jimu would be their lifelong companions, but watching the two stupid cats lick themselves without concern as the twins run off, those dreams are fading fast. The two wildcats lack the pack mentality, independent creatures that prefer to lead solitary lives.
This is why dogs are better.
Wrenching myself away from the training grounds, I herd the animals towards the edge of the village, vacantly smiling at the incessant greetings as I prepare for the arduous day ahead. Within minutes, I am joined by a steady stream of the damned, former soldiers turned Sentinel trainees, their posture defeated and docile as we march towards our grim fate. A bleak atmosphere greets us as we arrive at the temporary barracks, the trainees shuffling off to queue up for breakfast while I stand around looking suitably imposing, eavesdropping on the conversations around me.
Behind a table, Bulat stands listlessly, filling bowls with rice as his mother Maira browbeats him into submission. “Stand up straight boy, yer a soldier, act like one. You work hard out there, you hear? We’ve plenty to be grateful for, so don’t you dare disappoint our benefactors.” Grabbing his face with one hand, she twists his head to look straight at her. “Answer me when I’m talkin’ to you boy.”
His hangdog expression is almost comical as he answers, the very picture of a dutiful and suffering son. “Yes Ma, Bulat will do his best.”
“You just look to Gerel, do as he do. Now there’s a proper soldier, always polite and straight-backed, handsome too.”
“Yes Ma, just like Senior Captain Gerel, a hero among men, tiger among sheep.” Poor guy, he seemed happier as a cripple with no future. No wonder he joined the army.
Brushing off his collar, her hands leave trails of flour behind on his leather armour. “None of your lip boy. I met a proper lass, a village girl named Dei An over there by the meat buns. Smile, boy, are you daft? Pretty as a flower ain’t she? Loves to cook and sew, you go speak with her when you’ve a chance now. The least you could do is leave me some grandchildren to raise a’fore you go gallavantin’ across the Empire .”
Bulat’s eyes show plenty of interest while he studies Dei An, giving her a tiny wave as she smiles back at him, a lovely young woman in the prime of her life. “Yes Ma, plenty o’ grandchildren.” I’m surprised he isn’t drooling. Is that how I look when I stare at women?
“Come now Maira, the boy has plenty to do before the day is over, allow him a moment of peace.” Dagen claps his hand down on my shoulder, grinning wickedly as he towers beside me. “He’s working for a harsh taskmaster, demanding and inhumane in his training. Besides, you’re far too young to be a grandmother, still a young lass yourself.” He strokes her face tenderly, eliciting a girlish smile as she shyly bats him away, the two of them flirting in plain sight to Bulat’s obvious dismay.
As the older couple walks away arm in arm, my heart lifts a little, happy to see Dagen find love again. We never talked about what I saw in his head, but I think being able to say goodbye to his family was therapeutic for him, even if it was only imagined. They struck up a budding romance on the journey from Shen Huo, full of danger from bandits and wild creatures, a whirlwind courtship that still burned bright.
At the appointed time, I give the order to start, shivering from the cold as I remove my shirt and steel myself. Bulat and Rustram line up on either side of me, striking me enthusiastically with wooden rods, working me over without mercy. The dull, heavy sound of wood on flesh fills the air as the trainees mirror our actions, a bloodied and bruised band of warriors taking turns to inflict harm on one another, strengthening our bones and muscles as we reforge our bodies. The trainees not a part of my squad are at a disadvantage, needing to work harder to heal without my methods, but it’s good practice for them. While they aren’t able to regenerate limbs, they might learn to treat their life-threatening injuries long enough to reach a proper healer.
Once my body is thoroughly tenderized, I circulate my chi to begin the healing process, stimulating the growth of Panacea throughout my bones as I march around, repeating my daily adages in an oft-repeated sermon for all. “Know the burdens that each of us carry: Mediocrity. Inferiority. Ordinary. If I called you second-rate then no one in the world would ever be third-rate.” Taking the rod from Pran, I lay into Saluk with a powerful, two-handed strike, staggering the large half-bull and earning a look of anger as I wind up for a second strike. “To go easy on your comrades is to sentence them to death. Suffer today so that you may survive tomorrow. Endure, that is your mission, your goal, your duty. Pain is fleeting, embrace it, because it means you are still alive. Only in death will you find peace.”
This is all Gerel’s fault, he’s the one who suggested this training after asking me about my thought process behind it. The only thing keeping the camp from rioting is the fact that Gerel takes more abuse than any three men combined. A grim, almost fanatical tyrant of a man, Gerel is brilliant and talented, picking up my healing method without difficulty and dealing a massive blow to my pride, regenerating his entire arm in under a month. Some people are just born lucky.
Moving on, we begin demonstrating the Forms as our bodies heal, veteran Sentinels wandering through the ranks, offering guidance and corrections as they see fit. Gerel stops in front of me to study my movements, stopping me after a moment. “Deer Form: Parting the Underbrush. You can be aggressive or gentle, slow or speedy, but you cannot be half-hearted. Once you begin, you are committed and must follow through, else you will be left off-balance, open, and vulnerable.” A quarter-circle sweeping motion, he demonstrates the Form several times, one-armed, both armed, a leg sweep and a shoulder sweep, all different variations of the same basic motion. After watching me repeat his movements, he nods in taciturn approval and proceeds to help Rustram with his sword Forms.
After three hours of the Forms, the trainees are panting with exertion as we move onto archery practice. Even among all these rookies I’m far from the best shot, which is a little embarrassing considering most never held a bow before arriving at the village. Ravil in particular is a great shot, wielding his double-recurve bow with grace and accuracy from atop his quin, Jinx. Rustram also has some skill, and a few former hunters are also capable, but overall, the level of accuracy is rather low, if not outright terrible. If things continue in this manner, I’ll be leading a squad of meat shields, the worst possible outcome.
After a break for lunch, we move on to our daily sparring. Armed with a practice shield and sword, I wave Pran and Saluk over. “Let’s go, I know you two are itching for payback. Let’s see if you have what it takes.” Unable to hide their grins, the two lumbering brothers circle me slowly, separating as they twirl their padded sabers.
Launching myself at Saluk with my shield raised, I punch viciously, connecting with his saber. My massive opponent staggers back at the impact, taken by surprise. Whipping around, I execute Parting the Underbrush, smashing aside Pran’s descending weapon. Punching him twice with my shield, he reels back as my boot hammers into his gut, sending him to his knees. Spinning away from Saluk’s heavy chop, I angle my shield so his weapon goes wide, causing him to overextend. A single punch to the jaw is enough to disorient him, and my sword taps roughly against the side of his neck, inducing a choked cough and signal of submission.
Shaking my head in disapproval, I step back to give them time to recover. “You need to work harder and smarter. Give flesh and break bone, but that doesn’t mean you can leave yourself open and vulnerable. Again.” Our second round ends as quickly as the first, both nursing fresh bruises while I try not to sympathize with their plight as they kneel in the grass, glaring ferociously at me. “Again.”
I’ve become just like Akanai, but I gotta say, it’s much better being on this end of the exchange.
After several more rounds, Pran and Saluk’s lay prone upon the ground, their chests heaving, braided ques in disarray, and faces bloodied. My eyes sift through the observers, sensing their fear and awe, taking no pleasure in this. If they’re this weak, what good are they? They need to improve before time runs out or I’ll be the one beaten and bruised once Akanai gets her hands on me. “You two, go heal your injuries, but try to keep watching. Rustram, Bulat, Ravil, your turn.” They’re not the only ones who need to improve.
After a few rounds with the three of them, a deep, friendly voice calls out, chortling as he speaks. “Let those soldiers rest awhile boyo, my hands are itching after seeing you fight.” Major Vichear ambles over, the colossal, bear-eared officer towering above me as he grins from inside his helmet, sword and shield raised in challenge. “Come, your skills will rust if you only spar with those weaker than you. Let us show them a fair match between true warriors.” Smiling at the compliment, I nod once, relishing the prospect of a challenge.
The three unfortunates crawl away, clearing the space for me and Vichear as I mirror his stance, shield in front and sword raised, circling him as I search for an opening. Exhale. Focus. Show intent and blood thirst. I will chop at your right shoulder. Vichear reacts to my feint, shifting his sword to block and I dart forward, my chop transforming into a thrust. A quick hit against his shield and I fall back, his sword whistling through the air before me. Reengaging, a second thrust probes his defenses, almost slipping through.
I continue darting about, dashing in to strike before leaping back, avoiding a head on clash. More than 200 kilos heavier, with almost a meter difference in height and twice my girth, he makes for a physically intimidating opponent, the sheer size difference enough to overpower me with ease. I’ve grown taller in the last year, so maybe I’ll be able to overcome that advantage given enough time. I’m only asking for half a meter more in height before I finish growing, not too much. I turned 18 a few months ago, so I have plenty of time, right?
An abrupt shield charge from Vichear takes me off guard, and I leap back to avoid being thrown to the ground by the impact, landing neatly almost two meters away. Diving under his diagonal slash, I roll past him, avoiding an errant kick powerful enough to uproot tree stumps. Slashing at his knee, the impact barely shifts his meaty leg as he turns to meet my attack with a powerful chop. Raising my shield, I falter beneath the forceful blow as he seizes the upper hand. His sword and shield alternate in a storm of attacks, each strike raising an ear-splitting crash as I stumble backwards, desperately blocking, my jaw clenched as my bones reverberate with every impact.
A wild swing catches me on the shoulder, sending me tumbling head over heels through the flattened grass and dirt. Disoriented, I struggle quickly to my feet, spinning quickly to find my opponent and balance. After a few spine-tingling seconds, the world stops spinning and I see Vichear standing still, his sword resting point first in the ground as he patiently waits for me to regain my bearings. Opening my mouth wide in an effort to end the ringing in my ears, I blink several times, trying to clear my thoughts and come up with a plan to defeat this Goliath.
“Let me take over brother, I cannot promise victory, but I can put up a better defense.”
Inwardly shaking my head, I answer him silently. “No, I need the practice. I can’t rely on you for everything, I gotta pull my own weight around here.”
“As you wish brother.” Other me has been surprisingly compliant lately, more laid back and easy-going ever since his month-long nap. He’s still pretty bloodthirsty, but no more than a normal Sentinel, without a single rant about doom or dismemberment. I think leaving him toys to play with helps, mostly cards and board games created in my mental space, giving him something to do in his spare time. He also loves to play mahjong, and I let him take over to play whenever I get the chance. He’s not so bad anymore, and I actually like having him around, like an intangible little brother to play games with.
Taking time to adjust my breathing, I focus on the match at hand, choosing a plan of action before nodding at Vichear. With his deep belly laugh, a hearty chuckle that compels you to laugh with him, he lifts his sword and waves me forward. “Come boyo, I know you can do better than this, don’t you be scared of hurting old Vichy.” Smacking his armoured belly, he snorts loudly over the racket. “You need a few more years yet before you can put a dent in this mountain of fat.”
Smiling silently, I take a single step back and ready myself to burst into action. Focusing all my weight on my left foot, I begin to perform Balance on Windy Leaf, leaning forward to begin my charge. My strength explodes, travelling down my leg and through my calf, a cloud of dirt flaring from behind my foot as I execute Bull Form: Scraping the Ground. My body surges forward in a single bound, appearing instantly in front of Vichear as my sword thrusts towards his midsection, completing the new attack with Pierce the Horizon. A three form combination charge, the next level in my most powerful attack, the culmination of months of practice after drawing insight from my match against Ouyang Yu Jin.
The world seems to move in slow motion as Vichear contorts his body, spinning gracefully as if weightless, twirling through the air and batting my sword aside. My admiration is cut short as my face crashes into his elbow, and like a puppet with its strings cut, I collapse to the dirt. The world spinning once again, I try to make sense of what just happened, staring without seeing, the warm, coppery taste of blood filling my mouth.
Welp… There goes months of practice. Back to the drawing board.
Vichear’s smiling, dark-skinned face peers down at me, his teeth gleaming white. “Damn boyo, you gave me a fright there, smashed yourself right into me. Fast little bugger, aren’t you? Guess I was wrong, you’ve plenty of power in them spindly legs.”
“Fuck you man.” My voice is slurred and drowsy, my head struggling to lift itself. “You… you phony! How are you so agile? You’re big and fat, you should be slow and clumsy, it’s not fair…” Too OP, nerf Bears please.
Lifting me by the vest with a meaty palm, he sets me gingerly on my feet before clapping me on the back, laughing heartily, taking no offense at my words. “Impressive eh? Dance lessons, that’s my secret. I joined for a woman, but who would have known? Soon after my debut opera performance, I killed my first Demon while out on routine patrol. They don’t call it a sword dance for nothing.” Belting out a few notes in a beautiful baritone, he guides my unsteady steps over to the shade, sitting me down and patting my back as I cradle my face, fighting the urge to vomit. “Good show out there, you fix up that dent in your face and come back for another round when you’re good and ready.”
This is my life now, beating up trainees and being beaten in turn, a vicious cycle. Lamenting my fate and complaining to Other me, I heal my fracture bones while I rest my eyes, the months of built up fatigue weighing heavily on me. The six month time limit is coming to an end soon and I can only pray that my squad makes the cut, the imagined punishment enough to send a shiver down my spine. Seeing Tate and Tali enthusiastically practicing their martial skills scares me even more, the thought of those two darlings falling to the Defiled a recurring nightmare, sprinkled with tiny bones and terrifying screams in the backdrop of our ruined village. I need to be stronger, strong enough to protect them from the Defiled, the Society, wild animals and everything else this shit hole of a world has in store.
Maybe the trainees will hate me for pushing them this hard, but I’m doing what needs to be done. I miss being one of the guys and hanging out with them, gambling and dicing, talking about women and life. Now, they all grow hushed and wide-eyed whenever I’m around, saluting and bowing despite my protests. It’s almost as exhausting as making small talk.
“Enough rest. Stand.” Gerel’s firm tone brooks no argument and I leap to obey, the reflex literally beaten into me. As much as I idolize the man, easygoing is not a word I would use to describe him. He makes Akanai seem rational at times, willing to dole out physical punishment at the slightest infraction, likely with orders to whip me into shape. Standing before me with his massive glaive held to one side, he looks down at me, a bald, amber-eyed god of war, scornful of my weakness. “We spar.”
Sigh… Only now do I understand, life and tribulation are truly one and the same.
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