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The last wave of the Society’s forces fall before a volley of arrows, and victory is mine. Inwardly grinning from ear to ear, I ask, “Be honest, am I not a genius? Was that not impressive?”
Not sharing my enthusiasm, Other me glumly looks around with my body, as hoping another enemy will emerge from the flames. “This is boring, where is the fight you promised me? Your stupid tricks ruined everything, a waste of my energy.”
Killjoy. “I said we were going to a fight. You’re the one that begged to be in control. Besides, you got to do that little speech, remember? Wasn’t that fun? You spoke beautifully.” It’s better when he speaks for me, with that no-nonsense tone of his. I get nervous and end up stuttering or laughing nervously, public speaking is nerve-wracking.
“I was only repeating your words. I killed a single sentry today and then I embarrassed myself by allowing my voice to crack. This was a terrible fight, no honour to be gained in wholesale slaughter. They might as well have been chickens for us to pluck.”
“Relax, those things happen, we’re a young man with a growing body. And forget honour, worship efficiency and force multipliers. We killed 200 enemy soldiers with only a few minor injuries.” I hope they’re minor, Bulat went down hard but I heard him groaning so he didn’t die. It was just a bit of water, how much damage could it have done? Glancing over, Bulat has a large grin plastered across his face as he peers down at the massive bruise on his chest, a purple-yellow blob the size of a fist. All that from a tiny drop of water? And why is he so happy? I hope I didn’t turn them all into masochists.
That old man charging us made my asshole pucker until I told Saluk to put him down. That water shield was awesome, and the water sword? I’m so jealous, if I learned how to do that, then I might actually be useful in mounted combat. Unfortunately, I’ve come to accept the fact that I’ll never be magically competent in anything but healing. After trying to wrest control of every element possible, real or imagined, my repeated failures only forced me to seek strength elsewhere. No matter, it only means I need to work harder, find more creative ways of killing my enemies, like oil and poison. Damn me if the Monstrosity didn’t work better than expected, but I need to figure out why the oil containers don’t explode. They shatter and the oil ignites, which is nice, but there’s no earth-shaking, ear shattering explosions, no shock and awe, just… fire. Not as impressive as I expected.
A pair of slender arms wrap around my neck, pulling me back into a warm, soft embrace. “Look at you, it feels like just yesterday when I was teasing you for staring in the baths.” Probably because it was yesterday. A devilish and beautiful woman with a mature yet playful air about her, Tursinai loves to tease. “Now here you are, leading troops and killing the enemies of the People. Such a clever boy, although you made many mistakes. No worries, big sister here will keep an eye on you while you learn. You work hard and make Baatar proud.” Kissing me chastely on the cheek, Tursinai laughs teasingly as Other me turns red as a tomato, smiling as he enjoys being pressed against her chest.
I can’t really blame him, but appearances must be kept. “Stop enjoying this so much, Mila is watching, try to seem annoyed.” At least he isn’t rubbing his head against her.
“Sorry brother, but she is very soft and smells delightful.” Taking control of my body, I struggle out of her embrace, making sure to grimace in disgust, which earns me a pinch on the butt and a pat on the cheek. As bold and immodest as she seems, she sees me as a kid and thinks it’s fun to watch Mila turn green with envy. Worse, she likes to make her lover Tenjin jealous too, delighting in my discomfort as I wither beneath his formidable glare. A prickly sort, Tokta’s son appears to have inherited his love of knives, with small blades tucked all over his body, but Tursinai keeps him in line.
Saving me from unwanted attentions, Charok appears beside me, watching the fire grow, slowly getting out of control. Sighing deeply, he puts his arm around me. “Little brother, I truly do not know whether to laugh or cry. You did well in subduing the enemy, but your… unconventional methods leave much to be desired.”
Seriously, where were they all hiding? A few dozen Sentinels just appeared out of nowhere, standing around as if they were here the entire time. It’s eerie and I want to learn how it’s done. Six years and they still refuse to teach me how to ninja, I feel cheated. “What’s the problem? I won, didn’t I? This isn’t about honour or glory is it?” I’ll learn to make smoke bombs and out-ninja them, see how they like it.
“No, it’s more a matter of survival.” Gerel answers my query, gloomy and subdued as he appears in front of me, one of my oil containers in hand. “You were so well-behaved and diligent these past few months, I thought the Chief Provost was over exaggerating how troublesome you could be. It seems I was wrong. How long have you been stockpiling oil?”
“I wasn’t stockpiling it, it seeps out of the ground. I sent my squad out to collect some this morning.” Although I do intend to stockpile it now, it’s damn useful. “Worked pretty well right?”
Closing his eyes, Gerel massages his forehead. “You’re like a little lamb, too stupid to fear the tiger. There is a reason no one is foolish enough to use oil in battle. Tenjin, a demonstration please.” Tossing the container high into the air, at the peak of its trajectory, it explodes in a burst of flame covering the sky, every drop of fuel consumed in an instant for a spectacular blast. “You’re lucky you faced an expert capable of manipulating water. If instead he were blessed by fire, your entire squad would’ve died in an instant.”
Note to self: avoid Tursinai at all costs, Tenjin is terrifying. Second note to self: stop carrying oil around. The blood drains from my face as I speak. “I uh… was under the impression control over the elements is incredibly rare. I thought having dirt and buckets on hand to cover the fire would be good enough if a fire broke out.” Even Li Song thought it would be fine, but we were both wrong.
“Control of an element is rare among humans, requiring decades of study and phenomenal luck. Your squad, however, carries enough fuel to end your lives with a single spark, and that is simple enough for many to carry out. What’s more, control of fire is common in Demons.” Letting out a long sigh, he turns to wave towards the cave. “How did you draw them out? Something to do with those arrows, I presume.”
Still shocked by the enormity of my blunder, I absent-mindedly answer. “Er… yea, Choking Rattan. Dry it, add rock salt, grind it up, and add water. It creates an invisible gas that damages the lining on the lungs, nose, and eyes. Lethal in concentrated doses, especially in enclosed spaces, causes permanent damage unless treated.”
“… You poisoned the water?”
“No, no, no. The water is fine, the poison is in the air, you can drink the water with no ill effects. I tried, it tasted funny, but with that much water, no one will notice.”
Far from the respect I was hoping to receive, Gerel’s expression is a mix of disbelief and depression. “This is what you’ve spent your efforts on?” After an uncomfortably long stare, he shakes his head and sighs once more, visibly disappointed. Turning away, he orders the gathered Sentinels to put out the flame and gather the corpses.
Moving to kneel before me, Li Song clasps her hands and bows. “This lowly slave apologizes for her ignorance and failure. This slave awaits your punishment.” Her ears pressed flat against her skull and her shoulders quiver as she kowtows. It’s like scolding a puppy, except it didn’t even do anything.
Annoyed by my failures, I snap, “Stop that. Stand up.” Seeing her continue to kowtow, I grab her by the shoulders and lift her to her feet, ignoring her cowering. “I order you to stand!” Ignoring Mila’s glare, I point at Li Song, my heart aching as she flinches before me. “Why kneel and kowtow? Did you advise me poorly on purpose?”
“No, this slave would not dare.”
“So you made a mistake?”
“Yes, this slave is foolish and unworldly.”
“Then why cringe and bow before me? Everyone makes mistakes. One mistake is not a failure, nor is one success an achievement. Learn from your mistake, because you’re smart and I intend to make use of your knowledge. I chose to take your advice, you didn’t force my actions, the fault lies with me. Enough cowering, you’re a Sentinel. Act like one.”
Feeling worse for taking my anger out on her, I leave to help gather the corpses while Mila consoles Li Song. Stopping in front of the expert that Saluk killed, I recognize him as Elder Ming, and a pit settles in my stomach. I liked him, or at least I liked the person he pretended to be. At the very least, he was fair to us during the competition, although he did try to rip us off in the end. Kneeling beside his corpse, I rummage through his things, keeping his sword, gourd, a pouch filled with writing tools and what appears to be his poetry journal. Why don’t the people I kill ever carry anything valuable? Not even a coin purse, how am I supposed to feed my cats?
With nothing else to scavenge, I carry his corpse to the pile and move on. The next corpse I come across is a bristleboar, and my face scrunches up in disgust. I know it’s borderline racist to hate all bristleboars, but some things are beyond my control. Speaking out loud to no one in particular, I ask, “Why does the Society have so many half-pig soldiers?”
“It is unlikely they are Society adherents.” Following behind me as I work, Li Song meekly answers my rhetorical question. “This lowly… one… can only offer conjecture.” Better, but not by much. “It is possible they are slaves, purchased in bulk for this very purpose.”
“Yea, but even then, what’s the advantage of half-pigs? And how did they find so many of them?”
“Song, let’s go back home, Rain can handle this by himself and I have work to do.” Not letting her answer, Mila interrupts and leads her away, glancing back at me in warning.
Unsure about what just happened, I ask Rustram the same question, who answers reluctantly, making it clear why Mila rushed Li Song away. I always thought slaves were picked up from the streets to be sold, unlucky children abandoned by their parents, but the truth is far worse. Instead, Ancestral beasts are hunted, beaten, and subdued, forced to procreate, their children trained and sold in slave markets. A male ancestral beast can have multiple partners, resulting in a horde of children being born every year. A female ancestral beast is even more valuable, as their children tend to be stronger than those borne by a female human. Glancing at the number of dead bristleboar slaves strewn about the valley, it’s safe to assume that there’s a very busy male ancestral boar somewhere.
Way to spoil my victory even more. I just slaughtered 200 slaves.
This world fucking sucks.
After clearing the area of corpses, we return to the village and I find myself sitting at home, pouring tea for Gerel while Charok cooks a late lunch. Silent the entire trip, Gerel’s eyes hold a distant look, the same one everyone wears when they’re talking to someone who isn’t in the room, likely exchanging silent words with Charok. Sitting down, I slump in my seat, not wanting to be rude, but wishing I was anywhere else. I should be drinking and celebrating victory with my troops, not sitting around awkwardly with Gerel.
Sighing as he shakes his head, he stares at me for several seconds before speaking. “Today was a test of your leadership abilities. How do you think you performed?”
“I failed right? I get it, oil is a big mistake. Appoint someone else as the leader and I’ll be an obedient little soldier.”
“Actually,” Gerel drawls, “You did remarkably well. I expected you to fail miserably, everyone usually does their first time. Your plan was a decent one, your troops well positioned.” Great, that was all thanks to Li Song and Rustram. “More importantly, you made good decisions in the heat of combat. Salvaging the situation when the sentries were alerted, keeping a reserve force ready to chase or cover your retreat, understanding your limits and keeping your distance. All of that tells me you have a good grasp of basic tactics and leadership abilities.”
“You don’t seem very happy.”
“Why should I be? I was asked to test you, and you passed, which I find rather unfortunate. You would’ve learned more from failure.” Fixing me with a sour look, he leans back in his chair, almost pouting. “You won this battle through trickery, but even without the oil and poison, you might have won the day, which is deserving of praise.” No praise is forthcoming however, as he continues without skipping a beat. “While tricks and stratagems have their place in battle, they are meaningless in the face of true strength.”
“Okay, making firebombs is no good, but I could use more lethal poisons, it’s just difficult to gauge lethality without further testing. I have a few more poisons to try, and what’s the harm in keeping my options open?”
“This is where I am conflicted. I don’t know if I should dissuade or encourage you. You are very clever, and it amuses me. No more oil of course, the benefits do not outweigh the risks. Your poison, while effective, is limited in usage. The crossbow is powerful, but any single expert archer can match it, so make sure your troops continue to practice their archery. The bow is far more versatile, the king of all weapons. Do not be so shortsighted and remember to plan for the future. Other than that, I have no qualms about your tricks, but I do have one question: if it is options you are after, then why have you given up on your awakening? Charok tells me you stopped asking him about it weeks ago.”
Uncomfortable with the question, I squirm in my seat, unwilling to admit my abject failure. “I didn’t exactly given up, but it’s been months since I “awakened” and still nothing has happened. Everyone told me to continue meditating and wait. What else am I supposed to do?”
“I don’t know, your plight is unique as far as I know.” Pushing his empty teacup towards me for a refill, he seems wholly indifferent. “What confuses me is that you are so compliant in this single instance. Knowing you, I’d expect you to pester anyone and everyone for advice, or do something insane to learn how to better control your chi. The story of you ripping out your own teeth is repeated almost every day, so why do you not work towards understanding your awakening with the same enthusiasm? Instead, you spend your time studying the mundane, which leads me to think you don’t believe you will master your chi, so you spend your efforts elsewhere.”
“I understand the mundane. It’s ordered and structured, things make sense. With chi, it’s mystic and unfathomable, guesswork and vague feelings. It’s bullshit.”
“And there it is.” Slamming the table, he leans forward, grinning wolfishly. “That is why you fail, you’ve no faith. You try to affix it to rules and formulas, when instead you should let it be. Take for example your healing method. You were unable to understand how to heal traditionally, which is full of the rules and guidelines that you so claim to need. Instead, you conceived your own method, which was allowing the chi to do all the work, without any guidance from yourself. You’ve so much potential, yet you waste your talents coming up with tricks and toys. It’s disheartening.” Throwing his hands into the air, he leans back once more. “Think on it. Regardless, we leave for the Bridge in two weeks and the Chief Provost will make her decision on how you will serve.”
Lapsing into silence, I mull over everything, barely tasting my meal when it arrives. He’s half right, if I want options, chi gives me options. What happened to my dreams of throwing fire and lightning, splitting the earth and calling the winds? I still want crossbows, poisons, explosives and more, but why can’t I have it all? What Gerel said makes sense, if I can’t learn their methods, why can’t I come up with my own? Baatar always says, learning to manipulate chi is a journey of self discovery. Every person is different, and I’m more different from most. I need to actively start trying to figure out what works for me, no more of this waiting for enlightenment bullshit. It’s time to experiment.
I’m gonna science the shit out of magic.
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