A shoutout to my Newest Patrons MysticJazzEnforcer, Julien, and my three-time anonymous donor. Thank you all so much for the support!
Author’s Note: More fanart! Woooooo! Again by the talented JessicaMark at Deviant art, we have two beautiful pieces today, a lovely head-shot of Mila and her luxurious locks, as well as an adorable Tali complete with hair bell’s and wearing a modified hanbok. Thank you to Jessica for the art, I absolutely adore it.
If you have any art you’d like to share, post it in the comments or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org, I’d love to see what my writing has inspired and I can add it to the newly created Fan Art page.
As a side note, I have been writing for almost six months now, and every day I am amazed by the response to my work. Thank you all for reading, as without you, I’d have no motivation to write. Thank you all, and I hope you enjoy the art and the chapter.
Her heartbeat rising, Alsantset rode up the mountain and crested the overhang, the village gate rising into sight. Bereft of any doors or walls, the gate was a simple structure, two pillars and an ornate roof, surrounded by open grass and hills, it was a sight she cherished every time she returned. Pushing her quin to run a little faster, she breathed deeply as she moved through the gate, the simple gesture making her feel safe and welcomed. Around her, the returning Sentinels had their own little traditions, touching or bowing before it, giving thanks to the Mother for their safe return or honouring those who did not.
With the sun yet to reach its apex, the children would still be in classes. Riding down the white-stone roads and ignoring the scenic views, she smiled politely at the villagers, hard at work preparing for the festival to come. Stopping outside the training yard, she dismounted and slowly entered, scanning the crowd with bated breath, heart pounding in her chest. Hands over her mouth, her eyes widened as she caught sight of her babies. The letters from her husband could not do justice to the display before her eyes, her little lambs stumbling awkwardly through the Forms too adorable for mere words. Tate was so serious, brow furrowed and jaw clenched, punching and kicking with all his might, while Tali more relaxed, a silly gap-toothed smile on her face as she drifted about as if dancing. Her heart ached with joy as she struggled to ignore the voice telling her to run up and embrace them, restraining herself out of respect to their teacher and her friend, Tanaraq.
A warm hand clasped her shoulder and she instinctively grasped it, turning to meet her husband’s loving gaze. “Welcome home, beloved. I have missed you so, my beautiful wife.”
Diving into his arms, Alsantset hugged him fiercely. “I have returned to you.” Her tears left a wet stain on his tunic as he gently stroked her ears, and it was all she could do to keep from bawling as she clutched at him. She was finally home. It mattered little where she was, only that her family was there with her. “Our babies have grown so much since I last saw them. Little Tate’s horns are starting to curl and those bells in Tali’s hair are darling, does Rain braid them every day?”
“Ha… To be a scorned husband is a terrible thing, barely spared a glance. Why not ask if I put them in?”
Rolling her eyes, she gazed lovingly at her husband, running her fingers through his coarse beard. “My glorious return from prolonged battle and you cannot even bring yourself to shave, how would you be willing to braid bells in our daughter’s hair? Silly man, I know you better than that.”
“The beard makes me look more rugged and handsome, does it not? I even prettied myself up for you and here you are staining my best shirt.”
Kissing him softly, she smiled and sighed, turning to stare lovingly at her children. It was good to be home. Soon after, Tanaraq clapped her hands and dismissed the children, and her little babies went wide-eyed at the sight of her, screaming in delight as they ran into her waiting arms. Nuzzling them both, she took in their scents as she showered them with kisses, engraving the memory deep into her heart. Never again would she go so long without their company, not until they were grown and starting families of their own. Even then, she would visit them on alternating days so as to not seem too intrusive.
Carrying them out of class and back home, she revelled in her motherly duties, washing their faces and dressing them, listening to Tate tell story after story while Tali clung to her side. Overwhelmed with emotion by Suret’s return, she almost broke down in tears once more. The affectionate quin demanded her attentions, pushing aside her pups to rub against her, feet pattering in delight. Her childhood companion, the little quin was as much her family as the others, their separation no less strenuous.
Cuddling Suret, Alsantset peered at the Sentinel who brought them here, a stranger laden with a fresh kill. “Excuse me, could you tell me where Rain is?” And why was this man looking after her quins?
Juggling his burden, the Sentinel struggled to salute. “Senior Captain, the boss is west of the village, training with his squad. He asked that I bring the animals back while he finishes up with the stragglers, and passes along his apologies.” Haggard and drawn, the Sentinel seemed on the verge of collapsing. Dismissing him, she cautioned him to rest well which earned her a feeble smile and a nod.
Unwilling to sit and wait, she gathered up her family and headed west, determined to meet up with her little brother. Six months of separation and he couldn’t even come greet her before the festival, his obsession with training was too much. Sometimes working too hard was harmful, a step back needed to rest and reflect.
She heard him long before seeing him, his words shocking her. Thankfully, the children could not yet hear him. Lightening herself, she leaped down the steep, stony incline to warn Rain of their arrival. As he came into sight, Alsantset could not help but smile, comparing him to the small, malnourished child she sat behind during their first ride into the village. His eyes wide with wonder as Suret ran up the inclines, his joy at receiving his first set of clothes, simple hand-me-downs from a farmer’s son, they were memories she would cherish until the day she left to greet the Mother.
Now, straight-backed and red-faced, he bellowed at his Sentinels, berating them as they struggled to climb the mountain on foot. That meek little child grown into a confident leader of warriors, albeit one with a… unique approach. Even in the army, the drill sergeant’s would give face, but Rain cared little for these matters. “You worthless, miserable pukes! If you drop the meat I will send you down the mountain to replace it with something fresh. I gave you a simple task: climb this hill, and look at you. Pathetic. What would you do if the enemy stood at the top? Roll over and die for them? Move!”
“Boss… it’s too steep, can’t do it.” A large Sentinel huffed and panted as he knelt on the stone, exhaustion etched across his face. “We have the quins, right? Just… ride those up.”
Stomping over, Rain grabbed the offending speaker and easily lifted the larger man to his feet with one arm. “You expect those majestic creatures to carry your fat ass around all the time? They’re worth more than what you earn in a decade. When I ride to war, I bring the quins to kill my enemies and the rest of you are barely worthy enough to feed and brush them. Earn your meals maggot, and MARCH!”
Coughing politely to gather his attention, Alsantset pursed her lips and shook her head slightly, but it went by unnoticed. Face lighting up in delight, Rain skipped up the mountain and lifted her in a hug. His skills had grown since she last saw him, it was almost unbelievable. He couldn’t Lighten himself enough to jump his own height, and now was almost floating across the rocky ground, not to mention his increased strength. “Sister! You’re back, sorry you had to come out here, I can’t leave until these failures finish their nature walk.” His voice was loud enough to be heard, but to her surprise, none of the soldiers seemed upset.
Stroking his hair, she lowered her voice to a whisper. “It is good to see you brother, but lower your voice, the children are on their way. Perhaps you expect too much from your Sentinels, this task is difficult and draining even for experienced Warriors. ”
Snorting, Rain motioned towards the village. “Not too difficult, fifteen made it up already, and we’ve only been doing this for two weeks.”
“Rain, that only means those few are talented at Lightening, it is not a skill everyone can use with ease.” Even so, for fifteen Sentinels to learn so quickly, were they all unpolished jades? How could that be possible?
“I expect every single one of my troopers to be skilled in Lightening, it’s too useful a skill to ignore. Besides, this isn’t just Lightening, they’re also practicing Stabilization.”
Switching to common so the Sentinels could listen, Rain explained. “Lightening would allow you to glide up the cliff in a series of leaps, but that’s too difficult, even for me. Instead, they walk up slowly, using Stabilization to raise their centre of gravity, keeping them from sliding back down. It’s simple physics.” In demonstration, Rain walked a distance up the incline, leaning forward and taking one careful step at a time, before sliding back down with ease. “See? It’d be too easy if they could use their hands, so I made it a little more challenging, but they can’t even grasp a simple concept. I mean, it might even be possible to walk up this incline without chi, if you’re careful about it.”
“That is clever.” Rain swelled with pride before she smiled and rolled her eyes, smacking him on the shoulder. “Enough, your sister has returned and the festival awaits. You reek of sweat, so you must bathe before we go.”
Shaking his head, he smiled briefly before roaring at his Sentinels. “Alright you worthless meat-bags, the Senior Captain is merciful and has decided to let you off for the day.” With a piercing whistle, Rain signalled for the quins and they ran to find their riders, eager for treats. Leaping up gracefully, Rain stood atop his quin as it carried him up and his squad followed suit, although most only half stood, ready to grab the harnesses should they lose control. Training with every spare moment, they were definitely learning from Rain’s example.
Following in silence, she waited patiently with her babies while Rain finished giving his instructions, his words full of vitriol, stomping over their pride. Those poor Sentinels, if Rain continued in this manner, they would either snap or break, neither of which would be productive, but she put aside any thoughts of criticism. This was the day of her return, and she would not have it ruined by arguing with her stubborn brother. After his bath, she would go to the festival and find her Mama, resolved to spend as much time with her family as possible. Not only because she wanted to, but because after a year of close calls and lost friends, she needed to remind herself what she was fighting for.
I love these festivals, they’re always so lively and lighthearted, everyone chipping in to help. We’ve had a few, since returning, since the villagers will accept any reason to throw a party, and this time, my squad managed to pitch in a decent amount. I brought them out for an overnight hunt, bagging a number of terror birds, rams, rabbits and even a pair of massive boars, plenty of meat for the fires. Lin, Mila, and Li Song came along to pick herbs, but I spent most of my time training with my squad, and they’re not too happy with me, leaving without me to prepare.
After spending a few hours with my family, I spot Lin’s bunny ears in the crowd and excuse myself from Alsantset. Making my way over, I see her chatting with one of Huu’s brides-to-be, while Huu stands around. Instead of coming home with the injured, he stayed out there for another six months, riding under Akanai’s command. Clasping arms, we hug, a single, manly tap on the back. “Did you get even bigger? Aren’t you done growing yet?”
Smiling bashfully, he looks more heroic than ever, his battle-scarred armor resplendent in the afternoon light. “One last surge of growth, a body forged in blood and battle my Ma says.”
“So how’s it feel coming home as the valiant hero? The messengers bring stories which continue to impress, week after week.”
“What hero? The soldiers still talk about your victories, the Undying Falling Rain defeating champion after champion.” Waving me off the subject, he scratches his silver goatee, a new addition that makes him look more distinguished. “It’s good to be home and see my folks again. I heard you’ve been working on something with my Pa, seems interesting. Yesui and Yosai’s parents travelled here, so we finally met and they gave me their blessing.”
“Congratulations! Then again, who wouldn’t want the Young Wolf of the People as their son-in-law? So handsome to boot.”
“Enough flattery, have you had anything to drink?”
Finally, a drinking buddy. Whenever I tried to drink with my squad, the atmosphere was always so awkward, and drinking with Taduk, Husolt and Charok is more composed and mannerly. Time to get hammered and party. “Not yet, but tonight, we don’t go home until we’re good and drunk. I’m buying.”
His meaty hand clamps down onto my shoulder and he brings me in for a one-armed hug, dragging me away towards one of the marked areas used for friendly sparring matches. “Later. Although your strength is far above mine, I still consider you my rival. Show me how much stronger you’ve become in these past months, then we drink! I’ll buy.”
Battle maniacs, all of them. He comes home from more than a year of battle and bloodshed, but the first thing he wants to do is spar. Helpless to resist, I pick my practice weapons and step past the posts, the villagers gathering to watch while a betting war breaks out. Sword and shield in hand, I turn to face my opponent and freeze in place. A massive, long-handled saber taller than I am, Huu’s spiritual weapon greets me, his helmeted head shaking as he stares down at me, absent all emotion. “Real weapons Rain, I wish to truly measure myself. Worry not for my pride and do not hold back.”
He’s much more intense now, the innocence of youth gone from him. Putting away the practice weapons, I send a mental message to Other me. “Time to work but no brutality or mocking, this is a spar and he’s my friend.”
“You’re the boss, brother.” Other me takes over and draws my weapons, limbering up as I mentally prepare. Picturing my muscles brimming with energy, I activate my Reinforcement.
Silently, I speak to Other me. “Remember the timing, 1 and 2 and go. Got it?”
“Sounds good, we start with a charge?”
“We always do.”
Weapon pointed down and held defensively, Huushal waits patiently. He really isn’t kidding around, this is important to him, so as his friend, I should take this seriously too. Nodding for me to begin, he settles down, eyes locked on my every movement. And 1 and 2 and burst.
An explosion of dirt flies out from behind me as my body rockets forward, sword aimed at his exposed shoulder, the crowd bursting into cheers. Barely shifting his weapon, Huu blocks my strike while stepping aside, faster than I expect. His saber sweeps out, batting me aside as I catch it with both weapons. Directing my chi to Absorb the impact, our weapons screech as they scrape together, my bones trembling from the exchange. Steadying my balance, I step in while he is overextended, but anticipating my movement, he leaps back and twirls, his saber swinging around for a second slash.
What is it with these massive bastards and their twirling? Be big and slow, stupid cheaters. Unable to Absorb the entire impact, my body staggers aside. Adjusting my centre of gravity to Stabilize, one foot sweeps out to steady me, weapons at the ready to defend should Huu charge in. This is why Other me is in charge for the serious fights, I would have fallen or exposed some weakness. I supply the buffs and he supplies the pain.
“Brother, he’s very good. Let’s bring that out, be ready.” Grinning wickedly, my body steps forward, lashing out with sword then shield, testing Huu’s defences. Although I am more successful with Amplification, I still lack a 100% success rate, but the erratic rhythm throws Huu off, uncertainty forcing him to fully guard against each strike. Hammering him again and again to break through the pillar of steel that is his weapon, I press my advantage as the crowds grow silent, leaving him no chance to retaliate beneath my flurry of blows. “This is it brother, he’ll go left.”
Presenting an opening for him, Huu lashes out to force me away. Taking a single step back, the saber slides across my shield, and I lean into the impact. Going full power with Reinforcement, I rocket forward as soon as his sword slips past, thrusting both my weapons towards his midsection. He circles to my left and my shield lashes out in a full-power, Amplified swing with both legs firmly rooted. Like a bell tolling, our weapons ring loudly at the impact, echoing as he staggers aside before falling to the ground. Standing proudly, Other me grins and says, “Bull Form, Traverses the Mountain into Deer Form, Parting the Underbrush. I call that one Sweeping the Fields.”
Idiot. He didn’t even know what forms it was until I told him, then he had to make up a name for it. Huu blinks in surprise before bursting out in uproarious laughter. “Good, good.” Straightening up, he swings his saber about him, cutting through the wind in a figure eight with a metallic whoosh. “I call this Resolute Tempest.” Great, now he’s naming things too, it’s too ridiculous. Hesitating briefly, Huu shrugs in apology. “Take care not to die.”
No longer smiling, he charges forward, fully trusting me to survive his onslaught. I would really hate to disappoint him. Sword held in both hands, Huu slashes from maximum range, the weapon hammering down to cleave me from shoulder to waist. I block the strike but Huu shortens his grip and twirls the weapon, slashing a second time before I can recover. Blocking the second, he continues building momentum as I block a third and a forth. Stepping back, Other me avoids the fifth strike and moves to counter, but I mentally scream, “Dodge Left!”
Barely a hairs breadth away, Huu’s saber pierces through empty air in front of my chest as I turn aside. Unperturbed, his saber crashes against my shield, twice, my body yielding before his superior strength. Turtling beneath sword and shield, I weather the storm of blows, falling back as the world turns to white noise around me. Huu’s boot slams into my gut, sending me sliding back across the dirt.
Crouched down with weapons raised, I stare down my opponent who stands with weapon held high, both of us breathless but still eager to trade blows, my smile mirrored on Huu’s face. Simultaneously putting away our weapons, we walk out of the arena, giddy with laughter and ignoring the crowd as they clamour over who was the victor. Clapping me on the shoulder, he laughs, a boyish look to him once again. “How’d you know the trade was bad?”
Other me relinquishes control and my shoulders sag in relief. “Just a guess from the name. You left that opening when I dodged, ‘resolved’ to trade blows. Give flesh and break bone, that’s my move, you can’t steal it. You’re already bigger and faster, how am I supposed to win if you’re trickier too?”
“Sorry but I had little choice, you’ve gotten even stronger. Almost made me drop my weapon five or six times. Come, let’s see about that drink.” Both of us still sweating from our match, we head towards the barrels of liquor, talking shop, exchanging advice, and arguing about who will pay, our cheerful reunion off to an exciting start.
On an unrelated note, I should make some normal friends.
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