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Standing on the shoreline with his comrades, Gao Qiu watched the approaching watercraft with growing displeasure. Occupied by two passengers covered in ragged robes, the shoddy raft should by all rights have sunk to the bottom of the lake. Even if it were sturdier than it looked, how did these strangers find their way to the Butcher Bay hideout? Sheer luck? Easier to pass a fist-sized kidney stone. Even more bizarre was the boss’ orders to let the bastards through unharmed, meaning they were people of importance, people Gao Qiu didn’t know.
Secrets and mysteries, two things he hated the most. Too many of those lately, with the boss growing cold and distant, his dreams of conquering the lands having dried up and died ever since Liu Shi broke away. Ah if only they could return to the glory days, when the Red Devil rode freely with the Spectre and Bastard Liu, taking whatever caught their fancy whether it be gold, wine, or women. Those times of glory were a distant memory now, while Butcher Bay’s hold over the villages slipped more each year. Leaving the Army alone was a smart move, patriotic even, but why go so easy on mere peasants? Sure, it allowed them to milk the cow for years to come, but why become a bandit if not for freedom? As it stood, he might as well go become a mercenary or tax collector if he was gonna cower from the threat of resistance.
Rules and guidelines, shit wasn’t any different from being in the army. Why suffer through all those years as the Red-Devil of Sanshu only to end up starving to death? He’d begged the boss to send him to meet with Bastard Liu, work out a treaty to throw back the Marshal’s whore, but he’d been refused time and time again. Their food stores dwindled by the day, their meagre stocks already lasting longer than he’d expected. This was no way to live, cowering from barbarians and spoiled brats while eating nothing but dried fucking fish and hardtack. Even the pickled vegetables were gone now, a miserable existence for all.
Guided by the currents, the raft crashed into the beach as the two passengers leaped effortlessly onto the sand. One of them, a young man, peered about the beach at Gao Qiu and his comrades, a delighted smile on his face. “Oh wonderful, wonderful, there are so many of you.”
Something was off about the lad, his eyes too open, his smile too wild, with more than a hint of insanity hanging about him. The other passenger held his hands open and removed his cowl, revealing a familiar face. “We mean no harm, we seek audience with The Spectre, Yo Ling.”
The lad chimed in with a giggle. “He’s expecting us.”
“Laughing Dragon.” Hand tightening around his axe, Gao Qiu sneered at the dandy bandit, one of many upstarts on his list to kill for the sake of propriety. Not only was his gang taking food from Butcher Bay’s plate and raiding in their territory, but they were making Butcher Bay look bad to boot. Gao Qiu never understood why the boss let it slide for years, it wasn’t right, wasn’t right at all. “I’d say it’s good to see ye, but I’d be lying. What’s the matter, the Magistrate’s whore send yer ‘virtuous bandits’ packing? Now yer looking fer help from scum like us, eh? Well fuck off, there ain’t nothing here fer you and yer fucktoy. Get gone.”
The lad seemed calm despite the many bandits approaching, Laughing Dragon backing away slowly with hands still upraised. Scowling as he received a Sending from the Boss, Gao Qiu waved his comrades back. “Bah. Let em through, the boss wants a word.” Muttering beneath his breath at the indignity, he waited until Laughing Dragon was within arms length. Unleashing his Aura, he readied himself to match wills with the younger man, a bit of fun and spectacle. Boss said to let em through, didn’t say nothing about not scaring them.
A deformed hand reached out and closed around his throat, taking Gao Qiu by surprise. Dragged from his feet, he clung gamely as the lad wrenched him effortlessly into the air, choking the breath from him. Clad in Laughing Dragon’s Aura, an unbreakable barrier stronger than expected, the lad met his gaze with an unnerving grin. “Don’t test me grandfather, you’ll do wonderfully once you realize the Truth. I’d hate to break you before then, but there are many more here. I can afford to be choosy.”
“Put him down Gen, this one’s the Red Devil, Gao Qiu.” In his light-headed haze, Gao Qiu realized Laughing Dragon was nervous, scared of the lad. “The Spectre won’t be pleased if ye kill him, so let him go. Like ye said, all friends here.”
Dropping him like a sack of rice, the lad sauntered off without a second glance, heading unerringly towards the boss. Gasping for breath, Gao Qiu coughed and sputtered as his comrades left him, scurrying away to avoid his displeasure. First Falling Rain, now Laughing Dragon and this nameless brat, new waves overtaking the old. No wonder the boss wanted to meet with them, Gao Qiu was a relic of the past. Sighing in melancholy, he sat and stared out at the foaming currents and shoddy watercraft.
It seemed his time had passed, a feeble old man with nothing to his name. No surprise Yo Ling pushed him away and ignored all his suggestions. Perhaps there was a time when his insight had value, but no longer. There was no place for the Red Devil in this era, no place for Gao Qiu. It was time for the Laughing Dragon’s and Falling Rain’s of the world to make their marks. Pushing himself to his feet, he holstered his axe and wandered down to the water, stepping onto the raft without hesitation. Using the pole to push himself out into the current, he guided the craft safely away, reminiscing of glories passed and comrades lost. As the island faded into the distance, he bid farewell to a life lived with few regrets. After so many years, it had to be worth something. Where to go? Anywhere but here. East maybe, or south even, should the raft hold.
Better if he’d died in his prime than to be so humiliated, made irrelevant by the new generation, but he’d be damned if the Red Devil of Sanshu went down as some upstart brat’s stepping stone.
Jostled by kneading paws and a rumbling purr, I wake to see Aurie’s large, green eyes staring wistfully as I lay in bed. His ears flat against his head, his mouth opens in a plaintive mewl, his whiskers quivering as he nudge me to rise so his day can truly begin. Hugging him roughly, I laugh as he nuzzles against me, whispering a greeting to my big fluffy baby. “Good morning Aurie. You sick of lying around? Sorry I’ve been so lazy, I need to catch up on missed sleep.”
Yawning as I muse over the unknown cause of my lethargy, I pray it’s just my body and mind adjusting from the injuries and lack of rest. I used to get by with four to six hours of sleep a night, but for the past few days it’s been closer to twelve, if not more. True, our body is in sub-optimal condition to say the least, but I have this nagging worry my fatigue has something to do with Baledagh. I mean, usually only one of us is awake most of the time, but now both of us are more or less active which might be draining our reserves, so to speak. And who’s to say his gloom and ennui isn’t psychosomatically affecting our body? Depression is a powerful emotion but I’ve no idea how to help him, aside from give him time and let him know I’m available. It’s not working, ever since we reunited with my retinue, he’s been feigning sleep or sulking and refusing to speak with me. All I can do is give him more time.
Then again, I might be over thinking things, my paranoia working in overdrive. Hopefully I’m wrong and we’ll be back to our normal sleep schedule in a week or two. I don’t want to end up sleeping eighteen hours a day, I really need the extra time to practice. Those without talent must work hard and I’m less talented than most. After quickly checking on Baledagh and finding him ‘asleep’, I go about my morning rituals as Aurie prances and pounces around, clingier than ever since my return. Eight months have passed and in the blink of an eye, my cuddly little kitten has turned into a scraggly hulking wildcat, his shoulders not quite reaching my hip. While the other two cats are taller, my little runt of the litter is also the sweetest of the bunch. Sarankho is still cautiously warming up to me again after my absence and Jimjam acting like I never left, apathetic to my presence unless I have food. It’s okay I still love them, because even though sometimes I’d like to fall asleep in a pile of furry kittens, I don’t know what I’d do with three clingy, 250 kg wildcats bouncing around my feet. Besides, judging by their pony-sized matriarch, may she rest in peace, my kittens still have plenty of growing ahead of them.
Wildcat Mount. Too awesome. Doubt it’d be comfortable though.
Meandering out of my tent, I’m treated to a heartwarming sight, the bear cubs clambering about Mafu’s back while Jimjam sits to one side, cool and aloof. Noticing my arrival, the chubby quin cranes his head to squeak at my arrival, enjoying a nice head scratch from his prone-loaf position. The bears waddle over to cry for food and attention while Jimjam pointedly ignores me. Ah, Mafu and Aurie are the only ones who love me for me, to the others, I’m just a walking food source.
“Morning Hubby!” Lin’s chipper greeting reminds me I have other loved ones, my sweet girl running into my arms with a toothy smile. The top of her head barely reaches my chin and her bunny ears tickle my nose as she snuggles against my chest, her guards’ glaring at me from behind their veils. Taking my hand, she leads me away with a hop and a skip as Mafu gathers the cubs in his arms and follows, no less clingy than Aurie. It took a lot of shoving and pleading to keep him from parking his butt in my tent, though I’m still not sure if it’s because he wants to cuddle with me or the cubs. I’d let him in but I don’t think my army issue cot can handle his weight, and I refuse to sleep on the floor.
“Aurie, you’re so silly.” Laughing as he hops along beside her, Lin announces, “Your breakfast is being kept warm at the training area, Mi-Mi says you need to show your face for morale.”
“Thanks.” Our assembly of exotic animals and mysterious guards draws stares as we wander through the thriving little township built around the Sacred Grove. A ramshackle affair of inns, restaurants, and other touristy things arranged around the protruding tree roots, the nameless municipality is mostly inhabited by travellers here to pray before the Sacred Tree. They have a whole tour for it, with patrols and everything, a mass of tired hopefuls, seeking peace, healing, or enlightenment. Glancing at the magnificent white-barked titan, I estimate it’d take me at least fifteen minutes to walk around the base, its branches appearing to hold up the sky from here. If someone called it a world tree, I’d be hard pressed to argue the moniker. “Wifey, what kind of tree is this? It doesn’t really match anything I’ve read about.” It’s a little sickeningly sweet, but the nickname makes her beam with joy every time. Worth.
“I dunno Hubby, no one knows. Daddy has a book about them somewhere.” Tilting her head left and right, she nibbles her lip as she tries to recall the details. “The three Sacred trees are all unique specimens, each one different ya? This one is white-barked and made of soft wood, while to the west is the black-barked hard-wood tree, and to the north is the red-wood tree. Aside from their size, they’re normal trees that bear no seeds or fruits.”
“Really?” Infertile giant trees, how mysterious. “What about cuttings?”
“Nope, they never take root, even with the same soil and everything. The story says the Mother planted three saplings and nourished them with her tears, in commemoration for those who died in the wars against the Father and his Defiled. It’s said her tears continue to cycle through the lakes and rivers, sometimes healing those who come to pray. It’s a nice story, but Daddy never found any proof.”
Hmm… sounds familiar. Sensing Baledagh’s presence stirring around jogs my memory. “Have you ever found any firsthand accounts about the healing waters of Sanshu Grove?” Hell, maybe that’s what kept me alive underwater for a week. Magic Tears. What’s next? Heavenly nail-clippings to cure dry skin?
I probably shouldn’t be so skeptical of things like this, but I mean… C’mon…
Shaking her head, Lin makes a small double skip, which is mirrored by Aurie. “Just stories and myths, no facts. There should be heavenly waters or veins around, lots of people find weapon hearts around here, plus there’s the big turtle in Ping Yao. I wanna go see the turtle Hubby, can you bring me when this is over?”
Sorrow pierces through me and my steps grow heavy, Baledagh’s emotions weighing heavily on my shoulders. Fighting through the shared heartache, I swallow the lump in my throat and squeeze Lin’s hand a little tighter, trying to pass the warm affection and love on over to Baledagh. “Maybe. I dunno.” Switching over to speak to Baledagh, I ask, “Do you want to come out? Or I could find time and come in to talk, if that’s what you’d prefer?”
“No. You should bring her to Ping Yao. She’ll enjoy it, I think.” Retreating after his enigmatic answer, Baledagh’s presence disappears.
Sensing something is off, Lin looks at me in question and I smile and shake my head. Taking things in stride, she continues chatting with me as we reach the training area, a large field north of the tree. Most of my retinue is here aside from those I left with Ravil and Bulat, diligently practicing as they do every morning. Taking a seat in the grass next to Sarankho, I pat her fluffy kitty butt and wait as Lin rushes off to grab my breakfast, smiling and chatting briefly with my soldiers as they greet me. Ugh, making small talk is the worst. I’d rather practice regenerating fingers or something, much less painful.
Returning with my breakfast on a tray, Lin quickly disperses the growing crowd, allowing me to eat in peace. Balancing the tray on my knees, I enjoy my breakfast while watching the training, doing my best to ignore the pleading looks from my menagerie of pets. Rustram’s sparring match draws most of my attention, my second-in-command getting beaten bloody by the stern and dour Li Song. Poor bastard, I wonder if he does this every day?
“He’s gotten better in the past month.” Smirking as she steps around the cats, Mila crosses her arms and stands proudly, waiting for my praise. “At least he stopped swinging his rapier about like a hammer. He still has a way to go, but he’ll get there eventually.”
High praise coming from Mila, she’s never said anything nice about my skills. Just like her mother. God if I ever said that out loud, I’m pretty sure she’d kill me. “You know, I’ve also learned a thing or two while I was gone. We should spar when I’m fully recovered.”
Sticking out her tongue, Mila grins and snatches a fried dough fritter from my tray, munching away with confidence. “Don’t be jealous. I’ll spar with you anytime you’d like, I’ve missed smacking you around, it’s great stress relief. It’s only fair since you’re the source of most my stress.” Skipping away to return to teaching, she appears to be nothing more than a carefree young woman, no hint of the unrivalled warrior to be seen.
She doesn’t stand a chance against me anymore, and if it weren’t for Yuzhen ordering me to keep my Aura hidden, I’d challenge Mila now. I can already see it, her eyes shut as she’s frozen with fear, helpless before me as I raise my hand, only to bop her lightly on the nose and declare victory. It’ll be magnificent.
I don’t care if it’s using an unfair advantage, I need a win in my column. Call me misogynistic, but I refuse to always be the weaker one in our relationship, a man should protect his woman. Even if it’s only for a few years until she condenses her own aura and beats me black and blue again.
Finished with my breakfast, I sit and watch with Lin nuzzled against my shoulder, enjoying the peace while drowsiness and discontent settles in. The calm before the storm, I couldn’t come up with any ideas for saving people from their imminent doom, the Purge growing closer with each passing day. Gerel explicitly warned me against speaking of or acting against the Purge, and for once, I’m inclined to agree. They’re willing to slaughter tens of thousands of innocents, what’s a few hundred more in the scheme of things?
Despite all the progress I’ve made and the strength I’ve gained, I still don’t have the power to change a thing. I’m leery of announcing ‘I’ can sense the Defiled, since I’m fairly certain it’s a Defiled skill. Who knows what the Empire’s learned over millennia of combat with the Defiled, and I’m not willing to martyr myself for people I don’t know. I’m no hero, that’s never been a dream of mine. I only hope to live well surrounded by people I love, a simple dream for a simple man. This isn’t my fault, Laughing Dragon’s been around for years, who knows how long he’s been Defiled. The Purge was bound to happen sooner or later.
So why do I feel so damn guilty?
It all comes back to one simple question, something I’ll never truly understand short of Divine Intervention.
Why was I given a second chance?
Trying to uncover your cosmic purpose really takes the fun outta life.
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