Author’s note: A shoutout to my anonymous repeat donor! Thank you so much for your continued support!
So, I took a sick day on monday and felt much better. I went to work on tuesday, and felt much, much worse by the end of the day. I wonder why…
Still feel like crap today, so I’m off to the doctors for sweet relief. Managed to finish this chapter, and I make no promises for friday’s. I don’t work well while medicated, but who knows. Maybe it’ll be better than my drunk writing (Which isn’t saying much).
Thanks for all your kind wishes and enjoy.
Every morning after waking, I find a fresh basin of water and a clean towel laid out so I can wash my face. Despite her foul temper and harsh tongue, Mila makes sure I’m taken care of in her own little ways, never mentioning it unless I bring it up. Love isn’t all about grand, sweeping gestures, just as important are the myriad of tiny things you do for one another on a day-to-day basis. Love isn’t a sprint, but a marathon, and I’m falling behind in comparison.
It’s all right, I’ll just have to work a little harder. A lifetime spent thanking and cherishing my wives sounds like pure bliss.
Standing over the wooden basin, I calm my thoughts and place both hands on the rim, staring at my reflection as the tiny ripples fade away. A gaunt, tired child stares back at me, the sun-tanned, youthful image still taking me by surprise even after all these years. No beard, a weak jaw, and a nose slightly too big for my face, but at least I don’t have to bother with acne this time around. The Energy of the Heavens keeps my skin silky smooth and blemish free. Still, I’m a few months short of nineteen years old, how much longer before I sprout some facial hair? My chin gets so cold in the winter…
Focus. Closing my eyes, I reach for Balance in preparation of the day ahead. Just as I’ve been doing every morning, I circulate my chi without falling into meditation, keeping aware of my surroundings. My attention turns to the peaceful sounds of morning, songbirds singing overhead while wind cuts through the leaves, setting the many banners placed throughout the camp to waving. Just outside my tent, bears, cats, and a quin growl, purr, and squeak while they play in the morning sun, a happy little family who care nothing for their differences in size, shape, or colour. Further out, soldiers march onto holy ground as pilgrims pray for health and safety, the signs of conflict clear for all to see, though few truly know what lays ahead.
Putting aside my thoughts, my breathing steadies as my hands sink into the bowl of cool, refreshing water. Moving naturally, my chi flows to the tips of my fingers and back, refusing to exit from my body and into the water. Patience is key, eventually my chi will enter the water on its own. At least, according to what I read in Elder Ming’s journal. Aside from his poems and thoughts, he documented the process of his Awakening with meticulous detail, including everything from his analyses and observations to his mood and feelings.
Manipulating water is like binding a weapon; the water must become a part of you, your chi flowing through without thought or guidance. Only then will you be able to control it, but it’s easier said than done. Chi by definition is internal energy, while externally, it’s called Heavenly Energy. The key is to guide without directing, control without holding, move without thinking, using the Heavenly Energy like an extension of your body. An unbroken flow, an unending cycle, no delineation between where I begin and the water ends, one entity beneath the Heavens.
External use of chi is the next level of chi manipulation, a first step towards becoming a healer. I’m a little sick of the killing and fighting, and it’d be good for Baledagh to get away from it too, so the plan is to focus more on healing and less on martial training. I’m not giving up on the martial path, that’d be silly in a time like this, just slightly shifting my priorities. Besides, it’s not like external use of chi is only for healing, which hopefully means I’ll be fighting from a safe distance. I mean, if Zian sees me throwing water bullets like a Gatling gun, I’m sure he’ll reconsider his whole ‘regain honour’ spiel.
Then again, with my luck, I’d probably attract all the battle-crazy maniacs out of hiding or something.
Time passes as I stand in my tent, my hands submerged as I ponder the mysteries of the Blessing of Water. I’m 99% sure that’s what I got, else I can’t explain how I survived my week-long dip in the lake, celestial excretions notwithstanding. I remember the darkness and warmth, the flow and ebb, but little else, my mind savagely attacked by Spectres soon after. Or maybe not so soon, who knows. Time and perception yadda yadda.
Opening my eyes, I reach out with my other senses to find nothing has changed. I didn’t really have high hopes, but still… Why couldn’t I get a cool element, like fire or lightning? What can I do with water? Ah ha, you’re wet now! Your armour will rust in a year or two, wooOOooo scary! I threw water up your nose, now you’re slightly discomforted! On the upside, I’ll never go thirsty and Mila won’t have to bring me water every morning, so there’s that. Way cooler than throwing fireballs or zapping people to death.
Nothing is ever easy, but I’m used to it by now.
Dressed in Sentinel leathers with Peace on my hip and Tranquility on my shoulder, I step out of my tent to find my retinue readying to leave, while a gloomy Lin sulks by herself, watching our pets. Lighting up momentarily as she leaps to her feet, she quickly recovers and feigns misery, preparing to plead her case.
Can’t let her get started, stay strong. “No wifey, you can’t stay.”
“Why not?” Her large brown eyes stare mournfully as tears threaten to spill out. “I want to stay by your side…”
“It’s too dangerous with… with what’s about to happen.” She knows about the Purge and still wants to stay with me, silly girl. I’d do anything to keep her from seeing it. “Everyone who can’t… you know… is leaving. Huu, Fung, and Mila, they’re all going, so you’ll have them to keep you company.”
“Then you come with us, they don’t need you.”
“I can’t. Literally can’t. Major Yuzhen’s orders.” If not, I’d be halfway home by now. “I’ll be fine, I have the elites from Fung and Huu’s retinues, Gerel and his people, and the Major herself looking after me.” No elites from my retinue because I have none. Sadface. “Don’t look so upset, I won’t be gone for long.”
Lin shakes her head and pouts. “I know… I wanted to leave two of my guards with you, but the smelly blockheads refused. I’m gonna have Nai-Nai chop their arms off so Daddy can put them on backwards. Hmph.”
Her guards shift uncomfortably and I speculate whether Taduk can follow through with her threat. Tokta told me it wasn’t possible to make modifications but… Er, note to self: don’t make Lin angry. Taduk may be scarier than expected. “Good. I want your guards by your side every minute of every day. I don’t know what I’d do if something happened to you.”
Balling up her tiny fist, she pounds me on the chest. “Stupid. What about you? You’re always getting hurt and lost, you’re the one who needs guards.”
“Do you know who I am? I’m the Undying Savage. Nothing will keep me from coming back to you.”
Unsure whether to laugh or cry, Lin cuddles against me like she’s banking hugs for our separation. “I never liked that name. You’re my Hubby, my Rainy. You better come back.”
Our time running short, I say farewell to Mila and my pets while Lin clings on until her guards drag her away. Jimjam, Saranko, and the cubs are happy to sit in their wagon, but Aurie paces and shifts about, refusing to board as if he knows I’m not coming along. Adorable as it is, I feel bad for the anxious kitten as I lift him into his wagon. On a whim, after checking that the coast is clear, I condense the slimmest Aura I can manage, trying to pass a calming sensation to my big furry baby. I’m not sure if that’s how Aura works, but he calms visibly from my actions, only quietly mewling as his wagon pulls away.
It’s okay, I’ll be back with them all soon. Hopefully. Hopping onto Mafu’s back, I pat his neck as he chitters, upset at being separated from the cubs and kittens, but he’ll manage. Falling in line with Gerel, I make my opinion known once again. “I am still strongly against this.”
Whipping his head around to glare, the angry, bald warrior replies in common. “And again, I care nothing for your opinion. Keep silent unless spoken to.” Turning to face ahead, he speaks through silent Sending. “Even the Language is not safe. We must tread lightly for the Shrike is a vengeful bitch. Say nothing aside from what Yuzhen has told you to say, and all will be well.”
Speaking quietly as possible, I whisper, “Is there no other way?”
“I understand your trepidation, the Purge is distasteful but necessary. If you’re correct, then there has been a Defiled band running free for years. Who knows how far they’ve spread? We must eradicate their foul existence, root and stem.”
“…At what cost?”
After a long pause, Gerel replies with yet another Sending. “Where you see one Defiled standing, assume five more lay hidden. They are drawn to one another like moths to a flame, infecting the minds of those around them like some foul disease. We hold them back at the walls, but should they grow in numbers within our borders, they can delay supply lines for weeks while we hunt them down. Without support from the province, the Wall will crumble and millions upon millions will die. Such is life.”
His message continues but my mind blanks as I fixate on something he mentioned. If being Defiled is like an infection, then is it Baledagh’s fault that Gen turned? …Thankfully, Baledagh can’t hear Sendings when not in control. Dunno why that is, but it’s a blessing. It’s just conjecture anyways, better to keep him away from this bombshell. Things happened and the kid did the best he could.
Clapping me on the shoulder as we arrive outside Yuzhen’s manor, Gerel surprises me with a warm, if somewhat strained, smile. “Come, we will do what we must and then drink until we forget.”
I’m beginning to think only high-functioning alcoholics make it to old age around here.
Then again, if it ain’t broke…
Riding on the path to the Sacred Grove, Han BoLao felt a sense of reverence as she gazed upon the Mother’s work. Dwarfing all which stood beside it, the Ivory Sacred Tree was a testament to Her love, a beacon of purity, hope, and perseverance, spoiled by the shabby buildings and rickety huts cluttered around its base. She held no qualms against these pilgrimages, for all should gaze upon her glory and bask in the light, but to have the audacity to raise homes on Sacred Ground? None were so deserving.
Especially not those here to pray for healing. Such ignorance and audacity, asking for more when the Mother had already provided all they could ever need. The Energy of the Heavens was freely available to man and beast alike, able to solve whatever may ail them, but instead of toiling to comprehend Her Gifts, they came here in droves to plead for mercy. A horde of children begging for sweets while a sumptuous feast sat before them, a pox on every last one of them. They were unworthy of Her love, though She gave it regardless. Still, it was not BoLao’s place to judge, only to serve.
Calling for a halt, she dismounted and walked up to the Sacred Tree, humbled as she basked in its majesty. Running her hand over the smooth, alabaster bark, she prayed for strength to carry out Her will and protection from the Father’s machinations. A single leaf fluttered down before her eyes, landing softly on her travel robes as if in answer to her prayer. Smiling, she collected the palm-sized, spear-shaped leaf and pressed it carefully within the pages of a book, a memento of her journey to this most holy of sites.
Sighing in regret, she returned to her horse and rode off, weary and resigned of the work ahead. Trials and tribulations, such was life, moulding Her creations into weapons to defeat Her enemies. The Father’s minions were here and she would not allow them to taint Her work, not while Han BoLao still drew breath.
A half-fox dressed in military robes greeted her as she entered the camp. “Han BoLao, this lowly soldier is Major Yuzhen, commander of this camp. Thank you for your timely arrival. Follow me to be briefed on the situation.”
Studying Yuzhen with a critical eye, BoLao approved of the Major. No jewellery aside from a signet ring, no added sigils to her uniform, no airs or false flattery, just straight to business. “No need for thanks, I am but a servant of the Mother, I go where I am needed.”
Travelling a short distance, they arrived at a manor and entered with little fanfare, moving to a dining room filled with almost twenty military officers. Spotting a familiar face, she smiled and moved forward to embrace him. “Little cousin BoShui, I didn’t know you’d be here! Such a pleasant surprise, how long has it been?”
Her silly cousin stiffened in her arms, shy despite all their time spent together as children. “It’s been more than a decade BoLao. Uncle often speaks of you, wishing you would take time to visit.” His piece said, he began awkwardly separating himself, his eyes averted.
Oh how he used to follow her around, an adorable child with rosy red cheeks and an angelic smile, now a Warrant Officer too proud to greet his cousin warmly. “I miss him dearly but the Mother’s work is never done. Father defends the Wall and I do my part where I am called. We must find time to catch up later.”
Smiling apologetically for breaking protocol, she nodded as Yuzhen introduced the other officers. Aside from Situ Jia Zian, the rest were unknown to her, the other Society Warrant Officers too young and unskilled to be of any use. Last to be introduced were from the Bekhai, two heroes whose names had reached as far as the Central Plains. Senior Captain Gerel, the right-hand man of the Bloody-Fanged Wolf Baatar, and the Undying Savage, Falling Rain, the scourge of the Society.
Meeting them both was a tremendous disappointment. From the stories, she expected two fierce, burly, bearded barbarians, but instead, she found two clean-shaven, well-dressed mercenaries, only their amber eyes differentiating them from thousands of others. Gerel was tall but svelte, handsome enough but bald as a monk, not at all manly. Rain was even worse, a scrawny, sheepish boy who fidgeted far too much. Not what she’d pictured, she couldn’t help but glance at Zian and wonder how the Situ genius was defeated by this poor little lamb.
Perhaps there was truth in the hearsay, painting the Bekhai as half-Defiled berserk warriors. It may bear further studying. Taking her seat, she drank her tea and made small talk until it was appropriate to move on to business, giving Yuzhen a knowing look. The Major called the room to attention. “As you all know, I have declared a state of emergency in Shen Yun, Sanshu, Jiu Lang, and Ping Yao. Some of you are curious why, so I’ve invited Warrant Officer Falling Rain here to explain.”
Nervously tugging at his collar, the little lamb stood and drained his cup of tea before beginning. “Okay, so first, an Oath.” Using his little sword, Rain cut deeply into his forearm while channelling the Energy of the Heavens, swearing to the truth of his words. The intensity of his chi was astonishing, and a glance around the room showed that she wasn’t the only one surprised by his power, BoShui and Zian open-mouthed with shock. Throwing away all her earlier suspicions, she beamed with joy at having found one so loved by the Heavens. Impossible for a tribe of Defiled to raise one so radiant, she truly hoped to meet these miracle workers.
Pale-faced and drained from his oath, he wrapped the wound as he told his story. “On the err… twenty-eighth day of the fourth month, during a skirmish with the Butcher Bay Bandits, I was dragged out into Western Treasure’s Lake…” BoLao listened intently to Rain’s story, interrupting now and then for pertinent details. Oh how wonderful, a young hero guided by the hand of the Mother, overcoming insurmountable odds to interrupt the unholy practices of a hidden Defiled Cult. Not only once, but twice, and even surviving a clash with a newly turned Demon. How else could he have accomplished so much if not for the Mother’s Blessing?
His story over, she was left with many questions he could not answer. Why were the Ascendants involved with the Mother’s Militia? How had Laughing Dragon escaped notice for so long? How had the girl Bei, who’d shown no signs of Defilement, turned Demon in a single day? And Gen, the fire-conjuring Defiled, how had his power grown so quickly?
Her fingers drummed across the table, the only sounds in the room. To think that the Father’s claws had sunk so deep around the Sacred Grove, seeking to pollute Her work. Unforgivable, to take so many of her children away, the vile presence of Defiled must be scoured from the earth. Slamming a fist down, she clenched her jaw and declared, “Too much time has passed, we cannot delay any longer. The Purge must begin immediately.”
Many would die, but such was her burden to bear. Though they may curse her actions and burden her with terrible titles like Shrike and Mad Dog, this was a battle for their very souls. She was a necessary tribulation, a cleansing flame here to save their souls. Through her actions, these poor victims could meet the Mother’s embrace untainted, freeing them from the Father’s grasp and allowing them to be reborn in another life
Though they may go screaming into Her arms, a few hours of suffering was nothing compared to an eternity in the Father’s clutches.
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