Author’s note: Here’s a chapter. It took like five days to write and when I looked at it this morning, I found it was complete shit. Spent the entire morning rewriting it, and I’m still not 100% happy, but you’ve all waited long enough.
In better news, there will be a chapter friday, because I’m sick of leveling new characters already. Eight dead shadows, all before reaching maps, I’m a terrible fucking player.
One last thing, I get the odd PM or email asking questions and such. I try to answer them all, even if its to say ‘I can’t answer that’, but sometimes, people send me messages on RR and don’t enable PM’s. So If you sent me something and I didn’t answer, check your message settings and try again. That is all.
“I CANT BELIEVE YOU THREATENED LIN’S GUARDS LIKE THAT.”
Greeting the soldiers as I lead my retinue out of camp, I move hand in hand with Mila while suppressing my urge to vomit, the adrenaline draining from my body as I reflect on my actions. Thankfully, I managed to climb onto Mafu before fear turned my legs into a pile of quivering goo. The immense pressure exerted by Lin’s guard was unlike anything I’ve come across before, and nothing I’d care to experience again.
“THEY’RE ONLY HERE TO KEEP HER SAFE, YOU DIDN’T HAVE TO SNAP LIKE THAT. IT’S NOT LIKE YOU.”
True. I mean, sure, Lin’s guard was rude but it’s not exactly a transgression worthy of a death threat. In light of how things went, I wouldn’t say I regret my actions, though I wouldn’t disagree if someone told me I overreacted. I’m becoming more like those puffed-up, arrogant noble types, so eager to shed blood. Then again, judging by how Lin’s guards kept their calm throughout the entire confrontation, I’m fairly certain it would have been my blood being shed had I given the order to fire.
“WHAT DID YOU EXPECT TO ACCOMPLISH? INTIMIDATE THEM INTO BEING POLITE?”
Oddly enough, I think they were pleased by my little outburst. I could be wrong, it’s tough reading someone wearing a veil, but I thought I saw one of them trying not to laugh, while the leader was hiding a smile. How fucked up is that? I threaten to shoot her for being rude, and her reaction is to smile.
“ARE YOU EVEN LISTENING? ANSWER ME!”
Wincing in pain, I turn to nod at a glaring Mila. It’s nice that she’s finally willing to hold hands in public, but if she’s only doing it to scold me, then I’d rather go without. Clearing my throat even though I won’t be physically speaking, I do my best to look suitably contrite. “I’m sorry Mila, I wasn’t thinking. I had this plan and you and Lin were almost safe, but then that woman got in the way and I snapped. I’m out of sorts lately, it won’t happen again, promise.”
Her glare softens as she squeeze my hand in what I assume is a reassuring gesture, but her enthusiasm causes my bones to grind against one another. Compounding the pain, her ‘voice’ remains at the same mind-numbing volume. “IS IT BECAUSE OF THE PURGE? I KNOW IT COULDN’T HAVE BEEN EASY, BUT I’M HERE IF YOU NEED TO TALK…”
“Thank you, but I can’t talk about it. Literally can’t.” Which is honestly the worst part. I want to talk about it, to cry, scream and rail about the injustice and hypocrisy of the Purge, let the world know mass-murder is being conducted right before their eyes, but I fucked it up by losing my temper. I’m seeing a pattern of behaviour here.
Baledagh’s voice sounds out in my mind, reminding me I’m never alone, no matter how much I want to be. “Brother, I’ve been thinking. You’re acting out of sorts.” Wow really? Sometimes I wish I strangled him to death when he was weak.
Gently extracting myself from Mila’s iron grip, so as not to accidentally Send to her while speaking with my Defiled alter-ego. Flexing my hand to make sure nothing’s broken, I idly wonder how my life got so complicated. “I know, I know. I’m exhausted, physically and mentally, but I couldn’t sleep because of all this guilt and anger eating away at me. I’m tired Baledagh. I’m tired of failing all the time. I’m tired of things never getting better. I’m tired of the shitty people who populate this world and I’m starting to wonder why I even bother trying to save them. I can’t focus and everything irritates me. I’m still aching all over from healing and everything I eat tastes like ashes.”
“The world seems empty and lifeless, devoid of any colour.” Baledagh speaks softly, his sorrow apparent. “You want to throw it all away, give up and leave everything for someone else to deal with. I know your thoughts brother, I’ve felt the same, which worries me. It’s exactly what the Spectres want, for you to surrender. I gave up long ago, but you saved me, kept them from consuming me. Is it possible they’re affecting you now?”
His words hit me like a hammer to the gut, my breath catching in my throat. Taking a deep breath, I go over the decisions I’ve made in the past few days, searching for signs of meddling. Have I been listening to their whispers or am I merely depressed? Are my actions due to stress from the Purge or am I being pushed towards more extreme actions? Do I want to abandon the fight because I truly don’t care anymore or is it part of a larger, nefarious plot carried out by the Spectres floating around in my mind?
After minutes of agonized soul searching, my answer amounts to ‘I don’t know’. Not exactly helpful.
If I ever hope to have peace of mind again, then those Spectres need to go. The question is how? They’re like supernatural herpes, I think they’re gone or under control, but then, surprise, new break out. Persistent little bastards. Is there someone I can call who specializes in ghost busting? I’m not even sure there are priests or monks or whatever here, the most religious person I’ve met is the Shrike which does not inspire confidence in religion. Why bother with complicated exorcisms or purification rituals when death is a simple and permanent solution? That’s the problem with believing in reincarnation, too many problems can be solved with ‘better luck next life’. Then again, believing in a Heaven isn’t much better, why suffer here on earth when life after death is so… heavenly?
Faith has never suited my inquisitive nature. At times, I wish things were different because I know faith can be a beautiful thing.
“Rain.” Huu’s voice interrupts my inner theological debate, the large warrior sitting atop his quin Jaga, ready and waiting. “A good day for a hunt.”
“How nice of you to join us.” One of Huu’s brides-to-be, Yesui or Yosai, I can never tell which, remarks sarcastically. Concealing my irritation, I mumble an apology, still lost in contemplation. For some reason, they’ve concocted an imagined rivalry between Huu and myself, believing I’m out to steal all of his glory. If only they knew the truth.
Thankfully, Huu’s kept a clear head about it all, giving me an apologetic glance. Leaning close, he whispers, “Uncle Kalil told me of the Shrike’s… habits. Are you well? Did you come into conflict?”
“I’m managing.” Sort of. “I’m not on good terms with the Shrike, but it shouldn’t affect our work. Speaking of which, we should get to it. I think you should take lead, I’m… distracted.”
Huu nods and claps me on the shoulder before taking charge, while I ride over to check on Lin. No smile greets me this time, the sweet girl looking guilty and forlorn. I reach out to stroke her cheek and her hand rises to clasp mine. “Are you mad at me Rainy?”
“No silly girl, I could never be mad at you.” The simple sentence fills her with cheer, her smile a balm for my soul. “Just be safe, okay? I don’t know what I’d do if something happened to you.” Holding Lin’s hand, I glance over at Mila and extend my other hand. “Or you, my pouting princess.” Blushing at the attention, she puffs her cheeks and smacks my hand away before giving me the signal for attention, pretending to concentrate on Huushal’s orders. My two loves, one sweet and adorable, the other thorny and overbearing, I’m a lucky man to have found them both. I need to keep them safe, and Li Song too I guess, looking stoic even as she cuddles a cub. She’s not here by choice and she’s been through so much already, she deserves a long, peaceful life.
Huu gives the order to move out and the ride allows me time alone with my thoughts. Naturally, my mind blanks as I stare into the distance, my burdens weighing heavily on my shoulders as I move towards battle. The dense fog burns away beneath the morning sun and I can barely make out the lake, its turbulent surface concealing the calm depths within. The view brings to mind a wisp of memory, of my body submerged beneath the dark waters, my fears and worries washed away as I drift through the warm, gentle currents, knowing everything was gonna be all right despite the dire circumstances.
An actual memory of my time spent in the water or an image conjured by my overwhelmed mind? Or worse, a subtle effort from the Spectres, nudging me towards surrender?
No, it’s not Spectres. I don’t know why, but I know it. I believe it.
Huh. I guess I can have faith.
Closing my eyes, I breathe deeply and reach for Balance.
A second, a minute, an hour, I don’t know.
The Energy of the Heavens surrounds me, a raging torrent threatening to drown me, but I centre myself, sinking deeper into its embrace. Throwing aside my fear, I search for the calm within. In a rare moment of clarity, I realize it’s always been my problem: too much fear. Fear for my safety, fear of the unknown, fear of failure, and now fear for my loved ones. I’m a coward by nature and without my family pushing me to succeed, I would be nothing. The same lesson learned so many times, first taught by Charok, then Baatar, then Akanai, and now, it seems, The Mother.
I’m a terrible student.
Life happens, mistakes are made, disaster strikes, and all you can do is accept it and carry on. Do your best, but remember that failure is as much a part of life as success. Fear is good, fear is healthy, but you can’t let it control your actions and drive you to desperate measures.
No struggle, no surrender, merely acceptance.
Innocent people died in the Purge, but there was nothing I could have done to save them. Dying alongside them would have accomplished nothing. Accept it. Avenge them.
Lin and Mila are riding into danger with me, I cannot send them away. Accept it. Keep them safe.
The Defiled are here and seek to visit death and carnage upon the undefended populace.
This, I cannot accept, I will not accept.
Opening my eyes, my body is free from all my burdens. The anger and fear which seemed so suffocating only hours ago is still there, but lessened somehow, no longer demanding action. The work of the Spectres, filling me with insecurity and despair, their hold is broken on me for now, though they still float in the recesses of my mind. I’ll deal with them eventually, or maybe I can’t. It doesn’t matter. I can handle it.
The sun risen and day bright, my mind refreshed and unburdened by fear, I feel better than I have in weeks as I focus on the task at hand.
Time to kick ass and take names.
The wind rushing through his hair as he sat upon Jaga’s back, Huushal drove his Sentinels forward, eager to cross blades with the Enemy. Major Yuzhen offered the Sentinels great honour in sending them ahead, the chance to draw first blood as they investigated the source of the smoke clouds rising in the east, gone unnoticed in the dark, moonless night. In his mind, there was no doubt this was the work of Laughing Dragon and his Defiled army, twenty-thousand strong and growing by the day. An epic in the making, he yearned to rend and tear until none remained, his place in the vanguard of this army of veterans filling his chest with pride.
A shame Rain didn’t share his enthusiasm but he could hardly be blamed. For the past week, Sentinels and soldiers spoke of nothing but the Purge, sharing harrowing tales and macabre descriptions through some twisted need to voice their fears. Painting the Aspirants as murderous fanatics devoted to their artistry of torture, even Fung’s dark-eyed ‘attendant’ seemed unnerved by the mere mention of the Shrike, her dedication and fervour towards carrying out the Purge enough to turn one’s stomach. Sitting on the sidelines was almost too much to bear, and Huushal could only imagine what Rain was going through. Though talented beyond measure, at his core Rain was a kind and caring man, unsuited for the burdens of war. Finding the victims of the Defiled had driven him into an inconsolable rage and there was no reason to believe he’d react any differently when forced to herd the guilty and innocent alike towards their slow, gruesome deaths at the hands of the Aspirants.
For the first time in his life, Huushal was thankful for his poor skills in Chi manipulation.
Something happened during the Purge, that much was clear, but no one would speak of it, not even Rain. Huushal noticed tension between Rain and the Major during the morning’s meeting, with none of Rain’s customary moon-eyed glances at the beautiful half-fox. Instead, he’d been on edge the entire time, an anger boiling beneath the surface, his hands firmly clenched behind his back to keep from lashing out. Their formerly cordial and relaxed relationship had soured, though Major Yuzhen didn’t seem to hold it against him, instead avoiding Rain’s hardened glare.
After the meeting finished, Uncle Kalil brought to attention the soldiers glancing and saluting Rain with respect as he stalked away. A strange thing for these soldiers to show deference to a Warrant Officer so young, but if anyone deserved it, it was Rain. A talent unlike any other, after learning he’d condensed his Aura before nineteen years of age, Huushal put aside all thoughts of rivalry, though he still worried for his friend. Turning his arrows against Lin’s guards was foolish and not like him at all, perhaps a sign of how distraught he truly was.
No matter, Rain was nothing if not tenacious and he had Mila and Lin to help ease his troubled mind, though Huushal made it clear he was available if needed. Perhaps killing Defiled would fix Rain’s head, Mother knows Huushal was looking forward to it even though a good half his retinue was missing, conscripted by Gerel. Once battle was joined, things became simple, kill or be killed, survival of the strongest.
He reached the ruined outpost shortly after noon, riding in to look for clues. The battle had been clean and tidy, the garrison taken without struggle. “Trouble,” Uncle Kalil said, pointing at a soldier’s wound, a single thrust through the neck, the skin blackened around the incision. “Wraiths. Seems they snuck in and opened the gate for their friends. These bodies are fresh, the Enemy less than a day ahead and wasting no time for games. They mean to take out the surrounding garrisons, weaken Sanshu before they strike.”
“No Garo or horse tracks, but plenty of false trails. It’ll take time to figure out which direction they went in.” Rain spoke, playing his part as second. “Your orders?”
Blinking, Huushal’s words froze in his throat, noting the confidence in Rain’s shoulders as he studied the area. Good, he was doing better already. Changing his plan at the last second, Huushal replied, “Then we split up to save time. We know their goal, so we each head to a different outpost. You go east, I’ll go Northeast. Remember, the Major wants prisoners to question, we need to know how so many Defiled appeared in the heart of the Province.”
“Be safe Huu. We’ll drink when this is done.” Clasping his hand, Rain led his people away without further ado. The thrill of the chase coursing through him, Huushal ignored the trails and rode for the next closest outpost. After four hours riding, his scouts came across the slaughtered remains of a patrol, their bodies still cooling in death. Knowing the Enemy was near, he unsheathed his saber and signalled for his Sentinels to fan out.
The afternoon sun shone brightly down upon them but the forest canopy provided plenty of shadows to hide in, Huushal’s people approaching unseen. The second outpost soon came into sight, the main gate closed and walls empty as it sat in the middle of the clearing, his ears picking up the sound of laughter coming from inside the walls. Ever the patient hunter, he waited until his scouts returned, informing him the side gate was open and the soldiers slaughtered. The Enemy celebrated within, desecrating the bodies of the dead in their unholy rituals, their victory making them bold and lazy with only a handful of sentries posted. Filled with righteous anger, his lip curled in disgust as he gave his orders in absolute silence, waiting as his instructions filtered through the entire group.
Taking the lead, Jaga stalked silently through the trees and out into the field, padding across the grass with long, eager bounds. Without a word, Huushal rode through the open side gate cleaving a surprised Defiled warrior in two as he passed. The shocked expressions and cries of alarm of the Defiled warriors filled him with glee and he took full advantage by riding head long into the fray, his Sentinels following his lead in complete, unified silence, an unstoppable force of avenging apparitions appearing from thin air.
Reacting like warriors, the Defiled scrambled to their feet and drew their weapons, but his Sentinels were already upon them, striking them down with ease. Trusting his Sentinels, Huushal gave in to the frenzied lust for battle and rode about the outpost in search of worthy prey. One strike, one kill, he moved unobstructed through the outpost, crashing through flimsy doors and wooden walls only to find more weaklings.
Too pitiful, too worthless, where was the challenge?
Riding into the barracks, a blur of motion alerted Huushal. Slashing out of reflex, his saber rang out as it crashed against a weapon. The ingrained response saved his life, parrying a strike meant to pierce through his heart and killing the offending Wraith before a massive Defiled warrior tackled him from Jaga’s back. Roaring in anger, Huushal dropped his saber and wrestled with the Enemy atop him, struggling to keep its sword from cutting into his flesh.
Flat on his back, Huushal held the Defiled away from him as it bore its weight down upon his chest. Gritting his teeth, he focused all his strength into his fingers as the sword dropped closer, centimetre by centimetre. After long, exhausting seconds, the sword’s tip kissed his cheek as he was rewarded with the crack of bones and a cry of pain. The strength faded from the Defiled’s body and Huushal flung it aside, his chest heaving with exertion as a cold sweat trickled down his neck.
Gathering his wits about him, he sat up and reached for his saber, freezing in place as the Enemy’s Aura washed over him. His heart pounding, every instinct inside him screamed to run even as his muscles locked into place. Stepping out from around the corner, a well-groomed, recognizable bandit appeared, clearing the blood from his sword with a flick of his wrist.
“Well what do we have here?” Laughing Dragon drawled. “Ye must be the young wolf. And here I was worried ye was Falling Rain. Fucking savages, yer all a pain in me arse. Can ye condense yer Aura too, boy? Yer pet certainly can’t.”
Staring past the bandit, Huushal’s eyes settled on Jaga’s prone body laid out across the hallway, his heart breaking at the sight. Swallowing his grief, he looked Laughing Dragon in the eye, a cool calm settling over him in this time of death. “No need to piss your pants, you got lucky this time. Rain will come take your head soon enough.”
His words had the desired effect, the smile falling from Laughing Dragon’s face as his eyes filled with anger and hate, his weapon raising to deal the killing blow. Huushal watched with open eyes, unafraid.
Sorry Ma, your boy just ain’t good enough.
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