Author’s note: Sorry for missing two chapters, but sometimes life likes to kick you in the nuts.
Anywho, now back to our regularly scheduled Savage Divinity. Enjoy.
Sitting in hopeless despair, Xiao HuoLong worked at his bindings, glaring at the surround guards while choking on his gag. That stupid bitch Shrike, her reputation was worthless as a eunuch’s cock. Ambushing the Major, sending her Aspirants away, allowing soldiers led by children to overtake her, even abandoning him in her haste to escape, it was all an unmitigated disaster of epic proportions. The woman wasn’t fit to manage a gaggle of whores much less a force of warriors.
Then again, she seemed a little loony, a quiet desperation in her eyes whenever she spoke of Rain. No sign of the Spirits within her as others might have suggested, but it only meant there was something profoundly wrong with her. The ease with which she’d accepted his accusations surprised him, but he’d been in no position to question his good fortune. Now he was no better off than before, still in the hands of the enemy, helplessly waiting for death. At least he had hope his death would be clean, without all the unpleasant torture and ceremony the Aspirants so loved to take part in.
A procession of soldiers made their way into camp and HuoLong’s stomach flopped as he recognized the Shrike’s mounts, knowing there was no longer any hope of rescue, no matter how slim it might have been. The Shrike needed him but these brats were likely to kill him out of hand. In fact, he hoped they’d do it soon, instead of using him as a tool to hone their skills, hoping to further their own reputations.
Resigned to his fate, HuoLong hunched over and waited, presenting what he hoped to be a calm and unruffled demeanour while inwardly lamenting his fate, doing his best to ignore the Spirits and their whispers of surrender. They’d been quiet of late, sensing his agitation and displeasure with them, but now they were back in full force, promising power should he only accept it.
Nattering bastards, only now in his darkest moments did they reappear, hoping to tempt him into dancing to their tune. Too busy with their ‘chosen’ with no time to spare for Laughing Dragon, a loyal believer for decades. His self-control and discipline filled them with disapproval, preferring Gen’s unrestrained devotion, but what did they expect? Laughing Dragon had no army of believers to guard him from the enemy’s wrath, only a few dozen Firebrands all lost to him now.
All because the Spirits failed to grant him power and abandoned him in his time of need. A pox on them all.
Choking on his impotence and filled with regret, he watched as Falling Rain was brought down from the horse, the incompetent fool still unconscious. Another of the Spirits’ chosen, the brat’s strength filled HuoLong with envy. In what way was Laughing Dragon lacking?
A healer set to work on the formerly ignorant Enlightened and HuoLong’s hopes were piqued, sensing the Spirits still at play within the boy. Perhaps now, knowing what he did, the boy would want a Mentor, a teacher, someone to show him the way. If only he could speak with Rain in private, offer his experience in hiding his true nature and dealing with the urges. Perhaps there was still hope to be had. All he needed to do was convince Rain there was a place for him by his side. They could tell the world Laughing Dragon was being used to root out the ‘Defiled’, a tool in the battle against the ‘Enemy’, much like the Shrike was planning. Instead, they would rally the Enlightened to their cause, biding their time until they were poised to strike and overturn the Empire.
After the better part of an hour, Rain rose from his slumber. No smiles or cheer, merely nodding in thanks to the other Officers, clasping hands and saluting, playing his part to perfection. Yes boy, worm your way into their friendship, bring these young talents into the light. A wondrous path lay before him, a hero of the Empire, poised to bring great change to the world.
How glorious it would be to have his own name, Xiao HuoLong, echo in eternity. He could see it now, history looking fondly upon Laughing Dragon, the man who made it all possible. The man who guided a young talent into overthrowing the dog-emperor and his heathen followers, scouring the Mother and her believers from the land. Eagerly chomping at his gag, he stared expectantly at Rain, deferential yet unbroken, respectful yet proud.
Leaning over him, Rain looked on with disinterest. “Why is this filth still alive?”
The single sentence crushed all of HuoLong’s hopes and aspirations, crumbling beneath the weight. One whelp answered, a snobby brat in fine silk armour. “Well, I wanted your opinion. After all those innocents died in the Purge, it seems a disservice to allow this one to die easy, but I knowing your distaste for torture…” The whelp shrugged. “Up to you how he dies.”
“I won’t dirty my hands torturing him myself.”
“You won’t have to. My manservant is a man of many talents. He handled DuGu Ren’s… execution.”
“I see.” Rain’s haunting amber eyes pierced through HuoLong without a shred of mercy. Kneeling down, he removed the gag and sneered, his anger burning within. An act likely, no mercy for the ‘Defiled’, the boy had to further his own cause and couldn’t bother to save a mere Laughing Dragon. “Because of you, thousands died in horrific manner, which isn’t entirely your fault, but how many died at your hands in a similar manner?”
“More than I can count,” he replied honestly, unable to muster a shred of defiance. “I’ve been at this for decades, can’t remember them all. Barely remember those from the village I found ye in.”
“You disgust me, and it pains me we lack the time and tools to properly ‘reward’ you.” Standing up, Rain turned to the snobby brat. “Have your manservant handle this, but ask him to keep things quiet. The rest of us need to sleep, we’ve a long day ahead. There are more Defiled to be killed and I won’t stop until the Province is cleansed of their filth.”
His body gone slack, HuoLong allowed himself to be dragged away, ignoring the fevered appeals of the Spirits still trying to convince him to surrender. He was no fool, he knew what followed would merely be death in another form, his transmigration nothing but a ploy to bolster Rain’s reputation. Fuck the Spirits and fuck their cause, at least this way, he would die as Xiao HuoLong, the Laughing Dragon, his own man.
It would have to be enough.
As the unremarkable torturer placed a funnel in HuoLong’s mouth and lifted a pot of boiling water, he knew it wouldn’t, letting loose with his first and last scream of the night.
Standing in the hallway, Charok swallowed his fear and calmed his nerves with a slow breath. He knew this wouldn’t be easy, but upon his arrival, he found his legs turned to quivering iron, refusing to budge another step as he imagined all the horrors awaiting him on the other side of the door. With each passing day, the mood at the Wall grew darker as their losses mounted. Although the people living here were hardy folk, well versed in hardship and mourning, few lived through such trying times. From several prominent vantage points, the endless hordes of Defiled could be seen camped outside the walls, a dizzying sight even to a seasoned warrior like Charok. Losing a Major General, four Brigadiers and eleven Colonels in a single night was a bitter pill to swallow, without even mentioning the greatest loss of all.
Not only the Bridge, but most people living in the province had never known a time without the Unyielding Nian Zu standing guard, watching over them with his famed mace poised to strike down any Defiled who sought to pass. From his single-handed defence of the eastern gate as a lowly Captain, all the way to his desperate bid to retake the outer walls after the former Commander’s gruesome death, the stories of Nian Zu’s prowess quickly became things of legend as his exploits spread through song and poem.
From lowly servant to rugged veteran, all were disheartened by the noted absence of their invincible guardian. With the remains of his ruined manor sitting in clear view, the people’s faith in their renowned hero waned, most believing him dead or worse. A dark cloud hung over the city as tongues whispered of abandoning the Wall to flee for safety, though where safety might be found was a matter of debate. Jia Yang’s refusal to reassure the masses only fuelled the gossip and if you asked the common man, the Bridge was doomed to fall. Something had to be done, something to shift the tides and lift the spirits, and Charok knew exactly what it was.
He merely wished someone else would do it in his stead.
Alas, no one else could, so he wiped away his sweat and gathered his courage before forcing himself to take the last step and confront his Father-in-Law. To Alsantset, Baatar would always be her Papa, the sweet, gentle man who made silly faces and told her bedtime stories as a child, doting on her every whim. To Charok, Baatar would always be the Iron Captain, the stern, disapproving, peerless warrior who had to be emotionally blackmailed into accepting their marriage. No matter, Baatar was a man who respected strength and so long as Charok presented himself with strength, then his argument would be heard.
Rapping the solid oak door twice, the resulting tap-tap made him wince, sensing the coming criticism for his soft knocking. Feeble and inadequate, unbecoming of a warrior, but knocking again would only be rude, so he stayed his hand and closed his eyes in resignation, waiting for permission before entering. Holding his breath as the seconds dragged on, Charok was left to imagine how everything might go wrong, his last nerve fraying as he struggled to stand in place, the thought of fleeing at the forefront of his mind. No one would know, not even the servants remained now, all sent away to offer privacy in this difficult time. Only the vision of Alsantset’s tired smile kept him here, exhausted from defending a province which considered her little more than chattel if not for her battle prowess. It was ludicrous how she risked her life to defend those ingrates, but when the choice was between having arrogant lunkheads or murderous Defiled as neighbours, it wasn’t a difficult choice to make.
He would never understand her love for battle, but he accepted it as part of her, wishing he could be happy fighting at her side, but the life of a mercenary made him miserable, and she knew it. They decided to try living as her parents did, him staying home while she travelled the world half the year, returning to him in the winter. It wouldn’t work, he knew it now, the waiting made him more miserable than any amount of battle ever could.
Coming back to the present, he realized he’d been waiting for minutes, or near enough. Frowning as he knocked again, this time with a firm thump-thump, he realized his error and prayed he wasn’t interrupting Baatar’s sleep. Horrified, the thought of retreat crossed his mind once more, but it was too late. A weary voice called out, “Come in,” and Charok could do little but comply, sheepishly opening the door despite his earlier plans to come out strong. Already off to a bad start, Charok spied the flash of disappointment on Baatar’s face, quickly hidden by his customary steely neutrality. “Ah, it’s you. Is the girl on her way?”
“Ah no, it’s uh… just me. Alsantset is at home resting. With the twins.” Don’t stammer, Baatar hates that. “She, ah, she’s exhausted from fighting. Defending the Wall,” he corrected, as if it needed to be clarified. “I brought food.” Make more obvious statements fool. “Rice and meat for you, and ginger chicken soup for Sarnai.”
Feeling out of sorts, Charok placed the food on the nightstand and took a seat, waiting in silence as Baatar delicately sat Sarnai up, holding her in his arms. With painstaking caution, Baatar blew on the soup before slowly placing a spoonful into her mouth, the image of a dutiful husband caring for his wife. Using the respite to collect himself, Charok studied the fearsome Baatar, only now noticing how worn and subdued the older warrior appeared. Dark rings creased the skin around his eyes with wrinkles sprouting across his forehead overnight. His usual confidence nowhere to be found, Baatar’s desperation hurt to watch as he whispered sweet nothings to his comatose wife. His wolf ears, normally upright and pointed, laid flat against his head as he sat with hunched shoulders and drooping eyes, Baatar looked to have aged a decade in mere days, diminished by his grief.
The entire scene was so intimate it felt wrong to intrude, and Charok turned away to offer a modicum of privacy. His heart tightening in his chest, he stared out the window and idly wondered how he would fare were he in Baatar’s place. Poorly, he decided. How cruel a trial the Mother laid out for Baatar, to see the love of his life hale and healthy, warm to the touch and breathing as if asleep, yet to be told she would never wake again, the spark inside which made her a person cruelly snuffed out while only her body remained. Here, hope was nothing more than a false promise, luring Baatar deeper into the depths of despair as he cared for a living corpse and prayed for a miracle.
An unenviable situation.
“Thank you for the food, but you need not stay.” Baatar’s gruff voice sounded out, snapping Charok out of his reveries. Smoothing out his wife’s blankets, the old warrior continued speaking without a glance. “I’ve no need for a nanny. If the girl is so worried for my health, she can come nag me herself.”
“She didn’t send me here.” His words were a mistake, Baatar staggering as if physically struck. Sighing, he crumpled into his chair and shook his head, his eyes never leaving his wife. They lapsed into silence once more, minutes passing before Charok finally found the courage to speak again. “Something needs to be done.”
Another mistake he realized too late as he found himself lifted in the air, Baatar snarling ferociously as his fingers clamped around Charok’s throat. “No one will harm her while I still draws breath. This I swear.”
The only reply was a strangled gurgle, unable to free himself from Baatar unyielding grip. Realization flashed through Baatar’s ice cold eyes, quickly replaced by panic and remorse as he released Charok none to gently. “My apologies,” he muttered, smoothing out Charok’s clothes. “I lost my head. You weren’t speaking of Sarnai, were you?”
Sputtering as he massaged his throat, Charok shook his head, face red from exertion and shame. Though it’d been years since he left the Banner, he’d foolishly believed his strength had grown in recent years, his control of Chi improving by leaps and bounds. How foolish a fancy, before Baatar, he was still no different from a child, unable to resist even in the slightest. “I meant about the Wall.” Straightening himself out, he forced himself to look Baatar in the eyes without flinching. “If you’ve given up on defending the province, then you should give the order to retreat.”
“I’ve not given up.” The snarl was back, the wolf snapping at him even as he collapsed back into his chair, so full of rage and sorrow, a caged beast ready to lash out. “I’d have thought of all people you’d understand. I’ve more important matters to attend to, Sarnai needs me and the Wall will hold in my absence. Even with Jia Yang at the helm, the officers on the Wall have decades of experience serving under Nian Zu. Good men leading good soldiers, they’ll hold no matter what that buffoon does.”
Understanding dawned on him as he watched Baatar dismiss reality with a wave of his hand. “No one told you? Teng Wei Sheng is dead and with him his entire cadre of officers. Han BoHai’s advice is outright ignored when not ridiculed and his troops placed on reserve so Jia Yang can claim all the glory. The battle is going poorly. In the last day, the Defiled have almost taken the walls thrice and every soldier has been called to action as the Enemy continues their attack, unabated day and night. They seek to waste our strength and overwhelm us before sending in a wave of Demons, dozens of them gathered on the horizon in plain sight, filling the soldiers with despair. Your daughter isn’t at your side because of lack of empathy, but because she is desperately fighting day and night, holding back the tide which threatens to overwhelm us all.”
Brow furrowed, Baatar slumped even further in his chair as he glanced at his wife, reluctance on display. “Thrice? Are things really so bad? Why has Ghurda not taken things in hand, she is no less able a commander than I.”
“Ghurda suggested Alsantset order an evacuation, but your daughter is loathe to abandon your post.” Charok refrained from pointing out Baatar abandoned it first, and how unfair it was for him to dump his burdens on her. “Talented though she may be, she isn’t like you, a leader of soldiers. She’s a duellist, a solitary warrior, unused to cooperating with a partner much less coordinating tens of thousands of troops. Yes, you’ve lost a wife, but she lost a mother and yet still she fights. She fights for her father’s honour, not her own, holding your place in your absence, hoping to see your dreams come to fruition. Put an end to your mourning, or at least put it aside for now. You need to take command and be the hero she believes you are.”
Holding his hand up, Baatar lowered his head, eyes closed in concentration. Belatedly, Charok realized he was Sending to someone, perhaps Ghurda or Alsantset, verifying the situation. After long minutes, he sat up and took Sarnai’s hand again, ignoring Charok in stony silence. Just as he was about to try again, a knock came at the door and a trio of servants streamed in as Baatar rattled off a list of instructions for Sarnai’s care while donning his armour.
Pride swelling in his chest, Charok followed Baatar out the door and to the stables where their quins sat harnessed and ready. As they rode towards the Wall, they were soon joined by an escort of Sentinels, Alsantset among them, her smile no longer tired and resigned, but radiant and hopeful as she clasped his hand in silent thanks. Their escort swelled in size as Han BoHai joined them, a magnificent sight to behold as Major General Baatar rode through the streets, back straightened and shoulders raised, finally ready to aid in the defence. Though night was upon them, their procession didn’t go unnoticed, many citizens still awake, unable to sleep for fear and trepidation. Muted cheers and subdued optimism greeted them, Baatar’s mere presence inspiring confidence, his recent exploits not lacking when compared to Nian Zu’s early career. Nian Zu’s chosen successor, finally here to save the day.
The sounds of battle grew clearer as they moved up the stairs, passing a steady stream of dead and wounded flowing down towards the hospices. Baatar’s mere presence kindled their spirits, the soldiers saluting as he passed, their eyes burning with hope and ambition, confident he would lead them to victory. It was his way, a born leader of men, the Iron Commander Baatar.
As Baatar burst into a meeting room, Charok delighted in Situ Jia Yang’s conflicted gaze, the stubborn fool unsure whether to laugh or cry. Fortunately, Jia Yang knew the situation was desperate and settled for a simple reproach while accepting aid. “How fortuitous, the Bloody-Fanged Wolf has finally deigned to grace us with his presence. You are appraised of the situation I gather? Suggestions?”
Drawing himself up, Baatar appeared every speck the hero Alsantset made him out to be, resplendent in his silver and black armour. “As Commander of the Wall, heed my order: sound the retreat. Evacuate the citizens.”
Silence fell upon the room, not a single person in earshot daring to draw breath.
Perhaps, Charok mused as he watched despair threaten to overcome his wife, it would have been better to let sleeping dogs lie.
Please note, this meme is not any sort of political statement, nor does it reflect my political views. It’s merely a picture I find amusing and fits the theme of the chapter.
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