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The air is thick with smoke and oil as I ride past the smouldering remains of a funeral pyre, while bloody and bandaged soldiers go about their duties with an air of defeat, shoulders slumped, backs slouched, and heads hung low, they work in groups fortifying the camp, clutching their injuries and resting often, working hard while conserving strength for the battles still to come. Grim and resigned, the same scene repeats time and time again as I make my way towards the Sentinel camp, the steady rhythm of hoof-beats pounding the dirt filling the silence between thundering heartbeats, while a single question circles through my mind as I stare towards my destination, the answer imagined thousands of different ways since waking this morning to find pillars of smoke rising in the east.
Who will be there to greet me as I arrive and who will be absent from the crowd?
The Spectres have a field day with their whispers and thoughts, darkening my mood even further. I’d decided it’s easier to let them speak and ignore them, instead of shutting them out and being unprepared for the messages that get through, but so far, neither solution seems to work. Nothing to do but endure. The familiar sight of my retinue’s tents come into view and I bring my horse to a halt. Under no illusions of my skill as a rider, I awkwardly slide off its saddle and pat its nose, leaning against the beast for support while waiting for my legs to untense. A few familiar faces greet me with tired smiles, approaching once it’s clear I have no intention of leaving the horse. I can’t help it, my poor thighs and butt are so abused and sore, if I tried to walk unsupported, I’d keel over and crack my skull. Not exactly an inspiring sight.
With a hearty clap on the shoulder, Saluk takes the reins of my horse. “Is good to have boss back. Saluk take pretty horsey to water, yes? Feed grain, brush hair, is good, strong horsey.” Transfixed by my mount, he fails to notice my panic and walks away, cooing to the animal while Pran shrugs apologetically. Is that what it’s like when I’m with my pets? Maybe Baledagh is right, it’s a little embarrassing to see a grown man fawn over an animal.
“Hubby!” Greeting me with her usual enthusiasm, Lin’s white scarf trails behind her as she leaps into my arms. Burying her face in my neck as her feet dangle off the ground, she squeezes tight and whispers, “Welcome back.”
Only two of her guards follow closely behind and my heart seizes in my chest as I put her down and check her for injuries. “What happened to your other guards? Were you hurt in the attack?”
My concerns earn me an adorable scowl, her cheeks puffing up momentarily as we link arms, my little wifey supporting me on our shuffle into the camp. “I’m fine hubby, I wasn’t in any danger and neither were my guards. They might as well be decorations for all the good they are, standing around and watching while Mi-Mi and Li-Li fight for their lives.”
“We are here to keep you safe. This much was made clear before we left.” The Leader breaks her usual silence to defend her actions, a hint of reproach in her tone. “Your friends chose to take part in this struggle, as I chose to stand apart long ago. I’ll not be shamed into fighting their battles.”
“Nor should you be. Don’t be rude Lin, apologize.” Besides, I’d rather they grabbed Lin and ran at the first sign of danger. I’d like it even more if they brought everyone with them, but that hardly seems probable.
“Hmph.” Ignoring both me and the Leader, Lin leans sweetly against my arm and launches into a story. “It was so scary hubby, all those furry, ugly lizards running around and the soldiers helpless and afraid. Mi-Mi fought and took charge like a natural, all the soldiers were listening to her commands, it was incredible, but then she slipped and Li-Li jumped in to save her and lost her sword. I thought she was gonna get eaten, but her armour saved her and Mi-Mi got back up. Then Tursi and Tenji showed up and the Defiled scurried away like rabbits.” Her nose scrunches at the reference, having inherited Taduk’s disdain for the long-eared creatures. Glancing up at me with a smile, she adds, “Mi-Mi is much better at leading than you are hubby. You should ask her to teach you, or better yet, focus on your healing and let her lead. We can go home to the Bridge, Daddy must be so lonely in that big empty house by himself.”
Oh look, it’s my good friend, low self-esteem. I missed you, not really. Mila is so incredible, I feel terrible for stealing her thunder. “We’ll head back once this is all sorted out.” And hopefully never leave again. My hand clasps her tiny fingers as they clutch my arm, stroking them lightly as we walk. “Will you rethink your decision to stay? I was so terrified when I saw the smoke, filled with dread the entire ride over. We’re riding into even more danger now and I’d never forgive myself if something happened to you.”
Pouting adorably, she looks up at me with eyes wide. “You must have been worried, ya?”
“Terrible isn’t it? Knowing something might have happened and left to imagine the worst?”
“Like a weight pressed against your chest, squeezing the breath out of you?”
This feels like a trap. “…Yea.”
It’s all I can do to keep from pinching her cheeks as she grins in triumph. “Well now you know how I felt every day waiting for you in Shen Huo, with only one letter every two weeks. Stupid Rainy.” Sticking her tongue out, she happily continues. “When Daddy told me you proposed, I told him I was never gonna leave your side again. Daddy cried and cried, but he understands what it’s like to be separated from someone you love and gave me his blessing. Besides, if I left, who would look after your pets? Aurie was so scared he was shivering all night. Jimjam is brave though, I think he wanted to run out and fight.”
Sighing, I shake my head in surrender. She’s gotten more stubborn since we became betrothed. Maybe I should have waited, but I was so happy and stupid, I went for it without considering the consequences. Then again, we’re both happier now, so maybe it’s for the better. “Teacher is rather pitiful isn’t he? Do you think he’d like a pet bear?” I don’t really know how to tactfully approach the subject of his wife. Taduk and Lin never mention her, which means I’ve had no opportunities to organically broach the subject.
“Daddy loves bears, so long as they’re in a stew. What he needs is a new wife,” Lin exclaims, beaming as she skips beside me. “There are so many women fawning over him, he could marry a dozen wives with the snap of a finger. You should talk to him about it.” Waving to Yesui (or Yosai…), Lin pinches me on the arm as we approach, whispering, “Go cheer Huu-Huu up. First he lost Jaga, then last night he lost his Uncle. He’s injured, so don’t stay too long. I’ll go wake Mi-Mi and Li-Li.”
My heart pangs in sympathy for poor Huu. “No, let them sleep, but let Mister Rustram know I’ll find him after speaking with Huu.” Adorable as Lin’s rendition was, I need an actual report on our situation, with names and numbers. Greeting Huu’s betrothed with a nod, I notice a bandage around her leg as I ask, “How is he?”
She shakes her head with a wistful look in her eyes. “Not well. The fool claims he is fine and refuses to speak, playing the part of unfeeling statue. His injuries are severe and will take weeks to recover from without a healer.” Chewing her lip, she watches carefully for my reaction, though I don’t really understand why. I’m not a healer yet and I’m fairly certain I don’t have one tucked away in my retinue.
“Cease your nagging, I’ll be fine without a healer.” Huu’s voice sounds out from inside the tent. “A few cuts and cracked ribs is all. Nothing to fret about. Open the tent flap, let the light in.”
The afternoon sun reveals Huu laid out in his bedroll, swaddled in bandages and cushions. His torn ear and broken jaw yet to fully heal, the injuries make him seem older than his twenty years, not helped by the numerous gashes and bite marks across his body. Sending Yesui (or Yosai) away for my healer’s kit, I sit beside Huu and take his hand, squeezing gently in assurance. I still find it a little strange how physically expressive the People are. Though most would lie down next to him and quasi cuddle, hand-holding is the limit of homo eroticism I’m comfortable with. It’s not gay unless we interlock our fingers, right? Pursing my lips, I look him up and down and open with, “You look like shit.”
His snort of laughter is quickly cut short by a grimace of pain. “Could say the same to you. Could be worse though,” he mutters with a faraway look. “Uncle Kalil saved my ass and paid dearly for it.”
“I’m sorry for your loss. I didn’t know him well but he sounds like an incredible man.” An opening for Huu to tell me about his Uncle, as is the way of the People. Celebrate life rather than mourn death, a beautiful concept. In theory. In practice, things aren’t so simple.
Eye’s welling with tears, Huu shakes his head. “I didn’t know him well either apparently. We weren’t really family, he was one of Pa’s workers but spent most days idly drinking. Handy with a hammer, but no real craftsman, Ma called him a slacker to his face and worse behind his back.” Chuckling ruefully, Huu explains, “When I was a kid, I thought because he was a bear like Ma, they were brother and sister, so I started calling him Uncle. He didn’t have family of his own and he wore the title proudly, which drove Ma crazy. He’d bring me sweets and toys to bribe me into calling him Uncle, and I did it proudly because it was funny to watch Ma fume. It’s strange though, I never noticed this before but I don’t think she ever told me to stop. She just… railed about how he should be ashamed, to stop being a wastrel and get his act together, warning me to be diligent in my studies lest I turn out like him. I guess she knew him pretty well, Uncle Kalil was wasting his talents in the village.”
Ruminating over this newfound revelation, he shakes his head as his eyes light up. “Oh you should have seen him fight, his Aura was so domineering, he made Laughing Dragon look like a child…” I sit and listen as he tells stories of his Uncle, chiming in with questions and comments whenever appropriate. His betrothed returns with my healer’s kit and leaves us to chat while I change Huu’s bandages and feed him medicine. I wanted to teach him my healing method, but Huu was off fighting the Defiled and making his name. Gerel forbade me from talking about it outside the village and truth be told, the man terrifies me more than Akanai. I mean, my future mother-in-law occasionally shows signs of concern for my well-being, while Gerel seems annoyed because I’m still breathing.
The conversation drains Huu’s energy as time goes by, his head sinking into his pillows as he pants, breathless from his latest story. “Ah look at me prattling on,” he says with a wave of his hand. “How did you fare in the Shrike’s hands? She didn’t…?”
“Didn’t touch a hair on my head. Laughing Dragon died too, long and hard at the hands of Fu Zu Li.” Still holding his hand, now clammy with sweat, I squeeze lightly and smile. “Jaga has been avenged.”
Crushing my hand in a death grip, Huu pulls himself up with a wild look in his eye. “Don’t you try to avenge Uncle Kalil. The Chieftain is too strong and cunning for you to handle, Rain. Tursinai and Tenjin might not even be enough to stop him, so don’t go getting yourself killed.”
It shames me knowing how everyone sees me as this brave hero when nothing could be farther from the truth. Gently helping him back down, I pat him reassuringly, smoothing out his blankets. “Don’t worry, I won’t do anything stupid. I’ll be careful, promise. You rest now, you took a real beating. One last thing, my friend. You’re wrong. Your Uncle Kalil? He’s family. Never believe otherwise.”
“… You’re right.” A big goofy grin spreads across his face as the medication kicks in. “Want you to take charge of my retinue, already handed them off to Rustram. Fight well, but bring them back, please.” Exhausted, Huu mutters a little more before falling asleep, snoring lightly with my hand still in his grip. Gently extricating myself, I flex my fingers while leaving the tent, worried his fingers left a dent in my bones.
Hopefully Yuzhen has a good plan to deal with all the wounded, a wagon ride through the forest won’t be comfortable, to say the least. Yesui (or Yosai) nods gratefully with a half-smile. “Thank you, I was at my wit’s end. I don’t understand men at times, the big lunkhead is unwilling to appear weak around me and Yesui.”
Finally, I know who I’m speaking to. “No need for thanks Yosai, he’s my friend. Don’t be too hard on him, we men are frail creatures of ego.” After a little awkward small talk, I take my leave and wander back to my tent. Greeting my Sentinels as I pass, I pray those absent are safe in their tents sleeping, but my meeting with Rustram puts a quick end to those dreams. Twenty-two dead from my unit, bringing the total losses to twenty-nine, which leaves my retinue at an even thirty, including myself. What began as a simple bandit hunt is tallying up a hefty butcher’s bill, but at least I have forty-three Sentinels still safe and sound with Ravil and the Mother’s Militia. Huu’s people took a mauling from the Defiled Chieftain, with thirty-seven survivors, mostly comprised of elites now. Both Yesui and Yosai escaped largely unharmed, which unfortunately means they’ll be fighting at my side. Maybe I’ll put them with Mila. Tenjin and Tursinai will have their hands full keeping everyone safe, but it’s the best I can do.
Not even Lin’s good cheer or Mafu’s happy squeaks are enough to shake my dark mood, and after a quick meal, I settle into a sullen silence outside my tent, both hands submerged in a basin on water. Searching for that warm, comforting embrace, my chi flows through my body, down to the tips of my now pruny fingers and no further, refusing to drift into the water no matter how hard I will it. Unable to even muster the anger to flip over the basin, I rub my temples and contemplate my latest failure. Why can’t I get it right? I’m doing everything Elder Ming’s journal listed, but I’ve yet to even glimpse at the slightest possibility of success. Am I wasting my time with this? Even if I can control water, then what? It’s not like a cup of water will change the tides of battle.
God, I’m going to have to fight without Baledagh’s help. Do I even remember how?
A heavy hand rests on my shoulder as Tenjin sits down beside me. “Water huh? Is that what you’ve Awakened to?”
“Maybe?” I shrug. “Don’t even know for sure, but it makes sense. Though what I can do with water is… debatable. Sprinkle my opponents in a cool, refreshing mist perhaps.”
Chuckling, he shakes his head. “Sense has nothing to do with it.” Snapping his fingers, he conjures a tiny flame at his finger tip, little more than a candle light. “If our Mother-given skills made sense, I’d be a healer like my father, but I’ve no talent for it. Well, I didn’t until you came along.” With a small smile, he extinguishes the flame. “I never felt… right, with the flames. Chaotic and destructive, unpredictable and ever-changing, they’re nothing like me. As a child, I wanted to be like the wind, moving through the trees unseen, free and unrestrained. To share in the unbridled indulgence and go wherever I please, it seemed so appealing, but I buckled beneath the pressure of duty and fell in line. Then, I fell in love with Tursinai, so free-spirited and nonconforming.”
He glances at his loving wife who blows him a kiss, and he beams at her in return. Unsure what to say, I remain silent, wondering if he’s rambling or if he has a point. I don’t talk to him much, but I always thought he’d be a little more hostile, considering his aloof manner and all the attention Tursinai gives me. Then again, I guess he knows his wife better than I do, and is comfortable with her shows of affection.
Turning back, he squeezes my shoulder. “Worry not about what you can do with it. It matters not. When I awakened to fire, I was sorely disappointed. What can I do with fire but destroy? This is not in my nature, and unsuitable for me. My attitude towards it stifled my progress for a long time, until I recently spoke of my concerns with my wife.” He smiles at the memory for a moment before pressing on. “She laughed and told me, ‘Don’t be silly. Fire brings warmth in the winter and light in the darkness. It suits you perfectly.’ Do you understand?”
“…No?” Totally lost.
“You think of your blessing in terms of battles, but water can be used in many ways. To cleanse, to sustain, to nurture and yes, to refresh. Combat is not the sole purpose of your awakening. Besides,” he adds with a shrug, “Water would suit you perfectly, Falling Rain of the Bekhai.”
Except my name is just a mistranslation. Nodding in feigned understanding, I ask, “Any more advice?” Preferably something helpful.
“Indeed. Stop worrying so much, you will master it with time. Now, the day grows late. Stop working and conserve your energy. The Defiled will likely return to strike again, and this time, they will face the Undying Savage.” Winking once, his visage grows stern. “If you should wake in the midst of an attack, wait by your tent until I arrive and keep that hot-head Mila with you.” Winking roguishly, he adds, “She’s sleeping in your tent. Go to her. I will keep watch out here.”
Thanking him for his advice, I give Lin a hug and a kiss and send her off, since her guards would never let her stay in my tent. Li Song’s eyes greet me as I enter the tent, almost glowing in the gloom. Her sword in hand and a bear cub nestled in the crook of her arm, she sits fully armoured inside her bedroll, still paranoid from last night’s attack. After quietly calming her down, I lay next to Mila and wrap my arm around her, breathing deeply as my sweet little bride-to-be stirs at my touch. Aurie pads over and settles down behind me, his chest rumbling as he pushes against me.
This is it, the warm, comfortable embrace I was searching for. Maybe it isn’t too helpful when it comes to controlling Chi, but this is nice, nonetheless. Closing my eyes, my fears and troubles melt away as I sink into blissful sleep.
This is exactly what I need right now.
Tickled by my breath, Mila elbows me roughly on instinct, my pained gasp startling her from peaceful slumber.
Okay, almost exactly what I need.
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