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Before the Emissary uttered his command, Song was already in motion. Taking a stand in front, Song shielded Master with her body, saber ready at the hip, right hand gripping the hilt and left hand steadying the scabbard. Every muscle in her body tensed as she studied her foe, a lithe, flesh-coloured creature of nightmare. Her first confrontation with a Demon had her instincts screaming of peril and vulnerability, demanding she flee from this most fearsome of foes, but she rejected the notion with disdain. The Demon was coming for Master and Song’s sole purpose was to defend her. Faced with her strongest foe to date, Song readied to unleash her greatest strike.
Teacher Du Min Gyu taught her all she would need to know for years to come, laying the foundation of what Song would become. Endless hours of sweat and toil prepared her for this singular moment, the pinnacle of all her efforts and suffering. Failure was not an option, success far from certain, but still she stood her ground, knowing one strike is all she had.
One strike is all she needed.
The Demon stepped forward from the base of the bridge, still many metres away. Disregarding common logic, Song began her strike, having seen with her own eyes how the creature appeared from thin air, rescuing the Emissary from certain death and crossing almost fifteen meters in the blink of an eye. Armed with this knowledge, Song aimed where she expected the Demon to materialize, in the empty space directly before her, imploring the Mother for strength and fortune.
If the creature appeared anywhere else, Song was doomed.
Exhaling slowly, her pupils expanded and world narrowed, her mind filtering out all inconsequential information and leaving her aware of nothing but Master behind, the Demon ahead, and herself. Time slowed and colours sharpened, sounds muted and scents faded as Song became one with the saber, focused on one thought and one thought only: Cut. Her edge Honed to perfection, she eased a quarter-centimetre out the scabbard, severing the air around it. The resulting vacuum adhered metal to leather, the scabbard embracing her tighter than before. Though the friction worked against her, it was also her ally, and she allowed herself a half-smile.
First step, success.
With her blade halfway out the sheath, the Demon disappeared from sight, but Song paid it no mind, all her attention on the task at hand. Though she’d yet to successfully combine all her skills into one strike, her past failures were irrelevant. Master’s life was at stake, so Song was left with no choice but to succeed. The quick-draw technique was simple enough, a stance taken from her most familiar Form, the Domineering Tiger. A minor variation of Swiping the Rushes, she’d practised the movement countless times before, her body capable of performing without direction. Instead, she focused on her Chi manipulations. Lightening both blade and body while continuing to Hone was a task much like composing a poem with the right hand while painting a portrait with the left. Complicated, but not impossible with practice. Unburdened of weight and gravity, her movements sped up while her mass remained unaffected, maximizing the force delivered.
Second step, complete.
Appearing before her, the Demon’s thick, seductive lips twisted in a smile, revealing a perfect row of dainty, pointed teeth. It’s claws stretched and sharpened as it thrust at Song’s heart, expecting to pierce through Song and into Master, but the Demon was too predictable. Her blade emerged from the scabbard and struck, silently tearing through the vacuum and consuming the distance between blade and Demon faster than anyone expected.
Aside from Song.
A fraction of a second before her blade struck, Song’s Chi Amplified her attack with flawless precision, scything through the Demon’s extended hand and forearm with ease. Unable to halt its momentum, the Demon shrieked as it impaled itself on her blade, carving a deep wound across the Demon’s chest. Its charge defeated, it reeled back as a thunderous boom erupted in the aftermath of Song’s strike, acidic ichor spraying from its wound and splashing onto Song’s face. Ignoring the burning pain, Song released the scabbard and brought her saber around for a sweeping, two-handed chop.
So what if one strike wasn’t enough? A second would follow, and another, and another. Song was prepared to give it her all, intent on protecting Master no matter the cost.
The Demon’s face twisted in anger as it brought its second claw to bear, only to be smashed away by Song’s chop. Unable to cut through the Demon’s metallic flesh, her saber dug a shallow furrow through its torso from shoulder to hip. A shame her second strike lacked the power of the first, only Lightened and Honed, else she might have killed the creature then and there. Determined to end things, Song stepped forward and exhaled, raising her saber to thrust at the Demon’s heart, putting all she had into the strike. Piercing through empty air, Song clicked her tongue in annoyance as she found herself standing alone, tracking the Demon back to Gen’s side. Clutching its ruined arms to its bosom, the Emissary and his pet both glared at her with undisguised hatred, the sight filling Song with pride.
Today, Li Song, a mere slave of nineteen years, faced off against a Demon and the Demon was found lacking.
From start to finish, the exchange lasted a matter of heartbeats, yet Song was already drenched in sweat and drained of energy. Flicking the ichor from her blade, she took her stance once again, challenging them both to attack again. A blur of colour streaked past as Master’s spear hurtled through the air, a decisive strike aimed at the Emissary. The spear pierced the Demon’s chest as it moved to defend him, the impact staggering the creature in place. With an unholy wail of agony, it ripped Master’s spear from its flesh and tossed it aside. Grabbing the closest Defiled warrior, the Demon crushed his neck with ease, its claws sinking deep into his flesh. The body withered away as the Demon drained the corpse dry in mere seconds, its wounds visibly repairing before Song’s unbelieving eyes.
“Sublime strike, Li Song.” Lady Tursinai’s voice sounded in Song’s mind with its customary playfulness. “You did well warding off the first attack, but I wouldn’t count on the Demon making the same mistake twice. Escort little Mila away now, it’s my turn to have some fun.”
Smiling at the compliment, Song winced as her cheek split open, the Demon ichor eating away at her skin and the tender flesh beneath. Luckily, the spray missed her eyes, but the pain was considerable. Unable to ease the burning sensation, Song suffered in stoic silence while Master retrieved her spear from afar. So young yet so skilled, Master was a dragon among tigers, handily defeating the Emissary despite his command over fire. Victory came at no small cost; though her hair and clothes were untouched by flame, the right half of Master’s face swelled as fluid-filled blisters formed beneath reddened, peeling skin.
Oddly pleased by their matching injuries, Song wondered how she would fare if matched against the Emissary. Poorly unless she took him by surprise, with no tools to deal with his flames. Teacher Du never covered how to combat elemental manipulators. Song was only familiar with what he termed the five basics, spending many an hour listening to Teacher Du expound on Honing, Lightening, Amplification, Stability, and Reinforcement, outlining what each could accomplish when performed at the highest levels. Her knowledge couldn’t explain Master’s strange spear retrieval or how to defeat the flames, but perhaps it was something more advanced, like Guiding or Deflection.
Ending Song’s reveries with a tug of her sleeve, Master silently signalled for retreat and they backed away in tandem while watching the battle unfold. Looking every bit the heroic figure, Lady Tursinai spun and twirled as her chain and sickle danced about in an unpredictable manner. The weapon moved as if it were alive, sweeping and slashing, extending and retracting, it brought to mind a single-fanged snake ravenous for blood. Darting out to taste flesh, it slipped through metal and bone like water before returning to safety, deftly controlled by Lady Tursinai’s hypnotic dance.
For the first time in her life, Song witnessed true mastery of Chi at work. Her own meagre combination of three Chi skills was trivial compared to this consummate display before her. Lady Tursinai showed extraordinary control, using her Chi sparingly and only when necessary, conserving her strength and executing each attack using the optimal combination. Not only the basics, but Guiding to direct the chain, Deflection to build momentum, and several more skills Song lacked names for, Lady Tursinai wove each one in a tapestry of slaughter. How many hours of practice would it take to reach her level? No, this was not something that could be matched with hard work alone, it required immense talent to even dream of reaching the apex.
While Song lamented her poor aptitude, Ser Tenjin displayed his own skills. The only person capable of moving through Lady Tursinai’s shifting circle of steel and death, he demonstrated perfect coordination with the chain, harmlessly passing through the imperceptible tangle with ease. Sliding, stepping, ducking, and leaping, he knew exactly what to do to avoid fouling the chain, even redirecting it to strike at unsuspecting targets. In stark contrast to his wife, he rarely used his Chi. His steps lacked the grace of Lightening or surety of Stability, nor did his muscles throb as they would if Reinforced. Instead, he threw common daggers with unerring accuracy, each one hammering home in the flesh of a Defiled. Amplified perhaps, but to do so repeatedly and without affecting his aim? Such a feat could only be described as superhuman.
A single Defiled slipped passed the scything sickle and storm of daggers, only to be greeted in close quarters by Ser Tenjin’s knife, the Spiritual Weapon leaving behind a smoking wound and smouldering corpse. Perfectly suited for fighting in this terrain, the heroic duo met the Defiled head on, two warriors doing the work of twenty and stemming the tide. By the time Song stepped off the bridge, the offensive had all but stalled, the Enemy stopped well out of range at the other side, unwilling to continue throwing their lives away without cause. Domineering and tyrannical, Lady Tursinai stood tall with Ser Tenjin at her side, laughing as her chain wrapped neatly around her torso, taut and ready to unleash hell. Her voice warped by the spinning chain, she goaded the helpless Defiled in a fitting manner. “Is that all? How disappointing, I’ve yet to break a sweat.”
Bursting with admiration for the peerless warriors, Song only barely kept herself from clapping. Lady Tursinai wasn’t even a decade her senior, but Song would never catch up. If only she were a little stronger, then she could be like Ser Tenjin, supporting Master on the front lines like he supported Lady Tursinai. Instead, she was nothing more than a burden, the lack of instruction hindering her growth. No one would want a slave as a disciple, but perhaps Master would find someone to teach Song. All she had to offer was her worthless life, and Song was determined to trade it well.
“Rain!” Master’s cry of joy stole Song’s attention away and she scowled, the minor movement bringing fresh waves of pain. Dripping wet and bleeding from a multitude of bite wounds, he limped towards them with a pack of roosequins in tow. Sighing, Song followed Master to meet with Rain, grumbling inwardly at his uncanny luck. How did he survive falling into a school of ravenous leopard fish long enough for the roosequins to save him? Blessed by the Mother indeed.
Truth be told, after spending several nights in his tent with Master, Song grudgingly had to admit Rain wasn’t as terrible as she once believed. Capable of keeping his lecherous nature in check, he even accorded her a measure of privacy during her morning routine, a welcome relief. Still, a part of her couldn’t help but resent him for his good fortune, escaping life-long slavery to become one of the Bekhai. She envied his freedom, knowing it would be denied her until death. So ironic, Song prayed for death yet continued to live, while Rain struggled to stay alive, but faced death on a weekly basis, if not more.
Perhaps the Mother had a twisted sense of humour, but Song wasn’t laughing in the slightest.
Running into Rain’s arms, Master beamed with happiness while he grimaced, studying her wounds. “Oh love,” he said, stroking her uninjured cheek. “What happened?”
“Stop fussing,” Master huffed, swatting his hand away. “I’ll be fine, it’s not that bad. Is it?”
Fumbling through Mafu’s saddlebags, Rain pulled out a waterproof satchel. “It looks like half your face is…” Catching himself in time, he feigned a weak smile and shook his head. “No, not that bad.”
His near slip earned him a punch on the shoulder as Master allowed him to treat her wounds. “Idiot. Like you’re one to talk, you’re missing chunks of flesh. I can’t believe you, always biting off more than you can chew. Dueling with Black Heart Nazier, your arrogance knows no bounds.”
“Yea, it was a close thing. Song, can you find some bandag-” The words froze in Rain’s throat as he turned to Song, seeing her for the first time. “Holy shit.” Grabbing her arm, he barked, “Lean over, open your mouth, and breath through your nose.” Meekly obeying out of habit, Song flinched as he emptied his water skin on her face, mewling as waves of agony shot through her. Stamping her feet and clenching her hands, she teared up as the water gushed in from the side of her mouth and out over her lips. Blinking in horror, Song sobbed at the implication. The ichor ate a hole through her face.
“Oh Mother above, I can see her teeth through her cheek. Why didn’t you say anything?” Master took Song’s hand and stroked her hair, and though it did little to relieve the pain, she was happy for the attention. “I was too focused on the fight, and… Forgive me. Your beautiful face is ruined…” Song didn’t mind. If she were disfigured, then there would be less risk of unwanted attention. Beauty was more a curse than gift to Song. If she’d been a plain, unattractive woman, it’s possible Teacher Du would never have gifted her to Master Kai. How might her life had turned out if she remained in Teacher Du’s service?
Amidst the crippling pain, a small pinprick of relief landed on her cheek, a warm, soothing sensation that quickly spread. Soon after, a tiny mass of ichor broke free and flowed into her mouth, the foul tasting lump streaming to the ground below. More followed as the ichor broke apart and Song’s chest heaved with relief. After the last of the ichor washed away, Song straightened up and almost smiled, flinching away as Rain dabbed her face with a towel. Her wound no longer hurt, but she disliked his touch, an ingrained distaste she had little control over. Warily studying his actions, she spotted a single droplet of water leap onto his hand and seep into his skin, leaving her surprised and confused. Had he Awakened to the Blessing of Water?
Raising her eyebrow in silent question, Rain coughed and pretended not to notice, looking visibly drained. “Here,” he said, handing a container to Master, “Spread that over the wound, but make sure you don’t get any inside her mouth.” With a weak smile, he nodded at Song. “Put a bandage on your cheek and no one will even notice.”
Master’s concern showed in her voice as she applied the salve. “Don’t worry Song, worst comes to worse, I’ll ask a healer to fix you up. You’ll be pretty as a peach in no time.”
Unable to respond, Song stood in place, curious as to Rain’s newfound control over water. It seemed Song was quickly being left behind, her aspirations of standing at Master’s side fading with each second that passed. Saddened by the thought, she silently listened while Master explained everything Rain had missed, downplaying her own part and grossly exaggerating Song’s accomplishments.
At the end of Master’s animated story-telling, Rain smiled at Song, her face swaddled in too many bandages, Master’s over enthusiastic work. “Incredible, thank you for keeping Mila safe. Now you two rest for a while, I’m gonna go join the fight.”
A quick glance at the bridge showed an all out brawl having broken out, Lady Tursinai and Ser Tenjin still in the thick of things, now joined by the other Sentinels. How the Defiled broke through was immediately clear as Song watched two Defiled Champions trade blows with the Bekhai heroes. A nearby soldier answered Rain’s inquiry, explaining that the two Champions in question were Ravager Kaliyan and former guard captain Mao Jianghong.
“Rain,” Master said, grabbing him by the sleeve and returning his sword, plucked from the corpse of the dead bandit. “Be careful this time. My heart can’t handle seeing you almost die again.”
“Don’t worry my love,” he answered with a wink. “If things go right, I won’t even have to get close. Watch and be amazed.” Leaving the roosequins behind, Song and Master followed him to the base of the bridge. Spreading his arms wide, Rain raised his head and channelled a massive torrent of Chi, palpable even to Song’s senses. Waiting with bated breath, she expected against all logic for some miracle to occur. Perhaps he would do as Elder Ming had, firing droplets of water capable of piercing steel. Or maybe he was binding the river to his control before commanding it to wash away the Defiled and take the bridge. One scenario after another flashed through Song’s mind, each one defying logic, but if anyone could do it, it would be Rain.
Seconds passed, which turned to minutes, and after a long wait, Rain lowered his hands and scratched his head, his Chi subsiding. Muttering beneath his breath, Rain drew his sword. “Tch. This is bullshit. Fucking worthless water. Why couldn’t I have lightning, or fire, or Bear hands?” Struggling to contain her laughter, Master buried her face in Song’s shoulder while Rain marched to join the fight in a more mundane manner.
Inwardly sighing, Song swallowed the bitter disappointment. It’s what she deserved for believing in Falling Rain.
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