Author’s note: I’d like to give a shout out to my latest Patron, Oliver S. Thank you so much for your support!
Red is an interesting colour. First on the rainbow, it suffers from something of an identity crisis, symbolizing passion, infatuation, love, and celebration, while also representing aggression, anger, pain, and frustration. Some would say it’s a strong, masculine colour denoting power and authority, while others might claim red is exceedingly feminine, alluding to seduction and arousal. Neither side is wrong exactly, which is strangest of all. Safe to say, no other colour holds the same significance for humans, and there’s a simple reason why.
Red is the colour of blood.
This singular fact pervades my mind as I wash Cham’s blood from my hands, periodically glancing around the plaza. A scenic view of hell on earth, with corpses laid out as far as the eye can see, waiting to be sorted and arranged with little ceremony or solemnity. The entire area is dyed in various shades of crimson as the blood of thousands pools and dries on the tiled stone floors. It doesn’t seem right, men and women who gave their lives defending Sanshu, only to be dragged by their wrists or ankles and thrown into a pile of their comrades. The Defiled aren’t even given that much respect, their bodies stripped naked and thrown into the canal, the flowing waters frothing pink as hordes of toothy fish devour flesh and bone.
So much for going back in for another swim.
Closing my eyes to the abhorrent scene before me, I reach for Balance to top off my reserves and heal my injuries. Stepping into my mental plane to check on Baledagh, my new liquid celestial friend greets me cordially, basking in my Chi and sweeping me off my feet to show me the new changes. No longer a void of dark nothingness, the Heavenly Waters have transformed my mental plane into a luminous, clear blue ocean. Strange how floating in darkness can be so disconcerting but doing the same in faux water is pleasant and comfortable. I mean, either way, we’re still inside my mind, so the warm currents and bubbling sensations are all imagined, but when I close my eyes, the darkness is no longer uncomfortable and suffocating, but rather more soothing and relaxing, my body and mind both weightless and free, drifting in a sea of calm.
I like this. Without the stench of death turning my stomach and the carnage occupying my thoughts, I’m free to grieve for my lost Sentinels, beset on both sides by my old friends crippling doubt and crushing despair. Cham was a drunk and a ruffian, but he was a cheery sort, always with a smile on his face. He had a soft spot for orphans, spending many a free hour making kites, leather balls and other toys, but he always donated them anonymously, though that doesn’t work in a ninja village. Everything I know about him can be summed up in two sentences. This was a man who followed me into battle, who lost his life because of my orders, and I can’t even properly memorialize him. There’s been too many deaths in the past few days, Cham’s only the latest in a long litany of casualties.
The survivor’s guilt is real. I escaped unscathed from so many close brushes with death, yet Cham dies to an ambush from a Defiled hiding in a pile of corpses. It’s not fair, and I feel even worse because I could have saved him if I knew how to control the Heavenly Waters. They have healing properties, I’m sure of it. I mean, it’s water, that’s what it does, magically, right? Besides, how else do I explain surviving ten days submerged in the lake?
My celestial guest doesn’t bother weighing in on my thoughts, showing no signs of having heard or understood me. Its presence is alien, yet comforting, almost consoling me as I wallow in guilt and recrimination. It’s difficult to get a full-on self-pity party started under these conditions, the ambience washing over my mind and helping me unwind. The thoughts are still there, but the pain is muted and distant, not enough to power through, but enough to continue functioning at an acceptable level of self-loathing. All I can do is apologize to Cham, say a prayer for him, and keep him in my thoughts. What more is there? This is war. People die.
I’ll never understand why people glorify war. I mean, yea, I get a little caught up in the adrenaline rush sometimes, but the aftermath is unspeakably abhorrent. All these people dead and for what? Nothing as far as I can tell. I don’t get what Yo Ling stands to gain from this. He’s been around for decades, raiding and pillaging as he pleases, so perhaps this is the next logical step, trying to become the real boss of the region, a king of sorts. Problem is, Yo Ling can’t be stupid, he has to know he doesn’t have enough manpower to take Sanshu, much less hold it. The Empire will send an army eventually, so what’s his long game? If death and slaughter is all he cares about, then there’s no point trying to understand him, but if so, why is he here? If all he want to do is murder-hobo it up, why march his army into the city and risk getting trapped in? Why not run around the province and kill helpless civilians? A desire for challenge or glory? I guess I could chalk it all up to Defiled shenanigans and insanity, but somehow, I feel like we’re all ignoring some basic questions, Jorani’s mysterious benefactor aside.
For example, where the fuck did Yo Ling find so many sets of matching armour? I get being able to hide his bandits on his island, and I can accept the weapons being the product of Defiled witchery like Gen’s hands, but how did he hide dozens of blacksmiths working day and night for years? We’re talking about 15,000 hand-crafted suits of armour, it’s not like there are factories stamping out armour by the dozens for purchase on the open market, and I’m sure someone would have noticed smoke billowing out from multiple smithies. The armour is standard iron, meaning it’s fairly useless against someone wielding a Spiritual Weapon, but the majority of soldiers don’t have one, one in ten at best. According to XinYue, the ratio only gets worse when you look at the bandits and city guards, and full-plate does wonders against standard swords and spears. Hell, if it weren’t for the Crossbone Corsairs, the Defiled would have already overwhelmed the defenders, largely due to their armour. Still, it begs the question, why is Yo Ling throwing lives away while knowing his army is as large as it’ll ever get, but ours will keep growing as time passes?
Another thing that’s been bothering me is where is all the oil Yo Ling’s people collected? The first thing I did was have Tenjin tell Gerel about it through Sending, but apparently, there hasn’t been so much as a whiff of oil. Gen’s been lighting the city up but the large fires are mostly fuelled by wood and cloth, with a good half of the buildings still standing. I doubt they sent bands of Defiled out scrounging for oil just to not use it, but so far, that’s been the case. An isolated incident perhaps? I hope so. A few pots could kill thousands of defenders without reprisal if used correctly, cutting off avenues of retreat and whatnot.
Then there’s Mao Jianghong, the former fucking Guard Captain of Sanshu turned traitor. Are we to believe a man in his position flipped sides on a whim? Who knows how long this has been in the works, how much preparation has gone into his betrayal, yet apparently no one has bothered looking into what he’s done. Hopefully they have and just aren’t telling me, but it’s still concerning. Somehow, Mao Mao has kept Tongzu from recalling the soldiers outside Sanshu, which means either he has allies among them, or there’s an army of Wraiths outside hunting down messengers. Considering the whole panic regarding Defiled infections, I’d guess it’s the former, so why haven’t any other traitors made themselves known? Maybe because they’re more useful hidden, keeping reinforcements from mobilizing and other clandestine stuffs, but I can’t help but worry we’re all missing the bigger picture.
With all those worries, my mental plane no longer seems so relaxing, though the Heavenly Water seems content to laze about, both still and shifting at the same time. I choose to believe it’s hanging out in my soul and only materializes in the real world when needed. Much less unpleasant compared to the alternative, worrying over how my personal, internal space is constantly being violated by an aqueous invader. Who knows what it might do while hanging around my organs and blood stream, siphoning off my Chi and nutrients. Maybe it’s in an embryonic stage, growing in size and strength only to eventually burst from my chest and skitter away, in search of new hosts to infect.
No, that’s dumb. It’s water and it’s helping me, plus it saved Li Song’s face. Maybe I should name it, but I dunno. I’m fine with anthropomorphizing cute animals, but water is kinda pushing it. I mean, I can’t assume its gender, so do I give it a male or female name? Besides, it won’t answer even if I gave it a name, doing whatever it pleases. I need to know more, so hopefully someone can shed light on the situation.
Finding no change in Baledagh, I leave my mental plane and see Bulat standing guard over me, while also taking charge of the clean up. “Thanks,” I say, clapping him on the shoulder. “You’re doing a great job, a born leader.”
Grunting, he shrugs in reply. “Got in the habit of taking charge while running with the Militia. Bunch of lazy slackers all around, had to keep me eye on em. Can’t slip nothing past Old Bulat, I’ve run every scheme and ploy there is. Had Mister Rustram tearing his hair out by the roots back in our army days.”
“Well, until Mister Rustram gets back, you’ve got his job, Mister Bulat.”
With a rueful chuckle, Bulat shakes his head. “Ain’t no good deed go unpunished, eh? Sure you don’t wanna offer Ravil the job? He was Jorani’s number two, put the fear of the Father in them bandits.”
“No, you’re better suited. Ravil is solid and dependable, and he’ll do whatever I ask of him, but that’s it. He’s a dagger, an arrow, but I need a colleague.” Lowering my voice, I continue. “You’re a clever man when you’ve a mind to be and that’s useful, but more importantly, you’re not afraid to question my decisions. If I can’t give you an answer, then it tells me I should think things over, understand?”
“You want I should question you? Most officers’d have a soldier lashed for insubordination.”
“I’ll keep that in mind if you grow too insufferable.” My sarcasm earns me a guffaw, and I wait for it to subside. “Truth be told, I barely know what I’m doing and could use a little help.”
“And you expect Old Bulat to light the way? Bad news for you, boss…”
“Shut up, I’m being serious right now. I was naive to think a few toys and clever thinking would be enough to win battles without losses. They have their place, but strength of arms matters most. You’re next on my list to receive a Spiritual Weapon, although I might not have a say. Work hard and be worthy of it. Like I said, I’m tired of losing Sentinels, so either you all shape up or I’ll go broke paying death benefits, assuming your mom doesn’t beat me to death for losing her ‘baby Bulat’.”
“Well, look at you being all optimistic. Talking about the future and believing were gonna make it out of this alive. Usually you’d be all dark and brooding, worrying over how we’re all gonna die.” Patting me on the back, Bulat grins. “It’s a good change boss, keep at it.”
Leaving him with things well in hand, I make my way back across the bridge and over to the building where the rest of my Sentinels are recuperating, an office building of sorts. Climbing the stairs to the top floor, I peek in on Mila and Li Song healing their injuries together, their eyes closed in meditation. Tenjin and Tursinai sit together nearby, keeping watch at the window. Ignoring Tursinai’s flirtatious greeting, I motion for Tenjin to step outside.
Moving to the empty, adjoining room, I ask, “How are their injuries?”
Shrugging, Tenjin answers, “Neither one shares your talent in healing. Mila’s burns should be fine in a day or two, but Song will need a healer to fix her wound. It would have been worse if not for you.” Raising his eyebrows, he asks, “How did you deal with the ichor? Even had I immediately noticed, I wouldn’t have been able to do what you did. I would have had to bring her to a proper healer.”
“That’s why I’m here.” Reaching out, I push away my homoerotic discomfort over holding another man’s hand and explain everything about the Heavenly Water through Sending. I need to learn how to Send without touching. Even if my dramatic Sending made it to Mila, it took way too much effort for an extended conversation. I don’t want to risk anyone overhearing I have Heavenly Water inside me. I mean, people murder over Spiritual Hearts, what would they do for something that makes them? Granted, the process takes thousands of years, but still…
Frowning and shaking his head throughout my narrative, Tenjin remains silent even after I’ve finished, his face scrunched in thought. After what feels like an eternity, he answers, “Most intriguing. I’ve never heard of someone bonding with Heavenly Water or anything like it before. And you can’t show me?” Noting my crestfallen look as I shake my head, he reassures me with a hug, though I’m mildly discomforted by all the physical contact. “You were right to keep this private, but I’m unable to help. Ask your teacher or Mentor when we return, they might have answers for you. I’ve never even bound flames to my Chi.”
Sensing an opening, I ask, “So how do you light things on fire?”
Sighing, Tenjin studies me for an eternity before speaking again. “I hesitate to explain because I fear leading you astray. The ‘how’ changes from person to person, and long ago, we decided it was best to leave such discoveries to the individual in question, lest failure lead to discouragement and despair.” Stopping me before I can plead and cajole, he continues. “But, it has been some time since your Awakening with no progress, so I suppose some advice is warranted.” Holding out his free hand, he summons a flame into existence, little larger than a candlelight. “Let us ignore the how. First, tell me what you see.”
Great. One of these mystic non-lessons. “Fire?”
“Wrong. This is not truly fire, merely my Chi taking on the properties of Fire.”
Shit. Right, Mila explained all this. “So what’s the difference?”
Rolling his eyes, he mutters something inaudible, but quickly refocuses on the lesson. “The difference is, I’m not creating fire. I’m taking my Chi and turning it into something like fire. Do you understand the significance?”
… “No. It’s either fire, or it isn’t, right? You can use it to light something on fire, so for all intents and purposes, it’s fire.”
Another sigh. “Watch.” Staring at the flame on his palm, Tenjin falls silent while I wait, still puzzling over his words. So, is the Heavenly Water not really water? Or is it water, but not wholly infused with my Chi? Or is it just eating my Chi, which is why I can’t control it?
This is confusing.
Tenjin’s flame leaps into the air and steals away my attention. Hanging in the air, it bounces and weaves about in hypnotic patterns, leaving trails of flame behind that fade away in seconds. Flaring and subsiding in a pulsing rhythm, I realize it’s doing so in tandem with Tenjin’s heartbeat. The performance continues with the flames twirling and weaving about, forming tiny shapes before my eyes, a sword, a boat, then a wolf, the level of detail increasing with each transformation. The wolf lifts its head to the sky in a soundless howl, and I can almost hear its triumphant call, the movements so lifelike and real.
Then, without warning, the flames blink out of existence. Smiling triumphantly, Tenjin asks, “Can fire do that?”
“…Well no, but I still don’t get it. How do I make my Chi do that?”
Frowning, he tilts his head and asks, “How do you make your Chi do anything?”
Stopping to think about it, I realize I don’t have a single answer. “Well, for Honing and Healing, I visualize what needs to happen. Other times, it’s a visceral reaction, like Amplification, letting the energy build up where I need it. For Guiding… I don’t even know how that really works, I throw my sword and it hits things, unlike when I use a bow.”
Upon hearing my answer, Tenjin puffs up with pride. “Now do you understand why no one can explain Chi usage to you? We can counsel you and direct your efforts, but the how must come from you. For most, an Awakening allows them to use their Blessing like you use Guiding, but you are obviously an exception. Try all the different methods you listed, and then try them again if they fail. Try other methods, whatever you can come up with, the knowledge lies buried deep inside you.”
Nodding as I let go of his hand, I absently go over Tenjin’s words while he returns to his wife. Not entirely helpful. Persevere and eventually I’ll get it right. It doesn’t help in the short-term, but let’s continue with my earlier optimism and assume I’ll survive this. I’ve got time, no need to rush. Even if I did, there’s no guarantee my blessing will be useful in combat, so I might as well stop fretting.
Turning my gaze to the south-west district, I search for signs of movement, still worried about Yo Ling. Hopefully I’m wrong and he’s nothing more than a glory hungry Defiled bandit who overstepped, but I doubt it. Swallowing my apprehension, I turn to leave when a flash of movement catches my eye. Approaching from the north, I spot several waving flags and after a moments concentration, hear the distant sounds of drumming. The flags dip in and out of view, and after a few seconds, I finally pick out the words: Golden Highlands.
Dastan’s people, if I recall correctly. Now that I think about it, for a city supposedly run by the Council, there’s been an alarming lack of aid from them. Maybe they’re finally ready to pick up the slack and help out. After a quick consult with Tenjin who Sends a query to XinYue, I’m ecstatic to learn that 15,000 mercenaries are here to help, with 5,000 on their way here to shore up our defences. Humming a cheery tune, I head out to meet with XinYue, almost skipping with delight.
This is the power of positive thinking. A little optimism, and bam, 5,000 mooks appear to stand between me and the Defiled.
Almost too perfect…
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