I hate being a leader.
I have many reasons, like managing the endless stream of trivial and not so trivial details. Even a small, hundred-person retinue has too many things to keep track of, break schedules, rations, ammunition, camp details and more. While I try to delegate most things, it’s still my ass on the line if things go poorly, so my apprehensive nature forces me to micromanage things to a ridiculous degree.
Then there’s the heavy responsibility and soul crushing guilt which comes with making life and death decisions for other people. I’ve lost many from my retinue, more than half my former cripples and a handful of Sentinels, mostly impressionable youngsters who looked up to me. Survivor’s guilt is shitty enough on its own, but it’s possible my mistakes actually cost people their lives. Every time I close my eyes, I’m haunted by crippling doubt and self-recrimination, wondering if I could have done things differently. Though I’m no longer plagued by the Spectres, I still have my own ghosts to deal with, and all the coin in the world won’t help me sleep better at night.
If I had to pick something to hate the most, it wouldn’t be any of the above, nor would it be the meagre rewards of honour and glory, or the staggering bills for medicine for soldiers and food for quins. What I hate most about being a leader is the barrier between me and everyone above or below me. Forget the people who outrank me, I don’t care about climbing the ladder, but in front of my retinue, I always have to be careful how I act. Gone are the days of sitting around dicing and drinking with Bulat and the gang, or complaining to Yan about the crappy food or weather. Every second of every day, I need to be aware of my status as commander and keep up appearances as the representative of my retinue. I don’t get to be Rain, transmigrated mountain villager anymore. Every minute of every day, I play the part of Warrant Officer Falling Rain, Khishig of the Bekhai, The Undying Savage and so on and so forth.
Being that guy is exhausting. Just saying the whole name makes me tired.
I miss complaining the most. It’s one of my guilty little pleasures, pointing out flaws with no intention to fix them. No one wants to follow a grumpy whiner and it’s been tough keeping all my bitching and moaning internalized. I miss having someone like Yan to vent to, unloading all my worries and insecurities to another human being even if they can’t do anything about it. With Baledagh out of action, I’m left with precious few options. Mila, Huu and Fung wouldn’t understand and I can’t burden sweet, innocent Lin with any of this, so here I am voicing all my complaints to an amorphous blob of water, only barely sentient enough to convey its complete and utter lack of concern or sympathy.
My new roommate is kind of an asshole. I’ll name him Blobby. Or her. Or it. Whatever, this isn’t about Blobby. This is about me.
Spectre devouring and Demonic blood neutralizing aside, there are upsides to keeping Blobby around, like its willingness to listen, or rather, it’s unwillingness to escape. Taking full advantage of my captive audience, I unleash a torrent of grievances while riding towards the Defiled army with Major Yimu and Senior Captain XinYue. I didn’t even get to take a nap. What’s the point of working so hard to retake a strong defensive position if we’re not gonna use it? Why not let your tired soldiers take a break and send those fresh, well-rested mercenaries to clean up? It’d be the logical thing to do, but Magistrate Chu Tongzu wants all the glory for the brave heroes of Sanshu, giving the nice cushy job to the schmucks who showed up late to the job. We don’t even get to try out any of XiaoGong’s lovely little catapults, the stingy fatty unwilling to lend us the weapons.
It’s cool, sleeping can wait, it’s no big deal. I’ve only been drowned, starved, beaten, traumatized, and denied sleep over the past few weeks, but yea, I can keep fighting. Who needs sleep?
I’m so exhausted I could cry.
Oh right, another thing to complain about, lucky you Blobby. Usually, channelling the Energy of the Heavens helps keep me alert, but today meditation has been about as useful as nipples on a breastplate. I don’t know what it is, I used to run on four hours of sleep while living in the village, but lately I feel tired all the time. It could be the long hours and heavy abuse, but it could also be a vitamin deficiency or plain old depression. Nothing a nice, long nap won’t help, but I’d settle for a hot cup of coffee. I miss it so much, the sweet, delicious nectar of the gods, far more useful than any other celestial fluids I’ve come across. Oh man, the Blessing of Coffee would be awesome. I could keep an entire army alert, energized, regular, and well hydrated, all while tempting my foes with its sweet, intoxicating aroma. Then, when they come close for a sniff, BAM, scalding hot coffee to the face.
Can you top that Blobby? If not, then maybe I should put up ads for new tenants.
In response to my needling, my new friend emanates a sense of smug superiority and vague dismissal, wholly confident in its supremacy to coffee yet too lazy to bother proving it. It’s only been a few hours since our ‘reunion’, but I’m making great strides in understanding my deific excrement compatriot. A whimsical, arrogant entity, it refuses to act with no benefit to itself, happy to camp out and bask in my Chi without a care in the world. Normal conversation with it goes unanswered, only responding with vague emotions to thoughts and queries which threaten its comfortable existence. I’m guessing it likes to eat Demonic energy, but it seems happy sucking down on my Chi, which raises several uncomfortable questions.
Why is Blobby here with me? If I’m Baledagh’s Demon, why didn’t it try to eat me like it did the Spectres? Why does it want to eat Baledagh? Is it the reason I’m so tired? So many questions, all ignored without explanation, though I don’t think it’s out of malice. Blobby doesn’t know why, acting out of instinct for lack of a better word, unable to explain its reasoning or logic because it lacks both. Like a white blood cell devouring harmful cells, Blobby merely fulfills its purpose, which seems to be glomping onto me and any Demonic energies in my vicinity, the parallels of which I’m choosing to ignore for now.
Hopefully it has other redeeming attributes, but so far I’m mildly disappointed. I would’ve thought having Heavenly Water in my… pocket? Would be more useful, but it doesn’t seem to want to do anything. Water bullets, shields, blades, or even condensing a tiny droplet on my finger, Blobby ignores all my efforts to bring it out for show and tell, though everyone in the know takes my word at face value. I haven’t had time to explain things to Mila, but Tenjin explained things to Tursinai, Mila, and Song on the off-chance one of them knew something he didn’t.
My beaming bride-to-be rides at my side, her bandaged face doing nothing to mar her adorable expression of pure bliss. Though she doesn’t know what Blobby’s presence means, she’s thrilled by my ‘great fortune’ and our current circumstances. I’ve got Heavenly Water hanging out in my body cavities and we’ve got front-line tickets to the final battle in the War on Sanshu, so to her, everything is going perfectly.
“Warrant Officer Falling Rain, your presence is requested at the front lines.” XinYue’s Sending echos in my mind, eliciting an annoyed tch. I hate having people intrude on my thoughts. I wonder it there’s any way to turn down Sendings, or set up call waiting or an answering machine. Something with a fun tune, like “Believe it or not, Rain isn’t at home. Please leave a message, at the beep”. Hmm… I wonder if I can weaponize Sendings. Mila’s Sendings might be an asset, making enemies flinch though sheer volume. Hearing ‘Surprise Motherfucker’ thundering through your skull could have interesting results.
Pondering over catchy tunes for an answering machine and catchphrases to Send in the midst of battle, I guide Mafu through our tired force of soldiers and Sentinels. They’re all parked in the middle of an alley with walls on either side, a massive pathway nestled between two manors. In front of us is an intersection where Xinyue, Yimu, and their respective command squads stand just out of sight from anyone keeping watch on the intersection. Motioning for silence, XinYue Sends, “Come, the Major has orders for you.”
Fun. Dismounting to salute, I stand before Chun Yimu who spares me the briefest of nods before handing me a map. “The Defiled have sent a force to guard their flanks, two thousand strong waiting here and here,” he Sends, pointing at the markings. “I am granting you battlefield command of a thousand Sanshu soldiers. Leave your elites behind and break through the Defiled position with all haste. We will follow in your wake, but expect little to no aid. Sanshu is counting on your success.”
Sensing my displeasure as Yimu dismisses me, XinYue quickly guides me away before I can speak, explaining the bigger picture. “You only need to tie them up long enough for the army to pass, then hold them in place until the main battle ends. Major Yimu is not exaggerating, if you are victorious here, then 80% of our force will arrive somewhat rested for the final battle against Yo Ling. The Mother watch over you, Falling Rain.”
His piece said, XinYue introduces me to my troop leaders, an assembly of three captains and seven Lieutenants, field promoted for this engagement. Not a single Aura user among them, they’re not exactly the cream of the crop, but it’s what I’ve got. Glancing at the map and then at my soldiers, a heavy knot of despair forms in my stomach, my mission analysis downgrading from daunting to near impossible. One thousand of my soldiers against two thousand Defiled, separated into two groups. The main group stands at fifteen-hundred strong, camped on the main avenue ahead. Running perpendicular to our current position, the avenue is the only path our five-thousand soldiers can reasonably use to reach the market together.
A second group waits in an alleyway parallel to ours, separated by the sizable Manor to the west. Five hundred strong, it stands ready to flank anyone attacking the main group, mostly meant to slow or stop any advance and delay our arrival. Even smaller than the alley I’m standing in, this second force is dug in and will be difficult to extract, a thorn in the side of our army. We can’t march the entire army through the main group and ignore this side group. Five hundred Defiled at our rear is enough to swing the tide of battle, and the small force is likely full of elites to keep people like Tursinai from running rampant among their lines.
Arrows won’t solve this problem, even the basic heavy armour impenetrable to all but the luckiest of shots. The Monstrosity can pierce through without too many issues, but there are only a half-dozen steel bolts left, better left for bigger targets like a Demon or something. Regardless of which group I attack first, once battle begins, the other group will advance and hit me from behind, an unpleasant prospect. I’ll have maybe ten to fifteen minutes to clean up before fighting a battle on two fronts, penned in between twice my number of heavily armoured Defiled with none of my elites beside me.
Those catapults would’ve come in real handy right about now.
After a few minutes of deliberation with my captains, I pick Bulat, Ravil, and their respective squads to join me. Flashing Mila a feigned smile, I can’t help teasing her before I go. “Don’t be so grumpy, your time to shine will come. I’ll sweep the way clear for you to stand on the stage, love.”
Pouting, Mila huffs in reply. “At least take Jochi and Argot with you. They’re hardly elites, but they’ll keep you safe.”
“Sorry, they’re elite enough. Let them rest and support you in the final battle. Don’t worry, I’ve got a plan.” Not a great one, but good enough. Finishing what I hope won’t be my final farewells, I leave Bulat in command of half my forces and set out with five hundred soldiers, leading the way on foot with Ravil at my side. Mafu deserves a break and if things go south, I want him safe and sound, my happy little fatty quin.
Pushing aside my melancholic thoughts, I turn my attention to the battle ahead. The thump of a thousand boots marching on stone echoes through the silent city streets, my soldiers taking no measures to hide their approach. Cutting through a second alley between another pair of manors, we emerge before the five-hundred strong flanking force, waiting behind makeshift fortifications of wood and stone. They’re sitting just far enough to lure my force away from the junction, allowing the main group to close in and cut off my retreat.
Five hundred against five hundred, not a bad fight, while the second half of my forces lies in wait behind us, waiting to cover our possible retreat. Although the main force is in position to attack from our rear, the alley is only wide enough for twenty-five people to stand and fight, severely limiting the Defiled advantage of numbers. Ideally, I’d have Bulat in place to block the main force, but an Aura-wielding Champion would make short work of anyone outside of my Aura range. I’m not sure how far it stretches, but it’s definitely too far to cover Bulat while I’m fighting the secondary force. Sheltering the twenty-five on the front lines is easy enough, which I won’t even need if things go right.
Calling my troops to halt about fifty meters from the Defiled, I move towards the Enemy lines alone as Ravil whispers, “Good luck boss.” Peace drawn and Tranquility in hand, I unleash my Aura on the Defiled and immediately sense three separate forces rising to clash with me, foul, Defiled Auras pushing back against my attack. Diverting all my Chi to the assault, I ignore Blobby’s indignation over the interruption of its lounging and follow each opposing Aura back to the source.
Fighting back my fear, I glare at each Champion, waiting for them to step out to duel. This is the best plan I could come up with, kill anyone capable of using an Aura in successive duels, then slaughter the helpless Defiled mooks. Finish quickly as possible, then turn to face the Main force, where I hopefully rinse and repeat. The plan has many flaws. If I take too long to win, then the superior Defiled numbers will grind my soldiers to meat paste. If I die, my soldiers will be pinned between the Defiled with no Aura to protect them, suffering a fate worse than death.
No pressure. Easy game.
Seconds pass in silence as the Defiled stand in wait, the three Champions not budging from their positions. What the fuck? Do I really have to do the whole spiel? Inwardly sighing, I announce my name with as much authority I can muster. “I am Falling Rain, the Undying Savage…” Yadda Yadda.
Oddly enough, when my introduction comes to an end, no one steps forward to greet me. This isn’t how I’d envisioned things going. Why aren’t they coming out to duel? C’mon, I’m a weak, helpless little runt and you’re all big, strong Defiled. Come out and fight. Time is of the essence, I need to kill all three Aura-capable Champions and their five-hundred friends before the reinforcements arrive.
Fuck. I didn’t think they’d be so cautious. I guess they’re being prudent, why risk it? Their reinforcements are probably already on the way, and I’m a dead man walking. I’ve never heard of a Defiled turning down a challenge, but now when I’m banking on it, I run into the only three spineless Champions in all of Sanshu. I’m never lucky.
While I struggle with indecision and confusion, Blobby continues to express its displeasure, giving off a sensation of animation without movement, saying ‘cut it out before I do something about it’. It’s not thrilled about the lack of Chi, but there’s nothing I can do. I need all my Chi, there are three Auras to contend with and I’m straining to keep up.
Wait… I’m not straining, this is surprisingly easy. Relaxing the pressure of my Aura, Blobby immediate settles down while my enemies’ Auras slacken, no longer pushing against mine but still resisting, like a table for my arm to rest on. Weird, did all three Champions just sigh with relief? With three Auras, shouldn’t they be able to put more pressure on me, or does it not work like that? Can I crush their Auras like Lin’s Guard tried to crush mine? If they won’t come out to fight, this is my only option short of attacking head on.
I’ll call that plan D, as in ‘Don’t wanna do it’, or ‘We’re all gonna Die’.
Focusing on the closest Champion, I amp up the pressure, wrapping my Aura around my chosen foe and directing all my righteous anger, steadfast conviction, gut-wrenching anxiety, and heart-stopping terror towards him. Sweat drips down my neck as I channel the Energy of the Heavens directly into my Aura, slamming my opponent with a bevy of emotions. Fingers bruising as I grip my weapons, my Aura mimics my actions, squeezing around my opponent’s Aura in an attempt to pop it like a balloon.
Tense moments pass as the Champion struggles against me, my efforts failing despite giving it my all. As I’m about to give up and call a retreat, Blobby figuratively rolls its non-existent eyes, moving through my body similar to how Chi moves, a warm, familiar feeling, but also foreign and strange. It does nothing to help in my Aura struggle, only flowing through Peace like I would Hone my blade, the energy turning into a thin chain made of sharp, interconnected links, the entire chain revolving even as the links spin like blades on a chainsaw. In a moment of clarity, I realize what Blobby is trying to say, but it takes a few seconds to figure out how. Randomly giving it a try, I picture my Aura as a swirling whirlpool made up of jagged edges, rotating around my opponent in a storm of motion.
The results are immediate as I shred the Defiled Champion’s Aura to pieces, his body stiffening in shock as my Aura takes hold. Riding the momentum of my first victory, I target the other two Champions in succession, tearing their Auras to pieces with my own in a matter of heartbeats. My Chi reserves drain away but it doesn’t matter. With their Auras defeated, it only takes a modicum of effort to keep them from condensing again, allowing me to replenish my Chi reserves with ease. Pleased by the restoration of Chi flow, Blobby returns to wherever it normally stays, radiating pompous conceit and self-satisfaction.
Almost like its saying, ‘Let’s see coffee do that’.
Raising Peace in the air, I yell, “Soldiers of Sanshu. Charge!”
Roaring with delight, I lead my soldiers and crash into the Defiled line, cutting down quasi-defenceless Butchers with ease as they struggle beneath my Aura, drowning beneath the same fear and desperation I constantly struggle with. Their limbs chained by terror and desperation, the Butchers are no match for our fiery fury, the dark-armoured warriors overrun by the stalwart defenders of Sanshu. Scything through them like chopping wood, there’s no finesse or skill involved here, no Forms to display or elegant maneuvers, only overwhelming power in the form of Aura and muscle. When the dust settles, five hundred enemies of the Empire lie dead without a single loss, our voices rising in cheers of victory.
Grinning through the fatigue, I turn towards the alley entrance, darkened by the oncoming Defiled reinforcements. Stopped in their tracks, they gaze upon my triumphant army, their hesitation and uncertainty thick in the air, expecting to come upon a struggling foe but finding their friends crushed into oblivion. My orders echo off the alley walls. “Ravil stand down. Bulat, with me!” Joined by the second half of my forces, I charge these new foes, unleashing the raging blades of my Aura to tear apart all opposition. One Aura falls, followed by another, but the third gives me pause, resisting the storm of Chi. While fighting on the front lines, I struggle against my unseen foe in a metaphysical battle, setting upon him from all sides like a ravenous wolf.
Taking chunk after chunk out of my opponent’s aura, it’s only a matter of time before it too crumbles before my savage might. Letting loose with an exultant howl, my Aura crashes into the Defiled Butchers, their last line of defence crushed and their Champions vanquished. My Aura is light and unable to wholly restrain them, but still we hold the upper hand, with no quarter asked and no quarter given. Pushing them back step by step, my soldiers ravage through the Defiled forces with me leading from the front, each of us covered in the blood of our enemies. My world dissolves into a repetitive trance of hack and slash, killing any who stand against me without mercy.
Stepping out of the alleyway and onto the avenue, I watch the Defiled remnants flee before me, panting with effort and coursing with adrenaline. Unable to believe it’s finally over, I glance at my tired, bloodied soldiers, triumphant disbelief etched on every face. Laughter cuts through the silence as Bulat grins back at me, sporting a multitude of minor injuries but otherwise in one piece. Snapping to attention, he salutes and shouts, “The Undying Savage, Unrivalled Beneath Heaven!”
The soldiers take up the cheer, almost a thousand voices shouting “Unrivalled Beneath Heaven,” in unison. Mouth dry and head light, I fight to stay on my feet and look suitably heroic, hoping Bulat’s stupid title doesn’t bite me in the ass. I’m starting to understand why everyone craves honour and glory. It’s not too shabby, but Unrivalled Beneath Heaven? No thank you.
That’s just asking to be challenged.
Monday is a holiday, but I’ll write a chapter to make up for the one I missed two weeks ago.
Enjoy the chapter and have a good weekend all!
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