I’d like to give a shout out to my repeat donor Killashard. Thank you so much for your continued support!
Also, another piece of fan art from Jess, this time of Rain and Zabu, who looks delightfully grumps
I love it so much, words cannot begin to express. Thank you!
Anyways, I turned down free dim sum to get this chapter out, because zabu’s adorable frown coupled with the support and comments of all my readers’ are all I need. Happy long weekend everyone, I’m off for my fourth bbq in four days!
P.S. I think I figured out why I have so many stomach problems.
P.P.S Worth it.
Lips pursed and eyes narrowed, Mila leaned against the wall and listened to the distant sounds of battle, picturing her betrothed fighting against the Enemy. Glaring daggers at Major Yimu’s back, she resisted the urge to send Tursinai to beat some sense into the man. A coward who hid at the rear while Defiled Champions rampaged through his lines, allowing the elites under his command to be slaughtered one by one. It’s no wonder Yimu’s army stood at the brink of ruin before Rain’s retinue arrived, ready to collapse the bridge and retreat if not for their intervention. Now that victory was in their grasp, Yimu rewarded them by setting Rain to task distracting the Defiled, hoarding all the glory and honour for himself.
There was nothing wrong with the strategy itself, especially if Yimu committed a second force to aid the first, but why did Rain have to play the part of bait? As the youngest Warrant Officer in a thousand years, the thankless task fell far below his station. He would have been well within his rights to refuse or request more soldiers to carry out the plan, yet he accepted the orders without a word of resistance. Any of the other officers would have been a better choice to command the diversion, especially considering their familiarity with the soldiers. To hold against twice their numbers of Defiled, the soldiers needed to be confident in their leader and while Rain was a rising dragon with a limitless future, she was forced to admit he was sorely lacking in heroic bearing and charisma.
Blatant discrimination is what this was, giving the unpleasant task of luring the tiger away from the mountain to the outsider, ensuring the greatest rewards would land in hands of locals. Rain would be in no shape to join the final battle, stuck tying down a minor flanking force in a nameless alleyway. When the historians wrote of Sanshu’s defence, Rain’s part would be reduced to a mere footnote, the weeks of hardship endured to reach this point overlooked or dismissed. Stupid idiot. If his final words to her turned out to be ‘Don’t worry, I’ve got a plan’, Mila intended to march before the Mother herself and demand Rain be given life, just so she could choke him to death.
Resisting the urge to scream and pull her hair out of sheer frustration, Mila took a deep, calming breath. Then, when it failed to calm her temper, she took another. And another. And another. Growing lightheaded from her attempts to find calm, she gave up and sighed, turning to check Song’s injury. Despite having a hole two fingers wide in her cheek, Song paid no mind to the pain as she scanned their surroundings. Vigilant to the extreme even as they sat in the centre of an army, Song never lowered her guard when out with Mila, resigned to protect her ‘master’ even at the cost of her own life.
The thought almost brought a tear to Mila’s eye as she gently pulled Song into her arms. “Rain’s fighting so we can rest,” Mila said, snuggling against Song’s shoulder, “So we should take advantage.” Meekly obeying, Song melted in Mila’s arms, though her eyes continued darting left and right, searching for danger in every shadow. Such an incredible warrior, intercepting the Demon as it appeared in the air before them, crippling it with a dominating blow. If not for Song’s quick thinking and forceful defence, Mila would have undoubtedly died there, yet she failed to notice Song’s grievous injury until it was almost too late. To endure the pain of Demonic ichor eating through her cheek without even a whimper, what sort of torment did she suffer to make her so resilient?
Squeezing Song tightly in her embrace, Mila’s thoughts turned to the necklace around her neck. Such a plain, ordinary piece of jewellery, hard to believe it was a physical representation of Song’s abominable oaths. If only there were a way to remove them… “Song, take better care of yourself, okay? I’d be heartbroken if I lost you. If you’re ever injured, tired, or even uncomfortable, please say something.”
“This lowly one apologizes for taking injury, Master. She will endeavour to improve from hence forth.”
Choking back a sob, Mila hugged Song a little tighter, shaking her head but unable to speak. Maybe Song didn’t even see them as friends, only as master and slave, but Mila wouldn’t stop trying. If words were no good, then she would show Song her appreciation with love and affection. Taking several minutes to compose herself, Mila cleared her throat and said, “Song, you risked your life and fought off a Demon to save me. Any saviour of mine has more than earned the right to call me Mila.”
Ears fluttering, Song glanced at Mila, briefly making eye contact before glancing away like a child caught stealing candy. “…Is this an order?”
“The only orders I’ll ever give you are military ones, those were merely my thoughts. Make what you will of it.” Closing her eyes, Mila willed herself to rest, ignoring the distant clash of weapons and shouts of triumph. Rain would be fine, he was the Undying, a title she was rather fond of once you removed the ‘Savage’. Besides, Mama and Baatar probably had experts watching over him in secret. Hopefully. Maybe at first they left him to his own devices, but after he condensed his Aura, there’s no way they would let him wander about unsupervised, especially considering his tendency to… complicate matters. A man beloved by hardship and tribulation, Rain was a headache and a half. So aggravating, it was Mila’s misfortune to fall in love with him, perhaps divine punishment for crimes committed in a past life.
Yet somehow still well worth every bit of trouble, a sweet, caring man who loved her dearly.
After what seemed like only a brief second of blissful oblivion, Song’s voice woke her from slumber. “Mila, Major Yimu has called us to action. We are to move out.”
Yawning as she rubbed the sleep from her eyes, Mila asked, “How long did I sleep for?”
“Less than a quarter hour, Mila.”
Song’s hands were in place to help Mila stand and she graciously accepted. Rising to her feet, Mila’s eyes widened as she came awake, an elated smile spreading across her face. “You called me Mila! Twice!” Wrapping Song in a bear hug, Mila lifted her from the ground and twirled in place, giggling all the while. “Finally!” Flushed from worry or embarrassment, Song’s stony demeanour cracked a small smile which turned into a wince, her ruined cheek in no state for smiling.
Giddy with excitement over Song’s progress, it wasn’t until they set out that Mila’s mind finally clicked. “Only fifteen minutes? Why are we moving out? Is Rain in trouble?” Leave it to him to dive in and overextend instead of conducting a fighting retreat. For a man so timid, he was surprisingly aggressive in battle, Baatar’s style showing through.
“No Mila. Rain was victorious, the way forward clear.” Song’s confusion was clear, relaying only what she was told.
Unable to believe her ears, Mila asked Song to repeat herself before turning to Tursinai for further confirmation. Heart soaring at the good news, Mila rode out with Rain’s retinue, rushing ahead of Yimu’s soldiers to reunite with her victorious betrothed, eager to hear how he accomplished such a feat. Turning onto the grand avenue, she grinned at the sight of Rain’s forces clearing the street of corpses, tossing them back into the alley for later disposal. So fierce, her betrothed, defeating twice his number of Defiled in record time.
Scanning the crowd, she spotted Bulat, the degenerate gambler smiling widely as he tied a Defiled Champion’s helm to a spear, adding it to five more. In answer to her unasked question, he gestured towards a building where she found Rain lying in the doorway, eyes closed and body covered in blood. Cold dread gripped her chest as she approached, terrified he’d been grievously injured. Unconcerned by his appearance, Mafu barrelled in and flopped down next to Rain, squeaking and pawing for attention. Coming awake with a startled groan, Rain fended off his mount’s affection before grinning at Mila. “Hey love.”
“How did you beat them so quickly?” She blurted, too curious to contain her excitement.
With a wink, Rain replied, “Told you. I had a plan.”
Sensing no further answer forthcoming, Mila uncapped her water skin and emptied it over his head, washing away bits of caked gore.
Truly an infuriating man, with all his secrets and mysteries. He’d tell her eventually, but he couldn’t even be bothered to clean himself before she arrived. How was she supposed to kiss him underneath so much blood?
From his vantage point atop a building, Gen watched the battle between the Transcendents and Ascendants with rapt attention, taking in every moment and committing it to memory. If Jianghong was to be believed, everything here could be replicated by Gen, Lei Gong’s manipulation of lightning aside. To Gen’s eyes, the aged warrior was most impressive of all, fighting off two Transcendents at once with ease. Thunder rumbled through the market square as the former Lieutenant Colonel threw cracking energy about with impunity. His wretched appearance did little to take away from the spectacle of an old man fending off two bestial Transcendents, hair standing on end and feet planted as his cane took chunks of flesh with every strike.
Through all the chaos, Lei Gong remained untouched, even finding the time to help his companions. Whenever the Transcendents seemed to win an advantage, a flash of light would hammer home and steal away the momentum. When the Butchers threatened to overwhelm the defenders, a searing blast killed swathes of Butchers and bought precious time for the beleaguered defenders. Lightning coursed around Lei Gong’s allies to strike his foes amidst the chaos and commotion, erupting from his fingertips and cane, sometimes even appearing from thin air to lance unerringly towards his target. Peals of thunder filled the air as the battle wore on, an unending orchestra of rumbling explosions and flashing lights which threatened to overwhelm Gen’s senses.
Truly deserving of his title as Lord of Thunder, Lei Gong displayed flawless mastery over his element. This is what Gen aspired to, to become stronger and wield the flames as easily as breathing. At the moment, all he could do was spew forth a gout of flames from his hands, an impressive display but far from effective. The flames merely brushed against his opponents, and unless their clothes or hair caught fire, it wouldn’t adhere to their bodies. Like passing your fingers through a candlelight, it did little lasting damage, as shown by the monstrous Sumila.
Gen’s mind went back to the pillar of flame he’d summoned in the spar against Jianghong, forcing the expert warrior to retreat. Fire travelled upwards, reaching for the heavens, and if Gen could figure out how to duplicate his singular success, then he’d have a powerful tool at hand. Clenching his fists, Gen concentrated and tried to call forth the flames to erupt at Lei Gong’s feet, envisioning it until his arms trembled with the strain, but nothing happened aside from a loss of energy, his body drained and mind weary. There was no… connection to the distant space, almost fifty meters away with so many butchers and soldiers in between. How did Lei Gong command the lightning to arc around his allies and strike his enemies?
The Spirits were of no use, only urging him to combat, but Jianghong’s voice sounded in Gen’s mind. “Foolish, wasting your strength like that. Use your mind. How do you summon the flames? Does your energy pour out and become the flames? Work your way through it step by step, my words can guide but only you can discover the truth.”
No. Turning over his hand, he created a flame in his palm before extinguishing it and calling it forth again. Repeating the exercise, he familiarized himself with each step of the process, studying his power. First, his hand heated up, not from the skin inwards, but starting from his bones. The heat radiated out before congealing into a tiny flame, nowhere near as hot as his hands burned, but a flame nonetheless. Understanding dawned upon him as he repeated his actions, dismissing the heat to start anew. It was like sheltering a tiny spark from the storm with his body, until it grew into a raging fire able to endure on its own. To call the flames, he needed to first harness the power within, give it life, purpose and strength before setting it loose on the world at large. Release it too early and the energy dissipated, scattered like embers in the wind. Starting small, Gen focused on gathering the energy within, much like when firing a gout of flame, but keeping it contained. Every time he failed, he started anew, learning from his mistakes as he went, ignoring the sweat evaporating from his arm as his metallic hand glowed red with heat. The energy continued to grow within his hand, condensing, strengthening, moulded into a weapon of his design. Having crafted a suitable test product, Gen lifted his head and pointed at Lei Gong, releasing it upon the world.
An arrow of flame came into existence and consumed the air around him with a pop. The air rushed from his lungs as the arrow surged towards its target, arcing over the heads of Butcher and defender alike to crash unerringly into Lei Gong’s chest. His cacophonous din interrupted for the first time, the old man’s eyes flashed with rage and pain as he pointed his cane in Gen’s direction. The world filled with blinding light as Gen recoiled in panic, but Bei’s arms wrapped around him. The world blinked past him as she shifted them away and a deafening boom filled his ears, sounding as if the storm clouds were inside his skull.
Glancing out the window of a new building, Gen looked across the street at the smoking ruins of a rooftop where he stood only moments ago. Destroying stone and wood with a single gesture, Gen shivered with delight at the display of sheer destructive power. Given time, he would soon do the same, striking terror in the hearts of his enemies with his presence and casually killing hundreds with a wave of his hand. Lei Gong was ancient while Gen still in his youth, there was no comparison between them.
“It’s good you survived,” came Jianghong’s Sending, “but perhaps you should move away from the window. If Lei Gong sees you, you might not be so lucky the second time around. Your Demon requires time to prepare a second jump. Come, find me at the rear guard. Yo Ling has a task for us I think you’ll enjoy.”
Heeding the older warrior’s advice, Gen leaned back into Bei’s embrace and willed her to bring him away. That word again, Demon, so distasteful. A shame really, it only showed Jianghong’s distaste for his own allies. ‘Too much time spent among the sheep’ was Yo Ling’s description of Jianghong, and Gen agreed with the analysis. No matter, he would come around soon enough, and if he continued to refuse Bei the respect she deserved… well, Gen grew in power with each passing day. Idly dreaming of the future, he arrived next to Jianghong and cocked his head in question. “So what task do we have?”
“Major Yimu broke through the forces guarding our flanks and headed our way. They’ll arrive long before the Magistrate, and by Yo Ling’s orders, we must delay until the fat bastard arrives. Something about having a grand audience for the finale, the cryptic old bastard.”
At least Jianghong’s disrespect wasn’t solely aimed at Bei. “So where’s the fun part?”
“According to the survivors, Falling Rain led the assault, taking great lengths to inform them of his identity. Somehow the savage killed all six aura users before battle was joined and overwhelmed the remaining infantry. Hidden assassins perhaps?” Frowning, Jianghong glanced at Gen, shaking his head. “Though there’s bad blood between you, I’d recommend you refrain from challenging him. Even ignoring his guardians, I doubt you’re his match, not with his Aura. The survivors describe it as ‘soul-rending’, whatever that might mean, and his soldiers were calling him ‘unrivalled beneath heaven’. An arrogant little savage, but we’ll end him together. That skill you used against Lei Gong, can you repeat it?”
Instead of answering, Gen focused his attention and summoned the flames, creating a second bolt and unleashing it on a nearby building. The projectile smashed against the stone and exploded, leaving a blackened crater the size of a melon on its surface. “Hmm…” Jianghong muttered, inspecting the results, “not bad, but it takes too long to form. Five and a half seconds is too slow to use in close combat, but its more than enough to deal with the whelp from range. Hang back and hide yourself among my soldiers striking from the shadows. I’ll draw out Falling Rain’s guardians, that blasted chain-wielding woman and her knife-throwing companion. When you see a chance, strike with your attack and have your Demon do the same, focusing on the woman. With her taken care of, the rest will crumble. Understood?”
Raising an eyebrow, Jianghong asked, “What?”
“Her name,” Gen said, keeping his tone cordial but confident, “is Bei. She is my wife, and a Transcendent, not so-”
For a brief, heart-stopping second, Gen’s mind filled with terror unlike ever before, Jianghong transforming from kindly older brother to unspeakable horror without moving a muscle. Bei’s soothing presence dispelled Jianghong’s Aura, but the experience lingered in Gen’s mind, his body quivering and mind blank, reeling from the mental assault. Pursing his lips, Jianghong closed his eyes and exhaled. “My apologies Gen. I let my anger get away from me. You were right to correct me, I’ve not shown your wife the respect she deserves.” Saluting Bei with a smile, Jianghong spoke like a charming noble, no sign of the monstrous existence from before. “You must forgive an old soldier’s habits, Transcendent Bei. Now come, both of you. There’s still work to be done, and whatever Yo Ling’s has planned, I pray it will be enough.”
Still trembling from head to toe, Gen reached out and took Bei’s hand as they followed, cursing his weakness. With every stride forward, he learned how far he still had yet to go. Shaking off the fear, he steeled his nerves. No matter. His talent was unparalleled, time his limiting factor. Given another year, Gen would be more than capable of crushing Rain beneath his boot, taking the arrogant savage’s title away from him.
Gen, Emissary of Flame, Unrivalled Beneath Heaven. Truly a magnificent name.
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