I’d like to give a shout out to my latest anonymous donor. Thank you so much for your continued support!
After all my hard work and dedicated training, it’s a little embarrassing to attribute my greatest success to an amorphous blob of water. Relying on Baledagh isn’t so bad, we share a body and this is technically his life. Why should I shoulder all the hardships alone? Blobby is different, finding it was pure, unadulterated luck. If I hadn’t met it the first time, I would have drowned to death in the lake, assuming I survived long enough without getting devoured. If I hadn’t been thrown from the bridge by Nazier, I wouldn’t have found Blobby again and fixed my Spectre problem. To top things off, if not for Blobby’s advice, I shudder to think of the bloody, desperate struggle I’d be stuck in, fighting off twice my number of Defiled in a tight, enclosed space, trapped from all sides with nowhere to run. I’d give even odds on the Defiled killing me versus my own panicked allies trampling me to death in their desperate bid to escape wholesale slaughter.
Why even bother working hard? I should go hunting for more roommates. Flamie, Sparky, Stony, and Breezy are all out there, waiting for their new home.
Ignoring Blobby’s emphatic disapproval, I explain my Aura shenanigans to Tenjin through Sending, his arm wrapped around my shoulder. Apparently, he saw the entire battle from the shadows, but couldn’t sense what I did with my Aura. While I appreciate him looking out for me, all this secretive protection is getting tiresome. I’d have done things differently with him at my side, but then again, I suppose that’s the point. Besides, with my luck, the first time I rely on my unseen protectors will be the one time they’re distracted, so best to discount them when out of sight. I’d love to know how they sneak around all ninja-like, but last time I asked Baatar told me it’s ‘beyond my ken’. Maybe now with all my latest accomplishments, it’ll finally be ‘within my ken’ and I too can hide in plain sight.
For… reasons. Definitely not for peeping on bathing women. There are other valid uses.
As Major Yimu approaches, Tenjin Sends, “Keep your newfound skill a secret from our erstwhile commander. If your success can be duplicated, then you’ve given the People yet another incredible advantage. Already you stand at the pinnacle of strength for your age, and now you’ve extended your lead by at least a decade. Honour and glory to you, Falling Rain of the People. The Mother has blessed us with your presence.”
“Er… Thanks?” Cool, I guess. Maybe Akanai will finally deem me ‘passable’. Unlikely, but anything can happen.
Hands behind his back and chest puffed, Yimu glares down his nose while studying me, almost searching for reason to be upset. Weathering the attention as best I can, I somewhat sympathize with his position. While his timing is atrocious, I can’t blame the man for worrying over his future. It’s been less than two hours since he learned the power base he’d relied on his entire life has been destroyed, leaving him alone and without backing for the first time ever. Earning himself a name as a hero of Sanshu might save him from being murdered in his sleep, but he picked the wrong target to fuck with. If he tries something underhanded, I’ll rip his Aura to shreds and take command if need be, though I’d hate to be in charge.
Ah, sweet, delicious power. I’ve had it for all of fifteen minutes and already I’m thinking of abusing it. I can’t let this get to my head, absolute power corrupts absolutely. Besides, for all I know, the Defiled Champions I tore through were all low-tier scrubs and the tougher opponents can resist my Beyblade Aura. Don’t get too ahead of yourself, keep a level head.
Saluting the Major and lowering my head in deference, I speak loudly enough to be overheard, banking a little goodwill. “Warrant Officer Falling Rain, reporting to Major Yimu. Your soldiers have routed the Defiled forces and the way forward cleared with minimal casualties. An outstanding cadre of warriors.”
Ha. Who said I can’t be diplomatic? It’s about as subtle as a brick, but so what? The soldiers are cheering, their spirits lifted by our crushing victory over the hated Defiled Butchers. Struggling with his emotions, Yimu hides it well as he addresses the soldiers, going with the flow. “Defenders of Sanshu, you’ve done your city proud. Your success here is the first step on our path to victory! Warrant Officer Falling Rain, raise your head.” More theatrics, but whatever, let the man have his spotlight. “Exceptional work,” Yimu declares, eye twitching at the praise, “but exhausting, no doubt. Though your strength will be needed in the coming battle, I hesitate to overwork such valiant heroes. Rest and recover here comrades, while I bring the others to scout ahead.”
Finally. He thinks he’s being clever and sidelining me, but I fucking love it. “Sounds good,” I reply, unable to hide my relief. “Time for a well-earned break, right soldiers?”
“Beggin’ yer pardon boss,” Bulat interjects, grinning like a moron, “But fuck resting. We came here to fight Defiled, and I’ve yet to have enough. I’ll not sit around while Yo Ling still breathes, what say the rest of you?!” A roar of cheers sound in reply, taking up a chant led by the equally moronic Ravil. “Victorious Sanshu! Unrivalled Beneath Heaven! Victorious Sanshu! Unrivalled Beneath Heaven!”
Yimu’s twitch goes into overdrive as the soldiers work themselves into a frenzy, their morale at an all time high. Without waiting for orders, they march down the avenue with my victorious soldiers at the forefront, led by Bulat atop his quin, waving his stupid spear and displaying the helms of the six, slain Defiled Champions. Unwilling to be outdone, Yimu belatedly orders the march, spouting inanities of glory and honour as he races to the front.
You dense motherfuckers…
It’s all I can do to hold back my tears, so close to taking my long-awaited nap only to have it snatched away. Wearily climbing onto Mafu’s back, my cheeks burn under Mila’s loving gaze, her eyes filled with admiration as she radiates smug satisfaction. She’s had it rough, betrothed to an atypical guy like myself, but she’s never gotten angry, only pushing me to succeed. I’m happy she finally has something to brag about to the stony, stoic Li Song, though the cat girl’s lashing tail signifies her hardship, forced to endure Mila’s overenthusiastic Sendings as they ride hand in hand.
My mental state teeters between exhaustion and pride as Mila brings me to the front and slows the pace to an easy march. Yimu is less than pleased with me at helm, but his exuberant soldiers leave him no choice but to accept my presence. I’ll do what I can to try and help him out. I mean, he’s here and he’s still fighting, which is more than I can say for most. A soldier like him deserves a commendation after this gruelling defence, not a death sentence. Besides, he’s taking things in stride, not even bothering to question how I defeated the Defiled, which is much appreciated.
According to Tenjin’s reports, the evacuation is still in full effect, but the gates are clogged with wagons and massive palanquins, the wealthy, surviving upper-class of Sanshu in full retreat with their wealth while the scared citizens are stuck waiting. At the moment, the Magistrate is busy with a Defiled force similar to the one I wiped out. He’s chosen the same strategy Yimu used only in this case, it’s Gerel sitting back to rest while the Magistrate deals with the small fries. It lends validity to Yimu’s decision and I can’t help but respect Chu Tongzu for making the tough decision. A good leader, the Magistrate knows when to swallow his pride, something I once assumed was common sense.
It feels great outperforming the Magistrate, but I’m none too happy about leading the charge. Bulat’s string of helms jangles behind me, the discordant clanging sounding like mockery to my ears. Yea, we killed six champions, but no need to brag about it. Besides, it’s too eye-catching, we might as well be shouting ‘Hey! Important guy here! Come kill him!’. If only my genius extended to tactical maneuvers, then I could lead from the rear, waving my fan as I give orders and snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.
Nah. I don’t think I could send men and women to their deaths without suffering alongside them. I guess I’m a glutton for punishment.
Cruising on the high of victory, our forces march towards the market square. Lost among the curving streets and open spaces, Mila’s subtle signals save me from the embarrassment of asking for help. I have a terrible sense of direction, always have. Even when I go hunting, I rely on my companions to keep track of our location, whether it be a hunting partner or my quin. The more I learn of command, the more I realize how woefully unequipped I am to lead. Baatar taught me how to fight and I do okay, but on the subject of battlefield command, I’m drowning in ineptitude. Crashing head on is my only move.
Add that to the list of things to study when I get home. I don’t intend to become a general or strategist, but it’s always good to be prepared. Better to have and not need than to need and not have. Fung would love that one… I should write a book. It’s going on the list. So far, I’ve got: quit the Sentinels/resign as Warrant Officer, fix Baledagh, train my pets, learn to strategy, and write a book of one liners to get rich.
Oh, and survive the battle for Sanshu. That one’s at the top.
Time slows as the Defiled rush into view, surging down the wide avenue towards us. Leading the way in their red-gold armour are the traitorous city guard, the once resplendent symbol of Sanshu’s safety inciting rage among our forces. Gaining momentum, the defenders of Sanshu hurl obscenities and condemnations at the traitors, eager to spill blood and mete out justice. There is no stopping either force, warriors on both sides organizing the front lines without bidding, marching in step shoulder to shoulder as the steady thumping of boots drown out all other sounds. Spears and polearms lower as we pick up the pace, my mounted retinue flanked by the good men and women of Sanshu on foot. With Xinyue on my left and Yimu on the right, we ready to charge our hated foes led by Mao Jianghong.
Moving at the forefront of his Defiled, the treasonous guard captain raises his saber and breaks into a steady jog, his smouldering gaze wholly focused on Tursinai. His guards follow suit and our soldiers respond in kind, two massive waves of flesh and steel set to collide. Tursinai takes the lead, bringing her quin two horse-lengths ahead of the crowd, her chain wrapped around her arms and torso in a lattice of steel and tension, ready to unleash hell upon her opponent. Riding in her shadow, Tenjin sits ready to support his love, arm cocked and ready to unleash flashing death. Taking his cue, I position myself to guard Mila’s left while Li Song guards the right, their predatory gazes already locked on target. Behind us ride Bulat, Argat, and Jochi, their presence bolstering my courage as we strike the Defiled head on.
I guess I shouldn’t feel too bad about my shitty tactical acumen, considering it seems on par with the commanders of Sanshu. Then again, the elites are all outside with Yuzhen…
Loosing an arrow, Ravil cackles with delight as he draws first blood, the Defiled guardsman next to Jianghong crumpling to the ground. Whether he died from the arrow is unimportant as he’s trampled to paste beneath his colleagues’ boots. Like flicking a switch, the scent of blood throws the Defiled army into overdrive, charging towards us in a berserk rage, running full tilt with weapons raised. From within its haunt, Blobby froths with excitement, urging me onward as it senses a meal, and I shout, “Careful! Hidden Demon!”
All this passes in a matter of seconds, my mind racing as I search for the opportune moment, my Aura clashing with at least a dozen enemy sources. My reserves are low and I’ll only get one chance to take them by surprise, so who better to target than Jianghong? The distance between Tursinai and Jianghong closes step by step as I pick out his Aura, readying to deal him a blow with everything I have, hoping to take out our enemy commander before the battle begins. Even if the other Aura’s defend him, there should be a moment of hesitation as I tear apart his mental defences. With luck, Tursinai and Tenjin will capitalize and deal him a killing blow.
Every passing second lasts an eternity, every heartbeat detached and distinct, my eyes taking in every detail with crystalline clarity. From the subtle shifting of Jianghong’s saber to the faint variations in Tursinai’s posture, these experts have already begun their duel, jostling for position before striking the first blow, their exchange functioning on a level beyond my comprehension. Mila and Tenjin join the mental struggle, their weapons aimed at Jianghong and forcing him to adjust to their threats.
Through it all, I continue scanning the crowd of Defiled faces, heart hammering as I search for Gen. If there’s a Demon hiding in this crowd, chances are it’s Bei and that snivelling bastard is here too. There’s a debt to be paid and I intend to collect on behalf of Baledagh, Ai Qing, Mila, and every innocent who died due to his choices. Not only those in his village, but the poor souls who died in the Purge, the soldiers who fell defending Sanshu, my Sentinels, Huu’s uncle and more, I lay all their deaths at Gen’s feet.
It’s much easier than blaming myself or Baledagh.
My search goes unrewarded and I’m forced to turn my attention to Jianghong, Tursinai’s quin ready to pounce. Both experts prepare their opening actions, but I strike first. Channelling the Energy of the Heavens, I direct all my Chi into a single, massive blade of Aura and send it crashing into Jianghong. His Aura buckles and holds, but Jianghong stumbles ever so slightly beneath my metaphysical attack, his progress slowed by a fraction of a second, which is enough for Tursinai. The weighted end of her chain snakes out, building on the momentum of her quin’s lunge. The rippling weapon blitzes past Jianghong’s defences and crashes into his cheek, his head snapping aside as he spins in place. The Defiled Guardsman behind him eats the blunted force of Tursinai’s strike, the chain piercing through flesh and bone with ease.
Wounded but undefeated, Jianghong staggers forward, somehow staying on his feet as he’s carried along by the crowd, his tenacity and determination beyond compare. Narrowly escaping death with a twist of his head, the ruins of his left cheek turn my stomach, flesh, bone, and teeth torn away by the impact. His focus returns in less than a heartbeat, a repulsive half-snarl etched across his ravaged face as he slips back into the Defiled lines, retreating to lick his wounds.
Dammit. So close.
The world erupts into a cacophony of noise and the stench of death as Mafu crashes into the enemy, taking down three Defiled with sheer mass before coming to a halt. Reeling from the whiplash, there’s no more time to think as I hack and slash at the converging Defiled, wholly unconcerned by their dead comrades. Peace chops through helm and skull as Tranquility blocks a blow aimed at Mafu’s neck. My sweet, chubby mount chomps and tears through the Defiled line, clearing the way as he moves deeper into the press. In another deafening explosion of noise, our infantry piles into battle with a crunch of bone and metal, catching up to the speedy quins after what feels like forever, though it couldn’t have been more than a handful of seconds.
Like a whirlwind of death, Tursinai cleaves through the Defiled with her arm raised and chain sweeping away all before her, merely collateral damage in her hunt for the wounded Jianghong. Leading my Sentinels to follow in her wake, we open a massive hole in the centre, allowing the defenders of Sanshu to stream in and cut off the entire left flank of Defiled. It’s not always about sheer numbers, positioning in key. If you ever find yourself surrounded on three sides with your backs against the wall, then you’re gonna have a bad time. A quick glimpse back shows XinYue’s troops making short work of the isolated traitors, killing them beneath a storm of attacks from all directions.
My momentary distraction earns me yet another close brush with death, only blessed luck saving my skin as I Deflect the oncoming spear downwards, dispatching its wielder with Tranquility. Cursing my lack of helmet, I add it to the list while hacking away. Padded Runic helm with comfy straps. Padded, Runic, full-plate armour including crotch guard. Giant Runic Mech with weapons of mass destruction.
Tursinai pivots to the right and I lead my Sentinels close behind, following our bubbly, enthusiastic vanguard as she slaughters more Defiled than the rest of us combined, her chain reaping lives like wheat before the scythe. No longer holding back, Tursinai sits untouched atop her quin, her eyes showing a hint of madness as she tracks her quarry. With a rare moment to breathe, I pick out the Aura of a Defiled Champion on my right, locked in combat with Yimu, our commander’s face red with exertion. Unable to find the strength to replicate my Beyblade Aura, I draw on my dwindling Chi reserves and pierce through the Champion’s Aura with a single, tiny thrust, the damage healing instantly, but the momentary panic is enough to swing the duel in favour of Yimu. His saber smashes through the Champion’s guard and removes head from neck, ending the fierce struggle. Bolstered by their commander’s victory, Yimu’s soldiers renew the efforts and lay into the beleaguered Defiled, their blood lust fading as their numbers drop.
Blobby urges me to move and I respond without thinking, signalling Mafu to lunge next to Tursinai. Likely warned by Tenjin, Tursinai’s chain veers up and whips past my head, but there’s no time for regret as Bei appears inches to my left, her jaw unhinged as she lunges at Tursinai, though I now stand in the way. A blinding flash and rush of heat explodes to my right but I’ve no time to waste as I smash Tranquility into Bei’s fangs and thrust Peace deep into her chest.
The impact rocks Mafu to the side, his furry form tumbling away while Bei reels back, tearing my feet from the harness. With Tranquility clamped between her jaws and Peace jutting from her chest, ichor sprays from her grievous wounds coating my torso and dissolving armour and skin in the blink of an eye. The pain fades almost instantly, unable to even feel the pulsing fluid washing across my body. Horror wells from within as I gaze upon exposed flesh, oddly calm as I note it’s eaten through my nerves. Though Blobby devours the ichor’s energy with greed, there’s only a single droplet of water working its way across my body, unable to cope with the gushing torrent of corrosive fluid fast enough to save me.
Dammit Blobby, and I had such high hopes for you. This is on me, I shouldn’t trust quasi-sentient beings. My bad.
The chaotic battle around me fades away as I stare into the Demon’s face. Her translucent pink skin is both alluring and alarming, as if made from melted pink diamonds, yet hinting at writhing, fluid flesh beneath. For the first time, I notice Bei’s face, her real face, projected just under the Demon’s skin. Not a head, only her skin, stretched out in a grotesque mockery of her former beauty, her eyes wide with terror and mouth moving, speaking without sound. It only takes a few repetitions to parse her message, a single, short sentence, repeated over and over again.
‘I’m so sorry.’
The Demon falls to its knees and I fall with it, lacking the strength to stand. Bei’s eyes will haunt me for the rest of my life, however short it may be, trapped within her mind while the Spectres puppet her body, still tormenting her even after her surrender. The cool stone presses against my cheek, but the sensation is lost as the Demon’s ichor pools around my face. Even then, I’m unable to tear my eyes away from hers, wishing I could help. Death will not free her and she knows it, terrified of the eternal torment and misery to come.
The world goes dark around me, but I still see Bei’s unblinking eyes, pleading for aid. Channelling the last of my Chi, instead of healing my grievous injuries and keeping myself alive, I send it down my arm and into Peace, desperately searching for a way to free her from the Spectres.
What else can I do? I’m a sucker for a pretty face.
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