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Watching the battle unfold, Yo Ling was filled with bitter disappointment. Pushed back by riffraff and guardsmen, his Butchers lacked the skills and determination required to become an all-conquering army. Jianghong was an utter failure, unable to hold back his opponents for even a handful of minutes, the enemy now pressing in from the rear. Even his Transcendents were a disappointment, still unable to dispatch their outnumbered foes. A half hour of combat might not seem like much, but he knew how exhausting it could be, but still the enemy clung to life. Lei Gong continued firing bolts of lightning, seemingly a bottomless pit of Chi as the battle wore on, a formidable opponent. The other Azure Ascendants were only marginally less impressive, each one holding their own, battered but unbroken. After careful study, Yo Ling marked the woman as the most dangerous opponent, holding her own against his most powerful Transcendent.
Elemental bolts from jewelled rings, disruptive arrays from jade tablets, exploding talismans engraved in discs of gold, the Tyrant Ouyang Yuhuan carried enough Runic items to beggar even the richest of noble families. He knew a little of the craft, sharing similarities to the armour he’d crafted for Gen and his Captains. Many of her tools were one-use items, cherished by the world at large as live-saving measures, yet she tossed them about like grains of rice at a wedding. A runic craftsman, how exceptionally rare, whoever the Azure Ascendant was, his pockets ran deeper than expected, able to not only tempt her to work at his side, but supply all the precious materials she needed to work. Worst of all, the Tyrant had yet to go all out, clutching an unremarkable iron rod in hand that screamed of danger.
That little prize was reserved for Yo Ling, this much he could tell. Wary of her tricks, he stood and watched the battle unfold, giving orders when necessary but taking no other actions. There was no need for him to act, victory was within his grasp no matter how they struggled. The Ascendants and Transcendents were deadlocked for now, but these were mere mortals fighting against power given form. Tireless and eternal, the Transcendents chipped away at their opponents bit by bit, every passing minute bringing them closer to victory. Once the five Ascendants were taken care of, preferably captured and subjected to Gen’s gifts, Yo Ling would be free to act.
He’d start by killing the damnable Jorani and his two companions. Two mutts and a rat, such a prickly thorn in his side. Their skills were mediocre at best, though the large dog’s strength was to be commended and the rat showed promise. The issue was their Runic Armour, rendering them all but invulnerable to any but the strongest of foes. One such warrior alone might not matter, but three working in tandem? Much easier to kill than to defend, doubly so when your opponent holds nothing back. A disgrace, if he’d not lost so many Captains to sheer stupidity and happenstance, these three pawns would have long since been dealt with.
The messaged echoed in Yo Ling’s skull, sending pain lancing through is body. Hiding it well, he answered, “What danger? The rod? I’ve marked it.”
That caught him off guard, his confident visage slipping. “What could threaten you?” He regretted the question even as he asked it. The Venerated Ones made his Transcendents seem like harmless puppies in comparison. He shuddered at the thought of facing anything they deemed dangerous.
The Devourer. Kill Him.
How could Falling Rain pose a danger to them? “He’s but a child, easily dealt with.” Was it possible for the boy to devour the Venerated Ones? If so, then the boy could not be allowed to grow.
Other Threats. Territory Lord Returned, Others Hidden, Watching.
Panic set in, Yo Ling’s dreams of victory slipping away. Of all the cursed luck… “They won’t act, will they? Can you hold against them?”
Possible. Will Not Lose. Difficult To Win. Our Presence Exposed, Treaty In Play. Victory Or Defeat Rests In Your Hands. Waited Too Long.
Their piece said, their presence faded from Yo Ling’s mind, leaving him reeling in their absence. He’d lost his final trump card, but they were always a last resort. He wanted to rule over a working city, not ruins like Shen Mu. Still, the Territory Lord’s presence was disturbing. If he or she broke the treaty and acted, then all of Yo Ling’s carefully laid plans were for naught. Small consolation the Venerated Ones would be free to respond, if the Territory Lord acted first, Yo Ling would undoubtedly already be dead.
Calming his nerves, he sent the Spirits searching for Falling Rain while contacting his allies and commanding them to act. No more theatrics, it was time to put an end to this farce. Nightfall was only a few hours away, and by then Yo Ling would either have control of the entire city or be dead in a pile of rubble.
Either way, after tonight, Sanshu would forever be changed.
Hello Darkness, my old friend…
Suppressing the maudlin little tune which springs to mind, I study my surroundings before making a move. Nothing but bleak desolation lies before me, the void encompassing the world around. Though it seems likes an unending emptiness as far as I can see, I notice jagged peaks and uneven valleys forming and breaking away in the corner my eyes, the land itself in constant flux yet perpetually still when focused upon. An uneasy thrum pulses through the air and the shifting shadows fill me with nauseating apprehension, this world somehow both alien and familiar, but wholly uninviting. Though exhaustion weighs heavily upon my shoulders, the thought of rest never crosses my mind, instinctively recognizing the inherent danger permeating my situation.
Is this inside my mind or Bei’s? It can’t be mine, Blobby took care of my Spectre problem and I don’t see Baledagh anywhere. The thrill of battle draining away, I find myself lucid and calm, though far from unconcerned. I wholeheartedly regret coming here on impulse. What was I thinking? How am I supposed to save Bei’s soul from eternal torment at the hands of Spectres? How do I keep getting myself into situations like this?
Relax. You’ve done this before, way back when I pulled Dagen out of his mental prison, and again to save Baledagh. No idea how I’m doing it, but I guess there’s something about my Demon-adjacent existence which lets me hop into minds.
What a shitty superpower…
Drawing on experience, I reach out and grasp Peace’s red-patterned hilt, beautifully wrapped by my beloved Mila. There is no explosion of light this time, my Spiritual Weapon discretely appearing out of thin air, eager for battle to be joined. Bolstered by its presence, I attempt to draw Tranquility the same way, but there’s no connection to the shield, no familiarity. I guess it belongs to Baledagh, considering I found him cradling it in his prison. No idea why, he wasn’t even awake when I bound it, passed out from our ironically named Awakening. Then again, he woke up the second I finished my strange Binding Ceremony, and I remember feeling… off, during the entire thing. It’s like I wasn’t even a part of it, watching myself fight another me, not sure which one I was.
This is too confusing. Whatever, Peace is mine, Tranquility Baledagh’s. Done. Figure it out later.
Wishing I had all the answers, I use Peace to Guide the way and take my first step inside Bei’s mindscape. It’s odd how Chi works here, responding to my every thought with hardly any effort. I’ve never met Bei when she was human, but picking out her presence comes easily, the only living presence around. Perhaps it’s because I’m in my original form, an astral parasite leeching off of Baledagh’s life force, much like the Spectres and their hosts. No, focus on the task at hand, contemplating your purpose and the meaning of life can wait until later, when you’re not inside the mind of a Demon infested host.
Time passes as I wander through the void, traversing the monotonous, barren darkness step by step. I hate it here, lacking any frame of reference, no sensation, no horizon, no breeze or sunlight, only the same tedious backdrop stretching on into infinity while the world changes around me, yet remains entirely the same. Keeping watch for clouds of Spectres or other nightmares, I pray I have what it takes to deal with Bei’s Demon. Only the memory of her woeful gaze keeps me here, unable to give up without even trying. I’m already here, no harm giving it a shot. If I can convince Bei to fight, the rest should theoretically fall into place. In the absence of any transmigrated alter-egos, her will is absolute here, so banishing the Spectres and regaining control should be easy as pie.
Besides, I have no idea how to leave.
After an eternity or a second, I hear a soft, piteous crying in the distance. Giving Peace a tiny flourish to bolster my courage, I harden my resolve and move towards the disturbance, left hand outstretched and sword ready to thrust. Responding to my thoughts, Peace exudes a brilliant, white light, illuminating the void around me, banishing away the cold darkness. A tiny hut appears in the distance and I make my way there, watchful for danger or ambush.
Where are the Spectres? I had to fight my way through them to get the Baledagh, so why is this so easy?
Opening the door, I peek in to find a naked young woman kneeling in the dirt, her back turned and shoulders trembling as she cooks over a fire. Her lustrous, dark hair runs straight down her back, barely concealing a tableau of horrendous injuries. Not a single patch of skin remains on her body, not even the pads of her feet, covered from head to toe in half-healed injuries and bleeding wounds like a half-eaten corpse. “Bei? Can you hear me?” My question goes unanswered as she continues her work, and I circle around for a better look.
Please be Bei and not the Demon.
Despite steeling myself beforehand, my stomach lurches with revulsion as I examine Bei, mentally cataloguing the Demon’s cruel torments against my better judgement. I’d love to forget everything I see, but my brain is retarded. Not enough to torture the girl, no the Spectres demand constant mental anguish, forcing Bei to prepare a ‘meal’ of human flesh. Butchered neatly by her own hand, an older man’s head sits upright on the stump of its neck, staring at Bei as she stirs the pot, tears streaming from shockingly human eyes which stare back at the severed head. All the while, Bei mutters ‘I’m so sorry’ over and over again, apologizing to the dead man even as she prepares, cooks and tastes his flesh.
Blocking out the screams emanating from the back of my mind, I focus on her eyes, noting the lack of eyelids which keep her from closing them. “Bei, listen. Stop what you’re doing.” Kneeling next to her, I gently take her ruined hands in my own. “You don’t have to suffer like this.”
Noticing me for the first time, Bei’s eyes widen in panic as she snatches her hand away, a finger coming away in my grasp. Dropping the detached digit in panic, it falls into the pot with a tiny splash. No more stew, not for awhile at least. Maybe I’ll go vegetarian for a bit.
Paying no attention to her injuries, Bei cowers before me, ladle held up in her defence as I give her room. “You can’t be here,” she whispers, glancing at the door behind her. “Please leave, please, he’ll hurt me if he sees you, he hates you so much.” Once I’ve retreated to what she deems a safe distance, she returns to her work, tasting the soup before adding more meat and spices. “He’ll want his meal soon, he’s always hungry. A warrior with a warrior’s appetite, it’s a wife’s duty to keep her husband fed.”
“Bei, stop.” My words strike her like a steel club, cringing at the commanding tone, but she never stops working. Careful not to touch her, I gesture for calm while speaking softly. “Listen, this is just a nightmare. They can’t hurt you. Fight back. You have power here, not them.”
“Please leave,” she whispers, unwilling to look at me. “He’s busy now, but he’ll be back. It’ll be worse if he sees you.”
“Gen isn’t here and this isn’t real.” Gesturing at the pot, I add, “None of this is real.”
“Liar.” Glancing at the severed head, Bei trembles with a repressed shudder. “This is real. I killed my papa. I butchered his corpse, cooked it over a fire, and we ate him for our wedding feast. This happened. I know it did.”
Trying a different tack, I grip Peace and summon its brilliance, overpowering the harsh glow of the fire with its soothing light. “You know who I am. I’m Baledagh, Falling Rain. I’m here now, and I’ll protect you, I swear it. All you need to do is let me. Come, let’s talk this through outside.” Away from the severed head of your father.
My words have the opposite intended effect as Bei breaks down in a panic, scurrying away to the corner and screeching, “Gen is my husband and I his loyal wife. I will not betray him!” Pressed against the wall, her feet leave streaks of blood as she tries to back away from me, even now unwilling to leave through the door. “I love him, he is my husband, I will not be unfaithful! My place is here! My place is here!” Repeating the mantra over and over, Bei’s voice breaks down into sobs as she fends me off with her ladle, so twisted from her ordeal she truly believes her words. So terrified, a little bird caught in a trap, killing herself with her struggles.
Cursing myself for not thinking of it sooner, I unleash my Aura, conveying sympathy and compassion, but it fails to reach her. There’s something imprisoning her, shielding her from my emotions, but my newfound prowess comes into play. The barrier resists, but I eke out every ounce of energy I have left, shredding and tearing it to nothingness, leaving me panting and drained from the effort. The world shakes around me as a bestial howl echoes through the void, but Bei pays it no mind. At the soothing touch of my Aura, her fear and terror melt away, her injuries mending in the blink of an eye. “See,” I say, moving a little closer, “There’s no need to be afraid. I will protect you.”
Sorrow and regret etched on her face, the renewed Bei moves towards the severed head of her papa, kneeling before it with hands outstretched, but never touching it, crying as she apologizes. “I’m so sorry papa,” she sobs, kowtowing against the dirt. “You daughter is unfilial.”
Sensing a dark presence, I leap between Bei and the door as it explodes open, showering me with debris. A twisted abomination tackles me but despite its hulking form, It has no substance, no mass, light as a feather and thrown back without effort. A mishmash of bestial limbs and bulging muscles, the creature snarls with Gen’s face, covered in chains and wounds as it tries to pierce through my Aura. Its voice chimes with the discordant harmony of a thousand tongues as it screams, “No! You cannot have her! We have claimed her for our own! Thief! Usurper!”
“I reject you,” comes Bei’s voice from behind, filled with conviction and purpose. “I accept my sins for what they are and face my punishment with head held high.” Her voice cracks every so slightly as she adds, “I killed my papa, my hands held the knife. I know this and accept whatever will come of it, all the guilt and pain I deserve. I’ll not be your puppet any longer.”
The Spectres wail and screech at her dismissal, no longer speaking in harmony. A thousand tongues speak a thousand different things, screaming of punishment and promises, salvation and suffering, but not for long. Bursting through the void, a torrent of water streams in and washes over the abomination, its face twisting in fear as it dissolves beneath Blobby’s merciless onslaught, the malevolent spirits purified into a mass of clean, untainted energy.
The hut fades away and I’m left in the void, turning to watch as Bei floats in the waters, dissolving away with a wistful smile on her face. “Wait, Blobby, leave her alone!”
Ignoring my command, it continues rendering Bei into nothingness. “Thank you for freeing me,” she says, even as her body breaks apart, her eyes no longer pleading and pained, but relaxed and accepting. Without another word, she leans back into the water and fades away into nothingness.
And like that, Bei is gone.
Settling in around me, Blobby radiates lazy satisfaction and a sensation of comfort and safety. Pleased with the meal, it’s ready for a nap back home, gluttony and sloth personified. The void shudders as it crumbles around me, darkness falling away to reveal oblivion, visually the same yet markedly different in a way I can’t explain, yet shakes me to the core.
Lot of that going around lately. What the fuck just happened? How do I get home?
This time, the answer comes from Peace, not Blobby, the steps needed to return home appearing in my mind. It seems I’ve become a magnet for quasi-sentient inanimate objects, but this is no time to complain. Taking the purified Spectres in hand, I channel my Chi and swing Peace, piercing the void. Stepping through the gaping wound, I appear next to Baledagh, safe and sound inside my personal mental plane. Drained and exhausted, I take a portion of the purified Spectres for myself before giving the rest to Baledagh, watching as it’s absorbed through his skin like water in the desert.
Seeing no reaction from him, I will myself back to consciousness. Coming to with a pained gasp, my body feels as if it’s on fire, and I instinctively channel my newly acquired energy to heal, falling back on old tricks to block out the pain. Ignore it, accept it, it’s a part of you now. Breath in, and out. The world comes into focus and I see Mila leaning over me, her tearful smile a sight to behold with the clear blue sky behind her, clasping my surprisingly healthy-looking left hand with both her own. “Idiot,” she says, sobbing with relief. “What were you thinking, taking on a Demon like that?”
“Wasn’t,” I answer, my voice raw. “Sorry.”
Kissing my fingers, she watches me with eyes filled with pride. “You saved Tursinai, you know? She would have died if it wasn’t for you. The Demon came out of nowhere, striking in tandem with a bolt of fire. You killed it, Rain, you killed a Demon!”
“Good, good.” Quickly checking my injuries, I tally the cost of saving Bei. My right hand is still there, but only barely, while my legs and torso are slightly better off. Horrendous burns cover over half my body, but thanks to a healer, there’s no immediate risk of dying. The pain might soon make me wish otherwise, but I can’t heal myself while sleeping, so I’ve no choice but to endure.
Mila continues rambling on, explaining everything I missed. “You’ve been out of it for some time now. We drove back Mao Jianghong’s traitors and pushed into the marketplace. The Magistrate’s forces arrived shortly after, pinning the Defiled in from three sides. They have nowhere to go, so victory is all but assured.” Flashing me a bright smile, Mila adds, “You rest and heal up love, leave the clean up to others to deal with.”
“Will do.” Even as I speak the words, a loud whistling grabs my attention. Arcing overhead, a greyish projectile soars through the air, followed by a massive explosion, the ground shaking beneath me.
Holy shit, is the Coalition using oil? That’s fucking insane.
Turning to Li Song, Mila hisses, “Bring the quins. We’re leaving.” Bustling about, Mila hurriedly prepares me for transport, her jaw set and eyes burning with anger and determination. “No wonder Yo Ling dared attack Sanshu with so few soldiers, it was all a distraction so the Coalition could deal with its rivals. Sanshu is finished.” Lifting me in her arms, my body is wracked with agony and I pass out from the pain.
I knew having random mercenaries show up out of nowhere was too good to be true.
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