Being the incessant pessimist that I am, my happiness for Song’s advancement along the Martial Path is overshadowed by the overt reminder of the massive rut I’m stuck in. It seems like everybody is progressing in these recent months while I’m just sitting here labelling gourds. So very many water gourds, they’ve become symbolic of my past and recent issues. Gotta keep track of the gourds like I keep track of secrets, terminology, information, and more. Gotta find ways to carry and utilize the gourds, like I need to learn how to best use my soldiers and keep them alive. Need to protect the gourds from Ping Ping and Pong Pong, like I need to protect my friends, family, soldiers, and the people of the Empire from external and internal threats. I need to collect the gourds, think of ways to improve upon the gourds, set time aside to study the gourds, put Chi into the gourds, the list goes on, but I’ve run out of gourd-related metaphors to fixate on.
Long story short, I’m beginning to loathe the word ‘gourd’. At first, I thought it was fun to say, but if I never see another gourd in this life, then I could die a happy man.
Head held high in quiet celebration, Song exudes tranquil pride and graceful dignity following her successful entry into the world of Experts, a grand goal or milestone for every Martial Warrior in existence. After a long silence, she slumps down in Erdene’s harness with a tired smile, drained from her efforts but glowing with contentment. “I did it,” she says, as if to confirm it once more, her tail curling and cat-ears aflutter. “I finally did it. Thank you, Rain.”
“I didn’t do a thing, you accomplished this with hard work and dedication.” Happiness looks good on Song, her usual stony demeanour nowhere to be found, and my heart skips a beat as I stare into her emerald green eyes. So lovely, but they also remind me of the emerald-studded necklace worn around my neck, a chain which gives me complete control over the beautiful, vulnerable woman riding beside me. Absolute power is absolutely horrifying, because even though I know it would be unequivocally evil to do so, the temptation to use said power is almost overwhelming. Not only for sex, though I’ll admit it features prominently in my idle daydreams and the Spectres’ overtures, but the appeal of having someone in my life who will always stand by my side is almost too much to resist.
Calling me anti-social would be putting it lightly, but I avoid interaction because it’s so exhausting and worrisome. There are so many subtle cues to read into and social niceties to adhere to that I work myself into a stupor trying to keep up with something as simple as a passing greeting. Was I too brusque and unfriendly? Should I have stopped to chat? Did I remember to smile? Do I smell bad? These are the questions which run through my mind as I walk away from a brief chance encounter, and the questions only multiply the longer the encounter lasts. With Song, I would never have to worry about any of those things because I could ask and tell her to answer honestly without trying to spare my feelings.
How many people in the world can claim they have someone they can trust without question, no matter the circumstances? Precious few, I’d imagine. As much as I love Lin, Yan, and Mila, if I walked into a room and found them sitting naked in bed with a dozen similarly naked men, I’m not sure I’d believe them if they said, “This isn’t what it looks like.” Not that I expect anything like that to ever happen, but as history has proven, I am paranoid and mentally unstable, so I worry about all manner of stupid things. With Song, so long as I had her necklace, my trust and abandonment issues would no longer be a problem, albeit at the steep cost of throwing away my moral convictions.
And despite knowing it would make me a monster, I’m still tempted to do it, so what does this make me?
Great. Now I’m spiralling into depression. Thanks brain. You suck.
One good thing to come of this was our little heart to heart about Baledagh. By the time I realized what I was Sending, it was already too late to take back, but rather than fear, I felt… relieved. Finally, I had someone I could confide in, someone who I could implicitly trust to tell me the unvarnished truth, and Song’s reaction was one I never expected. Complete and utter nonchalance, as if my confession of mental illness didn’t matter in the slightest. She held my hand and took everything in stride while I explained Baledagh’s greatest hits, then when everything was said and done, she said she was happy I was better. Simple as that, and words cannot express how reassuring her lack of reaction was.
Sigh. I may very well have fallen in love with Song. Do I fall in love too easily? Probably, yea. Lin was smart to put a limit on the number of wives I’m allowed, and even smarter to include Song from the start. Then again, though she’s come a long way since we first met, I doubt Song will ever reciprocate my feelings, especially considering her history of abuse. If she knew how I felt, it’d probably terrify her to no end, so I do what I do best and repress all the emotions and stick them in a deep, dark corner of my mind, where they will invariably slip out when I least expect it and plague me for many restless nights to come.
Overall, I’d say today’s events have put me in an okay mood. Sure, my inferiority complex is going full throttle and now I have to deal with unrequited love, but I got a big weight off my chest and gained the confidence to really tell the rest of my family about Baledagh and stuff. I still don’t think I can talk about my past life’s memories, because the mere thought literally leaves me paralyzed with fear, but coming clean about my mental illness is better than nothing. I’ve been putting it off for so long because I’m afraid of losing everything, but thanks to Song, I think I’m finally ready to take the plunge and tell my family.
Soon as we’re all together. For real this time, I’m not saying it to buy time. I mean it.
Seeing as Song is busy accepting congratulations from the Khishigs, I leave her be and cuddle my reclaimed floofs, nuzzling sweet Blackjack nestled in Mama Bun’s embrace, a rare sight since Pong Pong joined our happy little family. Eventually, the eye-bleach isn’t enough of a distraction and I go back to pondering the secrets of the Martial Path since I have time to spare. I now understand why standard protocol is to shroud Martial Warriors in enigmatic mysticism, not only to guard against simple misconceptions, but also to keep aspiring warriors from becoming frustrated with failure. If someone straight up told me to build a freaking mind palace and think about it all the time, then I’d go insane trying to figure it out. As for Aura, the best description I could come up with was I gather my emotions and hurl them at my enemies, which is why I kept quiet about it. It doesn’t make conventional sense and it won’t until Song experiences it herself. I might as well describe colours to the blind or learn to parse smells from a dog for all the good words will do me.
What’s odd is that even though every warrior forges their own path, everyone visits the same destinations on their journey to the peak of Martial Strength. Core Creation, Aura Condensation, and Natal Palace Formation are the pivotal steps along the Martial Path I know about and have taken, but now I’m lost on where to go next. Well, I know it’s manipulating External Chi, but considering how things have progressed thus far, there’s invariably another accomplishment which every Martial Warrior achieves but no one ever talks about because it’s best kept secret.
I hate secrets, even ones kept for my own good.
Logically, each of the above steps builds upon the others. Core Creation comes first, which is the Mana tank of the Martial Warrior, the battery from which we draw power from. From context clues dropped by the Legate, my recent observation regarding where the Natal Palace is situated, and the limitations on Natal Palace size, then it stands to reason that Natal Palace Formation is impossible without a sufficiently large Core. Probably because you can’t fit a palace into a tiny or unstable Core, due to a lack of Chi to sustain it. It’s not all about memory, else everyone would start multitasking training earlier, though why it’s left so late seems strange. I should ask someone about it, because the twins could benefit a lot if they started training now.
So where does Aura fit into all this? Generally, people go Core, Aura, Palace, then External Chi, but this isn’t always the case. Take Song for example, she formed her Natal Palace but hasn’t condensed an Aura and can’t use External Chi. Then there’s Chu XinYue, who was an Expert who could Send and do other External Chi stuff for years before his Aura came along. Nor can we forget Mila and Yan, who have neither Aura nor Palace, yet they’re both still strong enough to contend with or even dominate the best of their peers on the battlefield, where they’ll have Aura-capable allies to shield them. Yan can even use External Chi, so it’s not like it’s dependent on having an Aura and Natal Palace, which is really throwing me for a loop. There’s no logical progression, but again, these are the exceptions, not the rule. Therefore, it stands to reason Aura and the Natal Palace are linked to External Chi usage in some way. If the Natal Palace is a tool for practising Chi manipulation, then Aura is… what?
A good question. What is Aura? Aura is taking your innermost emotions and combining it with Chi to project a field of pressure onto your enemies and block the opposing pressure for your allies. There’s a fundamental difference between Imperial and Defiled Aura’s, but differentiating one from the other isn’t as simple as good emotions versus bad. Many Martial Warriors tap into their blood-lust and killing intent to maintain their Auras, and while most Defiled rely on sheer, unchecked rage to power theirs, I’ve seen clear-headed Defiled unleashing Auras with calm serenity, but no matter if the emotion is courage, fear, love, hatred, or anything else along the spectrum, the result is much the same. The only deciding factor I’ve noticed is whether you’re Imperial or Defiled.
Defensively, Imperial Auras bolster and inspire, while offensively, they panic and scare, and though I’ve never been on the receiving end of a defensive Defiled Aura, offensively, they cause revulsion and horror. Though the two effects sound similar, it’s impossible to mistake one for the other, because there is a wrongness to the Defiled Aura which resonates down to your soul. I’d call it a lesser version of a Demon’s Aura, brimming with gut-wrenching terror and unbridled loathing, a hatred based on differences greater than words can describe. It’s like coming face to face with your natural enemy and knowing you must fight or flee, for there can be no harmony or coexistence so long as you both exist, only kill or be killed.
Hesitant as I am to use the word due to religious connotations, the best way to describe a Defiled Aura is ‘Unholy’. Demons and Defiled alike, their Auras are the antithesis of peace and harmony and profane all that is good in this world.
That settles the question of ‘what is Aura’, but the problem is, I don’t really understand the ‘how’. When I use Aura, it’s instinctive rather than calculated. I reach deep down at the emotion I want to project, and it happens, much like Guiding. What’s worse is my Aura differs from a conventional one, because not only can I project different emotions, I can also shape my Aura into a weapon thanks to Blobby’s guidance. Maybe the Heavenly Droplet did more than guide me, since I’ve yet to meet another person who can do the same, but Pong Pong, who apparently has a Heavenly Droplet, can. Or who knows, maybe it has something to do with my origins and Natal Palace diving abilities and Pong Pong is a transmigrated turtle.
Ooh… is there a link there? Shaped Aura and Natal Palace Infiltration… Maybe?
Once again, reviewing the basics has left me with a better understanding, but no closer to the next step. Core, Aura, Natal Palace, and… what? Then there’s the whole revelation about Baledagh’s prowess which I never really considered. How the fuck was he… I… so strong? I always attributed my increased strength to Spectres, but at the time, I had them on lock-down inside my Natal Palace. I distinctly remember noting the difference, that it wasn’t the ‘Ancestors’ guiding me in battle, but true understanding, for I was directing my actions using knowledge which had been hidden away. The Forms came naturally, as did my Aura and Chi skills, including ones I still can’t really do like Deflection and Reverberation, rendering most of Laughing Dragon’s attacks ineffective. I distinctly remember the humming ring of our weapons as I wielded Tranquility alongside a Defiled weapon and used both as naturally as if I’d been born with them in hand. In that moment, the battle was all that mattered. Sword, shield, Enemy, and nothing else, and I became an unstoppable whirlwind of violence and mayhem.
My problem might be that I think too much. Maybe I should turn intelligence into a dump stat and shut my brain off to fight. Then again, considering I’m responsible for the lives of eight-hundred plus soldiers under my command, turning off my brain sounds like a recipe for disaster.
Whilst I muse and deliberate, my scouting party makes good time across the plains, covering more distance in a few hours than the full retinue would in a day, laden as we would be with wagons and supplies. My forward scouts spot friendly parties aplenty all headed east back to Sinuji, and when questioned, their commanders each report a similar lack of Defiled in the past two days, news which leaves me flustered and on edge. Though I should have long since turned back to Sinuji, I keep going until we finally find BoShui’s retinue in the early evening, well off his scheduled patrol route. Leaping off Zabu to greet my friend with a hug, I clap him hard on the back and instantly regret it as my hand impacts against his steel breastplate. “Not only are you late, but you’re also lost. You should’ve been fifteen kilometres south and eight kilometres east by now. I thought you’d run into trouble or something.”
With a sheepish grin which makes him look five years younger, BoShui politely overlooks my injured hand and replies, “Sorry. Didn’t know you’d come looking, but the strangest thing happened two nights past.”
“The Defiled stopped attacking, right? It’s like that in Sinuji too, two battle-free days while today marks the third, though Colonel Hongji says the other outposts along the front lines are still seeing plenty of Defiled. I thought the Enemy might be mustering for a concentrated push, so I set out with my scouts to see if anyone needed help.”
Shaking his head, BoShui’s grin fades into a frown. “The Enemy didn’t merely stop attacking, they retreated. Three nights back, my retinue was embroiled in the thick of battle, a night attack as per usual.” Leaning in close, he whispers, “They outnumbered us ten to one and we were tired to boot, which means they had us dead to rights. Then… I don’t know. They all stopped and stared east, right in the middle of battle, then after a few seconds, they broke and ran, howling in what I swear was fear. I was so shocked, I didn’t even give the order to pursue. Instead, we broke camp and marched through the night, moving off of our assigned route because I wasn’t sure what terrified the Defiled so. I’ve never seen them run scared except when…”
BoShui’s voice trails off as he shoots me a quizzical look, silently asking if I had something to do with the Enemy rout. It’s ridiculous how much he admires me, as if I could’ve somehow pulled his ass out of the fire from such a vast distance away, though I’ll admit he’s one of the few people who’ve figured out there’s something about me which causes the Defiled to rout, and the only one I know about who’s not in my retinue. I try not to Devour Spectres until the battle is almost over if there are other people present, but BoShui thinks I’m the Mother’s gift to the Empire and naturally assumed it was my handiwork. Resisting the urge to roll my eyes, I say, “Two nights ago, I was already back in Sinuji and enjoying a nice cold bath. Whatever scared the Defiled off, it wasn’t me.” Even as I deny responsibility, a cold wave of realization washes over me as I establish the timeline. “You said it was a night attack, yea? When exactly did they flee?”
“About an hour after midnight,” he replies, carefully watching my expression, which makes it awkward when the blood drains from my face. The reaction is all he needs to confirm his suspicions, and he merely smiles and nods before looking away, content to let me keep my secrets while doing the Mother’s work. I’ll have to do something about his hero-worship, but now isn’t the time, because I think I know why the Defiled broke and ran.
An hour after midnight should be around the same time I learned to Devour Heavenly Energy and turn it into Chi, a process which shocked the Spectres into literally freezing in fear. Despite not knowing what any of it meant, I had a good laugh about it the next morning, thinking I’d somehow 404’d the Spectres and crashed their OS, but now, it’s not so funny anymore. Is the timing a coincidence, or did my actions scare away the Defiled as well? That’s impossible, right? Am I being arrogant in assuming my actions could affect the Enemy’s overall movements? Besides, no one in camp noticed I was doing anything, aside from Guan Suo’s complaints about me displaying Purity, and I’m almost completely sure there were no free floating Spectres around to spread the news, so maybe the Defiled retreat has nothing to do with my new Chi gathering method.
I hope so, because otherwise, it means I’ve done something so terrible, even the Enemy wants nothing to do with me. I am become Death, the Devourer of Spectres. And Heavenly Energy, I guess, but that doesn’t sound as cool. Orgaal and Lei Gong are of no help whatsoever, both sharing the opinion of “Defiled be crazy”, meaning it’s pointless to guess their motives, but while most soldiers of the Empire feel the same way, I think that’s a shortsighted approach. Know your enemy and whatnot, though to be fair, it’s hard to understand crazy.
I should know, being crazy and all. Then again, if I know I’m crazy, am I still crazy?
Mouth dry with fear, I reach for my water skin only to find I’d left it behind, though at least I have a bunch of gourds to drink from. Only after draining one dry do I notice Ping Ping’s dismal squeak, because I just drank a gourd filled with counterfeit Heavenly Water. Seeing how there are no Defiled or Demons to test things out on, I give two gourds to Pong Pong and the rest to the big girl while BoShui’s people settle into the wagons, ones brought expressly for this purpose. Brimming with nervous energy, I bury my face in Mama Bun’s fur as we head back for Sinuji and do my best not to panic.
The Defiled and Spectres are terrified by what I’ve done, but again, is that really so terrible?
It’s not, right? This is a good thing.
So why am I so unsettled?
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