We have another submission from Rocky, this time of a naughty little exchange between our boy Rustram and Sai Chou 😉
Thanks so much Rocky! Always happy to see your art, and the same goes to SD art from ANYONEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE else. :D. Am Greedy, More Plz.
As for the rest of you non artist, thanks for reading and hope you enjoy the chapter!
Humans are not rational creatures.
All too often, we make unreasonable and illogical decisions based on emotion or in opposition to fact, but it’s not always a bad thing. Yes, sometimes we do stupid things like drink ourselves into stupors or ignore reason to follow our instincts, but irrational behaviour also drives us to do incredible things. If we were rational beings, we would rarely explore the unknown, run into burning buildings to save people, or stand up for our beliefs against a greater power. Some of the greatest acts in humanity’s history have arisen from illogical decisions, and when they work out, they’re celebrated as acts of courage and bravery, and promptly forgotten when they don’t. The person who chases after a murderer and apprehends the criminal is a hero, while another person who does the same and dies is a fool with more courage than sense. Someone who wins the lottery is envied, but someone who makes a less risky but calculated gamble and loses out is labelled a buffoon who threw all their money away.
Even judging things by their outcomes is irrational and stupid, but isn’t that what it means to be human?
Thus, when faced with the emergence of a tunnelling mole-Demon at the tail end of my bowel-movement, instead of doing the logical thing and vaulting away or calling for help, I instead wipe my ass and pull up my pants. While not the most rational decision I’ve ever made, I’ll be damned if I die with my pants around my ankles and a shit-stained ass-hole.
Whilst fumbling with my belt and wholeheartedly regretting my decision, I lock eyes with the mole-Demon and sense the cold hatred and burning fury contained within, though whether this is because of my apparent indifference or merely its regular attitude, I couldn’t say. Regardless of how it feels, the wrinkled, shit-covered creature lunges forward to take my life with talons ready and jaw unhinged. Its square, yellowed teeth and gaping black maw grow larger in vision and I raise my arms to block it, even though logically, it makes zero sense to do so. My vision blurs and the world shifts, after which I miraculously watch the Demon soar through the space I occupied only microseconds before.
Wow, that’s a big mole. Moley, moley, moley, mole.
Two figures materialize out of thin air before my eyes and move to engage the Demon with their woefully inadequate short swords, and through the haze of shock and confusion, I recognize my saviours as the unfamiliar soldiers I’d spotted earlier, then immediately forgot about after the Wraith attack. With his hand on my chest, the third mysterious soldier positions himself between the Demon and myself, moving me away from the battle to keep me safe. Whoever they are, it’s clear they’re here to protect me, and I mutter a small prayer of thanks to whomever might be listening. While I’m still not entirely convinced of an all-powerful being watching over me from above, it doesn’t hurt to show proper appreciation.
Chaos ensues as Argat and the Death Corps rush into the tent to join the fray, but luckily, my newfangled guardians are stronger than expected. Working in tandem, one distracts the Demon while the other attacks from behind. Leaking Ichor from a handful of wounds after their brief exchange, the Demon fails to land a blow on either nimble warrior and promptly retreats, crashing through my tent and pulling up the stakes as it’s driven away. Instead of pressing their advantage, my saviours draw away to my side and settle into a defensive position around me and my Death Corps guards, leaving Argat to engage the Demon all by his lonesome. Finally remembering to draw my weapons, I strap Tranquility in place and say, “Not that I’m ungrateful or trying to tell you how to do your jobs, but I’m safe enough with the Death Corps here, so could you go help Argat?”
Silence is my only answer as my saviours drag me away, but I stubbornly dig in and refuse to leave. Though it seems like he’s got things under control, Argat is clearly outmatched by the Demon as he’s focusing solely on defence, so it’s best if I stick around to lend a hand. Dodging nimbly about, the half-monkey Khishig ducks, dips, and dances around the Demon’s earth-shattering attacks, unable to find an opening to retaliate because a single connecting blow would turn him into a bloody pulp. A swipe of its talons rends a furrow through the dirt, forcing Argat to pole-vault away and leaving the Demon free and unhindered. Talons digging into the dirt, it launches itself like an arrow towards me with startling speed, and if I were facing it alone, I fear this would spell my end, but my silent guardians save me once more.
By pulling me aside and leaving the Death Corps to die in my place.
Tearing through armour like paper, the Demon barrels through my devoted guards and turns them into a mist of gore and blood. Sliding across the grass, the creature snarls and turns to gather itself for another pounce while more Death Corps stream in to block its path, yet another illogical decision considering the scene they witnessed. No, not illogical, because to the Death Corps, it makes all the sense in the world. I can see it in their eyes, for there is no fear or hesitation, only grim determination. This is their purpose, to give their lives in defence of my own no matter the odds stacked against them, and the odds are dire indeed.
“Back!” I shout, and the Death Corps are forced to obey. “Retreat to a hundred paces.” They can’t do anything except get in the way, and I’ll be damned if more of them die for nothing, but where they faced the prospect of death with grim smiles, my orders to disperse are met with crestfallen faces. Putting their damned honour out of mind, I clutch Peace and Tranquility in hand and once again execute Balance on Windy Leaf, charging the Demon in deranged defiance of the odds.
I promised myself I’d never do this again, but fuck it. This thing killed my soldiers, and it will die for it.
Despite my frenzied madness, I still have enough presence of mind to angle my charge, so instead of crashing headlong into its open mouth, I’m poised to skirt along its side and carve into its flesh. With its talons dug into the dirt, the Demon is helpless to defend itself from my charge, or so I think until it stretches its neck to snap at me instead. Inside my Natal Palace, the Star sparkles with blinding light and the Hammer strikes with a bone-shaking clang, while out in the real world, Tranquility smashes into the Demon’s face. Despite Reinforcing and Amplifying for all I’m worth, it feels like hitting a steel wall. The jarring collision knocks me off my feet and sends me hurling through the air, smacked aside like a pinball by its powerful neck. Rolling backwards with the fall, I go head over heels multiple times before coming to my feet, just in time to see Argat drive his spear clean through the Demon’s spine, eliciting a hair-raising shriek as the tip emerges from its chest and pins it to the ground. Not a cry of pain, but anger, for the creature is enraged by this injury which stops it from killing me. Standing on the Demon’s back, Argat clings to his spear and slams his feet atop the flailing creature’s head, keeping himself safe from snapping jaws and grasping talons.
Bucking and shaking to dislodge the unwelcome passenger, the Demon’s furious motions only serve to tear itself apart on Argat’s embedded spear, its wrinkled flesh giving way before the smooth, metallic haft and widening its wound from chest to belly. Greenish-yellow Ichor spurts from the wound and blackens the grass around it, but even though the widening wound offers it more freedom, its movements grow sluggish and listless with time. Since my silent guardians seem unwilling to lend aid, I move in to offer what little assistance I can, but they quickly close in to stand in my way and hold me back without laying a hand on my person or even looking my way.
I don’t know who these Experts are, and they did save my life, but it pisses me off how they’re prioritizing my safety over Argat’s life.
Before I lose my temper and threaten them with bodily harm, Lei Gong arrives in a flash of lightning and a clap of thunder, his scintillating cane smashing into the Demon’s head and electrifying its entire body even as Argat leaps away, an effort hopefully coordinated through Sending else I’ll have to have words with Lei Gong. I might have words with him regardless, because it’s almost been a full minute since the Demon emerged and he’s only arriving now, one of the many reasons why I didn’t feel safe leaving Song under his sole protection. The old drunk is hardly reliable. He didn’t even show his face in the aftermath of the Wraith attack, and now here he is showing up late to a Demon-killing party. I’m hoping the Tyrant has a more dependable work ethic, but her pierced nipples and near-compulsive research don’t exactly scream ‘responsible’.
I can’t believe I’m even thinking this, but I wish Daxian were still here…
With the Demon dead and no longer a threat, my guardians lose all interest in holding me back. Pushing past with an irritated grunt, I run over to Argat lying on his side in the dirt. Despite his valiant efforts, his legs are splattered with caustic Ichor which has eaten through his leather boots and trousers to attack the vulnerable flesh beneath. The smell of burnt hair and charred flesh mingles with the stench wafting up from the latrines as I scrape Ichor off of his leg using the rim of my shield. “Water,” I yell, wishing I hadn’t ordered the Death Corps to back so far away. “Someone get me water!”
“Forget the water,” Argat says, gritting his teeth in pain. “Can’t wash Ichor away. Scrape what you can and cut the rest before it gets down to the bone. Your Mentor will have our hides if both Jochi and I get sent off for Healing and leave you without a nanny.” Ignoring his jab, I work quickly as I can and fight a losing battle against the destructive Demonic fluids. Finally, a Death Corps soldier arrives bearing multiple water skins and I dump most of my Chi into the first bag using a precious minute of time, turning the Chi-infused water into counterfeit Heavenly Water before pouring it over the Ichor still plastered to Argat’s flesh. Unlike with Wraith poison, the effect is instantaneous as the insidious fluids lose cohesion and colour, crumbling apart and falling to the wayside like clumps of harmless wax. Sucking in a pained breath, Argat bites off an angry curse as he sees my Blessing at work, and the tension drains from my body to be replaced by sweet relief.
It’s about time something worked out the way I think it should. Counterfeit Heavenly Water is a go. I should probably change its name to something snappier, like Blessed Water. No, let’s go with Purifying Water, not as religious. I don’t need more people like BoShui and Dastan staring at me with wide eyed reverence.
Making a mental note to hand out containers of Purifying Water to my friends, I set to cleaning and bandaging Argat’s legs. Sporting no less than nine irregular flesh wounds, it’ll take a day or two of self-Healing before he’s back on his feet, though it would’ve been much worse without my efforts. Impressed with my accomplishments for a change, that promptly changes with Argat’s Sending. “Idiot boy, what’s the matter with you? What are you thinking using the Heavenly Tear in plain sight? What if someone’s Watching and sees? Hurry and cover my legs, assuming it’s not already too late.”
Ah. Right. It’s not Blobby, but I suppose my enemies won’t believe me or it’d already be too late even if they did. So I guess that’s a no on handing out Purifying Water? I hate having to keep all these damned secrets. It’s no wonder the Empire’s stagnating, they keep killing people off every time someone comes up with something new.
With the floodgates opened, Argat continues to berate me for my actions through Sending. “Another thing: what were you thinking when you charged a Wraith? You were lucky to spot it, but did it ever occur to you that it might have been a trap? What if it showed itself to lure you away from your guards so one of its cronies could kill you? And why’d you send the Death Corps away? They’re there to protect you, not twiddle their thumbs and watch you die. What if those three strangers had a change of heart and stuck a dagger between your ribs? You don’t even know their names yet you put your life in their hands, but that’s not enough. No, you left them behind too, this time to charge a damn Demon. I swear on the Mother Above, you pull another stunt like this and you can find yourself another damned protector, one stupid enough to take on this impossible job.”
Trying to get a word in edgewise, I Send, “Sorry, but I was just trying to help.” And I did help… I distracted the Demon long enough for Argat to impale it.
Indignation diminishing ever so slightly when he realizes the same, Argat closes his eyes and sighs. “Look… I’m just saying, it’s stressful keeping you safe when you run headlong into danger every chance you get. Even if you’re not afraid to die, think about what’ll happen if I survive and you don’t. Shit, they’ll probably blame me for slacking off even if I lose my arms and legs trying to save you.”
“Sorry.” Though to be fair, it’s not my fault he has a less than stellar track record. The first time I needed their help, they were getting drunk in a tavern while I fought assassins in the streets of Sanshu…
After a pregnant pause, Argat Sends, “I’m not telling you to stop being all heroic and challenging the odds, but just… pick your fights better. You’re a rare talent kid, but you’re not invincible. Even Nian Zu almost died to Wraiths, and you’re still a long way from matching even the weakest of Demons.” Snorting, he adds, “Give yourself another year or two. At the rate you’re improving, I’ll be looking to you to protect me by then.”
Surpass Argat in a year? Yea right. The Demon tossed me aside like a wet rag using only its neck, but Argat stomped its head into the dirt more than once. Not only is he physically stronger than I am by several orders of magnitude, I don’t even know how it’s possible. We both use Reinforcement and Amplification, but he hits so much harder than I do it’s absurd.
With Argat’s injuries tended to, I task a few Death Corps soldiers with getting him back to his yurt before dealing with the chaos of camp. My saviours have all disappeared and left no trace behind, though I suspect they’re still lurking somewhere nearby. I don’t know why they were watching me poop, but despite their uniforms and Khishig leathers, I’m certain they weren’t Bekhai, which means they weren’t sent here by Dad or Akanai. I don’t even think they were Northerners because they had the naturally tanned skin, slender eyebrows, and narrow facial features found commonly in Central’s peasant population. Thing is, why would a bunch of Central Experts guard me in secret? Maybe they’re Colonel Hongji’s people, or maybe the Legate is nicer than I thought, or maybe it’s one of a thousand other possibilities I can’t think of. Either way, they’re on my side, so I’m not too too stressed about it and only moderately worried.
Desperately hoping they’ll never speak about what happened inside my poop tent, I make a note to ask the Colonel about the enigmatic protectors while grieving for my lost soldiers and waiting for news from the other camps. It turns out I wasn’t the only one to come under attack, nor was I in the most danger. Yan, Zian, and BoShui were visited by three Wraiths each but escaped without injury, while Wu Gam got twelve Wraiths and three mole Demons, all of whom were taken care of by the Original Gam, a warrior who not only makes Lei Gong look neat and tidy, but apparently also puts the Lord of Thunder’s strength to shame. Maybe that’s the secret to Martial Strength: a slovenly appearance. I mean, we have Lei Gong, Guan Suo, and now Original Gam, all slobs and degenerates hiding considerable skills.
If I fail to become a peak Expert, then I’ll blame Luo-Luo for making me dress nice.
The Demon corpse continues to blacken the earth, turning green grass into brittle ash as the Ichor seeps into the soil. Considering Argat’s angry reaction to cleansing the Ichor on his legs, I doubt he’d be pleased to learn I cleansed the Demon corpse too, so I leave it where it lays as Lei Gong advises me to do. It’s not too big a loss since I don’t know how to turn Ichor into Heavenly Energy, but it pains me to watch the mole-Demon’s corpse desecrate the earth. Technically, it was a mole-rat Demon, but I honestly don’t know the difference, other than one being fluffy and the other bald. Why this makes them mole-rats instead of bald moles, I couldn’t say, but apparently, the Enemy has a lot of them because there’s a bat-shit crazy mole-rat Divinity lady who raises them like they’re her children, one who bears a grudge with the Original Gam for killing her babies back at the Canston Winery.
Poor little mole rats. They’re ugly, but that doesn’t mean they’re evil. I don’t know how the Defiled Ancestral Beast turns them into Demons, but I doubt it’s a pleasant experience.
The Wraiths also targeted other camps and officers, but the only other officer to be attacked by Demons was Colonel Hongji himself. There’s been no word of deaths or injuries, but standard military protocol is to keep things like that quiet for the sake of morale. Aside from a brief public appearance from Hongji to order everyone to remain calm and secure their camps, there’s little else for my people to report, so I set about doing as I’m told. Bringing pen, ink, and paper outside, I settle down with Song and Ping Ping (and by extension, Guan Suo) to eat jerky while replenishing my Core and brainstorming ideas to uncover Concealed Experts.
Aside from scattering flour around or installing squeaky floorboards, my mind draws a blank. I suppose I could get a smaller poop tent so I can be closer to my guards at all times, but then they’re gonna hear me poop. They probably hear it regardless, but at least with a big empty tent, I have the illusion of privacy. Scribbling “indoor plumbing” onto the parchment and circling it multiple times, I lament my lack of useful memories once again before turning to my option of last resort. “Venerable Guan Suo,” I call, using the title I heard Akanai and Song use. “Would you be so kind as to offer this lost soul your invaluable guidance?”
“Pei.” Upon hearing his customary response, I circle around Ping Ping to find the grumpy half-panda relaxing against the big girl’s shoulder with a cloud of dark smoke hanging over his head. “What do you want now? Not satisfied with keepin’ an old man from his sleep with your displays of Purity, now you want to natter at him too?”
Honestly, his grouchiness is almost endearing. If he didn’t want to answer, he could’ve just stayed hidden, but he didn’t. I think he likes our little conversations and just doesn’t want to admit it, but I’ll play along. “My profound apologies Venerable One, but could you explain Concealment and maybe offer suggestions on how to defeat it?”
In the blink of an eye, Guan Suo’s playful grouchiness disappears and is replaced by outright hostility. “No,” he snarls, baring his teeth in threat. “Now fuck off.” Shooting to his feet, he disappears from sight and refuses to respond to my pleas again, though why, I have no idea. I suppose Concealment is one of those things he doesn’t want to talk about, probably because he likes his privacy. I mean, willingly revealing himself for a chat isn’t the same as me seeing through his Concealment and forcing him to talk, so I shout a heartfelt apology before going back to my brainstorming.
The problem is, I don’t know enough about Concealment to counter it. I mean, it makes people overlook your presence, but how? Maybe I should ask Lei Gong, but he’s another old grouch who likes to stay hidden. I suppose I’ll just have to wait until Argat is better to work on anti-Concealment methods, which means there’s nothing for me to do except make more Purifying Water and figure out how to use External Water Chi. I mean, it’s awesome that I can Externalize it, but the process is slow, Chi intensive, and of no real value whatsoever, so even though I’ve taken a critical step along the Martial Path, my strength hasn’t improved by a single iota, which was the whole point of this endeavour.
Argat thinks I’ll surpass him in two years, but even if he’s right, I don’t think the Empire has that much time…
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