Victory is mine, but celebrations will have to wait as I watch a man mourn the loss of his brother.
Gently cradling the crumbling soul of the man who conquered the Warring States, the portly scholar Di Zi sheds no tears and emanates no grief or heartache, because his control over his emotions is so ingrained that he’s all but forgotten how to feel. By necessity, if I were to guess, since an errant soul like Di Zi cannot afford to indulge his emotions lest he expend what little remains of his finite and depleted Life Force, but I’m now a firm believer in accepting emotion as it comes, rather than shunting it aside to deal with later. Especially since I doubt he has much of a later, so I offer a modicum of Life Force to help sustain his existence so he can properly mourn. The transformation is staggering to behold as Di Zi staggers beneath the weight of his emotions and utters a keening wail that brings tears to my eyes, his anguish so palpable even my chest aches.
The Eternal Emperor was a monster to be sure, but one born of Ying Zheng who was merely a man, one with hopes, dreams, and people who loved him. I cannot forgive him for what he has done, but at the same time, I am glad I was able to bring him peace in this life and a second chance in the next.
Bowing my head and looking away, I offer Di Zi as much privacy as I can, which isn’t much given how the denizens of the Eternal Emperor’s court of souls are still standing around, dazed and aimless as ever without any indication of awareness at having been freed by their captor’s death, or that they are about to pass through the cycle of reincarnation to be reborn anew. Their forms fade away en masse with the only outlier being the host Emperor’s soul, who shows no sign of crumbling away but is also still bound in chains and kneeling by the feet of the Natal Throne. Not sure if that’s a bad thing considering I have no idea what to do with him, because what happens next is a complete clusterfuck in which anything can happen. Liang Wu Di is supposed to be the Emperor in all but name now, so how will he react to the current Emperor coming back? What if this guy’s even worse than Ying Zheng, hellbent on getting revenge or worse, just a terrible ruler through and through? There’s no doubt the Supreme Families are scheming with regards to how to claim the throne for themselves, a conflict which I wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot pole but will inevitably be drawn into because politics. Knowing all this, it might be a good idea to have the current Emperor on my side, seeing how he pretty much owes me his life, but on the other hand, he’s seen some real shit these last few minutes, secrets of mine which I would much rather keep under wraps. There’s an argument to be made to go full scorched earth and claim no survivors made it out in order to protect myself and my secrets, but I’m not sure that’s the best move, or one in accordance with my Dao.
Yes, I’ve killed before, and killing the Emperor while he’s bound and helpless is a total dick move, but there are some secrets worth killing for. The question is, are mine?
“Nature is cruel and merciless, where only the strong survive. So long as we burden ourselves with false ideals, then we will never know true peace.”
A familiar phrase I’ve heard more than once, albeit with a little twist at the end, but I sense that this is not an attempt to open a dialogue, only Di Zi’s eulogy for the Eternal Emperor. No, for Ying Zheng, the man he was before taking up the mantle of the Eternal Emperor, the man Di Zi knew, as made clear by his next statement. “Those were your words, your final appeal to us five brothers just moments before we had our falling out. That the noble principles we all stood for, fought for, killed for, principles which you yourself once embodied, were merely false ideals holding us back. You were the best of us all, which is why we followed you without question, and why those words broke my heart. Broke all of our hearts, we brothers who looked up to you so, because we knew who you truly were and how lost you’d become. You’d forgotten why you worked so hard to unite the Empire in the first place. Not for a throne or a seal, but for a cause, a dream of a world in which peace was no longer a faint memory and children could grow up happy and free. You shared that dream with us and made us believe, gave us purpose and hope for the future, but alas, those dreams have gone and died, ground to dust beneath the heel of the man who dared to dream them up in the first place.” Heaving a heavy sigh as the Eternal Emperor’s soul returns to the cycle of reincarnation, Di Zi continues, “May you find yourself in the next life, big brother, and the strength to remain true to it. I hope the Heavens will arrange it so that we can all be brothers again, and this time, we will not let you falter.”
The Energy of the Heavens surge to fill in an absence and I glance up to see the vast majority of the Eternal Emperor’s court of souls finish crumbling away into nothingness. Di Zi continues to watch what little remains of his four brothers with a mournful expression, and the Emperor’s soul who watches this all with a carefully neutral expression, while I do my best not to get involved. A single soul steps forward from the crowd to catch my attention however, and I recognize him as Liang Wu Di’s Seneschal, the Solitary Sword, Zhang Jun Bao. Cupping his hands in a Martial salute, he falls to his knees and bows at the waist until his forehead is even lower than his ankles. The floor to this court of souls is similarly crumbling away, and I hasten to help the man to his feet, but my fingers slip through the Seneschal’s arm as he is fast fading into nothingness. “A thousand thanks for this servant’s freedom,” the Seneschal intones, before straightening up to look me in the eyes with a sad smile. “Please convey my regrets to my patron, and tell him that the blame lies not with him. This old servant had long since dedicated his life to his highness, Liang Wu Di, and to die in his service an honour, one second only to having played a part in helping him become the dragon he is today.”
“I will pass along your words and sentiments,” I reply, struggling not to cry out of sheer empathy as I commit the Seneschal’s emotions to memory in hopes of passing them along later. Not just the sorrow and anguish, but also the overwhelming pride and love he shares for the man he serves. To the world, they were master and servant, but they were as close as any father and son, and I suspect Zhang Jun Bao’s death was done as a warning to Liang Wu Di, or perhaps as punishment for overstepping his bounds. Having received my promise, Zhang Jun Bao no longer has anything left to hold him here, and quickly disappears before my eyes, a passing which is as peaceful as any.
That was the Intent after all, when I cut down the Emperor’s court of souls with a single swing of Peace. An action taken on a whim, because it just felt right, to bring peace to the dead and send them on their way with the sword of the same name. Eradicating the Eternal Emperor’s soul and denying him a chance of reincarnation would’ve sat heavily on my conscience, because it would be against my Dao, my principles, my beliefs, which is why I was hoping the brilliant scholar Di Zi would have a solution to all my woes. If that didn’t work out, I still could’ve obliterated the Eternal Emperor from existence, it just would’ve left me conflicted, a crack in my heart which would need time and introspection to mend, assuming it ever did. That’s the secret to controlling power beyond what mere mortals can wield, to act in accordance with one’s heart, a Dao Heart which is formed not by Visualization or Intent, but by the motives behind the actions you’ve taken in life thus far and the perspective you’ve built around it. Foundation Establishment, Chi Purification, and Core Formation, I don’t think the order matters as much so long as you can put it all together in a way that works, but to move forward from there, your Dao Heart must first be tested to prove that the foundations you’ve built thus far are strong enough to progress onwards along your chosen Path.
Something I’ve known for awhile now, subconsciously at least, else I would’ve never passed up the chance to kill an army of Defiled with the tidal wave which brought me to Shi Bei. The Rain who fought in Sinuji the first time would’ve cackled with glee at the prospect of slaughtering so many hated foes all at once, but I found new perspective while recovering from my Shattered Core and seeing the war from a new perspective. Not only was I able to step away from all the death and bloodshed and get my head back on straight, it also showed me that the War against the Enemy was not as black and white as I once believed. Were it not for this period of respite in which I married three beloved wives, reunited with Buddy, helped the Abbot, and spent an inordinate amount of time discussing the Dao with anyone who would listen, among many other things, then I might well have continued down the wrong Path to become a Martial Warrior in truth, a bloodthirsty Warrior who sought to destroy the Enemy out of misplaced anger and hatred. Instead, I was able to widen my perspective and find a new Path, one more suited to me which brought me to the heights I’ve reached today.
Fortune found in disaster, I suppose, which probably means I owe Gen a thanks for crippling me. Good thing he’s dead and reincarnated then, because I’ll write my name backwards before I ever thank that asshole, may he rest in peace.
…What? I don’t hate the Defiled anymore, but that doesn’t mean I have to love and forgive them.
Alas, now that I’ve worked out how I must act in accordance with my Dao, I can no longer justify letting the current Emperor go the way of the dodo, no matter how convenient it might be. Having morals is the worst, because they’re like self-imposed handicaps your enemy won’t be affected by, but I can’t go against my Dao and my conscience. If I did, it probably wouldn’t affect me much today, but ten, twenty, a hundred, or a thousand years down the line, I might well look back on the moment I murdered the current Emperor as the first stray step which brought me away from my Dao, the same way the Eternal Emperor strayed from his Path to go from celebrated war hero to megalomaniacal butcher looking forward to carving up innocent civilians in search of the Dao.
That is what it means to cultivate after all, to pursue the truth. Not of the Dao, but of the self, because to act against the self is to act against your Dao, and only someone who knows themself can ever reach the pinnacle of their Dao.
So simple, yet also infinitely complex, and staggeringly difficult because humans are notoriously good at lying to themselves. Even when you know the truth, you might not really know it know it, you know? Or you might even reject the truth outright, because life is hard enough as it is without having to deal with all the harsh truths, like maybe it’s time you stopped lying to your loved ones and hoarding so many floofs.
…No. Fuck that noise. I’m gonna keep hoarding floofs, because I’m probably gonna need them once the truth gets out.
As I emerge from my spiral of dread and apprehension regarding discussions to come, I find myself standing alone in the Void, save for Buddy beside me, Di Zi across from me, and the current Emperor chained up beside us. I should probably free him, but I have no idea how, so I turn to Di Zi while pointing at the Emperor and ask, “You uh… wouldn’t happen to know how to free him, would you? Because that would be great.”
Giving the Emperor a pointed look, Di Zi ask, “I do, but are you certain this is what you desire? Your future would be smooth sailing with the Emperor under your thumb, even one besieged on all sides by political enemies and allies alike.”
“Yea, but that’s not my style.” Narrowing my eyes in suspicion, I add, “Nor will I stand idly by and allow you to become a second Eternal Emperor, so if you don’t intend to help, then I kindly invite you to move on.”
In response, the portly scholar flashes a reassuring smile paired with a sad shake of his head. “Rest assured. I’ve no desire to continue enduring this wretched existence, and intend to pass on in hopes of reincarnating alongside my sworn brothers. I only wanted to know the measure of the man who defeated my brother and my hero, and now I can rest assured knowing I leave his legacy in good hands.” Waving his hand towards the Emperor, he does something which I can just barely sense, but can’t exactly make out the details. What I can tell is that Di Zi is greatly lessened by it, having expended all but a scrap of the Life Force remaining to him. “It will take some time for him to fully free himself,” Di Zi explains, offering a shrug as he slowly fades away just like the rest. “A necessity, I’m afraid, for to tear those bonds myself would leave him so weak he might not even have strength enough to reclaim his throne.”
Even though I have no idea as to the specifics, it makes sense to me too, much like how a butterfly needs to break free of its cocoon on its own to help it build up enough strength to live. That being said, I intend to stay and watch until Di Zi fully fades away, which he accepts with a small nod of approval. “A small part of me wants to stay and watch you progress along your Path, to see what new heights you will achieve,” Di Zi begins, only to shake his head in regret. “Alas, curiosity alone is not enough to live for, and I yearn for the comfort of their company once more.” Casting one final glance at the current Emperor, Di Zi adds, “Ying Zheng was a good man once, but a conflicted one. That’s why I pled for mercy on the outlands’ behalf. Not because I thought he would make for a poor Emperor of the mortal world, but because I knew that without an enemy to fight, he would lose all purpose in life.” Turning his gaze towards me, he offers me a sad smile and says, “Never forget to hold fast to yours.”
And with those parting words, Di Zi passes on into the next life and closes the book on a dark chapter in history, one I doubt will ever come to light. Mostly because of face, since no one in the Supreme Families will want anyone to know that they’ve been dancing to the Eternal Emperor’s tune since the founding of the Empire. Seeing the current Emperor fixated on breaking out of his chains and in no mood for small talk, I leave a Natal Soul behind to keep an eye on him just in case anything goes wrong before stepping out of the Void and back into the physical world. The harsh glare of the Western Sun is exactly where I last left it, and the stench of blood and offal as unsettling as I remember. Though I was fortunate enough to emerge victorious from my clash against the Eternal Emperor, the battle for Shi Bei is still going strong as Half-Demons surge onto the walls and continue to press the beleaguered defenders. The impulsive part of me wants to utilize the Energy of the Heavens to rain death down upon the Defiled, no pun intended, but that’s a terrible idea. Not just because I would feel bad about slaughtering tens of thousands of people, which I most definitely would, but also because the Treaty still stands by the barest of technicalities, namely that no one has launched a successful nuclear strike just yet, nor has any Enemy Divinity taken overt, direct action against any Imperial mortals.
Granted, this is only the case because they’ve tried and failed, but it’s still bad for optics if I were to shatter the Treaty wholesale, especially when there’s still the ghost of a chance of keeping it intact. Politics. This means I’m bound by the Treaty and my own sense of honour from acting overtly against the army of Defiled Half-Demons, but luckily, my new perspective has given me a more comprehensive awareness of the Dao and Heavenly Energy. With this and a little creative thinking, it shouldn’t be all to difficult to lend my allies a hand without anyone raising a complaint, because there’s nothing in my Dao which says I gotta fight fair.
The heady rush of battle and bloodshed had once been an endless font of joy and elation, but Vithar found it rather lacking of late.
Rather than a deluge, it had dwindled to less than a trickle, a stark contrast to what he’d experienced before in battles prior to this. Odd that, for he had never felt stronger or more confident than he did at this moment, his body light and movements natural to the point where he barely even had to think to fight. Rider and mount worked together in perfect harmony, the skeletal Transcendent beneath him more nimble and responsive than any garo could ever be, able to weave seamlessly through the tangle of longspears untouched and bring Vithar in close to his targets. From there, his battle-axe would drink deep of their blood, cleaving clean through steel, flesh, and bone with laughable ease, and when it encountered a weapon it could not sunder in twain, his battle-axe would come alive and bypass it of its own volition.
There was a time when he had to work to control his mount and guide his axe home, to decide when to block and when to counter, but this was no longer true. Even if his mount mis-stepped and brought him into the path of a spear, his Transcendent Armour would ward off the blow and see him through to safety, while simultaneously guiding his actions to respond accordingly. In short, Vithar’s presence was no longer needed to conduct this battle, for he was merely a fleshy vessel for the Transcendent to wield, a weapon in the hands of another to fight in a war that was not his own.
That was the crux of Vithar’s dissatisfaction, the faint perception of having been used. Why was he still here in Shi Bei, fighting over stones laid atop sand for a cause he did not understand? What value was there in taking this city, in spilling the blood of those defending its walls? Worthy foes, one and all, ones who’d held them off for so many days, and might well continue fighting for several more still. Was he not on his way out before all this? What happened to bring him back here? He’d given Gargeera the signal to withdraw, and his tribesmen had all followed suit, until the Uniter took the field and commanded them to halt. From there, it was all a blur, a jumbled mess of memories Vithar could barely make sense of, and as he glanced about the battlefield in search of a familiar face, he saw only strangers, rivals, and enemies in all directions.
A raspy, earthshaking roar echoed across the sands, uttered by a fierce and formidable bestial king, and the clear warning sent a jolt through Vithar which shook him to his core and left him staggering in sheer shock. The mount beneath him was unfazed, and his Transcendent armour continued to direct his actions unchecked, but his eyes were open now and his thoughts no longer suppressed. The Uniter had used him, taken him against his will, made him into a Transcendent in all but name, a transgression Vithar would not stand for, but before he could find the strength to fight for control once more, a second cry sounded out, but this time from a beast far less formidable. He’d heard the cry before, from a delicious food-beast these southlanders reared, a tiny creature of feathers and beak that strutted about without fear and was known to crow at the sun’s rise.
A chicken, the southlanders called it, a name Vithar had noted well, for Asmani enjoyed feasting upon their delectably juicy meat.
Why one saw fit to cackle now was a mystery to be sure, but even before the question had yet to fully form, Vithar saw his entire life unfold before him in a single, fleeting moment. He saw himself regain control of his body and rid himself of the Transcendent’s form, peeling it off piece by piece as if it were no more than wet cloth. From there, he followed the setting sun deep into the heart of the province, doing everything he could to find his way back to that desert oasis where he’d left Asmani. It took many moons to make the trek, and he almost lost himself to thirst and madness, but he persevered because he could not die yet, not before he saw her again. And see her he did, holding their beautiful baby daughter, a child untouched by the vile air of the Northlands and perfect in every possible way. Seeing her laying fast asleep in Asmani’s arms brought Vithar a joy unlike anything he’d ever felt before, a sense of contentment and accomplishment which far surpassed becoming Chieftain of Chieftains. This was a bliss and pride which he’d never known existed before today and would never know again, for this was all merely a dream, a dream he never wanted to end but knew would have to no matter what, for this was a dream which was never meant for him.
The enchanting sight of his blissful dreams was replaced by the harsh glare of glinting steel, but Vithar made no move to defend himself. The Transcendent had fallen silent now, its poisoned whispers offering no allure compared to the dreams cruel fate denied him. He’d made too many mistakes, fought for all the wrong reasons, but at least now his child and his surviving tribesmen had a chance to live out their lives in this land of plenty. That was a prize well worth fighting for, one worth dying for, so he met the eyes of his killer and faced down his death with pride.
Excitement bubbled up from within Huu’s chest as he cut down the Half-Demon barring his path, only to howl in bitter regret as he watched his target die before his eyes. The damnable Chieftain Vithar had been struck down by another’s blade, so how was Huu supposed to avenge his uncle Kalil now? So inundated with rage and indignation, he almost turned his sabre upon the person who stole away his chance for vengeance, until he saw who it was that struck the final blow. Tears streamed down from Ma’s eyes as she stared down at the headless Chieftain, lost in her own little world as she flicked the blood from her battle-axe and said a silent prayer to the Mother above, and only then did she notice Huu’s gaze. “He was yer uncle,” she Sent, her tone hoarse and tired as can be, “But he was my brother. Not by choice, not at first, but it became that way because of our shared love of you, so it’s high time ye stopped disgracin’ his memory and pulled yer head out of your ass, ye?”
“Yes Ma,” Huu replied, and he knew it for truth, because for the first time in months, he saw how much his Ma was hurting too, not to mention Yesui and Yosai. They were both frantic and exhausted from keeping up with him in the fight, their hair plastered to their faces and their quins huffing and puffing so hard it was a wonder they had yet to lie down and refuse to fight. There was still a battle to be fought, so this was no time to hug his Ma or his wives, but Huu promised himself to do just that as soon as there was time. Raising his sabre to deliver another killing blow, he found it strange that the Half-Demons were so still and subdued, no longer fuelled by rage and hatred and seemingly distracted and confused. Huu killed two more before the tides of war shifted and the majority of Defiled broke ranks to run, but even though the wolf in him wanted to chase after them for another hunt, he couldn’t find it in him to hate them any more.
Let the Enemy run. He would fight them another day if need be, help Rain re-take the West and clear the province of all Defiled threat, but for now, Huu had a promise to keep, and he was in no mood to wait.
And as he wrapped his arms around his wives and mother, he let go of all his anger and rage and found sorrow and solace in their wake.
Taken aback by his opponent’s unexpected outburst, Baatar took his distance and raised his guard, but it wasn’t necessary. Something had snapped within Ankhbayar, and the young man was no longer right in the head, or at least, so wrong that he could no longer function. “No, no, no,” the exiled traitor mumbled, stumbling about the battlements in a daze. “Lies and slander, for my Path is just. They were wrong, they all were, and I will show them. Have already shown them, for the blood is strong. Two powerful sons I have raised, this, no one can deny, and soon the Empire will have no choice but to accept it and bow down before the true sons and daughters of the Mother Above.”
“You have raised no sons,” Baatar replied, his lip curling into a sneer of utter disdain. There was no accomplishment in striking down a madman, a loss which robbed him of much strength, so he stood and rested while engaging the fool in a battle of words instead. “You sired two outstanding sons, but you had no part in raising them. There is more to greatness than blood, Ankhbayar, you yourself are proof enough, so no matter how many sons or daughters you sire, you will never raise one to be great.”
If the madman heard any of this, he showed no sign of it, so Baatar pushed himself to cut the man down before Naaran or Gerel were forced to do it themselves. That was the least he could do, bear the sin of killing their son and father, so if they should come to hate him for it, then so be it. Though drained and exhausted beyond belief, he scanned the city walls in search of soldiers in need, but the Defiled had no fight left in them. Mother was still busy battling Divinities, but father had just finished his fight, in a most impressive fashion no less. Though his staff bore no pointed tip, he’d still managed to drive it clean through Mao Jianghong’s armoured torso, and the traitor guard captain stood transfixed with blades still in hand, his back straight and eyes unyielding. “I did not lose to you,” he declared, his tone dripping with arrogance and conceit. “Yours was the hand which dealt the blow, but it was not you who defeated me.”
To Baatar’s surprise, Father responded by nodding in agreement, his sagely expression hinting that he gleaned something from Jianghong’s mad ramblings. “Aye. Ye lost to yerself and yer hatred, a battle fought long ago, and ye just been wandering through life ever since. My thanks to ye then, fer showin’ me the error of me ways, and may ye go peacefully into the warm embrace of the Mother Above.”
For the first time since the siege began, Mao Jianghong’s icy façade cracked to show a hint of emotion, a wisp of pained contrition. “I fear Her Embrace will be denied me, and that I shall never be reunited with my family again, but such is the price which must be paid.”
“I disagree.” Gesturing up at the Heavens Above, father’s gruff expression broke out into a cheery smile. “The Mum on high is a forgiving sort, so I’m sure She’ll fight for ye if ye just ask.”
“Perhaps.” Exhaling in what Baatar first thought was a sigh, he realized it was actually Jianghong’s final breath, and he released the breath he didn’t know he’d been holding. Still keeping an eye on the muttering Ankhbayar, Baatar glanced over to Luo-Luo and the wagon of animals only to break out into a smile of pride and relief, for there stood his son, as bright and chipper as could be, next to the two Spiritual Beasts who might well have won them the day, the fearsome tiger Rakshasa and the cowardly rooster Kukku. More importantly, Baatar’s son was alive and well, having returned from his battle with Zhen Shi unscathed, as evidenced by his bright, cheery smile as he greeted each of his pets in turn.
A fool of a boy, to spoil his animals now instead of striking while the iron was hot, but such was his nature, and Baatar would not have him any other way.
There’s a vulgar joke to be made here about a rooster and tiger coming together to make peace and end war, but much as I would love to crack wise, this is hardly the time and place.
It wouldn’t translate over to common anyways, though funnily enough, little bird is slang for penis, which is close enough to rooster and cock. Alas, there’s no equivalent for pussy cat, which is real disappointing, because I haven’t even come up with a joke yet and I’m already chuckling. In my defense, I’m almost giddy with relief now that the battle is won, with the Defiled fleeing in droves while the Imperials hold the wall, but much as I would love to bask in the moment and maybe lie down for a cuddle puddle, there is still work to be done.
Running a hand through my hair to find Pong Pong hidden within, I pluck him out of my man-bun and place him down to Rakky’s head while emanating a brief burst of Aura to tell him everything’s alright and that I got it from here. The little guy lets out the cutest little sigh of relief before snuggling down into Rakky’s luxurious fur, who is much more accepting of Pong Pong’s presence now and no longer so aggrieved. Giving the big cat one last pat on the cheek before doing the same for Kukky, I thank them both for their help before Cloud-Stepping out into the skies to chase after my quarry. Not the fleeing Half-Demons, who I am happy to spare for now, and possibly again if they are open to reason and redemption. That’s a discussion for another day however, for my chosen targets have entered into sight, and I start with Mataram YuKon, the traitor who sold out the Western Province to Zhen Shi. With Unity in hand, I charge into the fray and catch him by surprise, thanks to the new trick I just picked up from Pong Pong which is best described as a flowing current of Concealment. It’s like regular Concealment, but more active and involved, distorting my presence the way water distorts light until none can make it down into its depths. The exact specifics are beyond me, but it’s frighteningly effective for reasons I can’t entirely understand, yet am more than happy to make use of regardless.
Knowing without knowing, until there comes a time when I’ve figured enough out to know more. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and having a calculator doesn’t instantly give you the ability to spit out mathematical proofs, so I need to take this one step at a time.
With the element of surprise on my side, Mataram YuKon is a sitting duck, or at least he should’ve been. Instead, he whips his spear around at the last moment to parry my thrust, my Ground Shrinking Strike still falling short of Akanai’s. Even then, I hold the advantage of momentum, yet again, my foe turns things around, picking apart my second attack and countering with a deadly thrust of his own that just barely misses my throat. In a fair fight, it’s obvious I’m wholly outmatched, because even though I’m slightly faster and stronger than he is, plus infinitely more handsome and dashing, Mataram YuKon has a wealth of experience accrued over who knows how many centuries, since I have no idea how old he really is.
Unfortunately for him, I’m not fighting alone, as my distraction has bought enough time for my Grand Mentor to show me how it’s really done once again. Her ax-lance pierces clean through Mataram Yukon’s stomach and bursts out of the small of his back, gutting him and shattering his spine so thoroughly that muscle and skin are all that holds his upper and lower half together.
A formidable woman, my Grand Mentor, and if not for my Sending, Akanai would have killed him outright, but with Zhen Shi dead and gone, the Empire needs a scapegoat to take the blame for this war, and Mataram YuKon fits the bill nicely. Borrowing a skill I learned from Lawgiver Won Gwang’s Natal Soul, I lock down the traitor’s Spiritual System to prevent him from using his skills too easily, a constricting force that stifles the flow of Chi to keep it stagnant and listless. This plus the gaping wound in his stomach and my Grand-Mentor’s supervision should be enough to keep Mataram YuKon in check, leaving me free to move onto my second and final target of today, someone I’ve been wanting to fight for a real, long time.
“Here piggy, pig, pig!” I bellow, unable to contain myself in all this excitement. “Come out, come out, wherever you are!”
The spike of alarm and adrenaline emanating from Zhu Chanzui is everything I’d hoped it would be and more, his beady eyes widening in fear as he struggles to escape from Machali and Da Hui’s pincer. Even though they aren’t able to kill him, keeping him in place is simple enough, and I show no mercy as I bring Unity down atop his shoulder in a killing blow. To my surprise and relief, Big Poppa Piggy doesn’t die in a single hit, as his defenses are almost as sturdy as Zhen Shi’s, though derived in a different manner. This is a Manifestation of his thick, durable hide, an innate belief that carried over from his past life as a wild-bristleboar, and something he more or less takes for granted. It’s the same as Pong Pong’s defense in that he just believes it will protect him because that is its purpose, a simple belief made true through the power of pure, unmitigated faith.
But I bet my faith in gunpowder is stronger.
Though unharmed by my attack, it was still enough to drive Zhu Chanzui to his knees, which is why I didn’t spot his vicious counter-attack in time. A powerful left hook comes out of nowhere, one that could render me and several buildings behind me into a pulp, but the deadly counter glances off the invisible currents of Heavenly Energy still flowing around me. It’s the same Chi working that kept me Concealed, only now with a different Intent, one meant to envelope and protect like a solid barrier of flowing water. The shift between stealth and defense is so seamless because I don’t even have to think about it, for the Energy of the Heavens themselves know whether it is better to hide or protect me. A flick of my wrist sees Unity go from glaive to rifle, and I draw upon the power inherent in my memories of superior weaponry and the Intent contained within. That’s what I’ve been doing all along with my memes, but while reposts are reviled, everyone knows the Main Character never has to reload until the plotline demands it, enabling me to draw upon this image in question repeatedly without fail.
One with the Weapon and One with the Self, I point the barrel at big poppa piggy’s face with a smile before pulling the trigger. The shot echoes out across the battlefield and sends my foe’s body shooting back into the sand, but there is no spray of blood to accompany it. Even a point-blank shot with Bullet Intent failed to pierce through his Manifested Hide, but I am far from disappointed, for his mouth is bleeding and his mind is concussed by the jolt of this first shot. Here, in a moment of clarity, a revelation comes to me, one which sees my smile grow even wider. Even though I love memes and quips almost more than life itself, I would be the first to admit that they’re kinda sad and cringy. As time went on, I eventually came to the conclusion that the humour was detracting from the effectiveness of my attacks, but there was no proof that this was happening at all. The truth is, after memeing so much on Zhen Shi and failing to kill him, I was starting to get embarrassed by my stupid weeb antics, and so I came up with an excuse to stop, which became a self-fulfilling prophecy. I claimed my memes were less effective because of humour, and so they became less effective, not because of the humour, but because of my wavering Will.
But no more. Memes are every bit a part of me as my love of floof. An awkward, perplexing, and downright shameful part of me, but a part I now accept and embrace wholeheartedly. Because let’s be honest. Who cares if no one gets my jokes? I’m fucking hilarious, and that’s good enough for me.
Planting both boots on top of poppa piggy’s chest while stuffing the barrel of my rifle into his face, I mime myself chambering a round and make the click sound with my mouth. “Okay,” I yell, with as much old school swagger as I can muster. “I’m reloaded.” Thunder claps and sand billows up in clouds around Zhu Chanzui’s head, but the Ancestral Bristleboar still draws breath. “I can do this all day,” I continue, before unleashing a third shot, memeing to my heart’s content and drawing strength and elation from it as I cackle to the high heavens.
Though the mumbled half-grunt is all but indecipherable to the ears, Zhu Chanzui’s actions make his meaning clear as he holds up a copper vessel to hold me off like a Catholic wields a crucifix against vampires. Grateful for the interruption, I take a moment to calm my nerves and find Balance once more, for though there is power within Imbalance, there is danger too, and I need to toe the line even more closely than most. As my temper cools, I’m overcome by a sense of nostalgia standing over the Ancestral Bristleboar as I am, and I lean over to look him dead in his beady little eyes with my rifle still pointed at his head. “You know,” I begin, ignoring his upraised hand the object held within while making no effort to hide the fact that I’m charging up the next Chi bullet for my rifle, “This reminds me of the time I killed your son. I was twelve at the time, coming off six months of slavery, so not in the best health. Didn’t have this rifle back then either, so I stood over his helpless, battered body and clubbed him to death. Took a lot of swinging, but I got it done in the end, and some payback for all the suffering he put me through.” Pressing the barrel of my rifle hard against his cheek and thoroughly enjoying the sight of him squirming beneath it, I add, “His name was Gortan, but you probably didn’t know him. He was the overseer in one of your slave mines, and he made my life a living hell until I got so sick he thought I was dead and tossed me into a pit of corpses.”
Only now do I realize that the battlefield has fallen silent, and every eye is upon us. With the Defiled Half-Demons running for the hills, the Divinities were quick to follow suit, aside from the Demonic Divinities who are lost in the sauce and running around in circles like headless chickens. Aside from them, the only other living Enemy combatants left in Shi Bei are Mataram YuKon and Big Poppa Piggy here, and my words have been imbued with Chi without me even knowing it. I want everyone to hear this, so I continue as is, speaking in a calm and almost soothing tone as I use my chin to gesture at the copper vessel. “That’s how you make it, isn’t it? I’ve been calling it Anathema, but that’s not what it is. It’s Death Energy, the raw, distilled essence of what’s left behind when a living creature breathes its last, but death alone is not enough. No, only those whose lives are filled with suffering and hearts overflowing with hatred or misery can conjure up this Death Energy in reality, Death Energy the Uniter demanded. So, being the enterprising little piggy you are, you bought slaves in droves and subjected them to all manner of torment and suffering, all so you could mass produce this Death Energy for the Enemy to use against us. You thought you were making a weapon, even unleashed it in Shen Mu for a demonstration and used it to kill two good men, Guan Suo and my Dharmapala, but in the end, all your hard work benefitted the Uniter as he took that Death Energy to fuel the process of his Ascension.”
Scoffing at his sheer stupidity, I shake my head in contempt. “And now you hope your last little vial will save you from death? How pitiful. Break it.” Zhu Chanzui lays transfixed in shock, unable to believe his ears or follow through with my demand. “I said break it,” I repeat, spurring him to action, but my patience is already at its end. “Never mind, I’ll do it myself.” The copper vessel comes apart before reaching my hands, leaving only a floating mass of darkness behind, one which comes alive in the sunlight for death will always seek life, just as life will always end in death. “You think this morsel of Death Energy enough to stop me? It’s barely enough to fill the gaps between my teeth.” To prove it, I Devour in a single breath, and neutralize it before it even reaches my Core, yielding less Heavenly Energy than even the piddliest of Demons and just barely enough to fuel a single shot.
But combined with the efforts I’ve already put together, it’s more than enough to kill the piggy, as I discover first-hand after firing my shot, one which explodes his head into a spray of bone and blood while shaking the very sand beneath my feet. The crack of the shot echoes across the city and the dunes surrounding it, and as it fades away, I put all my remaining hatred and enmity of Bristleboars into a single, utterance of, “Pathetic.”
The rush of catharsis is almost too much to bear as I revel in this single moment of triumph, one I value even more than the defeat of the Eternal Emperor. That was a group effort whereas this is all me, one which brings me great personal joy as I unburden myself of a whole slew of stifling regrets. Unable to contain myself, I let loose with a whoop of pure joy and am joined by Buddy’s exuberant howl, one urging me to bring him out for walkies and maybe snatch up some treats along the way. Going with the flow, I lead my sweet doggo out on the hunt, striking down Demonic Divinity after Demonic Divinity as easily as turning a hand, for the emotions I feel now cannot be contained and must be expressed in a healthy way. The first Demon falls to Unity, and the second and third to Peace and Tranquility, but then I am overcome with an urge to style on my foes. A coursing torrent of water Manifests around me, sweeping up a Demon and rendering it into goop, goop which Buddy Devours with glee alongside the other victims of my spirited rampage.
A Manifested Palm imbued with the Mountain Collapsing Strike shatters a bear Demon into pieces. A droplet of water condensed straight out of the air expands and engulfs a four-armed taloned freak. A deafening Sending ruptures a bloated Demon’s innards from within, leaving its outer shell untouched in death, which Buddy chomps through with great relish. One by one, I test out the things I learned from my Natal Souls and the Natal Souls of the Warriors who answered my prayers on the Demonic Divinities caught in Buddy’s trap. Collecting their heads is as easy as collecting cabbages growing on the side of the street, ones which I then feed to my gluttonous dog because he’s adorable when he eats. All too soon however, the battle comes to an end, for there are no more Demonic Divinities to be Devoured. Standing on the sands with my dog beside me, I huff and pant with exertion yet have never felt more alive than I do now.
This is the sheer, unadulterated joy of pure Balance, not restricting emotion but taking them as they come, of following my heart and doing as I please. A Path which does not come naturally to me, but one I will strive for all the same, so that no matter if success or failure awaits me at the end, at least I will know I will have gone living the best life that I can.
Pleased as punch and feeling much relieved, I turn back towards Shi Bei and find the surviving soldiers all watching me with mixed expressions after bearing witness to my deeds these last few minutes. The awe and admiration is thick in the air as my audience exchanges glances in disbelief, but there is also an underlying ambiance of dread and dismay to accompany my actions here today. I, a young talent who is not even twenty-five, just helped take down two powerful Divinity leaders before embarking on a wholesale slaughter of Demonic Divinities. More than that, I made it look easy, meaning the true depths of my strength have yet to be revealed, and I can feel their reverence and obeisance mounting as the masses rally to my banner and submit to my strength without even needing to be asked.
It’s happening isn’t? I’m gonna get a title drop, with everyone chanting my name. Oh my god, this is so exciting. I can almost hear it now, everyone chanting my title and calling me the Undying Div –
“Three cheers for Legate Falling Rain, the Savage Divinity!”
…God fucking damnit BoShui! What the hell did I ever do to you?
Author’s Note: I’d wanted to do a double release, but something came up and I couldn’t finish editing the second chapter in time, so expect one more on Sept 23 at 8pm EDT, or regular release time.
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