Savage Divinity – Chapter 272

 


I’d like to give a shout out to my lastest Patron Tarqvin,  as well as two other anonymous Patrons. Thank you all so much for your support!

 

Sorry for the late chapter, I was watching trailers for Path of Exile and reading no-spoiler reviews for Punisher. Got sidetracked a lot, but here it is. Anyways, since 3.1 for PoE is going to be released on December 8th, I’m gonna call it 3 weeks in advance and say that’s when the last regular chapter of SD will be released. I’ll do everything I can to end on a satisfying note before the long wait, but I make no promises.

 

Anywho, here it is, enjoy.


 

 

Submerged in the void so not as to intrude on Brother’s intimate time with Mila, Baledagh immersed himself in reviewing his latest sparring matches. Even after Brother gave the ‘all clear’ signal, Baledagh continued his secluded training inside their Natal Palace, studying his matches over and over again. Though his memory wasn’t perfect, with Brother’s help they recreated the day’s events well enough for Baledagh’s purposes, allowing him visualize his flaws and learn from his mistakes.

 

A Natal Palace was an incredible tool and since learning of it’s applications, Baledagh was loath to waste time outside it on common matters like eating, playing, or sleeping. Here, Baledagh could practice the Forms in their entirety and glean new Insights while only a single minute passed out in the outside world. He didn’t do this often since it heavily taxed his mental fortitude and he feared slipping back into a dreamless sleep, but even without trying he felt like ten days passed in here for every twenty-four hours out there. He loved it here, lacking all distractions and complications, the perfect place to train and improve, so when Brother ‘suggested’ they swapped places once a day, Baledagh tried everything he could to avoid it. Unfortunately, Brother’s control over their mental plane was unmatched and while he couldn’t outright evict Baledagh from their Natal Palace, he made the stay highly unpleasant in a variety of imaginative ways.

 

Thus, when Brother appeared with a smile and mentioned it was his time to use the Natal Palace, Baledagh obediently took control before the thousands of smiling, soulless, bearded midgets could make their appearance, singing their horrid song off-key and out of sync.

 

Stepping out of the void, Baledagh found himself in a crowded marketplace, with Tali and Tate in his arms and Banjo on his back. Staggering beneath the weight, he inwardly cursed Brother’s carelessness, forgetting Baledagh’s Reinforcement was not yet at a level where he could carry Banjo’s bulk with ease. Spying Mei Lin’s hare-ears and scarf, he struggled to keep up even as the crowd pressed in around him, his body breaking out in a cold sweat.

 

Something was wrong. Though he hated crowds, this was far worse than his normal response, as if a terrifying presence were watching him, waiting for an opening to strike. Swallowing his panic, Baledagh’s head swivelled left and right as he moved, keeping a nervous watch on their surroundings. Should he put the children down? No, they might be trampled by the crowd if a fight broke out. If only the quins were here, but Pafu and Suret didn’t like being surrounded by strangers. How was Baledagh to protect the twins and Mei Lin while burdened like this? The unseen watcher filled him with dread, his breath short and nerves frayed, but after a few minutes of shaky panic, the feeling eased away and into nothingness.

 

Shivering in the aftermath, Baledagh’s cheeks burned with shame. He was a soldier, a warrior, one who faced wild beasts and Defiled Champions without batting an eye, yet when surrounded by unskilled commoners and towering buildings as far as the eye could see, he grew dizzy and short of breath trying to find an imagined threat hidden amongst them. Luckily, the scowling Jimjam and ambling Baloo were intimidating enough to keep the horde away else Baledagh might’ve lashed out at some poor innocent bystander. There was nothing to fear here at the Bridge, but Baledagh still kept a wary out eye out for the twins sake. Bundled in their winter clothes and scarves, the pair of chubby children were a delight to behold, their eyes wide with excitement as Baledagh pressed forward through the mob. What made them look especially darling was their knitted hats, with two curled yarn horns on either side and yarn beards to keep their chins warm.

 

Baledagh would never forgive himself if they came to harm while under his protection, but his inexperience combined with the mass of possible assailants, he was having trouble keeping calm. Why was his hand hurting so much? How was he supposed to hold a sword? Worse, Brother wasn’t heeding his calls for help after sinking deep into the void, aware of nothing but awareness itself.

 

Get it together Baledagh, this isn’t a battlefield.

 

He dreaded these brief hours filling in for Brother every day. Were if up to Baledagh, he’d spend the two hours locked away in their ger practising the Forms, but Brother soon caught on and started making commitments every few days to force Baledagh out into the world. It was a nice thought, but these excursions only served to drive home the reality of his situation; he was a stranger in his own life. These sweeping changes taking place in and around them proved his point, as each time Baledagh emerged it seemed like he’d stepped into a different world. The restored ruins of the city were now teeming with life as the hubbub of the market drowned out his thoughts. The sea of gers had ebbed away leaving this tide of towering brown-stone buildings in its place. Wagon wheels and horse hooves clicked over paved stone roads, carrying soldiers and goods as merchants haggled with customers in furious shouting matches, only to come to an agreement and part smiling mere seconds later. Strangers greeted him with grateful smiles while familiar faces took on unfamiliar transformations. Even Banjo and Baloo were no longer the large-headed, pot-bellied cubs of yesteryear, now more appropriately proportioned like small adults with developed personalities and quirks.

 

Life was passing by as Baledagh hid in the Natal Palace, but rather than face these changes head on, he retreated to the void. No matter how Brother tried, he didn’t understand, couldn’t understand. This wasn’t Baledagh’s life, so he felt no attachment to it. He hungered for the day when he’d have a body to call his own, and with it, a life. Though it might be decades before he could introduce himself as Baledagh and not masquerade as Falling Rain, the mere possibility was enough to change Baledagh’s outlook on life, no longer succumbing to periods of dark moods and indifferent apathy. Instead, he threw all his focus into training because when that fateful day arrived, Baledagh hoped to stand alongside Brother as an ally and peer.

 

Unfortunately, Brother wasn’t playing fair. While Baledagh worked fastidiously inside the Natal Palace, learning to simultaneously Hone and Reinforce, Brother spent all his free time snuggling with birds, bears, quins, wildcats, and now, Mila. Yet after months of arduous effort totalling theoretical years inside the Natal Palace, Baledagh’s improvements paled in comparison with Brother’s, pushing the day when Baledagh might fight side by side with Falling Rain ever further into the future. Where Baledagh steadily improved one step at a time, Brother often skipped steps after receiving some sudden Insight or Enlightenment from watching Baledagh or training with former Bannermen.

 

Truly blessed by the Mother.

 

Though they were brothers sharing the same body, Falling Rain and Baledagh were worlds apart. While Baledagh sparred and lost to children, Falling Rain held his own against expert and elites twice his age. While Baledagh fought with wooden weapons in a level, sheltered arena, Falling Rain fought with Peace and Tranquility in frozen forests, buffered from all sides by the chilling wind and biting cold. While Baledagh aspired to become a heroic warrior, Falling Rain was a heroic warrior and worst of all, cared nothing for the title.

 

There was no comparing the two of them. Baledagh fell short in every way, which made him both proud and jealous.

 

It wasn’t sheer luck, Brother worked hard too, but their body needed time to recover. What’s more, becoming stronger wasn’t merely about Martial Skill as battles between experts hinged primarily on the use of Chi and Baledagh was years behind in this aspect. For example, if Baledagh were matched against the towering giant Ulfsaar, he’d be overpowered in seconds by the half-bear’s daunting strength and savage ferocity. In turn, using a combination of Reinforcement, Deflection, and Amplification, Brother defeated the former bandit with a single counter-strike multiple times in a row, which barely scratched the surface of Brother’s incredible new depths.

 

Compounding Baledagh’s hardships, Fung, Dastan, and BoShui were now making their spars less about Martial Skill and more about showing off their newfound prowess at manipulating Chi. Song and Zian still dominated their matches using superior Martial Skills, but the others were visibly improving day by day. This afternoon, Baledagh narrowly avoided an instant defeat at BoShui’s hands, his ordinary, forward punch almost doubling in speed and power after mere days of forming his Natal Palace. His skill with Reinforcement and Stability improved in similar fashion and with steady footing and the ability to shift his centre of balance on a whim, BoShui was now a threat to contend with.

 

Hmph. How shameful. To think, Baledagh once believed himself talented beyond all measure but he now knew how high the heavens truly were. There weren’t enough hours in a day for him to catch up to Song much less Mila or Brother, and now he was forced to take time out of his training to… to do what exactly?

 

The answer soon revealed itself as Mei Lin brought them to a quaint little tea-house just off the main thoroughfare. Ah, so it was a tea date, how whimsical and meaningless. Repressing a sigh, he followed her up to the empty second floor where she declined the menu and ordered ‘a pot of their finest tea and one of everything’, exactly as a child of luxury would. So extravagent and wasteful, how could the four of them possibly eat so much? Though Brother loved the girl, Baledagh couldn’t help but feel like she was ill-suited for him, a spoiled, pampered princess who knew nothing of hardship. Besides, what was he thinking sending Baledagh out on a date with her? At least she wasn’t clinging to his arm or chatting away like she usually did, acting like a proper young lady here in public, despite having likely booked out the entire second floor for the sake of privacy.

 

A good thing too, because despite her behaviour, Mei Lin was a beautiful young woman who Baledagh had little to no resistence against.

 

Avoiding awkward conversation by using Banjo and the twins as his shield, Baledagh faked his way through the date for a full twenty minutes, though Mei Lin seemed in a foul mood. “So rude,” she muttered, glancing at the entrance below, so unlike her usual, chipper self. “They’re late.”

 

Catching himself before he gave away his ignorance, he munched on some dried squid and made a note to have a long discussion with Brother about boundaries. Soon, the mystery guest arrived at the tea house, a slim, wiry man in his thirties. It was always hard to tell with Martial Warriors and this one was undoubtedly a warrior. Despite his lack of weapon or armour, everything from his gait to his neat collar screamed of military training. After making his way upstairs, the man gave a stiff bow towards Baledagh without giving the others a single glance. “A thousand apologies for my late arrival,” he said, failing to appear the least bit contrite. “Your shipment has arrived. If it pleases you, follow me to inspect your merchandise.”

 

Frowning, Mei Lin asked, “Who are you? Is our business not good enough for Yazhu to come greet us?”

 

Typical brat, she’s probably upset this man didn’t fawn her enough or refer to himself as ‘this lowly one’. Waving his hand, Baledagh said, “Leave it be, it’s a small matter.” Sensing an opportunity, he added, “Why don’t you stay here with the twins and finish the food while I handle this. Won’t be long.” Most of the remaining food was already being fed to the pets, so without waiting for an answer, Baledagh threw on his coat and hurried down the stairs with the soldier turned merchant on his heels.

 

Their destination was merely minutes away at an unmarked store. Inside, the walls were lined with bamboo cages filled with slaves standing shoulder to shoulder. Varying in age and colour, most shared the same wretched look of utter defeat, staring at the floor and wondering if their new master would be cruel or kind, heartless or compassionate. Finally understanding why Brother sent him here, Baledagh set to searching for Tainted, eager to replenish his stores of Heavenly Energy. Thinking back on how much he’d wasted on mere healing or Insights made his heart ache. Although what they’d gathered to date was not even a fraction of the estimated amount needed to create a new body, he still felt like a fool for wasting so much, especially in light of how difficult it was to find Tainted. It might be easier to search for Defiled, but sadly, he couldn’t devour Spectres who were attached to true Defiled. Those Spectres were anchored to their hosts, disappearing after death to go where souls went, whether it be the Father’s Maw, Mother’s arms, or directly onto the next life.

 

Unable to find a single Tainted, Baledagh scowled and asked, “Is this all of them?”

 

The soldier-turned-merchant answered, “Yes, but I must warn you, there might be people from Sanshu among them, ones who escaped the Purge.”

 

The slaves set to wailing about their innocence, but Baledagh ignored their cries. Something in the stilted way the man spoke made Baledagh pause. Turning to face him, Baledagh noted the wiry merchant’s demeanour, stony-faced and straight-backed. Why would a merchant warn off a potential buyer like this? Only a warmhearted fool like Brother would disregard the warning, resulting in a lost sale or worse if the client went to the guards. Either this merchant was an idiot or seeking death.

 

 

or…

 

Testing the waters, Baledagh feigned horror and recoiled, even though several seconds had already passed. “Aiding criminals to avoid the Purge is a capitol offence. We must turn them over to the guards!” Seeing the man frown at his unexpected reaction, Baledagh felt he’d made the right decision. Something was off, a sane man would be pleading for his life, but this one only seemed mildly annoyed.

 

And was staring at something behind Baledagh.

 

Ducking down, Baledagh felt something sail overhead as he drove his Reinforced elbow into the unseen assailant’s ribs. Rewarded with a satisfying gasp, he drew Peace with his left hand and bashed the assailant’s face with the hilt. As the assailant fell to the ground, Baledagh pointed Peace at the wiry merchant. “I don’t know what game you’re playing,” he growled, “but you should thank the Mother I don’t care enough to find out. Move and you die. I have plenty of witnesses to corroborate-”

 

A meaty arm clamped around his waist and threw him off-balance, the downed assailant not as unconscious as he’d thought. Snarling in anger, Baledagh abandoned all mercy and stabbed the man clean through the face, spraying blood all around as he withdrew his sword. The dead man’s efforts were not in vain as they bought enough time for the wiry soldier to arm himself with a hidden rapier. Thrusting out, the wiry soldier put the full weight of his body behind the blade, showing no thought of retreat or escape and boldly putting his all into this one attack. At the last possible moment, he unleashed his Aura, a wave of daunting panic crashing into Baledagh even as the cold, naked blade pierced towards his head.

 

Clever. Even if Baledagh had an Aura to counter him, the assassin hoped the momentary delay would be enough to take his life.

 

Two months ago, it might well have.

 

Drawing on his rage, Baledagh howled as his Aura erupted outwards, a wave of pure, unadulterated blood lust pushing back against his foe. Leaping back, he smashed the rapier aside  before reversing his strike, victory already his. The soldier had no method to defend and he knew it, completely vulnerable after his all-or-nothing attack. There was no shock or hatred in the wiry soldier’s eyes, no fear or regret, only bitter shame written across his face as Peace’s Honed edge clove clean through his neck.

 

Heart pumping and chest heaving, Baledagh struggled to control his rage, staring at the surrounding slaves and daring them to make a move. That’s where the unseen assailant had come from, one of the bamboo cages. Caught by his Aura, the slaves were helpless before him, sheep ready for the slaughter, and it’s what they deserved. None of them had warned him about the ambush, standing silent while these men tried to murder him.

 

Forcefully exhaling, Baledagh shook his head and grinned wryly. He couldn’t blame this on the Spectres, these thoughts were his own. Rehabilitation was a slow process, but dark thoughts didn’t make him a monster. So long as he didn’t act on them, then thoughts were all they were. Striding out into the busy streets, he raised his voice and shouted, “Could someone call the guards? There’s been an incident.”

 

Traffic paused as every eye turned towards him, their faces blanching in terror. One person turned to run and in the space of a few heartbeats, the street was empty and devoid of life. Glancing down at his blood covered body, Baledagh chuckled beneath his breath.

 

Right. Blood.

 

His goal accomplished, Baledagh stepped back into the store and waited for the guards to arrive. While he didn’t know why these soldiers tried to kill him, he wasn’t too concerned about it. 

 

Great men will always have enemies, and Brother was undoubtedly a great man.

 

Chapter Meme

 

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Savage Divinity – Chapter 271

 

Being a Chi-blessed Martial Warrior means I’m pretty resilient to the elements, but it’s still unpleasant going out when it’s cold enough to freeze your balls off. Though I still trained every day, Baatar gave me strict orders to not overdo it which meant I’ve had plenty of time to sit around indoors and read over the past few months. Aside from his notes on Runic crafting, hidden inside volumes of his insipid, uninspiring poetry, Yo Ling’s library doesn’t have much I find interesting, but boredom is a powerful motivator. Even the driest, dullest historical records become riveting after hours of practice in my Natal Palace.

 

I don’t know how Baledagh can stand staying there for weeks at a time. I get all neurotic once I notice the flaws, like how I’m not breathing or never blink. Super weird stuff.

 

According to the history books, the Northern Bridge was originally defended only by a single barrier, the now crumbling Outer Wall. Initially, the city wasn’t a real city, merely a gathering of tents and temporary shelters where soldiers went to satisfy two important needs: sex and gambling. The higher-ups of the time looked the other way, which is understandable since soldiers were likely to riot if the closest prostitutes or bookmakers were hours away. Seeing this as tacit permission to ply her trade, one enterprising Madam/Pimp grew sick of living in a tent and decided to do something about it.

 

Thus, the first building in what would later be known merely as ‘the City’, was a whorehouse.

 

Sensing money to be made, merchants and entrepreneurs arrived in droves to offer their wares and services to the brave men and women serving at the Wall. Once criminal elements moved in and started fighting over territory and profits, all hell broke loose, an easily anticipated outcome according to every historian who has ever written anything on the subject. In mere months, the City grew out of control and devolved into a sprawling mess of shoddy buildings and ramshackle huts, a lawless land of sex, drugs, and booze which persisted for decades.

 

The fun times came to an end when one unfortunate Commander of the Wall met his demise inside the City. The now unnamed hero often went out in disguise to mingle with his soldiers and get a feel for their overall mood, but it wasn’t long before the great warrior developed a myriad of crippling addictions to various illicit substances. Out of coin and unwilling to delay gratification by returning to his room for more, this brilliant, capable general resorted to murdering and robbing a street vendor in order to feed his habit. Still standing over the corpse as he packed his pipe, the Commander of the Wall died to a mob of untrained drug vendors looking out for their own, a peerless expert stabbed in the neck while taking a hit.

 

Drugs are bad, mkay?

 

The succeeding Commander got shit done. Despite owing his promotion to their efforts, he had the responsible parties publicly tortured and executed before embarking on a mission to drive the criminal elements out of the City through sheer violence. Patting himself on the back for a job well done, the new Commander went back to defending the Wall and ignoring the City’s existence. Within a week, a wave of new criminals arrived to fill the void, but with so many of his soldiers dependent on their wares, there was little he could do but turn a blind eye to these newcomers.

 

Throughout history, the City has been torn down and rebuilt countless times. Most recently, Baatar ordered the City torn down to deny the Defiled cover and create kill zones for his archers. Usually, a new City is rebuilt on the ruins of the old but former Marshal Shing Du Yi was a fan of neat, orderly lines. Before sacrificing his life to ensure his daughter’s safety, the old man drew up a plan for a new city with help from Major General Han BoHai, BoShui’s uncle and BoLao’s father, which Yuzhen carried out against all protests.

 

After months of laying groundwork in harsh, freezing conditions, the newest iteration of the City looks nothing like the chaotic affairs of the past. Modeled after the Society Headquarters, a grid of straight, unobstructed pathways delineate the City into a series of districts, with each district serving a specific purpose whether it be residential, commercial, manufacturing, or military. On the premise of making the City and Walls safer, Yuzhen’s first act as Marshal was to seize all lands between the Walls for the province and renting it to civilians who wish to use them, an unpopular but brilliant move. Anyone who wants to open a business or build a home or store must apply for permission and adhere to strict guidelines which means Yuzhen has the authority to evict tenants or seize merchandise for failing to meet standards, not to mention all the information she’s getting for free when people apply. Considering she also writes the standards, it’s safe to say she has near absolute power over the City. Good or bad, who can say? Maybe a thousand years from now, historians will all write about how Yuzhen’s actions were all obvious signs of doom and destruction.

 

Despite our differences, I have to admit, she’s going to leave a mark in the history books.

 

 

Either way, it pays to have friends in high places. Since my gers weren’t permanent structures and in a district designated for the People, there wasn’t any need to secure permits, but my school and Mila’s forge were a whole different matter. Skipping all the red tape, I received my permits with minimal fuss for the low cost of cooking one romantic dinner for Gerel and Yuzhen, along with one night of babysitting the twins to pay for Charok’s assistance. 

 

Straddling the border between a calm residential area and bustling market, the brown-brick building has the best of both worlds. Three stories tall and eighty meters wide, the drab appearance is at odds with its purpose, the building teeming with life as people enter and exit through the extravagant double doors. Carved by Charok out of solid oak, the doors depict a grinning bear on the left and a smiling wildcat on the right, though at the moment they’re obstructed by throng of people orderly waiting beneath the temporary awnings put up to keep them out of the wind.

 

Despite devoting the entire first floor to the kitchen and cafeteria, there isn’t enough room to feed everyone at once, so the staff works non-stop making sure everyone gets a meal. While simple, the food here is a cut above what the majority have at home, since most people can’t afford to use spices, salts, and meat for every meal. Once word spread, the number of visitors coming for meals rose exponentially and I’ve been struggling to find a solution ever since. Stressing the place was for people unable to feed themselves didn’t work and I refuse to lower my standards and provide worse meals. Why should the needy suffer because of a bunch of parasites?

 

Wanting to believe people are inherently good, I had my staff ask for donations and stress it was voluntary and only if they could spare the coin, but what usually happens is those who can’t afford to eat donate their last coppers while those who can pretend they have no coin. Being taken advantage of puts a real damper on my charitable aspirations but I’m reluctant to request proof of poverty or do background checks for a meal, nor am I willing to have visitors shamed for accepting a handout.

 

This is why I hate people, they’re the worst. Empathy sucks.

 

Whatever, the good still outweighs the bad. Long as I help one family in need for every hundred, greedy, duplicitous misers looking for a free meal, it’s worth it. Besides, feeding everyone is a drop in the bucket compared to my other expenses, and my earnings from my merchant enterprises can cover it indefinitely.

 

Plus, it’s great cover for what’s really happening inside.

 

Leaving Mafu and my pets in the adjoining stables, I enter through the back to avoid the hubbub of the dining area and load a tray with food before heading straight to the second floor. Peeking in on the classrooms as I pass by, the sight of so many children sitting and learning puts a smile on my face, the main reason I opened this school. Here, these kids spend their mornings practising the Forms, learning to read, do math, and generally being kids with full bellies and warm beds if they need them. The pessimist in me set down rules to avoid my teachers abusing their power, but there haven’t been any incidents aside from Taduk literally scaring the piss out of one group of children with a lecture on battle-field first aid, complete with detailed, life-like drawings of the most common injuries.

 

I love him like a father, but Taduk is sorely lacking in common sense. I don’t know how Lin turned out so well adjusted.

 

Entering the supply closet, I close the door behind me before fumbling for the hidden dial behind the second shelf with my uninjured hand. It’s hard to get to with my left hand and my right one is currently in no shape to be turning dials. Imagining all sorts of unseen, creepy crawlies back there, I finally find the dial and turn it, two clicks left, three right, then five left. Once I’m finished, the bookshelf rumbles as I pull my hand back, then pivots aside to reveal a secret, spiral staircase stretching down into the dark bowels of the earth.

 

So awesome.

 

I can’t help but grin like an idiot every time I do this, pretending I’m on my way to handle some super secret spy stuff. Chakha handled most of the construction personally with help from Dastan and his enslaved retinue, which means no one knows about this place unless I want them to know. It’s so secret Mila doesn’t even know about it, because telling Mila is as good as telling Song who will immediately blab everything to Akanai, which I can’t have.

 

The temperature drops with each step as clouds of white mist form with every breath I take. At the end of the staircase stands an ominous, heavily reinforced steel door set into solid, frozen bedrock, an impenetrable barrier to all but the strongest of foes. Ten meters of stone and dirt separate this room from the cafeteria above, a feat of construction and engineering which boggles my mind, especially since it was all done in a single night by one of Taduk’s secretive associates. All I know about him is his gender and only because Taduk accidentally let it slip, which means it isn’t Guard Leader or her cronies. Or it was and Taduk was being crafty by making me think it wasn’t by intentionally using a masculine pronoun…

 

Nah, it’s totally a dude. Not to disparage my Teacher, but he’s about as subtle as a sledgehammer.

 

Since the hidden dial on the second floor triggered a bell inside the room, I’m not left waiting in the cold for long. With a metallic groan, the locks disengage and the door swings open to reveal a sinister-looking hooded figure standing at the door. “Rain my boy,” the shadow exclaims, gesturing for me to enter. “Come in before the heat escapes.” Pulling me in, Taduk shuts the door and glares in mock reproach while feigning a shiver. “This damned freezing workroom will be the death of me.”

 

With his round, friendly face and hare ears poking out the front of his hood, Taduk looks too lovable to be intimidating. “Sorry Teacher, but we couldn’t put in ventilation since sound would travel through it.” Giving him a hearty hug, I point at his coat hanging on a peg by the door. “It’d probably be warmer if you wore that.”

 

“Nonsense my boy, even a child knows coats are for wearing outdoors.” Frowning, Taduk takes my injured hand and studies the makeshift splint before raising both eyebrows in question. Incapable of raising only one eyebrow, he still tries without success and I don’t have the heart to tell him to stop, mostly because it makes him look adorably surprised.

 

“Small accident at Mila’s forge.” Whilst in the throes of passion, she clamped her legs so tight she broke my hand. At least it was just a hand and now that we know she’s a convulser, we can take appropriate steps in the future, like not letting her wrap her legs around… well any part of me. Gorgeous as they are, Mila’s thighs are scary strong.

 

If I’d gone down on her, she might’ve broken my neck.

 

What a way to reroll…

 

“I see.” Releasing my hand, Taduk asks, “Why don’t you heal it?”

 

“I figured I should let it heal normally, you know, toughen up my bones.” I’m not giving up, that was the closest I’ve come to sex in years. Injury aside, I’m happy with how things went. Could’ve gone better, but knowing I can bring her to orgasm with only my fingers is a huge boost to my ego. Plus, she was so horrified and remorseful, it was totally worth the broken bones. While I didn’t get to have fun, I’m mostly satisfied with how things went.

 

Lefty, I’ll be counting on you later tonight. Thank the Mother it was Righty who got clamped. Your sacrifice will not be forgotten.

 

Dropping the matter, Taduk devours his meal in record time before bringing me to his solid stone worktable. “You’ve come at the perfect time, I was just about to start when you rang the bell.” The table is as immaculate as the rest of the room, my muddle headed Teacher dependable when it counts. A circular shield sits in the centre of the table, with a thick, metal dome suspended over it. Neatly arranged around the shield are five sealed jars of different coloured liquids. A multitude of tools sit along side the jars and shield, a small hammer, carving chisels in various shapes and sizes, glass pipettes as thin as a needle, and much more.

 

Though the jars of liquid don’t look like much, they would have cost me almost half my wealth to buy, a mind boggling sum considering how rich I am. Or was, before spending so much on training, infrastructure, gear and whatnot. Four of the jars contain rare, but mundane liquids, mercury, jade scorpion venom, oil of shimmer root, and acid distilled from the bile of a half-dozen rare animals. They were hard to find, but it was a cakewalk compared to what’s in the last jar, a blue liquid called Dragon’s Blood. To my supreme disappointment, it’s not actually blood, only a mixture of volatile and hazardous materials, most of which neither I nor Taduk had ever heard of.

 

Thankfully, everything we needed was back on Yo Ling’s island (hooray for looting), making our first venture into Runic Inscriptions cost next to nothing, aside from building a secret lab and other miscellaneous stuff. Shuffling to the side, I watch in silence as Taduk closes his eyes and mentally prepares for the task ahead, his months of secretive failure weighing heavily upon him. I wish we didn’t have to do things like this, but Inscribing Runes requires external Chi manipulation and I’m still a ways from my first success. What’s more, I’m 100% certain the whole bit about Yo Ling trapping Spirits to enhance his Runic creations will have Akanai raring to burn the book, after which she’ll forbid me from looking into it. Baatar does everything Akanai tells him to and Charok tells Alsantset everything who tells Baatar everything, which means Lin and Taduk are the only ones I can trust with this.

 

Well… Initially I only wanted to tell Taduk, but he can’t keep secrets from Lin. If he holed up and disappeared without telling her, I’m sure she’d curl up in a ball and cry for days without end. As much as she loves me, Lin is and always will be a daddy’s girl. If she didn’t love sleeping in and hate small, enclosed spaces, she’d probably be down here helping him.

 

Thankfully, Taduk agreed with my point of view on how Energy is all the same and was willing to put in the effort to learn. Eager in fact, so eager he made the trip to Yo Ling’s island without me, making it there and back in three short days. He didn’t even bring Wang Bao with him, just spent an hour taking notes before zipping off in his rickshaw. I don’t know how he did it so quickly and he won’t say, but I’m guessing he had help from his secret expert friends.

 

Unfortunately, my Teacher has yet to succeed. I still don’t fully understand how runes work but Taduk seems to have a firm grasp on the situation. According to his explanation, Inscribing a rune isn’t as simple as drawing a symbol on an object. Though they’re called runes and Yo Ling describes it as the language of Energy, they aren’t static characters or a translatable system of words, because energy doesn’t think like a living creature would, it just… is. Runes are more of a concept, one which tries to bridge the gap between human intentions and natural law, persuading the Energy of the Heavens to act in a certain way against it’s nature.

 

Essentially, it’s magic. Even after months of trying to wrap my head around it, my grasp on the mechanics of Runic Inscription is virtually nonexistent.

 

What’s more, the rune changes based on the shape, size, and material of the object being inscribed. As I understand it, the bigger the object, the bigger the rune. It’s why the OuYang Patriarch made five rings from different coloured jade, to show off his skill. While the shape remained constant and it’s hard to get smaller than a ring, black jade and green jade are just different enough to matter when it comes to inscribing runes. Since then, rumours say he’s moved on to bigger and better runes, inscribing iron helmets and bracers, though still unable to work with steel or larger breastplates.

 

Meanwhile, my Teacher is starting with full-sized steel-shields since he doesn’t want to waste the effort Inscribing a ‘defensive hat’.

 

Silly, kindhearted, and egotistical. That’s my teacher, but I wouldn’t change a thing about him.

 

Without warning, Taduk opens his eyes and sets to work, his hammer and chisel dancing in his hands as he carves out an intricate pattern across the steel shield’s surface. While visually impressive, it’s nothing compared to the unseen work carried out using his expert control of Chi, weaving it into and around the shield as he works. A chip here, a scrape there, switching chisels on the fly as he engraves an increasingly complicated design onto the shield free hand. One wrong move and the inscription is ruined, but Taduk continues his work without pause, focused but unchallenged by this mundane work.

 

This, oddly enough, is the easy part.

 

After thirty minutes of engraving, Taduk puts down his hammer and chisels and moves on to the next step without rest as required by the process. His hands blur through the air as he uses the needle-thin glass pipettes to bring single drops of liquid to the shield, painstakingly going over his carved design with each fluid, bit by bit. He doesn’t merely coat the shield in it, each liquid can only go over certain areas which somehow forms the channels through which Chi will flow.

 

Only a miniscule amount is used during each try, but the jars only came with enough liquid for around sixty odd tries. Now half as full as they once were, Taduk only has two to three dozen more shots at this before we’ll have to find more and who knows how long that will take. Doing so without attracting unwanted attention will be difficult, especially since we need to keep Akanai and Baatar in the dark before we have a successful model made. This means we can’t use Yuzhen or Fung’s dad, our only real options. I could ask Magistrate Tongzu for help, but without an Oath, I’m not sure if he can be trusted, which probably means I shouldn’t.

 

Hissing sharply, Taduk slams a button next to him which drops the suspended metal dome onto the shield and nothing else. Clamping the dome in place, Taduk crosses his arms and huffs as a muted explosion rings out, emanating from the shield he was just engraving.

 

And that’s why I had to build a secret underground lab.

 

“Difficult, truly difficult,” Taduk says, already lost in thought. “It’s the right move switching from chest armor to shields. Shields are uniform in size, weight, and materials whereas breastplates would need to vary in height, width, depth, and by extension weight, but the Rune changes too much in the process. The notes are next to useless now…” Mulling over his notes as smoke wafts out from the dome, he starts muttering a string of unintelligible syllables, somehow using rhythm and cadence to determine how the rune should be carved.

 

Like I said… Magic.

 

My consoling words go ignored as Taduk shoos me out of the room with a wave of his hand and a promise to figure it out ‘soon’. Giving him a hug farewell, I make my way up the stairs a little sadder than I arrived, but warmed by my Teacher’s efforts to help. While part of his drive is pure curiosity and a thirst for knowledge, I also know he’d study the Runic rings if given a choice. Since many miraculous medical plants require decades, if not centuries or millennia to gather enough Heavenly Energy, a runic item which could speed things along would be highly desirable to someone who seeks to improve lives through basic medicine. Instead of working on his own dream or convincing me to share his, he’s studying how to make shields because he wants to keep me safe.

 

Although I love him like a father, I know it pales compared to how much he loves me.

 

It makes sense. There’s no love greater than the love a parent has for their child.

 

Chapter Meme

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Savage Divinity – Chapter 270

 


Whew! Today is a good day, as I have something to share from my favourite artist, Jess. I present to you, Chibi Dastan in all his glory!

So adorable. I just wanna pinch his cheeks and hug him. Thank you!


 

Finishing the latest draft for her new Spiritual Weapon, Mila leaned back and groaned, too exhausted to feel anything but relieved of her burdens. Though she’d long ago set her sights on becoming a Hero of the Empire and a Divine Blacksmith, for the first time in her life, she seriously regretted the decision. There weren’t enough hours in a day for Mila to get enough rest much less do everything she needed to, her Martial skills left to rot as she devoted herself to unravelling the secrets of the forge. Eight Spiritual Weapons in less than half a year, an incredible feat for a craftsman twice her age if not more, but Mama’s voice sounded in Mila’s mind, warning her against arrogance.

 

The memory was from Mila’s first time objecting to Mama’s harsh training regimen, claiming since she was the strongest youth in the village, she could afford to sleep in. In response, Mama plucked her out of bed and tossed her out the window into a pile of snow. Arms crossed without a hint of a smile, Mama stood in the warm room and enunciated each word in her low, rich tone. ‘Do not measure yourself by the accomplishments of others. Pigeons and dragons are both capable of flight, but there is no comparing the two.’ The words struck a chord in Mila even as the cold seeped into her bones, a memory she treasured to this day. Though it seemed a harsh way to treat a ten-year-old, this was the attitude required to not only outdo one’s peers, but to transcend them. Genius is worthless without hard work, and even hard work is no shield against death.

 

Mama would be pleased to know she could nag Mila into humility from across time and space.

 

Despite Mama’s exhausting training methods, these past months were some of the most gruelling times Mila had ever had to endure, slaving away at the whims of haunting Inspiration and fickle creativity. Papa didn’t force her to work day and night with minimal rest, but every time she closed her eyes, she was bombarded by questions and ideas which plagued her sleep, pushing her to wake and perfect her craft. She took no pride in her accomplishments, cringing every time she gazed upon the unsightly flaws and glaring failures apparent on each of her works. If only she could steal away the Spiritual Weapons from Rain’s former cripples and destroy them, fearing to be judged by these shoddy, inferior works. At least they were still adequate melee weapons, only a little poorly balanced due to the rifle components. 

 

A knocked sounded at the door followed by a wary, “Hello?”

 

“Coming.” Recognizing Rain’s voice, Mila unlocked the door and suffered a blast of freezing winter air to let him in. Wearing only a sleeveless shirt and loose pants, Mila retreated to the heat of her waiting furnace, banked and ready to explode with heat at a moment’s notice. A necessary expense in case Inspiration struck again, as the greatest works were forged under the Mother’s guidance. This was Mila’s shrine and temple to the Mother, a place of work and worship when the sacrament of Inspiration and ceremony of Forging took place, creating the tools with which they used to harness the Energy of the Heavens. Everything in here, the furnace, the bellows, the ovens, and even the hardwood shelves and tool racks were a part of Rain’s lavish, expensive betrothal gift. She loved every centimetre of her new forge, lovingly designed by herself and put together by the finest craftsmen.

 

So it broke Mila’s heart to see her sanctuary despoiled by a group of wild animals traipsing in with their dirty boots and paws without a care in the world. Two bears and two wildcats, the ill-mannered beasts left puddles of melted snow and drool on her marbled, dark stone floors, flinging dirt and water into the air with blissful enthusiasm as if their sole purpose was to contaminate her forge. At least Mafu stayed in the adjoining stables to keep Atir company, else Mila might snap and toss them all out into the cold, adorable though the animals and her betrothed might be. Unrepentant and ignorant of his crimes, Rain marched to her work desk and carelessly moved her still-drying documents aside to make room for a covered tray of food, flashing his charming, idiotic grin as if he’d accomplished a feat worthy of note. “You missed today’s spar,” he said, gesturing for her to sit and eat. “I figured you skipped lunch again, so I bought a bowl of spicy soup noodles and dumplings on the way over. The meat is fresh so eat while it’s still reasonably warm.” Glancing at her furnace, he added, “It’d taste better if we heat it up…”

 

“Hmph. Don’t you dare. My forge is not a kitchen for you to cook in.” Knowing he meant well, Mila ignored the mess and made her way to the chair. “Thanks for the meal, I’m starving.” Speaking around a mouthful of noodles, she asked, “How did today’s spar go?”

 

Taking a seat beside her, Rain cupped his chin and answered, “Three wins and two losses.” His warm amber eyes drank in the sight of her, and she did her best to ignore his lascivious gaze, trying not to think about how dirty and dishevelled she must look. Her hair was a mess, face covered in ink and soot, wearing only a thin, sweat-soaked shirt which clung to her like a second skin-

 

Stopping mid-bite to cover her chest, Mila’s glare only made Rain’s grin grow wider. “Lecher.” Honestly, he was always like this these days, openly lusting after her body. Her cheeks heating beneath his amorous stare, she shrunk back, both fearing and hoping he would try to eat her up. “Stop gawking and give me your coat like a proper gentleman would.”

 

“Apologies, my love. You look so ravishing I forgot myself.” Grinning, he took one last look before draping his coat over her bare shoulders, he continued, “I won against Dastan, Fung, and BoShui, but Zian and Song were on point today. Song went undefeated and Zian’s only loss was against her. I had a close match against BoShui today, his efforts are paying off in spades. I wish he wasn’t so adoring a fan though, it’s creepy coming from a man. Him and Dastan really make a pair. Oddly enough, BoShui thanked me for helping him form his Natal Palace. I didn’t help him in the slightest but he insisted it was due to my ‘genius advice’ and wouldn’t explain any further. After I refused to accept his gift, he made a generous donation to the school. I’m a little conflicted about it.”

 

Mila snorted. “Worry less about others and more about yourself.” At least BoShui’s fawning wasn’t feeding Rain’s ego. Draping her legs across his knees, she Sent, “I don’t understandYou went to all this trouble to find sparring partners of comparable skills, yet you waste it pretending to be weak.” Finally, her Sendings were only loud, and not headache inducing, as Mama called them. One small victory, her control over Chi finely honed after crafting so many complicated Spiritual Weapons.

 

What makes you so sure I’m pretending?

 

Rolling her eyes, she ignored his sly smile and returned to her meal, fuming at his silly games. Whatever he was doing, it infuriated not only her but Mama as well. Under Baatar’s orders, Rain kept a low profile after returning from Sanshu, refusing to add his name to the Empire’s Roster of Experts, the public list of Martial Warriors who’d successfully formed their Natal Palace. If he’d done it months ago, the news would have swept through the Empire like a wildfire since an eighteen-year-old expert was all but unheard of. Not everyone was required to add their name to the Roster, but glory and honour awaited all who did. To make matters worse, not only had Fung and BoShui joined the Roster, Rain insisted on adding Dastan too while keeping his own accomplishments a secret.

 

How aggravating.

 

Rain’s progress was astoundingly fast, especially these past few months. Under Baatar’s guidance, Rain’s skill with Chi had improved tremendously. Able to Reinforce and carry her weight without effort, Lighten and chase Lin and Jimjam through the snow-covered mountain forests, or Stabilize and dash across a finger-thin rope, Rain grew stronger with each passing day. Were it anyone else, Mila would’ve put aside her smithing hammer in favour of her spear and shield, worried she’d soon be left behind. To say it was difficult to excel in both combat and crafting was an understatement, but she refused to give up on her childhood dream. So what if she fell behind? Even Mama supported Mila’s decision to focus on blacksmithing for now. These days, her only practice was sparring with the others when the mood struck her.

 

She was still undefeated against all of them, but with four out of six forming their Natal Palaces, her lead would rapidly shrink to nothing. Strange how Zian and Song, the two most talented duelists, were last to form their Natal Palaces.

 

Despite all the advances he’d made, Rain continued playing the fool, losing day after day in his sparring matches against Zian. The others didn’t matter, but why did Rain have to lose to that pompous ass of all people? At least win once, as Zian was the only participant besides Mila to hold an undefeated record. Even Fung and BoShui won a handful of matches against the arrogant twit, while Dastan had something like a thirty to forty percent win rate against Zian, but time and time again Rain was defeated by Zian’s flashing twin sabers at what seemed like record speeds. Even if Rain wanted to practice a new style without giving away his newfound expertise, it didn’t mean he had to turn off his brain before each sparring session. In fact, the only Chi skill he used in the matches was Reinforcement, and a ridiculously weak one at that.

 

If asked, Rain would say he was ‘tempering’ himself. Temper his head. If he wanted tempering, Mila would happily toss him into the furnace and beat him with her hammer.

 

It was so frustrating, she wanted to stand on a mountaintop and scream for all the world to hear, bragging about her beloved’s accomplishments from sunrise to sunset. His talent at healing, ability to display Purity, Aura, and rank were all common knowledge, but it wasn’t anything too shocking. Sure he accomplished much while younger than most, but how many genius warriors were stopped by the obstruction known as a Natal Palace? While Dastan, Fung, and BoShui were considered young for experts, they were overshadowed by other talents like Tursinai who formed hers at twenty-one and Gerel at twenty-two. Some warriors couldn’t succeed even after years of effort, like Zian at age twenty-five, Sentinel Orgaal at age thirty-seven, or Ulfsaar at age fifty-three.

 

Mila once hoped to form hers by the age of twenty four, a reasonable aspiration before Fung and Dastan broke all expectations, leaping well ahead of their peers. Even BoShui managed his at twenty-five, so if Mila didn’t succeed by twenty, she would feel like a complete failure.

 

Meanwhile Rain cleared this universal obstruction as easily as breathing, so easily it took almost two years for his Mentor to discover he’d taken a pivotal step along the Martial Path. Were news of a seventeen-year-old child effortlessly forming his Natal Palace after four years of martial training, warriors across the Empire would die of shame for ever thinking themselves talented.

 

Mama was right, Mila shouldn’t compare herself to others. It wasn’t worth the heartache.

 

While Mila ate, her Mother-blessed betrothed grew tired of ogling her sloppy form and instead studied her plans, his eyes going unfocused as he attempted to unravel their mysteries. Catching her stare, Rain smiled and shook his head, putting the parchment down with a sigh. “My beloved, so brilliant and talented,” he said, brushing her bangs aside. “I am in awe of your gifts.”

 

Resisting the urge to bite him, she shook her head. “It’s nothing, just a diagram. Helps me visualize the weapon.”

 

“This helps you visualize the weapon?” Hold up a diagram, he raised his eyebrow in disbelief. “This looks a detailed schematic to creating an intricate piece of machinery, not a… what is this?”

 

“Collapsible Spear.” Drinking the rest of her soup, Mila gasped in satisfaction before pointing at the cross-section diagram. “For me, not you. Yours still needs more work and testing so I decided to try something new, an idea I’ve had rattling around in my head for months now. It’s all connected at the base while I craft the inner workings, like the spring and the trigger.”

 

“Uh huh,” Rain answered, smiling as he shook his head. “I don’t see it.”

 

Idiot. “Look harder. It’s drawn in four sections, so you have to join this one and this one first, then these last two at the same time, and then the weapon takes shape. All these spring-based weapons are really complicated to make because I need to let the inner workings cool and take shape while keeping the other parts soft and malleable. It’s a nightmare.”

 

“I appreciate your hard work and dedication my love, but I still don’t see it. Explain it for me?” Moving his chair closer, Rain wrapped an arm around her waist.

 

Elbowing him once his hands inevitably strayed too far down, she stifled a yawn and smiled. It’d been a few days since the two of them were left alone. Where did Song go today? “My short spear and shield work well in massed combats, but in one-on-one match-ups, I’m forced to fight defensively due to my short range and slow charge.” No matter how much she practised the movement, Mila just couldn’t understand how Mama and Rain gained such explosive speed from Balance on Windy Leaf. Unfathomable. “So I wanted something more focused on offence, and a long spear seemed like the reasonable option.”

 

“Okay. So why collapsible? Easier to carry?”

 

“You think I’m so lazy I don’t want to hold my spear?” Partly, but it wasn’t the only reason. “At it’s shortest, the spear is a 1.4 meters long, but with the touch of this trigger on the base, the weapon will triple in length. At the speed of sound.” Or close to it, theoretically. Take a Spiritual spring with a natural resting length of two meters, compress it to almost a tenth it’s size, and even Mila wasn’t sure how powerful the resulting weapon would be. Perfect for drilling holes through Demons from 4.2 meters away. “Even better, you can adjust the length, so I can use it as a lance at the maximum, a regular spear at the medium setting, and a short spear at the lowest. It’s perfect.” While Rain’s ‘rifles’ were riddled with problems, Mila felt confident her spear had no flaws. She had a cross-guard to keep the weapon from sinking in too deep, a mechanism to lock the spear once fully extended, and a safety feature to prevent accidental skewerings. It was perfect.

 

“Wow, incredible,” Rain exclaimed, carefully running his fingers over the diagram. “How do you deal with the recoil?”

 

Tensing up, Mila froze in place, no longer relaxed in Rain’s embrace. “What?”

 

“The top half is essentially a projectile moving at the speed of sound right? When the spear reaches its maximum length, I assume the lower parts stops the upper parts from flying out. Since you’ll be holding the bottom half, all the force needs to be dealt with by you, so unless you want your spear to go flying out of your hands every time you extend it, you’ll need to do something about the recoil.”

 

Bolting upright, Mila alternated between staring at her diagrams and at Rain, her mouth gaping in disbelief. “But… If I… I could…” she stammered, trying to salvage her weeks of effort. A leather strap to loop around her wrist? The force would tear the leather apart along with her skin. Shorten the spring and lower the force? Then what’s the point? Might as well just make a normal spear. “You!” She shouted, shaking Rain’s arm. “Why didn’t you point this out sooner?”

 

“Sorry my love, but this is the first I’ve heard about it.” Patting her back, Rain said, “It’s fine, you were too close to see the problem and too excited to think it through. Happens to the best. At least you caught it before making and binding the weapon.”

 

Mourning weeks of planning gone to waste, Mila let out a tiny whimper before sinking into Rain’s embrace. It’s not so easy a problem to fix, each new modification requiring days of calculations to ensure everything lined up properly. Every single one of Rain’s rifles took weeks to create, with each improvement she or Rain dreamt up complicating things even further. Though they looked similar on the outside, the difference between Silva’s sword rifle and Ravil’s sword rifle were staggering to behold. Not only was Ravil’s easier to load and fire due to a complete overhaul of the inner workings, Silva’s sword hilt was awkward to grasp and lacked a customized grip to use when firing. She later solved the problem by introducing a detachable handle made from mundane materials, but she wasn’t clever as Rain was, able to see problems without creating and seeing them in action.

 

Sighing once more, she kissed Rain on the cheek. “Thank you. You saved me from making the blunder of a lifetime. If I’d crafted and bound this Spiritual Weapon, I would’ve regretted it for the rest of my life.”

 

Feigning shock, Rain exclaimed, “Wow, a kiss and an admittance of guilt, you must be exhausted. Off to bed with you.” Lifting her from the chair with a tiny grunt, he carried her to the bed in the back room, his breath steady and steps smooth. Tossing aside her failures, she luxuriated in the feeling of being carried by her betrothed, thrilled he could finally manage it without causing her grave concern. Giggling at his enthusiasm, she wrapped her arms around his neck and nuzzled into his shoulder, a comfortable cushion now that he had muscle and fat covering his bones. With his long, blue-silk shirt, stylishly-cut hair, and warm glowing eyes, he finally looked like a respectable young warrior. Though she loved him regardless of his appearance, she much preferred this handsome, tidy, well-fed version of Rain over the emaciated, malnourished one.

 

As he gently placed her on the bed, Mila giggled once more, closed her eyes, and refused to release him. She loved the way he looked at her with hunger in his eyes, but if she saw it now, there was no turning back. With a devilish growl, Rain kicked off his shoes and fell into bed with her, his hungry lips finding hers as she wrapped a leg around his hip. Enjoying the sensation of his body pressed against hers, her mind went blank and didn’t resist when his hands strayed once more, her heart pounding with excitement as his fingers found their way beneath her clothes. While Mila still intended to save herself for marriage as a proper lady should, Mama already believed the rice was cooked so what harm was there in indulging a little?

 

After all, it’s why she had a bed back here instead of a cot.

 

Chapter Meme

 

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Savage Divinity – Chapter 269


 

Chest heaving and lungs burning from exertion, Bulat unstrapped his pack and let it fall to the ground, the one-hundred kilograms worth of stone and iron bouncing off the frozen dirt. “Time,” he gasped, shivering as winter’s chill turned beads of sweat into drops of ice, not even the hard run able to keep him warm for long.

 

“One-hundred sixteen minutes,” Rustram replied with a smirk, keeping time with his fancy pocket-watch, a gift from his merchant daddy. A real silk-pants this one, but not a bad sort for a rich-boy. A tough bastard too, arriving before Bulat despite leaving at the same time and carrying the same load. The advantage of a wiry frame, not as much weight to carry uphill. “A tolerable performance, if a little lacking for your rank. Boss says Jorani set the record with a ninety-seven minute run today. You best put more effort in before you’re booted back down the ranks.”

 

“Bah, Old Bulat… regrets every… kind thought… he’s ever… had about you… Sir.” Giving the superior officer a smile and a salute so as not to seem insubordinate, Bulat stripped off his sweat-soaked tunic and exchanged it for a fresh one, briefly admiring the steam rising off his thick-barrelled chest and chiselled, trunk-like arms. His wife Dei An especially enjoyed his transformation, often running her soft hands over his muscles after a passionate toss-up between the sheets. His wife, Old Bulat now had a wife, the ceremony taking place mere weeks after returning to the Wall. He wasn’t the most handsome man around and he couldn’t give her much, spending all his savings and profits to build her a small bakery in the city proper, but she loved everything about him, even his numerous flaws. She laughed at his bawdy jokes, smiled at his awkward advances, and made him feel like the strongest, most desirable man in the world with nothing but a smile.

 

She deserved better, so Old Bulat will have to become better.

 

Problem was, Ma was already pestering him for grandchildren, often dropping by their little love nest with Dagen to check on his ‘progress’. Hmph. Dagen, pei. Like he needed or wanted Dagen’s advice on how to bed a woman, their little ‘man talks’ were too much considering the circumstances. A wife wasn’t the only addition to Old Bulat’s family, he also had a new step-father too, Ma and Dagen’s marriage taking place not two days after his. A hulking, muscle-bound, sweet-talking step-father who could beat Bulat bloody with both hands tied behind his back, else he’d have scared the old bastard off long ago. Didn’t matter though, Bulat wasn’t one to let strength scare him. He had plenty of ways to deal with a warrior-type like Dagen, but the bastard made Ma so damned happy it was hard to justify getting rid of him.

 

Not to mention the fear of what Ma would do if she ever found out. His new rank was no shield against Ma’s wooden spoon, a weapon fiercer than any sword or axe in his eyes. When she raised it high, it brought out a primal, instinctive fear in him, leaving him helpless before her might. Old Bulat was an officer now, so he couldn’t afford the loss of face, not in front of his soldiers. While he technically had no soldiers under his direct command, he held the rank of a hundred-man commander, given to him by the Boss himself. That’s the way Bulat usually preferred things, all the perks with none of the responsibilities, except now with all the fresh faces in Boss’s crew, he was worried he’d lose his position as the retinue’s number three.

 

Old Bulat never wanted the job, but now that he had it, he wouldn’t hand it over without a fight.

 

Take Wang Bao, for instance. When the former Butcher Bay Bandit arrived, Bulat would’ve laid twenty-to-one odds the veteran cutthroat wouldn’t tolerate the Boss’s harsh training and… unique temperament. Instead, the grizzled marauder took to discipline like a soldier-born, arriving each morning with hair groomed and clothes pressed, ready and raring to go along with the rest of his former bandits. If Old Bulat didn’t know better, he’d have thought Wang Bao was born with a silver spoon in his mouth, sharing so many of Rustram’s traits and habits. The way they talked, stood, ate, and even wiped their asses, it was like looking at a taller, older, wider, uglier version of pretty-boy Rustram. An unyielding warrior and harsh taskmaster, Wang Bao embodied the perfect soldier and officer.

 

So long as you ignored his face.

 

Then there was Jorani, whose transformation was no less impressive than Old Bulat’s, if not more. Going from scrawny scavenger to strapping soldier, he somehow grew a full fifteen centimetres in height despite being well past his growing years. Worse, the rat-eared thief was a born leader, exuding an air of natural charisma wherever he went, with his ever-present gargantuan enforcer Ral lending an air of menace to Jorani’s chummy charm. Bulat had Pran and Saluk but Ral was something else, deadly and near-unstoppable on the battlefield with his massive quarter-stave. Jorani’s persistence was to be commended and having secured a record run time with his entire squad, his prospects were on the rise.

 

Chey was yet another threat, though the buxom, husky-voiced commander was more at odds with Ravil, considering her skill at putting sharp objects into moving targets from hundreds of meters away. Beautiful and deadly, her squad excelled at tasks which required teamwork and coordination, taking to the Boss’s new ‘advanced maneuvers’ like ducks to water. Wasn’t long before the Boss noticed either, placing her with Rustram to help train the others in the new drills and formations. Thus, she threw her name into the hat, vying with the others for position and on the fast track to success.

 

All this without mentioning Ulfsaar, Old Bulat’s greatest rival. Hell, he might give Rustram a run for his money soon enough. The pious, usually soft-spoken giant towered over Ral, a fearsome man in his own right. His squad held no less than thirty-three soldiers who could say the same, while the rest weren’t far behind. A unit almost entirely made up of half-beast behemoth warriors armed with two-handed axes and hammers, they were easily the most imposing squad of the retinue. Once in battle, the mild-mannered giant transformed into ‘the Voracious’, wreaking bloody havoc wherever he appeared. His squad shared their leader’s tendency to lose control and run rampant once battle was drawn, but Ulfsaar’s wife Neera kept a cool head and always knew where to unleash her husband on the battlefield for maximum impact. Not that it mattered, no one could match Ulfsaar in single combat anyway, not Ral, not Chey, and definitely not Old Bulat.

 

Dastan could. Handsome, athletic, Natal Palace-forming Dastan, walking around with his head held high and silky locks flowing behind him like he weren’t no traitor to the Empire. With his slave’s Oath, there was no reason for the Boss to question Dastan’s loyalty and it showed, the two almost inseparable since their return. Though everyone had been invited to young magistrate Fung’s party, only Dastan was seated with the guest of honour. Even Rustram was relegated to the side tables while Old Bulat and the rest ate outside the main hall, barely able to see the alluring, perfumed dancers.

 

Perhaps it was for the best. While Dei An was a loving, affectionate woman, she had a jealous streak to her and weren’t shy about using her rolling-pin to thump him upside the head. Another reason to love her, she didn’t take no nonsense from him, an admirable woman. Best not to push his luck and try for a second wife, Old Bulat already had more than he’d ever dreamt of. A beautiful, loving wife, an officer’s rank with more than decent pay, and the freedom to run his schemes and ploys with protection from above, so long as he didn’t go overboard. He wasn’t no low-down dirty cheat, but he rarely gambled and always played an angle, so he won far more than he lost which rubbed certain people the wrong way.

 

Not that it’d keep him from doing what he loved. Old Bulat weren’t holding no knife to their throats, forcing them to gamble. They played the odds and it was no fault of his if they couldn’t see the odds were stacked in his favour. Still, profits were one thing while debts were another. Bulat owed the Boss more than he could repay in two lifetimes, which meant he couldn’t afford to fall behind all these new faces.

 

Especially not after being trusted with Captain Sumila’s new weapons of destruction.

 

Leaving the Boss and Rustram to run their drills with the retinue, Bulat gathered his cronies and headed to their training grounds, a quiet little flat-top which doubled as a shooting range. Silva took his place at the desk to prep the ink, and Bulat left him to it since he had the best handwriting of them all, having learned his letters and numbers from his Pa, a clerk or cleric or something. One haranguing from the ferocious Captain Sumila was enough to last a lifetime and Bulat would do anything to avoid a second. Poor Boss, saddled with a she-devil for a wife, at least he still had sweet Lady Mei Lin to comfort him. Captain Sumila’s compact build hid prodigious strength and she wasn’t shy about using it, giving them all a bare-handed beating for giving her illegible notes and wasting her time. If Silva wanted to risk her wrath then all the more power to him.

 

Rubbing his hands together for warmth, Bulat studied the others, Viyan, Birca, Ravil, Pran, and Saluk. “Aside from Rustram, we’re all that’s left of the old guard, eight out of sixty-seven.” Not even the miraculous Healing Panacea could cheat death, as evidenced by Cham’s unfortunate end. Boss took that one hard, he did. Taking a moment of silence for their fallen comrades, Bulat flashed a grin. “Means our luck is strong, don’t it?”

 

“Dog-shit luck is what it is.” Ravil horked into the snow. “Could be worse. We could be real soldiers instead of workin’ fer the boss.”

 

“Is good life,” Pran replied, nodding in sync with Saluk. “Good food, warm bed, strong weapon.” Stroking his colossal, black maul fondly, he rubbed his new Spiritual Weapon against his cheek like a favoured child. The impressive two-handed war-hammer was Captain Sumila’s latest work, boasting a spiked end on one side and rows of pyramid-shaped tenderizers on the other, alongside all the other extra trappings included in these Inspired weapons. Having received the weapon not even a week past, Pran’s enthusiasm could be overlooked, but Saluk nuzzling his almost identical maul in the same manner was a little overboard, having bonded with the weapon well over a month ago. The brothers were a little odd in the head, but they didn’t hurt no one.

 

Unless they wanted to.

 

“Can’t disagree,” Bulat said, resisting the urge to fondle his own weapon. “So the sooner we master these weapons, the sooner we can go back to dicing our days away. Same terms as always?”

 

“What say we up the stakes?” Trying to appear less excited than he felt, Viyan’s wiggling fingers gave him away, eager to earn coin with his new-found skills. Birca and Silva similarly feigned disinterest, the three working hard for what might be the first time in their entire lives.

 

Compulsive gamblers the lot of them, Bulat sighed and shook his head. These idiots had seen him fleece so many soldiers over the years and still they called his bluff and walked headlong into his ‘trap’. He might lose money for once. “What are you thinking?”

 

“How’s ‘bout a silver a mark?” Viyan licked his lips, another giveaway. “Keep things interesting.”

 

“Too rich for my blood,” Bulat said. It’d leave him penniless for the month and he weren’t one to go begging his wife for pocket money. “Ten coppers is more my speed.”

 

“Fifty.”

 

“Fifteen.”

 

Eventually they settled on twenty coppers a mark, which was well within his limits. As always, Pran and Saluk didn’t take part, never willing to gamble their coin but always happy to lend a hand if Bulat needed one. Their salaries went towards food and toys for the orphans, spending all their free time at the Boss’s school. A good thing too, despite having the least practice, Pran was easily second best, only a step behind Saluk. Some would attribute it to their beast’s blood or simple minds but Bulat knew the brothers were the hardest workers in the Boss’s retinue bar none. Good on them for finding their talent.

 

Now if only Old Bulat could find his.

 

Taking his position, Bulat unsheathed his Spiritual Weapon from its thigh-holster, reverently wiping the axe’s surface with a soft cloth. A veritable work of art is what it was, the haft carved to resemble a woven-reed surface with a stylized bear etched onto both sides of the handle. Only about as long as his arm with a blade the size of his palm, it wasn’t an overly imposing weapon, but it was perfect for his purposes, sneaking around the forests and scouting the lay of the land. The single-edge axe-blade was attached to the haft by two prongs, allowing him to grip the lower prong for added stability when firing the weapon. Attaching the removable handle to the butte of the haft, this curved object housed the weapon’s crank and trigger mechanisms. To prep the weapon, all he had to do was take five seconds to wind the key on the removable handle to compress the springs, drop the peanut-sized metal bullet into the barrel, and then he was ready to unleash the Mother’s fury upon Her enemies.

 

Presumably. It wasn’t as simple as pressing a trigger, no matter how the Boss insisted otherwise. Though he helped Inspire the concept, the Boss didn’t fully understand the difficulty behind using one of these ‘rifles’ as he called them. Closing his eyes, Bulat steadied his mind and reached for Balance, seeking out the calm, soothing touch of Heavenly Energy and drawing it into his core to mark for his use. Gripping the lower axe-prong, he brought the handle to his shoulder and lined the target to the sight. He should ask Captain Sumila to make a larger handle, something he could brace against his shoulder. Refocusing his thoughts, he exhaled, readied for the recoil, and pulled the trigger.

 

The springs uncoiled and with a dull ‘twhoomp’, the bullet shot out of his axe-rifle before landing in the snow around twenty meters away, well short of the target a hundred-and-fifty meters downrange. Well accustomed to failure, Bulat prepped his weapon for a second shot. Amplify too fast or too slow, even if you’re off by a hair, and the shot failed. Guide the spring poorly and you’d lose power as it scraped along the barrel, resulting in failure. Stabilize the springs else your bullet might shoot out from the barrel at an odd angle, which was good as failing.

 

The Boss had high hopes for this weapon, but Bulat and the others were failing to deliver.

 

Well, most of them. While Silva, Viyan, and Birca produced similar results, Ravil’s sword-rifle let loose with a peal of thunder as his weapon jerked towards the sky with such force Bulat worried it’d fly out of Ravil’s grip. Three hundred meters downrange, a cloud of dust and straw shot into the air as the target shook from the impact, showing just why they’d excluded the dark-skinned marksman from their little wager. Both accurate and reliable, Ravil was a demon with his Spiritual Weapon, succeeding at one in four shots. Flashing his pearly-white grin, Ravil’s heated gaze caressed the single-edged sword, probably imagining all the lives it would soon take, Defiled or otherwise.

 

A good friend to have and the worst enemy to make, that’s Ravil in a nutshell.

 

Pran and Saluk’s weapons barked with successful shots and though neither hit their targets, when facing a horde of Defiled, it’d be difficult to miss. Dropping the hammer’s head to the frozen dirt, Pran grunted as he pulled back the crossbar, his muscles strained and jaw clenched in order to move the handle a mere five centimetres. Two seconds later, the springs depressed to their shortest length with an audible click and he side-loaded the grape-sized bullet onto the chamber. Hefting the maul, he fired the weapon in a careless manner, missing the target once again. With an almost 60% success rate and climbing, Pran’s talent was undoubtedly the highest and well positioned to surpass Saluk’s 75% record after a short five days.

 

A brilliant Divine Blacksmith, Captain Sumila’s improvements were readily visible with each new masterpiece, making changes to everything from the loading method to the cocking mechanism. Since she took weeks to make each weapon, Bulat worried another faction would copy her success but when he brought it up, the tiny girl replied with a thunderous snort. “Feel free to show your weapon to anyone who asks,” she’d said, giving him a sneer worthy of the Mother herself. “Not even Papa can copy my designs, so they’re welcome to try.”

 

So domineering. Bulat’s heart ached for the Boss, but such was life. How could Falling Rain refuse the Chief Provost? Not everyone could be lucky to find someone as amazing as Dei An.

 

Having been given the first weapon, Silva had the worst of both worlds, lacking both a handy winch to wind his springs and a grip to help steady his sword-rifle. To make up for it, he practised more carefully than any other, making every shot count. Lazy though he might be, he hated being dead-last, as Birca was merciless with his taunting. Lacking both muscles and motivation, Silva was the slowest shooter, taking a full ten seconds to draw back the springs and load his bullet, then taking even longer to line up his shot and fire, but his success rate was higher than Viyan and Birca’s at one out of every eight shots.

 

A shame Silva was so easily satisfied. Viyan and Birca were easily motivated since they’d put effort into anything so long as there were stakes to be won, but Silva was a different. He wasn’t incompetent, rather far from it, able to match the others with half the effort, but he was too easily satisfied, content to sit in the middle of the pack when he could instead excel like Ravil. Something would have to be done to motivate the man, but money, women, and beatings had all failed and Bulat was out of ideas.

 

Bah. Better for Old Bulat to deal with his own failings first. Saying he would succeed at one out of every ten shots was being generous, only a little better than Viyan or Birca. He’d yet to lose money on their little wagers, overcoming Silva through sheer volume of shots, but he felt the others hot on his heels. At the end of their hour-long practice, Bulat’s record stood at four-hundred-sixty-seven tries while succeeding fifty-two times, an abysmal record. Using a magnetic plate attached to a broomstick, he went about collecting the nearby bullets to be reforged into new ones while the others collected and replaced the targets to see how many of those successful shots hit their mark.

 

Waving his cloth target like a flag, Viyan wore a triumphant grin. “Looks like you’re gonna eat a loss this time, Baby Bulat. My best record yet, eleven shots.”

 

Birca grumbled beneath his breath as he tossed his target aside. “Lucky sonovabitch. Nine.”

 

Shrugging, Silva held his cloth up for inspection, letting sunlight stream through the various holes. Sighing because no one would count for him, he eventually counted them himself. “Ten.” Not bad considering he fired half the volume of shots compared to the others.

 

Heart sinking, Bulat asked Ravil, “So what’s the damage? Give it to Old Bulat.” No point asking about Ravil’s shots, probably hit damn near every one.

 

“Bad news.” Shaking his bald head, Ravil made a big show of it, acting all heartbroken and distraught. “Six.” Bulat’s breath caught in his throat, horrified by his terrible record. Six shots hit out of fifty-two? How could it be so few? “Six more than Viyan.” Ravil continued with a smile. “At twenty coppers a mark, I’d call that terrible news. Seventeen marks for Bulat, clear as day. Nice shooting.”

 

It took a handful of seconds for the news to sink in before Bulat burst into laughter. “Hahaha, you all thought you finally beat Old Bulat, but today ain’t the day. Pay up you lousy deadbeats, I ain’t gonna chase you down fer it.”

 

With his pouch four silvers and twenty coppers heavier, Bulat strolled towards the sparring grounds, happy to match blades with Vichear, Gerel, Tenjin, and even Dagen. So what if he was no match for them? With Captain Sumila’s amazing new weapons, he could fire a shot from two-hundred meters away, easily tearing through bone and armour to deliver a killing blow. While he might never be an incredible warrior or form his Natal Palace, Old Bulat was now a force to be reckoned with, all thanks to this wonderful new weapon.

 

Away from the others, Ravil leaned in and whispered, “Half those winnings are mine. Put eight shots into your target myself while no one was looking. Lucky they ain’t the brightest bunch, but you got to step up Baby Bulat, else you gonna get left behind.” Tossing him the day’s notes with a smirk, he added, “Bring those to the Captain for me, will ye?”

 

 

Seems Old Bulat is a cheat after all. Suppose this means he’ll be spending less time with Dei An and more time at the shooting range. Such a shame to keep Ma waiting for her grandkids, a real damned shame.

 

Chapter Meme

 


Here are the weapons drawn by yours truly. I’ve been practicing my paint skills, and soon, I shall become both writire and artist. Soon.

And bonus Otter

Bask in the glory of my awesome talent. First and only try too, if you can believe it.


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Savage Divinity – Chapter 268


I’d like to give a shout out to my two latest, anonymous Patrons and my latest donor, Borninaflash. Thank you all so much for your support!


 

Tightening the straps of his weighted pack, Dastan sprinted down the mountain paths, following behind the Mother’s chosen Son. Growing up around Uncle Diyako, Dastan was used to seeing new inventions each passing month, but rarely had he come across something so simple and effective. An incredible thing these strap buckles, far superior to drawstrings or fasteners. A pull of the strap to tighten and a lift of the buckle to loosen, these little rectangular objects allowed him to secure a two-hundred kilo pack to his back and waist in seconds with minimal discomfort, even whilst running full-tilt down uneven paths. Father’s letters were filled with praise for these buckles, using them in a myriad of ways from horse saddles to securing cargo.

 

Yet another ingenious innovation birthed from the brilliant mind of Falling Rain.

 

With a yearling cub draped over his shoulders in place of a weighted pack, the boss made for an outlandish sight, but such were the eccentricities of genius. It seemed he was always in the midst of Inspiration, even capable of Inspiring others with a casual observation or question, the Mother’s attention was undoubtedly focused upon Her most favoured son and those around him. Dastan himself benefited first-hand from the boss’s instruction, forming his Natal Palace a month before turning twenty-three, placing him near the forefront of history’s youngest experts.

 

All thanks to a drunken slip of the tongue from Falling Rain, who at nineteen years of age, was the youngest person in the history of the Empire to Condense his Aura, become a Second Grade Warrant Officer, and form his Natal Palace.

 

The memory of Dastan’s first glimpse into the mind of a genius was still fresh. The boss invited him to a feast celebrating young magistrate Fung adding his name to the roll of experts of the Empire. Birds of a feather, the boss took great pains to never treat Dastan like a slave and Fung followed suit, even magnanimously overlooking Dastan’s part in the death of his retinue. Seated next to Han BoShui who similarly treated him like a comrade, Dastan feasted on delectable delicacies and drank expensive wines, laughing and chatting as if he still held his former status as a Warrant Officer of the Empire. As the hour grew late and guests adjourned for the night, only the boss, Han BoShui, and Dastan remained, with even the serving girls retiring at Lady Sumila’s command. Even then Dastan wasn’t relegated to the role of a servant, with each of them taking turns to pour wine for the others.

 

Though Dastan had resolved to not let his Oath’s burden him, Falling Rain made it almost effortless. A better life than he deserved thanks to the Mother’s Chosen Son, this was a debt he could never repay.

 

For how can you put a price on dignity?

 

Deep in his cups and barely able to sit upright, Fung lamented the lack of women as he lay at the boss’s side. Dastan was accustomed to Fung’s obvious pretense, playing the part of a womanizing young master who was rarely seen in the company of women. It was clear there was something going on between the boss and Fung, the two of them closer than appropriate for two young men, but Dastan didn’t mind. It was a shame they felt the need to hide their affection for one another, but such was life.

 

“Good. Send all the women away, better we suffer together,” BoShui slurred as he filled everyone’s cup. “Women are a distraction I can no longer afford. A Natal Palace at twenty years old, young magistrate Fung you make me feel ashamed for ever thinking myself a genius. In a few weeks, I’ll be twenty-five and I’ve yet to even touch upon forming my Natal Palace. I envy your good fortune, so as penance, drink this cup.”

 

“Good!” More wine dribbled down Fung’s chin than into his mouth, but not for lack of trying. Sighing mournfully, the young magistrate shook his head, his eyes staring off into the distance. “You call it good fortune and I cannot refute, but know this: it did not come without cost. My Mentor is a harsh taskmistress.”

 

“Mhmm, and what a lovely taskmistress,” BoShui snickered. “I’d gladly suffer her attentions even if it didn’t help with my Natal Palace.”

 

Striving to look offended, Fung pouted as they howled with laughter. “See?” Rain gasped, clapping Fung on the shoulder. “BoShui gets it. A beautiful, stern, older woman teaching and guiding you, yet all you do is complain. You don’t know how lucky you are.”

 

“Oh? Martial Nephew, if you feel so strongly about it, I’ll speak with Mentor in the morning and tell her all about how much you miss her attentions.”

 

Blanching, Rain shook his head and pleaded for mercy. Refilling everyone’s cups to distract from the boss’s dilemma, Dastan lifted his cup for a toast. “Drink, then share your wisdom with us poor uneducated souls.” Draining his cup in one go, he wiped his chin and asked, “What was it like, forming your Natal Palace?” Without a Mentor, Dastan needed all the help he could get. Sparring with his peers and experts was a great help to his Martial Skills, he was at a loss on how to proceed along the Martial Path.

 

“Gruelling and exhausting,” Fung replied.

 

Rain simultaneously answered, “Pretty easy.” Three sets of eyes stared at Rain in disbelief, as this was the first time he’d ever spoken of his accomplishment. Slapping his forehead, he said, “Oops. I wasn’t supposed to tell anyone. Shhhh, it’s a secret. No Natal Palace here.”

 

BoShui was the first to find his voice, speaking in a loud whisper. “What? How? You.. You’re what? Eighteen years old? Must you be so domineering? Can you not leave me a shred of confidence?”

 

“Easy?” Fung asked, his mouth agape. “Do you know how much I suffered to build my mental fortitude and learn to split my focus? Walking across hot coals carrying buckets of wet sand, pummelled with paddles for hours while standing in horse-stance, treading water in full armour with Mentor standing on my shoulders, all while answering inane, complicated questions without rest?”

 

Dastan had no questions to ask, as he’d long grown accustomed to Rain’s greatness.

 

Or so he thought. Rain’s next sentence made Dastan choke on his drink. “Huh… izzat how you do it? With suffering and split focus? I don’t even know how I did it.”

 

Dear Mother, even nepotism should have it’s limits. How can You favour one son to the point where others can’t even dream of comparing?

 

Shrugging, Rain added, “Well, don’t worry, I’ve suffered plenty. Plus, it’s easy to split focus with two minds… Ah fuck, forget I said that too, ‘nother secret.”

 

Even though Rain refused to say another word and vehemently requested they never repeat his words, the casual input struck a chord in Dastan’s mind. He’d always wondered how it was possible for Martial Warriors to split their focus, having seen one expert demonstrate by taking a brush in each hand and painting a flower with the left while copying a poem with the right. No matter how hard he tried, Dastan couldn’t use his hands independently from one another like Rain or Zian, his left and right always moving in lockstep. Such was the basis of forming a Natal Palace, to always have a part of yourself focused on its shape and arrangement, keeping the mental image firmly in mind at all times. Forget forming the Natal Palace, Dastan was lucky if he could envision it for a few minutes without losing focus.

 

Until the boss made everything clear with an offhand comment, accidentally revealing yet another Bekhai secret. Previously, Dastan had been trying to make his one mind do two things at once, when instead he should’ve been striving to make two minds do one thing each. After Cleansing his body of alcohol and devouring an entire side of beef, Dastan meditated on the floor of his yurt, teetering on the precipice of Enlightenment. Deep in the darkness of the void, Dastan tested this theory of two minds in one body, visualizing himself, a second Dastan created from Chi to govern the Natal Palace. Time and time again he failed, unable to sustain a perfect mirror image of himself, until finally, ready to give up, he created a smaller, disproportioned version of himself.

 

And thus, he gazed upon the stable mental image of a miniature Dastan, one no larger than his palm. It’s features weren’t younger, but smaller, with a head and eyes too large for the body it sat on and stubby arms and legs to boot. Waving at his deformed self, it grinned and waved back. Soaring through the void, it landed on his shoulder and tugged at his moustache, acting like the childish imps of legend.

 

And thus Dastan’s Natal Soul was born, a condensed, concentrated version of himself conceived from Chi, a separate mind to reign over his Natal Palace. 

 

So what if it was a little… feeble-minded? It served his purposes well enough.

 

Opening his eyes, Dastan was overcome by a wave of weakeness and would have collapsed if he weren’t already laying in bed. The boss’s concerned gaze hovered over him, those amber eyes peering into his own. “Thank the Mother,” boss said, helping Dastan sit up and holding a bowl of congee to his mouth. “Eat slowly. You’ve been out of it for five days now. What happened?”

 

Dry lips cracking as he grinned, Dastan swallowed a mouthful of food before answering, “Sorry for causing you concern boss. I, Dastan Zhandos, have formed my Natal Palace.”

 

‘All thanks to you’, he silently added, intending to secretly share this knowledge with the rest of the boss’s retinue. If there were consequences to be suffered, then Dastan could honestly swear it was all his idea, with no prompting from Falling Rain.

 

Smiling at the memory, he noted to add more weight to the bag tomorrow. Falling Rain was a man destined for greatness. As his servant, his guard, his confidant, how could Dastan afford to fall behind?

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

Giving Mama a warm hug farewell, Song made her way to the stables and brought Erdene out for a ride to the sparring grounds. This was how she spent her days lately, training with Martial Brother Fung in the mornings, lunch with Mama, a quick sparring session, and then free for the rest of the day. A pleasant, blissful existence, Song experienced true solitude for the first time in her life, often spending hours staring out over the burgeoning city from the window of her room. Her room, a space meant only for herself, the first gift she’d ever asked for and received. It’s not that she disliked sharing a room with Sister, but Song had never known independence and now thirsted for it, wanting to see what life was like as her own person.

 

In a word: magnificent. It was beyond compare. Going hunting with Lin, playing in the snow with the roosequins, brushing the wildcats, cuddling with the bears, or going on patrol with Mama, whatever she wanted to do, Song only needed to speak her mind and it would happen. Though still weighed down by her slave’s Oath, neither Mama, Lin, or Sister would ever use it against her, she knew this now. They taught Song to trust and she loved them for it. Even Papa with his sinister appearance and intimidating physique was kind to her, taking great pains not to scare her and apologizing profusely when he did. A sweet, gentle man deeply in love with Mama, it wasn’t his fault she recoiled in his presence and it wasn’t fair to keep him walking on eggshells around his own family.

 

Today, she intended to work on overcoming her anxiety. With Sister now working from her newly finished personal forge, Papa often complained of loneliness. Therefore, after today’s spar, Song intended to go visit him. She wouldn’t go into the forge, the close confines too much for her to bear, but Song could sit outside and keep him company from there, watching him work from the window. A Divine Blacksmith, he laboured day and night to keep up with demand, forging the Spiritual Hearts from Yo Ling’s island into beautiful, deadly weapons for the Sentinels.

 

Mama a Lieutenant General and Hero of the Empire, Papa a Divine Blacksmith, and Sister possessing all of their best qualities, Song was blessed with a talented and loving family.

 

She would not disgrace them.

 

First to arrive, she lingered in the courtyard outside the building, unwilling to enter and be trapped with so many men. Martial Brother Fung was next to arrive, greeting her with a tiny bow before standing at her shoulder, too close for comfort. His charming smile and excessively warm demeanour made Song suspicious of his ulterior motives, often catching him outright staring with his lecherous eyes. Ignoring his attempts at small talk, she brushed Erdene as they stood in the snow, praying Sister would join them today.

 

BoShui arrived soon after, greeting Song with a perfunctory nod before dragging Fung inside, raring to begin. A dedicated warrior, in any other era he would’ve stood at the forefront of his generation, forming his Natal Palace at the age of twenty-five, merely three days ago and not even a week into the new year. Unfortunately, the luckless young patriarch was overshadowed by a multitude of younger talents, upstaged by the likes of her Martial Brother and Dastan Zhandos. Unperturbed, BoShui continued his diligent training even after stepping into the ranks of expert warriors, forgoing a lavish celebration as the two aforementioned young men insisted upon.

 

As far as men went, BoShui was head and shoulders above his peers, possessing unmatched strength and stamina, though his skill was lacking in comparison. In Dastan’s case, it was likely Rain was the one who insisted on a party. A drunken disgrace, she’d seen how he ogled the half-naked serving girls which sent Sister into a foul mood. Worse, he often looked at Song with undisguised longing, usually just before they sparred. Disgraceful is what it was, Sister’s poor luck in love was her only flaw.

 

Situ Jia Zian arrived next, striding over with nose upturned and cloak flowing behind him. “Will Sumila be joining us today?” He spoke without sparing Song a glance, as if the withered, snow-covered branches held all the secrets to the Martial Path and he couldn’t bear to look away.

 

Shifting so she could brush Erdene’s belly, Song shrugged, knowing Zian wouldn’t see her reply. After a long pause, he huffed in displeasure before storming inside with his lips curled in a snarl. Smiling, she brought to mind the look of shock on his girlish features after a defeat, hoping to see it once more during today’s spar. This would mark their 116th match, with her record standing at 45 victories and 70 losses, not even a 40% win rate. Arrogant and girlish though he might be, Zian was a fearsome foe, his twin blades holding every advantage over her single saber.

 

It wasn’t as simple as grabbing a second weapon to spar with. While she was capable of dual-wielding sabers with a modicum of competence, she suffered a net loss in overall strength. Her strongest attacks resulted from changing a one-handed grip to a two-handed grip, or vice versa. This allowed her to vary her range and angle of attack mid-strike, keeping her opponent on the defensive after seizing the initiative. Unfortunately, Zian was too adept at seeing through her attacks, able to block, parry, or Deflect her saber with ease.

 

Even Rain and BoShui were catching on, respectively winning 30 and 19 matches against her. BoShui was easily the worst of the seven, but not without reason. His twin gauntlets were excellent armor and weapons, but without greaves, knee, and elbow guards, he lacked the full range of options available to an empty-handed combatant. Rain’s poor results angered Mama and Mila beyond reason, but Song understood why. He used these spars to perfect a different style, a hyper-aggressive, overwhelming approach to combat. Extremely effective against weaker opponents, it suffered when used against a foe of equal or greater skill but his rate of improvement was astounding, clawing his way to the middle of the group after a long streak of early defeats.

 

Martial Brother Fung was another difficult opponent, sitting at 41 victories as he grew accustomed to abusing his superior range and power. Only his poor stamina held him back and Mama was working him hard to mend his failings, whereupon he would become a force to be reckoned with. Then there was the crafty, powerful Dastan, defeating her 56 times for an almost 50% win rate, the repeated blows of his powerful axe often smashing her saber from her shaky grasp. While Song ranked third behind Sister and Zian, her position was nowhere near unshakable. With each day, her opponents advanced in both strength and cunning while her progress had stalled, a troublesome development.

 

The question often crossed her mind these past weeks, wondering how she could improve her strength. Sister asked her to come up with a request for her second Spiritual Weapon, but Song didn’t know what would be best. A second saber meant the end of her endless, ever-changing assault, while a different weapon would require time to master, as demonstrated by Martial Brother Fung. Perhaps she could be like Khishig Tursinai and learn the ways of the chain and sickle, or master Guiding and Rebounding with a throwing dagger like Khishig Tenjin. A polearm would help her fight from quinback, while a gauntlet would allow her to keep her saber style, but offer nothing else.

 

Song wasn’t accustomed to making life-altering decisions. If only she could ask Teacher Du what he had planned for her, that would be the best.

 

“Hello Song, sorry we’re late,” Rain said, arriving slightly out of breath with Banjo peering out over his shoulder.

 

Laughing as the other animals rushed in to greet her, Song butted heads with the tired wildcats and gave the lazy Baloo a pat as he laid in the wagon, all while surrendering the treats she had stored on her person. “Enough,” she said as Aurie wrapped his paws around her waist, making little noises of protest. “I’ve no more treats. Down.” Nodding at Rain, she finally replied, “Not late, but the others are waiting, aside from Sister.”

 

“Probably lost track of time again. I should get her a watch, but I’m not sure I can afford one anymore. I’ll check in on her after we spar, care to join me?”

 

“No, I have other plans.” Papa was the same way. If it weren’t for the lack of binding materials, he’d stay at the forge ten days a week, crafting until his arms gave out.

 

“Busy, busy, busy,” Rain said, oblivious to her thoughts. “You never rest, do you? Well, to each their own. Shall we?” Ignoring his gesture for her to proceed, she stood and watched his transformation. Closing his eyes, Rain exhaled slowly, a full count of five before he finished. Tranquil and carefree, he stood with shoulders slouched, hands open, knees bent, and smile wide, giving off the impression of a relaxed, harmless young man.

 

Then, in the blink of an eye, everything changed.

 

It was almost imperceptible, the differences negligible, but Song noticed them all the same. His body filled with tension as his muscles strained and stretched, a tiny vein in his neck set to pulsing. The smile flipped into subtle frown while the corner of his eyes tightened as he clenched his jaw. His previously dangling arms cocked and readied, with a hand on his sword hilt and the other free to strike. His posture straightened, shoulders squared, and knees locked as his nose pointed sky-ward, the harmless young man replaced by a bow drawn taut, a blade unsheathed, a dragon unrestrained.

 

Of course, Banjo’s silly, open-mouthed smile ruined the whole image, peering over Rain’s shoulder as he clung to Rain’s torso with all four paws.

 

Opening his eyes, Rain’s gaze shot down towards her covered bosom and legs before turning aside, heading in without motioning for Dastan or the pets to follow. So strange. Which one was the real Rain? The kind, compassionate philanthropist who treated Sister so well, or the arrogant, domineering warrior who objectified Song and every other woman who entered his gaze? Was he even aware of the changes? Perhaps it was merely his warrior’s mindset, with bloodshed and lust so closely linked. Generously forgiving his errant glance, Song led the pets inside, focusing on the battles ahead.

 

After winning all her matches, Song hummed a little tune beneath her breath as she brought Erdene and Sarankho to the market, wondering what to buy for Papa. He often skipped lunch and dinner while working, so it had to be both filling and nourishing. After purchasing a large rice box with a double serving of meat and vegetables, she stopped to pick up a jar of fruit wine and some custard egg tarts to satisfy Papa’s sweet tooth, all paid for with her own coin.

 

By the end of the month, she hoped to stop flinching every time he moved within arms length.

 

Because like Mama and Sister, Papa was family too. She had nothing to fear from him.

 

Chapter Meme

 

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Savage Divinity – Chapter 267: TBA


I’d like to give a shout out to my latest anonymous Patron. Thank you so much for your support!

 

Also, I decided to change my plans for the next few chapters and end volume 14 with chapter 266. I’ve tentatively titled vol 14 as Kinship, and keeping with recent tradition, vol 15’s title will be announced after I figure it out 🙂

 

Anywho… enjoy.


 

Six months after leaving Sanshu and coming to the Wall, Jorani was finally growing accustomed to his new life. Waking hours before sunrise inside his roomy, private yurt, he took a moment to lament his solitude and ignore his aching body before getting up to greet the day. After getting dressed, he tidied his bed, shaved his stubble, brushed his teeth, and headed out into the chilly morning to visit the jakes. Finished with his morning routine, he made his way to the recently constructed mess hall for a nice hot breakfast of congee with dried meat, pickled vegetables, and a plate of dumplings.

 

Enjoying the simple, hearty meal with a pot of refreshing butter tea, he reflected on how different his new life had become, a world of change from his bandit days. Sleeping in the dirt or hay until noon, rinsing his mouth with a swig of wine, and eating nothing but hardtack or dried fish for weeks at a time, it’d been a sorry existence even on the best days. The bad ones lacked wine, food, and sometimes even sleep and security as he ran from guards or rival bandits alike.

 

Honestly, if not for all the exercise, beatings, tooth-pulling, and people trying to kill you, being a soldier wasn’t half-bad. They even got one day a month to rest and recuperate thanks to Jorani, since he was the only one with the balls to ask for it. Not too shabby at all.

 

While the bossman harboured unreasonable expectations and pushed his soldiers hard, he treated them well outside of training. Hot food, warm clothes, and sturdy homes, it was more than they deserved in Jorani’s opinion. The other soldiers lived twelve men to a room while everyone in the bossman’s retinue had their own yurt. No wonder he didn’t split the loot, between their pay and accommodations, Falling Rain spent his gold like it was burning a hole in his pocket. Not just on his soldiers either, Jorani had seen the bossman’s school grow from a tiny hut with a handful of children into a thriving academy with dozens of happy students, human and half-beast alike, practising the Forms and their numbers day after day, never having to worry about going hungry or sleeping cold.

 

Ma would’ve loved it here. She wouldn’t’ve been excluded by the others for raising a half-breed son, wouldn’t’ve rubbed her hands raw washing clothes from sun-up to sun-down in frigid channel waters, wouldn’t’ve spent so many nights crying because her boy came home from a beating she couldn’t stop…

 

Fuck that old bastard GangShu. Pigs would fly before Jorani’d call him ‘Pa’, he didn’t deserve it.

 

That was the best thing about the Bekhai, they were a close-knit community. Every last soul was looked after, though they would not abide lazy shirker or cheats. Jorani had lost count how many times Ravil or Bulat had to drag him out of bed in the morning, the devilish duo taking great delight in parading him around the camp in his poofy nightclothes. A year ago, Jorani would’ve thought about knifing them in the dark for the humiliation but now, he thanked them for it. Soldiers who showed up late got ten lashes in the public square for dereliction of duty, so a little loss of face was well worth it in comparison.

 

Everyone looked out for one another, that’s how it was here. They were comrades in arms now, all of them brothers and sisters who were suffering through Falling Rain’s hellish training regimen together. Not everyone stuck it out, their original five hundred winnowed down to a paltry two hundred and eighty, which was a hundred more bodies than Jorani had wagered. In fact, only the house won in this particular gamble, which explained Bulat’s knowing smirk while accepting everyone’s bets. The scheming sergeant knew the bossman wouldn’t toss people out on their asses. Anyone who left did so by choice, unable to take the rigorous demands and gruelling pace set by the number one talent of the North. Even then, those wash-outs found cozy jobs patrolling the roads and guarding Bekhai shipments for the low price of taking an Oath of Secrecy, a tempting prospect for many.

 

Especially Jorani. He had no delusions about his character, a cowardly shirker who lacked both brains and brawn. He had no place on the battlefield, he was no hero or fighter, he was a survivor, a scavenger, one with no desire to ever face the Defiled again. In spite of all this, he still showed up for training every morning, feigning enthusiasm and playing his part as the no-nonsense Hangman Jorani for reasons he didn’t wholly understand.

 

Pulling out his pocket watch, Jorani flipped it open and admired the glittering jewels before interrupting Ral’s daily hand-holding session with Chey. No longer did the sight stir up feelings of jealousy, only resigned melancholy as Jorani idly wondered when it’d be his turn to find a lady love. Sorya and Anrhi were still a part of his life, but they were adamant to play the part of his little sisters and not his lovers. “Time’s a wastin’,” he said, cursing his luck and gathering his dishes. “Told the squad to meet up before we go.”

 

“Yes Jor. Got it Jor.” With his customary grin, Ral saluted three times and nuzzled Chey in farewell. The daft fool saluted for everything because he couldn’t remember when he’s supposed to and figured it was better to be safe than sorry. Swallowing the rest of his substantial breakfast in a single gulp, the big bastard caught up with a single stride, falling in behind Jorani as always. Ral was getting bigger by the day and his appetite followed, but his soft cheeks and rounded belly were gone now, replaced by a strong jawline and chiselled abs. Hair washed, beard trimmed, straight-backed, and head held high, he looked every bit the Bekhai Khishig in his long, fur-lined jacket. In a matter of months, the soft, dopey buffoon transformed into an intimidating, dopey, warrior.

 

Not even Falling Rain could turn Ral into a hardened killer, but this was close as he’d ever get. Truth be told, Ral’s hard work and dedication surprised Jorani most of all, the dog-eared oaf pursuing strength with such single-minded perseverance he seemed like a person reborn. In this, his stupidity was an advantage, not smart enough to realize the bossman expected too much of them. His strength and skill reaching heights unknown, Ral’s meteoric rise served as motivation for Jorani who worked harder to not to fall behind. Feeble-minded and kind-hearted, Ral was just dumb enough to die doing something moronically heroic so Jorani had to be strong enough to stop him.

 

Striding out onto the meeting grounds, Jorani’s squad gathered around him, waiting to hear from their leader. Aside from Dastan’s elites, Jorani’s squad had the lowest number of wash-outs, with only a handful of former bandits slinking away in shame. Even Wang Bao’s former Butcher Bay Bandits and Ulfsaar’s hardened cutthroats had more wash-outs, a point Jorani took great pride in. His squad comprised of former Freebooters and Mongrels, men and women who’d known him at his lowest, seen him bowing and scraping for their former bosses Kabi and Kosal. They all knew ‘Hangman Jorani’ was a sham and he’d worried it would cause issues, but far from it. They respected him more than they should, revered him for his false reputation, their eyes filled with faith and adoration as they hung on to his every word.

 

They were idiots too, but they were his idiots. Another reason for Jorani to work hard and persevere.

 

“Listen up,” he said, trying to sound gruff and gravelly. All serious warriors were gruff and gravelly, not squeaky and melodic like his natural voice. “Got wind of somethin’ I shouldn’t know, so keep it down. The bossman himself’ll be joining our squad fer a surprise inspection.” A chorus of muted groans rose but he stifled them with a snarl. “Nuff o’ yer bellyaching, shut yer ungrateful traps.”

 

“Yes Sir,” came the reply. 

 

It was nice having a group hanging on to your every word. “Ain’t just room and board, the bossman’s done plenty for us so today we gonna show ‘im it weren’t no waste. Ninety minutes, that’s yer limit for today’s run. I want ye runnin’ like the Father Himself is chasin’ ye till we reach the training camp, and Mother save ye from my wrath if ye fall behind. Who knows, maybe one of you sorry maggots’ll impress the bossman and get a fancy Spiritual Weapon of your own, but I doubt it.” So far, they’d all gone to the veterans or Dastan’s squad, but Jorani’d prefer one of them fancy crossbows instead.

 

Ignoring his squads pleading expressions and pitiful grimaces, Jorani removed his outer coat and loaded it onto a waiting wagon. Shivering in the brisk morning air, he stretched in preparation of their morning run, second guessing his decision. Ninety minutes for thirty kilometres uphill might be pushing it too far, he wasn’t even sure if it was possible. Worse, what if everyone else managed it, but Jorani failed to keep up?

 

“Morning.” Arriving with little fanfare and dressed in a light, leather jacket, the bossman nodded in response to their salutes. Ral wasn’t the only one who’d changed, the scrawny, twig-thin teen had grown into a slim, sinewy young man. Despite his narrow build, below average height, clear eyes, and friendly smile, Jorani wasn’t fooled by the bossman’s appearance. He was a hard man, tough as nails and if he had unreasonable expectations for his soldiers, he had inhuman expectations for himself. Every one of them had seen how hard the bossman worked, doing everything they did only better and faster. With his pets and mounts following obediently at his heels, the bossman saluted Jorani. “I’ll be tagging along with your crew today, but you’re still in charge. Carry on as though I’m one of your soldiers.”

 

“Understood,” Jorani said with a salute, mentally thanking Ravil for the head’s up. “Form up and move out!” Leading the way, he sprinted up the mountain path with measured breaths, pushing his pace faster than ever before. Sweat beaded down his neck, half-freezing from the winter winds and sending chills down his spine, heat and cold warring throughout his body as he fought the urge to check on the boss. After twenty minutes of hard running, Jorani casually turned to look at his squad and almost stumbled as he spied the bossman keeping pace with a bear clinging to his back.

 

Mother above, he can’t be human, that bear must weigh 150 kilograms, easy.

 

Gritting his teeth, Jorani picked up the pace and cursed the old bastard for sticking him with this monster clothed in human flesh. The bossman wasn’t even showing off, this was just a normal day in the charmed life of Falling Rain, effortlessly making everyone around him look bad. Life wasn’t fair, but this wasn’t news to Jorani. All he could do was work harder and pray the Defiled stayed out of the Northern Province forever.

 

Then again, if that ever came to pass, the bossman was liable to go out riding in search of perilous adventure. That’s just the sort of idiot he was.

 

No matter. Idiot or not, Jorani would follow Falling Rain into the Father’s Maw.

 

 

At a reasonable distance, of course.

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

Pleasantly surprised by Jorani’s squad’s progress, I end my surprise inspection two hours before lunch and leave them to practice Healing. Although they’re not the fiercest or most talented of the bunch, Jorani’s ruffians are the most dedicated and obedient members of my retinue. Thirty kilometres in ninety seven minutes is impressive for trained Sentinels, even if Jorani almost died doing it. I should cut him some slack though, the poor guy was so nervous with me tagging along. He’s trying so hard and it makes me proud as a mama hen seeing him slowly and steadily improve over these past few months. Overall, I’ve no complaints with his leadership, and am especially pleased by his ability to inspire loyalty, my band of reformed bandits coming along nicely. Jorani’s people will be a competent squad of scouts and outriders, with their experience hiding in the wilds serving them well.

 

All in all, my new retinue is shaping up nicely, even with no ‘proper’ Sentinels among their ranks. They all left after Mila was promoted to captain and formed her own Sentinel squad, which leaves my retinue sorely lacking. Unfair, just because she’s the bosses daughter… Baatar told me not to worry about it, but still… Why won’t the Sentinels love me? Did I offend them? Do I smell funny? Or is it because I’m a ‘foundling’? People have been ostracized for stupider reasons. Maybe I should hire a Public Relations manager or open my ranks up to regular soldiers…

 

Whatever, I’ll make do with what I got. Ulfsaar and Wang Bao’s squads are my hammers while Dastan’s squad makes up my anvil. Chey’s squad is my ranged unit, each member armed with an expensive new crossbow to pepper my enemies with bolts. Besides, I can’t afford to arm, feed, and house a full retinue, much less buy everyone a quin, which is why Rustram, Ravil, and Bulat don’t have their own squads. Plus, this frees them up to practice alongside my other original cripples turned experts by default. While the rank and file are important, I can’t neglect the strength of my elites.

 

Ha… My elites, Bulat and Ravil. So funny I could almost cry.

 

Gathering my fluffies, I lure them over to the empty obstacle course with a healthy helping of treats. After drawing Peace and Tranquility, my pets fall into formation, knowing when weapons are out, playtime is over. Dressed in stylish cotton vests and knitted hats, Jimjam, Aurie, and Sarankho form up behind me while Banjo and Baloo take the flanks, their glossy black fur and resplendent scarves flapping in the wind. Ever the lazy bear, Banjo rears up on his hind legs and tries to climb onto my shoulders, but a firm ‘no’ is enough to dissuade him, the sweet yearling rubbing his head against my leg in search of forgiveness.

 

Stay strong, don’t give in. This is serious business. We’re training so they know what to do if we ever need to make a run on foot. Shooing Banjo back to his position, I clang my weapons twice and set out towards the first obstacle, a series of chest high-hurdles. Well, waist-high for most people, but I’m short, so chest-high it is. Unfair. Cycling Chi throughout my body, I Lighten myself and clear the hurdles with ease, glancing back to see my fluffies in action. It’s too cute, the wildcats leaping over the hurdles while the bears try their hardest to do the same, treating each obstacle like a single stair as they climb over and jump down to the ground, happily grunting the whole while.

 

In another year, they’ll probably be big enough to crash through the hurdles, but until then, they’ll need to be nimble.

 

The next obstacle is the short wall, standing at three and a half meters tall. No ropes here, but that’s no problem. Stopping at the base of the wall, I Lighten my body once more and concentrate on the timing, successfully Amplifying my jump on the first try. There are few things better than the hang time after vertically jumping twice your height, the euphoria sending me into a fit of giggles as I land neatly atop the wall. Scorning my achievement, Jimjam bounds over in a single leap, sitting prettily while the other animals climb over like mere mortal animals.

 

To Jimjam, this much is nothing. I’ve seen him parkour all over the mountain, leaping from tree to tree like a damn monkey. To be fair, the bears are nimble climbers too, though you wouldn’t know it by looking at them. You’d think a creature so butt-heavy would be terrible at climbing, but they zip up trees like over-sized squirrels, much to the chagrin of the actual, normal-sized squirrels.

 

Moving on, we zip across the balance beams and over the long jump, making good time through both. The wall traverse, window jumps, and pillar steps all present no challenge for my fluffies. Banjo and Baloo aren’t really built for vertical jumps, but soon it’s their time to shine as we move on to the heavy lifting. While I Reinforce and lift a lead-core log over my head, my pets have weighted sleds attached to thick ropes to pull with their mouths, though it took a lot of practice to get them to play along. My tanky bears power through this part but the wildcats aren’t built for sustained power, dragging the sleds behind them in jerky bursts of speed. After travelling a hundred metres with our heavy loads, I give the command ‘release’ and they all happily drop their ropes, enjoying the game as I’ve taught them to.

 

I’m enjoying myself too, but for different reasons. It’s great seeing all my hard work pay off as my fluffies build both strength, confidence, and obedience. Gone are the days when I have to keep a close eye on Aurie to make sure he doesn’t wander off or pay for food Jimjam steals from the market stalls. While I wouldn’t say my fluffies are domesticated, they’re so well-trained it’s almost the same.

 

At least until the hormones kick in.

 

After clearing the tall wall, a series of tunnels, a ramp jump, and a log climb, we finish our circuit with a celebratory lunch while I check my fluffies for injuries. With all the hard work I’ve put into training my pets, I now see just how amazing quins really are. Suret’s pups learned how to clear the obstacle course in a single run, running, leaping, and chirping happily the whole time, chasing one another through the course and dragging sleds around for fun. I stopped running it with them because there’s nothing worse than being judged by an oversized, bipedal otter for moving too slow.

 

Cuddling with my pets for a short break, I take in the scenic, mountain view of frosted forests and mountains, sighing in contentment. Things at the Wall have been quiet of late, as if time itself were frozen by winter’s chill. Who knows how long this calm will last? With things in the Southern Province equally uneventful, an uneasy peace has settled across the Empire, but only because we’ve no news of the West. Eventually, the Defiled hordes will grow bored of razing the West and come pouring into the Central Province in search of fresh bodies to maim. Tens of millions of murderous Defiled warriors charging across the open grasslands of Central, may the Mother have mercy on anyone in their path.

 

That’s not even all of it. The Imperial representative arrived at Sanshu two months ago and still has yet to pass judgment, so there’s still a chance the city will be Purged. Then there’s the Defiled horde which disappeared from outside our gates, which brings a slew of other worries. Are they still North of us, waiting for spring’s thaw before marching on the Wall once more? Or did we get lucky and they all froze to death?

 

I doubt it. Nothing is ever easy.

 

Either way, there’s nothing I can do except keep training, since matters to do with the grand scheme of things are way above my pay grade. All I can do is ensure my pets and soldiers are prepared for battle. Before heading down the mountain with Dastan for our daily sparring session, I watch my retinue running their drills, my chest swelling with pride at the sight of my warriors standing shoulder to shoulder in a shield wall, practising their maneuvers under Rustram’s supervision. I can see it now, my front line armed to the teeth with Spiritual spears and Runic shields, holding off the Defiled hordes like an immovable human fortress while the back line peppers the Enemy with bolts and arrows.

 

It’s nowhere close to a reality yet, but a man can dream.

 

Chapter Meme

 

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Savage Divinity – Chapter 266


I’d like to give a shout out to my latest anonymous Patron. Thank you so much for your support!


 

Sitting with Aurie at the edge of the crowd, I hug my sweet kitten for solace while Shing Du Yi’s openly secret vigil continues. It took explanations from three people before I understood the implications of the former Marshal’s actions, but I still don’t have a firm grasp on the entire situation. All I know is seeing how far he went to protect Yuzhen leaves me with conflicting emotions. On the one hand, it’s inspirational knowing he loved his daughter so much he willingly died to neutralize the greatest threats to her safety. On the other hand, the kind, soft-spoken old man literally wiped out his bloodline to keep one person safe, an example made of his own flesh and blood to warn the world to back the fuck off.

 

I’ll never judge a book by it’s cover ever again. Kind old grandpa Du Yi was metal as fuck. In one decisive action, he brought down a powerhouse and cowed every faction in the north, something Akanai, Baatar, and Nian Zu couldn’t do even if they worked together. The Imperial Clan doesn’t waste time either, not for a death in the family. They didn’t even have to lift a finger; once the decree came out, the Society executed every man, woman, and child related to the Shing Clan themselves, the once proud family reduced to little more than a footnote overnight.

 

If karma is real, where does this sit on the scale or good or evil? Taking hundreds, maybe thousands of lives to save one, it’s hard to objectively call it a fair trade. Then again, not all lives are equal, especially in the eyes of a parent. If given the option, would I save the lives of a dozen strangers if it meant Tali or Tate were left to die? Doubt it, I wouldn’t choose a dozen strangers over Aurie much less my precious niece or nephew, even if it were the Emperor himself. Fuck that guy, gimme my kitty. It’s food for thought though: where do I draw the line? Would I let a hundred strangers die for my loved ones? A thousand? Ten thousand?

 

…Yes. Yes I would.

 

And it’s a thought which terrifies me. Fear not the evil lurking within the shadows but the righteous doing evil in the name of good. Twist the hypothetical further and things really turn morbid. Would I murder a man to feed my family? Would I torture a man to keep my family safe? If plague broke out, would I burn a city to the ground and kill all it’s inhabitants just to keep it from spreading? It’s not like I want to massacre innocents just as I’m sure Shing Du Yi didn’t want to massacre his clansmen, at least not the younger, innocent ones, but history won’t remember intentions, only results. No one sets out to be a villain, but the path to hell is paved with good intentions.

 

Take for example Zhen Shi. By all reports a brilliant man, he was consumed by the notion of improving the human body to better fight the Defiled. Now he’s remembered only for his cruel and inhuman experiments and feared by millions as a sadistic, twisted monster. I doubt he set out with that goal in mind, wanting nothing more than to make the human race stronger. Or maybe I’m wrong, maybe evil truly lurked within him and he did it all for funsies. Who knows.

 

Either way, here’s the thought which’ll have me tossing and turning all night: What if he’d succeeded? What if, Zhen Shi discovered a breakthrough method of strengthening the human body without succumbing to the Spectres? Put it another way, what if instead of a strengthening process, Zhen Shi sought a cure for a common, widespread disease like smallpox? Would we condemn him for inflicting the disease on healthy bodies just so he could study the process of infection? I mean that’s essentially what he did, he tortured and killed innocents to see how one became Defiled. Was it morally wrong to do so? Yes, without a doubt, but if he’d succeeded, then the Empire would have lauded him as a hero and swept all the corpses underneath the rug.

 

History will remember Shing Du Yi as a traitor but I know he acted with good intentions. Does that balance out the death of innocents who were unlucky enough to be born surnamed Shing? I’m not sure there’s a proper answer. Philosophy sucks. Despite all the horrible things he did, I’d love to read Zhen Shi’s notes or pick his brain. It might help explain my situation with Baledagh and Blobby, possibly even offer us a solution.

 

“Hubby!” With the cutest and softest flying tackle ever, Lin leaps into my arms and gives me a peck on the cheek. Her big brown eyes half-filled with tears, she declares, “I’m gonna have dinner with Daddy but the restaurant won’t let the bear-bears and Jimjam in. Bring them home with you, ya?”

 

Too sweet. “Sure thing but they’re staying with me tonight. That’s my price, you can’t monopolize the cubs until they’re too big to cuddle with.”

 

Sticking out her tongue, she whispers, “Fine, but they’ll never be too big to cuddle. They’ll only get comfier and huggier.” Skipping away, she leaps onto Taduk’s shoulders who carries her away with a grin, a lovely, goofy father daughter pair. She isn’t the only one, as Mila arrives soon after to let me know she’s eating with her family and wants me to look after Sarankho, followed by Alsantset and Charok asking me to babysit Tali and Tate while they dine with the shut-in Baatar. My sister’s mood has much improved these past few days, finding hope once she learned of Sarnai’s recent improvements, minor though they might be.

 

I only pray her hopes are not in vain.

 

I don’t mind being the babysitter, I’m always happy to have all my fur babies and sweetlings in one place. Squeaking up a storm, the quin pups hop up and down trying to reach Jimjam napping in the tree branches as Tali and Tate skip and play with the bear cubs. Mafu circles around both groups, working overtime to keep everyone safe with help from the other quins, as looking after the young is a group effort. Sarankho looks to join my cuddle session with Aurie, her snowy-white coat mixing with Aurie’s golden-brown as they melt into a mass of fur and fang beneath my expert scritches.

 

Shuffling to my side before waving his escort away, Fung slumps into the grass with a sigh. “These are dark times, Martial Nephew.”

 

“Sorry for your loss. I didn’t know you were close.” It makes sense considering the Marshal was Fung’s dad’s boss.

 

“What? Oh no, I barely knew the man, though I admired him greatly. You know how he became Marshal with no backing?” Chuckling, he leans in and explains. “He presented himself as the safest option to back without offending the two major powers vying for office. Everyone who supported him believed no one else would, so they hoped for a hung decision, giving the smaller powers more leverage and more time to work without a Marshal overseeing their every move. Lucrative stuff. Instead, Shing Du Yi received endorsements from almost two-thirds of the sitting Magistrates and Lieutenant Marshals, allowing him to take office unopposed in a brilliant move. The old man stole the office by playing everyone against each other, and then kept the office and his life by being a man of principle who always acted impartially even to his own detriment. If he believed Yuzhen is the woman for the job, then I say the province is in good hands. May he rest well in the arms of the Mother, as he found victory in death.”

 

“Then why all the gloom and doom?”

 

Shrinking back, he sighs once again, so mournful you’d think he’d lost his own father. “It’s partially your fault you know? I didn’t plan on returning so soon, but circumstances required I bring father’s endorsement to Marshal Yuzhen. Mentor has had some choice words for me during our reunion and it’s only gotten worse following the results of the little sparring matches you’ve arranged. Every day? Really? And would it kill you to go easy and allow me a single victory?”

 

Not my fault, this is all on Baledagh. Wisely choosing to clean up my little brother’s choice of words, I clap Fung on the back and grin. “Work hard and persevere, you’ll earn a victory soon enough. You’re getting stronger by the day.”

 

“Yet I’m still the weakest of the bunch, last place behind even BoShui. So depressing. I once believed myself a dragon among men, but it turns out I’m merely a… merely a…”

 

“Duck among chickens?” I offer, snickering at my clever retort. Duck and chicken are slang for male and female prostitutes.

 

“Hmph. Impugn me if you must, but to dare call my courtesan’s ‘chickens’, I’ll not stand for it, especially not from a junior.”

 

“In that case, I shall await your challenge, mourn your passing, and comfort your courtesans.”

 

“Bah.” Snorting with laughter, Fung takes a different tack. “I didn’t want to leave my lovely ladies, but what’s a man to do? Mentor doesn’t like having them around so they’ve been starved of my love and affection this past year. I had much to make up for, my hips are aching from exertion. It’s no wonder I’ve no strength to spar.”

 

“Ha. They’re probably relieved by your absence.”

 

“Nonsense. Petty jealousy is unbecoming of you.”

 

Rolling my eyes, I tell myself there’s nothing to be jealous of. I have two lovey, capable young women who love me for who I am and not what I have. Besides, who am I to say Fung’s courtesan’s don’t truly love him? He certainly shows them plenty of affection, as we all heard during our journey home. “Focus more on your sword and spear work. Honestly, you shouldn’t be losing to BoShui, not in a spar. Your spear offers you superior range and power against his dual gauntlets, but you keep letting him slip past your guard. Take a step back, let him come to you. Keep your distance with jabs and testing strikes, don’t commit right from the start. You’re too ‘all or nothing’, try winning through attrition.”

 

Fung scoffs. “Hardly an honourable victory.”

 

“Take notes from the dearly departed Shing Du Yi, victory at any cost.” Though I’m not sure the advice applies in every situation.

 

Reflecting on my advice, Fung shakes his head and smiles. “You know, you’d make a half-decent politician. I’d have never thought of using an ‘unknown’ shrine to quietly honour a great man. He deserves better, but the Imperials are so touchy about dead scions. An arrogant ass drinks himself into a stupour and slips off a balcony, and a prestigious clan is wiped out in retaliation. Ludicrous.”

 

Cautioning him to watch his mouth, we return to my home for a meal and drinks. Citing an early morning training session with Akanai, Fung heads back to his room early while Tali and Tate beg for a story before bedtime. Tucking them in with Aurie and the quin pups, I wrack my brain for a story. “There once was a girl named little red riding -”

 

“You’ve told this one Rainy. She beats up the bears and eats their porridge.” Tate’s tired yawn is heart-melting, he chubby cheeks quivering with effort. “I wanna hear a new story. Please?” Tali doesn’t chime in but her wide-eyed hopeful stare shows she shares her brother’s sentiments.

 

“A new story huh… How about… There once were three little doggies who lived in three different houses, one made of stra-”

 

“Heard it. They build a trap and drop a mountain of stones on the wolf.”

 

“Uh… What about the story of the little mermaid?”

 

Tali answers this time, excited to join it. “She leaves the cheating prince and runs home to papa, who floods the prince’s kingdom for insulting his daughter.”

 

“…Why are all the stories I tell so bloody? I should find some nice, wholesome stories.”

 

With a sweet smile, Tali nuzzles into Aurie’s fur and replies, “But Rainy, those stories are the best. Meanies reap what they sow, ya?”

 

So bloodthirsty and vindictive, I pray for her future husband’s safety. “Okay, fine, but I’m all out of original stories.”

 

“Bookshelf.” They both chime in, pointing behind my birdcage. My attempts to dissuade them only earn me tearful gazes, and unable to resist, I resign myself to searching through Yo Ling’s collection for a book of children’s stories while wedged between the cage and aforementioned bookshelf. Roc and his flock are less than thrilled by my jostling, pecking through the leather cage cover to convey their displeasure.

 

The things I do for love…

 

Unable to bear it any longer, I grab a few books at random and make my escape, setting the stack down beside the bed. The top tome is marked ‘A treatise on the trade agreements between Sanshu and Shen Yun during the dynasty of…’ blah blah blah. Placing it aside, the next tome is more promising, merely titled ‘Poetry’. Flipping through it, I scan the contents for something I can use to lull the twin terrors to sleep.

 

-Yellow-red leaves rustle and fall, the ceaseless waters of-

 

-ten thousand kilometres away from home, my desperate-

 

-each mark made perpendicular to the last. Pay careful attention to the order as-

 

-bitter love turned sweet despair, for only-

 

Pausing in my scan, I turn back to the previous page and take my time reading its contents. ‘-it dictates the flow of energy, which is critical to function. The runes are the language of Energy and one errant stroke out of order will ruin the inscription. In worst case scenarios, not only will you lose time and materials, but the failed product will produce an explosion-

 

Runes are the language of Energy.

 

Runes.

 

Hidden in the midst of horrible poetry is Yo Ling’s primer on runic inscriptions, his meticulously detailed observations on the craft. This is the jackpot, first-hand knowledge from a runic craftsman, not only explaining what runes are and how they work, but also every mistake he made or difficulty he encountered.

 

“Rainy, it’s story time…” Tate whines, drawing me out of my stupour.

 

“Sorry sweetling, I was distracted.” Closing the book with shaky hands, I tell them about my battle with assassins in Sanshu. They’re exposed to too much violence as is, but now’s not the time to worry about it. Halfway through the tale, the twins fall fast asleep cuddled with the snoring quins, leaving me free to peruse Yo Ling’s notes in peace.

 

Lighting a second lantern to read by, I curl up with Mafu and the bear cubs to continue my studies. Disappointingly, Yo Ling’s knowledge starts and ends with a single rune, one he found on a stolen, non-functioning antique helmet. It’s only good for stopping chi-infused strikes and nowhere near impenetrable, but his insights on how it works are fascinating. Essentially, this particular rune is like an intangible shield which stops Chi, keeping Honed weapons from tearing through armour like paper or extinguishing Chi-powered flames and whatnot. The force from an Amplified strike will still be felt, but a strike containing Reverberations will be treated like a regular hit. In contrast, Li Song’s runic breastplate is far superior as it mitigates impacts and can even Deflects blows if they’re slow enough.

 

As with all things, there are limits. The rune has something like a reservoir of energy, a threshold of how much power it can absorb at once. If we denote the threshold as 100 units and the wearer has infinite Energy to replenish the rune’s reservoir, then any attack dealing less than 100 units of damage is unable to break through the runic defences, though the force of regular impact still carries through. Exceed 100 units of damage and the runic armour is no different from standard armour.

 

Yo Ling’s notes go on to detail trapping Spirits to power and enhance his creations, which is disturbing to say the least. I can only hope these aren’t orthodox practices, but if they are, so what? Power is power, it’s all the same in the end. Besides, even if Yo Ling only knew one rune of limited use and only made enough copies for himself and his captains, it’s still better than nothing. What’s more, his notes on how he deciphered the rune are invaluable, since now I can do the same with the runic rings, Li Song’s breastplate, and Jorani’s one-time use runic baton. No one knows exactly what it does, and I’d be more willing to test it out if I could replace them.

 

After going through the notes thrice, a thought strikes me and I drag Roc’s cage out and scurry around, flipping through the books one by one while ignoring their angry squawks. Maybe I’ll find more of Yo Ling’s studies hidden within their pages, or a map to his treasures, a list of his hidden allies, something, anything. There’s a real treasure trove here in this bookshelf, and I’ve ignored it for too long.

 

And to think, I only have these books because no one else wanted them. If Zian ever finds out, he’ll regret it until the day he dies. Between this and my sweet soon-to-be-crafted spring-coiled Spiritual rifle, I’ll be well equipped to deal with whatever life throws my way.

 

 

That was in no way, shape or form a challenge to the universe.

 

Please have mercy.

 

Chapter Meme

End of Volume 14

 

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