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Staring down the beak of the monstrous, armoured reptile laying at my literal doorstep, it takes every iota of courage I have to keep my voice calm and steady. “Lin… Listen carefully. I’m not mad, but you need to get off the turtle and send it back to where you found it.”
Ignoring my instructions, Lin rests her chin on her hands and tilts her head, laying prone atop the giant turtle’s surprisingly flat head. “Don’t be silly hubby. I didn’t call her here, she came on her own.”
Shit. Fuck. God Dammit. And here I was hoping she had control of the giant armoured dinosaur. “Okay… but you still need to get down.” What the hell are her guards doing? Oh god, is Guard Leader strong enough to fight this thing? Do I want to find out? Maybe I can scare it off with my Aura, but I’d like to be out of biting range before trying it out.
“Don’t wanna. There’s nothing to worry about Rainy, she’s friendly ya?” Reaching down, Lin rubs the turtle between its eyes and giggles as it raises its head in response to her gentle ministrations. “See?”
Freed from its gaze, I’m finally able to look around and study the creature. It’s not as round as I’d expected, more of a bulky rectangle with spikes. Having raised its neck, I can see it’s belly is pressed flat against the ground, lacking the bulky bottom shell I expect to see on turtles. After a minute of Lin’s petting, the turtle shuffles its limbs back and forth and burrows its body into the loose dirt. Sinking into the earth at a rapid pace, it makes itself comfortable and lays its head at my feet, exhaling slowly as its eyelids close in peaceful slumber.
Letting go of a breath I didn’t realized I’d been holding, all the tension eases from my body as the threat passes. My retinue follows my cue with a collective sigh, lowering their readied weapons as they look to me for guidance. Giving the signal to disperse in silence, I pray they’re quiet enough not to disturb the sleeping giant. I suppose its possible we’ve encroached upon her favourite napping spot, but what are the chances?
Drained and exhausted by the brief yet harrowing turtle stare-down, I quietly ask Ravil for an explanation, which he gives in quiet whispers. According to the sentries, Ping Yao’s Guardian Turtle burst out of the treeline faster than a galloping horse, but immediately slowed down at the sight of so many people. Patiently waiting for people to get out of her way, the turtle headed straight into the heart of our camp, moving ever so slowly until she stopped outside my yurt. There, she waited for several minutes until Ravil found the courage to come inside and disturb my meditation.
Weird. Why did the turtle come looking for me? It didn’t care when I was a kilometre away this morning so why chase me down now? Did it sense Blobby while I was meditating? How though? My hands were soaking in a basin on water, detached from any other source.
Putting aside the why, I order Ravil to break camp as quietly as possible. There’s no way anyone is sleeping with a titanic turtle dozing nearby, but hopefully we can use this opportunity to get away. Cautiously moving closer, I reach out to Lin and motion for her to jump into my arms, to which she happily complies. With my wifey securely in my arms, I back away from the turtle one quiet, careful step at a time and slip into my yurt. While the wooden door and canvas walls won’t keep her out, I feel safer with the turtle out of sight. Speaking ever so quietly so as not to disturb the slumbering behemoth, I whisper, “Lin, what were you thinking? You could have seriously gotten hurt. I have half a mind to send you home!”
Unfazed by my concerned anger, Lin flashes her toothy grin and answers in a normal volume. “Don’t worry, if it was dangerous, the guards would have stopped me, ya? Besides, you can’t send me home. I don’t hafta follow your orders.” As if to prove her point, Lin sticks her tongue out and blows a raspberry.
I don’t blame her for not taking me seriously, I hardly seem imposing while trembling from head to toe, the aftereffects of too much adrenaline coursing through my veins. To make matters worse, Lin’s tousled hair and wrinkled night-clothes lend a sensual, seductive air to her impish smile, her cheeks flushed with excitement as she snuggles in my embrace. Sometime while I wasn’t looking, my adorable Lin blossomed into an alluring young lady, her fresh-faced innocence almost impossible to resist.
But resist I must. Calm down little Rain, you don’t want to do anything that’ll disappoint Taduk, and despoiling his only daughter before our wedding night certainly makes the list.
Oblivious to my inner struggle, Lin continues to defend her earlier actions. “Plus, Ping-Ping is a gentle sweetheart Rainy. She didn’t hurt anyone or break anything on her way in, ya?”
“No. Don’t name her.” Putting Lin down, I grab a stray blanket and warp it around her shoulders, doing my best to resist her innocent charms. “We’re not keeping the turtle.”
“Because I said so.” Tempting though it may be, the turtle is too terrifying. “I don’t care how gentle or careful she is, Ping-Ping is one careless misstep away from turning someone into meat paste.” God dammit, Lin has worse naming sense than I do. Ping-Ping is hardly what you’d call a gargantuan, armoured, apex predator. “Look at how scared Aurie and Mafu are, my poor babies are shivering.” The two cowards in question lay cuddled together on the bed, their fear having gone unnoticed in my earlier haste to follow Ravil out. “Soon as Ravil gives the all clear, we’re gone. We’ll leave this yurt behind, no point taking needless risks.”
Running over to the cowardly animals, Lin giggles as she joins their dog-pile. “You big floofs are so silly. Ping-Ping won’t hurt anyone, don’t you worry.” Looking up, she asks, “What about daddy? He’s not back yet.”
He’s not? Shit. “I’ll leave an armed escort nearby. Don’t worry, I’m sure he’s fine.” I hope he’s fine. Why isn’t he back yet? It’s been more than twelve hours since we parted ways and he knows we’re on a tight schedule. Should I send someone to look for him? Ugh, being in charge is so stressful. I’ll ask Guard Leader if she can spare a minion or two to find my Teacher.
Having decided on my plan of action, I set about packing my things and generally keeping busy. Breaking camp takes a while and even more when done by moonlight, and I don’t have much to pack, so soon all I’ve left to do is sit around and twiddle my thumbs. Well, that’s not exactly true, there are a couple things I could do. I still need to put away the bed and blankets, but Aurie, Mafu, and Lin all fell asleep while I was busy, proving me wrong once more. Likewise, the baby bunnies are also snoozing away, all huddled together on their blanket by the foot of the bed. Other than that, the only thing I have left is to empty my water basin, but I’m not too keen on going outside for obvious reasons.
Having delayed for as long as possible, I finally gather up the nerve to brave the turtle. After dressing up in full battle gear, I open the door with Peace and Tranquility drawn and ready while balancing the water basin in my arms. The moment I step outside, Ping-Ping comes to life and lifts her head to stare me down like a hawk. Opening her mouth wide, she lets out the same oddly endearing squeak and waits, jaw agape and eyes wide with expectation. The ground beneath my feet trembles as I wither beneath her gaze, and a small, detached part of my brain realizes the ground is shaking because she’s wagging her long, snakelike tail.
That’s cute, she’s kinda like a massive, shelled, reptilian doggo. Why’s she so happy to see me though? Okay, don’t show fear, just act casual. Taking a step back, I resist the urge to scream and lash out as Ping-Ping stretches her neck to follow, keeping her open mouth within arms length of me. Another step back and the turtle follows once again, her neck deceptively longer than expected. It’s still not fully extended either, something to keep in mind should things turn sour.
Thus far, Ping-Ping hasn’t moved anything besides her head, patiently laying there with her mouth open like a baby bird waiting to be fed. Too scared to move any further, I stand frozen in front of Ping-Ping’s gaping maw, unsure how to proceed. I don’t want to find out what happens if I move further than her neck can stretch, not with Lin and my sweet pets asleep so close. What if Ping-Ping tries to stop me? I’m pretty sure I won’t enjoy even a gentle tug from her massive beak.
An errant thought runs through my mind and I stare at the basin in my hands. Is Ping-Ping thirsty? Placing the basin on the ground, I ready my weapons and step away, but my caution was unnecessary. Lowering her mouth to the tray-sized basin, Ping-Ping slurps up the water in one gulp and licks her chops while gazing at me with eager anticipation. After convincing her to stay, I slip away and return with a barrel of water, leaving the opened container well within her reach. After sniffing the water, Ping-Ping doesn’t partake of the drink, instead treating me to another adorable, squeaking cry.
Welp, mystery solved, it’s my fault she’s here. I don’t get what’s so special about the water I use for practice. True, I tried to bind the basin water to my Chi, but I failed, so why does Ping-Ping want my hand-washing water? Putting aside my weapons, I move to the barrel and place both hands into the water, hoping to test my theory by finding Balance. Not an easy feat with Ping-Ping’s breath rustling through my hair, almost impossible in fact. As if sensing my trepidation, she ease back and lays her head on the ground, watching me out the corner of her eye with her tongue hanging out the side of her mouth. Clever girl, she’s trying to put me at ease, but then again, she has been around for a few thousand years so I expect she’s learned a thing or two.
Exhaling to clear my head, I swallow my fear and focus on the task at hand. Comforted by Ping-Ping’s actions, Balance comes easily this time as I circulate my Chi throughout my body, picking up where I left off earlier. I am the water, the water is me. There is no beginning or end, an unbroken flow and unending cycle, no delineation between where I begin and the water ends, for we are one entity beneath the Heavens.
My meditation continues until something disrupts me, breaking me out of my trance. Opening my eyes, I find the sun peaking over the horizon while I stand inches from Ping-Ping as she laps away at the barrel of water. Well, lap isn’t the right word, she sticks her tongue out and the water rushes into her mouth like a reverse funnel. There’s no slurping or wind, just water moving against gravity like it’s a normal, everyday thing. Furrowing my brow, I try to draw the water towards me the same way, but I’m unable to move it in the slightest. In my eyes, this water is no different from the water in any other barrel, but Ping-Ping actions tell a different story. There’s something special about this water, something I’ve done which makes it better, but I don’t understand why.
I hope it’s not something important, god knows how many basins of water I’ve poured out into the dirt. Should I have been feeding this water to my pets or drinking it myself? Oh god, is it because I have Blobby inside me? What if I’ve been secreting pieces of Blobby this whole time? Is that why Ping-Ping can control the water? She drank some of Blobby before, so it makes sense. Closing my eyes, I slip into my Natal Palace to check on my tenants. Baledagh is still in his room practising like a madman, and I doubt he even noticed Ping-Ping’s presence.
There’s no saving him anymore. My brother is a martial arts otaku.
Exerting my will, I gather Blobby into the palm of my hand and probe him with my senses to see if he’s all right. Responding to my concern with placid indifference, Blobby continues being Blobby, unable to understand or unwilling to respond to my questions. Nothing spurs his interest aside from Demons or Tainted to devour, but on the bright side, he doesn’t seem upset by my actions or concerned about Ping-Ping, so I’m left with an unsolved mystery.
Stepping out of the void with a sigh, I give Ping-Ping a nervous pat on the nose, the giant turtle having long since finished the barrel of water. “No more,” I say with a smile, praying she doesn’t get angry. “Sorry.”
Thankfully, Ping-Ping seems understanding enough, laying back down to rest her eyes. Still wary of the giant beast, I grab my basin and step back to find Taduk sitting nearby, enjoying a cup of tea with Guard Leader at a tiny dining table. Nestled in Guard Leader’s arms is Mama Bun, glaring at Taduk with undisguised anger. “Welcome back Teacher.” After refilling their cups, I pour one for myself and down it, my throat parched and mouth dry from my efforts. “I take it things went well?”
“Hmph.” Returning Mama Bun’s dark glare, my Teacher snorts in discontent. “About as well as could be expected. The little buck-toothed vermin led me right to a stalk of rime bamboo. A sapling really, but I uprooted it and packed it away before that thing could eat it. Had to throw the damn beast in a sack to keep it from bruising my shins the whole way back.”
Aww, I feel bad Mama Bun didn’t get her treat, but at least she proved me right. We can totally use bicorn rabbits to find Spiritual Plants, which is a huge win. Granted, I lucked out finding the one rabbit who won’t kill herself trying to fight us, but luck is also a form of skill.
Stroking the fuming Mama Bun, Guard Leader chides Taduk. “You have no heart. This poor thing worked so hard and travelled so far only to have her prize snatched away by a miserly old man. Don’t you think she deserves some reward for her troubles?”
“Poor thing, Pei!” Slamming his teacup on the table, Taduk points accusingly at Guard Leader. “I know you’re doing this just to get on my nerves. Well it won’t work. I don’t care, you want to reward her then you do it. Go ahead, feed that floppy-eared furbag whatever you want, all you’re doing is fattening it for the slaughter.” Reaching into his sleeves, Taduk pulls out a dark mass of fur and plops it onto the table. “A gift boy, you take good care of it now. Spent many hours looking for it, but don’t worry about that. Raise it up big and strong, but make sure not to spoil it like you spoil the others.”
Choking back my squeal of delight, I take in the sight of Taduk’s gift, a tiny, scared bunny the size of my palm. Sporting a beautiful, black, short-furred coat with a white underbelly, his nose and eyes are also lined with white to give its features a lovely contrast. Although bigger than Mama Bun’s babies, this bunny is leaner than his new siblings and much more vigilant. Where the other bunnies would happily hop around and explore their surroundings, this new bunny, who I’ve already named Blackjack, stands stock still with arms and legs poised to fight or flee.
Resting my cheek against the table, I eye my newest pet with a smile. “Hiya cutie. Did Teacher find you in the wild?” Reacting to the sound of my voice, Blackjack turns to face me head on, nose twitching a mile a minute. So cute. It looks different from the other bunnies, more alert and jumpy, but I guess it’s because he’s a wild one. Placing my right hand flat on the table, I slowly slide it towards Blackjack one centimetre at a time, doing my best not to spook it. “Don’t be scared, everything’s gonna be fine. The big scary turtle won’t eat you. Why don’t you come with me and meet your new family?” It’s gonna be so fun. I hope Blackjack is a boy and Tawny One is a girl, then they can be a couple with themed names. Letting him sniff the back of my fingers, I wait until Blackjack seems comfortable with my smell before moving to pick him up. “Come here my sweet bun bun, lets get you something to eat and – Ahhhhhhh!”
A shrill screech emerges from my mouth as Blackjack chomps down on my index finger and tears away the top joint. Cheeks working furiously, it swallows the morsel and bares its fangs to reveal four bloody incisors. Clutching at my wounded finger close, I hiss in pain and ask, “What the fuck is that?”
“That, my boy,” Taduk says, swelling with pride, “is a Cloud Chaser Hare. See how fierce it is? A predator born, destined to rule the treetops and skies.” Sneering at Mama Bun, he adds, “Far more majestic than any mere rabbit.”
“Uhh… Yea. Thank you.” I guess. Stopping the bleeding with an effort of will, I wash away most of my blood with some tea. “Very cute.”
Just my daily reminder of how everything in this world is looking to kill or eat me. Fun, fun, fun.
“Put the fur-bag away.” Placing her teacup down, Guard Leader stands and faces the forest. “We have company.”
Turning to follow her gaze, I watch as a group of people file out of the forest from the gap Ping-Ping left in her wake. Numbering close to a hundred strong, their shabby, hemp clothing, straw cloaks, and conical hats mark them as woodsmen or commoners, but their weapons tell a different story. Spears, swords, axes, and bows bristle as they form up in battle-lines with practised efficiency. Responding in kind, my retinue also moves into formation, but instead of lining up shoulder to shoulder in the open, Jorani’s people take cover behind wagons and half-dismantled yurts, readying their bows and crossbows for my signal. Off to the side, Chey slips away on quinback with her entire squad, hoping to circle around and flank our enemy while Wang Bao and his cutthroats make their way to the front, hefting makeshift shields to defend against the first barrage. Carrying yurt doors, folding chairs, pot lids, and anything else which might stop an arrow, the former Butcher Bay veterans sneer confidently as they prepare for battle.
Looks like months of training have borne fruit, but my people deserve to be confident. Clad in garo leather armour and armed with the best weapons money can buy, we also outnumber our enemy by more than two to one, unless they have more warriors hiding in the woods. Doesn’t matter if they do, Chey and her quins will make short work of anyone they find.
Trapping the blood-thirsty hare beneath my water basin, I hurry over to join the front lines. Giving Ravil, Pran, and Saluk the order to load their guns and aim for the enemy leaders, I strap on Tranquility and draw Peace while quietly cursing over the loss of my finger tip. Makes it harder to keep a firm grip on my sword, but hopefully things don’t escalate that far. Holding my Officer’s token up for the intruders to see, I yell, “This is Warrant Officer Second Grade Falling Rain. State your intentions, or die where you stand.”
Woo… Chills. I can see why people love being arrogant, it’s pretty fun.
The rabble of woodsmen-turned-soldier don’t like what they hear, as evidenced by their disgruntled looks and hushed arguments. Giving them a minute to sort things out, I stand tall and proud with hand held high, wondering if I should keep it up or put it down. Maybe physically seeing the token will scare them off, but an argument could be made that it looks like I’m hiding behind my rank.
After a short discussion, one scruffy warrior steps forward and responds, blissfully ignorant of how much danger he’s really in, staring down the barrel of Ravil’s gun. Drawing himself up to full height, the enemy leader yells back, “We do not fear death. Release the Divine Turtle or face Ping Yao’s wrath!”
Oh, it’s the turtle ninjas. Thank the Mother. Glancing back at Ping-Ping, I yell, “Okay. Wait one second. I’ll go get her.” Stopping in my tracks, I turn back to the turtle ninja’s and add, “Actually, maybe it’s better if you go to her. She’s napping.”
Well, that’s one scary, dangerous pet taken care of. Now what am I supposed to do with a voracious, meat-eating, cloud-hopping hare?
Man… All I wanted was a cuddly, adorable red panda.
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