Savage Divinity – Chapter 324

 

“What do you wish to know?”

 

Faltering at the monk’s question, Baledagh took his time to think things through. He couldn’t come right out and ask about transmigrated souls which possessed knowledge of other worlds, or multiple souls dwelling in one body, or even about Spectres and what they were. Although the monk appeared friendly and helpful, his motivations were still unclear and he was under no restrictions to keep Baledagh and Brother’s many, many secrets. What did the Penitent Brotherhood, a group of reclusive, self-flagellating monks, want with Falling Rain? Don’t think Baledagh missed the monk’s evasive answer on the subject either; when asked point blank, the fat ascetic said ‘who knows?’, not ‘I don’t know’.

 

Faced with this dilemma, he thought it prudent to let the monk direct the conversation, making it all the easier for Baledagh to steer it in the proper direction without arousing suspicion. “Pretend I know nothing and start from the beginning,” he said, playing the part of inquisitive mind. “Theology is not a subject I’m well-versed in. All I ‘know’ is the Mother had four elemental babies, earth, fire, wind, and water. She then used them to create our world and everything in it, which made the Father jealous so he created the Demons, who went on to ruin everything. Now, many millennia later, here we are still doing the same old song and dance.”

 

The monk’s ‘holy man’ facade slipped as he opened his eyes to scowl. “Be respectful and choose your words with more care. There is no call to ridicule or denigrate another’s beliefs.” Baledagh wasn’t sure why, but he liked the monk more after seeing him behave like an actual human instead of a ‘holier than thou’ preacher. Clearing his throat, the monk launched into yet another sermon, the first of which Baledagh was looking forward to. “What you touched on is the most widely accepted version of events, but such things are… difficult to prove or disprove. Dwelling upon them is counter productive and done only in the interest of self-identity, so better to set your mind to other things.”

 

“Okay.” Seemed like a cop out, but as the monk said, pressing the issue would be irrelevant. “So where does reincarnation come into it and how does it work?”

 

“While we cannot substantiate the mechanisms behind reincarnation with any certainty, throughout history there have been many examples of individuals recalling memories of previous lives, the best evidence available of reincarnation.” Finally, something to do with Brother and his mysterious circumstances, but the monk immediately moved on. “Thus, we know we live in a cycle of reincarnation and the first Noble Truth tells us life is suffering, but for what purpose? You yourself have felt the Mother’s love, when you first touched the Energy of the Heavens and again when you recently Awakened. You’ve experienced her warm embrace first-hand and benefited from her benevolent teachings, so why do you think She allows us to suffer?”

 

‘Maybe She’s a sadistic bitch,’ Baledagh almost quipped, until he remembered his manners. “Such is life,” he said with a shrug. “Trials and tribulations without end.”

 

He’d rather go back to the memories bit, but the monk pressed on, lighting up at Baledagh’s catechism. “Trials and tribulations, but not without end. The Second Noble Truth tells us we suffer because of the Three Desires, sex, fame, and alcohol as you so poorly summarized. The Third Noble Truth tells us there is a way to escape, by divesting one’s self of the Three Desires and attaining Nirvana. Thus, life is suffering but the Mother always leaves another path, which in this case is the Fourth Noble Truth: The way to Nirvana lies in living your life according to the Noble Eight-Fold Path. Right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration.”

 

Ugh. So many things to remember, but Baledagh tried his best. For Brother. He’d be able to parse through all this, so Baledagh would have to recite it back to him. “Okay… So give up the Three Desires, take up the Four Noble Truths, and follow the Noble Eight-Fold Path to Nirvana, which is…?”

 

“A higher plane of existence.” Chuckling at Baledagh’s incredulous look, the monk shrugged. “I myself made the same face, and while my belief in the end goal might waver from time to time, obedience to the laws of righteousness matters more than worship of the Divine. If at the end of my life, I discover there is no Nirvana, then at least I will have lived the best life I could.” With a faraway look, the monk reflected on some memory with a smile so genuine Baledagh couldn’t help but be envious. In the short time he existed, Baledagh had done nothing worth remembering. Attacking the Demon Vivek, charging on stage to face the Society when Mila or Yan could have easily handled it all, the entire disaster with Qing-Qing, he’d lived a life filled with failure and regret. If the monk’s teachings could bring Baledagh the same joy and inner peace, then maybe he could afford to be more open-minded about all this.

 

…Then again, no sex, fame, or alcohol. Losing any one of those was a deal-breaker, not to mention becoming a vegetarian.

 

Bringing the conversation back on track, the monk continued, “There have been other conjectures made and theories bandied about for thousands and thousands of years. Some claim this world was meant as a test of martial strength and only those who prove themselves worthy may ascend to a higher plane and take part in The Holy War. Others believe there are infinite worlds in the multi-verse and this world is a punishment for transgressions made in previous lives. Some even believe we are all duplicates of a single soul which belongs to the prenatal form of a Divine Being, and this world a tool to teach him or her of humanity. There are countless unsubstantiated theories and to pick out the correct one is no easy task. The theory I present to you is the same, and it is your choice whether or not to accept it.”

 

“Oh, I have a choice now?” Baledagh smiled wryly.

 

“Belief is irrelevant to the Brotherhood.” The monk matched Baledagh’s humourless smile with one of his own. “This isn’t to say we have no reasons to support our theory, but a theory it will remain until proof can be found. First, a higher power exists, one which guides us towards a final goal through the Energy of the Heavens. Do you accept this?”

 

“Not entirely,” Baledagh replied, shrugging in apology. “The ‘Mother’s Embrace’ could be any number of things besides an all-powerful deity instilling knowledge into Her subjects. It could be knowledge from previous lives returning to us, or aliens transmitting knowledge through advanced technology.” Or benevolent spirits working as a counterpart to the Spectres, but he couldn’t say it out loud. No one knew about Spectres except the Defiled, and explaining them would bring unwelcome questions. Noting the monk’s sour glare, Baledagh coughed and added, “But uhh… let’s pretend I do. Please, continue.”

 

Rolling his eyes, the monk played along. “We also know that even though She made all the creatures in our world, it is we humans who were shaped in Her image and the only ones able to ascend to Nirvana.”

 

“…Do we? Kind of a big leap in logic there…”

 

“Is it? Tell me, what separates humans from animals?” Before Baledagh could answer with something snarky, the monk answered for him. “Wisdom! An animal can improve itself, can learn to hunt, hide, track, or fight better, but it cannot learn to suppress its instincts. A tiger will not rear a bull for food in the winter, nor will a horse bribe the wolf for its life. An animal is a slave to its instincts while humans can learn to rise above them. Honour, face, ethics and integrity, these are but a few of the concepts manufactured by the human mind, each one an integral part of human life which no animal will ever understand. Animals also suffer from the Three Desires, but only humans have the capacity to rise above them. It is for this reason alone why, upon reaching True Enlightenment, an ancient beast will instinctively wield the Energy of the Heavens to form a human mind and body. Only with human wisdom will they be able to take the next step in the journey of life, which we of the Brotherhood believe is achieved through reaching Nirvana.”

 

This was getting off topic. As interesting as this wasn’t, Baledagh was here for answers about Brother and where he might have disappeared to. Instead of directly asking about twinned souls, he thought it better to play the part of skeptic. “Let’s back up a bit to clear things up,” he said, with no need to fake a headache. “You claim reincarnation is real because there have been individuals who recalled memories from a previous life, but if that happens then why doesn’t everyone remember their previous lives?”

 

Taking the topic shift in stride, the monk answered with confidence, as if he’d been asked this same question many times before. “In time immemorial, one member of the Brotherhood posited that moving from one life to the next is like transferring a flame from one dying candle to another unlit one. The candle changes, but the flame remains the same, just as the body changes and the soul remains. Since memories are stored in the physical mind, then none are transferred to the new candle, but with dedicated training, great luck, or even Divine Intervention, some individuals are able to reach back through karma and recall those previous lives. There are other theories, such as our memories are given to the Divine Being from which we sprung or memories are lost so karma can be severed, or that birth is traumatic for a soul and memories are lost, but the candle theory is what this one believes.”

 

Trembling with anticipation, Baledagh barely waited until the monk fell silent to ask, “What about being born with memories of a previous life? Has that ever happened before? Could a child spring out of the womb speaking, or a puppy knowing how to play chess?”

 

After opening his eyes to make sure Baledagh wasn’t fooling around, the monk nodded. “Though rare, it is not unheard of for children to be born with memories of another life, but this one has never heard of a chess-playing dog.”

 

Finally, he could ask the important question, the one he’d been waiting the entire lecture to ask. “What about two souls sharing one body? Or one soul splitting into two? Like one with past memories and one without?” Balking at the question, the monk quietly studied Baledagh with an unreadable expression. Worried he’d overplayed his hand, Baledagh tried to back pedal and added, “or uhh, like, a male soul recalling female memories. Or the opposite. You know… because it’d be funny…”

 

After a long, uncomfortable silence, the monk pressed his hands together and bowed his head. “This one must apologize,” he Sent, head still lowered in apology. “Brother SanDukkha’s questions cannot be answered without an Oath of silence. You must swear never to repeat what you hear next unless it is to another member of the Brotherhood, and even then, it is never to be spoken out loud. This touches upon the core precepts of the Brotherhood and our greatest secret, otherwise this one would not insist.”

 

Now it was Baledagh’s turn to fall silent and stare, wondering if this was worth the effort. Thus far, all the monk had done was wax on about theory, speculation, and philosophy. What could he possibly have to say that would require an Oath of silence? More half-baked nonsense from long-dead scholars? Why even bother with this, just tell him to piss off and be done with it.

 

But… Brother was missing, and Baledagh needed him found before tomorrow’s meeting with the Legate. A slim chance was better than no chance, so Baledagh cut his palm with Peace and gave his Oath. “I swear an Oath to the Heavens. I will never reveal what I am about to hear to anyone outside the Brotherhood and I will never speak of it out loud. This I swear with the Heavens as my witness.” He hated giving oaths, they felt so restricting, like being told not to think of an elephant and actually not being able to.

 

“Eh-Mi-Tuo-Fuo.” Still speaking through Sending, the monk placed one hand palm up on the table, ostensibly for Baledagh to touch should he need to Send a reply. “Before we begin, this one reminds Brother SanDukkha to remain calm and know he has nothing to fear from the Brotherhood.”

 

Crossing his arms in open defiance, Baledagh snorted in contempt. “Why would I be afraid?”

 

“Because,” the monk Sent, both eyes open and filled with compassion, “this one knows why Brother SanDukkha is so eager to know about multiple souls in a single body.”

 

Stiffening in surprise, Baledagh held Peace tight and considered his options. How did he know about Brother? Was the monk responsible for taking him away? Pacifist though he might be, the monk was not an easy target to threaten or kill, and it’s not like Baledagh could ask Akanai for help. What would he say? ‘Grandmummy, the monk stole my alter-ego, you know, the personality you’re most familiar with. Make him give it back’. Yea, that’d go over well.

 

No… be smart about this. Touching his fingers to the monk’s, he Sent, “And what exactly do you know?”

 

“That you were once Defiled.”

 

Oh… this is so much worse than expected…

 

Leaping to his feet with a snarl, Baledagh lunged across the table with Peace in hand, but the monk was ready for him. Slipping to one side while still seated, he neatly avoided Baledagh’s attack. Rolling to his feet, Baledagh turned to attack again, only to find the monk’s palm waiting centimetres from his face. “Brother SanDukkha please,” the monk Sent, calm and relaxed as could be. “This one means you no harm. Your secret is safe with the Brotherhood.”

 

Smacking the arm with his free hand, Baledagh failed to move it at all. He might as well have tried to shift a massive tree with a flyswatter. “And why should I believe you?”

 

Withdrawing his palm, the monk closed his eyes and bowed in prayer, giving Baledagh an opening to strike. “Because,” he Sent as Baledagh drew Peace back to throw, “this one, and many others of the Brotherhood, were also once Defiled.”

 

Freezing in place, Baledagh dropped his sword in shock, staring at the sitting monk whose eyes were still closed in prayer. Heart pounding and throat dry, it took several tries to croak out, “I don’t believe you.”

 

“The Spectres spoke to you.” The monk Sent, unperturbed by Baledagh’s accusation. “They gave you power and made you strong, promised you more if you only surrendered.” Opening his eyes, he gave Baledagh an approving nod. “But you did not surrender, nor did you succumb. You fought back against the Father’s foul minions, resisted their temptations, but still availed yourself to their power when necessary. Then, a droplet of Heavenly Water found you and cleansed the Taint from your soul, so now you walk in the Mother’s holy light. Eh-Mi-Tuo-Fuo.”

 

Falling to his ass, Baledagh sat and stared at the monk in wonder. “How did you find out?”

 

“You met the Radiant Fist Wugang in Sanshu, who was at one point an initiate of the Brotherhood. Like you, he was once Defiled, and like me, the Abbot saved his soul from eternal damnation. Eventually, he parted ways with the Brotherhood over opposing values, but he still understands the good we do and sent word of your good fortune.” With an easy shrug, the monk concluded, “The rest was speculation based on your history, hence the need for an Oath.”

 

Damn it. Baledagh had been played, tricked into admitting his… second greatest secret about being Defiled. Blobby’s existence, his third greatest secret, was also known, which meant the monk was likely responsible for Brother and Blobby’s disappearance. What reason did he have for taking them? For the monk to admit to being Defiled was a small comfort, but Baledagh didn’t know what to make of it. Mother above, what was happening? He desperately needed Brother’s help to make sense of it all, before he made a mess of things like always. Why was he so useless? Helpless and afraid, Baledagh fought back his tears and whimpered, “Give him back…”

 

Thrown off by Baledagh’s demand, the monk drew back and furrowed his brow. “Give who back?” he Sent, confusion clear in his voice. “The Heavenly Water? It’s missing?”

 

“No. Well, yes, but not him.” Leaving Peace behind, Baledagh crawled over to the monk and grabbed his hand. “Give Brother back,” he Sent, throwing all face aside to beg. “Please, I need him. He’s the one you need to talk to, I’m worthless without him. If you need to take someone, take me instead. See, I’m not Falling Rain, I’m Baledagh…”

 

Under the monk’s careful questioning, Baledagh threw caution to the wind and told him everything. His scattered memories of the mines, his time spent watching through Brother’s eyes, finding true consciousness during the Demon Vivek’s mental attack, his misfortunes in Sanshu, and everything up until the other day when Brother and Blobby went missing. The only thing he held back was Brother’s memories of a previous life, though why he chose to omit that particular detail, he wasn’t entirely sure. Though terrifying at first, the more he spoke the easier it became, like a weight lifting off his chest as he revealed his deepest, darkest secret, hoping against all hope the monk would have a solution.

 

When Baledagh’s tale came to an end, the monk sat in thoughtful silence and Baledagh was happy to leave him be. While not an ideal candidate, he finally had someone else to rely on. All this time, Brother insisted he would eventually create a new body for Baledagh, but neither of them knew anything about moving souls or creating lifeforms. If the monk could take Brother’s soul away, then maybe, just maybe, he could put a soul in someone else’s body, which meant Baledagh would finally be free to live a life of his own. He’d still stay to fight alongside Brother, but as his own person with his own life. Baledagh the warrior, free to ride onto the field of battle to find glory to call his own, free to make new friends and find new love…

 

Free to… just be free.

 

“Brother SanDukkha,” the monk Sent, interrupting Baledagh’s daydreams. “Three things cannot be long hidden: the sun, the moon, and the truth.”

 

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

 

“The mind is everything. What you think, you become.” Placing his hands on Baledagh’s shoulders, the monk looked him in the eyes. “You suffered much as a slave, did you not?”

 

“…Yes.”

 

“And when you stumbled across the ruined village in the mountains, when you saw the remains of those tortured children, what did you feel?”

 

“Anger. Hatred.” Trembling at the memory, he blinked and whispered, “There were fifteen of them. I counted. Fifteen kids tortured and worse.”

 

“This one believes that is when the Father’s minions first sank their claws into your soul.” The monk’s voice was soft and gentle, without accusation or blame. “It is why the Defiled behave as they do, so you will hate and revile them, to push you out of the Mother’s light and make you susceptible to the Father’s lies. But you resisted them.”

 

“I did?”

 

“Yes, because you are a good person with a kind soul. You knew something was amiss, that your dark thoughts were not your own and torturing Defiled was not right, so you protected yourself.”

 

…what? “How?”

 

Swallowing hard, the monk ignored the question and launched into an explanation. “The Defiled are not controlled by the Spectres, not entirely. Instead, they allow the Spectres to control them, a minor, yet significant detail. True control only falls to the Spectres when the host surrenders, at which point the Spectres suppress the original soul and take over, moulding the body to better fit their needs.”

 

“A Demon.”

 

Nodding, the monk held Baledagh in place and continued. “Thus, it is a man’s own mind, not his enemy or foe, which lures him to evil ways. The Spectres tainted your soul and infected your thoughts, but you held strong and refused them. You resisted for years until Sanshu when the Heavenly Water freed you from their unholy touch.”

 

“… I don’t understand. What does this have to do with Brother?”

 

“Rain, -”

 

“No, I told you, I’m Baledagh.”

 

Rain.” The monk’s firm tone set Baledagh back on his heels, and he tried to fight free. Holding him in place with a steely grip, the monk sighed and shook his head. “Your name is Rain,” he Sent, softer this time. “I have seen this before. After your encounter at the ruined village and during the subsequent battles, you discovered something wrong and instinctively rejected the Spectres’ influence, but they are not so easily dissuaded. Inspired by the Demon’s illusions, you created a second persona within your mind and foisted the Father’s taint upon it. This allowed you to continue harbouring those dark thoughts without acting upon them, rationalizing it as thoughts belonging to someone other than yourself, but your first Awakening showed you the truth. Hiding will do you no good.”

 

Screaming like a wounded beast, he fought the monk with everything he had, kicking and biting to no effect. “It’s not true!” he screeched, tears streaming down his cheeks as he flailed in the monk’s grasp. “Brother is real! You’re a liar, a deceiver! Let me go! I need to find Brother. I need him, I need his help, please…”

 

Lifting him into the air like a petulant child, the monk ignored his cries and Sent over them. “Even after being freed from the Spectres, you were accustomed to having your second persona there, using him like a crutch to stand or a shield to hide behind. Because while Brother is smarter, Baledagh is braver, is this not so? When you are afraid, Baledagh comes out to face your fears, and if he fails, then it is no fault of your own. Poor, frightened child, you have been free from the mines for many years, and now you are free from the Spectres, so it is time you accept the truth. There is no Brother. There is no Baledagh. There is only Falling Rain.”

 

How long Baledagh fought for, he didn’t know, only giving up when he had no strength left to fight. Pulling his limp body into an embrace, the monk’s Aura settled over him like a warm, comforting blanket, filled with pure, untainted acceptance and devoid of any judgment or censure. “It’s all right, Rain,” the monk said. “You are not alone. You have your family and you have the Brotherhood. You are a good person, and you will make it through this.”

 

Weeping softly, Baledagh closed his eyes.

 

And I open them.

 

Shaking like a leaf, I’m forced to confront a not-so-Noble Truth.

 

I am not well, and I haven’t been for a very long time.

Chapter Meme

 


So yea. That happened. How you like Baledagh now?

 

This was the plan from the very beginning, but I’ll be honest: I wavered a bit. For a while, I thought about giving Bdawg his own life, but it didn’t fit with what I had in mind, so I stayed the course. I’m mostly happy with how it went, though a little sad about the loss of a character.

 

Now excuse me a bit, I gotta go be sad for awhile.

 


 

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Savage Divinity – Chapter 323


I’d like to give a shout out to my 4 newest anonymous Patrons. Thank you all so much for your support!


 

Upon arriving back on shore in Ping Ping’s embrace, Baledagh’s celebratory mood came to an abrupt end when he noticed Mei Lin and Sumila waiting in ambush. With Li Song, the wildcats, and a horde of bunnies hopping about as reinforcements, Baledagh had no choice but to feign a smile and wave while wracking his brain for something Brother would say, something both heartfelt and sincere, perhaps even a little teasing or witty.

 

Between the nervous sweating, rapid heart palpitations, and limited time frame, the best he could come up with was, “Hello.”

 

“Hi hubby.” Taking his awkward, over-enunciated greeting in stride, Mei Lin skipped to his side with a smile. Ignoring his dripping wet body, she commandeered his arm and clutched it tight against her chest in greeting. While not the largest of breasts by any measure, Mei Lin had grown quite a bit since Baledagh first laid eyes on her, a lovely young woman whose girlish figure had plumped up nicely in all the right places. As much as he appreciated noticing these changes, the pleasing, soft sensation pressed against his arm made his cheeks burn hot with hunger and shame. Mei Lin was Brother’s betrothed, not Baledagh’s, so he shouldn’t be taking advantage like this.

 

At least the monk wasn’t here to ruin everything with one of his lectures. Maybe the fat bastard had finally given up and left…

 

Gingerly extracting his arm, Baledagh patted Mei Lin’s head like Brother always did and ignored her wide-eyed pout. Moving on to the next problem, he faced down Sumila’s challenging stare as it bored deep into his skull. “Is something wrong?” he asked, doing his best not to shrink away. Although she only rarely took part in their sparring matches, Baledagh was all too aware of how frightening this formidable, freckled firebrand could be. There was no mercy in her; In fact, as his ‘betrothed’, she treated Baledagh much more harshly than any of the others, giving him a savage beating every time they stepped on stage.

 

To make matters worse, Sumila’s superior performance always sparked Zian’s competitive nature, earning Baledagh a second savage beating from the uppity nobleman. Baledagh was confident he would one day repay that snobby bastard in full, but he harboured no such hopes when faced with Sumila’s overwhelming supremacy.

 

Her snort alone was enough to send a chill down Baledagh’s spine. “What makes you think something’s wrong? Why can’t your betrothed come meet you after a long day of training?” Dressed in a baggy borrowed tunic, Sumila stood with hand on hip and the other curled into a fist as if ready to punch Baledagh in the mouth, which was sadly, fairly normal behaviour. What wasn’t normal was how she kept trading expressive glances with Mei Lin, and when their silent yet lengthy debate concluded, Sumila copied Mei Lin’s actions using Baledagh’s other arm. “I missed you,” she muttered, refusing to look him in the eye.

 

Oh how wonderful. No, not wonderful, terrible. These were Brother’s betrotheds and this was wrong. But it felt so right. Though Sumila’s borrowed outfit made her look broad-shouldered and undefined, the truth was anything but. Her supple, athletic form was pleasing to the touch, tough yet pliant with surprising… volume, and Baledagh lost himself in the sensations for a breath of time. Coming back to his senses, his attempts to free his arm ended in abject failure as Sumila’s firm and unyielding grip was too strong for him to oppose. As her loose tunic slipped to reveal a pale, freckled shoulder, Baledagh trembled with fear or desire. After clearing his throat several times, he finally mustered up enough saliva to whisper, “Er… I missed you too. Very much, but uh… this isn’t proper…” Heart skipping a beat at Sumila’s ferocious scowl, he amended what he was about to say. “…How about we hold hands?”

 

It seemed like an acceptable compromise. Despite Brother’s insistence to the contrary, there was nothing inappropriate or lewd about holding hands.

 

Thankfully, Sumila happily conceded to Baledagh’s point and interlaced her fingers with his own. Feeling a silly smile stretching over his face, he offered his free hand to Mei Lin who did the same. So odd for such a simple thing like holding hands to bring so much joy, but there was an affectionate intimacy which came with it, an implicit trust and interdependence. Sumila’s grip was snug and solid, their forearms pressed together and her shoulder brushing against his, striking a careful balance between supportive and dependant. On the other hand, Mei Lin held only two of his fingers in her loose, light grip, swinging their arms back and forth as she skipped along in child-like glee and asked, “How was your swim?”

 

“Productive,” he answered, smile widening until his cheeks strained with effort. “I figured out how to turn Chi into water… in a manner of speaking.” Careful not to overstate his accomplishment, he narrated his afternoon for both girls and swelled with pride as he basked in their praise. This was fine, if Baledagh’s failures were Brother’s to bear, then it made sense to also share his accomplishments too. Besides, even if he wasn’t the one to figure it out, once Brother came back and practised a little, he’d overtake Baledagh in the blink of an eye.

 

Settling down by the fire with Brother’s betrotheds, Baledagh froze up when Tali ran over to join in the fun, plopping herself down on his lap without warning. Thankfully, Tate preferred cuddling with Li Song so Baledagh only had the one child to deal with. Favouring him with a most precious smile, Tali snuggled back against his chest, looked up, and said, “Hi Rainy.”

 

Most days, Baledagh wanted nothing to do with the children, noisy, messy, capricious little creatures that they were, but today, things were different. Overwhelmed with emotion, he wrapped his arms around the tiny, precious half-goat and hugged her tight, still holding firm to Mei Lin and Sumila’s hands and drawing them in a little closer. “Hello sweetling,” he said, kissing the top of her head out of reflex. “How was your day?”

 

“It was so much fun Rainy, you should have come with. Great-granma brought us into the city with Lin-Lin, and Mi-Mi, and Li-Li, and…”

 

Tali’s storytelling was hardly riveting, but Baledagh listened to the entire thing, nodding along and asking questions like Brother would. He didn’t even have to pretend to be interested, he really wanted to hear about all the fun things Tali did and how she saw the world, smiling at her fanciful descriptions of the most mundane things. Tate soon joined in and Baledagh marvelled at how they found excitement from the tiniest things, from paper lanterns with fanciful drawings to luxurious boats with elaborate decorations. He couldn’t remember a time when he’d been the same, only bits and pieces of a life before the mines. Wandering through the darkness mostly, cold and scared, hungry and tired. Had there been someone with him? Someone to love him like Brother loved Tate and Tali? Someone whose hand he could hold or arms he could rest in?

 

Baledagh wasn’t sure, but in his heart, he felt like the answer was probably no.

 

This realization tainted the happiness from this moment and all the contented smiles and congratulatory pats in the world couldn’t fix his dour mood. While he couldn’t deny he wanted all this for himself, this was Brother’s life and their love and support was meant for him. Baledagh was an aberration, a second mind trapped in a life not his own and no amount of pretending would make it otherwise. So distracted by his musings, Baledagh accidentally dropped his bowl of noodles and burnt his hands in scalding hot soup trying to catch it. Hissing with pain, he blew on his hands and shook his head, anxiously making sure no one else was hurt before feigning yet another smile to placate Brother’s happy little family.

 

What was Baledagh doing here? Blobby should have eaten him and left Brother behind, then all their problems would’ve been solved…

 

Once dinner ended, Baledagh pleaded exhaustion and headed back to his yurt, escorted by Sumila, Mei Lin, Mama Bun, and Ping Ping. While Ping Ping settled into the dirt, Mei Lin joined Mama Bun to inspect the bunnies and left Baledagh alone with Sumila. Rubbing her cheek against his shoulder, she Sent, “You know… you still haven’t asked about your Spiritual Weapon…”

 

Oh no. “Sorry,” he Sent. “With the Awakening and everything else going on, it slipped my mind.” Even without seeing her face, he knew he’d said the wrong thing, heart dropping as she deflated beside him. “Tell me about it?”

 

“Hmph. I left it with Papa so you can go find out yourself.” Releasing her grip, she huffed and crossed her arms in displeasure, muttering unpleasant things beneath her breath. She was so moody and capricious, violent and demanding, Baledagh couldn’t understand what Brother saw in this temperamental nag.

 

So why did seeing her distraught make his heart ache?

 

Keeping silent until Mei Lin was done, Baledagh watched them walk away and enter Li Song’s yurt just across the way. Belatedly noticing Banjo and Baloo had gone with them, he chuckled beneath his breath at the hare-girl’s persistence. The mischievous girl even kept Aurie with her, leaving Baledagh to spend the night alone in his yurt or under the stars with Ping Ping and the bunnies. No matter, he could survive a night without his cuddly bears, overly affectionate wildcat, and without the new Spiritual Weapon too. Best to leave it for Brother to bind, and if he needed an excuse, he could say he needed to sleep before meeting with the Legate in front of the Empire’s highest ranked officials and soldiers.

 

Oh Mother above, what was he going to do about that meeting?

 

“Eh-Mi-Tuo-Fuo.” Stepping out from the shadows the second Baledagh reached for the door, the monk pressed his palms together and bowed. “Falling Rain, this one requests a moment of your time.”

 

Throwing the stealthy monk a dirty look, Baledagh considered outright ignoring him but decided that wasn’t something Brother would do. “Might as well come inside then. I’ll make tea.” Damn it, why did he say that? What do tea leaves look like? After setting a kettle over the fire, he rummaged through the chest where Brother kept his things and asked, “So… What do you want?”

 

“What this one wants is irrelevant,” the monk replied, sitting cross-legged with back straight and belly bulging. “This one was sent here to enlighten the person chosen by the Abbot, and that person is you.”

 

Not this again. Grabbing a random, unlabelled wooden box filled with black leaves, he prayed it wasn’t too valuable or too poisonous. Should he try a different box? No, no need. This will do. “Why?”

 

“Why was this one sent or why the Abbot chose you?”

 

“Both, I guess.” Dumping a couple handfuls into the still-cold water, he took a seat across from his unwelcome guest and waited for an answer, but the monk frowned at the wooden box, closed his eyes and sat perfectly still aside from his lips which moved without sound. With nothing better to do, Baledagh waited for the water to boil, and when he checked the kettle, he was delighted to find it smelled like a fragrant, sweet tea, though he found it off-putting for some strange reason. When the water came to a boil, he poured a cup for the monk, another for himself, and eschewing proper decorum, lifted his wooden cup for a sip.

 

Hand darting out like a snake, the monk snatched the teacup out of Baledagh’s hand without spilling a single drop. More shocked and amazed rather than angry, Baledagh sighed and said, “Granted, it was a little rude to start drinking without you, but I’m thirsty and didn’t know how long you’d be sitting there for.”

 

Studying him with intense scrutiny, the monk loomed overhead but Baledagh paid it no mind. The monk was a pacifist so what was there to fear? Proving him right, the monk put the teacup down and slumped over, resting his elbows on the table and propping his many chins up with his hands. “I can’t make heads or tails of you and that there’s the truth,” the monk said, losing all of his pomp and pretension while gaining a hint of a commoner’s drawl.

 

“No more ‘this one’ or ‘junior brother’s’ I see.” Baledagh smirked, enjoying his victory. “Are you even a real monk?”

 

“Course I am,” the monk scoffed, nodding at the wooden box. “But you ain’t a real herbalist. That there is mandrel stalk. A pinch’ll clear your colon right out and you used enough to drain the shit out of a dozen elephants. Thought you were trying to poison me ‘til you almost took a sip.”

 

Damn it. Why would Brother store unlabelled laxatives next to his unlabelled tea leaves? Keeping a straight face, Baledagh shrugged and adopted an air of indifference. “Oh. My mistake. I’m tired and should really label my things.” Stupid Brother. “I know I have tea around here somewhere…”

 

“Forget the tea, who knows what you’ll bring out next? Just remember to pour the kettle out somewhere safe, like out in your shitting tent. Don’t want to be poisoning no soldiers or animals now.”

 

“Noted.” Self-conscious about Brother’s strange habits, Baledagh changed the subject. “So the question still stands: Why me? And why you I suppose, but mostly… why me?”

 

“Who knows.” Glancing around, the monk sputtered and asked, “You got any wine?”

 

“Nope. Sorry.” Baledagh shrugged. “My drinking habits are strictly monitored.”

 

“Well if the stories are true, and I’m not entirely certain they are, I can understand why.” Leaning to one side, the monk shook his head. “You’re a real mystery, you know that? I came here expecting a murderous little princeling and instead, I get a calm, composed, only sometimes murderous jerk. Don’t know what to make of it. Got a taste of your rage today, but truth is, I hardly blame you. I’ve been jabbering away for six days now and you lasted much longer than I expected.” Chortling, he added, “Good thing gambling’s a sin, else I’d have lost big on this one.”

 

“…Wait.” Massaging his temples, Baledagh struggled for calm. “You were trying to piss me off?”

 

“Had to. After you spotted me, I couldn’t keep hiding but I needed to see if you were putting on an act.” Shrugging, the monk added, “Still not entirely sure. You’ve got anger in you and lots of it. Melancholy too, and more fear than any one man should rightly have. I mean who in their right mind notices a missing star?” Straightening with pride at Brother’s accomplishments, Baledagh shrunk back at the monk’s next words. “That’s changed though. Since your Awakening, you’ve been less alert yet somehow more focused, like a drawn blade with no one to wield it. More temperamental too, before you’d smile and nod while ignoring me all the while, but now, you glare and I can see the murderous rage in your eyes. Plus, you haven’t rolled around with your bunnies since. Like I said, you’re a real mystery.”

 

Mouth dry with fear, Baledagh reached for his cup of diarrhea-inducing tea before remembering himself. To think, it wasn’t Brother’s family or one of his betrothed to first notice an oddity, but a complete stranger looking in from the outside. What was the idiom? Can’t see the forest for the trees. Amused, the monk sat in silence while Baledagh struggled for an excuse, finally settling on, “Uhh… What?”

 

Rolling his eyes, the monk glossed over it. “Look, whatever your reasons for this strange behaviour, I don’t care. What matters is the Abbot sent me here to convince you to come back with me and take your vows. I can’t leave without having tried my best, but I can’t truthfully claim I tried my best if you won’t listen. I admit my faults. Before, I was talking at you, not with you, but you left me no other choice. Now, I invite you to sit with me so we might discuss the Brotherhood’s values and beliefs. A real discussion mind you, with questions and answers, and once I’ve said all I have to say, I’ll head right on home.”

 

“Look,” Baledagh said, stifling a sigh. “Almost any other time, I’d be happy to discuss whatever you like, but if you haven’t noticed, I’m a little busier than most. I’m still pondering over my Awakening, I have to greet the Legate tomorrow, and I’ll undoubtedly be challenged by some ‘murderous little princeling’ to prove my worth.”

 

“Four hours of your time then. Tonight and every night henceforth until I start repeating myself.”

 

“No.”

 

“Two hours then.”

 

“No.”

 

“…One?”

 

“No.”

 

Sucking in a lungful of air, the monk exhaled in defeat. “Well,” he said, getting up to leave, “Guess we’ll keep doing what we’re doing then. I Send and you glare. Oh, and sorry about your nose. Next time you try to kill me, I’ll be more careful not to hurt you.”

 

“Wait…” Another day of lectures would leave Baledagh frothing at the mouth. “Fine… one hour.” Leaning back to rest on one elbow, Baledagh yawned and said, “Well?”

 

Donning his air of holy grandiosity, the monk sat up straight and crossed his legs. “This one has spoken of much these past days. Does Junior Brother have any questions?”

 

Well… technically, this was Baledagh’s idea, so it seemed fair for him to start. “Why are you called the Penitent Brotherhood?”

 

“Because we are all sinners with much to atone for.”

 

Waiting for the monk to elaborate, Baledagh soon realized that was all he would get. “Okay… Well, you go on a lot about the four desires and three truths. What’s that all about?”

 

“The Three Desires and Four Noble Truths are the keys to escaping this cycle of Samsara. First you must forsake the Three Desires, which are the craving for sensual pleasures, existence, and non-existence. Then-”

 

“Stop.” Pinching the bridge of his nose, Baledagh tried to wrap his mind around the concept. “Sensual pleasure I understand, but what about existence and non-existence? How is anyone supposed to forsake the desire to exist and not exist at the same time?”

 

“To crave existence is to seek self-identity. Permanence in fame, glory, legacy, or even form. Eternity is not meant for us humble mortals, which we all must come to accept.” With his head up and eyes half-lidded, the monk almost looked the part of divine messenger, with no sign of the surly, cursing, ready-to-get-drunk monk from before. “To crave non-existence is to avoid unpleasantness. Drinking to dull a broken heart, closing your eyes to another’s suffering, or ending your life to escape your pain, all are forms of non-existence. The Three Desires are at the root of all our worldly suffering, and only by letting them go can we end it.”

 

“So no sex, fame, or alcohol.”

 

“More than that. Sensual pleasure is not merely sex, but to abstain from all manner of sensory pleasures. Whether it be sex, wealth, power-”

 

“Food?”

 

Choking on a cough, the monk opened his eyes and glared at Baledagh before chuckling in agreement. “Indeed, this one is far from perfect, but we all have our failings, Junior Brother. It’s rude to point fingers.”

 

“Okay…” Hoping to hurry the discussion along, Baledagh asked, “So you forsake these desires and accept your truths, all so you can… do what exactly?”

 

“Escape the cycle of Samsara.”

 

“And that is…?” It took every scrap of willpower Baledagh had not to yawn. Mother above, if everything the monk had to say was this boring, then he might not last the entire hour.

 

“Reincarnation.” Seeing Baledagh sit up with interest, the monk added, “Of course, that is a simplified way of describing things. There are many more nuanced-”

 

“No, that’s fine.” Taking a proper seat at the table, Baledagh asked, “Tell me about reincarnation.”

 

If the monk had information which could help find Brother, then maybe this whole farce wasn’t a complete waste of time.

 

Maybe.

 

Probably not.

Chapter Meme

 

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Savage Divinity – Chapter 322


I’d like to give a shout out to my newest Patrons Miltooon, Edward, and Thundermike00, as well as two anonymous Patrons. Thank you all so much for your support!


 

Exhaling in relief, Baledagh hugged Banjo close and thanked the Mother for her mercy. Sumila’s powerful stomps fading into the distance were like music to his ears, freeing him from her ire for the next little while. Had he known she would wake up before lunch, he would have snuck off even earlier for his swim in the bay, buying himself a few hours of much needed solitude and silence. While he couldn’t hide forever, it was better than the alternative of dealing with and undoubtedly screwing up Brother’s affairs.

 

How did life get so complicated? Only two days ago, he’d been happily training in their Natal Palace when he noticed the ever-present Blobby had gone missing. When Brother didn’t respond to his repeated inquiries, Baledagh stepped out of the void and discovered he’d been submerged beneath a dozen meters of water in Nan Ping Bay. For the second time in his life, Baledagh found himself in sole possession of their body after almost drowning to death, except this time he had the misfortune to also be surrounded by people who knew and relied on Brother, people who would ask questions if he acted out of character. Pretending to be ‘Warrant Officer Falling Rain’ and dealing with the minutiae of daily life was stressful enough, but ‘devoted betrothed Falling Rain’ was beyond him. Adorable as she was, Mei Lin’s spoiled attitude vexed Baledagh to no end and the thought of a ‘heartfelt’ reunion with Sumila made him break out into a cold sweat. This was a woman who broke Brother’s hand during a passionate embrace. What would she do if Baledagh accidentally upset her?

 

The first day passed by without incident since he spent most of his time feigning infirmity inside his yurt while desperately wracking his brain for clues to Brother’s whereabouts. Aside from the room and creepy surrounding village, their Natal Palace was completely empty, with no sign of Brother or Blobby to be found. Out of sheer desperation, he brought Ping Ping back out into the bay to search for them, but his efforts were fruitless. To make matters worse, Baledagh could only hold his breath for about ten minutes at a time, which meant he spent hours paddling around Nan Ping Bay with Ping Ping and the quins, looking like he was there to play around instead of training like he claimed he was.

 

Mother above, Brother couldn’t have picked a worse time to disappear. Not only would Sumila be looking to spend time with her betrothed, but the Grand Conference was slated to begin tomorrow morning. As the Number One talent in the North, Brother would be expected to introduce himself before the gathered officials and present a gift to the Legate. While Baledagh knew what Brother’s intended gifts were, he wasn’t entirely clear on why they were chosen or how to present them. Then there was the whole issue with the gabby monk, who even now was lecturing him about improprieties and other such nonsense through Sending.

 

“…we are shaped by our thoughts, so when the mind is pure, joy follows like a shadow that never leaves. Your philandering ways have brought this anxiety and turmoil upon yourself and now you hide away in your yurt and cuddle your incapable bears to avoid your problems. Such actions will not save you. All are deserving of love and affection, but lust and carnality fall under the first of the Three Desires, the craving for sensual pleasures. To accept the Four Noble Truths, you must first set aside the Three Desires and…”

 

Wait… how did the monk know Baledagh was cuddling Banjo?

 

With a strangled cry of frustration, he reached for his bag of flour and threw a handful in a random direction. Seeing no void in the flour as it fell to the floor, he grabbed another handful and scattered it in a different direction. It took three more tries to find his infiltrator and Baledagh faced the floating, fading mass of flour while keeping watch for footprints on the floor. “You damned monk,” he hissed, keeping his voice low. “Your endless nattering was bad enough, but now you intrude in my private yurt? I might not be able to kill you, but if you don’t shut up and leave now, I’ll swear an Oath to never join your damned Brotherhood for the rest of my life.”

 

With his position exposed, the monk dropped his Concealment and bowed with hands pressed flat together, his ragged robes and chubby face covered in flour. ““Eh-Mi-Tuo-Fuo, Brother SanDukkha. Why waste perfectly good flour in a fit of anger? A waste of food is a waste of life. For it to arrive here in your hands, this flour was planted, tended, harvested, ground, packed, and shipped, the cumulative efforts of several…”

 

After hypothetically finding the monk’s position using flour, Brother’s angry internal ravings had gone on to describe the other, unspeakable things he planned to throw, but Baledagh couldn’t bring himself to be so shameless and despicable. Instead, he chose a more direct approach. Arming himself with Peace and Tranquility, he stomped out of his yurt and waited until the monk stepped clear of the doorway to attack. Opening with Clearing the Heavens, Baledagh’s tandem thrust was easily sidestepped by the portly man. The strange pole-arm blocked Peace’s follow up slash, while the monk’s free hand remained held in prayer. Spinning on his heel, Baledagh brought Tranquility around in a backhanded slash, cutting through empty air as the monk was already several meters away. “Junior Brother,” the monk said aloud, smiling apologetically, “While this one may have overstepped his bounds by intruding, do you believe this crime worthy of death?”

 

Growling in fury, Baledagh advanced on the monk and shouted, “I am not.” Balance on Windy Leaf propelled him across the open ground. “Your Junior Brother!” Pierce the Horizon sent Peace lancing towards the overfed monk’s belly. So focused on his target, in Baledagh’s eyes, it almost appeared as if the sword were stuck in a layer of impenetrable air, the distance between blade and cloth unchanging as the monk matched Baledagh’s explosive charge by backpedalling away.

 

No matter, Brother came up with a countermeasure for just such an occasion.

 

Without slowing his momentum, Baledagh raised Tranquility to shield his face and directed Chi to both feet. Quickening his steps, he exploded with speed as he performed Traverses the Mountain, diving forward with an Amplified, two-footed leap. Grinning in anticipation, he braced for impact and imagined the monk’s face as Baledagh struck his fat belly with a full-bodied flying shield smash. As long as Baledagh didn’t Amplify the initial impact and follow up with Twin Horns to eviscerate him, the monk would survive with nothing more than a broken rib or two and maybe a ruptured lung.

 

When Brother used this combination of Forms, he broke two of Gerel’s ribs and sent him rolling across the field, a complete and utter victory against the fearsome bald warrior. It was a glorious sight and to celebrate, Brother even agreed to name the attack, deciding upon ‘Rush Hour’ after days of deliberation. Even though Baledagh thought it a strange name (how does one hurry time?), he accepted it without question and set to mastering the complicated, high-risk and high-reward maneuver to perfection.

 

So when Baledagh crashed into the monk’s belly, he didn’t expect his shield to glance off the corpulent sack of iron flesh and smash himself in the face.

 

Forget kicking an iron board, this was more like diving face first into a mountainside…

 

 

Blinking to clear the darkness from his eyes, Baledagh came to with a start. A firm, but gentle hand pressed him back down into the grass. Leaning over him with an amused smile, Taduk said, “Easy there, Rain my boy, easy there. Lay back and rest your head, let Teacher help you out a bit.” A warm stream of Chi flooded into Baledagh’s body, emerging from the hand on his chest and flowing up his neck and to his face in a soothing, comfortable sensation.

 

Scrunching his stuffed nose, Baledagh tried to breathe through it but to no avail. “My face hurts,” he said, idly wondering why he whistled when he spoke.

 

“I can’t imagine why,” Taduk replied, stifling a grin. “You only broke your nose. But er… Don’t speak so much… because…” Unable to resist, Taduk snorted with laughter. “You’re also missing most of your front teeth.”

 

Damn it.

 

“Eh-Mi-Tuo-Fuo.” Standing off to the side, the hateful monk bowed in prayer and began lecturing once more, though at least he was speaking out loud so it was easier to ignore him. “Such enmity, such sin. Junior Brother, anger and intolerance are anathemas to understanding. This one has caused no harm nor shown ill-will, so why treat this one with such hostility? This one is here to protect your Dharma, but some protections cannot be forced. Peace comes from within, so set aside the Three Desires and accept the Four Noble Truths. This one understands your reluctance, for this does not come easily to any, so this one has taken the effort to enlighten you in the ways of the world. For a mere discussion to induce such murderous rage tells us that there is still much work yet to be done.”

 

“Fucking shameless,” Baledagh hissed, spitting a bloody wad of phlegm in the monk’s general direction. “Discussion? What discussion? There is no discussion. You talk. And you talk. And you talk. But you never listen! I am not your junior brother and I never will be, so stop trying to impose your values on me. Stay out of my head, stay out of my home, and fuck off back to where you came from or I’ll carve you up and feed you to the quins.”

 

Making another one of his strange gestures, the monk laced his hands together and pointed his index fingers at the ground, eyes closed as if ignoring Baledagh’s words. Grabbing a clump of dirt to throw at him, Baledagh froze in place at Taduk’s disapproving look. It wasn’t stern or angry, but sad and disappointed, filling Baledagh with shame and contrition. Swallowing his anger, Baledagh let go of the dirt and laid back down, concentrating on the Healing energies running through him.

 

Shit… With Brother gone, how was Baledagh supposed to Heal?

 

“Um, Teacher,” Baledagh mumbled, trying to keep his whistling to a minimum. “I was hoping to go out into the water for a few hours to uh… seek Enlightenment, and uh… I’m supposed to appear before the Legate tomorrow, so er… Could you Heal my injuries for me?”

 

“Happy to, Rain my boy.” After a long pause, Taduk raised both eyebrows in a surprised expression and asked, “You’re not going to watch me Heal you?”

 

“Ah… er no. My uh… head hurts too much.” Thankfully, Taduk accepted the blatant lie without question and Baledagh soon felt his nose shifting back into place and new teeth erupting from his gums. It’s not that he didn’t want to watch Taduk Heal, but he wasn’t exactly sure how to. Healing was Brother’s purview, along with most other things like commanding troops and social niceties. Baledagh was just here to fight, but lately, Brother didn’t even need him for that. In truth, his was a useless existence, but Brother was a sentimental fool who refused to let Baledagh fade into obscurity.

 

Therefore, even though this might be his one chance at true, meaningful existence, Baledagh never thought to abandon his brother. He would do everything in his power to restore Brother to his rightful place, though at the moment, things were looking dire. He had no clues regarding Brother’s disappearance, only that he was in the midst of Awakening out in the bay. It’s not like Baledagh could ask too many questions either, people were already starting to look at him strangely. Dastan and Rustram balked when he told them to handle everything by themselves and Alsantset frowned when he bowed out of watching the twins. Even Mei Lin thought it suspicious when he crafted the ugliest of laurels for Sumila, his first time crafting anything without a knife. Helpless and out of his depth, Baledagh could only watch while his borrowed persona fell apart at the seams.

 

Why didn’t he go with his first instinct and fake memory loss?

 

It only took a handful minutes for Taduk to Heal all of Baledagh’s injuries, after which they grabbed Mama Bun and left the monk standing there to chant his sutras. Heading down to the beach, they loaded up into the skiff with Guan Suo and Guard Leader and followed Ping Ping out into the bay. Marvelling at her sleek, agile movements, Baledagh finally felt safe enough to relax, knowing none of the other occupants were prone to asking questions. Taduk was happy to leave things be and the other two simply didn’t care. With the monk gone, this was Baledagh’s new safe favourite place, out here on the open waters of Nan Ping Bay.

 

Maybe there would be another shark attack, that might be fun. Baledagh never had a chance to see the fearsome looking creatures in action, but Brother’s stories made them sound formidable indeed.

 

Once Mama Bun stopped guiding them in any particular direction, Baledagh disrobed and jumped with a splash, only remembering his harness after the fact. It wasn’t too important though, with the water all around him, he felt safe and protected, like he was inside his Natal Palace with Blobby watching over him. Or at least, that’s how it used to be. Now, the void stretched out in all directions and he found the endless darkness and absolute stillness unnerving. With Brother missing, Baledagh still spent an inordinate amount of time in there, but that only made the days feel longer in comparison.

 

Surfacing for air, Baledagh paddled about and set to work finding Brother. This was where he’d been before vanishing from their shared mind and body, but how was Baledagh supposed to find something imperceptible and ineffable like a soul? He tried channelling Heavenly Energy, circulating his Chi, Sending into the water, and even screaming while submerged, but nothing worked. Brother was gone and Blobby with him, which meant Baledagh was all alone and stuck with a life which wasn’t his.

 

Mother’s sagging tits, what happened to Brother? Did Blobby eat him? It wasn’t too far a stretch, the Heavenly Tear’s motives had always been a mystery, and it did try to eat Baledagh at one point. Maybe Blobby was here to devour Spectres and Demons but grew unhappy because they hadn’t fed it enough in recent times, so it ate Brother’s soul instead. No, that couldn’t be possible, there’s no way Brother would have gone down without a fight, unable to even alert Baledagh to his troubles. No, Brother was still alive, he had to be, and given time, he would make his way back from whatever adventure he was on. Until then, it was Baledagh’s job to hold down the fort and carry on as if nothing were out of the ordinary.

 

Everything would work out eventually. It had to.

 

Diving back under, he took a break to watch Ping Ping scour the sea floor for food, snapping up a hidden squid here or a large crab there. The quins did what they could to help by driving schools of fish towards her, but Ping Ping had a prodigious appetite and these were but bite-sized morsels. The only way she’d truly be sated is if she caught a kraken swimming about, but the poor turtle had no such luck, likely having scared off all the larger prey in the area. Reluctant to stray too far from his side, Ping Ping quickly cleared out the surroundings of food and not even the quins could corral fish from afar. Feeling bad for the big girl, he surfaced to tell Taduk his plan and after getting the okay, he called Ping Ping to his side.

 

“Hello sweetling,” he said, patting her neck as he grabbed hold of her shell. “All right then. Now you go swim wherever you please, I’ll be right here with you.”

 

Squeaking in delight, Ping Ping swam away from the skiff, slowly at first as she made sure he wouldn’t abandon her, but gradually picking up speed as her anxiety lessened. Whooping in sheer delight, Baledagh urged her onward as they cut through the waves, faster than any boat could ever travel. Tucking one leg against her chest, she held him close and dove down into the watery depths, setting Baledagh’s ears to popping from the pressure. He felt no fear or apprehension, only unbridled glee as he watched Ping Ping snap up all manner of sea life before bringing it back up to the surface to consume in peace.

 

They did this many times more and made a wide loop around the skiff with Ping Ping successfully catching something to eat each time, a marvellously efficient and effective hunter. Delighted to see her so happy, Baledagh patted her neck and wondered how long she’d stick around without Brother here to feed her the special water. Baledagh didn’t understand what Brother did to make it so alluring to Ping Ping, but if she loved it enough to go hungry for several days in a row, then it must be important.

 

How difficult would it be to replicate Brother’s efforts?

 

Cupping his free hand, he lifted it out of the bay and concentrated on the water left in his palm. It was supposedly like binding a weapon, but Baledagh hadn’t been conscious when Brother bound Peace and Tranquility. He understood the theory well enough, to accept the Spiritual Weapon as a part of you, let your Chi flow through it and bind it, but saying it was much easier than doing it. How was he supposed to make this water a part of him?

 

Well… there’s one easy way…

 

Maybe Ping Ping wasn’t here to drink Brother’s chi-water, but trying to show him the way. Lowering his lips, he drank a mouthful of water and felt the cold, refreshing liquid settle into his empty belly. Closing his eyes, he slipped into Balance and directed his Chi to his belly and the water within. The water churned a bit but settled soon after, unresponsive to his efforts. Why? The water was technically a part of his body, right? Or maybe not. Only after digestion would it truly become a part of him, entering his bloodstream to nourish his muscles and organs, but then it would no longer be water. When was the proper time to bind it then? Before or after it turned into piss?

 

Eww.

 

No, his line of thinking was wrong. Peace and Tranquility weren’t physically a part of him, but rather metaphysically. So too must the water be a metaphysical part of him. Stepping out of his body and into the void, Baledagh gazed upon Brother’s creation, the small room sitting atop a high cliff and overlooking the beautiful replica of the village. He always found the village a little sad, if truth be told. It was an exquisite work of art, but that’s all it was. No one would ever mistake it for reality. The shadows never shifted because the sun never moved, the grass didn’t blow because the wind didn’t exist, the clouds never drifted and the rivers never flowed. It was nothing more than a peaceful moment pulled from memory and preserved in their Natal Palace as something to remind Brother of better times.

 

Turning to the void around him, he gazed into the darkness and shivered. It was better when Blobby was here, better when Brother was around, but without them, Baledagh would have to make do. Summoning Peace and Tranquility into existence, he studied both Spiritual Weapons with all his senses, feeling his Chi flow through them like they were a part of his flesh and blood. Holding onto this sensation, he reached for the water sitting inside his belly, inviting it not just into his body, but into his Core and into his Natal Palace. Only then could it truly be considered a part of him, bonded to him as he was bonded to Peace and Tranquility.

 

Upon opening his eyes, Baledagh found the afternoon had come and gone, with early evening in full effect. Under Ping Ping’s curious gaze, he grinned and winked back. “Thank you Ping Ping. Now let’s see how you like it,” he said, teasing the sweet animal. Drawing a deep breath, he displayed his new skill for her to see, spitting a small stream of chi-water into the bay.

 

Cackling in euphoric glee, Baledagh leaned back and floated in the bay, basking in his success. True, this skill couldn’t really be called useful. The tiny stream had immediately dissipated, couldn’t be reused, and took three or four hours of hard work to bind. It wasn’t much, but this was Baledagh’s first real achievement, something he’d accomplished all on his own, without aid from Spectres, Brother, or anyone else.

 

Now if only he had someone to celebrate this milestone with…

Chapter Meme

 

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Savage Divinity – Chapter 321: TBA


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Letting loose with a piteous moan, Mila prayed for a merciful end to this inhuman suffering. Cursing the twisted mind which devised this harrowing machine, she tried to ease her misery by rocking back and forth in her chair, but failed miserably and made things worse. Stomach lurching in protest, she reached for her bucket, clutched it to her chest and peered into the darkness of its disgusting depths, wondering if she still had anything left to offer.

 

She most definitely did. Bile and water mostly, and she didn’t want to think of what else.

 

“Papa,” she cried, after the vomiting stopped. “You’re a liar! You said the worst has passed, that this was almost over. Why isn’t it over yet Papa? Why isn’t it over…”

 

She went on like this for some time before Papa finally answered, occupied as he was with his own torment. “Not long now lass,” he croaked, voice husky and weak. “Stay strong daughter, we can make it through – Urg…. blarggggh… this… worst is behind us… Stay strong…”

 

Tears dripping down her face, Mila gazed upon Papa’s shrunken form laid out across the bed, his head strategically hanging over a bucket of his own. Drifting in and out of consciousness, Papa still had the mind to mumble encouragement and platitudes to try and ease her suffering. It hurt seeing him like this, so weak and vulnerable, not at all like his usual vigorous and robust self. Although Mama was the famed warrior of their family, Papa was no less impressive in Mila’s eyes, her jolly, good-natured, imperturbable protector. Whether it be sheltering her from Mama’s more ambitious training exercises or beating a spoiled young noble and would-be rapist to death, Mila could always count on her Papa to take care of her.

 

Until now. Nothing could save them from this abominable affliction, so Mila prayed for the warm embrace of the Mother to come take her away.

 

Whimpering for someone to come save her, Mila wept and hugged her bucket, long since desensitized to the awful smell. Both struck down by the same calamity, father and daughter had suffered side by side for nine days and today was the tenth. Sweet freedom lay so close, yet seemingly so far out of reach, Mila feared she wouldn’t survive to make it. Just staying upright in her chair took everything she had, but she knew things would get much worse if she laid down. Even closing her eyes made her head spin, so she stared out the tiny, open window to their cabin room and focused on the horizon, the only thing she found which could ease her misery.

 

This wasn’t right… No one should be treated this way, not even the worst of criminals, and Mila was far from one. Were she to slip back through time and do this again, she would’ve broken out before the first day – no, the first hour had passed and ridden home. The flimsy wooden door was nothing to her, but now, after so many days of anguish and misery, she was weak as a day-old kitten and in no condition to walk, much less run.

 

Humans were not meant to travel on boats.

 

How anyone could stand the constant lurching was a complete mystery. The Captain and their sailors were no help, telling Mila she’d ‘get her sea legs’ soon enough, nothing but cruel lies and sadistic deceit, offering her a strand of hope where none existed. Were it not for Papa suffering beside her, Mila would have long since suspected this was all some cruel joke, with everyone hiding the remedy just so they could watch her suffer. Oh how she wished it were true, for it meant there was a cure and she wouldn’t have to go through this a second time. Better to walk home, nay, better to die fighting against the Defiled than repeat this harrowing experience, and if she had her way, no boat would ever travel on the open waters ever again.

 

If the need arose, Mila would even swear an Oath to the Heavens to avoid stepping foot on another floating wooden deathtrap of infirmity and nausea.

 

Slipping into peaceful oblivion, she came to while being flung from her chair, tumbling across the cabin, and coming to a stop in a corner. With her back on the floor and feet against the wall, she waited for her muscles to stop aching and the room to stop spinning before trying to stand. Struggling to her feet, she thanked the kind soul who thought to secure her vomit bucket while she slept, and simultaneously cursed that same person for putting it so damned far away. Leaning heavily against the wall, Mila dragged herself around the room, aiming for her bucket on the other side and praying she’d make it there before the nausea caught up and her vomiting began.

 

Again.

 

After three, arduous, unsteady steps, she realized the deck no longer swayed beneath her feet, though her legs insisted otherwise. Unable to adjust to these new circumstances, she fell to her knees in a mixture of exhaustion and relief, mind reeling at the implications. If the deck wasn’t swaying, that meant the ship wasn’t moving, and if the ship wasn’t moving, that meant…

 

Oh thank the Mother! It’s over! We made it!

 

Bursting through the door without knocking, Tursinai’s smug grin made Mila want to backhand the former bannerman across the face. How dare she be so happy while Mila suffered so horribly? “Why hello there little Mila,” she said, striding past the kneeling Mila to place a basin of water on the table. “You’ll be delighted to hear we’ve made landfall and everyone is outside waiting to greet you, but we can’t have you go out looking like death warmed over.”

 

Tursinai must be a holy saint sent here by the Mother herself.

 

As the warm washcloth ran across her face, Mila sat listlessly on the floor with tears streaming down her cheeks. “Thank you Tursi,” she cried, holding the older woman’s sleeve tight. “I’m sorry for every rude thing I’ve ever thought about you. I’m a horrible person, just horrible.”

 

Between her inability to keep food or liquid down and still spinning room, Mila found she was having a little trouble controlling her emotions.

 

“Hush now, little Mila,” Tursinai said, gingerly working at Mila’s crusted hair. “No need for thanks or apologies, just call me big sister once or twice.” Eyeing Papa, Tursinai bit her lip, sucked in her breath, and whispered, “I’d be even happier to help big Papa over there, but I worry the Lieutenant General would not look kindly upon my actions. If you really want to thank me, then how about you sit tight while I give your Papa a wipe down, and we keep it as our little secret?”

 

After several minutes of inappropriate comments, Tursinai gave up on making Mila look presentable and carried her away. As they exited the ship’s interior and strode down the ramp, Mila gazed upon the almost endless stretch of sand and grass, celebrating her victory over death and having stable, stationary land beneath her feet. Resisting the urge to wriggle out of Tursinai’s arms and kiss the sand, she heard Lin’s excited cries and sought out her best friend’s face in the crowd. Wearing a laurel of flowers in her hair and a radiant smile, Lin looked lovely as a summer day as she ran towards them. “Mi-Mi! Mi-Mi! You’re finally here! There’s so much…” Mila’s heart broke as Lin crinkled her nose and skidded to a halt at arm’s length. Recoiling in visible disgust, she pinched her nose and exclaimed, “Ewwww Mi-Mi… So stinky. What happened?”

 

Laughing so hard she had to put Mila down, Tursinai rolled in the sand and cackled in delight, oblivious to the odd stares she attracted. Glaring at her supposed best friend while kneading the soft, wonderful sand, Mila blinked through her tears of joy or indignation and asked, “Is that how you greet me after all those weeks apart?” Everyone was staring now and like Lin, they also backed away. Mila couldn’t possibly smell that terribly, could she?

 

Scuffing her boot, Lin at least had the courtesy to look ashamed, so adorable in her contrition it made Mila burn with jealousy. “But Mi-Mi,” she said with an adorable pout, “you really do smell, ya?”

 

Contrary to Lin’s revulsion, Song, with her hair up in a braided bun and wearing a similar laurel of flowers atop her head, made her way over to Mila’s side without hesitation. Holding Mila close, Song nuzzled her without regard for smell or filth, acting like a true sister could. “Thank you Song,” Mila said, leaning against her sister for both physical and emotional support. “I love you so much.”

 

“I love you too, sister.”

 

With a squeal of delight, Mila hugged Song as tight as she could, which was to say not tightly at all. “You mean it?”

 

Smiling beautifully, Song nodded with confidence. “Yes sister.” So wonderful, Song was finally opening up after all their time together. Strange how it took a month of separation to make it happen. “Mama went in for Papa, so perhaps you’d like to take a bath before seeing her? Lin… is not wrong.”

 

Well… maybe they had a point. Mila couldn’t remember bathing since before boarding the boats ten vomit-filled days ago. Though they beached every night, after twelve or fourteen hours at sea, Mila was in no condition to do anything but collapse into a pile of tears and snot. At least Rain wasn’t here to see or smell her like this.

 

… Wait, why wasn’t Rain here to greet his betrothed? She missed him so much, did he not miss her?

 

“Er… Hello Mila.” Stepping out from the crowd as if summoned by her thoughts, her beloved arrived holding a laurel of flowers with both hands. Unlike Song’s or Lin’s, this one was shoddily made, the flowers unevenly spaced and oddly angled as if put together by a five-year-old. Cheeks bright red and eyes averted, Rain placed the laurel on her head and mumbled, “You changed your hair, it’s shorter and curly now. You look very lovely. I made this for you.”

 

It’s okay. So her betrothed was not a craftsman. Mila even found it endearing to know he wasn’t amazing at everything, though she was also miffed he only now noticed her new haircut, three months after the fact. Reaching out towards him, she whimpered, “Carry me?”

 

Stiffening in surprise, Rain’s grimace broke her heart. Did she really smell so terrible? Was his love for her truly so shallow? Luckily for him, Rain’s hesitation only lasted a heartbeat before he nodded in agreement. After closing his eyes and taking a calming breath, he dithered about trying to figure out how to best approach her, almost as if afraid to touch her. Silly man, still thinking about her dignity now, being carried by Tursinai was a little humiliating, but being carried by her betrothed would be romantic. Helping him along, she wrapped her arms around his neck, settled in against his shoulder, and waited for him to carry her away.

 

And waited.

 

And waited.

 

Grunting in exertion, the veins in her beloved’s neck bulged as he struggled to lift her up, unable to shift her even a single centimetre. How odd, he’d been carrying her for weeks now without her help and she was too tired to Lighten even if she wanted to. Why was he pretending to have trouble now? “What’s wrong?”

 

“Nothing. I can do this.” Veins throbbing and heart pounding, Rain grit his teeth and threw everything he had into lifting her off the sand but to no avail. After a minute of futile struggle, he snarled and shouted, “Shut up!”

 

Taken aback, Mila released her hold around his neck. Without her arms to brace against, Rain tumbled backwards into the sand with a heavy thump, wheezing as the air was forced out of his lungs. “Excuse me?” she asked, annoyed at his tone. “What did you say?”

 

“Not… talking to… you,” Rain gasped, gesturing aimlessly around him. “Monk. Concealed. Won’t stop Sending. Nattering on… Celibacy and sin.” Searching through the crowd, he snapped, “Blow it out your fat ass! I am not your brother, nor am I a monk! I’ll touch any woman I want and nothing you say will change my mind.” Noticing Lin and Mila’s sour expressions, he quickly corrected himself. “I mean, I will only touch the women I am betrothed to. Not in a sexual manner, but a wholesome, chaste… er…” Sighing, Rain stood up and brushed himself off. “Sorry. I’m very tired from my recent ordeals, so I think I should go to bed now. You look lovely as always Mila. Sorry.”

 

Leaving her sitting in the sand without so much as a smile, Rain strode off into the crowd. Overcome with emotions, Mila couldn’t decide whether to be furious or heartbroken and looked to Lin for an explanation. Puffing her cheeks, Lin stretched her arm and patted the air by Mila’s face, staying as far away as possible. “Don’t be mad Mi-Mi, hubby’s been through a lot recently and now he’s acting so strange, all mopey and scared. He sleeps a lot and only leaves his yurt to swim. He even took the bears away and told me I shouldn’t be so selfish and need to learn to share…”

 

The rest of the night passed by in a blur and when she opened her eyes again, Mila found herself wrapped in a warm blanket inside Song’s yurt. Basking in the cozy comfort of the cot, she drifted in and out of sleep for untold minutes, lazily putting off the new day for as long as she could. Right now, things were perfect and she didn’t want to ruin it with the complications of life. Rising with a bone-cracking stretch, she arched her back and rejoiced at her complete and utter lack of queasiness. In fact, for the first time in days, she was actually hungry, her stomach rumbling in anticipation of a well-deserved feast. Unable to find her clothes, she borrowed one of Song’s outfits and staggered out of the yurt to greet the day. Shielding her eyes from the bright afternoon sun, she took a deep breath and admired the majestic blue skies and verdant green grass of the Central Province.

 

And the magnificent, menacing turtle napping not two meters away.

 

Even at rest, the formidable creature exuded an air of vigour and majesty, power and fortitude given form. A self-proclaimed emperor of her domain, the Guardian Turtle of Ping Yao lay perfectly still, relaxed and unafraid despite the crowd bustling around her. Her smooth, leathery skin looked soft to the touch, shimmering in the light with a beautiful moss-green hue. As Mila drew close, the turtle’s eyes shot open to inspect the unfamiliar intruder, with the sun in perfect position to reveal a lustrous golden gleam in her dark, fathomless eyes. Tilting her head in a strangely human fashion, the turtle squeaked in delight and stretched her neck to nuzzle Mila in a gentle, loving manner.

 

Giggling in pure glee, Mila wrapped her arms as far as they could go around the turtle’s beak, treating the affectionate creature to a hearty hug. “Why hello there,” she crooned, nuzzling with a turtle large enough to swallow her whole. “Aren’t you affectionate? You must be Ping-Ping. I’m Mila, nice to meet you.”

 

“So you’re the little scamp’s daughter.” The gruff, unfamiliar voice made Mila jump in fright, and she turned about to find an older gentleman lounging in the grass nearby. Wearing a wide-brimmed, conical hat and a ragged tunic, the stranger puffed on an exquisitely crafted pipe and studied her with his piercing brown eyes. With the ghost of a sneer pasted across his face, he blew a cloud of white, wispy smoke, pungent and unpleasant to the nose. “You’re shorter than I expected.”

 

Despite his rough exterior and atrocious habit, Mila instantly felt drawn to the older man when she spied his floofy, ringed red panda tail thrashing behind him. Finally, after all these years, Mila had found a half-brother, though judging by his silver eyebrows and beard, he was a much, much, much older half-brother, one almost at the end of his natural lifespan. Barely able to contain her excitement, Mila gracefully overlooked his jab at Mama or Papa and bowed in greeting, a difficult task with Ping Ping demanding another hug. “This one is Sumila, Disciple of Akanai, Student to Husolt, sister of Li Song and Captain of the Sentinels. How might I address you, good sir?”

 

“Well, well, well,” the stranger said, sitting a little straighter as he put his pipe aside. “At least the little scamp taught her daughter manners. This lord is Guan Suo of the Protectorate, guardian to… Ping Ping.”

 

The last was said with a sigh, but Mila was too busy trying not to lose her temper. How dare he call Mama ‘little scamp’? Just because he’s older than her doesn’t mean he can look down on her. Hmph, if Mila still didn’t need to question him, she’d give him an earful, half-brother or not. Best to get straight to the point before she lost her temper. “Greetings, Guan Suo. As you can probably tell, the two of us probably share a… progenitor. I was wondering if you’ve ever met him or her, and if you have, if you could tell me where?”

 

“Oh?” Raising one long, bushy eyebrow, the old man asked, “The little scamp never told you about your parentage?”

 

“I know no scamp and my parents are Akanai and Husolt,” Mila corrected, a little more curtly than intended. “But no, they’ve never told me anything about the people who conceived me.”

 

“Feisty little cub aren’t you?” Rolling his shoulders in a lazy shrug, Guan Suo settled back against his clump of dirt and stroked his beard. “Fair enough, I’ll give you that, but if you feel so strongly about the subject, then why even seek out your… progenitor?”

 

Her patience slipping, Mila wondered if the old codger even had an answer to give her, but she persisted nonetheless. “I have something important he or she needs to hear.”

 

“A message?” Amused, he smiled and asked, “And what, pray tell, would you say?”

 

This was all a game to him, making light of a matter she held dear. Mila almost turned around to leave, but something in his eyes made her stay. More than just idle curiosity or callous humour, she saw an intense need to know hidden beneath his veneer of indifference. Against her better judgment, Mila opted for honesty. “I would tell them who I am, a forgotten daughter who was abandoned and left to die. That I have two loving parents, a wonderful sister, amazing friends, and a valiant betrothed. That I am a warrior unmatched by my peers who at twelve-years-old, tracked and killed a one-thousand year old carnugator by myself. I then used its hide to craft a Spiritual Weapon, the shield you see me carrying now, and at the age of eighteen, was Inspired by the Mother and attained the rank of Divine Blacksmith.” Taking a deep breath, Mila calmed her nerves before pressing on, holding back the flood of emotions welling up from within. “Most importantly, I would tell them that despite their best efforts, I have lived a life full of love and affection and that I am far better off without them.”

 

Staring off into the distance, Guan Suo stifled a yawn and asked, “Have you considered writing it down and presenting a letter instead? That was quite an earful.”

 

Grinding her teeth with an audible growl, Mila resisted the urge to rip his eyebrows clean off. “Can you. Direct me. To our progenitor?”

 

Instead of answering, the old man rolled his eyes and said, “I take it you don’t know much about Ancestral Beasts then. You’re upset over being abandoned as a child? Pei! You’re lucky you weren’t killed outright. Don’t go looking for sympathy from an Ancestral Beast. They might look human, but they’ll always be beasts at heart, a slave to their baser instincts. Despite all your skill and accomplishments, in the eyes of an Ancestral Beast, you’re nothing but a feeble, deficient failure, someone to whom death would be a mercy.” Shaking his head, Guan Suo sneered and added, “Some like to pretend and play human, but that’s all it is, a game. They’re creatures of the wild, and not even all the time in the world will tame them. Run along now, Sumila. Forget this idle fancy of speaking with your progenitor. Like you said, Akanai and Husolt raised you and love you. What more do you need?”

 

With that said, Guan Suo stood up and walked away, melting in the sea of Sentinels so seamlessly, it had to be Concealment. Burning with anger, Mila glowered in Guan Suo’s general direction before turning her attention back to the affectionate turtle. “Poor Ping Ping,” she crooned, giving the gentle giant yet another hug. “Like me, you’re also surrounded by infuriating men.” Glancing at Rain’s yurt, she balked at the thought of seeing him again. Curious as she was about his second Awakening, a small part of her mind wondered if his cold reception was not due to his weariness but for other reasons.

 

He’d been polite and respectful, but not warm or affectionate, like he was doing what he thought she wanted instead of being genuinely happy she was here. What if he had a change of heart during their time apart? Taking the coward’s way out, Mila said her farewells to Ping Ping and strode off in search of Mama, Lin, and Song.

 

Whatever was going on with Mila’s betrothed, it was always better to face bad news on a full belly.

 

Chapter Meme

 

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Savage Divinity – Chapter 320


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For as long as she could remember, Song prized her early morning routine above all else. The handful of minutes before each day truly began were her own, where nothing was expected of her except to brush and braid her hair. It was a simple, familiar routine, one which soothed her nerves and helped her through some of the most difficult times of her life. By all rights, Song should have resisted any change to her routine, should have felt cheated of her alone time when it was taken away, but far from it.

 

Song loved it when Mama brushed her hair.

 

Humming softly beneath her breath, Mama’s movements were slow and unhurried, taking her time as though she had nothing more important to do besides style Song’s hair. Every tangle was gently unravelled, every knot softly teased, as if Song were a delicate treasure to be handled with the utmost care. It was a far cry from the speedy, rough attentions of the other slaves, happy to make Song look presentable for the Brigadier and send her in their place. Those days were now like a terrible dream, slowly fading from memory with each passing day. Stifling a yawn, Song blinked the sleep out of her eyes and ran her fingers through Sara’s lustrous, white fur, massaging the wildcat’s scalp laying in her lap. Mewling in protest, the grumpy, golden Aurie flopped onto his back and thrashed about, displeased by his unjust treatment in this unfamiliar locale.

 

Or annoyed by the lovely new shirt Song had him wear to bed.

 

“Tch. A fine hunter he is,” Mama said, interrupting her sombre tune. “Showing his belly to everyone who will look. A real paper tiger this one, spoiled rotten to the core.”

 

Gesturing for Aurie to come to her side, Song neither agreed nor disagreed with Mama, merely stating, “He’s upset because Rain didn’t return yesterday.” As an afterthought, she asked, “Has he resurfaced yet?” It would be fine if he hadn’t; Song loved having both Sara and Aurie to cuddle, the former beside her and the latter sprawled across her legs. Add in Mama’s warm embrace and last night was the happiest Song had ever been.

 

It was even better than when Rain used his Aura to show her what it was like to be loved.

 

“No, the boy is still at it. If you were ten years older, you would feel the Heavenly Energies tugging at the Chi inside your core as it rushes towards him. Been eighteen hours and the whole city knows it now. Hard to miss seeing him out there, exposed and vulnerable while the water churns around him.” Mama’s gentle movements slipped away and were replaced with a rougher, angrier touch as she braided Song’s hair, tugging a little too hard for comfort. “Honestly, he could have chosen a more defensible location to seek Insight, somewhere submerged in the shallows and out of sight from the docks. I swear the boy was born to make me miserable, I can feel the wrinkles forming as we speak.”

 

Though this line of conversation made Song fear for her scalp, her curiosity got the better of her and she asked, “How long do Awakenings usually last?”

 

“It varies depending on the person, but they have been known to last for more than a day, and as much as three.”

 

“Will he be much stronger when it is finished?”

 

“Look at you, so full of questions today.” Pausing her work to study Song’s face, Mama appeared strangely worried, but her mood passed quickly and she went back to braiding. “It takes time to parse through the mysteries of Awakening and even longer to put what one learns into practice, so normally, I would answer no, but the boy is hardly normal. This is the boy’s second time going through the process, which is unheard of, so we shall have to wait and see.” Clicking her tongue, Mama shook her head. “No more questions sweet daughter, I should not be telling you any of this. Better for you to discover the Mother’s secrets all on your own without my nattering to confuse you.”

 

But then how was Song supposed to know if she was right? The Bekhai training method was simplistic in theory, but infinitely complex in practice. While it allowed one to examine the secrets of Heaven with no preconceived notions, it also left one alone and without guidance from their predecessors. Easier to learn from Teacher Du, whose straightforward lectures broke complicated concepts down into smaller, easily understood components.

 

Song would never dare mention this out loud though, as Mama had been quite vocal about her contempt for Teacher Du and his methods.

 

“There we go, all done.” Motioning for Song to turn one way, then the other, Mama inspected her handiwork with a smile. “Ah my sweet daughter, lovely as a warm summer day.”

 

Noticing the missing weight of her braid, Song reached up and found it packaged into a neat little bun, much more convenient than coiling it around her neck when she needed it out of the way. “Thank you Mama.”

 

“You like it? Good, I will teach you how it is done another time,” Mama said, wrapping her arms around Song. “Your sister never liked sitting still while I braided her hair, so let Mama enjoy this a few days more.”

 

“Yes Mama.” Happy to oblige, Song leaned back and basked in the attention. Being back in Central wasn’t as terrifying as she thought it’d be, especially with Mama at her side. This was their seventh day in Nan Ping and Song had yet to be lent, traded, gifted, sold, stolen, or even propositioned. Dressed in her fine Bekhai leathers, the merchants and shopkeepers often mistook Song for a foreigner and treated her like a valued customer instead of an insignificant slave, calling her things like little lady or beautiful patron instead of the less flattering monikers she was accustomed to. She ate good food, drank delicious tea, spent her coin as she pleased, and passed her days in a peaceful, pleasant existence.

 

Aside from all of Rain’s bothersome antics, of course.

 

Today, Song went about her day as usual, except with Mama to keep her company. Their first stop was at Lady Lin’s yurt to free Jimjam, Banjo, and Baloo from the sweet girl’s smothering embrace. Then Song fed and brushed all the pets while watching the rabbits’ silly antics, hopping and kicking inside their new enclosure. Running behind schedule, she hurried over to the training grounds for her daily spar with Mister Rustram, one of her few responsibilities. Stiff-backed and head held high, he greeted her with a courtly bow as she arrived, his narrow practice rapier in hand with the tip resting in the dirt like an ornate cane. They exchanged no words as she warmed up, and once Song was ready, she took her stance and waited as he did the same.

 

It was… agreeable working with Mister Rustram. With his impeccable manners, mild temper, and untarnished motivations, he never gave Song a reason for worry.

 

After a quarter hour of sparring, Song noted he’d fallen into old patterns and tightened his grip again, so she set out to punish him for it. Charging forward, she locked blades in a clash of metal and set him on the defensive. Disengaging with a hard push, she followed up with a forward kick and caught Mister Rustram in the gut. Whipping her saber about, she set it to rest lightly against his neck as he doubled over. Falling to his knees, he held his free hand up in surrender while gasping for breath, winded by the abrupt end to their match. “Yield,” he wheezed, signalling the end of this match. Taking a step back, Song waited while Mister Rustram propped himself up and muttered quietly to himself, a strange habit but one Song didn’t mind since she wasn’t expected to reply.

 

Another reason she didn’t mind sparring with him; freedom from the unfamiliar burden of social niceties.

 

Unfortunately, Mama didn’t share their appreciation of silence and interrupted with a question. “Daughter, how many times have you punished him for this same mistake?”

 

“Almost every day since we started sparring.” Mister Rustram was not a quick learner.

 

“Have you made clear what his error is?”

 

“No Mama.” Teacher Du believed hardship and experience were the best ways to learn, and while Song sought to emulate it, she worried she might get in trouble if she injured Mister Rustram too badly.

 

“I see.”

 

There was no disapproval or reproach in Mama’s tone, but she turned her gaze to Mister Rustram who immediately clasped his hands and bowed. “Please Miss Song, enlighten this one to the error of his ways,” he said, polite and mannerly as always.

 

Nervous about this change in routine, Song swallowed her anxiety and did as she was instructed. “Your weapon is slender and lightweight, crafted with speed and precision in mind. Thus, when meeting power with power, you will always be at a disadvantage.” Taking the slim practice weapon from him, Song held the hilt lightly between her fingers and with plenty of slack in her wrist, then demonstrated a series of darting and sweeping motions based on the Mantis Forms. “Held properly, your weapon has a wider range of motion compared to most others, which you must use to your advantage. When we clash, always match the bottom-third of your weapon against the top-third of your opponent’s, which gives you more leverage and control.”

 

Handing him her practice saber, she gestured for him to attack. Catching his swing with the hilt of her rapier, she guided the tip of his saber off to the side, forcing Mister Rustram off balance. She did this a few more times before switching it up, countering with a beat parry and a counter-thrust to his throat, stopping just short of striking. She’d been trying to teach him this for months now, intentionally over-committing with an aggressive charge and hoping he would catch on and properly parry, or better yet, counter the attack. He responded correctly once just a few days ago, but he learned nothing from his first-ever near-victory. Not to say he hadn’t improved in other ways, but Mister Rustram was sorely lacking the instincts, perceptions, and reactions of a warrior, things which only time, effort, and experience could make up for.

 

There was more to it, but Mama cut Song short and took over, rattling off a long list of flaws and instruction before concluding with, “My first daughter crafted you a weapon and my second instructs you on its use. I expect great things from you Mister Rustram, so continue to work hard. Daughter, a word?”

 

Leading Song away from the sparring grounds and towards the beach, Mama fell quiet with a pensive frown. Clutching her practice saber to her chest, Song followed along and wondered what she’d done wrong. Was it because she failed to instruct Mister Rustram properly? As Rain’s second, Mister Rustram held a highly visible position and his weakness would reflect poorly on the Bekhai. Was Mama going to punish her? Song deserved it, she’d been too half-hearted while training Rain’s subordinates, unsure where she stood in the hierarchy and too afraid to ask.

 

The silence lasted until they reached the shoreline, where Mama took a seat on an isolated patch of sand and Song followed suit. Pointing at the lone boat next to Ping Ping in the middle of the bay, Mama Sent, “I used to think you and the boy had much in common. Like you, he was once a slave, taken as a child by the Canston Trading Group. Shipped to the mines, he suffered terribly during his time there, and when Baatar found him, he was the only survivor out of Mother knows how many. Having known what it is like to be powerless, the boy’s fear drives him to seek strength. He believes that if he’s strong enough, he’ll never be put in the same position again, so he burns the candles at both ends and pushes his limits day after day. Now, he stands at the forefront of his peers, yet still he does not feel safe.”

 

Small wonder Rain hated the Canston Trading Group and bristleboars so much. As a child, her trainers often threatened to send her off to the brothels or mines if she didn’t measure up, telling her all manner of horror stories to keep her in line. As one trainer explained, although Song was treated harshly, she had her minor comforts like a soft bed, clean clothes, and nourishing food because she was an investment, a commodity, meant to serve at her master’s side as guard and companion. In comparison, those other, less fortunate slaves were disposable resources, to be wrung dry of everything they had and replaced once there was nothing left to give.

 

It was all done in the name of profits. Instead of keeping an existing workforce in good condition, it was cheaper to just buy new slaves, a cold calculation with no regard for the value of life.

 

“Do you know why I brought this up?” Mama asked, interrupting Song’s recollections.

 

Though Song sympathized with Rain’s plight, she wasn’t sure how to answer, but Mama seemed ready to wait until one was provided. This wasn’t the warm, gentle Mama speaking to her daughter Song, no, this was a Lieutenant General speaking to her soldier. Still uncertain, Song risked everything on a guess and asked, “Is it because you are upset this one has not Awakened?”

 

“Why would you think that?”

 

Trembling with apprehension, Song persevered on, believing she knew the cause of Mama’s disappointment. “This one overheard some of the others talking, saying how the Rising Dragon Elixir and runic rings helped both Rain and Lady Yan Awaken. This one also took the elixir and was given a ring, so…” Her voice trailed off and she left the rest unsaid, too scared to give voice to her thoughts, that Mama was disappointed with Song’s progress and was prepared to give up on her.

 

“Silly girl.” Draping an arm around Song’s shoulder, Mama squeezed a little too tightly, but Song didn’t mind. “Learning how to mimic a true force of nature is an extraordinary feat, but only meant for a chosen few. An Awakening is a Blessing of the Heavens, a gift bestowed, not a goal to be chased. I myself have not Awakened, so why would it matter if you have not? I am not upset with you girl, I might as well be upset you failed to catch a star or touch the moon. No, I told you about Rain’s past because I thought you two were alike, but I was wrong.” Holding Song close, they both stared out into the bay as Mama’s voice grew hoarse. “Rain can be reckless at times, but only when necessary. Against a weaker opponent, he is often overly cautious, hiding behind his shield and waiting until an opportunity presents itself. You, however, are reckless regardless who your opponent is. Earlier, when you charged Mister Rustram, my heart stopped with worry, for if he responded properly to your aggression, he could have skewered you on his sword, blunted or not. Then you tell me you have been doing this almost every day for an entire year? Something is wrong my girl.”

 

“This lowly one does not understand.” It was always better to admit ignorance than be punished for failure, a lesson Song learned early and often.

 

“Oh my sweet girl,” Mama said, shaking her head in sorrow. “All this time, I thought you were getting better and almost whole again, but now I see you are far from it. Look at you, one tiny lecture and you are shivering like a lamb caught in the tiger’s den. And what is all this ‘lowly one’ nonsense? If you ever call me Master, I fear my heart will shatter into a thousand pieces.”

 

Unsure what else to say, Song defaulted to, “Sorry Mama.”

 

Lifting Song’s chin, Mama looked her in the eyes, her tender gaze filled with warmth and sadness. “Why are you sorry?”

 

“Because this one – I,” Song corrected, flinching ever so slightly as she corrected herself, “have troubled Mama.”

 

“And how have you troubled me?”

 

Unable to come up with an answer, Song sat in restless silence, staring at the tip of her nose while searching for her braid to fidget with. After a long pause, Mama sighed and answered for her. “Because sweet daughter, you place no value on your life. I should have seen it earlier, back when Mila told me about your fight against the Demon in Sanshu. There was no way for you to know it would appear in front of you, but you risked it anyways. You are different from Rain. He’ll do anything to stay alive, while you walk the razor’s edge and risk your life because you care nothing for it. Tell me girl, do you seek death?”

 

“No Mama. That would be in defiance of The Oaths.”

 

“But if you died in defence of your master or during a training accident, then…?”

 

Still not sure what Mama was getting at, Song shrugged and answered, “Then I will have died serving my purpose.”

 

Deflating in place, Mama hugged Song a little tighter and sighed once more. Grateful their confusing conversation was finally at an end and nothing untoward had come of it, Song relaxed and snuggled up against Mama’s shoulder, enjoying the beautiful sights and soothing sounds of the bay. Bored of stalking the crabs, Aurie plopped down beside her in search of attention, joined soon after by Jimjam and Sara. Splashing in the water, the bears grunted and chortled as they wrestled about, showing signs of the powerful behemoths they would soon become yet still innocent and childlike in their demeanour. Tired from circling the bay, Roc and the laughing birds landed nearby, with sweet Kipi hopping over to show off the blue-grey sea stone clamped in her beak.

 

After a long stretch of silence, Mama sighed a third time, rested her head against Song’s, and asked, “My sweet daughter, answer me true: are you happy?”

 

Half asleep from resting on Mama’s shoulder, Song drowsily answered, “Yes Mama.”

 

“Good. Then from this moment on, you have a new purpose.”Alarmed, Song tried to sit up but Mama held her tight and continued. “Your purpose is to live a long and happy life. I want you to try new things, find something you love, and tell me all about it. Can you do that, daughter?”

 

Still uncertain what was happening, Song blurted out the first thing that came to mind. “I love spending time with Mama.”

 

Bursting into laughter, Mama wiped her eyes and shook her head. “And I you, but that is not what I meant. I was speaking more about a hobby, a goal, or a path. For example, the Martial Path, which you have made great strides in but is it something you enjoy?”

 

It wasn’t a question she’d considered before, but Song answered without hesitation. “Yes Mama. The Martial Path is all I have ever known, but it speaks to me. I have always pursued strength, but now I pursue strength for myself. I want to be strong so I can stand with Mama, Papa, and sister without being a burden.”

 

“We would never consider you a burden.” Kissing Song on the temple, Mama added, “But if this is your decision, then prepare yourself. Though I am your mother and you are my daughter, I will hold nothing back as your Mentor. Now, your first task: sit here with your Mama and watch Rain’s Awakening. Sometimes, one can find Enlightenment from watching an Awakening, but do not fret if nothing is gained. Like I said earlier…”

 

Stiffening in surprise, Song nodded and held her tongue, ears pressed flat against her skull as she considered her dilemma.

 

With this newest development, how was she supposed to tell Mama she wanted to learn from Teacher Du?

 

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

 

“Look who finally came up for air. ‘Bout time too, been damn near three days now.”

 

“Come now, pull him in, he must be exhausted. Rain my boy, don’t you worry, we’ll have you up soon enough.”

 

“Eh-Mi-Tuo-Fuo. Such diligence, such drive, worthy of admiration.”

 

Gasping for breath, Baledagh struggled to keep his head above the swirling waters, weak and feeble as a day old kitten following his frantic race for the surface. After what felt like an eternity, a pair of hands dragged him onto the boat and he looked up to see Guan Suo, Taduk, and the monk standing over him with concern in their eyes. Disoriented and confused, he coughed up a lungful of water and asked, “What happened? Where am I?”

 

Brother? Are you there? Why aren’t you answering?

 

Chapter Meme

 

– End of Volume 17 –

Author’s note: For all the Baledagh haters, don’t get your panties in a bunch. This isn’t Baledagh: Vol 2.

 

Previous Chapter Table of Contents Next Chapter

 

Savage Divinity – Chapter 319

 

In all his years, Jorani had never seen anything like it. They must have picked it up during their trek through the tall grasslands of Central, with plains so dense they needed blades to hack through it. Silent and stealthy, who knew how long it’d hidden within their midst, hitching a ride on Ral’s pants with no one the wiser. With a round, fat torso and a rounder, tiny head, the creature flapped its wings so quickly Jorani could barely make them out, a lovely blur of dark emerald and inky obsidian. Long as a finger and at least three wide, the six-legged creature flailed about in futility and clicked its… mouth or arms, caught between Ral’s fingers as the dumb oaf studied it with unbridled interest.

 

Knowing what was coming but unable (or unwilling) to stop it, Jorani watched in a mixture of abject horror and morbid curiosity as Ral tilted his head back, opened his mouth, and popped the still-wriggling creature in without hesitation. Chomping down with a juicy crunch, Ral wore a contemplative expression as he parsed through the taste. Recoiling in disgust, Jorani couldn’t close his eyes or look away, unable to even blink. Slurping the still writhing legs into his mouth, Ral’s floppy ears flapped back and forth as he absently checked his body for more of the edible passengers, chewing noisily all the while. Smacking his lips, Ral gave Jorani a bashful grin, displaying the bits of the creature still stuck between his teeth. “Yum… Tastes like pine nuts Jor. You think we can find more? I’m real hungry…”

 

Repressing a shudder, Jorani finally closed his eyes and convinced himself the creature wasn’t still moving. It was broken up into a thousand pieces, how could it still be squirming about? “I’ll spread the word to keep an eye out for em,” he said, unable to look his friend in the face. “Won’t be but a thing.” What Chey saw in the big oaf, Jorani would never understand. He was happy for Ral, he was, but also incredibly jealous.

 

So. Very. Jealous.

 

“Thanks Jor.” Sucking his teeth, Ral asked, “What did I eats?”

 

Now he asks. “Can’t rightly say. Ain’t ever been to this part of the woods before, we on a whole new playing field.”

 

Nodding sagely, Ral said, “Right Jor. Like them big, hole-diggin’ ground squirrels we saw. They looked real soft and fuzzy, pokin’ out of the grass like they did. You think we should go back and grab a few? For the boss, I mean. He’d like em lots.”

 

And so would Ral. That’s all the big oaf did these days, play with the bossman’s pets, fool around with Chey, and train. Motioning for the squad to fall in behind him, Jorani snorted softly. “Even if we had the time and means to grab a few, they’d be fer stewin’, not snugglin’. Yer’s ain’t the only belly rumblin’ around here.”

 

“Ah, sorry Jor,I forgot to share. You eat the next one.”

 

“Don’t you worry ‘bout it.” This time the shudder got away from him and Jorani banished the memory from his mind. Think about something else, like a nice, plump, chicken stewed on a bed of radish and bamboo shoots, with a big bowl of fragrant fried rice to go with it. Or a juicy cut of venison garnished with onions, cloves, and ginger, slow roasted over coals and washed down with a jug of honeyed wine. Hell, Jorani was so hungry, he’d even entertain the notion of eating one of them giant squids the other squads went on about. His crew never got a taste, since they’d been busy guarding camp while the others enjoyed a delicious, professionally-cooked meal paid for with the bossman’s copper.

 

The bossman promised to make it up to Jorani and his crew, but with the way things had gone, that didn’t look likely to happen anytime soon.

 

Truth be told, Jorani was more than a little miffed at the bossman, downright peeved in fact. Falling Rain didn’t understand the concept of rest and he pushed his people too damn far. After a month of hard travel, where they woke at dawn, travelled till dusk, and crammed in as much training as humanly possible, Jorani thought their suffering had come to an end when they finally reached Nan Ping.

 

How wrong he was.

 

While Jorani skipped dinner to catch up on much needed sleep, the bossman wasted no time pissing off the locals, accepting an eight-against-one duel and winning in his customary, domineering fashion. Jorani heard all about it the next morning, after being woken bright and early by the guttural curses and hard knuckles of Bulat and Ravil. Turns out, after a month of ‘rest’, Mister Rustram wasted no time getting back into the habit of their gruelling and painful training. Suffering in silence, Jorani endured the verbal and physical abuse for the time being, counting down the days until he was strong enough to stand up and tell the world the bossman was crazier than a sack full of rabid weasels.

 

He didn’t have to be stronger than the bossman, he just had to outrun him.

 

Adding piss to sour wine, not only did Jorani never get a taste of Nan Ping’s fine cuisine, he’d been stuck eating dry travel rations for a month now. Time was he’d be happy enough with a full belly and a place to lay his head, but that was before he knew how good food really tasted. The day after they arrived, the bossman brought Dastan’s crew into the city and they came back with tales of all the mouth-watering delicacies they ate, things like salt and pepper crab, spicy spinach noodles, chili prawns, and more, instantly becoming the envy of the camp. The next day, the bossman stayed outside and ate the same travel fare everyone else choked on, and the day after that was when the Guardian Turtle of Ping Yao wrecked a merchant house and got Falling Rain exiled from the city.

 

That’s how the story went, and while Jorani hadn’t seen the incident first hand, one look at the sluggish, docile turtle was enough to know it was a load of crap. It didn’t take a tactical genius to figure out the bossman had a deep-seeded hatred for bristleboars and sent the turtle in to do his dirty work. Though there were stories going around about the bossman’s darker nature, Jorani still had trouble imagining the friendly kid angry enough to lay hands on Mister Rustram. Ruthless and intimidating as he was, the bossman rarely let the smile slip from his face, so whatever them bristleboars did to him, it must have been bad. Ravil opined the bossman’s hatred had something to do with the Bekhai grudge against the Society, but Jorani thought otherwise. If the bossman could make friends with Situ Jia Zian, a man he fought a duel to the death against, then why would he harbour hatred for a bunch of half-breeds he’d never met just because they all hailed from the same ancestor?

 

There was more to it but damned if Jorani was about to go digging around. Poking about in a man’s past was a quick way to get yourself a one way trip to the Father’s maw, and he wanted nothing to do with whatever set the bossman off. Instead, Jorani smiled, nodded, and set out to follow his orders, inwardly grumbling the entire time. Destroying the merchant house wasn’t enough, now the bossman wanted Jorani and the others to inspect the properties belonging to the Canston Trading Group without saying why, but his purpose was easy enough to guess.

 

The bossman was in the mood to help the bristleboars lighten their pockets, and Jorani was happy to oblige.

 

Well, not exactly happy, but pleased. He’d be happier if their circumstances weren’t complete horseshit. Then again, horseshit might be an improvement, because that meant they at least had horses. Bossman didn’t let them take any quin’s either, nor any wagons, armour, bows, crossbows, or Spiritual Weapons. He didn’t want them carrying anything which might identify them as Bekkies, which was everything, and ordered them to blend in with the locals, which was stupid. There ain’t anyone more mistrustful than isolated village folk. They’d mark Jorani’s crew as foreigners the second any of them opened their mouths, if not before, but the bossman speaks and Jorani obeys.

 

So without horses, quins, or proper equipment, they set out with what supplies they could carry, but those barely lasted long enough for two days and today was day three. They weren’t strangers to living off the land, but everything in Central was unfamiliar to them, not to mention the challenge of hunting with makeshift bows, crude spears, and slings made from loincloths. In a strange twist, Jorani found going back to his roots somewhat relaxing, bringing back memories of simpler times, when all he had to worry about was filling his belly and sleeping safe, when a quick tongue and quicker wits were his greatest weapons, and when Ral had his back no matter the odds.

 

Now, the hierarchy went Chey, the bossman, then Jorani, a sad, sorry place to be.

 

If Jorani had his silver cord, it’d be easy to round up a couple of them woolly, two-horned, bull-looking creatures hanging about. They looked like good eating and even if they weren’t, at least there’d be plenty to go around. Being fighting fit came with a cost as each of Jorani’s crew needed three times more food than a common farmer, and they didn’t all share Ral’s impenetrable iron stomach. With their rations all gone, every meal was a roll of the dice, wondering if the stinky, striped ferret and white, spotted mushrooms he ate for breakfast was gonna give him the runs, or if it’d be the sharp, leafy plant and wrinkled, naked rat he had for lunch. No matter how lucky you were, all hot streaks eventually come to an end and then you’re stuck crouched over a ditch and trying not to whimper too loudly, praying for an end to the ass-spurting misery.

 

At least Jorani was free to lead as he pleased, instead of being stuck under Ravil’s thumb like Wang Bao. Chey was smart enough to stay out of trouble and Ulfsaar had his wifey Neera to keep him in check, but Wang Bao was too hot headed to leave unsupervised. Make no mistake, he played the part of disgraced noble like he was born to it, all stiff-backed and starched collars like Mister Rustram. Problem is, you can take the wolf out of the forest, but you can’t take the forest out of the wolf. Wang Bao was a Butcher through and through, which meant he was one of the biggest and baddest bandits around, a low-down, back-stabbing, throat-cutting bastard to the core. If Jorani had a choice, he’d sooner fight Ulfsaar than Wang Bao; At least Ulfsaar would make it quick and painless.

 

Of course, the scariest bastard yet was still their dark-skinned despot Ravil. It was his eyes, those pitch-black, soulless orbs which almost twinkled when he smiled…

 

Hoping to never again be on the receiving end of said smile, Jorani picked up the pace. By nightfall, their target was in sight, a winery north of Nan Ping and far off the beaten track. Hell, it was so remote, the place wasn’t even on the maps. Mister Rustram only learned about it after bribing a wagon driver who’d done a delivery out here, a last-minute stand in which paid well for his silence. It wasn’t exactly unheard of for wineries to value their secrecy, fixing to keep their recipe and ingredients a mystery, but one look at the compound was enough to make Jorani’s stomach drop in despair.

 

Secrecy or not, what kind of winery needed armed guards patrolling stone walls and steel-reinforced gates?

 

“Something’s off,” Jorani muttered, speaking to no one in particular. “Shoulda seen it before we set out. Only road leadin’ here is a one-wagon dirt trail. Stupid. How’s a winery supposed to get supplies and make deliveries with a one-wagon trail?”

 

“They could take turns Jor,” Ral supplied. “You know, one day for supplies, the next for deliveries?”

 

Rolling his eyes, Jorani resisted the impulse to snap. “Possible, but probably not.” Retreating from the underbrush, he picked out his sneakiest bastards. “Jinoe, Ronga, Siyar, you’re with me. Rest of you, back up ‘bout half a kilometre and sit tight. No fire, no tents, and double sentry duty fifty meters out. Someone stumbles across y’all then send them off to Mum real quiet-like, ye hear? Rest light and ready to bolt, we gonna be awhile, but not the whole night.” As the others retreated, Jorani gave Ral a pat on the arm. “You too, c’mon now, off with ye.”

 

“Don’t you need me to watch your back, Jor? Them guards look real big and scary…”

 

Patting the concerned giant on the arm, Jorani grinned and winked. “Don’t you worry bout it. We just goin’ in to sneak a peek, then we’ll come right on back with no one the wiser. Hell, maybe we’ll even filch a little wine to celebrate a job well done.”

 

“All right Jor.” Brandishing his borrowed lumber axe, Ral added, “If you need me, holler real loud okay?”

 

“You just worry ‘bout keepin’ quiet. Ye snore loud enough to wake the dead.” Shooing the big oaf away, he turned to his chosen sneak thieves. Jinoe and Ronga were the finest cut-purses he knew and Siyar could make a Wraith look clumsy, so Jorani was confident they’d be able to slip past a handful of bored guards. Hell, Jorani himself was no slouch at cloaks and daggers, having pinched his fair share of wineskins and coin-purses back in his heyday. “Okay then,” he said, faking confidence as he looked them each in the eyes. “You heard the deal. Night won’t last forever, so let’s get to it.”

 

It took two hours for them to mark the patrols and three tries in another hour for Siyar to scale the eight-meter high wall unseen. While any one of them could’ve easily made it over, Siyar was the only one confident he could do it quickly and quietly in complete darkness. Thankfully, the entire winery was pitch black and without a flame in sight, so it wasn’t too hard for the others to follow. With blood pounding in his ears, Jorani climbed up using the rope dropped by Siyar, grateful for all his practice on the obstacle course back at the Bridge. Crazy as the bossman was, there was a method to his madness and it was finally showing.

 

Once onto the parapets, Jorani paused to take in the lay of the land before slipping over the other side and down a second rope to join Siyar. Jinoe soon followed while Ronga hid topside to lower the ropes again when it was time to leave. With Jinoe staying in place to coordinate with Ronga, Jorani and Siyar set out to investigate the compound. Following behind the former smuggler, Jorani marvelled at how the slim, unassuming man slipped into the shadows and all but disappeared. This wasn’t Concealment with Chi, but practised skill and seasoned experience, knowing exactly how the darkness would envelop him and how to use it to his advantage.

 

Moving deeper into the compound, they cut a meandering circuit through what looked like the living quarters, a series of squat, wooden shacks sized for four people each. From what he’d briefly seen atop the parapets, a layer of these shacks lined the wall, followed by a layer of ragged tents, then a central square of four, large, windowless buildings made of stone, which he marked as their destination. Whatever secrets this place held, they’d find them there.

 

Siyar’s hand went up in warning a heartbeat before the man melted out of sight and Jorani scrambled behind the closest cover, a collection of barrels sitting next to a shack. Pulse racing and head light, Jorani crouched and listened as the footsteps steadily approached, the ponderous gait of men thick with muscle and sinew. Catching bits and pieces of their conversation, it took him a moment to realize they weren’t speaking Common, using a guttural language which sounded like a medley of grunts and snorts.

 

Closer and closer the sounds came until they were right atop Jorani, hiding beneath his hands because he was too scared to look. With a scrape and a grunt, the barrel next to him lifted away and Jorani cracked his eyes open to see a pair of gnarled hands wrapped around the barrel’s midsection. Hefting it high, the guard turned about, grunted something in reply to an unseen speaker, and walked away, his vision obscured by the large barrel in his arms and none to wiser to Jorani’s presence. Now crouching in plain view, Jorani blinked in surprise as the guard turned the corner and disappeared from sight, a narrow escape if there ever was one. Stepping out of the shadows, Siyar’s scowl said it all as he signalled for Jorani to head back. Seeing wisdom in the suggestion, he retreated to where Jinoe waited and took cover beneath an awning, grateful for the darkness which hid his shame.

 

Next time, Jorani knew to pick out his experts and, more importantly, trust them to do the job.

 

Almost an hour later, Siyar appeared out of nowhere and frantically signalled for Ronga to drop the ropes. In short order, the four of them were off and away, slinking back to where the rest of the crew waited. Gathering them all, Jorani beat a hasty retreat, running back the way they came for three hours before calling for a break. Breathless, exhausted, and hungry, Jorani finally got around to asking Siyar, “What’d you find?”

 

“Nothing good.” With a sour grimace, Siyar horked into the grass, as if trying to clear his mouth of an unpleasant taste. “Them tents be packed with slaves, a right sorry lot if I ever seen one. Ain’t no call to treat a man that way, even less a woman.”

 

Never a pleasant sight, but them’s the breaks. Freeing slaves was the bossman’s hobby, not Jorani’s. “Anything else?” Jorani asked, impatient to get some rest. If that’s all there was, then they’d have to go back and look around again.

 

“Dunno. Slipped into the warehouse. Ain’t no winery, ain’t even wine storage.” Reaching into his pouch, Siyar pulled out two copper vessels, wrapped in silk to keep them from making noise. Shit, when did Siyar find time to meet the local ladies and win their favour? At least two ladies no less, life just ain’t fair. He wasn’t even handsome or strapping, just an average looking schmuck. “Ain’t no one selling wine in tiny sippy jars, much less ones caulked shut with resin. Smells like dog farts and rotting entrails, it does. Had thousands of them all boxed up, nice and neat.”

 

Taking one of the receptacles to study, Jorani looked it over from top to bottom. Each one about as thick as his thumb and twice as long, they were half-filled with liquid sloshing around inside and sealed to keep it from leaking out. He was about to crack it open when he remembered his hard-learned lesson only a few hours ago. Handing the container to Ronga, he ordered the sneak-thief to open it. With a small crack, Ronga twisted off the containers top and a dark, oily liquid spilled out onto his left hand, stinking to high heavens like rot and death. Waving a hand to disperse the smell, Jorani congratulated himself for learning to delegate and asked, “What is that?”

 

“No clue,” Ronga replied, using grass to wipe the gunk off. “It’s cold though. Tingles too. It’s kinda nice.”

 

“Taste it,” Jinoe suggested.

 

“You fucking taste it, ye rotter.”

 

Undeterred, Jinoe asked, “You think it burns? Like the stuff the Coalition used back in Sanshu?”

 

Holding a hand up to forestall everyone’s curiosity, Jorani shook his head. “No light. We’ll leave this for the bossman to find out.” Nodding at the opened copper vessel still in Ronga’s hand, he added, “Toss that somewhere far from camp and get some sleep. Four hours rest, I want us gone by daylight.”

 

Walking away from the stench, Jorani found himself a nice little patch of grass and settled in with Ral, falling asleep the moment he closed his eyes.

 

And opened them again almost immediately after as a muffled scream tore through the camp.

 

No, not immediately, it was daylight, faint as it was. Running towards the commotion, he found Jinoe and Ronga grapping on the ground as the former kept the latter’s screams to a subdued level. “It’s his hand,” Jinoe hissed. “It’s burnin’ up somethin’ fierce.”

 

Burning was right, though neither flame nor smoke could be seen, patches of charred skin spread across the sneak-thief’s left hand and up his forearm, exposing tender blackened flesh beneath. Wrapping his hand with a spare shirt, Jorani grabbed Ronga by the wrist and wrestled the poor bastard onto his back with Jinoe’s help. Wrapping a belt around his bicep as a tourniquet, Jorani straightened the arm and hissed, “Ral, chop!”

 

“Gotcha Jor.”

 

Before the words finished leaving his mouth, Ral’s axe flashed through the air and cut Ronga’s arm cleanly off at the elbow. Checking to see if the burns were still spreading, Jorani tossed the ruined shirt and severed arm aside and set to tending Ronga’s wounds, who’d mercifully passed out. “No worries,” Jorani muttered. “You can always grow yerself a new arm. Least you didn’t taste it.” Passing the work off to a more experienced hand, Jorani stood up and stared at the severed arm, well on its way to ashes. “What happened?”

 

Eyes wide with worry, Jinoe answered without looking away from his wounded friend. “No idea. He woke up screamin’ like a stuck pig with a hand black as ash. It was that stuff which dunnit, had to be.”

 

With Jinoe’s help, Jorani tracked down the broken vessel Ronga discarded before going to sleep. Laying in a patch of blackened grass and cracked stones, the intact half of the copper vessel sat less than twenty meters from camp, the pitch black liquid now a hardened, sticky mass. Whatever it was, it was a real piece of work, the bane of flesh, grass, stone, and probably more.

 

“Welp,” Jorani said to no one in particular. “Least we didn’t waste the trip.”

 

Chapter Meme

 

Previous Chapter Table of Contents Next Chapter

Savage Divinity – Chapter 318

 

Standing at attention in the anteroom, Yuzhen closed her eyes and willed her temples to stop throbbing to no success. Forcing herself to take slow, calming breaths, she resisted the urge to lick her lips or fuss with her clothes, two nervous ticks she had yet to wholly break herself of. ‘Complacency is the greatest flaw a diplomat can have, for once a diplomat stops improving, they begin failing’. Wise words from her father, Shing Du Yi, a great man whose footsteps she could barely follow. Were he here in her place, he’d know exactly what to do and how to do it. No, she corrected, if her father were here, then none of this would have ever happened.

 

She was a fool to leave Rain uneducated and an even bigger fool for leaving him unsupervised. Though she had other matters to attend to like charming prospective allies, acting as an intermediary between age-old enemies, and vetting her new, enthusiastic collaborators Yo Shi Wu and Ru Minsu, it was no excuse for leaving Rain to his own devices. Once a mistake, twice a pattern, and three times a habit, the boy was an endless font of stress and anxiety. His manners were all but nonexistent and he had a propensity for finding trouble, but since he always came out smelling like roses and his antics amused her, she foolishly overlooked his problematic ways.

 

And now they paid the price for her folly.

 

“Tug your braid any harder and you’ll be balder than I am.” Gerel’s Sending caught her off guard and Yuzhen shot him a glare as she released her death grip upon on her hair. “I’ll still love you, bald or not, but given the option, I’d choose the latter.”

 

Disciplining herself to stand stock still, she Sent, “Does this mean I am allowed an opinion regarding your hairstyle? Or rather, the lack thereof?” Truthfully, she loved his smooth, bald head, but he would look much more ‘proper’ if he wore a queue, where the front and sides of his head were clean shaven while the back was left long and braided. Though no longer in fashion, a man with a queue looked striking in full military armour, a style she felt would suit her paramour and future husband well. Though she loved him dearly as he was, she was a politician first and it would be expected for her husband to look the part. As much as she enjoyed his rugged, tribal look, she couldn’t bring a rustic, leather-clad warrior into a formal dinner with foreign dignitaries. The quiet, stoic soldier however, now there was a man she could parade about, dropping hints about how much he loved her and what lengths he, and by extension, the Bekhai would go to should she ever come to harm…

 

“Speak, and this one shall obey,” Gerel replied, his Sending filled with warmth and good humour. It was one of the many reasons she loved him, so supportive of her career yet comfortable with her independence. He was there to help should she need it but didn’t fuss or pout when she didn’t. Counting her blessings, Yuzhen ached to take his hand or perhaps go a little further, but with Nian Zu, Baatar, Akanai, and Tokta waiting beside them, it would be highly inappropriate.

 

Especially considering their current predicament.

 

It was almost unbelievable. Here they were, the highest ranking officials of each branch in the Northern Province, summoned before the Legate like misbehaving schoolchildren to answer for Falling Rain’s latest antics. She almost collapsed with rage when she heard about his run in with the Canston Trading Group, but before she could get an audience with the Legate, he’d already met with Rain and exiled him from the city. It wasn’t the worst possible outcome and the Legate seemed enamoured by the young hero, so she convinced herself Rain couldn’t possibly get into any more trouble while lounging on the beaches of Nan Ping Bay.

 

Obviously, she was wrong to do so. Again.

 

It wasn’t that she didn’t sympathize with Rain’s plight. Someone tried to kill him and came exceptionally close to succeeding, but instead of trusting the people waiting in this antechamber to handle things, Rain tackled the problem head on in his own idiotic and bull-headed way. While she had no proof he was responsible for this, rumours of foul play behind the shark attack had spread like wildfire in the hours after the attack and no matter how hard she looked, Yuzhen found no other suspects.

 

Which likely meant neither had the Legate.

 

With ‘evidence’ of infighting among the ruling class, the citizens of Nan Ping had whipped themselves into a state of near panic, demanding something be done about the corrupt and self-serving nobility. To show solidarity with their figurehead Falling Rain, the people began exposing the crimes of their employers and tried them in the court of public opinion. In less volatile times, Yuzhen would’ve jumped for joy and happily recruited all manner of disgruntled servants or unappreciated guards to be her eyes and ears, but with the Empire on the brink of all-out war with the Defiled, a civilian insurrection was the last thing they needed. Why they allied themselves with Rain’s cause, Yuzhen could only guess, but his name was at the root of all her reports. From demanding justice for the assassination attempt to claiming Rain would personally save the Empire if only the ‘corrupt’ nobles would stop getting in his way, discord and unrest had taken over Nan Ping, all because someone tried to kill a young hero from the north.

 

None of this was of any help to Rain, as all the panic only served to isolate the Bekhai from the prospective allies Yuzhen had been courting. Even the Yo and Ru families were too busy putting out fires in their own households to investigate who carried out the attack on Rain. Meanwhile, Yuzhen’s people were busy documenting every nugget of information they stumbled across, but with so many rumours flying about, it would be all but impossible to verify the truth in short order. To make matters worse, the people were focusing on all the wrong things, airing news of personal grievances and petty scandals instead of important, earth-shaking crimes like hiding assets or private armies, things she could use against her enemies. Though she sympathized with the commoners’ plight, telling the world this noble raped a maid or that soldier murdered a farmer only reiterated what everyone already knew: the strong thrive while the weak endure.

 

Yuzhen wished it were otherwise. While commoners would be left to the mercy of the Defiled without Martial Warriors to defend them, the reverse was also true. Her father, a man who could barely channel the Energy of the Heavens on his best days, always said an army lived and died by its belly. A well-fed and well-led army would march into the Father’s Maw itself. Without farmers, the soldiers would have no opportunity to rise and become the Martial Warriors they were, because they would be too busy keeping themselves from starving to death. There were a multitude of other examples she could think of, but few warriors cared enough to listen. Most believed themselves superior to the common man and acted in accordance to those beliefs, which led to widespread tyranny and maltreatment. As much as Yuzhen would like to change things, asking Martial Warriors to stand against their peers for the sake of peasants was like asking wolves to stand against lions for the sake of rabbits.

 

After keeping them waiting for over an hour, the Legate finally deigned to meet them. Entering on the heels of the Crier’s introduction, Yuzhen glanced about the empty throne room as she made her way towards the Legate, wondering if the lack of audience was to their advantage. Once all the formalities were observed, Yuzhen stood flanked by Akanai and Nian Zu, waiting as the Legate sat and drummed his fingers across his gilded metal throne. After a long, soul-searching gaze, the Legate spoke, his voice raspy and overused. “Dispense with formalities and speak truthfully. Are you or any of your agents responsible for this recent unrest?”

 

Everyone replied in the negative aside from Akanai and Baatar, who glanced at each other before responding in sync, “Not to my knowledge.” It was an honest answer, but Yuzhen wished the Bekhai were less candid and more tactful. Had they not implied this fiasco could be Rain’s personal handiwork, the Legate might have overlooked such a possibility.

 

As expected, the Legate took a moment to consider this new information with a displeased frown. “A young hero can be forgiven many things,” he said, looking tired and overworked, “but Falling Rain tries my patience like no other. I wanted him here so we could impress upon him the gravity of our situation, but my guards returned empty handed. Care to guess why?”

 

Oh no. Did Rain refuse the Legate’s invitation? Or worse, rebel? No, that wasn’t like him, he wouldn’t commit his people to a war without talking things over first. While he could be belligerent and argumentative, he wasn’t outright rebellious, barring his little outburst at the merchant house. While his motivations were still a mystery, Gerel guaranteed Rain’s actions weren’t without reason and wouldn’t be repeated, though he refused to say why. Truth be told, Rain was a little too compliant, taking people at their word instead of using his own judgment to read the mood, like when the Shrike insisted he offer an opinion.

 

So why wasn’t he here? Glancing around, she realized she was the only one spooked by the Legate’s innocuous question. With a rueful chuckle, the Legate shook his head in pleasant disbelief. “As we speak, the boy is submerged in Nan Ping Bay and Awakening to a Blessing of the Heavens. Nineteen years old and an Expert of the Empire wasn’t impressive enough, now he Awakens in the waters he almost died in not twenty four hours past. Truly worthy of admiration. A good thing I did not act in haste and call this meeting earlier, else he might have missed this fortuitous opportunity.”

 

Dizzy with relief, Yuzhen smiled for the Legate and Sent to Gerel, “You knew and left me to suffer in ignorance! Why?” Wait, what did the Legate say? “He’s an Expert? How has he already formed a Natal Palace?”

 

“Sorry my love,” Gerel Sent, not sounding sorry at all. “Akanai’s standing orders. I’m forbidden from speaking of the boy’s accomplishments. The Chief Provost doesn’t want him getting cocky, so the less who know, the better. That goes doubly for his current circumstances, can’t have the boy’s enemies ruining this for him or worse.”

 

Displeased by the reminder of how the Bekhai were an insular people who saw her as an outsider, Yuzhen made a note to air her grievances some other time. Right now, she needed to focus on the Legate’s next move, which was to motion for his seneschal to approach and unfurl a scroll for their perusal. “Regarding the rumours surrounding yesterday’s shark attack, my people have found no evidence of wrongdoing. While we discovered undigested human remains within the sharks’ stomachs, this in and of itself is not enough to corroborate claims of a mastermind behind the attack. It’s possible the school came across a group of fishermen before attacking Falling Rain. Since no one has come forth to accuse a party for the crime and we found a lack of reported suspicious activity preceding the incident, I intend to rule the shark attack as an act of nature and not a deliberate attack on the Divine Turtle and her attendant.” Raising an eyebrow, the Legate stared each of them down in turn before continuing. “Unless those present have anything to add?”

 

Stifling a frown, Yuzhen bowed and answered for everyone, praying the others would hold their tongues. “We abide by your judgment, Imperial Legate.” His ‘proof’ was all nonsense of course, the Legate would have ruled it so regardless of the evidence. The citizens of Nan Ping were working themselves into a frenzy over the attack and declaring it as an act of nature might mitigate their outrage, not to mention put an end to the public shaming of the noble houses. Her people reported of thin-skinned nobles talking in their cups, ready to slaughter gossips and rumour mongers or burn down taverns and tea-houses in a fit of pique, an outcome the Legate could only respond to with force.

 

Nan Ping was a sealed pot ready to boil over at a moment’s notice, but the architect behind it all was wholly unaware, drifting peacefully in the bay and basking in the Mother’s tender ministrations. Despite being a nineteen-year-old Awakened Expert with limitless potential, Yuzhen wasn’t entirely sure Rain was worth the trouble.

 

Perhaps Akanai could be convinced to gift Rain to their enemies. Then they could sit back and watch as they fell apart trying to keep him out of trouble…

After seeing the others had nothing to add, the Legate nodded and waved them away. “Good. Since Rain and the Divine Guardian are both unharmed, this matter ends here. Keep him out of trouble, for my patience and goodwill is not without limit. Dismissed.”

 

As they left the throne room, Yuzhen Sent to Akanai, “We need to speak.”

 

“Then speak while we walk, child.” Brusque as always, the icy warrior motioned for Yuzhen to follow and marched for the stables.

 

Knowing Akanai was doing the same, Yuzhen Sent orders to have her horse readied while she scurried to keep up. “You’re unhappy with the Legate’s ruling,” she Sent, diving straight into the issue without preamble.

 

“Putting it lightly, yes.” Though directed elsewhere, Akanai’s palpable fury sent a cold shiver down Yuzhen’s spine. “Someone tried to kill the boy yesterday, I need no proof to see this. Yet not only does the Legate refuse us justice, he offers no aid during a time when the boy is more vulnerable than ever, only pretty words and empty flattery.”

 

Swallowing her fear, Yuzhen pressed on. “I understand your anger, but if you consider the matter from a broader perspective, you will see he has no choice in the matter. Had Rain brought his findings to the Legate in private, then perhaps justice could have been served, but he didn’t. With the citizens up in arms, if the Legate confirms that the attack was planned, then it could spark a riot which will only end with bloodshed, an outcome we can ill-afford. Ruling the shark attack an act of nature was the only way to resolve the situation peaceably, and sending guards to watch over Rain would run counter to the ruling.”

 

“Hmph. You think me a mule-headed fool? I know this much and I agree with the Legate’s decision, though his actions leave me wanting.” Glaring out the corner of her eye, Akanai sneered and continued. “Ask yourself this, child: Why do you think the boy did what he did?”

 

Damn. Yuzhen had hoped to avoid this topic. “Because,” she Sent, inwardly sighing, “Rain doesn’t trust the Legate.”

 

“And for good reason. The Imperials all tout on about stability and solidarity, of uniting to face our enemies, but they would leave us all to burn if it suited their purpose.”

 

A bleak and fatalistic outlook, but having heard about Akanai’s last run-in with an Imperial Scion and Central in particular, Yuzhen could hardly blame her. As reward for her heroic service, Akanai was publicly mocked by an Imperial representative, which gave the nobles of Central courage enough to hunt her down for sport. Still hoping to keep Akanai from making a rash decision, Yuzhen tried a different approach. “Yes, but now circumstances have changed. They need us, but we also need them, now more than ever. If Central falls to the Defiled, the North and South will follow soon after. The only way for the Empire to survive is to work together.”

 

“No point telling me, child. Tell the Legate. He does nothing to win us over, leaving little Rain to fend for himself and doing nothing to dissuade our would-be assassins. What does it matter to him if a talented Bekhai youth dies young? The Empire needs capable experts now, not ten years from now.” Leaping onto her waiting quin, Akanai’s penetrating stare locked Yuzhen in place, her voice soft yet determined as she spoke aloud. “As a young child, I left home to join the Imperial Army, dreaming of finding honour and glory through battle. I served my time fighting brigands, hunting Defiled, escorting caravans, and guarding nobles, all the while watching in envy as lesser warriors rose through the ranks above me. For fifty years I toiled and bled for the Empire as an unranked soldier, my efforts and achievements ignored because of my gender and heritage, and when my term of service came to an end, I left with no rank and no reward, with nothing to show for my sacrifice.”

 

Forestalling Yuzhen’s rebuttal with an upraised hand, Akanai shook her head and continued. “Let me finish. Upon returning home, I realized how fortunate I was to escape intact. Many of those who I’d left with or followed in my footsteps had returned home crippled and broken, and they were the lucky ones. Still yearning to serve the Empire, I created the Khishigs to protect the Saint’s Tribulations Mountains and give our children a place to hone their skills without subjecting themselves to the harsh treatment of the Empire.” Chuckling, she added, “After fifty years of service, I finally obtained a promotion, given the rank of Major sight unseen just because I had five-thousand Martial Warriors standing behind me.”

 

“Why are you telling me all of this?” Yuzhen asked, worried she already knew the answer.

 

With a sad smile, Akanai sighed and shrugged. “So you will understand why I believe the Empire will always be divided. Unity, harmony, solidarity, these are all dreams which will never come to pass, not entirely. Just look at your own Society and you will know this to be true. As we speak, every faction in the Empire is busy making allies and jockeying for position, hoping to save their strength at the expense of another during the upcoming war.” Speaking over her shoulder as she turned to leave, Akanai added, “We will face the Defiled and emerge victorious, of this I have no doubt. My only concern is making sure enough of my people survive to see it through.”

 

Mind blanking at the implications, Yuzhen stood in shock and watched Akanai ride away, unable to refute her arguments. Worse, Akanai touched on another issue without outright mentioning it, but it was a matter which kept Yuzhen awake at night. The Society would come together when faced with an outsider, but they went right back to squabbling the moment the threat was taken care of. How would the Empire fare if there were no Defiled around to threaten it?

 

“She likes you,” Gerel said as he brought her horse around.

 

“Oh yes, I can tell,” Yuzhen replied, voice dripping with sarcasm.

 

“No, I mean it.” Covertly patting her behind while pretending to help her onto her horse, Gerel smirked in the face of her glare. “She wouldn’t speak to you if she didn’t.” Switching to Sending, Gerel added, “Baatar told me she hated talking about her time in the army. It was harder than she lets on. Truth is, she loves the Empire more than most, or at least the ideals behind the Empire. ‘Every man and woman working towards a common goal, for the safety and well-being of all’. When she discovered those ideals were nothing but lies, she returned home and made a community which fit those ideals, our own little Empress of the mountains.”

 

Smiling at how proud he looked, Yuzhen asked, “You admire her. Are you trying to make me jealous?”

 

“Yes. Is it working?” Wagging his eyebrows, he set out after his ‘little Empress’ and Sent, “Come, let’s go check on Rain. It’s not often you get a chance to see someone go through an Awakening for the second time.”

 

 

“What?”

 

Chapter Meme

 

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