Taking great pains to conceal his presence, Goujian found work with a group of sheep herders, travelling with them for weeks as they made their way along the coast to Nan Ping. Covered from head to toe in mud-spattered rags, he stumbled down to the beach and washed his feet in the cool, refreshing waters of the Azure Sea. He could easily Heal away the raw sores and broken blisters or better yet, prevent them from ever developing in the first place, but how many times had he seen the Enemy give themselves away in the same manner? Huntsmen bringing in too much game, miners who never coughed, farmers carrying too heavy loads, or fishermen with pale skin, free of tan-lines or scars, he only needed one loose thread to untangle an entire web of lies and deception. As he often told his disciples, ‘Overconfidence breeds failure’ and as always, ‘failure is not an option’. The stakes were always too high and now they were higher than ever. The fate of the Empire, if not humanity itself, rested in his hands, so what were a few minor discomforts?
After wrapping his feet in somewhat-clean rags, he turned his gaze eastward towards the city walls, still a half-day’s travel in the distance. Using his shepherd’s crook to keep his wards from swimming out too far out and drowning, he busied himself caring for his flock of dimwitted animals. It was not unlike his normal duties, protecting the people of the Empire from themselves, but as much as he enjoyed the parallels, he cursed himself for a fool. Had he joined a caravan instead, he would have arrived in Nan Ping a week ago with plenty of time to prepare, but sheep were not the smartest or speediest of creatures. Since these beasts were destined for the soup pot, the shepherds were loath to push them too hard, worried they’d be too tough and scrawny for consumption.
An oversight, but all was not lost. This charade was his only hope to escape Imperial attention, a necessity for him to carry out his sacred duty unhindered.
While pulling back yet another of his seemingly suicidal charges, Goujian caught a flash of movement on the water. Pretending to adjust his straw hat, he focused his Chi to Watch the disturbance, knowing exactly what he would find. A Defiled agent cloaked in the skin of Falling Rain swam about beside a giant turtle and a horde of water weasels, while three guardians sat in a nearby skiff. His informants kept him appraised of the situation inside the city and it seemed like every tongue was wagging about the ‘Divine’ beast and her Attendant. How the duplicitous Defiled youth convinced the Legate to issue such a foolhardy Decree was a mystery which had Goujian tearing at his hair in frustration.
The Enemy had always been a wily, deceitful foe, but never like this. Their guile was shallow and instinctive, hiding in plain sight until their numbers grew large enough to bolster their courage, but Falling Rain was something else. This was a scheming, calculating foe and Goujian was almost helpless to face him. Who could have expected the boy to enslave the Guardian Turtle of Ping Yao, a beast idolized by the locals and renowned throughout the Empire? Then there was the matter of his protector, the Smiling Slaughterer Guan Suo, an Ancestral Beast famed for his explosive temper and erratic behaviour. In retrospect, it should have been obvious from his actions that Guan Suo was Defiled and the implications were horrifying to consider. Even now, Goujian’s disciples were hard at work trying to sway factions who had enslaved or allied Ancestral Beasts to his side, but his Disciples were not chosen for their skill in diplomacy.
Only BoLao had excelled in that field, and she’d been taken from him by the Enemy.
Bristling with rage, Goujian watched Falling Rain float aimlessly in the water and was reminded of the unpleasant memory of being forced to flee from the Northern Wall. While he couldn’t be certain it had been Guan Suo who threatened him that day, he prayed it was so because otherwise, he’d be facing two or more Defiled Ancestral Beasts. How many of them were hidden within the Saint’s Tribulation Mountains? Those corrupted powerhouses no doubt played a part in the destruction of Shen Mu, but without proof, the Imperial Dharma Protectors were powerless to act.
Since returning to Central, Goujian had thrown himself into unravelling the mystery of the North. Their plan was so cunning and insidious, abandoning the northern assault so their agents could infiltrate Central’s defences and spread the Father’s vile contamination to those still untouched. Now that he knew a display of Purity could be falsified, he couldn’t trust anyone who came in contact with Falling Rain, not even the Living Legend Nian Zu or the Legate Shen Zhenwu. While unfamiliar with this particular Imperial Scion, Goujian knew any name with the character ‘Zhen’ was not a true Imperial name, but something akin to a title. For such a young man to be designated a ‘true warrior’ meant his skills in warfare would not be lacking, making him an enticing target for the Enemy. If his fall went unnoticed then the Enemy gained a powerful agent who could infiltrate the Imperial Clan itself.
Worst of all, he couldn’t fault the Legate for behaving as he did. Politically, backing Nian Zu and Akanai over the other Northern delegates was the correct decision. Nian Zu fought to defend the Empire while Akanai fought for reasons unknown, but both had proven an utter lack of interest in fame, fortune, or expansion. If the Defiled were thrown back and either warrior still alive, they would both easily relinquish what power they held in Central and return home to the North, unlike the opportunistic vipers of the Society who would use their newfound influence to wage war against an exhausted Central.
Did the Enemy foresee this and move to compromise these two stalwart warriors? If so, then the Enemy was far more formidable than anticipated. Knowing this, he turned his attentions to the Southern Province but found no overt signs of corruption. Either the Enemy had focused their subversive actions to the North and West, or the Southern corruption was so well hidden not even he could untangle the truth.
Worried he was fighting a losing war, Goujian steeled his nerves, gathered his flock, and herded them towards Nan Ping, all while keeping a Watch on Falling Rain. Their skiff travelled with no apparent direction, meandering about the dangerous waters of the bay. Perhaps he hoped to find a suitable creature of the depths to tame for his nefarious purposes. How was it even possible? Wildcats, bears, rabbits, and even birds, there was no rhyme or reason to Falling Rain’s mysterious ability. While the giant turtle was the only formidable beast in his menagerie, if he were to tame a kraken or some other archaic sea-dwelling monstrosity and use it to slaughter travelling soldiers or block crucial shipping supply lines, this ‘final’ war against the Defiled might end before it truly began. With millions of soldiers gathered in Nan Ping, they’d quickly strip the area bare of food and turn to rebellion long before they starved to death.
Few things drove good men to desperation like hunger, despair, and misery, all favoured tools of the Father’s agents.
For the second day in a row, Falling Rain spent hours in the water, submerging himself for a handful of minutes at a time. It was unnerving to see the Enemy so close and so relaxed, with Goujian’s heart skipping a beat every time one of the nearby guardians glanced in his direction. Aside from Guan Suo, there was the half-hare Healer Taduk and an unknown veiled woman, both of whom he dared not underestimate. Even if Taduk had never fought a day in his life, all Healers were dangerous foes, adept at manipulating Chi which could harm as easily as it could heal. While it wasn’t the easiest or most efficient way to kill a man, dead was dead, no matter the means.
Then there was the veiled woman, whose actions showed she was subservient to the other two but not to the point of submission or reverence, more a courtesy than anything else. Considering her companions were a Medical Saint and an Ancestral Beast, it meant she was someone of importance even in such prominent company. A peak expert perhaps, though why she spent most of her time coddling a bicorn rabbit was a mystery.
Thus far, his experience with the Northerners could be summed up as a puzzle wrapped in a riddle and hidden inside an enigma. It was aggravating to see them at work and wonder if they were bumbling idiots or patient geniuses for going about things in the most roundabout way possible. Either the Defiled contagion had not spread as far as Goujian believed or these were the most inefficient and duplicitous Defiled he’d ever come across in all his years.
For example, instead of using the celebrated hero Nian Zu to their advantage, they kept him idling inside his borrowed estate while spreading rumours of his subservience to Falling Rain and the Divine Turtle. Though it couldn’t be called hiding, all the Living Legend did was train himself and his guards, giving advice and working alongside whoever caught his eye whether it be a lowly foot-soldier or an elite Brigadier. In his stead, they sent their publicly-ridiculed puppet-Marshal Yuzhen out as the sole representative of the North to meet and greet Central’s nobles and officers, while other high-ranking members like Lieutenant Generals Akanai and Situ Jia Yang kept to the shadows. The latter hadn’t even made his presence known to the Legate, a most baffling turn of events.
Completely at odds with the actions of the older generation, the younger generation aggressively displayed their strength in one dazzling bout after another. After impressing the Legate with his eight-against-one duel, Falling Rain accepted and won another twenty duels as a means to display the extreme wealth he’d bestowed upon a mere slave. His close friend Han BoShui defeated the famed Tam Taewoong in an informal match before challenging six other known Experts under the age of thirty, winning four and losing two in a series of exceedingly close duels. While not exactly an overwhelming performance, Han BoShui proved his reputation as a paper tiger to be utterly false, surprising everyone including his own father and Patriarch, Han BoDing, who arrived on the heels of the Situ Clan.
Making a name for himself in a different manner, Tong Da Fung became the enemy of all men as he endeared himself to the eligible young maidens of Central with his impressive collection of original poems and songs. While he sent none himself, he received countless challenges from the jealous young men and overprotective brothers of Central, but declared he would only fight one opponent a day who would be chosen at random since he ‘had no interest in painted, effeminate men’. Playboy though he might be, Fung’s martial skills were formidable compared to the average youth, handily winning three matches against unremarkable opponents.
Looking to outdo Rain’s example, Situ Jia Zian annexed a duelling stage not even an hour after arriving in the city and publicly challenged all of Central to take him on. Eighteen duels later, his winning streak finally came to an end when the famed, thirty-one year old Major Chon Dae Il took the stage, resulting in a close match which demonstrated Situ Jia Zian’s martial prowess to its full extent and brought his reputation soaring to new heights.
There were other northern youths who were far less impressive and still more to watch out for, but in the face of such overwhelming dominance, Central’s pride suffered grave injury. Never one to care for public honour, Goujian was more concerned with the blatant extremes in the Northerners approach. Was this aggressive behaviour an inescapable byproduct of their youthful and Defiled nature? Were the older Defiled biding their time or were they too afraid to battle in public for fear of exposing their vile tendencies? Was the north trying to show the strength of their youths before revealing their allegiance to the Father, thinking to entice the weak of will over to the darkness? Or was this all the result of untainted youths hungry for recognition? Though Falling Rain was undoubtedly Defiled, the same could not be said of anyone else, not definitively.
In these turbulent times, the Empire needed every soldier and hero they could spare if they hoped to survive, and even Goujian was leery to kill them all and let the Mother sort things out.
Unable to make heads or tails of it all, Goujian focused on what he could do. Taking note of the Legate’s public history lesson, he had his adherents seek out the clans and factions which might hold a grudge against Akanai and the Bekhai. Not an easy task considering the events happened fifty years ago and the news had been so ruthlessly suppressed this was the first he’d ever heard of it. Still, with their shame revealed by an Imperial Scion, the affected houses couldn’t silence a million wagging tongues and his people were well-versed in separating truth from fiction. By the time his flock arrived outside the gates of Nan Ping, his disciples had already gathered enough interested parties for a clandestine meeting.
Still tending to his flock, he Sent to his eldest disciple, “Report.”
“Disciple Wen Zhong greets Master.” Goujian preferred this form address over the more common ‘Mentor’, because in his eyes, a disciple’s place was to learn and obey. “This one has gathered nine representatives from various clans and houses, all ready to hear Master’s words. This one apologizes for his inadequate results, though he is confident he can find more allies should Master allow this one to use Master’s distinguished name.”
“No, anonymity is essential to this undertaking.” With the Legate publicly backing the Bekhai and Falling Rain, he needed to avoid Imperial attention. Word of the Confessor seeking allies would spread like wildfire considering his infamy. Vital though his Holy Duties might be, many of the faithful would happily see him dead if not actively seek to kill him outright. In his decades of service, he’d Purged countless souls with no distinction for aristocrat or peasant, for in the eyes of the Mother, they were all Her children. Unable to accept the failings of their corrupted loved ones, many an anguished noble blamed him for the deaths of their kin, not realizing he was merely Her tool. So what if he couldn’t easily expose Falling Rain for what he was? The Mother guided Goujian’s hand in all things and he was certain she would guide him through this latest trial.
If not, then it would only be because humanity had fallen from Her grace and their collective fate well deserved. Such was life.
After a brief exchange with Wen Zhong, Goujian Sent, “Begin the meeting, but relay my words through an expendable agent, a proxy. Keep me up to date with the proceedings.” Complicated and convoluted, but their safety lay in secrecy. The Legate would see this as an affront, a challenge of Imperial authority, but Goujian was above such worldly concerns. His was a Divine Calling which trumped all matters such as earthly fealty or social niceties. This was a war for the very existence of humanity, and he would do everything in his power to win. Even if history ultimately branded him as a rebel and torturer, he knew the measure of his character and that his ultimate fate lay in the arms of the Mother.
“Distinguished guests,” Goujian’s proxy began, as narrated by Wen Zhong’s Sendings. “We gather here today to discuss how to deal with the Bekhai interlopers.”
Since the room was full of expendable agents, everyone felt free to speak their mind.
“What can we do?”
“We must strike back, temper their arrogance. The savages are making a mockery of us all once again.”
“But the Legate’s Decree… our hands are tied.”
“Assassination and outright warfare is forbidden,” Goujian’s proxy said, speaking over the dissenting voices, “but the Central Province has deep roots to draw upon. I refuse to believe these Northern interlopers strong beyond compare. They might have talented youngsters, but what use will they be now that war draws near?”
“…So we ignore the youths and challenge their contemporaries?”
“We cannot go overboard lest we draw out monsters like Nian Zu and Akanai.”
“Hmph, so what if they come out? Central has its own heroes, like Ryo Dae Jung, Mitsue Juichi, Shuai Jiao, and Du Min Gyu.”
“I wouldn’t count on Du Min Gyu. Haven’t you heard? His disciple is from Akanai’s clan or tribe or whatever those barbarians count themselves as. A half-breed to boot, it pains me to see a great hero fall so low.”
“The point is moot. Du Min Gyu aside, Central’s heroes have yet to arrive in Nan Ping, young or old.”
“Then we stick to the lower end of the current generation, twenty-five to fifty years of age. Who are our targets? Can’t say I’ve heard of any northerner in that age group.”
Perfectly set up by his allies, Goujian’s proxy took control of the situation once more. “The Bekhai have a number of warriors who fit the criteria. Gerel, thirty-two and a recently promoted Lieutenant Colonel, and Vichear, forty-five and a former Major until discharged for injury over two years ago. Both owe their newfound fame to the battle of Sanshu. Then there’s Major Alsantset, thirty-one, but take care not to overdo it as she’s also Baatar’s daughter and Akanai’s grand-daughter.”
“Weren’t there another two at Sanshu? I remember hearing about a married couple who faced off against the traitor Mao. How old were they?”
“Twenty-eight. The man, Tenjin, is Blessed by fire, but they’ve yet to arrive.”
“Could be tricky. What about the Society? We should also bring them down a notch or two.”
With targets laid out before them, the gathered parties discussed how to best defeat them and Goujian left them to it. Whether they were successful or not mattered little, but the turmoil would serve as a distraction for the Legate and his scouts while Goujian handled more delicate matters. Turning to gaze out over the Azure Sea, he allowed himself a small smile.
It would be such a shame if the Divine Turtle came to harm while swimming in dangerous waters. As the man responsible for her safety, Falling Rain would certainly be punished for it, and punished dearly. Could a Defiled youth easily accept the lash without betraying his true nature? It might not even matter; Falling Rain could very well die in the scuffle.
It might be overreaching to ask for so much, but like he always told his disciples, ‘plan for the worst and hope for the best’.
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