I’d like to give a shout out to my lastest Patron Tarqvin, as well as two other anonymous Patrons. Thank you all so much for your support!
Sorry for the late chapter, I was watching trailers for Path of Exile and reading no-spoiler reviews for Punisher. Got sidetracked a lot, but here it is. Anyways, since 3.1 for PoE is going to be released on December 8th, I’m gonna call it 3 weeks in advance and say that’s when the last regular chapter of SD will be released. I’ll do everything I can to end on a satisfying note before the long wait, but I make no promises.
Anywho, here it is, enjoy.
Submerged in the void so not as to intrude on Brother’s intimate time with Mila, Baledagh immersed himself in reviewing his latest sparring matches. Even after Brother gave the ‘all clear’ signal, Baledagh continued his secluded training inside their Natal Palace, studying his matches over and over again. Though his memory wasn’t perfect, with Brother’s help they recreated the day’s events well enough for Baledagh’s purposes, allowing him visualize his flaws and learn from his mistakes.
A Natal Palace was an incredible tool and since learning of it’s applications, Baledagh was loath to waste time outside it on common matters like eating, playing, or sleeping. Here, Baledagh could practice the Forms in their entirety and glean new Insights while only a single minute passed out in the outside world. He didn’t do this often since it heavily taxed his mental fortitude and he feared slipping back into a dreamless sleep, but even without trying he felt like ten days passed in here for every twenty-four hours out there. He loved it here, lacking all distractions and complications, the perfect place to train and improve, so when Brother ‘suggested’ they swapped places once a day, Baledagh tried everything he could to avoid it. Unfortunately, Brother’s control over their mental plane was unmatched and while he couldn’t outright evict Baledagh from their Natal Palace, he made the stay highly unpleasant in a variety of imaginative ways.
Thus, when Brother appeared with a smile and mentioned it was his time to use the Natal Palace, Baledagh obediently took control before the thousands of smiling, soulless, bearded midgets could make their appearance, singing their horrid song off-key and out of sync.
Stepping out of the void, Baledagh found himself in a crowded marketplace, with Tali and Tate in his arms and Banjo on his back. Staggering beneath the weight, he inwardly cursed Brother’s carelessness, forgetting Baledagh’s Reinforcement was not yet at a level where he could carry Banjo’s bulk with ease. Spying Mei Lin’s hare-ears and scarf, he struggled to keep up even as the crowd pressed in around him, his body breaking out in a cold sweat.
Something was wrong. Though he hated crowds, this was far worse than his normal response, as if a terrifying presence were watching him, waiting for an opening to strike. Swallowing his panic, Baledagh’s head swivelled left and right as he moved, keeping a nervous watch on their surroundings. Should he put the children down? No, they might be trampled by the crowd if a fight broke out. If only the quins were here, but Pafu and Suret didn’t like being surrounded by strangers. How was Baledagh to protect the twins and Mei Lin while burdened like this? The unseen watcher filled him with dread, his breath short and nerves frayed, but after a few minutes of shaky panic, the feeling eased away and into nothingness.
Shivering in the aftermath, Baledagh’s cheeks burned with shame. He was a soldier, a warrior, one who faced wild beasts and Defiled Champions without batting an eye, yet when surrounded by unskilled commoners and towering buildings as far as the eye could see, he grew dizzy and short of breath trying to find an imagined threat hidden amongst them. Luckily, the scowling Jimjam and ambling Baloo were intimidating enough to keep the horde away else Baledagh might’ve lashed out at some poor innocent bystander. There was nothing to fear here at the Bridge, but Baledagh still kept a wary out eye out for the twins sake. Bundled in their winter clothes and scarves, the pair of chubby children were a delight to behold, their eyes wide with excitement as Baledagh pressed forward through the mob. What made them look especially darling was their knitted hats, with two curled yarn horns on either side and yarn beards to keep their chins warm.
Baledagh would never forgive himself if they came to harm while under his protection, but his inexperience combined with the mass of possible assailants, he was having trouble keeping calm. Why was his hand hurting so much? How was he supposed to hold a sword? Worse, Brother wasn’t heeding his calls for help after sinking deep into the void, aware of nothing but awareness itself.
Get it together Baledagh, this isn’t a battlefield.
He dreaded these brief hours filling in for Brother every day. Were if up to Baledagh, he’d spend the two hours locked away in their ger practising the Forms, but Brother soon caught on and started making commitments every few days to force Baledagh out into the world. It was a nice thought, but these excursions only served to drive home the reality of his situation; he was a stranger in his own life. These sweeping changes taking place in and around them proved his point, as each time Baledagh emerged it seemed like he’d stepped into a different world. The restored ruins of the city were now teeming with life as the hubbub of the market drowned out his thoughts. The sea of gers had ebbed away leaving this tide of towering brown-stone buildings in its place. Wagon wheels and horse hooves clicked over paved stone roads, carrying soldiers and goods as merchants haggled with customers in furious shouting matches, only to come to an agreement and part smiling mere seconds later. Strangers greeted him with grateful smiles while familiar faces took on unfamiliar transformations. Even Banjo and Baloo were no longer the large-headed, pot-bellied cubs of yesteryear, now more appropriately proportioned like small adults with developed personalities and quirks.
Life was passing by as Baledagh hid in the Natal Palace, but rather than face these changes head on, he retreated to the void. No matter how Brother tried, he didn’t understand, couldn’t understand. This wasn’t Baledagh’s life, so he felt no attachment to it. He hungered for the day when he’d have a body to call his own, and with it, a life. Though it might be decades before he could introduce himself as Baledagh and not masquerade as Falling Rain, the mere possibility was enough to change Baledagh’s outlook on life, no longer succumbing to periods of dark moods and indifferent apathy. Instead, he threw all his focus into training because when that fateful day arrived, Baledagh hoped to stand alongside Brother as an ally and peer.
Unfortunately, Brother wasn’t playing fair. While Baledagh worked fastidiously inside the Natal Palace, learning to simultaneously Hone and Reinforce, Brother spent all his free time snuggling with birds, bears, quins, wildcats, and now, Mila. Yet after months of arduous effort totalling theoretical years inside the Natal Palace, Baledagh’s improvements paled in comparison with Brother’s, pushing the day when Baledagh might fight side by side with Falling Rain ever further into the future. Where Baledagh steadily improved one step at a time, Brother often skipped steps after receiving some sudden Insight or Enlightenment from watching Baledagh or training with former Bannermen.
Truly blessed by the Mother.
Though they were brothers sharing the same body, Falling Rain and Baledagh were worlds apart. While Baledagh sparred and lost to children, Falling Rain held his own against expert and elites twice his age. While Baledagh fought with wooden weapons in a level, sheltered arena, Falling Rain fought with Peace and Tranquility in frozen forests, buffered from all sides by the chilling wind and biting cold. While Baledagh aspired to become a heroic warrior, Falling Rain was a heroic warrior and worst of all, cared nothing for the title.
There was no comparing the two of them. Baledagh fell short in every way, which made him both proud and jealous.
It wasn’t sheer luck, Brother worked hard too, but their body needed time to recover. What’s more, becoming stronger wasn’t merely about Martial Skill as battles between experts hinged primarily on the use of Chi and Baledagh was years behind in this aspect. For example, if Baledagh were matched against the towering giant Ulfsaar, he’d be overpowered in seconds by the half-bear’s daunting strength and savage ferocity. In turn, using a combination of Reinforcement, Deflection, and Amplification, Brother defeated the former bandit with a single counter-strike multiple times in a row, which barely scratched the surface of Brother’s incredible new depths.
Compounding Baledagh’s hardships, Fung, Dastan, and BoShui were now making their spars less about Martial Skill and more about showing off their newfound prowess at manipulating Chi. Song and Zian still dominated their matches using superior Martial Skills, but the others were visibly improving day by day. This afternoon, Baledagh narrowly avoided an instant defeat at BoShui’s hands, his ordinary, forward punch almost doubling in speed and power after mere days of forming his Natal Palace. His skill with Reinforcement and Stability improved in similar fashion and with steady footing and the ability to shift his centre of balance on a whim, BoShui was now a threat to contend with.
Hmph. How shameful. To think, Baledagh once believed himself talented beyond all measure but he now knew how high the heavens truly were. There weren’t enough hours in a day for him to catch up to Song much less Mila or Brother, and now he was forced to take time out of his training to… to do what exactly?
The answer soon revealed itself as Mei Lin brought them to a quaint little tea-house just off the main thoroughfare. Ah, so it was a tea date, how whimsical and meaningless. Repressing a sigh, he followed her up to the empty second floor where she declined the menu and ordered ‘a pot of their finest tea and one of everything’, exactly as a child of luxury would. So extravagent and wasteful, how could the four of them possibly eat so much? Though Brother loved the girl, Baledagh couldn’t help but feel like she was ill-suited for him, a spoiled, pampered princess who knew nothing of hardship. Besides, what was he thinking sending Baledagh out on a date with her? At least she wasn’t clinging to his arm or chatting away like she usually did, acting like a proper young lady here in public, despite having likely booked out the entire second floor for the sake of privacy.
A good thing too, because despite her behaviour, Mei Lin was a beautiful young woman who Baledagh had little to no resistence against.
Avoiding awkward conversation by using Banjo and the twins as his shield, Baledagh faked his way through the date for a full twenty minutes, though Mei Lin seemed in a foul mood. “So rude,” she muttered, glancing at the entrance below, so unlike her usual, chipper self. “They’re late.”
Catching himself before he gave away his ignorance, he munched on some dried squid and made a note to have a long discussion with Brother about boundaries. Soon, the mystery guest arrived at the tea house, a slim, wiry man in his thirties. It was always hard to tell with Martial Warriors and this one was undoubtedly a warrior. Despite his lack of weapon or armour, everything from his gait to his neat collar screamed of military training. After making his way upstairs, the man gave a stiff bow towards Baledagh without giving the others a single glance. “A thousand apologies for my late arrival,” he said, failing to appear the least bit contrite. “Your shipment has arrived. If it pleases you, follow me to inspect your merchandise.”
Frowning, Mei Lin asked, “Who are you? Is our business not good enough for Yazhu to come greet us?”
Typical brat, she’s probably upset this man didn’t fawn her enough or refer to himself as ‘this lowly one’. Waving his hand, Baledagh said, “Leave it be, it’s a small matter.” Sensing an opportunity, he added, “Why don’t you stay here with the twins and finish the food while I handle this. Won’t be long.” Most of the remaining food was already being fed to the pets, so without waiting for an answer, Baledagh threw on his coat and hurried down the stairs with the soldier turned merchant on his heels.
Their destination was merely minutes away at an unmarked store. Inside, the walls were lined with bamboo cages filled with slaves standing shoulder to shoulder. Varying in age and colour, most shared the same wretched look of utter defeat, staring at the floor and wondering if their new master would be cruel or kind, heartless or compassionate. Finally understanding why Brother sent him here, Baledagh set to searching for Tainted, eager to replenish his stores of Heavenly Energy. Thinking back on how much he’d wasted on mere healing or Insights made his heart ache. Although what they’d gathered to date was not even a fraction of the estimated amount needed to create a new body, he still felt like a fool for wasting so much, especially in light of how difficult it was to find Tainted. It might be easier to search for Defiled, but sadly, he couldn’t devour Spectres who were attached to true Defiled. Those Spectres were anchored to their hosts, disappearing after death to go where souls went, whether it be the Father’s Maw, Mother’s arms, or directly onto the next life.
Unable to find a single Tainted, Baledagh scowled and asked, “Is this all of them?”
The soldier-turned-merchant answered, “Yes, but I must warn you, there might be people from Sanshu among them, ones who escaped the Purge.”
The slaves set to wailing about their innocence, but Baledagh ignored their cries. Something in the stilted way the man spoke made Baledagh pause. Turning to face him, Baledagh noted the wiry merchant’s demeanour, stony-faced and straight-backed. Why would a merchant warn off a potential buyer like this? Only a warmhearted fool like Brother would disregard the warning, resulting in a lost sale or worse if the client went to the guards. Either this merchant was an idiot or seeking death.
Testing the waters, Baledagh feigned horror and recoiled, even though several seconds had already passed. “Aiding criminals to avoid the Purge is a capitol offence. We must turn them over to the guards!” Seeing the man frown at his unexpected reaction, Baledagh felt he’d made the right decision. Something was off, a sane man would be pleading for his life, but this one only seemed mildly annoyed.
And was staring at something behind Baledagh.
Ducking down, Baledagh felt something sail overhead as he drove his Reinforced elbow into the unseen assailant’s ribs. Rewarded with a satisfying gasp, he drew Peace with his left hand and bashed the assailant’s face with the hilt. As the assailant fell to the ground, Baledagh pointed Peace at the wiry merchant. “I don’t know what game you’re playing,” he growled, “but you should thank the Mother I don’t care enough to find out. Move and you die. I have plenty of witnesses to corroborate-”
A meaty arm clamped around his waist and threw him off-balance, the downed assailant not as unconscious as he’d thought. Snarling in anger, Baledagh abandoned all mercy and stabbed the man clean through the face, spraying blood all around as he withdrew his sword. The dead man’s efforts were not in vain as they bought enough time for the wiry soldier to arm himself with a hidden rapier. Thrusting out, the wiry soldier put the full weight of his body behind the blade, showing no thought of retreat or escape and boldly putting his all into this one attack. At the last possible moment, he unleashed his Aura, a wave of daunting panic crashing into Baledagh even as the cold, naked blade pierced towards his head.
Clever. Even if Baledagh had an Aura to counter him, the assassin hoped the momentary delay would be enough to take his life.
Two months ago, it might well have.
Drawing on his rage, Baledagh howled as his Aura erupted outwards, a wave of pure, unadulterated blood lust pushing back against his foe. Leaping back, he smashed the rapier aside before reversing his strike, victory already his. The soldier had no method to defend and he knew it, completely vulnerable after his all-or-nothing attack. There was no shock or hatred in the wiry soldier’s eyes, no fear or regret, only bitter shame written across his face as Peace’s Honed edge clove clean through his neck.
Heart pumping and chest heaving, Baledagh struggled to control his rage, staring at the surrounding slaves and daring them to make a move. That’s where the unseen assailant had come from, one of the bamboo cages. Caught by his Aura, the slaves were helpless before him, sheep ready for the slaughter, and it’s what they deserved. None of them had warned him about the ambush, standing silent while these men tried to murder him.
Forcefully exhaling, Baledagh shook his head and grinned wryly. He couldn’t blame this on the Spectres, these thoughts were his own. Rehabilitation was a slow process, but dark thoughts didn’t make him a monster. So long as he didn’t act on them, then thoughts were all they were. Striding out into the busy streets, he raised his voice and shouted, “Could someone call the guards? There’s been an incident.”
Traffic paused as every eye turned towards him, their faces blanching in terror. One person turned to run and in the space of a few heartbeats, the street was empty and devoid of life. Glancing down at his blood covered body, Baledagh chuckled beneath his breath.
His goal accomplished, Baledagh stepped back into the store and waited for the guards to arrive. While he didn’t know why these soldiers tried to kill him, he wasn’t too concerned about it.
Great men will always have enemies, and Brother was undoubtedly a great man.
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