Savage Divinity – Chapter 250


Hooray! more art from JessicaMark! Though to be fair, I’m an idiot and didn’t check my email for days, so I’ve been sitting on one of these for awhile now. I don’t know how to do spoilers here, so I won’t use them.

First up is Gerel, Baledagh, and BoShui after their nice refreshing swim.

Next, we have some Modern SD, with hipster Rain and Dastan. This was inspired by this video from the try guys on YouTube, which to the best of my knowledge is a fashion channel. Even without having watched the whole video, the art is pretty awesome and funny.

Thanks so much for your great work JessicaMark, loving every bit of it! Hope the rest of you do too! Happy weekend all, and enjoy.


Despite the late hour, Alsantset woke her husband and shared the good news, Tursinai’s Sending still fresh in her mind. Throwing on a silk robe, she crawled out the tent and into the neighbouring one to wake her babies, knowing they wouldn’t want to miss Rain’s victorious return. Seeing their peaceful, sleeping faces filled her with a mixture of joy and sadness. How quickly time flew by. Why, it seemed only yesterday when she’d brought her two little sweetlings home from the orphanage, crying as she watched Rain melt with joy as he held them in his arms. Now, her babies were almost eight years old while the foundling orphan was a man grown, having made a name for himself as the youngest Second Grade Warrant Officer in history.

 

Smiling so hard her cheeks ached, she stroked Tate’s sleek, unkempt, white hair. Her little man hated haircuts and only Rain could convince him to sit still long enough, meaning his last haircut had been over six months ago. All the same, his handsome looks would capture many a heart in the years to come, so long as he got over his dislike of grooming. In contrast, Tali’s long, silky locks lent her air of charm and elegance, showing hints of the beauty she would grow to become, a sweet, demure young lady with an iron will. “Wake up, my sweetlings,” Alsantset whispered, stifling the urge to snuggle in beside them. “Your uncle Rain will be home soon, so let’s go out and greet him.”

 

Tiny fists rubbed squinting eyes while chubby cheeks puffed in opposition to waking before her words sank in, and then her two babies came awake in an instant. Tali was first to find her voice, letting out a shrill shriek of excitement as her face lit up in joy. Tate’s voice joined her a heartbeat later, leaping from his bedroll as he rushed towards the tentflap. Catching him in her grasp, Alsantset laughed and hugged him tight. “Shush children, others are sleeping. Come, let Mama dress you up all nice and pretty, we can’t have you greeting a hero of the Empire in your nightclothes.”

 

Truth be told, Alsantset wanted nothing more than to rush out to see her little brother and make sure he was okay, but this wasn’t the village. Almost every faction in the North was represented here at the Bridge, so appearances must be kept. This was the longest she’d ever been separated from Rain since they became a family and if the stories were to be believed, he’d endured much to achieve his newfound fame. They’d been trickling in for weeks now, and to hear her little brother featured prominently in the most popular stories filled her with pride. He’d brought great honour to the People and his family, Rain and his former cripples rising to glory. Arriving in the city with thousands of bandit prisoners and returning tens of thousands of gold in seized goods at once, Rain set a shining example of virtue and distinction. Discontent with his actions, the traitorous Coalition secretly marked this young hero for death and sent hundreds of assassins to take his life. While out for a stroll with his beloved betrothed, the young hero fought off the horde of assassins, decorating the city walls with their blood and single-handedly slaughtering them to the last man.

 

Were the story to end here, it would already have been enough to take pride in, but her little brother seemed guided by providence. Under Major Yuzhen’s instructions to defend a cluster of fishing villages, Rain defeated the Red Devil of Sanshu’s forces on the field of battle. While chasing the cowardly bandits away, he was swept up in the currents of Western Treasures Lake, a death sentence for any other man, but not for the Undying Falling Rain. After spending days floating across the lake, he defied all odds and drifted ashore on the western bank, battered and broken, but alive.

 

Recovering under the care of Ai Qing, a poor, orphaned village girl, Rain discovered and exposed the Defiled insurgent Gen, whose name would soon resound through the North as the most hated man alive. Still recovering from his injuries, Gen eluded Rain’s grasp and ran for reinforcements, bringing his traitorous ilk back for revenge against the people who raised him. Rain escaped with his saviour to warn the authorities of the Defiled threat, but not before defeating the infamous ‘virtuous’ bandit Laughing Dragon in single combat. Evading capture at the hands of the Demon-led Defiled Firebrands, Rain successfully warned the Empire of this malignant threat, though at the steep cost of the heroine’s life.

 

How touching, though Alsantset worried Rain was courting far too many wives. How many did he hope to have? A man must know his limits.

 

The rest of the story was almost too outrageous to believe, even for her. At the tender age of eighteen, Falling Rain demonstrated his Purity and Condensed his Aura, becoming the indisputable number one talent of the North. Then, while riding to Sanshu’s aid, he took the head of notorious Butcher Bay captain, Hideous Helvend a murderous scoundrel who’d plagued Sanshu for years. Full of heroic spirit and valiant courage, he entered the city ahead of Major Yuzhen’s reinforcements and showed the world his strength wasn’t just a fluke, adding the legendary Black Heart Nazier’s head to his collection of achievements. He then played a key role in the Battle for Sanshu, volunteering to hold the flank with a mere one thousand soldiers. Against overwhelming odds, Rain and his fearless soldiers slaughtered the enemy forces at almost no cost, rejoining the army as they marched to close in around the traitorous Yo Ling’s forces and dealing the killing blow to a Demon. A Demon! There were even rumours he had a hand in Yo Ling’s death, distracting the legendary bandit so Bastard Liu could strike the killing blow.

 

Trying to separate truth from fiction had Alsantset twisting and turning in her sleep these past weeks, so much so her beloved husband unfurled a second bedroll for himself. Now, she could finally hear the truth from Rain’s own mouth. With a child under each arm, she strode out into the night where her husband sat waiting atop Pafu, Suret ready and harnessed beside them. Before riding off, she enticed the sleepy quin pups to follow, knowing her little brother loved the young animals almost as much as he loved her own children, a sweet, loving soul emerging from the trials and tribulations of his difficult past.

 

Due to her superior eyesight and because she was riding in from the dark, Alsantset saw Rain long before he could see her, and her heart ached at the sight. Tired bags hung beneath his amber eyes, dull and sombre as he stood before a grieving woman, sobbing as she clutched her two children close. His lean, angular frame lent an air of youth and innocence to him as his shoulders bore the weight of the world, Alsantset’s cheer quickly souring as noticed most of the Sentinels who left with Rain had not returned, replaced by a sea of unfamiliar faces.

 

Such was the price for glory, paid for in blood and tears. Rest easy in the arms of the Mother, heroes of the Empire.

 

Stopping just out of sight, Alsantset hugged her babies a little tighter and glanced at her husband, his comforting smile showing he knew her thoughts. “Worry not, my beloved,” he Sent, reaching out to squeeze her arm. “Rain has returned and grown stronger in our absence. He will not shatter beneath these burdens, though I intend to help him shoulder them nonetheless.” Her handsome husband glowed with exuberance, taking pride in their little brother’s accomplishments. Dismounting from Pafu, he took Tali from her arms and kissed her cheek. “Come,” he said, helping Alsantset down. “Let us go see Rain.”

 

The moment he saw them, Rain lit up with joy. After offering his condolences, Rain left Rustram to console the widow and her family, running into Alsantset’s outstretched arms. Choking back a sob, a single tear fell from her cheek as she held him tight, Tate, Tali, and her husband joining in the embrace. After a long silence filled only with the sounds of her children crying, she uttered, “Welcome home, little brother.”

 

“It’s good to be home,” he replied, voice thick with emotion. Drawing back, he took the twins into his arms and held them close, grinning from ear to ear. “Hello my babies. Did you miss your Uncle Rainy?”

 

Tali nodded as she snuggled into his chest, but Tate grimaced and drew back. “I’m not a baby anymore Rainy,” he insisted, lips set in a pout. “I’m almost eight years old!”

 

Eyes wide in mock bewilderment, Rain replied, “Eight years old? Wow, you’re right, I’m so sorry.” Frowning, he continued, “Oh no… if you’re not a baby anymore, then what am I gonna do with all the toys I brought back?”

 

While Rain teased the twins, Alsantset wrapped her arms around her husband’s waist and watched as Rain’s ‘fur babies’ reunited with their pack. A ridiculous term of endearment for wildcats, but the animals had grown more well-behaved than expected. Butting heads with the quin pups, Aurie and Jimjam reared up to embrace Suret and Pafu, treating the two adult quins like family. Joining the fray were two fuzzy black bear cubs, ambling about the periphery in hesitation, but ever the mothering soul, Suret soon took them into her arms for a vigorous snuggle. Tired and overjoyed, the little cubs smacked their lips and closed their eyes in satisfaction.

 

Seeing Rain smile as he played with the twins and animals, Alsantset knew her worries were all for naught. Her husband was right, Rain was stronger than before, but he was still her earnest, affectionate little brother, finally returned to them after his long, arduous journey.

 

For now, that’s all that really mattered.

 

Everything else could wait.

 

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

 

Abandoning her husband for being too slow, Akanai rushed out her quarters in a hurry. The fool boy never did anything properly, travelling past midnight in his hurry to return home. Why couldn’t he be normal and wait until morning, when she’d have time to prepare? Abandoning formality and decorum, she pushed through the throng of dignitaries and representatives hurrying to meet these new, returning heroes, snarling at every fool and halfwit who thought to block her way. Though she risked offending the various powers of the North, she had little need for diplomacy anymore. The People’s fame and exploits were second to none, and as the Mentor and Grand-Mentor of two rising dragons of the Empire, if she couldn’t use their reputations to her advantage, then why bother training them in the first place?

 

“Mama!” Soaring through the air, Mila leapt into Akanai’s arms. Spinning her weighty daughter around in a circle, Akanai’s heart jumped with joy at their reunion.

 

“Welcome home, oh daughter of mine. It gladdens my heart to see you safe.” Putting Mila down, she turned to the ever-present Song, standing meekly to the side. This would not do and Akanai’s patience was at an end. Stroking the cat-girl’s hair, she said, “The same to you. I heard you faced a Demon to save Mila’s life. I will not thank you for it, because that’s what family does, love and protect each other. I would like to embrace you as a daughter of mine, so long as you are agreeable to it. Are you?”

 

Surprise flit across Song’s face, quickly replaced by incredulity and longing before she hung her head in shame and refused to answer. Sighing, Akanai knelt down and looked her new daughter in the eyes. “Silly girl,” she murmured, stroking Song’s trembling cheek. “With all your strength, discipline, and courage, you still believe yourself unworthy of love? No more. From this day forth, you are Li Song, daughter of Akanai and Husolt, sister of Sumila, Sentinel of the People. Understood?”

 

Long seconds passed as Song cried in silence, finally nodding a single time and turning away, terrified this was merely a cruel joke. Pulling both her daughters into her embrace, Akanai kissed their temples and sighed in happiness. “I thank the Mother for this gift, for today, not only has my daughter returned, she has brought me a second. My family has grown by one, the greatest joy a mother can hope for.” Drawing back, she studied her two daughters, noting the changes in them both. Song’s development was more obvious, her stony demeanour cracked and broken as she wept tears of joy. Though Akanai had long since welcomed Song into her home, a home was not a home without a family.

 

Beaming beautifully, Mila’s red-panda ears fluttered with joy as she rocked back and forth on her heels. Her charms growing with age, Mila’s clothes and hair were neat and tidy despite the long journey, her sun-tanned, freckled skin vibrant and animated, the look of a woman in love and in the prime of life. The observation brought to mind Tusinai’s reports and Akanai couldn’t help but frown and whisper, “Daughter, although you are a woman betrothed, spending the night in his tent is still improper. I will not scold you for it, but do not let it happen again.” That lusty brat, she had a mind to tan his hide for this, but it couldn’t be helped. Living in constant peril and fighting battle after battle, sometimes only the comforts of the flesh could calm the nerves. Stroking Song’s cheek, Akanai smiled and joked, “I’ve lost one daughter to that lecherous boy. Don’t you be led astray by him either.”

 

Shrinking back, Song glanced at Mila before answering, “But this one also spent the night in Rain’s tent. Several nights, in fact.”

 

Sensing Akanai’s escalating fury, Mila interjected, “Nothing happened! We slept together, that’s all. I mean, like sleep sleep.” Glancing at the listening crowd of strangers, her face went red with embarrassment. “REALLY,” she Sent, her boisterous voice putting Akanai on her heels. HE WAS HAVING NIGHTMARES AND I WANTED TO COMFORT HIM, BUT ALL WE DID WAS SLEEP. THAT’S IT. YOU CAN ASK SONG, SHE’LL TELL YOU THE TRUTH.

 

Letting out a long breath, Akanai turned her attention to the affectionate wildcat, giving the creature a vigorous head-scratching. At least this one was still sweet and innocent. “Okay,” Akanai said through gritted teeth. “I believe and trust you.” It’s the boy she worried about, but the rice was cooked. Or it wasn’t, either way. At least he didn’t waste her efforts training him, returning with more fame and achievements than she could’ve dreamed of. Hugging both daughters once more, Akanai stood and dusted off her knees. “Come, let’s go see the boy. Congratulations are in order.”

 

And perhaps a small test to follow. She was only checking on his progress, this had nothing to do with her fury over the loss of Mila’s innocence. How many wives did this rascal intend to take? Mila, Mei Lin, Adujan, and now Song too? This was too much.

 

While the three of them walked hand in hand, Mila’s enthusiastic story-telling melted away Akanai’s anger, her daughter every bit as charming and lovable as before. Perhaps Mila was telling the truth and Akanai was projecting her own past onto her daughter. Just because Akanai laid with her husband out of wedlock after their first real battle, didn’t mean Mila would do the same. She was an obedient child, raised better than Akanai had been. There was nothing to worry about.

 

Probably.

 

Finding the boy amidst the crowd was simple enough, they only needed to follow the flies. Officials and dignitaries of every faction swarmed around him, kept back by a circle of unfamiliar, disciplined warriors. These would be Dastan Zhandos’s retinue, and her first impression was favourable, picking the former Warrant Officer out with Mila’s help. Sporting a wispy moustache he thought made him look dignified but only accentuated his youth, the rebel-turned-slave deftly managed the crowd of uppity nobles, giving Rain time to spend with his family. Spotting Mila, Dastan immediately yelled at the nobles to make way, clearing a path for Akanai and her daughters to pass through.

 

How intriguing. This one showed promise, accepting his new lot in life with grace and aplomb. Though labelled a rebel and traitor, he was now a Sentinel under her command and she liked what she saw thus far. Turning her attention to the boy, Akanai scowled as he remained crouched on the ground and ignorant of her presence until Alsantset tugged at his sleeve. Glancing up, he grinned and remained crouched while everyone else stood in her presence, waving like a gleeful child. “Hello!” he said before hugging the wildcat. “And hello to you too Sarankho.”

 

With his body yet to fully recover, Akanai couldn’t stay angry at the boy and took a seat beside him. At least he’d greeted her before greeting the wildcat. “Welcome back, my Grand-Disciple.” She hated saying those words out loud because it made her feel older than her years, but her nonchalance was for the benefit of those watching, making it seem like the boy’s disrespect meant nothing. Family didn’t put on airs, and the boy was family, both her grand-disciple and eventual son-in-law. Speaking of which, why wasn’t that hare-brained healer and his daughter here?

 

No matter. Giving the boy a rare smile, she patted his neck, resisting the urge to hit a little harder than necessary to vent her frustration. “This time, you’ve performed… adequately.”

 

Laughing in delight, the boy leaned in for a hug. “Thank you, Grand-Mentor. Your praise means the world to me.” There was no sarcasm or derision in his tone, only heartfelt sincerity, and her shoulders eased to hear it. She’d worried the boy would let fame get to his head, but he seemed the same as always, a kind-hearted child who meant well. That he infuriated her so often was merely accidental, though they would need to teach him manners soon now that he was a hero.

 

Glancing at the gathered dignitaries, Akanai raised her voice and said, “Thank you all for coming to greet my Grand-Disciple, but his journey was long and the hour late.” Most took her dismissal in stride and left, while the remaining flies were hustled away by Dastan, leaving them in peace and quiet. Once only trusted eyes and ears remained, Akanai turned to the boy and said, “Show me your Aura.”

 

Unwavering determination and daring courage filled her the second she finished speaking, the boy unleashing his Aura without delay. Wonderful, Condensed at the speed of thought and so robust and secure, Rain’s skills were above and beyond what she’d expected. Barely able to keep herself from clapping in joy, Akanai hid her emotions and nodded. “Acceptable,” she said, but from the looks of it, the boy discerned her true feelings. Why else would he be so delighted by her words? Condensing her own Aura, she said, “Take care, for I will now test it.”

 

Turning her Aura against him, she pressured him with a twentieth of her strength. Gerel sent word that Rain’s Aura held some surprises, but he didn’t elaborate in writing. Rather than ask him, it seemed better to test the boy herself, and he weathered it well. Of course, the boy withstood this much even without his own Aura, she needn’t be so gentle. Slowly raising her strength, the boy’s Aura finally shifted beneath her own once she released half her might, but still it held. Delighted by his resilience, Akanai immediately struck out with all her strength, which only made the boy blink and focus, seeming unfazed by her assault.

 

How absurd, if this was his strength now, what would he be like after given time to grow?

 

“Boy,” she said after a moment of thought, “try to break my Aura. Use everything you have.”

 

“Uh… Everything?” The boy looked around in confusion, as if searching for something or someone.

 

“Yes.”

 

“Have you spoken to Gerel yet?”

 

“No. I will speak with him in the morning. Enough hesitation, do as I say.” She tried to sound gentle, but she was too eager to restrain  herself.

 

“Okay… but um… be careful, okay?”

 

This time her smile slipped out. How endearing, a frog at the bottom of-

 

A raging storm of anger and despair crashed into her Aura from all sides, a whirling frenzy of emotions. Buckling beneath the pressure, Akanai focused everything on holding her Aura, unwilling to lose face before this preposterous grand-disciple. Everything from seething hatred to crippling misery, the depths of which she’d never felt before today, threatened to pierce through her defences and render her vulnerable. In spite of her best efforts, her Aura diminished and ebbed before the boy’s aggression, the seconds passing ever so slowly as she weathered the onslaught.

 

Then, without warning, it all faded away as the boy reeled in his seat, sweating and panting as if he’d just run a marathon. Grinning despite his weariness, he leaned against her and said, “That’s my Grand-Mentor. Sturdier than a dozen Yo Ling’s. Barely even made you blink.”

 

Swallowing hard, Akanai alternated between confusion and awe. By the Mother, even though he couldn’t break her Aura, if he struck while she was distracted or in the midst of a duel, she shuddered to think of the consequences. In a battle between experts, a single moment’s delay might as well be an eternity. Grabbing him by the arm, she Sent, “Explain.”

 

Full marks. She had to give him full marks. Though she could never say as much. It’s not that he didn’t deserve praise, but she didn’t want his accomplishments turn him pig-headed and stupid. Arrogance and overconfidence killed more young talents than the Defiled ever could and the boy attracted danger like none other.

 

While listening to Rain’s disjointed explanation, Akanai’s smile grew until her cheeks ached with the strain. Given a little time and a lot of luck, this little son-in-law would soar into the Heavens.

 

She was certain of it.

Chapter Meme

 

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Savage Divinity – Chapter 249


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


 

After finishing the ‘ceremony’ without a hitch, I hurry out the cavern to escape everyone’s reverent gazes. Thanks and praises follow me as I leave the former slaves to rest their overtaxed bodies and recover from their horrific ordeals. Though they’ll remain hidden for now, after we leave they’ll be given free reign of the island, albeit under the watchful eyes of Gerel’s hand-picked Sentinels. Grateful as Yo Ling’s workforce might seem, I can’t risk them getting loose and spreading word of our newfound wealth. Still, seeing their joyous expressions filled with hope and serenity made it all worthwhile. It’s nice saving lives without killing anyone. There’s been too much fighting lately, I’ve almost grown indifferent to the bloodshed. I’m a little surprised everyone survived the cleansing process. Seeing their gaunt frames and sickly appearances, I was worried they’d crash and die the second I removed the Spectres’ influence, but it seems the citizens of Sanshu are made of hardy stock.

 

Either way, they’re all alive and well, eighty-seven souls saved from a life of slavery followed by eternal torment in the afterlife. Good feelings aside, the reward was well worth it. After absorbing a quarter of the Spectral remains, Baledagh claimed he couldn’t absorb anymore and returned to his room in the void, leaving the rest for me. I’m not gonna be polite and decline, but in a rare moment of foresight, I left my experiments for another time, just in case something unexpected happens. The energy isn’t going anywhere and even though Baledagh hasn’t had any adverse effects, I’ve only taken in a small portion of Spectral remains when I was drained and exhausted. I’m not sure how well my… soul, for lack of a better word, will handle the large influx of energy, so caution seems appropriate. I’d hate to slip onto the dark side or explode or something.

 

Not far from from the cavern entrance, I find Lin fast asleep on the stony floor. Lifting my sweet little wifey into my arms, she comes awake with a cute yawn and nuzzles against my chest. “Hi hubby,” she murmurs, her eyes still closed. “How’d everything go?” While filling her in on all the relevant details, BoShui and Dastan catch up, jostling at my elbows like a pair of overeager dogs. Having my personal space invaded by two sweaty, muscular men is not my idea of fun, the whole matter made worse by the burning adoration in their eyes. Thankfully, they’re content to bask in my presence without a word, silently listening as I chat with Lin and smile at her adorable responses.

 

You showed Blobby to BoShui?! No fair, show me, show me!”

 

Where’d it go hubby? I wasn’t gonna drink it, I just wanna know what it tastes like. Bring it back out, ya?”

 

Yay! We’re rich! Don’t give it all to Nai-Nai either, give some gifts to Daddy and Baa-Baa too.”

 

We’ve been over this before Rainy, you’re too kind, always helping strangers. Are you gonna support them for the rest of their lives? Enough adventures, stay home where it’s nice and safe, ya?”

 

Okay, so not everything she says is adorable and heartwarming. Though she means well, Lin is a product of her environment, capable of being… pragmatic when the situation demands it. Knowing I’m only placating her, she puffs her cheeks and pouts while BoShui leaps in to join the conversation. “It’s not possible, Lady Mei Lin,” he says, panting to keep up with our pace. “How can your betrothed live such a simple life? Falling Rain is a man destined for greatness. With the Mother’s blessings, he will cleanse the Empire of corruption in one fell swoop.” Turning and bowing while we walk, he adds, “Please, accept this lowly one as your retainer, I will serve you with all my heart.”

 

Dastan snorts in contempt and answers in my place. “You think too highly of yourself. As a mere Han successor, what qualifications do you have to stand at my Master’s side? He is a phoenix among chickens and a dragon among men. Once he reveals his prowess, all devout warriors of the Empire will flock to his side and pledge their lives in service to his cause.”

 

“Stop.” They’ve got a strange, childish rivalry going on, and I don’t like it. “I’ll do what I can provided my secret remains hidden, but I have no intention of cleansing the Empire or revealing my gifts. I’m gonna go home, open a school slash orphanage, study healing, raise my pets, and wait for all this newfangled fame to die down before doing absolutely nothing.”

 

Putting aside their new-born rivalry, Dastan and BoShui join voices to ask, “What?! Why?”

 

Stifling a laugh at their mutual exchanged glares of annoyance, I answer, “Because treasuring a jade is a crime. Blobby is the source of all my purifying powers and I, merely its vessel.” I’m starting to regret giving it such a silly name but it’s too late to change it now. “It’d be naive to think no one will try and steal it from me.” Jokes on them if they do try, Baledagh’s doing all the work. Then again, we’d probably be dead before they find out, so maybe the joke’s on us. Forestalling Dastan and BoShui’s arguments, I continue over their protests. “It’s possible the Emperor or devout warriors will come protect me, but it’s more likely they’ll decide Blobby would be better off in someone else’s hands. Like their own. It’s not worth the hassle.”

 

“But you must reveal your abilities for the betterment of the world! You are blessed by the Mother, the people will flock to your side to take a stand against tyranny.”

 

“I will lead the Han Clan to be your sword and shield. If one assassin comes, then one assassin will die. If two come, then two die. Even if the Emperor himself comes to take your life, then we will overthrow him in bloody revolution!”

 

“You’re both idiots,” I retort. “Stand against tyranny? Bloody revolution? You know not the heights of heaven or the depths of hell. I’m one person, easily killed or controlled, and then what? Everything goes back to the way things are, while we become a footnote in the annals of history or worse.”

 

“Praise the Mother,” Gerel chimes in from the back. “You’re not a complete moron after all.”

 

Looking like a wounded puppy, BoShui stutters, “B-But… these gifts are from Heavens. How can you keep them to yourself? You must use them lest you incur the Mother’s wrath. You can show everyone the truth, guide the lost out from the Father’s clutches, show the world she wasn’t wrong…”

 

It takes a second to catch his drift. “You mean about your cousin? I’m sympathetic and I’ll publicly speak up for her, but nothing more. If my Mentor agrees, I’ll even reveal everything to your uncle, but that’s it.” Dastan looks similarly betrayed but keeps his mouth shut, both my admirers hanging their heads in defeat. Sighing, I roll my eyes and explain. “You both accept danger and violence will follow a reveal, yes?” I wait for them both to nod before continuing. “Okay then, let’s pretend I agree with your views and lead the world in bloody revolution. A stupid thing to do with the Defiled knocking at the gates, but whatever. Let’s take it one step further and say we succeed, in spite of the overwhelming odds stacked against us. Then what? Do you really think the world will change so easily? Take a few heads, write a few laws, and in the blink of an eye, greed, corruption, discrimination, and inequality all just disappear? I can see it now, nobles and merchants willingly making amends and redistributing their wealth while newly freed slaves and formerly oppressed half-beasts sing and dance in the streets. Pfft. Grow up.”

 

On a roll, I continue my rant despite not really knowing what my endgame is. “Dastan, you want to give power to the common people and make their lives better. BoShui, you want to cleanse the world of the Father’s touch and root out corruption. I agree with both your dreams, but your thinking is all wrong. Bloodshed and rebellion will only bring upheaval to the Empire at a time we can ill afford it, with the Defiled besieging us from within and without.”

 

“Oh?” The Guard Leader’s voice sends a chill down my spine. After noticing the rocks were Spiritual Hearts, she pretty much zoned out of the proceedings, standing around with cold indifference, but now she’s chosen to join the conversation. “How strange. With your sympathetic bleeding heart, I’d have thought you ready to die fighting for the downtrodden and oppressed. Then please, enlighten us on you plan to fix the Empire without raising your sword.” Her tone turns sarcastic and biting. “Hypothetically, of course.”

 

Annoyed by her verbal jab, I respond without thinking. “The Empire has been around for tens of thousands of years, yet if you look back in history, you’ll see nothing ever changes. We use the same weapons, study the same tactics, wear the same clothes, and even draw with the same art styles.”

 

“So?” The Guard Leader doesn’t seem to understand my point, and neither does anyone else, judging by their silence.

 

“So? It means the world is stagnating. We’ve made no strides forward in millennia which would be impressive if it weren’t so horrifying. In fact, I’d even say the Empire’s regressed. Did you know there’s no record of how the Wall was built? Who designed it, what materials and techniques went into its construction, how much it cost, how many people worked on it or years it took to complete, nothing. Either the knowledge has been suppressed and kept secret by a chosen few, or more likely, it’s been forgotten because it was so damn long ago. It gets worse. The last city built in the Northern Province was the Society Headquarters, thousands of years ago. They didn’t even give it a name, because technically, it’s not an imperial city, just a massive checkpoint between provinces. It’s asinine. There are millions of people living in the wilds because we’ve either forgotten how to build walls that last, or we can’t be bothered to do so.”

 

Dastan seems to catch on, having heard his uncle Diyako’s similar rants, but BoShui is still lost. “What does this have to do with… anything?”

 

“If civilization isn’t improving, then it’s in decline, and the Empire has been declining for a long time. Rampant corruption of those in power and systemic abuse of civilians have helped deprive this world of progress, strangling innovation and forward thinking. Both these problems stem from the same source: too much power in the hands of the few. Therefore, in order to have progress, the balance of power must be restored.”

 

Hmm… Balance. There it is again. Is it possible the Empire is maintaining the status quo because they believe in balance? Diyako ranted about how the nobles were keeping technological advances at a standstill, and while his reasoning might’ve been off, there could be some truth to it. It’s true, nothing ever changes in the Empire, and I don’t think that’s normal. Could it be they believe that if technology progresses and favours human ingenuity over raw strength, it’d somehow throw the world out of balance? It’s something to think about, but I still think change is necessary.

 

Picking up where I left off, I continue. “So the question on everyone’s mind is: how? How do we take power from the few and redistribute it to the many? In my opinion, we can’t. Giving power to the people is pointless. They must rise up and take it for themselves.”

 

“Yes, and you will lead them as the Mother’s chosen.” BoShui isn’t the sharpest tool in the shed, but I’ll cut him some slack for being exhausted.

 

“No, like I said, bloody revolution isn’t the right way. Unity is all that keeps the Defiled from killing us all. Slow, gradual change is required, and I believe education and meritocracy are the keys to success. Help the people by teaching them how to help themselves, while offering incentives to share their successes instead of hording them. By giving them the tools to succeed, the people will naturally enrich and empower themselves. If we raise the standard of living through new technologies or techniques, then the people will naturally gain more power as they gain intrinsic value.”

 

Seeing everyone’s questioning gazes, I try to explain in simpler terms. “Life is cheap because your everyday commoner isn’t worth much. They’re really only good for manual labour, while most subsist through scavenging or hunting, living hand to mouth with no time for concerns of tomorrow or making their lives better. If a million people like this disappear, the Empire wouldn’t be affected at all, so we look down on them and treat them like trash. Now, what if someone developed a cheap, powerful, and easy to manufacture crossbow? With a weapon like this, all of a sudden, hunting and defending livestock isn’t as difficult or dangerous as it once was.”

 

Dastan’s eyes shine as he adds, “If every man, woman, and child in Sanshu had a crossbow like you describe, then the Emperor would pay dearly if he attempts to Purge it.”

 

Always with the fighting. “Yea, but that’s not the point. The crossbow is just an example. What if instead it were a tool which made farming faster and easier? Or a new crop with significantly higher yields? These are just examples of possible world changing discoveries, because it raises the value of each commoner. Every person would be worth more, because they can grow more food or bring more meat, or whatever. What’s more, it allows commoners to better provide for their families. If they’re no longer scraping by, then they, and by extension, their children, will have time and energy for other pursuits. Who knows what new, wondrous inventions they might dream up? A vehicle which flies through the air, a method to transmit messages vast distances in an instant without using Heavenly Energy, machines to drill deep into the earth and uncover vast riches, the possibilities are endless.”

 

“Hmph.” The Guard Leader snorts. “The idle fancies of fools and children.”

 

I snort back, having learned from the best. “We do all sorts or weird and unbelievable things that only seem normal only because someone took a fancy to something thousands of years ago. Think about it, we cook food because someone took a fancy to fire. We ride horses because someone fancied the animals. We wear silk because someone saw a cocoon and thought ‘I should make a dress out of that’. Dreams are what separate humans from beasts.”

 

Pausing in my rant, I realize everyone is staring as if I’ve grown a second head. Lin is the first to speak up, examining her silk sleeves. “Hubby… is that really where silk comes from?”

 

“Yea.” Are things different here?

 

“Yucky. What kinda cocoons?”

 

I shrug. “Silkworms, I guess? I dunno, they’re like caterpillars or something. After they turn into cocoons but before they become butterflies or moths or whatever, you boil them and harvest the threads. Isn’t this common knowledge?”

 

Lin giggles. “Silly Rainy, only descendants of the Royal Family know how silk is made, it’s one of the best kept secrets in the Empire. If you’re right and we produce our own silk, we’ll either be rich or branded as thieves and traitors.”

 

… Oh. Oops. “See, that proves my point, there’s too much wealth and power concentrated in the hands of the nobles.” Shutting my mouth, I hasten my steps, hurrying towards the surface. Thankfully, no one asks how I know what I know, since my customary excuse of ‘read it in a book’ probably won’t work this time.

 

Whatever. It’s not important. During my rant, I came to an epiphany. I arrived in this world a slave and was lucky enough to escape my fate. Since then, all I’ve done is survive, going with the flow while trying not to make waves. That’s obviously not working so I might as well try something new, while paying it forward. I’ve always wondered why I’m here. Maybe it was divine intervention to save Baledagh or maybe just a random twist of fate. Hell, maybe I’m crazy and my memories are the product of a ravaged mind, but either way, it’s time I did something with them. I want to contribute to the world, not for fame or glory, but to make a difference in people’s lives, even if only a select few.

 

Things won’t change too much for me, personally. I can’t give up on the Martial Path, because strength of arms is all but required to live in this era. The world is too fixated on martial prowess, as even Magistrates need strength to hold their positions. It’s ass backwards, what does managing a city have in common with swinging a sword? Whatever, I won’t give up on learning Healing either, because I’m terrified of dying or losing loved ones. This means I’ll be relying on Diyako’s brain trust and spending my newfound wealth to figure out how to make my half-baked ideas a reality. If they’re successful, others will try and copy me by gathering their own academics and scholars to research new, innovative ideas. Once I get the ball rolling, I can leave the rest to greed and fate.

 

The school/orphanage is another way for me to make a difference without working too hard. It’s won’t just be giving food and shelter to kids, but educating them and giving them the skills necessary to survive. If I instill an academic mindset into a mere handful of young minds, then that a bonus. Maybe they’ll go on to do great things, or maybe they’ll live a life of mediocrity, but either way, I’ll have done my part. Better yet, I should talk to Yuzhen about opening state schools in every city of the North. I can paint it as a way for the Empire to nurture young talents beholden to the Empire itself, using the People’s system as an example. She’s a smart woman, she’ll see the benefits, I’m sure of it.

 

It all sounds easy, but it take years, maybe even lifetimes before progress is made, not to mention some out of the box thinking and a metric shit-tonne of luck. Still, I might as well give it a shot. At worst, I spend my fortune for nothing, but easy come easy go. I can always earn more money. Maybe I’ll die along the way and nothing changes in the long run, but if I don’t even try, I’ll always be wondering ‘what if?’. That’s no way to live a second life.

 

Besides, I’m tired of shitting into buckets and emptying them in the forest. I’d love it if indoor toilets became a thing, but maybe I’m setting the bar too high.

 

You never cherish what you have until it’s too late.

 

Chapter Meme

 

 – End of Volume 13 –

 


Author’s note: So volume 13 starts and ends with tonnes of talk-no-jutsu, and essentially no action. See why I called it Introspection? Sorry, but I’m still getting the hang of … plot and writing and whatnot. Anyways, vol 14 will have more timeskips and tinkering, though weeks rather than months or years, and if I’m right, more adventure. I might be wrong though, I’m terrible at gauging how long it’ll take to explain something. 

 

Anyways, thanks for reading thus far, next chapter will be on schedule as normal.


 

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Savage Divinity – Chapter 248

 

How did life get so complicated? The day was going so well too. We started with a hot breakfast, then took a merry jaunt through Yo Ling’s manor followed by a little light looting, trap finding, and treasure hunting, fun times for all. When will I ever learn? Quit while you’re ahead, dumbass, you should’ve gone to sleep and come back in the morning. While you’d still be left to deal with this mind-blowing revelation, at least you could’ve faced it after a full night’s rest.

 

So troublesome… I always assumed I transmigrated into a world with a dichotomy of power, the Mother’s Chi and the Father’s… Dark Chi. Whatever. Good and evil, light and dark, Yin and Yang, Empire and Defiled, two equal but opposite sides, wholly incompatible with one another. The metallic-stone brick in my hand lends credence to the theory. Sending a thread of Chi into the brick evokes the same response as any captured Defiled Weapon, reminiscent of holding a mass of furious, writhing worms. It’s not dangerous, merely highly unpleasant and utterly unusable, proof positive of two separate, distinct, antagonistic powers at work.

 

Makes sense, right?

 

Still wrong though.

 

It seems obvious in retrospect. In real life, issues of morality are rarely so black and white, so why should this be any different? The Azure Ascendant even pointed it out with his comments about livestock seeing humans as evil, but I ignored his argument because it seemed silly. Hell, the truth’s been staring me in face this whole time, but I’ve been too stupid to see it. According to myth, the Mother created this world and everything within it, and the Father twisted her creations to his purpose. The Demons are creatures of pure energy meant to taint the Mother’s creations. After things didn’t work out as He’d hoped, he taught his Demons to take physical form. In response, She taught humans and animals how to take in Chi, balancing the scales and putting both sides on equal footing. Assuming the story has a basis of truth, then it stands to reason that if the Demons are creatures of Energy, they’re probably made from the Energy of the Heavens.

 

Calling it the ‘Energy of the Heavens’ is misleading. It isn’t a tool of the righteous wielded by the suitably heroic in defence of all that is good and holy. It’s no different from any other type of energy, about as good or evil as fire or gravity. It’s energy, it has no alignment. What Taduk uses to heal and the Defiled use to kill are merely two sides of the same coin. We’re all using Heavenly Energy, just in different ways.

 

The Spectres said it themselves: There is no Balance, only power.

 

It explains a lot, like how so many murderous assholes exist without turning Defiled. If getting angry was enough to become Defiled, then the Spectres would have won long ago. It’s not as simple losing Balance, you also have to surrender to the Spectres which is as good as giving up your identity. The human spirit is dogged and persistent, so I doubt it’s easy to turn someone who’s already formed their own identity. It’s human nature to survive at any cost and I’d bet dollars to donuts the Defiled indoctrinate their children from young, prepping them to accept the Spectres’ influence as their ancestors, instead of the malevolent beings they truly are. Take Baledagh for example, he was young, vulnerable, and suffered great hardships yet still resisted the Spectres’ influence for years before succumbing in a moment of weakness.

 

To further combat the Spectres, the Empire catechized self-control, or Balance, as a means of resisting the Spectres. It makes sense assuming the State of Balance wasn’t a product of Divine Inspiration. Keep your emotions in check, remain Balanced, and avoid drawing the Spectres’ attentions. No Spectres, no risk of becoming Defiled, and everything is hunky dory.

 

Unfortunately, as Fung once pointed out, human’s are emotional creatures unsuited for Balance. Only a small percentage of the Empire’s population are capable of reaching the State of Balance and even fewer able to harness their Chi for use in battle. On the other hand, every Defiled man, woman, and child are capable of fighting because their powers are fuelled by emotions, or rather an overabundance of certain emotions. In the battle of Balance vs Unbalance, it’s clear which is more suited for human nature. It’s not fair by any measure, but the Empire has held out against the Defiled for millennia by remaining united against a divided foe, at least until the Defiled recently got their shit together and started working as a team. Thing’s aren’t looking great for the Empire, but we’re surviving, for now. Baatar threw them back at the Bridge and I can only hope the other provinces are holding out, but the odds are stacked against us.

 

Anyways, world-shattering revelations aside, why does it matter if we use the same power as the Defiled?

 

It doesn’t.

 

So there’s no holy power to banish the darkness, big whoop. Since we’re all using the same tools, the real question is: can I use this knowledge to my advantage? Not to say I’m the only one who’s figured this out, but bringing it up in normal conversation might be considered blasphemous, especially considering it’s mostly conjecture. I’ll keep quiet about it for now and bring it up with my Mentor and Teacher after returning home, but either way, it’s food for thought.

 

According to Dastan, he was taught to draw strength from righteous fury, and Baledagh is living proof you don’t need Balance to be strong. My former bandits aren’t paragons of Balance either, so I’m sure I’ll find more examples among them if I look carefully enough. If Balance isn’t 100% required, maybe I can figure a new method to raise warriors without drawing the Spectres’ attention. Power is power, and if it does attract the Spectres, then at least I have the tools to deal with them. I’ll need to take into account the long term consequences, like what happens after I die or whatnot. The last thing the Empire needs is a whole bunch of Gens cropping up inside their borders.

 

At the speed of thought, it doesn’t take long to explain my observations to Baledagh, but my little brother merely shrugs and nods when appropriate, never one to waste brainpower on more esoteric issues. He’s not dumb, just indifferent. His major takeaway from all this is that his strength and power comes from the same source as my own, which brings a rare smile to his face. Although he’s never voiced his reservations, I can tell he’s feeling less conflicted about devouring Spectral remains. Why should he? After Blobby does its thing, the Spectral corpses are probably pure Heavenly Energy. What else can it be? Truth be told, I kinda want a taste for myself. I’ve refrained from partaking because, let’s be real here, it’s icky eating what I’ve deemed as Spiritual Herpes, but knowing what I know now, the Spectres have become nothing more than delicious little power ups for me to consume.

 

Having convinced myself things are looking up, I study the fruits of these poor workers’ labours once more, the odd brick of metal/stone hybrid. What a waste. I doubt we can use them to make Heavenly Weapons since it’s been ruined by including human remains.  At least, I assume the human remains are what’s ruined it since the stone itself is prime Spiritual Heart material. Gerel has everyone busting their humps collecting as much of the untainted stone as possible, but we’ll have to come back for it unless we feel like splitting it with the Society brats.

 

After raising my concerns, we all come to a unanimous decision to cut the Society out of the loop. Turns out, BoShui has serious issues with his Clan despite being the actual son of the current Han Patriarch. Working together, we agree to hide the cavern’s existence and keep all the Spiritual Hearts for the Bekhai, BoShui refusing any and all shares. Since the method of crafting Defiled Weapons isn’t common knowledge, no one will wonder how Yo Ling found so many Spiritual Hearts so the secret ends with us. The only issue is if Zian and the others insist on an Oath before we leave, but I’m banking on good old fashioned greed to see us through. I mean, yea we agreed to split everything 50/50, but if none of them try to squirrel a few small valuables away, then I’ll crab-walk around the island a hundred times. Worst comes to worst, I’ll have BoShui bring something small and valuable to the others and make them complicit in his smuggling scheme.

 

As for the tainted bricks, we delivered the shipment as intended. After separately questioning a number of workers, we learned the second tunnel leads to a dead end, where they exchange the full wagon for a waiting empty one. While they’ve never seen anyone empty it, or anyone who isn’t Yo Ling, another worker, or a corpse, it’s obvious the island isn’t as abandoned as we once believed. Yo Ling must have been an optimistic man, leaving his workers behind to craft weapons and armour for his Defiled army. Can’t say I blame him either, I’m still surprised we won. Dunno how it happened, but go team Empire.

 

Woooo.

 

Leaving the mystery of what awaits us at the smithies for tomorrow, we’re now left with the uncomfortable question of what to do with Yo Ling’s cavern workforce. Gathered in the corner, they shuffle and squirm while wringing their hands, anxious after they’ve been told to stop working. Fear etched on every gaunt, pale face, these poor workers – no, slaves, it’s an ugly, harsh word, but it’s the truth. These slaves haven’t seen the sun since they were consigned to this underground cavern of death and despair, toiling day and night without rest to fulfill their quotas, a disposable workforce for Yo Ling’s army. Now they wait and wonder if their time is at an ending, powerless to change their fate.

 

It’s a shitty situation, made all the worse since I’m considering having them all killed.

 

With one hand on my shoulder, Gerel turns me to face him, jaw set and eyebrows drawn. “I know what you are thinking, but they know too much and cannot be trusted. Their existence poses a threat to the People. I promise it will be swift and painless, an end to their misery. Go now. I will handle the rest.” There’s no room for argument in his tone, or at least that’s what I tell myself. Truth be told, I’m flooded with relief since I see a way out. This is above my pay grade, the decision out of my hands. Gerel’s in charge here and he’s asked me to leave. I can head up, go to sleep, and not feel guilty over their deaths, because I’m only following orders. My hands are clean, right?

 

Not all of my darker impulses can be blamed on the Spectres, as these thoughts are mine and mine alone. Out of greed and self-interest, I’m considering stepping aside and letting these poor slaves be murdered just so we can keep this fortune a secret. That’s what’s happening here, there’s no two ways about it and it makes me sick to my stomach.

 

How’s the saying go? All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.

 

Swallowing hard, I shake my head and muster every ounce of determination I can. “We don’t have to slaughter them in cold blood,” I Send. “We can leave them here, alive and well. They have food, water and shelter, plus we can use them to collect the ore while we’re gone. Worst comes to worst, when we’re done, we’ll leave them here with no boats. No one else knows how to get to the island and we can send shipments of food every now and then. They’ve suffered so much, let them live out the rest of their lives in peace.

 

Gerel’s gaze softens as he sighs, locking eyes with my obstinate stare, daring him to say otherwise. “You take on too many burdens, Rain. You can’t save everyone. Such is life.” Breaking contact so I can’t retort, he strides away and Sends, “This is your expedition so we will do as you say, but should word of this ever spread, then every death which follows will be on your head.

 

Well, that went better than expected, though it occurs to me Gerel might’ve been looking for an excuse to spare them. Dizzy with relief, I give orders to prepare for my feast. All of Yo Ling’s slaves are Tainted worse than Dastan or BoShui, which means they’re chock full of Spectral goodies. Just call me pacman cause I’m about to ‘wakka wakka’ all up on these Spectral bitches.

 

While I stand in the pool and wait for everyone to gather, Blobby emanates a sense of satisfaction, apparently familiar and comfortable with these waters. I’m gonna take a wild guess and say Blobby was the one who filled the pool with Heavenly Energy in the first place. After collecting all the spare energy left behind, it’s gotten bigger, which probably means Blobby wasn’t being stingy when it sent out a single droplet to protect me from the caustic Demonic fluids. It only sent out a droplet because a droplet was all it had. After so many millennia floating around Sanshu, Blobby is on its last legs, forced to bind with me to recover and replenish its Energy.

 

I still have no idea why it chose me. It’s not because of Baledagh’s Spectre devouring prowess, since it tried to eat him on day one. My best guess is it has something to do with how I invade Demon brains, but how it knew I can do that, I can’t even begin to guess. Whatever, the why isn’t so important right now. It’s an all you can eat buffet, and Baledagh and I are the only ones in the restaurant.

 

Once all the slaves are standing in the pool with me, I raise my hands for silence, a grand and needless gesture. Trembling from head to toe, the slaves stare at their feet with shoulders hunched and hands clutching their chests, resigned to their fate. My heart twinges in pity but I resist the urge to speed things along. With BoShui watching from the sidelines, I’ve decided to add a few theatrics to the proceedings. He’s sworn to never speak of this, but if I can draw him closer to my side, then the People will have a steadfast ally in the Society. “Luckless children of the Mother,” I begin, ignoring Gerel’s eye-roll, “I sense the Father’s Eye upon each and every one of you.” Dastan’s look of adoration hurts to look at, his man-crush on me growing by leaps and bounds. Sorry buddy, I’m flattered, but I’m not into the whole muscles and moustache thing. “Through no fault of your own, you have drawn His gaze and served His interests, working with His vile servants to corrupt the Mother’s bountiful gifts.”

 

A small wail escapes the lips a slave and my heart wrenches inside my chest. “But fear not,” I say, skipping a few lines ahead, “For I, Falling Rain of the People, am here to free you from His clutches. Kneel and accept the Mother’s forgiveness.” Obedience ingrained into their bones, they follow my orders without protest, their frightened mewls and silent sobs painful to hear and look upon. Moving to the first slave, I place my hands on his quaking shoulders and force him to look into my eyes. “Be cleansed of His Taint and returned to the Mother.”

 

Quickly switching places with Baledagh, my little brother unceremoniously dunks the slave’s head underwater before devouring the Spectres. After a silent count of three for the sake of emphasis, Baledagh pulls the gasping slave out of the water and follows the script. “Welcome back into the Mother’s light, child.”

 

Baledagh’s performance could use some more umph, but the slave’s transformation is obvious at a glance. His formerly dead and empty eyes fill with surprise and hope as he clutches our hand. “Thank you Great One,” he stutters, voice pious and reverent. “Thank you for my redemption!” Weeping with joy, the man kowtows before us despite his obvious exhaustion. As my guards bring him away to eat and rest, Baledagh glances at the watching crowd. The look in their eyes slowly transform to match Dastan’s, with BoShui’s excitement plain to see. Kneeling with his retinue, they watch the proceedings in silence, with more than one person’s lips moving in prayer.

 

Hmm… Too far? Even Jester Wang and his cutthroats are looking at me like I’m the Pope. If only I lacked morals, I could start my own religion and exploit devout Mother-lovers for all they’ve got. I’d probably get some pretty sweet titles too. I can see it now: Falling Rain, Blessed be his name, Divine son of the Mother, Vessel of Blobby, Wielder of Peace, Shield of Tranquility, Guardian of All Things Cute and Fluffy.

 

I actually really like that last one. I think I’ll keep it.

 

Chapter Meme

 

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Savage Divinity – Chapter 247

 

Unable to stomach it any longer, Baledagh sank into his pillow, closed his eyes, and took a deep breath, waiting for his nausea to pass. Leading the way through the hidden passageway, brother’s eyes darted about the torch-lit cavern without pattern or logic, constantly scanning the area for dangers unknown. Ceiling to staircase and wall to wall, seeing the world tossed around by brother’s jerky movements made Baledagh sick to his stomach. According to brother, it had something to do with seeing the motions without perceiving them with his other senses, but he’d never experienced it so vividly before. Ever since reawakening, brother’s mental constructs regained their permanence and Baledagh took advantage of the comforts. Though laying in bed and watching the world through brother’s eyes was rather relaxing most of the time, it wasn’t suitable for high-intensity situations like this.

 

Stepping out of the room and into the void, Baledagh ignored the Heavenly Waters and focused his will. With a little effort, he faded from existence and merged with brother’s senses. It’s what brother did when they fought together, and although it required intense concentration to sustain, sharing brother’s perceptions of the world around him felt much more natural, free of the jarring disconnect between mind and body. “Brother,” he asked, once his stomach settled. “What are you looking for?”

 

“Traps,” came the reply, straightforward and succinct, as if the one word explained everything. Every few steps, he’d stop to think, tapping the ground and walls with a wooden plank scavenged from the destroyed bookshelf.

 

Baledagh sighed. Sometimes, this brother of his was too unfathomable. “How do you know there are traps?”

 

“… Isn’t it par for the course?” Before he could ask what the strange idiom meant, brother continued. “You know, pressure switches, tripwires, pitfalls, and more, traps to keep people away from the treasure. Or keep people from ambushing Yo Ling in his bedroom. A bandit wouldn’t trust anyone with a secret passage like this, so he can’t rely on guards.”

 

Unable to retort, Baledagh silently aided the cause, searching for irregularities around him. It always amazed him how brother could be both worldly and naive at the same time. Baledagh would never have thought to look for traps, merely rushing down the stairs in haste. Though brother said he had little to no memory of his past life, he must have been a great man in his previous life, having so much knowledge and experience at his fingertips. Training regimens, tactical maneuvers, mathematics, and now apparently treasure hunting procedures, brother had probably forgotten more than Baledagh could learn in three lifetimes, much less one.

 

Their journey didn’t go straight down, the stairs levelling off after around a hundred steps. Moving through the dark tunnel at a snail’s pace, brother tested anything he found out of the ordinary, and soon his efforts paid off. Standing a good distance away, brother pressed the plank against a flat stone in the middle of the pathway. With an audible click, a row of axes dropped from the ceiling, scything through the empty air right before their faces and putting an end to Gerel and BoShui’s steady torrent of complaints. After marking the trap, they continued forward, stumbling across several other deadly traps in the next hour as they moved through the twisting tunnels and plunging stairways deep into the bowels of the earth.

 

“Stop.” The Guard Leader’s tone left no room for debate as everyone froze in place and Baledagh strained his mind to comb through brother’s senses, searching for something amiss. “There are people ahead.”

 

After a brief pause, Gerel drew his sword and took the lead. “Dastan guard my left, Rain, get to the back. If we get into a fight, bring the girl and the brat away. Got it?”

 

Taking Mei Lin’s hand, brother squeezed her dainty fingers for reassurance, and she replied with a confident grin, her skin flush with excitement. Blushing from the contact, Baledagh retreated from brother’s senses out of reflex, not wanting to overstep his bounds. Though they never spoke of it, Baledagh couldn’t imagine sharing Qing-Qing with another man, so he acted accordingly.

 

Besides, sharing in brother’s happiness only served to remind Baledagh of his loss.

 

Snuffing their torches, Gerel led the way through the darkness and within minutes, a light emerged from the end of the tunnel. Laying in wait as Gerel scouted ahead, Baledagh’s curiosity rose to its peak as the seconds passed, listening to the bustle of footsteps, the jangling of chains, and metal crashing against metal. Whoever it was, there were plenty of them hard at work, a disturbing revelation considering the island was supposedly abandoned.

 

A stirring in the void caught his attention, and Baledagh’s eyebrow rose in question. “Uh… Brother,” he said, retreating to the safety of the room, “The Heavenly Water seems… agitated.”

 

“Holy shit.” Brother appeared in the room and stared out at the frothy waters, circling the void in a massive riptide. “I thought something was off. Blobby, what are you so excited for?” Baledagh wasn’t privy to whatever communications passed between them, and he’d rather things stayed this way. Whenever he looked at the Heavenly Waters permeating through the near endless void, it filled him with an overwhelming sense of danger and vulnerability, as if he were a rabbit in the presence of a dragon. Thankfully, the Heavenly Waters were happy to ignore Baledagh presence, but he could still never bring himself to call it ‘Blobby’.

 

“Whatever’s ahead of us, it’s got Blobby all hot and bothered. Don’t worry, it’s not after you, it seems… happy.” Shrugging, brother patted Baledagh on the shoulder. “Let’s switch places so I can keep an eye on it, just in case. Lemme Send a message to the Guard Leader and then we’re good.”

 

A moment later, Baledagh stepped into control and exhaled, before breathing in the hot, musty air. It was a world of difference from sharing brother’s senses, feeling more natural and instinctive as opposed to the conscious study required while sharing. Releasing Mei Lin’s warm, tender hand, he gave a wry smile of apology to now-pouting hare-girl. “I need both hands free,” he whispered, drawing Peace from the scabbard. Tranquility was already strapped to his arm, a comfortable, reassuring pressure in this time of tension. 

 

His heart racing, Baledagh watched in silence as Dastan’s retinue and half of BoShui’s guards followed Gerel’s people down the tunnel, arranging themselves outside the light streaming through a gate. After a handful of minutes, Gerel kicked the gate in and charged forward, leaving him, Mei Lin, BoShui, and their guards all standing around with nothing to do but twiddle their thumbs. BoShui did a little more, visibly trembling from head to toe as he stared down the hallway, his jaw clenched so tight a vein protruded from his neck. The Spectres circled around him, visible only to Baledagh as they pressed in close to BoShui, whispering deceitful lies and false promises to their Tainted vessel. Itching to take his head, Baledagh kept an eye on BoShui, ready to act at a moment’s notice should the Spectres take over.

 

“The way ahead is clear,” the Guard Leader said, though not even a minute had passed since Gerel’s heroic entry. Frowning as BoShui darted off, Baledagh hurried to keep up after telling Lin to stay behind, wondering what they’d find. The clanging and jangling clamour grew louder, joined by the sound of heavy grunting and laboured breathing as he stepped into the light. Blinking to adjust his eyes, he gazed in confusion at the scene before him. Ignoring their presence, men and women stood scattered about inside the vast cavern, dressed in tattered, dirty rags while carrying out an assortment of tasks. Some used picks and hammers to chip away at the sides of an underground pool, while others collected the scraps and pieces and brought them away. Others stood above boiling cauldrons, stirring the contents as the collected fragments were dropped in. Even more poor souls formed a line to draw water from the underground pool, also to be emptied into the cauldrons. At the back of the cavern, a handful of people ladled out a cauldron’s contents into a rectangular mould, while still others stacked the metallic bars onto a hand-drawn wagon, sitting just outside a door on the other side.

 

Most disturbingly of all, every single worker continued toiling away, with no curiosity shown towards in Baledagh’s party. In fact, the workers appeared to be doing everything they could to ignore them. “None of them respond to anything we do,” Gerel said, gesturing at a comatose body laying in a pool of blood by the entrance. “I stabbed the poor bastard on my way in, only to hear him apologize and go right back to work. Kept at it until he collapsed from blood loss.” Switching to a silent Sending, he asked, “Are any of them Defiled?”

 

Knowing this wasn’t his place, Baledagh stepped aside for Rain. “Answer Gerel, they’re all Tainted, even worse than BoShui.”

 

Grimacing at the news, brother barked, “Drag one of them over.”

 

As Dastan and a soldier grabbed the closest worker, their target screeched in fear. “Please,” he howled, going stiff as a board, unable to muster up any resistance. “I’m still strong, I can still work. Please, not the cauldrons! Nooo!!!” The other workers paid no attention to his cries, redoubling their efforts as if to prove their worth.

 

Knowing the Defiled penchant for devouring flesh, Baledagh couldn’t help but gag. Brother did the same, but he hid it well. “Quiet. I only want to ask you some questions. What’s going on here?”

 

“We do as the Lord commands,” the worker babbled, kowtowing against the hard rock floor. “We adhere to the schedule, the wagon goes out as soon as it’s filled. No slacking here, we wouldn’t dare, we wouldn’t dare.” After saying this, the worker repeated himself over and over, stressing the schedule and shipments as if seeking redemption. Unable to garner any other knowledge, Rain gestured for the guards to release the man, who promptly scrambled back to his position to resume gathering stones.

 

“Give me that.” Grabbing a shard from a passing worker, the Guard Leader studied it in the torch-light. Tossing it to Gerel in silence, the bald warrior’s eyes widened in surprise.

 

Running to the wagon, BoShui grabbed one of the dark, dull bars with both hands, clutching it to his chest like it were made of gold. The workers around him all recoiled away, falling to their knees and prostrating as BoShui cackled aloud, a tint of madness pervading through his strained laughter.

 

“Baledagh, switch. What’s happening?”

 

After taking over, Baledagh’s heart skipped a beat. “The Spectres,” he said to brother, “They’re taking over.” Their howls of pleasure and victory filled Baledagh’s ears as he shouted, “Grab BoShui! Toss him into the pool, now!” Following brother’s orders, he devoured the Spectres before they could complete their task and infect BoShui, though Baledagh would’ve much preferred taking the mopey bastard’s head. Outnumbered and outmatched, the Society guards stood helpless as Dastan and Gerel smashed them aside, the bald warrior literally tossing BoShui into the pool of water. Diving in after him, Baledagh grabbed the struggling Warrant Officer, the close contact allowing him to better devour the Spectres. The wailing apparitions helpless to resist, Baledagh drew them into the void to be cleansed by the Heavenly Water. Power surged through his body as he absorbed what remained, their essences cleansed of the Father’s Taint.

 

In the blink of an eye, BoShui’s struggles subsided as he went limp in Baledagh’s grasp. Relaxing at his victory, he swam for the surface and gasped for air, making sure BoShui’s head stayed above water. As he headed for shore, brother said, “Stop. Hang out in the water for a while, Blobby left to do… something. I’m not sure what.” Wary of creatures lurking within the depths, Baledagh bobbed in place, paddling his feet to keep them both above water.

 

After a few minutes of ignoring his people, brother gave the word to head back to shore, uneaten and unmolested. As Gerel dragged them out of the water, he growled, “Enjoy your swim? By the Mother, I don’t know how you’ve survived this long. Get to safety, then you rest, idiot.”

 

Feeling more than a little maligned, Baledagh scowled and dropped BoShui to the ground. Sputtering for breath, he came alive and flailed about in a panic before his guards came to his rescue, lifting him to his feet as they settled in to defend him. Though they sported a few bruises and bumps, none were gravely injured, though they were still heavily outmatched. “You,” BoShui gasped, staring at Baledagh in a mixture of confusion and awe. “What did you do?”

 

Unsure how to respond, Baledagh growled, “Nothing. You fell down the stairs, got it?”

 

As Dastan and the Bekhai encircled the Society guards, Gerel Sent, “We should kill them all. This pool of water must be filled with Heavenly Energy and these stones have been soaking in it for who knows how long. Centuries at least, if not millennia. If we were to mine everything, it’d be enough to craft hundreds of Spiritual Weapons, maybe even thousands. This is an incalculable fortune…”

 

After Baledagh passed the message on, there was only silence for several heartbeats. And then, “Arghhhhh,” brother screamed, causing Baledagh to wince. Luckily, it was only in the void and not out loud, lest they lose face before so many people. “Hundreds?! THOUSANDS!!!???!!! FUUUUUUUUCCCCCCCCKKKK! Do the right thing Rain, be the better person Rain, take the high road, build bridges, not fences. God Dammit, why am I so fucking dumb!?”

 

Retreating from brother’s self-directed fury, Baledagh returned to his room in the Void before bursting into laughter, unwilling to draw brother’s ire. This was a good lesson for him; To be merciful to your enemies is to be cruel to yourself.

 

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

 

To kill, or not to kill? That is the question.

 

Before I finish even asking the question, BoShui yells, “Stand down.” Pushing his way to the front, he draws his dagger and cuts into his palm. “I, Han BoShui, swear an Oath to the Heavens, never to reveal the existence of this cavern, or anything which happens, is discussed, or found within it. This I swear with the Heavens as my witness.” A surge of Heavenly Energy swirls about him as his Oath settles in, rocking him back on his feet. Turning to his people, he snarled, “Well? Why are you all not following suit?”

 

The other guards swear their oaths one by one, leaving no room for doubt. Catching BoShui as he staggers towards me, I take the knife from his hand before easing him to sit on the floor. “I’ll have the rest of my retinue do the same, and even have them swear they’ve not yet revealed it,” he says. “I didn’t set up a line of communication with the others, so no one will know, but please, you have to tell me.” Swallowing hard, he pulls me close and whispers, “You weren’t lying were you? To my cousin, I mean. You truly can sense… them, and even cleanse them, can’t you?”

 

Unwilling to comment, I pat his hand and say, “We’ll talk about it some other time.” Like never.

 

Shaking his head, he tightens his grasp. “No. I’ve given my oath to never reveal what happens here. You can tell me, you can trust me. I need to know. I felt it, I know you did something, please…”

 

Glancing around to make sure no one is looking, I explain the whole spiel to BoShui through Sending. Oddly enough, Blobby even agrees to make an appearance, condensing in the palm of my hand and even giving a happy little bounce for emphasis. Huh, Did Blobby grow? I swear it was only about the size of tear drop before, and now its almost the size of a grape. Weird, all it did was circle the waters once before coming back, all satisfied and energetic. Gerel said the pool was chock full of Heavenly Energy, but I though Heavenly Water is supposed to emit Heavenly Energy, not absorb it.

 

My amorphous tenant has nothing to say, settling in and around the void. Who knows, maybe Blobby was hungry or something. It’s a mystery I don’t have time for, as I’m knee deep in shit with BoShui at the moment. “In conclusion,” I Send, “I didn’t have the Heavenly Water until I fell into the canals of Sanshu. I didn’t even know about it before that, I just had a feeling. It’s no wonder your cousin didn’t believe me.”

 

By now, BoShui is looking at me as if I were the Mother herself, though his eyes fill with tears and regret. “Was she…?” he asks, unable to voice the rest.

 

“No,” I answer in a firm tone. “She wasn’t. She truly believed in her cause and thought she was doing the right thing.” Which makes her life, and death, all the more tragic.

 

Tears stream down BoShui’s cheeks as he struggles for calm, breathing in a shuddering gasp. “Thank you,” he says, bowing his head before handing me the black brick he took from wagon. “There’s something wrong with it. Before we even entered the cavern, I sensed there was something here for me. When I touched it, I wasn’t myself. All I could feel was an overwhelming yearning for bloodshed and vengeance. I wanted to turn around and cut you down, order my men to fight to the death just to revel in death and destruction, until you…”

 

Studying the item, I feel nothing strange about it. If I wasn’t seeing the entire process happening inside the cavern, I’d have thought these little bars were carved stone. There’s nothing metallic about them, no glowing sheen or ring when tapped. Weird. Neither Baledagh nor Blobby have anything to say about it either, so I head to the wagon to see what I can find out. The workers ignore my presence, going about their tasks like I don’t exist. Fear and resignation mingle with the scent of unwashed bodies, these people surviving on a dwindling cache of water and rations sitting in the corner. No matter how much I insist, they refuse to stop working, shaking their heads and mutter ‘I don’t dare’ or its equivalent. They don’t even have an overseer, so broken in spirit they might’ve worked themselves to death if we hadn’t arrived.

 

After a few questions, I find out the other tunnel leads to the blacksmiths, where the bars are forged into weapons and armour. I guess the secret cavern keeps people from finding out Yo Ling’s secret, since not all of the Butcher Bay Bandits were Defiled. Heading back into the cavern, I check the closest cauldron, curious how they turn stone into liquid, then stone again, using only a pot sitting over a campfire. Peering into the first cauldron reveals nothing of note, merely a thick, viscous liquid almost ready to be poured out. Making my way down the line, the liquid lightens in colour with each station I pass, until halfway through, I spot something floating in the pot. Swallowing my revulsion, I grab the ladle and fish up the contents for a better look. Interspersed with rock fragments and Heavenly Energy infused-water are gleaming shards of white, almost like white jade but not. My stomach drops as I guess its origins, but unwilling to speak without proof, I ask, “Where do you get this materials from?”

 

“There, Great one.” Hurrying to show me, the nearest worker hurries toward a shadowy corner of the cavern. Lifting a previously unseen tarp, he reveals a desiccated corpse. Treated with something to keep the bones from rotting, it sits in a puddle of brownish-red filth, as if marinating before its time in the pot. “Mercy Great One, but the Lord has yet to send us more and we will soon run out. Without more ingredients, we cannot work, and if we don’t work…” The worker whimpers and cringes before lifting another tarp. “We tried adding the fallen workers, but it’s not working. The bones, they are not of the same quality. Also, the bodies, they are too wet and there also isn’t enough of the solvent to dry them. No one knows how to make it either, it’s always the Lord who prepares this for us, please Great One, you must speak to him.”

 

Numb to the horror of it all, my brain puts the pieces together and I’m not happy with my findings. The death and corpses don’t surprise me much, it’s fairly standard Defiled murder-hobo territory. What’s disturbing is the need for Spiritual Hearts and water infused with Heavenly Energy. Tranquility was made from the skull of a Meng-Zhua, some big, elephant looking mother fucker. Is it really all that different from what I’m seeing here?

 

If this is true, then the difference between us and them isn’t as great as I once thought, which means…

 

I dunno what it means.

 

I’m not sure how I feel about any of this.

 

Chapter Meme

 

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Savage Divinity – Chapter 246


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

 

More art from Jessica Mark, this girl works crazy fast! I recieved it like 5 hours after posting the chapter on monday, no joke. Here it is in all it’s glory, the aftermath of Mila and Zian’s little scuffle.

moxxu2q

The chinese text translations are as follows:

 Heart Caption: Little Zian’s Heart

Zian’s Caption: Too amazing!

Sumila’s text bubble: I want to sleep. Wake me at twelve, and then we’ll go out.

 

This is my favourite drawing yet, Mila looks so adorably angry! Thanks so much!


 

 

Basking in the morning sun, I greet the new day with a smile, ready to search for treasure. I’m feeling good about my chances with how things turned out. In the interest of fairness, Zian and the others wanted to pick their zones, claiming it was only fair since I had the advantage of Jester Wang’s guidance. I reluctantly obliged but things worked out after BoShui ended up with the North-west quadrant. This is where the top brass lived, meaning Yo Ling’s manor is mine to plunder.

 

Finally lucky. It’s about damn time.

 

Though there’s only one-fourth of the island to cover, it’s not a small area by any measure. It took five hours of marching to cross the island and reach the outer edge of our quadrant, and since the sun had already set by the time we arrived, this is the first real look I’ve taken of our hunting grounds. Rugged and uneven, the island seems incapable of supporting much natural life. A few grasses, weeds, and mosses add minimal colour to the landscape, with the odd, scraggly tree growing in the rocky, loose soil, a light dusting sitting atop solid bedrock. The stone-brick buildings are well-built but exceedingly filthy, unsurprising since bandits aren’t known for their cleanliness. Reeking of mildew, rotten food, and worse, we left the buildings unoccupied, sleeping atop the jagged stones beneath the stars instead of subjecting ourselves to its foul stench.

 

Before going to sleep last night, we searched through the buildings around our campsite, but a quick once over uncovered nothing of value. Unsurprising since these were the barracks for common bandits and warriors, unlikely to contain much hidden wealth. I’m more interested in the officers’ quarters and the forges sitting on the island’s coast. If what Jester Wang says is accurate, there probably won’t be much of value in the other quadrants, which is fine by me. I don’t mind splitting the loot, I’m here for the thrill of finding it.

 

After bringing a hot breakfast to the Guard Leader and her cronies, I leave a basket of meat and fruits on the ground for my fur babies before ducking into Lin’s tent. Waking the sweet girl with a kiss on the cheek, my little wifey pouts and groans in protest even as her nose twitches at the fragrant smell of breakfast. After struggling to decide between food and sleep, gluttony triumphs over sloth as she sits up, her eyes bright and hair in disarray. “Morning hubby,” she says, accepting her bowl with a toothy smile.

 

Too cute.

 

Devouring her breakfast while I brush her hair, Lin leans back to nestle against my chest, sighing in contentment. “Yummy! Hubby, you’re the best.” Affecting a pout, she continues, “Poor Mi-Mi and Li-Li, they’re probably eating a cold breakfast all by their lonesome. Why’d you send them away with that stinky Zian?”

 

“Stinky? You’re too biased, he wears more perfume than anyone I know, plus he’s the prettiest man I’ve ever met. I was even worried Mila would fall for his charms and abandon us.” Kissing Lin on the temple, I resume brushing her hair. “It’s not like I wanted to separate from her, but I had no choice. While he’s all cordial and polite on the surface, I’m certain he’d decapitate me given the chance, so partnering with him would have been too stressful. Even though she doesn’t have a rank, Mila’s the best choice to handle him. His enmity ends at me and she’s smart enough not to start a new blood feud, so it’ll be fine. Plus, if things go south, then she has Tursinai there to back her up. Mila’s a tough girl, she’ll survive without us for a day or two.”

 

My words earn me a double poke, one finger to each cheek. “Silly Rainy, Mi-Mi’s still a girl. It’s not a nice feeling when your hubby sends you away with another man. You need to make it up to her after this, ya? Maybe you should finally get her a betrothal gift. You gave Yan hers months ago and Mi-Mi’s been waiting all this time. Unlike your sweet Lin-Lin, Mi-Mi gets jealous easily, so you have to work a little harder to please her.”

 

Wait what? “It wasn’t a betrothal gift, it was a going away present for a friend. Anyways, I gave you both your betrothal gifts. You’re wearing parts of it right now.”

 

“This?” Thrusting her hand in front of my face, Lin wiggles her new ring, a golden, diamond-encrusted band boasting a heart-shaped sapphire the size of my thumbnail. “Oh, hubby… It’s so shiny and I love it, but it’s not a betrothal gift.”

 

Oh no… How much do they expect me to spend on a betrothal gift? “So… what’s a betrothal gift?” In hindsight, I probably should have asked this earlier.

 

Braiding one side of her hair while I do the other, Lin giggles and answers, “A betrothal gift is supposed to be practical, something we can use to contribute to the household. We can’t do anything with rings and jewellery other than sell it, and then what? See, you gave Zabu and Shana to Yan, which means she has two quins to help her hunt and bring food and pelts home. So you need to think of something for Mi-Mi that matches her personality. Easy, ya?”

 

Huh, that’s rather down-to-earth of the People. I like it. Then again, it probably became a tradition because so many people died young. With these parameters for a betrothal gift, it’s pretty much ensuring your spouse has some means to earn a living after you’ve croaked. Ah whatever, I’ll treat the jewellery as a regular gift, their smiles were worth it. Plus, it’s not like I worked hard for the money and gemstones, Jorani and co. stole it all. “Hmm… so does that mean I should build Mila a forge? I wouldn’t even know where to start…” And what do I get Lin? Taduk provides her with everything she needs to be an herbalist.

 

“You can ask her daddy, but I think it’d be better if you got her armour. Something like Li-Li’s, ya? Mi-Mi’s not as durable as you are.”

 

Runic armour? How rich does Lin think I am? Praying I find something expensive on the island, I’m struck by a chilling thought. “You don’t think I’m trying to marry Li Song do you? Is that why you were so upset when I didn’t give her any jewellery?”

 

“Silly Rainy. We were upset because you gave us gifts right in front of her. If you had nothing to gift Li-Li, then you should have waited until we were alone. It’s rude ya?”

 

Sigh. There are so many of these little customs and courtesies, how am I ever supposed to learn them all?  “When we get home, I need a crash course on how not to be rude. Just to clarify, I gave Li Song the armour because she’s the only one who can wear it, not because I’m interested in her.”

 

“I know and Mi-Mi knows too, but everyone else doesn’t see it that way. Runic Armour is priceless, you can’t buy it even if you have money.” So where am I supposed to find one for Mila? My little wifey thinks too highly of me.

 

Her braids finished, Lin reaches for her clothes and I turn away before she strips down. My little wifey has no sense of propriety, finding nothing wrong with taking off her pajamas in my presence. As nice as it sounds in theory, the four fearsome guards standing outside would happily beat me bloody should I ever overstep my boundaries. Unaware of the epic struggle between reason and lust going on within me, Lin continues chatting. “It’s fine, Li-Li doesn’t want to marry anyone anyways, not yet at least. Think of it as helping her keep pesky suitors away. No one’s gonna approach her after you gifted her Runic Armour.” Hugging me from behind, Lin whispers, “Don’t worry, if Li-Li changes her mind and wants to marry you, I don’t mind. Towel please.”

 

Handing her a wet face-cloth, I sit and wait as she washes her face and brushes her teeth. This girl, she’s too accommodating. How many wives does she expect me to have?

 

…Not that I’m complaining.

 

Unfortunately, beautiful though she might be, I don’t see myself ever marrying Li Song. Besides, knowing her, she’d probably rather marry Mila instead of me, so this is all a moot point. Man, I have more possible rivals than I thought… I should treat Mila better before she realizes she’s better off with someone else…

 

Leaving my pets with Lin, I bring Gerel to meet up with our Society partner, waiting outside while BoShui’s guard wakes him, my fellow Warrant Officer still sleeping off a bender. Truth be told, I didn’t stick Mila with Zian just so I could avoid an awkward situation, because it’s equally awkward hanging out with BoShui. He didn’t take the Shrike’s death well and still kinda blames it on me. With his Spectral compromised soul, I thought it best to have Baledagh keep an eye on him. Handing the reins over to my little brother, we stand and wait with a piping hot bowl of rice gruel in hand.

 

Looking like death warmed over, BoShui wincing at the glare of the morning light. “Mother’s sagging tits,” he groans, taking the bowl without a word of thanks. “What time is it?”

 

In control of our vocal chords, Baledagh declines to answer, studying our Tainted ally. “It’s getting worse,” he says mentally. “At this rate, it’s possible he’ll turn wholly Defiled before we leave.”

 

It sucks not being able to see what he sees, but we each have our own strengths. “How can you tell?”

 

“Most people only have a handful of Spectres about them, never coming in contact while whispering their hateful lies. It’s of little consequence to anyone with a good head on their shoulders, but the more Spectres there are, the worse it gets. The air is thick with Spectres around this one, diving in and out of his body as they please. Even his guards are affected again.”

 

Shit. Baledagh cleansed them only two mornings ago, when we set out from Sanshu. None of the people in my retinue suffered from a resurgence of Spectres, so I figured they were inoculated against further infection, but it seems I’m wrong. No wonder everyone’s hairs are in a twist when it comes to the Defiled, one bad apple truly spoils the bunch. “Anything you can do to slow it down?”

 

Baledagh gives a mental shake of his head, impressive considering he’s not here in the void with me. We’re more in tune with each other now, which is both alarming and heartwarming at the same time. “It’s a matter of willpower,” he says, scorn and disgust welling up within, “and this sorry sack of shit had little to begin with. Who knows when he’ll give in? Maybe in an hour, maybe never.”

 

Harsh words aside, Baledagh’s contempt isn’t solely directed at BoShui. Much of it is reserved for himself, my little brother overly critical of his past mistakes. I don’t blame him for turning Defiled though. With the life he’s had, I’m surprised it didn’t happen earlier. Hell, I’m surprised I haven’t given in to the dark side, I’ve always been self-depreciating and one to wallow in self misery, a perfect target for the Spectres. Plus, I’d make an awesome villain, strutting my stuff and making evil quips, dressed in all black everything complete with devilish goatee. Morals are so cumbersome, sometimes I wonder what it’d be like to divest myself of them all.

 

Meeting Baledagh’s gaze, BoShui’s lip curls in a sneer. “What are you staring at? Acting all high and mighty because you got a promotion. Everything’s all roses and sunshine for you, isn’t it? Pei. Must be nice to be loved by the Mother. I wouldn’t know, the cold, frigid bitch never did anything for me.” Turning to his guard, he bellows, “Make yourself useful and fetch me some wine. It feels like there’s a bear dancing on my skull.”

 

As the guard passes over a waiting gourd of wine, Baledagh’s draws Peace, slashes out, and returns the weapon to its scabbard in the blink of an eye. “No more drinking,” he says as the spilled wine drains into the rocky soil, the top half of the gourd still in BoShui’s hand. “Drowning your sorrows won’t help. Embrace them, experience them, and move on. Do it on your own time though, there’s work to be done.”

 

“Atta boy, Baledagh. Show him who’s boss! Alpha as fuck!” Baledagh’s cheeks redden from my whooping praise, but I can’t help it. That was both bad-ass and informative. 

 

Though the guards seem appreciative of the gesture, BoShui doesn’t feel the same. Knuckles white with fury, he swallows his words and orders his people to prepare. Moving to one side, he eats his breakfast in stony silence, his glances betraying his fury and hatred, no doubt encouraged by the Spectres. It’s not the best situation, because if he’s not talking to us, then that means he’s listening to them.

 

We’re playing a dangerous game. While Baledagh and Blobby can cleanse BoShui at any time, I’d prefer to keep Gerel in the dark regarding the full extent of ‘my gifts’. He can’t keep secrets from Yuzhen and I’ve seen her twist minor, seemingly insignificant details to her advantage. She already has more dirt on me than I’m comfortable with, so I’d rather not give her more.

 

I still don’t know how we’re gonna deal with BoShui in the long run. Even if we ignore the sudden perception of old injuries, he’s going to notice something’s off when we cleanse him, which will lead to a whole mess of uncomfortable questions. The best plan we came up with was letting him get nice and drunk before Baledagh does his thing, then claim BoShui fell down the stairs or something. It’s not the best plan, but it’s something.

 

A shame we can’t siphon away half of the Spectres and leave the rest for later. We tried it out on Ulfsaar and he went apeshit as the remaining Spectres struggled to take control. He settled down after Baledagh finished the job, but not before smacking Gerel halfway across the room. It’s a good thing he was easy to trick, I’d hate to kill him. With his prodigious strength and robust Aura, the brutish half-bear bandit is a fearsome opponent despite his utterly non-existent martial skills. With a few months training, I fully expect him to become a pillar of my retinue.

 

I’m not thrilled about having an angry rage-bandit nicknamed ‘the Voracious’ as my most promising rookie, but I’m training soldiers, not nursemaids. I can’t expect them all to be paragons of virtue, now can I? So long as they don’t cross my bottom line, these former bandits will do nicely. I’ve so many new ideas for training and I can’t wait to try them out.

 

Devious thoughts aside, I take a few minutes to explain my search plan to BoShui, who readily agrees with all my suggestions. After sending our people out in groups to search the surrounding areas, I follow Jester Wang to Yo Ling’s manor, caring nothing for the various storehouses and barracks in between. I mean, sure, there’ll be things of value to plunder, but I doubt they leave all their coin sitting around behind a locked door. There has to be a treasury, a hidden room hiding all of Yo Ling’s personal goods, and where better to hide it than in his own house?

 

Sitting atop the highest hill, Yo Ling’s manor is a sight to behold, a curious mixture of elegance and function. At twice my height and complete with moat and drawbridge, the spotless white-stone walls wouldn’t look out of place on a fortress, a necessity for any Bandit King. After Gerel leaps over the wall and lowers the bridge, the double gates open to reveal a massive white-jade statue chiseled in the likeness of a young Yo Ling. With two eyes and a well-groomed beard, dressed in full armour and mace in hand, the dastardly bandit almost looks heroic.

 

Once you get past the outer defences and garish choice in welcoming decor, Yo Ling’s manor shows its charm. For a murderous bandit, the man had good taste. Lining the paved walkway are smooth, rounded rocks of similar size, fit together in an uneven and oddly satisfying manner when compared to the straight, undeviating pathway. The overall effect turns his entire courtyard into a massive rock garden, and I can only imagine how beautiful it’d look if all the grass were trimmed. The outside of the buildings are all red-lacquered wood, with gracefully arched roofs and sturdy, stone-carved foundations. Peering through the open doors and windows uncovers a myriad of artworks and extravagances. Vibrant porcelain vases, decorative jade vessels, masterwork calligraphy scrolls, vivid, breathtaking paintings, and more.

 

Okay… I now officially regret inviting Zian and the others along.

 

Maybe I can convince them to donate everything to a museum, then rob it blind in a year or two.

 

The rest of the day is spent in a frenzy of activity, packing everything onto the wagons and sending it back to the barges. I’m not sure we’ll even have enough room on the ships, we might need more than one trip to bring everything away. Walking hand in hand with Lin, we take our time appreciating the sights and secretly pocketing a few small items for ourselves before clearing everything out room by room, leaving only destruction in our wake. Stones and couches overturned, walls and bookshelves torn apart, every pillar and floorboard is checked and rechecked for hidden compartments as our appetite for treasure continues to grow. Even the drapes and cushions are taken away, repurposed into padding for the more fragile treasures.

 

As night falls, I gaze upon our work from Yo Ling’s balcony, unable to come to terms with my newfound wealth. Though I’ve yet to find anything hidden away, the treasures on display are enough to make a hundred men wealthy, much less eight. The Guard Leader is surprisingly adept at appraising works of art, often able to name the craftsman before seeing a signature or stamp. I suppose I should gift her something after all this, though I should ask Lin if it’s appropriate before I do. The last thing I need right now are more wife candidates, and even if I did, the Guard Leader is nowhere near the top of the list.

 

Breathing a sigh of contentment, I glance around Yo Ling’s room before we go, left untouched for now. I though about sleeping here, but who knows what sort of nasty business went down on those sheets. No thank you. Spying a bookshelf, I head over to peruse the collection, curious what a bandit king reads. Histories and poetry make up the bulk of the books, along with a solid selection of military and weapon manuals. Running my fingers over the spine of each book, I ignore Gerel’s growing impatience because why not, while BoShui looks on the verge of falling asleep on his feet.

 

Whatever. I’ll come back tomorrow. Still a full day of looting ahead of me, so might as well get a good night’s sleep. As I turn away, my elbow bumps a bookend and I react instinctively, darting to catch it before it falls. Freezing in place, I turn my gaze back to the bookend, still sitting on the shelf, unmoved by the impact. The bookend couldn’t be more ordinary, an L shaped block of wood stuck to the bookshelf, incredibly out of place amongst the riches and splendour of Yo Ling’s manor. All the other bookends are the same, and even the shelf is stuck against the wall.

 

“Interesting,” Gerel says, studying the shelf thoughtfully. “A hidden door?”

 

“Perhaps you twist or turn the bookends in a certain order?” BoShui adds his two cents, finally showing an interest in the proceedings. “My uncle has something like that.”

 

“Fuck puzzles.” Grabbing an armload of books, I toss them onto the bed. Quickly catching on, everyone pitches in to help empty the shelf, with all thoughts of sleep fleeing at the prospect of riches. After chopping the bookshelf into kindling, we carve into the stone wall behind it to reveal a hewn stone stairway leading down into the depths of the island. Grinning from ear to ear, I glance at everyone and ask, “So, who’s up for a little cave exploration?”

 

This is gonna be so much fun…

 

Chapter Meme

 

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Savage Divinity – Chapter 245


I’d like to give a shout out to my two latest Patrons, Gwal and Anonymous. Thank you both so much for your incredible support!

 

Sorry for the late chapter. No excuse. Just sorry.


 

Knees weak and body quivering, Mila struggled to compose herself as she fled the floating wooden deathtrap in all haste. Fighting the urge to kiss the sand beneath her feet, she clutched Rain’s arm a little tighter, taking comfort in their shared terror, his blanched skin and wide-eyed expression betraying his inner thoughts. Forget having a calm, fearless husband, it was unnatural to remain unnerved after what they went through.

 

In contrast, Lin hopped over the side of the boat and skipped ahead, eager to explore the island with her guards close behind. How the five of them remained unperturbed by the turbulent cruise was nothing short of awe-inspiring, Lin’s mental fortitude and desire for adventure far outstripping Mila’s own. Even Gerel and Tursinai looked a little green from the experience, a minor wobble in their gait betraying unease. Tenjin appeared downright miserable, haggard and sickly as he leaned heavily against his wife for support. A broken neck was no small matter and if not for Lin’s guards stabilizing his injury and stealing him out from under Yo Ling’s nose, Tursinai might very well have joined Tanaraq to become a young widow.

 

With her racing heart under control, Mila finally thought to check on Song. Oh, how wonderful it would be to see the sweet girl in distress, Mila could hardly contain her excitement. It’s not that she wanted Song to be terrified, but the stony-faced girl rarely showed any emotion, not even cracking a smile after thrashing a Demon, so Mila treasured every one of Song’s unique expressions. She could see it now, Song with her ears pressed flat and head hanging low, shyly taking Mila’s hand in search of safety and reassurance…

 

In reality, Song disembarked with her customary nonchalance, scanning around for danger while carrying a terrified Aurie in her arms. The other animals scampered off the boat to explore their surroundings, quins, bears, and wildcats all exploring their unfamiliar surroundings, though some of the animals sought Rain’s comforting touch.

 

Right, their surroundings. Taking a deep breath, Mila studied the mythical Butcher Bay hideout and her first impression was… disappointing. For decades, soldiers and mercenaries searched for Yo Ling’s hidden fortress to no avail, so Mila imagined it to be something wondrous and awe-inspiring. An underground city, ramshackle ruins of a past era, even a standard fortress would have been acceptable, but so far, all she saw was a regular beach. Surrounded by mossy cliffs, it was large enough to hold hundreds of boats, a staging area and little else. A handful of ugly buildings sat hewn into the cliff-side, warehouses and shipyards according to Jester Wang, all empty and bare. At the back of the beach laid a path leading into the depths of the island where Lin bounced in place, playing the part of docile and obedient ‘wifey’ while waiting for the rest of their delegation to assemble. 

 

With nothing of interest to see, Mila flopped down to the sand, her nerves strained and muscles tense after multiple near brushes with death. Though she could accept dying in battle, hurtling through the rapids with no control over her fate was almost too much to handle. Joining her, Song sat down with Aurie in her lap, the poor wildcat still shivering with fright. Stroking his flank, Mila did her part to comfort him as Rain’s retinue and the Society Brats made their way onto the beach, fanning out into their separate groups and factions. Watching Rain’s ‘sub-bosses’ clumsily arrange their squadrons, Mila couldn’t help but sigh at their ineptitude. Dastan and Rustram aside, it was a terrible mess. The four former bandits were the worst, standing about without a care in the world and taking no efforts to organize their own people. Bandits weren’t known for their organization or discipline, but they seemed to take pride in their failings, firing glances of derision and disdain at the neatly organized Society soldiers standing at attention, while they themselves squatted and loitered about in jumbled clump.

 

Ravil and Bulat were a different mess altogether, their loud reprimands and imaginative curses echoing off the cliffs as they bullied their subordinates into line. One a murderous ruffian and the other a criminal mastermind, the pair made for unconventional leaders, but their unorthodox style was both taught and endorsed by Rain so Mila had no choice but to suffer in silence. At least Rain knew better than to berate his people in public as he took charge, but the two former street toughs took perverse delight in it, grinning with pride as the Society watched on.

 

Upon returning home, Mila intended to beg Mama to place a contingent of Sentinels under Rain’s command and teach him proper tactics. Though Mama and Baatar were happy to let Rain to pick his own soldiers and test his wild strategies, as a Second Grade Warrant Officer, he was now too high-profile to be given free reign. Allowing a novice commander and his delinquent hoodlums to represent them would only bring the People shame. Though Rain lucked out with his former cripples who turned out to be an honourable and worthy group of warriors, there had to be a limit to his luck. Crippled former soldiers were a far cry from reluctant bandits, and though Rain had no choice but to keep Jorani, Mila believed it would be best if Rain dismissed the majority of the Mother’s Militia after bringing them far from Sanshu.

 

Or rather, she had a more… permanent solution in mind, but Rain was too kind to listen.

 

Instead, he spent the last two weeks doing absolutely nothing, running around headbutting his pets while discussing a myriad of bizarre and senseless ideas with Diyako and his group of madmen. Those damned birds were driving everyone crazy with their damnable squawking, but her betrothed was too stubborn to get rid of them. Lamenting his lack of skill, Rain had all but given up on the bow and Mila couldn’t blame him. It took a lifetime of training to raise a master archer and he already had more than enough to keep him occupied. His dream of designing a cheap, mass-manufactured crossbow to rival the People’s hunting bows was another thing altogether though. The double recurve bows were the product of generations of testing and experience which Rain couldn’t hope to match in his lifetime, much less surpass.

 

Stifling a sigh, Mila studied her betrothed, his lips pursed and eyebrows drawn in annoyance as he whipped his retinue into formation. Though she often complained about his inadequacies, his soft attitude, strange ideas, and wild fancies were all a part of why she loved him. When he lifted her into his arms with his infectious smile shining brighter than his amber eyes, her complaints and irritations all melted away into a soft, gooey mass of love and affection.

 

Well, almost all of them. She still couldn’t forgive him for the headbutt. If he wanted to show his affection, then why didn’t he just kiss her?

 

Such was the price she paid for falling in love with an idiot, a bruised nose and injured pride.

 

After determining no one was missing with a quick headcount, Rain marched off with BoShui and Lin at his sides while everyone else waited their turn. To save time and ensure everything was aboveboard, they divided the island into four quadrants to search through in pairs, one Society representative alongside one of their own. Huu teamed up with ZhiLan and Fung with Ryong, the most sensible grouping. Leaving the licentious Fung with the flirtatious ZhiLan was a recipe for disaster, while the Seven Star Sect successor would find himself shorter by a head if he didn’t stop leering at Huu’s wives. Finally, lacking a fourth warrant officer, Rain paired Zian with Mila, presumably to avoid friction between himself and the once-defeated Warrant Officer, though Mila was unhappy about babysitting this pompus, puffed-up princeling.

 

After the last of Fung and ZhiLan’s people faded into the mist, Zian moved to follow. “Come along then,” he said, nose tilted towards the sky. “We’ve much to do before the day is done.”

 

‘Come along then’, she inwardly mocked. By the Mother, if Mila didn’t know any better, she’d swear Zian had learned to infuse his Aura with arrogance. Undeserved at that, she’d seen him fight and while it was impressive, she was confident in her ability to deal with him after she condensed her Aura. His speed and style were pretty to look at but as Mama would say, he was too engrossed in looking elegant. All style and no substance, let him dance all he wants. His skills were nothing in comparison to her raw, unmitigated strength.

 

With his Honed Aura, Rain was indisputably the number one talent of their generation, but Mila refused to give up second place. If she could learn to defend against his Aura…

 

Daydreaming of defeating Rain and sweeping aside their peers, Mila led her people around the outskirts of the desolate South-west quadrant with Zian. While a treasure hunt might have been fun with Rain and Lin at her side, Song’s enthusiasm was non-existent and Zian’s company all but unbearable. The Sentinels and soldiers swept through the area while Tursinai marched nearby, Sending Mila coarse and obscene comments regarding the things she wanted to do to Zian, unable to converse with Tenjin since she left him back at the beach.

 

Grinding her teeth, Mila paid the lustful woman and arrogant pretty-boy no mind as she trudged through the island. Sparse and rocky with an utter lack of trees and shrubbery, there wasn’t much to search through, with the ground too hard to dig up and buildings nonexistent. Every now and then they came across a smattering of tents, containing plenty of bugs and filth but no treasures of any kind.

 

Mother above, if Mila suffered through that horrifying boat ride for nothing but lice and ticks…

 

Four hours into their search, the sun dipped over the horizon and plunged the world into darkness, the moon and starlight too dim to search by. Belly rumbling with hunger, Mila wanted to call it a day but Zian wanted to push on, hungry for treasure and unwilling to give up. Grumbling beneath her breath, she followed the greedy princeling for another half-hour before her temper boiled over. “Enough!” She snapped. “This is stupid, bumbling around by torchlight, who knows what we might’ve missed? Set camp, we’ll resume our search in the morning.” Zian didn’t respond but Mila couldn’t be bothered to care, ordering her people to dig in. If he dared try to leave, then she’d damn the consequences and give Tursinai permission to do as she pleased.

 

After all, they were alone and isolated on the island, a perfect place to slaughter the Society’s most promising youth without any witnesses…

 

After a cold, unsatisfying meal of jerky and hard-tack, Mila crawled into her tent and sighed. Climbing into her bedroll fully dressed, she lamented her unfortunate fate as the second wife. Her heartless betrothed brought her to this barren wasteland only to saunter off with her supposed friend and abandoning her with his greatest rival. Thoughtless and inconsiderate is what it was, stupid Rain and stupid Lin. With the drunk and dispirited BoShui as their partner, they probably stopped searching hours ago, settling down to enjoy a nice, hot meal cooked by Rain, some stew or noodles, maybe even rice and seared meat, snuggled together in front of the fire like a pair of fools in love. They even stole away the sweet bear cubs, leaving only Sarankho and Song for Mila to cuddle.

 

As if sensing her thoughts, Song laid down and stroked Mila’s hair. “There. There. Mila,” Song said, awkward and unused to comforting people, but the sentiment was there.

 

Giggling in delight, Mila wrapped her arms around Song in a hug. “Oh Song, you always treat me best. Who cares about Rain and Lin, so long as I have you by my side then everything will work out fine.” Indignation replacing melancholy, she continued, “Hmph. That Rain, so greedy for treasure he’s willing to send me away like this. If he loves treasure so much, then I’ll spend it as fast as he earns it. He wastes money on extravagant jewellery for me and Lin instead of saving up for a betrothal gift, but to thank you for saving my life, all he could muster up were a few measly emeralds on a jade comb? The miser, I’ll buy you a whole set of emerald jewellery in Shen Huo and use his coin to pay for it. Tiara, earrings, bangles, necklace, the whole works. Just you wait. What else do you want?”

 

Shaking her head, Song smiled sleepily, looking more radiant than usual. “There’s no need for reward. So long as I can remain by your side, then I am happy.”

 

Squeezing Song a little tighter, Mila engraved this scene into memory. No matter what riches Mila might unearth in the next few days, she couldn’t imagine finding a treasure better than this one; the sight of a contented Song blinking sleepily as she fought to stay awake, nestled in Mila’s shoulder.

 

Maybe this trip was worth it after all.

 

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

 

Though his first day of treasure hunting passed without success, Zian was eager to begin anew. Waking with the rising sun, he ate breakfast and packed his tent, hurrying as much as possible. Crazy though she might have been, he owed the Shrike much for teaching him how to set camp. It seemed like such an unimportant thing, but putting up and taking down his tent gave him a sense of self-satisfaction he didn’t know he lacked.

 

Finished with his task, he glanced at the Bekhai camp, silent and still despite the morning light. How disappointing, he’d had such high expectations for Sumila, daughter of Akanai. When he thought of how Baatar said Rain wasn’t the most talented youth in their village, Zian thought he spoke of Sumila, but it seems she was little more than a wastrel like so many other heirs of greatness. Seeing the slave girl’s prowess made him believe Sumila would be even stronger, but after yesterday’s shameful display, he realized the Bekhai weren’t all peerless warriors from birth. Rain and the slave were anomalies, talented, hardworking geniuses, but the Bekhai had their fair share of slackers.

 

While the quality of Sumila’s soldiers were a step above Rain’s, their leader was anything but impressive. A sullen, moody teenager, she spent all of yesterday’s search pouting and moping, as if searching the island was beneath her station. He’d seen more than a few prodigal sons and daughters, but never had he seen child so spoiled she didn’t even put Butcher Bay’s treasure in her eyes. This was a story to tell their children and grandchildren, eventually to be immortalized in the annals of history, yet Sumila treated this whole excursion like a chore, clearly unhappy to be here.

 

Shaking his head, Zian had a moment of pity for Rain. Though she was a lovely enough girl in a non-traditional manner, with a strong jawline and endearing freckles, having a lazy, unmotivated wife like Sumila meant Rain was destined for hardship and adversity. He believed behind every great man in history stood a strong woman, whether it be a mother, sister, or wife. Then again, he also believed many possibly great men met their downfalls at the hands of a woman, and he took the lesson to heart. While he saw nothing wrong with indulging in the pleasures of the flesh, he took care not to fall into their woven webs. As a talented warrior and the only heir to Clan and City, he had his fair share of women looking to sink their claws into him.

 

With all his soldiers ready and waiting, Zian refused to wait any longer. Unwilling to sneak away and break faith, he stood outside Sumila’s tent and cleared his throat, making his presence known.

 

Nothing. No response at all, not even a stirring within the tent. Trying again, he coughed loudly and waited, craning his neck to listen for signs of life.

 

 

Still nothing.

 

“Ahem,” he coughed, anger rising. “Lady Sumila? Good morning. The sun has risen and time is wasting.”

 

A tittering laugh caught him by surprise as he turned to face a lovely, older woman sitting a few meters from Sumila’s tent. “You’ll have to work a little harder if you want little Mila. Loves her sleep, she does.” Tursinai, the newly appointed Senior Captain of the Bekhai. How did he not see her there? Her low rank was by no means an indication of her skill. As someone who defeated the traitor guard captain Mao Jianghong and survived a clash with Yo Ling, she’d earned his respect and vigilance. Thankfully, her chain and sickle was unsuited to single combat and her equally skilled husband was back at the beach, still recovering from his injuries. Should worst come to worst, he was confident Jukai could handle the beautiful warrior with ease, giving his retinue the advantage.

 

Clasping his hands, he nodded in respect. “Senior Captain Tursinai, your help would be appreciated. If you could wake Lady Sumila, we can be on our way in a matter of minutes.”

 

Absolutely not.” Smirking in an unladylike manner, Tusinai shook her head. “You’re pretty, but not pretty enough for me to poke my nose into that beehive. Not even Rain would be so brave as to wake her at dawn. If you want to try, then be my guest.”

 

Frowning in annoyance, Zian weighed his options. It was almost five in the morning and they’d agreed to only spend two days searching the island, not nearly enough time. Well, if the Bekhai refused to conduct themselves civilly, then he would act accordingly. Gesturing for his retinue to approach, he said, “The Lady Sumila is having troubles waking this morning. Shall we aid her with a rousing battle cry?”

 

Understanding his intention, his fifty-odd soldiers smiled and raised their voices in a challenging shout, alternating between stamping one foot and smacking their breastplates. Following Jukai’s lead, their shouting rose in both intensity and volume, their stamping and smacking devolving into a thunderous, clanging clamour as the sought to rouse the lazy Sumila from her bedroll.

 

This went on for almost half a minute when a deafening shout emanated from the tent. “QUUUIIEEETTTTTTTTT!!!” Came the echoing, guttural roar, silencing Zian’s retinue in an instant. Stomping out of her tent, with her clothes in disarray and hair a mess, Lady Sumila glared murderously at the congregated soldiers, Zian’s heart freezing in the face of her unmitigated blood lust. The pouty, freckled, button-nosed maiden was nowhere to be found, replaced by a fearsome tigress hungry for retribution. Moving faster than he could react, she grabbed him by the throat with one hand and hefted him overhead like a sack of flour, his feet dangling off the ground despite their massive height difference. Grabbing her steely forearm, he fought to free himself from her vice-like grip with no success, his punches and kicks unnoticed as her stubby fingers denied air to his lungs and blood to his brain. “What business do you have at this unholy hour?” She asked with a snarl, her bloodshot eyes wild and violent. “Is it too much to ask for a full night’s rest? Why do you even need treasure so badly? If you’re not the richest person on this island, then I’ll eat my boots raw! ANSWER ME!!

 

Zian’s Aura crashed uselessly against Tursinai’s as the warrior woman hid her delight. “Silly girl, he can’t answer with your hand clamped around his neck. Why don’t you put the young magistrate down before the old man has an aneurysm?”

 

Dropped without warning, Zian fell to his hands and knees, light-headed and gasping for breath. As the world spun around him, he heard Sumila mutter, “I’m going back to sleep. Wake me at a decent hour and we’ll start the search.”

 

Vision fading in and out of darkness, Zian felt a strange sensation welling up from within. If Rain or Fung or anyone else had treated him like this, then he’d stop at nothing to kill the bastard and avenge his honour. However, when his thoughts turned to Lady Sumila, there was no hatred or anger. Quite the opposite in fact, he wondered how he could have ever been so blind as to not see her true beauty. Never before had he witnessed anything more beautiful than her savage ferocity, a robust, forceful warrior, glorious and unstoppable in her fury. Beside her, all other women paled in comparison, flimsy, fragile things of no value aside from their looks.

 

She was everything he wanted in a wife, capable and powerful in her own right while also demure and ladylike when necessary. This was a woman to stand beside, striding hand in hand into the annals of history, together.

 

If ever there were a man more blessed with luck than Falling Rain, Zian couldn’t afford to meet him, for his ego would shatter, never to be reformed.

 

What favoured Son of the Situ Clan? His luck was nothing compared to a ‘nameless’ village savage.

 

Chapter Meme

 

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Savage Divinity – Chapter 244

 

After hammering out all the details of our collaborative looting, Zian and Co. return to their tents, finally giving me room to breathe. My greatest worry was that they’d refuse and spread word of how I’ve taken former Butchers into my retinue. Although everything is aboveboard with the Mother’s Militia after the Magistrate gave them a full pardon for their ‘heroic efforts’ (though it was probably more to appease Jorani’s deadbeat Ancestral Daddy), I’m not entirely comfortable with having our history put under a magnifying glass. If someone figures out Jester Wang was defeated by us at the fisherman’s village, it wouldn’t be a far stretch to assume I’ve been collaborating with Jorani long before his pardon, earning me yet another powerful enemy. While two-thirds of the Council of Sanshu have gone the way of the dodo, under the command of newly-promoted Lieutenant Marshal Chao Yong, the Eastern Prosperity Alliance is steadily growing into a behemoth merchant company as it devours the remnants of its former competitors.

 

Normally, I wouldn’t care too much about a puffed-up coin counter, but considering Jorani robbed him blind and hung his brother outside the gates of Sanshu (presumably all under my orders), it’s become a growing cause of concern. I mean, with Jester Wang and Dastan’s people, some might see a pattern. I’ve already been accused of being Defiled by the Shrike, so all it’d take is rumour and hearsay to turn public opinion against me. At the moment, I’m backing on my ‘heroic’ reputation to keep me from having to reveal Blobby’s existence to the public which would be a whole different headache to deal with.

 

I brought my concerns to Yuzhen, and though she assured me things would work out, I can’t help but worry. What can I say, it’s in my nature. I love agonizing over the seemingly endless list of people who want me dead. The stress is delightful, making me feel all cold and tense inside. The white hair’s make me look dignified and mature, while the fear makes my heart race, which is great cardio. The stomach cramps are doing wonders for my abs and the paranoia keeps me alert and ready at all times. Losing sleep isn’t a problem, it’s a bonus; no need to waste time tossing and turning, I can meditate and train instead. This is great, I wouldn’t have it any other way.

 

Sigh.

 

What’s wrong with me? I can’t even enjoy my victories for more than a minute before getting all anxious and nervous again.

 

Poking me in the cheek, Lin wraps her arms around me from behind, resting her chin on my shoulder. “Why so gloomy Hubby?”

 

Her toothy smile brings me out of my funk even as Mila snorts and says, “He’s probably agonizing over giving away half the treasure. Why wouldn’t he? It was a foolish move, those Society brats should have nothing but scraps and he’s given them half the pie. With Gerel, Tursinai, Tenjin, Vichear, and Lin’s guards, we could always…” She doesn’t say it, but I can tell she wants to threaten the Society brats, or maybe even something more… permanent. So cute yet so bloodthirsty, what have I gotten myself into?

 

Since she’d ignore my attempts to wave her over, I go to her instead. With Lin hanging weightlessly from my shoulders, I lift Mila off the ground in a shaky hug, doing my best to hide the strain. “Don’t be short-sighted my love. Fifty percent is a large share but it’s a small price to pay in the long run.” Especially if we don’t find anything. Jester Wang doesn’t know where Yo Ling’s treasury is hidden or if it even exists, a tidbit I’ve kept to myself. “Those four are the future of the Society, each one a successor to their sect or clan. This little excursion of ours binds them to us through cooperation and shared secrets, which means they’ll look more favourably on us from here on in. If one of their peers wants to start a conflict, after this, our new collaborators will leap to our defense without being asked, because we hold the keys to mutual destruction. Hell, after enough time passes, we might even become cordial peers. This is the first step in what I hope will be a long, uneventful co-existence.”

 

Huffing in feigned displeasure, Mila turns away so I can’t see her smile. She’s so adorable. Being heavier than most women subconsciously makes her unhappy, so she loves being carried. “Put me down, everyone’s looking.” Pinching my arm, she pouts as I comply, still unconvinced. “Why are you capitulating to them? The Society is not worthy of our friendship.”

 

“Nor are they worthy of our hatred.” Raising my voice so the others can hear, I explain my reasoning. “You both still harbour grudges and if I’m being honest, so do I. When they thought us weak, they hunted us like animals, putting our families and loved ones in danger for sport. If the situation were reversed, I know they wouldn’t offer us shit, and they might even try to get rid of us.” Hardening my voice, I continue. “But I am not them. I like to think of myself as a good person and I refuse to murder for wealth. I’d rather abandon it all and let Yo Ling’s treasury remain hidden for all eternity than sink to their level. They don’t like us and we don’t like them, but I’m willing to let bygones be bygones. If they see me as weak, then so be it. If they try to take advantage, then we’ll make them regret it.” With my Beyblade Aura, I’m more than confident of handling Zian and his peers while Gerel assures me he can handle Jukai. If they have any other trump cards, well… We’ll see how it goes.

 

“Well said.” Fung chimes in with a dark smile. “If they refuse to drink a toast, we’ll force them to drink a forfeit.” It’s like he wants them to make a move, so aggressive and cheeky. Huu nods along in agreement, every bit as upset as Mila but too good a friend to speak up, simply going along with whatever I decide. I’m sure if it were up to him, he’d have forced the Society off the road so we could ride ahead, but doing so would only exacerbate the situation. I’m not sure if anyone else noticed, but none of the Society brats were surprised when I mentioned Yo Ling’s secret island. No, their surprise came after my ‘generous’ offer, which means they already knew about my plans. It’s no wonder they offered to travel together, they wanted a piece of the action and were ready to blackmail me for it.

 

It doesn’t matter. It’d be best if they kept our agreement, but I wouldn’t lose sleep if Yo Ling’s island becomes their graveyard. Despite our recent understanding, Zian still wants to take my head and while I’d feel bad about killing BoShui and ZhiLan, I wouldn’t mind teaching Sang Ryong a lesson or two. The arrogant bastard spent all dinner leering at Mila, Lin, and Li Song, and while I don’t mind him taking a glance or two, his undisguised lust was blatantly disrespectful, treating the girls like objects and not people. His disgusting behaviour has made me rethink my whole attitude towards women, intent on treating them with proper respect and dignity. No more ogling in the baths, only fleeting glances out the corner of my eyes.

 

I can’t not look. I’m only human.

 

Distaste and misgivings aside, I’m fairly confident this will work. The Society isn’t the united power everyone thinks they are, as evidenced by Zian and BoShui’s behaviour during the Purge. While the Society as a whole will band together against external threats, their internal divisions keep them from growing unchecked and that’s what I’m relying on to keep things from going to hell in a handbasket. Zian, BoShui, and ZhiLan represent the three leading powers in the Society, respectively the Situ Clan, Han Clan, and Harmonious Unity Sect. All three are at odds with each other, while Sang Ryong from the Seven Star Sect is firmly in the Situ Clan’s pocket. This gives Zian an advantage, but not enough to unbalance the whole thing. If they tried to overthrow the other two, then BoShui and ZhiLan would unite against them, evening things out. It’s a classic Mexican standoff, and I’m joining in to make things even messier. 

 

Either way, I’m banking on their mutual distrust of one another to keep them from cooperating against me. If need be, I could even woo BoShui and ZhiLan to my side, since the Han Clan have outwardly supported the Behkai while the Harmonious Unity Sect have thrown in with Yuzhen, which is good enough. Politics, it’s so bothersome. I’d be completely lost without Yuzhen’s advice, so I’m thankful for the extra three days by her side. A terrifying woman, she makes it seem so easy. It’s a good thing she’s on our side and I only hope Gerel can keep her satisfied.

 

Come morning, we head south towards the lake with our ponderous wagons in tow. Despite my grievances at the slow pace, it gives me plenty of time to relax and enjoy myself. Leaving Rustram and Jorani to manage the convoy, I spend the day riding through the forest, hunting and herb-picking to my heart’s content. I don’t know how Zian and the others can stand spending all their time in those stuffy little carriages. To each their own I suppose, though I see a few advantages. Riding quins is comfortable but I’d love some lumbar support. Plus the carriage offers a private setting with plenty of room to stretch, meaning I could spend all day meditating and training, or snuggling with Lin and Mila. While I love Lin to bits, she’s been monopolizing everyone’s time, cuddling with me by day and with Mila by night. This leaves me little to no private time with Mila, but I suppose that’s how it’s gotta be with multiple wives. It’s not all fun and games, it’ll take hard work, compromise, and dedication to keep a harem happy.

 

Celibacy is no way to spend my second youth, but to be fair, I still think it’d be weird to have sex with Baledagh watching.

 

My little brother’s mood improves by the day, taking a turn for the better after getting rid of all those Spectres. Without their dark thoughts influencing him, he’s had time to really grieve for Ai Qing, dealing with his emotions on his own terms. It’s made him stronger and more resilient, and I’m proud of his progress. Despite being a mentally twelve-year-old spirit riding backseat in his own body, he’s dealing with things much better than I would in his shoes.

 

While his emotional strength grows by leaps and bounds, his physical strength isn’t far behind, rising with each purified Spectre he absorbs. One or two doesn’t make much of a difference, but we’ve purified more Spectres than I can count and the results are notable. After he woke, he sparred with each of my new sub-bosses and crushed them with sheer strength of arms. Even the impressive Ulfsaar the Voracious stood no chance against Baledagh, a formidable half-bear bandit almost as large as Vichear though sorely lacking in skill. While I might be able to do the same, my victories would be much less overwhelming and decisive without the use of Aura. Baledagh’s fighting prowess and instincts are above and beyond my own, maybe even surpassing Zian’s. Add in my new strength and I’m giddy with joy over how strong we’ve become.

 

Finally, I’m no longer an underdog, rising above it all to become… Top dog, I guess? It doesn’t sound too impressive, but whatever.

 

Nearing the end of the second day, Jester Wang leads us to an empty Butcher Bay outpost by a tributary of the Xiang Mi river. Expropriating the abandoned fleet of barges, we load the wagons and set sail, working through the night to reach Treasure Lake by morning and saving us days of travel in the process. Anchored in a calm, quiet bay, I stare out at the foggy lake where I almost lost my life, my stomach turning at the thought of sailing across them, privy to the knowledge of what lurks beneath its depths. Inside my mental plane, Blobby stirs with interest, emitting a sense of satisfaction and familiarity.

 

To think, my amorphous little blob has a sense of home. How sweet.

 

“Explain it again.”

 

In response to my demand, Jester Wang mutters something rude beneath his breath. “It ain’t so complicated,” he says, adding a belated, “Boss.” Discipline is a real issue lately, but I’ll let it be until we get home. By then, it’ll be too late for regrets once their hellish training begins, with nowhere for them to run. “We just gotta find the right currents and avoid the wrong ones. Simple as picking the right hole between a woman’s legs, ‘cept this time there’s a wrong choice, ha ha ha.”

 

For a guy nicknamed ‘Jester’, he’s not particularly funny, though he seems to think he is. I suppose that’s the irony of bandit names, like calling a giant ‘Tiny’.

 

“So how do we pick the right current? Can you map it out for me?”

 

Looking bashful Jester Wang shrugs. “Can’t say for certain till I sees it. The lake changes depending on the hour and season, but an old hand like meself can tell where not to go. We don’t want to be out in the centre but we can’t be staying to close to shore. So long as nothin’ goes wrong, we’ll reach the hideout afore lunch.”

 

Famous last words. “Let’s say, for argument’s sake, something does go wrong. Then what happens? Be specific.” Call me morbid but if I’m gonna die, I’d like to know how.

 

Another shrug. “Suppose we’ll find out together. Ain’t no one ever come back to tell the tale.”

 

Fun.

 

“And how many times have you done this?”

 

A third shrug. “Usually the Captain- err, Gao Qiu led the way, but if I haven’t seen him do it a thousand times, it’s at least eight hundred. Don’t you worry boss, you’re in good hands. Jester Wang won’t let you down.”

 

Fun. Fun. Funnnnnnnnnn.

 

Relaying the information to the others, we unanimously decide to allow Jester Wang and his comrades four hours to rest, seeing as they’ve been sailing all night. In fact, we insist they rest despite their protests otherwise, claiming to be ‘fresh as ox shit on a farm’. As I rise in the world, I’ve learned how important things like face and reputation are, and it’s starting to affect me in negative ways. A year ago, I’d probably laugh at the quaint colloquialism, but now, I’m resisting the urge to face-palm in embarrassment.

 

I don’t like changing, but I don’t have much of a choice.

 

The time passes quickly and I’m unable to convince Mila or Lin to wait behind, the former too stubborn and adventurous while the latter claims she’s safer than I am, able to leap to shore. She probably could too, she’s light as a feather when she wants to be. After warning everyone to hang tight, Jester Wang guides our barge out onto the current, the ship lurching forward with a burst of ass-clenching speed. Standing with one foot on the prow, he directs the rudder man with hand signals as he stares out over the water, while behind him, the other boats follow in our wake, this former bandit all that stands between us and death.

 

Sheltered from the harsh winds, Roc’s flock rides out the trip in relative safety, covered in canvas and tied down to the deck. Their harsh call is all I hear as we skip over the water at breakneck speeds, a chorus of derisive laughter heralding my incoming doom. Beneath the decks, the quins and wildcats chitter and yowl, unhappy in their cramped confines though I’d trade places with them in a heartbeat. My poor babies, I’m so sorry. I should have stayed down there with you, but Lin wanted to ride up here and I couldn’t refuse.

 

Fearless and ecstatic, my sweet wifey leans over the side rails with a massive grin, arms outstretched and braids flapping in the wind as I hold onto the scarf wrapped around her waist and shoulders. Nearby, her guards stand in bored relaxation, giving the impression of waiting on solid ground instead of this jarring vehicle of death and disaster. Holding my free arm, the only outward signs of Mila’s nervousness are the bruises forming on my bicep as her fingers dig deep into my flesh, her mouth set in a grim, determined line. Heart racing and legs quivering, I sit on deck with a rope tied around my waist, cringing every time the barge jolts or shudders while praying this oversized wooden bucket holds together.

 

No wonder no one ever found the Butcher Bay hideout. You’d have to be fucking suicidal to come here in the first place. 

 

Trading places with Baledagh only buys me a few seconds of peace before he flees in terror, locking himself in the void and ignoring my pleas. Fighting back tears, I suffer in silence as our journey continues, the shore fading into the fog and erasing all frame of reference, only solid grey mist and churning white waters visible in every direction. Minute after minute, hour after hour, I ride this roller-coaster from hell as it cuts through the waves, twisting and turning through the rapids, sometimes even circling around before shooting ever deeper into the lake.

 

I want off this wild ride…

 

As if in response to my prayers, I hear a rumbling crash as the bottom of the barge scrapes across something hard. Everything comes to a grinding halt, and barely able to keep my seat, I pull Lin in close to keep her safe. Unable to speak, I hug my two loves one last time, cursing my greed and stupidity for consigning us all to a cold, watery grave.

 

Giving me a peck on the cheek, Lin’s cheery voice sounds. “Hubby, lets go. I wanna see the island.”

 

It takes a few seconds for her words to register, and I stand up to see solid land all around me. Nearby, the other barges appear out of the mist as the former Butchers pull them onto the beach, securing them with practised efficiency. Chuckling madly, Jester Wang raises his head high, thumps his chest and says, “See, boss? Ain’t nothing to it.”

 

With my shirt in sweat and head dizzy with relief, it’s all I can do to keep from from strangling the smug bastard to death. ‘Ain’t nothing to it’ my ass, but I still need him for the ride back.

 

Then again, I could always take up a life of banditry and live here forever.

 

It’d almost be worth it.

 

Chapter Meme

 

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