Savage Divinity – Chapter 408

 

Gen felt the old man watching him.

 

No, not watching, but Watching, or Scrying as Mentor preferred, an older, more scholarly word to say the same thing. Gen thought it a waste of effort and energy to quibble over what to call things, but Mentor was rather particular about it. Names, designations, honorifics, and titles, Mentor considered all this of paramount importance, for perceptions were formed through not-so-meaningless labels. The more one perceives, the more one discerns. The more one discerns, the more one knows. Since knowledge is power, this meant perception was the first step on the Dao to power.

 

Gen still couldn’t grasp why names were so important, but Mentor had spoken and he would obey, because the alternative was… unpleasant.

 

This was also why Gen kept his eyes closed and breathing steady while his skin prickled and hairs stood on end, a near daily occurrence since the old man joined them. A fortuitous happenstance, Mentor called it, and while Gen agreed at first, he soon discovered the old man was little more than an incessant bother who brought nothing of value to their efforts. Nestled away in his opulent carriage or hidden inside his lavish bedroom, the old man would Scry on Gen for hours on end when not otherwise occupied with his own training or other carnal amusements. Why the old man found him so fascinating Gen could not say, but Mentor had ordered him not to reveal the true extent of his abilities, so instead of setting the old man’s carriage on fire, Gen pretended he hadn’t noticed the daily intrusions and continued his meditative training, moulding Earth’s Fire to his will inside his Natal Palace.

 

He’d much rather learn while slaughtering his enemies on the battlefield, but Mentor’s orders were absolute, so here Gen sat in some Western City he’d never heard of, so close to the action, yet at the same time, so far.

 

Soon after their fated meeting, Mentor opened Gen’s eyes to the truth. The Heavens had blessed him with not only mastery over Fire, but Earth too. Such was the secret to his metallic hands, for where Earth and Fire met, Metal forms. An Auxiliary Blessing, Mentor called it, like Wood born of Earth and Water or Lightning from Fire and Wind, but Mentor disliked calling them by their ‘blended’ names. Calling Gen’s Blessing ‘Metal’ was like calling a person ‘human’, technically correct but too broad to be of any use. Earth’s Fire differed from Fiery Earth, but how, Gen couldn’t say.

 

The why or how didn’t matter though. All Gen cared about was how to use his power, and Mentor taught him well. While not inherently more powerful than a Primal Blessing in one of the four basic Elements and not as rare as an Esoteric Blessing like Sound or Space, an Auxiliary Blessing offered its wielder more options at the cost of increased complexity. Where others only needed to learn the intricacies of a single Blessing, Gen was forced to spread his focus between three, Earth, Fire, and Metal. Too much of one without the others would cause an imbalance in his Energies, limiting his potential and hindering his Martial Dao.

 

A hundred years. This was the time-frame Mentor gave him, a hundred years before he might be deemed competent enough to wield his Blessing to its full extent and match the hidden Divinity who foiled Mentor’s plans in the North, the mysterious Warrior blessed by Sky’s Water, or Cloud as the Imperials called it. Of course, in a hundred years time, Mentor will have already killed the meddling Divinity and conquered the Empire, but Gen was still determined to exceed Mentor’s expectations. A hundred years to match a Divinity, but how many years before he was strong enough to kill Falling Rain?

 

Not even one. If that scrawny, piss-eyed runt were to show himself today, Gen would tear the tender flesh off his bones and cook it before his eyes, devouring the Devourer piece by delectable piece. Number One Talent in the Empire? Pei. Only because Gen was not there to contest him.

 

Distraction Is The Enemy Of Development. You Must Learn To Focus Your Mind Little Worm.

 

Reeling from the unexpected rebuke, Gen keeled over as the powerful Sending lanced through him and overwhelmed his senses. It’s not that Mentor couldn’t control his volume when Sending through the Demons, he just didn’t bother to because he believed pain and suffering were effective teaching tools. Mentor didn’t care if Gen bled from his eyes, ears, nostrils, and mouth, or that each word Reverberated through his bones and inner organs, leaving him in crippling agony for hours without reprieve. Mentor saw this as an incentive for Gen to grow strong enough to resist, while also presenting him with the opportunity to practice his Reverberation countermeasures and Healing.

 

Careful not to let his anger get the better of him, Gen steadied his breathing and hid his rage from the Demon beside him, for Mentor’s consciousness inhabited it. Both guardian and warden, the armour-clad Demon was one of Mentor’s newer creations, one almost indistinguishable from human at first glance. Almost being the key word, for the Demon bore an air of inhuman menace about it. Perhaps it was how utterly still it sat, never breathing or shifting its weight about as people tend to do. It could also be the intense, unblinking stare peering out from behind its encased helm, those bloodshot eyes seething with unquenchable fury. Oddly enough, what Gen found the most discordant was the complete lack of decoration or ornamentation. This not only diminished the Demon’s overall magnificence, it also brought attention to the lack of seams, hinges, clasps, or cinches on its sleek, black ‘armour’.

 

In some ways, Mentor seemed brilliant and all-knowing, but he favoured function over form no matter the cost. This Demon and its many identical peers would command so much more respect if Mentor cared to stylize them, but as things were, they appeared more like faceless grunts instead of heroic champions.

 

When Gen first shared his thoughts on the matter, he learned Mentor was not a man who accepted criticism lightly.

 

Keeping his emotions in check, Gen readied his defences and kowtowed to the Demon as he Sent, “This worm is grateful for Mentor’s guidance.”

 

Gratitude Is Meaningless. This Sovereign Craves Results Little Worm, Yet You Are Found Wanting. So Slow, So Stupid, Barely Worth This Sovereign’s Precious Time.

 

Despite his ample preparations, Mentor’s Sending still left Gen writhing in agony, each word echoing through his mind to set fire to his nerves. Each breath of air came laced with wretched anguish and every movement a bitter torment, but Gen pushed through the pain and settled his nerves, for if he took too long to recover, then more chastisement would follow. His face still pressed to the floor, he Sent, “This worm is unworthy.”

 

What Thoughts Trouble Little Worm?

 

Mentor’s question was not borne of concern or interest, merely a tool used to identify the issue plaguing his favoured toy. That’s all Gen was, a curio here to satisfy Mentor’s fleeting interest in his Talent, his gift of Oration, and perhaps accomplish something useful in the meantime. Loathe as he was to submit, Gen had no choice but to answer honestly, for somehow Mentor always knew when he lied. “This worm finds the Confessor’s attentions distracting.”

 

A Minor Disturbance, Not Nearly Enough To Agitate Little Worm So.

 

Trembling from the strain of keeping himself together, Gen Sent, “This worm was also imagining what he would do to the Devourer.”

 

So Unworthy.

 

Mentor’s disdain cut Gen like a searing hot knife in the kidneys, but he held his tongue and endured, knowing he would only receive worse if he showed weakness.

 

Aim Higher, Little Worm. Predator and Devourer Make For A Dangerous Pair, But Devourer Is Nothing Without This Sovereign’s Guidance. Little Worm Advances By Leaps and Bounds While Devourer Flounders and Falters. Set Loftier Goals and More Ambitious Aspirations, For He Is No Match For Your Talents.

 

Gen struggled to draw breath as blood pooled beneath his face, but luckily, he didn’t need air to Send. “This worm understands.”

 

Good, Good. The Time Is Fast Approaching. You Remember Your Instructions?

 

“Yes Mentor.” Gen’s answer didn’t matter, for Mentor still insisted on repeating his instructions, perhaps because he enjoyed watching Gen writhe about in agony or because Mentor thought so little of Gen he believed the reiteration necessary. Either way, by the time Mentor was finished and had withdrawn from the Demon, Gen lay at death’s door from the torturous instruction. Though overflowing with rage and indignation, he let none of this show as he pushed himself to his feet, unsure if Mentor was truly gone or merely pretending. Staggering through the puddle of his own blood, he made his way out of the study and back to his room, leaving the mess for the servants to deal with. As he passed by, he marked every person who saw him so he would know who to kill later. Whether it be later tonight while the Confessor’s attention was elsewhere or a hundred years later, Gen would kill everyone who saw him in his weakened state.

 

Which included the decrepit Confessor and Gen’s Mentor himself, the hateful and conceited Zhen Shi.

 

It took an entire hour for Gen to Heal himself enough to move unhindered and another hour before he was confident enough to speak before a crowd. Impressive as his growth had been, he still wasn’t strong enough to kill thousands with a wave of his hand, not like Zhu Chanzui. The battle against the mysterious monk had been eye opening indeed, for it had been the first time Gen had witnessed the awe-inspiring might of a Divinity. Two peak existences, one Ancestral Beast and one Dharma Protector, clashed before his eyes, and if not for The Immortal’s protection and the Armoured Demon’s intervention, then Gen would have died in the first exchange.

 

Not because the monk was aiming to kill him, no. His death would’ve been mere happenstance, torn apart by the aftershocks of a collision between titans, one powerful enough to level an entire city much less the small town of Sinuji. This power was his goal, not in a hundred years or even fifty. A mere decade was all he would need before the mysteries of Heaven laid bare before him, for he had a secret the Spectres hid from Mentor’s prying eyes.

 

While they obeyed Mentor because he forced his will upon them, the Spectres willingly served Gen, for he was the Chosen Son of Heaven, and soon-to-be Emperor of All Creation.

 

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

 

With the serving girl in his lap, Goujian Watched Gen’s conversation with his unseen Mentor, a most mysterious Expert simply titled the Uniter. A man of considerable power, considering he commanded not only all of the Defiled, but The Immortal as well. How strong one must be to force an Ancestral Beast to obey, Goujian could not say, but even with his newfound grasp of the Truth, he was still a long ways off from matching the Bristleboar Divinity, much less the power that backed him. Though Goujian believed they were all Chosen of Heaven working towards the same goal, he’d lived too long and seen too much to let his guard down easily. In his time spent serving Imperial propaganda, he’d seen family and friends turn on each other at the mere mention of his name, without a care in the world if the accused were innocent or guilty. Even four of his five remaining Disciples had betrayed his trust, so why would Goujian trust a traitor like Mao Jianghong or the cowardly Uniter who hid in the shadows?

 

Unfortunately, thus far his efforts had failed to bear fruit. Jianghong always knew when Goujian was Scrying and Gen did little besides eat, train, and sleep. A diligent and hardworking young warrior, Gen was living proof of Imperial lies and a shining example to be followed. If only Yuanyin were so devoted to the Martial Path, but Goujian’s last living Disciple was too enamoured in the pleasures of the flesh. Stroking the serving girl’s thighs, Goujian admitted he too was somewhat distracted, but at least he spent his nights in restful meditation instead of the drunken stupor Yuanyin found himself in time and time again.

 

Tomorrow, Goujian decided, nibbling the servant’s tender shoulder while Gen tended to his injuries. Tomorrow, he would have a word with Yuanyin and set an example for the boy’s errant ways, for they were both newcomers to the cause and had much to prove to their newfound allies.

 

A few hours later, Goujian put an end to the festivities, for Gen had changed into his armour and was now readying his horse, which meant there was work to be done. Tossing the cold, mangled corpse aside, Goujian idly wondered when the serving girl had died, for he’d been too lost in pleasure to notice. A shame, for in their deaths, he often glimpsed scattered fragments of the Truth, putting to use the skills he’d once used to serve the Emperor, only now, he served the Empire.

 

Balance in all things, for where there is life, there must be death. Such were the Truths revealed to him by Heaven Above, his mind clear and eyes open.

 

Though an ordained law of Heaven, Truths such as this were too much for the ignorant and unenlightened, too much even for fragile Yuanyin, so Goujian was careful to clean away all traces of blood on his person. After rinsing his beard and washing his face, Goujian put on a robe and strode out to the balcony. Basking in the warm sunlight, he made a show of languidly stretching before ‘noticing’ Gen’s presence in the courtyard. “Afternoon, young warrior,” Goujian Sent, wearing his most cordial smile as he waved at Gen below. “How rare to see you out and about. Fancying an afternoon ride, are we?”

 

“No,” Gen replied, his Sending clear and crisp as a Warrior twice his age. “There are new arrivals to greet in city square. Would you care to join me to greet them?”

 

Perfect. “Gladly, for it is always a treat to see you at work,” Goujian Sent, stepping off his balcony to glide down to the courtyard. Not two months ago, his skill with Lightening would have only been enough to let him land with delicate ease, but now he could almost drift away on a breeze. Or rather, that’s what it felt like, even though no amount of Lightening would be enough to accomplish such a feat, but still, it was more progress than he’d made in decades before. Clapping Gen on the shoulder, Goujian reassured the boy with a nod. “Lead the way, Young Warrior, and this one will follow.”

 

An honour for the boy no doubt, showing him the respect he undoubtedly believed he deserved, but Goujian’s skin was thick and his confidence complete. While Gen rode through the city streets, Goujian ran alongside, hand folded behind him as each of his low, bounding steps covered tens of meters before touching the ground again. Though he didn’t need to flaunt his strength, he found the reactions to his movements immensely satisfying, like a god among mortals. He wasn’t quite at that level yet, but to these lucky, liberated souls inhabiting the Western City of ShiBei, he was close enough.

 

Within a quarter hour of setting out, they arrived at the city square where they were greeted by an army of captured Imperial soldiers guarded by Chosen Elites. Stripped of their armour and surrounded by their supposed Enemy, the Imperial soldiers were dusty and defeated, but otherwise untouched. Many had even received medical care for their injuries taken in battle, a far cry from the maiming and torture they’d expected. More Imperial lies and deceptions proven false, but clean bandages and warm meals would not be enough to overcome a lifetime of indoctrination.

 

Soon though. Soon, these poor, ignorant souls would see the Truth…

 

As before, Goujian waited for Gen’s permission before heading onto the stage. The boy knew how to turn a phrase, but Goujian’s lifelong reputation was still a formidable weapon for their purposes here today. As he looked over the crowd and waited for silence, he noted plenty of native residents from ShiBei also in attendance, though as far as he knew, they had not been forced to come. A good sign all things considered, for revealing the Truth was only the first step to dismantling the shield of lies generations of Emperors had hidden behind.

 

The next step would be bloody revolution, and for that, they would need an army, which was where he came in.

 

My name is Goujian,” he began, his voice echoing over the crowd and throughout the City. “You all know me. Perhaps not by sight, and perhaps not by name, but you all know my title.” Pausing for dramatic effect, he flicked his sleeves, crossed his hands behind his back, and struck a regal pose with his head held high. “I am the Confessor, Founder of the Aspirants and Former Director of the Purge.” The crowd emitted a chorus of gasps as the defeated soldiers gazed upon him with a mix of rage, loathing, and curiosity. “You all know the stories of my zeal. You all know my mantra, that it’s better to kill a thousand innocents than let one Defiled go free. You’ve heard my less flattering titles, perhaps even used them yourself. Emperor’s Bloodhound, Tormentor of Defiled, The Mad Inquisitor, all this and more speaks for itself, so you must all be wondering, ‘why is The Confessor here, standing alongside the Enemy?’.” He paused again, and he knew he had their attention. “I stand here, because I have always been an Adherent of the Mother, a warrior of faith, and a Defender of the People. I stand here, because the Empire is rotten to its core and has lied to you for centuries, if not millennia.”

 

His words were met with outrage and disbelief as loyal soldiers defended their sovereign as they were taught to. Goujian stood still and accepted their denials and insults without batting an eye, waiting until their ire died down to speak again. “The Emperor is good, the Emperor is great, may Heaven bless the Emperor with ten thousand years of boundless longevity. This is what we are told to say, but have you ever asked yourselves, why? Why is the Emperor good? What has he done for you? You soldiers fought for him, your comrades died for him, yet where is he now? Here you stand in beautiful ShiBei, on the border of West and Central, and the proof of the Emperor’s scorn is all around you. What do you see? What do you hear? Nothing! There are no Imperial soldiers riding to support you, no Imperial efforts being made to free the West. When the Western Wall fell, not a day passed by before the Emperor closed the borders, and even as we stand here today, the Empire is hard at work erecting a new wall just east of here. The Emperor is not good. The Emperor is not great. The Emperor has abandoned the West and everyone in it, and when we break through their new, ramshackle Wall, the Emperor will abandon the rest of the outer provinces just like they abandoned you. It is for this reason and many more, that I, Goujian, stand here before you, forever a defender of the people. I stand on the side of justice and virtue, and seek to overthrow the Dog Emperor and his cowardly lackies. Where do you stand?”

 

The crowd remained silent in the wake of his declaration, shocked that the Confessor would ever side with the Defiled. There was more to it than he could explain in a few sentences, for while many might turn stark raving mad when confronted with the Truth, this only showed they had not been Chosen by Heaven. His part was done now, having broken wide their misconceptions, and now it was time for young Gen to take the stage. Looking the part of noble young hero, Gen greeted the crowd with a martial salute, and it buoyed Goujian’s spirits to see a good fifth of the crowd saluting back. More out of confusion and habit than true respect, but it was a start. “My name is Gen,” the young Chosen said, his skills far surpassing any young talent his age. “The Emissary of Earth’s Fire. I have come to share my tale and bring you truth and freedom. Not one year ago, I was just like you. Less even, for I lived a humble life outside the city of Sanshu, on the shores of…”

 

The crowd hung on the boy’s every word, and truth be told, so did Goujian. There was something about the way Gen spoke which drew you in and made you feel… alive. Goujian couldn’t explain it, but there was much he had yet to understand in regards to the Truth.

 

No matter, he had plenty of time yet to unravel those mysteries. Let the Emperor build his wall while those poor deranged souls kept them occupied. Even mad as they were, they knew who the true Enemy was, and perhaps they might even emerge victorious, though Goujian had his doubts. The Empire had vast reserves of strength which had yet to take the field, and no matter how many Divinities the Uniter had gathered, Goujian wagered the Empire had more. Thus, with Gen and Goujian working together, they would build an army of Chosen, Heaven’s invincible host who would sweep through the Empire and raze it to the ground so that a new Empire might arise from the ashes. Thus far, Goujian found no one better to lead it than young Gen here, a true dragon among men. Goujian even had a name for the boy, should he so choose to accept it.

 

Shen Tian Zi, the Divine Son of Heaven, first Sovereign of the Holy Azure Empire.

 

Chapter Meme

– End of Volume 22 –

 


Okay, first off, here are the Auxiliary Elements, so I don’t have to answer the question a bajillion times 😀

 

Earth+Fire = Metal

Earth+Water = Wood

Earth+Wind = Sand

Fire+Water = Ice

Fire+Wind = Lightning

Wind+Water = Cloud

 

Yea some of them are silly, but like it says in this chapter, they’re not entirely accurate either. Alrighty then. Moving on.

 

Volume 22, titled Perspective, has come to an end, and now begins Ruffwriter’s long-ass break (6-8 weeks). Not to be confused with a long ass-break, which I can only assume is what happens after one partakes in deviant sexual behaviour. Butt I digress, it is time for me to hit the old dusty road and be genuinely lazy instead of procrastinating all the time. I must say, that after 400+ chapters, I’m surprised Savage Divinity is still going strong, but I’m more surprised I haven’t quit yet. That said, thank you all for reading this far and putting up with my shitty puns and tired memes, and I look forward to another year of Savage Divinity with you all. I don’t know if it’ll be the LAST year of SD, but the end is… somewhere out there.

 

Afterwards? Who knows. More writing tho, that’s for sure. I love writing, and knowing I have so many readers who enjoy my work makes it like a bajillion times better.

 

Anyways, 2018 was a year, and I’m hoping 2019 is even better. I’ll be back late jan/early feb, depending on when I wake from hibernation. I’ll still be on discord, but for those of who don’t like hang out with deviants and degenerates, then Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays, and a Happy New Year to you all.

 

-Ruffwriter


 

 

 

 

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Savage Divinity – Chapter 407

 

“Luo-Luo, I’m bored. Let’s go out and play, ya?”

 

Innocuous as the statement seemed, Luo-Luo jumped in fright, and not just because Lin-Lin dropped in from out of sight, hanging upside down from the tree branch just outside the window. Repressing the memories of her last adventure with Lin-Lin, Luo-Luo wracked her brain for an excuse, any excuse to remain in her safe, sheltered room. Sweet and charming though she might be, Lin-Lin’s idea of fun not only differed from Luo-Luo’s, it also walked a thin line between insane and suicidal. Climbing trees taller than buildings without so much as a rope, racing at breakneck speeds through grass fields on their quin-pulled rickshaws, or exploring the dark alleys and twisted streets of SuiHua’s seedy underbelly with only a single guard as protection, it was all too much for Luo-Luo to handle. She’d much rather sit in the courtyard playing music or composing poetry instead of running about with reckless abandon, but in Lord Husband’s absence, Lin-Lin had gone from lovable trickster to incessant… dare she say it…

 

Lin-Lin was a curmudgeon.

 

Even though Luo-Luo didn’t say it out loud, using such foul language even in her thoughts made her blush with shame, but she still couldn’t bring herself to follow along with whatever deranged activity Lin-Lin thought of next. Luckily, she had good reason to deny the grouchy half-hare, so she put on her most sympathetic smile and said, “As much as Luo-Luo would like to join you, have you forgotten our promise to Ser Charok? We agreed to look after little Tali and Tate while he trains with Ser Gerel, so we must remain at home until they arrive. Also, Luo-Luo has much to do regarding Lord Husband’s business ventures, which may take most of the day.” It only took a few minutes to write a letter explaining Lord Husband’s instructions and it was already on its way to Nan Ping, but what Lin-Lin didn’t know couldn’t hurt her. Feigning sympathy, Luo-Luo added, “If Lin-Lin wishes to go exploring, then Luo-Luo will be happy to remain here and look after the children, though this means Anrhi and Sorya will also have to stay so they can look after the animals.”

 

Puffing her cheeks in a sinister pout, Lin-Lin huffed and turned to the animals in question. The half-hare wasn’t the only one to turn malcontent in Lord Husband’s absence. Aurie and Sarankho were all but inconsolable and the bears were little better, all of them camped by the gates and menacing everyone who entered the courtyard as if blaming them for not being Lord Husband. Sympathetic as she was, this resulted in Luo-Luo spending most of her days locked inside her room for fear of being attacked, or worse, dragged out on another of Lin-Lin’s insane adventures.

 

“Fine.” Lin-Lin’s reply was curt and churlish, crossing her arms while still upside down. “But when they get here, we’re all going out to lunch. I want fresh dumplings, not delivered ones. It’s not the same. No matter how fast the guards run, it’s always too cold by the time they get here, and you’ve been cooped up inside for two days now. It’s not good for your health, ya?”

 

On the contrary, staying home was in the best interest of Luo-Luo’s health. Expecting resistance, Lin-Lin glowered until Luo-Luo meekly agreed, her stomach sinking at the thought of another day filled with restless anxiety interrupted by moments of heart-stopping panic. Having secured Luo-Luo’s agreement, Lin-Lin’s scowl reverted to her customary smile as she jumped down to prepare, falling from Luo-Luo’s second story window to land neatly on her feet. “Come my sweet floofies, it’s time to put on your clothes. You hafta look your best so you don’t scare the people in the city, ya?”

 

As if a silk shirt and hat were enough to make people feel safe in the presence of a vicious predator.

 

Closing her eyes, Luo-Luo prayed for someone to save her from Lin-Lin. These harrowing incidents always began with something innocuous like lunch, and then somehow, before she knew it, Luo-Luo would find herself stuck with no avenue of retreat, her eyes wide and knuckles white as she awaited the horrors to come. To make matters worse, Lin-Lin knew how terrified Luo-Luo was, but instead of taking a step back, the well-intentioned but misguided half-hare got it into her mind to ‘acclimate’ Luo-Luo to the ‘thrill’ of life. There was even talk of teaching Luo-Luo to fire a bow so they could go hunting together, a prospect which had Luo-Luo trembling from head to toe in a cold sweat.

 

It was too much for a sheltered, faint-hearted lady like herself, far too much.

 

A knock on the courtyard doors interrupted Luo-Luo’s waking nightmare and a burst of optimism flooded through her, hoping this was the answer to her prayers. When the door opened to reveal their unexpected caller, Luo-Luo’s optimism faded away, only to be replaced with surly dejection as Lin-Lin squealed with delight. “Yan-Yan!”

 

Mother Above, why must you taunt your children so?

 

“Hello Lin,” the horned hussy said, smiling as she twirled Lin-Lin about. “How have you been?”

 

“Bored! Are you staying in town? When did you get here? Tali and Tate will be here later, so eat lunch with us, ya? Luo-Luo, come down, it’s Yan-Yan!”

 

Quashing the urge to close her window shutters and throw a tantrum in her room, Luo-Luo tidied her appearance and left her shawl behind before heading out to greet the woman who ruined all of Luo-Luo’s hard work. If Yan hadn’t left those quins in Lord Husband’s yurt or had the sheer audacity to sneak into his bed, then Lord Husband would have long ago succumbed to Luo-Luo’s feminine charms. Instead, all her efforts had only driven him into this hussy’s arms, and now all of Central was talking about their betrothal instead of Luo-Luo’s. A most vexing outcome, made so much worse by how close she’d come to victory only to have a veritable stranger swoop in and snatch it out of her grasp.

 

And now she had to go smile and play nice with the homewrecker.

 

Greeting the hussy with an elegant curtsy, Luo-Luo bent lower than decorum demanded, flauntin her curves before Yan’s boyish frame and short hair. “Consort Luo greets Sister Yan.” While curtsying, she studied Yan’s outfit with a critical eye, wondering how the woman had the nerve to go out in public dressed like a strumpet. No, saying such was a disservice, for even the most vulgar of harlots wouldn’t dare be seen in public wearing skin tight leggings, leaving nothing of her hips, thighs, or buttocks to the imagination. Scandalous is what it was, outright pornographic even, but considering Yan’s… deficiencies on her upper body, she supposed the woman was merely working with what little she had to offer.

 

Yan’s smile was as false as her inflated reputation, her animosity towards Luo-Luo as plain as day. “There’s no need to curtsy,” Yan said, helping Luo-Luo stand. “Even though you’re merely a consort who was foisted onto Rain without warning, we’re all one family now.”

 

Hmph. What a hateful, detestable woman. Unfortunately, without Li-Li, Lord Husband, or Mila here to shelter her, Luo-Luo had no choice but to swallow the insult, for Lin-Lin was too innocent and guileless to see through it. Pulling them both into her embrace, the half-hare giggled and said, “Yay! This is so nice, ya? We should go see if Mi-Mi wants to join us for lunch so we can all catch up together.”

 

“Sounds great.” Gently extricating herself from Lin-Lin’s arms, Yan turned away so the sweet girl couldn’t see her dour grimace, as if being close to Luo-Luo offended her ‘delicate’ sensibilities. Spotting the half-worn shirt around Aurie’s neck, Yan grinned and sauntered over with her customary salacious gait, those all-but-exposed hips swaying from one side to the next. “Hello darling Aurie,” she cooed, grabbing the wildcat’s cheeks in both hands as she pressed her forehead against his. “Aren’t you just precious in your little shirt?”

 

“Mwarrrrrrrrrrrr,” Aurie yowled, his fangs bared as he pulled away to settle down with a huff, a cold reception which gave Luo-Luo a small measure of satisfaction. If this brazen half-deer thought it was so easy to win Lord-Husband’s pets over, then she was in for a rude awakening. Luo-Luo had been feeding the wildcats for days now, tossing them whole raw chickens and meaty sheep shanks to feast upon and they still treated her with frosty disdain.

 

“Aww, sweet baby, you miss your daddy, don’t you? It’s okay, he’ll be back soon enough.” Digging her slender fingers into Aurie’s thick fur, Yan rubbed the wildcat’s head until he rumbled in what was apparently delight. Before long, Aurie’s head laid on Yan’s lap while the other wildcats and bears jostled around her for their share of affection while the horned hussy laughed and giggled. Even the rabbits were now hopping over to greet this stranger, squeezing out between the bars of their enclosure where they were usually content to lay about.

 

Unfair. Yan had spent so much less time around the animals than Luo-Luo, so how could she win their trust so easily?

 

“Don’t be jealous.” Her arms still wrapped around Luo-Luo’s waist, Lin-Lin whispered, “Yan’s always been good with animals, but they’ll come around to you soon enough, ya?” Flashing an impish grin, Lin-Lin ran over to join Yan and the animals, leaving Luo-Luo standing with her handmaidens off to this side.

 

At least until Luo-Luo saw her handmaiden’s pleading looks. With an inward sighed, she waved her hand and said, “Go ahead.”

 

At least Anrhi and Sorya had the decency to look ashamed before scurrying off to join the animal cuddle pile.

 

Though she seriously considered it, Luo-Luo decided it’d be too rude to leave without saying a word and knowing Lin-Lin’s penchant for keeping everyone together, the sweet girl would pout and mope if Luo-Luo insisted. Taking a seat nearby, she kept a wary eye on the animals while doing her best to be a part of the gathering, but her distance and lack of participation meant she was once again on the outside looking in.

 

Was this to be her life forever more?

 

“Has Rain named the bunnies yet?”

 

“Yea, but I can’t remember them all. The brown one is Tawny Yi, and… I think George is over there.”

 

“…The one trying to force its way into Jimjam’s mouth?”

 

“Ya.”

 

Yan giggled. “I can see why you don’t let Shana stay here.”

 

“Don’t laugh Yan-Yan, she almost ate a bunbun. This one, I think. Or maybe that one. I’m not sure which. All I know is hubby called it Hopper.”

 

“I’m surprised it hasn’t happened yet.” So was Luo-Luo, but she hated to agree with Yan, even on something as basic as this. Oblivious to Luo-Luo’s thoughts, Yan and Lin-Lin chatted about this or that, and Luo-Luo sat and smiled in silence. Soon, the conversation took a turn to their recent exploits, and Lin-Lin cheerfully detailed each torturous event she put Luo-Luo through. Yan’s smile grew with each passing second, and when Lin-Lin was done with her tale, the horned hussy said, “Well, that sounds like so much fun. I’m so jealous of all the fun you had together.”

 

“Don’t be!” Lin exclaimed, not noticing the blood draining from Luo-Luo’s face. “We can all have more fun today!”

 

“Wonderful,” Yan said, her voice oozing with delight. “Why don’t we start with racing rickshaws?”

 

This… this… Bitch!

 

Luckily (or perhaps not… it remained to be seen), Lin-Lin preferred to try new things rather than the same old things. “Mm, I was thinking we could go hunting instead, ya? Luo-Luo can use one of hubby’s crossbows and we can stay out for a few days.” Lowering her voice to what she thought was a whisper, but was still loud enough for Luo-Luo to hear, Lin-Lin added, “She’s so jumpy and nervous all the time, I thought I could build up her courage. You know, bring her around and show her there’s nothing to be afraid of so hubby won’t leave her behind all the time.”

 

As touched as Luo-Luo was at Lin-Lin’s misguided intentions, she moved quickly to block Lin-Lin’s suggestion of a multi-day hunt. “Pleased as Luo-Luo would be to join you, there is still work to be done, so until everything is dealt with, this one would be remiss if she were absent for too long.”

 

Ignoring her as if she never spoke, Yan pinched Lin-Lin’s cheeks and said, “Be honest, you adorable scamp. You’re just angry Rain left you behind, and you couldn’t complain because she’s here too.”

 

Lin-Lin’s sheepish giggles revealed the truth behind Yan’s words and Luo-Luo’s spirits plummeted. Did this mean she was expected to ride with Lord Husband to war? As loathe as she was to be apart from him, Luo-Luo was petrified by the mere thought of living on the front lines. Even SuiHua felt a little too close for comfort with so many injured soldiers streaming into the city for treatment and rest. In fact, this was the very reason Yan had returned, to replenish her soldiers lost in battle, which is why Luo-Luo kept quiet and accepted the horned hussy’s abuse. Luo-Luo’s heart ached for the valiant warriors left behind, but such was life, and she was grateful for their heroic sacrifice, but that didn’t mean she hoped to join them.

 

What could she, a mere Imperial Servant with no training in battle, ever hope to accomplish on the front lines?

 

While Luo-Luo was frozen with fear, Yan continued her conversation with Lin. “As much as I’d love to bring you hunting, we can’t. Not only do I have other matters to attend to, you forget that we’re in a military zone under martial law. We can’t go traipsing around armed with bows and crossbows, not without drawing unwanted attention.” Turning to Luo-Luo, Yan smiled sweetly and said, “Tell me, what sort of business does Rain have you working on? Perhaps we could help lighten the load, but I’m afraid all I know is it has something to do with… cheap iron? We didn’t have much time to speak of it.”

 

Even her interest sounded condescending, but Luo-Luo grit her teeth and explained to the best of her ability. “Sister Yan is correct, though also incorrect. Cast iron is more than just cheap iron, for it offers a whole new vista of possibilities. Even Lord Husband has yet to comprehend the full breadth of his discovery, too focused on its use in war effort to consider the deeper implications.”

 

“Oh?” Her full, pink lips pressed to hide a smug smile, Yan asked, “What sort of implications?”

 

“Well… all sorts.” Flustered by how quickly Yan cut to the heart of the matter, Luo-Luo fell back on an argument she had already used, but to no effect. “It’s so easy to create and use, we could replace so many mundane items with cast iron alternatives, like wagons, ploughshares, furniture, and more. Why -”

 

“Wagons?” Interrupting with a frown, Yan shook her head and said, “An iron wagon would be far too slow and heavy for a team of two horses. Four or six horses to a wagon would increase costs significantly, which all but invalidates any benefits a sturdier wagon might bring.” As Luo-Luo prepared her rebuttal, Yan continued, “Unless… What if you made the wagon smaller? Say, enough for two to four passengers… On the flat plains of Central, we could use them to move water and ammunition to patrolling units, or rush heavily injured soldiers back to safety and Healers.”

 

There was something in Yan’s eyes which kept Luo-Luo from saying she didn’t think the idea was feasible. Perhaps the poor girl was speaking from personal experience, having lost soldiers on her journey back to SuiHua. Not an unreasonable assumption since it took her at least eight days to make what should have been a five day journey…

 

“Wah, so smart.” Clapping her hands, Lin-Lin added, “And if those stinky Defiled show their ugly faces, then you can just smash them with your wagon, ya?”

 

 

Mother in Heaven…

 

“Yes!” Yan exclaimed, her eyes wide with excitement. “We could fix blades to the wagon to clear grass and Defiled alike. It wouldn’t work on a wooden wagon, the whole thing would come apart or be far too difficult to carve, but iron can be welded together. Can it be protected from rust? Oh, who cares, if it’s as cheap and easy as you say, then even as a disposable weapon, it could be worth it against the Defiled.”

 

Stomach queasy from picturing vehicles of destruction smashing through flesh and bone, Luo-Luo was saved by Tali and Tate’s arrival. She was so happy to put an end to this line of inquiry, she didn’t even mind that Tate threw himself into Yan’s embrace instead of hers, his plump, pink cheeks blushing as Yan smothered him in kisses.

 

What was it about Yan which drew men and animals alike to her? In Luo-Luo’s eyes, the half-deer woman was beautiful indeed, but she was far from the ideal Luo-Luo’s instructors instructed her to become. Perhaps that’s what infuriated Luo-Luo the most, that in spite of all the hard work and effort she put into becoming a paragon of grace and beauty, Yan barely had to lift a finger to rival, if not surpass her. As aggravating as it was, on some level, Luo-Luo was glad for the competition. After surpassing all her peers, she finally had a challenge to overcome, a trial laid out before her by the Mother Above.

 

And no matter how difficult a trial might appear, the Mother always left a path to salvation. Luo-Luo only had to seize it.

Chapter Meme

 

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Savage Divinity – Chapter 406


Not going on break yet, gonna finish the volume first. 1 or 2 more chapters probs.

That’s all. Carry on.


 

Mind rested and spirit restored, Rustram headed out to start his day only to falter a few steps out. The morning sun peeked over the horizon and cast its brilliant glow across the land, treating Rustram to his first real glimpse of the ruins of Sinuji. While they’d passed through those very ruins to reach this campsite last night, their lanterns and torches had failed to reveal the true extent of the horrific damage. Though merely a minor border town of little renown, Sinuji had once been home to tens of thousands of people, a bustling rest-stop for travelling caravans and nomadic shepherds alike. Many a humble farmer and wealthy rancher plied their trade here, away from the bustle of busy Central cities yet still nestled in the heart of the Empire.

 

Or at least, what used to be the heart of the Empire. Not anymore. Now, the ruins of Sinuji sat on the front lines, and its inhabitants were put to rest inside it.

 

Though less than a month since its destruction, nature was well on its way to reclaiming the border town, for the scale of destruction was nigh on complete. Cracked and crumbling stones littered the landscape, yet nary a single stone sat atop another. Gutted foundations were all that remained of the town’s demolished structures, with piles of debris scattered haphazardly about. It almost seemed like a massive boot had descended from the Heavens and stomped the town flat, with only a few walls of wood and mud remaining on the outer perimeter. Ready to tumble over at the slightest sign of a breeze, teams of soldiers were already hard at work dismantling those few unsupported structures, and even though he knew this was necessary work, Rustram’s heart bled to see the last pieces of Sinuji torn down.

 

In ten years, who would know a thriving town once sat here or remember its inhabitants who died with it?

 

Clouds of thick, oily smoke hung overhead and cast the ruins in an eerie, orange-red glow, the result of the living working tirelessly day and night to cremate the dead. The aroma of cooked flesh filled his nostrils and turned his stomach, not because he found it putrid and revolting, but rather because it was all too appetizing, a stark reminder that in death, humans were no different from animals. Bodies of Defiled and Imperial citizen alike were fed to the flames, and even as the wind carried their ashes away, it seemed as if their spirits lingered over the devastated landscape within those clouds of ash. Whether those spirits mourned the loss of home and life or took pride in their ‘consummate’ handiwork, Rustram couldn’t say, but he let his gaze linger for a few seconds more to burn this vision in memory.

 

These were the stakes. Should the Defiled win, this was what would become of the Empire, and it was up to men like him to stop it.

 

A heavy, soul-crushing burden, heavier than the cumbersome lead training armour he currently wore, but like the armour, it was a burden he gladly accepted. To defeat the Defiled, he would need strength and strength would not come from idling about. This was the first lesson Mentor Sarnai taught him, a hard learned lesson he took to heart. From his place at the rear, Rustram looked over the entire camp as it slowly came to life, yet what stood out the most was the heart and soul of the retinue, Falling Rain himself. Moving through the Forms in the centre of camp, the boss diligently trained while others were still fast asleep, having woken at least an hour before Rustram even opened his eyes. “You are not talented,” Mentor had said, when Rustram asked her what she saw in him. “But so what? Talent is worthless. Hard work will overcome talent, and you are nothing if not hard working.”

 

Yet how was Rustram to compete against someone like the boss who was both talented and hard working?

 

Well, nothing could be gained from standing around gawking, or at least that’s what Mentor would probably say. Taking a deep breath, he remembered Rain and Mentor’s teachings.

 

Focus your thoughts and calm your mind.

 

Draw yourself inwards and open yourself to the Energy of the Heavens.

 

Be aware of nothing but awareness itself.

 

Seek nothing, find everything.

 

Laden in heavy armour which weighed at least twice as much as full plate, Rustram’s body moved through the Forms without thought or direction, savouring the mysteries and Insights laid out before him. It was hard not to focus on his breathing, footwork, or hand movements, but instead he forced himself to put it all aside and bask in the moment. The Heavens were fickle, for the more you chased them, the more they wished to be chased. Want not, need not, desire not, but accept all, his mind was an empty vessel for Energy of the Heavens to fill. Faster and faster he moved, but he paid it no mind, much like he paid no mind to the strain on his muscles or sweat pouring down his skin. At some point, he’d drawn his rapier, but this was no surprise, for he was the weapon and the weapon was he, two parts of a whole and neither complete without the other.

 

Together, they were Death, and Death he would become. Death to the Enemy, death to the Defiled, death to any who would stand against him, the boss, or the Bekhai.

 

Time seemed to still yet before he knew it, Rustram completed his performance, having gone through every movement of every Form in a single pass. Gasping for air, he unbuckled his helmet and let it drop to the ground with a clang. Dragging his feet to where his water skin lay, he envisioned himself collapsing in the dirt to drown in a puddle of water, but Rustram’s pride would not let him admit defeat so easily. Picking up the water skin without falling over was a feat unto itself, as was lifting his leaden arms to bring the water skin to his mouth, but once he tasted his first mouthful of cool, delicious water, his body surged with new life. A small thing to delight in, but when he first put on this cumbersome training armour, he couldn’t even make it halfway through the Forms before collapsing into a weeping pile of sweat and tears. Now, little more than twenty days later, not only could he complete a full performance, he still had strength enough to stand afterwards.

 

An astounding improvement in so short a time, though still a long ways from reaching Mentor Sarnai’s exacting standards. Apparently, she expected him to go through a full performance and then ten rounds of sparring. Three times. In the morning. With three more at night. A harsh and demanding taskmistress, she could make even the diligent and hardworking Falling Rain seem like a ne’er do well slacker.

 

After removing his weighted armour, Rustram’s body felt light as a feather, albeit one which was tired and spent. Still, Mentor said this was the optimal time to reflect on his bounty from training, sharpening his mind while his body rested. Settling down to meditate, he did as he was told and ‘withdrew’ from himself, dividing his mind into two separate portions in order to study his new findings. When Mentor first asked this of him, Rustram didn’t understand how it was possible to empty your mind and contemplate your thoughts at the same time, but as always, Mentor made things clear with but a single statement.

 

“Stop thinking about how to do it and just do it.”

 

And oddly enough, it worked. With the boss’s Runic ring on his finger, Rustram sat steeped in Balance and endured the soothing pummelling of Heavenly Energy as it massaged his aches and pains away, leaving him stronger and faster than before so he could withstand more abuse in the future. While this once would have required all his attention to maintain, Rustram could now mentally step away and allow the process to carry on while he pored over the newfangled mysteries revealed to him. Rarely did he come away with anything consciously useful, but he found that if he set his mind free, his body knew exactly what to do. While his spars with Li Song still ended in his inevitable defeat, Rustram felt himself improving with each passing day.

 

A minor improvement, but improvement nonetheless.

 

Sadly, he had yet to test his skills in real battle, for last night’s engagement ended long before he found reason to step in. Chey and Jorani’s units – no, not Jorani’s anymore, it was Erkin’s unit now, a gruff and grizzled old bandit who could charm the dress off a serving girl half his age, the silver-tongued bastard. Regardless, Chey and Erkin’s units of roosequin mounted crossbowmen were enough to hold the centre, showering the Defiled with bolts and leaving little else for Rustram to do besides stand around and watch. Truth be told, he spent more time watching the Protectorate instead of the allied units in front of him, so enamoured by their skill with bow and long-axe. Where the boss’s repeating crossbows got the job done through sheer weight of numbers, the Protectorate longbows cut down the Defiled with ruthless precision. To his eyes, it seemed like every one of their arrows brought down a Defiled, whereas it sometimes took ten or more bolts to do the same.

 

The merchant in Rustram raged about the utter waste, but other than retooling the crossbows for a lower rate of fire and heavier draw, he had nothing to offer.

 

“Mister Rustram, the Commander has called for an officer’s meeting before our departure.” Daxian’s Sending echoed through Rustram’s mind and his eyes snapped open to find the tall, chiselled warrior waiting before him. “I informed the other officers while you rested, but the arranged time is almost upon us.”

 

What happened to their day of rest before setting out on patrol? “Good, good,” Rustram said, though things were not good at all. Had he known the boss had called a meeting, he would’ve washed up and gone over his notes in preparation, but alas, this time was now lost to him. Though frustrated by Daxian’s tendency to take matters into his own hands, the former Major-turned-bandit was an intimidating bastard and Rustram didn’t dare scold him, so there was nothing to do about it except hurry to the meeting.

 

“Mister Rustram,” Daxian Sent, using the same patronizing tone as always. “An officer must always appear calm and collected, for others look to you for guidance. Soldiers and camp followers tend to panic when the number two commander runs around like a chicken without a head.”

 

“Mother Above,” Rustram silently prayed, “Please give me the strength to throttle this arrogant bastard.” Daxian the Virtuous, what a ridiculous name, the sheer arrogance of calling yourself virtuous while doing nothing to deserve it. Slowing his steps, he quick marched towards the Divine Turtle and discovered he was the last to arrive, a poor showing from the second in command. Taking his place beside the boss, Rustram ignored Ravil and Bulat’s teasing grins and offered a quiet nod of apology to the boss, who was too busy making sure his bicorn rabbit was comfortable to notice.

 

Cradling the bunny like a child, Rain cleared his throat and the officers fell silent. “Last night I said I’d try to get us a day to rest,” he began, pursing his lips in displeasure. “Unfortunately, my request was denied because our absence would leave too large a gap in the patrol lines, so we set out within the hour. Our route is simple enough, we head west for five days before turning around. Our mission is to engage with whatever Defiled elements we come across and wipe them out, or if their numbers are too great, to harass and delay them so the front line can prepare. As I mentioned earlier, there will be other patrols moving alongside us, but not together. The closest reinforcements will be between ten to fifteen kilometres away, so if we run into trouble, don’t expect someone to swoop in and pull us out of the fire.” Glancing around at his gathered officers, the boss asked, “Everyone know what they’re supposed to do?”

 

“Yes boss.”

 

“You and your troops are familiar with the new policies?”

 

“Yes boss.”

 

“You better be. Your lives all depend on it. We’re heading out to fight the Defiled on their terms, which means they could come at us any time and at any place.”

 

“My soldiers welcome the challenge,” Wang Bao declared, and he looked like he meant it too. The former Butcher Bay bandit’s startling transformation made it hard to remember his roots, a model soldier in his pressed uniform, clean-shaven face, and perfect posture. Seeing Wang Bao made Rustram even more self-conscious of his ruffled and sweat-stained training outfit, and he finally understood why Ravil and Bulat always gave him a hard time for his neat and orderly appearance. He couldn’t help but resent Wang Bao for showing him up, and even hated the bandit’s new voice, no longer gruff and clipped as before, but more nasal and articulate, with a tone which grated on Rustram’s nerves for some unknown reason.

 

“Glad to hear it.” The boss grinned like a cat, his amber eyes gleaming with mischief. “You and your soldiers can ride in the vanguard then.”

 

Thumping his chest with a fist, Wang Bao said, “It would be our honour.”

 

Hmph. Bootlicker.

 

Moving on, the boss said, “Chey, Erkin, take half your unit and hand it over to Ravil and Bulat. This isn’t because I don’t think you can handle it, but so we can rotate between the four of you and keep at least two groups of quins fresh at all times.” Turning to the representative from the Protectorate, a plain and unobtrusive woman named Sai Chou, the boss asked, “Would it be possible for the Protectorate to do the same? More eyes means less chance we overlook anything, and we’ll only be moving at half speed, so it shouldn’t be too tiring to keep up on foot.”

 

Leaning on her long-handled axe, Sai Chou spit and nodded, but otherwise remained silent. Though undoubtedly handsome as all Martial Warriors were, the layers of caked dirt and filth made it difficult to tell her age, not to mention ruined any appeal she might possibly have. While it might seem presumptuous to criticize her appearance, Rustram couldn’t help it as he was getting sick of hearing about Ravil’s conquests or how perfect Dei An was, though where he might find the time for romance in his busy schedule was a complete mystery.

 

“Thank you,” The boss said. “Oh, and tell everyone to keep an eye out for herds of horses, cattle, goats, and whatnot. I know what you’re all thinking, and no, I’m not looking for more pets. This whole area is prime grazing land and a lot of civilians abandoned their animals in their rush to head east.” Glancing at what little remained of Sinuji, the boss shook his head and added, “I can’t say I blame them either. Regardless, we’ll be paid an appropriate bounty on anything we bring back, but more importantly it’ll mean less food for Defiled bellies and more for ours.”

 

The news was met with good cheer, and the boss turned to Rustram. “Arrange a round the clock schedule, three hours a shift. I want quins scouting three to five kilometres ahead, while the Protectorate form a loose perimeter around us. I want both groups fresh and alert as possible while on duty. We don’t know how many Defiled are out there or where they’re gathering in numbers, so I’d rather not trip over a massive army of cannibals or worse. Have I missed anything?”

 

“Deployment formation,” Rustram supplied, a moment before Daxian’s Sending informed him of the same.

 

While Rustram revelled in his minor victory, the boss pursed his lips and sighed. “Right. I’ll be honest, I have no idea how we should deploy. Suggestions?”

 

“Well, Wang Bao already volunteered for the vanguard, so I say put the Death Corps in the centre, Ulfsaar, Lang Yi, and Dastan as the rear guard, with the resting quins and Protectorate on either flank. The Death Corps hold the line or advance to support Wang Bao, Ulfsaar and Lang Yi wait in reserve, and both types of cavalry are free to move where they’re needed.”

 

And woe to any Defiled who came across the Protectorate.

 

“Alternatively,” Daxian interjected, using the same condescending tone one used to correct a child, “The smart thing to do is to use one unit of Death Corps as your vanguard and place the other two on the flanks. They’re the most heavily armoured troops you have, which makes them the best equipped to handle any… unexpected situations.”

 

“Won’t be no unexpected situations. Yer second’s plan will suit us just fine.” Surprisingly enough, Sai Chou spoke up in Rustram’s defence, though in retrospect, he realized it was because Daxian had subtly insinuated the two lines of scouts might miss something.

 

“My second, and your superior.” Unfazed by the boss’s stern glare, Sai Chou spit once more before grudgingly accepting the reprimand with an apologetic shrug. In recent days, the boss had become something of a stickler for protocol, a change Rustram wholeheartedly embraced. It was high time the boss put his foot down and stopped letting his soldiers do as they pleased, especially now that they were entering a war-zone. Discipline and training were their greatest weapons against the Defiled, and without them, the Empire would have been lost millennia ago. Also, Rustram needed all the help he could get and he’d long had his mind set on promoting Silva as his aide, a move the boss was reluctant to force on the lazy but literate bastard.

 

Until now.

 

“We’ll go with Mister Rustram’s deployment,” the boss declared. “Li Song, I’m handing you command of all three hundred Death Corps, but I’ll send Viyan and Birca to help. Let me know if you need more able bodies, and I’ll do what I can.” Her ears a flutter, the stony-faced cat-girl nodded and the boss continued. “Anything else? No? Okay then. Get your people in order, we leave within the hour. Dismissed.” Staying in place, the boss signalled for Rustram to remain behind and predictably, Daxian stayed as well. “Sorry I couldn’t give you more warning. I didn’t expect Colonel Hongji to say no.”

 

“We all serve at the Emperor’s pleasure,” was all Rustram could come up with.

 

“Seems like it. Thing is, I don’t mind the lack of rest. We’re tough, we can handle it. It’s this whole asinine plan we’re supposed to follow. It is, hands down, the stupidest way to fight a war I have ever seen.”

 

“Scared?” Though his handsome face remained impassive, Daxian’s voice did all the sneering for him.

 

“No. Actually, I’m looking forward to killing some Defiled.” A true gentleman, the boss didn’t let his irritation show. “Problem is, we’re facing an Enemy who outnumbers us ten to one, so riding out in piecemeal groups to face them on an open field hardly seems productive. We can hardly kill them ten to one while taking a defensive position. How bad will it be out there in the wild?”

 

“Fool.” Dismissive as ever, Daxian explained, “We must ride out to meet the Defiled to show the world we are not afraid. Our victories will be spoken of on every tongue in every bar and brothel in the Empire, raising morale and providing hope to those in need. The warriors left behind to guard, the farmers working the fields, the merchants hiding in their homes, all still have a part to play and without them, we are truly lost. The Defiled are a threat, but it is the Enemy who will be our undoing.”

 

“Still stupid. If you want to raise morale, then lie.”

 

“And what happens if those lies are proven false?” As much as he hated to admit it, Rustram agreed with Daxian on this count. If the Empire loses the trust of the people, then the consequences would be dire indeed.

 

Closing his eyes, the boss asked, “Then what happens when some idiot makes a mistake and loses a thousand soldiers?”

 

Despite all his accomplishments, it seemed like the boss would forever be a worrier, which Rustram found oddly endearing.

 

With a shrug, Daxian replied, “Then the loss will fuel the Empire’s desire for justice and vengeance. As Mister Rustram said, we all serve. In life or in death, the Emperor cares not.”

 

“How… uplifting. If this soldier turned bandit turned mercenary thing doesn’t work out, I foresee a lucrative career writing greeting cards in your future.” Clutching his rabbit a little closer, the boss sighed and said, “I need you to speak with the quartermaster and make sure we have enough supplies for the entire trip. I want us operating on the assumption that we won’t be able to hunt or resupply until we’re back in Sinuji. I doubt the Defiled will think to taint the water supply or scare away the wildlife, but better safe than sorry.”

 

“Yes boss.”

 

“Also, send word back to Luo-Luo and tell her stop production on the repeating crossbows and focus her efforts elsewhere. They’re too inefficient for the cost, in both coin and manpower.”

 

This was his chance. “Why not adjust the crossbows for a heavier draw? We can easily do it here in the field and while it will take more effort to load each quarrel, even at half the rate of fire, they’ll still have their use.”

 

“…See, this is why you’re my second in command. Daxian, you best keep him safe, because I can’t survive without him.” Clapping Rustram on the shoulder, the boss grinned and said, “I was too focused on the repeating part, but I suppose normal crossbows will work too. Write a letter anyways and tell her we’ll be unreachable for the next little while so she won’t panic when I don’t return her messages.”

 

“Er… Are you sure you don’t want to write the message instead, boss? And maybe say something to the rest of your wives?”

 

“Tch. Right again. How are you still single? Now stop making me look bad and get to work, before I send a letter telling my mom her Disciple is a slacker.” With a playful wink, the boss dismissed Rustram, who strode off with head held high and Daxian in tow, ready to butt heads with the quartermaster over every gram of grain and millilitre of water. While history might not remember Rustram’s name, he was content in the knowledge that Imperial Consort Falling Rain considered him ‘indispensable’.

 

Granted, he rather have a loving wife and children to call his own, but until such a time, this would have to do.

 

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Savage Divinity – Chapter 405

 

Lungs burning and muscles aching, I signal Zabu to stop and hurl Unity like a javelin, spearing a fleeing cannibal clean through the torso until the crossbars lift him off his feet. Drawing Peace as a precaution, I check the surroundings for threats and find none, though some still could be lurking about in the murky darkness or tall grass. Unless the Enemy regroups and returns for a second attack, the Imperial Forces are victorious tonight, or at least they are in the area around Sinuji, only a single sliver of the front lines. While retrieving Unity, I hear the faint sounds of battle off in the distance, where another section is still engaged with the Enemy, but only dead and dying Defiled remain as far as the eye can see.

 

As the adrenaline fades and exhaustion settles in, I leave Rustram, Bulat, and Ravil to handle the aftermath under Daxian’s supervision. They’re as well-rested as can be considering the circumstances. Five days of hard travel wasn’t too bad especially considering no one had to walk, but I’d like to have a full day to recuperate before heading out on patrol. Rest is a luxury the Empire can ill-afford, but I think Colonel Hongji will be willing to accommodate. Even if he isn’t, I’m happy to have a commander who’s willing to listen.

 

Honestly, I’m astonished at how receptive the Colonel’s been with regards to my suggestions, immediately implementing a handful in the few hours since I arrived. Lighting the fields was a given, since you can’t hit what you can’t see, but keeping our outer perimeter in darkness was all him, though I’m undecided on how useful it is. Another suggestion he jumped on was establishing independent rapid-response teams, allowing certain units to bolster the front lines as they saw fit without need for micromanagement. While Sending is handy for quick communication over a distance, it’s not without its flaws. Although I’m unsure of what the exact requirements are, I know the Sender needs to to be familiar with the recipient, since they need to pick the target out of a crowd of hundreds, or perhaps even thousands. With so many foreign soldiers under his command, most of Hongji’s orders are hand delivered through sealed writ, slowing the lines of communication down to a crawl.

 

I made other suggestions like scattering rubble around the fields and creating firebreaks, but those will take time to implement. Truth be told, when I made my first suggestion, I was ready to be politely ignored or worse, but Hongji was more than happy to discuss my ‘unorthodox’ ideas. Maybe it’s his age, which at fifty-five years old, is surprisingly young. Being a Martial Warrior, he’s still in the prime of life, but I figured there’d be someone… with more experience holding a position as important as the centre, or at least someone of higher rank. Since the Legate picked Hongji, I assume the Colonel either has plenty of political clout or is so outstanding no one could argue the choice. Regardless, Chen Hongji is a man I’ll want to befriend, since one can never have too many well-connected and/or talented allies.

 

Ha, I’m finally learning the ins and outs of politics. Luo-Luo will be so proud.

 

Upon returning to camp, I impose on my Death Corps Guards to prepare a hot bath so I can wash away all the blood and gore. It’s not so bad in the middle of battle, but no one likes to be covered in dried, caked blood, not even quins. Tired from lugging my heavy ass around all day and night, Zabu lays on his side as the wagon quins gather around to groom him, an adorable sight to behold. Unfortunately, I’m not sure if my dignity would survive a quin-tongue bath and I know my skin certainly won’t, so I rinse off my weapons and wait for the water to heat while listening to reports from Rustram.

 

Idling in Nan Ping has spoiled me, as I can no long stomach bathing in cold water. I couldn’t bear to part with the fancy stone tub, so I brought it with me to the front lines, but the way I see it, the more baths I take, the happier Ping Ping will be. The happier Ping Ping is, the more likely she is to stick around, so it’s a win-win, especially when you consider the bigger picture.

 

While Ping Ping and Guan Suo are idle slackers, the Protectorate are monsters on the battlefield.

 

Tonight was the first time they saw action under my command, but I discovered the Protectorate were made of sterner stuff after convincing them to join in on group training. Their shabby clothing and inconspicuous manner kept me from seeing the truth before my eyes, as their ranks hid more Experts and Captain-level talents than any other unit under my command, all gathered for what they consider a Holy Purpose. They lived a hard life out in the wilds of Ping Yao, keeping the Divine Turtle safe from poachers and other unsavoury sorts, but under Guan Suo’s supervision, they trained themselves into an elite unit on par with Akanai’s Khishigs. Bow and long-axe are their favoured weapons, and they handily dispatched all Defiled forces sent against them on the northernmost flank of Sinuji’s defences, with minimal injuries and no deaths.

 

Or at least that’s what Rustram’s report says. I never made it that far to see for myself, as by the time I cleaned up the Southern flank, there were no more Defiled left to kill. Cowards. Where are the Defiled who fight to the bitter end? I was just getting warmed up. Granted, I’d much rather soak in hot water and listen to reports than slog through a mire of mud and blood, but variety is the spice of life.

 

The reports continue coming in as I scrub myself clean, and a clear picture of our first proper battle emerges. Dastan’s unit took the most injuries, which makes sense considering they saw the most action, but even the worst off will recover without Healer intervention. We lost a few horses which stings, but better a warhorse than a Martial Warrior. Other than Dastan’s, most of my other units played a support role, firing projectiles from behind our allied meat shields, but I’m not thrilled with the results. The new repeating crossbows designed by Diyako’s team are lacking in power, and even though the Defiled will eventually go down if you fill them with enough bolts, it now becomes a question of cost versus benefit. With how ineffective the crossbows are, is it even worth carrying them around? We have about six-hundred repeating crossbows and a metric shit-tonne of bolts, which equals to a whole lot of extra wagons slowing us down.

 

It’s something to think about, but I’m not ready to give up the ranged advantage. At least the Monstrosity still holds up, though not many of my soldiers can handle the aptly-named triple shot arbalests. Since most were there to begin with, I put all the beefy Monstrosity wielders into Ulfsaar’s unit. According to Pran’s report, they performed well and ‘maked much death’, which is a huge leap in Pran’s literacy, if nothing else. Other than that, there isn’t much else to say. The Protectorate cleaned house, Ravil and Bulat stood around with their thumbs up their asses, and Li Song and Yellow Unit proved their worth by fighting side by side with a scion of the Xue Clan. It’s always nice to make new friends, and I’m glad to see Song reaching out, though her choice of ally is a little worrisome. On paper, the Xue Clan are allies of the Han Clan and the Han Clan are allies with the Bekhai, but in reality things aren’t so simple. Due to our personal friendship, BoShui’s father, the Han Clan Patriarch, needs to think twice about his original plan, in which BoShui plays the part of sacrificial lamb for the true heir. A cold and heartless way to treat your own son, but such is the world we live in. This has understandably strained on our inter-faction relationship, though the world at large isn’t privy to the details.

 

Truth be told, I’m not entirely certain how it changes anything. On the surface, the Han Clan is as supportive of the Bekhai as ever, though I think it’s more to piss off the Situ Clan than anything else. Besides, it’s not like it matters, my status makes me all but untouchable, so BoShui and Zian should be safe from their respective Patriarchs.

 

For the time being at least. Who knows what’ll happen if the Legate disavows me, or worse.

 

As the last report rolls in and Rustram heads off to bed, I lay back in my heated tub and relax beneath the night sky. I’ve already asked my guards to top off the water twice now, but I still can’t bring myself to get out, so luxuriantly comfortable I could fall asleep. Alas, there’s still work to be done, for Ping Ping waits eagerly overhead for her Spiritual Water treat, a twice-weekly requirement if I ever want to leave her sight. Even then, she’s unwilling to let me stray too far, though how she tracks my position is still a mystery. All I know is she throws a big squeaky fit if I move more than a kilometre away, a radius which rapidly shrinks the longer she goes without Spiritual Water.

 

I love the big girl, but she’s so needy, unlike Pong Pong. Maybe it’s because I’ve never tried to abandon him, or maybe he’s smarter than Ping Ping and knows that if all my stuff is here, I’ll eventually come back, but the tiny Turtle Divinity is more than happy to chill in my yurt with Mama Bun and Blackjack. As tempting as it was to bring him into battle, I can’t in good conscience convince myself to do so, not to mention all the extra complications that would come from revealing his presence. GangShu is still lurking about and I’d rather not fall out with him over Pong Pong. I have enough shit to deal with as is, so there’s no need to add murderous Ancestral Rat to the list.

 

I doubt I can keep Pong Pong a secret forever, but that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t try. Then again, I’m fairly certain the little turtle stole Blobby from me, so if he dies, I might get my droplet back… No, I like Pong Pong more than Blobby. That stupid droplet was a worthless freeloader, and Pong Pong is adorbs.

 

Having delayed long enough, I close my eyes, reach for Balance, and slip into my Natal Palace. Materializing in the brightly lit bedroom, I take a moment to appreciate the elaborately carved ceiling before hopping out of bed. After setting into motion the process of creating Chi-Water, I gaze out the glass windows at all the recent additions, mildly disgruntled by the lack of cohesion. That’s the problem with a modular design like what I’ve gone with, but it works, so if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Besides, even though it’s not much to look at, my Natal Palace is comprised of my favourite places in the world, which makes it as close to paradise as can be.

 

Assuming the foot of my bed is south, then Taduk’s underground cottage sits to the east, complete with my first ever keystone, the first aid kit. I still haven’t figured out how to limit its Healing effects to serious injuries only or prioritize those over cuts and bruises, but that doesn’t mean it’s worthless. I just need to be smart about it, using it only when necessary instead of leaving it on all the time, though turning it on is as easy as snapping my fingers. On the other side of the bed to the west sits my favourite cliff-side perch overlooking the village, though here it overlooks my Natal Palace instead. There sits my second Keystone, a single feather planted in the dirt. If not for its immense size, as long as I am tall and about half as wide, the feather looks like it could have fallen off of Roc’s wings, mostly brown with a shimmering, light-blue tip. When activated, the feather sways in the wind and Lightens my body, allowing me to climb trees and ease Zabu’s burdens.

 

As for its flaws… I can’t control the amount of Lightening it conveys, so it’s always working at maximum power, reducing about a quarter of my (naked) weight. Kind of a waste for everyday riding, since it’d drain me dry in about thirty minutes, and if used in battle it fucks with my centre of balance, but it’s something, I guess.

 

Moving on is my last new addition, which sits to the north of my bedroom. I styled it after Mila’s forge at the Northern Wall, the one she designed with a bedroom in the back. Only after recreating it in my Natal Palace did I realize she built the bedroom specifically for our naughty little trysts, a place which was hidden from sight and noisy enough to keep Martial Warriors from listening in. It’s a thought which warms my heart and sets fire to my loins, but sadly, Mila isn’t around to break my hand. Inside sits not one, but two Keystones, mostly because I wanted to see if it’d work, but also because I felt my Natal Palace approaching its limits. In pure volume, it’s still a long ways short of my village replica, but I’m guessing the Keystones count for more than empty real estate. Either way, Mila’s forge is the perfect place for my final two keystones, both thematically and emotionally. First up, in the bedroom is an inflated five-pointed star. Plump and yellow, it bounces about as if possessed of a mind of its own, which is why I had to get rid of the cartoonish eyes it originally came with. This Keystone occupies the bedroom because it represents Reinforcement, a skill I use constantly to interact with my beloved Mila. When active, the star flashes with light, and the more Reinforcement I need, the faster it flashes and bounces around, until at maximum power it’s moving and flashing so quickly I can’t hardly stand to look at it.

 

All in all, it’s my most sophisticated and well-designed keystone because I desperately need Reinforcement to survive my beloved’s affection. It’s such a relief to not have panic attacks whenever I see Mila running towards me, knowing I can catch her without hurting myself.

 

Then there’s my fourth and final Keystone, my most complex working yet, a two-piece hammer and anvil set. Whereas the other three Keystones are used to manage relatively straightforward functions, Amplification is a whole different beast. The way it was explained to me is that Amplification is a three part process. You begin by building up your Chi, then move it in tandem with a strike, culminating with an explosion of Chi at the time of impact. Done correctly, you can multiply the force of an attack, and when combined with Reinforcement it allows you to hit two or more times harder than normal, depending on the amount of Chi used. Done incorrectly and you wasted a bunch of Chi.

 

It was too much work manipulating my Chi while moving my body, and I couldn’t get the hang of it in practice, much less in combat. On a good day, I had a one in three chance of success, so I rarely used Amplification in the past. Instead, I favoured using my Chi on more reliable methods like Healing and Reinforcement, but with great risks comes great rewards. There are few things more satisfying than smashing your enemies to a bloody pulp, and this is a sensation only made possible with Amplification.

 

…Is it possible I’ve become too bloodthirsty?

 

Whatever. Survival first, ethics later.

 

While my Lightening and Reinforcement Keystones were crafted in a day each, I spent the better part of a week figuring out what to do with Amplification. My first thought was to use the forge and bellows, pumping air into furnace to represent the build up, then unleashing in when I strike, but after practising with it a few thousand times to no success, I took a step back and started from the beginning. What was I hoping to accomplish with an Amplification Keystone? Amplification is a matter of building up energy and releasing it at the proper time and location, a process which I hoped to simplify, but with the forge and bellows, I’d already failed. Instead, I turned my attention to the hammer and anvil, two objects which were not only already in the forge room, they were also perfect for representing the same process. Lift the hammer to build up energy, smack the anvil to release it. Higher equals more energy, louder equals bigger boom, can’t get any easier than that. What’s more, the metallic clang gave a far more visceral response than the heated bellows, and as I played the sound in my head, the pieces fell into place.

 

Did I really need to envision lifting the hammer and striking it down? With my other Keystones, I briefly picture each one to activate or deactivate it, and then it manipulates my Chi in the background, so why can’t I do the same with Amplification? The hammer lifts and builds up Chi, moves the Chi to the proper location while descending, and explodes the Chi when hammer meets anvil, a wholly automated process from start to finish. All that’s left is to get the timing right, which is much easier than it sounds given that the hammer is an imaginary object, it technically moves at the speed of thought, so all I have to do is imagine the clang as my weapon strikes and the hammer would move to match it.

 

It’s a little like tapping a beat with your foot and matching it by snapping your fingers. Super easy to sync up, except in this case, the snapping is a quasi-complex Chi action. When swinging a weapon, you more or less know when you’re going to hit, unless your opponent does some tricky dodging or parrying, so now, my success rate with Amplification has shot up to nine out of ten. The funny thing is, I still can’t figure out the rock flicking thing, where Charok fires pebbles off with his fingers using Amplification. I suppose it goes to show that everyone learns things differently, so I guess the Bekhai teaching method of ‘figure it out on your own’ isn’t entirely full of shit.

 

We all must forge our own Martial Path, yadda yadda. I’d still like a few pointers every now and then and a lot less mystical mumbo-jumbo.

 

There are still a lot of Keystones I’d like to make, but thus far, I’ve yet to come up with any working ideas. A Honing Keystone would be nice, but I’m pretty good at Honing already so it’s not exactly a priority, and I’d probably need a separate Keystone for each weapon. Otherwise, I might accidentally Hone Peace while it’s still in the scabbard, which would not only be a waste of Chi, it’d also be embarrassing when it drops out of its broken sheathe and onto my foot. I could also make something for Guiding, but the process so instinctual I’m afraid to fuck things up by thinking about it. Reverberation would nice, sending shock waves through my weapons to attack my opponent’s internal organs, but I don’t know how to Reverberate yet, so a Keystone is out of reach. I’d also like to automate Chi gathering and Chi Water creation, but I’ve had no success with either venture. I figured the first would be as easy as using my Runic ring as a Keystone, but sadly, it fell flat and I couldn’t figure out why.

 

My best guess? It doesn’t work because reaching Balance requires a modicum of effort and concentration. When I’m not meditating, I’m not Balanced, and without Balance, I can’t commune with the Energy of the Heavens. No Balance, no Chi or Chi Water, Keystone or not. Who knows for sure though. It’s all guesswork from here on out, though it’d be nice to get a second opinion. I suppose it’ll have to wait until I meet with Mom and Dad again, though with luck, I’ll have a big surprise in store for both.

 

Stepping out of my room, I peer into the void where hundreds of Spectres wail and screech, offering threats of violence and promises of power if I’ll only set them free. Pleased with my harvest, I take a deep breath and prepare for the coming unpleasantness. Opening my mouth, I regurgitate all the Chi Water I’ve bound in the past month and send it surging out to cleanse the Spectres, all while wincing at the unpleasant phantom sensation of vomiting more than my stomach can hold.

 

This is all Blobby’s fault. Not only is he not here to deal with this, because of his actions, I can’t imagine storing Chi Water any other way.

 

After turning all the Spectres into sweet Heavenly Energy, I deposit their remains into the wooden chalice and slurp up the excess Chi Water. Somehow, this is even less pleasant than puking it out, probably because now it’s like drinking second hand vomit. I’d love a better storage method like a squirt gun or something, but sadly, I can’t get it to work. Whatever, it’s a small price to pay for the energy of creation, as Taduk so aptly put it, and while a few hundred Spectres are far from enough, there are still plenty more out there to Devour. With a little luck, a lot of hard work, and drinking  like a thousand litres of Spiritual Back-wash, I’ll eventually gather enough Heavenly Energy to help Mom walk again.

 

And maybe, just maybe, I’ll have enough left over to treat myself to a little something special. Dare I say it? Can this really be happening? Is the dream alive?

 

Two words: Bear. Hands.

 

Please, Mother in Heaven, make it so…

 

Chapter Meme

 

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Savage Divinity – Chapter 404

In all my current, imagined, and forgotten lives, I’ve never experienced any activity more invigorating than killing.

 

Not to say it’s the greatest feeling in the world, but damn if it doesn’t make me feel alive. The sweet, seductive rush of adrenaline surges through my veins, sharpening my senses and washing away my fatigue as my mind works in overdrive to process this wealth of new information. The cold air is thick with blood and sweat, my mouth dry and chest hot. Hoofbeats and triumphant cries blend with cadenced blows and dying screams, the symphony of battle ringing in my ears. The shadows dance in the firelight and I parse through the hazy forms to make out friend and foe alike as the former chase down the latter. Though yearning to dive into the tall grass and hunt my enemies down to the last, reason overcomes bloodlust and I rein Zabu in, giving the order to turn and leave the wretched Defiled to scurry away like the vermin they are. My blood boils and skin tingles as I search for an outlet for all my energy, and I cackle at the sliver of moon hanging in the night’s sky. “Shock and awe baby,” I yell, having little to no idea what I’m talking about. “Shock and awe. That’s how you kill Defiled.”

 

A chorus of cheers goes up and I take a beat to survey my surroundings, noting scrapes and cuts a plenty, but no missing faces or incapacitated soldiers, only a sea of eager grins and grim smiles. Time feels slower as my brain works faster, tallying injuries and reviewing my performance. Awesome as it is to send enemies flying with every hit, I can afford to scale things back. There’s no need to Reinforce and Amplify every single blow, one or the other will do. Reinforcement is more reliable while Amplification is more economical, but better safe than sorry so Reinforcement it is. Shutting off my Amplification Keystone with a thought, I wipe the blood from my eyes while mulling over the details of our deployment. Zian and BoShui are in the clear, while Bolin’s squad is mopping up the last of their opponents to the south, but fuck helping that fat bastard. He almost killed Yan after the Contests, so if he expects me to save his fat ass, he’s in for a rude awakening.

 

Besides, Bolin has like, a thousand soldiers and the rest of my forces are to the north, including Li Song who I need to stay within five kilometres of. No one can fault me for leaving Bolin to fend for himself, and if he can’t hold the line, there are other reserve soldiers standing by. I’m really only here because I’m bored.

 

Spotting Zian in the crowd, his disgruntled glare fills me with guilt so I speak quickly before he can open his mouth. “You’re a monster Zian, a killing machine.” Not even an exaggeration, he was waving his sabres so quickly they were little more than a blur. How does he stay so clean? I mean, he’s got some blood spatter on him, but I’m covered head to toe in gore and viscera. “Shame you’ve got a line to hold and can’t join us.” Or chew me out for almost shooting you in the back of the head. Okay, so my bad, I should’ve aimed higher, but in my defence, I wasn’t expecting him to stand up so quickly. Besides, the arrow wasn’t that close to hitting him, I had a good thirty… okay, maybe twenty centimetres of clearance.

 

Note to self: When firing over allies, aim in an arc.

 

Whatever. Zian’s alive and well, so no harm, no foul. Apologies can wait, because I have more important business to attend to. While I can’t steal Spectres from proper Defiled, these miserable bastards brought plenty of free-floating ghosties for me to Devour, which means I’d be a fool to pass up this all-I-can-eat buffet of Heavenly Energy delivered all the way from the Western Wastes. A shame the Defiled are running away instead of fighting to the death like they normally do, but the great thing about being outnumbered is that there’s always more enemies to kill.

 

Raising Unity above my head, I shout, “I haven’t killed enough. Have you?”

 

“FUCK NO!!”

 

Inwardly wincing at their vulgar reply, I make another mental note to talk to the officers about decorum before leading them away, yelling, “Then what are we waiting for?”

 

Spectres. Get. In. My. Belly!

 

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

 

Aching from the strain of firing multiple arrows, Ravil rolled his right arm and stretched his shoulder muscles. While standing on his best girl Jinx gave him a raised platform to shoot from, the sweet girl didn’t like it when he put his full weight into drawing his bow. The pressure on her back made her uncomfortable, which in turn made her shiver and wiggle about, hoping to dislodge his foot from her spine. The first time she did it, Ravil almost accidentally loosed an arrow at the soldier practising beside him, so ever since, he’d taken to drawing his bow using only his upper body when standing on his quin. Fifteen shots at full draw seemed to be his limit, as opposed to thirty or forty if he had his feet on solid ground, but as things stood, it didn’t matter too much. These damned Defiled didn’t look like much and they couldn’t fight for shit, but Mother’s tits were they tough. Anything short of an arrow to the head or heart and they brushed it off like a bee sting, but he couldn’t get a good angle for a heart shot with BoShui’s retinue standing in front and those damned head-wraps were tougher than tough.

 

Nothing more disheartening than being the only archer around and doing shit all with your arrows. Guess he’d need to work a little harder and upgrade to a bow with a heavier draw. Things would be different if he had one of them Monstrosities, those big honking crossbows Pran and Saluk carried around, or better yet, if Ravil had permission to fire his sword-gun… Welp, there was no helping it. The bossman wanted to keep his little wonder weapons a secret and Ravil could see why. Powerful as they were, those spring-powered projectiles were wildly unreliable and inaccurate, at least for most. Their true strength would show in massed numbers, but by the time little lady Sumila crafted enough weapons and the troopers got enough practice, the war might already be over.

 

A damn shame if that were to happen. Ravil itched to show off his skills as he watched BoShui’s boys hold their own. They were strong, but Ravil was confident he could match most, though not BoShui himself. Despite his lacking fame and horrendous duelling record, the Paper Tiger of the Han Clan was force to be reckoned with on the battlefield, no two ways about it. While Zian, Dastan, and the other little shits of the Empire fought neat and pretty, BoShui was a down and dirty brawler, a man after Ravil’s shrivelled, black heart. Sporting no less than four Spiritual Weapons, BoShui’s spiked vambraces and matching greaves served as both sword and shield, weapons which he used to full effect by barrelling into the Enemy like an enraged bull. There was no grace or elegance to BoShui’s movements, no flowery flourishes or sophisticated maneuvers, a rough and tumble smash and bash as he killed every Defiled who stepped into range. Armoured in heavy plate, BoShui fought with impunity in the thick of things, even using his runic helmet as a weapon when all else failed, a sight which left Ravil cackling in delight.

 

“Whoo,” he exclaimed, shaking his head in disbelief. “You see that? He head-butted that bastard’s face clean off, he did. How much you think one of them runic helmets run?” A better question would be where could Ravil go to steal one, but that wasn’t something you asked out loud.

 

“Responding to Great One, this slave knows not where to purchase Runic Helms and begs forgiveness.”

 

Suppressing a sigh, Ravil turned to Green One and shook his head, wishing Bulat was nearby to shoot the shit with instead. “It wasn’t a question question, you know? Just one of them things you ask without expecting a real answer.”

 

“…This slave understands.”

 

Seeing Green One’s confused expression, Ravil knew he didn’t. Strong as they were, these poor slave bastards were hardly older than the bossman himself, little fawns out in the world for the very first time. Their wide-eye gazes reminded Ravil of those new to life on the streets, those easy marks he targeted or took in under his wing depending on his mood, and today, he felt… Benevolent. “Look, it’s making conversation see? Friendly banter to bond over, that sort of thing. Like, I ask how much one of them costs, and you say ‘More than your scrawny ass could earn in a lifetime’ or ‘round about what you earn slobbering over twenty thousand cocks, so best get to sucking’, yanno?”

 

Lowering his head, Green One dropped to one knee and saluted. “This slave dares not slander Great One’s dignity.”

 

“Bah, what dignity?” Using his foot to nudge the kneeling soldier, Ravil gestured for him to stand. “My mother was a whore and my father one of her many clients. I grew up on the streets of Shen Huo fighting other children for scraps of rotten meat and mouldy bread. Joined the army to escape the hangman’s noose I did, and if not for the bossman’s mercy, I’d be a blind butt-boy in a whore house somewhere.” Grinning at the bewildered soldier, Ravil winked and continued, “I’m not telling you all this because I’m proud of my roots, mind you. I gutted the first bastard who called me a whore-son and my temper hasn’t improved by much since, but what I’m saying is, I’m no ‘Great One’, so ease up. We soldiers are brothers-in-arms fighting side by side, so none of your ‘this slave’ and ‘Great One’ business, you hear?”

 

“Understood.” Green One hesitated. “Then… What is this… one to call…”

 

Mother in Heaven. If Ravil left it any longer, Green One’s head might explode. “Easy enough. I’ll call you soldier, and you call me commander, cause that’s what we are.”

 

“Understood, commander.”

 

“Good enough.” For now at least. Ravil’s attempts to build camaraderie would have to wait, but he wasn’t in any rush. In his experience, the best way to form a bond was to kill together, and there’d be plenty of killing to be done soon enough.

 

Wishing he had someone to banter with, Ravil gave up and raised his bow. Before he could pick out a target however, Jochi’s Sending arrived in his ear. “This is call-sign Undying. Commander Ravil, be advised, the bossman’s coming in from the south. Hold your fire and enjoy the show.”

 

Only then did Ravil think to look around at the other battle zones, and to his surprise, he found Zian’s area free and clear of living Defiled. Grinning like a madman, the bossman waited for Dastan’s horsemen to form up behind him before darting ahead on his quin, leading the charge from the front like always. With a roar heard over the din of battle, Falling Rain crashed into the mob of Defiled a full second before his horsemen joined him, wielding his spear like a God given flesh as he cut deep into the Enemy’s flank, their toughened bodies providing no defence from his bone-shattering blows. Bolstered by the bossman’s support, BoShui’s retinue went into a killing frenzy and the beleaguered Defiled held for mere seconds before crumbling on both fronts. Fleeing like frightened rabbits, the Defiled were cut down by the pursuing riders in the ensuing slaughter, pierced from behind and trampled under-hoof without putting up a fight.

 

Had Ravil timed it from the bossman’s appearance to finish, he reckoned it took less than a minute to clear the field of Defiled, a feat which would’ve taken BoShui’s boys at least an hour to mop up on their own.

 

Whooping at the night’s sky, the soldiers cheered for Falling Rain, but the bossman wasn’t done yet. After a quick headcount, he gathered his cavalry and pressed on, heading North to the next mob of Defiled held in place by Yellow Unit and led by the lovely Li Song. Shaking his head in equal parts awe and disbelief, Ravil chuckled and said, “Well Green One, looks like the bossman’s got this covered.” Hopping off of Jinx, he rummaged through his saddlebags and came out with dried meat for the quin and a wine-gourd for himself.

 

Drinking a small mouthful to celebrate, he offered the gourd to Green One who shrank away. “This soldier dare not. Commander, Military Regulation states that any soldier found intoxicated whilst on duty shall be subject to no less than five lashes with a maximum sentence of death by hanging depending on the state of inebriation.”

 

“Right, right.” Sticklers were never any fun. With his most charming grin, Ravil winked and said, “But it don’t matter if you don’t get drunk. A small taste never hurt nobody.” With a shake of the proffered wine-gourd, he continued, “So? How about it?”

 

Though obviously uncomfortable with the idea, Green One’s eyes shone with interest and curiosity. Gingerly accepting the gourd, he took a tentative sip and his stony face lit up in delight. “Good wine,” Green One said, even though it wasn’t. Until now, the poor bastard probably drank nothing but water, no proper way for a man to live.

 

Declining to take the gourd back, Ravil went back to his saddlebag and pulled out four more gourds. “Pass ‘em along, let everyone have a taste to celebrate the bossman’s victory tonight, the first of many in the days ahead.” That was all the wine he had and it’d be difficult to get more here on the front lines, but damn if he was gonna let these soldiers die without knowing the taste of alcohol. Despite the bossman’s impressive showing, Ravil was under no illusions. This war would be long and bloody, with many a death to come.

 

Such was life, but Ravil learned early to make the most of it, because the Mother was a fickle bitch. Today, Falling Rain was the Undying Savage, Unrivalled Beneath Heaven, but tomorrow, he might be the dead or dying Savage, destined for the stew pots of some Defiled lunatic.

 

Best to celebrate today, because you might not get a chance tomorrow.

 

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

 

Though Song understood the concept of command, she quickly realized it was much easier in theory than in practice, for there were nuances of leadership she had yet to grasp. Take for example inter-unit communication. When Rain ordered her to support the Xue clan’s Captain positioned north of BoShui, Song sent Tursinai and Tenjin over to explain her intentions while she led Yellow Unit to stand guard beside them. Rather than showing gratitude for their assistance, the Xue Captain cursed out the husband and wife duo so loudly Song could hear him from where she stood. Knowing Tursinai’s temper, Song interrupted the Xue Captain’s tirade to call them back, which only earned her more of the foul-mouthed Captain’s ire.

 

What was Song supposed to do? Walk over and take his head for the insult, or swallow her pride and ignore him?

 

Ultimately, she chose the latter and waited for the Defiled in silence, which only emboldened the Xue clansmen as they joined their Captain in hurling insults and invectives at Song’s unit. Luckily, Yellow Unit was a disciplined and orderly bunch, unlike the rest of Rain’s unruly retinue. So reckless and untrustworthy, Rain specifically stationed Song between Ravil and Bulat so the two troublemakers couldn’t join forces and make a mess of things. While the two ruffians worked well together, Rain confessed he felt it unwise to leave them unsupervised and asked Song to keep an eye on them. Were Song in his place, she would have ordered both men lashed until they were ready to obey, but Rain had a soft spot for his former cripples, a flaw which might prove fatal soon enough. Instead of arming his most promising soldiers with Sister’s ingenious Spiritual Weapons, Rain gave them to survivors of Sanshu, as if to atone for the deaths of their comrades.

 

A foolish and sentimental gesture, but Song expected no less of a man who took in orphaned animals and turned majestic hunters into hapless fools. Poor Jimjam was so lacking in instinct he couldn’t even kill a rabbit trying to force its way into his mouth. Sweet George, so brave and reckless, Song missed him and his siblings dearly.

 

As the Defiled massed for the charge, Song took a quick glance around and realized why the Xue Captain was so incensed. Unlike her, Ravil and Bulat had stationed their units behind the soldiers they were supporting, which made Song’s actions of forcing her way onto the line seem discourteous at best. Perhaps the Xue Captain thought she was here to steal his glory or that she looked down on his ability, neither of which were true. Unsure how to make amends for her blunder, Song took Tursinai’s hand and asked for advice through Sending.

 

Her open-faced leather helmet doing little to hide her smile, Tursinai pulled Song into a hug. “Oh aren’t you just adorable,” she said, squeezing Song tight. “Listen carefully, sweet Li-Li. Yes, your actions offended the Xue Captain, but so what? He has no choice but to accept the insult, because you’re Li Song, Daughter of Akanai and Husolt, Sister to Sumila, and Khishig of the Bekhai. He can complain all he wants, but you’re far above his station.” Releasing Song from her embrace, Tursinai pinched Song’s cheeks and added, “And if he’s foolish enough to try anything underhanded, well that’s what hubby and I are here for, to look after the Chief Provost’s precious daughter. Forget about the wounded pride of arrogant nobodies, you concentrate on the battle ahead.”

 

Warmed by Mama’s loving regard, Song took a deep breath and nodded before turning her attention back to the Defiled ahead. As an afterthought, she said, “I would like to test my blade. Please don’t act unless my life is in danger.”

 

“Yes Commander Li-Li. Hubby and I will butt out so you can have your moment, you glory-hungry fiend.”

 

Blushing at Tursinai’s sickly sweet timbre, Song turned to Yellow One and said, “Ready the torches. Prepare to engage.”

 

“Yes, Commander Li-Li.” Though they spoke the same words, Yellow One’s delivery lacked Tursinai’s teasing tone, a gruff and humourless woman who took Song’s every order with the utmost sincerity. Song rather liked her, and in a rare show of affection, she gently patted the soldier’s helmet as encouragement.

 

Though she wanted to say something to bolster morale, Song didn’t know what to say, so she said nothing. Soon enough, the Defiled gathered their collective courage and charged ahead, screaming in their incomprehensible, guttural tongue as they surged forwards. “Light the braziers,” Song ordered and the fires blazed into existence, revealing their presence to the Defiled mob. “Weapons ready.” Grasping her sabre’s hilt, she left the weapon sheathed and Reinforced her body. Waiting until the Defiled were a mere ten meters away, she shouted, “Charge!”

 

And charge she did.

 

With a tortured hiss of metal on leather, Song’s sabre leapt from the sheathe and scythed out to claim her first three kills. Shifting to a two-handed grip, she brought her weapon up and around for an overhead chop, pushing down on the hilt with her upper hand and pulling up with the bottom one to maximize the impact. Her blade passed through the leather headwraps and cracked open her Defiled opponent’s skull, slicing a gash from crown to nose before she retracted her strike and raised her sabre high once again. No need to cleave him clean in half, Defiled or not, no one could survive with their brain in two pieces. Precision over power was the key in these engagements, for as the commander of this hundred-man unit, Song was responsible for killing any opposing Champions in the Enemy ranks, though she had yet to mark one worthy of her attentions.

 

Down came her blade and another Defiled’s head split from skull to nose, the cut so clean both halves stuck together after she extracted her blade. The corpse dropped like a sack of rice and Song moved on, cracking skulls and killing Defiled as easily as chopping firewood. It didn’t matter if her opponents used their weapons to block or if they rushed forward to kill before being killed, Song stayed the course no matter what. Those cowards who blocked lacked the strength to stop her blows and those brave enough to attack couldn’t pierce through her Runic breastplate. This battle was too simple, too easy, hardly the challenge she desired. She could only hope the truly strong Defiled were lurking in the rear, waiting for the Imperial defenders to tire themselves before willing to act.

 

If so, Song never got the chance to find out.

 

Unnoticed by the blood-hungry Defiled, Rain snuck his cavalry around to their rear and quietly formed ranks behind them. A reckless gambit, considering there could be more Defiled still hiding in the grass, but Rain was nothing if not reckless. Luckily, the Defiled had committed all their forces to the attack and there was no one left to encircle Rain’s cavalry, as expected for one beloved by the Mother above. After leisurely getting into place, Rain charged in and took the Defiled by complete surprise, and Song knew this battle was won.

 

To add insult to injury, after seeing her glory stolen away by Rain and Dastan, Song felt even worse for encroaching upon the Xue Captain’s territory. She knew she should apologize, but she bristled at the thought of wasting her hard earned coin on someone who wasn’t likely to appreciate it, so she decided she would leave it be. Like Tursinai said, Song was far above the nameless Captain’s station, so he would have to grin and bear it.

 

A rather thrilling experience and a first for Song, offering insult instead of receiving it, and truth be told, she rather enjoyed it. Still, she cautioned herself against making this a habit, else she cause too much trouble for Mama and Papa. As for the rest… it didn’t matter. This was merely the first of many battles to come, so Song would have plenty of chances to show the world Falling Rain wasn’t the only talented warrior among the Bekhai.

 

For she was Li Song, Khishig of the Bekhai, and she would make her family proud.

 

Chapter Meme

 

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Savage Divinity – Chapter 403


Ninja Edit: Happy Fake Thanksgiving to everyone. Real Thanksgiving was a month ago, but it’s okay. Better late than never.


 

“It’s time to wake, oh husband mine. The night is dark and honour awaits.”

 

Knowing what would happen if he continued to laze about, Zian’s eyes snapped open at the sound of his concubine’s voice. Sweet and gentle though she might sound, Jing Fei was not one to pamper or indulge. The opposite, in fact, taking almost perverse delight in causing him minor suffering in a variety of ways, but truth be told, he rather enjoyed her twisted personality. It kept him sharp and on his guard which was exactly what he needed out here on the front lines, where death lurked in every shadow. Were he still the Situ Jia Zian of yesteryear, he would have exhausted himself fooling around with every pretty courtesan or serving girl who caught his eye, or worse, be left utterly frustrated and resentful due to enforced celibacy.

 

With Jing Fei however, things were different. A devilishly wicked woman, she knew exactly how to keep him focused and alert, never fully satisfying his needs yet granting him just enough tender affection so he wasn’t driven to distraction. Unaccustomed to this lack of control, Zian still wasn’t sure how Jing Fei held so much power over him, but it was a thrilling and novel experience. Despite her mastery of poisons, it wasn’t fear or love which compelled him to obey, but something else altogether, a feeling he couldn’t quite explain. While cautious of her motivations and enamoured by her character, her force of personality made him want to submit. He had no desire to grovel at her feet and cater to her every whim, but more often than not, he complied with whatever requests or suggestions she made without a second thought.

 

Mostly because she had yet to steer him wrong and he’d grown to trust her judgment, but also because with Jing Fei dealing with the political side of his life, it left him free to focus solely on his Martial Path. So long as he followed her instructions, he was confident she’d lead him back to glory, or at the very least, keep the hounds at bay long enough for him to become a force unto himself.

 

All this and more flashed though his mind as he watched her naked form slide out of bed. The dim lighting shrouded her flawless, pearly-white skin in obscuring shadow, but his mind filled in the gaps and left him ravenous for her touch. Sitting up, he wrapped his arm around her full waist and pulled her into his lap. Her feigned struggles only fuelled his ardour as he tasted her lips, savouring this minor victory despite knowing it’d been granted to him. The flames of passion burning bright, he nonetheless tempered his lust and reined himself in, pulling away from the kiss to gaze deep into her lovely brown eyes. Was it true affection he glimpsed in those limpid autumn pools or was he merely a means to an end? Did she regret tying herself to his sinking ship, or did she truly believe he would become a dragon among men?

 

Easily freeing herself with a touch of his wrist, Jing Fei smirked and said, “Well, it seems you’ve finally learned how to restrain yourself.” Her wide hips swaying from side to side, she slinked over to her wardrobe with slow, seductive movements seemingly meant to drive him to madness. “Pleased as I am by your progress,” she said, keeping her legs straight as she bent down to collect her clothes, “Perhaps you’ve grown tired of your pitiable concubine and set your sights on another woman. Is the accomplished and newly promoted Major Ryo Da’In now lurking in your dreams? Eldest Daughter of the illustrious Ryo Family, God-Daughter to the Sanguine Tempest Du Min Gyu, and now winner of the Legate’s Contest in the First Imperial Grand Conference, her value rises with each passing day. A tempting prize, no?”

 

With a throaty growl, Zian darted out of bed and pounced on her, but she was ready and waiting. Dropping to a crouch, his ‘naked and vulnerable’ concubine made a reverse sweep of her leg and knocked his feet out from under him. As he fell face first to the ground, he tucked his head and readied to roll to his feet, but Jing Fei slammed her knee into his belly, driving the breath from his lungs. Rolling him onto his back, she mounted his stomach and pinned his wrists back, her plump breasts swinging just out of reach. “And to think,” she purred, slowly wiggling her hips as she slid down his abdomen, “I only just commended you for your restraint. Oh well. I suppose a little fun wouldn’t hurt.” Leaning close, she pressed against him and whispered, “But not now.”

 

Driven to near madness, Zian broke free with a snarl but Jing Fei slipped away out of reach, leaving him dazed, breathless, and aching for her touch. Jumping to his feet, he reached for her as she moved past him back to the bed, but she Deflected his arm with a wave of her hand, a stark reminder her Martial prowess was almost equal to his own. Wholly unconcerned by his predatory gaze, she sat on the bed, posting her arms on either side as she leaned back, crossed her legs, and bared her chest, so full of confidence and sensuality she seemed like the most regal and imposing woman alive. Shaking her head like a disappointed tutor, she reprimanded him with a voice full of steel and fire. “I said not now. The Defiled are sure to attack any moment now and you’ll need your strength to fight. Though I know Situ Jia Zian is a dragon among men, you still must prove it to the world at large.” Using her foot to point at the wardrobe behind him, she fluttered her lashes and added, “Since you cannot be trusted, you’ll have to fetch my clothes and stand where I can keep an eye on you, oh husband mine.”

 

Damn it all. As much as he wanted to throw himself upon her and make her submit, Zian knew she was right. The Defiled attacks came like clockwork, every night once the moon began to wane, and to indulge in carnality now would be the height of stupidity. Taking deep breaths to cool his temper, he ran his fingers through his hair and locked eyes with his concubine. The signs were subtle, but they were there, a tensing around her double-lidded eyes, a tremor in her voice, a quiver in her breath, and a hitch in her gait, all this and more told him she wasn’t as calm and composed as she’d like him to think.

 

Most telling was how the cold air wicked away the glistening trail she left behind on his belly, her body betraying her desire for his touch. Taking solace and gaining confidence from this knowledge, he stood a little taller and smiled before turning to heed her wishes. A pair of skin-tight leather trousers laid on the floor where she dropped them, and the rest sat waiting in a neat, folded pile. With everything in hand, he approached his concubine with deliberate sluggishness to give her a taste of her own teasing, and his efforts paid off. Her gaze slipped for an instant to appreciate his naked, chiselled form, but she caught herself almost immediately. While she glowered at his smug expression, he could almost hear her inwardly cursing him for being too damned pretty.

 

Oh how he loved this woman…

 

Leaving Jing Fei to finish putting on makeup, Zian strode out into the torch-lit camp and made his way to the inner perimeter, where he found Jukai poring over a written missive. With a half-hearted salute, the old man spoke without waiting for permission, having all but abandoned the mannerisms of a subordinate. “Colonel Hongji enacted a number of changes to response protocol after you went to bed.” With an indignant huff, Jukai added, “About damned time too. These damned armchair commanders from Central have no experience fighting in an open field, but we’re supposed to listen to them because it’s their homes behind us. Absurd.”

 

Since he had yet to meet a commander whom Jukai approved of, Zian prudently kept silent and looked over the missive for himself. Though standing orders were still to hold the line until the Defiled were all dead or fleeing, the outer perimeter guards were to wait in darkness without torch or lamp, until such a time as an attack was underway. The reason became clear once Zian looked up and saw a field of torches, illuminating the two hundred metres of flat ground between the first line of defences and the edge of the tall grass. Any Defiled attackers would be easily spotted the moment they stepped out, while the perimeter guards remained shrouded in darkness.

 

Perhaps giving these orders made the Colonel feel like he was contributing, but Zian didn’t see the point. While this might deny the Enemy the ability to scout for weaknesses in the Imperial defences before committing to the attack, the Defiled could easily knock those torches aside while charging in and plunge both sides into darkness, where they were far more adept at fighting when compared to their Imperial counterparts. The darkness also provided ample cover for Wraiths to slip through, though even the sneakiest of Wraiths would find it difficult to remain unseen while crossing two hundred metres of open ground. While renowned for their stealth, Wraiths couldn’t turn invisible or pass through solid matter like the stories would have children believe. They were merely masters of Concealment, camouflage, and lurking in dark corners, but even the stealthiest Wraith would need something to hide behind.

 

Aside from this, once battle ensued, all officers in the field were now obligated to obey any officer identifying themselves using certain call-signs. The Colonel stressed every officer would remain in direct command of their own troops, but these new measures were in place to foster improved cooperation between units. He also stressed there would be harsh punishments for any commander found using any of these call-signs without permission, as each one corresponded to a specific Officer. While skimming through the list, one call-sign in particular made Zian’s stomach twist and he tried to convince himself it couldn’t be possible. It had to be someone else, he wasn’t even here, and even if he was, how could he have arrived without anyone noticing?

 

The low, booming tones of the warning horns woke Zian from his stupor and his eyes turned to the perimeter. The tall grass rustled to and fro exposing the encroaching Enemy within, and Zian shouted, “We’re under attack!”

 

Echoing the call with his Chi-infused voice, Jukai bellowed, “On your feet you shirkers and layabouts! To arms!

 

Double-timing it to the outer perimeter, he arrived in time to see the Defiled horde emerging from the tall grass, stopping at the edge to gather for a concentrated charge. “Get some light up here,” he snarled, after bumping into one of his soldiers, only to regret opening his mouth when he remembered his orders. “Belay that. Wait until the attack is underway. Is everything ready?”

 

“Yes sir,” one of his soldiers replied, though for the life of his, Zian couldn’t see who. “As per orders, the shuttered lanterns are lit and the braziers are waiting.” These preparations had all been outlined in the missive, but in his haste to approach, Zian had forgotten all about them. Curse Chen Hongji for waiting until evening to send his damned orders…

 

Pushing his way to the front, Zian positioned himself in the centre of his troops, all sixty-four who remained. Two weeks of constant battles had taken its toll as the Defiled hordes chipped away at Imperial strength. Though his soldiers dispatched dozens, if not hundreds of Defiled to join their fallen comrades in death, these were losses the Empire could ill-afford. Slowly but surely, the Defiled were grinding away at the Imperial strength, sacrificing near-mindless savages to kill well-trained soldiers, a poor trade if Zian ever saw one.

 

While lacking in skill, the Defiled were abundant in numbers, so much so they could afford to throw away their lives in these ineffective raids. Little more than blood-crazed lunatics, these Defiled were eager to see blood spilled, even the blood of their own. They were nothing like the efficient and disciplined Defiled of Sanshu, who wore full-plate armour and fought in orderly ranks. Instead, these savages eschewed armour for rags and steel weapons for sharpened bone, a sickly looking bunch whose exposed, desiccated skin bore a greyish tint. Rather than proper helmets, they wrapped their heads in strips of dried, human skin, though why Zian couldn’t begin to fathom, and their tactics were even more incomprehensible. Night after night, they congregated there on the field’s edge, massing their numbers before charging headlong into Imperial spears, heedless of their horrendous losses as they fought like rabid animals. Fighting them was like standing in the ocean to chop at the waves, for no matter how many corpses lay at his feet, there would always be another wave of Defiled cresting on the horizon.

 

After twenty days of this endless grind, even the most steadfast soldier was beginning to waver. Though Colonel Hongji did what he could to ensure units who saw combat were rotated out to rest, the ugly truth was this: they had far too much ground to cover and not enough warriors to hold it.

 

“Steady soldiers,” Zian said, leaving his sabres sheathed out of worry he might injure his neighbours. “Cool your tempers and swallow your pride, for though it is an affront to our honour to be matched against these filthy mongrels, such is our civic duty in these dull and unremarkable days. Chop wood, gather water, kill Defiled, it’s all the same.” His soldiers chuckled at the poor joke, more out of nervousness than anything else. Chaff though they might be, in great enough numbers, they could reduce even a mountain to rubble beneath their boots. Worse, where the Imperial Forces were forced to hold a wide, static line, the Defiled were free to break through at any point, bringing their forces to bear wherever they so pleased and leaving the Empire scrambling to defend.

 

Across the field, the Defiled horde grew in numbers as they crept closer to the Imperial lines, wary of the unknown and proceeding with more caution than in previous days. Already Colonel Hongji’s schemes were showing their worth, giving the Imperial forces more time to respond, but how long would this last?

 

The ground shook as the thunder of hooves sounded out behind him. Turning around, Zian battled with conflicting emotions as he spotted Rain. Riding atop his quin with bow in hand and rabbit banner billowing behind him, he lead fifty or so horsemen directly towards Zian’s retinue. Stopping about seventy meters back, they spread out and readied their crossbows, illuminated by the braziers behind them and in full view of the Defiled. To the north and south, the same scene unfolding except with quin-mounted archers instead, a sight which soured Zian’s mood even more. While he had less than seventy troops remaining, Rain commanded more than ten times that, the difference between them clear as day. As if this weren’t enough, a Sending soon arrived to confirm his earlier worries. “This is call-sign Undying,” the unfamiliar voice Sent, “Requesting Warrant Officer Zian leave room to his north for cavalry to charge through.” A pause. “You might also want to crouch down in case of stray arrows or whatnot. We’ll be firing over your head in ten, nine, eight…”

 

Thankful for the darkness which hid his ugly grimace, Zian hissed orders to close ranks and crouch, all the while wondering how Rain arrived at the front lines unnoticed. The man travelled with a giant turtle for Heaven’s sake, hardly the most inconspicuous officer around.

 

And then, there was no more time to gripe as Rain’s retinue unleashed a hail of bolts and arrows over Zian’s head. Then, before those bolts and arrows even hit, they unleashed a second wave of projectiles, and then a third. When the first wave of projectiles finally hit, the under-dressed Defiled let out a collective roar and charged, moving faster than half-dried corpses had any right to. “On your feet and light the braziers,” Zian commanded, flinching as he stood to receive his Enemy. Mother in Heaven, it sounded like the bolts were whizzing right by his ears, but he told himself it was only his imagination. Moments later, the braziers came to life and banished the darkness around him, revealing his retinue of solders standing between the Defiled and Rain’s horse archers. Rather than faltering at this unexpected sight, the Defiled howled as one and ran even faster, undeterred by the constant stream of bolts as they trampled over their fallen comrades, their eyes wild and mouths salivating at the prospect of battle.

 

Drawing his sabres, Zian watched without surprise as the Defiled smashed through the sharpened wooden stakes before him, knowing full well it would’ve done little to stop them. Several Defiled were wounded by the static defences in their rush to approach, but most continued onwards even with shafts poking clean through their bodies or guts hanging out. Praying Rain’s retinue knew well enough to stop firing, Zian raised his weapons and sounded the charge. “Forward! Death to the Ene -”

 

His voice disappeared as both sides met in a clash of steel and bone. Though he knew his soldiers were only a step behind and he had BoShui and Elder Bolin to either side, Zian felt like a man alone as the Defiled tide closed in around him, and then there was no time left to think. His sabres lashed out and took the lives of two Defiled in a shower of blood, the Honed edges cleaving through leather, skin, and skull with ease. After following through with the strike, he brought his sabres back around, Deflecting a bone spike aimed at his chest with the right and gutting the offending Defiled with the left. As his foe fell to his knees, Zian stepped around the body and pivoted sharply in place, spinning aside to avoid two clumsy chops which hammered into his fallen foe’s flesh. Shortly after, he beheaded both attackers with a single, horizontal slash, while killing a third with a thrust as the scoundrel downed one of Zian’s soldiers.

 

And still, the Defiled pressed on.

 

Weathering the first charge was always the hardest. The Defiled were fresh, eager, and hungry for blood while the Imperials were only warming up. However, once their momentum was spent, it then became a matter of killing the Defiled until the remainder fled, and most of Zian’s soldiers made it through the first encounter in good health. The fallen soldier was alive and well, grimacing as two others dragged him to the Healers to see to his head wound. Not all of the Defiled carried their unholy weapons and sharpened bone was little threat against steel plate armour, but this job was far from easy.

 

The seconds passed slowly and Zian quickly lost count of his kills. This was a match of endurance and little else, of physical stamina and mental fortitude, so he rationed whatever he could. No more sweeping attacks and flashy dodges, stick to the basics. Block and slash, parry and riposte, to spend any more effort killing this chaff is merely a waste. This battle will last long into the night, with hours of labour yet to come, so –

 

A peal of thunder sounded to Zian’s right and bodies sailed through the air. In his shock, it took a full second for him to register what was happening as the thunder continued to clatter around him. No, not thunder, but hoof-beats, the heavy cadence of Guo Nei Chargers stampeding through the gap between Zian’s and BoShui’s retinue to crash into the Defiled lines. Dozens of Defiled died in the blink of an eye, and then dozens more as Rain’s cavalry continued unhindered by the wall of flesh before them. Another wave of corpses was thrown into the air and this time, Zian spotted the cause as a gap in the line revealed a blood-soaked Rain in all his glory, smashing his spear left and right while sending bodies flying with every swing. Mouth covered in blood, the quin delivered its master from one group to the next, where Rain dispatched his foes with reckless abandon. With his full might behind every attack, it made for a splendid sight, but Zian knew his friend couldn’t keep it up for long.

 

Desperate to link up with the fool before his strength petered out in the middle of a Defiled horde, Zian bellowed, “Soldiers, warriors, clansmen. Forward, into the Enemy. Fight, damn you! Fight!” Discarding all thoughts of conservation, he fought like a man possessed to reach Rain’s side, matching the Enemy’s mindless ferocity as he carved through Defiled three or four at a time. Drawing his mind back from the present, he let his training take over, his hands and feet moving faster once he discarded rational thought in favour of raw instinct, keeping to the singular goal of rescuing Rain. Hack and slash, cleave and thrust, Zian twirled his sabres in a whirlwind of steel and death, wielded by a wrathful warrior who ended lives as easily as plucking apples.

 

And then, the Defiled broke.

 

It happened so quickly Zian was left standing with no one to fight, the Defiled bolting away into the night while Rain and his cavalry dispatched the stragglers. Careful not to overextend, Rain called his people back and linked up with Zian, grinning like a madman as he wiped Defiled blood from his eyes. “Shock and awe baby,” Rain shouted, cackling at the night’s sky. “Shock and awe. That’s how you kill Defiled. You’re a monster Zian, a killing machine. Shame you’ve got a line to hold and can’t join us.” Raising his bloody spear, he howled, “I haven’t killed enough. Have you?”

 

“FUCK NO!!”

 

“Then what are we waiting for?” Leading his fifty cavalry away, they fell into perfect formation before charging into a second cluster of Defiled, trampling some underhoof and sending others soaring into the night’s sky. Still gaping like a fish, Zian looked around and saw his retinue in similar states of disbelief, unsure how Rain’s reckless charge turned the Defiled from blood-crazed fools into craven cowards.

 

Mother in Heaven… Every time Zian took one step forward, it seemed like Rain jumped five steps ahead. Truly unfathomable…

 

Well… At least they weren’t enemies anymore, so there’s that.

 

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Savage Divinity – Chapter 402

 

Awash in the orange-red glow of the setting sun, the ruins of Sinuji struck a delicate balance between silent serenity and haunting dread. A calm stillness had settled over the once bustling border town, now nothing more than a pile of cracked stones and crumbling timbers as far as the eye could see. So deceptively peaceful until Chen Hongji spent his Chi to Scry his surroundings from above, peering into those blocked areas his soldiers had yet to clear. Despite an entire week’s worth of effort, there were still a multitude of rotting corpses scattered about the debris, and to his trained eyes, each body told a story which he’d foolishly read into whenever he found time to spare. He’d done so with noble intentions, thinking to publish a book of poems and couplets commemorating these poor fallen souls, so that those lost to this tragedy might be remembered in the years to come. The more he looked, however, the more he hungered to burn everything to the ground, for what happened in Sinuji was not a story the Emperor would want told.

 

When the Legate declared the Defiled had attacked Sinuji and executed all its inhabitants, Hongji had burned with righteous fury. When he’d been appointed the honour of command on the front lines, he’d swelled with pride. When he marched into the ruins, he ached to take the fight to the Enemy and mete out justice for the dead, but now, after less than a month in the field, he prayed for a chance to relinquish his hard-earned rank of Colonel and make the long journey home as a civilian, where he would say nothing and hold his wife and three children close.

 

Whether it be the coolies laid out beside the goods they hauled, the rickshaw runners slumped over the handles of their vehicles, or the trade workers fallen with tools in hand, every story shared one thing in common. Whatever disaster befell Sinuji, death came to its inhabitants in an instant. This was not the work of a Defiled horde as the Legate would have the people believe, for if it were Defiled, the people would have died with weapons in hand or huddled with their families, not mid-work without a care in the world. In Hongji’s admittedly limited experience, only an Ancestral Beast or Divinity could cause such widespread destruction, and if such peak existences had taken the stage, then he understood the dire need for secrecy and deception.

 

When Gods stride out to meet in battle,

Heaven and Earth are torn asunder,

and Mortals can do naught but suffer.

 

A sad little poem he’d only just composed, but undeniably true. There was nothing to be gained and everything to lose from revealing what really happened in Sinuji, for who would remain to fight if they knew what fate awaited them? Even Peak Experts were helpless to act when faced with a Divinity, mere ants to be squashed with barely an effort. Common soldiers were even less and Hongji felt no shame in admitting this task unnerved him. With a self-deprecating sneer, he remembered how foolishly proud he’d been to accept this honour, to stand on the front lines and draw first blood against the Defiled. The task should not have fallen to him and he’d been too excited to think twice about it, but now he understood why he’d been chosen.

 

Though a Colonel’s rank was not to be taken lightly, Hongji knew his limits. Born of an impoverished family in a nameless village, greatness was not in his blood, and he accepted this. While he accomplished much through blood, sweat, and effort, he would never match the likes of Shuai Jiao, Mitsue Juichi, or Ryo Dae Jung. Hell, if anyone besides his family and friends mourned him on the anniversary of his death, then Hongji would count it as a life well spent, but even this small dream was unlikely to pass. Why then, had he been picked to oversee such a vital area on the front lines? Why had this honour been granted to him, a soldier with a few minor accomplishments and no ties to nobility?

 

Because he was the highest-ranked fool willing to accept it.

 

Such was life, trials and tribulation without end. However, no matter what difficulties one faced, the Mother always left a path to salvation, so Hongji sought to turn disaster into fortune. True, a battle between Divinities might break out at any moment and end his life, but it hadn’t happened yet. Until such a time, he would do his best and strive to make a name for himself, so that in the unlikely event the Mother smiled upon him and he survived this ordeal, he would rise from the ashes and soar into the Heavens, where cranes and tigers mingled with dragons and phoenixes.

 

Of course, this was easier said than done. While he wouldn’t call them the dregs of the Imperial Army, the soldiers under Hongji’s command were largely comprised of callow youths or veteran grunts. Wide-eyed juveniles at least possessed potential, but those ancient warriors who languished at the bottom ranks for decades were rather difficult to deal with. Shrewd survivors one and all, what they lacked in ambition, they more than made up for in cunning, and while they had yet to piece together the whole truth like Hongji had, more than one had spotted the holes in the Legate’s story.

 

There was nothing Hongji could do but keep them busy, and luckily, the Enemy obliged. Wave after wave of howling Defiled came at his forces camped around the ruins of Sinuji. Each time his soldiers threw them back, but before long, the Defiled would regroup and come again in greater numbers than before. His soldiers held the centre, so if the Defiled broke through here, then the front line would collapse. Failure was not an option, but despite killing more than they lost, Hongji’s forces dwindled with each passing battle while the Defiled numbers grew in size.

 

The Enemy was numerous, and without the Walls to hold them back, the Empire was fighting a losing war.

 

Though once grateful for whatever aid was sent his way, Hongji’s appreciation soured soon after meeting them. Most of his reinforcements came in one of two flavours. The first group were what he called the spares, those scions of ignorant merchants or spare heirs of noble houses. These fops and dandies were only here so they could boast they served on the front lines, bringing their caravans of servants and courtesans to strain Hongji’s supplies while expecting his soldiers to keep them safe no matter the cost. Useless as these surplus toy soldiers were, it pained him to admit they were actually the more desirable bunch, far better than the second group.

 

The more problematic of his reinforcements were the hot-blooded glory hounds. Hongji expected many of them knew the truth of Sinuji’s downfall, yet they were still brave or foolhardy enough to come. Each one bore a name he’d heard in passing, such as current and former members of the Hwarang like Tam Taewoong, Wu Gam, and Du Min Yan, or formidable talents from the outer provinces like Dienne Huong, Situ Jia Zian, and Han BoShui. There were others whose names were less resounding, but they all shared the same thirst for fame and prestige, which made them dangerous and difficult to deal with.

 

At least the spares could be kept in line with threats of actual service and otherwise ignored. In comparison, these grandstanding peacocks were too eager to serve, roaming out of their patrol zones and crossing battle lines to chase errant Defiled bands. More than once, these headstrong young talents overreached and found themselves in dire straits, forcing Hongji to muster his forces to save their ungrateful behinds. A handful of them earned glory for themselves, like Du Min Yan slaughtering an Enemy force three times her size, but so what? Was he supposed to be impressed? The stupid girl fell for an obvious bait and wandered into an ambush, so even though she didn’t need Hongji’s soldiers to pull her out of the fire, his troops still had to escort her tattered forces back to camp.

 

Even with all this, Du Min Yan could be considered one of the better ones. At least she understood the error of her ways, unlike her lesser known peers. More than one up-and-comer had met their end at the hands of the Defiled, but still the others chomped at the bit, eager to cross blades with the Defiled. No need to seek them out, the Enemy would come in due time. There was a fundamental concept these ignorant children didn’t understand, and Hongji was loathe to voice it out loud. This war was never about defeating the Enemy, for the Enemy could not be defeated. This was about defending the Empire, no more, no less. Their mission was not to slaughter all the Defiled, but to hold them back long enough for a new Wall to be built. The new Western Wall would stretch more than a thousand kilometres from sea to wasteland, so they would need every living soldier they could spare. While killing the Defiled three-to-one might sound impressive, the Imperial Forces would have to aim much higher just to hold the line, a harsh reality few were able to accept.

 

Knowing this, Hongji had low expectations for this latest crop of young talents now trickling into his camp, and doubly so after his second handed him a list of their names and unit compositions. One name in particular made his stomach churn, a name he knew not because they’d met before, but because these days, when anyone spoke of young talents, this name would invariably come up. A beardless boy who shocked the North when he first appeared, fighting in the second round of the Challenge for Office of Shen Huo’s Magistrate. All but unheard of for a fifteen year old child, but not only was he called, he emerged victorious as well, defeating DuGu Tian Yi, the middle-aged son of famed DuGu Tian Sha and ending this celebrated hero’s illustrious bloodline.

 

A year later, this same boy had been all but forgotten when he took part in the Society of Heaven and Earth’s Contest, but once again, his actions spread far and wide, even into Central where they cared little for foreign happenings. Granted, most of this was due to perverse satisfaction at the Society’s failure to apprehend a group of tribal savages rather than said savages’ accomplishments, and everyone expected the Society would eventually crush the upstart Bekhai to regain face, which made it all the more surprising when that boy fought and won four duels in a row, slaughtering two gifted youngsters and defeating Situ Jia Zian in the process.

 

Only then did people connect the Bekhai youngsters to the nameless young boy from Shen Huo. As a reward for his accomplishments, he was granted the rank of Third Grade Warrant Officer, and at the tender age of eighteen, this made him the youngest to hold the rank in ten thousand years. While this much was enough to impress commoners and peasants, the nobility had yet to take notice, but the boy had only just begun. During a mission to capture bandits, he uncovered an insidious Defiled plot and proved instrumental in subduing it, thereafter becoming the youngest Second Grade Warrant Officer in history. As if this wasn’t enough, he then tamed a Divine Beast and brought it with him to the First Imperial Grand Conference, where he engaged in twenty-eight duels on the first day alone. Then, after defeating the best young talents the Empire had to offer and winning the title of Number One Talent in the Empire, this dragon among men ascended to lofty heights never before dreamt of to become an Imperial Consort, the first ever member of Imperial Peerage not to reside in the Eastern Province.

 

That young boy’s name? Falling Rain of the Bekhai a tribal commoner who rose to heights unknown, and soon to be a giant pain in Hongji’s ass.

 

Those spare sons and arrogant hotheads all knew of Hongji’s common upbringing and lacklustre backing, so they had little to no respect for his command. While others might think Falling Rain would be more understanding considering his own common upbringing, Hongji knew better than most. Nothing fostered arrogance more than the ability to escape the confines of one’s birth, and few of those arrogant beings ever thought to help their fellow downtrodden companions. Once, in a drunken haze of self-introspection, he admitted to his wife it was because he harboured a deep-seated insecurity he could not overcome. He worried that if he helped others accomplish what he struggled so hard to achieve, it would somehow cheapen his triumphs, and he assumed it was the same with others. Once rare, but twice common, which was why he was so hard on other common-born officers under his command, not because he pushed them to excel, but because he feared their success. Such was the folly of hubris.

 

So how would the nineteen-year-old Imperial Consort view the fifty-five year old Colonel? Poorly, to say the least, so while he waited for Falling Rain to arrive with his lesser known travelling companions, Hongji took great pains to hide his trepidation. Strength was respected above all else, so while Falling Rain might possess a higher social standing, Colonel Chen Hongji was undeniably stronger, so one way or another, he would demand the boy’s respect through upfront bullying. He only prayed the Hidden Experts guarding such a valuable young talent would overlook his audaciousness and accept the necessity of his actions, so long as he didn’t overstep his boundaries.

 

Such were the difficulties for a mediocre commander. How was he to command without respect? How was he to garner respect without strength? How was he to display strength without being a little heavy-handed?

 

His decision made, Hongji turned westward to study the terrain, despite having already memorized every nook and cranny of the sprawling plains before him. While meant to display his intense concentration and keep the soon to arrive young commanders in waiting, it also never hurt to review one’s surroundings, especially since said surroundings hid bands of Defiled. From his command tent in the centre of camp, he could see for kilometres around. In the absence of shepherds and their herds, the grass had grown as tall as a man, and more than enough to obscure his view, but one merely needed to watch for the rustling grass to pinpoint any incoming Defiled. Under such conditions, the Defiled had taken to launching night attacks, but then it became a simple matter of getting enough traps, sentries, and other defences in place while also ensuring half his soldiers rested during the day so they could mount an effective night watch. That was the extent of his tactical planning, to dig in and hold this position from now until the final brick of the new Western Wall was in place, however many years that may take.

 

No fancy schemes or complicated ploys were needed. So long as Chen Hongji still drew breath, his soldiers would hold this ground or die trying, because Central, nay, the fate of the Empire itself depended on it.

 

While he posed in what he hoped was a suitably heroic manner, he listened as the recent arrivals gathered to greet him. Knowing how the game was played, his second in command quietly warned the eager newcomers not to disturb ‘the Colonel’s contemplation, or else’. Always better to leave the punishment to the imagination, lest some fool with more backbone than brain think five lashes worth it to save himself a few minutes of waiting. It wasn’t, but young warriors always believed themselves untouchable and invincible, when in reality, they were anything but.

 

Hongji counted to three hundred before turning around. Without even glancing at the newcomers or his second, he strode into his command tent to loom over the unfurled map of their surroundings, marked with several chess pieces which meant nothing at all. Shifting a few of the pieces about, he pretended he’d had an epiphany while studying the terrain, knowing full well his second would be holding the tent flap open as he ‘reminded’ Hongji the newcomers were here to greet him. “Oh? Fresh blood to be spilled?” he asked, affecting an absent minded tone as he spoke louder than necessary. “Well, I hope these ones do better than the last bunch, bless their souls.”

 

While bad for morale, over the years Hongji learned it was easier to instill courage in a coward as opposed to caution in a courageous, but over-confident buffoon.

 

Putting the chess piece down with a sigh, he strode out to meet the newcomers with a disgruntled frown, as if he saw something wrong with each and every one of them. Most of the newcomers bristled at his gaze, and few were bold enough to stare back, but when his eyes met Falling Rain standing at the head of the group, the scrawny and unimpressive looking young warrior smiled and winked. Taken aback by the insolent display, Hongji had yet to find his voice before Falling Rain clasped his hands and bowed. A full bow at the waist mind you, not a mere military salute or slight incline of his head. “Second Grade Warrant Officer Falling Rain,” the boy said, his head still bowed, “Reporting to Colonel Chen Hongji for duty.”

 

“Rise,” Hongji replied, faster than he’d like. Was the boy trying to trap him? As an Imperial Consort, he need not bow so deeply to a mere Colonel, even if said Colonel was his field commander. “Dispense with formalities, this is the battlefield, not a banquet hall,” he said, though what he really wanted to say was, “Small one dare not accept this bow.”

 

“With respect Colonel,” the boy replied, standing at full attention and still barely tall enough to reach Hongji’s chin, “In this one’s eyes, being on the battlefield makes courtesy all the more imperative. Courtesy implies respect, and without respect, there can be no discipline. Without discipline, we are no different from our enemies.”

 

Some of the newcomers gasped at Falling Rain’s forthright statements, but Hongji found himself nodding along and repeating the catechism in his mind. It sounded much better than what he’d come up with earlier, mostly because by eschewing any mention of strength, it implied Hongji was worthy of respect through rank alone.

 

Recognizing Hongji’s appreciation, Falling Rain scowled at the young warrior beside him and asked, “Well? What are you waiting for? An invitation? Why have you not introduced yourselves to the commander?”

 

Good, good… Perhaps Falling Rain wouldn’t be so difficult to work with after all…

 

Though he already knew their names, Hongji pretended he was hearing them all for the first time. In truth, few of Falling Rain’s travelling companions were well-known, with the most famous youths either already on the front lines or safely tucked away somewhere or the other. Once finished with the introductions, Hongji addressed them as a group. “Welcome to the front lines,” he said, keeping his voice flat and monotone. “Some of you are here to reinforce the camp, others will be sent out on patrol. Regardless of your task, out here, we are the first line of defence against the Defiled, and should you all follow my commands perfectly, the only line of defence the Empire requires.” Not entirely true, but nothing wrong with building their pride a little before knocking them down. “If you’ve come for honour, glory, fame, or wealth, then turn back now, for you will find none of that here. We are here for one reason and one reason only: to defend the Empire. No more, no less, understood?”

 

“Yes Colonel,” Falling Rain replied, his voice loud and confident. The others in the group chimed in soon after, following his example and showing Hongji the respect he thought he’d have to fight for.

 

“Good. Rest well, but be ready.” Dismissing them with a wave of his hand, he added, “The Defiled have attacked every night for the past week, and I see no reason why tonight will be any different.” The gravity of the situation had finally dawned on the last of the spares, but Mother help him if most of these brats didn’t look eager for bloodshed, Falling Rain included.

 

Instead of turning to leave, Falling Rain moved a step closer and asked, “Permission to speak to Colonel in private?”

 

Here it comes. “Come with me,” Hongji said, heading into his tent. So long as the boy remained respectful and disciplined in public, Hongji would be happy to swallow his pride and hold his tongue in private.

 

Inside, Falling Rain studied the map with a puzzled expression before hiding a smirk, having figured out Hongji’s game. Nevertheless, the boy offered a salute and said, “I might be overstepping my bounds, but I noticed a few issues on the way in and thought it best to bring these matters to Colonel’s attention.”

 

And so it begins. The Imperial Consort’s camping grounds were too poor, his fare too plain, and so on, and so forth. “Let’s hear it then.”

 

“The tall grass provides too much cover to any invading force,” Falling Rain said, again catching Hongji off-guard. “Although you’ve already cleared most of the grass around us, laying stones and rubble will keep the grass from growing back and impede the progress of anyone travelling over it.” Too surprised to respond, Hongji blinked and stared at the strange young man, and Falling Rain took it as permission to continue. “We could also hide traps among the rubble and leave clear paths for troop movement, which will also -”

 

“Funnel the Defiled where we want them to go.” Finally finding his voice, Hongji jumped in so not to seem the fool. “Clever, but is it worth the effort? With constant night raids, the soldiers need to rest during the day.”

 

“True,” Falling Rain said, unperturbed by Hongji’s rude interruption. “However, another benefit of laying down stones is we now have a firebreak ready.” With a grin which made him look even younger, he added, “You know… so we can set everything on fire before we leave.”

 

Mother in Heaven…

 

Imagining the screams of a million Defiled burning to death on the western plains, Hongji smiled for the first time all night, possibly even all week. “Yes… but you think too small. With a little preparation, we could ignite a blaze visible even from Nan Ping.” A few oil caches out in the middle of nowhere would pose no danger to his troops, not if they stayed inside their patrol routes. “This…” Hongji hesitated, wondering how to best frame it. “This goes beyond my reach. I’ll need to speak with the other commanders down the line to coordinate our efforts, perhaps even bring it before high command, but if they see the merits as I do, there will be great rewards in store.” Promotions, wealth, reputation and more…

 

“Then I must trouble Colonel to do so.” With a nod of his head, Falling Rain continued, “As for rewards, there’s no need speak of such things. All I did was make a simple suggestion, and Colonel was amicable enough to listen. Besides,” Falling Rain added with a careless shrug, “Any reward will be meaningless if we can’t hold the Defiled here.”

 

Cheeks burning with shame, Hongji steadied his breathing and reassessed the warrior before him, so shrewd and level-headed at such a young age. No wonder the Legate saw fit to reward Falling Rain with Imperial Peerage, for even without his prodigious Martial prowess, this was a man destined for greatness. “Well said, well said.” Thickening the skin of his face, Hongji swallowed his pride and asked, “Have you any other suggestions?”

 

Forget keeping the rewards for himself. Hongji would proudly attribute everything to Falling Rain so the world could be inspired by his greatness.

 

This time, it was Falling Rain’s turn to be surprised, before beaming with joy. “Certainly,” he said. “For starters…”

 

When the meeting came to an end, Hongji peered down at his notes, awed by the wealth of knowledge contained within them. A consummate young talent, brilliant innovator, talented tactician, and Mother knows what else, if not for Falling Rain’s terrible calligraphy and diminutive stature, Hongji would have thought the amber-eyed young man was utterly without flaw. If the other young talents had one-tenth… no, one-twentieth of Falling Rain’s brilliance, then Hongji was confident the Defiled would be swept from the Western province in a mere twenty to thirty years.

 

Assuming some Ancestral Beast didn’t slag them all first.

 

Inspired by Falling Rain’s attitude, Hongji made a small revision to his poem.

 

When Gods stride out to meet in battle,

Heaven and Earth are torn asunder,

and Mortals can do naught but persevere.

Chapter Meme

 

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