Savage Divinity – Chapter 422


I’d like to give a shout out to my latest Patron Choiven and my other anonymous Patrons. Thank you all so much for your support!

 

Good news bad news time.

 

I’ll start with the bad news. There’s a long weekend coming up, so there will be no chapter this Sunday. I repeat. No Chapter on Sunday, February 17, 2019. Anyone who shows up and asks ‘Where’s the chapter?’ will be named and shamed on the 19th, because it makes me happy to do so.

 

Good news is, more art! Once again, Rocky has been hard at work bringing the characters of Savage Divinity to life. First up, we have Jorani stealing one of Rain’s signature catchphrases.

nxinnwv

And next, we have Taduk soaring through the clouds with Mama Bun and Blackjack. He’s even got a bowl on his head, perhaps so his moss-covered stone can collect more sunlight and grow faster. q5xzprb

Anywho, that’s it for now. Thanks again to Rocky for his efforts, and enjoy the chapter.


 

As much as Yan loved romance novels, they weren’t without their flaws. Most were formulaic and unoriginal, featuring a banal title and a main character who falls in love at first glance, usually while having little to nothing in common with their prospective lover. Putting aside their vast differences, there would also be some conflict keeping the ‘fated’ lovers apart, something silly and frivolous like a family rivalry or difference in status, but the main character would always want to do things the ‘right’ way, when it would be so much easier to wash your hands of the silliness and elope with your lover or even find someone else more worthy of their efforts.

 

What Yan found most unrealistic was how there was always a rival, if not several, characters whose despicable behaviour bordered on the extreme. Usually, the rival was a petty, spiteful individual who would stop at nothing to interfere with the main character’s relationship. More than once, she thought it strange for someone to go to such great lengths to sabotage another, especially when the rival usually held so many advantages over the main character. A childhood friend, an arranged marriage, a similar background, or shared employment, the rival’s time would be better spent winning over the love interest instead of plotting contrived and nonsensical schemes against the main character which required everything to go perfectly according to plan.

 

It all seemed so absurd right until this very moment when Yan realized she was the petty and spiteful rival doing everything she could to sabotage the star-crossed lovers, Zheng Luo and Falling Rain.

 

The Imperial Servant’s dance was unlike anything Yan had ever seen, the familiar movements of the Forms given new life by Zheng Luo’s beauty, grace, and poise. To call her dance complex or even technically difficult would be a far stretch, nor were the movements exceptionally innovative or beneficial from a Martial Warrior’s perspective, but neither of those things took away from its simplistic elegance and breathtaking artistry. Were Yan to execute the same movements in the same order, her performance would fall laughably short of Zheng Luo’s for there were a myriad of minor details contributing to this exquisite display. Her shimmering hair, soulful eyes, shapely body, and gorgeous features only added unnecessary ornamentation to the performance, for its beauty went beyond the physical. There was something about the way she flowed that aligned with the natural order of the world, like how the grass swayed and wind blew to accentuate her movements, or how her weapon came to life like a partner dancing alongside her, or how the tilt of her neck and angle of her fingers seemed to twist sunlight and shadow about her, as if the Mother herself were taking part in Zheng Luo’s awe-inspiring demonstration of the Forms.

 

To call it beautiful would be to do it a disservice, but Yan couldn’t find it in herself to appreciate the performance, because she was far too busy being jealous and catty.

 

Illogical is what it was, irrational and absurd, but Yan couldn’t help it. Only now did she realize what love did to a person and she hated it with a passion. Every time she looked at Zheng Luo, Yan saw a woman so unreasonably flawless it drove her mad with envy. Beauty and brains, usually wrapped up in a tight, alluring dress, Zheng Luo couldn’t be more perfect if she tried, yet here she was, doing exactly that. It didn’t matter if she had her beautiful hair done up in twin buns, or if she wore bulky, protective leathers and wielded a heavy, unfamiliar weapon, Zheng Luo still danced with effortless charm and stunning refinement, and Yan hated her for it.

 

Still, Yan had never purposely sabotaged Zheng Luo during their week of training sessions, though she admitted she didn’t try as hard as she should have. While giving the Imperial Servant a taste of the switch was satisfying at first, Yan’s soft-hearted empathy prevented her from using it as much as she’d like. The hateful woman was too damned charming and lovable to hurt and her teary, weepy eyes made Yan feel like an inhuman monster for gently correcting her mistakes. Yan did her best, but Zheng Luo seemed utterly hopeless as a Martial Warrior, so why put her through more physical pain than necessary? Yan was no sadist, so she eased back and waited for Zheng Luo to quit, but the woman was stubborn and driven to succeed. Now, in light of her consummate dance, it looked like Yan had tried to suppress Zheng Luo’s skills and prevent her from becoming a Martial Warrior, which was completely untrue.

 

Stupid Rain. Why did he have to be so damned smart sometimes?

 

Seeing her lover so enchanted by the sight of another woman, Yan elbowed him in the ribs and Sent, “Leave your tongue out any longer and the sun will turn it to jerky.”

 

Confused, Rain studied her for long seconds before his eyes lit up in genuine surprise. “Mother in Heaven,” he Sent, the message delivered through their intertwined fingers. “You’re actually jealous!” Idiot. Elbowing him again, Yan looked away so he couldn’t see her cheeks burning with shame, but Rain kept on Sending. “I thought you were kidding around, but you’re seriously mad.

 

Of course I am, shit-for-brains!”

 

…Is this why you’ve been so… affectionate lately? Because you’re worried you’ll lose me to Luo-Luo?” Yan hated how he called her that, so sweet and sickly, and she especially hated how he almost seemed delighted by her jealousy. “I mean, I get Mila being jealous because she’s jealous about everything, but I didn’t expect this from you. How am I supposed to survive with two jealous wives?

 

Whose fucking fault do you think this is, you smug, insufferable twit?” Turning around to gently headbutt her idiot lover, Yan hit Rain a bit harder than she’d planned, though still lighter than he deserved. Kissing his forehead in apology, she went right back to being angry. “It’s not like I want to be jealous, but you keep collecting lovers like you want one for every night of the week. I hate what it does to me and I hate you for doing it.”

 

Clearly trying not to laugh, Rain pulled her close and nuzzled her neck. “Don’t be ridiculous. Lin already set a hard limit of five wives.” When he finished laughing at his own stupid joke, he continued, “You have nothing to worry about, not from Luo-Luo. I didn’t ‘collect’ her, she was forced on me, and I’ve no intentions of being with someone I can’t trust, much less not in love with.”

 

Yan scoffed. “You say this now, but how long will it last? What happens once Zheng Luo proves herself trustworthy? Or if she becomes a proper Martial Warrior? How am I supposed to compete with your beautiful, brilliant, hardworking, and compassionate concubine?

 

First off, it’s not a competition.” Punctuating the statement with a kiss on her neck, he continued, “Seriously, I will not play favourites or assign any hierarchy, because I truly love all three of you equally.” His lips brushed her shirt collar aside to kiss her shoulder, and Yan found herself yearning for more. “Also, if this were a competition, Luo-Luo wouldn’t even be a participant and you’d be in the lead, solely on account of what we did last night and earlier today.” This time, she elbowed him like she meant it, but he grinned and waggled his eyebrows. “If you’re still feeling insecure, then why don’t we sneak off and widen your lead?

 

Sometimes, Yan wondered what crimes she committed in her past lives to warrant falling in love with a buffoon. Still, his words lifted Yan’s spirits, though now she felt bad for Zheng Luo. The Imperial Servant had no say in the matter, but it sounded like Rain blamed her for intruding. Looking back, she realized his attitude towards her did seem unusually distant, something she’d overlooked in her haze of jealousy. Rain barely even glanced at Zheng Luo’s exquisite, hip-hugging dress last night, a sight which even Yan had difficulty tearing her eyes from, which spoke to the depths of his resentment. This newfound understanding made Yan feel even worse for being so antagonistic with the poor woman, so she ignored Rain’s proposition and turned her attention back to their problematic student.

 

Neither fast nor slow, the dance continued at a moderate pace on the grassy plains of Central, lasting under an hour from start to finish. Barely restrained by her dark leather vest, Zheng Luo’s chest heaved with exertion and her skin glistened with sweat as she gazed longingly at Rain, her eyes full of hope and expectation. Barely giving the alluring enchantress a second glance, Rain said, “Okay then. What have you learned?”

 

Crushed by the lack of praise or applause, Zheng Luo visibly deflated and hugged her weapon close. “…Apologies Lord Husband, but Luo-Luo does not understand. What sort of answer is Lord Husband looking for?”

 

A little harsher than necessary, Rain shook his head and sighed, making Yan’s heart ache even more for Luo-Luo. She was trying so hard, but Rain couldn’t even spare a kind word or soft smile. He didn’t even say anything about how amazing her performance was. “Remember what I told you earlier?” He asked, his tone mildly impatient. “It all comes down to what you perceive. It’s not a pretty dance you do to impress people, the Forms are meant to guide you along the Martial Path, so you must seek Insight within them. What do you think about when you’re dancing?”

 

Her head hung low, Luo-Luo couldn’t even bring herself to speak and Yan yearned to spring forward and take the poor woman in her arms. Mother in Heaven, was she going to have to help her rival win her lover’s affection?

 

Completely without mercy, Rain continued lecturing Luo-Luo as she fought back her tears. “You know the Forms, and that’s a good start, but knowing isn’t enough. It is literally the first step along the Martial Path, so now you must take the next. Performing the movements through rote memorization is useless, you must explore the movements and delve into their mysteries. Think of it like… mathematics. Addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division are your basic Forms, and with enough study, you can discover how to derive the volume of wagon based on its dimensions or calculate the interest on a two-percent loan.”

 

“…But why can’t you teach Luo-Luo these things?” Even her petulance was endearing, and Yan had to resist the urge to demand Rain treat his concubine better, because watching a grown woman pout and stomp her feet was too much. “Tell Luo-Luo how to hold her weapon, where to place her feet, and other simple instructions she can follow. Going by Lord Husband’s example, those mathematical formulas are already in existence, so what point is there in having Luo-Luo rediscover them on her own?”

 

“Because the formulas change from person to person.” Smiling like an idiot, Rain smacked himself on the forehead. “I can’t believe it took me this long to figure out. The answer was right in front of me, but I never pieced it all together. Listen closely Luo-Luo, because this took me seven plus years to figure out: I can’t tell you how to fight because it’s better if you learn on your own. What works for me might not work for you, and the same goes for Yan, because we are each our own unique individual. You might find success following in another’s footsteps, but the only way to realize your full potential is to forge your own path using the Forms to guide you.”

 

…Which was the foundational basis of the People’s teachings. Why was Rain only learning this now?

 

Understanding dawned upon Luo-Luo’s fair face, but she still seemed unconvinced. “But… Luo-Luo does not understand the ways of war, so how is she to find Insight in the Forms?”

 

Seeing an opportunity to chime in, Yan said, “Maybe you already have. Do you always dance with a weapon in hand?” Blinking in confusion, Luo-Luo shook her head and Yan continued, “Then how did you know what to do with the sceptre?”

 

“…Luo-Luo merely did what felt right.”

 

“Exactly!” Excited to finally make progress, Yan beamed from ear to ear. “You keep asking us to tell you what to do, but while you were dancing, did your sceptre ever get in your way? Did you stop and think about how to hold it, when to twirl it, where to move it, or anything along those lines? No, you followed your instincts and did what felt natural. In other words, you let the Forms guide you. Remember this feeling the next time you sit down to bind it, because that’s what it means to become one with the weapon, treating it not as an object, but as an extension of your body.”

 

Between the physical exertion and mental acrobatics, Luo-Luo seemed ready to fall to pieces, so after a few more words of advice, Yan suggested she take a break to rest and think things over before going through the Forms a second time. Dragging Rain away for a quiet stroll around the field of cattle, Yan voiced her misgivings through Sending. “You should be kinder to Luo-Luo. Don’t speak so harshly and maybe compliment her every now and then. Her performance was phenomenal but you skipped right over it to lecture her.

 

Oh? It’s ‘Luo-Luo’ now, is it?” Rain’s smug smile made Yan want to headbutt him again, but she graciously let him be. “What happened to ‘Zheng Luo’? Were you swayed by her phenomenal performance? You’re free to court her if you’d like. I don’t mind so long as I get to watch.

 

Rethinking that headbutt, Yan rolled her eyes and Sent, “Idiot. I don’t understand you at all. A gorgeous woman is desperate for your approval, but every time you speak you almost bring her to tears. It’s like you’re trying to make her hate you.”

 

I’m not that mean to Luo-Luo.” Seeing the look she gave him, Rain blinked and asked, “Am I?”

 

Mean might not be the right word. Cold perhaps, or distant. You treat her like a stranger, but when you treat everyone else in camp like a dear friend, the contrast is obvious.”

 

“…She is a stranger. We met three months ago and spent two of those months apart.”

 

“…Fine, but how can you bear to make her cry? Heartless cad. Callous fiend. Cruel beast.

 

Oh please.” Crouching down to let an insistent bunny hop into his arms, he showed her its adorable face and Sent, “Don’t get taken in by her deception. Luo-Luo changes moods faster than Thumper here twitches his nose. She is a master manipulator and knows exactly what to say and do to get you on her side. That’s why I’m so guarded against her, because I know she’s trying to play me. Even after I told her I didn’t want a loveless relationship, she’s still pushing for sex so she can wrap me around her little finger.

 

Much as she appreciated Rain’s sentiment, Yan was mildly horrified by what he considered proper behaviour. “You told Luo-Luo you didn’t love her and didn’t want a physical relationship? Okay, now I’d say you’re mean.” Taking the bunny away because Rain didn’t deserve its sweet kisses, Yan gave it a quick nuzzle while it settled into her embrace, inwardly gushing at its adorably angry expression. “What did you expect to happen? For her to accept your words and do nothing? She’s a young woman who was thrust into a scary and unfamiliar situation, one trained in the arts of diplomacy and seduction. Of course she’ll rely on what she knows. You can’t seriously be blaming her for trying to make friends and seduce her ‘Lord Husband’, are you? What you call manipulative, I say is adapting to circumstances. Only an idiot like you would try to impose their will in unfamiliar surroundings.”

 

His expression darkening with each sentence, Rain’s grimace was both adorable and darling. “...This isn’t fair!

 

How so? Have I said anything that isn’t true?

 

No, but you’re twisting the facts and making me feel bad. Stop bullying me, I don’t like it. And why’d you change your mind so quickly? First you hate her, now you love her. You were jealous, but now you’re supportive. How am I supposed to keep up?

 

Laughing at Rain’s childish tantrum and sullen pout, Yan decided that was enough for today. Perhaps Rain was right and Luo-Luo was a manipulative charlatan, but Yan would find out for herself. “Fine. Let’s talk about something else. What’s your secret to success on the front lines? Healing can’t account for all your accomplishments.” Over the last week, Yan made great strides in utilizing the miraculous Panacea with Lin as her teacher, and she already intended to beg Akanai to share it with Grandpa. A shame she couldn’t share the secret with her retinue, but she understood why.

 

Half-expecting him to laugh off the question, Rain answered, “Crossbows. Want some? Talk to Luo-Luo, she’ll outfit your whole retinue with them. Your hubby will foot the bill.”

 

How generous.” Wishing he’d given a different answer, Yan sighed. “Sadly, I don’t think I can accept your offer. If I armed my retinue with crossbows, they’d toss them in the latrines and mutiny.” Stupid Martial pride. Grandpa even made her give up the bow, called it a weapon ‘unbefitting’ for an Officer.

 

Well, they’re super helpful. Point, fire, and a bunch of Defiled die. Armour and discipline helps too, and so do good scouts, but so far, range is king.” Having picked up an escort of cattle joining them on their stroll, Rain patted the closest one on the flank, a shaggy, reddish-brown behemoth with white patches around his eyes. “You want a couple war-bulls? They’re not all suitable for the battlefield, but wild cattle like Big Mac here are something fierce. Give Luo-Luo a few days and she’ll have them hitched to chariots, or if you’re feeling less daring, wagons.

 

Though Rain claimed not to trust Luo-Luo, he certainly had faith in her skills. Suppressing her jealousy, Yan bit her lip and sighed. “The chariots I want, but the war-bulls… not so much. I think your cattle are adorable and their fierce reputation precedes them, but if I ride into battle in a modified ox-cart, I’ll be laughed at by the world over.

 

What? Why?”

 

Because they’re cattle, the means of conveyance for peasants who can’t afford horses. I have enough problems with my reputation as it is without adding fuel to the fire.” And, despite their darling dispositions, cattle were notoriously difficult to train and also stank to High Heaven.

 

Luckily for him, Rain knew her better than to try and fix her problems or convince her his methods were better. Yan didn’t want a hero to sweep her off her feet, but a partner to support her, and Rain played his part perfectly. Squeezing her hand, he gave her a reassuring smile and Sent, “…Okay, no cattle then. Trained warhorses are in short supply, but since I don’t have to worry about public opinion, I’ll use the cattle and you can have my Guonei Chargers and Acasian Trotters.”

 

Yan wanted to refuse them, but she wasn’t sure she could afford to. Even Grandpa would find it difficult to purchase trained warhorses within the year, especially considering his bleak financial situation. Still, she couldn’t let Rain cripple his retinue and cast aside reputation to help her, so she Sent, “You keep them. Pretty boy Dastan won’t look quite as dashing sitting atop Moomie.”

 

All the more reason to be rid of the horses. Dastan keeps making me look bad.” His troubled smile cast a pall over the joke as he added, “Don’t worry, I’ll keep enough mounts for his people and give you the extras. At this point, I have more horses than horsemen.” This time, it was her turn to support him and she did her best, resting her head against his shoulder as they wandered aimlessly around the field of grazing cattle. It didn’t feel like she was doing enough, but she knew Rain would only retreat if she pressed him to open up, so instead, she focused on avoiding the many cow turds in their path while giving him time to recover. It didn’t take long, but he quickly changed the subject. “My turn to ask questions. What’s your secret to using Chi externally? I’ve been trying for weeks and this is the best I can do.” Pursing his lips like he was about to whistle, Rain spat out a small stream of water which dissipated before hitting the ground.

 

Pretending to swoon, Yan Sent, “Oh such a daunting attack, I fear I will never be your match!” When she finished cackling, she kissed his wet, pouting lips and smirked. “What happened to ‘reaching your full potential by forging your own path’? Or is it do as I say and not as I do?” His pout darkened even further, but the lines around his eyes told her he was faking, shaking with barely contained mirth rather than unrestrained fury. “Honestly, what you did was fairly impressive. You already know how to materialize your Element, so now you need to focus on manipulation.”

 

“…and how do I do that?”

 

I’m not sure it’ll help, but here’s how Grandpa explained it.” Taking a moment to gather her thoughts, Yan shared Grandpa’s lessons with Rain. “One cannot tame the wind, only shape the setting so the wind chooses to follow your will. Wind is a capricious element, and while many believe it embodies freedom, it follows a strict set of rules like any other force of nature…”

 

Hand in hand, they circled the field while Yan expounded on the intricate mysteries of the Divine Wind. Each time they completed the circuit, they checked in on Luo-Luo and picked up more followers until the entire herd of cattle and bunnies were accompanying them on their quiet stroll, but Yan still wasn’t finished. Rain had plenty of questions and when she didn’t know the answer, they discussed the possible answers together, during which Rain had many insightful remarks to further Yan’s understanding. While they continued their discourse with their entourage of cattle and bunnies, Luo-Luo performed her dance twice more, but she seemed to have exhausted herself after the last iteration. There she sat with her mace laid neatly across her lap, while Yan and Rain circled the field three more times. As they came around the fourth time, Yan opened her mouth to chide Luo-Luo for shirking her training but before she could speak, the Imperial Servant sprang to her feet and struck an elegant pose. Arms out at her sides, her mace dangled loosely from her fingers as she arched her back and stared up at the sky, a mortal standing in supplication of Heaven above.

 

And then, using her body and weapon as instruments, Luo-Luo performed a piece composed by the Heavens itself.

 

Steps light and strikes heavy, the beautiful warrior leapt and pranced about the field, wielding her mace with spirited purpose in a deadly dance of destruction wholly unlike her previous performances. Swiping the Rushes paired with Gliding Wing, Parting the Underbrush followed by Fluttering Raindrops, Raising the Winds melded with Darting Fang, her movements announced themselves before Yan’s disbelieving eyes, the secrets of each underlying Form laid bare in these intrinsic configurations. Simple, yet sophisticated, rudimentary, yet intricate, at first glance Luo-Luo’s movements all seemed easy to learn, but each hid a myriad of complexities within which made them difficult to master.

 

While Yan struggled to commit each detail to memory, Luo-Luo’s performance continued unabated, her weapon gradually transforming from primitive mace to refined flail and her simple movements evolving into elaborate compositions. The flail howled as it spun through the air, one moment graceful and flowing, the next, twisting and snapping. A creature given life through Luo-Luo’s exhaustive efforts, body and weapon working in concert to strike down their foes. The weapon soared high and struck low, circling and spiralling like a serpent given wings, a formidable beast which struck fear into Yan’s heart, for were this creature to bare its fangs towards her, then she saw death as the only possible outcome.

 

And when the consummate performance ended, Luo-Luo stood with arms at her sides, weapon coiled about her feet, and eyes facing skyward, an arrogant warrior standing in defiance of Heaven.

 

“Fuck my life,” Rain muttered, thoroughly ruining Yan’s appreciation of the moment. “Why are all my wives more talented than I am?”

 

Chapter Meme

 

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Savage Divinity – Chapter 421

Despite Luo-Luo’s best efforts to amend his ways, Lord Husband had yet to grasp the significance of his public image.

 

It wasn’t his bloody, war-torn clothing which bothered her so, for such was to be expected of a soldier returning from the front lines. Nor was it his enthusiastic waving from afar which made him seem more like a homesick child rather than the triumphant hero he was, or how he greeted everyone, even all his animals down to the last rabbit, with warm hugs, soft nuzzles, sweet whispers, and in Yan’s case a salacious kiss, yet all Luo-Luo received was a polite smile and businesslike nod. It wasn’t even his shabby posture or wispy facial hair in dire need of a razor’s touch which irked her so. No, the greatest affront to Lord Husband’s image was his choice to make his triumphant return to SuiHua with his legs folded like a damsel while seated on the back of the biggest, ugliest, smelliest bull in all of Central.

 

At this point, Luo-Luo suspected Lord Husband was being wilfully antagonistic just to spite her.

 

Having sent a rider ahead to bring word of his arrival, it didn’t take long for Lord Husband’s retinue and herd of cattle to pass through the gates and make their way around the city to their campground. Luo-Luo had worked hard to ensure every last detail had been accounted for their homecoming, and she did her best to make it known. She’d picked out the perfect resting area, an isolated yet scenic field with easy access to the bay where his retinue and cattle could rest and graze in peace, away from the hubbub of moving caravans, migrant soldiers, and boisterous merchants hawking their overpriced wares. She’d instructed the camp followers to spare no expense on tonight’s celebratory feast and bought plenty of fresh meat, fragrant wines, and tantalizing desserts for all to share. She even purchased new bedding, blankets, and plain-clothes uniforms for the soldiers, though her heart ached to see Lord Husband’s brutes tearing off sleeves, cutting slits in pants, throwing away vests, and a host of other horrible modifications to the snappy ensemble she’d designed and commissioned using her share of profits from Lord Husband’s business endeavours.

 

Were things to continue in this fashion, the only way she’d ever see Lord Husband at the head of a heroic, dashing retinue would be to paint it from imagination…

 

Luo-Luo didn’t forget to entice and titillate her war-weary Lord Husband either, wearing a freshly tailored dress made to accentuate her cleavage and hips. Displaying the latter set her cheeks aflame, for she felt as if her posterior was completely uncovered, with every curve and contour on exhibit like a wanton harlot stalking the streets in search of a client. Sadly, nothing came of her foresight and shamelessness besides more polite smiles and businesslike nods, which was disheartening to say the least. She truly thought things had changed during these past two months and that upon his return, he would see her in a new light. They’d been in near constant communication during his time in Sinuji and while the conversation rarely strayed from his business interests, he wasn’t much sweeter to Lin-Lin or Mila in writing. After weeks of cordial correspondence, Luo-Luo had imagined seeing burning desire or at least fond affection in his beautiful, amber eyes as she welcomed her Lord Husband home with a hearty embrace.

 

Instead, reality reared its ugly head and Luo-Luo was summarily cast aside, playing the part of stranger intruding on a loving family reunion.

 

Even his animals were treated with more warmth than Luo-Luo, including the newest additions to his menagerie, a herd of dirty, disgusting cattle. While waiting for his soldiers to finish setting camp and dinner to finish cooking, Lord Husband tended to his bovine mount, an intimidating creature of horn and muscle. In obvious distress due to its new surroundings and all the commotion, the beast dug its hooves in and lowered its head, turning its massive twin horns this way and that to warn off the unfamiliar strangers in this unfamiliar locale. It didn’t look much like the beasts Luo-Luo had seen depicted in paintings, but rather a shaggier, more muscular cousin of sorts, the difference as stark as the one between Lord Husband’s wildcats and a tiger. Its beady, brown eyes burned with fury from behind its coarse, thick fur, its dark, sinewy form barely able to contain its strapping might. An unkempt behemoth standing over two meters tall at the shoulders, it towered over Luo-Luo’s head, to say nothing of Lord Husband’s, but he seemed unconcerned by the creature’s size or anxiety. “Easy Moomie,” he said, his voice calm and reassuring as he stroked its neck, far more tenderly than he’d ever touched Luo-Luo. “Nothing to be afraid of big guy. Everyone’s a friend here, no need to worry. Jimjam, get back here. Don’t stalk the cows, you’re gonna get trampled.”

 

Bold and daring as always, Lin-Lin reached up and stroked the creature’s muzzle, causing Luo-Luo’s heart to skip a beat as the behemoth flinched and stamped its hooves. Unfazed, Lin-Lin lifted the bull’s jowls to inspect its teeth and said, “Mm, it’s too late to butcher and cook you today Moomie, but we can do it tomorrow, ya? You’re gonna be so yummy. Char-Char will turn you into steaks and ribs and skewers and beef buns and beef brisket and beef tongue –”

 

Pulling Lin-Lin back into his embrace, Lord Husband lifted her away from the bull with a troubled frown. “No wifey, Moomie isn’t for eating. First off, he’s a wild cow so he won’t taste good. Secondly, he’s like two or three tonnes of angry cow and I’d rather not upset him. Thirdly, he’s too cute to eat. Look.” Cupping the bull’s face, Lord Husband massaged its cheeks with both hands and giggled as it visibly relaxed at his tender ministrations, its tongue dropping out of its mouth to hang loose with an audible sigh. “See? Isn’t he adorable?”

 

Only Yan shared Lord Husband’s opinion as she crooned and joined him in petting Moomie while Lin-Lin and Mila traded exasperated glances. Unwilling to lose (again) to the hateful half-deer, Luo-Luo gathered her courage and circled around to the behemoth’s side so that its sharp, curved horns weren’t pointed directly at her. Perhaps reading her movements as a threat, the skittish bull turned its head to face her and snorted in warning, so Luo-Luo froze in place. Sucking her teeth, Yan grabbed Luo-Luo’s wrist and forcibly guided it towards the bull’s mouth, but despite her best efforts to break free, she soon made contact with the beast’s nose. Repressing a shriek as it licked her palm, Luo-Luo reminded herself that cattle were vegetarians and Lord Husband was an experienced beast-tamer with a unique Aura to aid him.

 

“Yan, let her go before she soils herself.” Gruff and straightforward as always, Mila came to Luo-Luo’s rescue and she was so relieved she didn’t even quibble over the embarrassing, albeit accurate, statement. “And you,” Mila said, pinching Lord Husband’s arm, “If we can’t eat them, then what are we going to do with three-hundred head of cattle?”

 

“Don’t know. Don’t care.” Unyielding before his spirited beloved, Lord Husband hugged the bull’s head and said, “They’re mine now, and you can’t eat them. We can still have beef from other cows, but Moomie and his friends are off limits. This is his herd and he’ll get real angry if we hack his buddies apart for steaks.” Leaning back, Lord Husband lowered his voice to an exaggerated whisper. “Seriously, you won’t like him when he’s angry. I was gored twice trying to approach his herd and he gave me worse the first time I hopped onto his back. Luckily, he only broke my shins and didn’t flatten them, else I would’ve had to amputate both legs below the knee.”

 

Upon hearing this, Luo-Luo retreated three steps and positioned herself behind Mila.

 

“Well, thank the Mother for small miracles. You returned whole for once.” Laughing her deep, seductive laugh, Yan favoured Lord Husband with a harlot’s gaze which set his cheeks and desire aflame, no doubt Sending him obscene and lurid promises. Finished with her vulgarities, she abandoned Moomie to embrace Mila instead. “Don’t be a grouch,” Yan said, slowly dragging the indignant Mila towards the bull. “The cattle can pull wagons and free up the quins and horses. They aren’t as fast, but they’ve got plenty of strength and stamina. Hell, with some time and practice, Rain could even mount his soldiers on them.”

 

“Good idea.” Lord Husband lifted Tate onto Moomie and left him there, his boyish grin matching Tate’s delighted smile as the bull inspected the child. “How about it Tate? Forget war-bears. How do you like the sound of war-bulls?”

 

“Yea! Charge!”

 

Thankfully, Moomie had more sense than Tate or Lord Husband and stayed in place, dismissing the child as a threat with a shake of its head. Sighing with relief, Mila lowered her guard and patted the bull’s neck, grateful the worst hadn’t come to pass. “Fair enough,” she said, inspecting Moomie’s pearly horns with a weaponsmith’s eye. “They’re the best choice of draft animal on the plains of Central and I’d love to see what they can do against the Defiled.” All the bulls in the herd had thick, pointed horns, but none were the match of their leader’s, a pair of forward facing natural armaments each as long as her arm. Wrinkling her nose, Mila added, “If only they didn’t stink so much.”

 

“Ah!” Displaying her bloodthirsty nature once more, Lin-Lin clapped her hands and said, “We can use them to pull the chariots ya? They were too heavy for the quins and the trained horsies were too expensive and in limited numbers, but these cow-cows should be perfect, ya?”

 

The thought of chariot-laden bulls certainly terrified Luo-Luo and scaling up the vehicle’s size would be simple enough. “An idea worth exploring,” she said, mentally composing the letters she’d have to write. “Luo-Luo will look into it forthwith.” Spotting Lord Husband’s surprise, she remembered her place and fell to her knees, her head lowered in fearful contrition, “Luo-Luo has been presumptuous in overstepping her bounds and requests Lord Husband punish her.”

 

“Relax. There’s no need to kneel or ask for punishment. Like… Ever.” Extending a hand to help her up, Lord Husband squeezed her fingers lightly, which made it worth the momentary panic. “I’m not upset, I’m just surprised at how decisive you’ve become. You’ve done incredible work with the cast iron business and I’m comfortable leaving everything in your capable hands.”

 

Oh dear Mother in Heaven no. “Luo-Luo will require Lord Husband’s aid in handling the beasts and other matters…”

 

“Yea of course, but not today. Let’s get everyone settled in first, and I would love a bath.”

 

Cursing herself for overlooking something so vital, Luo-Luo scurried off to prepare one. As she left, she casually glanced over her shoulder to see if he would watch her leave, but to her disappointment, he was busy trying to balance a rabbit atop Moomie’s head. The rest of the night continued on in this fashion, with Luo-Luo an unimportant bystander as Lord Husband celebrated with his soldiers, shared sweet snuggles with Lin, gave Mila a lengthy and slightly erotic shoulder massage, cuddled his bears and wildcats like babies, rolled about the grass with Mafu and the rabbits, and bid his cattle goodnight as they laid down to rest. Then, back at the mansion, Luo-Luo was then forced to suffer through the muffled moans and shuddering gasps emanating from the wall she shared with Yan’s bedroom, an erotic torment from which there was no escape.

 

It was so unfair! After two, long, lonely months, Luo-Luo received no tender care and saw no passionate desire from Lord Husband, not even warranting a pat on the head like the one he gave Li-Li after handing her chain back to Mila. The cold, braided beauty looked so pleased and contented by Lord Husband’s soft touch, her eyes closed and cat-ears aflutter, Luo-Luo couldn’t help but bristle with jealousy. Who knew how this adulterous master-and-slave pair spent their evenings on the front lines, experiencing life-threatening ordeals day after day. How might it have happened? Did Li-Li seduce Lord Husband with her smoky, green eyes and long, fluttering lashes before inviting him into her bed with a seductive kiss? There, the two of them would engage in frantic, desperate coitus to affirm their love for one another, a love born from shared hardships and harmonious efforts.

 

Or perhaps theirs was a darker affair, one born of anguish and desperation out on the battlefield. Unable to restrain his animalistic urges, Lord Husband set upon Li-Li in her yurt one night, stripping her clothes off in a passionless frenzy before ordering her to please him. Fear and reluctance melting away beneath Lord Husband’s skilled ministrations, Li-Li would soon find herself not only a slave to her Oaths, but also a slave to her lust. Now, a simple head pat was enough to send pleasure surging through her body, but Lord Husband had developed a taste for compulsion. Freed from the shackles of morality, Lord Husband turned his lecherous sights on the alluring women beneath his command, forcing himself upon two, three, or even more women every night just to sate his prodigious appetite.

 

…Perhaps Luo-Luo should have gone with him to the front lines. Don’t think she didn’t see those hussies and their covetous gazes earlier at the banquet, like that indecent minx A-Gui licking her rouged lips and fanning her unbuttoned collar, or Ciro’s bawdy and indecent proposal that the retinue go swimming naked in the bay. Worst of all was Chey winking at Lord Husband while wearing a too-tight tunic and eschewing a vest to flaunt her voluminous bosom, and then tying her shirt-tails to expose her taut, seductive midriff. How dare she?

 

Only now, seconds before sinking into exhausted slumber, did Luo-Luo understand why Lord Husband’s soldiers were ripping her uniforms apart. Not because they didn’t like her design, but because they weren’t used to the hotter temperatures of Central…

 

Dawn soon arrived and Luo-Luo’s fitful sleep was once again interrupted by the sounds of Lord Husband and Yan’s passionate lovemaking. After venting her pent up anger and jealousy on her defenceless pillows, Luo-Luo slipped out of bed at this unholiest of hours, put on her make-up, styled her hair into two buns, put on her bulky, unflattering Khishig leathers, and brought her sceptre out for breakfast and morning training. Amidst bites of dumplings and sordid daydreams in which Lord Husband had his way with her, Luo-Luo saw everyone in the household off as they went about their day, aside from Lin-Lin who would remain in bed for several more hours. Mila and her Divine Blacksmith Papa headed out for a day of labouring at the forges, while Ser Charok hustled to market with his adorable children in tow. Medical Saint Taduk collected the Divine Turtle, Mama Bun, and Blackjack for a boat ride around the bay, and Li-Li brought all the quins, bears, and wildcats out to do… whatever she did during her days off. Practice, most likely. Sorya and Anrhi finished cooking breakfast for their brother and brought it over to Lord Husband’s camp, and still Yan had yet to show up for their morning practice session.

 

Striding in almost an hour late, Lord Husband and Yan sat down across from Luo-Luo. Lord Husband at least had the decency to look sheepish, but Yan had the audacity to preen and smirk, her wet hair and glowing cheeks giving her a vibrant, alluring look. “Sorry we’re late,” she said, rolling her eyes in an exaggerated fashion. “Someone couldn’t keep his hands to himself. First it was in bed, then in the baths, then while walking over…”

 

“Excuse me? As I recall, I’m not the only one to blame.” Lord Husband pulled Yan close and pressed his lips against her cheek as they fell silent and shared an exchange through Sending. Not entirely silent, as there were plenty of tongue clicks, exasperated sighs, muffled giggles, and light kisses. Her sceptre resting across her knees, Luo-Luo clenched it tight and wished she were a more accomplished Martial Warrior, if only to smack this immoral couple upside the head. What hurt the most was that if not for the half-deer’s calculating machinations and a cruel twist of fate, it would be Yan stewing in her jealousy while Luo-Luo and Lord Husband giggling and laughed…

 

And three times before breakfast? Three!?! Did this harlot intend to drain Lord Husband dry and leave a withered corpse for the rest of them?

 

“So Luo-Luo,” Lord Husband said, catching her by surprise. “Yan tells me she’s been helping you with the Forms every morning.”

 

“Yes Lord Husband, and Luo-Luo is deeply grateful for her assistance.” A bald-faced lie if there ever were one. It took twenty-four years but Luo-Luo finally found a subject she did not excel in. According to Yan, Luo-Luo wasn’t even passable as a Martial Warrior, a complete failure from top to bottom, which was liberating, in a way.

 

Mortifying in so many others, but still liberating…

 

“I hear things… have not been going well.” Lord Husband was kind to understate it, but Luo-Luo knew she was hopeless. “You haven’t bound your Spiritual Weapon yet either, right?”

 

“…No, Luo-Luo has not.” It wasn’t entirely her fault. Yan was neither patient nor courteous with her instruction, nor did she put much effort into her infrequent explanations. Mostly, she stood ready with switch in hand and gave Luo-Luo a taste of pain every time she did something Yan deemed incorrect, which was often. ‘Feel the Forms’, Yan would say, ‘let them guide you through them’. ‘Become one with the weapon and make it a part of you.’ How were banal platitudes supposed to teach Luo-Luo to fight or bind her weapon? Why couldn’t Yan simply tell Luo-Luo the correct thing to do? How to stand, where to place her feet, what to move, when to move it, were simple, basic instructions too much to ask for?

 

“Well, why don’t we switch things up and I help out today? Maybe a fresh perspective is what you need to get started along the Martial Path.” Giving Yan’s cheek a pinch, Lord Husband chuckled and said, “Astounding. I know Yan’s sitting here beside me, but that glare is 100% Mila. Don’t be jealous. Remember, there once was a time when I too was an ‘insufferable idiot’.” Belatedly realizing he’d spoken out of place, Lord Husband gave Luo-Luo a small shrug in apology before continuing. “Besides, it’s not like I’m sending you away to have my way with the concubine.”

 

…Why did he have to say it like it was such an unreasonable scenario?

 

Realizing he’d misspoken again, Lord Husband stuffed the last dumpling into his mouth and rose from his seat. “Well, let’s go. I need to go make sure the cattle haven’t slaughtered the remnants of my retinue, and a change of scenery might do you good. Oh right, is your zither in your room?”

 

“Yes Lord Husband.” Luo-Luo’s heart surged with joy as she hurried to follow. Was he finally going to ask her to play for him?

 

“Great. Yan, could you help her grab it while I collect the rabbits?”

 

Thanks to Luo-Luo’s careful planning, Lord Husband’s camp wasn’t far from their manor and they arrived without delay. The cute caravan of hopping rabbits drew many an eye, but aside from a smattering of friendly cheers and greetings, most left Lord Husband to his own devices, either too busy to bother him or understanding his need to unwind after a long tour of duty. Word arrived ahead of him that both Mitsue Hideo and Quyen Dienne had also gone on leave, meaning Lord Husband’s record of sixty consecutive days served on the front lines would remain unbroken, lending further significance to his stunning accomplishment.

 

Granted, knowing he’d done so involuntarily made it much less impressive, but the important thing was Lord Husband had endured and returned whole.

 

After finding the camp still standing in the distance and receiving a warm welcome from Moomie and a half-dozen other friendly cattle, Lord Husband turned to Luo-Luo with a supportive smile. “Alright then,” he said, settling down in the grass beside Yan while the rabbits explored and cattle grazed. “Let’s see what you can do.”

 

For some odd reason, Luo-Luo found his expectant gaze more terrifying than his anger. She desperately wanted to impress him, but was this even possible with her mediocre skills? Closing her eyes in abject shame, Luo-Luo hugged her sceptre to her chest and reviewed the last ten, gruelling days of lessons. Then, once she was as ready as she would ever be, she performed the first movement of Tiger Form, Stalk the Dragon. The seconds passed in agonizing sluggishness as she performed the single step, yet it felt like everything she was doing was wrong and a complete affront to the Forms. What expression would she see on Lord Husband’s face if she had the courage to look? Pity? Disgust? Hatred, even? The Forms were a Holy Ceremony passed down from time immemorial, and her poor performance might be akin to blasphemy for a Martial Warrior like Falling Rain.

 

It felt like an eternity had passed before she finished the first movement, and she shakily proceeded to the second, then the third, before Lord Husband finally said, “Stop.” Trembling from head to toe, Luo-Luo hung her head and opened her eyes, unwilling to look up even if her life depended on it. After a long silence, Lord Husband sighed and said, “Luo-Luo, I want you to do something for me.”

 

Take her own life perhaps, to apologize for her heresy. “Luo-Luo awaits your command, Lord Husband.”

 

“Okay. I want you to forget everything you’ve learned these past ten days and Demonstrate the Forms as you were taught earlier.”

 

“What?” Yan and Luo-Luo spoke at the same time, one voice brimming with anger and the other tinged with confusion.

 

“You think I didn’t teach her properly?” Yan asked, and inwardly Luo-Luo squealed with delight.

 

“Calm down. What’s gotten into you? I’m not accusing you of anything.” Blissfully unaware of the tension between his betrothed and concubine, Lord Husband kissed Yan on the cheek and said, “I think you taught her the same way you were taught, which is fine for children who know nothing. They’re blank slates learning the Forms for the first time, but Luo-Luo already knows them, right?”

 

“Yes Lord Husband.” Worried Yan hadn’t told him, Luo-Luo said, “However, Luo-Luo learned the Forms through dance. An amended version if you will, simplified so we only need follow the defined steps in the proper order to strengthen and revitalize our bodies.”

 

“That’s fine.” Lost in his memories, Lord Husband explained, “The Forms can be seen as a finite set of movements which teach you how to fight, but that’s only on the surface. They’re meant to guide you along the Martial Path, for each movement holds infinite variations, and within those infinite variations lies the true secrets to Martial strength. Where one person might see Stalk the Dragon as a singular step, another might find a pattern within and use it to develop a style of footwork. A third might see the power hidden with that initial, singular step, and transform it from a means of movement into an attack. Another good example is Mantis Form – Balance on Windy Leaf. Most Warriors see it as a dodging technique, rooting your feet in place and swaying your upper body to avoid an attack while remaining in range to counter-attack, but Grand-mentor saw it as a means to explosively boost her charging speed.” Waving his hand in dismissal, Lord Husband added, “That’s all neither here nor there. The point is, the Forms are finite, but the Martial Path is infinite, so why can’t someone learn how to fight from dancing? You wouldn’t be the first and won’t be the last. There’s no right or wrong way to perform the Forms, it all comes down to what you can perceive within them.”

 

Repeating Lord Husband’s last sentence to herself, Luo-Luo felt the warm embers of confidence flicker to life within her. Forget what she learned from Yan and just dance. She could do that much, and if more came of it, then good. If not, then at least Lord Husband would watch her dance, and perhaps even ask her to play him a song when they were done.

 

The best case scenario would be if Lord Husband decided Luo-Luo was a lost cause as a Martial Warrior and took her Spiritual Weapon away, while simultaneously being charmed by her beauty, grace, and musical abilities.

 

Please Mother in Heaven, make it so.

 

Chapter Meme

 

Two meter Cow next to regular cows for scale. Another Pic.

 

Previous Chapter Table of Contents Next Chapter

Savage Divinity – Chapter 419 & 420


Congrats, you all get a double chapter, with THREE memes no less.

Originally, I had this as a single chapter which was already kinda really long, like 4800 words or something. Then I realized I forgot a whole bunch of stuff and added a PoV I originally cut because it was too long, and the chapter became 7000 words long or something ridiculous. Instead of saying “too bad, 1 ch became 2”, I just treated it like one long ass chapter. I’m breaking it into two for the same of numbering though, and unlike the last “double” chapter, these two actually stand on their own.

Anywho, enjoy.


 

Nowadays, battles rarely end with a bang.

 

Instead, they close out with a slow burn, where the resolution is set in stone but the Defiled are too stubborn to concede or retreat, so everyone’s forced to play along and fight to the bitter end. I’m tired, my soldiers are tired, the animals are tired, hell, even the Defiled are tired, but we’re not willing to let them live and they’re not willing to quietly die. Sure, I could turn up the Succ and send the Defiled running for the hills, but then we’d have to chase them down which is even more exhausting.

 

Figuratively speaking, that is. About the hills. No hills here on the border, just grass and dirt as far as the eye can see. Where are the rolling meadows or lush forests, the rocky barrens or coastal backdrops? If this world was truly crafted by an omnipotent being, then you can tell they definitely phoned it in while making most of Central.

 

A Defiled warrior charges forward with a hobbling gait, moving painfully slowly through the mud and corpses yet still almost too quickly for me to respond. My overworked arms move Unity in place and the Defiled impales himself on the blade, offering one, last, brief struggle before the hatred fades from his eyes and leaves a lifeless corpse in its place. Enemy though he might be, it’s hard to hate the Defiled knowing what I know now. They’re afflicted with a disease, not in body or mind, but in spirit, and much like a rabid dog, they’ve little to no control over their actions. It really puts a damper on all this wholesale slaughter, since my anger and hatred have been replaced by sorrow and pity which are much less motivating. Too tired to lift my legs, I hone Unity and watch my fallen foe slide off the blade to join the carpet of corpses stretching out at my feet, the bodies stacked four or five deep in some places after hours of non-stop fighting.

 

How are there still so many god-damned Defiled?

 

Howling in wordless fury, yet another Defiled Champion rushes forward to challenge me in mortal combat, brandishing an ugly bleached-bone battle-axe exuding a sense of loathsome damnation. Responding with a scream of my own, I eke out what strength I have left and thrust Unity at my Enemy’s throat. Swiping the attack aside, the Champion lowers his shoulder and charges. Caught off guard, the tackle hits me head on and fractures my clavicle, not yet broken but close. More through luck than skill, the charge lifts me off my feet and pushes me back. Lightening for all I’m worth, I pray I stick the landing, but as per usual, no one’s listening. The tempo of battle has churned dirt and blood into viscous sludge which sucks my boots in deep, and only with Unity’s aid do I keep myself from falling back into the muck. It will take precious seconds to free myself, time which I lack as the Defiled Champion winds back to cleave my torso in twain and offer my blood to his unholy weapon

 

Where I once might have clenched my jaw and taken the hit, I’ve learned much in the last two months. Rescinding my Aura with a single thought, I hurtle a Honed blade of fear and self-loathing at the Champion which hits him like a thunderbolt. Staggered by the incorporeal assault, he recovers in time to watch me leap away in a splash of gore and mud as I use multiple Keystones to full effect. Landing delicately atop a Defiled corpse, I fire three lancing jabs in rapid succession, but my foe wards them off with ease. Retreating before his relentless advance, I spring from corpse to corpse to avoid getting stuck in the mud while testing his defences, aiming high then low, low then high, jabbing and thrusting, feinting and slashing, yet no matter what I try, I see no way to break past his impenetrable guard.

 

This guy is good. Not crazed and wild like most axe-wielders, but calm and cautious, a patient hunter waiting for the perfect opportunity. Does this make him more Defiled, or less? Can he be saved? Mahakala said they could, but the question is how? Also, where the fuck is the Abbot? I sent Wugang and Yelu Shi to tell him about Mahakala almost three months ago, but there’s still no word from any of them. I could’ve crawled to Nan Ping and back by now, much less cloud-walk. What the fuck dude?

 

Unfortunately, saving my opponent is less important than saving me from him. Though I hold the range advantage, he has the upper hand in leverage. With stance low and axe held close to his chest, all it takes is one good parry or Deflection to send Unity aside, leaving me wide open for chopping. My options limited, I hammer him with a second blade of Honed Aura and turn my probing jab into a Reinforced and Amplified thrust, but the Champion barely flinches beneath the emotional assault. Already committed to the killing blow, I follow through to disastrous results as he parries the attack, grabs Unity’s crossbar, and yanks hard. His one hand overpowering my two, I involuntarily leap into a backhanded swing which knocks multiple teeth loose and sends me careening into the mud.

 

By the time my vision clears and I get back on my feet, the Champion lies dead and Argat stands guard over me, his spear dripping with the blood of my fallen foe. I’ve lost track of how many times the two brothers have saved my life and it shames me to rely so heavily on their protection. Strong against the weak and weak against the strong, that about sums up my current plight. Maybe I would’ve had an easier time against the Champion if I were fresh and well-rested, or if I’d killed him the first time I used my Honed Aura instead of running away, but excuses are worthless. I need to become stronger, but my Martial Path has reached a bottleneck as I stand stuck and confused at the dividing line between trash and treasure. The Defiled Champion had me beat in raw stats, so if I want to easily defeat him, I must learn to use Chi externally. A single step which might as well be an impassable gorge, because for the life of me, I can’t figure it out. Even with Tenjin and Lei Gong’s occasional advice, I’m still unable Send without skin contact, much less Conceal or craft water bullets and blades. All I can do is a shitty impression of a fountain, spitting a tiny stream of water which dissipates into nothingness as the Heavens reclaims my Chi like a starving beggar devours free rice.

 

Gasping for breath, I embrace the pain to clear my mind and assess the situation. Noting precious few Defiled still standing, I turn my gaze to the thick fog of Spectres floating about, their ghastly faces twisted in sadistic delight as they survey their handiwork and whisper into the minds of Defiled and Imperial alike. I don’t know why they’re driving the Defiled to massed suicide, but they’re loving every nightmarish minute, which makes this next part much more satisfying. Focusing on all my repressed anger and hatred, I open myself to them and they surge forward to take the bait, gathering in droves to whisper their sweet lies. It’s as if they can sense how close I once was to accepting their murderous ways and can’t resist the allure of possibly bringing me back into the fold.

 

I’m like ghost bait, and now that they’re all nice and close, it’s time to once again unleash my battle-ending ultimate move: Infinite Suck!

 

The Spectres’ wails are like music to my ears as I draw them into my abyss… ew. As I banish them to my void. As I consign them to the gaping hole in my soul… fuck it. I don’t care anymore. It doesn’t have to sound cool, I’m eating Spectres and it’s awesome. Useful as the Talent is, Devouring is limited by a range of around fifty meters, about a swimming pool’s length in any direction. The range has grown since I arrived on the front lines, which tells me repeated use makes it stronger, but I’m limited to once per battle since any Spectres and Defiled outside its range turn tail and run the second chow time comes around. It never used to be like this; Sanshu was rife with Spectres hanging about and I spent two weeks clearing them out. Hell, they even seemed kinda happy to drop in for a visit, but it appears word has gotten out about my Heavenly Energy Hoarding Endeavours and none of them care to donate to the cause.

 

Closing my mind to their empty promises and hollow threats, I leave the trapped Spectres for later and oversee the cleanup instead, sending my injured and weary warriors back to rest while the reserves stack corpses for disposal and scouts check the surroundings to make sure we’re safe. The blood bakes against my skin beneath the hot summer sun and the fetid stench of death soon becomes overwhelming as I await the final tally, which arrives soon enough from the lips of a gloomy Mister Rustram. “Eighteen dead,” he says, and my heart seizes in my chest. “Seventy-nine others too wounded to walk or ride, mostly from the Protectorate.” Guan Suo’s turtle defenders aren’t privy to the secrets of Panacea and lack the Death Corp’s heavy armour to protect them. I’ve done my best to keep them out of the thick of things, but when we’re killing hundreds to thousands of Defiled a day, sometimes the only choice is to send everyone into the meat-grinder.

 

Adding today’s losses to the butcher’s bill leaves me with a number which turns my stomach. Exactly fifty-nine days ago, I arrived in Sinuji with seven-hundred and ninety-four soldiers. Today, I’m left with five-hundred and ninety-six still breathing, and less than half at fighting strength. Twenty-five percent losses doesn’t sound too bad, until you realize it means one in four of my people have died. Lang Yi’s bunch took the worst of it, with a mere twenty-eight remaining from the original eighty. Theirs was a story of miracles, of rescued slaves turned Martial Warriors in a staggeringly short time, but there are no happy endings here. Dastan’s retinue and the Death Corps shouldered most of the remaining deaths, losing more than half and a little less than a third respectively while crippling the backbone of my retinue in the process.

 

My hammer and anvil have been sorely abused, so perhaps it’s time I learned a new trick. Sadly, tactics are not a part of my packaged memories, though I have songs and memes a plenty.

 

It’s not all bad news. Since they primarily fought at range, the Protectorate only lost twenty-three warriors, while the rest of my retinue suffered precious few losses. Thanks to Taduk’s field-medic training and Panacea, the former bandits of Sanshu proved hardy enough to survive anything short of instant death. There were still over two dozen casualties scattered among them, but the repurposed Mother’s Militia is still going strong. Even better news is I have yet to lose a Spiritual Weapon wielder, so my original eight from Shen Huo are all still alive and kicking.

 

So what have I learned? Panacea helps a lot. The Protectorate is largely intact, but down to a third of effective strength due to injuries. Armour is useful against schmucks, but relying on it too much means the Death Corps die in droves against Spiritual Weapon-wielding Champions. Dastan’s retinue has the same Healing training as the rest of my troops, but it’s harder to save your injured comrades when you’re surrounded by the Enemy. I might have to reevaluate how I use them and keep them for cleanup rather than an opener.

 

The most important lesson I’ve learned? Range is king.

 

Wow. What a surprise. Who knew?

 

 

Everyone. Fucking everyone knows it, but they’re too stubborn to admit it.

 

Things might change once Demons and Wraiths take the field, but against massed Defiled, the best solution is to fill them full of arrows from a respectable distance. Asinine as it is, the general aversion to ranged weapons works fine when you’ve got a nice big wall to stand behind, so I understand their disdain. Martial Warriors are a prideful lot, which they deserve considering they’re essentially super-human, and it probably sucks seeing their years of hard training be outperformed by some peasant with a crossbow. Still, this is no time to coddle a bunch of arrogant idiots and their overblown pride. The survival of the Empire is on the line and we’re massively outnumbered, so efficiency is the name of the game. On an open field against the Defiled, the bow reigns supreme and the crossbow sits firmly in second place. Both are useless against Demons and vulnerable in a melee, but the benefits are too overwhelming to ignore. A longbow takes a lifetime of training, but any idiot can use a crossbow. Ammunition is a problem considering my small retinue is churning through thousands of arrows and bolts per week. They’re simple enough to make using bamboo or cast iron, but if I want to scale manufacturing up to supply weapons and ammunition to the entire Imperial Army, then I’ll need more help than even Yuzhen can provide.

 

For one, even if I had an infinite number of crossbows and bolts, how do I convince an Empire of close-combat purists to put aside their preconceptions and take up a ranged weapon?

 

I can’t. I literally can’t. I’m working my ass off out here killing more Defiled with fewer losses than anyone else, yet no one will accept the real reason for my success. I say “Crossbows,” and they all think I’m holding out. It’s gotta be hidden Experts in my ranks (which is admittedly true), or the higher quality of my troops (again, also true, but it only goes so far), or some other asinine theory like the Divine Turtle racking up all the kills (which I wish was true, but neither Ping Ping nor Pong Pong have contributed to the war effort and instead spend their days in the lap of luxury devouring inordinate amounts of shrimp). This means I’ve yet to sell a single crossbow to the military, and even Fung, BoShui, and Zian won’t buy them. In their eyes, ranged weapons are for peasant hunters and nothing more, an Empire-wide symbol of weakness and poverty. How am I supposed to overcome prejudice when even cold hard facts and incredible results fail to sway their minds?

 

Sometimes, I feel like the Empire deserves to die, but the Defiled are far, far worse, so it’s not much of a choice.

 

Why bother? I should let everything burn to clear out the choking undergrowth, reset the world, and be there to plant the seeds of renewal in the aftermath.

 

 

Tch. Fucking Spectres. They’re real tricky bastards and only get trickier with time and numbers, but I’ve no choice but to leave them to stew in the void. I ran out of Spiritual Water three days into this patrol, so I have to wait until my next bath at Sinuji to make more. I’m also collecting more Spectres with every patrol, not just because I’m getting better at it, but also because more Spectres are showing up and bringing more Defiled, more Champions, more twisted Spiritual Weapons, and more duels. I don’t know how much longer I can keep at it, but such is life.

 

Hongji, I thought we were cool man. Why won’t you give me a break? Do you think I enjoy this? Okay, I kinda do and the Heavenly Energy is great, but still. I need a vacation.

 

And from the looks of things, I’m not the only one. There are no cheers or celebrations for our overwhelming victory, and instead my people go about their business with cold indifference and weary disregard. Piles of burning corpses which would have once inspired and uplifted are now part and parcel of their daily routine, retreating away from the oily smoke to eat, drink, and rest while they can. Overall, morale is more ragged than our uniforms, which says a lot considering Guan Suo hasn’t changed his clothes in weeks and is still one of the better dressed individuals of my retinue.

 

I can see why the Protectorate dress so shabbily now. No point wearing nice things if it all gets torn to shit, and with armour in short supply, getting replacement gear isn’t merely a matter of doling out coin.

 

Tattered gear, lost comrades, and extended battles all take a toll on morale, but the Spectres’ influence is the greatest contributing factor to the retinue’s poor mood. Though I’m here to vacuum all the bad ghosts away, once the Spectres place a thought in someone’s mind, I’m powerless to remove it. Their influence is easy to spot once you know what to look for, most common of which is the thousand-kilometre stare. The afflicted sit there amidst their squads and units, a part of the group yet mentally alone, gazing off into the distance with wide, unblinking eyes as they contemplate whatever lies the Spectre told them. Lang Er is the worst off, almost wholly reliant on his brother to do anything outside of battle including eat and drink. Left alone, I’m pretty sure he’d soil himself and starve to death, but maybe I’m being overly dramatic.

 

The other signs are less obvious, but still difficult to deal with. It’s mostly minor issues like A-Gui purposely inciting jealousy amongst her many suitors, Jinoe’s increasingly macabre humour, Awdar’s growing drug problem, and Ravil’s fetish for punishing infractions. Then there’s the more-serious-but-also-not-so-obvious signs of Spectres, like Dastan’s wild desperation to prove himself, Ulfsaar’s barely restrained rage, and Neera’s growing gloominess at being unable to help him. Even without the Spectres constantly reinforcing these behaviours, my people still embark down the self-destructive paths laid out before them and there’s little I can do to stop it.

 

That’s the trickiest thing about Spectres. All they do is provide the rope and leave us to hang ourselves with it.

 

It takes two hours to tally the dead, clear the battlefield, cremate our fallen comrades, and gather enough strength to get back underway. There are still many hours of travel before we’re done for the day, but we’re close to the finish line. By this time tomorrow, we’ll be back in Sinuji for a week of rest and relaxation, aside from the odd Defiled war-band or two. I’ll give Hongji a day or two to redeem himself, but if Colonel Braid-Beard doesn’t schedule my people for a break, then rank be damned, because I’m gonna march into his tent and make him eat his stupid poems.

 

Assuming I can convince Gang Shu to come with. Still not sure how strong the Colonel is, but considering he outranks Lei Gong, I doubt he’s a pushover.

 

A few blessedly uneventful hours later, Chey rides back from scouting duty and offers a military salute, which does wonderful things to her voluptuous bosom. She’s one of my best and most resilient officers, so I should probably stop treating her like eye candy, but it’s difficult being celibate again. Nose wrinkled in a fetching scowl, she pats her quin and reports, “Spotted a herd of cattle east of here, least three hundred heads total. Looks to be a mix o’ domestic and wild types, all gathered fer protection. They sittin’ real purdy between us and Sinuji, grazin’ and lazin’ about.”

 

Fun. I’ve always thought cows were cute, but they’re too delicious to make friends with. “Alright then. Carry on Scout Leader.” I wonder what’s the bounty on three-hundred cows? We’ve brought back sheep, pigs, chickens, and horses, but no cows. Seems weird though. We’re only a day away from Sinuji, so how have so many cattle gone unnoticed for so long?

 

“Er, boss?” Still riding alongside Zabu and I, Chey appears reluctant to speak. “You want us to keep on keepin’? Head right on up without so much as a how d’ya do?”

 

Charming as her lovely appearance and folksy vernacular might be, I’m a little confused by her hesitation, not to mention why she thought this information important enough to deliver it herself. Having learned from my (many) mistakes, I ask, “Is there something I’m missing here? Speak freely.”

 

My request is met with a fetching smile as the tension melts from Chey’s shoulders, which somehow makes her bosom all the more appealing. “Two pieces of advice?” Chey waits for my nod before continuing. “First off, ye keep starin’ at me tits and yer eyes are liable to pop out.” Her grin as wide as my cheeks are red, Chey winks and continues, “Now, I don’t mind ye givin’ the girls a gander now and then, but I ain’t about to be responsible fer blindin’ the number one talent in the Empire.”

 

A chorus of chuckles sound out and I can already hear my retinue spreading the story, but there’s nothing I can do besides accept it and move on. “Noted. Intermittent ganders to preserve eyesight. Good advice. Next?”

 

Brightening at how well I took her teasing, Chey’s tail wags at a mile a minute. “See,” she drawls, “Back in Sanshu, there was an order to things, a hierarchy of sorts. The easiest and safest meal ticket was to visit the fisherfolk. They lived close to the waters and the lake leaves no tracks fer guards to follow. Real safe.”

 

I don’t understand what robbing hardworking peasants has to do with anything, but whatever. “Okay?”

 

“Next on the list was farmers, fer rice, wheat, cabbage and whatnot. Couldn’t take much with us when we left, but they was easy pickings.”

 

“Is there a point to all this?”

 

“I’m getting there.” Straightening her back in an overt invitation to gander, Chey resumes her lesson on soft targets for bandits. “Now, times were we’d hit a caravan or two and slink off into the wilderness, but after the Council started buying bandits, those became off limits. So, the Freebooters turned to raidin’ further inland, hittin’ sheep herders, pig wranglers, and even horse ranchers, but ye know who we always left alone?” Without waiting for an answer, Chey supplies it for me, which is good because I wasn’t sure which colloquialism to use. “The cattle-hands. You don’t ever mess with a herd of cattle on their own territory, ‘less you lookin’ to get yer skull caved in.”

 

“Hm… I see.” The pieces fall into place and I ask, “Is that why these cows are still around? Everyone’s avoiding them?”

 

“Can’t say fer certain, but I’d wager sweet Squishy here on it.” It takes a moment to realize she’s talking about her quin and not, as I’d first assumed, one of her boobs.

 

After thinking things through, I nod and say, “Bring us around the herd, Scout Leader Chey. I’ll approach the cattle when you’re all safely away and see if they’re willing to follow us home.” Frowning in disapproval, Chey shrugs, salutes, and rides off while I ponder how best to approach the herd. Truth is, even with Chey’s long-winded warning, I’m not too worried about dealing with cattle. I mean, they’re cows. Giant, walking steaks with horns and hooves. I’ve tamed bears, wildcats, a flock of Laughing Birds, and two Divine Turtles, so I think I can handle a couple cud-chewing cattle.

 

Then again… If things do go wrong, do I really want to be the Number One Talent in the Empire who died to a cow?

 

Chapter Meme 1

Chapter Meme 2

 

Chapter 420

 

With his head held high and banner fluttering behind him, Mitsue Hideo rode into camp at the head of his retinue. Ten days ago, he set out with a hundred armoured cavalrymen bearing no less than thirty one Spiritual Weapons. Today, he returned with seventy-three and twenty-eight after securing nine-hundred and thirty-three Defiled kills. A magnificent accomplishment, one soon to be discussed in taverns across the Empire, with his name spoken by every tongue in the land.

 

As it should be.

 

Damn the cursed moron who came up with the idea to use a floating stage for the Imperial Grand Conference. Were it not for this glaring disadvantage, he would’ve never lost to that smug, northern hick Dastan. Defeated by a lowly slave, this shame would follow Hideo for years to come, but what burned the most was seeing his rightful rewards go to the savage, Falling Rain. The beautiful Zheng Luo, the Imperial Peerage, and title of Number One Talent in the Empire belonged to Mitsu Hideo, Great Nephew and Disciple of Mitsue Juichi. With his exemplary skills, he would have made short work of his opponents on solid ground, whether it be slave Dastan, those half-breed mongrels Wu Gam and Du Min Yan, or even Falling Rain himself.

 

So what if they had Awakenings? So what if that bitch could use Chi externally? So what if the savages had Divine Blacksmiths and Runic Craftsmen? All this paled before Hideo’s Mountain Collapsing Stomp.

 

Things wouldn’t be so bad if he had won the Legate’s Contest, but sadly Hideo came in second to a damned peasant, Yong-Jin. With his twin-maces in hand, none of Hideo’s remaining opponents were a match for him, but sadly strength of arms was merely one aspect of the Contest, the others being intelligence, acuity, and leadership abilities. Even then, Hideo defeated his opponents time and time again in each successive challenge, but they were all too feeble-minded and dull-witted for him to display his true skills, which led to the damned street-urchin scoring higher. Preposterous is what it was, absolutely preposterous.

 

Thus, Hideo had no choice but to prove to the Empire what he already knew, that he was superior to those serfs and mongrels, starting with Falling Rain. Defeat him, and all his achievements would bolster Hideo’s own reputation, so he set forth to surpass the piss-eyed savage’s accomplishments. The task was proving more difficult than expected considering he only had command of a hundred soldiers to Rain’s thousand, but he was confident he would soon succeed.

 

Upon arriving at his campground, Hideo discovered his reinforcements were nowhere to be found with Father waiting in their place. Rather than speak, Father handed him a missive which Hideo recognized as a copied letter addressed to Falling Rain. They’d been monitoring the savage’s communications hoping to uncover his secrets, martial or mercantile alike, but the tribesman was a wily one. The brightest scholars under Father’s employ couldn’t crack his code and had no idea what he was talking about when he mentioned ‘Pong Pong’ or ‘Shrimp’ or a myriad of other confusing terms. Some thought it was a request for armour or reinforcements, but weeks passed and still the Bekhai sent nothing. Father’s people then theorized the words themselves had no meaning, and the true message was hidden within the barely legible scrawls, but it was all outside of Hideo’s purview.

 

Though he didn’t expect much, Hideo opened the missive wishing it were the original instead, so he might see the letters written by Zheng Luo’s beautiful hand and smell her scent upon it. Her charm, her grace, her beauty, it was a travesty for such a woman to be wasted on an undeserving primitive, but Hideo would defeat the savage runt and rescue Zheng Luo from her terrible plight. How wonderful it would be to hold her in his arms and gaze into her eyes, to hear her lyrical poetry or soothing melodies, to taste her lips and more beneath the moonlit Central skies…

 

After reading through the letter twice, Hideo raised in head and said, “I don’t understand Father. What’s so important about this?”

 

“We’ve misjudged him,” Father said with regret in his eyes. “He is not the man we thought him to be.”

 

“What do you mean?”

 

“The answer lies before you, you only need open your eyes and accept it.”

 

“…Preposterous.” Hideo tossed the letter away in disgust, unsure how Father could believe these childish lies. “So his ‘wives’ know he can return any time he likes. What does it matter? He’ll come up with another lie to stay behind. He’s already spent sixty consecutive days on the front lines and gone on three patrols, a formidable feat but not without cost.” Oh the cost. After four weeks of nonstop fighting, Hideo knew all too well the horrors of war. “The Bekhai can not or will not reinforce him and his retinue dwindles with each passing week, but still he remains, because he knows I am this close to surpassing his accomplishments.”

 

With a tired sigh, Father reached out and cupped Hideo’s cheek, and despite his best efforts, he almost collapsed into his father’s arms. The last four weeks had been difficult, but it would be worth it once he trampled over that damned savage. “Son,” Father said, his hand warm and voice consoling, “Falling Rain brought his retinue away on indefinite leave two hours ago.” Shaking his head, he added, “The little savage even tamed the massive cattle herd giving our patrols so much trouble. Had the entire camp in a panic thinking they were coming to stampede through the lines. Worse, there weren’t any cattle-hands capable enough to handle them, so Colonel Hongji gifted the entire herd to the savage. Good riddance I say. Let the peasant play with his cows and turtles.”

 

“…Preposterous!” Retrieving the letter from the ground, Hideo scanned through it once more, searching for hidden meaning within. “This is merely an excuse. The arrogant bastard couldn’t handle it anymore and is running home. It must be a trick. He means to make me lower my guard and play me for the fool.”

 

“Son…” Gently taking the letter away, Father embraced Hideo in a rare show of affection. “Your plan to eclipse his achievements was a good one, except the savage cares nothing for honour or glory. Think back to his other letters and you will see him for what he truly is, an idiot with more luck than good sense. There is no benefit to continuing here, and Father fears the cost too high for you to bear. We’ll speak with Uncle Juichi and find another way, but for now, come home and rest. Your mother yearns to see your face again.”

 

“No, I can’t leave now, not when I’m so close.” Pushing Father away, Hideo set to pacing about in thought. “The savage is gone now, so I will over-take him. Six weeks? Eight, ten, I’ll stay until every citizen in the Empire knows Mistue Hideo stands above all others, the true Number One Talent in the Empire.”

 

And if he can’t, then he would slaughter the Bekhai to the last.

 

“Son –”

 

“Time is of the essence. I must strike while the iron is hot.” Speaking over Father’s protests, Hideo demanded, “Bring me a fresh retinue. I’ll speak with Colonel Hongji and secure a place on the coming patrol. It’s perfect, even if the soldiers are different, the commander remains the same, and no one has ever gone on two consecutive patrols. I’ll –”

 

“No.” Father’s refusal stopped Hideo in his tracks, for he could hardly believe his ears. “This obsession has consumed you,” Father said, shaking his head in stern disapproval. “I’ve let this go on too long. Come home son, else you risk losing Balance or worse.”

 

And thus, Father’s true fears became apparent. “You think me inferior to a tribal savage?” Hideo asked, disbelief turning to anger as Father kept silent. “You think I, Mitsu Hideo, cannot match a mere Falling Rain? Preposterous!” Neck throbbing and spittle flying, Hideo stomped his foot to vent his anger and set the world around them to shaking. Horses screamed and soldiers shouted, but Hideo ignored the fuss and advanced on Father, screaming, “I will defeat him and prove my superiority! You cannot stop me!” Raising his foot for a second stomp, Hideo intended to show Father how strong he’d become.

 

Kill him and you inherit everything. No one but Mentor to tell you what to do, and he’s always supported your decisions.

 

The thought made Hideo hesitate for the briefest of moments, but he steeled his resolve and followed through. Time slowed as his foot crashed down, his Chi pulsing and ready to sunder earth and flesh alike.

 

“I’m sorry Son.” With those words, Father disappeared from Hideo’s sight and the world went dark as he collapsed into quiet slumber.

 

So many mistakes, so many failures. How was Hideo ever to recover what was rightfully his?

 

If only he were stronger. Stronger than Father, stronger than Mentor, stronger than the Emperor Himself.

 

Only then would he recoup his losses and redeem his failures.

 

He would trade anything for this strength.

 

Anything.

 

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

 

With two sharp pats on her rough, wrinkly skin, Dienne requested Ehani lift her foot for inspection and the large girl happily complied. Though he found no injuries, he noted her toenails were too long and at risk of cracking, a dire injury for a creature as large and heavy as she. Placing a sturdy footstool beneath the ponderous pad, he respectfully presented his nail file to Ehani so she knew what to expect. In a mischievous mood, her long, serpentine nose snatched the file out of Dienne’s hand and held it up high so he couldn’t retrieve it. Though he’d happily play along if they were at home or in a secluded area, privacy was lacking here on the front lines of Sinuji. “Please, little ancestor,” he implored, scratching Ehani’s chin to appease her. “Small one cannot play here, for appearances must be kept.”

 

As the Number One Talent of the South, he could hardly allow himself to be seen leaping about and being played for a fool by an elephant, no matter how much he enjoyed their games.

 

Trumpeting what he interpreted as a snort, Ehani returned the file with a huff and refused his offering of dried mangoes, quite literally turning her nose up at the sweet treat. Resisting the urge to bow and scrape to appease the dramatic beast, he set to filing her nails and hoped her anger would soon pass. The old girl was senior even to Dienne’s great grandfather, so should he lose her support, then Father’s tenuous hold over the clan would slip even further. A loyal creature which had formed a Spiritual Heart was not unheard of, but few were as powerful and capable as Ehani. Strong, intelligent, and an Expert in her own right, the Queyen clan called her their little ancestor because every rider she bonded with had gone on to become Patriarch.

 

Keeping his voice low, Dienne said, “Little ancestor, small one knows these past weeks have been difficult and you desire rest, but he still requires your aid. Small one lacks the prodigious talents of his peers and his fighting style is not suitable for duels, so warfare is the only area where his expertise might shine. If small one cannot make great accomplishments here and now, then he will forever be stuck in Falling Rain’s shadow.”

 

Though Ehani didn’t understand everything he said, she read his tone well enough. Flapping her large, leathery ears, she glanced at him as if to say, “Hmph. A mere runt with a giant turtle thinks he can outdo us on the battlefield? A frog stuck in a well.”

 

Or perhaps she regretted turning down the dried mango. Even after twenty plus years, Dienne still wasn’t entirely sure what went on in Ehani’s mind.

 

Just as Dienne finished filing Ehani’s last toenail, Akopa returned from his task. “Blood Ward, it has been confirmed. Falling Rain marches for SuiHua.” Needing time to think things through, Dienne offered Ehani the dried mangoes again and she accepted them with grace and aplomb, eating one piece at a time and chewing thoroughly to enjoy the taste.

 

Still uncertain after considering all the information at hand, Dienne fed Ehani the last piece of dried mango before addressing Akopa. “Your thoughts?”

 

“Falling Rain has proven himself unworthy of consideration.” Never one to mince words, Akopa launched into a scathing condemnation. “What we believed to be a lie has now been proven truth. The beardless runt fought for sixty days because he was unaware of proper procedure. A child playing games of war while adults who should know better leave him to run free.” His voice heavy with scorn, Akopa continued, “His exploits speak for themselves and his low casualty rate is admirable, but to recklessly persist without understanding the consequences… He is no leader of men. A true leader would have seen his soldiers’ plight and known he risked losing them to madness. How many soldiers will Falling Rain be forced to cull, driven mad with anger and hatred thanks to their extended excursions? Or worse, what if some Tainted go unnoticed and they escape to spread the Enemy’s infection? If such a calamity were to occur, then Falling Rain would have brought disaster to the Bekhai, and perhaps even to the Empire itself.”

 

“Enough,” Dienne said, inwardly rolling his eyes. “A little heavy handed with the rhetoric, but I understand your meaning. You think me overly ambitious to remain here?”

 

“Small one dare not criticize,” Akopa replied, though his tone was far from deferential and almost a little mocking in its monotone. “Though now that Blood Ward mentions it, small one notes many parallels. Truly, Blood Ward is brilliant to have seen so.”

 

A tad flippant, but the man had earned the right to it. First among a thousand of his peers, Akopa was Dienne’s Khadga, a sword to be wielded in the battle against the Defiled and his most trusted confidante. They both knew he was the stronger and more talented warrior, but Akopa forfeited so Dienne could advance, surrendering before he could order the Oath-sworn warrior to do his best. A distressing state of affairs, for perhaps Akopa could have defeated Falling Rain on stage and won great glory for the South, but sadly, there was no cure for regret.

 

Still unconvinced, Dienne sighed once more. “A strange matter comes to mind, one I cannot comprehend for the life of me. Falling Rain fought the Defiled at Sanshu, but before, he took part in a Purge. He experienced the hidden dangers of the Enemy firsthand and saw the extreme consequences which go with them, so how could he be ignorant of the ramifications of his actions here?” Shaking his head, Dienne muttered, “Contradictions within contradictions. Though a woman and half-beast, surely Akanai is competent enough to see the inherent danger, yet she sends no support or reinforcements, not even advice or a request for updates. Such freedom is unheard of for a talent such as he, yet Nian Zu and Baatar also leave Falling Rain to his own devices, while I’ve already ignored three of Father’s letters. Either all three highly-ranked Northern officers are gravely incompetent or there is a factor in play which we do not understand.”

 

Dienne had no proof, but he suspected it had something to do with Sanshu. More than a year had passed since the Defiled rebellion, yet there was still no sign of a resurgence of Enemy influence. How could it be possible? Most of the Empire expected Sanshu would have been razed to the ground, and for good reason. The Father’s Taint was dark and insidious, a malignant disease lurking in the hearts of humanity, yet against all odds, Sanshu emerged uninfected after the most disastrous Defiled outbreak in recent history. As ridiculous as the thought might be, could this also have something to do with Falling Rain?

 

Goujian certainly seemed to think so.

 

Depending on who you asked, Goujian was the Mother’s Sanguinary Priest or the Emperor’s Mad Dog, but whatever his reputation, few would have doubted the Confessor’s loyalty. Then, five weeks ago, the deranged lunatic dispatched countless missives to the nobles of the Empire declaring Falling Rain, the Legate, and the Emperor himself were the true Enemy and that he’d joined forces with the ‘Chosen’ to overthrow the ‘dog Emperor’ and his ‘unholy heathen lackeys’. Madness is what it was, but for Goujian to turn against the Empire… well, these were dark times indeed.

 

Dienne put no stock in the turn-coat torturer’s claims, though he disagreed with the Legate’s response. By issuing an Imperial Edict commanding the letters be destroyed and never spoken of again, the Legate lent credence to the rumours, laughable though they might be. Falling Rain was no Defiled in disguise, for if he were, he would not have the allegiance of so many creatures. Most wild beasts of the Empire harboured a natural aversion to the Enemy and all its agents, an instinctive hostility borne of self-preservation, especially more powerful creatures like the Divine Turtle. That’s what made the Arid Wastes so impenetrable to the Defiled, for even if they could withstand the difficult terrain and inhospitable clime, those deadly beasts lurking within would not react kindly to Enemy intrusion. It’s also how the Queyen Clan dealt with their suspected Tainted, by giving them a choice: either banishment to the Arid Wastes or be brought before Ehani and judged. How accurate she might be was up for debate, but history proved few Defiled willingly allowed themselves to be brought before the little ancestor, while none ever survived the Arid Wastes.

 

Then again, in all her years, Ehani had only ever spared one life, a child not even three years of age, so perhaps the innocent would be right to refuse her judgment and test their luck.

 

After four weeks of constant fighting, Dienne had difficulty keeping his mind focused. How might a lesser man fare? In the end, this thought more than anything helped him reach a decision, for he had yet to make heads or tails of the mysteries surrounding Falling Rain. “Send word to Colonel Hongji and request a leave of absence.”

 

“By your will, Blood Ward.”

 

The order given, Dienne felt the weight of the world lift off his shoulders. Allowing himself a small smile, he patted Ehani on the cheek and leaned against her, taking comfort in having made the correct decision. No need to compete with Falling Rain in time spent on the front lines, for only the Enemy would profit from this asinine contest. Better to take a step back for the sake of physical and mental well-being, lest he lose his mind and run off to join the ‘Chosen’.

 

Whether they be Chosen or Defiled, let them come. Queyen Dienne would gladly teach them the meaning of regret, for he was a true son the Empire and Defender of its people.

 

Chapter Meme

 

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Savage Divinity – Chapter 418


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


 

Though not the most intimidating savage Rustram had ever seen, the Defiled Champion came close. Standing head and shoulders above his comrades, his arms, shoulders, and chest bulged with thick, discoloured muscles, so swollen with tissue he could barely stand upright. In spite of this, it wasn’t his sheer size which daunted Rustram so, nor was it how the Champion paced before his Defiled brethren, more wild, ferocious beast than civilized being. His (disturbingly slim) legs kicked out to accentuate his speech, shouted in his guttural tongue, with each step raising his knees higher than his waist in jerky, exaggerated stomps. His oversized arms pumped in random intervals, much to the delight of his audience, and the jarring, spasmodic movements seemed so unnatural and inhuman, Rustram thought the Defiled Champion had no control of his limbs until he noted the rhythm between the speech and movements were perfectly coordinated.

 

Upon further study, he realized he was watching something akin to a ritualized dance, with many Defiled in the crowd following suit. Each exaggerated motion carried an unknown meaning, a cleaving motion here or a stomping motion there, eyes wide and spittle flying as he glared across the open field at Phoenix Squad with boundless hatred and lust for violence. Add to this his human-leather mask adorned with hanging ears, grotesque body festooned with bizarre, bone piercings, and towering great-sword hewn from polished bone, and the Defiled Champion had Rustram thoroughly unnerved.

 

And when the Enemy Horde fell silent and the Champion pointed directly at him, Rustram became acutely aware of how full his bladder felt and miraculously kept it from draining out.

 

“It appears you’ve been challenged, Mister Rustram.”

 

Patronizing as always, Daxian stated the obvious as if worried no one else had seen it. Choking down the urge to throttle the man, Rustram quietly exhaled and prayed his voice wouldn’t break. “Yes, thank you,” he replied, his tone calm and dry as if his heart wasn’t on the verge of hammering out of his chest. “I didn’t notice.” This would not only be his first duel since coming to the front lines, but also his first duel ever. Thus far, the Enemy Champions had a tendency to overlook him in favour of the others like Ulfsaar, Wang Bao, or even lazy Silva who did everything he could to remain unseen, but it seems Rustram’s luck had just run out.

 

“Your challenger has an Aura.” Daxian almost sounded gleeful, but Rustram attributed it to his imagination and instead focused on the disastrous news. While possession of an Aura said nothing about the Champion’s actual strength, it guaranteed he wouldn’t be weak. “A Defiled Weapon too.”

 

More bad news. “How can you tell?” The voice was his but Rustram felt as if the words were spoken by a stranger, tinged with bored curiosity rather than gut-wrenching terror.

 

“Well, I can’t be entirely sure at this distance, but it’s a fair assumption.” Rustram almost screamed in frustration but luckily Daxian kept speaking. “The Defiled aren’t exactly known for their craftsmanship, which makes that great-sword a masterwork by their standards.” And only by their standards. The bone sword might’ve once been pearly white, but time and handling had turned it mostly yellow with splotches of dark, mottled reddish-brown, stained by age and the blood of countless victims. Otherwise, it did seem rather well crafted, not to the standards of a Divine Blacksmith, but if the weapon were made of metal, it’d fit right in on the shelves of an Imperial Armoury.

 

In an unusually chatty mood (perhaps due to Rustram’s impending doom), Daxian continued, “There’s no definitive proof aside from recorded observations, but the Defiled Weapons likely imbue their wielders with enhanced skill, strength, and cunning. Most have barbed spikes on their grips, leading scholars to theorize the weapons require the blood of their wielders to function, though why, no one can definitively say. The prevailing theory is that the Defiled Weapons are more analogous to Spiritual Hearts rather than Spiritual Weapons, an almost living object which changes and grows given time. The barbs are to physically bind the weapon to its wielder, which is why any Defiled can simply pick up the weapon and use it. Fascinating stuff.”

 

None of which was of any help to Rustram in his current situation. “Yes, fascinating.” If not for the massive discrepancy between their strengths, he would’ve told the former Major to shove his spear up his ass and choke on it.

 

Perhaps reading Rustram’s lack of action as fear, Pran leaned in and quietly asked, “I kill Champion, yes?”

 

“Hmph.” The Khishig helm obscured Wang Bao’s face from Rustram’s view, but he could hear the sneer in the former bandit’s faked, nasally voice. “This wastrel lacks the qualifications to face our second-in-command. Mister Rustram, requesting permission to bring his head back and transfix it to a spike.” His articulation and vocabulary were much improved, but underneath the trappings, Wang Bao was still the same cutthroat raider he’d always been.

 

Rustram appreciated the sentiment, but he still couldn’t quite bring himself to like the man.

 

“Twenty moves,” Wang Bao continued, hefting his double-bladed battle-axe high. “If I can’t take his head in twenty moves, then I’ll eat my boots. Anyone care to raise the stakes?”

 

“Twenty?” Joining in on the fun, Saluk kissed his spiked maul and declared, “Fifteen, but I no bring head. Smush good.”

 

“Eight,” Ulfsaar growled, and the banter came to a halt. Weeks of non-stop battles had taken a mental toll on the fearsome half-bear as he was forced to embrace his darker side amidst all the battle and bloodshed. He spoke little and smiled less despite Neera’s best efforts to bring him happiness and good cheer, as if bloodshed was the only thing which could bring him joy. With each passing day, Rustram watched him slip further into his Voracious persona and feared the pious, gentle giant might never return. Him taking part in this wager gave Rustram some hope, but there was precious little besides fury and madness lurking behind Ulfsaar’s penetrating gaze.

 

“Five.” Ravil’s confident declaration silenced the other eager contenders and even Ulfsaar looked taken aback. The dark-skinned killer’s grin unsettled friend and foe alike as he surveyed the crowd, asking, “Any takers?”

 

Gratified as Rustram was by their willingness to fight in his place, he couldn’t let this continue. Phoenix squad was so named because it held most of the ‘reborn’ members of the retinue, the worst of the marauders, killers, and blackguards the Boss took in after Sanshu (and Ravil). While they’d all come a long way since, much like Wang Bao, they were still bandits at heart and Rustram would lose their respect if he backed down from this challenge.

 

More importantly, if Mentor found out he’d shirked a challenge, she’d tan his hide with an iron paddle. Early on, he discovered her difficulties walking had no effect on her prodigious arm strength, much to his chagrin.

 

“Gentlemen,” Rustram said, adjusting his too-heavy training armour which would provide no protection against a Defiled Weapon. He had no choice but to wear it into battle, since after a close shave two days past, his Sentinel leathers couldn’t block a breeze. At least he’d grown somewhat accustomed to the weight and could more or less move unhindered, a miracle of hard work and persistence. “I believe I was picked as his dance partner, so I’ll thank you all to step aside.” A few soldiers chuckled, Wang Bao and Ulfsaar nodded approvingly, and Pran and Saluk traded worried glances, but it was too late to back out now. Accepting a reassuring (or farewell) pat on the shoulder from Ravil, he marched across the open field with head high and rapier drawn.

 

“Try not to die,” Daxian Sent. “It’s a lot to ask, but try.”

 

One of these days…

 

Stopping twenty paces away, Rustram raised his sword, kissed the pommel, and whispered his catechism. “I am the sword, and the sword is Death.” The Defiled Champion roared and his cronies roared with him, but Rustram tuned out the crowd and took his stance, his feet perpendicular and touching at the heels while his sword tip rested in the grass. A relaxed, open stance, cavalier or even arrogant some might say, but Mentor approved wholeheartedly. Neither offensive nor defensive, the stance gave him free range of choice for his opening move, whether it be attack, defend, dodge, or parry. “Do not react.” Mentor’s voice sounded in Rustram’s mind, repeating her oft spoken advice. “Anticipate your opponent’s moves, devise a plan, and act accordingly.”

 

Rustram took a deep breath and emptied his mind of fear and frustration, leaving one portion of his mind ready and waiting while another portion withdrew to contemplate the battle ahead.

 

You studied your opponent. How will he attack? He favours one-handed chops and forward kicks, so he’s likely to open with one or the other. The blade has range and lets him close the distance safely, so chop first. Then kick if his opponent slips too close, a far less intimidating prospect considering his skinny legs. Still, best not to underestimate an opponent. Block the chop, sidestep the kick, and then what? No, more effective to lower your stance and divert the chop overhead, then he won’t be in position to kick. Economy of action. Now, his body is turned and his sides laid bare. A punch to buy time to disengage your sword, then a step back and a boot to the knee exposes him to a decapitating strike.

 

Even as the Champion raised his great-sword for the opening strike, a part of Rustram’s mind continued his calculations, making plans within plans for every possible scenario. The Champion slashed down aiming to cleave him from left shoulder to right hip. His rapier rose to meet the attack, its pommel meeting the great-sword’s tip to afford him maximum leverage and control. The great-sword clipped his right shoulder and its wielder stumbled from the minor impact, expecting either a solid strike or complete miss rather than the jarring, partial connection. Taking advantage of the vulnerable flank, Rustram’s knife-hand drove into his opponent’s kidney, his fingers groaning at the harsh treatment even as his opponent arched back and roared in pain. Stopped for less than a heartbeat, the Champion shoulder-rushed Rustram, but this was well within expectations. Sidestepping the attack, Rustram kicked out and was rewarded with a satisfying crack as he connected with the side of his opponent’s knee, stopping the Champion in place and putting an end to his horizontal cleave. Then, with a wave of his arm and a flick of his wrist, Rustram decapitated the Champion and flourished his sword, cleaning the blood off his blade in a single, uninterrupted motion.

 

And thus, Rustram’s first duel went almost exactly as he’d envisioned it.

 

His rapier slammed home in its sheathe a full second before the corpse thudded into the grass beside him, and Rustram faced the silent horde with feigned disinterest. Inwardly he was trying his best not to throw up while his shoulder throbbed in agony, having put the sword away for fear of dropping it. He could feel the bruised flesh swell and picture its discoloration, but at least it was all still there and easily treated with Panacea. A sliver of his weighted armour had been sheared off in the opening exchange, a minor miscalculation on his part as he forgot to account for its extra bulk when diverting the great-sword. Had he been wearing his leathers, the weapon would have missed him entirely, but it ended up working in his favour since the Defiled Champion wouldn’t have stumbled if not for that minor nick.

 

Talent was nice and hard work was better, but if Rustram had a choice, he’d pick luck every single time.

 

Long seconds later, Phoenix Squad overcame their surprise and erupted into cheers, their spirits emboldened by his crushing victory. Perhaps only Daxian and a few others understood how close the duel had been, for if Rustram had moved even a hair slower or been a touch weaker, then he would be the one lying dead in the grass. If not for Mentor explaining how to take control of the battlefield, Li Song teaching him about leverage and control, or the Boss insisting his soldiers toughen their bones, Rustram would’ve died today, which meant he had much to be thankful for, but that could all wait.

 

Rustram wanted to raise his head and howl at the Heavens to celebrate his accomplishment, for he just realized he had defeated the Defiled Champion in exactly four moves, handily beating Ravil’s wager of five.

 

But his work was not yet finished.

 

Seeing no new challengers stepping forth from the Defiled horde, Rustram raised his left hand and signalled the attack. Howling in murderous glee, Wang Bao’s cutthroats rushed passed and crashed into the waiting Horde. Savage Defiled met reformed Butchers and the Butchers proved superior, parting flesh and cleaving bone with ruthless, practised competence. Were it not for their dark Sentinel leathers or the Enemy’s greasy, sun-dried skin and human-leather head-wraps, Rustram would be hard pressed to tell Imperial soldier from Defiled savage.

 

A prospect which left him with many sleepless nights…

 

Soon after the first clash, Ulfsaar’s lumbering marauders entered the fray and the battle devolved into a slaughter. Neera, Pran, Saluk, and Ulfsaar himself smashed open the Enemy lines, clearing great swathes of Defiled with every swing of their oversized weapons. Wang Bao’s cutthroats were quick to take advantage of those gaps, like wily wolves working alongside bullish behemoths to divide and conquer the sizable Defiled Horde, rending and crushing their opponents into shapeless chunks of meat. Dastan’s heavy cavalry was unstoppable in the right conditions, and the steel plate and iron discipline of the Death Corps were indeed impressive, but Rustram wholeheartedly believed Phoenix Squad was home to the most dangerous warriors of Falling Rain’s retinue.

 

Shadows emerged from the grass behind the Horde and Rustram knew the slaughter would soon become a massacre. Standing atop his quin, Ravil and his mounted scouts were joined by Chey’s unit and the Protectorate, the full strength of Turtle Squad led by the oddly alluring Sai Chou. Longbows and crossbows sang and loosed their missiles, delivering piercing waves of death into the unprotected backs of the Defiled. A tried and true combination, it was one which worked best with the Death Corps holding the line, but after two months of cooperative efforts, Phoenix Squad learned not to charge too deep while the archers learned not to press their luck.

 

His shoulder finally recovered, Rustram ceased his posturing and joined the fray, slipping through the battle-line like a waitress in a crowded bar. Wherever he went, his rapier darted between combatants and pierced throats, hearts, knees, or elbows. He’d learned early on that not every blow needed to be a killing one because he had comrades to pick up the slack. Long, drawn out trades between two battling individuals were too inefficient and a poor expenditure of stamina, so it was better to lend an unobtrusive hand and decide the match forthwith to free his comrade for another bout. With his added efforts, Phoenix Squad slowly advanced into the Defiled Horde, and soon the song of twanging bows and whistling arrows came to an end.

 

Spelling doom for the Defiled once and for all.

 

Ravil and Chey didn’t lead their quins so much as set them loose on the Enemy’s back-line. Where Wang Bao’s cutthroats were wolfish in nature, the enraged roosequins made real wolves look like harmless puppies in comparison. High-pitched squeaks rang out as the roosequins tore into Defiled flesh in coordinated carnage, sounding disturbingly similar to their insistent squeaks of hunger. Rippling muscle shimmered beneath their thick, luxurious fur, wet with gore and viscera as they rent and tore to their animalistic hearts’ content, their gruesome behaviour wholly at odds with their usually adorable demeanour.

 

No matter how wild and savage the Defiled might be, they were no match for nature’s brutal fury, and the quin riders were almost unnecessary. They still put up a valiant effort and Chey in particular was well-suited for mounted combat. Crushing limbs and shattering bones with her thick, metal staff, the weapon came alive in her hands as it thrust this way and that, the force of every impact multiplied by a sharp rotation of Chey’s wrist at the moment before impact. Rustram had long since identified it as Wolf Form – Twisting Snap, but try as he might, he couldn’t replicate the technique. Much like Amplification, the timing and precision required was beyond his ability. Rotate too soon and your efforts were wasted, while too late and the attack will have already landed; yet time and time again, Chey landed her powerful drilling thrusts with inhuman perfection.

 

If she could grasp the timing of Amplification and combine it with Twisting Snap, then she’d have an attack rivalling the Boss’s signature charge in raw power, except Chey could unleash her attack in rapid succession.

 

The wave of roosequins passed through like a storm, and then came the Protectorate’s turn. Though the longbow was their weapon of choice, the collection of shabby rangers were no slouches in close combat, especially their fearsome leader Sai Chou. Unlike the majority of axe-wielders in the retinue, Sai Chou’s long-handled axe bore only a single edge, its wedged, rectangular head more wood-cutter’s tool rather than weapon of war. Regardless, the dishevelled warrior woman used it with expert efficiency, displaying a level of control which surpassed even Dastan. There were no overpowering strikes or reckless swings from Sai Chou, only calculated slashes and measured hacks as she used the bare minimum of strength to maximum effectiveness. Never still even for a moment, her delicate hands moved her axe in tight, flowing circles around her, her defence impenetrable and offence unstoppable. Unlike the perfumed pretenders of Central, Sai Chou revealed herself as a true Expert of the Empire, a hidden dragon who spent her time loitering in the forests of Ping Yao.

 

Fitting for the vice-leader of the Protectorate to be so strong, second only to a half-beast whose fists could displace Mother knows how many tonnes of water.

 

Before Rustram knew it, the last Defiled fell and the Enemy Horde had been slaughtered to a man. While Phoenix and Turtle Squad cleaned up the battlefield, Rustram stood to the side and awaited the final tally, dreading the losses no matter how great or small. Two more days would make sixty continuous days on the front lines without reinforcements, a record thus far unmatched, but it had come at significant cost. Mitsue Hideo and Quyen Dienne were close in overall time spent, but the former had three retinues to rotate through while the latter commanded an entire force of rhino or elephant mounted cavalry, a term which hardly seemed appropriate. While the repeated battles had honed the Boss’s retinue into an elite fighting force, a blade too sharp was liable to bend or break.

 

Still… the glory almost made it worth it.

 

Almost.

 

Slick blood covered his face and training armour, too much for a mere handkerchief to ever sop up, but he still gave it his best effort. Not even the Boss bathed while out on patrol, so Rustram would have to wait two more days until they returned to Sinuji. A water-skin thumped into his chest which he caught by reflex. Nodding in appreciation at Sai Chou, he drank a small mouthful and offered it back, mostly just to be polite since he had his own water-skin strapped to his belt. “For yer face,” she said, lips pressed in a phantom of a smile. “We all know how ye like to keep pretty. Ser.”

 

Hmph. As if he were the only one who liked to stay clean, not to mention how a little water and grooming would do her wonders, but Rustram was too polite (and frightened) to say it. “Thank you,” he said, indicating she should take the water-skin back. “But we should conserve water wherever we can. Never know what might happen.”

 

“Bah.” Rolling her eyes in dismissive scorn, Sai Chou collected her gear and spit at her feet, a disgusting habit to be sure. “Plenty o’ water out here on the grasslands, else they wouldn’t be grasslands now would they, Ser?”

 

The brief pause every time right before she said ‘Ser’ irritated Rustram to no end, but he remained cordial and polite as usual. “You know the standing orders as well as I do. We do this to guard against tainted water supplies, but if you’ve issue with the orders, then you’re free to bring it up with the Boss.”

 

“Yea… about that.” So as not to be overheard, Sai Chou switched to Sending, though Rustram lacked the ability to respond in kind. “We been out here a long time. Too long, if ye know what I mean.” Gesturing at one of Wang Bao’s cutthroats who was using a Defiled corpse as a puppet to tell a joke, she added, “Yer people and mine are startin’ to crack. Hell, even the Death Corps don’t look too hot, so I figured it be time for a break, one we earned ten times over. When’s the Boss gonna let up?”

 

“Unsure,” Rustram replied, hiding how happy he was to know she shared his concerns. “I’ll bring it up when I see him.”

 

“Good, good. Better it come from you, most folk don’t take well to a woman barkin’ orders. Boss don’t seem like the type, but you can never be sure.” Nodding in appreciation, Sai Chou punched Rustram on his exposed shoulder and grinned, transforming from deadly Expert to cheery young woman. “Fancy fightin’ you did out there, mighty quick work too. Can’t rightly claim I could’ve done the same in as many moves. Didn’t think ye had it in ye, but seems yer not the puffed-up peacock I thought ye were.” With that, she strode away, leaving Rustram alone and conflicted.

 

Should he be angry about the insult or happy about the compliment?

 

Putting Sai Chou out of mind, Rustram basked in his moment of glory, for today, he finally felt worthy of his rank and weapon. Though he still had far to go and much to repay, he could hold his head up high as Rustram Albaiev of Shen Huo, second-in-command of Falling Rain’s retinue, and a Warrior of the Empire.

 

Now, if only he had a lady friend to share his joy with…

 

Chapter Meme

 

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Savage Divinity – Chapter 417

 


I’d like to give a shout out to my latest Patron Antihero and the many anonymous new Patrons. Thank you all so much for your support!


 

Since stepping into office as Marshal of the North, Yuzhen had never taken a day off to rest, yet she still struggled to keep up with the workload. How her old man managed was beyond her comprehension, as dealing with the day-to-day routine left little time for the multitude of calamities crossing her desk. Defending her holdings, keeping her allies happy, and ensuring her enemies weren’t plotting her demise, these were merely the appetizers in her full-course meal of disasters, but the main course changed from day to day. Food shortages, dwindling funds, price gouging, and unruly bandits, there seemed to be no end to these tribulations in sight.

 

A small wonder her old man never had time for the Martial Path. Forget training, Yuzhen counted herself fortunate if she had time enough to sleep.

 

Being stationed so far away from her base of power wasn’t helping her efforts, but she understood the need. Without these new defences in place, a million-strong horde of Defiled could waltz into Central and the Empire would be helpless to stop them, and without Yuzhen here to supervise, thousands of unscrupulous parasitic merchants would bleed the Empire dry, too stupid, short-sighted, or conceited to care about the consequences of their actions. They were a few weeks into construction and Yuzhen had already executed over a hundred people for crimes ranging from simple thievery and embezzlement to all-out fraud and war-profiteering. She was happy enough to look the other way if an overseer pocketed a few silvers here and there, but the sheer audacity of some of these crooks and swindlers left her in awe of their stupidity. What did these merchants expect to happen when they delivered sub-par goods or shoddy materials? For her to shrug, open her coffers, and pay them what they were owed? Did they expect her to strip down and dance for them too? One enterprising con-man even tried to sell her the rights to a mine she already owned, a move which left her sides in stitches from the first real bout of uncontrolled laughter since her old man’s passing.

 

Grateful as she was for the much needed hilarity, she still had the fool hung by the neck until dead.

 

At least things weren’t all doom and gloom for Yuzhen, with more working in her favour than against her. In her absence, things had settled down back home, with most cities and factions falling in line. Shen Huo, Shen Yun, and the Bekhai all stood firmly in Yuzhen’s camp, and with Sanshu already in her pocket, this meant the peripheral cities reliant on them like Shen Bin and Jiu Lang had no choice but to follow. After Falling Rain absconded with their Guardian Turtle, the people of Ping Yao took it as a sign from the Mother above and pledged their eternal support to the Bekhai, leaving their Magistrate with little choice but to follow suit or risk bloody revolution if seen working against his city’s ‘Divine Attendant’. With everyone working harmoniously, construction on her section of the Wall was ahead of schedule and below budget, earning the North much vaunted praise from the Legate.

 

Security of the North was also well in hand. Reconstruction at the Bridge had finally finished, but now Shen Jin was the more concerning location. As the guardian of the passageway into the West, the Magistrate of Shen Jin set to reinforcing the pass at his own expense, filling it with pitfalls, dead ends, fire traps, and countless other defences. To hear him say it, the expense rendered him ‘without two coins to rub together’, and Yuzhen mostly believed it. She was less inclined to believe his claim that should the Defiled horde seek entry in the North through Shen Jin, then they would die to the last savage before seeing the city gates, but she appreciated his willingness to part with his fortune.

 

Then again, considering his family had amassed said fortune over multiple generations from collecting taxes on goods moving from the North to the West and vice versa, it was only fitting he foot the bill.

 

Unfortunately, most Yuzhen’s headaches arose from the Society, and by extension, Feng Huang. As the two southernmost cities, all of the North’s people, supplies, and resources funnelled through them to reach her here in SuiHua, giving them the upper hand in negotiations. One word from them and everything would go to shit as delays cropped up, shipments disappeared, and ‘evidence’ of smuggling, bribery and extortion would find its way into the wrong hands. To the outside world, it appeared as if Yuzhen had united the North, but more discerning individuals knew the Society bent her over a barrel and ravaged her at every opportunity.

 

Metaphorically speaking, of course. She actually found being bent over a barrel by Gerel rather exhilarating on those rare occasions she found time away from her duties.

 

‘Focus,’ she mentally scolded herself, returning to her present circumstances. Sitting across the table were three individuals representing the most powerful factions of the Society. The first two were Situ Rang Min and Han BoDing, the Patriarchs of their respective clans and a pair of greedy, self serving bastards. Long-time enemies always at each others throats, Yuzhen had had great success playing them off one another in the past, but recent events had changed the dynamic between them. Both Patriarchs were on the back foot regarding Clan politics now that their sacrificial heirs, Situ Jia Zian and Han BoShui, had risen to fame in the public eye, mostly thanks to their relationship with Rain and their success on the front lines, which in turn earned them support from their Clan Elders. Though both young men were overshadowed by Rain, his achievements were so far ahead of his peers most people placed him in a category all on his own, leaving the others racing for second place.

 

Having seen the writing on the wall, Rang Min and BoDing were desperate for a victory to tout before their clans, and thus they entered a shaky alliance to present a united front against Yuzhen. Today’s order of business was to demand she lower taxes on account of all the poor, destitute Society members struggling to maintain their decadent lifestyles. Jin ZhiYa, the third individual present and current high High Elder of the Harmonious Unity Sect, was supposedly on Yuzhen’s side, but a reduction in taxes would be beneficial to ZhiYa’s faction, not to mention the woman was essentially a human puppet for her half-beast masters and had to check in before making important decisions. Since the two Patriarchs brought this issue up without warning, for the sake of this negotiation, ZhiYa might as well not be present.

 

Her eyes radiating cold fury, Yuzhen sat with hands folded in silent stillness, letting time and suspicion do her work for her as she Sent a message to Gerel. “Done sparring with Charok yet? Are you shirtless and sweaty?”

 

“We have yet to begin my love, but it could be arranged. Do you require my presence, or merely desire it?”

 

Cocky bastard. Don’t smile. “Neither,” Yuzhen Sent, studying both Patriarchs intently. “Just making noise for my troublesome guests, so stop being so damned charming.”

 

“Alas, if only I could,” came Gerel’s reply, deadpan and serious as always. “Such is my curse, but fear not, for I only have eyes for you.”

 

“Enough.” Yuzhen let her frustration show, a calculated ‘error’, then widened her eyes ever so slightly in feigned surprise. It all happened in the blink of an eye, but her guests missed nothing and the display left them wondering what fortuitous news she had just received. “I need to concentrate now, so shush. Love you.”

 

“Love you more.”

 

A genuine half-smile slipped out before Yuzhen caught herself, but the minor gaffe helped sell her story. Since everyone in the room could sense her Sendings but didn’t know who she Sent to, each Patriarch would believe she was communicating with the other and cutting him out of the deal, a ploy which worked like a charm. Rang Min and BoDing had grown up together as friends written rivals and there was no greater enmity than one between former allies. They’d been at one another’s throats for decades, and Yuzhen would dance naked in the streets if she couldn’t use it against them and shatter their flimsy alliance to pieces.

 

Truth be told, she found the idea of public nudity rather titillating, but sadly the trappings of office and easily identifiable fox-tail meant she couldn’t afford to risk it, which made it that much more enticing.

 

While her mind drifted and daydreamed, her opponents unmade themselves before her. Though Yuzhen’s Sendings had fallen silent, Rang Min and BoDing were deep in conversation as they fired silent messages at one another, each accusing the other of underhanded dealings. Neither Patriarch would believe the other was working in good faith, especially since they betrayed one another often enough in the past. They’d see their counterpart’s accusations as a sham to cover up their subterfuge, and soon, once all the accusations and insults were out of the way, one would take a step back and offer a counter-proposal, which they would both assume was what she was after. A smaller tax break, something Yuzhen could accept to avoid the bloody and costly struggle which would ensue should she back one Patriarch against the other.

 

Games within games, but unlike her opponents, Yuzhen had learned from the best.

 

Soon enough, the two Patriarchs reached a conclusion and they presented her with a new offer, quoting numbers Yuzhen was happy to work with. Unfortunately for the Society, her old man taught her how to squeeze blood from a rock. Chest heaving in false anger, she made eye contact with each Patriarch before raising her hand to slash at the air, leaving it up to them to interpret if she wanted to halve the new numbers or had just offered to decapitate a Patriarch. The temptation too much to resist, Rang Min and BoDing traded heated glances before grimacing in defeat, offering each other a quiet nod of respect before agreeing to halve their offer once more.

 

After finalizing their deal, everyone walked away a winner. Undoubtedly the biggest winner, Yuzhen decided to celebrate by watching her handsome future husband work up a sweat, then drag him away for a horizontal spar in their bed. Arriving home with her Honour Guard in tow, Yuzhen was surprised to see she wasn’t the only spectator present. While Gerel and Charok traded ringing blows in the courtyard, Rain’s harem and menagerie watched from the side with Charok’s darling twins, the white-haired sweetlings cheering their papa on with startling blood lust. Inwardly lamenting the loss of her alone time with Gerel, Yuzhen greeted Mila with open arms and grunted as the powerful young woman squeezed just a little too hard. “Had I known you’d all be here, I’d have brought something back to eat.”

 

“We’re showing Luo-Luo a real fight!” Knowing better than to get between them, Lin-Lin waited until Mila withdrew to step in for her hug. “We have leftovers if you’re hungry Yu-Yu. Fried rice, steamed chicken, and dumplings too.”

 

Yuzhen didn’t hate the girlish appellation so long as Lin-Lin remembered to call her ‘Marshal Yuzhen’ in public, but it was hard to say if she would. The sweet half-hare girl was just like her adopted father, intelligent but eccentric to the extreme. Whereas Lin-Lin merely liked to fly kites and climb trees, Taduk spent his days exploring the Azure Sea in a shabby dinghy, accompanied by a single guard, a rabbit, and an octopus in a cooking pot. What he was searching for was hard to say, but off he went every morning with the same lineup, though he often switched between the many rabbits hopping about Rain’s manor.

 

Accepting a bowl from Luo-Luo, Yuzhen’s gaze fixated on the girl’s new accessory, a long-handled mace whose weight threatened to tear her silk belt in twain. “Thank you,” Yuzhen said before nodding at the beautifully crafted Spiritual Weapon. “A marvellous piece. Did Mila craft it?”

 

“Indeed it is Marshal Yuzhen,” the Imperial Servant replied, her pale complexion and wan smile telling Yuzhen everything she needed to know. “Luo-Luo received it this morning and has yet to bind it, but she will give it her all and endeavour not to disappoint.”

 

Silly, naive girl, didn’t she know how dangerous it was to admit she carried an unbound Spiritual Weapon? Then again, Luo-Luo could strip naked and walk from here to the Arid Wastes and arrive untouched, such was the power of her Lord Husband’s backing. Thinking to help the poor girl escape this dire fate, Yuzhen turned to Mila and said, “Perhaps my request is too forward, but I have a talented guard in dire need of a Spiritual Weapon like Luo-Luo’s. Seeing how it’s unbound, would it be possible to sell this one to me?”

 

There was no talented guard in need of a mace, but forcing Luo-Luo to become a Martial Warrior would be an utter waste of the girl’s talents in business and statecraft. Purchasing the Spiritual Weapon would buy Yuzhen time to dissuade Mila and the others from this foolish decision and save Luo-Luo, which might earn her a sizable discount from Rain’s budding merchant empire. Despite having released all his secrets to the world for free, Luo-Luo’s sharp business acumen had grown a minor partnership into a highly-profitable enterprise built around cast iron, with over two-dozen military contracts under their belt and still more yet to be fulfilled. Every facet of the company had been considered before their competitors understood the value of cast iron, whether it be purchasing pig-iron mines to ensure a steady supply, offering better wages and conditions to develop loyalty in her work force, selling at a discount to the army to build their reputation, or paying a premium weeks ago to settle a contract now worth ten or twenty times what they paid. They were even prepared to craft bells the same day the Legate announced his bell towers, which made Luo-Luo a once in a millennia genius of commerce who Yuzhen had to recruit.

 

It was even thanks to Luo-Luo’s ingenuity the wall was progressing so quickly, though where the young woman got the idea to insert metal rods through multiple layers of bricks for added reinforcement, Yuzhen couldn’t say. The girl was as ingenious as Rain and hardworking as Mila, and though Yuzhen once hoped to take both under her wing, they were too talented in other fields for her to poach. How could she let Luo-Luo slip out of her hands too?

 

“It’s not for me to decide,” Mila declared, wholly unconcerned with the issue. “I gifted the weapon to Luo-Luo and it’s hers to do with as she pleases.”

 

Perfect. Turning to the Imperial Servant, Yuzhen waited for her to nod and say yes, but Luo-Luo hesitated instead. Why? Didn’t she know the Bekhai meant exactly what they said and nothing more? If Mila said the weapon was Luo-Luo’s to do with as she pleased, then that’s exactly what she meant. Sell the weapon, gift it to another, toss it in the sea, whatever Luo-Luo did, Mila and the others wouldn’t care one whit.

 

Well… they might care if Luo-Luo tossed it in the sea. The Bekhai abhorred waste, especially considering Spiritual Weapons were both rare and vital for Martial Warriors.

 

After a long period of deliberation, Luo-Luo fell to her knees and kowtowed, a move which left Yuzhen bewildered and confused. “Luo-Luo offers her most sincere apologies, Marshal Yuzhen. This gift is too precious to sell for any price. Luo-Luo hopes to become a Martial Warrior worthy of the Bekhai and stand on the battlefield beside Lord Husband and Sister Mila.”

 

Even as Yuzhen rushed to help Luo-Luo up, she noted the flash of annoyance which crossed Yan’s fair face, surmising all was not well in Falling Rain’s happy harem, but this wasn’t the time for juicy drama. Brushing Luo-Luo’s forehead clean of dirt, Yuzhen hugged her and said, “No need to be so dramatic, girl. It was merely an off-hand request. The weapon is yours and I’m sure you’ll become a splendid warrior.” Damn the Bekhai and their Warrior idolatry. Damn the Empire for the same thing too. How long before the bureaucrats and bean-counters of the world were recognized for their work? If not for them, armies would limp into battle, naked and starving…

 

Her mood dampened, Yuzhen ate the leftovers and watched Gerel prance about the courtyard, swinging his heavy glaive about like a twig while Charok fended him off with his spear. A daily routine of theirs, the two rarely fought to a decision, always exchanging blows until both were too tired to continue. After the first time she watched them spar, she asked Gerel if he’d been taking it easy on his partner and her prideful man gave her a wounded look as if she’d called him a child rapist or worse. In Bekhai culture, going easy in a spar was apparently akin to wishing death upon one’s opponent, which explained volumes about Rain’s behaviour during his sparring matches.

 

Sadly, Charok was the closest thing Gerel had to a friend, and apparently, yet another hidden Bekhai Expert. Her pitiful, loner of a lover, she didn’t know why Gerel stood as a man apart from the otherwise close-knit community, but she reckoned it was their loss and her gain. A shame he wasn’t business savvy like Rain, Mila, or Luo-Luo…

 

Especially Luo-Luo. Though her eyes stayed fixated on the match, the Imperial Servant wasted no time by Yuzhen’s side, pitching all manner of goods from pots and pans to iron wagons and triple-crossbows. Though intrigued, Yuzhen feigned disinterest and nodded along, knowing if she appeared too eager, the shrewd beauty would take her for everything she was worth.

 

“Oh, by the way,” Luo-Luo remarked, her tone neutral and aloof as she handed a letter to Yuzhen. “Lord Husband has a gift for Marshal Yuzhen. Scholar Diyako and his team recently perfected a treatment to rust-proof iron, the process of which is detailed within.”

 

Yuzhen’s jaw dropped and shattered her indifferent facade, but she couldn’t be bothered to care. “A rust-proofing treatment? As in it can be applied to items which have already been crafted?”

 

“Indeed.” Her cherry lips pursed in a pleased smile, Luo-Luo said, “Lord Husband found it distasteful to sell so many iron products only for them to rust within the year, so he tasked Scholar Diyako to find a solution and is distributing it freely for all to use.” Glancing over the solution, Yuzhen grimaced and bit back a curse. The materials listed within weren’t too rare or valuable, but she had a sneaking suspicion Luo-Luo would have already secured large quantities to sell, a suspicion quickly proven by the crafty servant’s next sentence. “If Marshal Yuzhen would like to purchase the materials, then Luo-Luo would be happy to provide them.” For a price, no doubt. Brilliant. Utterly brilliant. Not only would Rain earn a fortune, he also earned the goodwill of all his previous customers by providing the rust-proofing method for free, something he wouldn’t have been able to keep secret regardless of his intentions.

 

“If you don’t ask her, I will.”

 

“I will, but later.”

 

“She’s right there. Just ask. How often are you going to meet with the Marshal?”

 

“I’ll handle it, so shut up and watch the spar.”

 

Though Yan tried to keep her argument quiet, the half-cat slave Kyung made no such effort. Needing time to research before butting heads with the master negotiator Luo-Luo, Yuzhen seized the opportunity to escape and approached Yan. “There’s no need to be shy. Come, tell sister Yuzhen what you need. More soldiers? So eager to return to the front lines, are we? I’ll take care of it forthwith.”

 

“Ah…” Flushed with shame, Yan shrunk back and shook her head, unable to look Yuzhen in the eye. “Er… no, I don’t need reinforcements. I… uh… I don’t think I’ll be going back.”

 

“What? Why?”

 

Mila and Kyung spoke with one voice and Yan flinched away, but the short-haired beauty soon rallied and answered, “Well… because I’m utter shit at command.” Giving voice to her fears seemed to help her accept it as Yan shrugged and continued, “I lost 40% of my retinue every time I set out on patrol, so I figured it’s time I stopped going out and getting good soldiers killed.”

 

“Tch. This is why I hate kids.” Grabbing Yan by the shoulder, Kyung spun her to face him, an utterly unthinkable act for most slaves. “Listen idiot, because I’ll only say this once. You did fine.” Hearing this, Yan rolled her eyes and opened her mouth to speak, but Kyung gave her no chance. “Shut up. I’m not trying to comfort you, I’m stating a fact. Your results weren’t great, but no one was expecting them to be. You set out with standard soldiers using standard-issue gear, an all light-infantry force with less than ten Spiritual Weapons. You had no dedicated scouts, no cavalry, no heavy infantry, nothing except a bunch of common grunts, a rushed education, and a dearth of experience. Of course you can’t compare to the likes of Falling Rain, who has everything you’re lacking not to mention the finest heavy infantry in the Empire under his command. Master figured you would’ve lost your entire retinue on your first time out, but you didn’t, so congratulations. You exceeded expectations.”

 

“…Grandpa wanted me to fail?”

 

Yan’s eyes brimmed with tears at the apparent betrayal, but Kyung snorted and said, “No, Master expected you to fail. There’s a difference. You’ve never been a five or ten-man commander, but Master has no time to coddle you, so he accepted my suggestion to send you out on a trial by fire. ‘Learn by doing’, and it was working, but now you want to laze around and shirk your lessons? Absolutely not.” Poking Yan in the chest, Kyung demanded, “Ask the Marshal for more fodder and get back out there.”

 

Trembling from head to toe, Yan snarled and grabbed Kyung by the collar. “So you’re telling me one-hundred and sixty-two soldiers died to teach me a lesson?”

 

“Yes.” Unperturbed by Yan’s wrath, Kyung stood hunched over in her grip and weathered her murderous glare without blinking. He made no effort to defend himself should she lash out, not that it mattered if he did. Yan wouldn’t even need to lift a finger if she wanted him dead, she only needed to speak the words and he would take his own life. After long seconds, Kyung sighed and spoke softly, a tone which ill-suited the blunt, no-nonsense slave. “Behind every Great General lies a mountain of dead soldiers. You think the likes of Nian Zu, Shuai Jiao, or even your admired Akanai never made a mistake? When officers make mistakes, soldiers die. Such is life little Yan, but as Master’s Terminal Disciple, you must become a Great General. One-hundred and sixty-two soldiers have already died to pave the way forward. Don’t let their sacrifice be in vain.”

 

A hard lesson for all youths to learn, but an important one. Yan’s compassion was admirable, but also a hindrance. Great achievements required great sacrifices, but the ones accomplishing the achievements were rarely the same people making the sacrifices. To build the wall, hundreds of slaves had already died, and thousands more would follow, but such was the price the Empire paid, lives spent now to save more lives later. The same concept applied to Yan’s training. An error now might cost her a few dozen soldiers, but as she rose in rank, those errors would only grow more costly, so better she make them now and learn from them. As much as Yuzhen wanted to comfort the poor girl, she knew it would be counterproductive to coddle her, a sentiment shared by Mila as she kept Lin-Lin from approaching. Instead, they all looked away and pretended not to notice Yan’s shaking shoulders or hear her quiet sobs, giving her the time she needed to deal with her guilt and grief.

 

Which was better than how Yuzhen had handled it back when she learned this lesson, kicking and screaming up a storm. She still remembered how, after all her anger was spent, her old man had pulled her close and patted her head, reassuring her with his soothing timbre…

 

After thirty minutes and countless exchanges, Gerel and Charok’s spar ended with yet another draw. Only then did Yan wipe her tears and approach Yuzhen, her eyes red and gaze determined. “Marshal Yuzhen,” she said, her voice trembling ever so slightly. “Warrant Officer Third Grade Du Min Yan requests reinforcements for her retinue, fifty-nine soldiers in total.” As an afterthought, she added, “Also, a billet for the forty-one soldiers still with me. They deserve a roof over their heads, at least until we head back.”

 

Resisting the urge to hug the poor girl, Yuzhen instead gave her a military salute. “Understood, Warrant Officer Du. This Marshal shall make it so.” Only then did she pull Yan into her embrace, a hug which Mila, Lin-Lin, and Luo-Luo joined soon after. “Everything will be all right child,” Yuzhen said, her chest tight and heart heavy as she repeated what her old man told her then. “Because you have family who love you to help you through this.”

 

Mother in Heaven, she missed her old man…

 

“Okay then,” Kyung said, ruining the tender moment. “That’s taken care of. My turn to spar now. Baldy, you rest up, I’ll warm up with your friend and we’ll settle old scores when I’m done.”

 

Baldy?!

 

“Yan darling,” Yuzhen said, her voice loud and sickly sweet. “I never noticed it before, but don’t you think Kyung would look so handsome with a shaved head?” The half-cat warrior froze in place and Yan burst into laughter, but Yuzhen wasn’t joking around. If Du Min Gyu didn’t know how to keep his subordinates in line, then Yuzhen didn’t mind teaching Kyung in his place. After all, no matter how strong he might be, Yan held his chains and Yuzhen had no qualms against playing dirty. “Of course, we’ll need to shave his tail to match and give him a cute little outfit to show off in. Something short and tight to show off his abs and thighs, with plenty of colour and lace…”

 

Chapter Meme

 

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Savage Divinity – Chapter 416

 

Taking slow, deep breaths to calm her racing heart, Luo-Luo thanked the Mother above as reason prevailed and dinner resumed without a hitch. No one seemed to pay any mind to the disturbance and they picked up right where they left off before Mila’s outburst of scathing criticisms. The Medical Saint’s vegetables were left uneaten and he went back to arguing with the Divine Blacksmith about their latest chess match. Tali continued narrating her most recent adventure at the docks for Yan’s listening pleasure. Beside them, Ser Charok explained the intricacies of the soup’s subtle flavours to an inattentive Kyung while an aggrieved Tate choked down his vegetables under his father’s watchful eye. With cheeks matching her hair, Mila threw back a cup of wine and scowled at the empty vessel, angered by its tiny size and inability to slake her prodigious thirst.

 

And throughout this all, the devious mastermind behind tonight’s events sat with a pleased smile stretched across her fair face, patting Mila’s arm and filling her cup once again in hopes of more excitement.

 

Then again, perhaps Luo-Luo gave Lin-Lin too much credit and blamed her unjustly. Though impulsive and mischievous to the extreme, the troublesome half-hare wasn’t some harbinger of chaos manipulating events with her underhanded schemes, and even if she were, she couldn’t possibly have foreseen this outcome when plying Mila with drink. Who could have expected the fiery redhead to erupt amidst their celebratory meal? Truth be told, Luo-Luo wouldn’t have minded too much if someone ruined their meal with a brawl, but the sentiment was merely her being petty and mean-spirited. Yan’s safe return should be a cause for celebration, for it was a triumphant return from carrying out her sacred duty and defending the borders of the Empire from the hateful Enemy, a task which deserved, nay demanded the respect and admiration of nobles and citizens alike.

 

Respect and admiration which she freely gave, but Luo-Luo would be perfectly content if Yan returned to the front lines forthwith. Alas, the half-deer beauty let slip she would stay in SuiHua for an indeterminate amount of time, and now Luo-Luo’s plans to seduce Lord Husband when he returned were no longer viable, not with that horned hussy so eager to jump in his bed…

 

Though still yet to eat her fill, Luo-Luo fiddled with her chopsticks and sat in self-conscious insecurity, unsure how to proceed without drawing Mila’s drunken ire. In the end, she couldn’t bring herself to slurp her soup or eat with her hands and went to bed hungry, where she tossed and turned for hours while worrying she’d have to eat all her future meals in private, or at least out of Mila’s vision. How was Luo-Luo even supposed to eat ‘less formally’? Was having decent manners really so terrible? It’s not as if she insisted everyone else follow suit and she was careful never to chastise or show disapproval with anyone else’s manners. Luo-Luo merely ate her meals the way she’d been taught to, with small, measured mouthfuls and slow, graceful movements in a neat and orderly fashion.

 

A gluttonous woman was shameful at best and revolting at worst, both cardinal sins for a concubine reliant on her Lord Husband’s affection and good graces.

 

It felt like Luo-Luo had just closed her eyes when Sorya shook her awake. “Lady Luo-Luo. Lady Luo-Luo. You must wake up.”

 

“Leave me alone…”

 

“I would, but Lady Sumila is at the door.”

 

“I don’t care, let me – What?” Bolting upright in alarm, Luo-Luo scrambled to her feet and made sure her hair and nightgown were presentable before going to receive Mila herself. Opening the door wide, Luo-Luo curtsied and said, “Please, enter and be welcome. Luo-Luo hopes she didn’t keep Sister Mila waiting too long.”

 

“Not at all.” As Luo-Luo moved to close the door behind her, she jumped away and choked back a scream at the sight of Mila’s unexpected entourage. With his paws digging into her shoulders and hips, one bear clung tightly to Mila’s back while another ambled along behind her, their mouths half-opened as they sniffed and stared at the fragrant trays of food in her hands. “Papa told me to take the day off, so I thought we could have breakfast together,” the bear-toting beauty announced. “Sorya, Anrhi, why don’t you take the morning off and leave Luo-Luo and I to chat.”

 

Though posed as a question, Mila’s delivery made it anything but. Luo-Luo’s (usually) loyal handmaidens scurried away without so much as a ‘by your leave’, leaving her alone and helpless before Mila and two ferocious black bears. Well… ferocious might be overstating the facts, but regardless of how graceless or inept they seemed, the bears and wildcats were still feral creatures, ones who needed to be restrained before they hurt someone. Every time Tali or Tate ran towards the animals, Luo-Luo’s heart seized in her chest and she had to stop herself from diving in front of the children, wholly expecting things to go terribly, terribly wrong.

 

Frozen in a combination of fear, shock, and drowsiness, Luo-Luo stayed by the door until Mila called for her again. “Luo-Luo, come eat,” she said, patting the seat directly beside her.

 

One half of Luo-Luo’s mind was appalled she’d let Mila set the table by herself and the other half was afraid because she’d have to pass by both bears to get to her seat. “Sister Mila, if you could… the bears…”

 

“Hmph.” The cold snort sent shivers down Luo-Luo’s spine and she pulled her nightgown closed, though it proved lacklustre defence against Mila’s fearsome glare. “You call me sister,” she said, her tone clipped and hostile, “Yet you don’t trust me to protect you? Sit. On my life, the bears will cause you no harm. I could even swear an Oath, if you’d like.”

 

“No Sister, this one doesn’t dare accept.” Unable to delay any longer, Luo-Luo stepped around the patrolling bears and took her seat, whimpering audibly as they shuffled over to sniff her. Emboldened by her lack of resistance, one even stood on its hind legs and licked her cheek, likely checking if she suited his tastes.

 

Thankfully, Sister Mila fended him off with a light swat and a stern grunt. “Ignore them,” she said, giving Luo-Luo’s back a reassuring pat. “They’re harmless and you’ve nothing to be afraid of. You’ve been practising your Forms everyday like I asked you to, right?” Luo-Luo nodded, though she had yet to note any progress after two months of daily practice, time which could be better spent on almost anything else. “Well, then you could probably beat them both with one hand tied behind your back. Calm down, I won’t make you try, so ignore them and eat.” A massive meat bun in hand, Mila bit into it with gusto and gestured for Luo-Luo to do the same.

 

Taking solace in Mila’s strong presence, Luo-Luo steeled her nerves and reached for her chopsticks, but froze once again when she realized there were none to be had. In fact, there were no utensils at all, not even a spoon or knife, and it took Luo-Luo’s fear-addled mind many seconds to understand why. Meat buns, dough fritters, pan-fried wraps, and even bowls of soup, everything on the table could be eaten by hand, though Luo-Luo had never dared do so. One could not daintily slurp or delicately nibble the foods laid out before her, not to mention all the oil and sauces she’d get on her hands, face, or clothes, a fatal blunder for a woman of her precarious standing.

 

What if Lord Husband ever saw her with black oyster sauce smeared across her lips? After the nauseating incident in his officer’s tent, he’d never see her in an erotic light ever again…

 

Noticing her dismay, Mila grinned and said, “As you may have guessed, I came to apologize for last night. Not for what I said mind you, but how I said it. We’re family Luo-Luo, so you needn’t be overly concerned with protocol and manners. I want no more curtsies or bows, no more ‘if it pleases’ and ‘by your leaves’. Let your guard down and let me get to know the real you.” Gesturing at the food, Mila added, “But first, we eat.”

 

Driven by her rumbling belly and Mila’s constant encouragement, Luo-Luo lifted her arm to reach for a pan-fried wrap and gasped in abject horror as her sleeve fell into her soup bowl. Petrified by her blunder, Luo-Luo traded stares with Mila’s aghast expression, her jaw dropped in shock and surprise. After long seconds of silence, it was hard to say which of them giggled first, but soon enough they were both red-faced and gasping for breath at the sheer hilarity of it all, with Luo-Luo’s sides in stitches as Mila helped her wring her sleeve dry.

 

After changing into a loose robe and rolling up her sleeves, Luo-Luo’s apprehensions had magically disappeared as she chatted and dined with Mila. Though she still ate in small, measured mouthfuls, she paid no mind to the grease on her hands or the crumbs around her lips, and somehow her meal tasted better for it. When it came time to devour the massive meat buns, Luo-Luo had trouble picking where to start, but after her first bite released the delectable scents locked within, she paid her image no mind and devoured the savoury treat in a matter of seconds. She licked her fingers, slurped her soup, did so many things a lady of status should never do, and it felt so liberating.

 

Initially, Luo-Luo believed there was more than enough for both of them, but after clearing the entire table, Luo-Luo’s appetite had yet to be sated. Catching her staring at her plateful of crumbs, Mila giggled and said, “If you’re still hungry, we can head into town for more.”

 

“No, this one wouldn’t want to cause any –”

 

“Stop being polite. It’s no trouble at all, and you should listen to your body. You can’t build a fire without fuel and you can’t build muscles without food. You’ve been starving your body of energy with your daily practice, so you need to eat more than you’re used to or you’ll end up skinnier than a toothpick like Rain used to be.” Shaking her head, Mila scoffed and added, “What a waste turning a Martial Warrior into an Imperial Servant, and such a meek one at that. There should be an exemption from servitude for anyone who forms a Core.”

 

No longer so afraid of the diminutive red-head, Luo-Luo replied, “Sister Mila, forming a Core is a requirement to become an Imperial Servant.” Seeing her confusion, Luo-Luo explained, “The training for an Imperial Servant is both arduous and comprehensive, so without Martial Training, it’s hardly worth the investment. Why go through so much effort when a common human will age and wither away in ten to fifteen years? Not only would their bodies lack the beautifying effects of Chi, a thirty-year-old commoner might already have wrinkles and grey hairs whereas a Martial Warrior of similar age would retain their youthful good looks for decades to come.”

Take Mother-in-law Sarnai for example, still beautiful by any measure despite her seventy plus years. Though she bore a few wrinkles and a head full of grey hairs, Sarnai had a dignified allure about her which was impossible to find in a younger woman, and a ferocious elegance found only in the Bekhai. Luo-Luo hoped to look half as good when she reached the same age, though she’d still fall far short of matching her long-lived sister wives. Already older than Lord Husband by five years, Luo-Luo knew she had to make the most of her youth, but how was she to win him over from several hundred kilometres away?

 

“The Imperial Clan truly knows how to live,” Mila said, as close a criticism as Luo-Luo had heard anyone say, and it frightened her to no end. Had a true Imperial Scion heard her and taken offence, the Bekhai would be finished in the blink of an eye. “No matter. You’re a part of the Bekhai now, and the Bekhai have no useless Martial Warriors.” A chilling statement if Luo-Luo had ever heard one, but Mila wasn’t finished. “Earlier I told you I came to apologize, and it wouldn’t be a sincere apology without a gift. It’s waiting outside, so let me help you with… whatever it is you need two handmaidens for. Pick something practical to wear though, we have other events planned for later.”

 

Though Luo-Luo put up a token protest and insisted no help or gift was necessary, she truly cherished this bonding experience and wanted something to remember it by. Prior to today, the gruff, hardworking young blacksmith seemed so scary and intimidating, utterly unapproachable for a pampered Servant like Luo-Luo. They had nothing in common aside from a shared spouse and even Lord Husband tread lightly in Mila’s presence, but today’s shared experience showed a different side of the bushy-tailed young blacksmith, a kind and considerate interior hidden beneath her blunt, dour exterior.

 

A sorely needed friend considering Lin-Lin’s increasingly domineering attitude of late, the once amicable half-hare growing more petulant and demanding with each passing day. Quin racing, chariot rides, archery practice, and more, Luo-Luo’s nerves might not last another month if Lord Husband didn’t hurry back.

 

Scalp aching and hair thinned from a little heavy-handed brushing, Luo-Luo followed Mila into the courtyard with the bears ambling at their heels. A quick glance around failed to reveal her gift, only Lin-Lin teasing the wildcats with a bundle of feather on a string while Yan played with the pups under the watchful eyes of the older quins. Confused, she turned to her strong-armed sister-wife for direction, but Mila merely smiled and pointed at Mafu, flopped on his side and grooming a pup. Yesterday, Luo-Luo would have shied away and called Mafu over to her, but today, things were different. Unwilling to lose face in front of Mila (and Yan too, now that she thought about it), Luo-Luo summoned her courage and approached the quins with as much dignity as her trembling legs allowed her. When she stepped into range of the pups, the adult quins collectively turned towards her with teeth bared, and for a split second, Luo-Luo believed she’d made a huge mistake. Then, after the longest fraction of a second in her life, Mafu blinked, squeaked, and plodded over with the pup in his arms, his head lowered and eyes pleading for a hug and a kiss.

 

Only then did the other quins visibly relax, and Luo-Luo made a mental promise to buy sweet Mafu an entire basket of fresh seafood. Fish, clams, lobsters, or squid, let him gorge to his heart’s content and engrave her into memory so he might recognize her that much sooner.

 

With his furry head nestling in her arms, Luo-Luo noticed Mafu had been harnessed and guessed her mysterious gift was at yet another location. Moving around to his side to mount, she froze for the third time today when she spotted a dark metallic sceptre sitting upright in his harness. Recognizing it for what it was, Luo-Luo’s stomach flopped about and threatened to expel her hearty breakfast as she broke into a cold sweat, her mind blanking in sheer panic at the enormity of this gift. While Luo-Luo struggled to draw breath, Mila cheerily confirmed her fear. “It’s a Spiritual Weapon. Your Spiritual Weapon. Pick it up and see how it feels.”

 

Luo-Luo wanted to do exactly the opposite, to run away screaming and hide in her room, but her legs failed her once more. “Sister Mila,” she whispered, her throat too tight to speak loudly, “This is too precious a gift. This one dares not –”

 

“Hmph.” The kind, considerate Mila was nowhere to be found and the fearsome, no-nonsense Mila stood in her place. “I won’t force you, but if you don’t dare accept it, then it must mean you don’t see me as family.”

 

And there it was. Earlier, Mila said, ‘The Bekhai have no useless Martial Warriors’. Though she left the rest unsaid, Luo-Luo understood the implication and knew a decision was upon her. To her new family, black was black and white was white, with no grey areas in between. Take up the weapon or be cast out from the Bekhai, those were the only two choices. A choice between life and death because Luo-Luo had nowhere else to go, so what sort of choice was it, really?

 

Cold and decisive, Mila was far more fearsome than Lin-Lin.

 

Tears spilling down her cheeks, Luo-Luo took the sceptre in hand and nearly dropped it on her foot, the weapon far heavier than she expected. Expecting this outcome, Mila chuckled and said, “Heavy right? That’s good, it means it’ll do plenty of damage when it connects. I finished crafting it yesterday and Papa says it might be my best work. I didn’t make it with you in mind, but while considering possible candidates, you stood out among the rest. See, your height and build are perfect…”

 

As Mila expounded on the finer details of the weapon, Luo-Luo blinked away the tears and tried to keep up. Though only a little longer than her arm and less than two thumbs thick, the sceptre was almost too heavy for Luo-Luo to carry, much less swing. Still, it was truly a beautiful piece, with the predominantly black metal sporting thin veins of silver throughout the shaft, spiralling ever upwards as if streaking towards the top, where an obsidian orb half the size of her fist rested neatly atop an octagonal setting. So dark it seemed to drink in the light, she saw only herself reflected in the orb’s flawless, inky surface, but nothing else, as if the weapon had chosen her to wield it.

 

A silly flight of fancy is all it was, for a quick test showed it merely needed to be held at the right angle to reflect Mafu’s curious expression.

 

This was to be Luo-Luo’s weapon, a sceptre to wield in battle against the Enemy. The thought left her utterly terrified, especially once Mila showed her how to turn the sceptre into what was essentially a three-meter long whip, the cord so thin one might mistake it for twine. How did she expect Luo-Luo to control such a beast?

 

In response to the question, Mila smiled and answered, “When Rain comes back with Tursinai, I’ll ask her to teach you, but in the meantime you can learn the basics of rope weapons with Lin and the wildcats.” Beaming in sadistic glee, Lin-Lin hopped and squealed in delight, but Mila wasn’t done delivering bad news. “Don’t worry, Jorani picked it up in less than a year without any help, so I’m sure you’ll figure it out soon enough. You’ll require a lot more muscle to wield your weapon effectively though, so you’ll have to put more time and effort into practising your Forms. I was going to oversee your workouts, but since Yan will be around with nothing to do, I… she volunteered to help. You’ll also have less time to run Rain’s business, so she can help with that too. Isn’t this great?” Mila asked, proud as a popinjay as she took in Luo-Luo’s reaction. “Neither of you knows the other very well, but now that you’ll be practically spending every minute of every day together, you’ll be thick as thieves in no time.”

 

“What fun,” Yan said, her tone sickly sweet while her eyes implied otherwise. Luo-Luo felt the same way, but lacked the courage to retort. Instead, she nodded mutely and clutched the sceptre to her chest, wondering if it’d be better to use it to hang herself. A quick and painless death now would be far more merciful than suffering through the days ahead, to say nothing of what would happen if the Defiled captured her alive on the battlefield.

 

 

No.

 

Had Luo-Luo wanted to end her life, she would have done so long ago. She had thought about almost every day after her fateful zither performance where she, an Imperial Servant, received a standing ovation from the Emperor himself. To most, she lived a cursed life, a first generation daughter of nobility sacrificed to Service due to a cruel twist of fate, then left to rot because she was so dazzling no one dared accept her.

 

An Imperial Servant too talented to employ, and as much as this haunted Luo-Luo, she also took pride in her excellence, for it was only fitting.

 

Though not everything came easily, thanks to her hard work and dedication, she excelled in every subject she ever tried her hand at, so why should combat be any different? She was already a Martial Warrior, so how difficult could it to become an Expert? Others might struggle their entire lives and never succeed, but for her? Not difficult at all. She couldn’t even remember forming her Core, for she’d been young and she’d succeeded as easily as breathing, but more importantly, once she put her mind to a task, past experience showed that success was not a question of if, but when.

 

For she was Zheng Luo, a daughter of Heaven with the blood of Emperors flowing through her veins. Excellence was merely what was expected of her, and she would achieve no less.

 

Chapter Meme

 

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Savage Divinity – Chapter 415


Hey all, we got another piece of fan art from Rocky! Whoooooo. This time we have various depictions of Demons and Defiled, some of whom are pretty damned sexy. Yea, you all know who I’m talking about. Bottom right. The one with the big… Sword. Everyone loves a big sword.

Thanks for another piece of awesome artwork Rocky! That’s all for now, enjoy the chapter.

The rest of you non-art-submitting types can enjoy the chapter too, I guess…

 

Remember, I’m always happy to receive art, whether it be here, on discord, or through email ruffwriter@outlook.com

Do it. Please.


 

With the forge banked and her tools put away, Mila hung up her apron, kicked off her long, leather boots, and sauntered out into the smithy’s courtyard where Papa sat poring over the details of her latest work. Leaving him to his studies, Mila stretched her arms over her head and worked the kinks out of her shoulders and back. The cool evening breeze felt good on her skin, but it was still warmer than she liked, and she looked forward to a long, refreshing bath to wash away the sweat and grime. Summer had only just begun, but already she found the days uncomfortably hot, a dry, blistering heat which left her sticky and irritable. Though she had no issues working next to a burning forge, it wasn’t the same as a stifling summer haze. The flickering incandescence of a lit flame filled her with fevered vigour and exuberance, while the sweltering summer sun made her want to go back to bed and sleep through the worst, two wholly different types of heat despite what most would believe.

 

Merely the thought of baking beneath the summer sun was enough to make Mila tired and vexed, so she laid down on the cool, comfortable grass and stared up at the Heavens. The large moon and twinkling stars looked a little different from the view she was used to, though if asked to explain how she’d be hard pressed to say. An apt summary of what life in Central was like, where things seemed familiar enough at first glance, yet dissimilar enough to be mildly unsettling. The food, the clothes, the customs, and even the language were all slightly off and Mila yearned for the familiar trappings of home. She missed traipsing through verdant forests and climbing over majestic mountains, swimming in roaring rivers and exploring twisting tunnels. There were so many unique vistas to take in back home, a scenic view no matter where she turned, but here in Central, there was only clear, shimmering water and tall, swaying grass in every direction as far as the eye could see.

 

“This be good work.” Jolting Mila out of her melancholic daze, Papa flicked her latest creation with his fingernail. The heavy flail rang with an audible hum and he nodded in approval, giving it a few more flicks along its length and producing a new sound each time. “Daresay it’s some of your best, lass. You’re a rare talent, one not seen in a hundred millennia, and it won’t be long before you surpass this old man. Might be time you put me out to pasture and took over me duties.”

 

Beaming from his glowing praise, Mila sat up and hugged her Papa tight, her arms unable to wrap all the way around his prodigious belly. “Don’t be silly Papa. I would’ve never gotten this far without your guidance and I’m still a long ways from matching your skills. I spent half the week working out the measurements and two more days to craft it, while you made at least two dozen weapons in the same time frame.”

 

“Bah.” Snorting in feigned anger, Papa swatted her head lightly and stroked her hair, his palm so large it covered half her skull. “Neat trick you got there lass. You open your mouth and horse farts come out, ain’t ever seen anything like it. Been learning diplomacy, have you? No need to worry, this old man’s ego won’t shatter so easily. I been churning out nothing but standard spears with nothing fancy about ‘em, but every time I look over, you’re working on something new and exciting, like this here flail. Don’t think there’s a blacksmith out there who could do what you do, and I know blacksmiths. This braided cord here, you get the idea from Jorani’s weapon?”

 

“Yup. I wanted to see if I could make a better version after Rain wrote about how instrumental Jorani was during their first patrol. The hardest part was figuring out how everything would look when laid out on the anvil, but once I had that plotted out, things fell into place. It was more difficult to assemble than I thought and I almost bungled it a few times, but everything worked out. It’s a flail with an adjustable chain length, measuring three meters at its longest and doubling as a mace when wholly retracted.” Taking the weapon in hand, Mila twisted the base of the haft to show him while narrating the complicated crafting process.

 

Papa could joke about horse farts all he liked, but his centuries of experience were nothing to sneeze at. If there was a mistake or deficiency in her methods, then Papa would see it, and as usual, he didn’t disappoint. “A masterpiece to be sure, but you’ll want to choose its wielder carefully. It don’t look too heavy for a mace, but they’ll need a strong arm to wield it with all that chain tucked inside. Your candidate can’t be too big either, the weapon’s too small for someone my size to use in any of its forms, not to mention I’d be liable to brain myself with it, so you want someone cautious and precise, someone who thinks twenty steps ahead and plans for ten. Then…”

 

These were all things Mila never considered when crafting the flail, more concerned about whether she could do it rather than if she should. Ever since Rain introduced the concept of multi-function weapons, she’d been obsessed with the idea and devoted every free moment to designing the ultimate, all-purpose Spiritual Weapon. Rain’s glaive Unity lacked an extreme close combat option, and by utter fluke, she’d come close with her third Spiritual Weapon, Paragon, but due to its unique requirements, there weren’t many Martial Warriors capable of unlocking its full potential.

 

The latter which delighted Mila to no end. Paragon was her weapon, and there might never be another like it.

 

After committing his critique and suggestions to memory, Mila and Papa headed home for a bath, a meal, and a long night’s rest. Such was life here in sleepy SuiHua, though the lack of excitement could be seen as a blessing in disguise. Nine months had passed since the West was lost and three months since the Imperial Grand Conference, but the Defiled had yet to gather for a concentrated push into Central. While this gave the Empire more time to prepare for the impending invasion, Mila’s heart ached for the people of the West, no doubt suffering beneath the heel of Defiled subjugation. Many of those poor souls would likely embrace the Father’s lies and take up arms against the Empire, and she couldn’t blame them. The Emperor failed his sacred duty to protect them and abandoned untold numbers of the Mother’s faithful children, leaving them with no hope of rescue or reprieve. To make matters worse, even more souls gave their lives constructing the walls, towers, and border forts which were supposed to protect them, a sad state of affairs if there ever was one. A multitude of new faces arrived in port each day, poor, frightened slaves and labourers press-ganged into service, their lives ready to be consumed by the war efforts of the Empire. Add in widespread food shortages, the death toll on the front lines, and the occasional Purge of dissidents, radicals, or traitors, and the Empire’s losses no doubt numbered in the hundreds of millions.

 

A staggering cost in lives and the war had yet to truly begin. What would their losses be like when the Defiled grew bored of subjugation and turned their attentions east? Could the Empire even survive against a united army of Defiled? What could be done to improve their odds? All this and more left Mila with a pounding head and heavy heart. These were matters beyond her comprehension, issues for the likes of the Marshals and Generals of the Empire to contemplate and deliberate over. The problem was, now that Mama was one of those vaunted Generals, Mila wanted to help but didn’t know where to start. She couldn’t even offer emotional support, what with Mama stationed two-hundred kilometres away to oversee the construction of the citadel. One of three massive superstructures, the citadels would form the backbone of Central’s defences, a headquarters, troop training ground, rest area, workshop, and supply depot all in one place, which meant steep construction costs in both gold and blood. Though she carried herself with cold disdain, Mama was a kind and compassionate woman who likely shared all of Mila’s woes, except hers would be compounded by her part in all of it.

 

Mila prayed they would be reunited soon, else she feared Mama’s heart would break from all her guilt and misery.

 

Kicking open the double doors in his haste to enter, Papa’s booming laugh echoed through their borrowed courtyard manor. “Come little ones,” he called, falling to one knee in front of the twins. “Give your great-grandpappy a hug.”

 

Their cheery laughs lifted Mila’s spirits and she took a moment to appreciate the good things in life, like seeing her hulking grizzly-bear of a father in the middle of a massive group hug with Tali, Tate, Baloo, and Banjo. The bears especially loved Papa, perhaps because he was the only person around large enough to carry them comfortably in one arm. Though they still had plenty to grow before reaching adulthood, the goofy yearling cubs had almost doubled in size since Rain left for the front lines, and she feared he’d no longer be able to carry them around on his back. Starved of affection as always, Aurie greeted Mila with a plaintive cry and flopped at her feet, entangling her legs so she couldn’t leave until she provided the requisite belly rubs. Happy to oblige, Mila crouched down and cooed at the needy wildcat, having long since grown accustomed to the ever present Death Corps guards around them. “Hello kitten. Yes, I missed you too. Did grumpy Lin forget to brush you again? I suppose she was too busy moping around. It’s okay, I’ll brush you sweetling. Again. Not like I’m tired from hammering all day or anything.”

 

As much as she loved Lin, Mila’s tolerance for the spoiled grouch was reaching its end. The love-struck girl was insufferable without Rain around to spoil her, a sullen, petulant little princess who complained without end. Lin-Lin is bored, Lin-Lin wants fresh noodles, Lin-Lin misses hubby, Lin-Lin hates Pong Pong, Mila was this close to shipping Lin off to the front lines just so they wouldn’t have to listen to her complaints anymore. Rain created this monster with his overindulgent behaviour, so he should be the one to deal with it.

 

“Sorry Mi-Mi.” Sounding anything but, Lin bounded over and tackled Mila in a hug, her charming, toothy grin in full-effect. “I only forgot because Yan-Yan came back.”

 

“Don’t push the blame on me, I only arrived a few hours ago.” Striding over with her rolling gait, Yan’s warm smile washed away Mila’s peevish melancholy. Running over with a squeal of delight, Mila lifted Yan in the air and spun her about, a tradition of theirs ever since their disastrous journey to the Society Headquarters. Back then, Yan would always crinkle her nose and grudgingly accept the display of affection, a cold and aloof loner who spent every second in training. Now, she laughed her throaty laugh and hugged Mila back, having grown into a warmer, cuddlier person after their long separation.

 

Loathe as she was to admit it, Mila had that old fart Du Min Gyu to thank for this. After stealing her away to adopt her, that standoffish tom-boy had blossomed into a loving and affectionate woman, one who better appreciated the bonds of friendship and family.

 

“It’s about time you came back to visit,” Mila gasped, dizzy from spinning too much. “After the second time you sent for reinforcements without leaving the front lines, I thought you meant to challenge Rain’s ongoing record for longest tour on the front lines.” Even though she missed him dearly and prayed for his safe return, Mila took great pride in his gruelling accomplishments. Only two others, Mitsue Hideo and Quyen Dienne, could come close matching to Rain’s record of fifty-six consecutive days on the front lines, and neither could ever dream of topping his astonishing results. Rain’s retinue killed more Defiled with fewer losses than any other unit in the Empire, putting his so-called rivals to shame as their elite retinues of heavy cavalry and armoured rhinos failed to match up with Rain’s brilliant tactics and miraculous Healing methods.

 

Rolling her eyes, Yan huffed and blew her silky bangs to one side. “As if. It’s our misfortune and poor judgment to be betrothed to an idiot like him.”

 

Inwardly bristling at the derision, Mila held her tongue and hugged a little harder, not enough to hurt Yan but just enough to make things a little uncomfortable. Yan’s results were fairly typical and landed her in the middle of the pack, but it wasn’t a competition. They were all one family, so Mila didn’t understand why Yan felt the need to put down their betrothed?

 

Mila’s indignation lasted only for a moment as Lin explained Rain’s gaffe between fits of giggles. Mila thought Rain had just been making excuses so he could remain on the front lines and amass glory for the People, but as per usual, this was merely Rain being Rain and misinterpreting the situation. Mother forbid he ask someone for clarification, no, her betrothed was much too arrogant for that.

 

Swallowing her irritation, Mila shook her head and said, “Come, join me in the bath and we’ll continue our conversation there.”

 

While Yan and Lin readily agreed, Zheng Luo tried to slip away without notice, an oddly prudish woman considering she walked around in public with her cleavage on full display. Stifling a sigh, Mila grabbed Zheng Luo and pulled her along, adamant to integrate the fussy Imperial into their household before Rain’s return. It’s not that Mila particularly liked the woman or even enjoyed her company, but she was Rain’s concubine and they were stuck with her, so it would be best if everyone got along. Already Mila could see fractures forming in Rain’s extended absence, with Lin’s brattiness driving them apart and a budding rivalry forming between Yan and Zheng Luo.

 

Why Mila cared about keeping Rain’s harem conflict free, she couldn’t say. Mila was utterly outmatched by the others, so she would only benefit if the harem fell apart. First and foremost, there was sweet, adorable Lin, whom Rain doted upon the most. In all his letters, Lin’s name would always come first and its contents largely addressed to her, while the others were spoken of in passing if he remembered them. With her large eyes and round cheeks, Lin’s youthful features had yet to mature, but that didn’t detract from her charm and allure. With her supple, honeyed skin and long, silken hair, Lin was undoubtedly on track to blossom into a kingdom-toppling beauty once her baby fat melted away and her… womanly assets bloomed.

 

Then there was sultry, seductive Yan. With her defined, sculpted features, pale, jade-like skin, and plump, cherry-pink lips, her appearance was reminiscent of the fairies of myth, the Mother’s true daughters crafted in Her own image who descended from the Heavens to aid Her Chosen Sons. Granted, those were made up stories to elevate the wives and concubines of those legendary heroes, but were one to paint Yan as a hornless, long-haired maiden, it would undoubtedly become a textbook portrait of classical beauty. Not only this, but she was closest to Rain’s heart, his best friend and most trusted confidant. Even without her insurmountable beauty or wide, provocative hips, Mila was no match for Yan’s raunchy humour or her throaty, captivating laugh.

 

Speaking of classical beauties, one couldn’t forget Zheng Luo. While Yan fit the profile of a fairy from Heaven, Zheng Luo might well be one, her features flawless and physique unmatched, a slim, buxom goddess with long, slender legs and shapely, elegant feet. As if physical perfection weren’t enough, the Imperial Servant possessed a brilliant mind and admirable work ethic, labouring tirelessly day and night in her office on the second floor to grow Rain’s budding merchant undertaking into a veritable enterprise. Under her brilliant management, Rain’s income had finally surpassed his expenditures, no mean feat for a profligate squanderer and bleeding heart philanthropist like him. What’s more, no matter what they needed, Zheng Luo could procure it. Whether it be outrageous quantities of preserved shrimp for Rain, first rate binding materials for Papa and Mila, or Runic Inscription supplies for Taduk, if it took longer than a few days to arrive, Zheng Luo would all but kowtow in apologies for the lengthy delay.

 

Last and least of all was Mila, a dour, jealous, harridan of a woman who nagged and threatened her betrothed about every minor detail. With hair which tangled like a rat’s nest and pale skin dotted in ugly freckles, she couldn’t compare in attitude nor beauty. Small wonder why Rain would praise Lin, sleep with Yan, goggle at Zheng Luo, but only tell Mila to not be jealous. Such was her lot in life, to be the shrew and bully in Rain’s otherwise perfect marriage.

 

Even wary and watchful Li Song wasn’t immune to his charms, willingly delivering herself to his power so she could fight at his side…

 

Stupid Rain and his stupid, licentious ways. Why couldn’t he be more like Junior Martial Brother Fung? They weren’t even betrothed, yet he wrote a poem or sonnet everyday for that ice queen, Ryo Seoyoon…

 

Discouraged and disheartened by her bath-time revelations, Mila stewed in silence until it was time for dinner. To welcome Yan, Charok cooked a sumptuous feast and Papa, Taduk, and even Yan’s bodyguard Kyung joined them, but Mila was in no mood to celebrate. Perhaps noticing her low spirits, Lin sat down beside her with a pot of fruit wine, smiling her toothy smile as she poured Mila a cup. Warmed by the rare show of consideration, Mila drank it down and inwardly scolded herself for her catty and hateful thoughts, further proof she had the worst personality among her future sister-wives. Barely able to taste Charok’s delicious food, her foul mood continued to plummet as the night wore on, drinking every time she found more proof of her failings. Maternal Yan making sure Tali and Tate ate all their vegetables, Zheng Luo dining with perfect poise and impeccable manners, or Lin repeatedly refilling Mila’s cup no matter how quickly she downed the fruity alcohol. They were all so beautiful and perfect. How was Mila supposed to compare?

 

Something cold and wet pressed against Mila’s lower back and she yelped in surprise, spilling her cup in the process. Frightened by her reaction, Banjo shrank away and took his cold, wet nose with him, his gaze lowered and eyes sad because he knew he’d done something bad, but wasn’t sure what. Feeling remorseful about scaring Banjo, it disappeared when Mila saw Papa feeding Baloo on the other side and she snapped, “Stop feeding the animals table-scraps! It’s not good for them and it encourages them to beg.” With the floodgates opened, her ire burst out as she flew off the handle, venting her frustrations on the people around her. “Taduk, you’re a grown man. Stop pushing your vegetables around and eat them. Zheng Luo, this is a family dinner not a formal event. No one will be offended if your eating area isn’t spotless. Tate, don’t think I didn’t see you throwing your eggplant to Jimjam. He’s a cat, he won’t eat it, and it could make him sick if he does. And you.” Turning to Kyung, the only person at the table still eating, Mila scowled and asked, “Were you raised by wolves?”

 

Rather than answer, Kyung responded with a throaty growl, pulling his bowl close as if ready to fight to defend it. None of this kept him from stuffing his mouth, inhaling rice, meat, and vegetables as quickly as his chopsticks delivered it. Incensed by his shameless reaction, Mila slammed her chopsticks down and stood to beat him senseless. “Outside, you manner-less cur, lets see if a guard trained by ‘Great Teacher’ Du Min Gyu fights as well as he eats.”

 

“Mila please.” Intercepting her on the way over, Yan grabbed Mila by the waist and pleaded, “He means no offence, he’s never tasted Charok’s cooking before and got a little too excited. Kyung, there’s plenty to go around so please behave yourself. Come sister, sit down, there’s not need for violence at the dinner table.”

 

Papa and Charok chimed in to smooth things over, so Mila shot Kyung a glare and returned to her seat, her cheeks burning from the alcohol and embarrassment. The spilled wine had been wiped dry and her cup filled once more, so Mila downed another cup and glowered at the unrepentant Kyung, wishing she could Send and tell him how lucky he was Yan had stopped her from trouncing him. So what if he proved himself Alsantset’s match two years ago? Even though Mila had been cooped up in the forge for the better part of a year, that didn’t mean she’d neglected her Martial Path. In fact, creating so many Spiritual Weapons had honed her senses to the extreme and helped her make great strides along the Martial Dao, specifically with regards to controlling her Blessing. Though she Awakened at a young age, Mila had yet to reveal it to the world at large, but when she did, her name would rise to the Heavens as she claimed her place as Number One Talent in the Empire.

 

Whatever, so what if Mila wasn’t the best wife? She had plenty of other admirable qualities and Rain loved her so he would have to accept her flaws. Even if he placed her last in his heart, if he dared treat her poorly, then Mila would beat him to a pulp and complain to Mama and Papa so they’d beat him too.

 

Might makes right, in war and in love.

 

Chapter Meme

 

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