The cold winter’s breeze brushed across Song’s nose and just barely roused her from blissful slumber. Robbed of peaceful lethargy by the unwelcome chill, she screwed her eyes shut and ignored her rumbling belly and the cacophonous din going on around her in a desperate effort to fall asleep once again. Still weary and exhausted, she put food and training soldiers out of mind to seek the warmth of her blessed pillows, burying her face against the smooth, silky surface and sighing to take in the fragrant, flowery scent while squirming this way and that in search of a more comfortable position. To her grave dismay, there was something restricting her movements, not the cold, hard bindings of chains or the rough, confining burn of ropes, but a softer, more pliable constraint keep her from rolling over on her side or straightening up to stretch her contorted spine. There was something strange about this bed, but Song tightened her arms around her pillow and wilfully resisted the instinct to open her eyes and wake, for it would mean an end to this snug and cozy existence and facing cold, unwelcome reality.
“Li-Li,” Luo-Luo pleaded, her voice strained and laboured. “Could you please loosen your grip? This one can barely breathe. Also, while this one is happy to carry you, in light of the dire circumstances, perhaps it’s best if you stood on your own now that you’ve awakened.”
Coming to with a start, Song rubbed the sleep out of her eyes while trying to make sense of the situation. “Luo-Luo? Why are you in my bed?” Well… no matter. Sharing a bed wasn’t so terrible as she once believed, and if the dramatic Consort wanted to snuggle, then Song would tactfully allow it, though snuggling was all she would allow. Resting her head on Luo-Luo’s soft shoulder, she lazily glanced around to see if anyone else had joined them, then froze in surprise as she took in her surroundings and realized she was not, in fact, tucked inside her bed and sleeping in her yurt, but rather nestled in Luo-Luo’s arms out in the open courtyard of fort Sinuji. Corpses littered the ground around them, mostly of Defiled and Demon alike, though there were enough fallen Khishigs and Death Corps guards to make her chest ache. Belatedly gasping as she recognized the telltale marks of Wraiths, she slipped out of Luo-Luo’s arms and fumbled for her saber, only to discover it wasn’t strapped to her waist. Panicked at the thought of fighting off deadly assassins without her beloved weapon, she nonetheless settled into a defensive stance with fists clenched and teeth bared, ready to fight off any and all comers with empty hands to keep Luo-Luo and her silly but sweet handmaidens safe.
…Only there was no one to defend them from. Demons scurried back down into their earthen tunnels or Cloud-Stepped away into the distance while Wraiths died in droves to the various Experts chasing them down. Imperial soldiers, Lin-Lin’s veiled guards, and even Rain’s accountants and couriers ran roughshod over the Defiled forces, though she now suspected those innocuous clerks hanging around Luo-Luo were more than mere administrative staff. Unable to believe her eyes, Song rubbed them again and pinched her cheeks to make sure she wasn’t still dreaming, but the chaos continued unabated until there was no one left to fight.
Well, aside from the battle raging on by the inner wall, a more equitable exchange which Song found more reassuring than the one-sided rout she’d just witnessed. What happened in the time she missed? The last thing she remembered was sitting atop Zabu on the outer wall, her arms wrapped around Rain’s waist while wondering why he was in so much pain. Then she remembered falling, her braid trailing in the wind as she stared up at the starry night sky, followed by unimaginable pain as her Core emptied all her Chi into her Runic armour.
Followed shortly after by a deafening crack and blissful nothingness.
The Water-Blessed Demon had punched them off the wall, and Song tried to keep Rain safe, but while her armour kept her ribs intact, the impact had broken her skull or possibly her neck or leg, she wasn’t quite sure what. Something had broken, this much she was certain, but judging by the lack of pain or discomfort and her ravenous appetite, someone had Healed her injuries. Though grateful for the assistance, she disapproved of the wasteful expenditure since the battle was still going strong and the Healer’s Chi could have been put to better use. Better to save ten to twenty Martial Warriors who would live to fight another day than to Heal a mere Song back to full health, but it was not her place to judge her benefactor.
Belatedly noticing Anrhi clutching her saber, Song quietly tapped the handmaiden’s arm and gestured for her weapon back. Offering the weapon with a nervous titter, the affable Anrhi took Luo-Luo’s arm as a replacement for the saber, even though the latter would need both hands free to utilize her weapon. Noticing the Spiritual Sceptre locked in Sorya’s embrace, Song cleared her throat to get Luo-Luo’s attention and wordlessly glanced at the sceptre and back, quietly indicating the Consort should take it in hand, if only for the sake of face. Failing to catch the subtle hint, Luo-Luo alternated between looking at Sorya and Song before understanding dawned on her face and she gently nudged the slack-jawed handmaiden closer to Song with a knowing smile, no doubt mistakenly believing Song also wanted someone to cling to but was simply too proud to say so.
Unsure whether to laugh or cry, Song decided now was not the time to lecture Luo-Luo on the wisdom of being prepared and instead asked, “What happened?” All too eager to explain, the breathless Consort rambled out a semi-coherent but barely believable tale of how Rain single-handedly slaughtered not one, but three Demons after awakening from his daze, though she made no mention of any Healer coming to their aid or how the Defiled made it from the outer wall to inner courtyard in the short time Song had been unconscious. Filing the questions away to ask again later, she scanned the crowd until she found Rain in all the disorder, standing over the corpse of a fallen Demon and staring up into the night’s sky while ringed by weary, injured Death Corps guards and a battered and bleeding Ping Ping.
Normally an imposing and formidable sight, the Guardian Turtle looked so pitiful in the aftermath of battle, her head laying flat in the dirt and arms and legs spread akimbo instead of withdrawn comfortably inside her shell. For good reason too, Song soon saw as she approached, for Ping Ping’s limbs were covered in burns, gouges, and gashes aplenty, all untreated and left to heal on their own. Flaps of leathery skin hung loosely and oozed streams of bright red blood, the colour all the more striking in contrast with her dark-green colouring, and Song rushed over to cradle the giant beast’s head and stroke her eye ridges, but there was little else she could do. The wounds were all comparatively minor if one took the Guardian Turtle’s size into account, but even the smallest injury was larger than Song’s head and she knew from experience how painful Ichor burns could be.
Emitting a mournful squeak which brought Song close to tears, Ping Ping stared at Rain’s back as if asking him to make all the pain go away, but the callous cad didn’t even flinch as he continued scowling at empty air, and she could remain silent no longer. “Rain,” she called, but he paid her no mind, so still and subdued one might almost mistake him for a statue. “Rain! Ping Ping is injured and frightened.” So perhaps he should console her, or his other pets who were nowhere to be found but liable to be quivering in fright. Maybe Lin-Lin had them, though the half-hare was also conspicuously absent, no doubt brought away by her silent, veiled guardians.
So lost in her thoughts, Song failed to notice Monk Happy quietly gesturing for silence while keeping everyone away from Rain. “Do not interrupt him,” the plump, friendly monk hissed, barely speaking loud enough to be heard over the clamour of battle nearby. “He may be ruminating over a unique Insight, one which explains his staggering mastery and control. Oh, if only the Abbot were here to witness this, he would have the answers we need…”
Leaving Monk Happy to mumble and mutter, Song continued consoling Ping Ping while quietly studying Rain. According to Luo-Luo, he was fully recovered and a Martial Warrior once more. A formidable one at that, but considering their earlier exchange on the wall regarding his ability to Orate, Song wasn’t sure if this was yet another fluke or if he’d truly recovered and would actually understand what he’d done. Deciding it was best to leave him be, Song sighed and continued stroking the Guardian Turtle’s beak, wishing she had Rain’s knowledge of herbs and medicine to treat Ping Ping’s wounds or his Aura to convey her love and sympathy to the sweet and lovable beast.
Or really, any Aura at all.
Today had revealed far too many incomprehensible secrets of Heaven, ones she could barely wrap her mind around. Using Emotion to bind Heavenly Energy and turn it into Chi sounded like utter nonsense, but Auntie Ghurda and Colonel General Nian Zu had both agreed with Rain’s explanation, albeit with some reluctance. If this was truly how the Martial Path worked, then it meant Song understood almost nothing regarding Balance or Chi, less than nothing since she’d been going about it incorrectly for years now. To her, Balance itself wasn’t about emotion, but rather the lack thereof, but if she found Balance through lack of emotion, then how could she be binding Heavenly Energy with emotion? Then there were Dastan’s nonsensical ramblings about One with the Self and One with the World, more concepts beyond Song’s meagre comprehension, but the scariest part was that Dastan’s explanations made more sense than Rain’s even though Auntie Ghuda clearly disagreed, because Song saw hints of One with the Self in how she Formed her Natal Palace.
The restraints of her Oaths and the freedom she obtained through love of family had laid the foundation for her Natal Palace, with her chain demarcating a boundary within the Void while Mama’s dulcet tones reciting the Classics of Poetry reminding Song she was loved and cherished. Was this not One with the Self, in how she came to terms with her circumstances and learned to better express her emotions to her family and loved ones? The problem was, Dastan’s explanation made no sense in the grand scheme of things, because if he was correct and One with the Self was a requirement to become One with the World, than every Martial Warrior with a Domain would be frank and forthright, except nothing could be further from the truth. Candour and openness was the exception rather than the norm when speaking of Martial Warriors and their personalities, which was hardly surprising in a profession where discipline and control formed the core tenets of their lifestyles. What’s more, social niceties had to be taken into account because the truth was often unpleasant to the ear and a single misinterpreted comment could easily devolve into conflict and bloodshed over face or reputation.
Thus, it was impossible for One with the Self to be a requirement along the Martial Path, but it made too much sense and applied to too much of Song’s personal Path to be dismissed out of hand. To be honest, a small part of her wished she had been left out of their conversation, because she added little to the discussion and Rain himself would’ve eventually pieced together that the gourd was responsible for his recovery on his own.
Then again, even this so-called conclusion might be suspect if Luo-Luo’s rendition of events was even remotely accurate. How did drinking Water Chi turn Rain into a warrior powerful enough to kill Demons with his bare hands? Perhaps it wasn’t the Water Chi, but rather the droplet of Heavenly Water he’d used to cleanse Song’s Ichor wounds back in Sanshu, though she wasn’t entirely certain what had become of ‘Blobby’ in recent times. Rain had far too many secrets and unique experiences to properly keep track of, especially since he was so good at hiding them.
As if summoned by her thoughts, Rain appeared in front of her with a scowl upon his face, and for a moment, Song was shocked by his subtle, but startling transformation. Though still gaunt of frame, he filled his clothes better now instead of looking like a child wearing his older brother’s cast offs. His complexion was better too, still pale but not deathly so, and lacking the sheen of oil she’d grown accustomed to overlooking. No longer cracked and brittle, his moist lips were utterly free of blood or viscera, which in and of itself wasn’t a cause for worry, but took a dark turn when Song realized it was the only area free of blood or viscera. Face, hands, robes, and pants, every millimetre of Rain’s body was splattered with gore which cast him in a feral, savage light, aided by his unfocused amber eyes, so utterly devoid of intellect or empathy.
This was not like Rain at all, especially with sweet Ping Ping squeaking beside them. Paying the Guardian Turtle no mind, he leaned in close to stare at Song’s Runic breastplate with uncomfortable intimacy. For long seconds, she worried he’d been overwhelmed by the heady rush of battle and now meant to slake his lust, a common ‘malady’ amongst noble youths Song knew all too well. Though she’d grown more comfortable with his presence in recent times, she found an inhuman hunger burning in his clouded eyes, one which made her want to shrink back and cover her chest from his fixed yet unfocused gaze. It was foolishness to the extreme since there was no way he could peer through solid steel and the silken tunic beneath to gaze upon naked flesh, but his rapacious stare made her uncomfortable nonetheless.
Trembling from head to toe, Song’s Oaths would not allow her to rebuff Rain so she stood stock still as he ran his finger lightly over her breastplate with his brow furrowed and lips pursed. Location aside, there was nothing inherently lewd or erotic in his actions or demeanour, but she still feared the worst, as did at least one other judging by Luo-Luo’s scandalized gasp. Oblivious to it all, Rain persisted with his misleading actions for almost a full minute before Song realized he was tracing the Runes, though why he might do such a thing was anyone’s guess.
Scowling in irritation, Rain tapped Song’s armour several times before huffing in exasperation, never once meeting her gaze throughout it all. It were as if she were simply a piece of furniture upon which the armour sat, and now that his interest had waned, he no longer cared for either one. Then it became Ping Ping’s turn to suffer his scrutiny, a process which was heartbreaking to watch. Lifting her head ever so slightly, the Guardian Turtle let loose with a subdued, plaintive squeak while stretching her head forward for him to pat or stroke, but Rain simply stood there with an empty expression and his arms dangling at his side as he took in the wounded Ping Ping.
For the first time since she met him, Song had difficulty reading his expression, except it wasn’t because he’d finally learned to hide them, but because he wasn’t entirely sure what he wanted to express. The hunger was still there, though muted and restrained, joined by… not confusion, but troubled uncertainty as he watched Ping Ping plead for attention. Unsuccessful with her endeavours, the Guardian Turtle’s squeaks grew quieter and more infrequent as seconds passed, then minutes, until she finally gave up entirely and laid her head back down in the dirt. Even then, her eyes continued to stare at Rain with what Song saw as grief and anguish, unable to understand why her favourite person refused to offer her comfort, but wholly trusting there was good reason.
Moving neither slowly nor quickly, Rain lifted his hand and stretched it towards Ping Ping’s beak, his expression still dull and unreadable and arm trembling not from cold or fright, but rather wavering indecision. Hunger and hesitance warred in his gaze, a victor still yet to be decided as his palm came to rest on Ping Ping’s beak, but then the big girl squealed in sheer, unadulterated delight and Rain’s unknown decision was made.
Though Song herself was still in physical contact with the Guardian Turtle, she felt nothing and didn’t even know something was happening until Luo-Luo gasped yet again. Following the dramatic courtesan’s pointing finger, Song stifled a gasp of her own as she watched Ping Ping’s wounds mend before her eyes, almost as quickly as Rain Healed his own injuries with Panacea. Faster even, with the entire treatment completed in less than three breaths of time, but as Rain let his hand fall from Ping Ping’s beak, Song sensed more than saw his weary exhaustion. There was no smile or satisfaction to be seen as he shuffled away from the renewed but exhausted Guardian Turtle, only a slight stumble in his gait and a droop of his shoulders which gave away his fatigue, but it was clear as day to anyone who’d seen Rain like this before. As much as he loved to grumble and grouse over the most minor of inconveniences, when times were truly hard, he would rarely utter a complaint and simply accept whatever burdens lay before him with little more than a sigh, just as he’d done here and now.
Healing the Guardian Turtle had cost him dearly, yet he’d done it all the same, which meant it was still Rain behind those amber eyes, albeit a confused and disoriented one. Had he been sound of mind, he would never have ignored Ping Ping for so long or hesitated to help, nor would he have left without wrapping his arms around her beak in a warmhearted embrace.
Stiffly ambling across the ruined campgrounds, Rain stopped every so often to check on a body, but never the corpses of his soldiers. Instead, he seemed most interested in the remains of Demons, while every so often he’d stop to inspect a Wraith. It soon became clear why as he pushed Siyar aside and dragged a half-dead Wraith out from a collapsed tunnel. The sudden movement elicited a strangled scream of pain from the pale, lanky assassin, followed by what Song assumed was a long and lengthy stream of hate-filled curses in his guttural tongue. Wholly indifferent to the Wraith’s reaction, Rain loomed over the dying Defiled and studied him the same way he studied Song’s armour, though hunger might be too lacking a word to describe it. Rain watched the Defiled like the bears and wildcats watched a delectable meaty treat, like the twins watched their dumplings cook, and how Mama Bun watched a sprig of Spiritual Herb. This went beyond mere craving or desire, but rather a desperate need to feast after long weeks of famine, yet even then, all Rain did was stand and watch as the Defiled Wraith slowly succumbed to his wounds.
And then, Rain scoffed once more and went back to scrounging through corpses until he found another near dead survivor, only this time, instead of passively watching, Rain picked up a nearby Wraith Dagger, a Defiled weapon coated in an insidious poison which could cripple Martial Warriors with a touch. Grabbing the Wraith by the back of the head, Rain raised the dagger to his helpless foe’s face and –
Snarled at Monk Happy, who had ignored his own warnings to stop Rain from torturing the Wraith. “Eh-Mi-Tuo-Fuo,” Monk Happy chanted, visibly unnerved by his own actions. “This goes against the Precepts, Junior Brother, and this monk will not allow it. Needless suffering only begets more suffering, so please, rethink your actions and find another way.” Though initially angered by Monk Happy’s interference, it quickly melted away as Rain found something more interesting than torturing a dying Wraith, something in the empty space directly behind the portly monk. Noticing this a heartbeat after Song did, Monk Happy moved to bar Rain’s way and said, “No, Junior Brother. You cannot!”
Forcibly pushing past the monk, Rain reached towards the empty space only to falter as Monk Happy grabbed both his wrists and held him in place. “Stop, Junior Brother, this monk does not want to hurt you.” With a flick of his wrist, Rain broke Monk Happy’s grip with ease and continued towards the empty space, only to be bodily dragged aside and pushed back several meters away. Grabbing Rain by the arms this time, Monk Happy tried to hold him place, but he merely slipped to one side and ducked underneath the monk’s arms to escape his grasp. Charging at the same empty space with undisguised greed, Rain grabbed at the air and came away with nothing, but his actions forced a massive, white-feathered silkie rooster out of Concealment with an undignified squawk. “Protect Kukku,” Monk Happy said, pouncing on Rain from behind and wrapping him in a two armed hug while the giant rooster ran about like… well like a chicken without its head, his wings flapping and path meandering without rhyme or reason as he cawed in unadulterated panic. “Do not let him run too far, else we might never find him again!”
A quick glance around showed no one moving to restrain the adorably frightened Kukku, not Lin-Lin’s veiled guards, Rain’s Death Corps Guards, his loyal Khishigs, or even Luo-Luo and her handmaidens. Though she wanted nothing more than to pet the soft and adorable rooster, she was wary of his sharp spurs and wicked beak, so she moved slowly and carefully towards him. “Here Kukku,” she said, trying to sound friendly and inviting but coming out stilted and monotone instead. “Come Kukku.” What did chickens eat? Not dried jerky, that much was certain, and she had no fruit upon her person. “Do you want some tasty grass?”
Her words had no effect on the rooster’s panic, and her presence only made it worse, though a large part of it was probably because Rain was quickly getting the better of Monk Happy. Neither one attacked with intent to harm, but Rain was slippery and nigh untouchable as he used the larger monk’s strength against him. Though normally a cheerful and chipper sort, Monk Happy’s smile had long since melted away and been replaced by a furious grimace, the change so startling Song wondered he had switched places with his identical brother, Monk Angry.
“This isn’t working,” the monk called, for after only a minute of tussling, he could now barely lay a finger on Rain’s clothes as he darted and pivoted about. The only reason Kukku had yet to be caught was because the rooster had reined in his panic and was now using both Monk Happy and Ping Ping as obstacles to keep Rain and Song away. In fact, it almost seemed like the big rooster was beginning to enjoy himself, peeking back to make sure Song was still chasing and shaking his tail feathers to taunt them after hopping onto Ping Ping’s shell. “We must bring Junior Brother back to his senses.”
“How?” she asked, panting heavily while imagining how soft Kukku’s feathers would be.
“He appears to have reached a unique state of Balance,” Monk Happy explained, his tone tinged with anger and disbelief. “One which renders him reliant on base instinct and natural cunning, a bestial human of sorts. It’s unlike anything this monk has ever seen or heard of, the complete antithesis of the Brotherhood’s teachings, but it is… formidable to say the least. The problem is, Junior Brother means to kill Kukku because… because he believes the rooster has something he needs, but he is mistaken. Telling him does nothing, because he can not or will not respond to our words, so we must find some way to soothe his anger or sate his hunger.”
This still didn’t help, but apparently Luo-Luo thought differently. “Wait here,” she shouted, as if they had any other choice. Returning shortly after with her zither in hand, the silly Consort settled down and began plucking at the strings, playing the same piece she played so often which was titled ‘Rise to Glory’.
To no effect. Rain continued chasing Kukku while Monk Happy did his best to obstruct him, and neither man succeeded while the rooster made fools of them both, so overconfident he even took the time to strut and swagger about. Having long since fallen asleep, Ping Ping snored ever so quietly while the battle for Sinuji raged on, though now Luo-Luo’s music attracted the soldiers’ attention and many looked over to see this debacle carrying on.
In the midst of battle, while soldiers of the Empire fought against foul Defiled, Falling Rain was busy chasing a rooster over a sleeping turtle, while an angry monk chased him from behind.
Every bit as stubborn as Rain, Luo-Luo continued to play her piece, but the only ones who appreciated it were the bears, wildcats, and bunnies, all coming out of some Peak Expert’s Concealment to sit close and listen, with Lin-Lin following soon after. It was a darling sight to behold, the animals all swaying to the music while Aurie pressed against Luo-Luo’s shoulder and made happy noises as if singing along, one so heartwarming Song almost forgot about the battle for Sinuji and the shame Rain would face in the morning. Giving up the fruitless chase, Song moved to Luo-Luo’s side to better appreciate the show, but to her surprise, she found Rain had followed closely behind her.
Having given up chasing Kukku, Rain loomed over Luo-Luo the same way he’d loomed over Song and the Wraith, watching the scene with focused intensity, only more extreme than ever. A minute later, Kukku and Monk Happy also came over to watch, though they both kept well away, with Kukku prudently keeping the monk between himself and Rain. It didn’t matter, because he was wholly entranced by Luo-Luo’s music, a relaxed smile stretching across his face as he took it all in with empty, unfocused eyes. “Eh-Mi-Tuo-Fuo,” Monk Happy muttered, though he no longer looked happy at all. “Such lust, such sin, but Junior Brother cannot wholly be blamed. He behaves as a creature of instinct, and procreation is an instinct shared by all…”
The monk’s muttering caused Luo-Luo to make a mistake and pluck the wrong note, and though she quickly recovered, the magic was broken and Rain reeled in place. Shaking his head to clear his mind, he leaned forward and reached for Luo-Luo, whose fingers slowed to a stop as she stared hungrily at Rain’s hand as it moved closer and closer to her face.
Only to completely bypass her to pet Aurie instead.
“So cute,” Rain crooned, and the wildcat responded by leaping over the zither to get closer to his beloved master. “You’re so adorable with your singing, yes you are. Yes you are.” Laughing as the enthusiastic wildcat bowled him over, Rain hugged Aurie tight and sighed while Luo-Luo pouted and huffed at the side. “I missed this sooooo much.” Another bout of laughter rang out as the other animals rushed over to join in, all of them starved of affection and all too happy to be loved once more, with rumbling purrs and grunting laughs aplenty.
The hugs and pets didn’t last long as Rain fell asleep soon after, but his bright smile and lack of injuries were enough to prove he was of sound mind and sound health once again. Standing guard over him with saber in hand, Song watched the animals settle in around him while the battle continued to play out, a jarring contrast between peace and conflict if she’d ever seen one, but a sight which filled her with hope and confidence. This was the scene which greeted the reinforcements when they finally arrived in Sinuji, and though the battle still had yet to be won, Song threw herself into Mama’s warm embrace and closed her eyes to rest.
Sinuji was saved, Rain was in good health, and now everything could go back to normal again. Or not. Either way, there was no use worrying. For better or for worse, Rain would handle it, the same way he always did.
In an almost incompetent fashion which belied all common sense, but still got the job done regardless.
– End of Volume 29 –
Author’s note: And with this final chapter of 2019, now your watch begins. The long winter (break) starts now. I’ll be back sometime early to mid january (maybe 2020, maybe 2021, who knows), so buckle in for the long haul. This was as non cliffy as I could make it, so yea. Thanks for sticking with Savage Divinity for so long, and hopefully you’ll still be around when I finally reach the end, though I’ve given up on trying to guess how long that might take.
Seriously, when I started, I thought I’d be done with this whole story in 12-18 volumes. Max.
Also, I almost forgot, but art! This was comissioned by Onaboat from discord, who’s name means On A Boat and is not an allusion to a boat shaped sex toy as I once believed. Anyways, the artist is @dwiajiputra on insta, and he or she drew a spledid portrait of our protagonist, Falling Rain.
Next up, we have the Predator in his natural state.
Thanks Onaboat! Love it.
Anywho’s, thanks for reading, have a safe and happy holidays, a joyous new year, and I’ll see you all in 2020.
Yes, 2020 for those of you freaking out about the earlier joke.
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