Savage Divinity – Chapter 290


I’d like to give a shout out to my latest Patrons Aezei & Diksten. Thank you all so much for your support!


 

Staring down the beak of the monstrous, armoured reptile laying at my literal doorstep, it takes every iota of courage I have to keep my voice calm and steady. “Lin… Listen carefully. I’m not mad, but you need to get off the turtle and send it back to where you found it.”

 

Ignoring my instructions, Lin rests her chin on her hands and tilts her head, laying prone atop the giant turtle’s surprisingly flat head. “Don’t be silly hubby. I didn’t call her here, she came on her own.”

 

Shit. Fuck. God Dammit. And here I was hoping she had control of the giant armoured dinosaur. “Okay… but you still need to get down.” What the hell are her guards doing? Oh god, is Guard Leader strong enough to fight this thing? Do I want to find out? Maybe I can scare it off with my Aura, but I’d like to be out of biting range before trying it out.

 

“Don’t wanna. There’s nothing to worry about Rainy, she’s friendly ya?” Reaching down, Lin rubs the turtle between its eyes and giggles as it raises its head in response to her gentle ministrations. “See?”

 

Freed from its gaze, I’m finally able to look around and study the creature. It’s not as round as I’d expected, more of a bulky rectangle with spikes. Having raised its neck, I can see it’s belly is pressed flat against the ground, lacking the bulky bottom shell I expect to see on turtles. After a minute of Lin’s petting, the turtle shuffles its limbs back and forth and burrows its body into the loose dirt. Sinking into the earth at a rapid pace, it makes itself comfortable and lays its head at my feet, exhaling slowly as its eyelids close in peaceful slumber.

 

Letting go of a breath I didn’t realized I’d been holding, all the tension eases from my body as the threat passes. My retinue follows my cue with a collective sigh, lowering their readied weapons as they look to me for guidance. Giving the signal to disperse in silence, I pray they’re quiet enough not to disturb the sleeping giant. I suppose its possible we’ve encroached upon her favourite napping spot, but what are the chances?

 

Drained and exhausted by the brief yet harrowing turtle stare-down, I quietly ask Ravil for an explanation, which he gives in quiet whispers. According to the sentries, Ping Yao’s Guardian Turtle burst out of the treeline faster than a galloping horse, but immediately slowed down at the sight of so many people. Patiently waiting for people to get out of her way, the turtle headed straight into the heart of our camp, moving ever so slowly until she stopped outside my yurt. There, she waited for several minutes until Ravil found the courage to come inside and disturb my meditation.

 

Weird. Why did the turtle come looking for me? It didn’t care when I was a kilometre away this morning so why chase me down now? Did it sense Blobby while I was meditating? How though? My hands were soaking in a basin on water, detached from any other source.

 

Putting aside the why, I order Ravil to break camp as quietly as possible. There’s no way anyone is sleeping with a titanic turtle dozing nearby, but hopefully we can use this opportunity to get away. Cautiously moving closer, I reach out to Lin and motion for her to jump into my arms, to which she happily complies. With my wifey securely in my arms, I back away from the turtle one quiet, careful step at a time and slip into my yurt. While the wooden door and canvas walls won’t keep her out, I feel safer with the turtle out of sight. Speaking ever so quietly so as not to disturb the slumbering behemoth, I whisper, “Lin, what were you thinking? You could have seriously gotten hurt. I have half a mind to send you home!”

 

Unfazed by my concerned anger, Lin flashes her toothy grin and answers in a normal volume. “Don’t worry, if it was dangerous, the guards would have stopped me, ya? Besides, you can’t send me home. I don’t hafta follow your orders.” As if to prove her point, Lin sticks her tongue out and blows a raspberry.

 

I don’t blame her for not taking me seriously, I hardly seem imposing while trembling from head to toe, the aftereffects of too much adrenaline coursing through my veins. To make matters worse, Lin’s tousled hair and wrinkled night-clothes lend a sensual, seductive air to her impish smile, her cheeks flushed with excitement as she snuggles in my embrace. Sometime while I wasn’t looking, my adorable Lin blossomed into an alluring young lady, her fresh-faced innocence almost impossible to resist.

 

But resist I must. Calm down little Rain, you don’t want to do anything that’ll disappoint Taduk, and despoiling his only daughter before our wedding night certainly makes the list.

 

Oblivious to my inner struggle, Lin continues to defend her earlier actions. “Plus, Ping-Ping is a gentle sweetheart Rainy. She didn’t hurt anyone or break anything on her way in, ya?”

 

“No. Don’t name her.” Putting Lin down, I grab a stray blanket and warp it around her shoulders, doing my best to resist her innocent charms. “We’re not keeping the turtle.”

 

“Why not?”

 

“Because I said so.” Tempting though it may be, the turtle is too terrifying. “I don’t care how gentle or careful she is, Ping-Ping is one careless misstep away from turning someone into meat paste.” God dammit, Lin has worse naming sense than I do. Ping-Ping is hardly what you’d call a gargantuan, armoured, apex predator. “Look at how scared Aurie and Mafu are, my poor babies are shivering.” The two cowards in question lay cuddled together on the bed, their fear having gone unnoticed in my earlier haste to follow Ravil out. “Soon as Ravil gives the all clear, we’re gone. We’ll leave this yurt behind, no point taking needless risks.”

 

Running over to the cowardly animals, Lin giggles as she joins their dog-pile. “You big floofs are so silly. Ping-Ping won’t hurt anyone, don’t you worry.” Looking up, she asks, “What about daddy? He’s not back yet.”

 

He’s not? Shit. “I’ll leave an armed escort nearby. Don’t worry, I’m sure he’s fine.” I hope he’s fine. Why isn’t he back yet? It’s been more than twelve hours since we parted ways and he knows we’re on a tight schedule. Should I send someone to look for him? Ugh, being in charge is so stressful. I’ll ask Guard Leader if she can spare a minion or two to find my Teacher.

 

Having decided on my plan of action, I set about packing my things and generally keeping busy. Breaking camp takes a while and even more when done by moonlight, and I don’t have much to pack, so soon all I’ve left to do is sit around and twiddle my thumbs. Well, that’s not exactly true, there are a couple things I could do. I still need to put away the bed and blankets, but Aurie, Mafu, and Lin all fell asleep while I was busy, proving me wrong once more. Likewise, the baby bunnies are also snoozing away, all huddled together on their blanket by the foot of the bed. Other than that, the only thing I have left is to empty my water basin, but I’m not too keen on going outside for obvious reasons.

 

Having delayed for as long as possible, I finally gather up the nerve to brave the turtle. After dressing up in full battle gear, I open the door with Peace and Tranquility drawn and ready while balancing the water basin in my arms. The moment I step outside, Ping-Ping comes to life and lifts her head to stare me down like a hawk. Opening her mouth wide, she lets out the same oddly endearing squeak and waits, jaw agape and eyes wide with expectation. The ground beneath my feet trembles as I wither beneath her gaze, and a small, detached part of my brain realizes the ground is shaking because she’s wagging her long, snakelike tail.

 

That’s cute, she’s kinda like a massive, shelled, reptilian doggo. Why’s she so happy to see me though? Okay, don’t show fear, just act casual. Taking a step back, I resist the urge to scream and lash out as Ping-Ping stretches her neck to follow, keeping her open mouth within arms length of me. Another step back and the turtle follows once again, her neck deceptively longer than expected. It’s still not fully extended either, something to keep in mind should things turn sour.

 

Thus far, Ping-Ping hasn’t moved anything besides her head, patiently laying there with her mouth open like a baby bird waiting to be fed. Too scared to move any further, I stand frozen in front of Ping-Ping’s gaping maw, unsure how to proceed. I don’t want to find out what happens if I move further than her neck can stretch, not with Lin and my sweet pets asleep so close. What if Ping-Ping tries to stop me? I’m pretty sure I won’t enjoy even a gentle tug from her massive beak.

 

An errant thought runs through my mind and I stare at the basin in my hands. Is Ping-Ping thirsty? Placing the basin on the ground, I ready my weapons and step away, but my caution was unnecessary. Lowering her mouth to the tray-sized basin, Ping-Ping slurps up the water in one gulp and licks her chops while gazing at me with eager anticipation. After convincing her to stay, I slip away and return with a barrel of water, leaving the opened container well within her reach. After sniffing the water, Ping-Ping doesn’t partake of the drink, instead treating me to another adorable, squeaking cry.

 

Welp, mystery solved, it’s my fault she’s here. I don’t get what’s so special about the water I use for practice. True, I tried to bind the basin water to my Chi, but I failed, so why does Ping-Ping want my hand-washing water? Putting aside my weapons, I move to the barrel and place both hands into the water, hoping to test my theory by finding Balance. Not an easy feat with Ping-Ping’s breath rustling through my hair, almost impossible in fact. As if sensing my trepidation, she ease back and lays her head on the ground, watching me out the corner of her eye with her tongue hanging out the side of her mouth. Clever girl, she’s trying to put me at ease, but then again, she has been around for a few thousand years so I expect she’s learned a thing or two.

 

Exhaling to clear my head, I swallow my fear and focus on the task at hand. Comforted by Ping-Ping’s actions, Balance comes easily this time as I circulate my Chi throughout my body, picking up where I left off earlier. I am the water, the water is me. There is no beginning or end, an unbroken flow and unending cycle, no delineation between where I begin and the water ends, for we are one entity beneath the Heavens.

 

My meditation continues until something disrupts me, breaking me out of my trance. Opening my eyes, I find the sun peaking over the horizon while I stand inches from Ping-Ping as she laps away at the barrel of water. Well, lap isn’t the right word, she sticks her tongue out and the water rushes into her mouth like a reverse funnel. There’s no slurping or wind, just water moving against gravity like it’s a normal, everyday thing. Furrowing my brow, I try to draw the water towards me the same way, but I’m unable to move it in the slightest. In my eyes, this water is no different from the water in any other barrel, but Ping-Ping actions tell a different story. There’s something special about this water, something I’ve done which makes it better, but I don’t understand why.

 

I hope it’s not something important, god knows how many basins of water I’ve poured out into the dirt. Should I have been feeding this water to my pets or drinking it myself? Oh god, is it because I have Blobby inside me? What if I’ve been secreting pieces of Blobby this whole time? Is that why Ping-Ping can control the water? She drank some of Blobby before, so it makes sense. Closing my eyes, I slip into my Natal Palace to check on my tenants. Baledagh is still in his room practising like a madman, and I doubt he even noticed Ping-Ping’s presence.
There’s no saving him anymore. My brother is a martial arts otaku.

 

Exerting my will, I gather Blobby into the palm of my hand and probe him with my senses to see if he’s all right. Responding to my concern with placid indifference, Blobby continues being Blobby, unable to understand or unwilling to respond to my questions. Nothing spurs his interest aside from Demons or Tainted to devour, but on the bright side, he doesn’t seem upset by my actions or concerned about Ping-Ping, so I’m left with an unsolved mystery.

 

Stepping out of the void with a sigh, I give Ping-Ping a nervous pat on the nose, the giant turtle having long since finished the barrel of water. “No more,” I say with a smile, praying she doesn’t get angry. “Sorry.”

 

Thankfully, Ping-Ping seems understanding enough, laying back down to rest her eyes. Still wary of the giant beast, I grab my basin and step back to find Taduk sitting nearby, enjoying a cup of tea with Guard Leader at a tiny dining table. Nestled in Guard Leader’s arms is Mama Bun, glaring at Taduk with undisguised anger. “Welcome back Teacher.” After refilling their cups, I pour one for myself and down it, my throat parched and mouth dry from my efforts. “I take it things went well?”

 

“Hmph.” Returning Mama Bun’s dark glare, my Teacher snorts in discontent. “About as well as could be expected. The little buck-toothed vermin led me right to a stalk of rime bamboo. A sapling really, but I uprooted it and packed it away before that thing could eat it. Had to throw the damn beast in a sack to keep it from bruising my shins the whole way back.”

 

Aww, I feel bad Mama Bun didn’t get her treat, but at least she proved me right. We can totally use bicorn rabbits to find Spiritual Plants, which is a huge win. Granted, I lucked out finding the one rabbit who won’t kill herself trying to fight us, but luck is also a form of skill.

 

Stroking the fuming Mama Bun, Guard Leader chides Taduk. “You have no heart. This poor thing worked so hard and travelled so far only to have her prize snatched away by a miserly old man. Don’t you think she deserves some reward for her troubles?”

 

“Poor thing, Pei!” Slamming his teacup on the table, Taduk points accusingly at Guard Leader. “I know you’re doing this just to get on my nerves. Well it won’t work. I don’t care, you want to reward her then you do it. Go ahead, feed that floppy-eared furbag whatever you want, all you’re doing is fattening it for the slaughter.” Reaching into his sleeves, Taduk pulls out a dark mass of fur and plops it onto the table. “A gift boy, you take good care of it now. Spent many hours looking for it, but don’t worry about that. Raise it up big and strong, but make sure not to spoil it like you spoil the others.”

 

Choking back my squeal of delight, I take in the sight of Taduk’s gift, a tiny, scared bunny the size of my palm. Sporting a beautiful, black, short-furred coat with a white underbelly, his nose and eyes are also lined with white to give its features a lovely contrast. Although bigger than Mama Bun’s babies, this bunny is leaner than his new siblings and much more vigilant. Where the other bunnies would happily hop around and explore their surroundings, this new bunny, who I’ve already named Blackjack, stands stock still with arms and legs poised to fight or flee.

 

Resting my cheek against the table, I eye my newest pet with a smile. “Hiya cutie. Did Teacher find you in the wild?” Reacting to the sound of my voice, Blackjack turns to face me head on, nose twitching a mile a minute. So cute. It looks different from the other bunnies, more alert and jumpy, but I guess it’s because he’s a wild one. Placing my right hand flat on the table, I slowly slide it towards Blackjack one centimetre at a time, doing my best not to spook it. “Don’t be scared, everything’s gonna be fine. The big scary turtle won’t eat you. Why don’t you come with me and meet your new family?” It’s gonna be so fun. I hope Blackjack is a boy and Tawny One is a girl, then they can be a couple with themed names. Letting him sniff the back of my fingers, I wait until Blackjack seems comfortable with my smell before moving to pick him up. “Come here my sweet bun bun, lets get you something to eat and – Ahhhhhhh!”

 

A shrill screech emerges from my mouth as Blackjack chomps down on my index finger and tears away the top joint. Cheeks working furiously, it swallows the morsel and bares its fangs to reveal four bloody incisors. Clutching at my wounded finger close, I hiss in pain and ask, “What the fuck is that?”

 

“That, my boy,” Taduk says, swelling with pride, “is a Cloud Chaser Hare. See how fierce it is? A predator born, destined to rule the treetops and skies.” Sneering at Mama Bun, he adds, “Far more majestic than any mere rabbit.”

 

“Uhh… Yea. Thank you.” I guess. Stopping the bleeding with an effort of will, I wash away most of my blood with some tea. “Very cute.”

 

Just my daily reminder of how everything in this world is looking to kill or eat me. Fun, fun, fun.

 

“Put the fur-bag away.” Placing her teacup down, Guard Leader stands and faces the forest. “We have company.”

 

Turning to follow her gaze, I watch as a group of people file out of the forest from the gap Ping-Ping left in her wake. Numbering close to a hundred strong, their shabby, hemp clothing, straw cloaks, and conical hats mark them as woodsmen or commoners, but their weapons tell a different story. Spears, swords, axes, and bows bristle as they form up in battle-lines with practised efficiency. Responding in kind, my retinue also moves into formation, but instead of lining up shoulder to shoulder in the open, Jorani’s people take cover behind wagons and half-dismantled yurts, readying their bows and crossbows for my signal. Off to the side, Chey slips away on quinback with her entire squad, hoping to circle around and flank our enemy while Wang Bao and his cutthroats make their way to the front, hefting makeshift shields to defend against the first barrage. Carrying yurt doors, folding chairs, pot lids, and anything else which might stop an arrow, the former Butcher Bay veterans sneer confidently as they prepare for battle.

 

Looks like months of training have borne fruit, but my people deserve to be confident. Clad in garo leather armour and armed with the best weapons money can buy, we also outnumber our enemy by more than two to one, unless they have more warriors hiding in the woods. Doesn’t matter if they do, Chey and her quins will make short work of anyone they find.

 

Trapping the blood-thirsty hare beneath my water basin, I hurry over to join the front lines. Giving Ravil, Pran, and Saluk the order to load their guns and aim for the enemy leaders, I strap on Tranquility and draw Peace while quietly cursing over the loss of my finger tip. Makes it harder to keep a firm grip on my sword, but hopefully things don’t escalate that far. Holding my Officer’s token up for the intruders to see, I yell, “This is Warrant Officer Second Grade Falling Rain. State your intentions, or die where you stand.”

 

Woo… Chills. I can see why people love being arrogant, it’s pretty fun.

 

The rabble of woodsmen-turned-soldier don’t like what they hear, as evidenced by their disgruntled looks and hushed arguments. Giving them a minute to sort things out, I stand tall and proud with hand held high, wondering if I should keep it up or put it down. Maybe physically seeing the token will scare them off, but an argument could be made that it looks like I’m hiding behind my rank.

 

Dilemma…

 

After a short discussion, one scruffy warrior steps forward and responds, blissfully ignorant of how much danger he’s really in, staring down the barrel of Ravil’s gun. Drawing himself up to full height, the enemy leader yells back, “We do not fear death. Release the Divine Turtle or face Ping Yao’s wrath!”

 

Oh, it’s the turtle ninjas. Thank the Mother. Glancing back at Ping-Ping, I yell, “Okay. Wait one second. I’ll go get her.” Stopping in my tracks, I turn back to the turtle ninja’s and add, “Actually, maybe it’s better if you go to her. She’s napping.”

 

Well, that’s one scary, dangerous pet taken care of. Now what am I supposed to do with a voracious, meat-eating, cloud-hopping hare?

 

Man… All I wanted was a cuddly, adorable red panda.

Chapter Meme

 

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Savage Divinity – Chapter 289


I’d like to give a shout out to my latest Patrons Will Mullins, bboyrayne, and Max. Thank you all so much for your support!


 

“Mmm… Is that it?”

 

My little wifey’s disappointed tone sends a lance of pain through my heart, illogical though my reaction might be. “Well… yea. Were you expecting something different?”

 

Lin tilts her head to the left, then the right, as if trying to get a better look. “I dunno,” she says after considering my question. “I thought it’d be bigger, ya? Can I take a closer look?”

 

Oof. No man wants to hear those words, no matter the context. “No, you’re fine right where you are. Besides, how big does it need to be?” She’s oh so sweet and lovable but her unrealistic expectations are downright silly. “I mean… it’s the biggest one I’ve ever seen.” Truth be told, I’d hoped it’d be bigger too, but such is life.

 

Still unconvinced, Lin shakes her head and answers, “Me too, but still… It’s not just the size. It’s not pretty. I don’t like the colour, or how lumpy it is, and why isn’t its head round and smooth? It’s pointy and scary looking, I don’t like it.” Her cheeks puff up in an adorable mini-tantrum, disillusioned by the truth and unwilling to accept it.

 

“Well… you’re not wrong.” The long delay really built up expectations, but the reality of our situation is rather disappointing. At least Tali and Tate are enjoying it. Perched atop their parents’ shoulders, the adorable twins shout and holler in a fruitless attempt to attract the distant, giant turtle’s attention. It’s hard not to smile seeing them so hard at work, shouting promises of sweet treats and warm hugs for the giant luggage lizard. Thankfully, Ping Yao’s Guardian Turtle cares nothing for the promises of children, or more likely it can’t hear them from over a kilometere away. Basking in the mid-morning sun, the turtle is so motionless it almost blends into its riverside surroundings. If not for Guard Leader’s sharp eye, we might’ve walked right over it and never noticed.

 

Until it moves and eats us, but whatever. We’re safe here… probably.

 

Far from the gargantuan behemoth I was expecting, Ping Yao’s Guardian Turtle measures two elephants wide, two elephants long, and about one and a half elephants tall. While certainly large, it’s a far cry from the city destroying monstrosity Lin and I had envisioned. Instead of a smooth, round shell, its dark, greenish-brown exterior is jagged and pointy, forming an oddly satisfying pattern of orderly spikes running along its back and sides. As Lin already mentioned, its leathery head ends in an intimidating hooked beak, sitting half-opened as if showing off the pointed, flesh-rending mandibles. While turtles are notorious for their lack of speed, its meaty, muscled limbs make me leery of putting that theory to the test, on land or in water.

 

That’s no turtle. What we have here is clearly an armoured dinosaur on steroids.

 

Honestly… This world is freaking terrifying.

 

Sadly, Blobby has no reaction to his alleged monster-child. No reaction to anything for that matter, merely floating about the void like an inanimate object and ruining my dreams of riding to war atop the coolest mount ever. It was a long shot anyways, even if the turtle owes its longevity and size to Blobby, who’s to say it remembers him? What’s more interesting than the turtle itself is the turtle’s territory, a beautiful, untouched bamboo grove supposedly spanning over eighty square kilometres. Although the turtle rarely leaves the riverside, land predators are so frightened by its presence they refuse to come anywhere near its stomping grounds. Even Mafu and the other roosequins were reluctant to follow us deep into the grove to say nothing of sweet, cowardly Aurie and his siblings.

 

This strange development has led to a dearth of land-based creatures in the area and a thriving tree-top ecology comprising some of the most adorable tree-dwelling creatures I’ve ever seen. Mischievous monkeys and clumsy pandas are a common sight, as are squirrels, chipmunks, martens, and minks, but it’s the oh so lovable and curious red pandas who’ve captured my heart. Peering down from their treetop perches, their red-and-white furred faces are a delight to behold while their bumbling antics endear them to all. Only Alsantset’s strict guidelines keep me from taking to the treetops and capturing an entire fluffy pack of the adorable bear-cats to bring home, with no amount of pleading glances able to change her mind.

 

Apparently, I have too many pets (an opinion I wholeheartedly disagree with), so unless it’s 100% certain the creature will die without my intervention, I’m not allowed to adopt them. Like every other creature in existence, these red panda’s are a fiercer variant compared to what I’d expect, able to fight off predators with their greater numbers. This combined with their pack mentality means there are no fluffy little orphans for me to adopt, a most disheartening outcome. It’s almost enough to make a grown man cry.

 

Well… This animal-loving grown man, at least. They’re so fluffy, I wanna pet and cuddle and love them. Is that too much to ask for?

 

So far, I’m pleased to say our little outing has gone off with no major incidents or disturbances. After leaving Baatar and the Northern army to eat our dust, we encountered no hardships or catastrophes while making our way to the outskirts of Ping Yao. After a night of camping at the roadside, I left most of my retinue and pets behind and proceeded with my family on our trip to see this most underwhelming Guardian Turtle of Ping Yao. I’m not gonna lie, I was a little nervous with only Wang Bao’s hoodlums and Guard Leader’s less than reassuring presence to keep us safe, but things are going smoothly aside from one tiny hiccup. Having long since woken from her food-induced coma, Mama Bun happily made the trip nestled in Lin’s arms, but about an hour ago, the stupid buck-toothed rodent struggled out of my wifey’s embrace and bolted off to follow her nose, heedless to any danger as always. Less worried about her safety and more concerned for the well-being of nearby Spiritual Plants, Taduk followed Mama Bun off into the wilderness, but not before telling us to continue on without him.

 

Worried for my air-headed dreamer of a teacher, I tried to follow along but they were both too fast for me to keep up. Say what you will about his goofy nature, but Taduk is speedy, disappearing into the underbrush in the blink of an eye. In retrospect, I shouldn’t be so surprised by his Martial prowess. I mean, traditional Healing is widely accepted as the most complicated application of Chi usable without an Awakening and my Teacher is the best of the best. You don’t become a Medical Saint through popular vote, though I’m still not clear on what the actual vetting process involves. Either way, Taduk’s no slouch in the Chi control department which means he’s probably okay running around on his own. I hope he stays safe and comes back soon, preferable with Mama Bun intact. Problem is, I wouldn’t put it past him to roast a haunch or two and blame her injuries on the local wildlife. As he’s said many times before, the only thing he likes about rabbits is the taste.

 

Considering its inactive state, even Tali and Tate soon grow bored of the turtle’s non-antics and we begin our four-hour hike back to the campsite, with Wang Bao’s hoodlums scattered around us in a protective ring. With her chin on my shoulder and cheek pressed against mine, Lin and the twins sing a song I taught them, something about walking five hundred miles and da-dat-daah’s, whatever those are.

 

I swear, I remember the most useless things.

 

After almost half an hour of da-dat-daah’s I grin wryly and say, “Glad to see you’re no longer upset over the tiny turtle.”

 

Lin giggles and hugs me tighter, leaving Tali and Tate to their endless song. “Well, even if it didn’t swim or move, at least we can say we saw it. Wish we could’ve gone closer though, it would’ve been fun to stand on its head, ya?”

 

“Yea, no my crazy little wifey. Even if the turtle were willing, I doubt the turtle’s guards will let us get that close.” Supposedly, the turtle has an elite cadre of volunteer warriors keeping it safe from poachers and other unsavoury types. Old as it is, the turtle is undoubtedly a walking Spiritual Heart, but Ping Yao takes the safety of its guardian seriously and no one’s tried to steal or murder the turtle yet, so whether they exist is still up in the air. I haven’t seen them, which means these turtle ninja’s are either too high level to be seen or my ninja level is too low to spot them.

 

Or they don’t exist, which is also possible.

 

Rudely blowing a raspberry, Lin settles in and says, “Whatever. They can’t stop us, my Rainy is the strongest! All you need is one swing and bam, send them all flying away.” Another stark reminder to never get on Lin’s bad side. For an adorable, sheltered young lady, she’s surprisingly bloodthirsty and tyrannical in demeanour. “So what now hubby?”

 

“Well, I figure we head back to camp and relax, then leave in the morning for the Society. I know we’re all tired from travelling, but I think it’d be best if we rushed back and tried to stay ahead of the army. It’ll make for much more comfortable travelling. Sound good?”

 

The question isn’t for Lin’s sake, but Alsantset, Charok, and Guard Leader offer no opinion so our plan is set. Honestly, I understand the need for it, but living under military law is too stifling and oppressive, with every infraction punishable by lashes or death. No thank you, I’d much rather ride out ahead, where the air is clean and road mostly poop-free. With the sheer amount of horse and human poop we’ve been exposed to during our travels, it’s a miracle no one’s gotten pink eye or dysentery.

 

Keeping with our streak of good fortune, our merry little band makes it back to camp safe and sound. Leaving Lin with Li Song and my fur babies, I follow the distinct sounds of sparring to a nearby clearing where the newest, and undeniably most zealous members of my retinue are hard at work getting the shit kicked out of them courtesy of Ravil, Pran, Saluk, Jochi, and Argat. My trainers are merciless and unsympathetic towards their inexperienced opponents, pummelling the poor one-time slaves into submission. While lacking in skill, these formerly tainted workers make up for it with boundless energy and indefatigable will, hopping to their feet and getting back in line without a hint of anger or resentment. Only twenty have joined my retinue because that’s how many could swear an Oath.

 

They’re led by Lang Yi, and his second, Lang Er, whose names literally translate to Wolf One and Wolf Two. After they introduced themselves, I had to walk away from the rest out of fear they’d all numbered themselves like some sort of weird, furry cult. Thankfully, this wasn’t the case; Lang Yi and Lang Er are merely brothers who had the misfortune of being born to unimaginative parents. Watching all twenty new members persevere through this hellish, abusive training, I’m tempted to put a stop to the proceedings but, somehow sensing my intentions, Alsantset puts her hand on my shoulder and silences me with a shake of her head before swapping places with Argat.

 

Pulling off his helmet with a satisfied sigh, Argat combs his fingers through his glorious, red-gold sideburns and attached neck beard with a smile. He really has a monkey’s face, lacking a single hair on his upper lip. Mischievous to the extreme, The half-monkey brothers Argat and Jochi agreed to Baatar’s request because they thought it’d be a walk in the park keeping me safe. Regrettably for all involved, but mostly me, things in Sanshu did not work out as planned. While I fought off a horde of would-be assassins sent by the Council, they were busy getting shit-faced at a tavern. While I stood atop Mafu’s back and tried to stop Gao Qiu’s boat with my face, they were stuck on shore because their quins ran too far away to join me in time. While the Shrike rode off with my comatose body strapped to a horse’s ass, they were racing to keep up in the treetops because they were too ashamed to show their faces and wanted to guard me from the shadows. In the aftermath, they were so embarrassed by their poor showing they refused to come home and even now won’t look at or speak to Baatar.

 

Can’t say I blame them. They really screwed the pooch.

 

Terrible track record aside, they’re decent folk and they’ve joined my retinue to regain lost honour or whatnot. Wrapping his arm around my shoulders, Argat laughs and pulls me in for an embrace. “So brat,” he Sends, keeping the disrespectful nickname and our conversation private. “What do you think? Not half bad for a bunch of nobodies, eh?”

 

Yea, I guess,” I answer, conflicted over the whole idea. “This wasn’t what I had in mind when I set them free. I figured they’d live a nice, quiet life on Yo Ling’s island or something, not come marching to war with me.” Against my wishes, Baatar insisted the former slaves swear an Oath of service, and while not as restrictive as a true slave’s oath, it’s slavery-adjacent and not something I’m comfortable with.

 

Ha.” Chortling out loud, Argat thumps my shoulder and says, “Lemme tell you something, brat. I spent months teaching them to fight, so I know a thing or two. After cleansing them of the Father’s Taint and saving them from a life of slavery, serving you is their second greatest desire.”

 

Knowing he won’t say anything until I ask, I reluctantly play along. “And what, pray tell, is their greatest desire?”

 

My lack of enthusiasm going unnoticed, Argat’s grin darkens. “The answer is simple: They want revenge against the Defiled. Joining you lets them do both, so don’t mind those oaths one bit. They made their choice. If you don’t accept them, they’ll still follow you south cause that’s where all the fighting’s gonna be.

 

Watching my sister gleeful bash one of them into submission, I assume they all regret their decision. “Their… intensity is good, but that won’t do much good on the battlefield. Look at them, they can barely put up a fight.

 

True, but what do you expect? When we started, they were peasant slaves who’d never fought a day in their lives. Now, they’ve found Balance, sworn an oath, and know which end of the spear to hold, which let me tell you, is a vast improvement. Their Forms ain’t half bad either, so we really struck gold with them. I don’t doubt the others will soon follow in their footsteps and you’ll have another sixty fodder soldiers to pad your retinue.

 

There’s something about Argat’s statement, but I can’t quite place it until I review the timeline. Calling a halt to the sparring, I ask Lang Yi and his people to form up for inspection. Fourteen men and six women, all sweaty and breathless from the day’s training. Though lacking the sheer bulk of career soldiers, there isn’t an ounce of fat on their overworked bodies, made slim and sinewy from years of hard work and months of good food. Rarely do I see a patch of skin unmarked by lash or scar, the signs of their ordeals yet to fade but their eyes burn with impassioned fervour. Addressing them as a group, I ask, “None of you have experience in the military?”

 

No, Great One.”

 

I’ve given up trying to change their form of address, it’s a lost cause. They’re surprisingly stubborn about the weirdest things. “Before learning from Jochi and Argat, none of you had ever found Balance before?”

 

No, Great One.”

 

Hmm… To have so many people reach Balance in six months of training is impressive. Glancing at the handsome monkey brothers, I dismiss the notion it’s due to their effective teaching. They don’t strike me as the patient, scholarly type, so how did they manage such great results? One or two can be explained by natural talent and luck, but twenty out of a total eighty? With the other sixty close behind? Impossible. “Demonstrate the Forms.” After watching them for a few minutes, I realize they’re far more skilled than they should be considering the bare minimum amount of training they’ve had. Calling Baledagh out of the void, I voice my worries and ask him to take a long, hard look at these new recruits.

 

“Not a spectre in sight.”

 

Baledagh’s answer isn’t surprising, but I have to be sure. “And you’re certain they were only Tainted and not Defiled?”

 

“Couldn’t have done anything about it if they weren’t.” Offering me a mental shrug, Baledagh asks, “Why does it matter?”

 

“Because even though they were never wholly Defiled, being Tainted might have… I dunno, improved their talents or something. An increase in… Chi sensitivity or an endowment of aptitude.”

 

“So? We knew this already, sort of. All Defiled know how to fight, it’s part of the whole murderous cannibal package.”

 

Baledagh’s starting to sound like me, which I’m not thrilled with, but I’ve other things on my mind to deal with at the moment. “Except that these guys are an argument against that. You don’t have to be Defiled to learn how to fight like a Defiled. If we can figure out how and duplicate it, then we could raise massive armies of Martial Warriors in record time.”

 

“Okay,” Baledagh says with yet another mental shrug. “So where do we start?”

 

“…No clue. Whatever, it’s food for thought.” When Baledagh devours the Spectres, maybe a part gets left behind in the Tainted, and that helps them train. Hard to say considering Lang Yi and his cohorts are the only highly Tainted people I’ve come across who were also civilians. Everyone else was a military or martial figure of skill.

 

With all these wild thoughts and half-baked theories running through my head, I spend the rest of the day and most of the night tossing and turning in bed, so much so that Aurie and Mafu each voice their protests. Giving up on sleep, I set up a bowl of water for my daily Elemental practice. While I’ve yet to succeed in controlling water, I refuse to give up. I’m so close to being an awesome mage, even if it’s merely a water mage.

 

I can do cool stuff with water… right?

 

 

Whatever, it’s better than nothing.

 

Immersing my hands in the water, I circulate my Chi throughout my body, guiding without directing, controlling without holding, moving without thinking. This power is mine to use so long as I hold it, and the water is but an extension of my body. There is no beginning or end, only a –

 

“Boss. Boss!” Shaking me out of my meditative trance, Ravil’s eyes hold an emotion I’ve never seen from him: fear. “You need to come see this.”

 

Leaving Aurie and Mafu curled up together on the bed, I step out of my yurt and close the door. “Okay, so what’s the big – never mind. Got it.”

 

Barely an arm’s length away stands the Guardian Turtle of Ping Yao, peering down its nose at me with its dark, beady eyes. Its hooked beak opens wide as it unhinges its jaw, stretching taller than I stand from foot to head. The fetid stench of rotten fish and spoiled meat fills my nostrils as it lets loose with an earth-shattering scr-

 

No, scratch that.

 

It’s more of a high-pitched moan, like a happy sigh or air leaking from a balloon. It’s cute and totally doesn’t fit its image.

 

Having said it’s piece, the turtle closes its mouth and settles down beside my yurt. Only now do I notice my lovely wifey laying atop of the giant turtle’s head, as if it were a quin or wildcat. “Hi hubby,” she says while clinging to its head in a full-bodied hug. “Which do you think’s a better name, Ping-Ping or Yao-Yao?”

 

Chapter Meme

 

 


Turtle noises. Yes, it’s mating, but don’t read into that. I just thought it was funny.


 

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Savage Divinity – Chapter 288

 

Trapped in the confines of her borrowed carriage, Sarnai passed the time in deep meditation, immersed within her Natal Palace to practice her skills. Initially, she shied away from the void after having spent months lost in the darkness. She worried she might slip back into another period of unresponsive unconsciousness, but after a week of suffering inside this abominable, bouncing box of death, she longed for the sweet relief of peaceful oblivion.

 

Sensing enough time had passed, Sarnai opened her eyes to a stationary carriage and listened to the bustle of soldiers and servants carrying on around her. Gingerly stretching her aching limbs, she sighed at the sight of her wrinkled hands and pouted as she donned her veil and gloves. In recent times, she’d come to dread going out in public with her husband. She loved him more than life itself, but it pained her to see people’s reactions once they learned she wasn’t Baatar’s mother, but his wife. It ran the gamut from morbid curiosity to open disgust, but those were easily ignored. What hurt the most was seeing their sympathy, their pity for the poor, aged woman, growing old and ugly while her lover remained handsome and virile.

 

Hence, the veil and gloves. Better to be seen as eccentric rather than old, but how would she hide the other signs of her infirmity?

 

Truth be told, she didn’t spend all her free time meditating just to escape discomfort. Hiding inside her Natal Palace was a different sort of escapism, a denial of reality since she could be as young and energetic as she wished. Unhindered by her weakened physique, she ran through imaginary fields and scaled illusory mountains, reliving the vigour and vitality of her youth. What’s more, ever since she woke from her vegetative state, she felt more in tune with her Chi, able to shape and wield it in ways she’d only heard of before the accident. Removing her left glove, she picked at her too-long nails, measuring almost four centimetres long from base to tip after six months of growth. While she appreciated her husband’s efforts to care for her without the aid of servants, she found his overall attention to detail somewhat lacking.

 

No matter, this served her purposes well enough. With a tired flick of her wrist, Sarnai cast a Honed shard of Chi from the tips of her index and middle fingers. Guiding it towards her Spiritual Weapon sitting on the seat across from her, it struck with a forceful clang, her spear bouncing in place as it absorbed the brunt of the impact while the cushion underneath split apart. Cursing beneath her breath, Sarnai winced with guilt as she surveyed the damage, both pleased and dissatisfied with the results. It wouldn’t take much effort to scale the force of her strike, but the area of focus wasn’t as concentrated as she’d like. She wanted a pin-point strike, surgical and precise, a thrusting needle as opposed to striking hammer. Range was also an issue, but further testing would have to wait.

 

This would be her hidden weapon, her dagger in the dark. The less people who knew about it the better. As Nian Zu’s second, her husband’s star was on the rise, but she knew from bitter experience that success breeds jealousy. Countless nobles of the Empire would work against him because of his heritage alone, unhappy to have a ‘half-beast cur’ standing above them. As successor to the highest military position in the North, her husband stood higher than most, so his enemies were numerous as the stars in the sky. As his frail and elderly wife, Sarnai knew she’d become his greatest weakness, a target to be captured and used against him, but if their enemies thought her a defenceless old woman, then she would prove them wrong. She was Sarnai, Speaker of the People, and with her spear the Piercing Star in hand, she would sweep aside all who stood before her.

 

And should the worst come to pass, her new ability could be used to take her own life before she brought harm to her family.

 

A soft knock on the door signalled her beloved’s arrival and she eagerly called him inside. The carriage door swung open to reveal her handsome husband, his teeth bared in a ferocious grin full of hunger and yearning. Even after so many years together, his smile filled her with the fire of a younger woman, her arms opening to welcome him with an embrace. Closing the door behind him, he took a seat beside her and wrapped his arms around her waist, pulling her into his lap to nuzzle as if they’d been separated for long months instead of mere hours. “Such a shame to hide your beauty so my love,” he Sent with a wistful sigh. “The world is a darker place without it.”

 

Sarnai giggled as his hot breath tickled her skin before snuggling deeper into his embrace. “Enough of your lies you honey-tongued devil.”

 

Hmph. Were I not a magnanimous soul, I’d put you across my knee for impugning my honour. I, Baatar of the People, would never lie to you, my rose.” Moving her veil aside, he snuck in a kiss and smiled, gazing deep into her eyes for untold minutes before turning to glance at the ruined cushion opposite them. “Practising your new skills?

 

Mhm.” Feeling bad for damaging Nian Zu’s personal coach, she hurriedly changed the subject. It was easy enough to fix, probably. “What time is it? Have Alsantset and Rain arrived yet?” Military law was so bothersome, keeping her from seeing her precious family for an entire week now. Ten days without pinching Tate’s adorably chubby cheeks was enough to drive a woman mad.

 

They are on their way and my pavilion awaits. Shall we?

 

Nodding in meek compliance, Sarnai melted in her husband’s embrace as he lifted her in his arms and carried her out of the carriage. Closing her eyes to shut out any stray gazes, she smiled and indulged in her husband’s affection. Though her body had yet to recover enough to walk unaided, she’d still been forced to suffer through this long, arduous journey to Nan Ping. One does not ignore a personalized summons from the Emperor, no matter how unwell or unwilling one might be.

 

Even if it was to be the Emperor’s hostage.

 

Why else specifically name Sarnai and her family in the Imperial Missive? They’d even mentioned little Tali and Tate in the summons. With their families nearby and in danger from both Defiled and Empire, this made certain Baatar and other experts of the Empire would have no choice but to go along with whatever mad scheme the Emperor’s mouthpiece concocted. Were it up to her, Sarnai would have burnt the Missive and burnt the Imperial Messenger as a message of her own. Hell, she could’ve burnt everything in sight before retreating to the safety of the village, leaving it all for the Mother to sort out. Nothing would come of her actions, the Emperor could spare no soldiers to invade the Saint’s Tribulation Mountain during this time of upheaval. Should He weather the Defiled invasion and emerge victorious, it’d still be decades before His armies’ strength recovered enough to threaten the People, assuming He was willing to break treaty and invade.

 

Unfortunately, her sweet Baatar was a patriot at heart, inheriting his love of country from his idealistic mentor. In Sarnai’s mind, the Empire was the Empire and the People were the People, with a clear divide between the two.

 

They were both idiots, Mentor and Disciple alike. Akanai herself suffered greatly the last and only time she visited Central, with poor Husolt permanently losing an eye in the ensuing power struggles and posturing. Considering what she went through, it defied belief to think she still cared for the Empire, an undeserved loyalty which had long since infected Sarnai’s dog-brained fool of a husband. How could she not understand his heart? This time, her heroic husband intended to use his power to collect on his Master’s outstanding debts, but it was pure folly. These were men and women even the Herald of the Storms couldn’t stand against, so what chance did her sweet husband have?

 

Bringing her into the massive tent which made up his command centre, Sarnai’s beloved gingerly helped her into the wheeled chair Rain commissioned for her. While not the most comfortable means of conveyance, it offered her both mobility and dignity which was previously denied her, and for this she was grateful to her oh so clever son and skillful son-in-law. Rain even thought ahead and designed the chair to be detachable, turning it into an open litter with the addition of four poles. He was so full of ideas, where they sprang from she’d never know.

 

Why was he so adamant to choose the Martial Path? He could have been anything else, like a woodworker, smith, herbalist, or farmer, all far more suitable professions given his temperament. 

 

As if summoned by the mere thought of him, Rain strode into the command centre with a cheerful grin, arm in arm with the adorable Mei Lin while Mentor, Li Song, Taduk, and a bevy of well-dressed pets followed in from behind. Watching the over-fed Mafu stride indoors without hesitation, Sarnai couldn’t help but shake her head. Only Rain could turn a self-reliant apex predator into the over-sized and over-stuffed furred sock standing before her, fearlessly sniffing his surroundings in search of treats.

 

After greeting Rain and Lin with a kiss on the cheek, Sarnai reached out and gave the fat quin a scratch on the chin. Squeaking with delight, Mafu crouched down and rested his head in her lap, eliciting a laugh from Sarnai as the cats and bears swarmed her for their share of affection. She’d never been too keen on Rain keeping wild animals as pets but their adorable behaviour and exceptional training eventually won her over. While two of the cats sat prettily and stretched their necks for pets, Aurie flipped over and presented his belly. On the other side, Banjo and Baloo reared up on their hind legs and stumbled about, their paws tucked against their chest as if afraid they might accidentally hurt someone. Petting each of them briefly in turn and getting her hands licked until they were sopping wet, she crooned “Hello my sweetlings. Yes, I’ve missed you all too.” Shooting her husband a look, she ignored his teasing grin and nodded in approval as he handed her a bag of dried meat.

 

Since Rain treated these animals like his children, that made them her pseudo-grandchildren, which meant it was her job to spoil them.

 

Soon after, Alsantset, Charok and the twins arrived. Skipping over, Tali shoved Mafu’s fat head aside to take his place on Sarnai’s lap. “Hi granma,” Tali said, smiling sweetly as she tugged on Mafu’s ears, the quin unyielding in his hunt for treats and affection.

 

“Grandma, dear heart, grandma. Enunciate.” Bringing out a bag of candied fruits, she let the twins take a few pieces before feeding the rest to Mafu and the bears. “Are you enjoying the trip?”

 

“Yup, but tomorrow’s gonna be better ‘cause we gonna ride quins! Rainy’s taking us to see a turtle.”

 

“Yes, I heard. It sounds so exciting.” Only Rain would think to take a pleasure trip during the long trek to Nan Ping, wholly indifferent to the pressure weighing down on him as the number one talent in the north and youngest Second Grade Warrant Officer in history. Unsurprising, since Rain always was a tenacious child, and that tenacity had rubbed off onto the twins. Tali’s enthusiastic response didn’t surprise her since the twins seemed fearless to the extreme. Neither one appeared worried about revisiting the Society; Tate even seemed eager to return, perhaps dreaming of righting wrongs suffered during their last excursion. Sarnai loved seeing the fire within him, so long as said fire stayed within and he kept his mouth shut. They had enough problems with Rain running his mouth, it wouldn’t do to have second wagging tongue adding to their workload.

 

Reunited for the first time in a week, the minutes passed quickly as they shared a meal and all too soon the hour grew late. At Baatar’s request, Alsantset and Charok brought the twins to bed while Li Song did the same with the pets, leaving only Rain, Mei Lin, Taduk, Mentor, and herself in the command centre. Closing his eyes, her husband channelled his Chi and erected a sound barrier around them, one which was instantly overlaid by five more layers. Rolling her eyes at the juvenile display of strength, Sarnai glared at her Mentor, though the old blockhead merely shrugged and Sent “Only two of them are mine.”

 

Hmph. No matter. Caution was well warranted given their circumstances. Clearing his throat, her husband patted Rain’s shoulder and asked, “Who are you bringing with you tomorrow?”

 

“I brought Ravil to lead, with Jorani and Chey’s squads to bolster our numbers. Wang Bao, Argat, and Jochi should be camped out a half day’s ride from here. Oh, Pran and Saluk are coming too, they appointed themselves as my guards sometime while I wasn’t looking.” Shrugging, Rain added, “Not that I’m complaining, but like… should I pay them more? Anyways, after meeting up with them, we’ll have close to a hundred and fifty soldiers. It’s a good size, big enough to quietly deal with Captain-level threats and small enough to escape anything larger.”

 

Hearing his thoughts, Sarnai choked on her laughter, the silly child still ignorant of Mentor’s true strength. Though her decision making process bordered on the idiotic, Sarnai’s Mentor could easily handle any physical altercations they might encounter. Even if a dozen Demons and a hundred Wraiths laid in wait to take Rain’s head, Sarnai’s Mentor would see everyone safely through after killing every threat within ten kilometres.

 

Unless the enemy somehow tricked her or led her away, which was always a possibility to keep in mind when dealing with Mentor. How she survived so long on her own, Sarnai would never know.

 

“Good, but not enough.” Arriving on cue as if they’d rehearsed this, Jochi and Argot marched in leading a band of unfamiliar scruffy ruffians. “I sent someone ahead to collect them. Safer you all travel as a group from the start.”

 

Raising a single eyebrow, Rain glanced over the new arrivals, confusion etched into his face. “Jochi, Argat, nice to see you both again but uhh… Where’s Wang Bao and who are these people?”

 

The scuffy ruffians collectively fell to their knees and kowtowed towards Rain, surprising almost everyone in the room. “Great One,” the lead ruffian said, face still pressed to the ground. “We lowly slaves had the fortune to be rescued by your benediction.”

 

“Oh… OH! You’re the miners from the island. Please stand, please.” Eyes wide with disbelief, Rain studied the former slaves one by one. “Wow, what a difference half a year makes. I don’t recognize any of you, all healthy and fit. Could use a tan though.”

 

“We owe it all to Great One’s benevolence, providing food and care through it all.” The leader spoke up and bowed again, while the others followed his example. “This lowly one hopes to repay Great One’s generosity with his life, bearing spear and shield at Great One’s side.” The other’s echoed the leader’s sentiments, their eyes burning with adoration as they gazed upon Rain.

 

And it was only right they should. Even after hearing what Rain did, Sarnai still had trouble believing it was true.

 

Hearing how these former slaves wanted to fight at Rain’s side filled her with a mix of pride and sorrow. These strangers treasured her son more than her own people did. It disgusted her to know none of the People’s Sentinels had joined his ranks, leaving the safety of their greatest talent in the hands of former cripples, bandits, and slaves. All her life, Sarnai had taken pride in being one of the People, but lately, she felt nothing but disappointment for them.

 

If only they knew about Falling Rain’s miracles, how he pioneered the healing technique their greatest warriors were learning, or how he formed his Natal Palace at the tender age of seventeen without anyone noticing, or that he bonded with a drop of Heavenly Water and used it to cleanse the Father’s Taint from countless victims, then they too would look at Rain with fervent zeal. Instead, this sweet, talented young man lived his life as an outcast to his own people all because they feared what might happen should the truth escape.

 

It wasn’t right.

 

She was too weak, that’s what this all boiled down to. If she and the People possessed enough strength to oppose the Emperor, then life would be so much simpler. Her family wouldn’t be travelling south to become imperial hostages and there’d be no need to hide Rain’s incredible accomplishments. They could release his healing technique for all to learn, as he’d first intended. Then, with the Heavenly Water at his beck and call, Rain could travel across the Empire and cleanse away the Father’s touch, making the world a safer place without fire or steel.

 

She was so proud of him. After all he’d been through, Rain never turned to hatred or despair, only wanting nothing more than to make the world a better place, yet the world itself worked against him.

 

Strength. That’s what she needed. If Mentor refused to give it her all to protect Rain, than Sarnai would step up and do so instead. She still had forty odd years of life in her yet, plenty of time to reach the pinnacle of strength. After Rain reluctantly accepted the former slaves into his retinue, she bade him goodnight with a tearful goodbye. Fixating on Mentor’s back, Sarnai Sent “Make sure he survives the coming turmoil. Even if you must leave everyone else behind, bring my son home.

 

Mentor’s footsteps paused ever so slightly before nodding once. Reaching over to take her husband’s hand, she squeezed it with all her might. Given ten or twenty more years, Rain would play an integral part in the war against the Defiled, but this was too soon. Even with all his skill and talent, he was still little stronger than an ant, easily crushed underfoot, but such is life. There was no sending him home, those with great talents must endure great hardships. She could only pray for his safety, for the Empire faced the greatest threat it had ever known. 

 

The Enemy was here and they would need every bit of fighting strength the Empire had to offer in order to survive.

 

Chapter Meme

 

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Savage Divinity – Chapter 287

 

Standing at the base of the Cloud-Stepping Stairway, Zian basked in the glory of Shen Yun, the City of the Divine Cloud. Though he spent his early years and late teens at the Society Headquarters, this city would forever and always be his home. The first time he saw the city, he was overwhelmed with awe as he stared up the staircase, trying to count how many steps before he reached the top. He remembered asking if they stretched up into the Heavens and if the Mother Herself sat waiting at the top. The city was so different from the neat, orderly streets of the Society Headquarters or the refined elegance of Feng Huang, a unique setting unseen anywhere else in the Empire. Built into a range of mountains, Shen Yun was a city which combined the grand majesty of nature with the sheer ingenuity of humankind. Each mountain was covered in stone hewn buildings from base to peak, an achievement only made possible through centuries of toil and effort. A plethora of detailed carvings and massive statues broke up the otherwise monotonous view, alongside a multitude of bridges and stairways connecting the various mountains and levels of the city.

 

Both beautiful and practical, this was Shen Yun, his home, his city, a mountain-turned impenetrable fortress. Wholly self-reliant and utterly unassailable, Zian was confident that even if the North were to be overrun by Defiled, Shen Yun would continue to stand in defiance for decades to come, perhaps even as the last bastion of humanity. Thrilled to escape the confines of his carriage, Zian dismissed the litter bearers and climbed the stairway on foot, taking in the cluttered maze of winding streets and anarchic skyways as he strode ever upwards two steps at a time. The city was alive with movement as its inhabitants carried about their day, though many stopped to lean over the barriers and gaze down upon the glorious northern army making its way through the Imperial Gorge, bypassing the city entirely on its journey to Nan Ping. A shame they’d miss seeing Shen Yun’s grandeur, but time was of the essence.

 

To fully appreciate the City of the Divine Cloud, one must ascend into the clouds themselves. The base of the mountains were reserved for farming and animal husbandry, blossoming with verdant greenery even now at winter’s near end. Above it was the lower city, little more than a cluttered mess of winding streets and anarchic pathways, hardly worth seeing at all. Even then, so long as you overlooked the smell, it had its own rustic sort of charm. Moving up a dozen levels was the factory district, where craftsmen and labourers plied their trade, with every building both home and workshop. Not the most pleasant way to live, but given the lack of space, it was a necessary hardship to live in this most celestial of cities.

 

There were many who saw the lower levels and judged Shen Yun ugly and uninhabitable, but such were the mutterings of the ignorant and blind. Only after one ascended to the peak would one see the true beauty of Shen Yun, with every one of the eleven ancillary peaks boasting a magnificent twenty-seven-storey pagoda. Man-made marvels sitting atop a work of nature, each pagoda was large enough to house ten-thousand inhabitants, serving as both military barracks and Imperial Embassy. At the top of the Cloud-Stepping Stairway stood Zian’s home, the Magistrate’s Palace, a grand estate overlooking the entire city. On a clear summer day, Zian would look out the window and see the vast, untamed wilderness stretching out in all directions, a view previously reserved for celestial beings alone.

 

This was the true face of Shen Yun, his home, his City.

 

Only the hardiest of warriors could make the trek to the peak in one day, so Zian had been forced to leave most of his retinue behind. Only Jukai accompanied him this time, as Uncle Yang was ‘too busy’ to visit Mother. Given the circumstances, he couldn’t blame Uncle for avoiding her. Given the choice, Zian would be down in the Imperial Gorge with him, avoiding his mother until he was safely past the Society Headquarters and in Nan Ping before sending her a letter regarding his intentions, but she left orders for him to come see her and he didn’t dare refuse. While he had yet to make public his decision to relinquish his status as young patriarch of the Situ Clan, Zian couldn’t help but worry Mother might discern his intentions. Growing up, he knew better than to keep secrets from her as she proved time and time again how she knew and saw all. Even if something escaped her notice, there was no hiding before Situ Jia Ying, a shrewd politician capable of reading volumes from an errant tic or nervous shuffle.

 

The best way to deal with Mother was to present a rational, valid argument for his actions. To convince her to let him move to the Society Headquarters, Zian presented the facts as the were. First, he would be surrounded by experts, visiting dignitaries, and their respective families. Training there would not only allow him to advance his Martial Path faster, he could also liaison with his peers and future allies. Every word was true, and although his definition of liaison differed greatly from Mothers, it didn’t take much effort to ignore a letter. Despite his promiscuity, his martial skills progressed rapidly after being crowned Champion in the contests, and he became the uncontested number one talent in the north condensing his Aura, so Mother couldn’t forcibly recall him back to Shen Yun without good reason.

 

Unfortunately, this time Zian didn’t have a rational argument to present. Society politics were so bothersome, something she couldn’t possibly understand. As young patriarch, his every action reflected on the Situ Clan and Society. While it wasn’t a problem when he was the triumphant golden child, everything changed after his humiliating defeat at Rain’s hands. Zian’s detractors came out in full force and his supporters all but vanished, with every tongue speaking as if his defeat were the sole reason for the Society’s decline. Were it not for their idiotic purse-measuring competitions and miserly ways, none of this would have ever happened. No one ever mentioned the two young masters and powerful slave who died beneath Rain’s blades before him, no, Situ Jia Zian was an incompetent warrior, undeserving of his supposedly fabricated and hyperbolic reputation.

 

If Clan and Society could discard him so easily, then why should he bear the hardship as their young patriarch? It might seem like a childish, immature, knee-jerk reaction to his defeat, but Zian’s knew it was the right thing to do. The Society was full of backbiting bootlickers and petty grievances. He wanted nothing to do with their internal squabbles and even less to do with their outward posturing, so he was determined to carry out his plan. The revived and revitalized Uncle Yang supported his decision, but even the great Situ Jia Yang wasn’t willing to confront Mother over this, so for the first time since he was seven years old, Zian set out to hide his intentions from the all-seeing Magistrate of Shen Yun.

 

Mother Above, this humble servant implores you for the courage to stop shaking in his boots so he might make it through this coming tribulation unscathed.

 

Greeted at the main gates by the Chief Steward, he was told Mother awaited his presence in her personal quarters. Feigning fatigue from the long climb up, Zian slowed his pace and stopped often to take in the view until Jukai cleared his throat and said, “Young master, we’ve a schedule to keep.”

 

“Right.” Steeling his nerves, Zian proceeded into the personal quarters where he spent most of his childhood. Stopping at the double doors outside Mother’s quarter’s, Zian signalled for the servants to wait as he mustered his courage. This is merely an innocuous visit. You’ve done nothing wrong so you have nothing to hide. Go in, kiss her cheek, mention how beautiful she looks and how much you missed her, then leave. The Emperor calls and whatnot. You are Situ Jia Zian. You’ve duelled the greatest talents in the north and faced the Defiled in open battle. This is nothing.

 

Back straight and head held high, Zian ordered the servants to announce his arrival. Striding through the opened doors, he flashed his most charming smile. “Hello Mother. You filial son has returned. Miss me?”

 

Sitting at the tea table, Mother pursed her lips and rolled her eyes, holding her tongue until he took his seat the doors closed, leaving the two of them alone. “Foolish child,” she said as she cupped his cheeks, pinching them ever so softly. “You have some nerve avoiding me for so many months.”

 

Don’t flinch. She’ll sense something is off. “My most sincere apologies Mother,” Zian lied as he refilled her cup and poured one for himself. Damn it all, he shouldn’t have looked away. It implies guilt. Ah, he forgot to kiss her cheek. “How have you been? Your hair looks lovely. Is that a new dress?”

 

With an amused titter, Mother ran her fingers through his hair and forced him to look her in the eyes. “How adorable. My sweet child thinks that just because he’s formed his Natal Palace, he can hide his secrets. Tell me, do you understand what it means to reject your status as Heir Intended?”

 

Gaping like a fish on land, Zian’s face ran hot as he withered beneath Mother’s knowing smile. How did she know he’d formed his Natal Palace? Only Jukai knew, since Zian worried Uncle Yang would want to make a big spectacle of things. Worse, how did she learn of his plans?

 

After taking a sip of her tea, she motioned for him to do the same. “Oh, my son, so naive and foolish. All these years and you still don’t understand. You can keep no secrets from your Mother. Now, answer the question. Do you understand what will happen once you defect from Clan and Society?”

 

“Defect?” Zian shook his head. “I’m not defecting, I’m stepping down from my position of Young Patriarch. Little Gulong can take up the mantle, he’s a skilled duellist.” Another one of Falling Rain’s defeated foes, even if the entire Clan pretended like it never happened. “The Patriarch will be thrilled to name his own son the successor and I will be free to follow my Martial Path. Everyone wins.”

 

Mother sighed and shook her head. “As I thought. All those years of debauched lechery have rotted your mind. I never should have let you leave Shen Yun but I thought you smart enough not to fall so low, but I’d forgotten how easily young men are swayed by the sight of bare flesh. It’s not entirely your fault, I expected as much, though you were far too enthusiastic for my tastes.”

 

Frowning, Zian asked, “You’re saying I was led astray on purpose?” The thought never crossed his mind. A man had needs, and great men had great needs.

 

“Not only were you led astray, I hoped as much. You were too skilled as a child, a rising dragon with little loyalty to Clan or Society. Rang Min’s pawns convinced you to go to the Society and better yourself but his true goal was to ruin you.” Taken aback by Mother’s disrespectful use of the Patriarch’s name, Zian’s jaw dropped as Mother continued her explanation. “While his plan to turn you into a hedonistic dandy succeeded, your heaven sent talents defied all expectations, mine included. Winning the contest bought you a few years in the public eye and condensing your Aura more time still, else I fear you would have long since fallen victim to some foul ‘accident’.”

 

It seemed Zian had never been the Situ Clan’s golden child. No wonder opinion turned against him so quickly. By ruining Zian and Uncle Yang’s reputations, Patriarch Rang Min snatched victory from the jaws of defeat, the wily old fox. “Is that what’ll happen to me? And what happened to Father? Some ‘accident’? Is that why you brought me north and took office as Magistrate?”

 

Pursing her lips, Mother glared at the closed doors, as if able to see through solid wood. “How much did that windbag tell you?”

 

“Jukai told me nothing.” Fixing Mother with an expectant look, Zian added, “He claimed it wasn’t his place to say.”

 

“Hmph.” Mother’s glare softened as she sipped her tea and she reached for a cookie, a delaying tactic if Zian had ever seen one. Nibbling daintily on the biscuit, she continued to sit in silence which offered Zian a chance to really see his mother for the first time in close to a year. She looked… Older. Tired lines surrounded her eyes, lines which weren’t there a year ago. Although older than Uncle Yang by three years, Mother barely looked half her age, a dignified woman who never remarried despite having both wealth and power. It couldn’t have been easy on her, but he’d never heard her utter a single word of complaint. She thrived in her position yet she never taught him her craft and left him to his own devices. No matter how incredible his accomplishments, she rarely praised his efforts, at most patting his cheeks and saying ‘as expected of my son’.

 

Yet now, he learned she’d been sheltering him from the world at large, shouldering their family hardships all on her own. Reaching over to take her hand, Zian said, “Mother. Your son is a grown man and his shoulders broad. Let him help carry your burdens.”

 

Slumping in her seat, Mother closed her eyes, weak and vulnerable. “You must promise to heed my instructions,” she whispered. “Otherwise, I will kill Jukai and bring this secret to my grave. Better for you to live in ignorance than to die in futility.”

 

“I promise.”

 

Taking a deep breath, Mother straightened up and squeezed his fingers, glancing out the window as she told her tale. “As a young woman, I spent several years at the wall seeking Nian Zu’s affection.” Smiling at Zian’s visible discomfort, Mother smiled and shrugged. “Relax, I won’t go into details. I pursued Nian Zu because if I didn’t, the Clan Patriarch of the time, Rang Min’s grandfather, would have married me off to some worthless fop. Needless to say, I failed to catch the Living Legend’s eye but not without good reason. Once I realized my efforts would never bear fruit, I lost myself in despair.” With a sad smile, she added, “And then I met your father. Lu An Jing, a young ‘Nian Zu’ is what they called him, a rising dragon of humble origins. His father owned a shipping business, carrying goods from Shen Huo to Shen Bin. Your father was so handsome and charming, but so naive and foolish, just like you.”

 

Lost in her memories, Mother sat in silence until Zian could no longer bear the suspense. “What happened next?”

 

Blushing like a schoolgirl, Mother feigned a frown and pinched his cheek. “What do you think happened? We fell in love, I got pregnant, and then we married in secret. The Patriarch was not happy with our actions, but by the time he found out, the rice was cooked. Your father agreed to marry into our family and for many years he represented the Clan interests.” Glowering with anger, Mother continued. “They worked him like a dog and openly mocked him to his face, but he endured their scorn because it meant we could be together as a family. Yet even after years of meritocratic service, they still had him killed.”

 

Finally. Confirmation of what Zian suspected. “Who?” He asked, jaw clenched breath short. “Who killed him?”

 

“Presumably, the Defiled.” Patting his shoulder to soothe his anger, Mother lamented, “Even after all these years I’m still not sure if our enemies killed him directly, but I’m certain your father was set up for failure at the least. Someone wanted him dead or dishonoured and made efforts to make it happen. His retinue was delayed, intelligence reports falsified or altered, his water skin drugged, and more, all because he refused to play politics and serve beneath a lesser man.”

 

“A name.” In Zian’s eyes, the details mattered little, only the result. His father died and someone was to blame. Zian would avenge him, or die trying.

 

“I have no proof, so I will not say,” Mother said, silencing his protests with a glare. “Better you don’t know. You’re incapable of hiding your thoughts. Now, off with you. I’ll see you in Nan Ping after I arrive, there’s still much left here for me to do. Oh, and I left a present in your room, so stop in before you leave. It’s to your tastes, I’m sure of it.”

 

And just like that, the discussion was done as Mother summoned her maids to see him out. Fuming with anger, Zian looked Jukai in the eyes and Sent, “Who is to blame for my Father’s death?”

 

“Myself,” Jukai replied, solemn and grave. “For I was not at his side when he needed me most.” Placing a hand on Zian’s shoulder, the old man added, “I’ll not let his son suffer the same fate.”

 

Considering the old man’s guilt, Zian swallowed his anger and turned away, heading towards his room in search of his present. Hopefully it was a new Runic Armour, to replace the one he’d lost to Rain. “I didn’t know him, so I cannot say, but do you think he’d blame you for his death? Don’t be foolish old man. Tell me the truth. Even if you don’t know, surely you have a suspect in mind.”

 

“… Situ Rang Min.”

 

Still reeling from the reveal, Zian opened his bedroom door to find a buxom, raven-haired beauty, kneeling in wait, her milky white skin and deep, brown eyes demanding his attention. Though still enraged by what he’d only just learned, Zian couldn’t help but marvel at her impeccable poise and flawless beauty. Lowering her head into a kneeling bow, the young beauty spoke with a charming, sultry voice. “This one is Ong Jing Fei,” she said as her forehead rested on the ground. “This one is to be Situ Jia Zian’s concubine, with orders from Mother-in-Law to bear her a grandchild as soon as possible.”

 

Zian’s tongue felt five times larger and his chest tightened as he struggled for breath. Staggering back, he reached for Jukai in search of support only to hear the older man drop to the floor like a sack of turnips. Raising her head, the devilish Lady Jing Fei gave him a sweet smile which both chilled him to the bone and enflamed his passions. “A small warning, husband mine. Though this one is a mere concubine, she will not tolerate being humiliated or shamed. You licentious ways will end, or there will be dire consequences.”

 

Falling to his knees, Zian stuttered, “You… Fung…”

 

“Yes,” she said, pulling him close to rest on her ample bosom. “I was once betrothed to Tong Da Fung, but fear not dear husband. My chastity is still intact.” As the world fell into darkness, Zian’s cringed as he recalled his mother’s cryptic parting statement. ‘It’s to your tastes, I’m sure of it’. Mother even knew about his crush on Sumila and found Ong Jing Fei to be his concubine.

 

Fierce and untamed, a brutal, ruthless woman who poisoned her husband as a mere warning, this was a woman after his own heart.

 

Truly, Mother knows best.

 

Chapter Meme

 

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Savage Divinity – Chapter 286

 

I like to think of myself as a tenacious person, not someone who shrinks in the face of adversity. When the going gets tough, I grit my teeth and power through, or I find a different, easier way to approach the problem. After a single day of travelling with this massive army of the North, I’m ready to call it quits and risk the Emperor’s retribution. Bring on the charges of mutiny, because this is the worst.

 

The main problem is there’s too many people. I’m not privy to our exact numbers, but I’m guessing it’s at least a million soldiers answering the call to Central. Hearing the number doesn’t sound too impressive, but when I sat down and thought about it, it really blew my mind. Assuming the average person is fifty centimetres wide, if every soldier here lined up shoulder to shoulder, they’d stretch for five hundred kilometres. That’s more than six days of marching or a quarter of the journey from the Wall to the Society Headquarters. If my job was to speak with every soldier here for one minute each and I worked eight hours a day without break, it’d still take me almost six years to finish.

 

That’s not including all the non-combatants. Spouses, children, cooks, labourers, retainers, drivers, stable hands, and more, their numbers easily dwarf our own. All I can see is massive blob of people, horses, quins, and wagons stretching in both directions. Covered from head to toe in what I pray is only mud and slush, my appearance is as far from debonair as one can get. Since the expedition set out, I haven’t had a single moment of silence whether it be due to the percussive clatter of marching soldiers or the clamouring racket of a million muttering voices. Whichever way the wind blows, it carries the rank stench of body odour and manure as it splatters soiled snow across my body to steal away my warmth and comfort. Figures bustle about as they prepare to settle in for the night, hastily assembling their shelters at the side of the road, over thick mud, thawed and churned by the passing of tens of thousands of boots and hooves.

 

Things can only gets worse as untold numbers of troops and wagons from every city in the north join us throughout our journey to Nan Ping. I have a headache just thinking about the logistical complications. Even with the entire province working to supply our army, feeding so many mouths on the move is already difficult enough, so how does the Emperor expect to feed at least four times our number gathered in one place?

 

Luckily, smarter minds than mine are (hopefully) hard at work solving the problem and they assure me I have nothing to worry about. All I have to do is wait for Rustram to send whatever food is available for my fur-babies to nom on. As if sensing my thoughts, Mafu cranes his neck and fixes me with a plaintive stare, his chittering cries both adorable and heart-rending as he pleads for treats. One would think he’s been starved for days instead of the tubby, over-fed glutton he is. His begging is indirectly rewarded as Pran and Saluk arrive bearing fruits and meats, making them my pets’ favourite people for a few short minutes.

 

I’m so thankful for Rustram, Dastan, and oddly enough, Ulfsaar. I’d be completely lost without them as all three are vital in keeping my small, two-hundred and eighty strong retinue running like a well-oiled machine. Baatar and Akanai both tried to teach me the basics of command but I’ve been having trouble putting things into practice. I’m not what one would call an organized person. I see a problem, I fix the problem. Doesn’t seem so bad an approach, but with more people comes more problems. Too many problems and things grind to a halt while I’m busy patching them up, which is… less than ideal. A good leader sees an issue and fixes it before it becomes a problem, which just goes to show that choosing leaders based on strength of arms is stupid. Instead of leading thousand-man retinues, I should be a standard grunt with wiser, more tactical-minded folk telling me where to go and what to do.

 

Not that I’m a great at taking orders either. I have problems with authority, mostly because I like to challenge everything I’m told. Sun rises in the east? Maybe. We’ll see in the morning, but until then, who can say? Honestly, a soldier’s life really isn’t for me, and I’m not just saying that because I’m miserable.

 

With all the higher-ups swamped by the minutia of army management and my people doing my job for me, there’s little for me to do. Since it’s supposedly bad for morale if I’m seen doing manual labour or menial tasks, I’m left to wander around and supervise as my retinue sets camp. Somehow both unblemished by the day’s travel, Lin and Guard Leader join me on my walk around camp, trailed by two bears, two cats, and one fat quin. In a few weeks, I’ll have sixteen rabbits hopping along behind me like a little horde of voracious buck-toothed cuties. Squeeeeeeee-

 

Stop it. You’re a Second Grade Warrant Officer and ostensibly the number one talent in the north. You can’t be walking around with a goofy grin on your face while thinking of bunnies, no matter how adorable they might be. It’s undignified. Go look at the bunnies, give them a pat each for one last hit of cuteness to tide you over until later. Whistling for Mafu to approach, I give my fat floof a chin scratch before lifting his saddlebags to reveal the bunnies. Instead of fifteen floppy-eared, nose twitching rabbit kits staring back at me, I discover all the rabbits are still curled up in their compartments, with many of them snoring lightly.

 

Peeking at the bunnies, Lin tilts her head and strokes Tawny One’s belly, the adorable little brown bun asleep on his back. “Wakey wakey little bun-bun. You’ve been sleeping all day so it’s time to come out and play, ya?” Tawny One proves unresponsive to Lin’s prodding as do the other bunnies she checks and my heart sinks with worry. Are they sick? Bicorn rabbits raised in captivity have a tendency to die due to mysterious circumstances, but I thought having their momma around would keep the little bun-buns alive. Nooooo! Tawny One, Thumper, Flopsy, Hopper, Quake, Cinnabun, Peanut, Ginger, Pepper, Bugs, Lola, Buster, Babs, Fluffy Bunnkins, and George! Don’t leave me!

 

“Calm yourself.” Guard Leader’s bored voice snaps me out of my downward spiral and I turn to her in desperate search of answers. Nestled in her arms is Mama Bun, also fast asleep and snoring just like her babies. Following my train of thought, Guard Leader nods and says, “Yes, this is due to the idamare, and yes, it was to be expected. How to explain… The plant contains a high amount of energy and the deep sleep helps them process it.”

 

Relieved by the news, I ask, “How long will they sleep for?”

 

“A day? More?” Guard Leader shrugs, not exactly inspiring confidence. “No longer than three. These creatures eat whole Spiritual Plants in the wild, roots and all. They wouldn’t survive if they fell asleep for extended periods of time.”

 

Before I can berate her for her irresponsible feeding, another thought strikes me. “Wait, will the babies be okay? They’re so young but they ate the same amount as Mama Bun and she’s not awake yet. They won’t explode because of too much energy will they?”

 

She takes her time answering, which doesn’t exactly inspire confidence. “An explosion is unlikely, and while the idamare provides them with more than enough nourishment…” Guard Leader pauses and it takes all my self-restraint to keep from shaking the answer out of her. “…If they sleep too long they’ll die of thirst.” Another shrug. “That’s why I said no longer than three days. Their fate is beyond our control.”

 

My poor bunnies… “If you knew this then why didn’t you… I dunno, test it out before hand? Feed them a smaller portion or feed only one or two of them?”

 

A third shrug. “It did not occur to me there might be an issue until you brought it up.”

 

Although her expression is hidden behind her veil, her tone and posture scream indifference. It’s as if she wasn’t the sole culprit of this whole debacle but merely an innocent bystander offering her expertise out of goodwill. Nonsensical expertise at that, I can think of a dozen things that could go wrong before my sweet bun-buns die of dehydration. That’s not even an issue, I can straw feed them water if necessary…

 

Staring at this mysterious, arrogant warrior who I know so little about, I add one piece of information to her character sheet: Guard Leader, for all her physical prowess, combat expertise, and political power among the Bekhai, is an idiot of the highest order. Spiritual Plants are basically steroids on steroids and she fed an entire stalk to baby bunnies who aren’t even a month old.

 

Swallowing my anger, I head out in search of Taduk, with Lin hopping on Mafu to keep an eye on the bunnies. While we walk, I ask Guard Leader, “How much?” The blockhead warrior tilts her head ever so slightly, unable to discern my meaning. “For the Spiritual Plants you took from Teacher. How much to buy them back?” Before she feeds another poor, unsuspecting animal and boils it from the inside out. And because Taduk wants them back, but mostly the first thing.

 

With a dismissive snort, Guard Leader turns her nose up at my inquiry. “I made the offer to Taduk. You have nothing in your possession which interests me.”

 

Huh… Interesting. I’m like, stupid rich. I mean, I’m strapped for gold but I have a vast fortune tied up in Spiritual Hearts and stolen artwork and Guard Leader knows it. This begs the question, what does Taduk have that interests her? Could it be… Does she want his medical expertise? Or is she more interested in healing of a sexual nature?

 

Bow chicka wow-wow…

 

Taduk should go for it. He’s a handsome man in the prime of life and I bet Guard Leader is smoking hot. Every great warrior is. It’s probably why she wears the veil, gets too many spontaneous marriage proposals without it. It’d be nice if my Teacher had someone looking out for him, he’s a little bit of an airhead and Lin isn’t much better. Don’t get me wrong, they’re both sweet and I love them, but they’re… quirky.

 

Then again, is Guard Leader really the woman for the job?

 

Trying to play cupid, I test the waters with a casual remark. “You know, Teacher’s been caring for those Spiritual Plants for a long time now. He takes miniscule cuttings every year and tries to raise a second plant, but he’s been unsuccessful so far. It’s his dream to cultivate a garden full of Spiritual Plants, says he could improve millions of lives if he’s successful. There’s so many ailments which can be fixed with a simple treatment but the scarcity of Spiritual Plants makes it so only the wealthiest can afford them.”

 

“A fool’s dream and a fruitless endeavour.” Guard Leader shows no signs of surprise or remorse over ruining Taduk’s dream, or at least making it a little harder to accomplish. Forget it, my teacher is way too good for this bully. “These Spiritual Plants are the result of fate and fortune, the Mother’s bounty for her children to harvest. They serve no purpose whilst planted in the dirt, so why not put it to good use?”

 

“…Feeding pet rabbits is good use? I mean, they’re my pets and I’m thankful for the gift, but it hardly seems like the most… efficient use of idamare. A single stalk can put an end to seizures caused by-”

 

“Bah. You sound just like him. You think I wasted the idamare on your rabbits, but I see things differently. Even if you save sixteen humans, how many years might those humans live?”

 

She pauses long enough for me to realize her question isn’t rhetorical and she’s trying to figure out the math. Oh you poor, dumb woman. “Assuming a hundred years of life per person, then sixteen hundred years in total.”

 

Tentatively shaking her head like she thinks I’m wrong but doesn’t know enough to disprove it, Guard Leader say, “Yes, sixteen… hundred…”

 

Oh, that’s my bad, language derp. “One thousand six hundred.”

 

“Yes.” She’s much more confident this time. “But, by feeding the idamare to these rabbits, they might live for two, three hundred years each before dying of old age. Longer if we feed them more Spiritual Plants.” Switching to Sending, she adds, “Considering she is on the cusp of forming a Spiritual Heart, the mother rabbit is anywhere from one to three thousand years old. She even has a chance to reach divinity and live an eternal existence in human form, all of them do.”

 

I’ve never heard anyone refer to Ancestral Beast status as ‘divinity’, but I can see why certain people might worship eternal, beautiful people who wield enough power to destroy entire cities. More importantly, if Mama Bun is three-thousand years old and STILL this stupid, I’m gonna have to side with Taduk and say she has infinitely close to zero chance of reaching ‘divinity’ status.

 

I mean… she tries to eat Aurie’s fur and gets upset because it isn’t tasty. She’s done it five times now. She is not a smart animal.

 

Hm… Can I feed Spiritual Plants to the quins, bears, and cats? I’d like if they lived forever, or at least long enough to keep Lin and Mila company after I’m gone. Be super weird if they started talking though, I’d rather not cuddle and sleep with talking animals. Mmm… I shouldn’t be thinking like this, it’s depressing and Teacher will be upset if he finds out.

 

Thankfully, Taduk doesn’t throw a fit when we ask him to check on the bunnies, only ‘harrumphing’ four or five times through the whole process. After getting a clean bill of health, I settle down to cook dinner as thanks, not caring if it affects my retinue’s morale. Since we’re travelling under military escort, we’re forced to abide by military protocols which means I can’t run off to eat with my family, and my retinue still isn’t great at cooking. Since officer lodgings are smack dab in the middle of their troops, I’m separated from Alsantset and Akanai by countless Sentinels while Baatar and Sarnai are even further away since my Mentor has the dubious honour of leading the vanguard. Aside from Taduk, Lin, Guard Leader, her cronies, and my retinue, I’m pretty much surrounded by strangers.

 

Bekhai strangers who don’t want me around, can’t forget that.

 

Once the broth is boiling and noodles cooking, I step back from the fire to take a break, only to bump into an adorable little old man wrapped in a thick, wool cloak. With a hunched back and white beard, the old man is even shorter than Lin, although his shoulders are broader. He also sports a pair of silvered wolf ears peeking out of his hood while his similarly coloured tail half-heartedly wags behind him as he gives the air a few perfunctory sniffs. “Food smells good,” he says, fixing me with a pointed look. Although his face is wrinkled and has more age spots than I can count, his eyes are sharp and crystal clear, blue as the sky on a clear summer day.

 

Be on your best behaviour. Even though he’s probably a camp follower, it doesn’t hurt to be polite. “Would you care to join us for dinner grandfather?”

 

“Bah,” he says, waving his hand as he takes a seat by the fire. “Who’s your grandfather? I ain’t never sired no snot-nosed, silver-tongue, amber-eyed brat.”

 

Tch, this old fart. Here to mooch a meal and can’t even be nice about it. “Sorry, I just felt it the most suitable appellation. Allow me to correct myself. If you don’t like grandfather, then which would you prefer: geezer or codger?”

 

 

God dammit. So much for my best behaviour. It’s the cuteness withdrawals, I can’t live like this. I needs. To cuddles. My Bun-Buns!

 

Maybe it’s my overactive imagination, but I sense a warrior’s past in the old man’s steely glare, as if he were some peak expert of yesteryear. Time spares no one however, as he looks older than any half-beast I’ve ever met. After a heart-wrenching pause, the old man barks with laughter as his perfect teeth flash in the firelight. “You got stones kid, I’ll give you that. The worthless boy I been saddled with acts all polite on the outside while cursin’ me for dead on the inside, but can’t say I blame him. His mama ain’t no shrinking violet, she’ll spank him something fierce if he took after you. Call me whatever you like,” he says, “long as you gimme a big ol’ bowl of them noodles. Don’t skimp on the venison either, come, come, come.”

 

Relieved he wasn’t offended, I give him a hearty helping once the noodles are cooked. He doesn’t seem interested in making conversation, so after a few unanswered questions I leave him to eat in peace while I sit with Lin and Taduk. Captivated by my culinary skills, the old geezer finishes his entire bowl, soup, bones and all, even helping himself to seconds without asking. It’s no big deal, the elderly should be treasured and he could use the food. His thin frame looks frail enough for a strong wind to knock over.

 

A familiar face emerges from the crowd as Huu arrives, his face twisted in a concerned frown. “I asked you not to wander off.”

 

“Bah,” the old geezer replies, taking a swig from his gourd. Alcohol, and strong alcohol judging by the smell. He didn’t offer to share either, the stingy old miser. “Emperor’s laws, army’s rules, brat’s requests, I don’t recall agreein’ with any of em.”

 

Putting aside my misgivings, I smile and wave at Huu. “Hey. Long time no see. Where’d you disappear to for so many months?”

 

“Training.” Huu’s curt reply and gruff manners throw me for a loop, my good friend not even sparing me a glance. Offering the old geezer a hand, he puts an end to our impromptu reunion. “Come, we must return to camp before someone notices my absence.”

 

Despite grumbling all the while, the old geezer takes Huu’s hand and allows the younger half-wolf to help him up and the two of them disappear into the night without so much as a thank you or farewell. Noticing my frown, Lin leans against me and whispers, “I’m sure Huu’s just tired and worried. I doubt he meant to be rude, he probably hasn’t even eaten yet, ya? Spent all his time looking for the old man.”

 

“Yea, you’re probably right. Can’t blame him for being a little cranky, travelling is bad enough without babysitting a difficult old man.” Kissing my sweet wifey on the cheek, I feign nonchalance while pulling Baloo into my embrace, holding him close like an oversized teddy bear. Maybe Lin’s right and I caught Huu at a bad time or maybe he caught wind of my near-Defiled status and is avoiding me like the other Bekhai.

 

Until we know for sure, who can say?

 

Chapter Meme

 

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Savage Divinity – Chapter 285

 


I’d like to give a shout out to my latest Patrons Sicarian, FancyPantsu, and two anonymous donors. Thank you all so much for your support!

 

Well, after a longish break, here we are in a new year with a new chapter. I hope you all had a wonderful new years, and pray 2018 will be better than it’s predecessor. As for this chapter, I don’t like what I’ve written. I thought about scrapping it and changing it all up, but I couldn’t come up with a better idea for this chapter. I spent lots of time trying to revise everything to flow better and be less boring, but it didn’t really work, so, we’re starting 2018 with less than my best work.

 

No worries, this means we can only go up from here!

 

I hope.

 

Anyways, enjoy!


 

Gazing at the empty shelves and vacant drawers of my yurt, I’m overcome with a sense of dejection and melancholy. With the interior stripped bare and my things packed away, there’s little resemblance to the cozy residence I lived in for the last half-year. As much as I love my family and friends, I’m a creature of solitude and this oversized tent gave me my first taste of real independence. Even though I was living in closer proximity to my neighbours than ever before, it was nice knowing I had a place of my own to return to after a long day of arduous training, somewhere I could kick back and relax or brood and distress in peace. Within these leather-lined walls, I was free to do as I pleased, whether it be to croon at and cuddle with my fur babies or curl up and cry. This was my safe space, a place where I could be vulnerable in a world where weakness is held in contempt.

 

It’s not just a yurt. This is my home, the only home I have left considering my recent near exile from the Bekhai. As fond as I am of the village, it’s hard to love a place while knowing no one wants you around. I was ready for a fresh start here at the Wall, makings plans to build a house and settle in for the long haul, but the Emperor ruined everything. Okay, that’s not fair, the Defiled deserve most of the credit, but still. Instead of putting down roots, I’m tearing down my rustic little residence and packing it onto a wagon, all so I can head off to the Central Province alongside every officer, soldier, and warrior worth a damn. Considering the Emperor’s actions have shown him to care little for his subjects, I’ve no doubt the accommodations in Nan Ping will be subpar at best, assuming any are available by the time we arrive, so bringing the yurts and plenty of food along with us only seems prudent.

 

I’m going to miss it here, surrounded by cuteness with all my pets living in peaceful harmony. Well, most of my pets. I had to kick Pafu and Suret out because the quin pups were too eager to taste both bird and bunny. They’ve been staying next door in Alsantset’s yurt despite her insistence the quins would be happy sleeping in a burrow. That’s my sister for you, foul-mouthed and soft-hearted. Meanwhile, Lin unrepentantly continues to monopolize Jimjam and the bears every day, while Sarankho refuses to leave her mommy Li Song, which leaves me with only Aurie and Mafu to cuddle with. Contrary to their instincts, the two massive predators lie slack and motionless while a horde of baby bicorn bunnies zoom about like tiny, cocaine-fuelled fluffballs, tackling or headbutting everything in their path. Taking after Mama Bun, the bunnies have no fear or caution, happy to use Mafu’s belly as a springboard or Aurie’s nose as a target all while filling the yurt with the pitter-patter of their tiny feet. Overseeing the safety of her babies, Mama Bun sits atop my bed while nomming down on dandelions and tubers, taking in her territory with a vacant, yet satisfied look in her beady black eyes.

 

With the way things are going, I’m terrified the first bunny casualty is going to result from too much rough housing. Despite their resting bitch-face and near suicidal stupidity, the bun-buns have wormed their way into my heart with their delightful antics. I have plenty of names picked out but since it’ll still be a few weeks before their genders can be determined, Tawny One remains as the only named bunny. A damn shame I don’t have an all black bun to name Blackjack, they’d make a wonderful pair. As it is, Tawny One will have to ride solo as he (or she) tries to force it’s way past Aurie’s teeth and into his mouth.

 

So stupid, but so adorable.

 

The bunnies aren’t my only source of cuteness. If I didn’t know any better, I’d swear Roc and his flock are hellbent on earning my love through sheer ingenuity. Scattered about every corner of the yurt, several of my lovely birds use short branches held in their talons to give themselves a vigorous, early morning head scratching, both an endearing sight to behold and a welcome relief. Not only am I spared from grooming them every morning, but I no longer need to suffer through the nips they use to signal they’ve had enough scritches. It didn’t take much effort to teach them to use tools, but they’ve gone above and beyond my lessons, now able to use the same branches to open their cage and pry open cupboards. At first, I worried Roc and the others would see baby bunnies as a snack, but Mama Bun has things well in hand, always ready to scare off any swooping birds with a vicious aerial headbutt. Kai Yay’s lucky Mama Bun only landed a glancing hit and Taduk was nearby to Heal him or else poor Yipi would be a widow now.

 

It shouldn’t be an issue for much longer. A few days ago, Diyako informed me they’d found an alternative material and no longer need my birdies feathers, so I’ve decided to let Roc and his flock go free once we reach the Central Province. It’s not right keeping them cooped up in a cage for the rest of their lives, and the north is too cold for them to survive. I’m gonna miss them, but it’s better this way. I’m sure they’ll love flying around and forget all about me in a week.

 

Stupid onion cutting ninja. Get out of here, go cut onions somewhere else.

 

Besides, now I think about it, my ‘relaxing’ little home is a huge source of stress, always worrying if I’m gonna come home to a bloodbath of bunnies and birdies. Then again, all this conflict and tension is nothing compared to what awaits me in Nan Ping, where arrogant nobles and headstrong warriors will gather in numbers never before seen. I can hear it now, with cries of ‘do you know who I am?’ echoing through the streets as thousands of entitled little shits try to throw their weight around.

 

It’s going to be awful.

 

Even if we pretend the logistics will fall in place without a hitch, I can’t see this ending in anything but disaster. Assuming I don’t accidentally offend someone, which is doubtful considering my track record, who’s to say everyone will play nice? With so many pompous twits and narcissistic psychopaths gathered in one place, all it’ll take is one spark to set off a massive brawl of epic proportions.

 

I’d much rather stay here but with the whole ‘attendance is mandatory’ bit, the decision’s out of my hands. Out of everyone’s hands actually, including the living legend Nian Zu’s, who will be leading us on the trek south. Despite this whole plan being nothing but a blatant power play by the Emperor, we have no choice but to comply. Our only other option would be to stay home and pray the Defiled sweep through the Central and Eastern provinces, then leave us alone for some strange, unknown reason. Otherwise, whoever wins is gonna run roughshod over anyone who stayed behind, so here I am getting ready to leave the North unguarded so I can head south to play meat shield for the Emperor.

 

Seriously, fuck that guy.

 

To be fair though, it’s not like I can offer an alternative solution. Everything outside the Empire is supposedly a veritable wasteland, with untillable permafrost to the north, barren deserts to the west, and scorching volcanic badlands to the south, which means in total population, the Empire has the Defiled outnumbered many times over. Unfortunately, in terms of fighting strength, our situations are reversed. Only one percent of the Empire’s population can use Chi, but from what we know, every Defiled man, woman, and child can use the Defiled equivalent. Add in Demons and possible turncoats hiding amongst our ranks and I’m genuinely surprised the Empire survived this long. In the past, only the Three Walls and a propensity for infighting kept the Defiled from conquering the known world but now that the Enemy has united together and breached the Western Wall, the fate of the Empire hangs in the balance.

 

Repressing all my doom and gloom, I return to packing my things away. After herding the flock back into their cage and loading the baby bunnies into their sheepskin saddlebags, I step out into the morning dawn and take one last look at my surroundings. The sea of yurts has receded with mine being one of the last still standing. Some of the Bekhai will return to the mountain village, but most are coming with us to Central, including Charok and the twins. With her pigtails flying in the wind, Tali runs over with a cloth-wrapped tray in hand, her toothy smile filling my heart with warmth. “Morning Rainy. I maked breakfast with Papa, so eat now, ya? Oh, and Mama says it’s almost time to go, so stop dawdling and hop to it.”

 

Tali’s tone and posture perfectly encapsulates her mama’s spirit and Charok’s snort of laughter tells me he hears it too. Carrying a sleeping Tate in her arms, Alsantset pretends not to notice our shared mirth and turns away to hide her smile. While Pran and Saluk dismantle my yurt, I eat my meal and watch sweet Tali play with Mafu and Aurie, so full of laughter and delight while unaware of the dangers lurking in our near future. I wish she were going back to the village where she’ll be safe, but again, the decision isn’t mine to make. Charok won’t stay behind while Alsantset rides to war and neither of them are willing to leave the children. I can’t fault them for wanting to keep their family together. Even though no one wants to say it out loud, everyone knows if the Central province is overrun, it’s only a matter of time before the other provinces follow.

 

I’m trying to be optimistic, but Mother knows she’s not making it easy.

 

Once my things are packed and everyone is ready, I lead my retinue and family to the front gates where the other Bekhai and soldiers of the North are waiting to set out. Spying Taduk’s rickshaw through the crowd, we make our way over to join him. Nearby, Akanai stands on the roof of her carriage with hands clasped behind her back as she scans the crowd, likely micromanaging her subordinates as she so loves to do. Baloo and Banjo greet me with happy, motor-like grunts while Lin hops out of the rickshaw to land lightly on Mafu’s back. Snuggling into my embrace, Lin yawns and closes her eyes, my sweet wifey unaccustomed to keeping early hours. “Hi hubby.”

 

“Hi wifey.”

 

“I was thinking.”

 

“What about?”

 

“Daddy says it takes twenty four days to reach the Society, then ten days by ship to reach coastal Nan Ping.”

 

“Yea.”

 

“But that’s how long it takes for the wagons to make the trip.”

 

“True enough, but we need the wagons and everything they’re carrying.”

 

“Well…What if we left the wagons and rode ahead to visit Ping Yao, ya?” Unleashing her greatest weapons, Lin opens her big brown eyes, so full of feigned innocence. “We could go see the turtle and catch up with everyone before they reach the Society.”

 

Frowning, I pinch her cheek and refuse. “We’re not here to play and we can’t afford to tire out the quins before fighting the Defiled.”

 

“No need to worry about the quins.” Here to protect my wifey once again, Guard Leader and her cronies arrive to back Lin up. Dressed in their dark leather armour and obscuring veils, they’re every bit as daunting as I remember. “They’ll be fine so long as we keep them well fed. Besides, we have more than sixty days before the Spring Equinox. I’ll notify Akanai of our plans.” And just like that, the decision is made despite my protests.

 

Well… whatever. The quins could use the exercise and I did promise to bring Lin to see the turtle. If things in Central go poorly, this might be our last chance. Besides, I don’t want to start an argument with Guard Leader over something so stupid. I haven’t seen her since my near exile, but there are no hard feelings on my end. She voiced her opinion without malice or hate and I don’t hold it against her. Hell, I still think she was right, but that’s beside the point.

 

After a brief pause, Guard Leader asks, “How are the rabbits?”

 

“They’re doing well.” Lifting Mafu’s saddlebags, I reveal fifteen sleeping baby bunnies, each nestled in their own individual compartments. “Tokta says they’re healthy as can be, with no signs of wasting or blindness. They’re growing bigger and fatter by the day.” Taduk refuses to treat the bunnies, but that’s no surprise. His hare-supremacist agenda is not his most flattering side.

 

“Good, good.” To my surprise, Guard Leader pulls out a handful of leafy greens and places a palm-sized stalk in each pouch, almost as large as the bunnies themselves. Coming awake at the smell, the tiny rabbits set to devouring their treat with a voracious appetite, the first time I’ve seen them eat anything solid. Smiling at the sweet gesture, my eyes widen in alarm as I notice what she’s feeding them: idamare leaves, a rare and precious herb which requires Heavenly Energy to grow.

 

My muttered prayer comes too late as Taduk notices as well. “Wastrel!” he hisses, hopping weightlessly from his rickshaw to land between Guard Leader and myself, barring her from feeding the bunnies. “What are you doing?”

 

“Feeding rabbits.” I can almost hear the smirk in her voice, a coy, almost teasing tone. “I rather enjoy watching them eat.”

 

“You hateful woman, you’re doing this on purpose aren’t you? You know how I feel ab-” Back straightening in alarm, Taduk asks, “The idamare, where did you get it from?”

 

“On a plateau south east of your home in the mountains.” Oh no, Taduk’s been carefully cultivating that idamare plant for years now, but something tells me she knew this. “Such good fortune, I found twenty-three rare plants and herbs all within a days walk of the village. You really should pay more attention to your surroundings, this was a veritable treasure trove right in front of your nose. I harvested them all since these sweet creatures your student is raising will need plenty of nourishment to grow big and strong. Ah, if you have need of any herbs then ask and I shall gladly offer a fair price.” As if adding insult to injury, Mama Bun hops out of Alsantset’s carriage and into Guard Leader’s arms, where she too receives a portion of the priceless treat.

 

“You… You…” Choking on his words, Taduk turns purple with rage as Lin hops down to calm his temper. It won’t be easy, Taduk treats those plants like his babies, and now one of them is in the process of becoming rabbit poop. There has to be a story behind their relationship, it’s more intimate and familiar than I’d imagined. Maybe they were once lovers in the nighttime and had a falling out, or perhaps Taduk spurned Guard Leader’s affections for another woman.

 

Oh, how deliciously sordid. I want to know more…

 

“Horrid man.” Mila’s voice pulls me out of my imagination, her hands on her hips and mouth twisted in a pout. “You were going to leave without saying goodbye.”

 

“Never, my love.” I didn’t think she’d be here to see us off. Hopping off of Mafu, I lift her into my arms and laugh as she melts in my embrace. “I’ll be counting the days until we meet again.”

 

Pinching my sides, my freckled, fiery betrothed rests her head on my shoulder. “It won’t be long. I’ll finish your weapon then Papa and I will catch up as quickly as possible.”

 

“You don’t have to do this, you know? I don’t need another weapon, you can just leave with us now.” Besides, I’m not too thrilled about her travelling with an unbound Spiritual Weapon in her possession, not to mention me walking around with one.

 

Sensing my concern, Mila snorts and rolls her eyes. “You worry too much. I’ll be perfectly safe with Papa and an army of Sentinels at my side. It’s better for you to leave first, we can’t all travel together and you can’t afford to be late. You were summoned by the Emperor himself while I wasn’t even invited.”

 

“Don’t be jealous.” Kissing her on the cheek, I add, “Once the Grand Conference begins, the world will finally know your worth. I look forward to seeing Captain Sumila take her place as the undisputed number one talent in the Empire.”

 

“Hmph. Flattery will get you nowhere.” Experience has taught me otherwise, but a smart man doesn’t argue with women. There’s no winning, even if you’re right. Especially if you’re right. Squeezing me tight, Mila buries her face in my chest and Sends, “Stay safe and don’t do anything stupid, okay?”

 

I’m so happy she learned to control her volume. “Yes, my love.

 

And if you see Yan before I arrive, tell her even though she didn’t send a reply, I meant what I said in my letters.

 

Yea, Yan didn’t reply to my letters either, but it’s okay. From what I hear, she’s been busy. “Okay, but why so cryptic? What’d you say?

 

Blushing furiously, Mila punches my arm lightly. “None of your business, just remember to tell her.

 

All too soon, it’s time for us to separate and it hurts to see her go, but before I can process my emotions, Yuzhen’s voice sounds out for all to hear, booming over the bustle of the crowd. “Heroes of the Empire,” she begins, wholly in her element as Marshal of the North. Filled with vapid platitudes and trivial accolades, her speech is tailored to inspire devotion and adoration for said ‘heroes’ while not forgetting to thank the common people for their ‘vital support’. Her flowery praise makes it sound like we’re marching to put an end to the Father himself, yet she never mentions how we’re leaving the North vulnerable to attack. According to her, we’ll march to Central where the Defiled will be defeated in open battle, neat, tidy, and wholly unbelievable. As her speech comes to an end, she closes with, “These are trying times we live in. United we stand, but divided we fall. To this end, I bid you all to forget school or faction, clan or sect, city or province. We are all citizens of the Azure Empire, and together, we will drive the Defiled scum back from whence they came!

 

While the city erupts into cheers, I can’t help but laugh at her words. United we stand, but divided we fall? If that’s the case, then there’s no point going to Central. We’re all doomed. Asking the various factions of the Empire to work together is like asking a pig not to fart, both absurd and impossible.

 

Okay, this isn’t helping. What I need is a positive mental attitude. Who knows? Maybe I’m in for a pleasant surprise. Maybe, under the growing threat of Defiled, the numerous factions of the Empire will come together and set aside their grudges and self-interests. Led by the Emperor, nobles, officers, and common soldiers alike will forge new bonds and work in harmony to overcome the odds against us, repelling the murderous Enemy from our borders and wiping out the Defiled threat once and for all. Our victory will usher in a new age of peace and prosperity, an age where we strive for equality and freedom for all.

 

And maybe Mafu will sprout wings and fly.

 

I mean, crazier things have happened.

 

Chapter Meme

 

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Savage Divinity – Chapter 284

 

“You expect the Lin Clan to bid for what is rightfully ours? This is preposterous!”

 

No, what’s preposterous is an accomplished diplomat losing his temper so readily. Resisting the urge to roll her eyes, Yuzhen waited in stoic silence for Lin Xiang Gu to realize the severity of his actions. Though he was no warrior, pounding the table and advancing on the Marshal of the North was a severe breach of etiquette which had her guards reaching for their weapons. Yuzhen was well within her rights to have him lashed or worse and he knew it. Oh, how difficult it was to hide her smile as she watched his ruddy complexion go from purple rage to white terror, his cheeks quivering and mouth working as the Lin Clan’s foremost diplomat struggled to invent an excuse for his actions.

 

Papa taught her to use silence as a weapon and though she was content to wait, Yuzhen’s assistant signalled it was time for lunch. Gesturing for her guards to remain in place, she stood and left the room without a word, leaving the fat toad and his counterparts from around the province to stew in her absence. She’d already said her part and her disregard for everyone present should clue them in to how little this lucrative contract meant to her. If any of them had done a little digging, they would’ve realized she could easily fulfill the contract herself, but her efforts were better spent elsewhere. Gone were the days when those men and women held all the economic power in the North. Now, she threw scraps to her lieutenant marshals and expected them to thank her for her generosity. For Lin Xiang Gu to expect Yuzhen to shower his clan with prosperity showed just how hard papa had to work to get things done. Thanks to his sacrifice and Sanshu’s economic power in her pocket, Yuzhen had freedom he only dreamed of.

 

And she’d trade it all away for five minutes at his side, but such was life.

 

Striding across the hall and into her private dining room, she smiled at the sight of her beloved sitting in wait. Sporting a black eye and cut lip from his morning training, Gerel the perfect husband, a strong, confident, quiet man, content to stand at her side without needing his ego stoked every time they were alone. Papa would have hated Gerel and his cold, stoic attitude, seemingly uninterested in advancing his career or anything unrelated to the Martial Path. Papa used to call people like him ‘lunkheads’, fanatics too focused on personal strength to see farther than their own nose. By all appearances, Gerel fit the mark, shrouded in a practised air of indifference which bordered on disdain, but Yuzhen knew he was so much more. Hiding beneath his frigid arrogance was a man of passion and warmth, an intelligent, loving partner who’d been starved of affection all his life.

 

Orphaned as a babe, Gerel’s talents in combat and command caught the eye of his ‘Mentor’, a pretentious, conceited woman who forbade others from revealing her name. Although Gerel claimed he spent months tracking her down and begging her to teach him, Yuzhen knew if his mysterious Mentor didn’t want to teach, then she would never been found by a boy of fourteen years. Worse, the bitch strung him along for over a decade now, teaching him bits and pieces to keep him on the hook while denying their relationship to this very day. Because of this, neither his mentor, his people, nor the Empire wholly accepted him as one of their own, this brave, talented, fiery-eyed man an outsider wherever he went.

 

Perhaps that’s why he never missed a chance to tell her how beautiful she looked or how much he loved her. She loved the way he stared at her, the way he said her name, even the way he moved her hair aside to gaze into her eyes. It broke her heart to learn he had no friends or family of his own, an outcast instead of the celebrated hero she thought him to be. A private man, he never volunteered why the Behkai treated him so poorly and Yuzhen never pressed him for answers, but it vexed her to no end. His brush with the Spectres was too recent to explain his complete lack of friends, but she was content to wait until he was ready to tell her everything. Until then, having him at her side was enough.

 

Settling into his lap, she kissed him deeply before breaking away, tilting his face for a better look at his injuries. “Oh my little lamb, you look even worse than yesterday.” Gingerly poking his ribs in search or breaks or fractures, she tilted her head and said, “Goodness. Did mean old Rainy bully you again? Shall I have a word with his Mentor? I can’t have my future trophy husband banged up all the time, the taverns will be rife with rumours of my heavy-handed ways.”

 

His sour grimace made her laugh out loud and she kissed him once more to make up for her teasing. Wincing as her fingers found a bruised rib, he smacked her behind lightly and shook his head. “You joke great beauty, but I fear the day will soon come when those words ring true. Rain’s progress is nothing short of astounding.”

 

“Worry not my battered love. Young shoots grow fast but old ginger is spicier.” Running a finger around his blackened eye, she added, “This, however, is a first. How’d he get through your defences to bruise your pretty face?” She wasn’t too upset, the injuries made Gerel look more savage and dangerous.

 

“A trick.” Gerel spat the words out, his lip curled in scorn. “I don’t want to talk about it.”

 

“Well, you have two bruised ribs, a black eye, and a cut lip.” Giving his earlobe a playful nip, she whispered, “How did your opponent fare today?”

 

“… I lost my temper and took both his legs off. Right above the knee.” Oh the poor child, her love was a brute. Perhaps she should ‘sacrifice’ herself to temper his aggression. “Not that he cared, the idiot reattached them without blinking. Complained more about his ruined pants than the pain.”

 

Men and their fragile egos. He almost sounded like he admired Rain’s resilience, but the young hero was ever the touchy subject for Yuzhen’s otherwise supremely confident husband-to-be. She could hardly wait to announce their betrothal, but as a dutiful daughter, she intended to mourn papa’s passing as custom demanded, with no celebrations to take place until a year and a day passed. Patting his cheek, she said, “You still came out ahead, nothing to worry your pretty little head over.” Sliding off his lap and into her own chair, she squeezed his thigh and grinned. “Now stop pouting and eat. You’ll need your strength, my little lamb. I’ve plans for you and a schedule to keep, so make haste.” While she couldn’t keep all those dignitaries waiting for too long, an hour or so wasn’t going overboard, and so much fun could be had in an hour.

 

Halfway through their meal, the doors burst open and a squad of armed soldiers marched in uninvited. Reaching for her weapon, Yuzhen froze as she spotted the red, gold-trimmed banner strapped to the leading soldier’s back. An Imperial Messenger, here to deliver the Emperor’s orders. Falling to her knees, she frantically instructed Gerel to follow her lead through Sending. An Imperial Messenger flying the Emperor’s banner represented the Emperor himself, so she prayed Gerel wouldn’t do anything rash. Bowing her head, she said, “Ten thousand years of boundless longevity upon the Emperor. Imperial Servant Yuzhen awaits her orders.” Head still bowed, she presented both palms as protocol demanded.

 

Placing a missive in her hands, the Imperial Messenger said, “The Emperor Demands.”

 

“And this servant obeys.”

 

Instead of turning to leave, the Imperial Messenger side-stepped to stand before Gerel. Confused, she coached Gerel through Sending as he repeated her words verbatim and received a missive of his own.

 

They both remained kneeling until the Imperial Messenger left the room with his escorts and her servants closed the doors. A cold drop of sweat trickled down Yuzhen’s spine as she imagined what would have happened if the Imperial Messenger arrived a half hour later. Perhaps it would be best to limit their romantic trysts to rooms with locked doors, but half the fun was the thrill of possibly getting caught. After checking the wax seal for signs of tampering, she unfurled the scroll and read her orders, heart growing heavier with each passing word. Though superficially innocuous and transparent, these orders could spell the end of the Empire as she knew it.

 

Her little lamb Gerel wore a rarely seen grin as he celebrated his good fortune, unable to see beyond the surface. Rather than burden him with her worries, she offered her congratulations and quietly made her plans, seeking to turn crisis into opportunity. Who could she turn to? Nian Zu? No, he undoubtedly would receive orders of his own, as would his successor Bataar and every other soldier or Warrant Officer of note. Perhaps Akanai could help Yuzhen through these troubled times.

 

If not her, then who else?

 

Wrapped in her lover’s embrace, Yuzhen closed her eyes and prayed for Gerel’s safety, wishing him all the best in the coming trial and tribulations.

 

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

 

“Wonderful news!” Zian started at Uncle Yang’s sudden joyous exclamation. His scruffy beard and unkempt hair made him look the part of a madman as he danced a merry little jig around the foyer with scroll in hand, celebrating the news brought by the Imperial Messenger. “I feared the worst but the Emperor has not forsaken me. This is a Heaven sent opportunity to mend my reputation.”

 

“Congratulations, Uncle.” Zian said. These past months had been hard on all of them, but he was happy to see the man smile again.

 

Grinning, Uncle Yang used his scroll to tap its twin being held by Zian. “This isn’t just good news for me, boy.” Clapping him on the back, Uncle Yang pulled him into a half-hug, a rare show of affection spoiled by the foul odour of sour sweat. Zian didn’t even want to think about how long it’d been since Uncle Yang bathed. “Your talents have been noted and your future unlimited. You will win great glory for our family and clan in the months to come, this I know.”

 

A twinge of guilt ran through Zian as he watched his uncle celebrate. The only reason Zian hadn’t withdrawn from Clan and Society affairs was because Uncle Yang’s future had yet to be determined in the wake of his blunder here at the Wall. Now that the Emperor had spoken, Uncle Yang’s career and life was no longer at risk, which meant Zian could renounce his position as young patriarch without fearing for their safety. Coughing to clear his throat, Zian steeled his nerves and asked, “Uncle? What if… What if I were to withdraw from Clan affairs to focus on my Martial Path?”

 

His words brought an abrupt end to Uncle Yang’s celebration. For long seconds, Zian inwardly cursed himself for opening his mouth as he sweat beneath his uncle’s stern, silent glare, the imposing Martial Warrior reinvigorated by the Emperor’s absolution. Absently running his fingers through his tangled beard, Uncle Yang sighed as his eyes glazed over, reflecting on memories of distant past. After what felt like an eternity, he finally spoke, his voice barely louder than a whisper. “It pains me to admit this boy, but I am not a talented man. Forget being first among my peers, I wouldn’t even dare to claim a spot in the top fifty, yet I survived where better men died, my career advancing while greater talents stagnated. This led me to believe I was blessed by the Mother and destined for greatness, so I spent my days and nights dreaming of leading the Situ Clan to prosperity.” Shaking his head, he continued, “But man proposes, and Heaven disposes. The truth is, I owe everything I have to high birth, phenomenal luck, and hard work. I’ve known for years now that I’d never be Clan Patriarch, but I found it difficult to abandon my lifelong dreams. When I learned of your Heaven sent talents, I knew you would surpass me in every way and a part of me hoped to ride your coat-tails to the success I once dreamed of. I was wrong to do so.”

 

“Uncle…”

 

“Quiet boy.” There was no anger in Uncle Yang’s voice, only steely direction, commanding compliance through sheer force of will. “You, Situ Jia Zian, are a dragon among men. It is my greatest pride to call myself your uncle, and my greatest shame to admit I had no part in shaping the man you’ve become.” This time, Uncle Yang pulled him into a full hug and Zian didn’t even notice the smell. “Whatever choices you make in life, I will defend you to the best of my meagre abilities.” Pulling away, Uncle Yang frowned and said, “It’d be best if you waited until we’re out of your Mother’s reach before informing her. She loves you dearly, but she might… overreact. You know how she is.”

 

Swept up in a whirlwind of emotions, Zian had trouble comprehending what just happened. At least Uncle Yang wasn’t against him abandoning clan politics which was a welcome relief. “Defend me from what? Why would Mother oppose my choice? She never wanted me to have any part in Clan politics, but the Patriarch made me his successor regardless of her objections.”

 

“True, true, but your decision will still upset her. Your father tried to do something similiar and… well, I’m sure you know the rest.”

 

“The rest of what?” Almost everything Zian knew about Father, he’d learned from reading the gravestone marker; Lu An Jing, Husband to Situ Jia Ying. Zian wasn’t even mentioned because it would still be months before he was born. In fact, he’d only guessed Father used dual sabers because of the two inert Spiritual Weapons hanging on the wall of Mother’s bedroom.

 

“Oh? I was sure he’d have told you everything by now.” Holding a hand up to stop Zian before he could speak, Uncle Yang shook his head. “I promised your mother never to speak of it in your presence, so don’t ask. If you want to know more, then ask the cantankerous bastard you call a Mentor.”

 

Confused and bewildered, all Zian could do was stutter and stammer like a drunken fool. “Wha-? Mentor? Who? I would never…” How did he know? They’d been so careful to keep things secret…

 

Rolling his eyes, Uncle Yang turned away, standing straight backed with hands folded behind him as he stared out the window. “I’m no spurned maiden to be let down gently. You made a good choice accepting Jukai as your Mentor.” Striding towards his bedroom, Uncle Yang ended the conversation with, “After all, who better to teach you your father’s style than his most trusted martial brother?”

 

The door slammed shut and Zian was left alone with mouth agape, struggling to comprehend this stunning revelation. No wonder a man of his skills and rank was willing to serve under a mere Warrant Officer, Jukai was looking after his Martial Nephew. Collecting his wits, Zian strode out of the foyer in search of his Mentor, mentally going over everything Uncle Yang had said.

 

Father wanted to withdraw from Society affairs. Strange considering there was no Lu Clan and Zian had no ties to any of the various sects. What position did Father hold? Did this decision lead to his death? Is that why Mother left the Clan estate to make her own way in life? Or why she never told him about Father, to keep him from seeking retribution? Was it vengeance driving her to gather personal power, enough to rival the Society?

 

Whatever the answer, Zian was determined to have them. If Father’s death was due to treachery or political maneuvering, then as the only son and heir it was Zian’s duty to avenge him. For that, he would need power and allies, both in short supply if his enemy turned out to be the Society. Oh Mother Above, did this mean he’d have to ally himself with the Bekhai?

 

Clutching the scroll containing the Emperor’s orders, Zian shook his head and smiled. Like Uncle said, these orders represented a Heaven sent opportunity, a chance to make new friends and allies. Though no longer the number one talent of the North, he was still a highly qualified bachelor and Mother always said marriage was a powerful tool. If necessary, Zian would charm the fattest, ugliest, smelliest woman in the Empire so long as she came from a faction with sufficient power.

 

Anything was better than going to Rain for help.

 

Anything.

 

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

 

Pressed against the vertical cliffside, Huushal fought the ever-present urge to look down at the vast void beneath him. The howling winter winds pummelled him from all sides as the bitter cold pierced him to the bone. Numb and exhausted, he closed his eyes and steadied his breathing, knowing this tiny, fist-sized perch was his last chance to rest before the final stretch. Directly above him was a steep overhang, which meant climbing almost parallel to the void below before reaching the top, easily the most perilous stretch of his deadly, two kilometre climb. It was madness to do this without a net to catch him or rope to arrest his fall, with only a burden sitting in a rucksack slung over his shoulder to ‘aid’ him.

 

As if hearing his thoughts, the burden shifted in his rucksack and almost caused Huushal to lose his grip. “Hmph,” the burden snorted, poking Huushal through the rucksack. “Still not there yet? Worthless! Is this what Ghurda calls talented? Wasted months tryin’ to teach you and you still ain’t worth shit. Enough dallying, you’ve a visitor waiting. Up, up, up!”

 

Quashing the compulsion to unfasten his rucksack and let the wizened old bastard drop to his death, Huushal grit his teeth and resumed climbing. Polished smooth by years of buffeting winds, the overhang’s underside offered precious few finger or toe holds, but neither retreat nor surrender was an option. Sanshu and Uncle Kalil’s death showed Huushal just how little strength he truly possessed, and he was determined to rectify this. No risk ventured, no reward gained, and if this was to be his death, then at least he’d take the wrinkled burden with him, the world a better place for his absence.

 

No no, that’s no way to treat your great, great… whatever great grand mentor. Even if he’s a crotchety old geezer who reeks of alcohol and spits when he speaks.

 

Huushal’s foot slipped and his heart leaped into his throat. His legs dropped away from the cliff side and he Lightened and Reinforced for all he was worth, clinging to the stone by his fingertips as he screamed with exertion, both feet flailing about in futile search of purchase. Muscles burning and lungs emptied, Huushal fought a losing battle against gravity and fatigue, his arms trembling as he desperately tried to keep his grip, but it was not to be. For a brief, eternal moment, his entire body felt weightless, as if suspended in the air against all logic. Then, time resumed and the cliff side sped off into the distance as he plummeted to his doom.

 

Then he jerked to a halt and fell to his hands and knees, face planted in the snow with sturdy earth beneath him.

 

What?

 

How?

 

Is this the afterlife? Why’s it still so cold?

 

“Worthless.” Even in the afterlife, the old bastard was still here to pester him. “Can’t even climb a simple cliff. How am I supposed to teach this fool? He’s nothing compared to you.”

 

Ma’s gruff voice sounded and Huushal idly wondered what she was doing here. “All due respect but it’s been decades since I made the climb. Open your blind eyes and have a gander, the cliff’s smoother than a baby’s behind. I’m surprised he made it far as he did.”

 

“Bah. Excuses.” A boot prodded Huushal in the ribs and he scrambled to his feet. “Quit lying around boy, and go greet the Imperial Messenger. I’m too old fer kneelin’. Damned girl, always finding more work fer me to do. Now I suppose you want me to find a new cliff…”

 

His mind in disarray, Huushal followed Ma’s Sendings and stumbled down the path before kowtowing in the dirt, unable to lift his head even if he wanted to. After saying all that was required, he collapsed with a scroll in hand, too exhausted to care what the Emperor wanted from him. Whatever it was, it could wait.

 

A short nap, a quick meal, then back to the bottom to try again.

 

Such was life.

 

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

 

Dropping the Imperial Missive to the table, Fung clicked his tongue in annoyance. Knowing Fu Zhu Li had read it from over his shoulder, Fung turned to the man and raised a single eyebrow in question. “So… what now?”

 

Instead of answering out loud, the ever cautious ‘manservant’ Sent his reply. “The Emperor walks upon the razor’s edge. There will be difficult times ahead.”

 

“Indeed,” Fung Sent, cupping his warm teacup with both hands. “Our hand is forced. Either we obey and risk losing everything, or we openly rebel and do the same. The Emperor has left us no third option.” Sending without physical contact was incredibly draining, but being able to do something better than Rain gave Fung a massive sense of accomplishment. The animal obsessed maniac was too talented for words. “So the question remains: What now?”

 

Fu Zhu Li gave a tiny, almost imperceptible shrug, the first time the half-weasel advisor had failed to offer an answer or guide Fung towards one. “I’ll send word to your father. Whatever his decision, we shall abide by it.” With those simple words, Fu Zhu Li left the room.

 

Still cradling his teacup, Fung sank into his chair and pondered over what the future held in store. Where would father stand? With the Emperor, or with the North? As he moved to sip his tea, Fung found himself trembling from head to toe. Scoffing at his meek apprehension, he swallowed his fear stilled his body. So shameful. So his peaceful days here at the Wall were at and end. What of it? So he might be at odds with the Emperor. Big deal. Any warrior who aspired to the pinnacle of strength would be lying if they said they’d never dreamt of overthrowing the Emperor.

 

Placing his empty teacup aside, Fung flicked his sleeves and headed towards the sparring grounds, eager to see what his friends thought of their orders. Rain was likely beside himself with joy, feigning objection and reluctance as he prepared to run roughshod over anyone who dared bar his path. A good friend to have and a fearsome enemy to cross, such was Falling Rain.

 

Who knows? Perhaps in a few weeks time, Falling Rain would no longer be known as the number one talent in the North, but number one talent beneath the heavens!

 

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

 

With a sigh of relief, I stand up and stretch my back, annoyed by the need for all this bowing and scraping. It’s a messenger, why do I have to treat him like the Emperor himself? Besides, fuck that guy, what’s he done lately besides abandon the Western Province? Turning to Dastan, I grin and say, “Thank the Mother you were here or else they’d be dragging me off for execution right about now.” Don’t look at the messenger, don’t address the messenger, don’t turn your back on the messenger, so many unspoken rules, how am I supposed to remember them all?

 

Overzealous subordinate that he is, Dastan takes my words as a personal affront. “Not while I still live and breathe, boss.”

 

The man has zero chill. “Some day, we’ll sit down and you’ll teach me everything you know about courtly manners and protocol and stuff.” Unfurling the scroll, I’m greeted by a wall of beautifully flowing script. ‘On the twenty-seventh day of the first month of the thirty-fifth year…’ Is that how they write the date? So complicated and inefficient. ‘His Majesty, the Son of Heaven, Emperor of the…’ Good god it keeps going on and on like this. How long can one man’s name be? More inane preamble and greetings… Ah, here we go. ‘… invites Warrant Officer Second Grade, Falling Rain of the Bekhai and his retinue to take part in the First Imperial Grand Conference, where decorated heroes and promising youths from all around the Empire will gather to discuss measures to combat the growing Defiled threat, with contests and prizes to be awarded to our Empire’s most valiant warriors and able generals. Hosted by the city of Nan Ping in the Central Province on the Spring Equinox, attendance is mandatory and absence will be taken as mutiny, punishable by…’

 

Welp, so much for my hermit plans. No problem, I can do this. I’ll just stay out of trouble and not offended anyone while surrounded by the Empire’s most arrogant warriors and spoiled noble brats. Easy peasy.

 

 

……

 

………

 

Maybe I should fake my death…

 

Nah. I’m overreacting. Things’ll be fine, plus I might even get to see Yan again.

 

Besides, what’s the worst that could happen?

 

Chapter Meme

 

– End of Volume 15 –


Annnd that’s a wrap for 2017 with two days to spare. It’s been an incredible year of writing, and I am so thankful to all of you. Thank you for all the support, the monies, the kind words, the harsh criticisms, the people pointing out all my mistakes and inadequacies, and so much more. I wouldn’t have it any other way, and I look forward to spending 2018 with all of you.

Now, I’m off to enjoy my last few hours as a youthful, 30 year old man-child. When the clock strikes midnight tonight, I shall be transformed into a decrepit old geezer of… thirty-one. Ugh. Just saying it sickens me. I have nothing left to live for, as my best years are far behind me. Might as well put me to pasture for I have entered my twilight years, doomed to spend my days reflecting on a life lived far too idly…

 

Anywho, I’ll be back in 2018. Exactly when in 2018, I can’t say, but sometime. Enjoy!

 


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