Savage Divinity – Chapter 536

 

The cold winter’s breeze brushed across Song’s nose and just barely roused her from blissful slumber. Robbed of peaceful lethargy by the unwelcome chill, she screwed her eyes shut and ignored her rumbling belly and the cacophonous din going on around her in a desperate effort to fall asleep once again. Still weary and exhausted, she put food and training soldiers out of mind to seek the warmth of her blessed pillows, burying her face against the smooth, silky surface and sighing to take in the fragrant, flowery scent while squirming this way and that in search of a more comfortable position. To her grave dismay, there was something restricting her movements, not the cold, hard bindings of chains or the rough, confining burn of ropes, but a softer, more pliable constraint keep her from rolling over on her side or straightening up to stretch her contorted spine. There was something strange about this bed, but Song tightened her arms around her pillow and wilfully resisted the instinct to open her eyes and wake, for it would mean an end to this snug and cozy existence and facing cold, unwelcome reality.

 

“Li-Li,” Luo-Luo pleaded, her voice strained and laboured. “Could you please loosen your grip? This one can barely breathe. Also, while this one is happy to carry you, in light of the dire circumstances, perhaps it’s best if you stood on your own now that you’ve awakened.”

 

Coming to with a start, Song rubbed the sleep out of her eyes while trying to make sense of the situation. “Luo-Luo? Why are you in my bed?” Well… no matter. Sharing a bed wasn’t so terrible as she once believed, and if the dramatic Consort wanted to snuggle, then Song would tactfully allow it, though snuggling was all she would allow. Resting her head on Luo-Luo’s soft shoulder, she lazily glanced around to see if anyone else had joined them, then froze in surprise as she took in her surroundings and realized she was not, in fact, tucked inside her bed and sleeping in her yurt, but rather nestled in Luo-Luo’s arms out in the open courtyard of fort Sinuji. Corpses littered the ground around them, mostly of Defiled and Demon alike, though there were enough fallen Khishigs and Death Corps guards to make her chest ache. Belatedly gasping as she recognized the telltale marks of Wraiths, she slipped out of Luo-Luo’s arms and fumbled for her saber, only to discover it wasn’t strapped to her waist. Panicked at the thought of fighting off deadly assassins without her beloved weapon, she nonetheless settled into a defensive stance with fists clenched and teeth bared, ready to fight off any and all comers with empty hands to keep Luo-Luo and her silly but sweet handmaidens safe.

 

…Only there was no one to defend them from. Demons scurried back down into their earthen tunnels or Cloud-Stepped away into the distance while Wraiths died in droves to the various Experts chasing them down. Imperial soldiers, Lin-Lin’s veiled guards, and even Rain’s accountants and couriers ran roughshod over the Defiled forces, though she now suspected those innocuous clerks hanging around Luo-Luo were more than mere administrative staff. Unable to believe her eyes, Song rubbed them again and pinched her cheeks to make sure she wasn’t still dreaming, but the chaos continued unabated until there was no one left to fight.

 

Well, aside from the battle raging on by the inner wall, a more equitable exchange which Song found more reassuring than the one-sided rout she’d just witnessed. What happened in the time she missed? The last thing she remembered was sitting atop Zabu on the outer wall, her arms wrapped around Rain’s waist while wondering why he was in so much pain. Then she remembered falling, her braid trailing in the wind as she stared up at the starry night sky, followed by unimaginable pain as her Core emptied all her Chi into her Runic armour.

 

Followed shortly after by a deafening crack and blissful nothingness.

 

The Water-Blessed Demon had punched them off the wall, and Song tried to keep Rain safe, but while her armour kept her ribs intact, the impact had broken her skull or possibly her neck or leg, she wasn’t quite sure what. Something had broken, this much she was certain, but judging by the lack of pain or discomfort and her ravenous appetite, someone had Healed her injuries. Though grateful for the assistance, she disapproved of the wasteful expenditure since the battle was still going strong and the Healer’s Chi could have been put to better use. Better to save ten to twenty Martial Warriors who would live to fight another day than to Heal a mere Song back to full health, but it was not her place to judge her benefactor.

 

Belatedly noticing Anrhi clutching her saber, Song quietly tapped the handmaiden’s arm and gestured for her weapon back. Offering the weapon with a nervous titter, the affable Anrhi took Luo-Luo’s arm as a replacement for the saber, even though the latter would need both hands free to utilize her weapon. Noticing the Spiritual Sceptre locked in Sorya’s embrace, Song cleared her throat to get Luo-Luo’s attention and wordlessly glanced at the sceptre and back, quietly indicating the Consort should take it in hand, if only for the sake of face. Failing to catch the subtle hint, Luo-Luo alternated between looking at Sorya and Song before understanding dawned on her face and she gently nudged the slack-jawed handmaiden closer to Song with a knowing smile, no doubt mistakenly believing Song also wanted someone to cling to but was simply too proud to say so.

 

Unsure whether to laugh or cry, Song decided now was not the time to lecture Luo-Luo on the wisdom of being prepared and instead asked, “What happened?” All too eager to explain, the breathless Consort rambled out a semi-coherent but barely believable tale of how Rain single-handedly slaughtered not one, but three Demons after awakening from his daze, though she made no mention of any Healer coming to their aid or how the Defiled made it from the outer wall to inner courtyard in the short time Song had been unconscious. Filing the questions away to ask again later, she scanned the crowd until she found Rain in all the disorder, standing over the corpse of a fallen Demon and staring up into the night’s sky while ringed by weary, injured Death Corps guards and a battered and bleeding Ping Ping.

 

Normally an imposing and formidable sight, the Guardian Turtle looked so pitiful in the aftermath of battle, her head laying flat in the dirt and arms and legs spread akimbo instead of withdrawn comfortably inside her shell. For good reason too, Song soon saw as she approached, for Ping Ping’s limbs were covered in burns, gouges, and gashes aplenty, all untreated and left to heal on their own. Flaps of leathery skin hung loosely and oozed streams of bright red blood, the colour all the more striking in contrast with her dark-green colouring, and Song rushed over to cradle the giant beast’s head and stroke her eye ridges, but there was little else she could do. The wounds were all comparatively minor if one took the Guardian Turtle’s size into account, but even the smallest injury was larger than Song’s head and she knew from experience how painful Ichor burns could be.

 

Emitting a mournful squeak which brought Song close to tears, Ping Ping stared at Rain’s back as if asking him to make all the pain go away, but the callous cad didn’t even flinch as he continued scowling at empty air, and she could remain silent no longer. “Rain,” she called, but he paid her no mind, so still and subdued one might almost mistake him for a statue. “Rain! Ping Ping is injured and frightened.” So perhaps he should console her, or his other pets who were nowhere to be found but liable to be quivering in fright. Maybe Lin-Lin had them, though the half-hare was also conspicuously absent, no doubt brought away by her silent, veiled guardians.

 

So lost in her thoughts, Song failed to notice Monk Happy quietly gesturing for silence while keeping everyone away from Rain. “Do not interrupt him,” the plump, friendly monk hissed, barely speaking loud enough to be heard over the clamour of battle nearby. “He may be ruminating over a unique Insight, one which explains his staggering mastery and control. Oh, if only the Abbot were here to witness this, he would have the answers we need…”

 

Leaving Monk Happy to mumble and mutter, Song continued consoling Ping Ping while quietly studying Rain. According to Luo-Luo, he was fully recovered and a Martial Warrior once more. A formidable one at that, but considering their earlier exchange on the wall regarding his ability to Orate, Song wasn’t sure if this was yet another fluke or if he’d truly recovered and would actually understand what he’d done. Deciding it was best to leave him be, Song sighed and continued stroking the Guardian Turtle’s beak, wishing she had Rain’s knowledge of herbs and medicine to treat Ping Ping’s wounds or his Aura to convey her love and sympathy to the sweet and lovable beast.

 

Or really, any Aura at all.

 

Today had revealed far too many incomprehensible secrets of Heaven, ones she could barely wrap her mind around. Using Emotion to bind Heavenly Energy and turn it into Chi sounded like utter nonsense, but Auntie Ghurda and Colonel General Nian Zu had both agreed with Rain’s explanation, albeit with some reluctance. If this was truly how the Martial Path worked, then it meant Song understood almost nothing regarding Balance or Chi, less than nothing since she’d been going about it incorrectly for years now. To her, Balance itself wasn’t about emotion, but rather the lack thereof, but if she found Balance through lack of emotion, then how could she be binding Heavenly Energy with emotion? Then there were Dastan’s nonsensical ramblings about One with the Self and One with the World, more concepts beyond Song’s meagre comprehension, but the scariest part was that Dastan’s explanations made more sense than Rain’s even though Auntie Ghuda clearly disagreed, because Song saw hints of One with the Self in how she Formed her Natal Palace.

 

The restraints of her Oaths and the freedom she obtained through love of family had laid the foundation for her Natal Palace, with her chain demarcating a boundary within the Void while Mama’s dulcet tones reciting the Classics of Poetry reminding Song she was loved and cherished. Was this not One with the Self, in how she came to terms with her circumstances and learned to better express her emotions to her family and loved ones? The problem was, Dastan’s explanation made no sense in the grand scheme of things, because if he was correct and One with the Self was a requirement to become One with the World, than every Martial Warrior with a Domain would be frank and forthright, except nothing could be further from the truth. Candour and openness was the exception rather than the norm when speaking of Martial Warriors and their personalities, which was hardly surprising in a profession where discipline and control formed the core tenets of their lifestyles. What’s more, social niceties had to be taken into account because the truth was often unpleasant to the ear and a single misinterpreted comment could easily devolve into conflict and bloodshed over face or reputation.

 

Thus, it was impossible for One with the Self to be a requirement along the Martial Path, but it made too much sense and applied to too much of Song’s personal Path to be dismissed out of hand. To be honest, a small part of her wished she had been left out of their conversation, because she added little to the discussion and Rain himself would’ve eventually pieced together that the gourd was responsible for his recovery on his own.

 

Then again, even this so-called conclusion might be suspect if Luo-Luo’s rendition of events was even remotely accurate. How did drinking Water Chi turn Rain into a warrior powerful enough to kill Demons with his bare hands? Perhaps it wasn’t the Water Chi, but rather the droplet of Heavenly Water he’d used to cleanse Song’s Ichor wounds back in Sanshu, though she wasn’t entirely certain what had become of ‘Blobby’ in recent times. Rain had far too many secrets and unique experiences to properly keep track of, especially since he was so good at hiding them.

 

As if summoned by her thoughts, Rain appeared in front of her with a scowl upon his face, and for a moment, Song was shocked by his subtle, but startling transformation. Though still gaunt of frame, he filled his clothes better now instead of looking like a child wearing his older brother’s cast offs. His complexion was better too, still pale but not deathly so, and lacking the sheen of oil she’d grown accustomed to overlooking. No longer cracked and brittle, his moist lips were utterly free of blood or viscera, which in and of itself wasn’t a cause for worry, but took a dark turn when Song realized it was the only area free of blood or viscera. Face, hands, robes, and pants, every millimetre of Rain’s body was splattered with gore which cast him in a feral, savage light, aided by his unfocused amber eyes, so utterly devoid of intellect or empathy.

 

This was not like Rain at all, especially with sweet Ping Ping squeaking beside them. Paying the Guardian Turtle no mind, he leaned in close to stare at Song’s Runic breastplate with uncomfortable intimacy. For long seconds, she worried he’d been overwhelmed by the heady rush of battle and now meant to slake his lust, a common ‘malady’ amongst noble youths Song knew all too well. Though she’d grown more comfortable with his presence in recent times, she found an inhuman hunger burning in his clouded eyes, one which made her want to shrink back and cover her chest from his fixed yet unfocused gaze. It was foolishness to the extreme since there was no way he could peer through solid steel and the silken tunic beneath to gaze upon naked flesh, but his rapacious stare made her uncomfortable nonetheless.

 

Trembling from head to toe, Song’s Oaths would not allow her to rebuff Rain so she stood stock still as he ran his finger lightly over her breastplate with his brow furrowed and lips pursed. Location aside, there was nothing inherently lewd or erotic in his actions or demeanour, but she still feared the worst, as did at least one other judging by Luo-Luo’s scandalized gasp. Oblivious to it all, Rain persisted with his misleading actions for almost a full minute before Song realized he was tracing the Runes, though why he might do such a thing was anyone’s guess.

 

Scowling in irritation, Rain tapped Song’s armour several times before huffing in exasperation, never once meeting her gaze throughout it all. It were as if she were simply a piece of furniture upon which the armour sat, and now that his interest had waned, he no longer cared for either one. Then it became Ping Ping’s turn to suffer his scrutiny, a process which was heartbreaking to watch. Lifting her head ever so slightly, the Guardian Turtle let loose with a subdued, plaintive squeak while stretching her head forward for him to pat or stroke, but Rain simply stood there with an empty expression and his arms dangling at his side as he took in the wounded Ping Ping.

 

For the first time since she met him, Song had difficulty reading his expression, except it wasn’t because he’d finally learned to hide them, but because he wasn’t entirely sure what he wanted to express. The hunger was still there, though muted and restrained, joined by… not confusion, but troubled uncertainty as he watched Ping Ping plead for attention. Unsuccessful with her endeavours, the Guardian Turtle’s squeaks grew quieter and more infrequent as seconds passed, then minutes, until she finally gave up entirely and laid her head back down in the dirt. Even then, her eyes continued to stare at Rain with what Song saw as grief and anguish, unable to understand why her favourite person refused to offer her comfort, but wholly trusting there was good reason.

 

Moving neither slowly nor quickly, Rain lifted his hand and stretched it towards Ping Ping’s beak, his expression still dull and unreadable and arm trembling not from cold or fright, but rather wavering indecision. Hunger and hesitance warred in his gaze, a victor still yet to be decided as his palm came to rest on Ping Ping’s beak, but then the big girl squealed in sheer, unadulterated delight and Rain’s unknown decision was made.

 

Though Song herself was still in physical contact with the Guardian Turtle, she felt nothing and didn’t even know something was happening until Luo-Luo gasped yet again. Following the dramatic courtesan’s pointing finger, Song stifled a gasp of her own as she watched Ping Ping’s wounds mend before her eyes, almost as quickly as Rain Healed his own injuries with Panacea. Faster even, with the entire treatment completed in less than three breaths of time, but as Rain let his hand fall from Ping Ping’s beak, Song sensed more than saw his weary exhaustion. There was no smile or satisfaction to be seen as he shuffled away from the renewed but exhausted Guardian Turtle, only a slight stumble in his gait and a droop of his shoulders which gave away his fatigue, but it was clear as day to anyone who’d seen Rain like this before. As much as he loved to grumble and grouse over the most minor of inconveniences, when times were truly hard, he would rarely utter a complaint and simply accept whatever burdens lay before him with little more than a sigh, just as he’d done here and now.

 

Healing the Guardian Turtle had cost him dearly, yet he’d done it all the same, which meant it was still Rain behind those amber eyes, albeit a confused and disoriented one. Had he been sound of mind, he would never have ignored Ping Ping for so long or hesitated to help, nor would he have left without wrapping his arms around her beak in a warmhearted embrace.

 

Stiffly ambling across the ruined campgrounds, Rain stopped every so often to check on a body, but never the corpses of his soldiers. Instead, he seemed most interested in the remains of Demons, while every so often he’d stop to inspect a Wraith. It soon became clear why as he pushed Siyar aside and dragged a half-dead Wraith out from a collapsed tunnel. The sudden movement elicited a strangled scream of pain from the pale, lanky assassin, followed by what Song assumed was a long and lengthy stream of hate-filled curses in his guttural tongue. Wholly indifferent to the Wraith’s reaction, Rain loomed over the dying Defiled and studied him the same way he studied Song’s armour, though hunger might be too lacking a word to describe it. Rain watched the Defiled like the bears and wildcats watched a delectable meaty treat, like the twins watched their dumplings cook, and how Mama Bun watched a sprig of Spiritual Herb. This went beyond mere craving or desire, but rather a desperate need to feast after long weeks of famine, yet even then, all Rain did was stand and watch as the Defiled Wraith slowly succumbed to his wounds.

 

And then, Rain scoffed once more and went back to scrounging through corpses until he found another near dead survivor, only this time, instead of passively watching, Rain picked up a nearby Wraith Dagger, a Defiled weapon coated in an insidious poison which could cripple Martial Warriors with a touch. Grabbing the Wraith by the back of the head, Rain raised the dagger to his helpless foe’s face and –

 

Snarled at Monk Happy, who had ignored his own warnings to stop Rain from torturing the Wraith. “Eh-Mi-Tuo-Fuo,” Monk Happy chanted, visibly unnerved by his own actions. “This goes against the Precepts, Junior Brother, and this monk will not allow it. Needless suffering only begets more suffering, so please, rethink your actions and find another way.” Though initially angered by Monk Happy’s interference, it quickly melted away as Rain found something more interesting than torturing a dying Wraith, something in the empty space directly behind the portly monk. Noticing this a heartbeat after Song did, Monk Happy moved to bar Rain’s way and said, “No, Junior Brother. You cannot!”

 

Forcibly pushing past the monk, Rain reached towards the empty space only to falter as Monk Happy grabbed both his wrists and held him in place. “Stop, Junior Brother, this monk does not want to hurt you.” With a flick of his wrist, Rain broke Monk Happy’s grip with ease and continued towards the empty space, only to be bodily dragged aside and pushed back several meters away. Grabbing Rain by the arms this time, Monk Happy tried to hold him place, but he merely slipped to one side and ducked underneath the monk’s arms to escape his grasp. Charging at the same empty space with undisguised greed, Rain grabbed at the air and came away with nothing, but his actions forced a massive, white-feathered silkie rooster out of Concealment with an undignified squawk. “Protect Kukku,” Monk Happy said, pouncing on Rain from behind and wrapping him in a two armed hug while the giant rooster ran about like… well like a chicken without its head, his wings flapping and path meandering without rhyme or reason as he cawed in unadulterated panic. “Do not let him run too far, else we might never find him again!”

 

A quick glance around showed no one moving to restrain the adorably frightened Kukku, not Lin-Lin’s veiled guards, Rain’s Death Corps Guards, his loyal Khishigs, or even Luo-Luo and her handmaidens. Though she wanted nothing more than to pet the soft and adorable rooster, she was wary of his sharp spurs and wicked beak, so she moved slowly and carefully towards him. “Here Kukku,” she said, trying to sound friendly and inviting but coming out stilted and monotone instead. “Come Kukku.” What did chickens eat? Not dried jerky, that much was certain, and she had no fruit upon her person. “Do you want some tasty grass?”

 

Her words had no effect on the rooster’s panic, and her presence only made it worse, though a large part of it was probably because Rain was quickly getting the better of Monk Happy. Neither one attacked with intent to harm, but Rain was slippery and nigh untouchable as he used the larger monk’s strength against him. Though normally a cheerful and chipper sort, Monk Happy’s smile had long since melted away and been replaced by a furious grimace, the change so startling Song wondered he had switched places with his identical brother, Monk Angry.

 

“This isn’t working,” the monk called, for after only a minute of tussling, he could now barely lay a finger on Rain’s clothes as he darted and pivoted about. The only reason Kukku had yet to be caught was because the rooster had reined in his panic and was now using both Monk Happy and Ping Ping as obstacles to keep Rain and Song away. In fact, it almost seemed like the big rooster was beginning to enjoy himself, peeking back to make sure Song was still chasing and shaking his tail feathers to taunt them after hopping onto Ping Ping’s shell. “We must bring Junior Brother back to his senses.”

 

“How?” she asked, panting heavily while imagining how soft Kukku’s feathers would be.

 

“He appears to have reached a unique state of Balance,” Monk Happy explained, his tone tinged with anger and disbelief. “One which renders him reliant on base instinct and natural cunning, a bestial human of sorts. It’s unlike anything this monk has ever seen or heard of, the complete antithesis of the Brotherhood’s teachings, but it is… formidable to say the least. The problem is, Junior Brother means to kill Kukku because… because he believes the rooster has something he needs, but he is mistaken. Telling him does nothing, because he can not or will not respond to our words, so we must find some way to soothe his anger or sate his hunger.”

 

This still didn’t help, but apparently Luo-Luo thought differently. “Wait here,” she shouted, as if they had any other choice. Returning shortly after with her zither in hand, the silly Consort settled down and began plucking at the strings, playing the same piece she played so often which was titled ‘Rise to Glory’.

 

To no effect. Rain continued chasing Kukku while Monk Happy did his best to obstruct him, and neither man succeeded while the rooster made fools of them both, so overconfident he even took the time to strut and swagger about. Having long since fallen asleep, Ping Ping snored ever so quietly while the battle for Sinuji raged on, though now Luo-Luo’s music attracted the soldiers’ attention and many looked over to see this debacle carrying on.

 

In the midst of battle, while soldiers of the Empire fought against foul Defiled, Falling Rain was busy chasing a rooster over a sleeping turtle, while an angry monk chased him from behind.

 

Every bit as stubborn as Rain, Luo-Luo continued to play her piece, but the only ones who appreciated it were the bears, wildcats, and bunnies, all coming out of some Peak Expert’s Concealment to sit close and listen, with Lin-Lin following soon after. It was a darling sight to behold, the animals all swaying to the music while Aurie pressed against Luo-Luo’s shoulder and made happy noises as if singing along, one so heartwarming Song almost forgot about the battle for Sinuji and the shame Rain would face in the morning. Giving up the fruitless chase, Song moved to Luo-Luo’s side to better appreciate the show, but to her surprise, she found Rain had followed closely behind her.

 

Having given up chasing Kukku, Rain loomed over Luo-Luo the same way he’d loomed over Song and the Wraith, watching the scene with focused intensity, only more extreme than ever. A minute later, Kukku and Monk Happy also came over to watch, though they both kept well away, with Kukku prudently keeping the monk between himself and Rain. It didn’t matter, because he was wholly entranced by Luo-Luo’s music, a relaxed smile stretching across his face as he took it all in with empty, unfocused eyes. “Eh-Mi-Tuo-Fuo,” Monk Happy muttered, though he no longer looked happy at all. “Such lust, such sin, but Junior Brother cannot wholly be blamed. He behaves as a creature of instinct, and procreation is an instinct shared by all…”

 

The monk’s muttering caused Luo-Luo to make a mistake and pluck the wrong note, and though she quickly recovered, the magic was broken and Rain reeled in place. Shaking his head to clear his mind, he leaned forward and reached for Luo-Luo, whose fingers slowed to a stop as she stared hungrily at Rain’s hand as it moved closer and closer to her face.

 

Only to completely bypass her to pet Aurie instead.

 

“So cute,” Rain crooned, and the wildcat responded by leaping over the zither to get closer to his beloved master. “You’re so adorable with your singing, yes you are. Yes you are.” Laughing as the enthusiastic wildcat bowled him over, Rain hugged Aurie tight and sighed while Luo-Luo pouted and huffed at the side. “I missed this sooooo much.” Another bout of laughter rang out as the other animals rushed over to join in, all of them starved of affection and all too happy to be loved once more, with rumbling purrs and grunting laughs aplenty.

 

The hugs and pets didn’t last long as Rain fell asleep soon after, but his bright smile and lack of injuries were enough to prove he was of sound mind and sound health once again. Standing guard over him with saber in hand, Song watched the animals settle in around him while the battle continued to play out, a jarring contrast between peace and conflict if she’d ever seen one, but a sight which filled her with hope and confidence. This was the scene which greeted the reinforcements when they finally arrived in Sinuji, and though the battle still had yet to be won, Song threw herself into Mama’s warm embrace and closed her eyes to rest.

 

Sinuji was saved, Rain was in good health, and now everything could go back to normal again. Or not. Either way, there was no use worrying. For better or for worse, Rain would handle it, the same way he always did.

 

In an almost incompetent fashion which belied all common sense, but still got the job done regardless.

– End of Volume 29 –

Chapter Meme


 

 

Author’s note: And with this final chapter of 2019, now your watch begins. The long winter (break) starts now. I’ll be back sometime early to mid january (maybe 2020, maybe 2021, who knows), so buckle in for the long haul. This was as non cliffy as I could make it, so yea. Thanks for sticking with Savage Divinity for so long, and hopefully you’ll still be around when I finally reach the end, though I’ve given up on trying to guess how long that might take.

 

Seriously, when I started, I thought I’d be done with this whole story in 12-18 volumes. Max.

Also, I almost forgot, but art! This was comissioned by Onaboat from discord, who’s name means On A Boat and is not an allusion to a boat shaped sex toy as I once believed. Anyways, the artist is @dwiajiputra on insta, and he or she drew a spledid portrait of our protagonist, Falling Rain.

Next up, we have the Predator in his natural state.

Squeeee.

Thanks Onaboat! Love it.

Anywho’s, thanks for reading, have a safe and happy holidays, a joyous new year, and I’ll see you all in 2020.

 

Yes, 2020 for those of you freaking out about the earlier joke.

 


 

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Savage Divinity – Chapter 535

 

There are People beyond People, and Heavens beyond the Heavens.

 

The first time he heard the idiom, the speaker had been a rival gang leader named Silent Pei, a man who slew five experienced assassins before the task fell to Goujian. Technically, it was an open bounty offered in drunk desperation rather than a personally assigned job, but he needed the protection his gang leader, Iron Ding, provided from the many enemies he’d made in his short time on the streets. Had Iron Ding died, Goujian would have followed soon after, so there was nothing to lose in trying.

 

Thus, armed only with a severed head, taken from a thug unfortunate enough to pass for Iron Ding once bloodied and disfigured, Goujian met with Silent Pei under the guise of defecting to his side. Infamous for his debauched ways, the gang leader was the last person a child of eleven should have gone to for protection, but the arrogant pederast had an exaggerated opinion of his charm and allure. With barely a glance at the severed head, he offered Goujian protection with one caveat, a condition he was not only expecting, but also counting on. Minutes later, Silent Pei lay dying in his bedroom, his torso punctured twenty-three times by Goujian’s scavenged shank, crafted from a chopstick he picked up during the short jaunt from the gang’s hideout to Silent Pei’s private quarters.

 

And to think, Goujian had been ready to suffer for days, if not weeks before finding an opportunity to kill his target…

 

Spoken with the gang leader’s last breath, the idiom had been meant as a warning of Goujian’s eventual comeuppance when he inevitably reached beyond his station, but his reaction had been one of scorn and derision. These were the words of the downtrodden and defeated, used by those too incapable and incompetent to rise above their peers, so he never took them to heart. If someone stood above him, then he would only need to surpass them along with anyone else who barred his path, and if he failed, then that would only mean he himself lacked the drive and perseverance to continue. To say there were People beyond People, and Heavens beyond the Heavens was to adopt a defeatist attitude, because even back then, in his darkest of times, Goujian still had faith in the Mother Above and believed she always left a path to salvation, meaning that no matter the trial or tribulation before him, there was a way to overcome it.

 

Well now, Goujian believed no more, not only because his faith in the Mother Above had waned, but because no matter how he approached the problem, he saw no path to salvation around the obstacle before him.

 

Lungs burning, limbs heavy, and with broken bones a plenty, he wanted nothing more than to fall back and escape from this vicious pummelling, but the young Emperor had yet to spring his trap so Goujian could do naught but grit his teeth and bear it. Resisting the urge to Scry on Falling Rain due to the young Emperor’s warning, he peered down and studied his foe instead. A formidable warrior worthy of his reputation, the Living Legend Nian Zu was a warrior without peer, but one burdened by the foolish notions of honour and morality. Without these constraints weighing him down, he could have defeated Goujian a thousand times over after their first exchange, but instead, he kept to the rules of their little duel and fought from the ground while Goujian stood on the battlements above. Three-and-a-half-metres didn’t seem like much of a height advantage, but having to jump in order to reach his opponent severely limited Nian Zu’s offensive options.

 

A good thing too, because if they’d fought two hours earlier before Goujian’s transformation, he would have died in the first exchange, his skull shattered and chest caved in by the aged warrior’s heavy attacks. Even with his reinforced skin, muscles, and bones, he couldn’t afford to take Nian Zu’s aerial attacks head on, and he shuddered to think how powerful this Colonel General might be with both feet planted on firm ground and a vast reserve of Chi to draw from instead of the scraps left to him after utilizing his famed Shooting Star multiple times.

 

Facing off against his foe, Goujian felt a hint of pride and a tinge of regret, for he saw in Nian Zu a kindred spirit and possible friend if they’d met in different times under different circumstances. This was a true Hero of the people, one fighting not for personal power and political interests, but to defend the weak against those who would seek to harm them. He fought for the people first, and country second, which meant history would prove he stood on the wrong side in this conflict between Chosen and Imperial, but there would be no convincing him of the Truth. After a lifetime of instruction and indoctrination, Nian Zu’s mind was closed to the Heavens and unable to accept their guidance, which meant he would continue with his misguided actions and fight against the Chosen until his dying breath.

 

Such a shame. The Chosen of Heaven could use a man of Nian Zu’s calibre, a shining beacon of Martial Skill and personal integrity which few could match, though Goujian would be lying if he claimed he didn’t want to rip the man’s vile, contemptible tongue out of his head. It’d been many decades since anyone dared called Goujian a ‘Mad Dog’ to his face, and he yearned to make an example of Nian Zu so none would ever dare do so again.

 

Nine moves have passed,” Goujian said, his calm facade masking his desperate relief. “One more and our agreement ends. Guard your head well, Nian Zu, for this Confessor means to take it, and unlike you, I accomplish what I set out to achieve.”

 

Erupting in hearty, forced laughter, Nian Zu retorted with yet another low-brow insult. “I’ve seen dogs eat shit before, but this is the first time I’ve heard one spew shit.” Tapping his bared neck with the blade of his hand, he taunted, “Come down and fight, Mad Dog, if you dare. Nian Zu’s neck is washed and ready, if your blade can reach it, but know this: better men and beasts than you have tried, and they are now ashes scattered to the wind.”

 

Steam visibly rising from his robes, Goujian boiled with fury while Imperial soldiers cheered for their vulgar hero. The young Emperor had instructed him to offer this duel, for the immobile nature of their exchange made up for the many flaws of Goujian’s new body. His poor ability to regulate heat stood chief amongst his current concerns, but True Balance lay tantalizingly out of reach even in these dire circumstances, and thus there was no easy solution. Short of another near death experience, he wasn’t certain how to find True Balance again, but now was not the time to try new things and explore his options. “You’ll not escape the shame of failure so easily,” Goujian declared, wondering when the young Emperor’s plan would come into effect, a plan which was never shared in its entirety. “Make your final move and let the world see you for what you are, an aged senior whose glory days are long behind him.”

 

Nian Zu responded with a round of genuine laughter but no further explanation, most likely because he believed his enemies had fallen for his ruse. The Colonel General was all too happy to waste time with this duel while his reinforcements moved into place, and in truth, time worked against the Chosen of Heaven here in Sinuji. At full strength, they could have overrun the walls with ease and razed the fort within the span of an hour, but even though almost half their forces had survived the man-made inferno, only a precious handful like Goujian and the young Emperor had emerged unscathed. The Chosen of Heaven had suffered relatively few fatalities thanks to the efforts of the young Emperor’s Transcendents and his Ancestral Beast allies, their massive and durable Domains warding off the worst of the fiery trap, but the majority were still in no condition to fight. Ruptured eardrums from the thunderous explosion, scalded lungs from super-heated air, fractured bones from overturned earth, it would be days, if not weeks before the Chosen of Heaven recovered to full strength.

 

As for the Defiled auxiliaries? There was nary an uninjured savage to be found, with many sporting grievous injuries which would have left a Martial Warrior crippled or unconscious. Their fortitude was not due to Defiled endurance, but rather a testament to their foolish Path, weak mortals who surrendered too much and lost much of their rational minds to the torrent of Heavenly Energy and barely even noticed their pain anymore. Animalistic power and endurance to go along with their intellect, these inhuman savages were a disgrace to humanity and of no use except to be thrown away. What did it matter if they lost all eight-hundred and fifty thousand savages they’d brought to Sinuji? There were still more to call upon from the Western Province, and so long as the Chosen of Heaven and the young Emperor survived, then the war for humanity’s future would continue until victory was theirs.

 

A victory more easily obtained if Living Legend Nian Zu and Undying Savage Falling Rain were deprived of their titles and their lives here tonight.

 

The tenth and final exchange began the same as the nine previous ones, with Nian Zu striding slowly towards the inner wall while Goujian stood on the battlements above. Just one of the Living Legend’s many moves to draw this duel out, though an argument could be made to call this tactical prudence. Once Nian Zu’s feet left the ground, his course of attack was all but locked in place, with little to no room for correction or adjustment, while Goujian had ample time to react accordingly. Fast though the Colonel General might be, he could not move faster than thought, and so long as Goujian was ready and waiting, it would be nigh impossible to break through his many layers of defences in a head-on clash.

 

Knowing all this and more, Nian Zu still slowly advanced across the courtyard, step by careful step. Almost all of Sinuji watched this clash with bated breath, because even though the outcome could not change fate, neither side wanted to see the other succeed. Even the feral, savage Defiled were affected by morale, fighting all the fiercer when their Champions emerged victorious and prone to scurry away like rats when discouraged or disheartened. Though they might not know of Nian Zu’s name or reputation, they had to acknowledge his strength after his earth-shaking attempt to assassinate Zhu Chanzui. While it ended in failure, few Martial Warriors were powerful enough to injure an Ancestral Beast, and fewer still could do so and emerge unscathed, but the Colonel General had done both and still had the strength to fight against Goujian, a Peak Expert in his own right who possessed a body reforged by the Heavens themselves.

 

There were People beyond People, but how many could there be beyond Living Legend Nian Zu?

 

Dreading this last and final exchange, he watched his foe with the utmost concentration for fear of overlooking a vital clue or falling for some nefarious feint. If the Living Legend’s mace were a hand-span longer than Goujian’s hooked-sword instead of the other way around, then his life would have already been forfeit even with his many advantages, so he could not afford to relax just yet. Nian Zu’s every step was measured and deliberate, his posture impeccable and stance guarded, ready to advance or retreat at the first sign of treachery or weakness.

 

Then, his presence melted away from Goujian’s perception, and it took no small effort just to keep track of his opponent. This was a feat he’d never encountered, for it was not Concealment drawing his eye away from Nian Zu, but his very existence blending into the world around him until it felt utterly natural for him to be there. Like an accomplished butcher carving effortlessly through meat or a master tailor making his needle and thread dance to his whims, Nian Zu’s movements ascended beyond the means of ordinary mortals, mundane effort taken to such extremes that it almost appeared supernatural in practice. Though merely walking into battle, he did so by taking One with the World to a higher level, not only authorized by the Heavens, but approved by them as well, marking Nian Zu as a Martial Warrior unlike any Goujian had ever met before.

 

One, who until this very moment, had been holding back.

 

The attack arrived before Goujian’s eyes and the mace darkened the world in sight. Helpless to react, he could do naught but watch death approach. It wasn’t that he didn’t try to defend himself or reacted too late, but rather the Colonel General was moving far too quickly to defend against, his body crossing several meters before Goujian’s arms could move mere centimetres to intercept. Only now did he suspect that Zhu Chanzui had been boasting when he claimed Nian Zu’s attack was not worth dodging, because if the man himself could move this quickly, then how many times faster was his famed Shooting Star?

 

Then the world shifted around him and Goujian found himself standing on the fields of Sinuji surrounded by untold numbers of Defiled, almost a hundred meters away from the inner wall with a single Transcendent guard at his side. Half dragged and half carried away by his armoured Transcendent escort, Goujian felt chills for the first time since the inferno as he stared in shock at the fort walls, for even though there was a veritable horde of Defiled savages between him and his foe, he knew it would prove little obstacle to the Shooting Star.

 

Nian Zu had spoken true. If he wanted Goujian’s head, he could easily take it himself. All nine previous exchanges had been little more than pomp and pageantry to buy time, a realization which thoroughly unnerved Goujian.

 

Though the young Emperor cautioned him against Scrying on Falling Rain, nothing had been said about Scrying in general, so Goujian swallowed the lump in his throat and turned his attention to the battle at hand. There Nian Zu stood at the forefront of the battle while arrows and bolts flew overhead, swatting aside Defiled Champions like flies as they converged upon him, each one seeking the thrill of a challenge only to find they’d reached far, far above their station. Most didn’t even make it past Nian Zu’s elite guards fighting at his side, famed Peak Experts one and all who were loyal to the Hero of the Wall and him alone. Even the common Imperial soldiers were a force to be reckoned with, because with their spirits burning and morale high, they fought with such zeal and ferocity one might mistake them for the feral savages even with the tribal Defiled arranged against them.

 

Though still vastly outnumbered and lacking the advantage of walls to stand upon, with a paragon like Nian Zu to lead them, the Imperial forces would emerge victorious here today if they could hold until reinforcements arrived. This, more than anything made Goujian anxious for their cause, because while the young Emperor feared to let Falling Rain grow, Nian Zu was a more tangible and credible threat. Even with all their advantages, the Chosen of Heaven were still unable to break through the first line of Imperial defences, defences the Living Legend had no small part in creating. How would they fare against the second line, and the third? Suppose the Chosen of Heaven pushed past all three lines and brought the fight to the East, how would they fight while surrounded by enemies on all sides?

 

Snarling at his own cowardice, Goujian tore his arm away from the Transcendent and strode back towards the battlefield, intent on razing Sinuji to the ground here and now if only to erase his deep-rooted shame. He only made it a few steps before the Transcendent reappeared before him, its featureless face so composed and neutral it almost seemed to mock him. Pushing it aside, he continued forward until the young Emperor Sent, “Retreat and return to this Sovereign’s side, Confessor. The opportunity is lost, the Devourer beyond our reach, for the Predator awakens, and it hungers.”

 

Courage drained from his veins at the young Emperor’s tone, one laced with undisguised dread and terror. The Predator, yet another piece on the board Goujian was previously unaware of, but he felt it best not to ask. Against his better judgment, he turned back to Scry upon Falling Rain and see exactly what had unnerved the young Emperor so, and what he saw confounded him to no end. There, at the back of the courtyard, laid Falling Rain’s camp, in complete and utter disarray following a combined Wraith and Transcendent attack. Contrary to expectations, the majority of corpses were not Imperial or Bekhai, but Defiled and Transcendent instead. As he suspected, there were still more Concealed Experts hidden about the runt, and these ones were even more formidable than the others, four veiled, leather-clad warriors who moved with supernatural speed and inhuman grace while fending off multiple Transcendents each. There was also a portly member of the Brotherhood, a valiant, ferocious warrior with a face twisted in rage as he slaughtered Demon and Wraith alike, an untouchable storm of fury crashing through a sea of chaos. Goujian’s traitor Aspirants were there too, MuYang, Gunan, Jadhar, and Kanri to name a few, but there were still more he recognized, once-loyal allies whom he had believed dead and buried by the Imperial Clan’s efforts to snuff out Goujian’s organization.

 

Then there were the eight Peak Experts from Nian Zu’s honour guards, and a smattering of mundane soldiers who were surprisingly adept at picking out Wraiths, but none of this was the reason why the young Emperor’s ambush had ultimately failed. In all the chaos and confusion, Goujian missed seeing him right away, but there Falling Rain was, hale and healthy as could be, chasing after a lizard-like Transcendent with a feral grin stretched across his face. Were it a creature capable of emotion, Goujian would have said the bestial Transcendent was panicked and flustered, scrambling to get away from the gaunt, unarmed, runt instead of killing him outright, but surely that could not be the case. After long seconds of frenzied flight, the Transcendent finally lashed out with its bladed tail and Goujian lips stretched in a smile –

 

Which died on his lips as Falling Rain stopped Transcendent’s attacks with naught but his bare hands.

 

Stopped.

 

Not blocked. Not parried. Not Deflected, but stopped, the powerful tail sinking into an invisible barrier which absorbed the force of its attack.

 

Gripping the bladed-tail with a single hand, Falling Rain’s body flailed about while the lizard-like Transcendent lashed its tail to and fro in a desperate effort to free itself, but to no avail. As if stuck fast with unyielding glue, Falling Rain’s palm remained attached to the tail while the rest of his body simply surrendered to the flow, like a flowing ribbon trailing behind a kite instead of a human made of flesh and bone. Any attempt to smash him into the ground or against an obstacle ended the same way, his floating body bouncing on and skidding over dirt, Wraith, Transcendent, and object alike like an acrobat tumbling across stage or an apple floating in a river.

 

Then Falling Rain landed on his feet and seemingly… reversed the flow of momentum, somehow turning the Transcendent’s strength against it to effortlessly lift it high into the air and smash it down into the dirt, where it most definitely did not bounce or skid.

 

With a visible cackle of delight, the runt’s amber eyes lit up in cold delight as he pounced upon his fallen foe and punched clean through its torso. This was the work of Domain, it had to be, yet even Nian Zu’s skills seemed inferior and lacking when compared to Falling Rain’s effortless grace. A combination of Deflection, Reverberation, and Lightening to create the barrier against impact was an impressive display of skill and control, but even more impressive was the raw power required to injure a Transcendent bare handed. Frail as the runt’s body was, the amount of Chi which had gone into Reinforcement and Amplification must have been staggering to the extreme, not to mention the significant expenditure required to break through the Transcendent’s Domain and protect himself from Ichor.

 

Try as he might, Goujian couldn’t imagine a scenario in which he could replicate Falling Rain’s feat without expending more than half his reserves, a half which should dwarf the amount of Chi Falling Rain’s Core would hold for decades to come, even if it hadn’t been shattered and broken so many months ago.

 

Then Goujian had no more time for imagination as he tried to figure out why Falling Rain would plunge his free hand into the Transcendent’s torso as well. Rather than scream in pain or frown with effort, the runt closed his eyes in bliss as the yellow-green Ichor travelled up his arms to the elbow before sloughing off into the grass as a greyish, watery sludge, his skin untouched and unharmed by the caustic fluid. The pieces fell into place and Goujian physically recoiled in surprise, for he finally understood why the Uniter had titled Falling Rain the ‘Devourer’. “How is this possible? He’s absorbing the Heavenly Energy contained within the Transcendent for his own use!”

 

“A dreadful force of nature, the Predator,” the young Emperor said from atop his mount, and only then did Goujian realize he’d returned to his liege’s side and had voiced the question out loud. “But one easily ignored before it found agency with the Devourer’s assistance.”

 

“They are not one and the same?”

 

“No, still separate,” the young Emperor replied, gesturing for Goujian to mount up as he guided his gajashia west to retreat. “Though for how long, this Sovereign will be hard pressed to even guess.”

 

Trembling from head to toe as he fell in line, Goujian reminded himself that Falling Rain was still mortal, and thus could still be killed, so all was not lost yet. “So what now?” he asked, wholly expecting to be ignored, but to his surprise, he received an immediate reply.

 

“We bide our time and grow our strength,” the young Emperor said, heavily stressing the adjectives, “Until such a time when this Sovereign has an answer to Predator and Devourer alike, as well as whatever else might be hiding within the Azure Sea Empire. You, Martial Brother, and other Chosen like you might well be the answer this Sovereign seeks, but not as you are now.” Tone lightening in almost giddy relief, the young Emperor added, “With luck, the Predator might even escape the Devourer’s control and leave the Imperial Clan no choice but to deal with this prickly problem for us.”

 

Yes… yes, whatever this Predator was, it was far more powerful than a mere Bekhai runt, so it would be best if they didn’t have to deal with it. Following the young Emperor away, Goujian listened with half a mind to him rambling on about a new comrade, but his attention was focused on Falling Rain. Through Scrying, Goujian watched as Wraiths died and Transcendents fled, with countless of the former and two or the latter falling to the Bekhai runt before the disastrous assassination attempt came to an end. The battle between Defiled and Imperial continued a stone’s throw away, but between their defensible positions and Bekhai archers, it was clear the Imperials would have little difficulty holding until their allies arrived to save them.

 

Thus, for the second time since the war began, Goujian and the young Emperor would leave Sinuji in defeat. Such was life, trials and tribulations, but this war had yet to end.

 

Before breaking off his Scrying, Goujian took one last look at his foe and almost fell flat on his face when he found the blood-soaked Predator staring back. There was no bliss anymore, no anger or indignation, no emotion of any kind behind the runt’s oddly coloured eyes. Goujian saw only one thing in those amber orbs, and it chilled him to the bone. Hunger, unending hunger directed towards him from almost a kilometre away, the Predator somehow sensing Goujian from beyond his Scrying, much like the Bekhai brat had done back at the Northern Wall. It was only then that he realized his new physique might hold the same allure as a Transcendent’s Ichor, for it too had been crafted from the raw Energy of the Heavens, and he shuddered to think what would happen to his eternal soul if the Devourer should ever consume him.

 

Though having recently divested himself of his foolish belief in religious concepts, Goujian gazed upon the Predator and saw not Falling Rain, but rather the Father’s Maw in human form, here in this world to Devour all in existence.

 

A thought to inspire immeasurable despair and absolute terror.

 

Chapter Meme

 

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Savage Divinity – Chapter 534

So I am an idiot who can’t count days or chapters. Last Chapter before going on break will be December 12th, not 10th, so still 2 more after this one.

 

That is all.


 

Regardless of the outcome, tonight was a night history would remember for centuries to come.

 

It had all the markings of an epic tale, a grand clash between Good and Evil, in which noble heroes challenged seemingly insurmountable odds with naught but steel and courage. Tonight’s events were a narrative of the human struggle against trial and tribulation and would no doubt serve as inspiration for countless operas, dramas, poems, and musical compositions over the next decade or two, with each retelling embellishing facts until the final products were so far from the truth they might as well be works of fiction, but here Luo-Luo sat to witness it all firsthand.

 

Well… witness in the sense she was present, as the multiple walls and many soldiers blocked her from seeing the actual battle take place. Even then, a whimsical part of her mind still demanded she record her every thought for the sake of posterity. How grand it would be to publish an account of the past hour, much like young patriarch Han BoShui had done following the last major conflict in Sinuji, though hers would lack the impact of a warrior’s perspective. What she found most compelling was the aged Colonel General’s ineffective assault, a low point for all present mortals which displayed the vast and disheartening divide between Man and Divine. Yet even in ignoble defeat, Living Legend Nian Zu did not give in to despair and instead recited a poem to inspire and embolden, one so stirring Luo-Luo almost took up her weapon and joined the fray.

 

She didn’t, of course, not only because the mere prospect of bloodshed terrified her beyond compare, but also because the night’s tumultuous twists and turns had left her poor frail heart overworked and ready to give out. Man-made fiery conflagrations and Chi-raised pillars of earth to smother the flames, a surging wave of soil delivering the promise of death and the nebulous clouds of explosive smoke which thwarted it, this was all too much for a mere Imperial Servant to fathom. To think, Luo-Luo once dreamed of living a life like this, of travelling to see the untamed outer provinces where danger and excitement lurked hand in hand. Well, she’d found plenty of both here tonight, too much in fact, and now that she had a taste of what war was really like, she would give anything to go back to her dull, dreary life in the Academy, far, far away from all the Demonic monstrosities and Defiled Divinities.

 

Not to mention her faithless Lord Husband, who fell so deeply in love with the village girl who nursed him back to health that anyone with ears could hear it from the way he said her name. How many women was he planning on falling in love with and why couldn’t he find room for Luo-Luo in his spacious and accessible heart? Could it be because he was still haunted by Qing-Qing’s death? Perhaps Luo-Luo should take up her weapon and march onto the battlefield, if only to slaughter the hateful Emissary and put Qing-Qing’s ghost to rest, then Lord Husband could finally move on and accept Luo-Luo’s love and affection…

 

For the umpteenth time tonight, the world shook beneath Luo-Luo’s feet, but she paid it no mind until Sorya and Anrhi collectively gasped and clutched her arms tight. Only then did she look up to see what had startled her handmaidens so, and in the midst of all the chaos and confusion, she spent long seconds wondering what all the fuss was about. Then she noticed the shadowy figures gathering upon the inner wall did not have their backs to her, and were instead brandishing their weapons towards the Imperial soldiers forming up in the courtyard.

 

Choking back a gasp which would have given away her ignorance, Luo-Luo trembled from head to toe in unmitigated terror. With the Defiled on the inner wall, only a thin, paltry line of soldiers stood between her and the Enemy forces, a meagre and insignificant defence considering the Defiled had already overrun three walls with their savage ferocity and staggering numbers. Faced with the facts, Luo-Luo’s blood pounded in her ears and heart thudded in her chest in response to this primeval fear. Her hands felt cold and clammy even as her skin grew hot to the touch, her vision swimming as she struggled to keep herself steady, but no matter how many deep breaths she tried to take, it felt like she was drowning on dry land.

 

Then a breathless Sir Dastan arrived, covered in fetid, greyish-white sludge while cradling the unconscious Lord Husband in his arms, and Luo-Luo’s legs gave out from under her.

 

Stifling a piteous wail as she brought her twin handmaidens down with her, Luo-Luo watched Lin-Lin check on Lord Husband while Sir Dastan made his report. “He took a nasty fall from the parapets,” he said, pausing briefly to sip from his water-skin and wipe his face, the putrid slime coming off in sticky, revolting clumps. “No visible injuries though, on either of them.” Saida, the lone female survivor of Dastan’s former retinue, stepped forward carrying Li-Li in similar straits, and Luo-Luo almost broke down then and there. The half-cat seemed so capable and commanding during her spars on the training ground, and it broke Luo-Luo’s heart to see her so helpless and vulnerable, with her lips pursed and brow drawn in concern and uncertainty even while fast asleep in her Runic armour. This more than anything proved how dire the situation had become, for if even the stoic and dependable Li-Li was unable to weather this calamity, then what chance did Luo-Luo have of surviving to see dawn?

 

Leaving Lin-Lin to fuss over Lord Husband and Li-Li, Sir Dastan marched over with two soldiers in tow, a dark-skinned ruffian named Ravil and his cold and merciless shadow Siyar. “Consort Luo,” Dastan said, the perfect picture of a heroic gentleman as he helped her handmaidens stand so they could in turn help her, both mindful and considerate despite the less than ideal circumstances. “You know how to ride a quin, correct?” Waiting for Luo-Luo’s nod, Dastan continued, “Good. Ravil and Siyar here will have quins harnessed and readied for you and your handmaidens, and they’ll remain by your side as escorts if the worst should come to pass.” Luo-Luo would much rather have almost any other soldier from Lord Husband’s retinue, such as the dignified Wang Bao or the charming husband-and-wife pair of Ulfsaar and Neera, but this hardly seemed like the time to be choosy. “Go pack a single change of clothes and if you deem it necessary, whatever small trinkets you can carry on your person, but nothing else. If a full retreat becomes necessary, the wagons will be filled with people, not luggage. The quins will be carrying food and water, but if you head straight east at a steady pace, it shouldn’t be long before you’re spotted by scouts from the Imperial reinforcements.”

 

Nodding like a chicken pecking grains, Luo-Luo rose on shaky legs to do as suggested while Sir Dastan returned to the battlefield. “Yes, my things. Of course.” A single change of clothes? Mother in Heaven, that meant leaving a fortune behind in silks and leathers. Opening her wardrobe, she ran her hands over the outfit she cherished most, for while her dresses were easily replaceable, her custom stitched Khishig leathers were a gift from her in-laws, who’d both been delighted to hear Luo-Luo was Demonstrating the Forms every day. Knowing time was of the essence, she grabbed a suitable travel outfit and turned away from the rest, only to rest her eyes on her precious zither. While manufactured by a craftsman of no particular fame, this was the instrument she used to compose the final movement of ‘Rise to Glory’ and win over soldiers, civilians, and even Lord Husband’s sweet animals back in the Citadel, so how could she bear to leave it for the Defiled? She should never have brought it with her to Sinuji, but she so loved to play for Lord Husband’s pets, even if Lord Husband himself was less than appreciative of her efforts.

 

…The pets! Oh Mother in Heaven, what would become of Lord Husband’s pets? Were they to run alongside the quins, or would they suffer the same fate as Luo-Luo’s zither?

 

Returning to Lord Husband’s side with her spare clothes in hand, she was gratified to find Lin-Lin loading the rabbits, bears, and wildcats into wagons and rushed over to help, only to freeze in place as yet another unfamiliar voice addressed all of Sinuji. “Rejoice and despair,” the mysterious Monk said, standing atop the inner wall, his calm demeanour and dignified bearing entirely at odds with the frenzied Defiled swarming around him. “For the Confessor has come to hear your sins and guide you back from your errant path.”

 

Though Luo-Luo didn’t recognize the moniker, Sorya and Anrhi most certainly did, for her two handmaidens all but collapsed in a gibbering mass of tears and whimpers. In between gasps and hiccups, Luo-Luo pieced together the facts and almost added her own sobs to the mix, for this Confessor sounded like a nightmare made reality. Why no one suspected a mass torturer who Purged countless suspected Defiled over five decades, Luo-Luo couldn’t say, but she desperately hoped the Living Legend would have strength enough to end the wicked Confessor.

 

“Hmph,” Lin-Lin huffed as the first exchange between these two titans ended poorly for the Colonel General. “What is Zu-Zu doing? He’s supposed to be strong, ya? Just smash that smelly Confessor up and the wall he’s standing on.” Crossing her arms in indignation, the sweet, honey-skinned maiden muttered, “So dumb. Zu-Zu better win. The last time he was injured, Daddy spent weeks locked away in a stinky little hut tending to his stinky injuries, all in the name of stinky safety. Those stupid soldiers wouldn’t even tell me where Daddy was even though I hadn’t seen him in weeks. I had to call in a favour to get the guards to go find him. Mean.”

 

Praying no one would repeat the half-hare’s near blasphemous slander for the lofty Colonel General to hear, Luo-Luo shook herself free from her handmaidens and wrapped her arms around Lin-Lin’s shoulders instead, if only to be in position to cover her mouth in the event of yet another scathing scolding. “I’m sure he’ll emerge victorious,” Luo-Luo said, even as the second exchange ended the same way as the first. “Living Legend Nian Zu’s reputation is well-known even in the Eastern Province, a warrior standing at the pinnacle of his peers.” A lie, for she’d never heard of Nian Zu before coming to Central, but a much-needed one to bolster flagging spirits, for the third exchange had come and gone and the Confessor still stood high upon the wall, while Nian Zu could do naught but watch from below. “How are Lord Husband and Li-Li? Will they…” Luo-Luo meant to say ‘wake’, but she changed her mind at the last second and said, “Be able to travel?”

 

“They’re okay, but…” Her long, satiny hare-ears sagging in sorrow, Lin-Lin clutched Luo-Luo’s wrists and nuzzled them for comfort. “I don’t know what’s wrong. Dastan said they were punched off the wall by a Demon, but they’re both completely uninjured, inside and out.” Mother in Heaven, is that how they fell? Luo-Luo must have missed it in her shock, because it seemed like something she would remember.

 

“Eh-Mi-Tuo-Fuo.” Squatting on the floor and somehow having gone unnoticed all this time, the portly Monk Happy straightened up while studying a handkerchief in his hand, one covered in the repulsive sludge which had covered Sir Dastan from head to toe. “Alas this monk has no answers to offer and only more questions to ask.” Looking Lord Husband and Li-Li over, Monk Happy shook his head and muttered, “How curious. According to young friend Dastan, he found the severed Demon arm laying atop a comatose Junior Brother and Khishig Song, and when he tried to lift it, it burst apart into this foul slime instead of caustic Ichor. This monk does not mean to cast aspersions upon our young friend, but if his words are true, then where did the Ichor go? If it was so fragile, why did the limb not burst apart after falling from the parapets? How did Junior Brother and Khishig Song emerge from this same fall with nary a bruise or bump? Most peculiar, and perhaps even troubling…”

 

Throughout Monk Happy’s entire deliberation, Luo-Luo split her attention between the Colonel General’s duel and Lord Husband’s unconscious form, neither of which were a sight to inspire hope or confidence. Having tacitly accepted the Confessor’s challenge, Nian Zu had attacked five times now, each to no effect, unable to set foot upon the battlements or force the deceptively powerful Confessor back. Granted, it was still a powerful display of Martial Skill Luo-Luo could barely follow, but to her admittedly novice eyes, it seemed like the Defiled Goujian was simply toying with his famed opponent. There was no skill involved in the Confessor’s defence, the famed torturer merely standing in place to accept the Living Legend’s attacks with bare flesh, only to emerge unscathed as mace, fist, and boot glanced off his body with utter impunity. Each failed gambit chipped away at Sinuji’s frail morale, and standing here at the back of the last line of defences, Luo-Luo could see the effect this had on the valiant Imperial soldiers before her. Some looked away while others shifted uncomfortably in place, but the majority simply watched in shocked silence, unable to even cheer or support their grand hero in this desperate, one-sided match.

 

As for Lord Husband, at least he looked peaceful in sleep, more calm and composed than she’d ever seen him in their many months together. Too peaceful, in fact, so much so that Luo-Luo reached down to stroke his cheek and secretly check if he was still breathing. Perhaps it was a trick of memory, but he even looked a little healthier than usual, still thin and frail but with fuller cheeks and rosier skin than what she’d seen in recent months, a far cry from the bold and vigorous noble gentleman she sat beside during her near-disastrous wedding banquet, so handsome once properly dressed and meticulously groomed.

 

Tearing up at the memory, she prayed for his safety and good health, just as she’d prayed while the Medical Saint directed Father-in-Law to cut Lord Husband’s belly open so they could physically remove the obstruction in his intestines. A simple yet brilliant solution, she hoped against all hope that he would open his eyes and rattle off some new, insane plan to save Sinuji, or at the very least, save himself.

 

It wouldn’t even be so far-fetched if it really happened. Earlier today, when Lord Husband shared the tale of his trials and tribulations in Sanshu, not only did he deliver his words to people too far to hear him, but his emotions as well, all in some strange and mysterious fashion. As he narrated the haunting and poignant tale, it sounded as if he were standing beside her instead of far away on the outer wall, but that was not all. His every word was brimming with love and affection, guilt and remorse, his emotions delivered to her through unknown, mystical means so she could experience it all for herself. Though it was a compelling tale of love and tragedy between two star-crossed lovers, the impact would not have been half as much if he’d not used Chi to tell it, which was a sure sign of recovery as any.

 

She still remembered young patriarch Han BoShui’s sensational account of Lord Husband’s prowess upon the battlefield, how he fought ensconced in a sphere of streaming water while Healing grievous injuries which would have killed a lesser man, all of which took place after his Spiritual Weapons broke and shattered his Core. If a miracle could happen once, then why not again, and if ever there were a need for a miracle, that time would be now.

 

Alas, her prayers went unanswered and Lord Husband continued to sleep, laid out upon the grass with sweet Li-Li beside him.

 

Trampled by boots and rimed by cold frost, the unyielding winter grass quivered in the firelight, and for a moment, Luo-Luo wondered if her eyes were playing tricks on her. After rubbing her eyes, she looked again, and still the grass jostled about, at which point she realized there was something amiss. “Um,” she said, speaking to no one in particular as she pointed at the fluttering grass and bouncing stones. “Is this normal?”

 

Of course it wasn’t, and she regretted the question even as she asked it, but then there was no more time to think as the Defiled let loose with a thunderous roar simultaneously with the ground erupting around Luo-Luo. Chaos ensued as a shrill shriek rang out into the night, and it was only then that Luo-Luo recognized the voice for her own, but there was nothing she could do as hideous, bestial aberrations burst out from underground and their dread, Demonic Aura washed over her in palpable waves of horror and hysteria. Those mole-like Demons brandished their wicked talons and protruding teeth as they pounced upon hidden protectors Luo-Luo hadn’t even known were there, ones she eventually recognized as Lin-Lin’s veiled guards and coldly noted were vastly outnumbered. Four veiled guards and a pacifist monk fought against fifteen inhuman Demons, and the situation only got worse as several more Demons appeared out of thin air with an entourage of wicked Defiled to accompany them.

 

Wraiths. Stealthy, murderous Wraiths with their wicked black blades, capable of killing lesser Martial Warriors with little more than a scratch. Lesser Martial Warriors like say, herself.

 

“Move!” Unceremoniously shouldering Luo-Luo away, the black-skinned ruffian Ravil hurried her along while hefting Lord Husband over his shoulder like a sack of rice. “Siyar, cover my ass and let’s get out of here, with or without the lady Consort.”

 

Galvanized by the overt threat, Luo-Luo sprung into action without thinking. To her great surprise, her first response was not to flee in mindless panic, but to tuck her sceptre into her belt and crouch down to grab Li-Li lying at her feet, and only then did she realize Lin-Lin was nowhere to be found. Cursing the guards who’d left Luo-Luo to fend for herself, she drew on what little courage she had and swore she wouldn’t leave poor Li-Li behind to die, not with the salacious Tursinai and her stoic husband Tenjin nowhere to be found. Terror and panic fuelling her strength, she lifted the half-cat with ease and cradled her close while making sure Sorya and Anrhi were both clear-headed enough to follow her away to safety. “Lead the way,” she shouted once she was ready to go, but Ravil and Siyar had made good on the threat to let her fend for herself and were already several meters away.

 

Two murderous bastards cut from the same cloth… At least they were loyal to Lord Husband.

 

Luckily, not all of Lord Husband’s soldiers were as heartless as Ravil and Siyar or away in the courtyard. With a sickening squelch of metal on flesh and a booming, desperate roar, the half-bull Pran smashed aside two Wraiths barring Luo-Luo’s path while his brother Saluk held back a serpentine Demon through sheer force of will, bleeding from multiple gushing wounds yet still unyielding in his defence. “Go,” Pran said, gently pushing Luo-Luo along before jumping in to aid his brother, but a brief glance was enough to see that the half-bulls were sorely outmatched, their beautifully crafted weapons bouncing ineffectively off the Demon’s viridescent scales. Running as quickly as her legs would carry her, she did her best to keep track of both handmaidens while following her callous and uncaring escorts, marvelling at how these seemingly uncaring ruffians fought tooth and nail to keep Lord Husband alive.

 

So focused on suppressing her panic, she almost failed to notice how effective the two unassuming thugs were at clearing the path. Contrary to expectations, it was Siyar who led the way and Ravil who followed, the slender, pale thug bringing them in a meandering path around the battlefield, somehow avoiding the worst of the conflict though ultimately unable to break through the encirclement to bring Lord Husband away. Not to say neither men fought, for they summarily executed many a Wraith who crossed their paths with careless ease and ruthless efficiency. There was no elegance or flourish to their movements and attacks, only effective brutality and practical competence as these two soldiers used every tool at their disposal to exemplify the phrase ‘killing without blinking an eye’. Sword and boot, fist and skull, they fought like bar-room brawlers rather than the graceful dancers or robust juggernauts Luo-Luo was used to seeing, but she could still read the rhythm of their movements and was thoroughly impressed by their unorthodox yet compelling melody.

 

She likened it to an accomplished musician playing a symphony at the dinner table using normal, everyday implements. While neither beautiful nor pleasing to the eye or ear, the skill required to do so was still nonetheless impressive.

 

Capable though they might be, it was clear they were both outmatched against Demons, for were it not for the Experts keeping those monstrous beings at bay, Luo-Luo feared she would have long since fallen prey to the Father’s foul minions given flesh.

 

No…

 

As she watched a Demon scramble out of Ravil’s path, Luo-Luo noticed something off in the rhythm of this chaotic orchestra. It wasn’t that Siyar was avoiding the Demons, but the other way around, or more accurately, the Demons were avoiding Lord Husband. Remembering Monk Happy’s litany of facts and questions, something clicked in Luo-Luo’s mind, a thought so dubious and bizarre she almost laughed it off in shock, but then she saw Ravil stumble and stagger towards yet another Demon which also leapt away in fright, and she could no longer keep it to herself. “The Demons,” she shrieked, praying Ravil would hear and listen. “The Demons are afraid of Lord Husband!”

 

Ravil heard alright, and shot her a look so incredulous it made her cheeks burn in embarrassment, but the Mother must have been looking down upon them as the Guardian Turtle burst onto the scene with an adorably docile squeak of challenge. A globe of water shot out from her opened beak and impacted heavily against an armoured Demon, cracking its metallic flesh and sending it careening towards Ravil and Lord Husband. Then, in a gravity defying feat of flexibility and agility, it twisted aside to avoid a headlong collision and all but delivered itself into the spear of a nearby veiled guardian, who dispatched it only moments before it would have crashed into Luo-Luo and Li-Li. This didn’t escape Ravil’s notice either, and after an all-too-brief pause to consider his options, the bald thug grinned with murderous glee and charged headlong at the closest Demon, so eager and enthusiastic Luo-Luo worried he’d snapped and meant to use Lord Husband’s limp torso as a club.

 

The effect of his actions were both immediate and obvious as the serpentine Demon shot away from the near-death half-bull brothers to escape from Ravil’s almost suicidal charge. “C’mon you Demonic shits!” he cackled, jostling Lord Husband so much she worried he would wake with a concussion. “You fuckers ain’t even brave enough to face Falling Rain in his sleep?!”

 

Multiple Wraiths emerged from Concealment in response to the challenge, but Ravil’s sword was ready and waiting. With help from Siyar, they dispatched the stealthy Defiled assassins who had no qualms about approaching Lord Husband and charged the next closest Demon, a ferocious, bull-like creature with a fanged, feline head clashing with the Divine Turtle. Bleeding from multiple cuts and gashes, sweet Ping Ping fought gamely on, but the gentle turtle was not accustomed to battle and was clearly on the losing end, or she was until Ravil arrived with Lord Husband in tow. Dancing away from the thuggish soldier brandishing his commander like a weapon, the bull-Demon bellowed as it fought to escape from Ravil’s charge, but the Guardian Turtle would not give up the advantage so easily. Beak snapping shut around the Demon’s torso, she dragged it back to her legs before crushing it beneath a stomp of her mighty front leg, all while Deflecting the caustic, yellow-green Ichor away from her flesh and mouth.

 

And inadvertently, directly towards Ravil, who stood hidden behind the Demon in the Guardian Turtle’s blind spot.

 

A tortured scream erupted from his throat as the vile fluid ate away his armour and flesh. All too quickly those screams quieted and gave way to the sizzle and pop of melting fat. The thuggish soldier collapsed to the ground even as Luo-Luo ran over to help him, but she skidded to a stop to avoid crashing into Lord Husband, who somehow had landed on his feet. His back still hunched as if slung over Ravil’s shoulder, Lord Husband held the awkward pose while remaining rooted in place, his body covered from head to toe in vile Demonic fluids.

 

Then…

 

The sickly, corrosive Ichor lost its lustre as it slid off in giant clumps, revealing intact clothes and healthy, untouched flesh. Long seconds passed, or perhaps even minutes, Luo-Luo could not tell, but when Lord Husband finally moved, it was not to straighten up or look around, but rather to fall to his knees and place hands on Ravil’s blistered flesh. Again, the Ichor blanched and faded in colour before slipping away, but the damage had already been done to poor Ravil. With luck and help from a Healer, his life might still yet be preserved, but Lord Husband made no move to treat the man’s wounds or even bring him away to safety.

 

Slowly coming to his feet, Lord Husband turned around and locked eyes with Luo-Luo, but there was no sign of the charming, arrogant, and infuriating man she’d come to know and perhaps even love. There was no recognition either, for peering out from those striking amber eyes was a stranger she’d never met, one brimming with a cruel rage and burning hatred Lord Husband could never possess. Chest heaving with fury, his intimidating presence promised violence and brutality as he took in his surroundings with calculated restraint, ready to devolve into a murderous rampage at the first sign of threat or danger.

 

Savage. There was no other way to describe it, no better word to encapsulate the callous disregard for life and destructive intent in his gaze.

 

This was not Luo-Luo’s Lord Husband, the kind and gentle Falling Rain.

 

No, the man before her was a wild and ferocious warrior, a cruel butcher of men and reaper of lives so steeped in bloodshed and violence it had become second nature.

 

This was the Undying Savage, and woe betide anyone who stood against him.

 

Chapter Meme

 

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Savage Divinity – Chapter 533


So quick update on the break situation. Last chapter here will be on Tuesday Dec 10th, then I have no idea when I’ll be back besides: sometime in january. That’s all, so enjoy the last few chapters of 2019 and have a happy holidays. or don’t. Whatever makes you happy. or doesnt. I dunno.

Anywho, here’s the chapter.


 

“What have I done? Oh Mother in Heaven, what have I done?!”

 

Wishing she could hug her beloved tight, Eri-Hime did what little she could to console Big Brother Hideo. “There, there. It’s not your fault. You didn’t bring down the walls. Eri-Hime did, so there’s no need to feel bad.” Wishing she could’ve seen her work firsthand, she instead comforted herself with the knowledge that Falling Rain would soon be dead and maybe even Uncle Hiroshi along with him.

 

A difficult accomplishment, demolishing Sinuji’s rammed earth walls, but one she took pride in. Were it not for Big Brother Hideo’s staggering talent in mastering the basics of the Mountain Collapsing Stomp, then Eri-Hime couldn’t have possibly succeeded even with the Voice of Heaven guiding her, but thankfully, they had all the tools necessary to ensure Sinuji’s downfall. This was much better than having Big Brother Hideo kill Rain himself, because then his name would be reviled throughout the Empire, and Eri-Hime certainly couldn’t allow that to happen. Luckily, few would know of the part they played, because Eri-Hime and Big Brother Hideo left to set out towards their new life long before the walls fell. The Voice of Heaven taught her how to direct the Mountain Collapsing Stomp to destroy things from a distance, and while it took her a good number of tries to get it right, her first success was almost immediately followed by a second.

 

Unfortunately, twice was her limit as Big Brother Hideo ran out of Chi, so she had no choice but to leave the inner wall untouched. Worse, she wasn’t sure if father-in-law was still in Sinuji or if he’d already abandoned Big Brother Hideo to his fate. During the earlier scuffle between Ancestral Beasts, Uncle Hiroshi had pestered them to no end through Sending, demanding Big Brother Hideo hand command over to one of his subordinates and step down from the outer wall so they could retreat. Against military orders and Big Brother Hideo’s own wishes, Eri-Hime might add, but cowardly Uncle Hiroshi didn’t care one whit about what anyone else wanted. Such a selfish man, she could see right through him, a heartless cad willing to sacrifice friends, family, and anything else so long as he could have his way.

 

No matter. Having cut ties with the Mitsue family and even the Empire itself, Eri-Hime and Big Brother Hideo were ready to start a new chapter in their life together, just as soon as they met with their benefactor. Not so simple a task when surrounded by hostile Defiled, but being the true Number One Talent in the Empire, Big Brother Hideo had no trouble carving a path through the horde of dirty, unwashed savages. That was all he would do now, fight and cry, recklessly advancing headlong into the Enemy out of a misguided desire for death, but most Defiled paid Eri-Hime and Big Brother Hideo little mind save to push them towards their goal. Every now and then a few temperamental fools with more courage than sense would try to impede their progress, but she was thankful for their silly actions since it gave Big Brother Hideo a means to vent his anger and frustration.

 

With guidance from the Voice of the Heavens, it didn’t take long for Eri-Hime and Big Brother Hideo to arrive at their destination, where a dashing young man greeted them with open arms. “Good, Good,” he said, scrutinizing Big Brother Hideo with such hunger it made Eri-Hime think of her old friends, silly little girls who enjoyed imagining romantic pairings between prominent men and deciding which one would be the dominant force in their fabricated relationship.

 

Those discussions had always made Big Brother Hideo uncomfortable, mostly because they always drafted him as the submissive partner, but in this particular pairing, it would be hard to argue otherwise.

 

“This Sovereign,” the young man began, his gaze so compelling neither Eri-Hime nor Big Brother Hideo could look away, “Is the Emissary of Earth’s Fire, Gen. Welcome. It is good to find another comrade who walks the razor’s edge, and a talented one at that. One can never have too many talented… friends.”

 

“Mitsue Hideo,” Eri-Hime answered, though only belatedly remembering having cut ties with the Mitsue Family. “The Voice of Heaven told me to come here, said there would be freedom and answers.”

 

“Freedom given is not freedom earned,” Gen chided, lazily gesturing behind them. “Seize freedom with your own hands, and it will taste that much sweeter.”

 

Turning around, Eri-Hime discovered that they’d been followed, and her lips twisted in displeasure at the uninvited guest. “Oh. Hello,” she said, keeping up the pretense that it was Big Brother Hideo here rather than the poor girl he so brutally murdered. “You shouldn’t have come.”

 

Though surrounded by Demons and Defiled, Uncle Hiroshi showed no sign of fear or concern, only sombre anguish and heartfelt remorse. “Son,” he said, his voice hoarse and heartbroken. “You are not to blame. I, your father, take responsibility for your sins.” With twin maces in hand, exact replicas Mitsue Juichi’s Spiritual Weapons and Big Brother Hideo’s as well, Uncle Hiroshi added, “I should’ve killed you months ago, for at least then you might not have been so far gone. Now, your soul might never know the warm embrace of the Mother, but worry not.” Voice hardening to steel, Uncle Hiroshi nodded with decisive determination. “You will not go into the Father’s maw alone. I will join you in death soon after, and together, we will face Him down and fight our way back to salvation.”

 

Then Mitsue Hiroshi took action, and the quiet, mousy Patriarch of the Mitsue Family, transformed into violence personified.

 

If not for Emissary Gen’s armoured guards, Eri-Hime and Big Brother Hideo would’ve died then and there, but it was still a close call. As one guard pulled them away from Uncle Hiroshi, a second shattered beneath his mace, its sturdy, metallic form unable to withstand the force of a single blow. “Come, my son,” he bellowed, Deflecting away the yellow-green lifeblood of his fallen foe before smashing aside another unfortunate guard. “Meet your death like a true son of the Mitsue Family.” A third guard died as easily as the first two as Hiroshi tore through their ranks like a lion through deer, killing with every step while remaining utterly untouched.

 

This was the man believed by the Empire over to be little more than a glorified accountant, responsible for managing the family finances and cleaning up messes made by Mitsue Juichi’s inept offspring. Here, surrounded and outnumbered, Mitsue Hiroshi displayed his true strength for the first time ever, and the only person here to appreciate it was his own son.

 

More guards joined the fray, but after the first three deaths, the rest had grown wary, keeping their distance as they encircled their foe in a black ring of death. Swords, spears, hammers, and axes, their weapons sang as they probed Uncle Hiroshi’s defences, but he always seemed three steps ahead of them and ready with the perfect counter. Unable to even recognize the movements involved, Eri-Hime stood frozen in slack-jawed surprise at this consummate display of skill, one which Big Brother Hideo believed would see his father ranked as one of the top Peak Experts in Central, if not the Empire itself. He’d been blessed enough to watch a spar between Sword King Ryo Dae Jung and Grasping Vine Shuai Jiao, the only two men in Central who held rank equal to Mentor Juichi’s, and from the looks of things, his father wasn’t too far off.

 

There. That footwork. Stalking the Dragon and Coiling the Nest, two movements melded so flawlessly it was hard to discern where one ended and the other began. Then Standing Fury into Reversed Flow, followed by Lumbering Turn and Raising the Winds. A flawless combination which blocked the attacks of three Demons and afforded father the opportunity to counterattack whilst surrounded on all sides, so subtle and simple in its perfection. Four Demons lay dead now, with only eight left to go, and despite the odds stacked against him, Hideo believed his father would emerge victorious today and be known the world over as a Martial Warrior who lived up to his name, the Immortal Heavenly Guardian of the Empire.

 

Then a pillar of fire rose from the earth and sent Mitsue Hiroshi staggering away, only for a spear to erupt from his belly and spray Hideo with his father’s blood.

 

Good. Now he’s dead and will never bother you again.

 

An eternity passed in the blink of an eye before the inhuman howl tore out from Hideo’s throat. The spear withdrew and he ran forward into his father’s arms, clutching his hero close as tears streamed from his eyes. “I’m sorry father,” he said, unable to say or think anything else as he stared into his father’s eyes, so pained yet full of love for his failure of a son. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”

 

Can’t you see his pain? Put him out of his misery.

 

“No!” Hideo howled, supporting his father with one arm while brandishing his mace with the other. “Back, foul Demons! You will not have him! I won’t let you!”

 

Contrary to his accusations, the gathered Demons showed no sign of advancing, standing about like lifeless puppets hung in place for display. Striding out from between them, Gen shook his head and sighed. “How disappointing,” he said, eyeing Hideo up and down once again. “The man came to kill you, yet still you hold fast to unwarranted affection. Why? Because he laid with some woman who later gave birth to you?” Scoffing, Gen waved a hand and continued, “Love is merely a construct of the mind, a means with which to ensure the production and survival of the next generation, and even then, this man was a poor example of it.” Stepping closer to Hideo, Gen ignored the shaking mace and said, “Your father never loved you. He abandoned you during your childhood, left you starved of affection to suffer in miserable loneliness.”

 

“No. It’s not true. He had to work, had to keep the family together.”

 

“The family, not your family. What better proof than your life? You saw his strength just now, so you know he could have Mentored you himself, yet he sent you to be trained by a man proven to be a failure of a Mentor instead. Why?”

 

“I don’t know.”

 

“You do,” Gen pressed, moving Hideo’s mace aside. “You know why. Because the Mitsue Family needed a promising young talent to carry on their legacy, one so talented even Juichi himself could not ruin.”

 

“Shut up!” Hideo screamed, falling to his knees. “Shut up, shut up, shut up!”

 

Your father never loved you. Never cared about you. You were a means to an end, an obligation to fulfill, and someone he raised to live vicariously through. That’s why you have no siblings, yet have more cousins than you can count. He protected you not out of love, but necessity. Your death meant the death of his dreams, the death of his legacy, the death of his family name.

 

And your life, meant his death, a death he willingly walked into because he lives on, through you.

 

Cradling his father’s cooling corpse with a strangled whimper, Hideo buried his head and wept, but regardless if he accepted or denied the truth laid out before him, the pain would not go away.

 

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

 

Fall back! Abandon the walls and Fall back!

 

Even as he gave the order, Nian Zu knew it was too late, and all he could do was watch as the middle wall crumbled apart with thousands of soldiers standing atop it. They were lost to him now, either dying from the fall or trampled beneath Defiled boots, though a few unlucky survivors might be dragged away as trophies and slaves. Cold logic and tactical acumen dictated he cut his losses and focus on what to do next, for it was safe to assume that the inner wall would soon fall, leaving the Imperial Warriors in Sinuji face to face with the mammoth Defiled Horde.

 

Even without the forward walls, all was not lost. Reinforcements were nearby and his forces wouldn’t need to hold out for long, so his goal now was simply to drag the battle out until his allies arrived. Thankfully, under Chen Hongji’s farsighted guidance, Fort Sinuji’s defences included two deep, impassable trenches on the northern and southern flanks. Initially dug to keep the Defiled from encircling the fort, these Earth-Worked excavations were too wide for any mount to vault across and forced the Enemy to funnel into the heavily fortified courtyard behind him. It would take a mounted contingent the better part of an hour to circle around the trenches and arrive in fighting form, an issue he’d have to keep an eye out for later, but first he needed to weather this impending frontal charge, a smattering of crazed skirmishers followed by the cavalry to mop things up. This meant getting his soldiers into position and doing everything in his power to keep them from routing. If his soldiers broke and ran, the Defiled cavalry would tear everyone apart like wolves set upon a herd of sheep, so their best hope of survival lay in holding Sinuji until the reinforcements arrived.

 

Simple in theory, but courage and training would only go so far when staring down the tip of a Defiled spear delivered by a ferocious, one-tonne beast.

 

All this went through his mind in the blink of an eye, but still Nian Zu stood perched upon the inner wall. This half-second of hesitation would cost him greatly, for there was much he still needed to do, but try as he might, he couldn’t tear his eyes away from the horrific sight before him. These men and women before him were doomed heroes one and all, soon to give their lives in defence of the Empire. Some wailed in despair as the wall gave out beneath them, others accepted their fates with stoic determination, while a select few had yet to even recover from their shock.

 

The optimal, rational thing to do was to leave them for dead, but at this very second, they still drew breath, and where there was life, there was hope.

 

Besides, Nian Zu was never one to give in to logic and reason. No, he was lauded as the Hero of the Wall because that’s who he was. A man of courage, valour, and camaraderie who would never turn his back on a soldier in need.

 

Guards, to me!” Leaping out to meet the oncoming Defiled before the command was even uttered, Nian Zu cast the Shooting Star into the Enemy horde to buy time for his soldiers to escape. The blast set his ears to ringing as Defiled died in the blast, a plume of dust billowing high into the night’s sky as yet another explosion rocked the fields of Sinuji. Impressive as the attack normally was, today he felt like it was akin to tossing pebbles into a tsunami. Heedless of their casualties, the Defiled continued their charge even as Nian Zu summoned his mace back into hand and delivered a two-handed swing to the closest Defiled, smashing through the tribesman’s chest and turning his corpse into a deadly projectile.

 

A single breath was all his efforts bought them, an extra second of time in which a handful of soldiers made it onto the inner wall when they otherwise might not have, while others were dragged or even bodily thrown to safety by his guards. Most arm-chair generals would read the after action reports and condemn Nian Zu for taking an unnecessary risk, criticize him as a glory-seeking hound or a muscle-brained fool, but in his eyes, saving even one life was worth the risk and effort.

 

So long as he survived of course. Should Nian Zu die now, Sinuji was liable to fall in minutes with the incompetent Mitsue Watanabe at the helm.

 

Withdraw.” The order given, Nian Zu stayed behind to guard the retreat, but it didn’t take long. Dispatching a Defiled tribesman while raising his mace, Nian Zu leapt back and cast his Shooting Star towards his feet, shielding his eyes as the resulting blast delivered a stinging gust of dirt, dust, and blood directly into his face. Pausing for breath on the parapets, he extended a hand to catch his returning mace, but alarm bells rang in his mind and he jumped away just in time to watch a hooked sword cleave through the space he previously occupied.

 

Landing heavily in the courtyard, Nian Zu staggered three steps back before correcting his balance, and his returning mace thudded into the dirt beside his boots. A disgraceful sight to display to the shaken soldiers of Sinuji, for most would assume he traded blows with an opponent and lost. Burning with anger and humiliation, Nian Zu summoned his mace back into hand for the third time today, an unnecessary expenditure of Chi and unwise given his dwindling reserves, but over the years, he found most soldiers responded best to this minor and almost inconsequential display of skill. Why some believed summoning a weapon to hand was more impressive than say Cloud-Stepping into the skies or lifting a one-tonne boulder overhead, he couldn’t quite rightly say, but he would need every possible advantage he could to make up for this dire loss of face.

 

One good thing came of this however, for aside from a few dozen berserk tribesman, the Defiled offensive came to a halt atop the still-standing inner wall. Why it was left untouched, he couldn’t say, but it could be any number of reasons including to allow this unknown Peak Expert to stand atop the wall and look down upon them all. Drawing himself up to full height, Nian Zu studied his opponent through narrowed eyes and was puzzled by what he found. Rather than a Defiled Chieftain or fallen Imperial General, his mysterious foe was a clean-shaven, middle-aged, Imperial citizen underneath all the blood and sweat, looking utterly out of place atop the parapets with hooked-sword in hand. Pale of skin but neither large nor slim, this Peak Expert wore the grey robes of the Penitent Brotherhood and carried himself with humble dignity and quiet cheer, a man who found inner peace and gratification in the bloodshed and carnage surrounding him. While hardly unheard of for Martial Warriors to join the Brotherhood, only a fool would mistake this warrior for a Penitent Brother, or at least not one who’d been at it for long. Despite the air of peace and serenity emanating from the supposed monk’s steely gaze, Nian Zu sensed a hint of murderous madness lingering beneath, a calm and intelligent sort of insanity found most commonly in Defiled Chieftains, those Enemy commanders who kept their deranged tribesmen in line. This was no crazed Defiled driven by lies and instinct, but a man wholly in control of his thoughts and impulses, yet chose to indulge and succumb to them instead.

 

In short, this was a true believer of the Father’s forsaken cause, which made him all the more dangerous a foe.

 

Rejoice and despair,” the mysterious foe began, smiling with a casual arrogance usually reserved for the highest echelons of nobility. “For the Confessor has come to hear your sins and guide you back from your errant path.”

 

Though surprised by his assailant’s identity, Nian Zu put aside his concerns and questions for the time being. Bellowing with forced laughed, he stole Goujian’s momentum and drew all eyes towards himself instead. “When a Mad Dog barks,” he said, delighting as his foe bristled at the reminder of this most hated moniker, “Only fools bark back. Come, twisted torturer. You’ve sank your fangs into many a helpless sheep, but let us see how well you fare against an old wolf.

 

Words were never his strong suit; On the day they first met, Du Yi had quipped that in a battle of wits, Nian Zu was the equivalent of a blind and unarmed cripple, and he wasn’t far off from the mark. Instead of sharpening his wits however, Nian Zu simply avoided such battles altogether, so rather than engaging the Sanguinary Priest in a verbal spar, he launched an all out assault. A single stomp sent him soaring towards his foe with mace raised to deal a killing blow, utterly disrespecting Goujian’s high-ground advantage, but Nian Zu was one of the most formidable duellists of his time while his opponent was merely a Defiled torturer. Victory would be as easy as turning a hand, and the soldiers of Sinuji would cheer for the death of the universally reviled Confessor.

 

Or so he thought, right up until his foe blocked his attack with his bare forearm and latched onto Nian Zu’s wrist, all while holding him away from the parapets so his feet dangled helplessly over the courtyard. Granted, he’d expected his opponent to dodge or flee and hadn’t put his full strength into the attack, but even then, he shouldn’t have been caught so easily. He hadn’t even seen the Confessor move, and a quick look showed that the man’s feet had remained rooted in place, but his hands darted out faster than any human eye could follow.

 

How was this possible? Did the Father Himself break the rules once more to bestow this Demonic Strength unto Goujian?

 

Old wolf are you?” The Confessor asked, his glee and contempt obvious to behold as he held Nian Zu in place with an unbreakable grip. Though repeatedly hammering his boot into his foe’s gut, Goujian’s speech remained unaffected as he continued, “But even the most formidable wolf is nothing before the brilliance of man, and I represent the future of mankind.” His part said, Goujian tossed Nian Zu unceremoniously back into the courtyard. Staggering back for the second time, he raised his guard to defend against the follow up, but found his foe still standing on the wall above, sword held at the ready with a contemptuous sneer upon his face. “Come, show me your strength, Hero of the North,” Goujian demanded. “I’ll even afford you ten moves without fear of retaliation, and if you can force your way onto the wall, then this Confessor will gift you his head.

 

Scowling at his adversary’s blatant manipulations, Nian Zu took a breath to clear his mind before weighing his options. Time was what they needed most, and this duel against Goujian would afford them plenty, but in their single, brief exchange, the Confessor had revealed vast depths of hidden strength. His physique alone was terrifying enough, for Nian Zu had kicked him with enough force to kill a bull yet he barely even flinched, though he seemed to be breathing a little heavily and sweating more than he should be on this cool winter’s night. Were they to fight on even ground, Nian Zu was confident he would emerge victorious, but as history had just proven, Goujian’s position was unassailable from the ground. One mistake and Nian Zu’s head would roll, sealing Sinuji’s ultimate fate along with it.

 

Hmph. If Du Yi were here, he’d curse Nian Zu for the a faint-hearted, cowardly maiden he was. This was the perfect opportunity to buy time, and instead of rising to the occasion, he was busy trembling like a fresh-faced soldier in his first battle. Stepping forward to accept Goujian’s challenge, Nian Zu laughed and said, “The Mad Dog can hardly be trusted to keep his word, but this is of little consequence. If I, Nian Zu, want your head, then I shall take it myself.

 

So what if his foe had a staggeringly powerful physique and held the high ground? So what if the terms of this duel were not to his advantage and forced him to risk his life assaulting the Defiled position alone and unattended? He was Nian Zu, his name known around the Empire as the greatest warrior in the North, and today, he would prove he deserved his hard won reputation with blood and steel.

 

After all, he could hardly allow himself to be upstaged by a mere brat of twenty. It was time for Falling Rain to take a step back and let others earn glory in his stead.

 

Chapter Meme

 

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Savage Divinity – Chapter 532

 

While all hell breaks loose around me, I sit in shocked silence and stare at my hands in confusion, wondering how in the hell am I still alive.

 

Covered in various nicks, cuts and punctures from daily life, my scabby, bony fingers are so weak they can barely bruise an apple, yet I somehow stopped a high speed Water Lance hurtling towards me with my bare hands. The attack hit and water sprayed, but the impact was lighter than a breeze, so imperceptible I thought I was standing behind an invisible barrier which blocked the attack for me. The barrier wasn’t temporary either, because while Zabu got drenched in Water Chi which quickly evaporated away into Heavenly Energy, I remained entirely untouched by the resulting splatter.

 

 

 

 

But how?

 

Was it a hidden Peak Expert? One of Nian Zu’s men, or the Colonel General himself? If so, why wait until the last microsecond to save me? Or why not kill Pudge before the Defiled gain an unassailable foothold on the wall? Maybe my hidden guardian is a Concealed Divinity, but if that’s the case, then why would Ghurda be so worried about my safety? Even now, whilst locked in mortal combat with Pudge, she’s Sending orders at me to retreat from the outer wall, so either she doesn’t know I have a guardian, she knows my guardian was injured by the Water Lance, or I don’t have a guardian and she thinks I blocked the Water Lance myself.

 

…Do I have a Domain? I don’t think I have one. I mean… I don’t see it. I don’t feel it. Today is just like yesterday, no better, no worse.

 

“Move!” Dastan bellows, and my mind snaps back to the present as Zabu leaps into action. Arms wrapped around my waist, Song sits behind me and guides the quin to safety while Dastan and Sahb face off against a second Demon, a bestial creature of tusk and horn which looks like a cross between a walrus and a hippo. Yet another Demon emerges in front of me, a gangly, bark-skinned humanoid with arms shaped like saw-tooth sabers, the deadly, serrated weapons already in mid-swing and aimed towards my waist. With a sharp turn, Zabu leaps off the outer wall to avoid the sweeping attack which would’ve bisected man, woman, and quin alike, and after soaring across the eight-meter chasm with ease, my grouchy quin lands on the middle wall with hackles raised, talons ready, and teeth bared at the Imperial soldiers ringed around him, intelligent enough to recognize them as allies yet savvy enough to sense their less-than-friendly intentions.

 

Standing shoulder to shoulder, these so-called allies bar our path instead of making room for me to retreat, with the sturdy planks meant to be used as bridges to cross the walls laying unused at the back and leaving my people trapped like rats in a bag. “Falling Rain,” a familiar face begins, though it takes a second to place him. It’s Watanabe’s mouthpiece, and seeing as how he’s standing behind the group of borderline-hostile Imperials and not fighting on the outer wall, I guess he called my earlier bluff. “Commander Watanabe’s orders are to hold position until otherwise instructed,” the mouthpiece says, his lip curled in unrestrained disgust. “Return to your post with your followers or you will be charged with dereliction of duty and cowardice in battle.”

 

“You’re one to talk. Shouldn’t you be there too?” Voice calm and steady despite all the stress and confusion, I narrow my eyes and add, “You saw it yourself. I’m only here because circumstances forced me, but now that I’m here, I’ve a few questions to ask. Why have the bridges not been deployed? There are three Demons already on the outer wall and we cannot hold it for long. Battlefield procedure dictates the wounded and rank and file are to retreat first so as to not get in the way of the Experts.”

 

“It is not your place to decide when to fight and when to retreat, private,” Watanabe’s mouthpiece replies, drawing his weapon for effect. “Return to your post now, or die where you stand.”

 

Instead of glaring at the mouthpiece, I turn my gaze to the soldiers blocking our retreat. Some put on a brave face while others scowl and glower at my presumed cowardice, but most avoid my gaze to stare down at their boots or up at the sky, anywhere besides looking at me or the poor souls standing across from them who’ve been left trapped in place while other soldiers from other retinues are already in full retreat. It’s clear to everyone involved this is a ploy to get me and my people killed, but there’s little a sympathetic soldier can do besides obey orders, and without Nian Zu around to countermand Watanabe’s instructions, I’ve no choice but to do the same. I guess I’ve been played. I was told my people would be posted on the walls too, but thus far, there has yet to be a single arrow or bolt loosed which didn’t come from a Bannerman. At least my portable catapults are being put to good use, launching heavy stones over the walls into the Defiled masses, but it’s nowhere near enough to make a difference.

 

Without another word, I turn Zabu around and hop down into the empty corridor between the walls, because even the most athletic quin can’t jump across several meters with two riders and no running start. Immediately wishing I’d looked first, I let Zabu take the lead as he dodges away from an errant swipe of Walrus-Hippo’s tusks, the girthy Demon having been forced off the wall and kept in check by three Bannermen led by Tenjin. Scrambling back up the outer wall, Zabu pushes past Masahige’s soldiers only to be greeted by Pudge’s hulking form standing not two meters away while Ghurda and Mengu desperately fight to hold him back. To the left stands Kuang Biao exchanging blows with Barky Sabre-Arms in a symphony of steel and skill, their blades singing as they cut through the air faster than my eyes can follow. On the right, Tursinai and her Mentor square off against a Demon each, whirling chain and nine-section staff doing wonders to tie the formidable creatures down while Kharnate and Khagati provide support with axe and spear. Most courageous of all, Dastan and his people stand with Runic Shields raised and ready, guarding not only me, but everyone still stuck behind them, though their valiant efforts are not very effective.

 

“Stand firm, Warriors of Sinuji,” I yell, even as a thick Water Tendril pulps one of my people beside us. Tarsov, I think it was, the poor bastard. No amount of stitches or bandages will save him this time around, but he isn’t the first to die and he won’t be the last, so it’s best to mourn later. “Stand firm!”

 

The soldiers rally around me, but only because they have no other choice. Even as the words leave my lips, a second Tendril lashes out towards me and I flinch as it lands, but the attack dissipates into a spray of Water Chi upon contact and leaves my heart pounding in fright. Here I sit dry, unharmed, and butt-hole clenched for the second time today, while Zabu and Song are both thoroughly soaked, leaving me utterly perplexed as to what’s going on. Why does this keep happening? How is it even possible? I’m not doing anything, at least not consciously, but I’d like to. Domain is all about Emotion and Intent, right? Well I’ve got a belly full of fear, anger, and frustration which covers Emotion, and a pressing need to get rid of all these Demons which should do for Intent.

 

Steeling my nerves as I reach for Balance, the expected surge of pain courses throughout every inch of my body, but I stifle my screams and continue onwards with my desperate search for power. Feeding my rage and hatred to the shattered void, I search for that familiar feeling of warmth and tranquility, but despite all my efforts, emptiness is all that greets me. There must be something left, some latent scraps of Heavenly Energy with which I can still use to defend myself with, so I continue my fruitless endeavours without care for the consequences. We’re in this mess because of me, so I need to do something to fix it before more people die to keep me safe. The Bannermen, Dastan and his retinue, Masahige and his soldiers, all of them deserve a better end than this, left out to die by the allies behind them. Hell, if we go a little further back, you could even say it’s my fault Pudge even exists in the first place. If I had killed that Defiled tribesman outright instead of gawking at him like an idiot, he wouldn’t have surrendered to the Spectres and become this waterlogged monstrosity before me.

 

I got us into this mess, and it would seem I have the ability to get us out. Sounds arrogant, but if I’m capable of wielding Heavenly Energy, then it’s the truth. So many people call it the power of Creation, but it’s always easier to destroy, and today, destruction is my Intent.

 

Cutting through the inferno of constant torment comes the metallic tang of blood, seeping into perception to warn me that my lips are bleeding. Taking a deep breathe to pull my teeth out from pierced lip, the pain melts away into the sea of agony which has become my existence, for such is life, a miserable and wretched affair in which we struggle through trials and tribulations without end. I won’t give up though, because I can’t give up, not while people are fighting desperately to keep me alive, not when I know I could end this all in an instant. The answer must be here, lurking in the darkest recesses of my subconscious, because there’s no other way to explain all these recent revelations. My telescopic eyesight, my accidental Oration, my toughened skin and indomitable defences, what other answer could there be? I’m unintentionally using Heavenly Energy, so now I need to consciously use it to kill every last Demon and Defiled in Sinuji.

 

 

But why stop there? Nothing would change, not in the long run. Sure, a million Defiled, a few dozen Demons, and Not-Gen would all be dead, but I’d still have the Legate and Yang Jixing breathing down my neck, playing their games of politics while good men and women die to keep them safe. I’d still be subject to the orders of a cretin like Watanabe, a worthless, cowardly idiot doing everything in his power to get me killed. Hell, I might even be blamed for not taking action sooner and accused of faking my injuries or hiding my recovery so I can avoid contributing to the war effort. No doubt most of Sinuji already thinks as much after my Orated speech before the battle began, believing me to be an idle shirker who faked being a cripple for all the non-existent sympathy.

 

I should just kill them all, every last person unrelated to me, leave no witnesses, Imperial or Defiled alike. Better yet, I should just leave, bring everyone I care about away from Sinuji and let Watanabe deal with the rest. Who could stop me? Why should I care if these ingrates die? Hell, why should I care about the war effort at all? The Imperial Clan certainly doesn’t, hiding away in the Eastern Province to play their piddling games of politics. I could be home today, and all my family with me if I so desired it, all with a wave of my hand. Divinity, true Divinity, is within my grasp, for once I master the use of Heavenly Energy, I would be a god among mortals. Even Ancestral Beasts would no longer be a threat anymore, because they’re nothing more than pretenders to the title, false Divinities who once touched upon the Energy of the Heavens, and never succeeded again. The so-called human Divinities are even less of a concern, charlatans who have never known Divinity but believe themselves worthy of the title out of foolish pride and wilful ignorance.

 

They can’t stop me. No one can. I only need to reach out and claim power for my own, mould the Energy of the Heavens into a weapon to use against my enemies, and then I will be master of my own fate once more, free to wreak havoc on those who have wronged me and –

 

With a meaty backhand, Pudge smashes Ghurda out of the way and charges ahead, his fat, waterlogged fingers growing larger in my sight until the impact takes my breath away. Ribs crack as the air is driven out of my lungs, and the night’s sky rushes away as I plummet to the ground, then the pain mercifully gives way to oblivion.

 

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

 

Having already failed to save his friend and master twice today, Dastan was adamant not to let it happen a third time.

 

When the Water-Blessed Demon launched its attack, Dastan’s axe was already raised to respond. Beseeching the Mother to guide his hand, Dastan Reinforced his body to it’s utmost limits and moved faster than he ever believed possible thanks to sheer desperation, because whatever Elemental Barrier Rain had in place defending him, there was no guarantee it could stop a full strength-punch from the massive, powerful Pudge. One with the Self and One with the World, his Domain materialized into existence to coat his body and weapon, marking out the borders within which his will held true. With this authority bestowed upon him by the Heaven’s themselves, Dastan meant to take Pudge’s arm off at the elbow before the attack claimed Falling Rain’s life, for he willed it, and the Heavens would make it so. Chi gathered upon his axe-blade and Honed it to perfection as it descended from on high, the edge carving through air and atmosphere with a resounding clap before even reaching the Demon’s broad, muscled arm. Sodden skin and spongy flesh gave way to steel and Domain as Dastan put his supposed Talent to good use, expending a fifth of his Chi reserves in a single attack to Cut clean through the Demon’s thick, meaty arm.

 

Finally. He succeeded. Falling Rain was safe and unharmed thanks to Dastan’s efforts. Having practised this a thousand times within his Natal Palace, his training took over as he Deflected the Ichor towards the ground where the caustic fluid sizzled and steamed, eating away at the rammed-earth structure to leave blackened scars and bubbling froth aplenty, though the distinct lack of Demonic screeching left him a little disheartened. Beaming in pride from his remarkable accomplishment, he made sure Ghurda and her portly comrade had the one-armed Pudge under control before turning to check on Rain, only for his smile to melt away as he came face to face with an empty area where quin, man, and woman once sat.

 

Following the gawking soldiers, Dastan rushed to the edge of the wall and peered over to find Rain and Li Song laid out flat in the dirt, with Pudge’s hefty, severed arm strewn over top them and an angry Zabu getting back to his feet whilst chittering up an angry storm. Cursing himself for a fool, Dastan leaped down and Sahb followed shortly behind with the last six members of their doomed retinue. The rest were all dead, with too many slain in this battle alone, because while his people were all seasoned veterans, even Experts like Dastan were but lambs waiting for slaughter in a battle between Demons and Peak Experts.

 

They were in a better place now, resting in the warm embrace of the Mother, and if things worked out as he expected, he would soon be reunited with them again, if only to say farewell before re-entering the cycle of reincarnation.

 

Leaving Sahb and the others to watch his back, Dastan grabbed the meaty Demon arm in both hands and lifted with all his might, but to his surprise, the sizable limb weighed almost nothing despite being as thick as his waist. Flailing beneath the unexpectedly light burden, he panicked and darted away to keep from pouring Ichor all over Rain, Li Song, or the fearsome, scarred Zabu. Especially the quin, because at least the other two were unconscious and would later understand; the quin was liable to tear him apart, and seeing how much Rain loved the beast, Dastan would probably have to let it.

 

Then again, having seen the sweeter, kinder quin Mafu chew through solid steel armour like paper, Dastan wasn’t sure if his resistance would make any difference against an enraged, battle-trained Zabu.

 

Staggering backwards with haste to avoid the worst case scenario, Dastan came to crashing halt as his back slammed against the wall. The impact drove the air from his lungs, but to make matters worse, he also squeezed the severed limb in reflex and it burst apart against his chest, showering him in a spray of rancid vitriol and soggy, gooey bits of Demonic flesh. Gagging from the fetid stench, he panicked and flung what remained of the limb to the ground, yet another mistake as he watched the mushy remains splash against the dirt, a thick, grey-white goo which glistened in the torchlight like a half-eaten meal left to rot away in the rain.

 

The next thing he knew, Camsul, Saida, and Sahb were buffeting him from all sides, slapping and scraping in a frenzied effort to clear away the caustic Ichor, using their bare hands no less, not even slowing to protect themselves with gloves, sleeves, or handkerchiefs. These were his comrades, friends and warriors he was proud to fight and die beside, so he accepted their rough ministrations with a hint of pride.

 

“Hang on.” No one paid any heed to Balta’s appeal, for Ichor worked too quickly to allow hesitation, but the gentle giant took Saida by the arm and forcibly pried her away before gently pushing Sahb back. “There’s no Ichor,” Balta said, wisely leaving the jumpy Camsul untouched while he pointed out what everyone else missed. “There’s… goop aplenty, but no Ichor. He ain’t burned.”

 

Looking at his hands and torso, Dastan discovered the big man was right. Though covered almost head to toe in rotted, Demonic remains, there was no pain nor any of the greenish-yellow caustic Ichor to be found, either on him or inside the severed limb itself. How was this possible? He distinctly remembered the shower of Ichor which came spraying out after he Severed the arm, and he even had to Deflect most of it away, so how was there none left now?

 

“Figure it out later.” Startled by the unfamiliar Sending, Dastan leapt to the alert and his people followed suit, moving to surround Rain and Li Song with weapons at the ready. “Quit gawking around and get a move on,” the Concealed Expert Sent, his voice gruff and impatient. “Bring the foundling back up where we can keep an eye on him. The Banner won’t hold for much longer without support and I will not leave them to die.”

 

Whoever this Concealed Expert was, Dastan didn’t like him much, a man who already failed to protect Rain thrice now and still had the gall to criticize others. Grumbling beneath his breath, he tasked Saida to carry Li Song and carried Rain himself, lifting his too-thin friend into his arms and grunting beneath the weight. Why was he so heavy? Rain almost weighed as much as a regular, healthy soldier despite being half the size, if that, though it was still no real burden for a trained Martial Warrior, so much like the mystery of the severed arm and missing Ichor, this puzzle would have to wait. Using Zabu as a step-stool earned Dastan the cantankerous beast’s ire as it chittered and squeaked in fury, while Saida wisely asked Balta and Sahb for help instead, using their raised Runic Shields as a platform to get back onto the wall. Camsul and the others were right behind them, and just in time too, for the bestial Demon soon returned in full force to thunder down the empty corridor, bucking, kicking, and smashing into the walls in a desperate effort to dislodge Fire-Bird Tenjin from its back.

 

Ignoring the intense battle going on below and beside him, Dastan gave Rain a quick once over to check for injuries, but there were none to be found, no bruise, fracture, or even a speck of blood. Though delighted by this good fortune, further scrutiny left Dastan feeling uneasy, because Li Song had obviously sustained a concussion from her tumble off the wall despite being in perfectly good health. Even if she’d shielded Rain during the fall, there was still the matter of Pudge’s arms striking them both head on. While it weighed almost nothing when Dastan went to lift it, it couldn’t have been that light to begin with else it wouldn’t have knocked Zabu off of the wall. Quins were many things, but easily moved was not one of them, which meant the severed arm had to have significant force behind it to move such a sturdy and ferocious beast.

 

So why didn’t the impact or the fall break any of Rain’s bones? And if he was uninjured, why was he unconscious?

 

This is Colonel General Nian Zu of the North, taking temporary command over Sinuji and ordering all soldiers on the outer wall to fall back. I repeat…

 

Letting loose with a sigh of relief, Dastan thanked the Heavens for small favours as the Living Legend finally took control. For a moment, he worried the soldiers behind them would refuse to obey, but even as Watanabe’s mouthpiece glared and glowered in silence, other loyal soldiers on the middle wall were already moving the planks into place, eager to do away with these corrupt games of politics and save their beleaguered allies. Cradling the unconscious Rain, Dastan Lightened himself as much as he could before sprinting across the plank, offering a grim smile and nod of thanks to the good soldiers who aided them. To his surprise, many nodded back and a some even saluted towards him, undoubtedly a show of respect and admiration for the warrior carried in Dastan’s arms, because whether you liked him or not, no one could deny that Falling Rain was a man worthy of both.

 

Eager to get Rain back to a Healer, Dastan sprinted ahead with Zabu at his side, but as he set foot on the inner wall, a tumultuous commotion caused him to stop and turn around. There Dastan stood, only meters away from the courtyard and safety, frozen in horror as the outer wall crumbled apart. Hundreds of soldiers, perhaps even thousands fell with the outer wall, their dread and terror clear to anyone with eyes as the rammed earth battlements collapsed beneath their boots, and Dastan could do naught but watch.

 

And then, with yet another earth shaking rumble, the middle wall began to collapse too, and Dastan could watch no longer.

 

Panic flooded through his veins as he fled away into the courtyard, sprinting as quickly as he could without conserving Chi at all, for behind the crumbling walls of Sinuji, he’d seen the Defiled cavalry off in the distance, moving towards the fort to deal its defenders a crippling death blow. Sinuji was doomed, this much was clear now, the remaining walls nothing more than a cage for the soldiers still inside, but Dastan could not die just yet.

 

Not before getting Rain away to safety, for the Mother’s Chosen Son must live to fight another day.

 

Chapter Meme

 

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Savage Divinity – Chapter 531

 

Though delighted by his newfangled success, Goujian was never one to let triumph and accomplishment cloud his judgment, because if life was trials and tribulations without end, then success was merely the bare minimum required to survive.

 

Such were Goujian’s thoughts as he watched the battle unfold on the walls of fort Sinuji, immersed within the moment so as to wholly experience his emotions in accordance with his new Path. A prospect more difficult than he first expected, because after decades of lies and misguided efforts, his mental defences set to guard against emotion were too ingrained to easily let down, much less dismantle entirely. Each time he sought to walk the razor’s edge, to surrender to his passions while holding on to a single thread of reason, he found himself resisting the influx of emotion and instinctively clinging to Imperial Lies of Balance instead. What’s more, the stifling heat wasn’t helping much either, his borrowed robes already drenched in sweat despite the late hour and sleeping sun. If a winter’s night could reach such sweltering temperatures, he hoped to never experience a hot summer day, but alas all he could do for now was fan his robes and suffer.

 

Putting the heat out of mind, Goujian took a deep breath and reflected on his next steps. Although he’d found True Balance once, he’d done so on the brink of death, meaning his triumph was the result of dire circumstances, fortuitous happenstance, and Heavenly intervention as opposed any true effort of his own. As such, it would take time and effort to replicate his achievements, for the razor’s edge was a most arduous Path to tread, but Goujian had time and effort to spare.

 

Unlike Falling Rain, whose death had already been set in motion.

 

How fitting for the runt to meet his end at the hands of a Water-Blessed Transcendent, and Goujian’s smile widened as he committed every detail and emotion to memory for posterity’s sake. The liquid lance hurtled towards Falling Rain’s heart and his thin, frail hands raised to stop it, but the boy knew it was a futile gesture. His expression said it all, a flash of panic followed almost immediately by grim acceptance, and though this was one of Goujian’s most hated enemies, he felt a faint tinge of respect for how staunch and steadfast Falling Rain remained when faced with inevitable death. Beside him, the too-talented Dastan Zhandos was already moving to intercept, but the callow youth had let his guard down in the midst of battle and would be several seconds too late to help, while the half-cat girl in Runic Armour had yet to even notice the boy’s plight. Then there were the many Experts around them, each one too far and too slow to react to the Water-Blessed Transcendent’s unexpected assault on Falling Rain, because they’d all been too busy preparing to defend themselves instead. A plan carried out to perfection in order to execute the Empire’s false Hero, removing a most aggravating pawn from the board and dealing a crippling blow to Imperial morale.

 

So brilliant, this young Emperor, though in truth, Goujian wondered if it was even worth it. Why go to so much effort to kill a cripple?

 

The lance struck.

 

Mist splattered.

 

Soldiers bellowed.

 

And Falling Rain…

 

Emerged unscathed, with a look of bewildered confusion etched across his hateful, bony face.

 

For the span of a single heartbeat, it seemed as if the entire battlefield had frozen in place, with Imperial and Defiled, Expert and Transcendent, ally and enemy alike stopping to gawk at Falling Rain. Then, Dastan Zhandos fell to the ground, an eternity too late with his noble but futile attempt to intercept the attack, and the battle resumed, leaving Goujian with only questions and confusion.

 

This shouldn’t have been possible. The globes of Water launched by the formidable Awakened Transcendent were powerful enough to kill Peak Experts if struck head-on, and the lance was a seemingly more powerful version of such, yet Falling Rain remained unharmed after a direct collision. No, more than unharmed, but utterly untouched, still sitting atop his giant weasel with nary a hair out of place. The boy’s clothes weren’t even wet, though the mount beneath him was thoroughly soaked, shaking its fur dry as animals were wont to do and sending a spray of droplets into the air. Being formed of Chi, those droplets dissipated back into Heavenly Energy before ever reaching the ground, but the Water Lance failed to even touch Falling Rain’s skin before vanishing into nothingness, along with the force of the attack.

 

How? Was there another Divinity there, Concealed in the shadows and protecting him in secret?

 

“You see?” Teeth bared in fury, the young Emperor grabbed Goujian by his soggy, borrowed robes and pointed at Falling Rain from across the battlefield, the young whelp clearly mouthing some profanity or the other while glancing around in convincing befuddlement. “You see how he pretends, feigning surprise and confusion? Hateful trickster, even his most trusted subordinates have been fooled, but this Sovereign has long since seen through his lies and deceptions.”

 

“My liege is perceptive beyond compare,” Goujian replied, meaning every word as the pieces fell into place. No wonder the young Emperor had seemed so wary during his meeting with Falling Rain, even flinching away from the supposed cripple and his two Peak Expert Guards, because the Bekhai runt was playing the pig to eat the tiger. Unfortunately for him, the Divine Son of Heaven was no mere tiger, but a dragon amongst men, one not so easily outwitted. Except… “Begging your forgiveness my liege, but this one is ignorant and still does not wholly understand. Even if he is not crippled, how did he block the Transcendent’s attack?”

 

Snarling in bestial fury, the young Emperor loosed his grip on Goujian’s robes and shoved him away. “Fool. Did you forget? The stupid beast explained the concept not even an hour ago. Falling Rain is also Blessed by Water, so he only need summon Water Chi of his own to nullify the Elemental portion of the attack.” Glaring daggers at the Bekhai runt, the young Emperor’s voice quieted and Goujian had to strain to hear. Better hearing joined his list of needed physical improvements, alongside better eyesight so he’d no longer need to Scry at events in his direct line of sight, like the battle raging in front of him. “But then what of the remaining kinetic force?” the young Emperor muttered, his confusion as clear as the scowl on his face. “His lacking vigour and physical frailty cannot be feigned, so even if ninety percent is Deflected, the remaining momentum should have killed him outright or at least thrown him from the saddle. The Devourer carries too many secrets, brings too many surprises, breaks laws this Sovereign once believed inviolable, and for this, he must die.”

 

To this day, Goujian still wasn’t sure why the Uniter had dubbed Falling Rain so, but if ever there were a time to ask, it would be now. While the Water-Blessed Transcendent fought off multiple Peak Experts on Sinuji’s outer wall, Goujian wiped his forehead and voiced his question, and to his great surprise, actually received an answer instead of cryptic mutterings or half-hearted pleas of ignorance. “This one,” the young Emperor began, using an uncharacteristically humble term to refer to himself, “Is the Emissary, for his Talent is to bring the Truth to all. This one speaks, and others listen, or rather others are more open to hearing the secrets of Heaven, and are thus elevated beyond their meagre stations. How, this Sovereign does not wholly understand as of yet, and in truth, we might never deduce the true answer, for the infinite mysteries of Heaven are largely inexplicable, but the how is unimportant so long as it remains effective.”

 

There was something odd about how the young Emperor kept switching personal pronouns for himself, but Goujian couldn’t quite put his finger on why it bothered him so. Before he could ask, the young Emperor continued, “As for your question, Falling Rain is the Devourer, for his Talent is to consume and gather, to plunder and hoard. This one is antithetical to the Devourer in more ways than one, for the former offers power to the many, while the latter accumulates power for himself, their Talents analogous to the ideologies of the factions they represent. Poetic, in a way, aggravating in many others, for it is only by the slimmest of margins that the Devourer stands with Imperial Clan instead of at this Sovereign’s side. A shame our alliance never came to pass, but such is fate.”

 

Goujian could hardly believe his ears, for he would never have imagined the young Emperor would be so magnanimous as to admit he wanted to fight alongside Falling Rain instead of against him, but if anyone was deserving of such praise, it was this Bekhai runt. “If my liege so desires it,” Goujian cautiously offered with a bow, “Then this servant will endeavour to make it so.”

 

How, he hadn’t the faintest clue, but should the Emperor demand it, then Goujian could only try.

 

“No,” came the immediate answer, delivered with more vehemence than the young Emperor intended. “You lack the ability to capture him, and this Sovereign will not risk so promising a subject.”

 

Though vexed by the brusque and dismissive evaluation, Goujian had to admit it was an accurate one. Even though his personal strength had increased by leaps and bounds, his chances of killing Falling Rain were slim to none, much less capturing the runt and escaping alive. Three Imperial Divinities had travelled to Sinuji alongside him, and there were no less than eighteen Peak Experts currently fighting on the walls to protect him. What’s more, there were at least twelve more Concealed Experts lurking about his position, all of whom had inadvertently revealed themselves in their failed gambits to protect Falling Rain from the Transcendent’s Water Lance. Worst of all, considering how fourteen of the seventeen Bekhai Experts currently fighting on the wall had gone completely unnoticed until after they voluntarily stepped out of Concealment, there could easily be more Peak Experts lurking unseen in the shadows.

 

And all this only amounted to the forces Falling Rain and the Bekhai had brought to Sinuji. There was still the Living Legend Nian Zu himself to contend with, along with his honour guard of fifty Peak Experts, and given its central location on the front lines, it was hard to believe there was no Imperial Divinity stationed in Sinuji, if only for the sake of face. Few knew the truth, that Falling Rain was an Imperial Puppet dancing to the Legate’s strings, so the Imperial Clan would lose prestige if they allowed a ‘savage tribesman’ to bring three Divinities to the battlefield while dispatching none of their own, a crucial detail Goujian had brought up earlier but the young Emperor had merely waved aside, seeming unconcerned by the very real possibility that their Divinities would be outnumbered.

 

Yes, Goujian himself was far from enough to kill, much less capture Falling Rain, and it was nothing short of outright arrogance to assume otherwise. Worthless, utterly worthless, what good was this new form if he still stood beneath so many. More power was needed, the power to topple mountains and overturn seas, to call the wind and summon the rain, it could all be his if only he would –

 

“Careful, Confessor,” the young Emperor said, using the title for the first time ever and startling Goujian out of contemplation. “Keep to the razor’s edge, now more than ever. You will be of no use to this Sovereign should you falter and fall.” In the young Emperor’s brown eyes, Goujian found genuine concern and consideration, where before there would have been dismissive indifference or perhaps even mocking amusement, but why the sudden change? In answer to the unasked question, the young Emperor smiled and said, “You have embraced the Truth and now follow in this Sovereign’s path, and as such, you count as half a Disciple.”

 

“Disciple? Of yours?” It wasn’t that Goujian looked down on the young Emperor, for any close connection to the future Emperor would only be a boon, but given their vast age difference, Goujian would have no face left if he became Disciple to a Mentor six decades his junior.

 

“…Disciple of this Sovereign’s Mentor,” the young Emperor corrected, shaking his head in self-recrimination. “So a… Martial Brother,” he continued, cleverly omitting the ‘junior’ from Goujian’s new designation. “Thus, this Sovereign will endeavour to guide you along as best he can until Mentor himself is available to offer pointers.” Gesturing at Rain in the distance, the young Emperor explained, “We walk the razor’s edge, but the Devourer now walks a new Path in defiance of Heaven, with one foot firmly on each side, a feat this Sovereign once believed impossible. Possessing immeasurable potential, he is too dangerous to be left alive, too dangerous to be given time to grow. Even his mere presence elevates the strength of those around him through competition and example. The Slave, the Scribe, the Rival, the Hangman, these and many others are but the first of his inner circle, with too many more still to grow. We must eliminate the Devourer now, before his power grows and allies flourish, now whilst he is still vulnerable and unprotected, but should we fail here today, then your strength will be sorely needed in the months to come.” Eyeing Goujian up and down, the young Emperor shook his head and added, “As things stand, you are of limited use, a man still too constrained by the lies of his past. Time and effort will remedy this, time and effort this Sovereign is willing to spare, so long as you are willing to listen.”

 

Swallowing his indignation, Goujian closed his eyes and took a deep breath before he felt calm enough to continue. “In what ways is this one lacking, my liege?”

 

Despite his efforts to strive for calm, his tone came out barbed and caustic, but the young Emperor merely chuckled in response. “You possess an inquiring mind, Confessor, but not an analytical one, for had you pondered the question a moment longer, then you might have discovered the answer yourself.” Jabbing Goujian’s sweat-slick chest with a pointed finger, the young Emperor’s razor-tipped finger bounced off Goujian’s toughened skin. “Too much restraint, too much control, still you cling to Imperial lies of Balance. How many times must this Sovereign repeat himself? The razor’s edge must be tread ever so carefully.” Gesturing at Goujian’s new body with a wave of his hand, the young Emperor explained, “You have embraced the Truth and as such were baptized by the Energy of the Heavens, but your transformation is flawed at best.” Holding up a metallic hand to forestall Goujian’s argument, the young Emperor shook his head and sighed. “Do not deny it, lest you come to believe it. If you will not accept this Sovereign’s words for truth, then stride forth and do battle to experience it for yourself, but do not overreach. It takes time and practice to acclimate to a new form, even one which so closely resembles your previous self.” Gesturing at the two closest Transcendents as they moved to flank Goujian, the young Emperor added, “These two will protect you while you study and adapt, but keep to the northern flank and away from Falling Rain in particular. Now go discover your flaws and limits then contemplate the solution yourself, for the value of an answer uncovered vastly outweighs that of an answer given.”

 

While skeptical of the young Emperor’s allegations, Goujian held his tongue and set out for the battlefield at a sedate pace, hands clasped behind his back as if out for a casual stroll. Though eager to see what his reformed physique was capable of, he was still cognizant of how a man of his stature should conduct himself, and while eager blood-lust and berserk rage had their place, he preferred the subtle threat of a man wholly indifferent to the chaos and carnage around him, hinting that he spent every day of his life steeped in such atrocities. Using Scrying to look upon himself, he allowed himself a smile while admiring his noble features and youthful demeanour, but a handsome and dashing countenance was the least of his new advantages. Jade skin, iron muscles, and steely bones afforded him unparalleled natural defences, and when paired with his Domain, he could ignore all but the most powerful of attacks directed against him and emerge unscathed. Then there was the raw strength surging through him, for if one were to measure by physical capability alone, then he might well be the strongest man to ever live in all of human history.

 

Flawed at best? Hmph. While Goujian had overlooked a handful of minor details like his sense of hearing and sight, he had forged his body into a superior fleshly vessel, one second only to the Spiritual Hearts of beasts, so he would let his actions speak for him and prove the young Emperor wrong.

 

By the time he reached the outer wall with his Concealed Transcendents in tow, he yearned to do away with his sweat-soaked robes and fight naked as the day he was born, but his dignity would not allow it, for even the savage Defiled knew enough to cover themselves. Vexed by the unnatural winter heat, he decided to take out his frustrations on the first Officer to cross his path and vaulted up to take the offending Captain’s head, but while he intended to bound over the parapets with a single leap, his bare feet scarcely left the ground before sinking back into the dirt, in what could only be described as a disgraceful and ungainly hop.

 

The young Emperor’s laughter sounded in his ear, delivered there through Sending from afar. “Such strength,” he cackled, and Goujian could picture the insufferable shit’s hateful smirk. “Such athleticism. How inspiring.”

 

Burning with humiliation while imagining the scorn of savages and peasants alike, Goujian ignored the young Emperor and quickly pinpointed the problem. Though the three-and-a-half meter wall would prove no barrier to his original body, his weight had increased by at least two-fold while his other measurements remained unchanged, so he needed to work twice as hard at Lightening to achieve the same results. A gross oversight on his part, because not only was he unable to Cloud-Step away to safety, his new body was so ponderous he might as well abstain from Lightening altogether considering how negligible the effects were. Few commoners appreciated the true value of Lightening, but without it, Goujian’s stability, agility, mobility, and speed were all severely limited, for no longer could he glide away from an attack or dance over the corpse-strewn battlefield with effortless grace, escape to the trees to continue the fight or pivot back and forth on the spot with impunity.

 

Raw, physical muscle could make up for many of these shortcomings, but decades of ingrained practice and honed instincts were not so easily changed. Still, this minor flaw would not be fixed overnight, so Goujian swallowed his pride and climbed up like a stinking, primitive monkey, his fingers and toes leaving deep gouges in the rammed-earth wall. Even this simple task was no easy feat, his lungs burning and head light by the time he clambered over the parapets like a lumbering fool. Axe and hammer bounced off his Domain as he paused to catch his breath, but then the Officer’s Spiritual Spear came lancing towards Goujian’s throat and instinct superseded intellect. Twisting his upper body to avoid what was undoubtedly a harmless attack, he felt a minor, almost inconsequential tingle of pain in his ankle and then immediately toppled over to crash into the ground. Shocked and confused by the unexpected turn of events, he shuffled back along the parapets until he noticed his left foot bent at an unnatural angle, the tendons torn and socket dislocated by the sheer force of his weight bearing down on the unfortified joint.

 

Another laugh sounded in Goujian’s ear as the young Emperor made no secret of his contempt. “Behold the might of the reforged Confessor,” he jeered, his Sending laced with amused sarcasm, “Soon to meet his demise at the hands of a nameless, lowborn Captain.”

 

Having recovered from his shock, the Captain drove his spear into Goujian’s exposed belly, and only the young Emperor’s warning saved him. Turned aside by Domain and Deflection, the Captain’s Honed spear bit deep into the floor and plunged down until half its length was buried, a testament to his lacking skills and experience, yet even a warrior as inept as he almost claimed Goujian’s life. Enraged by his poor showing, he shoved the Captain away to buy room to breathe, but in yet another unexpected turn of events, Goujian’s foe went barrelling back into the crowd, his limbs akimbo and eyes clouding over in death after the desperate push caved in his armour and chest.

 

“The body has power aplenty at least, to make up for its many failings.” The young Emperor’s tone held approval aplenty, and perhaps even a hint of admiration, but it paled in comparison to Goujian’s shame. “Of which there are still many more to uncover, so enough lazing about dear Martial Brother, for time works against us once more.”

 

Distracted by the young Emperor’s taunts and Healing his ankle, Goujian failed to heed his surroundings and took a blow to the back of the skull. Though softened by his Domain, the sudden impact rocked his head forward and rattled his brain, leaving him sore and disoriented as he cowered beneath his arms and struggled to his knees beneath a flurry of hacking weapons and hammering blows. Snarling in fury, he lashed out with a sweeping backhand and cleared his immediate surroundings before bringing his hooked-sword to bear, but much like his awkward and ungainly body, his trusted weapon also betrayed him. Having never been the heaviest of weapons, it now felt like a twig in hand and threw off the timing and coordination of his movements, a far more concerning issue than his clumsy and unwieldy new body. The latter he would grow accustomed to given time, but his hooked-sword was utterly incapable of taking advantage of his prodigious strength, a weapon more suited to stealth, cunning, and guile than overwhelming power.

 

Now, he was akin to a bull with fangs or an elephant with claws, a mismatched monstrosity incapable of making use of his greatest strengths, whether it be his lifetime of Martial training and sword skills or newfangled physical might. Why had the Heavens betrayed him? What was the point of all this power if he couldn’t put it to good use? As he was now, any random Expert with a Domain would prove a threat to Goujian and it was only through fate and happenstance that he had yet to face one in this brief and disastrous bout upon the wall.

 

Giving in to his rage and resentment, Goujian threw himself into the fight as best he could in his current condition, his weapon unwieldy and foot attached only by skin and muscle while it flopped and twisted about. Fighting on one knee, he dragged himself across the wall and swung his too-light sword about like a club, expecting to meet his demise or at the very least be pulled away to safety by his Concealed Transcendent guards, but even disadvantaged as he was, no Imperial Warrior proved his match. A swing of sword or fist was enough to dispatch anyone who came within range, for even a glancing blow was capable of crushing armour and shattering bone. As time passed and anger subsided, he grew accustomed to his debilitation and discomfort with the weapon and worked out the best ways to go about utilizing his new advantages while simultaneously cataloguing his many, many disadvantages.

 

Joints, tendons, and ligaments were first on his long list, as he’d neglected to reinforce them while strengthening the rest of his body. A thicker skull and a layer of fat to guard his brain from impacts would be much appreciated, but more pressing was the need to make up for the inability of his organs to keep up with his body’s other improvements. His heart and lungs were both threatening to give out from over-exertion while his kidneys, liver, and other organs instrumental to the flow of blood were working too slowly and keeping him from reaching his true potential. Then there was the matter of temperature regulation, for he’d finally noticed it wasn’t that the Central winters were overly warm, but rather his dense muscles and tough skin had rendered sweating ineffective at dispersing heat, and his internal temperature was reaching dangerously high levels which threatened to shut his entire body down.

 

The young Emperor was right. Goujian’s new body was riddled with flaws, but try as he might, he failed to conceive any workable solutions. While tendons and ligaments would need reinforcement, how far could he go before impacting his mobility and flexibility? Too strong and even the simplest motions would require great effort, while too weak would leave himself incapable of making sudden movements for fear of injuring himself. Then there was the matter of improving the efficiency of his organs, which left him utterly perplexed. The simplest solution was to make duplicates, but how would he find room for them and how would they connect to the existing framework?

 

So deep in thought, he failed to notice he had no foes left to fight, for his section of the outer wall had been overrun by the Defiled thanks to his efforts. With room to breathe and fix his ankle, he knelt in quiet contemplation for long minutes before swallowing his pride and asking the young Emperor for assistance. Thankfully, Goujian’s request was met without ridicule or derision, and the young Emperor launched into a long winded explanation, no doubt gleefully waiting for this chance to educate his ‘Martial Brother’. “The razor’s edge between struggle and surrender must be tread lightly,” the young Emperor began. “Struggle too much, and such are the results. The human body is a finely-tuned device, one crafted by the Heavens themselves, yet you sought to improve upon it with only your shallow knowledge? With age comes arrogance, but such is life.”

 

A minor rebuke in the grand scheme of things, but Goujian still marked it down in memory. The young Emperor had his respect and fealty, but a man could only be pushed so far.

 

“The secret,” the young Emperor continued, heedless of Goujian’s displeasure, “Is no true secret, for this Sovereign has said it time and time again. The razor’s edge, keep to it and all will be well. Like a wild beast, the Energy of the Heavens will buck and kick beneath an unwelcome rider, so you must give yourself over to it, surrender to the torrent and let it take you where it will, while retaining enough control so as to not be thrown off mid-journey. Too much struggle, too much control, and the results are as you’ve experienced, but take heart, for your physique is far from a failure, flawed though it might be. No, had you failed, then you would have died screaming in agony and torment as your muscles, fat, and organs were cannibalized by the rampant, uncontrollable growth of cancerous tumours.”

 

A chill ran down Goujian’s spine as he recognized the truth in the young Emperor’s statement, for this was a fate shared by many an arrogant and aspiring Healer who lost control while practising without supervision. The young Emperor was not done, however, and he continued his lecture with ease and aplomb, a testament to his familiarity with the subject matter in question. “This is but one side of the coin, one danger to guard against, while an example of the other stands close by your side.” Glancing at the black-armoured Transcendent, Goujian suppressed yet another chill and devoted his full attention to the young Emperor’s words. “The Imperials call them Demons, the Defiled call them Transcendents, but this Sovereign can only see them as failures. Those wretched individuals came so close to embracing the Truth, but they lacked the luck and fortitude to wholly succeed. Though their physical bodies transcended mortal limits, total surrender left their minds unprotected against the deluge of Heavenly Energy used to transform them, searing away their sanity and personality to leave them little more than bestial creatures of rage and fury.”

 

Though it seemed like the young Emperor had gone on a minor tangent, it was only now that Goujian understood it was to broaden his horizons and fill the gaps in his knowledge. “Then how are we to walk this fine line between control and surrender?”

 

“If this Sovereign had an answer, then humanity would have long since ascended to greatness.” Bitter anguish coloured the young Emperor’s tone, no doubt inwardly berating himself for only having come so far. Such was his pride and haughty conceit, choosing not to look back at how much he already accomplished in so short a time, but instead looking forward to the future at how much he had yet to achieve. “Regardless, you must keep to the razor’s edge, for such is our Path to Divinity, the means with which we avail ourselves to the Energy of the Heavens. Seek Balance, the True Balance which comes from the union between savage ferocity and cunning intellect, for we humans are rare creatures who embody the best of both worlds.”

 

His ankle long since Healed, Goujian knelt on the outer wall and pondered this abrupt conclusion to their lecture, one which left him with more questions than answers, but still served its purpose well. Walk the razor’s edge, find True Balance, and all his issues would be solved, it sounded so simple yet remained infinitely complex. This final step was more difficult than all others before it, even if multiplied by ten-thousand times since one could not control when one experienced True Balance, for control in and of itself was antithetical to walking the razor’s edge. The fine line between struggle and surrender, a difficult Path to tread which came with a steep price for failure, but such is life.

 

“An opportunity presents itself and all available pieces moving into play, but this Sovereign lacks a distraction on the battlefield and has no choice but to call upon you, Confessor. Heed your instructions, play your part well, and the Devourer will trouble us no more.”

 

Bowing his head even though he wasn’t sure if the young Emperor would see him, Goujian offered a salute and Sent, “Speak, and this servant will obey.”

 

And in his heart of hearts, Goujian meant it, or at least until such a time when there was nothing left to learn from the young Emperor and the Uniter behind him and a restructuring of hierarchy grew inevitable. As informative as the lecture was, the most important detail to be gleaned from all this was Falling Rain’s new Path, one ‘in defiance of Heaven, with one foot firmly on each side’, though how this was possible, Goujian couldn’t even begin to guess. From the sound of it, this defiant Path was no razor’s edge, and in truth, going against the Heavens was far more enticing than keeping to a thin, almost imperceptible line.

 

If only Falling Rain could be taken alive, his answers might prove most enlightening…

 

Chapter Meme

 

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Savage Divinity – Chapter 530

 

Floof.

 

Thick, warm, wonderful floof, with a rough outer coat of waterproof hair over a bed of short underfuzz. Then, once through the soft, dense fur is a layer of smooth, supple skin, anchored to a springy layer of fat and tough, wiry muscle to really sink your fingers into. It’s been too long since I’ve enjoyed this velvety sensation on my hands and face, and so help me god, I don’t intend to go another day without experiencing it ever again.

 

Oh how I missed scritching and snuggling my floofs, even the unappreciative ones like grumpy Zabu here.

 

Now, most would view this insignificant and negligible recovery as a waste of precious resources, but I see this as an absolute win. I’ve no clue how I did what I did, but I’m glad I did it. For too many months now, Blackjack, Mama Bun, and the bun-bun bunch were my only source of floofy cuddles, but now my personal hell has come to an end. I can’t wait to gather up all my floofs in one big pile, the wildcats, quins, bears, and maybe even a few cattle, and hug them until they’re sick of me.

 

And once they are, I’ll chase them down and hug them some more, because non-consensual floof cuddles are even better. My thirst for floofs knows no bounds, so my floofs shall suffer my attentions until such a time when I am suitably sated.

 

 

After the battle, of course.

 

 

Assuming I’m still alive.

 

 

And all my floofs are still alive.

 

 

And we’re all safe in one spot. Preferably Sinuji.

 

 

Okay Rain. Floof is awesome, but it’s time to get your head into the game. Stop molesting Zabu and focus. You’re better now, kinda sorta, and you could possibly be in position to maybe lend a hand, or at the very least, not get in the way. You either converted ambient Energy of the Heavens into Chi without the use of your Core, or the Chi Tea you drank last week Cleansed a whole bunch of Spectres and turned them into a finite amount of usable Heavenly Energy, which you then used to Orate your experiences to every man woman and child in Sinuji. Ugh, now everyone knows about what happened with Qing Qing. I don’t like this. What if some stranger comes up and wants to talk about it? That would be the worst. Wait, are there actually children in the fort? God, I hope not, because that would actually be worse.

 

Okay, now there are the lives of theoretical children at stake here, as well as my fur-babies and loved ones, like Lin-Lin and I suppose Luo-Luo, not to mention everyone else currently inhabiting Sinuji, as well as the countless citizens depending on us to hold the Defiled tide back. No pressure. So where was I?

 

Right. While I ascribe to the Chi Tea theory, considering I just gave away my last two gourds, there’s nothing I can do about it if this is the case. Instead, I should focus on the minute possibility that Dastan was right and I achieved One with the Self while telling the story of how I met Gen, and shortly after, became One with the World and Developed a Domain sans Chi. I’m not optimistic about my chances, but I should at least give it a try. Worst case scenario, nothing happens and I remain as utterly useless as I am right now, so really, what do I have to lose?

 

Okay, so… how do I do what I did? And how can I do something more productive, like say… I dunno, put on a hundred kilograms of body mass? Then again, if I’m asking for miracles, I might as well swing for the fences. Go big or go home. I’ll take flash floods, erupting geysers, fucking hydrogen bombs even if the Mother is willing, anything that will deal with the many, many survivors of the Defiled Army headed my way.

 

…Healing can probably fix nuclear radiation poisoning, right?

 

Boy.” Cutting my flustered inner-monologue short with a Sending, Ghurda’s tone leaves no room for debate. “Get your people back. Now.”

 

Being the contrary idiot that I am, my first instinct is of course to argue once again that Dastan and the others deserve to have first crack at the Defiled, but after tearing my eyes away from Zabu’s floofy back, I immediately understand where she’s coming from. In my haze of floof-fuelled introspection, I somehow failed to notice that not only is the Defiled horde charging headlong at Sinuji, but they’re also being spearheaded by not one, not three, but twelve Demons that I can see, meaning there are undoubtedly more lurking Concealed in the shadows.

 

In my defence, the Sound Barrier is still up and my feet aren’t touching the ground to feel the trembling, which means it’s not entirely fair or accurate to blame my distraction on my overzealous love of all things floofy. Only mostly.

 

Urging Zabu to hop ahead, I rein in his enthusiastic charge before he goes running headlong off the wall. Hammered by a wave of sound brought about by hundreds of thousands of stomping boots, I yell as loudly as I can to get Dastan’s attention and pray they can hear me over the commotion. “Soldiers of Falling Rain, stand down and gather on me!” Somehow hearing me despite the clamour, (or more likely because Ghurda reiterates my orders through Sending), Dastan and the Death Corps back away from the parapets and leave a thirty-meter-long section of the wall unguarded.

 

Hang on…

 

This seems worse.

 

…Yea, this is definitely worse.

 

Now the Defiled can just climb onto the wall unimpeded.

 

We just gave up the high ground. Why would anyone ever give up the high ground?

 

Looking back at Ghurda in helpless confusion, she offers a reassuring smile as she swaggers forward in her steel-studded Sentinel leathers, a towering, graceful woman entirely in her own element with massive great-axe in hand. Inspiring though her courage might be, I worry she might be biting off a bit more than she can chew in facing the Defiled horde with only her battle-axe in hand, so I turn to ask Nian Zu for support.

 

Except he’s gone, Concealed and off to do whatever it is commanders do. Hopefully not run, because if so, I would’ve appreciated a heads up.

 

Something in my frantic gaze and frenzied searching must’ve given my panic away, because Ghurda Sends, “Calm yer britches, boy. You forget? I ain’t the only one set on bringin’ you home again.” As she takes her place at the parapet’s edge, she’s joined by several gallant figures stepping out of Concealment, each one standing tall with the poise and confidence of seasoned veterans. Though none even so much as glance in my direction, I know them all well, a total of fifteen warriors who’ve come to my rescue here in Sinuji. Seeing them together again brings tears to my eyes, tears of joy, tears of gratitude, and tears of relief, for with such dependable warriors standing before me, I know there’s no need to worry any longer.

 

There’s fierce, scarred Khagati, grey in beard but still sharp of eye, the first and second volleys from his double recurve greatbow already arcing towards the Defiled horde. I once saw him hit five separate targets dead centre with one draw of his bow, and years later his skills are still in top form. Each volley consists of five arrows and each arrow lands exactly where Khagati aims it, loosed so quickly he claims the first ten kills of the battle aside from the half-a-million or so we burned. Such is the prowess of the man unanimously accepted as the greatest archer in the Saint’s Tribulations Mountains, and quite possibly in the entire Azure Empire, here with an entire cart full of arrows he intends to deliver unto Defiled flesh. A gruff and silent warrior, we never spoke much in the short time we travelled together, but from start to finish, he made sure Charok’s stew-pot always had more than enough meat to go around. He even gave up the hunter’s privilege of taking the choicest cuts for himself and saw that they went into my bowl, a kind gesture I only came to appreciate a few years later when I learned to hunt from Charok and put two and two together.

 

Then there’s the cheery and rotund Mengu, the Banner’s chief roosequin trainer and handler. Despite my exhaustion, the nightmares and paranoia kept me from sleeping for long on that first night, so I slipped out in the darkness of night to go see the adorable quins. Mengu caught me, but he didn’t send me back to my tent. Instead, he personally brought me over and introduced me to his quin, one of Suret’s litter-mates, Surma. She wasn’t too keen on having her sleep disturbed, but Mengu’s pouches were packed to the brim with treats and he was all too happy to share. I thought it was sweet how he loved to spoil his quin, but in truth, he was just humouring me and making sure she wouldn’t take my head off. I fell asleep next to the quins that night, snuggled between Surma and Suret, and I slept that way for many nights after, but from the moment I closed my eyes to the second I opened them, Mengu was always there, watching over me with a smile. That same smile is here today, though tinged with brutal ferocity as he lends his bow to the fray, but only to pass the time until the Defiled reach the walls and he can put his slim, guard-less jian to good use. I’ve only ever seen him use the weapon to spear fish and dig out tubers for the quins to eat, but whenever it came time to sort out ranks, he always placed fourth after Gerel and Ghurda with nothing but his bare, meaty fists.

 

One by one, the former members of the Iron Banner take their place on the wall, each familiar presence dredging up some cherished memory of how they helped me along the way, whether it was with a small gesture of kindness, subtle suggestion of concern, or unjustified care and affection. They were there that fateful day I crawled out of the corpse pile and stumbled into their camp, and they’re here today, every member save for Dad, Alsantset, Charok, and Gerel. Some I didn’t know were with us in Central, much less Sinuji, while others I’m seeing for the first time in years, yet here they are in my hour of need, fighting to bring me home safe once again.

 

My heroes. My saviours. My Guardian Angels. Though Dad put the Iron Banner to rest after becoming Nian Zu’s successor, it flies again in spirit here in Sinuji, and I could not be any more grateful.

 

The time for fond recollections comes to an end as Imperial and Defiled clash in an explosion of sound and fury, but the wave of Demons and tribesman barely shake the leather-clad line of Experts standing between me and them. Springing into action with a resounding, Chi-magnified cackle, the slender and innocuous Kharnate puts his twin hatchets to bloody work, transforming into a veritable force of nature as he hacks up a storm of death and carnage which none can approach unscathed. Beautiful despite the unsightly scar running from left eye to right cheek, the stately, half-gazelle Yaruq is a sight to behold as she clears away her foes with a sweep of her nine-section staff, the mature and enchanting woman showing she still has what it takes even after ceding her spot on the Banner to her devilish Disciple Tursinai almost seven years ago. Mengu finally puts his jian to bloody work, except instead of holding it in hand, the metal spike hovers overhead while he pummels his foes into oblivion, the weapon darting out to claim the lives of Defiled too far for his plump arms to reach.

 

And of course there’s Ghurda. Powerful, domineering, half-grizzly Ghurda, whose battle-axe flies out to meet Pudge head-on and sends his massive, corpulent frame crashing back into the Defiled masses, Water-Shield and all.

 

The Enemy dispatched twelve Demons to claim my life, and while none have fallen, it almost seems like it’s only because Bannermen don’t care to expend the effort to kill them. Their large bodies make better weapons than any sword or spear in hand, smashed about in front of the wall like a giant game of squash played with weapon and torso instead of racket and ball. How the Bannermen can even manage such a feat is beyond my comprehension, but I am not alone in my admiration. “Mother in Heaven,” Masahige exclaims, his shrill voice carrying over the din, “Who are these heroes?”

 

“Warriors of the Iron Banner,” I reply with pride. “My dad’s old comrades and Experts of the People.” Not to mention the kind souls who brought me away from the mines and welcomed me into their home, despite knowing all the risks my existence entailed. I never properly thanked them for that, not after learning how massive a liability I could’ve been. Was.

 

…Am.

 

…I should get them gifts. Lots of gifts. What’s something that says ‘I appreciate you for risking massed torture and extermination to welcome me into your lives’?

 

Barely able to contain my excitement, I set to introducing each and every Bannerman to Masahige and anyone else who’ll listen, listing off little tidbits of information about them personally while having nothing to add about their actual strengths. As the battle wears on, it becomes clear as day that the old Iron Banner rankings were complete and utter bullshit, because there’s no way Gerel is stronger than Ghurda, Mengu, Yaruq, or really, almost anyone here. Well, he might be now, but seven years ago? Not a chance, not when every last one of them is a Peak Expert at minimum, utilizing their Domain’s in concert to hold back the Defiled and Demons. It’s a subtle working of Chi, not like the direct, formless attacks used by Nian Zu’s cadre of Peak Experts sent at Big Poppa Piggy. Instead, it’s a vague, indistinct barrier I can only just barely make out from seeing it in action, a multi-person effort to Deflect and delay any Enemy combatant trying to gain a foothold on the wall. The most dedicated of Defiled slip and fall on the parapets, but most don’t even make it that far before being slashed by axe or saber, pierced by spear or sword, or pummelled by mace or fist in mid-air.

 

It’s a little like what Pong-Pong did with Mama Bun the first time they met, using Deflection to keep her from going to town on his shell, except on a larger scale.

 

Unfortunately, the effect doesn’t extend past our thirty-meter zone, and from the looks of things, it’s straining the Bannermen to even manage that much, which bodes poorly for the allies on either side of us. Unable to make headway against my saviours, the Enemy redoubles their efforts on the Mitsue forces to my left and Tam Taewoong’s retinue on my right, with both sides buckling beneath the near suicidal offensive. Most commanders wouldn’t put three younger officers so close together, especially not in a central position on the outer defences, but I don’t think the good Lieutenant Colonel Watanabe knows much about anything when it comes to tactics. How the son of a Living Legend can be so incompetent is beyond my comprehension, but directing hateful expletives at Watanabe and his entire family won’t save me now, so all I can do is pray we can hold out long enough for reinforcements to arrive.

 

Kharnate is the first to take injury as a spear glances off his ribs, but he is far from the last as he continues the good fight. Soon enough, every last Bannerman is bloodied by the Enemy save for Khagati still loosing handfuls of arrows from the back and elegant Yaruq standing in front of him to clear away waves of chaff with each swing. For long minutes, the balance of power teeters on the precipice of disaster, then it overturns as a globe of water smashes into Mengu’s broad chest and sends him crashing back into the ground. Leaping over the fallen warrior, Tenjin’s flying daggers scythe out into crowd as the Fire-Blessed warrior restores the balance of power in our favour, and I send Kuang Biao out with three of my strongest Death Corps to bring Mengu back to safety. Flashing a bloody smile, the portly quin-trainer gestures for me to stay on Zabu and quips, “Never should’ve gone on that diet.” Winking and wincing at the same time, he arranges himself in a seated position to Heal his cracked or maybe even broken ribs while the battle continues to rage on.

 

Yaruq is next to step back, her scarred features covered in a sheen of sweat but otherwise untouched. Without so much as a glance in my direction, the half-gazelle warrior settles down beside Mengu to replenish her Chi reserves while Tursinai takes her place, Tenjin’s ribald wife utterly serious for the first time since I met her. With a crisp, metallic ring, the scythe arcs out into the Defiled horde to cut them down like wheat at the harvest, her chain whirling overhead to create a lengthy semi-circle of death in front of her. The downside is that Tursinai’s longer weapon will get in the way of Khagati’s arrows, or so I believe for all of a second before the greying archer looses yet another volley, perfectly timing his shot to avoid the looping chain without breaking a sweat. Seeing his dwindling cart, I have Kuang Biao send word to BoShui’s silent, reformed fanatics and task them to bring more arrows from camp, but the reply comes soon after to indicate the matter has already been handled.

 

As if on cue, two of Alsantset’s underlings appear with a second cart of arrows, which they move in place without interrupting Khagati’s steady movements or the rhythmic twang of his bow, soothing to the ear even as the piercing wail of his arrows signal death to the Defiled.

 

They got this shit on lock-down.

 

Unfortunately, the battle does not go entirely our way as Pudge sends yet another Bannerman to join Mengu and Yarug, this time the unsociable, amber-eyed spearman, Naaran. Older than Baatar but still spry as any other Bannerman, the aged Warrior cradles his broken arm and settles down to recuperate while Kuang Biao heads in unasked to take his place. I always thought Naaran didn’t like me, but to be fair, it seemed like he hated everyone else as well, and he’s here giving it his all to keep me alive, which counts for something. He even offers an almost smile before closing his eyes to meditate, so strained and unnatural it makes me wonder if he’s smiled at anyone in the last half-century, or possibly longer.

 

Cunning monsters that they are, the Demons are no longer throwing themselves at the wall, but instead hanging back to probe for openings. Six have split off, three to either side, but Hideo and Tam Taewoong both have their Experts defending them, and for now it appears as if both sides are locked in stalemates. Pudge remains front and centre to pressure the Bannermen with his bullets of water, but it’s a second Demon which proves most difficult for my guardians to handle. A dark figure cloaked in a billowing cape of writhing blades, the skull-faced Demon is difficult to keep track of as he moves side to side so quickly it’s almost as if he can blink in and out of existence. Wherever he appears, he unleashes a flurry of darting tentacles in the area before him, forcing three to five Bannermen to defend against his sudden attack. While his blades are easy enough to Deflect, Skull-Face is not alone as Pudge times his bullets with Skull-Face’s distraction to launch attacks at exposed targets. That’s how Mengu went down, then Naaran after, and from the looks of things, it’s only a matter of time before the fat, water-logged bastard claims another victim, perhaps this time to more fatal results.

 

As more of the Bannermen fall back and are replaced by Death Corps guards, it becomes clear that we can’t hold the outer wall, not as we are, not without support. There are eighteen Peak Experts in my section alone, with at least four with Hideo and two with Tam Taewoong, but it is far from enough. Turning to Watanabe’s mouthpiece, I wave aside the soldiers Masahige tasked to guard him and say, “Send a request for assistance, and failing that, then a request to withdraw. The outer wall will not hold for much longer before this sustained assault. Then go take Kharnate’s place, the one with the twin hatchets; he’s bleeding too much to keep fighting.”

 

“I don’t take orders from you.” Though defiant, I can see the fear in his eyes and posture, all but cringing before me as he stops himself short of calling me ‘cripple’. Granted, it probably has more to do with Zabu’s toothy snarl lingering over his head than my less-than-intimidating presence, but I’ll take what I can get.

 

Leaning forward to look him in the eyes, I say, “I’m assuming you’re a Martial Warrior worth your salt, so I’ll ask once. You have a better suggestion?” Without waiting for an answer, I snarl and poke him in the chest, jamming my finger against his hard breastplate and using the pain to fuel my anger. “Then quit fucking around and get to it soldier, or I’ll kill you myself.”

 

Praying he doesn’t call my bluff, I bring Zabu around and do my best to direct the battle, but there isn’t much for me to do besides shout empty platitudes and encouragement. Luckily, Watanabe’s mouthpiece has enough sense to obey, and Kharnate soon falls back with a wild look in his eyes and a deep burning to return to the battle. Grasping onto every last string I can, I pat Dastan on the shoulder and pull him back before he leaps into the fray on a misunderstanding. “Not your turn yet, soldier. Need your help. Give me a quick refresher on this One with the Self business?”

 

Impatience gives way to delight as Dastan follows my train of thought, because I don’t think there’s anyone more eager for my recovery than him. It’s a long shot, but if I can actually deploy my Domain without Chi and use it to convert Heavenly Energy, then maybe I can lend some meagre effort to the defence, and it’s not like I’m doing anything else in the meantime anyways. “Of course,” he stammers, before grabbing my wrist to switch to Sending. “It’s a simple enough concept, but difficult to maintain. One with the Self isn’t just about merging with your Natal Soul, but about accepting the truths of one’s Path. It’s about self-affirmation and taking pride in one’s actions, of accepting a cause and putting your entire being behind it.”

 

My lack of comprehension speaks for itself and Dastan deflates in defeat, only to swell up and try again with a different tack. “Let me tell you about how I achieved One with Self. As you know, my Natal Soul is a stunted, deformed version of myself, with a body which fits in the palm of my hand and a head three size too large for it. It took days to form this Natal Soul alongside the beginnings of my Natal Palace, so at first, I believed my paltry Natal Soul would grow in time as I progressed along the Martial Path, but I was wrong. Its size was not limited because of my lacking strength or comprehension, but because I myself suppressed its size for reasons which became clear to me over time.”

 

Drawing himself up to full height, Dastan looks up at me atop Zabu, only a hand-span taller than my 175 cm frame. “Know this for truth: you are the best man I know,” he says out loud, unashamed to admit it, “And even without my Oaths, I would serve you as loyally as I do now, for I truly believe you to be the Mother’s Chosen Son.” While I try my best not to blush or laugh it off, Dastan continues, “However, this does not mean I do not dream of freedom and independence, an impossible dream of casting off my deplorable status as traitor and slave to become Dastan Zhandos, soldier and hero once again.” Seeing the pity in my eyes, he smiles and shakes his head. “It’s okay. I’ve come to accept my lot in life, even enjoy it, because you treat me as friend and comrade, not slave and subordinate. I’ve also accepted that my dreams will never come to pass, but I am no longer ashamed of it, for what living being does not yearn for freedom?”

 

Switching back to Sending, he continues, “My Natal Soul is paltry and weak because he embodies my innermost desires, the dreams I cannot achieve yet can never let go. It was different for BoShui because even though his Natal Soul also embodied his innermost desires, his dreams are within his reach, while mine utterly impossible. Even then, I continue to hold these dreams, aspire to them, and hope that through some miracle of miracles, I can someday realize them, because I am myself, and I am my Natal Soul.” Shrugging, he simply concludes out loud, “I am Dastan Zhandos, soldier, dreamer, slave, and traitor. Such is life.”

 

“That isn’t all you are,” I say, reaching out to clasp his hand. “In my eyes, you are Dastan Zhandos, friend and hero, and never forget it.”

 

Smiling at the affirmation, we share a quiet moment together before he coughs and looks away, no doubt to hide the manly tears streaming from his eyes. “As for you,” he Sends, sounding hesitant for the first time, “I may have a theory to offer, if you are willing to hear it.”

 

“Go ahead.” Not like I have any better place to start.

 

“Your story…” Dastan begins, stopping to take a deep breath even though he’s Sending and doesn’t need it to speak. “Though I felt nothing supernatural about it like Li Song implies, I too sensed your emotions as you told your story, and… I think you cling too tightly to the past.” My mouth dries and throat clenches shut, but I nod at him to continue, which he does with great reluctance. “You don’t entirely accept what happened, because you believe you could have changed the outcome. You take responsibility for Qing Qing’s death and regret you couldn’t save her, but even if you could have, it’s already in the past.” Patting my shoulder, he sighs and Sends, “She’s gone, my friend, and you need to let go of your guilt and forgive yourself for her death.”

 

“I can’t let go because it was my fault.” Welp, no point denying it now. “If I’d been smarter, more caring, more supportive, she would’ve stayed with me instead of running back to check on her fellow villagers.” Shaking my head to deny Dastan’s rebuttal, the words flow out without filter. “She was a sweet girl who still cared for the people who rejected her, people who I barely cared enough about to ask for their names. I freed those villagers and sent them on their way without so much as a goodbye. Not because I couldn’t help them, but because I couldn’t be bothered to. Why should I risk my life for strangers who hated me and Qing-Qing? That’s how I felt. They brought their fates down on themselves, so I had to look after the one person who mattered, and in doing so, I doomed my benefactor to an early grave.”

 

I am Rain, and I am Baledagh, and both of us are massive fuck-ups.

 

Before Dastan can respond, Ghurda’s Sending sounds in my mind. “Idiot boy. Run!”

 

The tears drain from my eyes as I look over to the battle, just in time to see a massive, airborne Pudge sailing in my direction. Carried forward by a surging wave of water, his pasty, water-logged form blots out the night’s sky as Bannermen weapons bounce off his Water Shield and skin like raindrops on metal sheet. Though lacking a mouth save for the giant, vertical cavity running down his chest, his white, sightless orbs almost seem to smile as he points a finger in my direction and sends a spear of Water hurtling unerringly towards my chest, an attack which arrives before me in the blink of an eye and leaves me with only two raised hands to stop it from piercing through my heart.

 

Well, fuck.

 

 

On the bright side, maybe today’s the day I discover I’m stuck in an infinite time loop. Who knows. Stranger things have happened.

 

Chapter Meme

 

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