Savage Divinity – Chapter 840: The End

 

The crowd chants my new title with all the energy and enthusiasm they have to spare, all but ruining any chance I have of fixing my good friend’s terrible naming sense.

 

With no other option but to accept my lot in life, I stifle a sigh and beat a hasty retreat back to the walls to take shelter from all the attention and check on my family and floofs. Since most still have duties to attend to, I head over to Luo-Luo first, who has her arms wrapped around the still sleeping Lin-Lin while the animals circle around them for comfort and attention. Just as I arrive to a deafening crescendo of cheers and applause, the Heavens see fit to grant me mercy as the noise cuts out due to the Supreme Family making their presence known in a most awe-inspiring fashion, bursting out of Concealment at the head of an army of Death Corps Guards and Royal Guardians. Seeing their dark armoured forms all marching in lockstep towards Shi Bei is a remarkable sight, and it tickles my fancy to see the lions doing the same, like prancing ponies with their heads held high and their dark-furred manes blowing in the wind.

 

Despite their stunning first impression, their numbers leave much to be desired. At a glance, I would say there are close to seventy thousand Death Corps and Royal Guardians here to help relieve us, which is not a small number of Warriors by any means, but hardly enough to lift the siege of Shi Bei had they arrived a few hours earlier, before the Defiled turned on themselves and the survivors were made into Half-Demons. I’m not the only one to notice this detail either, and the general mood of Shi Bei quickly sours, or at least it does until someone notices the Emperor himself leading the delegation of Imperial Scions headed our way. Though the soldiers here might not recognize the Grand Marshal, Prime Minister, or most of the other faces surrounding the Emperor, his golden dragon and phoenix robes are unmistakable even among a crowd of Scions dressed in the same colours. Liang Wu Di even returned the Imperial Seal, which hangs prominently hangs from the Emperor’s gold silk belt to ensure there can be no mistaking his identity, as if it could ever be in question considering he has the word ‘Emperor’ embroidered onto his robes no less than five times. Everyone present aside from myself is shocked into awed silence as the Emperor slowly glides down to the walls of Shi Bei, on a direct route to meet me on the walls where I’ve only just arrived, much to the merriment of my adorable floofs who couldn’t care less about the Emperor’s imminent arrival.

 

I’m eighty-five percent sure they’re not here to capture or kill me, and ninety-five percent sure they’re not going to immediately go after my loved ones, but even then, it takes everything I have to stand here and wait rather than grab everyone and run in hopes of making my escape, because you can never really be sure when it comes to politics with Imperial Scions.

 

A few hushed whispers sound out as soldiers and officers alike seek to confirm what their eyes are seeing, and the crowd falls to their knees as one with reverence and admiration aplenty, their heads bowed and spirits high in a natural, inborn reaction to seeing their closest thing to a religious figurehead. Despite having been put through the wringer these past few decades, beholden to the Eternal Emperor’s whims from the moment he took the throne, the current Emperor knows how to play his role well, clad in an invisible mantle of authority emanating a palpable air of sovereign superiority without any visible effort whatsoever. The man radiates power and charisma in a way few can match, a natural and innate magnetic charm that has nothing to do with Heavenly Energy and everything to do with posture, poise, expression, and appearance. There are many Warriors who cut a heroic figure, like Akanai, Dad, Gerel, Nian Zu, Liang Wu Di, and even Xing Ao Tian if he didn’t scowl so much, but the Emperor embodies the concept of a bold and gallant leader of men, a dragon who spends his life in the skies and has deigned to descend down to grace us with his noble presence.

 

It’s amazing what the right clothes and a bit of extra height can do for a man’s appearance. Maybe I should stop dressing like a slob and start stretching more in hopes of one last growth spurt before my bones are set…

 

At Luo-Luo’s subtle coaxing, I reluctantly drop to my knees and lower my head beside her, though I utilize Scrying to keep an eye on the Emperor and his entourage just in case. Buddy sees this as an invitation to scoot in front of me and present his head for kisses, which he gets plenty of for being such a good boy. Settling back on his haunches with a grunt, his brown eyes go half-lidded and tongue lolls out as he fights to stay upright and conscious after gorging himself to his little heart’s content, and he could not be any happier unless he was fast asleep in my arms. The Old Wolf’s presence appears soon after, while Akanai, Nian Zu, and the rest of the Saint’s Tribulations Mountain’s Divinities make their way over in ones and twos, standing tall with one fist clasped and head bowed in a martial salute. No kneeling for them, no siree, but so long as the Emperor keeps his robes on, I have no problems taking a knee every now and then.

 

Hang on… They’re not kneeling because they’re Divinities… Which means I don’t have to kneel either. Noice.

 

“Rise,” the Emperor intones before I can pop up on my own, but Luo-Luo quietly tugs on my sleeve to keep me from obeying, because apparently, that would be rude. “Rise, heroes of Shi Bei, and hold your heads up high so that we might gaze upon your faces, for you have achieved great merit here today, and it is this Sovereign’s privilege to salute you.” And to his credit, the Emperor even does it, clasping his fist and inclining his head as he scans the breadth of Shi Bei. It might not sound or look like much, but to the still kneeling crowd who’ve raised their heads ever so slightly to peek, it’s enough to fill them all with pride and astonishment for having been blessed with this highest of honours, something they will tell their children and grandchildren in the decades to come.

 

It’s more than the Eternal Emperor would’ve done, and judging by the strained and carefully neutral expressions on most of the Supreme Family Scions here today, they think it’s too much as is, but I would say it’s nothing at all. A difference in culture, I suppose, or perhaps it’s simply my innate aversion to authority figures, but it’s gonna take a lot more than a tiny salute and a smile to win me over. To my surprise, the Emperor makes no effort to address me directly just yet, and instead launches into a speech congratulating us on our victory and giving the order to stand down for a well-deserved rest, while promising rewards and recognition aplenty once everything is sorted out.

 

The Death Corps set forth to clean up the battlefield, but there’s not much for them to do since most corpses were turned into fuel for the Demonic Divinities. There are only a few bodies from those who fell in the last wave of exchanges, but the stench of blood and guts still lingers in the air, a smell I would be happy to escape from once Liang Wu Di gives me the go ahead to leave. This hardly seems the time to pass along Zhang Jun Bao’s dying words, so I make it a point not to turn my back to the Emperor or his entourage while herding my floofs onto their wagons. My heart melts as I watch Rakky and Kukky settle in beside one another with a tired huff, so pooped from their efforts that they can’t even be bothered to keep up appearances of their so-called rivalry. This is my fault for pushing them to their limits and then some, infusing Rakky with Heavenly Energy enough to shock the entire Half-Demon army out of their murderous rage, only to subsequently have Kukky remind them of everything they still had left to lose through a dream born of their own desires. That was the best way to end the battle quickly without a wholesale slaughter, but judging from the hulking meat-head Xing Ao Tian’s unfriendly glare, it would appear that he believes I’ve stolen his thunder. Had the fight gone on for a few moments longer, then he and his reinforcing army might well have taken up the role of conquering heroes, rather than the clean-up crew they’ve become.

 

Well, them’s the breaks of ruling by committee, because by the time everyone’s made up their mind on what to do next, the problems usually have either resolved themselves or gotten so bad that the plan they agreed on is pretty much useless. Say what you will about the Eternal Emperor’s tyrannical hegemony, but at least the man knew how to get shit done. Then again, it’s possible the Imperial Scions were willing to wait a little longer until matters were truly desperate, so that the survivors of Shi Bei would be all the more grateful for the Emperor’s timely arrival. Games within games, ones I would much rather not play, so I cradle my sleeping wifey in one arm, wrap my other arm around Luo-Luo’s slender waist, and lift the wagon full of pets on a Manifested raft of Domain before Cloud-Stepping over to the central command building in hopes of finding a room to rest my weary head.

 

Since I don’t want to steal anyone’s bedroom, I settle on commandeering a meeting room instead, one with a small tea table for six and plenty of open space for all my adorable floofs. Under Akanai’s instructions to lay low, I settle Lin-Lin in with Pong Pong, Rakky, and Kukky who’ve promptly plopped themselves down for a nap, leaving me free to greet all my fur babies properly. It’s been a long time since they’ve seen me up and about, and their joy and enthusiasm is infectious, but even more heartening is how Buddy greets each of his new best friends one by one by one. Aside from Lin-Lin, Ping Ping, and Mama Bun, this is the first time he’s meeting the rest of them in the flesh, but he already loves them and wants them to know it. Nuzzles for the bunnies, headbutts for the wildcats, presenting his butt-butt to the bears for them to sniff, Buddy makes several circuits around the room while interacting with them all once or twice. Even the stand-offish Blackjack, Guai-Guai, and Noodle are quickly charmed and follow him around like best friends, though that might have something to do with how freely Buddy is sharing his Devoured Heavenly Energy, gifting his newfangled pack with the spoils of his hunt though he keeps the lion’s share for himself.

 

…What about me, Buddy? Where’s my share?

 

About ten minutes later, Mila, Yan, and Li-Li arrive, and Buddy’s happiness shoots through the roof as he throws himself against their legs amidst yips of pure delight. The little guy steals all my thunder as the ladies all crouch down to greet him, cooing and making kissy noises while patting his head and neck. In the meantime, Lin-Lin sleeps on nuzzled in between Rakky and Kukky, but most of the other pet’s pad over for their fair share of attention while Luo-Luo and I are just forgotten. Not that I mind, because seeing everyone so happy and joyful is all I could ever ask for, the weariness just melting away from their expressions as they all indulge in floof therapy.

 

That being said, the three of them have been in Shi Bei since the start, meaning they’ve been fighting for the last fifteen days in rotations, so it doesn’t come as any surprise when the proceedings dissolve into a cuddle-puddle with floofs and women spread out all across the floor. Making my way over to say hi, I’m greeted with monosyllabic grunts all around as Mila, Yan, and Li-Li make their way over to Lin-Lin to join her in rest. Hoping to steal a kiss or five, my first attempt is met with unyielding rejection as Mila raises her hand and wags a finger in my face. “Don’t even think about it,” she scowls, shooing me away while making good on her escape. “I love you with all my heart, have missed you dearly, and would love nothing more than to feel your arms around me, but I’ve been fighting for fifteen days and haven’t bathed in almost twice that, so it’s not going to happen.” Though submissive in love, that has yet to translate over to real life, but that’s part of what I love about my freckled, fiery beloved, who allows me a quick kiss on the cheek before reluctantly pushing me away.

 

“Mm.” Yan chimes in with her agreement while snuggling up with Banjo and Baloo while George tries to wedge himself under them, only for her to coo in delight as Ping Ping and Guai-Guai amble over to lay down in her arms. “There’s barely enough water as is to quench our thirst, and those stupid sand baths aren’t nearly enough to clean all the blood out of my hair, so I can only imagine what’s lost inside those tangled red locks.” Yan’s throaty laugh does a number on my resolve, but before I can even suggest that I’m willing to risk it, she deals the death blow to my libido. “Not to mention all the chafing, what with the aforementioned sand, which gets in all the wrong places and is most unpleasant. I’m afraid you’ll just have to restrain your amorous advances until we’ve had time to bathe, so best get to abusing your authority while you still can and see if you can scrounge up enough water for us to wash in.”

 

Pulling me close for a quick kiss to mitigate the blow to my pride, her efforts do nothing to lessen my hatred of the sand. To her credit, Li-Li’s gaze shows no wariness when our eyes meet briefly, only amusement as she offers me a slight nod, one I return it in kind while dreaming of a day when I can finally win her heart as well. Giving Mila’s hand a light squeeze and reaching over to stroke Yan’s cheek, I linger for a moment longer until they’re all fast asleep, save for Buddy who is all pooped out from the excitement and now struggling to sit up against my leg, stubbornly refusing to lay down and rest until I do. An exuberant Mama Bun is also still hoping about, having the time of her life on her borrowed Manifested raft, one I think Buddy is keeping maintained, because I sure as hell haven’t been. Gathering my gluttonous doggo up into my arms, I cradle him close and wonder just what did I do in my last life to deserve all this joy and happiness. Not just a second chance, but one with so many women who love me, so many floofs who adore me, and a sweet dog who made the trip over with me from my previous life to the next.

 

It’s been a long, hard-fought war, and there are still plenty of trials and tribulations to come, but this right here makes it all worthwhile. The only way this could be better is if the rest of my loved ones were here too, and just like that, I decide that I can’t keep hiding the truth from them and will tell them everything from start to finish as soon as I can. Wives first, plus Li-Li, and then everyone else, assuming the ladies don’t kill me.

 

Which probably won’t happen, right? Hey, maybe I can conjure up some Water Chi for them to wash in first, and then they’ll be less liable to kill me for lying about who I am all this time. Is that even possible? I don’t think I can channel enough Heavenly Energy to Manifest Water Chi long enough for a proper bath, not without going comatose afterwards, which kinda defeats the purpose of helping them wash off, since I would really like to be conscious afterwards. I could douse them in Water Chi for a quick sort of shower, but it would probably dissipate back into Heavenly Energy before enough time had passed to get a proper lather. What about an actual, real rainstorm? It should be technically possible, because even though I only possess the Blessing of Water, I should know enough about the water cycle to nudge things in the right direction and get a rainstorm going. Theoretically at least, though I should probably hold off on manipulating the weather until I’ve had time to run my thoughts by Taddy, but if it works out, then maybe I can figure out a way to set things right in the west, and turn it into a vibrant landscape instead of a land of sand and death.

 

“Lord Husband.” Interrupting my wandering thoughts in the most timid and tired way possible, Luo-Luo’s posture is still impeccable despite being too tired to even stand, sitting at the table with her hands folded and head held high while fighting to keep her eyelids open. “Perhaps it would be wise to make preparations to receive the Emperor or his emissary, if they should come calling?”

 

“Right, right.” I should make some tea at the very least, though why anyone would want a hot drink in this climate is beyond my comprehension. Wandering over to give her hand a squeeze, I reply, “What would I ever do without you?” Only to receive a slight wince in response, because she’s been playing her zither so forcefully she broke the skin on her fingers, which I never noticed because I was too engrossed in my floofs. “Sorry.” Taking her hands in my own, I bring them close and close my eyes to focus before directing a thread of Heavenly Energy her way, one which flows seamlessly through her and sets her abraded fingers to healing. It’s about as difficult as tying a tie on someone else, but otherwise, pretty simple to pull off, because Luo-Luo trusts and loves me with all her heart, and I’m pretty sure I’ve fallen head over heels for her as well. “There,” I declare, sneaking a light little kiss on the back of her hands and wishing I had courage enough to go for her lips. “All better. In the future, please don’t hesitate to speak up if you’re injured, because your pain is my pain too.” Luo-Luo’s fetching blush puts thoughts in my mind which are better left for later, because not only do I want our first time to be special, I don’t want to risk having someone walk in on us at the worst possible moment. Again. “Now sit tight while I go find some tea. And a teapot. And some snacks, I guess. Here. Meet Buddy.”

 

Though my dog puts up a bit of a fight when I seat him in the chair next to Luo-Luo, it’s mostly a token effort, because he’s so bloated with Heavenly Energy that he can barely even sit up straight. Then again, he never had the best posture to begin with, but his slovenly charms quickly win over Luo-Luo, who is already scritching his chin and cooing over him as I leave the room. Finding everything I need is more difficult than I expect, as not only am I unfamiliar with the layout of the fortress, everyone is too tired to really help, and I don’t want to stop someone and ask because then they’ll probably insist on doing everything themselves. A good twenty minutes pass before I find everything I need and make my way back to my room, at which point I’m greeted by the snores of my lovely wives and a mixed array of scowls and smiles of the Emperor seated at the table, while his entourage stands behind him. Akanai and the Old Wolf sit across from him, while Mom and Dad stand behind them and are busy making eyes at one another next to Luo-Luo and Buddy. I guess that means Mom wasn’t mistreated after being detained by Shuai Jiao, because if she had been, then Dad would have gone off to challenge the Colonel General or something, assuming I didn’t get there first, but her smile sets my heart at ease as she indicates she missed me and loves me while gesturing for me to hurry up.

 

“Hi,” I begin, greeting the Emperor directly while fending Mama Bun off from the snacks, only to immediately wish I’d paid more attention in Luo-Luo’s etiquette classes so I could stop making these stupid mistakes. “Sorry for the wait, I uh… went to find tea and stuff. Gimme a few minutes and I’ll have a nice, steaming hot cup of tea for us all to enjoy.”

 

“Allow me.” There is little to no courtesy in the heavy-set Imperial Scion’s statement, more of a demand than an offer as he takes everything out of my hands. “The Emperor is not to be kept waiting.” A member of the Di family, the Imperial Scion’s cheeks jiggle as he scowls and looks over everything I’ve brought, his brow somehow completely free of sweat despite the many layers of colourful robes he’s wearing underneath his ceremonial armour. “Nor should he be served such inferior leaves, but needs must, I suppose.”

 

I don’t have much of an eye or a tongue for tea, but I suppose if anyone knows his tea leaves, it’d be the Di Family Scion. “Sorry. This is my first time here, so I just grabbed whatever I could find.” The heavy-set man has already forgotten all about me as he sets to making the tea, so I grab Mama Bun before heading over to the table where only the Emperor, Akanai, and the Old Wolf are seated, while everyone else stands behind their respective parties. The Liang Baldy is absent, as are the Grand Marshal and Prime Minister both, along with a few other faces, meaning that aside from the Emperor, there is only one representative from each Supreme Family. All of whom are somewhat familiar, like my former Patron Liang Wu Di, and the giant meathead Xing Ao Tian, but I have no names for the others, though they were all present to talk terms with the Eternal Emperor and likely half-brothers at the very least. Unsure if I should stand or sit, I look to Luo-Luo for guidance, who uses her eyes to indicate I should bow to the Emperor and follow his lead, which I probably should’ve known. “Uh… Ten thousand years of boundless longevity upon the Emperor. Imperial uh… Legate Falling Rain awaits his orders?”

 

That’s how everyone was greeting the Legate, so I hope it’s good enough for the Emperor too, but he seems pretty chill about all the formalities and quickly gestures for me to sit. “Ten-thousand years is too much,” he began, flashing a smile that is every bit as charming and endearing as my former patron’s, two men cut from the same cloth, which makes sense considering how they’re brothers. “To live out the rest of my reign will be fortune enough, for our Eternal Foe took much from this Sovereign in his final fight against you, the Savage Divinity.”

 

God I hate that name, but it’s too late to change it now. More to the point, I can pretty much guess at the subtle message hidden within the Emperor’s words, but I have no idea how to create or transfer Life Force to help extend his life, nor am I willing to ask Lin-Lin to do it either. “This Legate is incapable, and unable to assist without guidance and practice, but the Emperor is a dragon among men, and this Legate is confident that you will ascend to Divinity in time.”

 

Taking no visible offense from my apparent refusal to help, the Emperor simply smiles and nods. “The Eternal Foe was a brilliant man, and though this Sovereign endured much suffering at his hands, there were benefits to be had as well. Divinity stands but a half-step away, especially if the Savage Divinity is willing to dispense his sage advice.”

 

…I feel like I’m being made part of a joke, but the scandalized expressions from the Emperor’s entourage tells me that the joke is not at my expense. “This Legate dare not claim himself capable of guiding the Emperor on his Path, but is happy to offer whatever assistance he may.” So long as it’s verbal. As surprisingly pleasant as this exchange might be, I’m getting really tired of all this polite doublespeak, but I’m not fluent enough to know how to say, ‘cut to the chase’ in a way that won’t offend everyone involved. Decorum demands I at least wait until tea is served, but the Di Scion is taking his sweet ass time puttering about, and has yet to even put the kettle onto the stove, so there’s nothing I can do except play along with the Emperor and make small talk for a few minutes more.

 

This is my personal hell. That’s it, isn’t it? I died in battle against the Eternal Emperor, and now I’m in hell.

 

To my great relief, the Emperor skillfully guides the ensuing conversation by asking questions about the war effort up to this point, and even includes Akanai in the conversation and compliments her on her “brilliant tactical acumen” and “unparalleled teaching abilities”. My Grand Mentor is as stoic as they come, an ice queen to surpass all ice queens, but even she is showing signs of being won over by the Emperor’s charm, who is as smooth as silk and a silver-tongued devil whom I would be leery of leaving alone with my wives. For a guy that’s been imprisoned for the last few decades, his social skills are still top-notch, though I suppose I should’ve expected as much from a man who beat out all the competition to catch the Eternal Emperor’s eye.

 

A real shame, because rather than the belle of the ball, he became the prime bull to be slaughtered for his meat, a feast for the Eternal Emperor’s undying soul which could no longer sustain itself.

 

Finally, the Di Scion finishes his preparations and pours a cup of tea for the Emperor, while leaving the pot and three cups within easy reach for me to pour for the Old Wolf, Akanai, and myself. I guess my parents and Luo-Luo don’t get a cup, but to be fair, neither does anyone in the Emperor’s entourage, though I find it odd that he brought no Divinities with him. Seems dangerous to let the Emperor sit across the table from two Divinities without any protection, no matter how friendly, but I suppose the current Emperor must be equally guarded against the Divinities of the Supreme Family as well.

 

And with that thought, it occurs to me that things might not be so bad after all. The current Emperor is in a fix, because the Supreme Families only just banded together to overthrow him, or rather the Eternal Emperor in the current Emperor’s body. Even though the Eternal Emperor is dead and gone, how can he prove it to the Supreme Families, much less trust them knowing they’d already overthrown one Emperor and could easily make it two? That’s why he’s here, playing all nice and cordial, because he wants to win my support, support he knows I’ll give because he was there for the final fight, and knows that I want to end this war with as little bloodshed as possible.

 

Among many, many, many other things. Fuck.

 

Happy to have worked it out in advance for once, I spend a little more time studying the Emperor across from me. Draining his cup of tea in a single gulp, he utters a quiet sigh of satisfaction while flashing a small, sad smile, one so full of longing and regret. “Delicious,” he exclaims, though even I think the tea is mediocre at best, yet he acts as if it is the most refreshing drink ever. Then again, from his perspective, it might well be, since he’s been kept on a chain for decades now, meaning this is probably the first thing he’s actually tasted since the Eternal Emperor took over. Had I known this in advance, I’d have found some wine too, though it’s against regulation to drink alcohol here in the west, since it dehydrates you even more. Suppressing the minor pang of empathy in my chest, I warn myself against taking everything at face value, because this all could be a calculated act designed to win me over, one he put together after seeing my battle against the Eternal Emperor and the lengths I went to in order to save his eternal soul.

 

I’m a softie at heart, so empathetic it’s pretty much a curse, and the Emperor might well be using that to win me over. Not to say that he’s wrong to, but I should keep this in mind before committing myself to anything, lest I find myself saddled with another title I don’t want or a wife I don’t need.

 

Needing no cue to stand and refill the Emperor’s cup, I can’t help but shoot Liang Wu Di a glance and wonder if he’ll ever have to serve me tea, and he appears to read my thoughts and respond with a sly smile that tells me things won’t work out as I envision. The Emperor takes a small, token sip from his cup, but I can tell he wants to drink more, to taste and experience more of the world he’s been denied for so long. You don’t get to where he is by being weak-willed however, so he puts the cup down while it’s still more than half-full, only to fold his hands together and regard me with the utmost gravity as he intones, “Legate Falling Rain, what is it you desire?”

 

“Honestly? To go home. Been away far too long for my tastes, but there’s still work to be done.”

 

I don’t know why I’m being so candid, but the Emperor doesn’t seem to mind, save to shake his head with a smile and say, “That cannot do. You have done this Sovereign a great service, done this Empire a great service, and for this, you must be rewarded. The soldiers are already spreading stories of visions, of seeing you lead them into battle against the Uniter to save this Sovereign from his clutches.” My expression gives away my surprise, because I didn’t think anyone would remember that, but then again, I should’ve known that those surviving Natal Souls would’ve made their way back to their original hosts after I dismissed them. Looking at Mom and Dad, I see them beaming with pride, and there is a faint glimmer of the same hidden within Akanai’s cool gaze, though I might well be imagining it since I now know that she’s actually proud and hiding it. It seems they all remember too, or at least have an inkling of what happened, even though I’m pretty sure I saw all of their Natal Souls get torn apart in the fight. I guess even the Eternal Emperor didn’t know how to destroy a fragment of soul, and could only dismiss the bindings holding those Natal Souls together, meaning the secret is out and the world will soon know about how I faced off against the Uniter in the Void.

 

A white lie I told everyone out of convenience, since explaining the whole thing would’ve been a pain in my ass, but in doing so, I’ve made it appear as if the Emperor had come to reinforce Shi Bei himself, only to fall victim to the Uniter’s clutches. The Emperor will no doubt spin this to his advantage, but none of the Imperial Scions from the Supreme Families had joined in on the fight, so they only know what others can tell them.

 

Which makes this all real complicated, and I have no idea what I’m supposed to say, because I don’t really want anything from the Emperor at all. I just want to do my thing and follow my heart, which the Emperor should know since he was there when I more or less said as much, so why is he asking me what I want instead of offering to support me in my endeavours?

 

A test? To see if I’ll actually stick to my principles and turn down the possibility of wealth and power? Psh. If I wanted power, I’d have taken over the Emperor’s body instead of leaving a Natal Soul to watch over him, one which has long since made its way back unnoticed. Reviewing its memories of the Emperor’s struggle, I realize he spent a good deal of time from his perspective breaking free of the Eternal Emperor’s chains, a long and gruelling escape which required fortitude and willpower in spades. Those chains were embedded deep into his soul, and breaking free took more than just slipping out of them, but removing them inch by painful inch until he was free to control himself once more. In fact, I doubt he has yet to wholly acclimate to his body, because it’ll take some time for him to familiarize himself with it again, not just the physical side of things like walking and running, but also the metaphysical side with regards to his flow of Chi. Now that I think about it, I’m not entirely sure how he was able to Cloud-Step into Shi Bei for his grand entrance, and as I go back through my memories to double check, I realize that it was only possible because Liang Wu Di was subtly helping him along.

 

Ah. I see. Maybe my former patron was never motivated by the throne itself, but rather by the desire to free his brother from the shackles of an undying ghost. Well shit… now I like him again, even though I don’t really want to, but I suppose this means I can push the envelope and see how many problems I can fix in one sitting by borrowing the Emperor’s authority. “Well, even though we broke the back of the Enemy command, the war for the West is still far from finished, so this Legate would appreciate any and all support the Emperor can lend to the effort.”

 

“Such is this Sovereign’s duty, and cannot be considered a reward, but you shall have all the support you require and more.”

 

A plain and simple promise voiced out loud in front of witnesses? Wow. The Emperor is actually serious about this. “Uh… even though the risks are high, this Legate begs for clemency and compassion for those captured by the Enemy, asking that the purge be left as a last resort.”

 

“This Sovereign is well aware of your fortune to have contracted an Elemental Spirit, so such decisions will be left to you. Do not disappoint. This too cannot be considered a reward, for a service rendered can hardly be rewarded with more service.”

 

This… this is too easy. There’s gotta be a catch somewhere, so I test the waters with something that will benefit me indirectly to see if the Emperor just accepts my request and moves on. “I’m guessing a Divinity isn’t allowed to hold rank?” I ask, throwing a quick glance at Akanai who shakes her head in confirmation. “Well, the North needs a new Colonel General, and my Dad was being groomed for the role…”

 

“A promotion is indeed in the works for Baatar of the People, but it is one he earned with his own merits, and thus has no bearing on your reward.”

 

“My teacher, Medical Saint Taduk and my wife, Mei Lin, their status is –”

 

“Say no more. From henceforth, they are both under this Sovereign’s protection, and those who act against them will be met with the full force of my wrath. Again, this is only as it should be, for they too are citizens of this Sovereign’s realm.”

 

Okay, now I know something is fishy. There’s something specific he wants from me, and I have no idea what, so I’m just gonna keep pushing the envelope and see what happens. “Well… there’s also a minor matter of a promised marriage, one between young hero Yong-Jin and Ryo Seoyoon, but you see…”

 

A brief explanation is all it takes before the Emperor agrees to annul their marriage so that Fung and Seoyoon can be married instead, only for Liang Wu Di to chime in and ask permission to interject. “It was this Prince’s decision to bind Yong-Jin and Seoyoon in marriage, a most grievous mistake indeed, for the two are not a suited match. In the same vein, this Prince shall also free Ryo Da’in from her commitment as well, though with great reluctance.”

 

It takes a few moments to put the pieces together, and I almost screw everything up by making a face, because now I know why the Ryo’s were so willing to turn against me. Liang Wu Di offered to take Da’in as his wife, or concubine at the very least, meaning the Ryo’s would have a highly placed Imperial Scion for a son-in-law, and possibly even a daughter as the future Empress. In light of this news, I can hardly blame them for accepting, because even I might have to think twice about it if Liang Wu Di offered to take my hand in marriage. Not really, but still, the principle stands, though I’m a little weirded out by the age gap. Da’in isn’t much older than Wu Di’s daughter, Miss Rou, maybe five or so years at most, which means he’s probably twice the age of Da’in and almost sixty himself, even though he only looks like he’s in his mid-thirties. Then again, I suppose Kyung isn’t all that much younger, and I’m hardly one to talk about age gaps, though I have since come to accept that maybe I’m not as mature and grown-up as I’d like to believe, seeing how I was actually born into this world, rather than fully transmigrated.

 

Not making excuses, just saying is all. Shit’s complicated, so hopefully my wives find it in themselves to forgive me for all my lies.

 

Bringing us back on track like the leader he is, the Emperor leans forward and transfixes me with his gaze. “You still have yet to request a suitable reward, one to match your accomplishments. This cannot be, lest this Sovereign be construed as miserly and ungenerous.”

 

“If this General might offer a suggestion?” Now it’s Xing Ao Tian’s turn to interject, and immediately the temperature in the room drops by several degrees, as anyone with eyes can see that he’s at odds with the Emperor and Liang Wu Di. Upon receiving the Emperor’s nonverbal assent, Xing Ao Tian continues, “Falling Rain has made a great contribution here today, but as he says himself, his work is far from finished, to say nothing of how he overstepped his bounds to come this far in the first place. As reward, confirming his position as Legate of the Outer Provinces is generous enough, and this General shall personally see to it that the West is reclaimed with the utmost speed.”

 

Meaning he wants to hand me an empty title that will have no power once he steps in and takes over. The Tian and Di Scions make no move to agree or disagree, but even as Liang Wu Di shakes his head, a young Yang Scion chimes in to show his support. “Truly an unprecedented honour for someone outside the Imperial Clan, and General Xing’s support will be necessary here in the West now that the young Savage Divinity is no longer able to meddle in mortal affairs.”

 

…Technically true, but I figured I could still run point on command and be a part of the process, even if I can’t personally take action unless an Enemy Divinity shows up. Knowing better than to speak however, I simply remain silent and look at the Emperor instead, to see how genuine he is about rewarding me. Personally, I would much rather work with him than against him, because backing the established Emperor will probably result in less instability than working with the Supreme Families against him, to say nothing of how I’m pretty sure Xing Ao Tian would love to meet me in a dark alley somewhere and beat the shit outta me. Jokes on him, I schooled him once already, and I’m even stronger now, though I suppose he’s got plenty of Seniors to call on to help him even the score.

 

To my pleasant surprise, the Emperor comes down firmly against Xing Ao Tian’s suggestion, slamming the palm of his hand against the table in a show of overt rage. “Short-sighted fools.” Luckily for him, we’re all shrouded in a Sound Barrier and his little outburst didn’t wake Mila, else all of our lives would be in grave danger. Pointing at me while addressing the Scions behind him, the Emperor roars, “Do you know what this young man has done? He has given us our freedom again, the chance to control our fate once more. We who believed ourselves dragons have been little more than dogs to our Eternal Foe, marching to the beat of his tune for millennia in complete and utter ignorance. Even when Wu Di brought indisputable proof for you all to see, when our Foe admitted to his sins himself, you all thought to barter with our captor rather than work together to be rid of him once and for all.” Turning to me, the Emperor huffs in disdain and says, “Tell me your thoughts on the Oath they made, one of mutual non-interference.”

 

“Worth less than the paper it wasn’t written on,” I respond, only for all four Scions except Liang Wu Di to frown. “His Oath was to not meddle in the affairs of the Supreme Family, so long as they pay no mind to him and his.” Shrugging as if the answer is self-evident, I explain, “The man united the warring states of the Azure Sea, and thus sees the throne as his by right. Right of arms or right of birth, the throne belongs to him. The moment someone from the Supreme Family publicly claims it for themselves, the Eternal… Foe’s Oath will no longer bind him, for you will have meddled with what he sees as rightfully his.” Frowning, I add, “But you all would’ve caught that, yet you agreed anyways, because you never intended on keeping it. You were going to use him to put pressure on the Emperor, leverage to ensure Liang Wu Di didn’t act against you once he became Emperor himself.” Laughing, I add, “Talk about cutting your nose off to spite your face. The man had tens of thousands of years of experience playing you all against one another, and can take over a new body with less effort than it takes to turn a hand. If he was still around, he could easily take over any of you and resume his efforts from there, or take one of your children and play the long con. So long as he still lived, you’d never truly be safe, because he could be hiding in the bodies of anyone, and would do anything to become Emperor again.”

 

The lack of a response tells me I hit the nail on the head for once, and I find it incredible how arrogant these Scions can be. Even Wu Di seems somewhat skeptical of my claims, but the Emperor knows first hand how terrifying the Eternal Emperor truly was. What’s more, I can tell the others don’t entirely trust us, since they only have our word that the Eternal Emperor is dead and gone, since no one else was present to see it, but aside from an Oath I refuse to make, we don’t have any way to prove it.

 

None of which is my problem, nor is it something for future me to deal with. Instead, this is the Emperor’s problem, but now he’s trying to make it my problem by bringing me into the fold, which means I need to make the most of it while I can. Glancing at Luo-Luo in hopes that she has something to help me move this conversation along, I’m struck by a flash of Insight as to what to ask for a reward. “My Imperial Servant, Zheng Luo,” I begin, changing the subject with all the tact of a drunk ox in a china shop. “As my reward, this Legate humbly requests that the Emperor remove her status as an Imperial Servant, and return her freedom to her.”

 

The perfect request to keep myself from becoming beholden to the Emperor, but alas, he shakes his head in apparent regret. “Again, you ask for what should rightfully be rewarded, since such talent cannot remain buried unjustly.” Turning to face Luo-Luo, who quickly falls to her knees, the Emperor declares, “From this day forth, Imperial Servant Zheng Luo is no more, her service no longer required and her birthright restored. Rise, Liang Xiao Luo, and accept the title of Divine True Musician, the foremost talent of this generation.”

 

 

……

 

Liang Xiao Luo. So similar to Liang Xiao Rou, who is Liang Wu Di’s daughter. Liang Wu Di, my patron, who presented Luo-Luo to me in the first place.

 

Meaning Liang Wu Di is Luo-Luo’s father, and my Father-in-Law to boot.

 

ARG!

 

I turned down the chance to marry sisters. Sisters!

 

…Actually, not as disappointed as I thought I’d be, considering I clearly ended up with the better sister. Winning!

 

Taking a deep breath to calm my nerves, I try to ignore my new Father-in-Law’s smug smile as he moves to greet his daughter and help her to her feet. “Xiao Luo, I am your father, Liang Wu Di, but it was never my intent to give you up. Our Eternal Foe demanded it after we had a falling out, a show of fealty in offering my firstborn into service.” Turning to the Emperor to share a cold smile, he continued, “That was the first day I embarked upon my crusade to unseat him, only to uncover that the brother I looked up to, the brother I fell out with, the brother who demanded my precious daughter, was not my brother at all.” Reaching out to stroke Luo-Luo’s cheek with so much love it can’t be faked, he swallows a lump in his throat and says, “In a way, the Eternal Foe was overthrown because he took you away from me, a crime which I could never forgive. Know that you have always been in my heart, so I ask that you forgive your foolish father for leaving you alone all these years.”

 

Oddly enough, Luo-Luo turns to me instead of responding, her eyes filled with tears and surprise, but all I can do is offer a smile in support, and urge her to make her own decisions. “Forgive this servant –” she begins, only to stop and correct herself as Liang Wu Di shakes his head with a smile. “Forgive this one,” Luo-Luo corrects, though even I can tell that’s not right, because being a Divine True Musician has gotta have some heft, “But all this is happening too quickly and this one needs time to process it.”

 

“Yes, yes, take all the time you need.” Though obviously disappointed, Liang Wu Di tries not to let it show as he pats her on the shoulder once before thinking better of it. “Just know that I, your father, will wait as long as need be, and that your mother and sister are waiting as well. Your sister is actually here in Shi Bei, though she has some bad blood with your husband, water under the bridge, I’m sure.” Turning to look me in the eyes, he adds, “Now that my eldest daughter has been returned to me, I expect a proper marriage ceremony, understand? Preferably one where no one attempts to poison you, resulting in the need to engage in self mutilation to cure you.”

 

“Of course,” I reply, because what else can I say, except go along with the flow and accept it? Ask someone to cut you open one time…

 

As Liang Wu Di takes his place behind the Emperor once more, and Luo-Luo calms her nerves in Mom’s one-armed embrace, I find myself at the centre of attention once more, which is becoming all too common for my tastes. “Seeing how you are unable to come up with a suitable reward,” the Emperor begins, finishing the rest of his tea with a sigh of delight, “Let us try a different tack. What are your goals moving forward from here? What is it you hope to accomplish? In the short term and long term, if you please, and perhaps there will be something you desire which this Sovereign can grant you.”

 

Clever man. In supporting my goals, he binds us together in a way I cannot refuse, because if we’re working together to accomplish my dreams, then our fates will be tied together. Clearly he’s worried about the other Supreme Families, and he thinks that I and the army stationed here in Shi Bei can help him, an army which has given rise to three new Divinities and countless Peak Experts who would follow my lead. Then there’s my own strength, which is still something of a mystery, though I honestly hope there will never be any need to wield it ever again. The Eternal Emperor is dead and gone, and Zhen Shi gone with him, so all that remains are scattered bands of Defiled who might well be convinced to put aside their murderous ways and settle down in the Empire for good, like Asmani and her tribe living in the Arid Wastes. There is still bloody work to be done, but with a little luck and a lot of effort, we will have peace in our time once more, especially if the current Emperor’s reign remains stable and secure until it comes time to pass the title along.

 

So what do I want to do? I don’t want to just free the West, I also want to fix all the issues that plagued it. Access to food and water were the big ones, but I’ve been working on the first issue for a while. With glass now a thing, we can begin research on canning and food preservation, enabling the fertile south to export more of its agriculture to every corner of the Empire. As for water, I’ve already established that it’s all down-hill from the Azure sea and carved out a channel for water, so why not turn it into a bonafide river, and I guess plant some trees to keep the sand from filling it in? I’d need to consult some experts on erosion and other stuff, but I’m sure there’s a way to reclaim the desert and turn it into arable land after a few years. Planting trees helps, I think, so we can start from the coastline and work our way in, and perhaps see some positive changes in the coming decades.

 

But that’s just the start. I want to build schools and orphanages in every town, hamlet, and village, and task the Brotherhood with teaching the next generation how to read and write. Once we have a new generation of scholars, I want to create jobs for them in the municipal levels of government to help oversee those schools and other facets of society, positions which will be filled based on objective skill and merit, as opposed to nepotism. I want to write a system of laws in which all are equal before it, to ensure everyone who works hard can go to bed at night with a full belly and a roof over their head. I want to end slavery and shrink the economic gap between commoners and the wealthy elites, while simultaneously doing away with this system of inherited nobility and the belief that might makes right in spite of all else.

 

All grand dreams and noble ideals, but I can’t outright ask for any of this, because the Emperor would never agree. Too much hinges on slavery being a thing, so I need to work towards my goal myself and show the world that things don’t have to be this way. That’s why I let the secret of Anathema production leak, to show the world the full extent of what the lack of human rights has caused and make them look more closely at the problem, rather than avert their eyes away. It’s a risk, but one I’m willing to take, because the knowledge will bring more eyes to the issue and make it everyone’s concern, instead of just mine.

 

Of course, there’s other stuff I want too. I want to have a menagerie of floofs to love and to spoil, to build a home large enough for me and my wives as well as the family we will soon start. I want to have indoor plumbing and other technological advancements from my past life, and be pleasantly surprised by what the people of this world can contribute with their unique perspectives. I want to science the shit out of the Dao and create a primer or guide to cultivation that anyone can use to progress along the Path, because the more cultivators there are, the more data there will be, meaning eventually, someone will figure out the parts too complicated for me. I want to explore the depths of the Azure Sea and find out just what in the hell is so terrifying as to make Pong Pong live in constant fear. I want to explore the outlands and try to bring life back to them, so that humanity can flourish all around this strange and mysterious world instead of under the authority of a single man. I want to bring my sweet doggo out for a walk, as soon as he finishes digesting his latest meal, and see how he introduces himself to the rest of my friends and family, because he loves meeting new people and I love seeing him do it. I want to get to know my grandfather Naaran and my brother Gerel, and see if I have any surviving brothers or sisters I could help. I also want to make sure my sister knows how much she means to me, and that I would have made Charok my brother if he wasn’t married to her. I want to see my niece and nephew grow up to become the wonderful people I know they will be, and see the look on my parent’s faces when they become grandparents themselves. I want to support Mila in her quest to become a Peak Expert and Divine Blacksmith, cheer for Yan as she strives to follow in Grandpa Du’s footsteps, cherish them both as well as Lin-Lin everyday in an effort to find some way to make up for my lechery. I want to shamelessly woo Li-Li who I cannot even imagine a life without, and to get to know Luo-Luo better because I’ve long since fallen in love with this incredible woman and am thrilled to know that she loves me too as her emotions surge off her in waves of love and adoration.

 

There’s so much I want, but how do I respond to the Emperor’s question? Right now, I’d love a little privacy so I can respond appropriately to Luo-Luo’s emotions, but even I’m not so bold as to tell the Emperor to fuck off, much less Akanai or my parents. Aside from that, I want to make the world a better place, which is what I intend to do, one small step at a time, steps which would be much easier if the Emperor were on my side. There will be failures ahead, and mistakes to be made, but I have a loving family, earnest friends, and whole cadre of support floofs to help me through it all, to say nothing of the people and floofs I have yet to meet. So long as I follow my heart and surround myself with people who love me, then I have nothing to fear, because with their help, there is no trial or tribulation I cannot overcome.

 

We all must forge our own Path, but that doesn’t mean we must walk it alone, a lesson I’ve learned time and time again, but this time, I really think it’s gonna stick.

 

Chapter Meme 1

Chapter Meme 2

Chapter Meme 3

 

– Savage Divinity, Final Volume End –


Author’s Note: So. Here we are. I started posting this story to Royal Road in march of 2016, meaning it’s been more than six years since we started this journey, and it’s been one hell of a ride. I don’t have a word count, but it’s def at least 3.5 million words, which is just a mind-blowing number to comprehend.  

 

First and foremost, I want to thank you all for coming along with me on this journey, because whether you were there from the start or are a recent addition, the important thing is that you made it to the end. To have people come into the comments every week and show that they’ve been paying attention is just so incredible, to the point where I sometimes wonder if this is all a ruse and there’s like one superfan using bots to drive conversation and keep me interested in writing. Then there’s my patrons, who are actually willing to financially support my work, which is just unbelievable, and I am so very grateful to you all. You’ve paid for many a meal over these last six years so that I could spend less time cooking and more time writing, and it shows in my waistline, so thank you again for your generous support.

 

Now, for Savage Divinity, I plotted it out over the course of a couple weeks as a precursor Xianxia, a world of Immortals before there were Immortals and set cultivation techniques in play, which I would then inundate with memes. Since then, I mostly stuck to the plan aside from a few major and many minor changes, but this sort of open ending has always been the end goal. I know many of you would prefer something tighter, to see Rain accomplish the goals he lays out above, like end slavery, woo Li-Li, and sleep with Luo-Luo, but I would rather leave you all with hope. Happily ever after is great and all, but I like it more when a character still has room to grow, dreams to chase, and goals to accomplish even after the story is done. With the death of the Eternal Emperor, the main conflict has come and gone, so while it would be nice to hit those hallmark moments in text, I feel like this is a much better place to stop and let you all imagine the rest. Hope is what keeps us all going, the most important lesson Rain learned throughout the story, and one I think we all need to be reminded of every now and then. No matter how dark the future may seem, hold fast to hope, because so long as you continue along your chosen path, you can never truly know what heights it will bring you to unless you see it through to the end. With this ending, I ask for you to have hope for Rain and his loved ones, all of whom have grown on me as an author and a reader both, and I hope it is the same for you.

 

I mean, this ending sure as hell beats the alternative, because it should be clear to you all by now how much I love to make my characters suffer…

 

At the moment, I have no plans for additional side-stories because I have no ideas for any. Sure there are ideas I could go with, like the stuff I mentioned above, but it takes more than a single event to put together a chapter that sounds like something I would read. That being said, even though I have no plans to do so, that doesn’t mean I won’t. If I come up with something compelling, I’ll give it a go, but if not, then it is what it is.

 

As for what comes next for me, the answer is: a break. Writing has consumed my life for the last six years, and I’d like to rediscover what it’s like to have free time, plus I’m currently going through a difficult personal situation which I won’t get into here. What I do know is that I want to write another story now that Savage Divinity is done, but what that story will be is a mystery even to me. I’ve got ideas, but not even a vague notion of a possible plot in mind, so it’ll take some time to put something together that I want to pursue. All I know right now is that it won’t be a sequel to Savage Divinity, but once I commit to something, I’ll probably share the news on Discord, so you can click that link if you want to be among the first to know, or just want to say hi, ask questions, or chat. The earliest I’ll have anything to show will likely be 2023, and that’s if I rush to get something going asap, but for now, I’m gonna take it easy, cuddle my dog, and just take it all in.

 

Thank you all again for reading Savage Divinity and giving me the strength and motivation I needed to get it done. It means so much to me, I cannot wholly express it in words. I am grateful to have taken this journey alongside so many friends, and I hope that you will all join me on the next one, whatever it may be.

 

Until next time.

 

-Ruffwriter


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Savage Divinity – Chapter 839

 

Victory is mine, but celebrations will have to wait as I watch a man mourn the loss of his brother.

 

Gently cradling the crumbling soul of the man who conquered the Warring States, the portly scholar Di Zi sheds no tears and emanates no grief or heartache, because his control over his emotions is so ingrained that he’s all but forgotten how to feel. By necessity, if I were to guess, since an errant soul like Di Zi cannot afford to indulge his emotions lest he expend what little remains of his finite and depleted Life Force, but I’m now a firm believer in accepting emotion as it comes, rather than shunting it aside to deal with later. Especially since I doubt he has much of a later, so I offer a modicum of Life Force to help sustain his existence so he can properly mourn. The transformation is staggering to behold as Di Zi staggers beneath the weight of his emotions and utters a keening wail that brings tears to my eyes, his anguish so palpable even my chest aches.

 

The Eternal Emperor was a monster to be sure, but one born of Ying Zheng who was merely a man, one with hopes, dreams, and people who loved him. I cannot forgive him for what he has done, but at the same time, I am glad I was able to bring him peace in this life and a second chance in the next.  

 

Bowing my head and looking away, I offer Di Zi as much privacy as I can, which isn’t much given how the denizens of the Eternal Emperor’s court of souls are still standing around, dazed and aimless as ever without any indication of awareness at having been freed by their captor’s death, or that they are about to pass through the cycle of reincarnation to be reborn anew. Their forms fade away en masse with the only outlier being the host Emperor’s soul, who shows no sign of crumbling away but is also still bound in chains and kneeling by the feet of the Natal Throne. Not sure if that’s a bad thing considering I have no idea what to do with him, because what happens next is a complete clusterfuck in which anything can happen. Liang Wu Di is supposed to be the Emperor in all but name now, so how will he react to the current Emperor coming back? What if this guy’s even worse than Ying Zheng, hellbent on getting revenge or worse, just a terrible ruler through and through? There’s no doubt the Supreme Families are scheming with regards to how to claim the throne for themselves, a conflict which I wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot pole but will inevitably be drawn into because politics. Knowing all this, it might be a good idea to have the current Emperor on my side, seeing how he pretty much owes me his life, but on the other hand, he’s seen some real shit these last few minutes, secrets of mine which I would much rather keep under wraps. There’s an argument to be made to go full scorched earth and claim no survivors made it out in order to protect myself and my secrets, but I’m not sure that’s the best move, or one in accordance with my Dao.  

 

Yes, I’ve killed before, and killing the Emperor while he’s bound and helpless is a total dick move, but there are some secrets worth killing for. The question is, are mine?

“Nature is cruel and merciless, where only the strong survive. So long as we burden ourselves with false ideals, then we will never know true peace.”

 

A familiar phrase I’ve heard more than once, albeit with a little twist at the end, but I sense that this is not an attempt to open a dialogue, only Di Zi’s eulogy for the Eternal Emperor. No, for Ying Zheng, the man he was before taking up the mantle of the Eternal Emperor, the man Di Zi knew, as made clear by his next statement. “Those were your words, your final appeal to us five brothers just moments before we had our falling out. That the noble principles we all stood for, fought for, killed for, principles which you yourself once embodied, were merely false ideals holding us back. You were the best of us all, which is why we followed you without question, and why those words broke my heart. Broke all of our hearts, we brothers who looked up to you so, because we knew who you truly were and how lost you’d become. You’d forgotten why you worked so hard to unite the Empire in the first place. Not for a throne or a seal, but for a cause, a dream of a world in which peace was no longer a faint memory and children could grow up happy and free. You shared that dream with us and made us believe, gave us purpose and hope for the future, but alas, those dreams have gone and died, ground to dust beneath the heel of the man who dared to dream them up in the first place.” Heaving a heavy sigh as the Eternal Emperor’s soul returns to the cycle of reincarnation, Di Zi continues, “May you find yourself in the next life, big brother, and the strength to remain true to it. I hope the Heavens will arrange it so that we can all be brothers again, and this time, we will not let you falter.”

 

The Energy of the Heavens surge to fill in an absence and I glance up to see the vast majority of the Eternal Emperor’s court of souls finish crumbling away into nothingness. Di Zi continues to watch what little remains of his four brothers with a mournful expression, and the Emperor’s soul who watches this all with a carefully neutral expression, while I do my best not to get involved. A single soul steps forward from the crowd to catch my attention however, and I recognize him as Liang Wu Di’s Seneschal, the Solitary Sword, Zhang Jun Bao. Cupping his hands in a Martial salute, he falls to his knees and bows at the waist until his forehead is even lower than his ankles. The floor to this court of souls is similarly crumbling away, and I hasten to help the man to his feet, but my fingers slip through the Seneschal’s arm as he is fast fading into nothingness. “A thousand thanks for this servant’s freedom,” the Seneschal intones, before straightening up to look me in the eyes with a sad smile. “Please convey my regrets to my patron, and tell him that the blame lies not with him. This old servant had long since dedicated his life to his highness, Liang Wu Di, and to die in his service an honour, one second only to having played a part in helping him become the dragon he is today.”

 

“I will pass along your words and sentiments,” I reply, struggling not to cry out of sheer empathy as I commit the Seneschal’s emotions to memory in hopes of passing them along later. Not just the sorrow and anguish, but also the overwhelming pride and love he shares for the man he serves. To the world, they were master and servant, but they were as close as any father and son, and I suspect Zhang Jun Bao’s death was done as a warning to Liang Wu Di, or perhaps as punishment for overstepping his bounds. Having received my promise, Zhang Jun Bao no longer has anything left to hold him here, and quickly disappears before my eyes, a passing which is as peaceful as any.

That was the Intent after all, when I cut down the Emperor’s court of souls with a single swing of Peace. An action taken on a whim, because it just felt right, to bring peace to the dead and send them on their way with the sword of the same name. Eradicating the Eternal Emperor’s soul and denying him a chance of reincarnation would’ve sat heavily on my conscience, because it would be against my Dao, my principles, my beliefs, which is why I was hoping the brilliant scholar Di Zi would have a solution to all my woes. If that didn’t work out, I still could’ve obliterated the Eternal Emperor from existence, it just would’ve left me conflicted, a crack in my heart which would need time and introspection to mend, assuming it ever did. That’s the secret to controlling power beyond what mere mortals can wield, to act in accordance with one’s heart, a Dao Heart which is formed not by Visualization or Intent, but by the motives behind the actions you’ve taken in life thus far and the perspective you’ve built around it. Foundation Establishment, Chi Purification, and Core Formation, I don’t think the order matters as much so long as you can put it all together in a way that works, but to move forward from there, your Dao Heart must first be tested to prove that the foundations you’ve built thus far are strong enough to progress onwards along your chosen Path.

 

Something I’ve known for awhile now, subconsciously at least, else I would’ve never passed up the chance to kill an army of Defiled with the tidal wave which brought me to Shi Bei. The Rain who fought in Sinuji the first time would’ve cackled with glee at the prospect of slaughtering so many hated foes all at once, but I found new perspective while recovering from my Shattered Core and seeing the war from a new perspective. Not only was I able to step away from all the death and bloodshed and get my head back on straight, it also showed me that the War against the Enemy was not as black and white as I once believed. Were it not for this period of respite in which I married three beloved wives, reunited with Buddy, helped the Abbot, and spent an inordinate amount of time discussing the Dao with anyone who would listen, among many other things, then I might well have continued down the wrong Path to become a Martial Warrior in truth, a bloodthirsty Warrior who sought to destroy the Enemy out of misplaced anger and hatred. Instead, I was able to widen my perspective and find a new Path, one more suited to me which brought me to the heights I’ve reached today.

 

Fortune found in disaster, I suppose, which probably means I owe Gen a thanks for crippling me. Good thing he’s dead and reincarnated then, because I’ll write my name backwards before I ever thank that asshole, may he rest in peace.

 

…What? I don’t hate the Defiled anymore, but that doesn’t mean I have to love and forgive them.

 

Alas, now that I’ve worked out how I must act in accordance with my Dao, I can no longer justify letting the current Emperor go the way of the dodo, no matter how convenient it might be. Having morals is the worst, because they’re like self-imposed handicaps your enemy won’t be affected by, but I can’t go against my Dao and my conscience. If I did, it probably wouldn’t affect me much today, but ten, twenty, a hundred, or a thousand years down the line, I might well look back on the moment I murdered the current Emperor as the first stray step which brought me away from my Dao, the same way the Eternal Emperor strayed from his Path to go from celebrated war hero to megalomaniacal butcher looking forward to carving up innocent civilians in search of the Dao.

 

That is what it means to cultivate after all, to pursue the truth. Not of the Dao, but of the self, because to act against the self is to act against your Dao, and only someone who knows themself can ever reach the pinnacle of their Dao.

 

So simple, yet also infinitely complex, and staggeringly difficult because humans are notoriously good at lying to themselves. Even when you know the truth, you might not really know it know it, you know? Or you might even reject the truth outright, because life is hard enough as it is without having to deal with all the harsh truths, like maybe it’s time you stopped lying to your loved ones and hoarding so many floofs.

 

…No. Fuck that noise. I’m gonna keep hoarding floofs, because I’m probably gonna need them once the truth gets out.

 

As I emerge from my spiral of dread and apprehension regarding discussions to come, I find myself standing alone in the Void, save for Buddy beside me, Di Zi across from me, and the current Emperor chained up beside us. I should probably free him, but I have no idea how, so I turn to Di Zi while pointing at the Emperor and ask, “You uh… wouldn’t happen to know how to free him, would you? Because that would be great.”

 

Giving the Emperor a pointed look, Di Zi ask, “I do, but are you certain this is what you desire? Your future would be smooth sailing with the Emperor under your thumb, even one besieged on all sides by political enemies and allies alike.”

 

“Yea, but that’s not my style.” Narrowing my eyes in suspicion, I add, “Nor will I stand idly by and allow you to become a second Eternal Emperor, so if you don’t intend to help, then I kindly invite you to move on.”

 

In response, the portly scholar flashes a reassuring smile paired with a sad shake of his head. “Rest assured. I’ve no desire to continue enduring this wretched existence, and intend to pass on in hopes of reincarnating alongside my sworn brothers. I only wanted to know the measure of the man who defeated my brother and my hero, and now I can rest assured knowing I leave his legacy in good hands.” Waving his hand towards the Emperor, he does something which I can just barely sense, but can’t exactly make out the details. What I can tell is that Di Zi is greatly lessened by it, having expended all but a scrap of the Life Force remaining to him. “It will take some time for him to fully free himself,” Di Zi explains, offering a shrug as he slowly fades away just like the rest. “A necessity, I’m afraid, for to tear those bonds myself would leave him so weak he might not even have strength enough to reclaim his throne.”

 

Even though I have no idea as to the specifics, it makes sense to me too, much like how a butterfly needs to break free of its cocoon on its own to help it build up enough strength to live. That being said, I intend to stay and watch until Di Zi fully fades away, which he accepts with a small nod of approval. “A small part of me wants to stay and watch you progress along your Path, to see what new heights you will achieve,” Di Zi begins, only to shake his head in regret. “Alas, curiosity alone is not enough to live for, and I yearn for the comfort of their company once more.” Casting one final glance at the current Emperor, Di Zi adds, “Ying Zheng was a good man once, but a conflicted one. That’s why I pled for mercy on the outlands’ behalf. Not because I thought he would make for a poor Emperor of the mortal world, but because I knew that without an enemy to fight, he would lose all purpose in life.” Turning his gaze towards me, he offers me a sad smile and says, “Never forget to hold fast to yours.”

 

And with those parting words, Di Zi passes on into the next life and closes the book on a dark chapter in history, one I doubt will ever come to light. Mostly because of face, since no one in the Supreme Families will want anyone to know that they’ve been dancing to the Eternal Emperor’s tune since the founding of the Empire. Seeing the current Emperor fixated on breaking out of his chains and in no mood for small talk, I leave a Natal Soul behind to keep an eye on him just in case anything goes wrong before stepping out of the Void and back into the physical world. The harsh glare of the Western Sun is exactly where I last left it, and the stench of blood and offal as unsettling as I remember. Though I was fortunate enough to emerge victorious from my clash against the Eternal Emperor, the battle for Shi Bei is still going strong as Half-Demons surge onto the walls and continue to press the beleaguered defenders. The impulsive part of me wants to utilize the Energy of the Heavens to rain death down upon the Defiled, no pun intended, but that’s a terrible idea. Not just because I would feel bad about slaughtering tens of thousands of people, which I most definitely would, but also because the Treaty still stands by the barest of technicalities, namely that no one has launched a successful nuclear strike just yet, nor has any Enemy Divinity taken overt, direct action against any Imperial mortals.

 

Granted, this is only the case because they’ve tried and failed, but it’s still bad for optics if I were to shatter the Treaty wholesale, especially when there’s still the ghost of a chance of keeping it intact. Politics. This means I’m bound by the Treaty and my own sense of honour from acting overtly against the army of Defiled Half-Demons, but luckily, my new perspective has given me a more comprehensive awareness of the Dao and Heavenly Energy. With this and a little creative thinking, it shouldn’t be all to difficult to lend my allies a hand without anyone raising a complaint, because there’s nothing in my Dao which says I gotta fight fair.

 

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

 

The heady rush of battle and bloodshed had once been an endless font of joy and elation, but Vithar found it rather lacking of late.

 

Rather than a deluge, it had dwindled to less than a trickle, a stark contrast to what he’d experienced before in battles prior to this. Odd that, for he had never felt stronger or more confident than he did at this moment, his body light and movements natural to the point where he barely even had to think to fight. Rider and mount worked together in perfect harmony, the skeletal Transcendent beneath him more nimble and responsive than any garo could ever be, able to weave seamlessly through the tangle of longspears untouched and bring Vithar in close to his targets. From there, his battle-axe would drink deep of their blood, cleaving clean through steel, flesh, and bone with laughable ease, and when it encountered a weapon it could not sunder in twain, his battle-axe would come alive and bypass it of its own volition.

 

There was a time when he had to work to control his mount and guide his axe home, to decide when to block and when to counter, but this was no longer true. Even if his mount mis-stepped and brought him into the path of a spear, his Transcendent Armour would ward off the blow and see him through to safety, while simultaneously guiding his actions to respond accordingly. In short, Vithar’s presence was no longer needed to conduct this battle, for he was merely a fleshy vessel for the Transcendent to wield, a weapon in the hands of another to fight in a war that was not his own.

 

That was the crux of Vithar’s dissatisfaction, the faint perception of having been used. Why was he still here in Shi Bei, fighting over stones laid atop sand for a cause he did not understand? What value was there in taking this city, in spilling the blood of those defending its walls? Worthy foes, one and all, ones who’d held them off for so many days, and might well continue fighting for several more still. Was he not on his way out before all this? What happened to bring him back here? He’d given Gargeera the signal to withdraw, and his tribesmen had all followed suit, until the Uniter took the field and commanded them to halt. From there, it was all a blur, a jumbled mess of memories Vithar could barely make sense of, and as he glanced about the battlefield in search of a familiar face, he saw only strangers, rivals, and enemies in all directions.

 

A raspy, earthshaking roar echoed across the sands, uttered by a fierce and formidable bestial king, and the clear warning sent a jolt through Vithar which shook him to his core and left him staggering in sheer shock. The mount beneath him was unfazed, and his Transcendent armour continued to direct his actions unchecked, but his eyes were open now and his thoughts no longer suppressed. The Uniter had used him, taken him against his will, made him into a Transcendent in all but name, a transgression Vithar would not stand for, but before he could find the strength to fight for control once more, a second cry sounded out, but this time from a beast far less formidable. He’d heard the cry before, from a delicious food-beast these southlanders reared, a tiny creature of feathers and beak that strutted about without fear and was known to crow at the sun’s rise.

 

A chicken, the southlanders called it, a name Vithar had noted well, for Asmani enjoyed feasting upon their delectably juicy meat.

 

Why one saw fit to cackle now was a mystery to be sure, but even before the question had yet to fully form, Vithar saw his entire life unfold before him in a single, fleeting moment. He saw himself regain control of his body and rid himself of the Transcendent’s form, peeling it off piece by piece as if it were no more than wet cloth. From there, he followed the setting sun deep into the heart of the province, doing everything he could to find his way back to that desert oasis where he’d left Asmani. It took many moons to make the trek, and he almost lost himself to thirst and madness, but he persevered because he could not die yet, not before he saw her again. And see her he did, holding their beautiful baby daughter, a child untouched by the vile air of the Northlands and perfect in every possible way. Seeing her laying fast asleep in Asmani’s arms brought Vithar a joy unlike anything he’d ever felt before, a sense of contentment and accomplishment which far surpassed becoming Chieftain of Chieftains. This was a bliss and pride which he’d never known existed before today and would never know again, for this was all merely a dream, a dream he never wanted to end but knew would have to no matter what, for this was a dream which was never meant for him.

 

The enchanting sight of his blissful dreams was replaced by the harsh glare of glinting steel, but Vithar made no move to defend himself. The Transcendent had fallen silent now, its poisoned whispers offering no allure compared to the dreams cruel fate denied him. He’d made too many mistakes, fought for all the wrong reasons, but at least now his child and his surviving tribesmen had a chance to live out their lives in this land of plenty. That was a prize well worth fighting for, one worth dying for, so he met the eyes of his killer and faced down his death with pride.

 

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

 

Excitement bubbled up from within Huu’s chest as he cut down the Half-Demon barring his path, only to howl in bitter regret as he watched his target die before his eyes. The damnable Chieftain Vithar had been struck down by another’s blade, so how was Huu supposed to avenge his uncle Kalil now? So inundated with rage and indignation, he almost turned his sabre upon the person who stole away his chance for vengeance, until he saw who it was that struck the final blow. Tears streamed down from Ma’s eyes as she stared down at the headless Chieftain, lost in her own little world as she flicked the blood from her battle-axe and said a silent prayer to the Mother above, and only then did she notice Huu’s gaze. “He was yer uncle,” she Sent, her tone hoarse and tired as can be, “But he was my brother. Not by choice, not at first, but it became that way because of our shared love of you, so it’s high time ye stopped disgracin’ his memory and pulled yer head out of your ass, ye?

 

“Yes Ma,” Huu replied, and he knew it for truth, because for the first time in months, he saw how much his Ma was hurting too, not to mention Yesui and Yosai. They were both frantic and exhausted from keeping up with him in the fight, their hair plastered to their faces and their quins huffing and puffing so hard it was a wonder they had yet to lie down and refuse to fight. There was still a battle to be fought, so this was no time to hug his Ma or his wives, but Huu promised himself to do just that as soon as there was time. Raising his sabre to deliver another killing blow, he found it strange that the Half-Demons were so still and subdued, no longer fuelled by rage and hatred and seemingly distracted and confused. Huu killed two more before the tides of war shifted and the majority of Defiled broke ranks to run, but even though the wolf in him wanted to chase after them for another hunt, he couldn’t find it in him to hate them any more.

 

Let the Enemy run. He would fight them another day if need be, help Rain re-take the West and clear the province of all Defiled threat, but for now, Huu had a promise to keep, and he was in no mood to wait.

 

And as he wrapped his arms around his wives and mother, he let go of all his anger and rage and found sorrow and solace in their wake.

 

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

 

“No!”

 

Taken aback by his opponent’s unexpected outburst, Baatar took his distance and raised his guard, but it wasn’t necessary. Something had snapped within Ankhbayar, and the young man was no longer right in the head, or at least, so wrong that he could no longer function. “No, no, no,” the exiled traitor mumbled, stumbling about the battlements in a daze. “Lies and slander, for my Path is just. They were wrong, they all were, and I will show them. Have already shown them, for the blood is strong. Two powerful sons I have raised, this, no one can deny, and soon the Empire will have no choice but to accept it and bow down before the true sons and daughters of the Mother Above.”

 

“You have raised no sons,” Baatar replied, his lip curling into a sneer of utter disdain. There was no accomplishment in striking down a madman, a loss which robbed him of much strength, so he stood and rested while engaging the fool in a battle of words instead. “You sired two outstanding sons, but you had no part in raising them. There is more to greatness than blood, Ankhbayar, you yourself are proof enough, so no matter how many sons or daughters you sire, you will never raise one to be great.”

If the madman heard any of this, he showed no sign of it, so Baatar pushed himself to cut the man down before Naaran or Gerel were forced to do it themselves. That was the least he could do, bear the sin of killing their son and father, so if they should come to hate him for it, then so be it. Though drained and exhausted beyond belief, he scanned the city walls in search of soldiers in need, but the Defiled had no fight left in them. Mother was still busy battling Divinities, but father had just finished his fight, in a most impressive fashion no less. Though his staff bore no pointed tip, he’d still managed to drive it clean through Mao Jianghong’s armoured torso, and the traitor guard captain stood transfixed with blades still in hand, his back straight and eyes unyielding. “I did not lose to you,” he declared, his tone dripping with arrogance and conceit. “Yours was the hand which dealt the blow, but it was not you who defeated me.”

 

To Baatar’s surprise, Father responded by nodding in agreement, his sagely expression hinting that he gleaned something from Jianghong’s mad ramblings. “Aye. Ye lost to yerself and yer hatred, a battle fought long ago, and ye just been wandering through life ever since. My thanks to ye then, fer showin’ me the error of me ways, and may ye go peacefully into the warm embrace of the Mother Above.”

 

For the first time since the siege began, Mao Jianghong’s icy façade cracked to show a hint of emotion, a wisp of pained contrition. “I fear Her Embrace will be denied me, and that I shall never be reunited with my family again, but such is the price which must be paid.”

 

“I disagree.” Gesturing up at the Heavens Above, father’s gruff expression broke out into a cheery smile. “The Mum on high is a forgiving sort, so I’m sure She’ll fight for ye if ye just ask.”

 

“Perhaps.” Exhaling in what Baatar first thought was a sigh, he realized it was actually Jianghong’s final breath, and he released the breath he didn’t know he’d been holding. Still keeping an eye on the muttering Ankhbayar, Baatar glanced over to Luo-Luo and the wagon of animals only to break out into a smile of pride and relief, for there stood his son, as bright and chipper as could be, next to the two Spiritual Beasts who might well have won them the day, the fearsome tiger Rakshasa and the cowardly rooster Kukku. More importantly, Baatar’s son was alive and well, having returned from his battle with Zhen Shi unscathed, as evidenced by his bright, cheery smile as he greeted each of his pets in turn.

 

A fool of a boy, to spoil his animals now instead of striking while the iron was hot, but such was his nature, and Baatar would not have him any other way.

 

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

 

There’s a vulgar joke to be made here about a rooster and tiger coming together to make peace and end war, but much as I would love to crack wise, this is hardly the time and place.

 

It wouldn’t translate over to common anyways, though funnily enough, little bird is slang for penis, which is close enough to rooster and cock. Alas, there’s no equivalent for pussy cat, which is real disappointing, because I haven’t even come up with a joke yet and I’m already chuckling. In my defense, I’m almost giddy with relief now that the battle is won, with the Defiled fleeing in droves while the Imperials hold the wall, but much as I would love to bask in the moment and maybe lie down for a cuddle puddle, there is still work to be done.

 

Running a hand through my hair to find Pong Pong hidden within, I pluck him out of my man-bun and place him down to Rakky’s head while emanating a brief burst of Aura to tell him everything’s alright and that I got it from here. The little guy lets out the cutest little sigh of relief before snuggling down into Rakky’s luxurious fur, who is much more accepting of Pong Pong’s presence now and no longer so aggrieved. Giving the big cat one last pat on the cheek before doing the same for Kukky, I thank them both for their help before Cloud-Stepping out into the skies to chase after my quarry. Not the fleeing Half-Demons, who I am happy to spare for now, and possibly again if they are open to reason and redemption. That’s a discussion for another day however, for my chosen targets have entered into sight, and I start with Mataram YuKon, the traitor who sold out the Western Province to Zhen Shi. With Unity in hand, I charge into the fray and catch him by surprise, thanks to the new trick I just picked up from Pong Pong which is best described as a flowing current of Concealment. It’s like regular Concealment, but more active and involved, distorting my presence the way water distorts light until none can make it down into its depths. The exact specifics are beyond me, but it’s frighteningly effective for reasons I can’t entirely understand, yet am more than happy to make use of regardless.

 

Knowing without knowing, until there comes a time when I’ve figured enough out to know more. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and having a calculator doesn’t instantly give you the ability to spit out mathematical proofs, so I need to take this one step at a time.

 

With the element of surprise on my side, Mataram YuKon is a sitting duck, or at least he should’ve been. Instead, he whips his spear around at the last moment to parry my thrust, my Ground Shrinking Strike still falling short of Akanai’s. Even then, I hold the advantage of momentum, yet again, my foe turns things around, picking apart my second attack and countering with a deadly thrust of his own that just barely misses my throat. In a fair fight, it’s obvious I’m wholly outmatched, because even though I’m slightly faster and stronger than he is, plus infinitely more handsome and dashing, Mataram YuKon has a wealth of experience accrued over who knows how many centuries, since I have no idea how old he really is.

 

Unfortunately for him, I’m not fighting alone, as my distraction has bought enough time for my Grand Mentor to show me how it’s really done once again. Her ax-lance pierces clean through Mataram Yukon’s stomach and bursts out of the small of his back, gutting him and shattering his spine so thoroughly that muscle and skin are all that holds his upper and lower half together.

 

A formidable woman, my Grand Mentor, and if not for my Sending, Akanai would have killed him outright, but with Zhen Shi dead and gone, the Empire needs a scapegoat to take the blame for this war, and Mataram YuKon fits the bill nicely. Borrowing a skill I learned from Lawgiver Won Gwang’s Natal Soul, I lock down the traitor’s Spiritual System to prevent him from using his skills too easily, a constricting force that stifles the flow of Chi to keep it stagnant and listless. This plus the gaping wound in his stomach and my Grand-Mentor’s supervision should be enough to keep Mataram YuKon in check, leaving me free to move onto my second and final target of today, someone I’ve been wanting to fight for a real, long time.

 

Here piggy, pig, pig!” I bellow, unable to contain myself in all this excitement. “Come out, come out, wherever you are!”

 

The spike of alarm and adrenaline emanating from Zhu Chanzui is everything I’d hoped it would be and more, his beady eyes widening in fear as he struggles to escape from Machali and Da Hui’s pincer. Even though they aren’t able to kill him, keeping him in place is simple enough, and I show no mercy as I bring Unity down atop his shoulder in a killing blow. To my surprise and relief, Big Poppa Piggy doesn’t die in a single hit, as his defenses are almost as sturdy as Zhen Shi’s, though derived in a different manner. This is a Manifestation of his thick, durable hide, an innate belief that carried over from his past life as a wild-bristleboar, and something he more or less takes for granted. It’s the same as Pong Pong’s defense in that he just believes it will protect him because that is its purpose, a simple belief made true through the power of pure, unmitigated faith.

 

But I bet my faith in gunpowder is stronger.

 

Though unharmed by my attack, it was still enough to drive Zhu Chanzui to his knees, which is why I didn’t spot his vicious counter-attack in time. A powerful left hook comes out of nowhere, one that could render me and several buildings behind me into a pulp, but the deadly counter glances off the invisible currents of Heavenly Energy still flowing around me. It’s the same Chi working that kept me Concealed, only now with a different Intent, one meant to envelope and protect like a solid barrier of flowing water. The shift between stealth and defense is so seamless because I don’t even have to think about it, for the Energy of the Heavens themselves know whether it is better to hide or protect me. A flick of my wrist sees Unity go from glaive to rifle, and I draw upon the power inherent in my memories of superior weaponry and the Intent contained within. That’s what I’ve been doing all along with my memes, but while reposts are reviled, everyone knows the Main Character never has to reload until the plotline demands it, enabling me to draw upon this image in question repeatedly without fail.

 

One with the Weapon and One with the Self, I point the barrel at big poppa piggy’s face with a smile before pulling the trigger. The shot echoes out across the battlefield and sends my foe’s body shooting back into the sand, but there is no spray of blood to accompany it. Even a point-blank shot with Bullet Intent failed to pierce through his Manifested Hide, but I am far from disappointed, for his mouth is bleeding and his mind is concussed by the jolt of this first shot. Here, in a moment of clarity, a revelation comes to me, one which sees my smile grow even wider. Even though I love memes and quips almost more than life itself, I would be the first to admit that they’re kinda sad and cringy. As time went on, I eventually came to the conclusion that the humour was detracting from the effectiveness of my attacks, but there was no proof that this was happening at all. The truth is, after memeing so much on Zhen Shi and failing to kill him, I was starting to get embarrassed by my stupid weeb antics, and so I came up with an excuse to stop, which became a self-fulfilling prophecy. I claimed my memes were less effective because of humour, and so they became less effective, not because of the humour, but because of my wavering Will.

 

But no more. Memes are every bit a part of me as my love of floof. An awkward, perplexing, and downright shameful part of me, but a part I now accept and embrace wholeheartedly. Because let’s be honest. Who cares if no one gets my jokes? I’m fucking hilarious, and that’s good enough for me.

 

Planting both boots on top of poppa piggy’s chest while stuffing the barrel of my rifle into his face, I mime myself chambering a round and make the click sound with my mouth. “Okay,” I yell, with as much old school swagger as I can muster. “I’m reloaded.” Thunder claps and sand billows up in clouds around Zhu Chanzui’s head, but the Ancestral Bristleboar still draws breath. “I can do this all day,” I continue, before unleashing a third shot, memeing to my heart’s content and drawing strength and elation from it as I cackle to the high heavens.

 

“Mmf-topp.”

Though the mumbled half-grunt is all but indecipherable to the ears, Zhu Chanzui’s actions make his meaning clear as he holds up a copper vessel to hold me off like a Catholic wields a crucifix against vampires. Grateful for the interruption, I take a moment to calm my nerves and find Balance once more, for though there is power within Imbalance, there is danger too, and I need to toe the line even more closely than most. As my temper cools, I’m overcome by a sense of nostalgia standing over the Ancestral Bristleboar as I am, and I lean over to look him dead in his beady little eyes with my rifle still pointed at his head. “You know,” I begin, ignoring his upraised hand the object held within while making no effort to hide the fact that I’m charging up the next Chi bullet for my rifle, “This reminds me of the time I killed your son. I was twelve at the time, coming off six months of slavery, so not in the best health. Didn’t have this rifle back then either, so I stood over his helpless, battered body and clubbed him to death. Took a lot of swinging, but I got it done in the end, and some payback for all the suffering he put me through.” Pressing the barrel of my rifle hard against his cheek and thoroughly enjoying the sight of him squirming beneath it, I add, “His name was Gortan, but you probably didn’t know him. He was the overseer in one of your slave mines, and he made my life a living hell until I got so sick he thought I was dead and tossed me into a pit of corpses.”

 

Only now do I realize that the battlefield has fallen silent, and every eye is upon us. With the Defiled Half-Demons running for the hills, the Divinities were quick to follow suit, aside from the Demonic Divinities who are lost in the sauce and running around in circles like headless chickens. Aside from them, the only other living Enemy combatants left in Shi Bei are Mataram YuKon and Big Poppa Piggy here, and my words have been imbued with Chi without me even knowing it. I want everyone to hear this, so I continue as is, speaking in a calm and almost soothing tone as I use my chin to gesture at the copper vessel. “That’s how you make it, isn’t it? I’ve been calling it Anathema, but that’s not what it is. It’s Death Energy, the raw, distilled essence of what’s left behind when a living creature breathes its last, but death alone is not enough. No, only those whose lives are filled with suffering and hearts overflowing with hatred or misery can conjure up this Death Energy in reality, Death Energy the Uniter demanded. So, being the enterprising little piggy you are, you bought slaves in droves and subjected them to all manner of torment and suffering, all so you could mass produce this Death Energy for the Enemy to use against us. You thought you were making a weapon, even unleashed it in Shen Mu for a demonstration and used it to kill two good men, Guan Suo and my Dharmapala, but in the end, all your hard work benefitted the Uniter as he took that Death Energy to fuel the process of his Ascension.”

 

Scoffing at his sheer stupidity, I shake my head in contempt. “And now you hope your last little vial will save you from death? How pitiful. Break it.” Zhu Chanzui lays transfixed in shock, unable to believe his ears or follow through with my demand. “I said break it,” I repeat, spurring him to action, but my patience is already at its end. “Never mind, I’ll do it myself.” The copper vessel comes apart before reaching my hands, leaving only a floating mass of darkness behind, one which comes alive in the sunlight for death will always seek life, just as life will always end in death. “You think this morsel of Death Energy enough to stop me? It’s barely enough to fill the gaps between my teeth.” To prove it, I Devour in a single breath, and neutralize it before it even reaches my Core, yielding less Heavenly Energy than even the piddliest of Demons and just barely enough to fuel a single shot.

 

But combined with the efforts I’ve already put together, it’s more than enough to kill the piggy, as I discover first-hand after firing my shot, one which explodes his head into a spray of bone and blood while shaking the very sand beneath my feet. The crack of the shot echoes across the city and the dunes surrounding it, and as it fades away, I put all my remaining hatred and enmity of Bristleboars into a single, utterance of, “Pathetic.”

 

The rush of catharsis is almost too much to bear as I revel in this single moment of triumph, one I value even more than the defeat of the Eternal Emperor. That was a group effort whereas this is all me, one which brings me great personal joy as I unburden myself of a whole slew of stifling regrets. Unable to contain myself, I let loose with a whoop of pure joy and am joined by Buddy’s exuberant howl, one urging me to bring him out for walkies and maybe snatch up some treats along the way. Going with the flow, I lead my sweet doggo out on the hunt, striking down Demonic Divinity after Demonic Divinity as easily as turning a hand, for the emotions I feel now cannot be contained and must be expressed in a healthy way. The first Demon falls to Unity, and the second and third to Peace and Tranquility, but then I am overcome with an urge to style on my foes. A coursing torrent of water Manifests around me, sweeping up a Demon and rendering it into goop, goop which Buddy Devours with glee alongside the other victims of my spirited rampage.

 

A Manifested Palm imbued with the Mountain Collapsing Strike shatters a bear Demon into pieces. A droplet of water condensed straight out of the air expands and engulfs a four-armed taloned freak. A deafening Sending ruptures a bloated Demon’s innards from within, leaving its outer shell untouched in death, which Buddy chomps through with great relish. One by one, I test out the things I learned from my Natal Souls and the Natal Souls of the Warriors who answered my prayers on the Demonic Divinities caught in Buddy’s trap. Collecting their heads is as easy as collecting cabbages growing on the side of the street, ones which I then feed to my gluttonous dog because he’s adorable when he eats. All too soon however, the battle comes to an end, for there are no more Demonic Divinities to be Devoured. Standing on the sands with my dog beside me, I huff and pant with exertion yet have never felt more alive than I do now.

 

This is the sheer, unadulterated joy of pure Balance, not restricting emotion but taking them as they come, of following my heart and doing as I please. A Path which does not come naturally to me, but one I will strive for all the same, so that no matter if success or failure awaits me at the end, at least I will know I will have gone living the best life that I can.

 

Pleased as punch and feeling much relieved, I turn back towards Shi Bei and find the surviving soldiers all watching me with mixed expressions after bearing witness to my deeds these last few minutes. The awe and admiration is thick in the air as my audience exchanges glances in disbelief, but there is also an underlying ambiance of dread and dismay to accompany my actions here today. I, a young talent who is not even twenty-five, just helped take down two powerful Divinity leaders before embarking on a wholesale slaughter of Demonic Divinities. More than that, I made it look easy, meaning the true depths of my strength have yet to be revealed, and I can feel their reverence and obeisance mounting as the masses rally to my banner and submit to my strength without even needing to be asked.

 

It’s happening isn’t? I’m gonna get a title drop, with everyone chanting my name. Oh my god, this is so exciting. I can almost hear it now, everyone chanting my title and calling me the Undying Div –

 

“Three cheers for Legate Falling Rain, the Savage Divinity!”

 

…God fucking damnit BoShui! What the hell did I ever do to you?

 

Chapter Meme 1

Chapter Meme 2

Chapter Meme 3

 

Author’s Note: I’d wanted to do a double release, but something came up and I couldn’t finish editing the second chapter in time, so expect one more on Sept 23 at 8pm EDT, or regular release time.

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Savage Divinity – Chapter 838

 

To Devour, or not to Devour. That is the question.

 

One I consider with great care, for the implications are staggering indeed. No man is an island, but the Eternal Emperor is about as close to it as one can get, a functionally immortal hegemon who conquered the known world and has kept it under the boot of his heel ever since. With a little help from faith and the Heavens above, I’ve summoned the Natal Souls of my allies and loved ones to aid me in battle against this most formidable foe, and yet I am concerned that this might not be enough. No man is an island, yet my foe is the next best thing, a man alone unwilling to back down as he puts on a clinic of power and skill. Though the weight of numbers is on my side and the battle appears to be going in my favour, the Eternal Emperor stands strong against the tide. More than that, I sense that he could flee at any moment and there’s nothing I could do to stop him, meaning he could live to fight another day, assuming he doesn’t succumb to Zhen Shi’s madness in the process. I don’t believe he will, for he stands firm before his host’s Natal Throne and guards it well, giving the fight his all in spite of the seemingly insurmountable odds.

 

Maybe he knows something I don’t, or is preparing something big to wipe out these Natal Souls all at once, or maybe he really is strong enough to hold out on his own. Honestly? If not for his complete and utter lack of empathy, I could almost admire him, though I admire the man he was even more. Clad in his golden Imperial robes and wielding a Materialized sword and spear in each hand, both of which feature dragons and phoenixes prominently on the hilt and haft, the Eternal Emperor’s cutting figure makes for an awe-inspiring sight as he makes his desperate last stand, but from his expression, you’d think it was merely another day in the office. Cold and distant, that’s how I would describe his grim demeanour, so calm and in control whilst embroiled in a jumbled, chaotic mess of a melee brawl, one in which he is woefully outnumbered. The Natal Souls who’ve come to support me are skewered and cut down dozens at a time, their borrowed vessels exploding into billowing, incandescent clouds of unbound Heavenly Energy with every touch of the Eternal Emperor’s deadly weapons. The mechanism behind the Eternal Emperor’s actions have yet to be revealed, for I am unable to connect with his soul and share in his perspective, one which would be most useful since I would love to know how he’s eliminating the Natal Souls of my allies so I can in turn use this skill against him.  

 

Even then, things are looking good for me and mine, but the outcome is not quite set in stone just yet, meaning it’s anybody’s game until the fat lady sings. There’s another option however, one in which I play a more active role in this final clash and subdue the Eternal Emperor myself. The power is right there in front of me, contained within the Natal Souls of these heroes who’ve come to my aid, Balanced Spirits that could easily become Unbalanced with just a little nudge in the wrong direction. Once Unbalanced, there’s nothing to stop me from Devouring them all and taking their strength for myself, an act which would afford me a more personal and in-depth look at their respective perspectives and thus more Insight and understanding into their Paths. Right now, all I can sense is an echo of their actions, a taste of their Dao and comprehension, but if I were to Devour them, then I would have everything, a wisp of their souls to tack onto mine and make us greater than the sum of our parts. It’s no different from what the Eternal Emperor has done with his court of souls, except these are merely Natal Souls, a compressed copy of the original which will dissipate once it is spent, so why not put them to better use instead? If I take them in, then they will become a part of me, a part of my Dao, and their strengths will become mine to wield, strength I could use to defeat the Eternal Emperor as easily as turning a hand, and perhaps even supplant him as the new Emperor of the Azure Sea to fulfill all my dreams of making this world a better place.

 

Except absolute power corrupts absolutely.

 

A proverb from my past life which holds all too true in this one, and a warning I would do well to heed before seizing absolute power for myself. The secrets of Heaven lay well within reach, so close I only need to step forward and seize them, but I hesitate to do so because I’m worried I would be doing it for all the wrong reasons. I am already a Divinity, perhaps even a Nascent Immortal like the Eternal Emperor claims, which means I am plenty strong as is. With help from the Natal Souls of my allies and loved ones, I have a good chance of emerging victorious as it stands, while I can only guess at how strong I would be after Devouring all these Natal Souls. I assume I’d become more powerful than I could ever imagine, but what if nothing happens? What if the Natal Souls are all just Cleansed and turned back into Heavenly Energy, putting me back where I started before all this?

 

Besides, with the limited understanding I currently possess with regards to the Dao, I’m fairly confident I have the means to end the Eternal Emperor’s existence with a single attack, render his soul unto nothingness and consign him to oblivion. I saw this happen first-hand with Mahakala, when he was doused with Anathema, which I now know is merely a manifestation of Death Energy in reality. From my tests with my own Natal Souls, I know I can conjure some up, or at least a close enough approximation to destroy the Eternal Emperor’s soul, but I would really rather not have to. Not because I’m squeamish, but I’m not talking about killing him here. If I were act against him directly in this manner, I would be forever denying him the chance to reincarnate, and who am I to judge him so harshly? Though he’s committed all manner of horrible crimes over the millennia, killing him would suffice, and any more would weigh heavily upon my conscience. Death severs all karma, so how can I deny anyone a fresh start in a new life with a clean slate, one in which they might not make the same mistakes they did in this life? Yes, mistakes, because I believe at the core of it all, the Eternal Emperor was once a good man trying to do what he believed was right, only to stray from his Path to proceed down the dark route he took to become the monster he is today.

 

Which makes him a poignant warning of things to come should I step up and replace him, which is why I’m so hesitant to act.

 

I jokingly called my Dao the Dao of ‘don’t be an asshole’, one in which I remain true to myself and my morals, but what’s to keep my definition of self and my morals from changing over the years? I identify most strongly with my past life and all the memories which came with it, but the Rayne I was in my past life would be horrified by many of the things I’ve done. He was no Warrior or soldier, no hunter or killer, but just a regular guy, an office drone in a call centre who probably never lifted a hand in anger his entire life, much less clubbed a helpless man to death in anger, but I have. I have fought and killed out of necessity, but I cannot deny the joy I derive from it either, a thrill and pleasure which the Rayne I remember would be repulsed by. I get this from Amigui, or perhaps it would be more accurate to say Amigui was shaped to behave like this by the man who sired him and the circumstances he grew up in, because to kill is to survive, or at least that is how he… how I see it. Kill or be killed, such is the law of this world, one in which others believe might makes right. I disagree on a philosophical level, but I also accept it on a rational level, else I’d be more like the Abbot trying to convince the Eternal Emperor to change his ways rather than dead set on killing him here and now.

 

I wholeheartedly believe that Ying Zheng is too far gone to ever find redemption again, and thus deserving of death, but eternal oblivion?

 

No.

 

The man I see before me is a monster, there is no denying that, but at one point in his life, this was not the case. What’s to stop me from following in the Eternal Emperor’s footsteps once I possess power unrivalled beneath the Heavens? I would love to believe that my moral convictions will always remain firmly rooted in the beliefs I adhere to today, but I’ve already deviated a fair bit away from Rayne’s moral compass, and will continue to deviate as things change. What happens if ten years down the line, I decide that my efforts to improve the world are progressing too slowly and turn to more forceful measures instead? Difficult to argue against killing a thousand slave owners to free ten-thousand slaves, especially if the conflict is quick and easy as it would be if I were to seize phenomenal cosmic power here and now, but that’s a cut and dry example that sets a precedent which leads me down a slippery slope. At what ratio is massed killing no longer worth it? One slave owner’s life for two slaves? Three? What about killing in other facets of life? Should I kill a political rival who blocks my efforts at every turn? An outspoken critic utilizing rumours and misinformation against me? An ignorant commoner who doesn’t understand my plan to urbanize farming and insists on doing things the old ways instead?  

 

Might does not make right, but it sure as hell makes getting results a whole lot easier. Even though I have good intentions, I have to go about fulfilling them the right way, because the road to hell is paved with good intentions, an idiom Ying Zheng’s story encapsulates all too well. For this reason alone, I believe he deserves a second chance in another life, or at least I believe I am not qualified to deny him one. Monsters aren’t born monsters, because all children are born innocent and untouched by the red dust of the mortal world.

 

And so my dilemma, as I struggle to hold firm to myself beneath a deluge of perspectives offered by the Natal Souls of my allies. Seize their power and make it my own to become something more than what I am now, more than a mortal Divinity wielding power unmatched, or reject this power out of fear and uncertainty? The latter would be for the best really, because I am too immature and uncertain for such power, too ignorant to the ways of the world and yet to experience all the vicissitudes of life. Maybe in a hundred years, I’ll have a better handle on who I am and what my Dao entails, because right now, it’s pretty much just, ‘do as I please and hope it all works out for the best’. The optimism of youth, which is beautiful and inspiring, except the cynicism of experience tells me to always prepare for the worst. Even though I possess memories of my past life, those fragmented experiences don’t count for much on the maturity scale, especially since I was something of a man-child in my past life. That being said, what those memories do tell me is that I’ll change in ten thousand different ways over the next decade at the very least, and probably ten-thousand more in the decade after, because that is what life is. Growth. Progress. Change. Advancement. At ten, your priorities are vastly different from you at twenty, or you at thirty and forty, and that’s completely normal, but how can I ensure that the me at forty, sixty, or older won’t make the same mistakes the Eternal Emperor made when he proceeded down the wrong Path?

 

The answer is rather simple yet also infinitely complex at the same time, because all I can do is try to be the best version of myself that I can be. That’s the most I can really ask of myself, because I still don’t know enough to have my life figured out, and I doubt I ever will. To be human is to choose, a statement I shared with the captured prisoners of the West as the Enemy gathered them before the walls of JiangHu and forced them to commit horrific acts against their fellow prisoners or have horrific acts committed against them. As I stood there and scanned the crowd of prisoners awaiting their turn to choose, it took everything I had to keep from breaking down into sobs as I waxed poetic about the freedom of choice and the nobility of man. I told them to not give in to despair, that where there is life, there is hope. I said, “While I cannot promise to march out and rescue you, know that your pain is fleeting and life impermanent, but the choices you make will have lasting consequences. All you who lie there awaiting death, know that you have chosen to be human, to be better than what the Enemy desires us to be, and for this, you have my utmost respect and admiration.”

 

A lovely little speech, full of optimistic nobility that led those prisoners to revolt against their captors, a short-lived resistance that was quashed without mercy and saw hundreds of prisoners die as they refused to play along with the Enemy’s games. I believe they made the right choice, but seen from another perspective, I essentially convinced them to commit suicide by proxy. How can I be sure that was the right call? Maybe some of them could have survived had I not spoken up, could have kept their heads down, done what was necessary, and atoned for their sins after the fact. Where there is life, there is hope, those were my words, yet I drove them to choose death over inflicting pain and suffering to others, a choice I am not sure I would be able to make in their place. For all I know, maybe some of those prisoners who survived in JiangHu were in the harbours we liberated, or Pang Si Xing, and now happily in the Citadels where they can rest and recuperate, while those who died are gone forever because I gave them shit advice. Nor am I sure that all this suffering is even proof against the existence of a Mother Above, or some other deity on high, because now I see the moral dilemma of using absolute strength to solve all the world’s problems. Might does not make right, and the ends do not justify the means, this I know and believe in my heart of hearts, yet cannot wholly elucidate in a way I can agree with without question. As things stand now, I could return to reality and slaughter the army of Half-Demons single-handedly, but would that be right? Would it be just? Forget about whether the Half-Demons deserve death, but even the Defiled Divinities have yet to overtly act against mortal soldiers, so I can hardly hold the moral high ground while embarking on a slaughter of tens of thousands of Defiled, right?

 

Not because they’re mortals, and I am now a Divinity, but because this deluge of differing perspectives has painted a world steeped in shades of gray, rather than the black and white I wish it were.

 

The army of Natal Souls who answered my prayers is not comprised solely of Imperials, for much like Bai Qi supported me in death, many of the Half-Demons fighting on the walls of Shi Bei have found it in them to support me in life. Many of them have lost their way and have no desire to make their way back, but there are many who are fighting for a better life for their tribesmen, and I cannot claim I would not do the same. If the mountains I call home were to be rendered inhospitable tomorrow, and the People denied a place in the Empire proper, I would be the first to take up my sword against the powers that be, and I would be justified in doing so. Yet the soldiers I would fight would not be fighting to oppress me, but merely following orders from on high, the death knell of many a righteous revolution. From one perspective, it is right to kill the Defiled and drive them out from the Empire’s borders, but looking at it from a different angle, how can I in good conscience send Defiled children back to the outlands where they’ll be forced to compete and slaughter one another just to ensure their tribes don’t grow too large to survive?

 

The same dilemma presents itself with the Death Corps Guards and Royal Guardians, who are sure to be caught in the crossfire should I choose to wage war against the Empire over slavery, civil liberties, income equality, or any other cause I might take up. Of course, the best option would be to solve these issues without spilling any blood, but that is an unrealistic expectation. Even with all the strength I would possess if I should Devour every Natal Soul present, there will still be those who refuse to bend the knee and follow my vision, if only because it threatens their vested interests. I have always known that change would come at the cost of bloody revolution, and I’d hoped to be long dead before all the killing kicked off, because even though I believe in an ideal, I’m not confident I can hold true to my convictions in the heat of the moment without going astray. Can I reign in my anger if someone I love suffers an unjust death? If my children are bullied by others, would I just stand idly by? What’s to stop me from using might to oppress others and see my vision carried through once I’m more powerful than the Eternal Emperor?

 

Nothing. And that in itself is terrifying.

 

Even with all these doubts and reservations, the temptation to go through with this is almost too powerful to resist. Just think of all the good I could accomplish if I were to use this power to become Emperor myself, rather than try to work with the Imperial Clan. My former patron would resist of course, as would the other Supreme Families, but that’s hardly anything to balk at. Even though they all worked together to put Liang Wu Di on the throne, that only means they also have the power to depose him, so I would bet dollars to donuts that the other families are already sharpening their knives in the dark. Whether Wu Di survives to his coronation day is still up in the air, and I’m not even sure if he’d be a better Emperor than the man he’s succeeding. No, he’ll likely be more of the same, happy to keep the status quo and amass power for the Liangs, but even if he wants to be a better Emperor, the other families would oppose him on principle alone, so why not simply seize power and authority for myself?

 

If I were Emperor, then it would be my hands on the tiller of humanity guiding our progress into the future. I could end slavery with a single mandate, put new laws into effect condemning abuse and exploitation, start work on a transcontinental highway connecting every major city in the provinces, and build schools in every town and village to educate the next generation before installing a system of service and reward based on skill and merit rather than nepotism and greed. If I were Emperor, those who rise up against me would be the rebels and insurgents, meaning the vast majority would see my actions as right and just by virtue of being the default option. Then there’s all the perks, like the wealth and respect that comes with the role, to which I am not entirely immune. I love being rich, but mostly because I would hate being poor, and anything extra is used as funding for my charitable pursuits, but as Emperor, I would have the wealth of the entire nation to use as I please.

 

Not to mention a city to hold my massive harem, because an Emperor’s gotta have descendants right? Hardly seems fair to expect Lin-Lin and Luo-Luo to do all the birthing if I am to kick off a new dynasty, or at least that’s how I’d frame the argument. I love my wives, and have more than I deserve already, but when has greed or lust ever been rational? Then there’s the benefits of the power itself. I would be functionally Immortal probably, an unageing existence that could survive for thousands of years so long as no one sees fit to separate my head from my shoulders in violent fashion. I’m not entirely sure, but I think I would be a being akin to Pong Pong, who is obviously more than a Divinity and perhaps even more than a Nascent Immortal as the Eternal Emperor claims to be. What would that be like? To live forever? I only just said that a single mortal’s lifetime is enough for me, but that’s because I’m young and jaded. Will I still say the same when I’m old and frail, or when I see the trials and tribulations awaiting my children and grandchildren? What if a single lifetime isn’t enough to see all my dreams come to fruition? I would love to bear witness as humanity climbs the technological ladder and maybe play a video game again someday, though I would do everything in my power to do away with social media and all the horrors it would bring.

 

And then? There would always be something else to accomplish, another goal to pursue, a wrong to right, or a new possibility to explore. None of this is inherently wrong or bad, but there is so much room for error when the fate of the world rests on my decisions, and my decisions alone. Besides, being Emperor sounds like a shit job, but more importantly, goes against everything I want. I don’t really want to be Emperor, any more than I wanted to be Legate. I did the job because it was given to me, but I would never have asked for it, not in a million years. It’s not all bells and whistles, because the burden of responsibility is real and I would rather not have it, since I am not one to shirk my duties. The bard said it best, for heavy lies the head which wears the crown, so why bother fitting my head for one when I could do without?

 

Which brings me back to square one, in which I have no idea what to do now. Do I Devour all these Natal Souls and hope for the best, or reject this obvious step out of fear? Neither one seems like the right answer, because even though victory is already within my grasp, the trials and tribulations I will face in the coming days and weeks are still daunting to behold, to say nothing of what surprises the future may hold. More strength could always serve me well, but is the prize worth the price? Devouring all these Natal Souls might not be morally or ethically wrong, seeing how they’re destined to be expended regardless of my actions, but it still feels wrong to me, and being illogical has never stopped my fears, guilt, and shame from bringing me down before.

 

So lost in my thoughts, it takes a moment to realize Lin-Lin’s been poking me in the cheek repeatedly for some time now in an effort to get my attention. “Copper for your thoughts, hubby?” Her beautiful brown eyes open wide in the very picture of innocent curiosity as she rests her chin on my shoulder and tilts her head ever so slightly, the only Natal Soul not to join the battle besides cowardly Buddy hiding behind my legs. “It’s not like you to be distracted in battle, ya?”

 

I don’t think I’m really needed here,” I reply, and to my surprise, that’s actually true. Even as the Eternal Emperor lashes out to kill another ten or so Natal Souls in a spectacular spray of brilliant light, I can see the writing in the wall now that I’m no longer lost in my thoughts. “His court of souls is packed with the greatest talents of multiple generations dating back to the founding of the Empire, but they’re all puppets under his strict control, and there’s too much going on all at once for him to pay attention to any one of them. The Flautist over there is being countered by Luo-Luo, while eight Elementally Blessed Warriors are taking turns suppressing the Flame Sovereign. That one there is a Martial God, but I don’t think the Eternal Emperor can control him well enough to survive against the hordes of Natal Souls, and the same can be said of the stealth assassin guy, whose talents are best served killing people stronger than him, of which there are none. As for the Emperor himself, he’s stronger than anyone in existence, but he’s burning the candle at both ends to keep this up. At the rate things are going, his host will drop dead long before he runs out of Natal Souls to kill, so even if I stand here and do nothing, this battle has already been won.”

 

“Oh.” Snuggling against my back with a comfy little sigh, my sweet wifey shrugs and says, “I didn’t know those souls were that strong. They’re all just standing around while the stinky Emperor protects them. What happens if he runs away though? Will you hafta chase him down?”   

 

Even as a Natal Soul, she’s adorable as can be, her arms tightening around my neck and shoulders as if afraid I’ll run away. “He won’t.” Again, I answer before even thinking it through, only to discover that I’m right. How do I know this? It doesn’t occur to me until I consider the question, but the answer was there all along. “Retreating would destroy the foundation of his Dao, one built upon the principle of might makes right, so admitting defeat is to admit weakness. He can’t run, or it will ruin him in a way that would be no different from death.” A Dao which I suspect differs greatly from Ying Zheng’s Dao over the course of his mortal lifetime, one that has since been warped beyond recognition by the ravages of time.

 

And just like that, something clicks in my head and the pieces all come together. “That’s it!” I exclaim, throwing my arms back behind me to wrap around her waist. “Thanks wifey.”

 

“You’re welcome hubby. What’d I do?”

 

“Your questions led me to the answer I needed.” Another thought strikes me and I turn to get a better look at her calm, sleepy expression, her half-lidded eyes so full of love and affection. “Hang on. Are you here, like here here? As a soul instead of a Natal Soul?”

 

My sweet wifey takes a long moment to consider the question, and it’s almost too much for my heart to bear as she puffs her cheeks and furrows her brow in thought. “I dunno,” is the answer she arrives at, shrugging in clueless indifference. “I didn’t do anything differently, so I guess I’m here in the same way I always come to visit, ya?” The answer to which is still up for debate. Studying my expression even as I lose myself in her eyes, she smiles and asks, “So you figured out the solution to whatever was bothering you before?”

 

“Yea,” I reply, without surprise, because honestly, the answer was self-evident before the question even presented itself, but I still had to go through with all the motions regardless. My tendency to stew in anxiety and overthink my problems is not exactly a blessing, but these are flaws I’ve learned to embrace and even indulge, because I would not be the man I am today without them. While my doubts and introspection are exhausting to go through, I don’t know any other way to deal with my problems in life, because this is part and parcel of who I am, something which has kept me honest and mostly undefiled to this day. Relieved of my burden, I heave a sigh and smile at my sweet wifey. “And thanks to you, I even know what to do next.”

I just need to keep in mind the advice Charok gave me all those years ago. I cannot allow myself to be driven by my fears, or any other emotions, but at the same time, I cannot avoid them either. Another concept that seems simple, yet is so difficult to follow through with, because it is all too easy to give in to fear, or anger, or hatred, and infinitely more difficult to rise above it. Yet rise above it I must if I intend to be true to myself and do as my conscience demands, for my Dao is not one of pursuing strength for the sake of strength. It is a complex system of morals and beliefs which I find impossible to describe in a few words or even sentences, but simply my Dao, my everything, the culmination of who I am and what I intend to do. This isn’t the same as The Dao, which is everything and nothing, as well as anything else in between. The Dao is eternal life and inevitable death, unchecked Creation and untold Destruction, an endless cycle of push and pull, up and down, left and right, and any other opposing force you might conjure up in mind. It is trials and tribulations without end, yet an end there must be, for all things must come to an end. A contradiction which cannot be proven or disproven, because both are true, and both are false, depending on your perspective.

 

And my perspective? Life is hard enough already, so why make it harder if you don’t have to?

 

The ineffable sense of urgency pushing me to move forward along the Path disappears, and I’m left with a sense of relief and reassurance. What was I even thinking? Why would I Devour all these Natal Souls just for the chance to become stronger when they’re pretty much already solving all my problems? That’s not me, because I do not pursue the Dao for strength, or at least not solely for strength. I do it because it’s awesome as fuck, and I want to know how it all works in a way I can understand and pass along for others to build on. I never liked knowing without knowing and understanding without comprehending, but now that I have strength enough to stand on my own, I can take my time to science the shit out of magic and work things out to my heart’s content. That’s the real reason why I pursue the Dao, for bear arms and other cool shit, which is as good an answer as any. That’s why knowing without knowing is such a bummer, and why I get such a kick out of debating with the Abbot, Grandpa Du, and anyone else who will listen to me ramble on about the mechanics of the Martial Path.

 

Because discovering the answers for yourself is half the fun, and if I cheated to get ahead, there would be no such satisfaction.

 

This was a trial and tribulation, I realize this now, one of the Dao and my heart, for had I gone ahead and Devoured these Natal Souls for the sake of power and power alone, then I will have gone against my Dao, or at the very least be forced to adopt a new and different perspective before proceeding down this new fork in my Path, one for which I am ill-suited. Thankfully, Lin-Lin was here to help distract me and set my head on straight, allowing me to make what I believe is the right choice in the end. I choose not to take this step now not out of fear or concern, but confidence, confidence that I would fuck things up if I progressed now, and confidence that I will find the way forward again in the future. Maybe not tomorrow, and maybe not next week either, but in a few decades or centuries depending on how many years I have left, after I’ve had time to live, laugh, love, and learn but before it comes time to die.

 

I think it’s better this way, because I am not the same man I was yesterday, and tomorrow I will be a different man again. As such, even though the Truth and the Dao is immutable, the way I perceive it will change countless times over the course of my life, so why should I commit to one interpretation now? Why am I working so hard to define my Dao and myself when I still have so much left to do and experience? I have wives to grow old with, children to raise, floofs to spoil, and a whole slew of goals to accomplish, ones which may well give new perspectives and help me uncover a better Path, or at least one more suitable for the me I will become. If it turns out that I’m wrong and I’ve gone and blown my one and only shot, then that just means Immortality and possible godhood was never meant for me, which is totally fine too. I am still a man mildly in love with death after all, and I have no desire to ever outlive any of my wives, and even the thought of losing my parents or elders gets me a little choked up inside. So even if Lin-Lin could share her Life Force with me to keep me alive longer, I would really rather she didn’t, because death is merely a new beginning.

 

I suppose it’s a little selfish, wanting to die first so I don’t have to mourn any losses, but who knows? Maybe this too will change with time. Maybe there will come a day when I regret this decision, or maybe I’ll look back on this moment and laugh at how stupid I was, but at the end of the day, I chose to follow my heart and do as I please, which is something at least, and I continue to do so as I approach the battle between the Eternal Emperor and the heroes of the Empire to put an end to this conflict once and for all.

 

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

 

Ten-thousand Natal Souls fell before this Sovereign’s blades, but there were still at least ten-thousand more to go, and though his spirit was eager and willing to fight on to the bitter end, that end was drawing near due to the deficiencies of his borrowed body.

 

An imbalance between the body, mind and soul, one he’d long since accepted as the cost of an eternal existence, but today proved that he’d erred along his Path. A most lamentable end to the story of his long life, one in which he failed to live up to its full potential. This army would be the end of him, whittling him down one Natal Soul at a time, for if he did not spare the effort to kill them, then their unified Intent would see him dead. In their eyes, he was the villain who’d brought the Enemy to their doorstep, rather than their rightful Sovereign who gave them so many millennia of peace and prosperity, and there was nothing he could do or say to make them believe otherwise.

 

Not after they’d seen Zhen Shi’s appearance, one which was a match for this Sovereign’s own, a blunder that he could never have foreseen even if given ten more millennia to prepare.

 

Though full of righteous fury and bitter dissatisfaction, this Sovereign made no effort to reason with his assailants, presented not a single word of argument or explanation in his defense, for he was the Eternal Emperor, and these rebels too far beneath him to address. Though surrounded by wolves, he was still a dragon yet, and possessed of a dragon’s pride, so he would not give them the satisfaction of hearing him make a case for his life. There would be no declarations for them to refute, no demands they could ignore, no pleas they could deny or excuses for them to tear apart. This Sovereign had held true to his Path, but the Heavens saw fit to deny him his rightful place above them, meaning these Natal Souls were merely the tools of Heavens’ Will and the instruments of his demise.

 

Instruments which ceased their endless assault as Falling Rain made his presence known once more, and this Sovereign was surprised to see how much the boy had changed. There was an air of confidence about him that wasn’t there before, not the bold brashness of a man with the upper hand or the cocky impudence of a boorish victor, but a certainty about his poise and a tenacity of spirit which was baked into the core of Falling Rain’s essence, qualities which were not present before. Oh he had his arrogance, that casual disdain and pretension about him, but now he had the confidence to pair with it, and this Sovereign had no choice but to admit that the boy wore it well.

 

No, not a boy, but a cultivator, a Nascent Immortal who’d surpassed this Sovereign’s millennia of effort in little more than two decades of life.

 

There was still life and Prana left to this Sovereign’s host yet, but he saw no point in delaying the inevitable, so he accepted his defeat with grace. Dismissing his sword and spear even as his foe dismissed his army of Natal Souls, their eyes met in an exchange of mutual understanding, wherein this Sovereign placed the fate of his empire into Falling Rain’s hands, for Liang Wu Di and the Supreme Families would only bring disaster to the lands this Sovereign had guarded for so many years. There was no need for any promises or demands, because he could see that Falling Rain loved these lands just as much as he, if not more because his love extended to the people and beasts who inhabited it as well.

 

And yet, even knowing he left his Empire in able hands, this Sovereign could not accept his defeat without first asking one, last question. “How?”

 

“A difficult question to answer,” Falling Rain replied, pursing his lips in thought. “But I’ll give it my best try. Let’s start from the beginning.” Gesturing at the vast Void stretching out in all directions from beyond the boundaries of Liang Wu Sheng’s Natal Palace, he said, “Shatter the Void and become One with the Heavens, the first step in the process of refining your body, mind, and soul and removing the distinctions between the three. This is where one would lay the foundation of everything which comes after, and as such, I would call it the Foundation Establishment stage. Not just the foundation of your physique, but the foundation of your Dao, which you laid piece by piece over the course of decades spent embroiled in bloody warfare.”

 

There was no judgement in Falling Rain’s tone, no condemnation or admiration to be found, merely a rote recitation of the facts as he saw them which did much to soothe this Sovereign’s wounded pride. Moving his hands to his chest, Falling Rain continued, “The next step is to become One with the World, harmonizing your breathing and inner flow of Heavenly Energy with the physical and metaphysical world around you. A process which changes the ambient Heavenly Energy flowing through you, as well as the channels it flows through, though I will not speculate on how since I am still unsure. I can only say that the Heavenly Energy becomes more than just that, for it is marked by your essence, your emotions, and your Dao to become yours and yours alone, which you then take in as nourishment for your physique and Spiritual System.” Tilting his head to one side, he paused for a moment before adding, “I would call this Chi Purification, or maybe Chi Condensation.”

 

It was all too clear that Falling Rain was making most of this up as he went, putting his thoughts and experiences into words for the first time ever, but thus far, this Sovereign agreed with every word he said, and found no flaws in his logic. Though Fifth Brother used different names for the individual parts, the details remained almost exactly the same, showing just how brilliant this young man truly was, a genius to surpass all geniuses. “At first, there is no need to do anything more,” Falling Rain continued, his gaze distant and turned inwards as he discussed his Dao, and though this Sovereign could have taken this chance to attack, he stayed his hand because the answers were more important to him than even his eternal life. “Your body, mind, and soul are being Refined, your Dao is taking shape, and your Spiritual channels are being cleansed and widened, all of which will take time to complete… unless you have an Elemental Spirit to help pave the way, and a genius Medical Saint to help lay the foundation of your Refined Physique.” So that was the explanation for Falling Rain’s speedy progress, one this Sovereign should have guessed at before, but only because there could be no other explanation besides being a freak of nature in possession of a rare physique found in one in a hundred trillion mortals which enabled them to cultivate with extreme speed.

 

No doubt thanking the Heavens for his dog shit luck, Falling Rain paused to smile before moving on, and this Sovereign could only shake his head in envy. “Eventually however, there comes a point when your physique is fully Refined and your Spiritual System Cleansed and completed, at which point you will begin to see an excess of marked Heavenly Energy flowing through you. Left to its own devices, this marked Heavenly Energy will eventually pass through and return to be reassimilated into the Heavens, so in order to retain it, you must become One with the Self. In doing so, you demarcate a section of your Refined Physique to hold said marked Heavenly Energy, one which remains permeable to regular Heavenly Energy so as not to affect the flow. A realm within a realm, a plane within a plane, seamlessly divided and connected again to form a Core that is not a Core, a distinct Domain in which your Authority reigns supreme, and your Authority alone, without ever disconnecting from reality and the Void itself.”

 

This marked the first deviation from Fifth Brother’s theories, and yet, this Sovereign could find no fault in Falling Rain’s words because it explained away why the cultivators who Formed their Inner Cores using information gleaned from this Sovereign’s success were either unable to succeed, or created False Cores which were so flawed they would eventually prove more hindrance than boon. “What is One with the Self? How do you achieve it?”

 

It wasn’t until after the fact that this Sovereign realized he’d voiced the question out loud and revealed the depths of his ignorance, but Falling Rain simply answered without gloating. “How can you expect the world to accept you if you cannot accept yourself? This is where you erred along your Path, for you are no longer the Ying Zheng who reached Core Formation shortly after uniting the Empire, yet you have made no effort to acknowledge this change, and even outright deny it.” Again, there was no heat or condemnation in his tone, but this Sovereign burned with shame all the same, for he could hear the unmistakable ring of truth within Falling Rain’s declaration, but he was not yet done. “Even then, you could have found your Path again had you not buried your heart and humanity both, but at least you re-discovered a part of it here today.”

 

Following Falling Rain’s gaze, this Sovereign turned to see the souls of his sworn brothers standing at attention behind him, four empty shells and a fifth so spent it might as well be empty too. For a long moment, he could not understand the meaning behind Falling Rain’s words until he remembered all the fond memories he shared with his sworn brothers, and why he’d been willing to stand guard over their empty shells right up until his final moment of bitter defeat. “Earlier today, I asked you why you seek strength,” Falling Rain reminded, and this Sovereign remembered the heavy blows he’d suffered following that seemingly innocent question, blows which would have been light as a feather had this Sovereign not strayed from his Path. “You fought for fame and wealth, then for vengeance and escape, fighting for the sake of fighting because you knew no other way to live.”

 

“Until I met them,” this Sovereign continued, unable to tear his eyes away from his five sworn brothers and wishing he could go back to those early days. “I defeated First Brother Wushen when we crossed paths in the state of Qiong, winning by the narrowest of margins after three days and three nights. Had he not admitted defeat when he did, I might well have in the next breath, and he knew it too. Though enemies on the battlefield, we knew we’d found a kindred spirit in one another, and we swore brotherhood then and there.” He met Second Brother in a winehouse, playing moving melodies for spare coins which were few and far between, for the cost of constant war was staggering indeed. There, they drank themselves deep into their cups and discovered that they shared a hatred for the established norms and a wistful hope for a better future. Third and Fourth Brothers were soldiers in the employ of respective warlords, and this Sovereign won them over with his words and his deeds. Together, they embarked on a quest in their war-torn world to bring peace to the lands once more, so theirs was a bond forged in conflict and quenched in camaraderie unmatched.

 

Aside from Fifth Brother Di Zi, of course, but they all liked him at first glance, because he possessed an exuberant gaiety and merry outlook on life which few could match.

 

“Fifth Brother was the best of us all,” this Sovereign continued, narrating all of this out loud for no reason than to share his reminiscence. “A brilliant man, but what made him stood out was his generosity and compassion, willing to spare no expense to help others even complete strangers he’d just met. He had a way of seeing things that made the complex seem simple, and he always knew just what to say to help me see things clearly too. He was more than a friend, more than a brother, but a guide, a mentor, and a conselor of conscience, one whose motives were always in favour of everyone involved, especially for those without a voice. Perhaps things would have turned out differently if we’d not fallen out, if I’d not let my pride, my rage, and my fear consume me.”

 

Such was life, but it was far too late for regrets. Finished with his narration, this Sovereign made no effort to defend himself as Falling Rain took his sword in hand and raised it up high, glowing with a light that transcended the limits of mortality and touched upon the powers of Immortals in truth. “I do not know how to kill you without consigning your soul to oblivion,” he began, unapologetic to the end, but this Sovereign cared not to explain the method of his own death, nor did he particularly mind this unenviable fate, a harvest reaped for the sins he’d sown.

 

Never one to stand on ceremony, Falling Rain struck without warning and this Sovereign welcomed the bitter end, only to discover that he was not yet dead. Turning an inquisitive glance upon his foe, this Sovereign’s heart skipped a beat as he heard a familiar sigh, one he hadn’t heard in long millennia. “I told you, did I not,” Fifth Brother Di Zi began, his tone so full of regret as he plunged his hand into this Sovereign’s back and unravelled the ties keeping his soul anchored to Liang Wu Sheng’s body. “To cultivate is to nurture the truth, the Truth of the Heavens, the Truth of the World, and the Truth of the Self. You have long since lost your Truth of Self, big brother, which is why we turned against you, but I pray that you hold fast to it in your next life.”

 

“Fifth Brother,” Ying Zheng gasped, feeling like a child who’d been caught sneaking sweets by mother once again. “I understand now. I’m sorry. For everything.”

 

“I know. I too am sorry, for I wish there was another way.”

 

And as the darkness stole away all awareness, his last thought was one of pleasant comfort as he slipped into the warmth of the Mother’s embrace, one which he had denied for far too long.

 

Chapter Meme 1

Chapter Meme 2

Chapter Meme 3

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Savage Divinity – Chapter 836

 

The resounding silence echoes endlessly throughout the Void in response to my non-verbal call to arms, proving once and for all that thoughts and prayers are well worth their weight in gold.

 

No, that’s the old me, the empty me, the faithless me, the me who was too afraid to want things because the inevitable disappointment was becoming too difficult to bear. This is a new me, with a new body and new outlook on life, a brighter, more courageous me who understands myself better than ever before. I wouldn’t be the first person to find religion on the battlefield, but this isn’t a desperate appeal to powers unbeknownst to me hoping they’ll miraculously save me from all that ails me. My prayers are not directed to a deity on high in hopes of Divine Intervention, nor is it a plea for deliverance or absolution. Instead, I am praying to the Energy of the Heavens themselves, and not because I am depending on them to fix everything. I am praying because as silly and ridiculous as it might sound, prayer is the best option moving forward that doesn’t involve complete surrender.

 

How do I know this? I’m not entirely sure, but I am certain I am on the right track. I know this in my heart of hearts, because my gut, my instincts, my intuition, experience and Insight, all this and more is telling me to believe in myself and my fellow people, and my faith will be rewarded. It’s not the limited omniscience of the Heavens guiding me anymore, but a more subtle and personal directive. Before, all I had to do was wonder and the answer would be provided, not so much in words, but in actions, yet I always knew those answers were not truly mine. Now, however, it’s almost as if a part of me knows this is the right way to go except I can’t find the words to express it. Knowing without knowing, but with more intimate undertones, as if I’ve known all of this all along and done it a thousand times before. They say you never forget how to ride a bike, and that’s what it feels like now, as if I’m picking up a bike and getting ready for my first ride in a long, long time. It’s familiar and foreign at the same time, so natural and instinctive that there’s no way it can be wrong.

 

It’s the same sensation as your first natural kiss, when you look into the eyes of someone you love and are just naturally drawn towards them. Or the feeling of walking down a path you’ve gone down a thousand times before, but not for many years since. I imagine this is the same feeling Roc has when he swoops in to perch on my shoulder, knowing exactly how fast to fly and how hard to brake to come to a perfect, near weightless landing, or when Jimjam finds the optimal path up a towering tree trunk. Knowing without knowing, except now, this knowing extends beyond the physical realm and into the metaphysical.

 

It takes everything I have to quiet the skeptic in me, that stubborn, comic book nerd who only understands what I’ve learned in my past life and refuses to accept any new lessons from this one. Putting aside the debatable value of thoughts and prayers in my last world, there is an undeniable weight to them in this one, because faith has a power all of its own due to how the Energy of the Heavens works. Gerel and I have always butted heads about my lack of faith, but I’ve repeatedly missed the point he was trying to make, or ignored it because I didn’t want to accept it. When he says I lack faith, he isn’t talking about my love/hate relationship with religion, but rather faith in the Energy of the Heavens themselves.

 

Again, not in the sense that the Energy of the Heavens is some anthropomorphic being looking out for my best interests, but rather in letting it do what it does best. It’s no different from my faith in science. I don’t exactly understand everything there is to know about gravity, but even though I can’t rattle off a proof that will set aside all doubts, I have faith in the fact that whatever goes up, must come down. Except that’s not entirely true, because there is an argument to be made that if you go up long enough, you never have to come back down once you break through the atmosphere and free yourself from the pull of this planet’s total mass. Again, I’m taking this on faith, because I sure as shit have never been to space, nor have I really taken the time to go through the proofs of the math behind those facts because, in all honestly, that’s boring. So the long and short of it is that I believe in gravity without wholly understanding it, but I don’t need to understand it in order to use it. Push rock off cliff, rock fall and squish people below. Simple. Easy. Effective. This is the mindset I should be using when approaching the Energy of the Heavens, focused on how to use it rather than figuring out how it works, and only then will I possess the qualifications to delve deeper into the details. The bigger issue is that the Energy of the Heavens is far more complicated than gravity in that it is a force affected by the way I perceive it. Thus, in my desire to affix rules and formulas to the Dao, I demonstrate a lack of faith in its ability to heed my Will and do whatever is needed to fulfill it without any further guidance from myself, guidance I am then unable to provide to obtain the outcome I desire. This in turn negatively affected its ability to act without said guidance, and thereby creating a self-fulfilling prophecy of failure.

 

It’s Guiding all over again. I can do it, as long as I don’t think too hard about it, because thinking about it means I need to provide all variables, but I’m unable to do so which makes it no longer work. The same thing with teeth. Humans aren’t supposed to naturally regrow their adult teeth, except in this world they do, because faith and Heavenly Energy.

 

It ain’t exactly all logical, but it makes sense. There are limits to what the Energy of the Heavens can do of course, namely that it must adhere to the rules of the world. Teeth are easy, because the framework is already there, so the Energy of the Heavens is really only stimulating an entirely natural process. The same could be said regarding the Refinement and Cleansing of my body, mind, and soul, because when I surrendered complete control of the process and trusted the Energy of the Heavens, it was more than capable of handling all the details from start to finish and improving me in every way possible. That is my Path now, the way forward from here, a compromise between my need to understand things and my supernatural ability to willfully ignore the facts whenever it suits me, which even as I say sounds far too complicated to actually explain. The amount of shit I still don’t entirely understand about how I Refined my body, mind, and soul could fill the oceans and then some, but I had faith in the process. By acknowledging several truths about myself and affirming my Dao, I was able to hold true to my sense of self and in doing so, become One with the Heavens and One with the World. This in turn enabled me to retain my unique individuality so that the Energy of the Heavens could rebuild me from the ground up without destroying the core essence of who I am.

 

Because to pursue the truth without the truth of self is to pursue a lie, and one cannot lie to oneself or the Heavens above. Maybe that’s why Ancestral Beasts and Human Divinities remain false Divinities, unable to take that final step because they instinctively know that they would lose themselves in the process, the same way I knew any attempt to Ascend would’ve ended in failure before today’s events.

Luckily I have plenty of experience finding myself from all my bouts of crazy, which enabled me to surrender without losing control, which brings me to my current prayer. A last resort which should be working, except it isn’t. There’s no answer to my prayer just yet, but that doesn’t mean there won’t be one, only that I am doing something wrong because I feel like I should’ve gotten an answer already. So why am I being stonewalled? Because my prayer is too vague, too uncertain, too broad and all-encompassing. I made a call for help asking humanity to stand up against a shared foe, but I didn’t include any incentive to answer. Humans are typically pretty decent, but only a rare few are willing to stand up and do the right thing for no reward whatsoever. There isn’t much I can offer however, except to share why I believe we must all unite together and overthrow the Eternal Emperor, and when all is said and done, I hope this will be enough.

 

In other words, I need to focus my Will, clarify my Intent, and only then will the Heavens move to assist me. Perspective matters, but Intent is more important, one I have failed to clarify beyond a basic, “Gib halp, plz.”

 

So why do I need help? Besides the fact that I’m in over my head and about to die, because again, most people wouldn’t really care all that much. Well, some might, but how many would be willing to risk their own lives to help a stranger survive? That being said, even though I’m out here fighting for my damn life, that’s not the only reason I’m here. I don’t mean here in Shi Bei specifically, but here in general, as the person I am today. Like I said before, I could’ve walked away from all this at any point in time, stayed home in the mountains or sat safe in the Citadel and no one would’ve thought twice about it. But I didn’t. I chose to embrace my title as the Undying Savage, chose to fight for the honour of being the Number One Talent, chose to share my ideas with the world and use my limited power and influence as Minister of Finance and Legate of the Outer Provinces, decisions which have ultimately brought me here, standing in the Natal Palace of a puppet to face off against a body-snatching immortal spirit who hearkens back to the dawn of the Empire.

 

Not solely because I wanted to be the hero, or even because I needed to be a hero. No, the truth is, I do what I do because at the end of the day, I want to make the world a better place. It’s that simple. Although the various trials and tribulations I’ve faced have brought me to many a dark place, and I complain about this shitty world more than most could stand to hear, the truth is, I love this world and the life I’ve made here, with all my friends, family, and floofs. It’s not perfect, but nothing ever is, so I have made it my mission to make this world the best it can be, with human rights, civil liberties, indoor plumbing, and all that other great stuff that I would rather not do without. Sure, I am often spurred on by the suffering I see, and I’ve turned a blind eye to plenty of suffering that I know I cannot fix, but I still do what I can when I can, and I hope that will never change.

That’s why I stand against the Eternal Emperor. Truth be told, I don’t hate him, or at least I didn’t before he started taking on Zhen Shi’s mannerisms and threatening all my loved ones. I may have erred in kicking off the clone wars like I did, because as far as I can tell, Ying Zheng without Zhen Shi wasn’t that much of a monster. I mean, yea, he pretty much engineered the eternal war between the Imperials and Defiled, while treating the lives of his subjects like chaff, but all things considered, he’s far from the worst option available. After a few minutes with me though, now he’s talking about sacrificing whole armies in the name of progress and torturing everyone I hold dear, and I can’t help but feel like this is partially my fault. Then again, even if he wasn’t in the process of devolving into a deranged murder-hobo, I would still stand against him, because he is dead set on hindering humanity’s progress and the sole reason why I still shit in a pot. That alone should be enough to consign him to the darkest pits of hell, but there are other reasons to fight him too. The Eternal Emperor represents the immutable status quo, a bleak and unchanging future in which trials and tribulations continue without end, but more importantly, without progress. In contrast, I hold high hopes for the future, of this world and humanity both, hopes I dare dream of because I have seen further than my peers.

 

This is the Path I’ve chosen, one I convey as best I can through prayer and emotion by sharing all the reasons I need help, why I desire strength. To survive, but more than that, to ensure the survival of those I love and care for, and to flourish in time. That is why I pursue strength, but also because in a world which believes ‘might makes right’, the only way to have a voice at the table is to carry a big stick. I yearn for the day when that is no longer true, the same way I yearn for a day when there are no more slaves suffering under the whips of their oppressors, no more people going to bed hungry after a long day’s work, no more despots picking on the weak and growing fat off their labours, and no more educated nobles exploiting the masses for mere entertainment. I dream of a day when I can be free from these conflicts to do as I please, but until such a time when all the above is true, that freedom will be denied me as I willingly fight for the freedoms of others. That is why I fight here today, because the Eternal Emperor stands before me as the Enemy of all mankind, a tyrant oppressor who would see us bound in the chains of suffering all for the sake of his misguided Balance. He is a manipulative despot who has played both sides to engineer so much death and suffering in the name of his own selfish progress, and it is long past time his reign comes to an end.

 

In short, today, I fight for freedom, freedom for the entire human race, for we have suffered the Eternal Emperor’s boot for far too long, and I invite the heroes of all humanity to fight alongside me.

 

The call goes out again through the Energy of the Heavens, and the first to answer is a familiar face which appears at my side, one I saw only moments ago. Even though I was expecting something like this when I hatched my harebrained scheme, it still pains me to see my suspicions confirmed, almost as much as it warms my heart to know that Yazhu can be depended on in life as well as in death. Born a lowly cobbler’s son, he was the first to come to my aid in JiangHu, and he is the first to come to my aid here today, clad in his Stormguard armour while waving a spectral copy of the bowtie-bunny banner he left behind alongside his cold, dead body on the ramparts of Shi Bei. Death hasn’t stopped his soul from answering my call however, but what pains me most is that I can tell that he’s not here because he believes in my cause. No, he’s here simply because I called, and he’s here to support me to the bitter end, for better or for worse, because that’s all the reason he needs. He saw what I stood for long before JiangHu and decided I was a man worth fighting for, worth dying for, so even though he’s fought and died for me once already, he figured once wasn’t enough to repay the debt of gratitude he holds for me.

 

Except Yazhu owes me nothing, not in my books. I helped open a door, but he found the courage to walk through it and forged his Path all on his own, but now his loyalty has cost him his life, and might well cost him his soul as well.

 

Many other fallen Stormguards gather around my banner, but most of those who appear are wholly unfamiliar to me. Rather than armour and weapons, many of them wear simple clothes and carry a vast array of common implements, everything from shepherd crooks and pitchforks to fishing nets and threshing flails, though a good number of them carry the repeating crossbows they carried in life. These individuals were Irregulars no doubt, common men and women lacking the gifts of Heaven yet blessed with courage and determination unmatched. They saw the war efforts firsthand and knew the dangers they faced, yet they steeled their nerves and joined up to run towards the problem, rather than away, because that’s what heroes do.

 

No small number of soldiers and Warriors form ranks alongside me, but many who’ve come to my aid make no effort to gather around my banner, and instead find their own place in the Void. Most are Warriors and look the part, so full of vim and vigour with their noble demeanours, an individualistic minded bunch who resent the Eternal Emperor’s oppression every bit as much as I do. Their desire for freedom is not lacking in comparison to mine, though their freedom is defined by their Dao, whereas I am the other way around. At the end of the day however, it matters not why they chosen to come and fight at my side, only that they have, and for this, I am grateful. Though few in number compared to the soldiers, Stormguard, and Irregulars, I recognize most, if not all of them as famed Warriors one and all.

 

There’s the married Exarches Bralton and Eriene, resplendent in their tribal headgear wielding long spears measuring one and a half times their height, united together in death as they were in life and ready to fight alongside me for no reason other than our similar, rustic origins. That’s how they’ve always been, friendly and supportive to a fault, a simple and straightforward couple who fought for the betterment of the Empire because they love it as much as I do. Their carefree smiles tell me all this and more as they ready to fight alongside me once again, one last hurrah before they’re forced to part ways through the cycle of reincarnation.

 

The Fiery Star Song Qing twirls her signature meteor hammer overhead with eyes narrowed in the personification of wrath, while her hulking younger brother hovers protectively at her side, with head lowered and shoulders hunched to avoid being brained by her weapon, while his eyes are firmly fixed upon her. Neither one cares to spare me a glance, which tells me they’re not here for me. In fact, they died before I even arrived in Shi Bei, the younger dying for the elder before she lost herself to grief, yet now they have returned to even the score now that the true Enemy has been revealed. This is personal for them both, and they will have their pound of flesh, or close to it as they can get, and I am in no position to be turning down their help, even if I wanted to.

 

Never one to stand out when he could blend in instead, I almost overlook Ryo Geom-Chi as I scan through the crowd, and I’m struck by a wistful sense of loss and regret for never having gotten to know the man before he was killed by a Half-Demon. Though we never really sat down and got to know one another better, what I do know is that Geom-Chi seemed like a stand-up guy. Although he and Tam Taewoong got in a fight with Fung and BoShui their first day in Nan Ping, Geom-Chi never held it against them, nor did he ever treat me with any hostility or disdain that I so commonly get even from my so-called allies. In fact, knowing what I know now, I like him even more, because I suspect he was against Seoyoon’s betrothal to Yong-Jin simply because he knew his sister was in love with Fung. That explains his absence from the meeting with Shuai Jiao and the Legate, as I suspect they kept him away because they were worried he’d mess the plan up by warning me through Sending. Unfortunately, it’s too late to ask him now, but as I meet his piercing gaze from across the Void, I offer him a small nod of heartfelt respect and an unspoken promise to look after his loved ones should I make it out of this alive, because it’s the least I can do for leading him to his death.

 

Northern Sentinels and former bandits who’ve ridden at my side since Sanshu. Western vagabonds without a home to return to but have found meaning in the promises I’ve made. Southern soldiers here to serve a cause they don’t entirely believe in, yet fight for all the same to ensure the safety of the Empire overall. Central patriots defending their borders from a threat which has changed their entire way of life. Some I recognize at first glance, while others possess identities I can only guess at, for the appearance of their souls do not match the appearance they had in life. Situ Chi Gan, for example, whom I only recognize due to his longsword and cloak, a twin for the black and gold one Nian Zu wears bearing the Situ Crest. Ishin Ken Shibu is almost unrecognizable without the face paint, which he wore even into battle after I foisted the title of “Painted Dancer” onto him, a name he came to wear with pride, and one I will see raised to the highest honour as thanks for his service in life and in death. These men were never what I would call close allies, and were even at odds against me most of the time, but they both understand the value of putting aside grievances for the greater good.

 

A reasonable and impartial take, all things considered, and Bai Qi is nothing if not both. The Lord of Martial Peace stands apart from the rest, his Green Crescent Dragon Blade at the ready and a small cadre of loyal supporters behind him. These devoted Officers still follow him even in death, men and women who trusted him to lead them to victory time and time again, until he lost his Path. I can hardly blame him either, because everything Bai Qi worked for, fought for, all the peace and prosperity he dared to dream and hope for, all of those decades of lies came crashing down in the span of a single day. The Enemy he fought was nothing compared to the enemy he found hidden within his ranks, the Mataram Clan working with the Defiled to serve up the West on a platter. In this moment of weakness, Bai Qi succumbed to his inner darkness and turned Defiled to fight for the Enemy, but judging by the palpable aura of serenity emanating from where he stands, it would appear that he has since come to terms with the Truth and found peace within himself, which is more than what most can ever hope for.

 

These are the heroes who answer my prayer, ones who fell upon the field of battle in Shi Bei and Meng Sha both. Imperials. Defiled. Nobles. Peasants. Warriors. Commoners. Though their numbers are not few, there are not so many as to blanket the Void, some thousands of souls belonging to the dead who’ve yet to move on and pass through the cycle of reincarnation, for their lingering grudges and unresolved grievances have kept them nearby, ready and eager to answer the call as soon as I made it. Less than I would like, yet more than I ever expected, for it requires a special sort of hero to fight on even after death, a true nobility of spirit that has won my admiration and respect.

 

The twin fires of courage and confidence burst up from within just in time for my Natal Soul to finish delivering his line, warning our foe that all his efforts were merely a distraction. Not entirely, since I was hedging my bets and hoping one of my Natal Souls might come up with something I could use to hurt the Eternal Emperor, but that still remains to be seen. Recalling all my remaining Natal Souls to me, I drop Concealment and reveal myself still standing high above the Emperor’s court alongside an army of heroic spirits I am honoured to stand with.

 

And best of all? Despite wanting nothing more than to meme on the Emperor just for shits and giggles, I find it in me to retain a modicum of dignity and take the high road instead.

 

Would ya lookit that. Miracles do happen.

 

“Heroes of humanity,” I begin, pointing Unity at the Eternal Emperor as I unleash my Emotional Aura to bolster my allies and supress the puppeted souls of the Emperor’s court. “There stands our Enemy, an undying relic of ages past who works against us to hinder our Path by filling this world with needless suffering. It is he who united the Defiled against us, and he who spurred them onto violent action, but that is not all. He drove our supposed allies to inaction and convinced them to hinder our reinforcements, a manipulative schemer who cares not for the lives of humanity save to see them as pieces upon a chessboard for him to sacrifice as he pleases. He thinks himself as the rightful sovereign of all mankind from now unto eternity, shepherd to a flock whom he guards from themselves, but he is nothing more than a blight upon humanity, a parasite feeding off our collective experiences in the self-entitled pursuit of a lie, one I will not stand for any longer. I alone am not strong enough to defeat him, but together, united in purpose and intent, let us strike him down and free all of humanity from the shackles he has cast upon us.”

 

There is no cheer to follow my speech, no battle-cry to bolster our spirits, for there is no need. Here in the Void, we are all creatures of Spirit, some more than others, and as such, it is our emotions which speak loudest. Righteous fury and brutal rage come to the forefront first, a palpable wave that sets me back on my heels, followed by a collective determination to see this through to the end. Without flesh to hold them back, their indefatigable purpose shines through as we charge forth as one to do battle with the true Enemy of mankind and his captured souls. Though we are outnumbered, we are far from outmatched, for there is a marked difference between an enslaved puppet fighting because they must, and a heroic spirit fighting for a just cause.

 

…That being said, I still maintain this would’ve been equally awesome if I’d memed on the Emperor instead of giving a whole speech, if not even more awesome.

 

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

 

The Undying Savage.

 

A misnomer, as far as this Sovereign was concerned, if not the misappropriation of a lofty and exalted title by a transmigrator with delusions of grandeur. A paltry understanding of Healing enabling one to mend wounds in the midst of battle was hardly enough to be considered ‘Undying’, and barely even counted as enduring. Falling Rain was dogged and persistent, of this, there could be no denying, but to truly be considered ‘Undying’, one should at the very minimum attain an existence comparable to this Sovereign’s current state, an eternal being of spirit who’d witnessed more than a million sunrises and sunsets over the course of countless millennia. Mortals did so love their hyperbole, which explained why others called Falling Rain the ‘Undying’, but this Sovereign was even more confused as to how the boy earned the moniker of ‘Savage’.

 

Though hailing from a tribe of outlanders who’d long since made the Empire their home, Falling Rain was too well-spoken and well-educated to be dismissed as a mere savage, for if he were an uneducated brute, then the greatest scholars of the Empire’s history were only a single step removed from illiterates. The same could be said of the majority of his tribesmen, seasoned hunters and disciplined Warriors the equal of any elite military force the outer provinces could muster. Though their armour was made of treated leather rather than heavy steel, this was by necessity so as not to overburden their preferred mounts, the slender and powerful roosequins who the outlanders of old used so well to avoid this Sovereign’s slower, yet more powerful warhorses. Their steel weapons were of high-quality and craftsmanship, with an abundance of first-rate Spiritual Weapons scattered amongst them, the majority of which were polearms made from what appeared to be a natural vein of Spiritual ore. Not metallic, but mineral, yet one that blended well with steel and had been forged by gifted Divine Blacksmiths with skills that were no inferior to the grandmasters this Sovereign had come across in all his years. While such matters were outside his area of interest and expertise, he knew enough to see that Falling Rain’s people were far from the tribal savages his title depicted them as.

 

Any fool could have arrived at the same conclusion within seconds of interacting with Falling Rain, as there was nothing tribal or primitive about the boy or his people, so why then was he known as the Undying ‘Savage’?

 

A question this Sovereign never cared enough to investigate, but the answer presented itself forthwith as Falling Rain charged into battle at the head of his army of itinerant souls. During their previous exchanges, the transmigrator displayed a cunning and determination that matched well with his perceptive eye and inventive mind. His past life’s memories were significant, as they provided him with a perspective of the Dao unattainable by any other being currently existing in this world, but those memories only offered him an additional advantage which his clever self took full advantage of. One only needed to look at how quickly he adapted to know how formidable a foe he was, for upon seeing Sovereign’s memories, he responded with his own in an effort to shake this Sovereign’s Dao foundation. A weapon provided to him by the Heavens and fate itself, but one he used well by slowly building up this Sovereign’s expectations and leaving him no room for denial throughout the carefully controlled narrative. Then, when his gambit ultimately failed, he responded with a most appropriate question which allowed him to take control of the conversation once more, and he even knew enough to strike while the iron was hot, forcing this Sovereign to split his attention several ways whilst struggling to come to terms with the truth. Most impressive of all was all the improvements Falling Rain had made over the course of their exchanges these past few minutes, going from a feeble mortal largely ignorant of the Dao to a true Nascent Immortal learning how to wield the power of Creation and Destruction with little more than a thought.

 

All told, this Sovereign saw Falling Rain as a calculating man, a Warrior who relied largely on cunning, intelligence, and sheer determination to overcome the trials and tribulations before him, an impression which fell apart as the transmigrator shed all pretense of propriety and civility before diving headlong into the fray. There was nothing rational about Falling Rain as he did battle with this Sovereign’s captured court, no sign of the calm and collected young Warrior he once appeared to be, and in his place was a feral and untamed Warrior who fought with reckless and nigh on suicidal abandon. Every move he made was full of unchecked aggression as he led the charge from the vanguard, the tip of the proverbial spear wielding his sword and shield like twin blades to carve through his foes in a kill or be killed fashion. With a cruel smile etched across his face and a cold-blooded ferocity emanating from his gaze, he swept through the ranks of this Sovereign’s captured souls with the force of a typhoon and faded away like the receding tide, emanating a rousing tune of jubilant rhythm and triumphant glory all the while as he targeted the souls most capable of resisting. Sword Intent alone was not enough to destroy this Sovereign’s captured souls, yet it was more than capable of disturbing their carefully fixed states of Balance, for how could a soul be expected to hold onto Empty Balance when their entire existence erupted into agony enough to threaten eternal Death and Destruction?

 

A wolf among sheep, that was the impression Falling Rain gave off as he ran roughshod over this Sovereign’s court, a conquering hero no less influential on the battlefield than this Sovereign in the prime of his mortal life.

 

Watching him fight here was like seeing a consummate master of the arts at work, his actions and decisions seemingly so logical and ordinary yet rendering such unbelievable results. A single chop reduced a former Saint to nothingness the moment before he was about to unleash a powerful Earth-Blessed strike, for this was the very same Saint who raised the mountains Falling Rain hailed from. His second strike did away with the hundred and thirty seventh Emperor, a formidable Warrior Blessed by Darkness who possessed a considerable advantage here in the Void, yet Falling Rain’s Sword Intent cleaved clean through his defenses as the boy slipped through the battlelines like a fish in water. Though his attacks were undoubtedly powerful, there were souls far more capable than he, yet he picked them out and struck them down with almost laughable ease in a manner this Sovereign was unable to wholly explain. The boy understood warfare not on an intellectual level, but an instinctive one, capable of pinpointing weaknesses and targeting wherever his presence would have the most impact despite never having engaged in a battle quite like this.

 

In truth, this was a first for this Sovereign as well, for never before had he met a foe in possession of an army of vengeful souls, the remnant shards of itinerant Will left behind by the recently dead. Falling Rain’s army was comprised of Spectres by another name, only ones more complete, for time had yet to wear away at their Wills and consign them over to an Imbalanced existence. As if this were not enough, Falling Rain’s summoned souls possessed all the Prana they had left in life, the ineffable power of Life and Death that even Fifth Brother had been unable to quantify save to acknowledge its existence. While a living creature could not survive without Prana, this was merely a measure of their natural lifespan, meaning that those who died of unnatural causes like a spear to throat would likely have plenty of Prana remaining.

 

And in contrast? The vast majority of this Sovereign’s court of souls had long since expended the lion’s share of their Prana, for though he had claimed their lives well in advance of their natural end, resisting his efforts to control them expended their Prana at a rapid rate. As such, even though this Sovereign’s court held the numerical advantage, they were largely a spent force, save for those collected in recent centuries who were as rare as qilin horns and phoenix feathers. Aside from the Solitary Sword Zhang Jun Bao, whose soul had been claimed little more than a week prior and was still struggling against this Sovereign’s Will, the most recent soul to enter into this Sovereign’s collection was the host’s soul, Liang Wu Sheng. The others had been in his possession for at least a century, for this Sovereign had grown highly particular regarding which souls were worthy of entering his collection. At the beginning, he took in every soul that caught his interest, but as time passed, he discovered that a flawed perspective could do more harm than good, so why partake of spoiled wine when one could study it with the other senses instead?

 

Oh how it pained him to see his collection destroyed out of hand, the souls of Emperors’ past consigned to oblivion by sword and spear. Useless though they might be, each and every one of those souls were a marker of his legacy, a step along his Path which brought him to where he stood now. Try as he might to engage his hateful opponent to stop him from destroying this Sovereign’s legacy, it was all he could do to stand firm against the torrent of vengeful souls assaulting him from all sides. It wasn’t their weapons which wounded him so, but rather the powerful Intents behind them, and not Weapon Intents either. There was power in Death, this much was known, and even more so in violence and hatred, so in spurring this army of itinerant souls to action against this Sovereign, Falling Rain had inadvertently harvested the fruits of what Death had bestowed upon his allies. All the hatred and animosity those vengeful souls possessed in life was now directed towards this Sovereign, all their enmity, grievances, ill-will, and resentment turned into weapons most potent, Manifesting as Intents which imbued their attacks with all manner of unresolved emotions and unfulfilled regrets which rent this Sovereign’s Will apart time and time again.

 

The rage of a father who’d buried three sons.

 

The hatred of a woman who’d lost her innocence to Defiled.

 

The passionate fury of a noble unresigned to death.

 

The all-encompassing contempt of a Warrior willing to die for a cause.

 

This was but a minor fraction of the emotional assault hammering through this Sovereign’s very existence, threatening to Unbalance him and topple him from his Path, if not destroy his foundation all-together. The itinerant souls channeled their emotions in reckless ignorance of what it would do to their eternal existence, unaware of the price they paid to launch this ultimately suicidal assault, but this Sovereign suspected that even if they knew, these vengeful souls had lost any and all ability to hold themselves back after Falling Rain spurred them on to action.

 

A cruel act, to fool these souls so, wholly out of character for someone as naïve and compassionate as Falling Rain, which meant the boy had done so in ignorance. “Fool!” This Sovereign howled, his very existence imbued with agony and suffering both as he struggled to hold firm to his Dao. “Do you know what you’ve done? What price your comrades will pay?”

 

“Pray tell.”

 

So wry and smug, Falling Rain’s tone almost sent this Sovereign over the tipping point but he held firm to his conviction and screamed, “So brave in your ignorance, so cruel in your disregard, to treat your allies so. In victory or defeat, these souls will be naught but empty shells, spent vessels incapable of entering the cycle of reincarnation once more. In summoning them here to fight, you have stolen their chance to be reborn anew, consigned them to an eternity of oblivion, nihility and nonexistence.”

 

There was nothing left to say, and a good thing too, because this Sovereign could no longer find it in him to speak as the chaos came to an abrupt standstill. Bent double under the weight of emotion, he shouldered the dying regrets of thousands heaped upon him in less time than it took to blink an eye and was found wanting. Straining to retain sanity under this deluge of sentiment, he fixed his gaze upon Falling Rain who’d ceased his assault and recalled his army to his side with a concerned frown, for the idealistic little worm could not bear to sacrifice a few thousand dead souls for ultimate victory.

 

“Life Force?” The boy arrived at this answer almost immediately, before shaking his head in rejection, for he knew enough to know there was more to Prana than just life. “Not Death force either, nor is it Immortal Energy. Mortal Energy? Whatever, the name, it exists, and they don’t have much.” Casting his gaze across his army of souls, he studied the unchecked emotions etched across their faces for long moments in silence. Slowly but surely, his features stiffened as fell into a focused trance, no doubt having gleaned something from his thoughts in a moment of Insight or intuition. Raising his shield overhead, he held it not like an armament to attack or defend, but rather more like a symbol or emblem, the same way an Official would hold their Seal of Office up for all to see whilst delivering an order to the masses. “I will bear the cost of your efforts,” the boy declared, and a ripple emanated outwards from all sides, one which washed over his army with startling effect. One moment, those souls were full of hatred, rage, and grievance, and the next, their expressions all softened into ones of peaceful tranquility, a riotous mob calmed in an instant as they partook of Falling Rain’s Prana. “You have done more than enough,” Falling Rain continued, bowing his head in thanks as his army turned to regard him with reverence and respect unmatched. “I, Falling Rain, thank you for your assistance, and bid you all go in peace. May your next lives be better than this one.”

 

To think, this Sovereign had been brought so low by someone of such lacking determination, but he would be victorious at the end.

 

The army of souls offered the boy their respects before fading into the Void to be reincarnated anew, and soon enough, Falling Rain stood alone against this Sovereign and his court of souls. A much-reduced court, as more than half of those near empty husks been expended in the brief but intense battle and had faded into nothingness. No matter, for so long as Liang Wu Sheng’s soul remained untouched and this Sovereign’s sworn brothers intact, then all else could be sacrificed here today. Such was the price this Sovereign was willing to pay to see Falling Rain captured and tormented for millennia to come, to the point where he even intended to expend the Prana of his current and future hosts more liberally so that the worm could spend more time immersed and aware of his suffering.

 

Mastering his Will with sheer discipline and determination alone, this Sovereign drew himself up to full height to face his hateful foe, making no attempt to hide his contempt and derision. There was no regret on Falling Rain’s expression, but no caution either as he stood a man alone before this Sovereign’s army as if he held the upper hand. His shoulders relaxed and lips quirked in a knowing half-smile, he flourished his blade about in reflex, the very picture of casual contempt. “Don’t start gloating just yet,” the boy began, forestalling this Sovereign’s attempt to do just that, an alarmingly predictable habit he’d fallen into thanks to his Natal Soul’s undue influence. “They might’ve moved on, but the damage they’ve done is significant.” A fact this Sovereign could not deny, and one which almost sent him spiralling into a rage, only for the flames of anger to be doused in cold fear by Falling Rain’s following declaration, delivered in his customary egotistical fashion.

 

“Besides, that was only the first wave, and the real stars of the show will arrive soon enough.”

 

Chapter Meme 1

Chapter Meme 2

Chapter Meme 3

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Savage Divinity – Chapter 834

 

A single attack to turn the tides, a single strike to end this war.

 

That’s what I was going for, but it turns out I’m not that guy.

 

The Eternal Emperor is just better. There. I said it. The bitter admission does little to affect my courage and resolve, but it’s something which has to be said in order to temper expectations as I crash into the desert sands below. The impact alone might well have been enough to kill me, but thankfully Pong Pong’s protective sphere of flowing water cushions my landing enough so as not to exacerbate my already grievous injuries. My limp frame slides a fair distance before coming to a gradual stop, and my broken bones shift ever so slightly leaving me in an agony so complete I can barely form a coherent thought except to lament my miserable state.

 

So yea. I’m a little out of my depth here. No shame in admitting it.

 

The Energy of the Heavens flows through me in accordance to my Will, Healing what ails me as quick as it can, but with my chest caved in, lungs punctured by broken ribs, and upper spine shattered into literal pieces, it’ll be a minute or two before I’m ready for the next round. Probably much longer actually, since I failed to factor in my new and improved physique, one which will take significantly more effort and energy to Heal despite offering no real advantage against my formidable foe. My tough skin, dense muscles, and sturdy bones might as well be made of wet paper for all the good it did me, though in hindsight, I suppose there’s a good chance I would’ve died if I’d taken this attack before Ascending to Divinity.

 

Whoop-de-doo. I can survive a single punch, a haphazard, impromptu counter delivered carelessly without a proper follow through. In contrast, I spent several seconds putting everything I had into a single Chi bullet which I unleashed with the barrel literally in the Eternal Emperor’s face, but he took it like a champ and put an early end to any offensive momentum I might’ve built up. Pretty sure that’s all she wrote now, because not only do I know he’s better and faster at Healing than I am, but now that I think about it, he probably doesn’t even need his body to be in full fighting condition before he can get back up and end my existence. You know, on account of how he’s puppeting a meat suit rather than walking around in his own skin, which is just totally unfair.

 

I mean c’mon. I’ve powered up like three times today and I’m still out of my league, so in over my head I can’t even see the surface. Not because I’m weak, but far from it in fact, because as far as I can tell, I could probably put up a decent enough fight against most Demonic Divinities even without relying on Pong Pong or Cleansing. I’m not saying I can cut them down like chaff, because that is most definitely not the case, but I’m confident I could keep myself safe while fighting your standard feral Demonic Divinity, with enough attention to spare to keep it from nuking me to oblivion. Again, this is without Cleansing, and with it, I could end every Demonic Divinity here in Shi Bei in under a minute so long as they don’t scatter and run. Buddy has already shown what he can do, but he’s a dumb dog acting on pure instinct, meaning he is approaching this in what might well be the stupidest and most inefficient way possible. Rather than seek to isolate the Demonic Divinities in ones and twos, I would instead work with my allies to corral our foes all into one group so I can get in real close, Manifest my Natal Palace, and drag them all down into the depths of my Natal Sea in one fell swoop. Once there, their corporeal bodies will promptly be Cleansed and dissolved into goop while their Spiritual bits are rendered into usable Heavenly Energy for me to squander as I please, ending the Demonic Divinity threat and freeing up my allies to resume battle against the Defiled Divinities still lurking about.

 

I’d love to know how I measure up against a regular Divinity too, but in spite of my… not better, but more complete Ascension, I doubt I’d fare too well against the Enemy Divinities here in Shi Bei. While Demonic Divinities are formidable, they’re largely feral and stupid to boot, so even if they are stronger and less restrained, once you remove the risk of incidental nukes, a regular Divinity makes for a far more dangerous threat. Only the desire to minimize the risk to their lives has kept the Defiled Divinities from joining hands with the Demonic Divinities to slaughter the remaining Imperial Divinities of Shi Bei, an outcome which might well have already come to pass if not for the latest addition of the Empire’s newest Divinities.

 

Who I helped Ascend, so technically, I should get at least half the credit for their efforts.  

 

First and foremost is the formidable Shooting Star Nian Zu, with his meticulously groomed beard in impeccable condition despite enduring a siege for the better part of two weeks and fighting for the last several hours without rest. The same can’t be said for his signature and now battle-worn gold and black armour, or his fluttering cloak embroidered with the Situ crest. Both have seen better days, yet this does nothing to lessen the imposing presence of the highest-ranking Officer on this battlefield. The first time I met him, I likened him to a hero straight out of a kid’s book, a robust, aged gentleman who exuded power from every fibre of his being. His presence alone demanded obedience and threatened violence without having to so much as move a muscle in threat, yet when he finally spoke, it was accompanied by booming laughter and a warm expression, while his subsequent words and actions told me he was a man of principle I could trust without having to utter those actual words.

 

And today, he proves it yet again, not just to me, but to every soldier in Shi Bei as he hurls the Shooting Star clean through the head of an unsuspecting Defiled Divinity and injures four others standing nearby with the resulting explosion.

 

The hostilities between Divinities came to a crashing halt so that they could all watch my Ascension, but Nian Zu is a grizzled veteran who knows it is always best to strike first, strike hard, and show no mercy. As a Martial Warrior and Peak Expert, he rose to fame with this signature move, one powerful enough to flatten a palatial manor as a mere mortal. Now that he’s Ascended to Divinity, Nian Zu’s offensive capability has improved by leaps and bounds, but his pride, honour, and adherence to the treaty keeps him from unleashing hell upon the mortal Half-Demons threatening the lives of his soldiers in Shi Bei. The frustration radiates off him in dark, malignant waves as he charges shield-first at the Demonic Divinities he only just scattered with his mace, leaping feet first into the fray with a heroic bellow of rage and fury both as he himself becomes the Shooting Star. The air shakes, the sand explodes, and the fabric of reality itself threatens to unravel and implode as he descends upon the desert below as violence incarnate. Before the dust has time to settle, his target shoots out in an arc through the air, ostensibly leaping away from the point of impact with help from its quick reaction, but even then, the Northern Colonel General’s attack forced the Demonic Divinity to leave its two legs behind.

 

This marks two and half Demonic Divinities he’s killed since the battle began, which doesn’t seem like much until I remember that they’ve only been around for a few minutes at most. Nian Zu himself has only been a Divinity for a little longer than that, and his achievements are all the more impressive when compared to most other Imperial Divinities. Not necessarily the ones who Ascended alongside him, but rather those supposedly formidable Ancestral Beasts who acted all high and mighty in Nan Ping. The Ancestral Bull Niu Mowang makes for an impressive sight in his full suit of Runic plate armour, but even though the hostilities have only just resumed, he’s already being battered around by two Demonic Divinities who’ve surrounded him. While the Imperials are outnumbered by the Demons in the battle of Divinities, Niu Mowang only has his own lacking combat sense to blame for his lamentable plight as his foes lead him about by the nose, taking turns to capture his attention while the other deals him a heavy blow. Despite falling far short in terms of skill, timing, and preparation, the Ancestral Bull tried to emulate Nian Zu’s actions rather than support him from behind, and in doing so has landed himself in a hot mess which the Weasel Divinity Fu Zhu Li is fighting to help extricate him from.

 

Which just goes to reinforce everything I said about Fung being a more suitable main character than me, because he even has a Divinity for a manservant.

 

I always knew there was more to the ‘half-weasel’ manservant than meets the eye, especially after he admitted that even Guard Leader couldn’t stop him from killing me if he pleased, but despite his agile and spirited movements on the battlefield, his prowess in actual combat leaves much to be desired. This isn’t to say he’s weak, because far from it, but rather that he could be using his formidable speed and strength in a much more effective manner if he spent a few hours every day practicing the Forms. Even though his movements are fluid, natural, and graceful as can be, it’s clear that it’s been a long time since Fu Zhu Li has been in a fight. A moment of hesitation here, a hair too slow to react there, his actions give off a general sense of indecision and unfamiliarity as he fights with twin daggers that I suspect aren’t even Spiritual Weapons, but just regular steel weapons Plated in Domain, without any Dagger Force or whatever to support him.

 

The same general lack of skill and familiarity can be seen in many other Imperial Divinities as well, like Mama Gam dancing around three Demonic Divinities and has yet to utilize her Blessing of Earth because she’s too focused on dodging the next attack to plan ahead, or Matchali and Da Hui, the Ancestral Tiger and Ancestral Grizzly from the Saint’s Tribulation’s Mountains who throw slow, powerful haymakers or telegraphed, sweeping kicks and wonder why they’re unable to hit the Bristleboar Divinity, whose bulky, rotund frame is more agile than it appears. In hindsight, I shouldn’t be so surprised since most Divinities lack the opportunity to test their strength and hone their skills, as opposed to the newly Ascended Nian Zu who dedicated most of his century of life immersed in bloody conflict, be it against Clan, Society, rival, or Defiled.

 

Of course, there are exceptions, like the golden-furred WuKong, Argat and Jochi’s father who fights like a Warrior born with a dazzling smile etched across his handsome, round face. Though he’s only killed one Demonic Divinity so far, he’s also under more pressure than Nian Zu as Mataram YuKon has the Monkey Divinity set in his sights. The traitorous Divinity makes his move as WuKong is mid-way through what would be a killing thrust delivered towards a helpless Demonic Divinity, if not for the fact that it was all a feint meant to bait his cunning opponent in. Staff meets spear with a resounding clash, and they exchange moves faster than my eyes can follow, though my Spiritual Senses paint a picture in my mind which offers far more details than I can process. Mataram YuKon exhibits consummate skill while WuKong counters with unrivalled familiarity, their sublime movements concealing a myriad of subtle and not so subtle nuances which speaks volumes to their expertise. There’s a manufactured deadliness to the Mataram founder’s movements, for in becoming One with the Weapon, he has himself become the spear, yet this stands in stark contrast to WuKong’s approach to the same step. Rather than become the staff, it would be more accurate to say that the staff has become a part of him as the golden-furred trickster twirls and flings it about, treating it no differently from his limbs or tail. As he backpedals away from YuKon’s offensive, WuKong pushes the butt of his staff against the sand like a paddle to hasten his retreat, only to jam it down to stop him in place and spin about to avoid an otherwise unavoidable thrust. Placing both feet against the planted staff, he uses his weapon as a springboard to propel him to one side before utilizing the same motion to fling a wall of sand at his foe, which he follows up by delivering a blind, yet accurate thrust through it. Even though Mataram YuKon is wholly capable of matching these movements, he’s never seen anyone fight like this in an actual life-and-death match, which means that he is slow to react to his opponent’s unpredictable style and takes the thrust head-on without raising a defense. Alas, the traitor’s instincts are razor sharp and he twists at the last moment to turn it into a glancing blow, while his Runic armour is enough to ward off the remaining force and use the momentum to beat a hasty retreat while the Demonic Divinity keeps WuKong from chasing after.

 

The Old Wolf would be equally impressive, if not for the significant handicap Buddy entails. Powerful as my doggo might be, he doesn’t know how to pick his moments, meaning the Old Wolf has his hands full keeping my sweet puppy safe as he runs headlong into danger in pursuit of his delectable Demonic treats. As for the remaining established Divinities, few stand out enough to notice, though the ones still fighting are heads and shoulders above the cowards who’ve already booked it, like Gang Shu and the stupid Ancestral Rhino with all his talk of righteousness and justice. As such, even though she has only recently Ascended and was grievously wounded by Zhen Shi shortly after, the Sword Empress Jeong Hyo Lynn has become a core fixture of the Imperial defenders, one even more significant than Nian Zu. While the Colonel General boasts of unmatched offensive prowess, Jeong Hyo Lynn fights in a more defensive style as she flits from one encounter to the next to lend aid to her beleaguered allies. Her trio of swords form a scintillating storm of steel and sand as they descend upon Demonic and Defiled Divinity alike, parrying, Deflecting, or outright blocking what could potentially be killing blows while setting her ally up for success.

 

A tactic chosen out of necessity rather than effectiveness, but she’s made the most of what she has available, and I can understand why her offensive strength is so lacking compared to Nian Zu. It all has to do with Intent, in that Jeong Hyo Lynn relies too much on her sword to convey it, for in her eyes, the sharpness and violence inherent in the weapon itself is enough to reap lives with little more than a flick of the wrist. While that would have sufficed against mortal foes, her opponents are Divinities now and made of sterner stuff, so she’ll need to come up with a real killing move if she wants to contribute to the tally of dead Enemy Divinities.

 

Then again, she might not have to because Akanai has her covered and then some, an unstoppable force on the battlefield as she runs rampant through the Enemy forces despite having three Demons and two Ancestral Beasts dedicated to keeping her in check. For all their efforts to keep her contained, my Grand-Mentor and Mother-in-Law needs only a single moment to break free, and once that moment is over and done with, an Enemy Divinity will either be wounded or killed. Akanai’s signature Ground-Shrinking Strike is just too fast for the Enemy to keep up, enabling her to almost freely pick and choose her targets as she pleases, placing ample amounts of pressure on the Enemy Divinities who would otherwise hold the upper hand. Though the Demonic Divinities might be reckless enough to risk their lives, the Defiled Ancestral Beasts and Human Divinities have much more to lose and thus are keeping a close eye on her at all times, meaning Akanai’s presence alone is enough to keep her foes in line. No one has killed more Divinities than Akanai on this battlefield here today, not even Buddy, and she looks to raise her body count to eight as she swings her ax-lance like a baseball bat at her oncoming assailant. A Defiled Ancestral Beast with twin horns protruding from the base of his forehead and an obscene smirk smeared across his face, the former of which identifies him as Yan’s sire, Surkithyr. His rugged, porcelain features are twisted with hate and make the Defiled taint all the more obvious, his skin no longer flawless, his nose just a hair too bulbous, and his face slightly asymmetrical unlike those of his Imperial counterparts. While still a handsome and downright beautiful man on all accounts, there’s an ugly cast to it all that sours the overall effect, a subtle droop of a cheek here and a slight curve of the eyelid there that sticks out like a sore thumb.

 

And as Akanai’s pole-ax hurtles towards his midsection, Surkithyr’s disproportional eyes widen in surprise and despair as he comes to terms with what is likely his impending death.

 

Alas, the odds are too stacked against her as another Defiled Divinity interferes, a once-human Chieftain covered in the hides of his foes and wielding a massive bone club in both hands. Primitive and crude though his appearance might be, his skills are nothing to sneeze at, honed over a lifetime of conflict bloodier than I could even imagine that has shaped him into the consummate Warrior that he is today. Between him, Surkithyr, and the three Demonic Divinities, Akanai has no choice but to retreat before their frenzied assault and seek allies to help extricate her from her plight.

 

The others are all busy with their own fights, but Akanai’s dilemma does not go unnoticed, for despite the bitter fighting on the Walls of Shi Bei, Husolt has never once shifted his attention away from his beloved wife. Four hundred plus years they’ve been together, and he loves her now more than ever, with a burning passion and adoring devotion that few will ever truly know. The heights of his love are only matched by the depths of his self-loathing, coupled with several unhealthy extra portions of rage, anger, and hatred in general. Despite accompanying her down the mountains and standing at her side every step along the way, he is no longer capable of supporting his beloved wife, and for this, he clearly blames himself. It’s not the fact that he’s weaker that bothers him so, because he’s proud of her strength, skill, and ambition. He’s always known she was meant for greatness, knew it right from the start, because she’d always been the more talented and devoted one, while he kept up by virtue of sheer necessity with more than a little luck and guidance to help him along.

 

Except now, he can’t even stand behind her, much less beside her, because not only is he incapable of providing any assistance, his presence would prove a hindrance to Akanai’s actions and a weakness for her enemies to exploit. All he can do is watch in impotent rage as the love of his life struggles against foes too strong for him to face, and he hates himself for being too weak to lend a hand when she needs it the most. If only he’d learned to master his emotions, to set his rage and hatred aside, a trial and tribulation he’s contended with for more than fifty years now, and still has yet to wholly overcome. For these five decades, his beloved wife has been nothing but supportive, never once losing faith that he would recover in time, but she’s also quietly shouldered the fate of the People and the Saint’s Tribulations Mountains both all by her lonesome. Even though he was always there to help if she needed him, she never once faltered or wavered without his support, proving once and for all that he’d only ever been holding her back, the same way he held her back in Central.

 

If not for him urging her to swallow her grievances and play it safe in Central, their enemies would never have been so bold as make an attempt to capture her in broad daylight, leaving her no choice but to kill her assailants in self-defence, most of whom were spoiled scions of wealthy and powerful familes. Were this a private feud, there still might have been room for both sides to step back, but with so many witnesses to the incident, their enemies had no choice but to react with aggression in an attempt to regain lost face. Husolt’s soft-minded ways led to three promising young Sentinels dying in Central, and his wife took grievous injury to boot, so every time he saw the scar over his left eye, he saw the faces of the dead and the bloodied features of his battered wife, which ignites his rage anew.

 

And so when Akanai Ascended to Divinity and left Husolt so far behind, he wasn’t sure whether to laugh or cry. On the one hand, his incompetence could no longer bring her any harm, but she was also left wholly without support and understanding. Proud as he was of her accomplishments, he cannot find it in himself to look past his self-hatred and just be happy for how far she’d come. All he can do was think back about the times when her would-be admirers said she was a flower planted in bear shit and lament at the waste, a hurtful statement he can no longer deny, for she has always been too good for him.

 

Much as I want to help my Father-in-Law with his inner turmoil, I dare not offer any advice, because in spite of my new and improved perspective of Balance, I don’t understand it well enough to convey it in words or emotions. That’s why the severed Natal Soul assigned to Husolt is helpless to help him, and the same can be said for the one assigned to Huushal, who similarly hates himself for being too weak to save his uncle Kalil during the fighting around Sanshu. That hatred has built up a pyre of anger which blazes with full force as he rides through the Half-Demon cavalry, a paltry few riders who number a few hundred in total yet are holding back the combined might of tens of thousands of Imperial riders seeking to support the defenders of Shi Bei. Huu doesn’t really care about all that, doesn’t care about the big picture or winning the war, because he has his sights set on the man who killed his Uncle Kalil, and come hell or high water, my friend is determined to have his vengeance or die trying to claim it. Rage consumes his every thought as he charges headlong towards the mounted Half-Demon, unknowingly flanked by his wives and mother, Yesui, Yosai, and Ghurda. These three women fight with frantic desperation in their efforts to keep up, yet Huu doesn’t even notice their presence, or the fact that they’ve saved him from otherwise certain death several times now as he fixates on his foe at the expense of all else. The Spectres continue to spur him on, new ones and old that he never got around to fully divesting himself of, and even though my Natal Soul is in there with them, his voice of reason is drowned out by the Spectres spurring Huu onwards towards self-destruction.

 

Oddly enough, Huu’s nemesis is similarly conflicted as he fights with axe in hand. Vithar is his name, a Chieftain lost in the throes of delight amidst all this battle and bloodshed, yet there’s a sense of disorientation emanating from deep within, one my Natal Soul picked up on and tried to bolster. At first, Vithar’s transformation filled him with pride and elation as he fought to his heart’s content, but now he’s trying to remember why he’s still here, fighting in a war he no longer believes in. Despite their reputation of war-loving savages, the Defiled are only driven to fight so often because usually they have no other choice. There are limited resources to be had in the ruined wastes outside the Empire’s borders, so without enough to go around, conflict becomes a necessity. This is doubly true when the bodies of allies and enemies alike provide sustenance to the survivors, yet Vithar is one of a select few Defiled who yearn for something more. Where I see the arid deserts of the Western Provinces as a land of death and sandy suffering, Vithar sees it as paradise compared to the frozen tundra of the north, a utopia in which he and his fellow tribesman can grow fat and happy without struggling to survive every damn day of their lives. Yet as he looks around this most glorious battlefield encased in Demonic Armour of his own creation, he sees none of his tribesmen fighting at his side, none of the people he cares to fight for, which elicits a profound yearning and sentiment I would’ve never expected from a murderous Defiled Chieftain covered in the blood of my allies.

There’s a woman on his mind, one he loves as much as he knows how to, and a child they were meant to raise together, one he looks forward to teaching without having to worry too much about the price of failure. There is no more reason to fight, no objective to accomplish here in Shi Bei or comrade to save, so Vithar wonders why he is still fighting with nothing to gain. Then Huu’s sabre is upon him, and he has no time for distraction anymore, because even though the Defiled Chieftain is far stronger than my friend, he is not strong enough to kill Huushal out of hand, much less disregard Yesui, Yosai, or Ghurda close behind. To make matters worse, his instincts are blunted and his actions unsure, because in his confusion, the voice of the Demonic Spirit inhabiting his armour and directing his thoughts has grown quiet and subdued, while Vithar has yet to obtain new Spectres to spur him to hatred and bloodshed.

 

Each of these issues from Husolt, Huushal, and Vithar, they all stem from a lack of Balance, yet the Balance they need is unique to themselves, or at the very least, completely different from mine. Where I often find myself at the whims of my compassion and empathy, their issue is largely with rage and anger, so while we might have some overlap between us, there is no cure-all solution I can provide to help them through this. My particular brand of Balance is just something I stumbled across in a moment of Insight, an ineffable feeling and sensation that just seems right, but how can I be sure it would help someone else?

 

Which means these troubled individuals are all shit out of luck, because I have no idea how to help them.

 

There are many others who share similar issues with Balance, too many for me to list out, though there are a few who deserve an honourable mention. Mao Jianghong for example, whose burning hatred for the Empire is dwindling fast as the Demonic Spirit within his armour forces him to relive the memories of the worst day in his life, all in a ham-fisted attempt to elicit more grief to turn into rage. Killing the goose that lays the golden eggs as it were, so eager to squeeze out more emotion that the Demonic Spirit doesn’t notice how Jianghong has become numb to it all, and therefore more clear-minded and able to think. Then there’s the man who sired me, except his problem isn’t a lack of Balance, but rather that his Balance is so extreme that he oscillates from one end of the emotional spectrum to the other without so much as blinking an eye. The man who is my father feels so proud of Gerel, so pleased to see his cherished son has grown into a capable man, and he wishes his wife was here to see it. The wife he sacrificed so that he could have himself a shiny new set of Half-Demon armour, yet still loves and cares for all the same, which is why he’s so eager to kill Gerel, so that she can be reunited with the son who missed him so, so much that no other child could replace him in her heart no matter how much they tried.

 

As for my brother, Gerel is similarly struggling with Balance as he watches our father fight his father-figure, my Dad Baatar whose second-wind is soon fading as exhaustion sinks in once more. If he were stronger, Gerel could help shoulder the burden, but he’s seen enough to know that trying to step in now might well cause both his and Dad’s death. All my brother can do is support Dad from the side and hate himself for being weak, while Naaran does the same whilst nursing his wounds and cursing his age, incompetence, lack of dedication, and a thousand other minor complaints. This more than anything proves that I was born into the world, rather than transmigrated, because now I see that gloom and self-loathing runs in our blood, though my sire seems deluded enough to have avoided this particular pitfall, or he makes up for it in other ways.

 

And here I am, a fresh True Divinity (I think), broken and helpless to act, unable to even share my perspective for fear of leading these troubled friends down the wrong Path.

 

Even if there is no wrong Path, there are some mistakes you can’t come back from, so between the bitter fighting and the permeating air of desperation, I am unwilling to take this risk. My Balance is too poorly defined to share, too uncertain and unproven to be of any use, so all I can do is swallow my pride and scour my mind for a solution I am unable to find.

 

Of course, it’s not all doom and gloom in Shi Bei, as there are plenty of success stories to bolster morale, like Tenjin’s acceptance of himself and the freedom he personally desires. A different form of freedom from the one I pursue, but a freedom all the same, and one he feels has been denied him because of the Path he took in life. The Firebirds he crafts from the flames represents the carefree skies he yearns for, where he can put away the heavy burdens of expectations laid upon him, and he has finally come to see this. What’s more, he senses a camaraderie with his firebirds he never felt before, and unbeknownst to him, if he should put time and effort enough into his hopes and dreams, then perhaps one day he will create a Spiritual entity with a soul of its own, and maybe even a body and mind if he is able to find the Path to True Divinity himself.

 

Grandpa Du feels younger than he ever has before as he trades blows with the traitor Mao Jianghong. Which honestly works against him, because if Grandpa Du eased up a little, then his opponent might just defeat himself, but the pressure placed upon Jianghong is too much for him to give in wholly to his thoughts. Grandpa Du doesn’t care however, because he’s here to kick ass and take names, and he’s aiming to add Mao Jianghong to his list before what he believes is his last wind plays out. The good news is that Grandpa Du is not, in fact, on the brink of death and using up the last of his strength in one final burst. No, he’s feeling younger and stronger thanks to a collaborative effort between my Natal Soul and Buddy. See, in his infinite doggy wisdom, which I sometimes confuse for stupidity, Buddy has already figured out the secrets to life force while I still have yet to come up with the right questions to ask. Thus, with so much to spare, he is more than happy to share some with the wrinkly human who doles out treats every hour like it’s Halloween, an expression I put together for Buddy’s burning excitement to introduce himself to someone he’s already decided to love.

 

Though she still grieves for her fallen brother, Ryo Da’in finds comfort in the happiness her little sister has found on the battlefield, and has committed to finding her own happiness no matter the cost, one she will bear on her own shoulders if she is able to, or die trying. Though she has yet to work out all the details, her willingness to follow her heart has enabled her to become One with the Self and One with the Sword as the Sword Princess shows the Enemy why she has long since been considered the undisputed Number One Talent of her Generation. Whereas Fung is on the cusp of forming Sword Intent, Da’in’s Domain erupts with it, Materializing a whole armoury of radiant swords in the skies the same way her father did in the Central Citadel, only for them to rain death down upon her foes to keep her little sister and her lover safe.

 

The sight fills Kyung with warm pride and eager yearning, one he embraces as he Cloud-Steps over to Da’in’s side, cutting down a Half-Demon intent on mutually assured destruction to bring down the new Sword Queen. Their eyes meet for all of a moment before they both turn away out of embarrassment, but neither one retreats as they fight side by side, for they are both finally willing to face their fears and risk it all for love.

 

There are countless stories like this, and many more that end in tragedy as Imperials and Defiled alike die in droves on the walls of Shi Bei. Unlike the match between the Eternal Emperor and myself, the battle below is still anybody’s game, so I’m putting my last-ditch efforts to use where they might actually make a difference. I know this sounds like I’ve given up and called it quits, but I haven’t. I’ve only acknowledged the fact that I have no way of defeating my monstrous foe, which means I’m probably gonna die and become the newest prisoner in his court of souls. As such, I am doing everything I can to make a difference before my inevitable end, because the battle for Shi Bei can still be won so long as my opponent adheres to the Treaty and leaves the mortals to their own struggles. A part of me hopes the Eternal Emperor will be content with his victory and leave my loved ones alone, a small, quiet, stupid part that the rest of me envies, because I know my foe is a petty, small-minded, vengeful asshole who will delight in tormenting me because I dared to challenge him.

 

A challenge I will soon lose despite having given it my best shot, meaning I have failed to live up to the expectations of everyone who supported me.

 

The price of my failure will not be borne by me alone however, so I am not ready to give up just yet. I will struggle to the last breath, but given the limited window of opportunity left to me here in Shi Bei, I don’t have time to indulge in feel-good moments. I need to focus on those struggling to survive and punch out as many problems as I can before the Eternal Emperor stands up again, which will be long before I am ready to do the same. I haven’t exactly been just twiddling my thumbs all this time, as I’ve been Healing as quickly as Panacea will allow, but this is nowhere near quick enough given the speed at which my foe’s face knits itself together. That’s the difference between guided direction and just letting the body take care of itself, but given my lack of practice with Healing, any attempt I make to speed things along will almost certainly end in tumorous disaster. To make matters worse, Taddy and Hua Lie haven’t been standing around either, and have in fact been trying to end the Eternal Emperor’s reign once and for all, but despite missing a good three-quarters of his face, the rest of him seems more than capable of avoiding their attacks, while simultaneously Concealing himself to hide for a moment or two before being discovered yet again.

 

Seriously, why won’t the Emperor just die? He’s been around forever and done nothing worthwhile with his life, so I don’t see how he hasn’t just shrivelled up and died out of sheer shame.

 

Short of another miraculous bout of Balance heralding yet another Ascension for me to partake in that will power me up enough to finally defeat the Emperor, I’m pretty much screwed. Rather than dwell on my impending defeat and spiral into doom and depression, I’ve decided to focus on managing my army of Natal Souls and solving the problems they bring to me. Alas, they are me, which means any problem they can’t find a solution for is probably beyond my abilities as well, meaning that I’m mostly running circles around inside my head trying to go beyond my meagre reach. The limited omniscience of my Ascension has long since faded and gone, though when I lost it is difficult to say, yet I fear that even if I were able to find it again, the Heavens Above won’t have a solution in store for me. As far as I can tell, the Eternal Emperor’s status quo is an acceptable form of Balance to the powers that be, or more accurately to the natural fail-safes set by the laws of the known world.

 

A slow and suffocating Balance that makes light of humanity’s nigh endless potential, but a Balance all the same.

 

As if to punctuate the accuracy of the statement, the Eternal Emperor arrives before my still mangled body and picks me up by the throat, forcing me to look him in his disfigured face which has still yet to wholly Heal. Honestly, doesn’t look half-bad for a guy who took a bullet to the head, with most of the meat and bones all back where they belong, though still missing some chunks here and there. A lot of skin too, which makes his wide-eyed stare the creepier, almost protruding out from the sockets and kept in place by veins and nerves alone. “Your futile struggle will now end,” the ghastly, half-healed Eternal Emperor declares, his upper row of teeth and gums exposed due to a lack of nose and skin.

 

Using this time wisely to check on Taddy and Hua Lie, I find them being kept at bay by two Demonic Divinities, except I can tell my Teacher is only holding back so he can buy time to prepare a more powerful attack. Hoping to distract the Eternal Emperor and delay him a few moments longer, I scour my scrambled brain for a witty retort, but after pushing through the searing agony and the flood of information being sent back by my Natal Souls, the best I can come up with is, “Oh good. I was getting real sweaty lying in the sand.”

 

“The courage of youth and ignorance,” comes the Eternal Emperor’s predictable reply, so happy to gloat and preen whenever he has the upper hand. “But this Sovereign shall soon teach you the true meaning of regret.” Casting an arm out to gesture at the battle below, he offers me a smug, ghastly grin so full of teeth and bones. “How does it feel to know all your efforts have only served to doom them all? Though it is almost certain you have no intentions of seizing a new host to inhabit, this Sovereign will not risk having to contest against your Natal Souls after another century has passed. The seeds you have planted here will not be allowed to flourish, your hopes dashed and your isolation complete, for everyone you know and love will die before your eyes. Sacrificed, in truth, the first of many lives to be reaped in the name of this Sovereign’s progress, but not before they suffer through agonies beyond your feeble imagination.” As he looms over me for full effect, patches of skin crop up and radiate outwards in no discernable pattern, showing that even his half-hearted Healing is beyond anything I can match. “Oh? Nothing to say, worm? No clever gibe or insolent retort to pass along in your moment of defeat? Come now, this Sovereign expected more from a foe so troublesome to defeat.”

 

“…You thought I was troublesome?” Psh. Yea right. “I troubled you? Me. Trouble you. Wow.” Shaking my head in honest disbelief, I chuckle beneath my breath while coming to terms with this simple, yet honest truth, one delivered straight from the horse’s mouth. The Eternal Emperor, who has been around for Mother knows how long and has strength beyond anything I can match, found me troublesome to defeat. I mean, I lost in the end, but that’s still nice to hear. Seeing his confusion, I offer him a genuine smile that I couldn’t keep off my face if I tried. “You asked me how I feel? Honestly, relieved now. I did my best and got some good hits in, which is really all anyone can ask for.” Gesturing at the Warriors below, I reiterate the truth the Eternal Emperor only just admitted, but from a different perspective. “More importantly, I showed you and the world the potential humanity has to offer, which is a truth you can try to erase, but even if everyone here in Shi Bei doesn’t live through the day, the ideas and possibilities I’ve introduced will still persist, ones which will eventually raise a generation of heroes strong enough to succeed where I have failed.”

 

Judging from his gaze, it’s clear the Eternal Emperor thinks I’m referring to crossbows, Spiritual Rifles, and Runic Cannons, but I’m talking about so much more. Paper money, fair wages, better working standards, compound interest, glass, concrete, the list goes on and on, but even if we take away the inventions themselves, there’s still the general concept of improving one’s lot in life by way of technological progress. Maybe most people won’t realize it, but I’ve given them a glimpse at how I see the world, atop the shoulders of giants who came before me, one the Cao-Cao’s, Liu Xuande’s, Diyako’s, and other geniuses of the Empire can use to shape the future before them, one which will no doubt deviate from the Eternal Emperor’s vision. Then there’s the fact that Liang Wu Di no doubt intends to use the wealth of the Liang Family to pump out Runic Cannons en masse, else why would the Liang Baldy and the Yang Prime Minister be lurking in the wings, watching the Tyrant OuYang Yuhuan like a hawk?

 

Even though my efforts as a Martial Warrior and True Divinity have come up short, I accomplished plenty in my time here in this world. In fact, I daresay I accomplished more as a cripple than I could ever match as a Warrior with a lifetime spent on the battlefield. It’s not much, but it’s an accomplishment I can take pride in, so even though I have ultimately failed the people who have come to rely on me and my story will soon end in abject defeat, I can take solace in the fact that my actions have already planted the seeds of eventual victory, ones which will flower into trials and tribulations even the Eternal Emperor cannot overcome. I am only a man, and no man is an island unto himself, both in the army and in the collective human race. I see this now, accept that I alone would never have been enough to turn the tiller of progress, but with enough like-minded individuals working towards a goal and an inordinate amount of time and bloody, hard-fought revolutions sprinkled into the mix, then maybe, just maybe humanity has a chance after all.

 

That being said, I have never been one to give up without a fight, and this revelation has even inspired me to try one desperate last resort, a scheme based on so many wild assumptions and hinging on a multitude of optimistic hopes that it has almost no chance of success. With nothing left to lose however, I figure I might as well give it a shot, because what’s the worst that could happen? While my foe is still busy trying to puzzle out the meaning of my words, I task a few Natal Souls to pass along my last will and testament before steeling my nerves for one, final Hail Mary of a play.

 

It’s a long shot, but when the bases are loaded with two outs in the ninth, it doesn’t matter how many times you’ve struck out or fouled before. All you can do is swing for the fences and hope for the best, so here goes nothing.

 

Chapter Meme 1

Chapter Meme 2

Chapter Meme 3

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Savage Divinity – Chapter 833

 

To cultivate is to nurture the truth.

 

What truth? The Truth of the Heavens, the Truth of the World, and the Truth of the Self.

Two statements and a question this Sovereign had replayed in mind countless times, ones he still did not dare to claim he wholly understood. These words belonged to Fifth Brother Di Zi, spoken countless times over the years they spent together, but this Sovereign remembered two occasions in particular. The first being the day they met, shortly after this Sovereign’s Ascension to Nascent Immortality which brought them together for the first time, and the second during their final exchange just moments before Fifth Brother Di Zi’s consciousness retreated inwards into his soul in order to conserve what little Prana he still had left. The same words used as both introduction and warning, and though nothing had come of it in the millennia since, this Sovereign was loathe to let his guard down against his enigmatic fifth Brother just yet. Not without reason, for though the foreign outlander was a man of peace who abhorred bloodshed and never joined in their sparring matches, this Sovereign suspected the portly man capable of far more than he ever let on.

 

Even when it came time for their final battle, it always felt like fifth brother Di Zi was holding something back, though it would have done nothing to change his inevitable fate. Were he to somehow have miraculously struck this Sovereign down, then Fifth Brother would not have been long for this world either, his soul cast into the cycle of reincarnation to be born anew again.

 

Unfounded suspicions aside, Fifth Brother Di Zi possessed a unique role within their brotherhood, one not of rival written friend, but that of a teacher and mentor. This was only possible due to his high affinity and control over the Energy of the Heavens, skills which enabled him to carry out all manner of complex experiments and exercises the others could only dream about. Then there was his gifted mind, one capable of making the complex seem simple and the simple complex as needed, a brilliant Cultivator who bestowed logic to the Dao in a way none could ever match. It was Fifth Brother who took this Sovereign’s words regarding his experiences along his Path and translated them into something the others could use to Ascend in turn, and he who designed the Royal College’s curriculum which taught mortals how to become Cultivators and guided them to the Dao. During the Warring States Era, an army would be considered blessed to contain more than one Cultivator, and most had none to their name, for experts of such calibre were as rare as qilin horns and phoenix feathers. Hence why this Sovereign was able to dominate his opponents on the battlefield with relative ease, though as time passed, even the armies with multiple Cultivators were unable to prove much of a challenge. Upon founding the Empire, there were perhaps two dozen Cultivators this Sovereign could call upon, a number which dwindled after a hundred years of peace and prosperity, yet fifty years after the first outlanders invaded and the founding of the Royal College, this Sovereign had an army of ten-thousand Cultivators at his beck and call.

 

All of which was made possible by Fifth Brother’s shining brilliance, a rare genius of the Dao who found his own Path without relying on guidance from the Heavens above.

 

Even though the foundations laid by Fifth Brother’s teachings were inherently flawed, it was not because he’d erred in his interpretation of the Dao. No, the error lay in the fact that his teachings were based on this Sovereign’s perspective of the Dao, and therefore unsuitable for the masses. To follow in his footsteps was akin to asking a fish to fly using wings they did not possess, an impossible feat to accomplish without undergoing a staggering and impossible transformation. Though a fish was capable of flapping its fins in close approximation of a bird, there were fundamental differences between the two that would prevent any further progress, an issue which remained hidden until the first batch of new-age Cultivators reached the pinnacle of their flawed Path and were unable to Ascend to Nascent Immortality.

 

This Sovereign remembered those days well, of sitting in on the lessons with Fifth Brother’s students in hopes of uncovering a method to help these Cultivators Ascend. Every spoken word made perfect sense and adhered to his Dao, so he knew not why the others could not find the Path forward. Alas, several centuries passed before this Sovereign realized the error of Fifth Brother’s ways, and by then, the outland threat had long since resolved itself and he’d fallen out with his sworn brothers to boot. Despite all this, Fifth Brother’s teachings were only flawed when viewed from a perspective that was not this Sovereign’s, and thus were still wholly applicable to his Dao, so he often referred to those lessons rather than his own memories and testimonials because Fifth Brother often said it better.

 

The Truth of the Heavens was the first step, an ineffable Truth words could never do justice. It was a Truth one had to discover for oneself, else you would forever be denied the chance to Ascend to Nascent Immortality. Once you stumbled across the Truth however, then it was possible to become One with the Heavens and discover the Truth of the World, at which point a Cultivator would open themselves up to Heavens and harmonize their breathing with the World in order to lay the groundwork necessary to become a Cultivator. At first glance, these two steps appeared to take place simultaneously, or at worst in quick succession, but this was not the case. The Truth of the Heavens could simply be distilled down to the awareness of Heavenly Energy, the ability to perceive this power and affect its flow with your Will alone, yet this alone was not enough, for one’s perception of their personal Dao played a large role in what would come next.

 

Once you uncovered the Truth of the Heavens and the Truth of the World, you could then become One with the Heavens and One with the World, beginning the long and arduous process of Cleansing one’s physique. This was a crucial step, and a different step from Refining the body, mind, and soul, which was akin to gathering all the required materials and building a seven-story pagoda, while Cleansing one’s physique comparable to redecorating and realigning said pagoda in accordance with the Heavens and the World. Fifth Brother Di Zi called this Cleansing step Foundation Establishing, for it was here one would establish the foundation upon which one would build their Inner Core during their Ascension to Nascent Immortality, but much like ears or fingerprints, there were no two foundations which were wholly alike. The Cultivators who took up Fifth Brother’s teachings possessed only a superficial understanding of the Truth of the Heavens, and thus were destined to fail from the very first step, as they went on to Refine their bodies, minds, and souls and Cleanse their physiques in accordance with this Sovereign’s Path rather than their own, resulting in a flawed foundation incompatible with their personal perspectives of the Dao. This differed from the error this Sovereign’s sworn brothers made, wherein they erred in the step thereafter, Forming their Cores based on information gleaned from this Sovereign’s foundation rather than matching it to their own. Though the flaws were not obvious at first glance, there would eventually come a time when their mismatched Cores would prove more hindrance than boon as the misalignment caused impurities to build up within their Cleansed physiques creating blockages and interfering with the flow of Heavenly Energy through them. For this reason alone, this Sovereign had long since considered himself the only True Nascent Immortal in all of history, while his five sworn brothers were False Core Immortals at best, ones who would eventually have been forced to remake their Cores and start anew in order to progress any further, had they not fallen in battle first.

 

But from the looks of things, the world would welcome in a second True Nascent Immortal today, albeit a short-lived one if this Sovereign had anything to say about Falling Rain’s success.

 

Third, came the internal retort, a stubborn and subdued reminder of his Natal Soul’s success, but this Sovereign would remain skeptical until he had time enough to review those memories. It wasn’t that he was looking down on his Natal Soul, for even a cursory study of the scattered memories available showed that there was much to be gleaned from his Natal Soul’s experiences, but it also revealed a plethora of pitfalls to avoid. What’s more, this Sovereign’s Natal Soul had clearly embarked along a different Path, meaning its chances of successfully Ascending to become a True Nascent Immortal were miniscule at best, given how it had forced itself to pursue a different Dao in order to experience a different perspective. Lastly, the results spoke for themselves, and they were not promising, for how could a True Nascent Immortal have fallen to the machinations of one Falling Rain who had yet to even Ascend himself?

 

These thoughts stirred up a storm of bitter resentment and contrary belligerence, but with no logical argument to counter it, this Sovereign’s Natal Soul could only keep silent and accept the Truth.

 

Falling Rain however was a man wholly in accordance with the Truth of the Heavens, one unique to him and him alone. An impossible accomplishment, given what this Sovereign knew of the transmigrator’s Dao of Freedom and the inherent paradox ingrained within, but there was no denying the veracity of Falling Rain’s Ascension. The inviolability of space was merely the beginning, and not indicative of the legitimacy of his Ascension at all, for even the birth of a Transcendent could accomplish as much, since this was merely a side effect of merging one’s body, mind, and soul with the Heavens. According to the memories of this Sovereign’s Natal Soul, Falling Rain had begun this process in Meng Sha, only to stop before proceeding down the dead-end path all the so-called Divinities stumbled across, a sign that the transmigrator understood the fallacies of the Martial Path and had since made the proper adjustments. What those adjustments might be was impossible for this Sovereign to glean, nor could he even begin to guess at how the transmigrator had known to stop himself before making his mistake, but his competence made him all the more dangerous and reassured this Sovereign of his decision to eliminate the threat before he grew too strong to easily manage.

 

For despite having only just achieved One with the Heavens and One with the World in their entirety, Falling Rain started and finished establishing his foundation in less time than it took to blink an eye.

 

An unprecedented achievement for a human cultivator, and something this Sovereign would have believed impossible had he not witnessed the birth of an Ancestral Beast first-hand. Since that fateful day amidst the rivers and hills of his birthplace, this Sovereign had spent the better part of eight decades slowly establishing his foundation, allowing the Energy of the Heavens to surge through him and seep into every last crook and crevice of his very being to temper his body, mind, and soul while widening his meridians and acupoints. This was akin to smelting iron to remove the impurities before refining it into steel, except rather than an ingot, you were working with an iron sword that had already been forged and needed to keep in working order. Thus the need for painstaking care and effort, a slow and gradual process that improved one’s physique bit by bit, like removing one plank from a ship and replacing it before removing the next plank, until all the original planks had been replaced.

 

This was not the case with Falling Rain’s Refinement, if it could even be called such a thing. Rather than improve upon what was there, this was analogous to a rebirth as the Energy of the Heavens surged through and around the transmigrator until it thickened like molasses, a womb within which he would be reborn anew. The Energy of the Heavens was still formless and colourless, but this Sovereign’s Spiritual Senses were no longer able to pierce through the solid curtain, leaving him with only his physical senses to parse through what came next. A cycle of Destruction and Creation, one in which every fibre of Falling Rain’s body was destroyed and formed anew in the blink of an eye, so fast that it appeared as if nothing had happened save for a healthy sheen cast over his closed-eyed expression, yet so complete there could be no other way to describe it. The solid curtain of Heavenly Energy dissipated into nothingness, consumed in the process of nourishing his Refined physique, which was then Cleansed of impurities by the first revolution of Heavenly Energy surging through him.

 

Which was exactly how Ancestral Beasts were born, albeit as False Core Immortals who had yet to determine their Dao, and never would due to the conflict between their human and bestial instincts.

 

Physically, Falling Rain’s appearance had not changed from the diminutive, unremarkable youth whose only saving grace was his distinctive amber eyes. His hair was half-brushed and in disarray, a half-bun coming apart at the seams, while his plain black robes hung loosely from his gaunt, angular frame, largely due to the poor tailoring and his refusal to tighten his sash as decorum demanded. Add in his slack expression, eyes closed and mouth half open in complete relaxation, and he possessed the air of a disgraceful young noble returning from an exhausting visit to the local brothel, half-drunk with no regard for face whatsoever. This Sovereign’s Spiritual Senses told an entirely different story however, determining that Falling Rain’s physical form had been improved in a myriad of subtle and not so subtle ways. His pale, unmarked skin was still soft and supple, yet tougher than even the thickest of bestial hides without affecting his sensation of touch. Steel swords would find it difficult to break skin, and impossible to cleave through his solid, sturdy bones, assuming they could even carve through his dense yet surprisingly elastic muscles, but this was merely scratching the surface. He wasn’t just stronger and more durable, but he would have more stamina as well, his blood and lungs so efficient that he could likely run for hours before breaking a sweat or losing his breath, and poisons might as well be water where he was concerned, broken down by his organs before they would have a chance to act. 

 

It had been quite some time since this Sovereign had possessed a wholly Refined Physique, as there was no point putting in all the effort to lead a borrowed body to the Peak of the Dao, but as far as he could tell, even his original body might not be a match for Falling Rain’s, which hid a myriad of improvements that were not obvious at first, second, or even third glance. First Brother’s physique was the strongest out of all six sworn brothers, as befitting of the Martial God of the Warring States Era. His comprehension of the hidden complexities of the human body surpassed even that of Fifth Brother Di Zi’s, even if his understanding fell far short, yet Falling Rain’s wholly Refined Physique seemed every bit as flawless, if not superior to First Brother Wushen’s, though this Sovereign lacked the ability to tell which one was truly better.

 

A most unsettling discovery indeed, but there was still more to come. The body was but one part of the whole, and the spirit another, yet Falling Rain’s meridians were a veritable work of art. While unable to visually map them, this Sovereign was more than capable of perceiving the flow of Heavenly Energy moving through them and drawing conclusions from there, but he soon became lost in the vast network of meridians that were wider and more complex than anything this Sovereign had ever experienced before. If his own meridian network was comparable to a single towering tree, a living, breathing organism capable of infinite growth and advancement with branches and roots spreading out in all directions, then Falling Rain had raised himself a veritable forest, a complex ecosystem of various flora and fauna that existed in perfect harmony and possessed no discernable limits or shortcomings. In this, he easily surpassed Second Brother Liang Bo, whose innate understanding of flow, rhythm and harmony was second to none thanks to his attainments in the Dao of Music. That was what most failed to understand, how the flow of Heavenly Energy was not just about speed and direction, for there was an artistry to the timing, movement, and changes that went beyond the concepts of measured motion and shaped patterns to step foot into the realm of abstract conceptualization.

 

In short, this meant Falling Rain’s comprehension of the Dao likely surpassed this Sovereign’s by no small margin, while in practice, it was difficult to say what changes this might bring, for even Fifth Brother Di Zi had yet to wholly unravel the mystery of meridians. Suffice it to say that this Sovereign was most displeased to have been outdone by a mere child, even one who possessed memories of a different world with a different Dao and the widened perspective that came with it. Luckily, comprehension did not equate to strength, and Falling Rain would need time and practice to familiarize himself with his newly acquired power, luxuries he could ill afford. Gathering even more power into his fist, this Sovereign readied his most powerful strike in lieu of the casual attack he’d intended to deliver, for he could no longer look down on Falling Rain, who would soon be a Nascent Immortal in truth.

 

The Energy of the Heavens slackened for all of an instant before returning with more intensity than ever, like the drawing of a deep breath as Falling Rain readied to form his Inner Core. The first step was to extend one’s Domain to its utmost limits, though for what reason was difficult to say, for despite having each extended their Domains to different lengths, there was no discernable difference between the Inner Cores of this Sovereign and his sworn brothers. While this Sovereign had not thought to measure the range of his Domain during his Ascension to Nascent Immortality, Fifth Brother Di Zi was two kilometres away from the palace when this Sovereign’s Domain encompassed him and attracted his attention before continuing beyond the limits of his Spiritual Senses. This meant this Sovereign’s Domain had measured three kilometres in radius at the very least, though to maintain such a sizable Domain for any amount of time was still beyond his abilities. In comparison, none of his Sworn Brothers were able to push their Domains beyond a single kilometre, save for Third Brother Yang Kai whose Domain stretched so far this Sovereign was unable to find its limits even after Cloud-Stepping fifteen kilometres away. As for Fourth Brother Tian Yi, his Domain barely even measured a single metre at the time of his Core Formation, which prompted the rest of them to tease him incessantly, even though there was no real correlation between strength and size of Domain.

 

But even so, this Sovereign inadvertently let out a sigh of relief when he discovered Falling Rain’s Domain had barely gone past his skin before sinking back down to Form his Golden Core. At least now he knew the transmigrator was still fallible and flawed, yet to uncover all the secrets of Heaven and reach the pinnacle of the Dao to challenge this Sovereign for ultimate Authority.  

 

A truth made all the more evident as Falling Rain’s gathered momentum came to a crashing halt.

 

The Energy of the Heavens continued its turbulent flow, yet it was clear Falling Rain had arrived at an impasse, a moment of hesitation in the wake of his narrow success as he struggled to uncover the next step. A step which had thus far eluded even this Sovereign, so how could this stranger from a foreign world succeed? For all his strength and progress, Falling Rain’s accumulations were still meagre at best, a mere two decades of experience following what was largely a flawed Path, one of division and separation rather than unity and harmony. With the formation of his Golden Core, he had touched upon the limits of the Heavens, and they would no longer guide him, for if he were to proceed forward from here, then he would touch upon the pinnacle of the Dao and challenge the Heavens themselves, which they would not allow. This Sovereign had struggled with this next step since Ascending to Nascent Immortality himself, unsure what direction to go next. The Truth of the Heavens referred to Foundation Establishment, the Truth of the World paired with Essence Cleansing, but what of the Truth of the Self? At first, this Sovereign believed it referred to Core Formation, but the Core was merely the natural culmination of Essence Cleansing, for once one’s meridians were cleansed and acupoints condensed, one finally possessed the qualifications to perceive the existence of Immortal Energy within this world, like a faint, distant scent or a barely audible tune just at the edge of one’s perception.

 

What was the Truth of the Self? Fifth Brother Di Zi had never gotten that far in his lessons, for the Cultivators were never able to succeed at Core Formation, and this Sovereign had never thought to ask until after their final exchange. There was a small part of him that had hoped Falling Rain would provide the answer, a quiet longing for an alternate Path to the one he’d only just decided on, a Path of life which would allow this Sovereign to preserve the Empire he’d created and maintained for all these millennia, but this was not to be. The Heavens would brook no challenge to their supremacy, and thus would never provide their subjects with so easy a Path to Ascend, leaving no choice for this Sovereign but to pave his Path in blood and suffering so that he might uncover the secrets of life and death.

 

That was the key to Ascension, this he wholeheartedly believed, for despite having deemed himself worthy of the lofty ambition nestled within the term, ‘Nascent Immortal’, this Sovereign had yet to wholly free himself from the shackles of mortality. True Immortality would only be his when he possessed an eternal body, mind, and soul, one capable of withstanding the pressure associated with charging past the barrier beyond the Void which separated this world from the next without succumbing to the cycle of reincarnation. Falling Rain’s soul had somehow traversed through this barrier intact, but not unscathed, for it was clear he behaved more like a youth of twenty than the erudite master of culture and the arts that his memories made him out to be. This was not the Ascension this Sovereign sought, a partial and imperfect expedition that would leave him fractured and incomplete, for what purpose was there in Ascending if he was no longer the Eternal Emperor he’d always been?

 

No matter though, for the answer was so close at hand, the missing pieces of the puzzle no doubt hiding within the accumulations of his Natal Soul or the memories of Falling Rain.

 

All this and more took effect in an instant, yet as the end drew near, the moment stretched on into eternity as this Sovereign waited with bated breath. Not to say he stood idle all this time, for the Transcendent Divinities under his control were positioned to intercept Falling Rain should he attempt to flee, assuming he survived the initial barrage of attacks of course. Otherwise, capturing his errant soul would be easy as turning a hand once his body was destroyed, for even a refined body, mind, and soul required a vessel to inhabit. As the Energy of the Heavens dwindled away to nothingness, this Sovereign readied to give the order to attack, only to stop short as the Energy of the Heavens surged once more and Falling Rain rallied as if to charge ahead along his Path. The moment of Insight had come and gone, but his Ascension had yet to complete, and this Sovereign’s stomach churned in abject denial as the boy further Refined his Physique to even loftier heights. Though this Sovereign yearned for answers, in truth, he was unwilling to see someone else succeed in his place, for he was the Eternal Emperor, the only True Nascent Immortal for untold millennia and a man second to none.

 

And yet, despite not knowing what the Path ahead might be, he saw a glimpse of it in Falling Rain as the transmigrator cast his gaze over the army before him and solidified his Will, one so firm and fixed this Sovereign was almost able to catch a glimpse of his foe’s Dao forming around him. A Dharmic Icon, of sorts, but different in a fundamental and significant way, for this was not a Rune meant to convey his Intent to the Heavens above, but one which embodied it in body, mind, and soul. A Dao Icon then, one representative of his perspective, and should he successfully wholly Materialize in reality and the Void both, this Sovereign suspected this it would empower Falling Rain with the ability to overturn the Laws of Heaven, for the Authority contained within seemed to supersede the Authority of this plane of existence itself, one which might well enable him to wield the Energy of Immortals itself.

 

This was the culmination of Falling Rain’s Dao, the very pinnacle he could reach without breaking free of the confines of this realm, and this Sovereign marvelled to gaze upon it. Thankfully however, Falling Rain’s Dao Icon was still vague and indistinct, a hazy, ill-defined blob of black and white. From this, this Sovereign could infer that his foe’s Dao consisted of two opposing forces in contention, so similar to this Sovereign’s Dragon and Phoenix sigil, which he had long since used as a Dharmic Icon of his Authority. The Dragon on the right, the Phoenix on the left, circling one another in a counter-clockwise fashion with a single dot of gold in the centre to represent his throne. This same sigil was emblazoned upon his Imperial Seals, golden robes of office, and the back of his jade throne, to say nothing of its ubiquity in the seals of countless Imperial Officials all across the Empire, ones who wielded their authority in his name, and his alone. From this one, singular glance, this Sovereign could see the Path to True Divinity unfolding before, and his spirits soared at the prospect of progress after so much time spent in preparation, even as his heart faltered at the thought of seeing someone else Ascend before him.

 

But the Heavens were not blind as they led Falling Rain astray. Rather than focus on the Path before him, he was too fixated on the battle below, a stupid child bound by chains of sentiment which he even now refused to sever. Instead, he mutilated a portion of his Refined body, mind, and soul to create a veritable horde of Natal Souls imbued with the tiniest slivers of Immortal Energy, whom he then dispatched to lend aid to his struggling allies. A fool’s errand, for he could have used this power to attack this Sovereign or the Transcendent Divinities encircling him whilst still guarded by the inviolability of the Heavens, but instead, he wasted his one chance of survival on what might well be the most inefficient use of power in history. With Immortal Energy at his beck and call, he could have destroyed the entire army of Ascended Transcendents with a wave of his hand, but instead he split it up to share with so many unworthy mortals, like a man dying of thirst sharing his last cup of water with the masses one drop at a time in the futile hopes of staving off their collective, inevitable death.

 

Contempt and disdain flowed through this Sovereign as he gave the order to attack, timed perfectly so the barrage of strikes would land just as Falling Rain’s cloak of inviolability fell off. So lost in his insignificant concern for the mortals below, he failed to notice the impending danger until it was far too late to defend, though he had time enough for a brief show of surprise and denial before this Sovereign’s billowing Domain-Plated Fist Intent slammed home. The attacks from the Transcendent Divinities followed immediately after, and this Sovereign set his Spiritual Senses to locate the transmigrator’s soul. A moment passed, then another, and another, until almost a half-second had gone by without success, only for the dust and turbulent energies to settle and reveal an unscathed Falling Rain hiding behind a sphere of flowing Water Manifested into reality, a Barrier comprised of interwoven currents sliding around one another in perfect harmony and encapsulated him from head to toe. Surprise flitted throughout every fibre of this Sovereign’s being, a sentiment echoed upon his foe’s youthful features as he stood there with arms raised and head tucked in what should have been a futile defense, one which instead somehow blocked a volley of attacks which even this Sovereign would have struggled to defend against.  

 

As their gazes met through the shimmering aqueous barrier, one visible to the naked eye yet imperceptible to his Spiritual Senses, they shared a moment of confusion and lacking comprehension before the boy’s amber eyes lit up with unfathomable comprehension, only to raise his arms over his head and let loose a whoop of pure joy. “Whoooooooooooo! Power of Friendship! Fuck yea!”

 

A baying howl of glee and gluttony rose up in response as the battle between Divinities resumed forthwith, the hound leading the charge with the old wolf at his heels and throwing this Sovereign’s Transcendent Divinities into disarray. Even with a sliver of his Will firmly holding onto their reins, their fear of the Predator was too deeply ingrained for this Sovereign to wholly control them, and they scattered before the floppy-eared dog like a brainless flock of birds. As for Falling Rain, he wasted no time charging headlong at this Sovereign with glaive in hand, appearing instantly before him with a thrust. One which pierced through the Manifested Water Barrier as if it didn’t exist, while his sword and shield plummeted down from the skies above where they’d been lying in wait all this time. Reacting on instinct in spite of his surprise, this Sovereign parried the glaive with a hand and side-stepped the shield and sword both, utilizing his Domain Deflection in all three cases to ensure success. No longer did he dare meet the boy’s attacks head on, for not only was his physical strength far more formidable than before, this Sovereign sensed danger lurking within the Sword Intent, though he knew not if it was truly there or if his fear was playing tricks on his imagination.

 

Nothing could be left for chance, not after what he just witnessed. How was it possible for this child to enact so powerful a defense at a moment’s notice, and maintain it even now as he fought?

 

As Falling Rain unleashed a flurry of strikes, the Barrier of flowing water proved no hindrance to his attacks, flowing harmlessly around the metal weapon and at times even lending strength to it. In contrast, this Sovereign’s counterattacks were unable to find purchase and glanced harmlessly off the surface of the surging defense. Honed chops infused with Sword Intent, Amplified Reverberations delivering ambient Death Energy, Reinforced punches infused with merged Fist and Palm Intent, borrowed Elemental Essences from the various Transcendent Divinities around him, all of this Sovereign’s efforts to pierce through the Barrier proved wholly ineffective, and he was unable to determine why. Despair took root in his heart as he lamented the inevitability of defeat, for the secrets hidden within this impervious aegis of flowing Water were so profound and fathomless this Sovereign could only speculate as to how it was possible, making wild guesses which threw his mind into disarray as his foundation of knowledge and experienced came apart around him.

 

For long millennia now, this Sovereign saw Elemental Blessings as a mere Conceptualization of the basic forces, a necessary crutch for the frail human mind to wield the power inherent to nature and the world around them. A Blessing was merely a different form of Authority granted by the Heavens above, one which granted the recipient Insight and dominion over a Primal Dao. The Blessing of Fire for example was an amalgamation of a multitude of fundamental forces which came together to form the Primal Dao of Fire, yet if one could master those fundamental forces, then one could theoretically incorporate the Primal Dao of Fire into their own Dao without any Blessing from Heaven. In other words, even though this Sovereign was incapable of summoning flames himself, this Sovereign was able to Manifest the Energy of the Heavens to behave in a similar destructive manner as easily as turning a hand, and he was able to do the same with the other Elements, to some extent. There were limits of course, since this method relied on one’s comprehension of the natural forces and how they all come together to form the four Primal Elements, but this Sovereign saw little reason to pursue this line of study. There was no benefit to be had in emulating the Elements, because more often than not, this method lacked efficiency, adding an extra step where none was needed. Take the destructive Wind Blades delivered by the aged Warrior below, one fighting with a sabre and battle-fan in each hand. Powerful though his attacks might be, this Sovereign could easily do the same by Materializing his Domain and infusing it with Sword, Sabre, or Axe Intent, among many others. A far simpler method to achieve the same effect, and with a large enough effort of Will, he could even Plate his Materialized Domain to wield his Weapon Intents like a weapon in hand, so why bother going to all the extra effort of mimicking the properties of Air beforehand just to obtain an arguably inferior outcome?

 

Except now, he saw that his vision had been far too narrow, a frog in a well unable to see how vast the Heavens truly were. The same could be said of every other Elementally Blessed individual he’d ever come across, save for Falling Rain standing here before him. Much of this transmigrator’s success could be attributed to his memories of a past life, one lived in a different world with a different Dao that enabled him to see further than most, yet nothing in those shared memories revealed a reason for his unmatched attainments in the realm of Water. The shimmering sphere of Manifested Water hinted at a mastery of Water beyond the concept of a Blessing, one which had crossed over into the realm of Intent, one of Tides, Density, Tension, and other various concepts which this Sovereign dared not even try to put a name to, Intents brought out in full force thanks to a natural and intrinsic Materialization that went beyond anything this Sovereign could match.

 

Because as far as he could tell, this flowing barrier was not comprised of Heavenly Energy behaving like water, but was instead made of pure, natural, plain water created by the Heavens themselves, which was then controlled by the Will of a Cultivator. A difference without a distinction, one might think, but this was a difference of night and day, for the former relied on an understanding of the Concept of Water to bestow the properties of such upon the Energy of the Heavens, while the latter required a consummate mastery of the Dao of Water to Materialize it into existence. Though Cultivators and Martial Warriors were able to accomplish seemingly Heaven defying feats using the Energy of the Heavens and Chi, the truth was that none of it would be possible without the Authority granted unto them by the Heavens above. All was within the scope of the Heavens, which would brook no transgression against Natural Law, meaning everything cultivators and Martial Warriors were capable of had to remain within the constraints of this purview. As such, even after obtaining the Authority of the Heavens to Develop a Domain, Manifesting one into reality would always be seen as a minor trespass of Natural Law. Not enough to break it, but bend it at the very least, an infraction the Heavens were willing to overlook so long as one kept to reasonable limits and paid the appropriate price.

 

What that price might be, whether it was Prana, emotion, soul, or whatnot, even this Sovereign was unable to determine, not beyond the shadow of a doubt at least. However, this water barrier before him was so in accordance with Natural Law that the Heavens and the World itself mistook the water as part and parcel of their own. This was more than just Manifestation, the Water melding seamlessly with reality and the Void both by mimicking a natural force with near flawless perfection, and the price required to circumvent Natural Law and bring this barrier into existence was likely as close to negligible as one could get. This lent the barrier more presence and mass, made it more real and substantial to the point where this Sovereign suspected a third party could sustain themselves by drinking this Water, a feat so infinitely close to an act of pure Creation, a genesis and inception of matter out of nothingness, an act which stood in stark defiance of Natural Law as this Sovereign understood it. The only way this could even theoretically be possible was if one had Ascended beyond the limits of Nascent Immortality and become something akin to a True Deity, a Transcendent being capable of breaking free from the shackles of this world to soar into the next.

 

And this was merely scratching the surface, for there was so much hidden within this demonstration of what this Sovereign considered the basic concept of Water, so much to study and glean, it opened up a whole host of new possibilities which he’d never considered before today.

 

And yet… this depth and profundity of attainment was utterly inconsistent with Falling Rain’s martial abilities, his Sword Intent so shallow and basic it was surpassed by this Sovereign’s latest addition to his court of souls. Solitary Sword Zhang Jun Bao’s Sword Intent was fierce and unyielding, a deadly blade scintillating with lethal threat and hostility, whereas Falling Rain’s Sword Intent was calm and serene, which amounted to the difference between a swordsman chopping off heads and a chef slicing onions. Technically the same general principle, yet wholly different in almost every conceivable way, a disparity that only grew as Falling Rain’s offensive faltered for lack of momentum and harmony.

 

Talented? Undoubtedly so. Dangerous? Absolutely. Capable of enacting this deeply profound impenetrable defense? Impossible.

 

A fact further supported by Falling Rain’s lackluster and uninspired attempts to utilize Materialized currents and tendrils of Water to limit this Sovereign’s movements. The transmigrator’s attainments in the Dao of Water were so pitifully shallow that this Sovereign barely had to exert any effort to counter them, meaning there was no possible way Falling Rain possessed the ability to Manifest this Water Barrier protecting him. The boy was formidable, but he needed time to acclimate to his new physique and assimilate his attainments before he could grow into a real threat, which was the only reason this Sovereign had yet to take injury in his confused distraction.

 

Once again in accordance with his Dao, he held firm to unfailing logic and extricated himself from the pits of despair, the result of a subtle and pervasive Aura that he only now just noticed. This combined with the boy’s words meant there was another combatant present here, a powerful presence this Sovereign had overlooked all this time and even now was unable to uncover, for his suspicions had yet to be proven. Unnerving as the prospect of a hidden third party might be, this Sovereign was able to regain his composure now that he’d made sense of the madness, even going so far as to comb through his memories to find even more evidence of this interloper’s ingenious intervention. The billowing barrier of Water was the easiest clue to seize upon, one which had defended Falling Rain before, but had not been so complete so as to make it seem as if the boy had enacted it himself. The pervasive Aura was another thing, for Falling Rain was incapable of such subtlety, his every attempt to use Aura akin to hammering this Sovereign with emotion, which made it all the easier to guard against it. What other strengths had this Sovereign attributed to Falling Rain but in truth belonged to this third individual? Difficult to say, but this Sovereign was much relieved to know that he had not been surpassed by another in a mere two decades.

 

There was a weight of accomplishment and attainment to these subtle Aural attacks and forthright Water defenses that made it obvious this was a seasoned foe, but there was no need to fear an opponent so cowardly that they refused to even reveal their own presence and make a move themselves. Since he was unable to directly break through the defenses, this Sovereign set his mind to seeking out his true opponent in this battle to put an end to this once and for all, but despite possessing the knowledge of Fourth Brother Tian Yi’s unparalleled comprehension of Concealment, he was still unable to find this hidden foe. This Sovereign’s Spiritual Senses swept across all of Shi Bei and its surroundings, searching through every shadow and crevice someone could conceivably hide in, yet no matter how many times he checked and rechecked, he found no hidden expert lying in wait. Frustrated by his lack of success, this Sovereign tried a different tack and offered Falling Rain a smirk instead. “Your cowardly ally will not save you here today,” he began, and the boy’s obvious surprise and chagrin all but confirmed this Sovereign’s suspicions. “Not while hiding in the shadows, too afraid to show themselves. Come, let this Sovereign gaze upon the face of the consummate expert standing behind you, and perhaps an accord can be made.”

 

“You want to meet him?” The boy’s lips quirked in a smile, amused by the demand for some inconceivable reason. “Sit down, have a nice talk, and maybe come to terms?”

 

“There are no eternal allies or perpetual enemies,” this Sovereign replied, “Only eternal and perpetual interests. You yourself are unworthy to stand with this Sovereign as equals, but your hidden ally might well possess qualifications enough. We Nascent Immortals are a rare breed, three when this morning, this Sovereign believed he stood alone, so why not see if we can come to an accord, one that will benefit us all in the end?”

 

An offer made in genuine honesty, one this Sovereign only belatedly realized, for he had stood alone for far too long and truly desired a peer to discuss the Dao with. Falling Rain was unworthy, a fool who refused to divest himself of the red dust of the mortal world, but the Nascent Immortal protecting him was undoubtedly someone worth befriending. Perhaps this mysterious expert was only aiding Falling Rain in hopes of obtaining a peer as well, so why go to all that effort if this Sovereign was already available?

 

“No eternal allies or perpetual enemies,” the boy repeated, still grinning like the fool he was. “Only eternal and perpetual interests. Well said, but alas, I don’t think you have the capacity to provide my ‘hidden ally’ with what he desires.”

 

“This Sovereign is Emperor of the Azure Sea, the ultimate authority under Heaven.” Bristling with indignation at Falling Rain’s implication, this Sovereign drew himself up to full height whilst still avoiding the boy’s flying sword and shield. “With one wave of this hand, this Sovereign can call the winds and summon the rain. With one finger, the entire Empire will kneel before me, one command and they will strive to meet my demands. What have you to offer that this Sovereign is lacking?”

 

“In a word?” The hateful sneer showed itself once more as the boy looked down his nose at this Sovereign, so full of disdain for the power and authority he’d amassed in all his years of existence. “Friendship. Bitch.”

 

The fact that he answered with two words notwithstanding, Falling Rain’s tone was one of complete contempt and condescension. When was the last time this Sovereign had been disrespected so? Even in his bid to seize the throne, Liang Wu Di knew to give face to one such as he, for he was the Eternal Emperor who’d united the Warring States and held the ultimate Authority under Heaven. In this moment of rage and indignation, this Sovereign’s Natal Soul rose up to seize control, and in a most calamitous twist of fate, Falling Rain chose this moment to act, raising his rifle to his shoulder to deliver yet another Chi projectile. A single moment of hesitation, that was all it took, as this Sovereign wavered between suppressing his Natal Soul or avoiding the boy’s attack, and in the end, he made the wrong decision. His Natal Soul was the more dangerous threat, this he wholeheartedly believed, until Falling Rain’s projectile emerged from the tip of the hollow shaft and exploded with power and deadly Intent. There was nothing calm and serene about this, so utterly unlike his Sword Intent, for this was a projectile crafted with the express purpose of claiming this Sovereign’s life and nothing else. The Destructive properties of this unnamed Intent surpassed even this Sovereign’s merged Weapon Intents, an Intent that came infinitely close to becoming pure Destruction and Death while falling just slightly short in both realms.

 

The projectile pulsed with lethal purpose as it passed through the Water barrier, so antithetical to life and nature that it disrupted the flow of the hidden expert’s efforts to bring down the Water barrier in an instant, a portent which boded poorly for this Sovereign’s hastily raised defenses. The projectile arrived before his Domain could even Materialize, much less become Plated to offer any protection, whereupon it passed through the barrier encasing this Sovereign’s entire body by Unravelling the Runes of his Robes of Office without even touching them. Pain was too simplistic a word to describe the sensation as the projectile pulped flesh, fractured bone, and left a crater the size of fist on this Sovereign’s face, but the physical damage was merely the least of it. The agony this projectile delivered radiated through his mind and soul both, ravaging the landscape within the Natal Palace of his host’s soul, and in doing so rending apart the vast majority of this Sovereign’s soul contained within. Only his vast accumulations and willingness to bear the brunt of this damage at all costs kept his court of souls untouched, for they represented countless lifetimes of achievements and a vast range of perceptions he required to maintain and advance along his Path.

 

But through the agony of this attack, this Sovereign saw an opportunity and seized it in hand, launching a counterattack infused with all the combined Intents he could muster. A force erupted from his closed fist and slipped through the opening created by Falling Rain’s projectile to land home against his chest, and this Sovereign was rewarded with the sensation of broken bone and punctured flesh. An eye for an eye, and if the boy survived, then his hidden ally would be hard pressed to keep him alive, buying this Sovereign the precious moments needed to curb the destructive energies running rampant through his body, mind, and soul before putting an end to this conflict once and for all.

 

No matter the odds against him, this Sovereign would emerge victorious, for Falling Rain was a foreign interloper and his ally a coward to boot, while this Sovereign was the Chosen Son of Heaven, whom would not allow him to fall. If the Heavens should abandon him, then in his rage, he would destroy the Heavens, one final act of defiance which no one would survive, which was why they would not allow him to die.

 

Such was life, trials and tribulations, but for better or worse, this trial would soon come to an end.

 

Chapter Meme 1

Chapter Meme 2

Chapter Meme 3

Previous Chapter Table of Contents Savage Divinity – Chapter 834

Savage Divinity – Chapter 830

 

Idle curiosity.

 

A most dangerous vice to indulge, especially whilst mired in such dire straits, but after so many years of monotonous stability, this Sovereign could not resist this once in a hundred millennia chance to study a perspective so utterly foreign he could not even begin to imagine what secrets it might reveal. The Dao of a dog was not worth much, but this was no common hound. No, this was an Elemental Spirit of Water in the form of a dog, though how such a thing came to be was beyond this Sovereign’s comprehension.

 

Not much was known of Elemental Spirits, for it was only recently that their existence became known to him and the Empire both. The first inkling of their existence he uncovered came from the perspective of Third Brother Yang Kai, the Flame Monarch, though it would be some time before this Sovereign realized as much. His Third Brother was a man second to none when it came to wielding the fires of Heaven, a status he maintained up to this very day. Even with his soul imprisoned and perspective laid out for this Sovereign to examine at his leisure, he was unable to match Third Brother’s understanding of the Blessing of Fire, and he spent several millennia striving to uncover why. It wasn’t just Third Brother either, for this Sovereign failed to surpass the rest in their areas of expertise as well, whether it be First Brother Xing Wushen’s prowess in combat, Second Brother Liang Bo’s musical genius, Fourth Brother Tian Yi’s Concealment and Movement abilities, or Fifth Brother Di Zi’s profound comprehension of Life and Death Energy.

 

Though all Paths lead to the Dao, this Sovereign found himself unable to easily navigate any Path outside his own. While learning the fundamentals was possible and simple enough, he discovered that no matter how hard he pushed himself, his attainments in other Daos would never surpass the one he’d instinctively picked for himself, a generic yet comprehensive understanding of the eight basic Chi skills that had carried him so far. Reinforcement, Amplification, Reverberation, Deflection, Honing, Guiding, Stability, and Lightening, these were skills available to all who pursued the Dao and yet in his hands, they became something else entirely. Take reinforcement for example, wherein he was capable of producing three to five times the effect with the same amount of effort as others. It wasn’t until long after he conquered the Empire however that he understood that his increased effectiveness was due to his instinctive application of the skill on an internal and external level, both physically and spiritually. In short, where others pushed in one direction, he would push and pull in multiple dimensions to empower his body to the extreme. How this was possible was difficult to say, only that what seemed obvious to him was utterly indecipherable to others, and as far as he could tell, the same could be said regarding four of his five brothers’ talents.

 

The only exception being Third Brother Yang Kai, whose perspective revealed an utterly lacking comprehension of the flames, but an incomparable intimacy with it.

 

His flames took no unique form, nor did they glow with any particular light other than what you would expect from standard flames of similar heat and intensity. He could not shape his flames into creatures, or Manifest them into shields or blades to defend and attack with, was unable to force them to burn only within a designated area or discharge them in a specific pattern such as a fan or ring. Suffice it to say that his control over his flames was completely nonexistent, and if asked to describe his flames, he could only ever do so in relative terms, namely hot, hotter, or hottest, with a smattering of colour and emotions sprinkled in if feeling particularly enlightened.

 

And yet when Third Brother Yang Kai unleashed his flames, there was no denying the power contained within them. These were the flames of extreme heat, ones which burned hotter, spread farther, and endured longer than the flames of another practitioner yet left Third Brother completely untouched. Though First Brother was nigh unstoppable in single combat, and Second Brother capable of playing a tune to turn sons against their own fathers, they both required an army to subjugate the Southern and Northern provinces respectively, but Third Brother Yang Kai conquered the West all on his own. A force of nature unto himself, he set fire to the plains and created an unstoppable tempest of flame, one which went wherever the wind blew and reduced the province to naught but blood and ash. A feat most formidable, especially considering flames produced Heavenly Energy would never give rise mundane fire themselves, meaning the conflagration which spread all across the Western Province was empowered entirely by Third Brother’s focused Will. The blaze burned for three full weeks until the last rebellious leader surrendered, his fortress turned to blackened ruins and the province reduced to a veritable wasteland, one stripped bare of all vegetation and reduced to an arid desert in the Flame Monarch’s passing.

 

A feat no Fire-Blessed individual could ever come close to matching, for there was a quantitative difference between their flames and Third Brother’s, one even this Sovereign was unable to classify.

 

Each of this Sovereign’s five Brothers were powerful in their own right, but Third Brother’s prowess was the most mysterious of all, for there was no logical reasoning for it. Not until only a handful of millennia ago, when this Sovereign stumbled across the existence of an Elemental Spirit in the possession of an Earth Blessed Warrior of note. A so-called Warrior Saint raised a mountain range on the northernmost border of the Empire, during the culmination of a conflict that had spanned on for several centuries. In doing so, he slaughtered three generations of Peak Experts and a Human Divinity in one fell swoop, all of whom had chased the Warrior Saint and his clansmen to this most remote and sparsely inhabited of areas. An impressive feat for a man who was not yet a Divinity, though the Saint in question Ascended soon after only for this Sovereign to swoop in and secure the Warrior’s soul to study and examine. In the moment of capture, he sensed something amiss, and found that embedded within the Warrior Saint’s soul was a Spirit of Earth, a powerful and dynamic entity which dwarfed this Sovereign in strength and accumulation. Unfortunately, because he had not been planning to inhabit the Warrior Saint’s body, he’d destroyed it outright to make seizing his target that much easier, and thus, the Elemental Spirit abandoned its host immediately and set off into the Void, for there was no longer any value in staying. Only then was this Sovereign able to study the Warrior Saint’s soul and realize that his comprehension of Earth was similarly lacking to this Sovereign’s Third Brother, and thus deduce that the Flame Monarch had likely possessed an Elemental Spirit of his own.

 

One that even Third Bother Yang Kai hadn’t known was present, or absent after leaving sometime between the death of his body and his soul being rescued by this Sovereign’s efforts.

 

From then on, he never encountered another Elemental Spirit again until now, though he found clues to their existence throughout the annals of history. The undying fires of Shen Huo, the eternal storm over Sam Set, the sinking sands of Gwandieppe, these were but a few of the instances he’d discovered. Because of this, he suspected that Elemental Spirits had always been present within the world in some way, shape, or form, but were only recently able to Manifest themselves into reality due to the ever-increasing concentration of Heavenly Energy in the world, or perhaps due to the growing imbalance which arose from it. Either way, the Elemental Spirits preyed on the disincarnate Spirits this Sovereign’s Natal Soul referred to as Spectres, or more specifically upon the wisp of Death Energy imbued within them during their moment of Creation. Severing Emotion required Life Energy to succeed, for one was not merely doing away with emotion, but a part of one’s eternal Soul to serve as a vessel for said emotion, a complete and unconditional separation from which there could be no return. In doing so, the Life Energy consumed was transformed into Death Energy, which this Sovereign’s Natal Soul used to further his studies into the Dao. Studies which would be most useful at this moment in time, but would require years, if not centuries to unravel due to his Natal Soul’s antagonistic nature and Falling Rain’s ill-intentioned encouragement.

 

Tightening his grip around the transmigrator’s throat, this Sovereign fixed his gaze upon this most rewarding prize and weighed the costs of keeping him alive. Dead, the runt’s disembodied soul would be but a fish upon the chopping board, unable to escape from the prison of this Sovereign’s Natal Palace, but this might well cost him the chance to study an Elemental Spirit in depth. The dog was truly a creature of flesh and blood, but whether it housed the Elemental Spirit within or was part and parcel of the whole had yet to be determined, and until such a time, this Sovereign dared not risk it. A risky proposition, allowing Falling Rain to remain alive, for his progress was nothing short of astounding given the depth and breadth of his perspective, one gleaned from the Dao of another world which enabled him to compare and contrast it to this one with laughable ease. No matter though, for he was secured in hand and helpless to resist, though he had yet to accept it, still flailing away with foot and fist while struggling for an impossible escape.

 

A show, this Sovereign realized once he noticed the absence of the boy’s weapons, which were gathering power for a desperate last strike overhead.

 

“This Sovereign seeks an accord,” he began, unconsciously tightening his grip around Falling Rain’s throat only to forcibly relax lest he accidentally squeeze the hateful savage’s head clean off. “A cessation of hostilities between us for the interim, only to resume no less than three seconds after this Sovereign’s proclamation.” Shaking Falling Rain before he could retort, he locked eyes with his prize and snarled, “Agree, or this Sovereign will take action and slaughter every last Imperial in Shi Bei, save for those you hold dear who shall suffer for an eternity alongside you.”

 

The boy weighed his options for all of a second, and this Sovereign almost thought him ready to refuse based on principle alone, but despite adhering to a Dao of Freedom, Falling Rain had bound himself in chains from which he would never escape. “Fine,” he replied, only to widen his eyes in surprise as the Heavens bound them both to adhere to this Oath, one even this Sovereign could not easily escape due to their nature. Theoretically, the only force stopping him from breaking this Oath was the weight of his own subconscious drawing upon the Heavens out of guilt and shame, so there were thousands of ways around it, but it was easier just to adhere to the terms of the Oath lest his Will falter in the future and he succumb to the weight of his own sins. As for Falling Rain breaking free of his Oath, while possible, it would take time and effort to do so, and even if he succeeded, there was little he could do to harm this Sovereign. The purpose of the Oath was only to buy himself time enough to study the Elemental Spirit in action unhindered, and ending the peace as simple as stating his intention out loud.

 

Turning to the Medical Saint and Rabbit Divinity, he met their eyes and addressed them. “Should either of you act on his behalf or make an attempt to contact anyone outside this group, this Sovereign will consider it as a violation of our accord and mete out retribution as outlined before.” That was all the warning he would give them, and all the time he intended to spare, for the dog had arrived in Shi Bei and this Sovereign was unwilling to miss even a moment of action as he Cloud-Stepped away with the boy in hand. The Oath compelled him to protect his prize despite knowing Falling Rain was more than capable of protecting himself, and he was prudent enough to Conceal the Rabbit and Hare Divinity alongside him lest they think to announce their presence by exposing themselves for all to see, but once these details were accounted for and the area secured from all Sendings, he gave his full attention to the Elemental Spirit turned Spiritual Dog on the battlefield of Shi Bei.

 

And his first impression? Immeasurable disappointment.

 

The Spiritual Dog behaved no differently from a regular dog, save to exhibit a comprehension of the Dao that surpassed all other canines in existence. The Dao of a dog, as it were, which he had witnessed first-hand mere seconds ago during Falling Rain’s ill-fated retreat towards Shi Bei. A bestial Dao, one of single-minded determination, but hardly unique or even of interest to this Sovereign. There was some merit to be found in the dog’s actions beforehand, with its Orated baying to herald its arrival and bolster the courage of its mortal allies, as well as securing the assistance of a Wolf Divinity who might well be the oldest Divinity alive, this Sovereign notwithstanding. That being said, any graduate of the Royal College could have accomplished just as much, meaning the dog’s exploits were only impressive because it was a dog, the same way mortals thought it impressive to see a dancing bear or juggling monkey. That was all there was to it, a fleeting moment of amusement at seeing a dog surpass all other dogs and most humans, yet still fall woefully short of the pinnacle this Sovereign yearned to reach.

 

Inferior creatures, beasts and the like, mere fodder for humanity to bolster their strength, a mindset which the dog continued to prove with its subsequent actions. In its opening attack, the Predator Devoured a single Transcendent Divinity whole, but whilst doing so, it sat on its haunches and worked its jaw maniacally for a whole half-second. Not a long time by any measure, but enough for a rational Divinity to respond with force enough to assure mutual destruction, if not for the Wolf Divinity reinforcing reality to keep the destructive forces of Heaven in check. What a curious skill, one this Sovereign had only just noticed that his Natal Soul had been striving to keep from him. There would be a reckoning for his Natal Soul’s insubordination, but now was neither the time nor the place, nor did he care to dissect the Wolf’s miraculous skill just yet. A cursory glance showed that it contained elements of all eight basic Chi skills paired with a working of Materialized Domain, so this Sovereign was confident he would uncover the secrets with ease. Instead, he focused more on the dog, who finished Devouring its prey before giving the Wolf Divinity a pointed look rather than run off to attack yet another Transcendent Divinity.

 

Because the dog lacked the confidence to attack on its own. This was no bloodthirsty Predator hunting down its prey, but a cowardly Scavenger lurking in the shadows for an opportune moment to strike. Not entirely out of character for a dog, but given the vast disparity in their strengths, this dog possessed strength enough to Devour every Transcendent Divinity in the blink of an eye, yet was too scared to act alone. A single exchange was enough for this Sovereign to lose interest, and he almost declared his intent to resume hostilities with Falling Rain when the dog struck again. Fortunate timing, for this Sovereign spotted a detail which he previously overlooked, the fact that the Transcendent Divinities all scattered as soon as the dog arrived. An expected turn of events, given how they were wholly outmatched before their natural predator given flesh, yet despite knowing there was nothing they could do against the dog, the mindless Transcendent Divinities made no move to retreat from Shi Bei and flee for safer pastures in the outer provinces.

 

Upon Devouring its second target, the dog stopped to fawn over a half-beast Divinity, yet another curiosity worth studying, but this Sovereign instead focused his attentions upon the lone Transcendent Divinity which just narrowly escaped death at the jaws of the Predator and its allies. A chitinous creature with four legs, six arms, and a fanged mouth encompassing the entirety of its head, the Transcendent Divinity in question fled directly away from the Predator while avoiding all others in its path. This continued for the span of a single Cloud Step, then the mindless creature circled around Shi Bei thrice before forgetting its panic and attacking the first target it came across, a human Divinity armed with a Runic Shield and mace and bearing a cloak with the character ‘Situ’ embroidered across the back. Hardly important save to say that it happened, and not through any effort on the human Divinity’s part either, as the Transcended Divinity simply stopped running in circles to resume fighting without warning.

 

The work of a Formation, this Sovereign soon deduced, one laid out by the Predator’s powerful soul. Using its Materialized Domain and the natural terrain to direct the flow of Heavenly Energy around Shi Bei, the dog created an illusory trap overlaid atop the city and its surroundings to fool the Divine Senses of every Transcendent Divinity trapped within. The Transcendent Divinity in question did not so much forget its fear, but rather truly believed it had escaped far enough to be safe, only to come across a second, entirely different battle with Imperial soldiers and Divinities to feast upon. Truly a work of miraculous conception, this illusory Formation, something this Sovereign knew was theoretically possible but had yet to wholly understand the details. A formation was essentially a metaphysical Rune, one which could be laid out in reality or the Void. Through use of one’s Domain or specially crafted Runic markers, one could guide the ambient flow of Heavenly Energy to carry out a predetermined Will, which sounded simple enough but contained countless complexities within. The pattern of flow required for example, varied largely from location to location, for it was not as simple as creating a set pattern for a set reaction, as in the case with Runic Inscriptions and Dharmic Icons. Those were powered by the Prana and Will of the wielder, whereas a Formation was powered by the Will of the Heavens themselves, albeit one which had been subtly coerced to perform a specific task.

 

The geography was merely the beginning, for a Formation required one to account for countless variables alongside it, which in Shi Bei would start with the shifting of the sands and only grow in complexity from there, but this Sovereign dared not claim himself a master in the art. There was power in Formations, to the point where even mortals were aware of such things and had developed a profession around it, where so-called Diviners would read the flow of Heavenly Energy and structure objects and plants in a way to best harmonize the surroundings with the natural flow. Ninety-nine out of a hundred Diviners were charlatans and swindlers, but much like how this Sovereign was unable to surpass his Five Sworn Brothers in their areas of expertise, there were Diviners in the Empire whose attainments outstripped this Sovereign by far.

 

Not a problem, for he only needed to wait until their lineages progressed to a point where their knowledge was worth harvesting in one fell swoop, and generations of accumulated knowledge would be his to peruse.

 

A flood of scorn and derision welled up from within as this Sovereign reminisced of a Formation of Spectres in Meng Sha, one which generated fear and despair to overwhelm the harbour defenders. It took many months of careful planning and preparation to set up this trap, and while Falling Rain ultimately ruined his efforts, this Sovereign’s chest filled with pride to look back on his accomplishments, only for him to ruthlessly stamp down on his Natal Soul’s awareness in an ultimately futile effort to suppress him. An unexpected benefit to be harvested from his Natal Soul, one which pleased this Sovereign so, but something would have to be done about the troublesome Zhen Shi.

 

For now, this Sovereign was too engrossed in his study of the Predator to be bothered however. When had the dog laid down this subtle and effective Formation? There’d not been time enough for it to calculate the wind speed, change in temperature over time, slope of the shifting dunes, and the thousand other variables which needed to be accounted for, nor was the dog capable of such a feat if given all the time in the world. This could only mean that this Sovereign’s own meagre understanding of Formations was so woefully incomplete that he could not see the forest for the trees, and that there was a much easier way to deploy them. Each and every Formation he’d ever placed had been painstakingly crafted through trial and error which spanned multiple generations of Emperors, yet they all paled in comparison to this hastily constructed masterpiece made by an Elemental Spirit of Water inhabiting a scruffy dog’s body. Twice the work for half the effort, like a fisherman carrying his catch home in his arms instead of finding a bucket to hold it all, that was how he felt at this very moment.

 

Despite the dog’s complete and utter lack of actual fighting strength, it had proven itself to be a formidable practioner of the Dao, its canine mind hiding a wealth of knowledge which this Sovereign coveted. Had he been too quick to dismiss the Dao of beasts and Ancestral Beasts alike? Between this illusory Formation and the subtle workings he’d already seen from the dog, the evidence pointed towards a resounding yes, but he’d long since concluded that there was no way for a human to wholly embrace the Dao of a beast or Ancestral Beast. It was a form of Balance impossible for an intelligent mind to accept, one of complete indulgence in all emotion both positive and negative, without ever losing sight of one’s self. At any moment, a beast could succumb to emotion, yet they rarely ever did, for once an emotion was experienced in full, then they simply moved on to the next. Living in the moment, as it were, where concepts like logic and rationale came second to instinct and intuition, with one’s focus on survival and nothing else, and their actions in accordance with this simplistic Will.

 

So how was a fully functioning human mind supposed to adhere to so primitive a mindset? The answer was it wasn’t possible, as evidenced by how half-beasts were unable to Ascend to Divinity. They were creatures caught in between two distinct and conflicting Daos, or so he believed until he remembered the half-beast Divinity here in Shi Bei, which was even more evidence of this Sovereign’s incompetence. Add in Falling Rain’s denunciation complete with memories of another world, and this Sovereign felt his foundation unravelling beneath his feet, a foundation he once believed rooted in sound logic and proven reasoning.

 

Closing his eyes to reality, this Sovereign retreated inwards to seek Balance while struggling to rein in his emotions and suppress them once more. A mistake to come all this way and waste his time with the dog, but one he’d made in desperation. Though it appeared as if this Sovereign had weathered the effects of Falling Rain’s world-shattering revelations and rallied back to his senses, he knew that he held firm to Balance through Will and determination alone, with more than a little distraction to keep his thoughts occupied and away from introspection. A confluence of chance and calamity, except how could it be chance if Falling Rain was at the root of this once more? This foreign transmigrator was this Sovereign’s dark star, a plague upon his lifetime of Heavens’ fortune and blessing, and one he would do well to stamp out, but greed and wrath combined with his Oath of accord prevented him from crushing this jinx out of hand.

 

This Sovereign would overcome this tribulation and emerge stronger for it, of this, he had no doubt. Once his emotions were in check however, a decision would need to be made, whether to risk keeping Falling Rain alive to study in death or kill him and make do with his soul and nothing more. Even if it meant giving up on the Predator, which might not be the case seeing how it had a mind and body of its own now, this Sovereign had a plethora of other promising subjects to examine, such as the Ancestral Hare and half-beast Divinity, but how could they compare to a complete entity who originated from another world? Difficult to say which way his decision would fall, but as this Sovereign strove to keep his emotions in check, he consoled himself with one simple, irrevocable fact.

 

Though today was the most trying day in living memory, one of highs and lows aplenty, this Sovereign had undoubtedly won more than he lost, so much so that the sting of losing his throne was almost negligible in comparison. Liang Wu Di would pay for his affront, as would the remaining five families to boot, for already, this Sovereign could see a future in which he would overturn everything he’d built up in order to make way for a new beginning. A new Empire as it were, one built upon all the hard-learned lessons of the old without any of the flaws and defects which could be traced back to the formative years.

 

Yes, his vision would be made true, an Empire free of Supreme Families, stand-in puppets, and false conflicts to inflate his subjects’ sense of self worth, but just as the autumn leaves must fall to nourish the plants come spring, so too must his Empire be destroyed in order to create perfection anew.

 

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As I watch my dog run through the sands of Shi Bei, Devouring Demonic Divinities left, right, and centre, I am struck by a curious malaise of envy and depression over just how happy Buddy truly is.

 

The furry little idiot is stuck in the middle of the greatest battle in living memory, yet he’s having the time of his life. It’s not because he doesn’t care that the defenders of Shi Bei are in danger, nor is it that he’s unconcerned about the Enemy Divinities taking action to stop him. He understands this because he knows I am concerned and afraid, afraid for my family, friends, floofs, and everyone else over there fighting for their lives. Buddy can sense my concern for him, shares in my anxiety and dread as I watch him weave in and out of battle with the agility only a dog can match and narrowly avoid death or injury time and time again. The doggo I know would be terrified with me, because he is a bit of a coward if I’m being honest, a sweet and stupid creature who hid whenever I vacuumed and during each and every fire alarm.

 

This doggo before me, however? Same dog, just too overcome with greed and gluttony to have the good sense to be afraid.

 

It’s so stupid. One wrong move and he could be crushed underfoot as he weaves through and around the old wolf’s legs, who is caught in a match against three Defiled Divinities striving to kill my furry little son before he can dart out and Devour another Demon. Buddy knows this, and watches his foes with a wary eye, yet it’s not enough to stop him from pouncing through the air onto another unsuspecting Demon and Devouring it whole, only to escape by the skin of his teeth as the Mataram Patriarch’s spear skewers the space Buddy’s furry butt only just vacated. If it was me down there, I’d be cool as a cucumber over having just narrowly avoided death, but I cannot stand to look as my stupid doggo risks his life time and time again, nor can I bear to turn away. Is this how Mom, Dad, and Alsantset feel when they see me fight? Probably not, because if it was, they’d have locked me up and thrown away the key just to keep me safe, and knowing what I know now, I would probably let them.

 

And yet, despite the grave risk to his life and the panic he senses from me, Buddy is having the time of his life.

 

You can tell by the giant doggy grin stretched across his snout, so smug and happy that I could almost melt. I have yet to see his tail stop wagging for even the blink of an eye as he navigates the battlefield with surprising familiarity. He’s not drawing on my experience or any of his, but rather doing so based solely on bestial instinct, making sense of the chaos with little more than a glance and sticking close to the old wolf fighting to keep him safe. More than Buddy’s joy, greed, and gluttony however, his sense of adventure truly blows me away, a general merriment and satisfaction in the moment that I myself could never match, not even on the happiest days of my life. Just sharing in his joy threatens to unbalance me where I stand, caught in the grasp of the Eternal Emperor who could snap my neck with a thought, and yet despite the dire circumstances and high stakes at hand, I cannot for the life of me stop smiling.

 

Is this what it feels like to be happy? Truly, deeply content, without nagging fear or uncertain doubt to spoil the mood? Even on my wedding days, I was nervous throughout it all, and not because of the stupid feats of strength I was supposed to perform. No, I spent the whole day fretting because despite knowing Mila, Yan, and Lin-Lin wanted to marry me, I had all but convinced myself they were going to change their minds at the last second and my world would come crashing down. Even after they said yes, my nerves refused to settle down and I fixated on other things that might go wrong, like another assassination attempt or a malfunction in the bedroom that would leave my confidence and manliness shattered beyond repair. The former was understandable, the latter wholly incomprehensible, because the only issue I’ve ever had with my penis is getting it to stay down, so why was I worried about the opposite? After the deed was done and I was alone in bed with my wife, my nerves settled down for a bit due to sheer exhaustion, but regardless of how happy I was to marry Mila, Yan, and Lin-Lin, even those singular moments of my greatest happiness cannot compare to how Buddy feels right this very moment.

 

Because not only is his belly full, but he has even more food to eat, circumstances which are so commonplace yet bring him so much joy that I cannot even begin to describe it.

 

The heights of his emotions are almost too much to bear, and I fear to ever lose this sensation even as I realize I must put it aside, because happiness is a drug I find difficult to procure even in the best of times, and one I cannot allow myself to grow addicted to. I am someone who finds happiness in misery, because without misery, I would be too paranoid to enjoy my happiness, which is why I love to complain. Only through complaining can I affirm that I am already miserable, and thus I can only fall so far into the pits of despair. In truth, my life is pretty awesome most of the time, but I find reasons to complain so I can feel safe and secure, which is why I have long since learned to hope for the best and expect the worst, so that I can invariably be content in my disappointment.

 

That is who I am, a core facet of Rayne, Rain, Baledagh, and Amigui, one that is inexplicably tied to my Dao. I see this now, Insight or just plain, honest observation making this clear as day. I pursue strength so I may remain free, free from conflict, free from strife, free from worry, free from anything and everything that might concern me, yet I know the freedom I seek does not exist. Not for me, at least, because I bind myself in chains of my own devising, chains of love, obligation, honour, and empathy, and in doing so, I enable myself to be miserable over an unattainable goal which I wouldn’t really want to begin with. The truth is, even though I seek freedom, the freedom I want is not ultimate freedom from all earthly affairs, but the freedom to be the person I want to be and do as I please. That’s how I’ve lived my life up until now, because even though I complained almost every step of the way, I am here where I stand now because I have stayed true to my own desires.

 

As Amigui, I refused to struggle and compete once it became clear I lacked strength, ready to resign myself to death and just try again, but then my brother Baledagh showed me I was not yet ready to die. I didn’t want to kill him, but I didn’t want to die even more, and though I will live out the rest of my life steeped in regret over his death, I don’t think he would blame me. He’d blame our father, who he hated with all his heart, because unlike me, Baledagh was a son worthy of love and affection, yet he received nothing but scorn and apathy. That’s why he saved me, a tiny act of rebellion against our father, and a desperate gambit for the familial love and affection he desired so much, one which ended up costing him more than he expected, but he didn’t regret it even at the end.

 

No, he was glad he wouldn’t have to kill his own brother, glad I’d found the will to survive, a bittersweet memory which will haunt me for the rest of my days while ensuring I strive to make the most of what I’ve taken. Most of the time. You know, aside from that one little hiccup we had in JiangHu, but we all have our highs and lows. What’s important is the fact that I rallied back and will never make those same mistakes again.

 

In the mines, I learned what it was like to have no freedom whatsoever, even less than what I had as my father’s son. When I emerged as Falling Rain, I took a long time to figure out who I was and what I wanted to do, but once my mind was made, I never deviated from my chosen Path. I wanted to be a powerful Warrior capable of calling down fire and lightning upon my foes, a dream I still hold to today, but more than that, I wanted the strength to control my own fate, to never be enslaved again. A simple dream, but a tall order in a world like this, so I pursued strength with all my heart and took every opportunity presented to me. Join a Sentinel training patrol en route to the city? Sounds like fun, which I didn’t even dare admit to myself. Represent the People in a contest for talented youths? I was eager to see how my skills measured up, because getting beaten up by Mila, Akanai, and Dad all the time was hardly satisfying. The trials which followed? I forced myself to fight first because I wanted to make it up to the People, to keep the others from possibly dying, but truth is, I was also enraged by what the Society had done and wanted to personally make them pay for their affront.

 

Securing the rank of Warrant Officer, capturing bandits in Sanshu, my clash with Han Bo Lao over the Purge, becoming the Number One Talent in Nan Ping, everything I’ve done since leaving the mines has been in total accordance with my Dao. I do as I please, and complain the whole way so that I don’t get too big for my britches and take what I have for granted. I’m not truly miserable about having too many wives, even though I do feel guilty about it, no more than I am annoyed at having wealth, power, and status in spades, because if I didn’t want any of that, I would’ve made different decisions and gone about things in a less flashy way. When I was made Legate, I could’ve just rested on my laurels and let the Marshals and Colonel Generals do their thing, but I didn’t. I butted heads with the Marshals and demanded the Colonel Generals provide me with advisors to weigh in on decisions no one wanted me to make, but why? Regardless of my unending complaints, I have never once shirked my responsibilities, not because I believe it is my duty or because I think I’m some hero destined to save the world, but simply because I think I can do better.

 

That’s my arrogance speaking, and though it is difficult to say if things would’ve turned out for the better had I taken a backseat, no one can deny the benefits I’ve brought to the Empire thus far, you know, minus this potentially devastating loss of life wherein my entire army is killed in battle against the Enemy here in Shi Bei.

 

I would be the first to admit that much of my success is accidental, but the things I’ve intentionally done show my true nature as a man who does not necessarily seek out the spotlight, yet does not shy away from it either. Would I be happier living a life of obscurity in the mountains with my family and loved ones? Probably, but then I might never have married Mila, Yan, and Lin-Lin, or saved Li-Li and met Luo-Luo as well. Then of course there’s all the pets I would’ve missed out on, like Ping Ping, Princess, Noodle, Guai Guai, and of course Buddy, to say nothing of the Abbot’s adorable menagerie with Rakky, Kukky, and Tai-Tai who I intend to abscond away with. Then there’s all the friends I made along the way, and all the friends I’ve lost, but the truth is, if given a second chance, I wouldn’t change the major decisions I made except to make them more intelligently.

 

Do I have regrets? Sure. Everyone does, but this is the Path I’ve chosen, the one most suited for me, and I will see it through to the end, no matter how difficult or bittersweet that end might be.

 

The Energy of the Heavens neither surges nor withdraws, with no change in the flow around me, but there’s a buzz in the air which I cannot identify, an almost excitement or trepidation that is almost too much to bear as I come to terms with who I am and why I walk this Path, and in doing so, discover the truth I need to proceed. After so many years spent fighting to find my place, I am finally at peace with myself, One with Rayne, Rain, Baledagh, and Amigui, all in accordance with my Dao. I seek a freedom that does not exist, so that I might find purpose in my existence here in this strange world, one made all the more vast and ineffable due to the memories I have of my past life. I’ve brought a part of that with me, made Manifest in Buddy, and I share in his joy as he bolts around in the sands while simultaneously sharing the fear and anxiety I harbour for my friends, family, and comrades down in Shi Bei. The surge of conflicting emotions threatens to sweep away, but I straddle the divide with one foot on both sides and ride the waves out as best I can, never wholly at rest or able to achieve the Balance I am familiar with, and at times only a hair’s breadth away from complete imbalance, but I endure and indulge my emotions regardless. The forgotten colour wheel of emotions springs back to mind as I organize and identify this unending deluge as best I can so that I can better understand my feelings and make sense of the next step.

 

One I’ve been too afraid to take, yet now have no choice but to, because if there is to be a chance of victory here in Shi Bei, I must first Ascend.

 

Chapter Meme 1

Chapter Meme 2

Chapter Meme 3

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Savage Divinity – Chapter 829

Victory or death.

 

The rallying cry of Sanshu’s Magistrate and one embraced by many a Warrior who took part in that fateful siege, including Baatar’s cherished son, but he never did like the maxim much.

 

Victory was fleeting, but death an absolute, meaning victory could always be attained even after a defeat. Where there was life, there was hope, as Mother was so often heard to say, but as Baatar fought upon the battlements of Shi Bei with leaden arms and burning lungs, he accepted that there could only be one or the other. Victory or death, the lyrics to today’s sombre song of battle which echoed with every beat of his heart, pounding in furious rhythm from strain and exultation yet somehow seeming slow and sedate at the same time. Having long since lost count of the number of exchanges, he gathered his Will and swung his Crescent Moon bardiche with all his might time and time again, yet there was no advantage to be had. Meeting his opponent’s spear head on with grit and determination alone, he experienced no heady rush of excitement to bolster his spirits, no sense of progress or accomplishment to inspire him to new heights. The resounding reverberations left his arms numb and fingers weak, his weapon only still in hand because it was a fundamental part of who he was, but with his body having long since surpassed its limits and his spirit sinking with each passing second, he would soon find himself with nothing left to give. There was still no end to this deadly exchange in sight, but a victor would be determined any second now, for Baatar would either overcome his opponent within the next handful of exchanges or fall flat on his face from sheer exhaustion.

 

Victory or death. Those were his only options, so he strove for victory no matter the cost.

 

Not long ago, he’d defeated the strongest foe he’d ever faced in Bai Qi, the Lord of Martial Peace, and though it was easily the most arduous and gruelling match he’d ever taken part in, he’d relished every second of their conflict. The challenge alone had been enough to give him a rush greater than anything he’d ever felt before, one which satisfied the wolf hiding within as he sought to overcome his limits and emerge victorious against his most worthy foe. Today, his opponent was even stronger and more indomitable, yet there was no excitement to be found, only a heavy heart as he gazed upon the too-familiar face of his foe and wondered where it had all gone wrong. This was Ankhbayar, exiled outcast of the People turned Half-Demon traitor to the Empire, yet Bataar could only see the little Joy who called him uncle and often begged to be carried up on his shoulders. That bright-eyed child was dead and gone now, and wearing his face was a bitter and broken man, one who Baatar loathed with all his heart while harbouring a wisp of eternal gratitude for the only two good things this man had accomplished in life. Though a traitor and monster both, little Joy had sired two wonderful sons who Baatar cared deeply for, Gerel, a good man and exemplary Warrior who he’d once hoped would be his future son-in-law, and little Rain, the cherished son he’d come to know far too late.

 

Oh what pride Baatar felt in fighting side by side with this most talented of families. Gerel and Naaran supported his flanks and left him free to focus on his opponent undisturbed. Truly a lineage of Warriors and talents, with the blood holding true for three generations already, so despite having seen the monster little Joy had become, Baatar could not help but wonder what might have been. How might things have changed if he’d done something to slow or even reverse the growing extremism which exploded into violence some thirty years back? A slow burn it’d been, beginning with Mother’s return from Central after a bloody welcome from the locals more than fifty years past. At first, Baatar himself had been consumed by rage over the event, not only because his Mentor had been disrespected and assaulted, but also because his good friend Naaran had returned a changed man. Gone was the genius slacker known for his sharp tongue and twinkling eyes, and in his place was a bitter man who drove away almost everyone who cared for him. Time and discipline helped Baatar master his rage, but Naaran did not fare so well. Though known to slack off and skip training more often than not, he stopped showing up entirely and spent most of his days out with his quin, Kharuul, or his wife Yisu, all but abandoning the Martial Path to drift aimlessly through life without purpose. After what he experienced in Central, not even Mother could fault him for it, but they all thought time would heal Naaran’s wounds and that was that. Things took a turn for the better when Yisu became pregnant with little Ankhbayar, only for disaster to strike as she died soon after childbirth due to circumstances most unfortunate.

 

A treatable ailment, yet neither Naaran nor Yisu thought her fever and muscle pains important enough to seek help, and by the time they learned otherwise, it was already too late as Yisu had died quietly in her sleep.

 

Blaming himself for his wife’s death, Naaran retreated even further inwards while raising his son as best he could. With Baatar’s help of course, and the help of all their friends and comrades, even the ones Naaran had driven away with his cutting remarks which were no longer softened by his infectious smile, but clearly, their efforts had not been enough. Though Baatar could make excuses about being young and still figuring life out for himself, the truth of the matter was that it was easier to assume Naaran was doing well than pry the truth out of him as he should have. It only got worse after Ankhbayar grew up and started a family of his own, for Naaran loved his son and grandson too dearly to ever burden them with his own pain, which Baatar would have known if he’d thought to look closely rather than bury his head in the sand.

 

So much anguish and suffering could have been avoided with almost laughable ease, to the point where Baatar was unable to pinpoint where it all went wrong. Little Joy had been true to his name at first, so full of laughter and mirth, and he possessed talent to match his father paired with the hardy work ethic of his mother. Together, this combination saw him progress by leaps and bounds to stand head and shoulders above his peers, though Naaran took little pride in his son’s martial exploits. Had things turned out differently, Ankhbayar might well have been standing here at Baatar’s side as a Hero of the People and the Empire both, a proud father to two heroic sons who’d surpassed even him. Instead, he had become one of the Enemy’s greatest mortal champions, a fearsomely armoured Half-Demon who shrugged off Baatar’s strongest blows with little to no effort, all the while with his lips half-quirked in a smile so familiar and foreign at the same time. Naaran used to smile just like that, with a subtle smirk that barely reached his cheeks and a mischievous glint in his eye, and little Rain smiled like this all the time, though often for no apparent reason at all, so it was jarring to see this same smile on a Half-Demon’s lips, infused with malice and rancour enough to make Baatar’s stomach twist.

 

There was no cure for regret, and he was not one to wallow within it, but he had long since recognized that these melancholic musings were the result of a profound and insidious working of Aura. An assault little sister Li-Li was fending off all by her lonesome, for without little Rain, there was no other Warrior capable of doing so. Emotional Aura was a bizarre and curious concept, one which sounded simple in theory but was infinitely complex in practice, so much so that little Rain was at a loss on how to even begin to explain it. Hence, no one but little sister Li-Li was able to grasp the skill, and she was clearly also approaching her limits, else Baatar would not be feeling so maudlin and remorseful during what should have been the most rousing and impactful fight of his life. In his fight against Bai Qi, Baatar had been similarly exhausted, but the thrill of the challenge kept his spirits high and allowed him to surpass his limits. Here in Shi Bei however, the Enemy’s foul Aura of regret and contrition robbed him of any and all delight, and to make matters worse, he knew this was merely a prelude to what would come next.

 

First regret, which then would give rise to doubt, followed by fear and apprehension aplenty, topped off with a decisive blow of what Baatar assumed would be hopeless despair and futility to drive them to surrender. All in a slow trickle of emotion which slowly built up over time, so that they would acclimate to the ambience imposed upon them like a frog sitting in a slowly heating pot of water, ignorant of the rising temperature and too stupid to jump out. Baatar noticed it clearly because he’d been on his guard against Emotional Aura this entire time, even though he also knew there was little he could do against it, but his allies might not even be aware of the Enemy’s insidious scheme as a dagger of emotion was raised high overhead, one perfectly poised to deal a death blow to the wavering Imperial hearts.

 

So long as the soldiers of Shi Bei held the walls and the Imperial Divinities stood firm against their foes, then the city would stand against the Enemy assault. At great cost, perhaps even too great to be considered a victory, but once little sister Li-Li was unable to hold back the deluge of Emotional Aura, then the battle would be all but lost. A single soldier striving to flee or surrender was all it would take to break them, for the first to give up would be akin to a stone cast into a still pond, sending ripples out all across the surface to disturb and agitate the rest. No man is an island, a military adage which cut both ways, for powerful though courage and determination could be, fear was by far the stronger emotion. Not many would choose to stand and fight while others ran for dear life, and even in the highly unlikely event that only a tenth of the Imperial soldiers present succumbed to their fear, it would still spell disaster for the defenders of Shi Bei.

 

And much of Baatar’s family in the process.

 

The din of battle was deafening as both sides traded blows, the ring of steel and screams of the dying intermingling with the piercing notes of Luo-Luo’s zither which were few and far between. The gentle and hard-working girl’s ivory hands were stained with blood from putting so much effort into her playing, for the strings of her instrument would have long since snapped if not for her becoming One with the Instrument and Plating it with her Domain. When this phenomenal accomplishment took place was difficult to say, but brilliant and talented though the girl might be, she was no Warrior and never would be, for she lacked the temperament and instincts for bloodshed. Since she could Domain Plate her zither strings, then there should be no reason why she could not also Domain Plate her fingers as well, but she was so fixated on her melody that she was either more familiar with her zither than the body she’d grown up in for twenty-five years, or the idea of Domain Plating her body had simply never occurred to her in the first place. The latter most likely, since the zither was an ordinary instrument Baatar’s rose had bought for the girl in Nan Ping, but immersed within Insight as she was, he dared not distract her with a Sending and risk jolting her out of her transcendent state. Still, it pained him to see his most delicate daughter-in-law endure such a wretched and easily avoidable tribulation while giving this battle her all, even though it also filled him with pride to see her rise to the occasion.

 

Little Yan and Sumila were faring better, fighting with all their hearts upon the battlements and thriving despite being utterly outmatched. Their consummate understanding of their respective Blessings enabled them to slaughter even Half-Demon Peak Experts with effort enough, and though they should have long since surpassed the limits of their endurance and Cores, they continued unleashing scything whirlwinds and scintillating bursts of scorching light to clear whole swathes of the Enemy from the battlements. Sweet and reckless Lin-Lin saw this as an opportunity to flit between her two sister wives, making her way to and fro without a care in the world as if strolling through a peaceful park rather than a tumultuous battlefield. Luckily, she had enough powerful guardians to keep her safe and an inborne strength even Baatar dared not underestimate, but his orders and pleas that she return to the safety of the animal carts went unheeded. Unanswered too, because the silly girl still had yet to figure out how to use Sending, and she’d picked up little Rain’s habit of preferring to ask for forgiveness rather than permission. Young Ancestral Beast though she might be, it was far too dangerous for her to be ambling about the battlefield without a care in the world, but she continued to do so with a look of quiet determination and there was nothing Baatar could do to stop her. 

 

Much as he loved his daughter-in-laws, they were formidable talents who thrived in massed warfare like the siege here today. As such, he was most concerned for his youngest sister Li-Li, who was no less capable or talented than little sister Mila, but Li-Li’s talents lay in single combat rather than one against many. Especially when outnumbered by foes who surpassed her in strength and skill, for she was a proponent of Brother Du’s Martial lineage which placed great emphasis on a single powerful Warrior overcoming multiple weaker opponents in a series of successive one-on-one duels. Despite having risen to the challenge and displaying a level of skill approaching Peak Expert, every single opponent in this overwhelming Half-Demon army could match a Peak Expert at the very least. Thus, all little sister Li-Li could do was endure as best she could, fighting defensively save to strike whenever the opportunity presented itself, all the while single-handedly holding back the mountainous tide of Emotional Aura bearing down upon them. Should she fall, then Shi Bei was lost, so in light of this, Baatar had already dispatched six Peak Experts to bolster little sister Li-Li’s position, which combined with the guardians Mother and Father set up for her and little sister Sumila meant they were as safe as could be on this battlefield.

 

So not at all safe, or even close to it, merely with a better chance than most of surviving to the inevitably bitter end.

 

Shaking off the subtle touch of doubt and apprehension, Baatar refocused on the fight before him, but it wasn’t long before fear’s icy grasp clutched his heart once again and his attention turned to the one person he’d avoided looking at all along. There his precious daughter stood with spear in hand, a woman grown and parent herself, but in his eyes, she would forever be a little girl in his eyes, one whom he loved and adored with all his heart. Despite being stronger than his daughter-in-laws and infinitely close to becoming a Peak Expert herself, Baatar feared for the girl’s safety more than he would ever dare to admit. That’s why he convinced her to ride with his Iron Banner instead of joining the Sentinels outright, not just so she could get to know Gerel better, but also so that he could keep an eye on her in battle if a conflict should ever crop up. While being a Sentinel under Mother was undoubtedly safer, Baatar couldn’t bear the thought of the girl riding into any battle without him there to support her, not for those first few years at least, and though he thought he’d long since gotten over this fear, it still made him sick to his stomach to see her struggle against her foes.

 

Six times now, she’d taken injury and fallen back, six grievous wounds that left her leathers tattered and bloodied, but the girl took great pride in her little brother’s achievements and had long since mastered the art of Healing through Panacea. A boon, most would think, since it meant she could quickly recover from almost any injury so long as she was conscious and possessed Chi enough to Heal it, but here in Shi Bei, it also meant she went right back to fighting as soon as her grievous wounds were Healed. Not a single soldier could be spared to stand idle today, but even if they could, the girl shared his love of battle and bloodshed, for she too was a Warrior born. There she stood amongst the ranks of soldiers, wielding her spear with the grace and precision of her mother to unleash powerful killing blows the way he’d taught her, the best of Baatar and his mountain rose bundled up into one, single, phenomenal person. To think, it was just over thirty years ago when he first learned how to swaddle her, because only then would she allow him to hold her close without screaming her little lungs out all night. Those were difficult days back then, yet he cherished those memories most of all, memories of peering into her beautiful little eyes as she held his finger in her tiny hands and nodded off to sleep in his embrace. She’d been so small back then, yet so fierce and intractable, a firebrand of a baby who ran wild as soon as she could stand. Much as he wished he could’ve been there for little Rain at this same time in his life, Baatar would forever cherish the memories of little Alsantset as a baby while never desiring to go back to them in reality.

 

And now his baby girl was fighting against powerful Peak Expert Half-Demons, and he wanted nothing more than to Cloud-Step to her side and slaughter the scoundrels who dared bully his precious daughter.

 

Pride and concern ate away at his focus, a distraction he could not afford in a duel of this calibre, and one his foe made good use of. A deadly thrust came lancing towards him, one he responded to by blocking with the haft of the Crescent Moon as he’d done three times before. As spear met bardiche however, Ankhbayar Amplified his attack in a feat of timing and precision few could match. Timing one’s Amplification to point of impact was simple enough, merely a matter of practicing one single movement until you got the feeling just right, and then doing the same for another movement, and then another, and another until you learned how to gauge the timing for any and all attacks. What Ankhbayar did here was match the timing of his Amplification to Baatar’s presumed reaction, a far more difficult feat had he not all but announced his reaction beforehand by allowing himself to fall into a predictable routine.

 

The force of impact drove the air out of his lungs as his arms faltered before his foe’s attack, only for him to move his upper body on instinct alone and narrowly avoid death. The blade of the spear kissed the skin of his neck, and Baatar had no choice but to fall back before Ankhbayar’s renewed offensive and turn his attention back to the duel at hand. The younger Warrior was nothing like his father, who fought in a wild, erratic, but undeniably effective manner. Instead, Ankhbayar’s style was more similar to Baatar’s, so full of vim and vigour used to overpower and overwhelm, a compelling and dominant style he’d mastered all by himself. Add in his nigh-impenetrable Demonic armour and his powerful Half-Demon allies supporting him from all sides, and Baatar knew not how to defeat his foe, much less swing the battle in Imperial favour and eke out a victory whilst overlooking the precipice of defeat. With Mother and Colonel General Nian Zu busy battling Divinities after Shattering the Void and little Rain snatched away by Zhen Shi, the burden of command fell upon Baatar’s shoulders and he knew something had to be done, but he knew not what to even try. Rally the troops morale in preparation of the devastating Emotional blow they were about to endure, but what could he do or say to inspire them so? Nothing, save to take the head of his foe and embark on a rampage against the Enemy Half-Demons, but he lacked the strength and ability to do so.

 

So all he could do was endure and delay for as long as he could, the feeble last struggles of a doomed man.

 

Their duel continued without rest as Baatar’s strength flagged and his spirits dipped, until a call sounded off in the distance. A low and resounding echo, powerful but too distant to truly make out, yet it pierced through the clamour of steel and screams to drive straight to the forefront of Baatar’s attention. Then, it sounded again, only closer this time, and his spirits rose even as he strained his ears to better parse it. The third time he heard it, he identified the sound immediately, yet he still doubted his ears because he could not understand how this could be, but the fourth time the noise sounded there was no denying it any longer. This was the unmistakable baying of a hound, a deep and resonant call from afar, but this was no mere wild mutt or even a brave sheepdog willing to face down wildcats and wolves. The slow, thunderous barks were not short, but not overly long either, nothing like the terse warnings of street dogs or the booming alert of the sheep dog, but more akin to a crisp and abbreviated howl to herald the arrival of what surely was the king of all canines. There was no anger in the call, no hatred to be found, only a palpable sense of adventure and excitement that bordered on the extreme to the point where Baatar’s wolf tail was eagerly wagging in anticipation.

 

This was an Orated call to action and declaration of intent, a promise made in affirmation of the oncoming hunt, one which would end only when their appetite was sated and their foes scattered to the winds and beyond.

 

The message contained within the baying calls reminded Baatar of that which drove him to pursue the Martial Path, the need for excitement and accomplishment that made it impossible for him to sit idle and still. The difference was that this was not built upon a foundation of murderous intent, for this was no call to violence or bloodshed, but rather one of pure excitement and anticipation alone, without any darker emotions to taint it. A child’s voracious desire for sweets, that’s what it reminded him most of, a ravenous greed and gluttony without limit and not a single care in the world for the consequences. Never before had Baatar experienced such unmitigated excitement, not even in his youth, and the emotions lit a fire in his belly and burned away all his fear and apprehension as he let loose with a wordless, bloodthirsty howl in response. The hunt was already on, that was the message he meant to convey, so hurry and join before it was too late.

 

A reply which drew out Baatar’s emotions and shared them with all who could hear him, and his Aura burst out to meet the crushing doubt and despair emanating from his foes around him. An Emotional Aura of passion and excitement, one which contained the very essence of his love for the Martial Path, one which kindled the courage and bolstered the fortitude of the heroes fighting alongside him. The weight of the Enemy’s Aura threatened to overwhelm him where he stood, a mountain of emotion dragging him down from all sides, and his admiration for little sister Li-Li grew as he came to appreciate the burden she’d been carrying all by her lonesome. A wisp of his Aura went out to her, sharing with his little sister the pride and love he had for her, but that was all he could spare before devoting all his strength to fending off the Enemy once more. The fervor of excitement burning hot in his chest, Baatar raised his weapon and brought it down against his foe’s raised spear, but this time it was Ankhbayar’s arms which faltered and failed. The Crescent Moon hammered home against the traitor’s armoured chest, raising sparks without leaving so much as a single scratch, but Baatar simply followed through and brought his weapon around for a second attack. Then a third, and fourth, as he performed Bear’s Standing Fury, smashing his foe left, then right, then left again until he finally broke through Ankhbayar’s guard to land a direct hit against his torso.

 

A honed blow to surpass all others, one which bit deep, sent a spray of sickly Ichor out into the air, and saw a feral grin stretch across Baatar’s face. “Heroes of the Empire,” he bellowed, infusing his voice with Chi, “Fight on! Rend flesh! Break bone! Bring Death to the Enemy, and victory is ours!”

 

Ten thousand voices took up his call in reply, speaking with one voice as they chanted, “Victory and Death!” Hardly the words he would have used, but now was not the time to quibble, for the message itself mattered little. Not only was Baatar’s Aura bolstering their spirits, but it was clear he was not the only one affected by the mysterious baying of this hound, so they could have raised a cry to almost anything and it would still have ignited their spirits. In the span of a second, the stalwart soldiers of Shi Bei rallied their courage and fought with renewed vigour on the battlefield as more and more of them took up the strange and easily misunderstood call. “Victory and Death!

 

Those same words left his lips without him even realizing it until after the fact as he brought the Crescent Moon to bear against his foe. There was no finesse, no subtlety, only power and determination both, for he had courage and conviction aplenty thanks to the mysterious hound’s call, one he suspected might well have been the guttural utterance of a Divinity. A neutral party perhaps, such as the Sire or Dam of the two distinct half-dog’s Ral and Chey, or possibly another hound-like Divinity who’d learned how to harness the power of Emotional Aura. Whoever it was, their intervention was most timely indeed, and Baatar looked forward to meeting them in person to offer his thanks.

 

That would come later though, because for now, he had a battle to enjoy and perhaps even win, but it had yet to be determined if it was victory or death which awaited him in the end.

 

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The call sent a jolt down his spine and set his body to trembling, for laced within this howling proclaimation was a question only he could hear.

 

Not a question so much in words, like a Sending inquiring as to his intentions. No, this was something far more primal and instinctive, a question delivered not to his mind, but to his heart and spirit instead. One he’d heard countless times before, yet one he could not remember ever hearing, for it was not a call he’d been blessed to receive in this life, but the last. Tears sprang to his eyes as a deluge of emotions awoke from within, ones he’d long since forgotten here in the twilight of his life. It was love, but not of that between a man and a woman, or even two men or two women if that was what you preferred. Nor was it the love of a parent and child, a pair of siblings, or even close comrades who shared weal and woe all their lives. This was a love more basic and all-encompassing, a love based upon a more fundamental need than lust or companionship, but rather on the mere act of survival alone. A partnership of sorts, a call to arms in a manner of speaking, but these human words were unable to do the bond true justice, yet words were all the wolf had.  

 

For he had never truly had a pack to call his own, and now he was being called to join one.

 

That was the question he heard within the call, one which could be summarized as, “Pack?” There was nothing else attached to the query, no demand for authority or expectations placed upon the invitation, no promise of rewards or embellishment to persuade, only an honest, guileless appeal to work together in this hunt, and for all hunts thereafter. The details were non-existent, the specifics left to fate, and the wolf would have rejected it without a second thought had it come from anyone else, but there was something about this call that spoke to the beast inside him and told him that whoever it was making this offer could be trusted without doubt. There was no basis for this trust, but he believed in it with all his heart, so he responded to the call with a baying howl of his own, one filled with a youthful exuberance he’d not felt in centuries, if not millennia though he knew not how long he’d truly lived.

 

“Pack,” was his reply, in similar vein to the succinct query, and though he was unable to filter out all his doubts and concerns, the other party accepted him without question.

 

There was no hesitation or misgiving in the acceptance, not even a word of encouragement or gratitude in reply, only a deluge of pure, unmitigated love and excitement that made the wolf feel ten-thousand years younger. No, not just feel, but become, for laced within the wordless and soundless reply was the very Energy of the Heavens themselves, bound in a package of what the boy called Life Force and more that breathed new life into the wolf’s old and ailing body. Gone was the weight upon his shoulders and the hitch lodged deep within his upper spine, while the tension in his hips abated and left him breathless with surprise. The swelling in his ankles, knees, elbows, and fingers floated away on the wind, and his eyes grew sharp and clear as the vivid scent of the battlefield sharpened to levels unmatched in memory. This was a power beyond the wolf’s comprehension, beyond anything he’d ever even imagined before, yet his packmate had presented him with this princely gift without question for no reason other than to welcome him into the pack.

 

Truly a packmate worth having, and the wolf raised his voice in a second howl as he set upon the Demonic Divinities with a strength and vigour he’d not felt in far too long to remember.

 

A smash of his claws threatened to bring Heavens Wrath down upon him, but his Domain Materialized to reinforce reality around them as his heart soared in glee and bloodlust both. There were no words to describe how he felt right now, no memories to compare or contrast it with, not because he felt so youthful and carefree, but because the hunt was finally on. A lone wolf stalks his prey and might well bring it down without aid, but this was no true hunt, for there were too many risks to fully enjoy the thrill of the chase. That was the true nature of a wolf, to track and pursue their prey across open fields and dense forests until they could run no more, only for their pack members to take up the hunt. Then, when their prey was tired and spent, they would work together to close in for the kill, a hunt which was as safe as could be in the uncertain world they resided in. This was something he’d been missing all his life, the deep-seated desire which drove him into the arms of a woman every so often when it grew too strong to resist. Even though he knew that siring a child would only end in disappointment, he still hoped for the best each time because he desperately desired a pack to hunt alongside, so that he would no longer have to face this tiresome world all by his lonesome.

 

His pups weren’t a bad sort by and large, and he was proud of them all in his own way, but no matter how much he tried to love and accept them, they were, in the end, still pups. They possessed potential, but none ever managed to reach a point where they could hunt with the wolf, nor did any of them ever come close. While he had Wu Kong, Machali, Ling Lu, and the others, they were not truly a pack, for they did not understand what he himself had only just comprehended about his compulsion to find companionship. A pack wasn’t about making friends and building bonds, or even finding a lover to spend his long life with, but about safety, security, and companionship while they progressed through life side by side as comrades, family, friends, and more. That’s what it meant to have a pack, to share all weal and woe without hesitation, yet their group of gathered Divinities in the Saint’s Tribulations Mountains was based on mutual benefit. Were this not the case, there would be no need to concern himself about what would happen to the other Divinities after his passing, no reason to thank the Heavens for the little doe’s Ascension, since it meant he now had someone to pass along the mantle of leadership. If they were truly a pack, he could’ve sat back and rested easy knowing they would figure it all out themselves, when in truth, they were liable to fracture and scatter soon after his death.

 

Which meant the wolf had run alone for the vast majority of his life, but at least now he would have someone to run with for what little time he had left.

 

Hence why he fought with such reckless abandon, launching himself at no less than five Demonic Divinities who’d been keeping him in check for too long, because powerful as his new pack-mate might be, his skills surely lay in Healing and support. As such, the wolf was determined to be the fangs and fury for them both, which was only right given how his counterpart was likely an Ancestral Dog, though it was unlikely to be either of the ones he already knew of. Both men and dumb as a bag of bricks, but his new packmate seemed sharp enough given how –

 

The thought froze in the wolf’s mind as a tiny bundle of brown fur and floppy ears threw itself into the fray without warning, his jaws snapping at an unprecedented rate as he gobbled up a Demonic Divinity in the blink of an eye. In his surprise, the wolf’s punch missed his target, not because his aim was off or the Demon dodged, but rather because his opponent had fled for dear life. Licking his chops with spirited greed, the tiny brown dog turned its gaze upon the wolf and huffed in displeasure, a muted, compressed heave of derision as if to ask, “Why didn’t you keep them from running?”

 

…Because the wolf thought he would be the fang and fury, while his new packmate would support him from the side, but it would appear that he had their roles reversed, and it was he who would play the role of support.

 

To a small, brown-furred, brown-eyed, floppy-eared, saggy-skinned dog, who quite literally had no balls. What manner of monster had robbed this creature of his testicles and turned him into a eunuch? And how could this wild dog have grown so powerful without anyone’s notice? A Divine turtle emerging from the Azure Sea was one thing, but this hound was less than twenty kilograms and looked like easy prey for anything or anyone with teeth. Most importantly of all, where did it learn to devour a Demonic Divinity, and why was it willing to help them in their fight?

 

A question asked and partially answered when he saw the boy’s rabbit hopping through the air to make it’s way to the hound’s side.

 

So this dog was another one of the boy’s pets? Should’ve guessed from the way it Devoured the Demon, but when did he adopt it? A powerful, Divine dog at that, though the wolf was only guessing. Had he not just seen the hound gobble down a Demonic Divinity for himself, he would have thought this creature nothing more than a sorry excuse for a failed wolf, one he wouldn’t think twice about throwing into his stew pot for dinner. A good thing he didn’t try, because having experienced the hound’s power first-hand, he could only hope that his pack-mate’s appetite was limited to Demonic Divinities and didn’t carry over to proper Divinities as well.

 

“Woof,” the hound exclaimed, a truncated statement teeming with judgement and disapproval as he urged the wolf to action. Another call to action demanding he lead the hunt and distract the prey so the hound could swoop in for the kill. At least the eunuch was generous, passing over another portion of Heavenly Energy, Life Force, and more, though far less than before. Or perhaps it only felt that way because the wolf had been revitalized so thoroughly by the first, making this subsequent infusion of power so much less effective. Either way, his diminutive but highly capable packmate was fast losing patience with his lack of haste, so the wolf threw himself back into the fray with a howl of unmitigated glee. The closest opponents were the three Demonic Divinities laying siege to the doe, who fought them off with the skill and competence of an Ancestral Beast thrice her age.

 

Which was why he picked her, since he knew how she thought and fought, and thus could use this to keep their foes corralled. “Pin the left one,” he Sent, while bringing down his claws to rend and tear the middle Demon apart, knowing full well the doe was smart enough to avoid the splash of Ichor. What he failed to account for however was his new packmate’s ignorance as he dove in with a howl of mournful fury to stand between the Demon and the doe. The wolf’s claws ripped his target’s arm from its socket, but rather than seize this opportunity to Devour the Demon, the hound instead Devoured the Ichor to protect the doe, who had already moved out of the arc. Luckily for them, her pointy spear axe slowed her foe long enough for the hound to Devour it as well, which made for a highly unsettling sight as the tiny hound’s floppy jowls and ears flapped about in the wind while his wild eyes went wide with glee and greed.

 

And when the second Demonic Divinity was dead and gone, the hound licked its chops once more and gave the wolf a look of pure derision before turning to the doe with a fawning gaze, his tail wagging so hard the entire back half of his body wiggled about while he pressed his shoulders into her ankles and yipped and yelped up a storm, simultaneously begging for forgiveness and proclaiming his love, respect, and affection to the one he saw as pack leader.

 

Why was the hound so sweet and deferential to the doe, yet so rude to the wolf? They were packmates, while she was merely a newly ascended Divinity, a powerful and talented one, but still raw as could be. Shooting the doe an inquiring gaze, the wolf wanted to know if she recognized the hound, but she seemed even more confused than he. “When did little Rain tame a hound?” she murmured, echoing his earlier sentiments, “And how is it able to Devour Demons?”

 

A full second passed as the hound continued his gleeful greeting, then another, and a third before the doe’s patience came to an end. “Enough,” she said, somewhat gently yet still lacking patience as she commanded, “Go Devour another Demon.”

 

And to the wolf’s great surprise, the hound snapped to attention and ran off, stopping only to turn and bark at the wolf to reprimand him for moving too slowly. Stifling a sigh of indignation, the wolf followed the hound’s heels and threw himself at yet another Demonic Divinity, wondering just where in the pecking order did he stand in the eyes of his new packmate. Even if the hound was powerful and capable, the wolf was no mere cabbage, so would it really be so terrible to give a little face and treat him with at least a modicum of respect?

 

Baying Hound

Chapter Meme 1

Chapter Meme 2

Chapter Meme 3

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Savage Divinity – Chapter 828

 

The abrupt nature of this latest turn of events saw this Sovereign shocked into still silence, his words cut off mid-sentence as he gazed into the Void and saw neither hide nor hair of his trapped prey.

 

Trapped no more, for the lofty and distasteful tower housing Falling Rain’s indecipherable Natal Throne had disappeared in the blink of an eye, but how, this Sovereign could not say. There was no sensation of any soul passing through the barrier formed by his host’s Domain, one which had been configured to remain impermeable to all souls, fragmented or otherwise. A necessary precaution to not only fend off the uninvited influence of roving Spectres, but also to keep his collections of souls from escaping during a moment of distraction. Though most of their Wills had long since been eroded away by the passing of time, each and every last member of his Spiritual Court had once been formidable in their own way, and only a fool would dare underestimate them.

 

Most were former Emperors who’d emerged victorious against the most talented members of their generations, while others were remarkable Warriors and Divinities whose perspective of the Dao made them unique and extraordinary in their own way. Each one was a treasure trove of Insight, Inspiration, and perspective, but there was great risk in keeping them contained within a borrowed Domain. Any one of them could theoretically overpower this Sovereign and his host to secure the Natal Throne and become the highest Authority with the Domain. That being said, even in this most unlikely of scenarios, the new claimant to the throne would still lack the power and Authority to expel this Sovereign from the Domain, or cause him any real lasting harm, but it was still an inconvenience he would rather do without. As such, the greater concern was that one of his captured souls would escape and pass on into the Cycle of Reincarnation, robbing this Sovereign of his hard-won prize and his chance to plunder their life’s attainments for himself.

 

This was doubly true for those who’d only recently been claimed, as they represented a windfall which had yet to be claimed. Chief among them was the current host Liang Wu Sheng who had yet to give in to despair and fought him every step of the way, as well as the latest addition Solitary Sword Zhang Jun Bao, who at this very moment was still fighting for all his worth in a futile effort to break free of the illusion meant to keep him placid and content in Empty Balance. As for the most dangerous soul of all, that honour went to Fifth Brother Di Zi, who had been an ever-present concern since they day he first took residence in this Sovereign’s soul, for despite having spent so many millennia as a mere soul and nothing else, he sensed a spark of awareness still left in his Fifth Brother yet, which was remarkable considering their other four brothers had long since dwindled away to nothingness and become mere shells of their former selves.

 

An inevitable degradation which this Sovereign was helpless to stop, not that he would have if he could. The souls of his four brothers were much easier to control without their own Will’s present to resist him, which was why this Sovereign felt confident enough to send them against Falling Rain. It was a matter of Balance, in that one required a body, mind, and soul in order to remain wholly alive, and these souls were obviously lacking the first two. Though it was possible to survive for a time with only one or two of the three, survival was not the same as being alive. In the case of his captured souls, the absence of a body and mind made it impossible for them to generate the vital emotional energies required to sustain them, or Prana as Fifth Brother Di Zi had called it, which he also theorized was the requisite price one paid to harness the Energy of the Heavens themselves. Not Life Energy, or even Death Energy, but rather a combination of the two and something more, an ineffable power generated by every living creature that this Sovereign had yet to isolate and identify.

 

As such, since these captured souls lacked the ability to generate Prana, any expression of emotion would drain away at their reserves until they became wholly Unbalanced and no different from the fragmented disincarnate Spectre. That is unless this Sovereign stepped in to compel them to complete Empty Balance. The absence of all emotion, as it were, a form of Balance he himself would never partake of, for there was power in emotion once it was controlled and contained, but this flawed form of Balance was suitable enough for the purposes of preserving these most useful souls so that he might slowly study their perspectives. Even then, he was constantly supplying the oldest souls with his own Prana to sustain them, but the losses were more than made up for by the increased growth of his own soul.

 

 And yet, despite all his power and familiarity regarding the secrets of the soul, he was unable to ascertain just how Falling Rain had escaped.

 

The Heavens were still smiling upon this Sovereign however, for there was fortune to be found in this latest disaster as his anger and frustration gave way to idle curiosity in an instant. Despite having clawed his way back from the brink of Imbalance, this Sovereign had been at grave risk of succumbing to emotion yet again as he assaulted the transmigrator’s study defenses with reckless abandon. Had this continued, he might well have presented his Natal Soul an opening to attack once more, or worse, lost sight of his goals and killed Falling Rain in a rage, but his foe’s disappearance allowed this Sovereign to wholly suppress his unchecked emotions and restrain them once more. How long had it been since he’d come so close to disaster? Too long, to the point where this Sovereign had forgotten the dangers of hubris and complacency, which combined with his Natal Soul’s habit of indulging in emotion had almost ruined everything this Sovereign had built up over so many millennia. Then again, even if he had been forewarned in advance, no amount of caution or vigilance could have prepared him for Falling Rain’s deluge of memories dredged up from a past life, many of which were steeped in the Dao of Artistic Expression and so powerful that even this Sovereign had been swept up by their tumultuous emotional currents.

Falling Rain was no mere boy of twenty, but an erudite master of culture and the arts with a lifetime of experience behind him, which explained much about his unprecedented progress along the Dao and his unprecedented use of Dharmic Icons. If not for his obvious lack of firsthand experience with battle and bloodshed in his past life limiting the power of his Dharmic Icons, then he might well have defeated this Sovereign with little more than a turn of his hand, but the Heavens were still smiling upon their Chosen Son. This moment of unexpected calm allowed him to take stock of his emotions and examine the situation, as the implications of everything he had just experienced were staggering indeed. So far reaching that he could not even begin to guess at where they might lead him, for this Sovereign now possessed proof beyond the shadow of a doubt that there were other planes of existence beyond the Void. A world beyond this world and a Heavens beyond the Heavens, containing an utterly foreign Dao that might well be part and parcel of a greater Dao, the complete and all-inclusive Dao of all the Heavens.

 

Yes, it explained so much about his failures to perceive the Dao in its entirety, why he could make no sense of the inconsistencies or solve so many mysteries. The Dao of this Heaven was incomplete, a fraction of the whole with the rest obscured by the border between worlds. If the Dao was a cube, then he was only able to see one of its six faces, but he suspected there were far more sides to the Dao than he could even imagine. To think, he’d persisted for so long yet was still a frog stuck in a well, unable to see how vast the Heavens truly were. This Sovereign’s lifelong goal to pursue the Dao was a far more daunting task than expected, but this was not enough to dishearten him. The opposite in fact, for he was more excited than ever to begin his studies anew, but the lessons of the past served him well. Haste makes waste, so take one step at a time, lest he stumble down a dead end path from which there was no escape. Once Falling Rain was subdued and captured, this Sovereign would then possess a transmigrated soul with a perspective so distinct and so alien that studying it would undoubtedly reveal a treasure trove of questions and answers to pore over. There would be time enough to pay Falling Rain back for the shame and humiliation a hundred-fold, but first, this Sovereign would have to retrieve this most invaluable of prizes.

 

Pitting his Will against that of his unaccommodating host, this Sovereign compelled Liang Wu Sheng to take action in reality. With time enough to spare, he allowed himself a moment to interrogate his host regarding Falling Rain’s inexplicable escape. “You granted him passage,” this Sovereign began, posing it as a statement rather than a question. A habit formed over long millennia, one meant to keep his host souls’ guessing as to how much this Sovereign was aware of, but it failed him here as Liang Wu Sheng’s soul snarled in indignant fury over the unjustified accusation, before cackling in unchecked glee derived from this Sovereign’s misfortune.

 

“The boy escaped on his own with no help of mine,” Liang Wu Sheng replied, compelled to speak by this Sovereign’s Will, but he was free to choose his own words so long as they held true. “I know not how he managed such a feat, save to say that his Will is unshakable and his Authority unmatched, but I will soon uncover his secrets and break free of these chains which bind me. Wash your neck and wait, monster. Your time draws to an end.”

 

Paying no mind to his insignificant threats, this Sovereign furrowed his brow in discontent. If only it could be so simple, but alas, Liang Wu Sheng had not intentionally allowed Falling Rain to escape, which made his departure all the more puzzling. For now though, this Sovereign focused on his host’s soul instead, who continued to rant in a hate-fuelled rhetoric that made little to no conventional sense. After nigh on four decades of deterioration from being cut off from his body and mind, Liang Wu Sheng’s soul was short on natural Prana and on the verge of succumbing to Imbalance. This irrational indulgence in emotion only furthered to hasten his departure along, which he himself wholly understood, but even if Liang Wu Sheng was ready to expend the last of his Prana and forever give up his chance at reincarnation to become a disincarnate soul no different from the Spectres, this Sovereign could not afford to lose him just yet.

 

To think, this young man had seemed so promising at first glance. Named by his mother, Wu Sheng was a homonym for War Saint, and he lived up to it by becoming the True Divine Warrior of his generation. A title he forfeited upon taking the throne, but impressive as he might have been in his youth, his skills paled in comparison to the younger brother who succeeded him, Liang Wu Di who was now the True Divine Warrior and Emperor both. Wu Di’s daughter was even more phenomenal, a worthy claimant to the title of True Divine Musician, but circumstances and politics robbed her of the chance to accept so high an honour. As for Liang Wu Sheng, he’d proven problematic to work with and his perspective offered this Sovereign nothing of note, but the latter was hardly unexpected. Many former Emperors were the same, their perspectives of the Dao too rigid and fixed due to how the Supreme Families were wont to adhere to the teachings of their ancestors, but this flaw was there by design. Only then could this Sovereign ensure that the descendants and successors of his sworn brothers could be kept in control, but this slowed his own progress considerably as well, since it poisoned the pool of souls he used to glean more Insight and perspective on the Dao.

 

A mistake, and this one not by design, and one he only just realized thanks to Falling Rain’s scathing condemnation. For too long, this Sovereign had sat idle and waited for the Dao to reveal itself in other perspectives, when instead he should have endeavoured to uncover those perspectives for himself, an error he would correct once he had Falling Rain in hand. For the interim however, this Sovereign required Liang Wu Sheng’s soul in working order, so he channelled his Prana into his near-crazed host’s soul and utilized his Aura to stabilize the fool’s emotions. The sudden influx of sustenance followed by the weight of this Sovereign’s Will was enough to still Liang Wu Sheng’s raving madness, but the rage and acrimony was still present within him yet. If only this Sovereign could uncover the means to seize control of an adult host’s body and mind without need for the original soul itself, but even the Spectral Transcendents required the host soul’s survival.

 

It had to do with compatibility, as far as this Sovereign could tell, a natural binding of body, mind, and soul that made them unique and wholly suited as a conglomerate that would accept no substitutes. If this Sovereign were to supplant Liang Wu Sheng’s soul and wholly take over as the host, then it was only a matter of time before the body and mind rejected him, even though doing so would mean inevitable death. The only way to circumvent this issue was to supplant the soul of an unborn child before it had time to harmonize with its body and mind. A route this Sovereign’s Natal Soul had taken, and he suspected Falling Rain’s soul must have done the same, but the vulnerability and indignity of being a child aside, this Sovereign’s soul was too powerful for the body and mind of a child to wholly encompass, and too powerful even for the greatest talent of each generation.

 

The Imbalance derived from his powerful soul caused any borrowed body and mind to overdraft its own Life Energy in order to compensate, which would invariably lead to a sudden but unassailable decline in health and function. Add in the fact that he was using his borrowed hosts’ Prana to sustain countless souls as well, and most of his hosts rarely survived to the age of a hundred. In millennia past, his hosts could still go on to live for decades after their rule, puppeted by a sliver of his Will left behind after inhabiting the succeeding Emperor, but as his soul grew in power, the time his hosts could sustain themselves dwindled to the point where many recent Emperors spent their last years on the throne in rapidly ailing health. A most troublesome quandary he failed to account for in advance, and though he did his best to hide the signs and quash all rumours of such a decline, there were clues enough left over the course of several millennia for those who cared to look.

 

Such as the inquisitive and relentless Liang Wu Di, whose obsessive investigation eventually led to him discovering this Sovereign’s existence at a most inconvenient of times.

 

The issue of lacking Life Energy and Prana was all but solved however, for the memories of this Sovereign’s Natal Soul indicated that Falling Rain had somehow stumbled across the ability to generate Life Energy using Heavenly Energy, a feat which should have been impossible. There were a myriad of possibilities hidden within the Dao, and this Sovereign had long since been blinded by his own perspective, believing there was no way to generate more Life Energy beyond what one was born with, and thus never bothering to study it. A lesson learned however, and a mistake this Sovereign would not make again, so once Liang Wu Sheng’s soul was stabilized and Balanced, he returned his attention to reality, where he discovered Falling Rain in the midst of launching a devastating barrage of attacks aimed at taking his host’s head. Working through Liang Wu Sheng’s soul to Manifest his host’s Domain, this Sovereign warded off Falling Rain’s flying sword and shield with relative ease, only to sense an inkling of danger as the boy pointed his rifle at Liang Wu Sheng’s face and let loose with a powerful, spiralling projectile of Materialized Energy. Curious as to how much power the boy was capable of compressing into this singular attack, this Sovereign decided against dodging the projectile and Manifested a ten-layered Domain Plated Defense before raising his arms to block, just in case.

 

As the impact drove him off his feet and sent Liang Wu Sheng’s blood spraying through the air, this Sovereign pursed his lips in sheer exasperation over Falling Rain’s rapidly improving Conceptualization. This Sovereign’s defenses should have been powerful enough to stop even a Runic Cannon, yet after their exchange inside Falling Rain’s Manifested Natal Palace, the transmigrated upstart had learned to harness the power contained within it and make use of it in reality. This single projectile did not seem any different from the projectiles he’d used before, but embedded within the Materialized Projectile was the same conceptual force contained within one of the explosive steel projectiles this Sovereign had seen within Falling Rain’s memories. Not the largest, most powerful one infused with death and darkness, but one of the smaller yet still frighteningly destructive, dart-like projectiles that created small explosions on impact. The magnitude of force was unlike anything he’d ever experienced before, one to almost match the power of a False Divinity unchecked, all of which was focused into a singular, Materialized projectile the size of a grape.

 

It wasn’t that this Sovereign was incapable of matching such a feat, for he could unleash a similar amount of power with a simple thrust or kick, but Falling Rain had done this with Domain alone. The issue was not raw strength, but the fact that this Sovereign lacked the ability to rationalize how so much power could be contained within so tiny and insignificant a vessel, and thus was unable to Will this concept into existence, yet his foe seemed to almost take the possibility for granted and could do so with little more than a thought. It was similar to how an experienced climber was capable of scaling a sheer rock cliff with only finger and toe holds, whereas a stronger, less experienced climber would either be unable to traverse across the same wall, or would be limited to a much slower pace.

 

What’s more, it wasn’t just the raw power of this Manifested projectile which took this Sovereign by surprise, but the insidious arrangement nestled within the working which rendered his Runic Robes of Imperial Office inert and useless. Yet another impossible feat made possible by Falling Rain, but a cursory examination of his memories allowed this Sovereign to grasp the crux of the skill. Runes were a means of harnessing symbols and imagery to compel one’s Will to drive Heavenly Energy in a predetermined pattern, but Falling Rain’s ‘Unravelling’ introduced an element of negation that wiped the slate clean, no so much destroying the predetermined patten as disturbing it so that the Energy of the Heavens was no longer impelled to flow in any particular manner. A crude working akin to removing all traces of one’s tracks by dragging a giant plough over them, it would be of limited use against a working driven by this Sovereign’s Will, but against static, unthinking Runes crafted for the sake of ease and expedience, there was no arguing its effectiveness. More infuriating was the unexpected familiarity with this skill, for his Natal Soul had seen it used in Meng Sha, albeit second hand through the eyes of a Transcendent, but it would appear as if Zhen Shi’s futile struggles were not yet done as he continued to conceal and obscure information from this Sovereign’s mind.

 

How infuriating, to be thwarted by his own Natal Soul, a most humiliating experience indeed. Perhaps this Sovereign would give Zhen Shi his wish and allow him to remain a separate and distinct entity, if only to better punish him for his transgressions.

 

By the time this Sovereign finished analyzing his opponent’s attack, he discovered Falling Rain was almost two kilometres away with both dog and rabbit in hand, racing towards Shi Bei with all haste. Healing his wounds with little more than a thought, this Sovereign hesitated to mend his robes in the same way, for the expenditure would be costly indeed. Knitting living flesh was one thing, and Materializing inorganic threads another, but even though he’d given up the Jade Throne, he was the Eternal Emperor still yet. While there was little to no chance of anyone seeing him in his current unsightly state, that was not the same as no chance at all, and the mere prospect of being seen in tattered robes of office was enough to set his fury ablaze. Before he could think twice, his golden robes were restored once more and cleaned of blood and sand, a wasteful extravagance given the battle still before him, and one he hoped he would not come to regret. Stifling his rage to seek Balance once more, he Cloud-Stepped after his quarry almost a full three seconds behind, yet he caught up in a single bound thanks to his heightened expertise.

 

Yes, Falling Rain was full of surprise due to his comprehension of a different world’s Dao, but this Sovereign’s comprehension of this world’s Dao was second to none.

 

Reaching out to capture his prize in hand, he allowed himself a small smile of satisfaction for a job well done, only for it to freeze on his face as Falling Rain’s Domain Deflection shunted this Sovereign’s arm away. At the same time, the transmigrator utilized the Materialized currents of his Natal Sea to propel him forward out of this Sovereign’s reach. A second Cloud-Step was all it took to catch up with ease, but Falling Rain was a slippery foe indeed, waiting until this Sovereign was almost within reach before propelling himself away again. Not in a straight line either, zig-zagging across the sands in an indecipherable route that would invariably end at Shi Bei.

 

This Sovereign intended to catch his quarry long before they arrived at the besieged city, but he was so fixated on Falling Rain at the expense of all else he noticed his foe’s scheme all too late. By then, all he could do was give chase and watch as the transmigrator inserted himself into a battle between Divinities. The Ancestral Hare and Ancestral Bicorn Rabbit as it were, facing off against two of Zhen Shi’s Transcendent Divinities, promising creatures of power unrestrained that this Sovereign soon identified as Gen and Goujian. The Emissary and the Confessor as it were, two mediocre talents made powerful through a manipulation of Zhen Shi’s Dao, and though this Sovereign saw the Razor’s Edge as another dead-end Path, he was most curious to see how powerful it could be when taken to the extremes. In the brief moment before Falling Rain’s arrival, this Sovereign analyzed the battle with an experienced eye and saw that the Emissary and the Confessor were powerful indeed, but sorely lacking in comparison to their accomplished foe. Not without reason of course, for the Medical Saint was a talent this Sovereign had long since taken note of given his mastery of Air’s Water. Or Cloud, as the Ancestral Hare Conceptualized it, no doubt on account of his bestial lineage, but not all combinations of Air and Water rendered Cloud and only Cloud.

 

Even Fifth Brother Di Zi had been at a loss on how to classify the myriad aspects of the Dao, until there came a day when he decided they needed no classification. Labels were a human contrivance, ones necessary for base comprehension, but they hindered one’s ability to perceive the Dao as a complete whole. This manner of thinking had been most intriguing to this Sovereign, but his Fifth Brother had arrived at this conjecture far too late in life to expand on it much, and soon led the other four brothers in their ill-fated rebellion. Unable to further this line of thinking on his own, this Sovereign eventually passed along some of Fifth Brother’s teachings to the masses which led to the formation of the Brotherhood, but the founding Abbot had been too fixated on Fifth Brother’s obsession with the ‘Three Poisons” and his compulsion to do good in the name of Balance to bear any fruit.

 

Or perhaps not, as more memories from this Sovereign’s Natal Soul became clear to him again, this time of the Brotherhood’s current Abbot wielding Life Energy in battle. Another Talent this Sovereign had taken note of decades ago, but the man had come to Divinity far too late and by way of external help, so he wrote Abbot Akupara as someone who would never amount to much. For once, this Sovereign was pleased to be proven wrong, for even if Falling Rain held all the secrets to Life Energy one could ever need, it was always good to have more options.

 

A flash of irritation crossed this Sovereign’s mind as he discovered the manipulations of his Natal Soul once more, which combined with the burning rage of his host’s soul meant there were now two opponents contending for control against him. The Natal Soul was of particular annoyance, for he understood this Sovereign in a way no one else ever could, wholly capable of leading his thoughts this way and that with little more than an errant whisper. All in all, this momentary distraction cost him a tenth of a second, which wasn’t much considering even a full second might not have been enough time to stop Falling Rain from meeting up with his allies, but under the right circumstances, a tenth of a second might as well be an eternity if it meant the difference between life and death.

 

Dragging his focus back out of his thoughts, this Sovereign studied the Emissary and Confessor both. Considering the core of their existence was comprised of fragmented, disincarnate souls joined as one, he found their accumulation in the realm of the soul to be sorely lacking indeed, with too much focus on the body and barely any consideration given to the mind, if any. All in all, these so-called Ascended Transcendents were no different from standard Transcendents, primitive miscreations born of a natural Imbalance made manifest. Albeit on a larger scale of course, for most False Divinities would find themselves outmatched against these Awakened Ascended Transcendents, the Emissary Blessed by Earth’s Fire and the Confessor by what appeared to be Blood. A strange Blessing, all things considered, but in life, Goujian had been the ‘Bloody’ Confessor, though why that would result in his Transcendent form wielding the power to control a blood-like energy was beyond even this Sovereign’s ability to explain. Such was the way with the so-called Esoteric Blessings, named so by Fifth Brother Di Zi due to his inability to categorize them in any other logical manner. In fact, this lack of progress might well be why he gave up on categorizing the various aspects of the Dao in the first place, meaning there might still well be a way to organize the Dao into an easily navigated catalogue of the various minor and major Daos.

 

Again, this Sovereign’s Natal Soul had succeeded in drawing his attention away, but he would not allow it again. Fixating on the Emissary and Confessor once more, he studied their workings with an insightful eye and saw little to nothing of value. The Emissary was too reliant on base flame and nothing else, all but ignoring his Blessing of Earth save for the strength and durability it offered. Even then, his mastery over his Blessing of Fire paled in comparison to Flame Monarch Yang Kai, this Sovereign’s third brother whose accumulations had long since been studied and exhausted. The Confessor was of more interest, but only due to the unique nature of his Blessing, one which was not actually the control of Blood, but rather a Blood-like Energy reminiscent of both Life and Death, yet inferior to it in all ways. That being said, the Ancestral Rabbit was incapable of defending herself against the Confessor’s tendrils of Blood, which sapped away her strength and stamina with every errant touch. While the flames of the Emissary did little more than charr her skin, the Confessor’s tendrils left behind patches of raw and mangled flesh, leaving her a sorry sight indeed.

 

And yet, helpless though the Ancestral Rabbit might be, her life was in no danger so long as the Ancestral Hare still drew breath.

 

In all his long millennia of existence, this Sovereign could count on two hands the number of individuals who possessed a greater mastery of the Dao than the Medical Saint, with six of them being himself and his five brothers. The Ancestral Hare Taduk was a Divinity who had yet to live through his first millennium, younger even than the Zhen Shi persona of this Sovereign’s Natal Soul, and yet he saw in this Ancestral Beast a harmony of body, mind, and spirit that resonated with the Heavens in a manner similar to his own. The Medical Saint pursued not the flawed Martial Dao, but a Dao of the Heavens which he used to nourish his body, mind, and soul, his every action in complete harmony with his surroundings as he fought in his abnormal manner, utilizing a myriad of differ ways to draw upon the Energy of the Heavens in a surprisingly effective manner.

 

The curious shuffling of his feet, so erratic and capricious at first glance, revealed itself as a cadenced dance set to the rhythm of battle, one he set by humming a nonsensical tune beneath his breath which this Sovereign could barely even hear. The movements of his arms resembled the wild and chaotic flailing of a man drowning at sea, yet his hands traced a path through the air which the Energy of the Heavens were all too eager to follow, and in doing so, carried out his Will with only a modicum of effort on his part. A quiet snort interrupted his song, and the jarring disruption was enough to set the Emissary and Confessor both back on their heels to give the Ancestral Rabbit a moment of reprieve, only for Taduk to resume his tune soon after while a stomp of his foot sent the Transcendents back a second step. All the while, his movements gave rise to a vast multitude of nigh indecipherable workings which seemed to happen all at once, a myriad of simultaneous feats which were only possible due to the Medical Saint’s intimate familiarity with the Dao.

 

Song. Dance. Rhythm. Formation. Much like a human heartbeat, the world and the Heavens both possessed their own intrinsic ‘pulse’, one the Medical Saint was wholly in tune with. Only then could he tap into the vast powers unknown using the aforementioned mediums, perhaps even unfamiliar to him as he wielded them against his foes. Shards of Plated Domain appeared out of nowhere while powerful gusts of Air snuffed out flames and blood both, and darkening storm clouds formed around Emissary and Confessor both which they went to great lengths to be rid of. This was merely scratching the surface, for in the short moment this Sovereign was able to observe of their fight, less than a full second in time, he witnessed the Medical Saint Heal his companion no less than seventeen moderate to crippling wounds, while fending off eleven attacks from the Emissary as he hurled his flames about and nineteen from the Confessor who stuck with the decisive ferocity of a predator born..

 

If the Medical Saint possessed one weakness, it was his inability to apply his strength quickly and efficiently, as he was too unfamiliar and unpractised with fighting. If not for this glaring yet easily remedied flaw, then this battle would have long since concluded with Taduk’s victory even if he didn’t have an ally to fight alongside him.

 

Were it not for Falling Rain’s proven and unique perspective of the Dao, the Medical Saint would have fast become this Sovereign’s most coveted prey, but so long as he was here, he saw no reason why he could not simply capture both at the same time. Knowing Falling Rain was likely aiming to Devour the Transcendents in short order and join hands with his allies against this Sovereign, he compelled his host to take action and seal off their surroundings before tapping into the knowledge possessed by his Natal Soul to seize control of the Emissary and Confessor both. It was merely a matter of dispatching a sliver of his Will into the Transcendents and seizing control of their host souls. As simple as turning a hand given his wealth of experience, especially in light of how mangled and mutilated those respective souls were, tormented by the Amalgamated Spectre in control of the Transcendent and kept alive simply to provide the necessary Prana and emotions required to sustain them.

 

In contrast, the denizens of this Sovereign’s court of souls lived a most fortunate existence comprised largely of nihility and oblivion to minimize their expenditure of Prana. There was even a possibility of rebirth so long as they learned to neither struggle nor surrender to emotion and this Sovereign saw fit to give them new life or even set them free, a reward he might offer to Falling Rain should he retain his sanity after a millennium or two of torment.

 

For the third time in less than a single second, this Sovereign’s Natal Soul successfully stole his attention away, and disaster followed soon after. The area was sealed, the Transcendent’s controlled, yet he failed to command them to retreat to safety, giving Falling Rain time enough to make his move. Or, more accurately, time enough for the Predator to make its move. While this Sovereign knew of Falling Rain’s ability to Devour Transcendents with a touch, the Predator took this skill to whole new extremes as it voraciously attacked the Confessor’s Manifested tendril of blood with eyes wide and fangs bared. Much like the Medical Saint, there was a familiar sense of harmony in the strange hound’s movements, but there was no resonation with the Heavens as it pursued its goal with single-minded determination. All animals possessed this quality of focused effort, largely due to their inability to be distracted by higher-order thoughts, but while their feeble minds rendered them incapable of harnessing the Energy of the Heavens in all but the most base and primitive of ways, they more than made up for this deficiency with their strength of body and soul.

 

Or in the Predator’s case, in the strength of its soul alone.

 

As far as this Sovereign could tell, the stocky, floppy-eared mutt was physically no stronger than any other dog you might find in any corner of the Empire, and in many cases, much, much, much weaker. So weak that there was no doubt in his mind that this tiny dog of less than twenty kilograms would not survive more than a week in the wilds, and that was with a generous margin of error measuring six-and-a-half days. That being said, the strength of its formidable soul was put on display as it harnessed the distilled Energy of the Heavens which it secured from Devouring Zhen Shi’s refined physical body. Even with all his experience, this Sovereign was incapable of identifying all the skills the Predator used in an instant as it dodged, Deflected, and Domain Plated as needed to avoid the brunt of the Confessor’s Manifested tendrils of Blood and the Emissary’s bolts and pillars of flame. There was also a subtle form of Concealment being utilized which made the Predator’s movements difficult to track with the senses, physical or Divine, as well as a domineering Aura of unbridled desire that had nothing to do with lust and everything to do with greed and gluttony, all overlaid an underlying working of Materialized Domain which allowed the hound to move with an explosive speed and agility that even this Sovereign could not match. This much he could identify, but he knew not how the dog was able to seemingly phase through the sand, not burrowing down but disappearing entirely to avoid a pillar of flame only to emerge unharmed a short distance away. There was also another subtle working corralling the Transcendents together, forcing the Emissary to move ever closer to the Confessor when their powers would work better apart, to say nothing of whatever insidious working it was that kept the Transcendents from simply moving away as death padded towards them upon four paws.

 

For once the Predator was less than five metres away from the two Transcendents, it raised its head, opened its jaws, and repeatedly snaped at empty air, a laughable sight to be sure if not for the fact that the force produced by its actions was capable of pulling the much larger Transcendents into its maw. Not one at a time, but both at once, their chitinous, armoured forms melting away before fang or tongue could touch them. There was no rending or tearing required, no chewing or swallowing necessary, for the Predator hungered for more than the Transcendents physical forms and had its sights set upon the Amalgamated Spectres hidden inside.  

 

A blink of an eye, and it was all over and done with, an anticlimactic battle in which two Divinity level existences fell victim to a creature which by all rights should never have existed in the physical world, but one Falling Rain had somehow Created. Luckily, Elemental Spirits were not interested in the souls of living creatures and hungered only for the Imbalanced souls of Spectres and the ilk, else this Sovereign might well have already been Devoured in full alongside his court of souls. Even more shocking was how quickly Falling Rain and his allies reacted, for the moment the Predator finished Devouring both Transcendents, Falling Rain cut through this Sovereign’s sealed Domain and led his allies to flee towards Shi Bei.

 

Uttering a howl of unrestrained fury, this Sovereign bounded after them in chase. The Ancestral Rabbit was the slowest and became the target for his rage as his palm strike ruptured her inner organs and left her teetering on the precipice of life. Or it would have if not for Taduk and Falling Rain’s superlative defenses, the former layering a complex weave of Plated Domain which formed a formidable, multifaceted curved structure. A cursory examination showed it required less overall power than the ten layered defense this Sovereign used earlier against Falling Rain, yet Taduk’s working was capable of blocking a good ninety percent of this Sovereign’s attack, including the Palm Intent infused within it. As for the latter, Falling Rain Manifested his Domain to Deflect half of what remained, while the Ancestral Rabbit was strong enough to endure the rest with her powerful physique alone, especially with the Medical Saint quickly Healing what minor injuries she suffered. This Sovereign was clearly more powerful than all three of his foes put together, and it had been quite some time since he made a move and failed to kill his opponent. To make matters worse, Falling Rain even had time enough to unleash a counterattack with his rifle once more, and this time, this Sovereign dared not receive it.

 

Only to realize all too late that the energy contained within this Materialized projectile was a paltry fraction of the attack which injured him earlier.

 

A feint, one this Sovereign thoroughly fell for, leaving him no face left at all. All three of their souls were forfeit, and Falling Rain’s dog and rabbit too, for this Sovereign would not allow anyone who had witnessed his humiliation to go unpunished.  

 

Catching up to his quarry yet again, he attacked the Medical Saint first to keep him contained before parrying the Ancestral Rabbit’s counter punch, one which possessed the barest hint of Fist Intent which might form if given another five centuries of focused practice. Not because she was incapable, but because she had progressed along the dead-end Martial Path and closed herself off to the Heavens and the harmonious unity which came with it. In doing so, she claimed a portion of the Heavens for herself to wield, but a truncated, meagre portion which gave her power without control or comprehension.

 

Not so for Falling Rain, who deployed his flying sword and shield imbued with Sword Intent while empowering his rifle for another deadly attack, all the while retreating alongside his allies who were desperate to make their way to Shi Bei. Seizing the Medical Saint by the ankle, this Sovereign threw him to the sands below and followed up with a stomp infused with Palm Intent, only to be struck half-way through by an incomplete projectile delivered by Falling Rain’s rifle. The blow possessed power enough to bruise him, which was truly infuriating to the extreme, for this Sovereign was incapable of discerning how powerful each projectile might be before they struck, meaning he had no choice but to treat each and every single shot as a deadly and unblockable threat. Seeing that the Ancestral Hare had already slipped away and the Ancestral Rabbit moving to support him, this Sovereign fixed his focus on Falling Rain and fought back the urge to kill the boy where he stood.

 

And yet, he still came close as he tore through the Medical Saint’s hasty defensive workings and punched clean through Falling Rain’s Domain Deflection to land a blow on his shallow, scrawny chest. Spewing a mouthful of blood and ruptured lung tissue, the transmigrator stumbled back half a step before this Sovereign struck again, carefully restraining his strength so as only to humiliate his foe with a slap. More blood spewed out, this time accompanied by shards of shattered teeth and broken bone which left his mouth a gory mess, but even this pain and disorientation wasn’t enough to keep him from instinctively Healing his injuries. Not so quickly as to be unmatched, but faster than most even without the Medical Saint’s assistance, and this Sovereign could not help but respect his opponent’s tenacity.

 

But respect was all that he would have, for now that Falling Rain was at his mercy, this Sovereign would be sure to show none.

 

Upon seeing the boy captured, the Medical Saint and Ancestral Rabbit both stayed their hands. Though they made their preparations to fight, this Sovereign paid them no mind as he met Falling Rain’s hateful amber eyes. The true mark of an outlander, for the native inhabitants of the Azure Sea had only brown eyes and black hair, with all other variations having long since died out. Not so with these amber eyes, which was impressive to say the least, but this Sovereign hated this transmigrator all the more for being of foreign blood to boot. “Your futile efforts to resist end here and now,” he declared, holding his prize up by the throat with a feral grin stretched across his cheeks. “You are talented with prospects unlimited, but this Sovereign has stood unmatched under Heaven since the day of his birth, and will remain so until he so chooses to ascend, so your fate, little worm is to kneel and serve, or struggle and suffer. Which will it be?”

 

A single second stretched into eternity as this Sovereign readjusted his perceptions to conform the workings of reality. Not because he had yet to acclimate his senses, physical and Divine both, but because he dared not allow himself even a single moment of distraction so that he might enjoy this moment to its fullest. Another second passed, then another, the long delay only heightening his anticipation of the gratification all the more, until he realized his quarry could not speak until he finished Healing his jaw and teeth. A full fifteen seconds from start to finish, and it would have taken longer had this Sovereign not relaxed his guard to allow the Medical Saint’s efforts to reach Falling Rain and assist him. It mattered not if they conversed through Sending, the pulsating passing of their messages as clear as ripples on a lake, and if he cared enough to focus on them, he could even listen in on their discussion, but a dragon cared not for the plans of mortals, for he would overcome them with strength alone.

 

More seconds passed in agonizing lethargy, until Falling Rain’s colour turned a dark shade of red that bordered on purple. Remembering that mortals still needed to breathe, this Sovereign relaxed his grip. After a gasping cough which saw more blood and fragmented teeth fly out, Falling Rain groaned once, coughed thrice, and cleared his throat five times before finally deigning to speak. “Sorry,” he wheezed, speaking slowly and quietly while fluttering his feet in the air in an effort to escape from this Sovereign’s grasp. “What were my options again?”

 

Base mockery, and he cared not for it, yet much as he yearned to tear the loud-mouthed transmigrator’s soul from his body and mind once more and drag him into this Sovereign’s Natal Palace, he dared not do so in the presence of two powerful Ancestral Beasts, for his host’s body was still mortal yet. “What do you hope to accomplish here?” he asked, inwardly grimacing at having revealed his own ignorance. “Even if you should rally all the Divinities in Shi Bei, Imperial and Defiled both, you would still not possess the requisite strength to defeat this Sovereign in combat. The full might of the Five Supreme Families would not be enough, nor would the combined strength of the entire Empire, for this Sovereign’s strength is boundless and his accumulations unfathomable, and you are ten-thousand years too early to challenge me yet.”

 

“Oof.” Falling Rain feigned a grimace and tried to shake his head, but it came out as more of a slow tremble. “Not gonna lie, you sound frustrated. Rough day? I’m guessing you don’t get out much and spend most of your time with your ass glued to the throne, though I suppose you’ll have to find somewhere else to sit now that your patsies have banded together to kick you off it.” Feigning yet another wince and a look of commiseration, Falling Rain continued, “Sorry. Too soon? Seriously asking, because I still have a lot of failure related material to get through, and it’d be nice to know it’s having the intended effect.”

 

Giving his foe the lightest of taps infused with the faintest effort of Fist Intent he could muster, he bared his teeth and growled, “Answer the question.”

 

“What was the question again?” Another tap put an end to this farce as the boy convulsed in agony, but to his credit, he barely even groaned when most would have been breathless with screams by now. “Oh right,” he gasped, taking several slow, deep breaths before continuing, “What do I hope to accomplish. Like here exactly, where we’re standing right now, or like, generally in life and whatnot? Very different questions, so you’re gonna have to be more specific.”

 

“You are delaying for time.” The answer came to this Sovereign and presented him with yet another question, one he voiced without thinking. “Why?”

 

“Well…” Even as Falling Rain drew out his words to delay even further, this Sovereign scanned the area for clues. The Ancestral Hare and Rabbit pair had not moved from their spots, and he could sense no other Divinities converging upon their position, meaning none were in range for a Sending which they could not even Send due to this Sovereign’s host’s Domain blocking off all communications around them. Other than that, there was nothing else of note which came to mind except…

 

“The Predator.” Noticing its absence from the immediate surroundings, this Sovereign tightened his grip on Falling Rain’s throat and asked, “Where is it?”

 

“Buddy?” Flashing a rage-inducing smile which cast his bloodied features in a hateful light, the boy glanced towards Shi Bei and replied, “Well… I promised him we’d go out for walkies, so I figured now was a good a time as any.”

 

A baffling answer, one this Sovereign knew not how to parse save to say that it left him with an unfamiliar sense of unease which he soon identified as apprehension. Not without reason either, for all this time, he thought Falling Rain was rushing towards Shi Bei solely to save the Imperial defenders, but now he understood the full scope of the boy’s schemes. The Predator was loose and free to feed upon the Transcendent Divinities of Shi Bei, and he shuddered to think of what one could do with so much distilled Energy of the Heavens, energy which would not recognize this Sovereign’s Authority.

 

No matter though, for what harm could a mere dog do without his master to guide him?

 

Chapter Meme 1

Chapter Meme 2

Chapter Meme 3

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Savage Divinity – Chapter 826


I’d like to give a shout out to my latest Patron Cnohpytxyz (which apparently is pronounced synopsis. Wild.). Thank you so much for your support!


 

Gazing upon his captive subject, this Sovereign’s lips quirked for the second time today as he parsed through the emotions elicited by this most impertinent question.

 

Incredulity to begin with, that Falling Rain would think himself deserving of the answer, followed by indecision as he considered if he should be angry or amused by the boy’s presumption. The latter fit better here, as this was merely a desperate ploy to avoid torment and subjugation, though this Sovereign had hoped the insolent worm would beg for mercy. There would be plenty of begging soon enough, an excess he would soon find tiresome to hear, but the first plea was always the sweetest as his subjects sought to bargain and cajole. This newfangled anticipation was an unexpected benefit of the forceful merger with his Natal Soul, for though he held control in the highest of esteem, he now realized that perhaps he’d erred in his pursuit of his Dao of apathy and indifference. Though this Dao served him well and saw him rise to a level unmatched, he was still human yet, and thus might well benefit from occasionally indulging in emotion every so often.

 

Not simply for the sake of satisfying his primal desires, but for the sake of Balance overall. Without light, there could be no shadow, without growth, there could be no decay, and without emotion, there would be no impetus to drive him forward along his Path. Just as the autumnal debris must rot to nourish a new crop of plants come spring, a descent into emotion might well bring him to new heights in turn. A lesson well-learned by his Natal Soul and imparted unto him as he rediscovered the emotions he’d long since sealed away, ones he re-lived whilst imparting them to the subject. Yes, this was his error, one made soon after the founding of his Azure Empire when the world was finally at peace, and he had time to finally rest and reflect on his lifetime spent in bloodshed and conquest. Through this long period of introspection, one which lasted the better part of a decade, he concluded that emotions were a hindrance to logical thought and progression, a power to be harness without ever allowing it to affect him. By supressing his emotions and achieving an even higher order of inner Balance, he was able to find the Path forward and Ascend to Nascent Immortality, and therein lay the error of his ways.

 

After his ascension, he strove to still his mind and spirit in order to suppress all emotion in an effort to progress, because he believed that his human emotions were keeping him from Ascending to True Divinity. Rather than indulge in emotion, he hoarded his emotions without ever partaking of them, a resource for later use like storing firewood for the winter, but while wood was finite, emotions were not, and thus there would never be an end to them so long as one still drew breath. Though a period of suppression could bring him forward to new heights, he erred in believing progress was defined as advancing without retreat, but the Path to True Divinity was not a series of ascending steps, but rather a cyclical pattern of highs and lows that would bring him forward, then back, only to spring even further forward again.

 

Two steps forward and one step back was still progress in the end, and a better alternative to standing still as he had for so many years. His Dao of Apathy was the Balance of an unmoved stone, a calm sea, or a still wind. Possible yes, but unnatural and wholly without value, for what power was there to be derived from fixed stasis? The answer to all his woes had been right there in front of him all along, the truth hidden in plain sight. Rise and fall, growth and decline, Life and Death, Creation and Destruction, all this and more alluded to the Path he must take. There was no Apex of the Dao to chase after, no pinnacle to achieve, so rather than seek to maintain perfect balance at all times, the end goal should be the ability to maintain Balance whilst experiencing the vicissitudes of life and emotion, for the Path to the Dao was a capricious and unpredictable journey at best, which required the strength of Will to pursue it.

 

This was the first of many benefits to be gleaned from the accumulations of this Sovereign’s Natal Soul, and he allowed himself a moment of gleeful anticipation at the prospect of unveiling more. There was still much to be discovered, so much to be learned, for the accumulations of his Natal Soul had only provided him with the proper direction. The Razor’s Edge ‘Zhen Shi’ had adhered to was even more flawed than this Sovereign’s Path, and there were a whole host of questions still yet to be asked and answered, but he felt it fitting to celebrate since it would align with his newfangled perspective. A brief indulgence and nothing more, for though he had found the flaws in his Path and now saw the proper way forward, it was always better to crawl rather than run when it came to the pursuit of the Dao.

 

Slow and certain was the correct methodology, for haste makes waste, and this Sovereign had patience and time enough to proceed with caution.

 

“You seek insight into this Sovereign’s Dao?” Already, this new direction was proving troublesome to control and maintain, for his tone was rife with mocking amusement, emotions he drank deeply of for the first time in living memory. “For what purpose? To better understand your own feeble flaws?” Casting a glance at the boy’s dire straits, held fast by bindings of this Sovereign’s Manifested Domain and helpless to do naught but speak and stare. “Too little too late, do you not think?”

 

In spite of all his attempts to rein in his good humour, this Sovereign was unable to keep himself from taunting the little worm so. No, not little worm, but the subject, one full of promise and potential. That was the greatest mistake the Natal Soul made, one of hubris in which he sorely underestimated Falling Rain even after seeing all of the miracles the young savage had wrought. This Sovereign would be a fool to make the same mistake, especially after having seen the quality and characteristics of the subject’s detailed Natal Palace, one superior to any other he’d come across in all his millennia of existence. Not even Fifth Brother Di Zi’s Natal Palace had been so complete, despite his understanding of the Laws being second to none, a most curious puzzle which this Sovereign intended to decipher forthwith.

 

“Couldn’t care less about your Dao,” the boy replied, still quietly struggling against the inevitable even as his unwavering, amber-eyed gaze met this Sovereign’s eyes in undeniable challenge. “And the truth? I already know why you pursue strength. I’m only asking because I want to know if you know the answer too.”

 

Curious as to what game the subject was playing, this Sovereign went over all the possibilities, but the only plausible answer to come to mind was the same as before, that this was all a desperate ploy to buy time. Delaying the inevitable as it were, a futile gesture if there ever were one, but between the subject’s provocations and this Sovereign’s yearning to explore the limits of his new Path, he saw no reason not to toy with his prey a moment longer. Manipulating his Manifested Domain to force the subject to kneel before him, this Sovereign drew upon his Authority to impose his Will, one which weighed heavily upon the defiant child in unspoken threat. Though it did nothing to diminish the subject’s undue arrogance, a pride baked into his bones as his unblinking eyes emanated unbridled disdain, it did much to allay this Sovereign’s burning rage over being held in contempt by an ignorant savage. “Such shameless effrontery,” he began, shaking his head as he loomed over the child with a condescending sneer. “Bound and helpless yet still so full of spite and hubris, but this Sovereign shall indulge you a moment more, if only so that you can wallow in regret over what could have been whilst suffering the agony of a thousand deaths.”

 

“Dying is easy,” the subject replied, his words uttered with such callous indifference that this Sovereign believed him, and more to the point, knew beyond the shadow of a doubt that the boy believed this too. “Living is the real challenge, with trials and tribulations unending.”

 

A sentiment many had shared before, yet one this child of two decades wholly embodied in speech, his words empowered by inadvertent Oration to convey the full breadth and depth of his emotions. The heady rush of reckless courage and bold determination struck a chord within this Sovereign’s very soul, and the deluge of melancholic misery which followed suit threatened to overwhelm him where he stood. What trials and tribulations could he have encountered in his paltry two decades of life to make him so callous and jaded? Memories of an earlier exchange surged to the forefront of his consciousness, one not personally experienced by this Sovereign himself, but of a blow suffered by his Natal Soul delivered by a soulful utterance of sombre lyrics to the tune of a poignant melody. Small wonder ‘Zhen Shi’ had become so unhinged to such an extent, for the encounter was enough to unsettle this Sovereign even in passing recollection. The subject’s Dharmic Chant had been inundated with the crushing sentiment of failure and inadequacy, as well as the alluring prospect of resignation to fate and inevitable death, a call to surrender and submit not to the boy or to the Spectres or to any living entity at all, but rather a surrender to the Heavens themselves, a proud and overbearing tyrannical presence which looked down on all humanity and judged them unworthy of ascent.

 

It was no mere act of luck or happenstance for Falling Rain to progress so far so fast. In his eyes, the mere notion of survival was an act of defiance against the very Heavens themselves, and what was cultivation but to defy the Heavens in pursuit of strength which humanity was not meant to wield?

 

It took a concentrated effort of Will on this Sovereign’s part to keep himself from killing the subject outright, for Falling Rain’s Dao of unfettered freedom was a direct challenge to the Heavens, and this Sovereign could allow no threat to his Authority go unpunished. Tempting as it might be to be rid of the subject here and now, this Sovereign could not afford to allow fear to dictate his actions, for he would then risk allowing a seed of doubt to take root in his previously unshakable foundation of self-assurance. This child was nothing in comparison to Ying Zheng, the Eternal Emperor of the Azure Sea, and he would not balk before this challenge. No longer was this a matter of his own amusement, for if this Sovereign lacked the courage to confront the subject bound and helpless as he was, then his cowardice would plague him for the rest of his eternal existence.

 

“You wish to know why this Sovereign seeks strength?” A mistake to repeat the question, an extraneous utterance that could give away how rattled he truly was, but the mistake had already been made and there was no cure for regret. “You have born witness to this Sovereign’s rise to power, so the answer should be evident. Nature is cruel and merciless, and humanity even more so, for only the strong can survive. The Warring States Era gave rise to a period of unending chaos and strife. Driven by emotion and fleeting gains, the dog kings of old rode to war with their neighbours to dispute arbitrary lines drawn upon a map, so this Sovereign put an end to their madness. With spear and sword in hand, this Sovereign united the scattered factions of the Azure Sea under one rule, and only then did the Empire possessed strength enough to throw back the barbaric outlanders who sought to conquer us with their false Dao, a threat which only became aware of us due to the greed of this Sovereign’s unworthy spawn. If not for this Sovereign’s efforts and the efforts of our five sworn brothers, the people of the Azure Sea would have long since been conquered and subjugated by the outlanders, for the people of these lands were weak and unworthy.”

 

“So what?” Utterly unimpressed by this Sovereign’s exploits, the subject made an effort to shrug but was unable to move due to his bindings. “People are conquered all the time. You said it yourself, the Empire is nothing more than arbitrary lines on a map, so what difference does it make if these lands are inhabited by outlanders or not? What’s more, you claim that Nature is cruel and only the strong survive, yet you used your strength to protect the weak, meaning your words contradict your actions.”

 

A biting retort which cut straight to the heart of the truth, and this Sovereign could not quell his admiration for the boy’s clarity of thought, able to discard his own empathic tendencies to see the obvious flaw in this Sovereign’s arguments. Then again, the boy’s tribe was clearly of outlander origins, and the blood of his savage barbarian ancestors still held true even after so many millennia. “In this, you are correct, but this Sovereign’s mistakes are part and parcel of his Dao. Yes, this Sovereign strove to protect the weak, and in doing so, earned nothing but scorn and disdain as generations lived and died in the absence of war and ignorance of all the hard-learned lessons of conflict and bloodshed. For centuries thereafter, this Sovereign rode into battle whenever the outlanders invaded and restrained himself from wreaking vengeance upon their homelands, for he valued peace above all else. A mortal failing, compassion and benevolence, one this Sovereign divested himself of after his efforts to maintain peace between the Empire and the outlanders led to a war between Divinities, a war which left the outlands a ravaged, uninhabitable wasteland and might well have destroyed the world itself if not for the noble sacrifice of this Sovereign’s five sworn brothers.”

 

“And yet you survived.”

 

A statement delivered in the most neutral of tones the boy could muster, but the underlying accusation was still plain as day. This Sovereign’s days of shame and self-recrimination were long behind him however, though the implication still stung something fierce. “Yes, this Sovereign survived,” he hissed, and in his rage, he drove his scalpel into the meat of the boy’s shoulder, but the hateful child merely grit his teeth in a feral smile. “Due to strength and happenstance, and nothing more. Yet even in death, this Sovereign’s brothers were not lost, their eternal souls plucked from the cycle of reincarnation by these two hands and given new life within the blood of their kin.”

 

“Not all of them.” The boy had a way of interrupting this Sovereign’s line of thought with words so jarring and discordant. “The fatty outside didn’t accept your offer. Why not?”

 

“Mortal weakness,” this Sovereign retorted, and his eyes were drawn to where fifth brother stood, between the subject and Liang Wu Sheng’s Natal Throne. An unnecessary precaution, but a prudent one all the same, for Falling Rain’s soul controlling Liang Wu Sheng’s body would be difficult for this Sovereign to suppress if forced to use Falling Rain’s body. The boy possessed more potential than the sitting Emperor, but a fledging dragon was still weaker than a fully grown snake. “If not for his pleas, then this Sovereign would have long since rallied his armies to subjugate the outlander threat and a war between Divinities would never have broken out. You see now why this Sovereign pursues strength? Only with strength can one survive the trials and tribulations of Heaven. So long as you burden yourself with false ideals, then only death and defeat will await you.”

 

Exerting his Will to show the boy even more memories of old, this Sovereign shared all the hard-learned lessons life had taught him along the way. “This Sovereign united the lands and brought peace to the people, yet not even a single decade passed by before they rejected his rule. Fools one and all, able to forget the death and suffering of yesteryear so quickly.” Manifesting images from his first century of rule, memories he deigned not to share the first time around, he showed the boy all his efforts to usher in a new age of prosperity in the wake of the Warring States Era. All his painstaking efforts to feed and educate the populace were for naught as greed and apathy took root, for none cared to toil in the fields without the ever-present threat of starvation looming over them. By driving trade and commerce to new heights, he introduced new ways for the weak to prey on the stupid while using wealth to control the strong, but this only made humanity even weaker. And the worst part? Those he entrusted to maintain justice were corrupted by power and authority, with so many raising their own banners in an effort to secede from under his rule, which led to more conflict and bloodshed.

 

And all this within the first decade of his rule. If not for his Ascension to Nascent Immortality, then the Empire he had dedicated his lifetime to conquering would have shattered upon his death, rendering all his efforts for naught.

 

“Earlier, you asked why this Sovereign did not build a utopia in which suffering was merely a memory, and now you have your answer.” The statement came out in a low growl as emotions long buried resurfaced from within, and he allowed himself to indulge them in accordance with his new Path. “Because the nature of humanity would not allow it! You are all creatures of weakness and emotions, and if left to your own devices, you would only bring ruin and devastation down upon yourselves. This Sovereign’s continued presence is all that stands between humanity and extinction, for I am shepherd to a wayward flock of fools who run headlong towards danger and disaster.”

 

“Ha.” The boy’s ridicule was plain to hear as he all but spat in this Sovereign’s face. “Don’t piss on my leg and tell me it’s raining. I’ve heard these arguments from Zhen Shi before, but they were as false then as they are now. You can stand there and lie to yourself all you want, but I see right through them. Humanity was doing just fine before you came along, and will continue to thrive long after you’re dead, so spare me your hero complex.” Eyes darting about to take in the scenes around him, the boy’s sneer only grew larger. “You tried to make the world a better place and failed, so surely it must be impossible. ‘Even an Emperor cannot change the hearts of man, boo hoo, woe is me.’ That’s what you sound like, a whiny little bitch, and I for one have had enough.” Bound though he still was, the boy scoffed and exerted his Authority to do away with the scenes of this Sovereign’s memories before replacing them with scenes of his own crafting. “Utopia might well be impossible, but that’s no excuse to give up and accept the status quo.”

 

The towering building housing Falling Rain’s Natal Throne reappeared beside them, but it was not the same building he’d crafted in mind. No, this was a memory of the building in reality, a memory which should not have been possible. The towering building was still drab and desolate as before, yet the marvel of its presence was no longer so impressive as it was surrounding by similar buildings on all sides. Some were even uglier, while others were creations of breathtaking beauty that this Sovereign could hardly tear his eyes away from, gleaming marvels of liquid stone, steel, and clear glass moulded into a myriad of geometric miracles of construction. The scene panned down to reveal flat, expansive roads which measure between fifteen and twenty metres wide, nestled in between these towering buildings with crowds of oddly dressed pedestrians moving along the sides while horseless carriages moved through the centre in a chaotic and ramshackle manner.

 

Even as this Sovereign sought to reject what he saw before him, the boy responded to these unspoken denials. From on high, the scene panned down to the streets to present a view of the inner workings of the horseless carriages, ones which put this Sovereign in mind of the timepieces Fifth Brother Di Zi created, only a thousand times more complex. From what he saw and sensed, Falling Rain himself didn’t entirely understand how these carriages worked, but he knew enough to show this Sovereign that they were possible, and thus existed. There was no denying that this was not only possible, but also probable, and the boy was not yet done. The scene followed the road to reveal more of the same, yet it was the differences that stood out. Shops and restaurants appeared selling all manner of eye-catching delicacies and luxuries, while giant painted canvasses depicted lifestyles utterly foreign to this Sovereign’s eye, yet the boy conveyed the intent within each image quite clearly. These were advertisements for even more luxuries, like more powerful horse-less carriages, artisanal apparel, sparkling jewellery and more, meaning that such things were not so far out of reach from the common populace else there would be no reason to advertise them.

 

The journey continued and brought him into a building where he saw a vast expanse of different shops all gathered in one place, a single destination anyone could visit and purchase anything and everything they could ever need or want. One store was filled with shelves upon shelves of food and produce, all fresh and appealing as if just harvested from the field, the next lined from wall to wall with clothes of all sizes, and it only got stranger from there. He saw a room filled with various depictions of violence and competition, yet it only sold boxes and strange devices instead of the weapons themselves. Another store appeared to sell nothing but hats, while still another hosted all manner of stuffed toys and childish frivolities, and another area in which commoners subjected themselves to all manner of arduous trials and feats of strength, not for the sake of strength itself, but in pursuit of mere vanity.

 

This was a world filled with excess and extravagance, yet this Sovereign had only barely scratched the surface. The images blurred before his eyes as he struggled to make sense of it all, his mind unable to comprehend just how any of this could be possible, yet every time he tried to focus on unravelling one mystery, he would find another hidden within, and another, and another, with so many various layers of indecipherable mysteries presented in an all too logical manner. These were not the fanciful reveries of a child’s fever dream, but an authentic recreation of memories presented by one who’d seen it all first hand. There were too many details to believe otherwise, the minutiae of these images too specific and particular to have been crafted on a whim, with a vast array of marvels that should well be impossible, yet seemed all too achievable when presented in this manner.

 

Then the scene slowly faded to black and the massive mixed residential and market district were no more, only to be replaced by a slow and steady transition over to a beach littered with holes and footsteps aplenty. The steady cadence of marching boots trudged past as the scene panned back to reveal a line of foreign soldiers clad in coarse green clothing and armoured steel helmets. Each one carried a strange bladeless weapon in hand, and this Sovereign recognized the similarities to Falling Rain’s rifle, with no less than twenty soldiers armed in this same fashion. Elites Warriors no doubt, or so this Sovereign thought until the scene moved further back to reveal thousands upon thousands of similarly equipped soldiers all disembarking from steel ships to storm the beach. The crack of their rifle raised an ungodly din unlike anything this Sovereign had ever heard before, yet this was merely an accompanying melody to the booming roars which erupted all along the coastline. Sand and blood flew in all directions as death rained down from above, and this Sovereign sat transfixed as he watched this theatre of war play out. It wasn’t long before he realized these so-called elites were merely common mortals, unable to match even the weakest of Martial Warriors in unarmed combat, yet some of the weapons they wielded were enough to threaten even him.

 

How might he fare against the steel-shelled explosives? How many of them could he bear? Difficult to say for these were mere images lacking the full depth of the subject’s previous memories, as if this were a scene Falling Rain had only borne witness to rather than experienced, yet the truth was still there. Those horseless carriages were even more formidable upon the battlefield, hulking armoured behemoths that spat fire and death from afar while running roughshod over all in their path, with still other such carriages bearing even large rifles capable of bringing down towering buildings with a single shell. The scenes shifted and the soldiers changed, with even more powerful weapons depicted time after time, until he found himself standing in a city with blaring horns warning of impeding death as he watched a massive steel projectile fall from the skies and grow larger and larger in sight.

 

And when it struck him head on, the world imploded into fire and darkness, as well as the stifling, chilling Intent of death and destruction he knew all too well. The steel projectile had possessed power comparable to a Divinity, meaning the mortals of this world had long possessed the power to annihilate all life within, yet they continued to survive nonetheless.

 

In the darkness, white wispy clouds of smoke rose up all around him, the aftermath of the destructive attack which removed an entire city from the map. Then the darkness gave way to blinding light and booming bursts of air which buffeted him from all sides. When his eyes finally adjusted to the light, he saw man take to the skies in sleek vessels of steel and fire that moved faster than he could track. There in the midst of the fight, he was unable to make sense of the madness as the currents of air sent him flying this way and that until the scene drew back to show him a wider perspective. There were dozens of these flying vessels moving faster than the speed of sound, done so effortlessly he wondered if he’d wasted his life in pursuit of the wrong Dao, for these mortals fought with rifles firing thousands of projectiles a minute and larger projectiles which reminded him of smaller versions of the Divinity level threat he saw only moments ago. Some vessels caught fire and exploded, others plummeted down into the seas below, while still others continued to fly this way and that to seek out new targets to bring down with their oppressive might. A single one of these vessels could kill this Sovereign with ease, and these mortals deployed them like chaff, with still more joining the fray after being deployed from a floating island of steel down below.

 

From the sea, the scene drew back and away from the massive floating island to reveal yet another beach, but this one was much different from before. There were still soldiers with strange weapons to behold, but rather than disembarking from ships, they were being dropped onto the beach by flying vessels large enough to hold hundred of them each. These soldiers were the true elites, the knights of this time, but their steel armour was sorely lacking in this Sovereign’s eyes. Rather than an enclosed suit covering their vitals, their bulky, oversized armour was affixed to their bodies at only a few key points, namely the shoulders, chest, abdomen, and limbs, with everything else exposed save for their heads which were covered by a simple, innocuous helmet. Hardly efficient or effective, or so this Sovereign thought, until he saw these elite soldiers in action. The armour was not there to defend them, but to empower them, giving them the strength and mobility needed to do battle against the host of inhuman beasts surging towards them. The soldiers still made use of rifles and the like, but their weapons were integrated into their armour, armour which enabled them to fight as well as any Martial Warrior so long as they had the proper training, armour which any mortal could use.

 

The weak made strong, but external strength was no true strength at all, a thought which Falling Rain heard and rebutted as the scene panned away from the beach and into the city where the fighting was desperate indeed. A different city from the one he saw earlier, but with many similarities none the less, and the details all made sense enough to leave no room for credible doubt. Here, the beastial inhumans had overrun the streets, and there was no army to receive them, only a handful of powerful Warriors who this Sovereign recognized from the artwork plastered on the ceiling of Falling Rain’s bedroom. A soldier in blue with red and white stripes defended civilians with his circular shield, while an archer loosed shaft after shaft from his perch atop a building while Sending information along to his allies. One man fought in a metal suit, similar to what he’d seen earlier but also entirely different, a red and gold affair that covered him from head to toe and enabled him to fly and unleash powerful blasts of energy from the palms of his hands. A suave blonde warrior fought in more recognizable armour with a short-handled hammer in hand, one that seemed unwieldy until he raised it on high to unleash a devastating blast of lighting overhead. A hulking green humanoid creature entered the fray next, leaping from building to building and crushing all who dared cross his path, his powerful physique giving him strength unmatched and a rage that could never be quenched.

 

So this era had its own Peak Experts as well, melding their technology with the Energy of the Heavens in turn, but without a Nascent Divinity to match this Sovereign, what use was there in comparing the two?

 

Again, Falling Rain sensed this disquiet and adjusted accordingly, moving away from the battle in the city to the heavens overhead, where those sleek flying vessels moved through the great emptiness beyond the skies. A massive moon came into sight, but as the scene drew closer, he realized that this was no moon at all, but a massive, man-made construct possessed with power enough to wipe out every city in the world beneath it. Tiny vessels flew all around it, except they were only tiny in comparison, for it soon became clear that these were hulking behemoths capable of holding thousands upon thousands of soldiers at once. Even smaller vessels fought around those larger vessels, firing beams of light in red and green, but they were not the focus as the scene moved towards the not-moon and into the vast network of tunnels contained within. Steel floors, steel walls, steel ceilings, and more, with not a single window in sight, the stifling monotony was unnerving to the extreme as they proceeded forward in the dim darkness. The tunnel stretched on without end, and soon it grew too dark to see even a single centimetre in front of his face, only for the darkness to give way to two scintillating beams of light, one in green and the other blue.

 

Two bearded gentlemen held those beams of light, which illuminated their surroundings to reveal massive room filled with metallic humanoids of curious constructions, ones armed with rifles that also fired beams of light. With a flick of the wrist, the younger gentleman warded off those beams with his sword of blue light, while the older gentleman leaped into the fray and scattered whole swathes of his foes with a wave of his hand. The power wielded by these two gentlemen was foreign and unfamiliar, and though Falling Rain was merely showing a memory of a scene he himself had witnessed second hand, this Sovereign was able to glean from this the truth. These two were surely Divinities at the very least, but ones in full control of their strength, and while Falling Rain was uncertain of the limits of their prowess, there was no denying their existence. How else to explain the seemingly endless array of examples he had to draw upon and show? The scenes shifted from one to the next showing humanity at war with all manner of foes, with countless different Divinities put on display with an eclectic and all-encompassing range of Daos to behold, until they all blended together into a single, indecipherable mass of memories with no beginning or end.

 

“You are nothing more than a frog in a well, unable to see how vast the Heavens truly are.” Falling Rain’s denouncement shook this Sovereign from his shock, and to his surprise, he discovered the boy had broken free of his bindings and now stood with weapons in hand. “Everything I showed you is attainable and within reach for the people of this Empire, in less than a single millennia of progress, yet you have had your hand on the tiller of humanity’s progress for so long and done nothing except tread water. You see yourself as a shepherd, but you are merely a burden to progress, a disease which has kept humanity weak for far too long.”

 

Raising his sword to deliver a scintillating slash, the Sword Intent ate through this Sovereign’s robes and cut him to the quick, a minor injury that was negligible at best, for Falling Rain had not grown any stronger. No, the only reason this attack was able to affect this Sovereign was because his own Will had grown weaker, for the Truth found in Falling Rain’s memories could not be denied. “Might does not make right,” the boy declared, words which struck this Sovereign harder than Falling Rain’s sword ever could. “Might only oppresses the weak. You are strong, but you are not right, no more than the tiger is right to live upon a mountain or a shark in the sea.”

“No.” The denial slipped out even as this Sovereign struggled to regain control of his emotions, but his Natal Soul sensed this weakness and used it to strike once more. Even now after learning the Truth of his existence, the foolish ‘Zhen Shi’ had not given up his misguided dreams of supplanting this Sovereign, so poisoned by desire and emotion in their time apart. Despite the risk of them both succumbing to Falling Rain’s blows, Zhen Shi’s primal fury rose up from within and threatened to overwhelm this Sovereign in full, for his Natal Soul cared not for survival, only victory and legitimacy.

 

For just like him, his Natal Soul believed that might made right, and to the victors go the spoils.

 

Between Falling Rain and Zhen Shi, this Sovereign could do naught but stand in place withstand the barrage of attacks sent his way, but it was the truth he feared, a truth the boy saw fit to twist and use against him. “Humanity’s greatest advantage is not our strength of arm,” the boy declared while still conjuring images for this Sovereign to see, his every word resounding with the chime of faith and conviction as he let loose with a barrage of attacks and repudiations, “But the strength of our minds. You disdain tools and contraptions as external strength, yet without such strength we would still be prey to the wolves and tigers of the wilds. This is the truth, one you know and accept, but only when it fits your world view. Better steel for swords and spears is fine enough, but why is a bow or ballista unacceptable? Because you do not understand the value of progress, and in doing so have doomed humanity to millennia of stagnation, just so you would not see your own strength overshadowed.”  

 

Much as he wanted to deny it, the boy’s words struck home as this Sovereign recalled the humiliating death he suffered at the hands of Sima Yi. The first Grand Marshal of the Empire to not hail from the Five Supreme Families, a brilliant genius who might well have brought them all to new heights, yet despite having long since secured this Emperor’s favour, the traitorous rat sought to supplant him and become Emperor himself. The fool wasn’t even aware of this Sovereign’s eternal status, believed he faced a powerful Warrior and nothing more, yet Sima Yi was a mere mortal with no personal strength to speak of. Even then, he possessed wealth and charisma aplenty, which he used to craft his weapons of war which took the life of this Sovereign’s host before he could react, and in doing so, almost put an end to the Eternal Emperor’s reign without having even uncovered his existence.

 

A most humiliating setback, one for which Sima Yi paid dearly for, but this Sovereign could not deny the fact that he went on to suppress such technological advancements for fear of them. What purpose was there in strength of arms if a mere mortal could build a contraption capable of reaping lives from afar? What progress could there be in his Path if humanity abandoned the Dao by the wayside? Such were his thoughts at the time, and while his concerns were valid, the truth of the matter was as Falling Rain said, for now this Sovereign had seen the power technology could bring.

 

The first wisp of Sword Intent found its way into the core of this Sovereign’s soul, but the pain was nothing compared to the shame of having his conviction stripped bare, yet much as he would like to retaliate against the boy, his Natal Soul was the greater threat by far. This might well change soon enough as Falling Rain continued to spew his hateful truths, using what he gleaned from this Sovereign’s shared memories against him. “Of course, you wouldn’t feel threatened by technology if you weren’t stuck in a rut yourself, but such is the curse of genius. You were a child when you first discovered the Dao, and your progress effortless until you Ascended to Divinity.” Nascent Immortality, but now was not the time to quibble over the details, especially since there was no denying this fact. “You continued to progress a little with help from your brothers, but after their deaths, you’ve stalled out, because you never learned how to study the Dao on your own. You didn’t have to, because the answers all obvious until they no longer are, but rather than grit your teeth and move forward with determination, you sit idle and wait for the answer to be handed to you.”

 

The boy’s sword plunged deep into this Sovereign’s robes as he stood helpless to defend himself, and now he had to contend with a font of Sword Intent wreaking havoc throughout every fibre of his existence. The shield followed suit, but even if the boy had a thousand such weapons to wield it would take him years to wear away at this Sovereign’s Will. No, it was still the Natal Soul within which threatened him so, growing stronger thanks to the boy’s open disdain and continued assault as each word and attack served only to fan the flames of this Sovereign’s rage. “For all your strength,” the boy continued, firing his rifle to no effect since he lacked the Intent to pair with it, “For all your lofty accomplishments and lifetimes of experience, I find it funny to learn that you are still mortal yet, still driven by those same emotions and desires you hold in such disdain. I told you before that I know why you seek strength, and now I know you’ve been lying to yourself all along.”

 

Emboldened by the lack of response, the boy had the gall to come face to face with this Sovereign as they stood upon the dock which his throne-room overlooked. “You pursue strength because you are afraid of that which you cannot control. You were blessed by the Heavens and given strength from a young age, and you used it to scare off those who would dare threaten your people. Then you were called away to war, only to return to discover your mother had died while you were away, but instead of mourning her death, you turned your rage upon the father who abandoned you. He could have protected her, but he didn’t, and that was a crime in your eyes, so you killed him and fled into the night. Then you found it easier just to fight and kill instead of try to build a life for yourself, because you were still afraid of losing what little happiness you might find to factors outside your control. So you fought and you killed, then fought and killed some more, until you had no more enemies left to fight. You claimed the crown to become Emperor, but you had no real interest in being a leader, not unless it was to lead men to fight. Much more difficult to lead a man to the plough, so difficult that you gave up within a decade and just let others manage the Empire for you, but history has shown us both how useless an Emperor is when he merely sits upon the throne.”

 

“You are wrong!” The denial emerged from this Sovereign’s throat, but it was not his intent to speak. It was the Natal Soul who uttered these words, no longer ‘Zhen Shi’ but an amalgamation of them both as they fought for dominance only to blend together until it was impossible to tell where one ended and the other began. Two sides of the coin, only now the coin was melted beyond recognition in the heat of Falling Rain’s scathing censure. “This Empire would be nothing without this Sovereign, humanity doomed without my protection. You say the people suffer now, but only because you have not seen true suffering, have not known a world torn apart by countless wars waged all across the lands.”

 

“And you think the Empire prospers only because you have never known true prosperity.” Without missing a beat, Falling Rain put an end to the Natal Soul’s denials and reclaimed control of the narrative, showing them both what life could be like if technology allowed to progress. No wonder this Sovereign could not make heads or tails of the boy’s Natal Throne, for this was a Dao of a different world, one of numbers and technology dependent on the study of the Laws of the World, yet no less powerful for it. Individually, the people were weaker than those of this world, yet in an outright war between them both, this Sovereign could not deny the threat this technology presented, with power enough to wipe out both worlds in the blink of an eye. “You’ve been controlling the Empire from the shadows, but why? I thought you held external strength in contempt? Is the Empire itself not external? The throne can be taken away, the power no longer yours to wield, so you should have long since abandoned the Empire to devote yourself to the Dao. Instead, you spend all your time scheming to keep what is yours, stealing a new body every fifty years just so you can keep the throne, but for what purpose? None that I can see, save to be Emperor for the sake of the title itself. This is the truth, one which will not change even if you choose to reject it. The root of your strength is your desire to control and protect, yet you have allowed yourself to become twisted by time and callousness both.”

 

Driving the butt of his weapon into the ground, Falling Rain drew himself up to full height to tower above this Sovereign, and the world within this Manifested Natal Palace grew with him. “When did you forget your true self, Ying Zheng?” The use of his name rocked this Sovereign back on his heels as he fought a war within himself, with one part of him wanting to deny that he’d forgotten while the other claiming he was Zhen Shi instead. “When buried him to become the Eternal Emperor? Why did you feel compelled to you forsake your humanity in pursuit of the Dao? In discarding your humanity, you cut off your own path to progress, for emotion is not humanity’s weakness, but a source of inner strength. That is why you have stalled in your Path, why you are still mortal yet, because rather than master your emotions, you sought to suppress them, to control them the same way you seek to control the Empire for no reason than to possess it, but like you said, not even an Emperor can change the hearts of man, and you are still mortal yet.”

 

Still vying for control against his Natal Soul and barely able to hold his ground, Ying Zheng gazed upon the face of this hateful brat and knew not what he saw. “Who are you?” he asked, and immediately he wished he’d held his tongue, for he feared what answer he would receive.

 

“I am Falling Rain,” the Warrior replied, raising his glaive in both hands. “The Warrior who will end your reign as the Eternal Emperor.”

 

The glaive erupted into a burst of dazzling Sword Intent, and Ying Zheng could do naught but watch it descend, his mind and soul thrown into turmoil by the truths he could no longer deny.  

 

Chapter Meme 1

Chapter Meme 2

Chapter Meme 3

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