Fifty-six days without almost dying, just four days short of two whole months. It's almost like a dream, feeling so safe and relaxed. I didn't think I could be so laid back while traveling. I had left on this trip expecting every minute to be like traveling to Shen Huo, alert and always ready for an ambush, but it's a world of difference. The days are blessedly uneventful, and every day is sweeter than the last. This is how traveling should be.
We left the Iron Banner mercenaries behind at the Bridge, the farewells short and succinct as always. It was customary to not make a big deal about leaving, and to have big celebrations when someone returns. Just a simply goodbye, and they all left to receive their orders, first thing in the morning, while we left at the same time, following the road south towards our destination. The road is a thing of beauty, 16 wagons wide, paved brown stone, well patrolled, towers and fortified rest camps at regular intervals. It's like a giant highway, with a tiny fort every 50 kilometers.
Built and maintained by the Society of Heaven and Earth as a means of rapid troop movement to and from the Bridge. It seems to be massively expensive, with the manpower and constant stream of supplies and soldiers. A message can be sent in 6 days by horse, from the Bridge to the Society, with a chain of messengers ready to go at a moments notice from each tower, allowing for 'rapid' response. It seems like a pretty shitty system, to be honest, but messenger birds don't work too well, with all the predators, so they don't really have an alternative to the pony express. Flying mounts don't exist, sadly, nor do Ancestral Birds. Don't know why, some animals just never make it that far, and birds are one of them. Insects are another, thankfully, because I do not want to tangle with any 10,000 year old mosquitoes. There are ancient monstrous birds, but they just never manage to take human form for some reason.
A wonderful method of conveyance, even a wagon would be able to make the 50 kilometers between rest stops in a single day. I never want to travel any other way ever again, unless it's flying. So when Taduk asked me to take a small off-road detour in order to pick herbs, I immediately asked for a bodyguard detail. I mean, between Akanai, Husolt, Alsantset, and Charok, as well as the constant patrols of soldiers, any bandit willing to piss them off deserved to die. There were six other sentinels with us, and I only wanted four of them to come with me and Lin. Instead, I got stuck with the Cadet Crew. Fun, fun, fun. I don't even get to be in charge, that dubious honor went to Sumila.
Things have been a little awkward between Huushal and myself, ever since the spar. He glares at me when he thinks I'm not looking. Stupid pride, I guess. Whatever, I don't care too much about him anyways. Adujan remains silently neutral, mostly hanging out with the Sentinels who guard us. He's a studious one, always watching what they do, trying to help out. I feel kind of bad that he doesn't have anyone coming along to support him, not even any friends. I tried talking to him, but we're both pretty awkward conversationalists, so it didn't get much farther than standard greetings. I'm not too sure, but I get a vibe that he doesn't like me very much. I've seen him chatting with Huushal, so I assume that's why. Sumila has also been a little frosty of late, and I'm clueless as to why. I tried asking, but I should have known that wouldn't work. All I got for an answer was a 'figure it out yourself, idiot'.
At least Mei Lin is still happy and cheerful around me. She leads the way, sitting in front of and leaning against me. Sweet kid, just like an adorable little sister. I bought her several scarfs, in different colors and more convenient lengths, and she seemed super happy about them, but the only thing that's changed is she now wears two scarves, one I bought her, and her regular, super long, white scarf. I may have caused her some massive inconvenience. The white scarf probably belonged to her mother or something. Well, whatever makes her happy. I'll get her something else in the future, like a hair clip.
After an hour of hard riding through the forest, Mei Lin guides us up a steep slope and through a small rock overhang, before stopping. It's a small secret meadow, colorful and vibrant, a large variety of plants growing within. A babbling brook bubbles up from some hole in rock walls, flowing out and down the other side. I dismount and walk slowly, eyes open. “Isn't it beautiful here, Rainy? Daddy brought me here once, I just love it.” Mei Lin almost runs forward into the meadow before I stop her.
“Careful now, it could be dangerous. Keep your eyes open, we'll work from this edge and make our way in deeper, slowly.” Stabbing my spear into the ground, I grab my tools from my saddlebag, and begin collecting everything I can, keeping my spear close by. Dragon Whisker Grass, Dogsweed, Blue Thort, Albimire leaves, it's a veritable treasure trove of medicinal plants. I've never actually seen most in person, just books. While I study the surroundings, a small, brown, grass snake bites me in the leg, but it doesn't puncture my leathers. It's almost adorable, but still trying to maim me, so I kill it with a quick cut and toss it to Zabu who chews it with relish, smacking his lips as he eats.
Picking herbs doesn't take a lot of concentration, so I try to make small talk with Adujan, who stands closest to me, scanning the surroundings. “So, I've never seen you around, have you been a cadet long?”
He turns to look at me, frowning. “My first mission was a year and a half ago, guarding a caravan to Shen Huo and back. I worked my ass off, fought tooth and nail in order to be included on that mission, only to get fucking booted from the roster with a day to go. They needed to fucking make room for some worthless shit-bag named Rain to tag along. Turns out, he had some pull with the Chief Provost.” His glare intensifies, one almost as good as Akanai's. “I got lucky and some other cadet got the runs or it would have been months before another mission.”
... Well then. I guess that's one mystery solved. Thanks, Akanai. After removing my foot from my mouth, I go back to quietly picking herbs. He has a real foul mouth, at odds with his high-pitched voice. This bony-looking falsetto prick is giving me so much attitude for something that happened over a year ago. I should spar with him too, plant his horns into the dirt and leave him like that. Calling me a worthless shit-bag, this little girly punk. It's not like I even asked to go on that trip, and plus, it literally cost me an arm and a leg.
I work in silence for well over an hour before Mei Lin rushes over to me. “We collected a lot now, Rainy. We shouldn't spend too long here or we won't catch up to Daddy and the rest before dinner. Can we go now?” Looking around, all I see are little coins growing from the ground. We've barely picked a tenth of what's available, and she wants to go? Ahh, spoiled little lady that she is, I can't help but spoil her as well. I've already picked the more rare items, with a decent sized profit from this foray.
“You rest a little, okay? I want to take a look around, and if I don't find anything very valuable, we can go. Sound good?” I pat her on the head and wander off, not waiting for an answer. Adujan follows me, watching my back. At least the kid is professional, despite his obvious dislike for me. I can respect that. Together, we wander around the small meadow slowly, while I scan the area for valuable loot. A small sliver of red catches my eye, and I wander over. Parting some long grass, my eyes widen. I can hear the coins jingling already. “Mei Lin, come look at this, tell me if it's what I think it is.”
She wanders over, and gasps a little. “A Blood Needle! Great find, Rainy!” She takes a pair of jade spades, carefully digging around the plant, taking great pains not to touch it or damage the roots. As she bites her lip in total concentration, I hold my breath, worried the noise will distract her. She's more suited for this work, smaller and more deft hands.
“What's a blood needle?” Adujan asks as he wanders towards her. I block him and move him back slowly, motioning for quiet.
“Blood Needles are incredibly toxic, and sport a multitude of thorns. If any of them pierce your skin, you either die quickly from the reaction, or you bleed for weeks while the puncture wound rots away, and you die slowly.” I explain to him quietly, watching Mei Lin hard at work. “Their best use is in crafting Spiritual Weapons, as a binding material. It helps bond liquid metals to more biological materials, like bones or fangs, allowing the metal to seep in, rather than simply coat the material.”
“Unbelievable. Looks like meat pies falling from the sky, for the ever-blessed Rain.” Adujan has a real chip on his shoulder. What the fuck does that even mean? Blessed? Like I have any luck at all. I've been almost dying on a monthly basis since I got here. Ignoring the little bitch, I watch as slow, agonizing minutes pass, Mei Lin fully concentrating, sweat dripping from her forehead.
After a long time passes, she finally shoots up, arms raised and exuberant. “Got it, Rainy! I'm so good, praise me, ya?” She holds up a jade box that contains the deadly, uprooted plant, waving it around for everyone to see. Taking the box from her gently, I make sure it's bound and held in place, wrapping it in a spare set of leather pants, before tucking it away in Zabu's saddle-pack.
Turning back, I lift Mei Lin in a big hug. “You're the best, so talented and brave.” Putting her down, I pinch her smiling cheeks. “Alright, that's enough for today. You rest here and I'll do a quick look around, make sure we haven't missed anything else like this.” It's a long shot, but hey, can't be too careful when it comes to things like this. There could be more needles. If I sell those Blood Needles, I'll be rich. No idea how rich, but they're rare enough, and useful for a wide variety of Hearts, so at least small villa rich, I'd say. They aren't the highest quality of binding material, but it's so versatile, demand will be high.
Unfortunately, my search for more treasures turns up empty. Deciding to call it quits after this, I reach for a bundle of Mandrel Stalk and pull some off in handfuls. A good cathartic, always useful if someone eats the wrong thing, just flush it out from both ends. The second stalk I grab doesn't pull loose as easily, and I put my foot on a nearby log for more leverage. The stalks break free, and I stumble back a few steps before putting the plants into my pouch.
The Mandrel Stalk falls from my hands as Adujan yanks me away by the collar, dragging me backwards behind him, walking back towards the roosequins. “What are you doing?” This little punk is starting to piss me off. He doesn't answer, just pointing behind him. The grasses are shaking, something moving through them. It rises out of the grass, towering above me, slithering up, a long, brown and mottled body of muscle and sinew, covered in tough, bark-like scales, two yellow serpentine eyes blinking lazily at me. The log is fucking staring at me. God dammit. I guess I didn't need the Mandrel Stalk.
I might just shit my pants right here.
My eyes are glued to the waking snake as we move away. It rises slowly, uncoiling itself, getting taller and taller. It seems... groggy, almost. Good, it just woke up, we can get away quickly. Its tongue flickers out several times, tasting the air, and the entire body goes tense, alert, a tail rising up, a giant triangular plate on the end, lashing back and forth, eyes focusing onto me. That is not a good sign.
Tearing my gaze away, I see Mei Lin is already sitting on Zabu, ready and waiting for me to approach. “Zabu, Home.” Well trained and conditioned to obey commands, Zabu springs away, running down the slope. He doesn't actually know the way home, but at least Mei Lin will be safe until she can regain control of the furry idiot. Glancing back at the snakey snake, I watch as it coils its body around, gathering itself up. It must be at least 15 m long, with a torso thicker than mine. Its head is the size of Huushal, and its scale blade looks capable of cutting me in two easily. “Calm down, little snakey snake. Just, callmm downn.” Maybe I can charm animals. Roosequin seem to like me, except for Zabu, but he hates everyone. I use my sweetest animal voice, usually reserved for when I'm alone with the pups. “Are you all grumpy grumps, waking from your nappy nap?”
“What the fuck are doing?” Adujan hisses at me, as we continue to move away, not too quickly as to spook the snake. I look back at him and shrug. Seeing as the cutesy talk isn't working, I draw Peace with my left hand, spear in my right, trying to stay calm and find Balance. Difficult with my heartbeat racing, my mouth drying up in fear, throat threatening to close. Quick, short breaths, relax the chest, don't panic. Nothing serious going on here, just a snakey snake, all coiled up like poop. Don't be so grumps please. Just stay all the way back there. At least that kinda calms me down.
Without warning, the snake springs forward, covering the distance between us in a heartbeat. Pushing Adujan away with a cry, the mouth clamps around me, spear shattering, fangs piercing into my lung, the pressure eliciting a choked, gurgling scream as I uselessly stab at the snake, blade glancing off its scales. Lifting me into the air, I flail helplessly as pain lances through me.
Reach for Balance, or you're dead again. Breathe. My sword is me, I am the sword. My head clears, the pain falling from me like removing a cloak. Lifting Peace once more, my chi strengthens the weapon and sharpens the blade. I stab, the point sinking deep into the snake's cheek. Opening its mouth in reflex, I fall to the ground, the fangs exiting my body with a sickening squelch. Landing lightly on my feet, I launch myself forward at the snake, Peace leading my charge, the Honed weapon biting deep, gouging through the snake's body as easily as cutting grass.
Huushal and Sumila have joined the fray, weapons brandished, as Adujan fires arrow after arrow at the snake, impacting uselessly on its scales. Huushal's sword glances off the scales, but Sumila's spear bites deep, triggering a frenzy of movement from the snake, almost hypnotic to watch. Jamming Peace straight down into the snake, I slide atop the snake as the tail slashes past me, air hissing a sharp and angry sound, missing by scant centimeters. The snake's body wraps around my legs, coiling tighter, rising higher around me, muscles flexed. I feel the crushing pressure around my legs, my knees bruising one another, almost cracking, as the snake tries to crush me into a pulp. The snake brings its face in front of mine and watches me, intent on its prey, readying for another bite.
Sumila's spear launches through the air, but the snake dodges with a smooth, sinuous motion, almost effortlessly. Wrenching Peace out of the snake, the creature twists as the blade slides free, issuing a primal, hissing cry with jaws wide open, straight ahead of me. Lifting it above my head, I throw Peace into its open maw, the blade spinning end over end, my chi Honing the blade as it pierces through the roof of its mouth. The snake drops dead, still coiled around my legs, dead weight tangling me and forcing me to the ground. Fuck you snakey snake. We could have been friends. You just had to be an asshole.
My breath comes erratically, gurgling as I start to drown in my own blood. Frothy, pink bubbles come up with every breath, my body shivering uncontrollably, pain once again surging through me. They gather around me, speaking to me but unheard, grasping at me but unfelt. My eyes close as I focus on healing myself. My lung and liver are punctured, shredded by the impact of the two fangs. Legs, badly crushed, broken in several places. Three ribs, broken clean off, a mass of bruises on my arm, chest, and back. At least it only had the two fangs, if it had bottom fangs as well, I would have been dead on impact. I really hope it wasn't poisonous.
Most of my chi was spent enhancing my blade and blocking my pain, and the Energy of the Heavens rushes into me like water poured into sand. I seize it, direct it, working damage control, stopping myself from bleeding to death, trying to restore some function to my liver. I know I can survive with one lung, but how long will I survive with no liver? Hours or weeks? No idea. I should find out, if I survive this, triage is important. I continue to direct as much chi as I can towards my injuries, focusing on nothing else. Time is meaningless as I work, slowly keeping myself alive.
A cooler, more controlled stream of energy arrives, wresting control away from me. Wherever the energy lands, I watch as the broken and mangled bits of bone and tissue are broken down and repurposed, my liver reforming slowly, ribs regrowing from the broken stumps, flesh mending. Rather than starting at one point, and healing outwards, the energy splits into hundreds of thousands of tiny pinpoint locations, healing small areas individually, faster than anything I could accomplish. It comes and goes while I watch, healing me in frequent, short bursts, and when I've seen it dozens of times, I try to mimic it on my own. Split the chi, let it seep into every iota of my injuries, a cloud of energy rather than a focused beam. Splitting the chi is simple, but giving it purpose, making it heal me instead of simply flowing through me, it's damn near impossible. Like trying to knit with a thousand needles at once, using only one finger, and managing to weave a complex tapestry. Too difficult for me, I need to ask how. Finally, the healing is completed, and I fall into a deep, dreamless sleep.
I guess it's time to reset the counter.