Ogre Tyrant: Chapter 79 - Death and dominance - Part One
Gathering my MP, I decided to err on the side of caution and provide Orphiel with the means to make a show of things if necessary. I was already going out on a limb assuming the enemy Monarch was a Christian. What complicated matters was my lack of certainty regarding what he expected an angel to look like.
If my assumptions were wrong, I wouldn't get a second chance.
Hardening my heart to the potential execution that would follow, I invested most of my MP and Summoned Orphie, hoping for the best.
“CEASE THIS FOOLISHNESS AT ONCE.” Orphiel’s voice reverberated with an unearthly echo that preceded and followed his every word. He was using a suppression Ability from his Class but as his Summoner, I was immune to its effects.
Understandably caught off guard, Heaven’s Fury momentarily stopped circulating his energy.
Having cast aside his usual carefree attitude, Orphiel looked down on us both with stern condescending disapproval.
Heaven’s Fury’s eyes hungrily drank in the sight of Orphiel’s wings and halo. All the while, traces of his energy appeared to be probing Orphiel for potential weaknesses, or perhaps attempting to verify his authenticity. If that was the case, I just had to hope that the sheer volume I had dedicated to Orphiel’s Summoning would meet with Heaven’s Fury’s expectations. “I...I am not worthy...” Seemingly ashamed of his actions, he firmly closed his eyes and did his best to turn his head downward and away from Orphiel.
“YOU ARE NOT.” Orphiel agreed. “TO WASTE STRENGTH IN SUCH PETTY SQUABBLES IS BEYOND DISAPPOINTING.” He softened his tone slightly and opened his arms wide. “YET, FORGIVENESS LIES WITHIN YOUR REACH.”
I backed away several steps and slowly began exhuming Heaven’s Fury as a sign of good faith. With so little distance between us, it was difficult not to notice the simplistic religious iconography worked into his equipment. Although that on its own wouldn’t have told me much about Heaven’s Fury and told me nothing that his fanaticism hadn’t made obvious already.
What was of more interest was the relatively low level of protective technology. The other Cultivators had all possessed brigandine or a combination of brigandine and other armour. So it was strange that both European Cultivators had chosen to wear mail hauberks over padded cloth gambesons.
While there was an argument to be made for the manoeuvrability of lighter armour, Cultivators had enough strength to spare that they could brute force through such limitations.
It was a strange train of thought to consider when magic presented such obvious advantages. However, I was beginning to suspect that part of the reason for their low ranking was related to their technological development.
“Forgiveness, holy messenger,” Heaven’s Fury knelt on bended knee and bowed his head with his hands clasped high in supplication. “What is Heavenly Father’s will?”
“TO FACILITATE THE RETURN OF THE FAITHFUL, YOU WILL HUMBLE YOURSELF BEFORE YOUR RIVAL,” Orphiel commanded, working off of the limited exposition I could provide as motivation during his Summoning. “AFTER PROVING YOUR FAITH, THE FAITHFUL WILL BE MADE WHOLE THROUGH GOD’S INFINITE GRACE!”
I wasn’t raised in a religious household, so I had little knowledge of Christian doctrine beyond the superficial and surface-level things commonly raised in the media while on Earth. However, just by judging the other Monarch’s reactions, Orphiel appeared to be doing a convincing job. Although there was a definite possibility that zealotry and earnest piety were doing the heavy lifting.
Heaven’s Fury remained silent for the better part of a minute. No doubt frantically arguing with himself to determine what he should do.
“I...” Heaven’s Fury’s shoulders slumped briefly. He took a deep breath to steady himself and squared his shoulders anew. “I humbly submit to Heavenly Father’s will...”
Orphiel’s stern expression softened and he nodded approvingly.
Heaven’s Fury opened his eyes and appeared taken aback by Orphiel’s sudden demonstration of approval. Blinking back tears, his eyes narrowed distrustfully as he turned his gaze toward me. However, despite his obvious distrust, he appeared resolved to keep his word. “Under the eyes of heaven, I submit myself to your mercy...”
Without warning, Orphiel’s projection was impaled by a spear of golden light and exploded.
A half second later, Heaven’s Fury was impaled in kind, his face locked in an expression caught between elation, rage, and confusion.
I had expected to fail and had taken the appropriate precautions. Surrounding Heaven’s Fury with stone spears embedded in the earth. When he played his hand, I played mine.
Despite his grievous wounds, Heaven’s Fury took a little over a minute to die.
With his death, I was returned to the stone meeting room.
Alone with my thoughts, I was surprised I felt nothing beyond a vague sense of disappointment. “I tried...” I said aloud, giving voice to my thoughts to try and gain a greater measure of my mental and emotional state. Probing for a hidden weakness or invasive psychosis. “I tried...” I repeated, accepting that I felt no guilt whatsoever.
Leaving the hall behind, I relocated myself to Lurr’s peak.
Distracted by the massive peach tree that had grown in my absence, it took me several moments to realise that I was standing in the centre of a lightning storm.
The cool rain felt good against my skin, countering the uncomfortable warmth radiating from my bones and permeating my muscles. Each breath, pushing back the migraine to the periphery, leaching away the pain.
Without making a conscious decision to act, I removed my armour, returned to my true form and fell into the familiar rhythm of my breathing Technique.
Seconds passed into minutes and minutes into hours.
When I opened my eyes again, I found Kwan encircled around my right arm, his head resting on my hand.
Deep in my meditative state, I could sense a large portion of the raw energy around us was being diverted toward Kwan. Which had two immediately observable effects.
First, there was little energy left over for me to breathe in and absorb into my established foundation of internal energy. Second, what remained was incredibly concentrated and was aligned nearly exclusively with the Thunder Affinity, and to a lesser extent, the Wood Affinity.
Taking deeper breaths only prompted Kwan to do the same. Dismissing the urge to lash out in irritation, I observed Kwan more closely and determined that he didn’t appear to be acting out of malice.
Exercising patience, I continued to observe and discovered something new.
Kwan wasn’t just drawing in the ambient energy around us, he was also drawing on my excess Chi. Greedily absorbing the trace amounts that would have otherwise been caught by the Arrays before breaking down into ambient energy that carried my Affinities.
Instead of internalising my Chi, Kwan was gathering and circulating it just beneath his skin, causing his scales to shimmer and pulse with power.
Curious, I attempted to perform the same feat with my own Chi.
Kwan shifted his grip on my arm and stared up at me with open curiosity. <Training?> He slowed his circulation and began tentatively loosening his grip on my arm.
“No, I was just trying to figure out what you were doing,” I replied with an exaggerated shrug, unsure of how well Kwan could interpret body language.
Kwan tilted his head slightly to one side and appeared confused. <Tim. Imitate/Follow. Kwan?>
“Yes,” I nodded and tried not to smile as Kwan’s snout bobbed up and down trying to follow my movements.
<Confused. Kwan. Training.> Kwan renewed circulating his borrowed Chi in earnest and then slowed again.
Reviewing Kwan’s status information, I discovered that he had gained a Technique. The Iron Titan Body Reinforcement Technique. The listed progress hadn’t reached a single percentile but it was an impressive feat regardless.
“How did you learn this Technique?” I asked, trying to make sense of what was happening.
<Instincts/Knowing.> Kwan’s answer, made through impressions, was difficult to accept at face value. <Food? Hungry. Hunt. Feed.> He waved his tail with anticipation and tasted the air with his tongue.
“You want to hunt?” It was the first time Kwan had broached the subject and it caught me off guard. Until this moment, he had been perfectly content with gorging himself on precooked food, so it was a strange request.
<Need, Hunt. Feed. Training!> Kwan’s reply was confusing but insistent. <Feed! Training!> He repeated insistently, pushing impressions of feasting on internal organs accompanied by a near-overwhelming taste of blood.
Something clicked in the periphery of my mind, piecing together Kwan’s needs and intentions ahead of my conscious thoughts. “Iron? Iron Titan Body Reinforcement Technique...” Understanding flooded into the forefront of my mind. “You need iron for the Body Reinforcement Technique!”
Kwan looked back at me uncertainly. <Feed? Blood?>
Using my authority, I teleported one of the horned rabbits into my left hand and out of ingrained reflex, pinched off its neck with my thumb. Killing it instantly.
Kwan’s snout twitched and his tongue darted hungrily in the air. <Feed!> He demanded, gnashing his teeth and undulating his tail excitedly.
I dropped the rabbit into Kwan’s jaws and waited.
Greedy and impatient, Kwan swallowed the rabbit whole and immediately began circulating the borrowed Chi again. After ten minutes, Kwan’s efforts were rewarded by gaining his first percentile of progress in the Body Refining Technique. A fact that he appeared incredibly pleased about. <Training! Success!> Kwan shrieked and hissed with excitement, twisting to and fro to inspect his scales.
Despite his complete lack of concentration, Kwan was still circulating a smaller portion of Chi beneath his scales. Which made me wonder if it was a property all Body Refining Techniques shared.
The manuals I had read on the subject did not deal with concrete details and required an inordinate amount of personal interpretation. However, I didn’t recall any of the Body Refining Techniques mentioning reserving a portion of the practitioner’s Chi. It was the Body Enhancement Techniques, which provided short bursts of physical enhancement, that required a continuous supply of Chi to function.
So I was unsure what to make of this particular development.
<Hunt! Fight!> Kwan bared his teeth and flexed his claws aggressively.
The demand was not altogether unexpected. Another common feature of Body Refining Techniques, especially those oriented toward defence, was something referred to as tempering. Which was just a roundabout way of saying the Cultivator needed to be the recipient of physical violence to advance the Technique to the next stage.
Technically, I could probably just throttle Kwan to achieve the required result. But I doubted he would appreciate it.
“Alright,” I agreed, curious to see how Kwan would fare in an actual fight.
Just as Kwan began bounding and slithering down the mountainside, I used my authority to draw him back, catching him about the neck to prevent him from leaving on his own.
<Fight?> Kwan didn’t test my grip but angled his head to look up at me. No doubt confused by what was happening.
I nodded and slowly began descending the mountain. “Going alone would be incredibly foolish,” I commented disapprovingly. “There are thousands of beasts below the mountain. Even if you are stronger than most of them, which I doubt, their sheer numbers would overwhelm you.”
Kwan lowered his head and his dorsal crest flattened against his neck and back. <Forgive?>
“Just remember to think first next time,” I insisted. If Kwan was to serve as the gate guardian of the realm, he needed to be more than just a bloodthirsty beast.
As if to prove my point, a riot of bestial cries rose from the forest at the foot of the mountain.
The gathered beasts were competing for access to the mountain, attacking and killing one another. All so they could control a territory closer to the mountain and the dense ambient energies drawn there by the Arrays.
From my vantage point, I observed that most Species seemed to hold a loose alliance amongst their own kind. Although the strategy varied wildly with some choosing to simply ignore one another while others actively worked together, bringing down their rivals through the weight of numbers where necessary.
Amidst the carnage, a beast resembling a lion the size of an elephant with dark jade-green-coloured scales and a pale white mane watched my descent with avid interest from atop a large pile of bones.
Untouched by the fighting, the scaly lion was given a wide berth by the smaller beasts and appeared to pay them no mind whatsoever. Making it clear that there was almost certainly an insurmountable difference in their strength.
Kwan had noticed the strange lion as well and was becoming increasingly agitated as we drew closer to the foot of the mountain.
Stopping a short distance from the invisible barrier, I lowered Kwan into the river that encircled this side of the mountain. The old banks of the river were flooded with the runoff generated by the unending storm higher up the mountain, drowning small bushes and reeds that hadn’t been given enough time to adapt.
Anchoring himself to the riverbed with his claws, Kwan effortlessly resisted the pull of the river’s current and made his way to the middle of the river where it was deepest.
Striding through the river, I took up a position a short distance from the bank opposite the barrier and began searching for a suitable opponent.
All the while, the scaly lion continued watching us, muscles tense and ready to pounce despite the considerable distance between us and the invisible barrier that would deny its trespass.
Singling out a large hairy ape amidst the ongoing battle, I used my authority to teleport the ape onto the opposite shore of the river.
Understandably confused, the ape took a few moments to realise that it had somehow passed through the barrier and could make a play for the peak of the mountain.
All it had to do was cross the river.
Eyeing me suspiciously, the ape bared its teeth in an overt sign of aggression. Picking up a stone, the ape hurled it at my head.
Before the stone could connect, I seized control of it with my Chi and made a show of orbiting the stone around my body. Making it obvious that such an attack wouldn’t work against me.
Frustrated, the ape tore off a branch and threw it with even greater force.
Catching the branch with as little effort as the stone, I sat myself down on a nearby boulder and waited.
The ape threw several more improvised projectiles before losing its patience. Huffing in a rage, the ape backed away from the river and then broke into a loping run, propelling itself forward with large powerful forearms. Coming up just a few feet short of the river’s edge, the ape suddenly slammed both its fists against the ground and launched itself up into the air.
Unfortunately, the ape’s flight was abruptly arrested as Kwan shot out of the water and sunk his teeth into the ape’s right leg. The ape barely had time to shriek in surprise as its momentum was arrested, causing Kwan’s teeth to shred its calf and shin muscles to bloody ribbons.
Flailing wildly in a panic, the ape fell into the river.
Blooms of crimson stained the river's current as Kwan moved in for the kill, striking and dragging the ape deeper into the river, denying it access to the surface and any hope of escape.
Less than a minute later, Kwan dragged the Ape’s corpse onto the bank and made a show of pressing its head into the mud with his claw. Expressing dominance and marking his territory.
Amused by Kwan’s demonstration, and the pride that motivated it, I began reshaping the river. The whole point of this exercise was for Kwan to exchange blows to progress his Technique. Not to facilitate a one-sided succession of ambushes.
With that in mind. I created a broken causeway that would allow passage across the river and force Kwan into shallower water. Of course, Kwan would still possess several undeniable advantages, but it was far less one-sided than it had been before.
Experimentally traversing the causeway, Kwan stared at me with what I could only assume was an expression of distinct displeasure and confusion.
“This was meant to be training, remember?” I scolded the indolent serpent.
Kwan flinched and bobbed his head in a demonstration of submission. <Training.> He agreed submissively.
Nodding in approval, I began searching for his next opponent.
Settling on a boar the size of a small car, I teleported the beast inside of the barrier and positioned it on the opposite side of the causeway.
Visibly agitated, the boar sniffed and huffed at the air with its snout and waved its six deadly tusks to and fro as it investigated the surrounding bushes.
Kwan clawed his way out of the depths of the river and onto the causeway, releasing a loud sharp hiss in a challenge.
Squealing and grunting in anger, the boar tore its way through the underbrush and onto the causeway. To my surprise, its hooves didn’t slip or skid on the wet stones, allowing it to gather more momentum as it barreled headlong toward Kwan.
Hunkering down, Kwan watched the approach of his enemy with nervous excitement, undulating and flicking his tail with sufficient force to generate a loud snapping sound reminiscent of a whip.
The boar’s spear-like tusks drove toward Kwan’s head with intense speed and ferocity, glinting dangerously in the midday sun and radiating Chi.
Imitating the ape, Kwan abruptly launched himself into the air, narrowly dodging the boar’s tusks and slapping it in the face with his tail. Possessing far greater reach than the ape, Kwan immediately arrested his movement by striking down at the boar with his fangs and biting down hard into its bony hunched neck.
Unfortunately, the boar’s densely packed mane of thick bristly hair and its large vertebrae prevented Kwan from dealing a fatal blow. Making matters worse, his claws appeared unable to pierce the boar's hide, slapping ineffectually at the boar’s sides.
The boar began bucking and shaking, trying to dislodge Kwan. While unsuccessful in throwing Kwan off its back, the boar managed to deliver several glancing blows against Kwan’s lower body and tail as it indirectly trampled Kwan with its sharp hooves.
Refusing to let the boar go, Kwan maintained his grip and continued slashing at the boar’s sides with his claws.
As the minutes dragged on and both combatants began to tire, the boar abruptly lost its footing and tumbled off the causeway.
Despite his fatigue, Kwan entangled the boar’s legs with his tail and they both sank to the bottom of the river.
Even with the outcome now all but decided, I was impressed that Kwan continued fighting to constrict and drown the boar through mundane means. Especially since drowning the boar through manipulating the Water Affinity would be faster and infinitely less tiring.
After five more minutes of desperately struggling against the inevitable, the boar finally succumbed to oxygen deprivation and died.
Sensing Kwan’s extreme fatigue, I used my Chi to draw both him and his prize out of the river and onto the shore.
<Gratitude...> Kwan, lying splayed out on the ground, huffed tiredly and critically regarded the boar’s carcass. In addition to his exhaustion, Kwan was bleeding from several small cuts and a handful of light punctures caused by the boar’s hooves and tusks. <Tim. Help. Feed?> The Abyssal Serpent mewled pitiably.
“Why not eat the other one first?” I suggested, nodding toward the ape’s carcass a short distance away.
Kwan panned his head toward the ape and hissed with excitement. <Feed!> Dragging himself across the mud with his claws, Kwan pounced on the corpse and began ripping his way into its abdominal cavity, prioritising the ape’s most nutrient-rich organs.
Keeping myself otherwise occupied while Kwan engaged in a savage feeding frenzy, I confirmed that he had progressed his Body Reinforcement Technique by another percentile.
“Pathetic,” a low rumbling voice announced disdainfully from the opposite side of the river.
Looking for the source of the voice, I was only slightly surprised to find the scaly lion had abandoned its hill of bones and was now standing a short distance away.
Sweeping my senses over the lion, I was surprised to find that it possessed more internal energy and Chi than the Monarchs I had fought thus far. Reminding me of Yi Gim’s concerns in facing a calamity he had called a beast tide. An event where wild beasts would storm Cultivator cities and massacre the populations in an unrelenting wave of savagery and death.
No doubt aware of my appraisal, the lion stared back at me with unconcealed disdain. “Your predecessor had more respect!” The scaly feline growled arrogantly. “He would never have dared erect a barrier and cast this majesty from his throne!”
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“You consider yourself a king?” I demanded flatly, unimpressed by the beast’s lack of respect and undeserved confidence.
“This one IS A KING!” The lion roared, gnashing its teeth with barely concealed rage.
The sounds of fighting throughout the forest died out immediately, and I could feel tens or even hundreds of thousands of eyes and ears turned in our direction.
“This one speaks, and the weak obey!” The lion continued, lifting a stone in its right paw and crushing it to gravel without visible effort. “This is the rule of this world! This is the rule of the strong!”
“The weak are meat, and the strong do eat?” I commented glibly, quoting a line from an otherwise thought-provoking movie I had watched during my time on Earth. “You would freely admit with your own voice that you should be considered nothing more than food in my eyes?” I warned darkly.
The lion curled its leathery lips in disdain and anger. “You present no threat to this one’s life-” Its words halted abruptly as I exercised my authority and drove its body into the ground and pinned its limbs in place with barbed stone spears.
“This is MY WORLD,” I proclaimed coldly, “Your continued existence is allowed through MY GRACE!”
The lion roared in pain and fury. “YOU WOULD DARE?!” It tore itself free, snapping the stone spears and then slamming its body against the barrier.
I removed a skyscraper-sized chunk of stone from deep beneath the ground and dropped it.
Confused, the lion looked to the sky. Eyes wide with surprise, it tried to run.
I teleported the lion back to its position by the barrier.
Scrambling in a panic, the lion tried to flee five more times and was returned to the exact same position in a handful of heartbeats after each attempt. “CEASE THIS NONSENSE! RELEASE THIS ONE IMMEDIATELY OR FACE THIS ONE’S WRATH!!!” The lion demanded, its obvious fear undercutting its attempt at intimidation.
“No,” I replied flatly. “Swear fealty to me or die,” I countered. “Swear upon your soul to serve my family and obey my laws, and I will allow you to live.” I surrounded the lion with a private barrier that forbade more than five feet of movement in each direction.
Despite being initially intimidated, Kwan had regained his courage and bared his teeth at the tiger in open provocation. <Dominance!>
The lion desperately unleashed a torrent of emerald flames against the barrier but met with no success. Panicking after the failure of its Technique, the lion furiously slashed at the barrier with its claws, sending scything lights from its claws to crash against the barrier. However, the latest barrage of attacks met with no more success than the flames that had preceded them, causing the lion’s panic to increase tenfold.
With only a handful of seconds left before the artificial meteorite would strike its target, I was beginning to worry that I had overextended myself. If I allowed the meteor to strike, the damage wouldn’t be limited to the scaly lion. A fact that I had not given proper consideration when initiating my aggressive negotiations and would only serve to undermine my credibility if the lion failed to yield.
“WAIT!!!” The lion howled in terror and backed as far against the edge of the barrier as it could manage.
More than happy to temporarily banish the projectile, I still made a point of maintaining my cold expression of indifference toward the lion. So far as he was to know, it was only a temporary reprieve.
Chest heaving and limbs trembling, the lion pressed its head to the ground. “This one submits to the Majesty’s will...” It croaked. “This one swears to serve his Majesty and his bloodline and obey Majesty’s laws...This one swears it upon the heavens and the immortal Tao...Grk!...”
A small string of notifications appeared confirming the lion’s fealty as well as registering a new Species to my first system.
With the lion’s capitulation, I dismissed the newly erected barrier.
While looking to the lion for a name, I was somewhat surprised when the automated query failed to provide an answer. It wasn’t the first time such a thing had happened, but it was still rare enough that it took me a couple of moments to identify the cause.
The lion didn’t have a name. So, naturally, the registry couldn’t provide the information I had asked for.
Crooking my finger, I motioned for the lion to approach.
Limping from the wounds I had inflicted on its limbs, the lion obediently passed through the barrier and crossed the causeway before prostrating itself at my feet.
Looking at the beast I had been calling a lion up close, I realised that my initial assessment was not particularly accurate. Only bearing a passing resemblance to a lion, the beast had a short almost pug-like snout, a heavy wide brow, and a disturbingly large lower jaw. The proportions of its limbs weren’t right either, with the forelimbs bearing what looked like twice as much muscle and bone as they otherwise should.
As strange as it seemed, the beast bore a striking resemblance to the stone statues of lions one of my former neighbours had prominently displayed in their yard. I had never asked where they had immigrated from, but I was reasonably confident that they were Chinese.
“You need a name,” I decided, curious to put a name to the beast’s origins and look at its status.
“This one would gladly accept any title bestowed by the Majesty...” The beast replied with fearful humility.
Naming people was not something I would consider one of my strengths.
After considering the options for several minutes, I decided to use the recent memory of my neighbours as inspiration and borrowed their family name.
“Then your name will be Feng,” I announced, using my authority to apply the name and then raise Feng’s status.
“This one expresses immense gratitude to the Majesty!” Feng declared fervently, pressing his head deeper into the mud.
“Taotie?” The word felt as strange as it sounded, and I was forced to admit that learning Feng’s Species wouldn’t provide any answers.
The rest of Feng’s status was a different matter entirely.
Feng possessed only three Techniques. Breath Of The Heavenly Demon, which was presumably responsible for the emerald flames Feng had used against the barrier. Vorpal Winds Of Fury, the scything arcs of energy thrown from Feng’s claws. The final Technique, Gluttonous Greed Of The Taotie, was a mystery at first but Feng was quick to identify it as his Body Reinforcement Technique.
“This one gains strength by devouring the bodies and souls of the dead,” Feng explained humbly.
As grisly as his claim was, it wasn’t all that different to the progression of Evolution from consuming mana stones. Which the system appeared oddly in agreement with, providing a Racial Ability by the same name and providing the same general effect. However, what was most shocking was Feng’s second status outing him as a Demon.
One of the same Demons that the Cultivators blamed as the source of Demonic Cultivators.
This was odd considering Feng, an actual Demon, was only indirectly capable of the same terrifying feat Zhu Min could perform at will as a Demonic Cultivator.
Furthermore, Feng’s Body Reinforcement Technique appeared to be stuck at a progress of twenty per cent. Which struck me as odd.
While it was true Techniques became increasingly difficult to progress as they neared perfection, Feng’s Technique didn’t seem all that complicated. The best I could figure was that he probably needed a higher tier of prey to facilitate his advancement, or perhaps some form of enlightenment.
From the context of the manuals I had read, enlightenment was generally used as a catchall term for receiving inspiration to fill in holes left by poor instructions in a Technique’s training method. The more detailed a manual teaching a Technique was, it generally required less ‘enlightenment’ to progress. However, it was also possible to alter and evolve Techniques through inspiration-driven deviation.
Moving Feng into my party, I gave him the carcass of the boar so he could accelerate the healing of his wounds.
Feng swallowed the boar whole, dislocating his jaw like a snake and gulping it down in a single disturbingly practised motion. Despite the size of the boar, his stomach remained the same size as before, suggesting some kind of Spatial magic was at play.
Kwan was somewhat put out over losing his prize. Baring his teeth and hissing angrily at Feng to express his displeasure.
“Are there others?” I asked curiously, “Who can speak like you do I mean?”
Feng nodded solemnly. “This one’s rivals stalk the Majesty’s barrier even now, seeking to claim the peak for themselves.”
“How many are there?” I prompted, already extending my senses to search for them. If they were as strong as Feng, then I wanted to recruit them as well.
After all, the more powerful individuals I could gather for my counteroffensive the better.
“This one has three rivals,” Feng answered respectfully. “None dared stand against this one alone, seeking an alliance with one another to secure the peak and divide amongst themselves.”
Although I was disappointed that the other potential recruits wouldn’t be as powerful as Feng, I had to remind myself that three recruits of even half his strength would still be better than nothing.
It didn’t take me long to find the three individuals Feng had spoken of. While they were not as powerful as he was, they still possessed far more Chi and internal energy than the other beasts battling around the base of the mountain.
Relocating them and then imprisoning them just as I had done to Feng, I was almost surprised by how comparatively normal they appeared in comparison.
The first was a giant crow with three eyes and white feathers with crimson tips. The second was a large wolf with a shaggy black coat of fur and a mane of bristling spines. The last was a fox with bright red fur and five tails.
The crow and wolf were of comparable height, standing as tall as a human, about five and a half feet tall at the shoulder. While the fox was just the size of a large dog. However, there was also a hazy outline of a much larger and fiercer fox that extended past the barrier.
“It is the five-tails illusions,” Feng sniffed disdainfully, eliciting a savage snarl from the illusory fox while the true fox cowered as far back into the barrier as it was allowed.
“Snivelling coward!” The wolf barked. “Surrendering to this...” He paused and became momentarily uncertain of himself. “Thing...” He finished lamely. “To sell your pride so cheaply! Disgraceful!”
“Yet this one stands upon the mountain and you do not,” Feng sneered. “Better to live as a servant in a palace, than a lord in the mud.”
“Brother Taotie speaks wisely,” the three-eyed crow cawed with what sounded like profound reluctance.
“You too, brother crow?!” The wolf demanded incredulously, baring his fangs in anger and frustration.
“Brother wolf, we have tested this barrier many times,” admonished the crow wearily. “It is no weaker today than yesterday or the days before. The peak is beyond our reach.”
“Then we will take the humans’ palace!” The wolf barked.
“That is also impossible...” The three-eyed crow sighed, shaking its head wearily. “Their lands are protected with a barrier many times larger than this mountain and is just as strong...”
“Impossible...” The wolf replied breathlessly.
“This Monarch is unlike any other I have seen,” the fox agreed in a strangely feminine voice that took me slightly off guard. “To trap us so easily...”
“Your lives, pitiful as they may be, are completely within the Majesty’s hands,” Feng gloated, seemingly having already forgotten or forgiven having been in the same position only minutes before.
As one, the crow, wolf and fox looked away from one another and toward me instead.
<Dominance!> Kwan hissed aggressively, ignoring the considerable difference between his Cultivation and theirs.
I gave Kwan a firm rap on the back of the head with my knuckle as a reminder not to become overly arrogant.
“You have the same choice as Feng,” I announced firmly. “Serve, or die.”
The three beasts shared glances with one another, then, one by one, bowed their heads in defeat.
***** Baldr ~ Tim’s Realm ~ Baldr’s Vassalage ~ Bay of storms fortress *****
Despite the fair weather of the season, Baldr’s coastal fortress was packed to bursting with visitors. Jarls, Karls and their warriors had gathered from far and wide to trade their slaves for the Godstone the Tyrant’s representative promised in exchange.
Having expected a pebble of lesser Godstone per head, Baldr and his Karls had been the first to witness the Tyrant’s immense wealth. Indeed, they were the reason word had spread so quickly and led to the current issue of overcrowding.
Accompanied by his most trusted warriors, Baldr watched as the Tyrant’s representative silently appraised a pair of slaves. A middle-aged woman and a young boy.
“They have been well cared for,” the representative declared with the utmost confidence, materialising a chunk of Godstone the size of Baldr’s head into her hand. “Be sure to thank your stable boy, Ulfr, for his kindness. You would not have received such a prize otherwise,” she insisted and tossed the Godstone to the slaves’ former owner, a Karl from one of the eastern isles if his facial tattoo was anything to go by.
Despite having witnessed hundreds of such transactions already, the purity of the Godstone still caused Baldr’s heart to freeze in his chest.
“And remember, the Tyrant will not tolerate the taking of slaves in the future,” the Tyrant’s representative cautioned with a sinister smirk.
The visiting Karl nodded emphatically to show he understood and silently backed away to make room for the next in line.
With a wave of her hand, the former slaves disappeared. An understated yet compelling demonstration of the Tyrant’s power.
Jarl Alrik Gutherson, accompanied by his Huscarls, led a procession of what Baldr conservatively estimated to be about two and a half hundred slaves. In stark contrast to the slaves who had just preceded them, Jarl Alrik’s slaves were in a truly sorry state.
Despite the poor showing of his slaves, Jarl Alrik eagerly awaited the assessment and began waving forward a small procession of wagons to receive his anticipated payment.
The Tyrant’s representative slowly made her way amongst the slaves, taking a few moments to silently stare at each of them in turn. Once she was finished, a hail of Godstone fell neatly into the wagons and the slaves disappeared.
Jarl Alrik was about to follow his retreating procession of wagons but stopped dead in his tracks as he caught the representative's eyes.
“Hel awaits those who abuse little girls, Alrik Gutherson,” the Tyrant’s representative stated with a sharp-toothed and unmistakably predatory smile. “See that you remember that.”
Thunder rumbled ominously overhead and a chill wind swept in from the sea.
Baldr couldn’t help but glance toward the trio of young women sitting and standing on the rooftop beside him. Tall and bearing a balanced amount of muscle, they carried their weapons with intimate familiarity, leaving no doubt regarding their readiness for combat. Silvery wings of light flickered in and out of existence in time with the thunder, revealing their divine origins.
They too were representatives of the Tyrant. However, it had been made clear to Baldr, in no uncertain terms, that they were serving in the role as observers only. Their cold hard eyes silently judging all who entered their sight.
Jarl Alrik was not the first to receive special attention and consideration from the Tyrant’s representative. And just like the others, the valkyries looked upon him with unrestrained scorn and disgust.
Baldr looked to his eldest son, Knut, and gave him a firm nod.
Understanding his father’s intentions, Knut dutifully marked Jarl Alrik’s house sigil down on a slate alongside six others. They would need to take steps to ensure a smooth succession for his replacement. After what happened to the household of Jarl Ulfr, they could not just assume a living relative would be available to take up the title.
The Tyrant, and later his representative, had made it clear from the beginning that certain crimes would warrant execution. However, Baldr had foolishly believed that the judgement of the guilty would be passed down in front of witnesses. That it would serve as a public example, just as the old laws had done.
An honourable death on the battlefield was one thing. The threat of Hel reaching out from Helhiem and claiming powerful men and women, entire households in the night, was something else entirely. Carrying terror on a level Baldr still hadn’t managed to rationalise.
Despite the rumours, Jarl Alrik arrogantly turned his back on the representative and scoffed derisively while shaking his head. No doubt, if he knew what Baldr knew, Jarl Alrik would be on his hands and knees, grovelling and begging in the dirt trying to bargain for his life and eternal soul.
“Father,” Baldr’s second son, Hafi, pushed through the ranks of the Huscarls and presented a stone slate bearing the diagrams for the new ritual site. “The sculptors say the important runework could be finished in just a few days if we can meet their price,” he announced optimistically, smiling in the same way that came so easily to him and his late mother.
Welcoming the distraction despite knowing the headache it would cause him later, Baldr looked over the plans to refresh his memory. “And what is their price?” He asked, bracing himself for what would almost certainly involve a near ruinous ransom in all but name.
Hafi nervously scratched at the back of his neck. “Well...It’s certainly more than we initially expected...” He admitted. “After all, the large amounts of Godstone now available has increased demand for their skills...”
“Hafi...I’m not a comely lass and do not need sweet nothings whispered in my ear...” Baldr growled goodnaturedly, already quite aware of the effects the Tyrant’s actions would have on trade within his realm.
“Apologies father, it’s just...The demands are outrageous...” Hafi admitted apologetically.
“I told you letting Astrid apprentice as a sculptor would pay off someday!” Knut interjected smugly. “Three fists of Godsilver isn’t so expensive now, is it?”
“Astrid is still a journeyman, and her master is the one that’s skinning us alive!” Hafi hissed back irritably. “He is demanding less than the others, but we have sacked entire realms for less!” It was almost certainly an exaggeration, but Baldr couldn’t fault his son for it. Losing such wealth to wanton greed was never a pleasant experience.
“Perhaps this Tyrant could be persuaded to provide sculptors?” Knut snickered, repeating a suggestion Hafi had made earlier.
A suggestion Baldr had already rejected.
If the Tyrant could freely part with so much Godstone on a whim, there was nothing they could offer that would tempt his favour.
<Now, that just isn’t true.> The soft feminine voice of the Tyrant’s representative purred within Baldr’s mind.
Judging by the shocked expressions of his sons, he guessed that they had heard her as well.
<The Tyrant expressed his desire for a numerous and proficient fighting force to exact retaliation upon a deserving foe. An expression of sincere interest would all but guarantee the Tyrant’s goodwill.> The representative insisted with absolute confidence.
Baldr stared out across the crowd and found the Tyrant’s representative smiling and looking back in their direction.
<Just something to consider.> The representative added before turning away.
“I was not aware you had given the representative one of the family’s far-speaking runes, father...” Knut whispered nervously.
“You should have warned us!” Hafi added worriedly.
Anxiously working his jaw, Baldr began trying to think of how best to explain that he had not, in fact, given the representative one of the Family’s far-speaking runes at all. Furthermore-
A sudden look of panic flashed in Hafi’s eyes, signalling that he had likely just realised that the far-speaking rune pinned to his left ear had remained dormant throughout. Meaning, that the representative was capable of interjecting herself as she willed, and there was likely nothing they could do to stop her.