“You don’t look too good,” remarked Hei Lian as she took a seat opposite Epione Felidae in her office.
Setting a steaming cup of tea in front of her, Epione waved off her concern. “Just some issues with my cultivation. It’s nothing serious, you don’t need to worry about me. Now, to what do I owe the pleasure of your visit?”
Hei Lian took a sip, savouring the scent of the beverage. Having grown up without such luxuries, she wasn’t very well versed in the art of tea, but she had tasted enough varieties of the beverage these past few months to get a general idea of the quality of the brew from a sip. This one was quite precious.
Setting the cup down, she said, “I hope you meet with success in your cultivation. I’ll not waste your time and get straight to the point. I’m a barren woman.” Noticing Epione’s raised eyebrow, she clarified, “My ability to conceive was taken from me. I need your help to get it back.”
Noticing Epione’s wry smile, it was Hei Lian’s turn to raise her eyebrow. “What?”
“No… It’s just that your reason for coming to me, is something I’ve been struggling with as well.” She said. “Yes, I’ve been having issues with conceiving as well and ironically, that makes me quite the expert in this field. If your problem isn’t too exotic, I’m sure I can help you. Although, seeing that even your grandmother had to admit defeat, I am hesitant in guaranteeing anything.”
Hei Lian shook her head. “Grandma is more focused on the offensive aspect of her element, she candidly admits defeat to you in the field of medicine. Let alone, your combination element and bloodline put you head and shoulders above any healer of similar expertise.”
“Why, thank you for the praise… let’s take a look, shall we?”
Hei Lian nodded and stood up. Taking a step forward, she raised her shirt, baring her midriff. Closing her eyes, Epione touched her stomach with the tips of the fingers of her right hand. Whenever fingertip touched skin, ripples of light proliferated, sinking into Hei Lian’s body, making her frown at the uncomfortable contradiction between Holy light and Hellfire.
Suddenly, Epione’s fingers grew rigid and her eyes flew open in shock. “How could anyone do… this?” she spat out. Pulling her shirt back down and meeting her eyes, Hei Lian smiled, “Don’t worry, he died.” Breathing deeply to calm herself, Epione replied, “Good riddance.”
“Anyway,” Epione continued when she had taken her seat, “Though the damage is quite extensive, it isn’t anything I cannot fix. I won’t ask you about how exactly you got those injuries but I’ll need some sketchy details at the very least to draw up the optimal treatment plan but I can basically guarantee a full recovery, so there is that.”
Hei Lian let out a breath she hadn’t known she had been holding. “That’s good. That’s very good. Well then, you’ll have my eternal gratitude if this works out. I’ll owe you a favour.”
“Not at all. You are currently a soldier in the allied forces and as the Chief of the medical department, it is my duty to see to the full health of my officers. Your issue might be a little personal in nature but that makes it no less important in my eyes.”
Hei Lian shrugged, “Have it your way. I’ll owe you one in my mind, whether you decide to call upon it or not… While we are at it, I have a request to make.”
“You know that Steven of your clan has been serving as my subordinate for the past few months… and it has come to pass that our relationship has developed into something… more. So, I was thinking that it would be good for morale and unity if we were to be married on the morrow before the Expedition set out.” She paused, “I hope that you can take responsibility for him in the stead of his parents.”
Epione nodded her agreement. “I have no problem with that. If I am not wrong, the both of you are already bonded and I am not one to break a couple apart. And, Steven already came by earlier today to solicit my husband’s agreement. We think a marriage between our clans will be the perfect send-off for our Heroes, especially when the newly-weds will travel alongside them. I’ll be helping to treating you after your return, I presume? Enough time to draw up the treatment plan if you give me the information now.” She stopped speaking when she noticed the surprise on Hei Lian’s face. “You didn’t… know?”
Hei Lian smiled brightly. “I was just surprised that he came today. He was supposed to talk to General Felidae tomorrow morning. I was just a bit surprised by his initiative, is all. He must be really eager to marry me.”
Epione chuckled. “That he is. With a bride as stunning as you, which man wouldn’t? I hope you’ll rein him in and keep him from any more foolishness.”
“I will. Now, if you will excuse me, I need to get back to my quarter and prepare for tomorrow. I’ll send you the details you wanted by tomorrow morning.”
“Sure. Enjoy your night, it’ll be the last peaceful time you’ll have together in some time.” Epione said with a smile.
Nodding, Hei Lian took her leave. As she walked down the corridor, her smile faded and the shadows around her seemed to darken, shading her eyes. He hadn’t even asked her before deciding to make their marriage official. When had her permission become secondary to the opinion of the Felidae couple? She didn’t like this feeling, she didn’t like it one bit.
Epione had told her to enjoy her night. Maybe she would.
Steven paced in the room of his allotted apartment, wearing a rut into the floor in his anxiety for the upcoming confrontation. Ten steps across, nine steps back. “Never turn the same way twice,” the memory of his father’s voice resounded in his head. A nifty trick to prevent dizziness while executing the sharp turns inherent to his martial art. The same distance traversed in differing steps. Ten steps forward, turning on his right heel, nine steps back, he turned on his left… “Every second turn, change your stride,” the memory instructed again. All to the background of the ‘swish’ of the switch through the air and the ‘crack’ of it against his back.
Even as he paced in his room, even in his agitation, his body remembered the lessons beaten into it. “Boy, no martial art that makes you think with your mind instead of your body is worth the parchment it is written on.” His father’s words rang as true in practise as in theory. “The core of Ghost Step is calculated unpredictability.” The technique sought to confuse opponents through an unnatural rhythm and gait, yet, the motions were hardly random. If they were, the time it took to ponder his next move would be the time it took for his opponent to catch up to him.
Ten steps forward, nine steps back.
He halted abruptly in the middle of his room as the door was kicked open with a bang and his yellow eyes met Hei Lian’s obsidian gaze. They regarded each other in pin-drop silence. Now that the wait was over and the time for confrontation had arrived, Steven felt oddly calm.
Hei Lian was the first to break the silence. “So,” she drawled out, “You didn’t think it necessary to inform me of your decision beforehand.” Which decision she was talking about went without question. Taking a deep breath, he replied, “It was for the best.” The steadiness of his voice surprised even him.
Riding the wave of his courage before it broke against the shore of his fear, he continued, “You wanted to go on the Expedition to garner fame. I was holding you back. I got tired of holding you back.”
Narrowing her eyes, she sneered, “Oh? Then why does that entail publicizing our marriage?” he looked her in the eye. “Because I’m your husband whether you acknowledge it or not. Sure, the declaration might help in the cohesion of the alliance, but in the end, the only reason I asked the General to arrange for it was that I wanted the world to know. I wanted our bond out in the open for all to see.”
A flash of dark flame and she was right in front of him. Another flash and his back slammed into the wall, her hand clutching his throat. She leaned forward, her breath warm in his ear, “You don’t get to decide that, now do you?” His legs kicked futilely and his hands scrabbled at her arm as he struggled against her grip, his face slowly purpling from the lack of air. All he managed to elicit was the soft white glow of her Barrier that dimmed as it absorbed his weakening blows. He tried to Shadow Walk out of her clutches but her foot lay on his shadow, sewing it onto the ground. There was no escape.
She sneered, “There, there, husband, you know what to do. Beg for mercy like you always do. Go on. Maybe I’ll be generous and let you off with only a spanking… Go on.”
Giving up his struggles, he locked his gaze onto her distorted face. She flinched at the renouncement and determination in his eyes before growing even more furious. “How dare you look at me like that!? Isn’t this how it always goes? You displease me, I discipline you, and you beg. So, why… won’t… you… beg?” she snarled, punctuating every last word by tightening her grip on his throat.
His vision darkening at the edges, Steven reached a trembling hand out towards her. Gripping her collar, with the final vestiges of his strength, he yanked at it. With a ping, the first few buttons of her shirt popped off, revealing a large swathe of white. There, in stark contrast with the pale skin was their mark that glowed a dark red.
Hei Lian’s grip loosened and she staggered back, letting his limp form drop to the floor where he hacked and coughed while clutching his injured throat. Steven laid his forehead against the floor, sucking air in greedily with deep, shuddering breaths, his spittle flecking the floor.
“How?” she muttered as she stepped back, daunted. “How… is it possible? How can it be so dark?”
Bringing his breath under control, he slowly struggled to his feet and looked her in the eye. She took another step back under the intensity of his gaze.
“I… am… not… your father!” he croaked out through his injured throat, advancing upon her. Hei Lian found herself stepping back subconsciously to avoid him. Her back touched up against the wall and when she tried to move sideways, he slammed his palms on either side of her, caging her in.
Even though she could easily escape with magic, she found herself immobilized by the swirling emotion in the depth of his eyes. “W-what do you mean?” she stammered out.
“Neither… are you,” he continued, ignoring her. “Despite what he was, he was your father and…” he grimaced like the words left an extremely bitter taste in his mouth, “Your lover… I can understand why you would feel guilt for his death.”
“W-what the hell are you talking about!? Why would I feel guilt over that animal!?”
“That diary of his that you keep… I’ve read it.”
Hei Lian grew still, averting her eyes from his. “Where is it?” she asked in a small voice.
Keeping his eyes on her, he indicated towards the brazier with his chin. Looking up, Hei Lian’s eyes widened as she noticed the smouldering remains of a leather-bound notebook. Now that she knew what to look for, her nose picked up the faint stench of burning leather, the smoke having been carried away by the open window by its side.
With a keening wail, she leapt towards the brazier, panic in her eyes. Grabbing her around her waist, Steven dug his feet into the ground and pushed against her with the full weight of his body to keep her away from it.
“St-op living in the past!” he yelled as his muscles strained to hold the hysterical girl away from the fire.
“Nooo…” her voice was a low whine as she frantically struggled against him, all magic forgotten I her angst. Unable to break free, her form shifted and morphed until a jet-black wolf strained against him instead.
The sudden shift forced him onto his knees and he nearly lost his grip on her. Gritting his teeth, he wrestled with her until he had locked his arms around her neck, his fingers digging into the thick fur of her scruff.
“The Sun Wolf is dead…” he gasped out, “He no longer owns you!”
With a furious howl that reverberated through his body, the wolf snapped its jaws down upon the crook of his neck. His Barrier shone a soft white to keep off her teeth but they burnt with dark flames, easily piercing through its blockade.
Steven grunted in pain as blood soaked half his shirt. The ache and the delirium from lost blood stimulated the wildness that slept within him.
With a feral snarl, he bared his teeth and growled out, “You’re MINE!” and sank his shadow-clad teeth into her neck. Through coincidence, or by instinct, the seal of their teeth overlapped their marks, bathing them in fresh blood.
Slowly morphing back to her Bestia form, she collapsed limply into his embrace.
Hei Lian had cried when her mother had died. She had muffled her sobs with her pillow too many times to count during her bondage. For the outside world, it had been three years. For her, it had been a decade of confinement and isolation. Ten years that had dried all her tears. Her father was dead. She had killed the Tamer responsible. The wounds had healed. The scars remained.
Watching the last symbol of her father turn to ashes, for the first time in years, she wept.
End of Volume 8.
You can read ahead on my Patreon. Enjoy!