I mulled over Lady Yingquan’s words, dwelling on their import. On the one hand, it was an amazing honour to have caught Lady Yingquan’s attention and to be named as Her champion. Were it not for the nature of the task which She had bestowed upon us, I would have prostrated before Her in gratitude for Her consideration. That said, the task She was appointing us to accomplish was to defeat a mad god. That was beyond our abilities – both for myself and for Ely. Talented as Ely was, she was still only mortal; a deity existed on a higher plane, by virtue of that divinity. I was ashamed to admit it, but Kuldevic was not an opponent we could defeat. It was truly an honour that Lady Yingquan would consider us equal to the task, but it was also not a task that was possible to perform. I bowed my head in shame and regret, then raised my gaze to beg forgiveness and explain that the magnitude of this duty was beyond us. However, as my line of sight moved upward, my mind froze.
“Ow, ow, ow, please stop please ow”
Evidently, in the time I had been ruminating on our weakness and shame, Ely had seen fit to grab hold of the earlobe of Lady Yingquan and was currently pulling on it, hard. Ely was smiling jovially, but there was no joy to be seen in her expression whatsoever.
“Now, what was it you said when you sent me here again, hm? I believe it was something like living my life and enjoying my time in this new world, yes? I don’t recall you mentioning anything about fighting gods back then. Is there a reason you’ve waited till now to say this, hm?”
Ely twisted Lady Yingquan’s earlobe, causing Her to crumple to the ground, gasping in pain. She looked at me with a pleading gaze, but I averted my eyes. Ely was terrifying when she was angry, and even though I was a great devotee of Lady Yingquan, any effort to lend assistance in this situation would be futile at best, with a significant chance of making the situation worse. Lady Yingquan saw me pointedly look away, and from the corner of my eye I could see Her face contort in despair briefly, right before Ely began twisting harder.
“Okay okay I give I give you were right I was wrong I’m sorry please stop hurting me Elyyyyyyyyyyyy!”
Ely released her vice grip on the goddess’ ear. It was turning noticeably redder. Lady Yingquan cupped her hand to her earlobe and touched it, wincing. Then, with teary eyes, she jumped at me and hugged me, bawling into my chest.
“Euryyyyy! Your sister is hurting me! I’m a goddess aren’t I? I am, right? What kind of person pulls the ear of a goddess?!”
I was unable to answer, being momentarily frozen from the realisation that a divine entity was currently hugging me. Would it be sacrilege to touch Her? What was I supposed to do in this situation? I glanced at Ely for help, upon which she giggled and made a patting motion with her hand. My mind went blank. Just the thought of touching the person of Lady Yingquan was enough to make me feel sacrilegous – to pat Her and treat Her like a child was something completely unthinkable. Unfortunately, Lady Yingquan’s crying showed no sign of ceasing, and the goddess Herself seemed to seek comfort. Resigning myself to a fate of eternal damnation, I slowly brought my hand up to Her back and began to pat Her reassuringly. The crying quickly trickled to a halt, and Lady Yingquan started nuzzling into my bosom, before She abruptly jerked upright, as if recalled that She was a deity and I, a supplicant.
She quickly stepped away from me and straightened Her robes, clearing Her throat. Her cheeks were a vivid shade of red. Ely, standing next to me, was laughing uncontrollably. I immediately dropped to my knees to apologise.
“Your Grace, please forgive me for forgetting myself. Words cannot express my shame and remorse…”
“Eh?! Er, um, it’s fine, really, please get up. It was my fault for showing you an act unbefitting a goddess.”
As I raised my head and got to my feet, Ely redirected the conversation to the prior topic.
“So, you want us to deal with Kuldevic?”
Lady Yingquan shook her head, seemingly shaking off Her embarrassment as the blush was replaced with a serious expression.
“Sort of, but also not quite.”
“Right. You know how much I love riddles. Get to the point.”
“I have no concrete proof that Kuldevic is actually plotting something. I have my suspicions, but they are onlyt that: suspicions. It may well be that my worry is unfounded, and Kuldevic will do nothing to further interfere with the mortal world. I need you two to be my insurance.”
“That’s a lot to ask. I may be a war hero, but that was a war against humans – fighting against a god is a completely different deal. Even if I’m nothing more than insurance, it’s entirely possible that I might turn out to be a useless piece on the board.”
“You’re not just a piece on the board, Ely. You’re my friend. One of my only friends, as it were. I didn’t put you here solely so I could have a warrior in this world. I put you here because you deserve better than the life you led, and because I wanted to give you a chance to live out the life I stole from you – a life with your sister. Of course, that goes for you as well, Eury.”
With that last sentence, She glanced in my direction. I felt a twang of regret for all the lost years, but also a glimmer of gratitude for the ability to gain them back. Without waiting for a response, however, She turned back to Ely.
“Ely, do you hate this world I’ve brought you to?”
“…Of course not. I’ve met friends that I treasure and I’ve experienced things – wonderful things, magical things – that I would never have been able to otherwise. And to top it all off, I don’t have to spend every minute of every day wondering if I’m going to die tomorrow. I’m thankful for the fact that you brought me here, and more than that, I’m thankful that you let me see Eury again.”
Ely walked up next to me and took my hand in hers. My cheeks heated up, but I tried to control myself so as to not disrupt their conversation. Lady Yingquan smiled a little as Ely expressed her gratitude, and continued.
“Then, let me ask you this. Ignoring all obligations to me, if this world were threatened, would you step forward to defend it?”
Ely closed her eyes. I felt her grip tighten on my hand.
“…Yes. I would. This is my home now.”
“Then that’s all I ask you to do. If Kuldevic moves, then it will be this world that will be in danger – this world and its people. At that time, if you step forward and oppose him, you will have done your part as my insurance. Of course, I’m not going to send you off to fight a god without assistance. I don’t want to lose you, after all.”
Lady Yingquan held up a hand. Within it, a small white flame appeared. She brought her hand up, holding it to Ely.
“The Brand of the Enforcer. This will mark you as divinity – will grant you the power to harm a being of divinity. In your moment of greatest need, when you confront a god, this mark will ensure that you confront him on equal footing. Do you accept my Brand?”
Ely stepped forward, as she had so many years ago to take the sword from the Emperor. The laughter on her face had vanished, replaced with a gaze that burned with duty and resolve. Once more, she would take up the sword to protect those she cared about. For the first time in the entire time I had know her, Ely kneeled before Lady Yingquan.
“I accept your blessing.”
Lady Yingquan smiled and moved closer.
“This is going to sting a bit, so bear with it.”
Lady Yingquan placed her hand on Ely’s head, and the white flame seemed to meld with Ely’s brow. Ely shut her eyes, gritting her teeth. She was clearly in great pain, but she did not move from her kneeling position. I could do naught but watch – this scene was far too sacred to intrude upon.
After what seemed like an eternity, the white flame vanished, and Ely released the breath she had been holding, panting heavily. Lady Yingquan stooped down and helped her up. I quickly stepped forward and assisted, supporting her other side. We swiftly carried Ely over to a nearby tree, where she slumped against it and to the ground. When she opened her eyes, I saw that her left iris had lost its brownish hue and been dyed completely white, save for a pink cherry blossom motif where her pupil should have been. She looked up at Lady Yingquan with annoyance on her face.
“How was that ‘a bit’?! That hurt like hell!”
Lady Yingquan chuckled.
“Oh, come on, you’ve lived through far worse.”
As She spoke, Her form began to shimmer. She looked down at herself.
“Hm. It seems I gave you a bit too much power. I’m not able to sustain my material form on this world for much longer. It’s a shame, but I’m probably not going to be able to stick around – might not be able to manifest again for some time, either.”
Ely smiled and tapped her newly-transformed white eye.
“Don’t worry about it. I’ll be your eyes on this world until it’s time for you to act. If Kuldevic tries anything, I’ll beat him to death, then we can go hop over to the Celestial Pavillion for a cup of tea, just like old times.”
Lady Yingquan smiled as She began to fade away, the hem of Her robes scattering into particles of light.
“Most certainly. I’ll make sure to reserve us a seat.”
“Despite everything, Yingquan, it was good to see you again. Take care of yourself.”
“It was good to see you too. Take care, my beloved hero.”
With that, Lady Yingquan was gone, leaving just Ely and I in the darkness of the midnight glade.