"Tell me, Protector," Hui Chao remarked off-handedly as she focused on a detail on her client's left shoulder. "Where is Fa now?"
She had finished most of the outline work on his back already. Much to her agreement, his skin had finally given way to the needle, letting blood so rich in oxygen it was almost clear red spill out the second she prodded him with the tip. From there, the preparatory work she needed to do had gotten accomplished in a little under an hour. She had now begun her color work, painstakingly filling in each deep black line she had placed with precision. Even better, Raiden did not fidget or squirm once during the entire process, to her satisfaction.
"Just outside of Zhu Zin," he answered good-naturedly, not stirring as Hui Chao continued her work.
A raspy cackle escaped the old woman's throat as she temporarily removed the needle to gather more pigment.
"Is that so?" she remarked, returning to his shoulder blade. "That is good, that is good; then he and the others have quite a bit of time before the Han armies make their way over there. Heaven knows the same cannot be said for us."
"Oh?" Raiden responded, his eyes closed as the needle scratched into the deepest layer of his skin, although it did not affect him.
"Yes, it is a shame," Hui Chao continued, not really sounding all that remorseful. "The Han have been trying to eradicate all traces of Vajrayana temples since they took over; we are the last of our kind out here."
"Why do you not attempt to relocate, then?" he inquired. He heard her chortle.
"My days are numbered as it is," she said, wiping blood off her canvas. "Lien Hua and the others may relocate if forced to. But I know many of them will stay. Fling themselves on the sword if they must."
He was silent.
"Me, I've lived a fulfilling life," she prattled on. "I've helped everybody I could. I can go knowing I've done my share in the mortal plane."
She couldn't see the sad smile cross Raiden's face where she was sitting.
"That is very admirable, Hui Chao," he admitted quietly. "I wish I could say the same for myself."
For a moment, he felt no needle in his back, prompting him to look over his shoulder to see what had caused the old master to stop.
"Now you listen here," Hui Chao began sternly, pointing the bloody tip of the needle in his direction as she spoke. "Unlike little old me, there is no end in sight for you. Is this world not still young? Humanity is nothing more than a blink of the eye to you, is it not?"
Surprised but slightly amused, Raiden raised an eyebrow in the old woman's direction.
"I suppose so," he answered simply.
"Why do you have the job you do, Raiden?" Hui Chao inquired sharply.
"Because it was offered to me by the Elder Gods," he said.
"And why did you take it?"
"Because…" he started, thinking his answer over carefully. "Because I wanted to see Earthrealm stay safe."
"Then you have already done more than your share for the mortals inhabiting this realm," Hui Chao reasoned. "It's still much too early for that defeatist attitude. Especially when you have not yet been defeated."
The skin around her eyes crinkled before her mouth could catch up with a smile.
"Now turn around," she demanded, dismissing his reaction with a wave of her hand. "I'm not done."
Smiling, Raiden nodded and turned back to the lantern. Hui Chao allowed her eyes to focus back on the patch she had left off on; hand steady, she placed four dots within the spokes of the windmill pattern at the back of his neck.
About an hour later, he felt her strokes began to taper off around the back of his left elbow. Within a few minutes, she stopped, wiped off the blood that spilled from her last etching, and leaned back to study her composition.
"Ah," he heard her sigh with an approving tone. Hui Chao set her needle down on the straw mat, craning forward and pushing herself up on her ancient knees before standing on her feet.
"Lien Hua!" she called out, her cacophonous voice ringing sharply throughout the temple halls. "Lien Hua, come in here!"
In the few minutes it took before light feet could be heard scuttling into the hallway outside, Hui Chao picked up her tools, wrapping them neatly in her bamboo mat. The younger monk slid the door open, bowing before entering the room.
"Yes, Master Hui Chao?" she greeted her teacher.
"Come take a look," Hui Chao directed her student, waving her over to where their guest sat peacefully next to the lamp, the light finally faltering into a dim imitation of what it was before.
Lien Hua approached both figures quietly, straining to view the tattoo in the dark room. She began to make out the dark patch of patterns that crept across his left shoulder, extending across his back and down his arm. Stormy, tumultuous waves spilled upwards along his triceps from his elbow, out of which a serpentine creature seemed to emerge, wrapping around his upper arm and curling the upper part of its body around a lotus decorated with three black tomoe. The waves rolled across his shoulder into a scene of steadier waters near his backbone, above which peaceful clouds had been etched into the base of his neck. At the nape, a faint outline of a heavenly palm could be seen descending from the clouds; on the hand itself was a clockwise swastika adorned with four dots, the symbol of eternality and well-being that seemed to still the raging waves below.
"Well?" Lien Hua heard her teacher prod her, snapping her out of her inspection. "It is satisfactory, do you not agree?"
Lien Hua then realized that it was not her teacher who needed to hear her opinion, but Raiden, who could not see her work for himself.
"Yes," she said without hesitation. "It is perfect."
Lien Hua thought she caught a glimpse of him glancing furtively behind his back, perhaps at her. She couldn't catch his expression before he turned back around, but she did see his striking irises, completely filled with electric blue. Hui Chao slowly approached him from behind, laying a feeble, wrinkled hand on his right shoulder.
"It is done," she told him. "You have spilled more than enough of your share of blood for everyone."
Outside, the snow continued to fall silently. Soft hues of blue blanketed the landscape, lighter where the heaps of ice caught the light of the yellowing moon. The lantern Hui Chao held with her was the only spot of orange that punctuated the darkness of twilight, although insignificantly so. She and Lien Hua stood underneath the overhang of the temple, standing across from the thunder god, whom they had given an extra robe to drape across his shoulders to protect him and the design from the elements.
"Give my regards to Fa when you see him," Hui Chao instructed the deity, who nodded to her in acknowledgement.
"Of course," he responded. Smiling, Hui Chao bowed deeply. She handed the lantern to Lien Hua, turning around and tugging her own robes more tightly around her neck as she walked back into the temple to escape the cold.
Lien Hua stared at her teacher until the elder disappeared into the darkness of the monastery. When she vanished, it still took Lien Hua a moment before she could turn around to face the god alone. Even then, she kept her eyes low.
"I wish you the best of luck," she said softly. "I hope your friends make a speedy recovery, as well."
She didn't hear a response, and wondered if maybe he had been drowned out by the howling wind. Cautiously, she brought her gaze back up to check. The light from the lantern wasn't nearly strong enough to illuminate his visage. All she saw were small slivers of blue highlighting parts of his features, but his expression remained obscured. She didn't have time to scrutinize him more closely before she felt a hand on her shoulder. Lien Hua almost thought it was her teacher's before she looked down at it and saw it was much younger and larger than Hui Chao's withered extremity. She looked back up, startled to see that Raiden's face had come into much clearer view in the light of the lamp.
"Thank you," he said in a low voice, dropping his hand to her arm, where it lingered momentarily. Surprisingly, Lien Hua did not experience an adverse reaction to his touch like she had before, and at this she could feel another blush sweep across her countenance.
She only nodded in response. He paused, seeming to observe her for another second before he finally dropped his hand, stepping backwards into deeper snow and shadows. Only his hair reflected the glow of the moon overhead.
She knew he was leaving soon. But formality had always been, and still was, Lien Hua's priority when dealing with outsiders. She bowed, expecting to see the deity when she stood back up. But she had only just dipped down when she heard the rumble of thunder sounding in the distance.
She straightened back up, only to see empty space where he had just been standing. Lien Hua glanced around, bewildered at his sudden disappearance, but stopping when another roll of thunder echoed across the mountain.
Lien Hua looked to the sky. Instantly, a bolt of lightning lashed across the atmosphere, away from the monastery and towards the east.
tomoe - swirling dot pattern often seen on the drums accompanying the thunder god Raijin in traditional Japanese art
swastika – originally used in Hindu and Buddhist art to represent anything ranging from the sun to auspiciousness to the Buddha's own footprint/heart
Han – ruling ethnic group during 16th century China (which I'm assuming is somewhat similar to the setting Conquest tried to establish, considering that most canonical material refers to the Great Kung Lao living up to about 500 years before the main timeline) during the Ming Dynasty