Sitting cross-legged on the floor, Baledagh studied his brother’s motionless body, suspended in the void with the spectres circling him hungrily. Unable to devour the spectres from his position, unable to even enter, he tried to come up with some method to help, but his mind blanked. Resting his elbow on his knees and chin on his palms, he sighed in frustration. How many times has brother saved them both? Yet in this troubling instance, it shamed him to admit he was helpless. How nice it would be to play the hero for once, instead of the nameless grunt following orders. Even the moniker he chose for himself was rather unremarkable, ‘warrior’, instead of ‘expert’ or ‘conqueror’, or something with substance.
Too late to do anything about it now, better to focus on the important things. Like sitting around helplessly watching your brother struggle.
A struggle it was, there was no doubt in his mind. As peaceful and serene as it appeared, Baledagh knew first-hand how oppressive and terrifying the spectres were, their shrieking wails and baleful auras still greeting him each time he slept. It’d become routine for him to devour them with hardly any effort, like a pre-nap snack. At least the voices had stopped, but they’d disappeared before. If they ever returned, he’d ignore them, having seen through their deception.
Nothing could be heard from inside the room, but he saw their disembodied mouths moving as they harassed brother, the barrier keeping the void contained within. Worse, although their physical body was healing well, brother’s astral form was still damaged, looking no better than before despite the glowing light surrounding his body.
“Fight on, brother. You will be victorious, this I believe.” Feeling a little better having spoken aloud, he gnawed at his lips and continued to chat. “Things are fine out here, I’ll hold down the fort while you handle those ghosts. Qing-Qing is taking good care of us, you’d like her. She’s gentle and kind, with a soft touch. Even though she’s weak and worries over the smallest things, there’s a fire inside her, a core of steel. Anyway, our body is healing well, your work I assume, well done. I grew tired of crawling around, so I carved a walking staff. Maybe I’ll walk around the village today, give it a test. It wasn’t easy to make, I never noticed how clumsy I am at things besides fighting. I understand now why you didn’t want to rely on the ancestors like I did, it’s best to rely on yourself. It’s shameful how little coordination and experience I have in matters outside of combat, and I’ll work hard to remedy my failings.”
Brother didn’t answer, but Baledagh continued to ramble on, enjoying their ‘conversation’. “I’ve been awake for a week now and the light doesn’t hurt as much anymore, plus I’ve pieced together a few things, but I’m still not entirely sure what happened. I remember passing out before the full moon, but Qing-Qing didn’t find me until the 28th. That’s more than a week of missing time, maybe longer… Moving on, I’ve been here for a month now, awake for less than a week, which means it’s been forty-something odd days since I passed out. I’ve learned little since waking, stuck inside the hut, and none of the villagers will chat with Qing-Qing. There are rumours about you fighting with the Red Devil of Sanshu a little after I fell asleep. Sorry I wasn’t there to help, but you won, so how did we get across the lake and how did we suffer all these injuries?”
With no answer forthcoming, Baledagh continued to watch the spectres circle brother persistently, like Jattuyas waiting for their prey to die. Standing up, he stretched and prepared himself once more, getting into the right frame of mind to take on this task. Focus on moving forward, let nothing turn you back. Eyes locked on his brother, he stepped into the void and stood at rest, outside the room once again.
Always the same thing, over and over again. “Ha… Sorry brother, it seems this ‘warrior’ is truly useless.” Leaning against the door frame, he staggered in exhaustion, drained by his unrewarded efforts. He didn’t know if time passed, but each time he stepped into the void, he would be back where he started, as if he’d never moved at all. The fatigue built up, and worried he would fall asleep again, he moved to leave. “You focus on your battle, brother. I’ll see us back to our people… somehow.” Never mind not knowing how, but something needed to be done.
Opening his eyes, he stretched, lounging in the warmth of his blanket. Turning to the side, he smiled and stared at Qing-Qing, sleeping an arm’s length away, glowing in the morning light as it streamed through the gaps in the door and roof. So lovely and sweet, he would need to ensure she wasn’t bullied by Mila or teased by Lin. She was only a normal human, barely able to cultivate, but lacking any time to do so. Had she grown up among the People then perhaps she might have become a warrior, given enough time and resources, but out here, alone and without anyone to care for her? Impossible. Brother could teach her though, and they would be together forever.
Stirring gently in her sleep, he quickly turned away, his face reddening as she roused herself. Quiet as a mouse, she set about preparing for the day, starting a small fire and warming breakfast for the two of them. Pretending to sleep, he cursed his gutless and cowardly ways, unsure of what to say around her. With longer periods of consciousness came more chances to bond with her, but he kept saying the wrong things. She made no unkind remarks or complaints, but he saw her hidden grimaces and frowns. What was so difficult about hunting for meat? Make a spear, find a trail, set a snare, wait, then kill the creature as it struggles, simple as turning your hand. No matter, once he brought her back to the village, he would spoil her rotten and show her his true worth, not this pitiful weakling laying in her hut, but a powerful, unrestrained warrior of the People.
The pungent smell of seafood quickly filled the hut and the door squeaked open to let air in. “Baledagh, breakfast will soon be ready.” She kept well away when waking him, after an unpleasant experience in which she shook him awake. He acted on sheer reflex and only subdued her, so it was unfair of her to hold it against him, although it had been nice holding her against him. Sitting up, he washed his face with the water provided before accepting the food from Qing-Qing’s outstretched arms. Despite accepting his offer of friendship, it seemed the distance between them continued to grow. His body stronger by the day, she no longer fed or washed him, a saddening loss of intimacy. He told himself things would change once he regained his strength and after brother woke up, coming to appreciate brother’s womanizing ways far too late.
The meagre meal of mashed seafood was barely more than a mouthful, far from filling his belly. Then again, he wasn’t sure if he wanted more, the foul taste lingering in his mouth. Suppressing a sigh, he scraped his bowl clean and licked his fingers, choking down the mash. “My healing is taking too long, I require more sustenance.”
“Baledagh…” Despair etched on her pretty face, Qing-Qing wrung her hands through her shirt. “I swear to you, I’m working as hard as I can, I am but a poor village woman. Have mercy…”
Realizing his gaffe, he shook his head vigorously. “No no, I’m not blaming you. I’m only thinking aloud. I need to return to my people, they’ll be looking for me.” And I want to eat rice and red meat. “I was thinking of speaking with the village chief. Tell me about him. Is he a greedy man? A lustful one? Can he be trusted or intimidated?”
“The Chief is… a prudent man, capable of making the best decisions for the village. Trustworthy in that regard, he isn’t brave in the sense of facing bandits, but he is a hunter and the strongest man in the village. I wouldn’t call him greedy, but he takes the best for himself, which is what he deserves.” Chewing her lip nervously, she looked him up and down. “You looked little better than a corpse when you arrived and you’ve come so far in only a month. Perhaps you could lower your expectations a little? It would be safer to wait until you are stronger.”
Asking a few more questions, he wrapped his eyes with cloth. He didn’t need the covering anymore, but it wouldn’t do for someone to see his amber eyes, his most distinguishing feature. “Help me up, I’d like to speak with the chief.” Qing-Qing’s hut was at the fringes of the village, and it was quite a distance away for someone in his condition. “Oh and give me the gold, we’ll need it. Don’t worry, I decided greed won’t be a problem and you will be compensated after we return to my people.”
Leaning heavily on his staff as he stood, he enjoyed Qing-Qing’s scent as he stepped out into the sunlight for the first time in weeks. The transparent black cloth filtered out the bright light and he paused a moment, taking in the sights and basking in the light with Qing-Qing at his side.
It was good to be awake and mobile. Any longer in the gloomy shack and he’d go crazy. He didn’t have a plan like brother would, but at least he now had a goal. All it needed was for him to take this first step, and for lunch, he would dine on roasted meat and steamed rice, with delicious wine to wash it down. Perhaps there’d even be sweets for him to gorge upon, the thought filling his mouth with saliva.
Barefoot with his blanket tied around his body, he made his way into the village proper, with his beautiful future wife Qing-Qing at his side. Who needed a plan? All he needed was food, and he’d be strong enough to take on the world in under a week. Perhaps he’d even get lucky and encounter resistance from the villagers. It would be good for him to kill someone as an example, not only inspiring fear but sowing justice for their treatment of Qing-Qing. A warning first though, he couldn’t be too heavy-handed, but those bastards didn’t even bother helping him, there was no need to be too polite.
A lovely day for a stroll and maybe a little carnage. A little exercise would do his body good.
Struggling to support Baledagh, Qing-Qing nervously walked with her arm around his waist, keeping her eyes on the ground. The villagers stopped their daily tasks to stare at the injured warrior at her side, her stomach aflutter with every step they took. He ‘decided’ greed wouldn’t matter? As if it were his choice, how arrogant and overbearing could he be? Even though the Chief wasn’t a warrior, she’d seen the carcasses of monstrous beasts hunted by him and his team. In comparison, frail and injured Baledagh seemed little challenge for them, huffing away as they walked. Perhaps the Chief would order their deaths, and split the gold among themselves.
His slender frame was surprisingly heavy though, and soon she was sweating at the effort of keeping him steady, her knees wobbling beneath the strain. In comparison, his steps were steady and slow, hobbling along with his ugly, crooked staff. She’d have thought a warrior more experienced with a knife, but his fingers were covered with half-healed cuts from his shoddy workmanship. He was a wealth of contradictions, falling asleep as a sweet, comforting young man in need of her care and waking as a savage, brutal warrior who held a knife to her throat for disturbing his rest too soon. She wouldn’t make the same mistake again, it had taken her hours to gather the courage to return home afterwards, spurred on by her fear of what he might do if she didn’t feed him.
Her fellow villagers gathered around to gawk, surprised by his speedy recovery. For weeks now he was supposedly at death’s door, and everyone had kept their distance, not wanting to waste effort helping or share in the blame when he inevitably died. Even now, no one came forward to help as Baledagh continued moving one steady step at a time, determined to reach his destination. None of the villagers entered his eye and she did her best to ignore their stares as well. Baledagh’s healing marked him as incredibly powerful, and she heard the term Ascendant once or twice.
Someone must have run ahead and alerted the Chief, as he came rushing towards them with bow and spear in hand, the rest of the village hunters arriving right behind them. Gen stood to the side, the only hunter with his weapon pointed towards them, a frown on his face. Perfect, now instead of a private meeting, they had to speak with the Chief in front of everyone. A flattering smile on his aged face, he clasped his hands to Baledagh and bowed. “Great Warrior, this lowly one is Tuan, chief of this humble village where you’ve rested. Might I have the pleasure of knowing your honoured name?”
“Baledagh. Was on my way to visit you.” Without pause, he continued forward, dragging Qing-Qing along with him, her legs freezing up at the sight of all the weapons. “A word in private. Your home will do.”
Gen moved towards them, his spear wavering. “That’s far enough, anything you need to say, you can sa–”
Baledagh smacked the spear aside with his staff, and with a crack, the wood shattered, the metal tip wailing as it sailed away through the air, over the crowd and into the woods. Without missing a step, he poked Gen in the throat with his staff and continued onward, a sneer on his face. “Don’t presume to give orders here, whelp. Point a weapon at me again and I’ll skin you alive.” Gen’s mouth gaped like a fish as he stared at his broken weapon, his free hand touching his neck. Baledagh didn’t hurt him, only warning the overconfident and brash young man. She struggled not to burst into laughter, giddy from fear and relief. Glancing back at Gen, Baledagh remarked, “You look about the right size. Run home and ready a pair of pants for me. Clean ones, mind you, I don’t want to find any shit stains on them.”
The other hunter’s stirred at the provocation but an upraised hand from the Chief stalled them. “Gen, do as Warrior Baledagh asks, and have your mother prepare tea. My apologies Great Warrior, he is my son, a child with more courage than sense.”
“Alcohol.” Baledagh chimed in before refocusing on his walk. “And snacks. No fish.”
“As he says, get to it boy.”
Qing-Qing’s head was light as she moved in a daze. The arrogance and confidence he displayed was a heady rush, and before she knew it, she sat at the table in the Chief’s home, a large, wood and brick affair. If not for Gen, she could have grown up here with them, and though she was accustomed to her life, it stung to see the niceties she lived without, like decorations and furniture. The Chief brought plenty to the village, risking much to do so, and in return, the village took care of him. It shouldn’t have come a surprise learning Bei wanted to marry Gen, but it hurt her to know her friend had set her sights so low. They were supposed to escape this drudgery together, but instead, she’d only been pushing Qing-Qing towards death.
Well Bei could have that controlling, jealous bastard, they deserved each other. Let them live their lives out here in this dreary village, while Qing-Qing followed Baledagh away to a better life inside PingYao.
Gen served the alcohol and snacks, placing a clean shirt and pants next to them before standing off to one side with his father. Baledagh ate and drank, relishing the dried meat with a foolish smile on his face. She filled his cup every time he emptied it with a sound of delight, ignoring the Chief’s growing impatience and frustration. It was almost refreshing to see Baledagh toying with him like a cat plays with a mouse, until she realized the other hunters were likely waiting outside, ready to charge in at a moments notice should things go wrong. As impressive as Baledagh was, he was still heavily injured. If need be, the villagers would band together and bury his body and their secret deep. Nothing brought people together quicker than threat of mutual destruction.
After cleaning off the plate and drinking the jar dry, Baledagh waved the Chief over. “Send the little shit outside and tell your men to piss off.” Burping loudly, he added, “If I want to kill you, they won’t be any help.”
Gen exchanged a worried look with his father but the Chief shook his head. “Do as Warrior Baledagh says. Now. Don’t make the honoured guest ask twice.”
“But father –”
“Oh, yes, please, argue with him. I don’t much like your attitude.” Baledagh’s smile sent shivers down her spine, and evidently did the same to the Chief.
“Go!” His voice hoarse as he roared at his son, he gripped his shoulder for a moment before shoving him towards the door, a touching gesture to spare his son. Qing-Qing’s head hung low at the sight, ashamed for taking delight in all of this. To them, Baledagh was a powerful warrior who held their lives in the palm of his hands. It wasn’t right for her to enjoy his tormenting them, watching a good man ready himself for death.
Still, Mother help her, she couldn’t stop smiling. A good man he may be, he’d done nothing to stop Gen from harassing her.
Once they were alone, Baledagh threw a gold bar on the table, yawning as the Chief’s eyes widened at the sight. “This is yours. In return, I expect food, meat, rice, spices and wine. What your family eats each day, I need at least three times as much. Worry not about giving me too much, only if it is not enough.”
His mouth working furiously, the Chief stammered, “Great Warrior, this is too much coin for what you are asking, we are but humble villagers with no way to gather enough to pay back what’s owed.” Still, his hands reached out to clutch the gold, holding it close to his chest as if afraid Baledagh would take it back.
“No need, this is a mere pittance. Provide me with food and I will be gone as soon, the gold yours to keep. I don’t care if you share, do as you see fit.” Qing-Qing gawked at the words, understanding his plan. Greed wouldn’t be their problem, it would be the Chief’s. “I’ll also need a pair of horses and travel clothes. Boots, a spear, a bow and arrows too, the best you have.” Gesturing for more wine, he shouted out as the Chief scurried away to provide for his generous patron. “Also, have someone pick up the laundry every morning and fix my benefactor’s roof, it leaks when it rains.” Winking at her, he smiled devilishly as he settled back in his chair, smug and self-satisfied.
So strong and confident, like a wild stallion running roughshod over all in his path. Before today, the Chief had seemed like an unshakable presence, speaking amicably with bandits and paying their protection fees without batting an eye, but now, he poured wine and tied his tongue in knots trying to fawn over Baledagh.
The Mother provided, and Qing-Qing was grateful for Her bounty. Glancing over at Baledagh, she saw him in a new light, her heartbeat racing as she pondered her future. Beneath the blindfold and scars, he was a handsome man, his eyes a striking colour of golden brown, his easy smile making him seem young and impish. He obviously fancied her, with all his blushing and stammering, and although she felt some tender feelings for him while he slept, for the first time, she wondered what it would be like to be his woman.
Ai Qing, wife of Falling Rain, hero of the Bekhai.
It sounded heavenly.
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