“No, no, no. Open your eyes Qing-Qing, please…”
Carefully clasping her hand, Baledagh tried to deny the truth as tears streamed down his cheeks. The colour drained from the world as she closed her eyes for the last time, the air rushing from her lungs and never to return, his chest collapsing in on itself and leaving him hollow but for heartache and nausea, both threatening to overcome him. A soft keening cry escaped his lips as he laid listlessly beside her, stroking her face and hoping against all hope for her to open her eyes once more.
Knowing she was gone and nothing could bring her back.
She looked so peaceful lying next to him, smiling softly as if dreaming of better things. She wasn’t supposed to die like this, they were supposed to fall in love and be together forever, but he’d scared her away somehow, something he said or did. He should have saved her, should have kept her close, he shouldn’t have delayed their journey, shouldn’t have been so weak.
‘It’s all your fault.’
‘You didn’t keep her safe.’
‘You’re a failure, a disgrace.’
‘You let the woman you love die.’
A flood of accusations echoed in his mind, his rage surging to bury his regrets. A wordless scream ripped from his throat as he gave in to his anger, pushing himself up to face the Demon. Its lithe, feminine form was a mockery of beauty, filling him with disgust, enraged that it still lived while Qing-Qing had died. With a derisive smile pasted on its horrific face, it gazed upon him through empty sockets, hungering to feed on Qing-Qing’s remains. Its oppressive aura was nothing compared to the pain in his heart, and though he wished to tear it limb from limb, he knew it was too formidable for him to defeat.
Too weak, he was far too weak.
‘Do you desire strength, Warrior? Surrender yourself to me and I shall grant it.’
His bleak surroundings dimmed as the spectres floated into sight, swirling around him and the Demon in a greyish mist, their wizened, inhuman visages twisted in agony and anticipation. Ignoring the voices, his arm lanced out to pierce the closest spectre, consuming it without thought as the warm energy rushed into his body and his stomach wound knit itself shut.
There would be no miracles bestowed by the Mother, no power granted by the ancestors. If he wanted strength, then he had to seize it for himself. Those spectres were power, so he would take them. Acting on rage and instinct, he drew in the surrounding spectres, ripping away the ones in orbit around the Demon. Funnelling into his body, they filled him with energy as he roared in challenge.
This bitch killed Qing-Qing, and either it dies or I die.
Launching himself forwards, he swung Tranquility in a wide arc, the blade rebounding off the resilient flesh of the Demon. Bestial fury overwhelmed his mind as he struck again and again at the Demon, its head tilted in question as it studied him without resistance. Allowing his futile efforts to continue unchecked, it had the interest of a house cat watching a fly buzz about, but with less than a dozen strikes, Baledagh panted with exertion, his energy spent. Its curiosity sated, the Demon backhanded him across the face, sending him across the clearing to crash into a tree, ears ringing from the impact.
This isn’t enough, I need more power, more strength.
I need more spectres.
Brother has spectres trapped with him.
‘Take them from him, devour them and make them yours.’
In his mind’s eye, he saw the elegant courtyard manor, modelled after their home in the village, peaceful and untouched. It seemed so small from where he stood, too massive to fit inside, unable to see the amenities and comforts provided by brother, a safe place for Baledagh where he would want for nothing, spending his waking moments in relaxed luxury.
‘It is a prison, built to make you soft and weak.’
So much time spent lounging about, playing stupid children’s games and petting imagined animals. Relying on brother’s ingenuity and hard work, Baledagh frittered away his days when he could have instead been training himself, becoming strong enough to protect Qing-Qing. While his corporeal body laid helpless before the Demon, his astral body destroyed his home, tearing through the walls and uprooting trees with nothing more than a thought, leaving nothing but the void in his wake as the manor crumbled to nothingness around him. Soon, all that was left was the bedroom, the walls protected from his destruction by brother’s presence, hiding a raging horde of spectres within.
‘See how he takes your power, leaving you with nothing but scraps?’
Unlike before, Baledagh felt the gentle unseen power circling within, surrounding brother inside the void, trapping the spectres in constant motion. Baledagh needed them, craved them, for with their power, he would lay waste to all who stood before him.
‘He holds you back, takes what is rightfully yours.’
Pressing his hand against the invisible barrier, the power thrummed within with a discernible flow, barring him from entry. Voice choked and eyes blurry, he grit his teeth at the betrayal. “Why would you do this brother? Why steal the power I gathered? I would have shared had you asked. What’s mine is yours, but what’s yours is yours? How is that fair? I needed it and you kept it from me! Qing-Qing died because of you!”
Raising his hand, he pierced the barrier and rent it to pieces strip by strip. The spectres sensed his actions and flowed towards him, their triumphant howls filling the void as they rode the currents to freedom, entering him of their own volition. His astral body grew larger and stronger as he approached, reclaiming that which brother had contained, and within moments, he stood in front of brother’s battered body, gazing down at the pitiful weakling floating before him.
‘Devour him, make his power yours to command.’
Shattering the remains of the barrier, pride filled his chest as he watched brother flop to the ground. Weakened and dazed, brother stood and opened his eyes, his breathing laboured as he took stock of the situation, craning his neck to peer at Baledagh, a tiny ant looking upon a god. Eyes sunken with exhaustion, brother seemed subdued and defeated, but unbroken, his arms opening to embrace him. “Baledagh, I’m sorry about Qing-Qing. She seemed like a sweet girl.”
The world shifted and Baledagh stood eye to eye with brother, grabbing him by the neck. “Sorry?!” Slamming him into an unseen wall, Baledagh screamed at him. “Do you see this brother? This is the power you kept from me. With it, I could have crushed Laughing Dragon like a bug, I could have killed the Demon as easily as turning over my hand. I could have saved her!”
Pain and worry in his eyes, brother shook his head slowly. “The spectres aren’t what you think. They’re not your ancestors, and they give you power, but only to change you, to use you. You become their puppet, carrying out their twisted demands without question. You wouldn’t be Baledagh any more.”
‘Kill him and become master of your own domain.’
“Don’t lie to me!” Screaming at the voices and brother, Baledagh raved, venting his frustration as tears fell from his eyes. “Who is Baledagh? Nobody, that’s who, it’s a name I made up on a whim. You’re Falling Rain, Hero of the People, Warrant Officer of the Imperial Army, Disciple of Baatar, Student of Taduk. Your life, your achievements, your wives, your cats, everything belongs to you. What is left for me?” Collapsing to his knees, Baledagh cried into brother’s chest, bawling like a child. “She was my love, she was supposed to be my wife. What am I supposed to do now that she’s gone?”
Brother’s arms wrapped around him, cradling him close. “You cherish the time spent together, and mourn her passing.”
Feeling small and miserable, Baledagh shook his head, ready to give up. “I can’t do this anymore, it hurts so much… I give up brother, there is no use for me. Live our life and let me dream of spending mine with her at my side.”
The spectres wailed at his surrender, a harsh, discordant chorus of screams which abruptly cut off, silenced with a wave of brother’s hand. A massive whirlpool swept about the void, collecting the spectres together in a swirling mass which shrunk down to the size of his thumbnail, suspended in the void before his eyes. Fatigue struck him like a hammer, succumbing to exhaustion as he closed his eyes and sank back into the comfort of his bed. Murmuring beneath his breath, brother pulled the blankets over him. “I’m not too thrilled about this. Sleep for now, rest and dream sweet dreams. When you wake, cry, scream, yell, do whatever you need to do, but don’t give up. It hurts because you truly loved her. The pain will fade in time, but never pass completely, and it shouldn’t. It’s a reminder of how much she meant to you.” His voice fading as he left, brother added, “Don’t sleep too long. This is your life, and your bears will grow up quickly. I’ll look after them in your absence, but they’re yours. I have enough pets as it is.”
Hearing his words, Baledagh shuddered with one last sob, his tears spent as he sank into blissful oblivion.
I’m sorry Qing-Qing, I’ll find you in my next life, or the one after that, or after that. Even if it takes ten-thousand lifetimes, you will be my wife and I your husband. This I swear.
The fires of agony burned across every inch of his body as Gen woke to the world, his mouth filled with sweet nectar. Swallowing greedily, he opened his mouth for more, a stream of warm, delicious liquid pouring in. The world came into focus as he opened his eyes, laying in the arms of a beautiful, crystalline fairy, her face a motif of exquisitely patterned scars. Two of her dainty fingers sat in his mouth while her other hand rested on a corpse, melting the flesh and bone and absorbing it into her body before passing it along to Gen, diligently nursing him back to health.
Her alluring blood-red lips curled in a smile and he lost himself in the endless pits of her eyes. Elegance and power, she seemed to have been spawned by his deepest desires, and soon, his pain faded away thanks to her careful ministrations. Reluctantly sitting up, he turned to look upon her voluptuous frame, want to throw himself upon her and lose himself in pleasure. Reaching up to stroke her face, he traced the familiar, triangular pattern as recognition dawned upon him. “Bei? Wife, is that you?”
Her head tilted in charming question, the image of Bei’s face superimposed itself on the fairy’s, reflected in the gorgeous translucent skin which coated every inch of her body. Laughing to himself, he leaned in and kissed her deeply, delighted to find she had a tongue once more. “I approve of your new look, it’s delightfully erotic.” Glancing at his hands, he found both were now encased in bone and metal, his left hand transformed to match the right, though it was fire-red instead of jade-white. Better and better, he was truly blessed by the heavens.
A long groan caught his attention, spying Baledagh and Qing-Qing laying together, hand in hand as the bandit pushed himself up. Anger soaring at the sight, Gen roared, “Let go of her!” Marching towards the adulterous pair, he imagined all the punishments he would visit upon her, the delicious tortures he’d visit on Baledagh.
Appearing in front of him in the blink of an eye, Bei wagged her finger in admonishment. Frowning at his wife, Gen barked, “Move aside.” Seeing her remain in place, he backhanded her across the face, his metallic knuckles scraping across her glassy skin with a high-pitched shriek, her head unmoved by the impact. Snarling in anger, Gen’s fingers elongated into sharpened blades and slashed out at the insolent bitch. Sparks flew as he raked across her torso, but Bei remained unharmed, still smiling like a dutiful wife, hands clasped in front of her.
As he continued attacking in a frenzy, Bei ignored him and glanced away, first staring at Baledagh and then off to the west, inciting his anger even further. Faster than he could react, she delivered a gentle palm strike to his chest, sending him away to land softly more than fifteen meters away, uninjured and humiliated. Opening his mouth to scream at her, a thunderous crash exploded before his eyes, engulfing the area around Bei in a blaze of light. Blinded and disoriented, Gen stumbled back into a tree and clumsily guided himself around it, a high-pitched ringing in his ears drowning out all sounds. His vision gradually returned in a blur of colours, Bei engaged in combat against a scruffy grandfather, his eyes wide with glee as his hair flew about, expertly wielding a thick metal cane.
A pinpoint of light flickered at the end of the cane and Gen shielded his eyes as it blossomed in intensity, illuminating the world in blinding radiance. A tumultuous rumbling followed, shaking him to the bones, and he watched Bei’s body soar across the clearing. Crashing in the trees, she rolled to her feet unfazed, charging back into the fray once more. Their battle played out faster than he could follow, their movements a blur as the grandfather wildly smashed Bei away again and again, his weapon erupting in to light with each strike.
How dare he batter my wife?!
Hatred burning in his chest, Gen extended his left hand as his fingertips ignited. A gout of flame burst from his palms, engulfing the grandfather in a continuous stream of fire. Falling back, the old man’s cane spun in circles, warding off the flames as his frazzled hair smoked at the tips. Taking advantage of his distraction, Bei’s fingers raked across the old man’s chest, leaving a light trail of blood in their wake. Husband and wife working in concert, they pushed the grandfather back, Gen distracting him with the flames while Bei prowled about, searching for the kill.
A fine wife indeed.
His instincts screamed and his right hand raised to shield himself, intercepting a thrust which would have ended his life. Even then, the thrust sent him tumbling head over heels, scrambling to his feet in time to deflect a powerful chop. Recoiling from the impact, Gen’s arms shook as he took in his opponent. Standing with shield in hand, Baledagh stared impassively at him, as if uninterested in battle.
Cackling with delight, Gen released his flames to consume the bandit, eagerly anticipating the sight of his blackening skin. Raising his shield, Baledagh slowly strode into the fire, the blaze swirling around him, parting to let him through untouched. “Impossible!” Screaming in denial, Gen poured all the power he could muster into the fire, the air turning to searing steam and igniting nearby trees, but even then, Baledagh continued forward, one slow step after the other.
Backing away, Gen’s nerve broke and he fled into the forest. An arm encircled his waist to lift him up, carried away in Bei’s arms and watching as Baledagh faded into the distance. Turning to his wife, he held back his rebuke after seeing her fractured and shattered skin, flawless beauty marred by injury. “That damned grandfather, how dare he break your skin? Not to worry my love, you did well. A temporary retreat while we acclimate to our powers.” Shifting in her arms, Gen rested in her bosom, tired from the days events. “The people around here are too weak to join us, we’ll go north to find others who know the truth, join with our comrades from beyond the wall. It’ll be fine Bei, we’ll balance the scales upon our return.”
Drifting off to sleep, Gen smiled as he dreamt of a world consumed by blood and fire.
Between the recent battles against Defiled and Demons, and the still unhealed injuries from my time in the water, my body is a mass of bruises and breaks, not to mention the gaping hole in my stomach. With every movement, I discover a new pain, those fucking spectres not bothering to heal my body, not entirely. They fixed it just enough so Baledagh could move, masking the pain so he didn’t notice, hoping to force him into dire straits and take over.
I’ll fix the injuries later and figure out what to do with Baledagh. There’s only so much I can handle after spending weeks caught in a torrent of screaming spirits without a moment’s rest, each one ready to devour me whole and take my place.
Not exactly what I’d call a fun vacation.
“Ye injured?” Cautiously approaching with weapon lowered, the old beggar pats his charred, smoking clothes, his wild hair smouldering. “This old warrior’s name is Lei Gong.”
“… Azure Ascendant, Lord of Thunder Lei Gong?” Well fuck.
“That’d be me.” Swelling with pride, he runs his fingers through his scraggly beard, sending a cloud of ashes into the air. “A young man with amber eyes and a bladed shield, seems I found the missing Warrant Officer eh? For once, the rumours weren’t overstated. Impressive.”
“… Yea, nice to meet you.” Please don’t be hostile, I’m too tired for this shit.
“Care to explain why yer out here fighting Defiled and Demons alone?”
Wish I could, you wouldn’t believe me. “Not really. I don’t mean to be rude but I’m exhausted, so I’m gonna go lie down. I’d appreciate it if you didn’t kill me in my sleep. Oh, if you find a horse with two bears in the saddlebags, they’re mine, so… yea.” Ignoring his incredulous stare, I stumble away, prop myself against a tree, and close my eyes to rest for the first time in weeks. If the old bandit kills me, well then at least I won’t be tired anymore.
It was one hell of an experience and I hope to never go through anything like it again.
Time passes and I find myself in the void, standing at Baledagh’s side as I study my alter-ego. No, that’s not exactly true anymore, is it? I’d always thought he was my split personality, my darker side, the ‘warrior’ persona within me. It made sense in a weird way, my mind adapting to this crazy, chaotic world by birthing a persona better suited for it. Happens all the time in stories, and he even chose the name ‘Warrior’.
Listening to him talk while I was trapped and hearing how he sees the world, I realized how wrong I really was. He doesn’t have my experience or fragmented memories, and he’s so naive and impulsive, acting without even considering the consequences, it’s maddening. He’s like a child seeing the world through new eyes, thinking everything will work out as he expects. We’re so different, I don’t know why I never saw it before. We’re not brothers, or split personalities. We’re different people, brought together by a bizarre twist of fate.
He’s Baledagh, the original owner of this body, and I’m Rayne, a parasite taking over his life.
My hand twitches as the thought of killing him flashes through my mind. Why not? It’d be easy, and I deserve a life of my own. I worked hard for it, suffered for it, so why should I lie down and give everything up? Shaking my head, I let go of the thought, kneeling to stare at Baledagh’s sleeping face and contemplate my future.
I can’t kill him, this is his life. I’m in the wrong here. I don’t want to die or give up everything I worked for, nor do I want to be a spectator in his life, but there are other questions to consider. Most prominent among them being: If he’s the original soul, then what am I?
Well the simple answer is: a spiritual entity who entered his mind and took over his body.
So how am I any different from a Demon?
Fuck my life.
– End of Volume 8 –
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