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“It makes no sense.” Exhaustion hangs from me like a cloak, but fueled by righteous indignation, I grind the herbs in my makeshift mortar and pestle while struggling to grasp Lei Gong’s explanation. “Because of one Demon and like, fifty Defiled, the Imperial Army is going to swoop in and kill everyone?”
Wincing as he shrugs, Lei Gong’s shoulders slump as he patiently waits for treatment, his chest oozing black sludge as the Demon’s corrosion eats away at his flesh. “Not quite, but ye have the broad stokes. Many will die in the interrogation process, that’s what happens when a Demon turns within the borders. To be Defiled is a sickness, one impossible to detect unless they lose control, or the person in question is suitably advanced in the usage of chi.”
His horrendous stench aside, the old man is praiseworthy, yet to complain about the agonizing pain. Hell, I got a little on my skin from our little hostage hug and that stung like a bitch. I don’t know why the Demon didn’t use it on me, but I’m thankful all the same. “Okay, so you can’t detect if someone is Defiled, but it doesn’t mean they can justify indiscriminate murder.”
Sighing mournfully as he sips from his wine skin, he shakes his head. “I don’t disagree, but what other choice is there? Ye tell me Laughing Dragon is Defiled and I believe ye, but it’s difficult to accept. He’s been operating around here for decades, the Firebrands infamous for almost five years now. I’ve met the man more than once, laughed with him, shared his food and drink, and never in ten-thousand years would I have suspected him of being Defiled. He seemed like a good man, for a bandit.” His eyes glass over as he scours his memories, suspicion and regret clear as day. “He hid in plain sight for years, and where there is one, there are others. How many more might be afflicted? Hundreds? Thousands? If allowed to spread and grow in numbers, they could threaten the Empire from within, something we cannot afford in these trying times.”
Pausing in my work, my accusatory glare goes unnoticed as he drinks. “So what? Better to kill ten-thousand innocents than to let one Defiled escape? It’s lunacy.” If I keep everything secret, the Sentinels will back me and the former bandits are expendable, I’d only have to take care of one, old man who might already be dying… Ah, tricky bastards. Shut up and leave me alone.
Ignorant of my homicidal thoughts, Lei Gong strokes his singed beard, his fingers rubbing the bare skin. “Such is the way of the world. Even a single, undetected Defiled in the right place can cause irrevocable damage to the Empire, causing cities to fall and armies to perish. It’s happened before and Mother help us, it’ll happen again.”
The steady grinding of stone against stone fills the silence as I concentrate on finding an answer to our problems. From Baledagh’s daily reports and the small glimpses I got when he was in trouble, I know he could sense the Defiled. Maybe that’ll work. “Wholesale slaughter is not an acceptable solution… What if there were a way to detect the Defiled? Would it change things?” I just need to explain how I can sense the Defiled and why I can’t teach anyone.
I should give up, it’s not worth all this trouble. I’m nothing more than a worthle…
God-dammit. Now they’re moving on to self-pity? My greatest weakness…
“Even if such a method existed, the army wouldn’t care. Their way is tried and tested, yer’s not worth the risk, not with the Defiled already bashing at our doors. Yer young and idealistic, but that’ll change. Ye’ll get to see first hand how the army roots out the Defiled, happens a few times every year, always real quiet-like.” Tilting his head back, he drains the rest of his wine skin, his throat bobbing as he gulps down the potent-smelling liquor. Almost a full minute passes before he empties the skin and closes his eyes with mournful sigh. “Maybe ye’ll understand when they’re done, but I wouldn’t bet on it. Watching pleading grand-parents and crying children turn savage in the blink of an eye, transforming into Demons once all hope is lost, it changes ye… Takes a long time before ye can trust anyone afterwards. What’s worse is those who don’t turn, the look in their eyes…”
His haunted voice speaks of personal experience in these matters, and I bite my lip to keep from asking, working in silence as he deals with his private anguish. We all have our inner demons, and a little quiet and self-introspection is good for the soul. As he reaches for another wine skin, I note that lots of alcohol also seems to help. Doesn’t seem like the healthiest way to handle things, but if it ain’t broke…
Hell, I could use a drink or five myself.
I mean, fuck… Baledagh is Defiled and I’m some Demonic Spectre or something… No one should face this shit sober.
It takes another hour before I finish treating Lei Gong, slow going since I keep almost falling asleep. The corrosive fluid is nasty stuff, left untreated, Lei Gong’s flesh and organs would have dissolved into black sludge, killing him slowly over a period of days. The treatment isn’t too effective to be honest, not much in the textbooks regarding Demonic Corrosion. I flushed the wound with water and packed it with an herbal paste I concocted through trial and error, which might slow down or even negate the corrosive effect. The rest is up to Lei Gong to fix, my treatment little more than buying time for him to heal with chi.
My job done, I gather the cubs and lead them away from the smelly old man, his body odour only a step away from being weaponized. Waiting nearby, Ravil hands me a massive bowl of stew and a stack of travel bread, patiently waiting as I dig in ravenously. Nodding in thanks, I speak with my mouth full while the cubs bounce around, begging for scraps. “Report.” Dammit they’re cute. Please be small bears, my bed is cramped enough as it is.
The bald, dark-skinned bully sergeant salutes lazily, almost mockingly. I should teach him a fucking lesson, I deserve respect. Ugh, no. I told you guys to cut it out. Don’t make me go in there and rattle your cage. “All our scouts have returned safe and sound, no signs of the Defiled. The Demon’s trail leads north by north-east, but we only tracked it for an hour before turning around. Should I send scouts to alert the army of the Defiled outbreak?”
“No, not yet, I need time to think things through.” If I send the report in, then I’m consigning thousands to death. There has to be a better way. I bet I can handle this myself, get the Mother’s Militia to help me gather up the villagers and inspect them one by one. I’d have to convince Lei Gong to keep his mouth shut about this but it shouldn’t be too hard, he seemed distraught when talking about the purge.
“We’ve cremated all the civilians aside from the girl, Ai Qing.” Unused to being sympathetic, Ravil stammers, “I thought you’d like to uh… say goodbye.”
Ah dammit, the thought didn’t even cross my mind. I need to sleep for a week, my eyes are barely staying open. “Thank you Ravil. Keep an eye on Lei Gong and let me know if his condition gets worse.” There’s not much I can do if it does, so let’s hope for the best.
Then again, things would be easier if he was dead.
Okay, that’s enough, something needs to be done about those Spectres and their damn whispering. No wonder Baledagh is always so bloodthirsty, with all their incessant prodding I’m almost ready to kill something just to shut those bastards up. The worst part is, they’re fucking tricky. Most of what they say makes sense in a twisted way. Kill Lei Gong and order the bandits and Sentinels to keep their mouths shut seems like a good plan, but it solves nothing. I’d be taking one life to save ten-thousand, while putting millions at risk should I fail to deal with all the Defiled hidden around here. Not to mention the few terrorized survivors from Ai Qing’s village running around might give it away regardless of what I do.
It’s too much, I want to go home and forget everything that happened here. If only I could go back in time to when I thought I was schizo and hearing voices, things were simpler then. Instead, I’m stuck here, exhausted, injured, indecisive, and confused. I’m not sure if Lei Gong has a ruse planned, or if Baledagh is gonna snap and go all-out murder-hobo, or if I’m gonna crack and turn into a monster.
Questions upon questions, they never end. I’m too tired for this shit. One thing at a time. After finishing my meal, I head over to where Ai Qing lies atop a funeral pyre, her body covered by a blanket. The two cubs seem to understand her passing, their mournful cries heartbreaking to hear. Sitting down with the cubs in my arms, I close my weary eyes and struggle to stay awake while I send my mind into the void. Seeing Baledagh lying in bed brings all my insecurities to light in a torrent of doubt and discouragement. Who am I? Why am I here? Am I some phenomenal cosmic mistake, or am I here for an express purpose? Should I willingly give up control to Baledagh and let him live his life, or do I suppress him and hope he just… goes away? He’s heartbroken, all but begging me to leave him alone to mourn in blissful oblivion.
Maybe I should put him out of his misery.
I’m not sure if I can blame that one on the Spectres.
The rest of the void sits empty, and no matter how hard I try, I’m unable to create anything else. Before, when we both thought this was my mind and my domain, I was all-powerful. Anything I could imagine, I could create, my haven away from all the horrors of the world and a home for Baledagh to amuse himself in during his waking hours. This was the one place where I felt safe, inside my mind where I was the boss, the alpha, the big kahuna. Now… I’m not sure. Either Baledagh has taken my place and I’m no longer in charge, or my crippling self-doubt is disrupting my mental prowess.
Maybe it’s both. Maybe it’s something else. Who knows. Whatever the reason, Baledagh is captain now.
Shaking him gently, I call out his name. “Baledagh, wake up.” That might be it, he never had a name before, and therefore no sense of self. Now that he does, I guess it conflicts with… whatever I am. Two minds in one body can’t be healthy. His body shifts and the bed and blankets jump several meters away, my irritation spiking as I march over. “Stop pretending to sleep, it’s time for Ai Qing’s funeral.” He’s a worthless child, I should kill him or leave him here until he fades away. I deserve to live more than he does, I earned everyth–
Stopping in my tracks, I turn my palm up and summon the spectre’s cage with a thought. The swirling energies entrap an indeterminate number of Spectres within, a trick I picked up after days of running from their dogged pursuit. It’s not too different from Honing, where I move a chain of chi across the blade’s edge, only wider, more complicated, and more… more. Focusing my chi with an effort, I increase the flow with the cage and put an end to their persistent whispers, replaced by a satisfying chorus of wails as the Spectres crash into one another.
It’s fucking annoying having to worry if every thought is my own.
Whirl-pooling them around drains what little energy I have in a matter of seconds, leaving me breathless and burned out. Staring at the little prison I built with Baledagh’s permission, I wonder what their end game is. From hearing his version of events, I figure they’re trying to consume us both, but he was caught and devoured time and time again and nothing happened in the grand scheme of things. What’ll happen if they catch me as well? I’m gonna hazard a guess that it won’t be pleasant, but the specifics escape me.
Ugh, I’m getting a headache from all these mental gymnastics. Too many problems, too little sleep.
Sighing, I toss aside the cage and sit down next to Baledagh, who turns away with eyes screwed shut. “Look, I know you’re hurting, and you can stay here if that’s what you want. I’ll handle everything for you, but trust me when I say you’ll regret it. Come out and say goodbye. You can come right back afterwards.” I hope he does. I’m not ready to be a full-time angel on his shoulder, and judging by the contents of the cage, the odds are stacked heavily against me. “Come on Baledagh. You can do this.”
“Leave me alone.”
Well, at least he’s speaking. “I’m sorry, but I can’t. We’re heading north for a more defensible camp, so this is the only chance we’ll get.”
Waving me away, Baledagh mumbles, “Take care of her for me. Don’t leave her to be eaten, she deserves better.”
Putting my hand on his shoulder, I speak as gently as I can. “Baledagh, that body out there isn’t her, it’s what she left behind. Ai Qing is gone, she doesn’t care what happens to her body. This funeral is so those who knew her can take the time to honour her memory and mourn her passing. I can’t do that, Baledagh. I didn’t know her. She has no one to speak for her except you.”
His shoulders shake as he grips my hand tightly, burying his face in the pillows. After a short cry, he sits up and wipes his eyes, sliding off the bed slowly. Taking a few deep breaths, he nods once and steels himself, his jaw set and eyes wet. “Okay. I’m ready now.”
Brave little warrior, always ready for a fight. “All right, let’s go say goodbye and wish her safe journey, wherever that may be. Cry, scream, do whatever you need to, I’ll be right there with you, unless you’d prefer to do this alone.”
Shaking his head without looking at me, his voice is quiet and subdued. “No, please, stay with me.”
With one more deep breath, he steps into our body and takes control while I follow along beside him, taking a backseat inside his emotions. His grief is palpable as he stares at Ai-Qing’s body, his arms tightening around the little cubs, seeking comfort in their soft fur. Warm tears fall from his eyes as his shoulders shake, a hollow emptiness emanating from his chest. Whimpering softly, the heart-wrenching sound which pierces through me. I keep forgetting how little life experience he has. I came in and took over when he was twelve, and he remembers nothing before that. With me around, he’s floated through years of life, with only brief glimpses of my life in his waking moments. It took four years before he was strong enough to speak out, and even then, he was never in control. Out on his own for less than a month and he fell so deeply in love, I don’t know if I’d call that lucky. It might be puppy love, it might not, but either way, the pain is all the same.
After a few minutes, his tears subside, though his body continues to shake. Unable to comfort him, I speak softly. “Why don’t you say a few words?”
At my prompting, he stands and gingerly strokes her cheek. “I’m sorry Qing-Qing. I couldn’t protect you. You were scared, so you left, and that’s my fault. I didn’t realize how difficult it must have been for you, a young woman out in the world with a stranger. When I told you about your village, I should have thought to bring you to see them, or reassure you and make you feel safe.” A lump forms in his throat, choking me as the tears begin anew, but his voice remains steady, determined. “I failed you, but I will find you in the next life, and I will do better. Then again in the next, and again, and again. I will spend ten-thousand lifetimes protecting you, loving you, cherishing you, and then ten-thousand more, even if you never return my affection.” His arms tremble as he lifts the blanket to cover her face. “Rest peacefully in the arms of the Mother, and move on to your next life when you are ready. There is no need to wait for me, we will be together. No matter the cost, I will gladly pay it.” Stepping back, he crouches down and lights the torch in one strike of the flint, tossing it at the base of the pyre. Gathering the cubs in his arms, he sits down to watch as the flames grow slowly, consuming the wood and flesh before him.
Feeling awkward during what should be a private moment, I say something to make myself available. “That was a beautiful eulogy. I’m sorry for your loss. From what you’ve told me, she would have fit right in with Lin and Mila.”
A sad, half-smile forms on his face. “Liar. Mila would have beaten us bloody for coming home with another woman.”
“True, but she wouldn’t have held it against Ai Qing.” Rewarded with a small, sobbing chuckle, I continue. “You don’t have to stay for this, I can handle the rest.” Burning corpses are not pretty to look at. Or smell.
Hiding behind his cubs, he shakes his head in denial. “I need to see this through. She was all I had. I have nothing now that she’s gone.”
Ah dammit… Now I feel even guiltier for taking his place. “That’s not true. You’ll always have me.”
“…Thank you brother.”
“Anytime… Brother.” Defiled or not, I mean it. We’ll figure this out together.
Subsiding into silence, we watch the flames together, Baledagh grieving as I remain available to him, wracking my brain for a solution. I can’t keep usurping his place, there has to be a way we can both live full, happy lives. I mean, ignoring the ramifications of splitting up for now, if I can regenerate whole limbs, how much harder can it be to make a new, separate body?
…Probably really, really, really hard.
Nothing is ever easy.
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