Author’s note: So thanks again for all the well-wishes, I’m feeling better and only coughing sporadically now.
Hopefully I’ll get back on schedual (though this chapter is kinda late). I’m still at home for today and tomorrow, since I had to use my vacation days anyways, so it should be fine.
Anyways hope this chapter works. Writing arguments is tricky, because at the end of the day, I’m arguing with myself. Hard to see the holes in my logic, or see where I forgot to add information, so uh, lemme know if you find any glaring errors so I can regain my honour by comitting sudoku.
Delighted by Falling Rain’s spirit of inquiry, BoLao eagerly waited as he collected his thoughts. A simple statement, ‘I don’t understand’, but it was better than what the other young officers offered. Even her cousin spouted nothing but common truisms and meaningless assurances, a considerable disappointment. The others thought they understood what was to come, but not one did. Only Falling Rain was brave enough to accept his ignorance and take steps to correct it, though he seemed leery of voicing his thoughts.
Unwilling to hurry him for fear of startling him into silence, she studied the young warrior. Sitting by the fire, so lean and sickly, Falling Rain hugged his knees in an almost vulnerable manner. Though he appeared deep in thought, his amber eyes periodically scanned his surroundings, staring about like a country bumpkin out on his first journey. An odd habit, especially considering the Bekhai lived in the wilds and there was nothing spectacular about this forest. Contemplating on the puzzle, she followed his wandering gaze for a few moments before the answer made itself clear: he was assessing threats and planning his escape, not out of any conscious fear but rather part of his standard vigilance.
Her curiosity sated, she quickly noticed other clues of his diligence. Despite being surrounded by three-thousand elites to guard him, Falling Rain arrived for dinner armed with sword and shield, his bow and quiver waiting nearby in the harness of his battle-ready mount. The ferocious creature curled up around its master, deceptively docile as it begged for food, the Bekhai youngster’s most formidable weapon hidden in plain sight. No mere pet, she’d read the reports of his encounter with assassins inside Sanshu, the roosequin instrumental in his victory against overwhelming numbers.
It was apparent the young officer didn’t trust the soldiers around him and after thinking things through, she understood why. Major Yuzhen, two of three fellow Warrant Officers, the majority of soldiers, and even BoLao herself were all Adherents of the Society, and considering his past experiences, she couldn’t fault him for his caution. Still, for one so young to have such wariness engraved into his bones, her heart ached for him. She’d seen the same behaviour in older warriors, veterans and survivors of countless battles, too nervous to sit in the open, startled by every noise and movement, unfit for civilian life. What sort of training and hardships had he suffered through to adopt these same mannerisms at such a young age?
It was foolish to think he’d come so far on talent alone.
Obviously her appraisal of him would need to be amended. With this in mind, she reexamined her previous encounters with him. A delight to chat with, his adorable blushing and shy glances made her feel young again. His true nature or a calculated act? If an act, then it was a masterful one. She’d almost forgotten what it was like to be seen through eyes without fear, a woman almost past her prime without a single suitor. Father long ago stopped pressing her to settle down and marry, his letters only ever asking her to return and visit. He’d given up on grandchildren, only worried for her safety even after all these years. It hurt to disappoint him, but it wasn’t as if she wanted to die a spinster without husband or family. Her lifestyle allowed for little time for flirtation, not to mention her reputation. What else was she to do, marry a slave or subordinate? Impossible, doing so was akin to spitting in father’s face, humiliating him before his peers and underlings.
Inwardly grimacing, BoLao cleared her mind and focused. Silly fancies of life would need to wait, Falling Rain was finally ready to voice his question. “You said you hold no rank or title, so why are you here? Why did Major Yuzhen hand over command to you?”
More caution and prudence, he was testing the waters. Patience would be needed to win him over, perhaps even a little charm. Tucking loose strands of hair behind her ear, she felt a little pride at his sudden blush. Leaning closer to adopt an air of intimacy, she answered in a soft voice. “Though I now hold no official rank, I was once a Warrant Officer like yourself, though I relinquished the office after my Master took me in. Also, you’re mistaken, Major Yuzhen hasn’t handed over command, I act in an advisory position. My experience in these matters is well-known, my reputation hard-earned after assisting in three Purges.”
Pulling away, Falling Rain gasped with a mix of incredulity and horror. “You volunteered for this? To torture and kill civilians?”
She cursed herself for bringing it up so soon. Though she took pride in her work, not everyone felt the same. Not all was lost, this could be a chance to stress the importance of the Purge. Head held high, she answered, “Yes, I am here by choice. I travel year round with my Aspirants, searching high and low for signs of corruption. If a Purge is called, we ride with all haste to offer our services, defending the Empire without thanks or reward. Though it is an unpleasant task, we all must serve in our own way.” She could see the fear and revulsion in his eyes, her spirits flagging for an instant, but she held fast to the words of her Master. “This is a divine calling, a sacred duty, to do what others can or will not.”
An uncomfortable silence settled around her, all four men sheepishly avoiding her gaze. Seeing Falling Rain chew his lip, she implored him to speak. “Please, ask your questions so we might have an open discussion. I swear, I’ll hold no grievances and you’ll suffer no consequences.”
Hesitant, he scratched his neck and spoke in a hushed tone, still unable to meet her eyes. “In the course of your ‘sacred duty’, how many innocents have died at your hands?”
“Countless.” Her answer was immediate, her voice steady, the question asked a thousand times before. “The majority of people killed in a Purge are innocent, their lives sacrificed for the greater good.”
This time, he continued without prodding, even looking at her with troubled eyes. “How can you justify the torture of innocent civilians? Do their lives mean nothing to you? Where is the Divine in this? Why not kill them and be done with it?”
Oh, this poor child, his actions made so much more sense now. He attacked Laughing Dragon to save the villagers, not knowing they were already marked for death. “No wonder you think me a monster, you don’t understand why this must be done. Do you know why they are called ‘the Defiled’?” Her question caught him off guard, shaking his head almost imperceptibly. “Because it is what they are, tainted by the Father’s touch. His children, the Demons, whisper to them, moulding the Defiled into weapons to be used against us. Most go insane with blood lust, because it is against human nature, a perversion of the Mother’s work. Those are promptly hunted down and given mercy, unable to cause too much damage. The true danger comes from those capable of accepting His teachings, like Laughing Dragon and his ilk.”
She held his interest now, his curiosity piqued. Praying to the Mother for clarity, she continued to explain, her excitement growing. “Hiding in plain sight, the Defiled spread their infection around them through whispers and secrets, like an unseen plague of violence and depravity. One infects two and they become three. Three becomes nine, nine becomes thirty, and so on and so forth. The Firebrands were over fifty strong, riding through these forests for years on end. Before their death, who knows how far they spread their filth and lies, how many innocents they slaughtered and tortured, how many they marked for the Father? Where you see innocents, I see those marked by His touch, their souls blackened and minds corrupted. Left alone, it is only a matter of time before they fall and continue to propagate. I offer redemption and atonement, a chance to repent and cleanse their souls, throwing off His shackles before death. What’s more, we reveal the true face of the Enemy through torture, proving the Purge was justified. Though the innocent must endure a few hours of suffering, it is a mere pittance compared to an eternity of torment in the Father’s Maw. If not for my efforts, tens of thousands of souls would be lost to the Enemy, forever denied the Mother’s Embrace.”
Breathless and elated, she waited for the sweet moment of illumination as he considered her words. He was studying to be a healer, surely he’d understand. Sometimes to save a life, you must cut flesh, and she prayed he’d be enlightened by her words. Perhaps he’d even hear the call to duty and join the Aspirants. The Empire grew rife with corruption and a young hero like Falling Rain would draw many to their cause. How wonderful it would be…
This was all getting ahead of herself. Pushing aside her errant thoughts, she refocused on Falling Rain, noticing his gaze filled with… pity? Did he not understand? Had she erred in her explanation? Turning to face her, he directed his mount to stand as he casually rested his hand by his hilt before speaking. “Says who?”
“Who decided innocent souls are tainted through mere proximity? Who decided torture is required to cleanse them?”
Filled with righteous indignation, she fought back her anger and narrowed her eyes, studying Falling Rain. Were his actions an open provocation? No, more caution from him, prepared to defend in case she reacted poorly to his line of questioning. “You question the teachings of the Mother?”
“You’re the one who pushed me to ask, I am wholly ignorant. Was it divine instruction? Did the Mother declare ‘any who come close to the Defiled are to be tortured’? If so, then I can only ask for forgiveness.”
“This is the way things have always been done. My Master taught me this as his master taught him, an unbroken line of the faithful going back centuries.” Unable to answer in the affirmative, she licked her lips and tried a different tack. “Surely you must understand the need? Unless one can demonstrate their Purity through a discernible manipulation of Chi, there is no way to determine who has been Defiled.”
“I understand the need for action. What I don’t understand is the need for wholesale torture.”
His amber eyes pierced through her, judging her, condemning her like so many others. This wasn’t how this conversation was supposed to go. “So you believe as the rest of the world does, as my father believes, that I do this for entertainment? That I enjoy the torture of innocents?”
For all her outrage, all she received was a simple shrug. “Do you?”
“I. Do. Not.”
“Then who cares what others think? I only ask, who decided mass torture was the proper response to a Defiled outbreak?”
“You think the Emperor would sit idle and allow his citizens to be tormented without reason?”
Another shrug. “I wouldn’t dare speak for the Emperor. You still haven’t answered my question, though I have more. How does mere contact with the Defiled deny a person the Mother’s embrace? Is the Mother’s love so easily lost? How does suffering cleanse them? What about soldiers? We come in contact with the Defiled all the time, are we tainted as well? You spend all your efforts ‘cleansing’ the Defiled so you come in close contact with them. Are you tainted?”
“You dare?!” Shooting to her feet, she channelled the Heavenly Energies in a display of Purity, the holy energies surging through her. Blanching as he realized his error, Falling Rain scurried away from her approach. “You twist words and bend truths but I know my actions are righteous, my Path, Divine.” If only he’d draw his weapon so she might strike him down with cause.
“Sorry, I got a little carried away, I was being rhetorical-”
Ignoring his excuses, she lunged forward and lifted him by the collar, locking gazes with him. “I do what others cannot, bear burdens which others will not. I have sacrificed everything to carry out my sacred duty. Who are you to call me into question?”
“Enough words. You think you know better? Then prove it. When the prisoners arrive in a few days, you will pick out the Defiled from among them. An easy task or so you make it seem, separating the innocent from the guilty. Should those you choose prove to be defiled and no innocents killed, then I will believe the Mother speaks through you and spare the rest.” An impossible task, she gave him no chance to refuse, knowing he would soon see the futility of his arguments. The Purge was the only way, there was no other choice.
Tossing him aside, she stormed off as everyone hurried to avoid her gaze, their heads bowed in unspoken fear, soldier, officer, and Aspirant alike. Though he grated on her nerves, Falling Rain’s questions did help her understand one thing; the Mother loved all her children, this much was true. Though BoLao only did what was required, a price had to be paid for killing so many innocents. There would be no Husband or children for Han BoLao, no rest or retirement, a life devoid of love and affection, a penance for all her sins. It was only right, she saw this now, understood why Master had no family, why the world reviled her.
Such was life, trials and tribulations without end, but she would carry her burden with pride.
Picking a burr out of his loincloth, Gao Qiu muttered a litany of curses beneath his breath. Jinxed is what he was, doomed to misfortune in whatever he did. He’d only travelled a few tens of kilometres before the raft fell apart. Not so terrible, but it’d done so without warning, giving him no time to throw his axe to shore. Though only a short swim, the blasted hunk of metal almost dragged him beneath the waves, his lungs half-filled with water by the time he’d made it to dry land.
A damn old fool is what he was. Why hadn’t he stolen a proper boat, one with oars and supplies? Though berries, tubers, and nuts were easily found, meat was difficult to hunt with only an axe and dagger. A pack filled with rope, a water skin, some extra clothes, and a bedroll, he wasn’t asking for much. Even worse, he’d left behind all his hidden coin, too distraught to even think properly.
After roughing it in the woods for so many days, he looked like a senile old beggar, clambering around the woods with only a single boot, the other claimed by the lake. The indignity of it all forced him to avoid all human contact, taking his sweet time as he followed the shore east, reminiscing of better times and better places. Unwilling to risk his life on a raft, he kept his eye out for army patrols, still thinking of heading south in search of purpose.
Ambling on until sunset, he ate a meagre meal of berries before climbing into a tree to sleep. His body ached with the rigours of age, but he didn’t dare settle down to heal. He’d never been good at it and it required all his concentration, too dangerous without someone to watch, the forests filled with soldiers, bandits and beasts alike
While dreaming of killing and eating a delicious bear, Gao Qiu’s eyes snapped open in the darkness, his instincts alerting him to danger. The moonlight filtered through the treetops as he studied his surroundings, still and silent as can be. Though nothing stood out, he gripped his axe tight, ready to sell his life dearly.
From the base of the tree, a familiar voice sounded. “Well fuck me sideways, I’d recognize yer shitty cleaver anywhere. Gao Qiu, get yer old bones down here, I ain’t in the mood fer climbing. Yer surrounded fer what it’s worth, not like I need help to kill a senile bastard like yerself.”
Snorting loudly, Gao Qiu dropped from the tree and landed, the sound of his knees cracking loud as a thunderbolt. “Old? We’re the same fucking age Jariad. Yer antler roots must be digging into yer brain again, doing strange things to yer memory. Never met a half-deer who wasn’t an idiot.”
“Half-Stag ye damned bastard.” Standing out of weapon range with arms crossed, Jariad’s teeth shone in the moonlight. “Ye look like shit, more so than usual I mean. What’s the Red Devil of Sanshu doing out here all by his lonesome? Ye lose yer job sucking the Spectre’s cock? Some younger lad take yer job?”
“Just cause Bastard Liu lets ye slobber all over his don’t mean I do the same. This here is still Butcher Bay territory, where Corsairs like yerself ain’t welcome. The traitor thinks he can break the Accords, how surprising. Looking to take out the Spectre once and for all is he?” Spitting to the side, Gao Qiu limbered up, twirling his axe in both hands. “Well, he should have sent more. Y’all are nothing more than a spot of exercise, good fer the heart.”
“Ah I’m gonna enjoy killing you.” Drawing his saber, Jariad took his stance, ready to charge forward with a slash, predictable as always. “Still, much as I hate yer guts, I can’t say I saw this coming. We served and fought together back in the day, and though yer a right bloody bastard, I’d never have pegged ye fer Defiled.”
“Shut yer fucking mouth!”
“Why deny it? It’s obvious, why else would you be out here? Ye heard about Laughing Dragon turning Defiled and feared the Spectre would suss you out, so ye cut and ran.”
The statement took Gao Qiu off-guard, his mind thrown into turmoil by Jariad’s statement. Never one to miss an opportunity, the sneaky bastard charged with a yell. Barely parrying the attack, Gao Qiu pushed the half-beast aside, ignoring the opportunity to counter as he held his hand up for pause. “Wait, stop. Laughing Dragon is Defiled?”
“Don’t pretend, old man.” Though he sneered in contempt, Jariad halted his attack, signalling for his men to back off. “That Warrant Officer you tangled with, he ended up on the western shore. Ran into a Defiled band which he swears was led by Laughing Dragon. The bitch called the Purge and the boss sent us out here to guard the shore. Said the Spectre was too lenient on runaways.”
Ignoring the laughs from Jariad’s joke, the world crumbled around Gao Qiu as he struggled to accept the truth. Laughing Dragon and the Spectre, a meeting behind closed doors. Laughing Dragon, the Defiled. Colonel Yo Ling, the man who knew everything that happened in Sanshu, meeting with the Defiled Laughing Dragon. Screaming in rage, he threw his axe into the dirt and reached for Balance, displaying his purity before the others. His fist smashed into the tree beside him, again and again, the trunk shattering in a mess of splinters as he huffed with exertion. His rage spent, tears streamed down his face as he leaned against the broken tree, mourning the loss of everyone he knew, praying for Jariad or one of his lackeys to kill him and end it all.
No such luck. Gao Qiu legs gave out, flopping to the dirt as he stared at a confused Jariad. “I ain’t Defiled, but the Spectre is. Before I left, he was meeting with Laughing Dragon.”
Scratching his beard, Jariad thought with his mouth open, an annoying habit he’d never lost. “Well… Fuck.” After a long silence, Jariad stepped forward and Gao Qiu closed his eyes, waiting for the sword to fall. Prodding him with a boot, Jariad snorted as he held out a hand. “Don’t be so dramatic ye old bastard. Stand up now, I ain’t gonna carry your heavy ass.”
Letting himself be pulled up, Gao Qiu asked, “Why?”
Already leading his men away, Jariad called back over his shoulder.“Same reason I do anything: Boss’ orders.”
Sighing as he patted himself down, he grabbed his axe and did his best to straighten his beard. Just his luck, after almost a decade of separation, Gao Qiu had to meet old friends and enemies looking like a beggar.
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