Author’s Note: I’d like to give a shout out to my lastest Patron Tin Pham. Thank you so much for your support!
Her mood dark, BoLao watched Falling Rain as he inspected the crowd, waiting for the moment he realized life was not so easy. Despite Major Yuzhen’s insistence otherwise, this was hardly a punishment, more a gentle lesson. BoLao had suffered far worse during her first Purge, more than a decade past. An untested Warrant Officer, she’d been swept up in the Purge after stumbling across the mountain hideout of several hundred Defiled bandits on a routine patrol. Deep in the Central province, any aid sent by her father would arrive too late to spare her the horrors, and so she was forced to spend her days collecting villagers for the slaughter.
Falling Rain reminded her so much of her younger self, questioning the need for death and torture, though she lacked his audacity and only aired her doubts to trusted subordinates. During the first day of Purging, she’d broken down into an inconsolable mess and hid in her tent, trying to block out the harrowing screams and inhuman cries. That night, desperate to save those she saw as innocents, she threw caution to the wind and tried to smuggle a group past the blockade. She’d been caught almost instantly, a foolish young Warrant Officer too trusting of her second. Seeing an opportunity, the snake of a ladder-climbing adherent sold her out to the superior in charge, a high-ranking Officer from a rival Clan. The Han Clan’s princess caught in a compromising situation, openly aiding suspected Defiled, how delicious it must have been for them. Only Master’s intervention saved her from harsh sanctions and even possible death, a few words and a wave of Master’s hand enough to deal with the matter.
She’d yet to accept him as her Master then, only knowing him as the man in the same role she held now. Oh how she’d fought when he took those she’d tried to save, openly weeping as he pressed the knife into her hand and brought her to the first victim, a young boy in his teens, fresh-faced and terrified. The memory was clear as yesterday, her futile struggle as Master took her by the hand and guided the knife into the boy’s flesh, her victims mouth opening in guttural screams which echoed her own, the splash of warm, salty blood across her face as she cut and carved, the terror in his eyes as he begged for a death which would not come quickly.
Again and again the boy invoked the Mother, or perhaps he cried for his mother, whose heartrending screams pierced through BoLao, pleading for her to stop. Apologizing again and again, BoLao tried everything in her power to resist and drop the knife in her hand, begging forgiveness for flaying the skin off of the boy’s chest, for carving the flesh from his bones, but her efforts were wasted. Master held her firmly in place with his Aura, forcing her to take part in the mutilation, exchanging knife for sharpened spoon, then screws, then hammer, and a bevy of assorted items for which she had no name for, silent throughout the entire ordeal as she swore retribution against him, promising vengeance for the poor child before her, no older than her darling cousin BoShui.
After hours of agonized torment beneath her hands, augmented by skillful healing from her Master, the boy was little more than a mass of exposed organs, whimpering softly as he stared out from unseeing, empty sockets. Numbed by shock and dead inside, BoLao had gone silent long ago, her emotions drained and emptied as each passing moment etched itself into her memory. Indifferent to their suffering, Master guided her hand to the boy’s throat and gently squeezed the life from him, his shredded lips curling into a grotesque, toothless smile. Once certain the boy was dead, Master bowed in silent prayer, before bringing her to the boy’s mother with knife in hand, ready to begin anew.
After the mother came others, a kindly grandfather, a venomous sister, a pleading uncle, a crying daughter and more, each one suffering their ministrations in the same manner, every cut, every strike, every torment repeated without deviation or rest. Uncounted hours and seventeen victims later, Master handed her the knife and pointed at her eighteenth victim, a boy younger than the first, and she knew exactly what to do. Unguided, she stepped forward to peel flesh and scrape bone, moving mechanically as if in a dream, numbed to horrors before her.
As she plucked the boy’s first eye out, his screams of pain turned to anger, though she cared nothing for it. As she moved to take the other eye, Master caught her hand and shook his head, pulling her away as the boy’s remaining skin rippled and exposed muscles shifted. His tiny frame swelled in size as his voice turned guttural and harsh, his single brown, beautiful eye staring at her with pure vitriolic hatred. Lesions erupted across his body, covering his pale skin with dark pustules and bubbling abscesses, the exposed, deformed bones of his hands snapping together to form a massive talon. A writhing mass of blackened flesh erupted from the void where his eye used to be, covering his face in a fiendish, grim mask, leaving only the one eye exposed, shockingly human amidst the monstrous visage.
On that fateful day, BoLao gazed deep into the abyss and saw the vile evil hiding within.
After killing the Demon with ease, Master took her aside and washed her hands gently, speaking for the first time since they began. His soothing voice explained everything plainly, leaving little room for doubt. The Defiled were a plague passed on through proximity, with Demons lurking in the dark void of their souls. The sickness needed to be removed, root and stem, torture nothing more than a tool to expose the sickness for what it was and ensure no Officer or noble use the Purge for nefarious purpose. Cause and effect, simplicity itself, she had done the Mother’s work, necessary work, unpleasant and horrific though it may be.
Now after all these years of clinging to that truth, she was once again that naive child, questioning her core beliefs because of Falling Rain.
Why had she never heard of a Purge directed at the Army? Year after year, the Defiled appeared and soldiers sent to quell them. Soldiers served for ten-year terms, often in the same areas, meaning those defending the border fortresses came into repeated contact with the Defiled. It’d be foolish to believe they’d never had problems with soldiers turning Defiled. With the majority of rank and file little more than meat for the grinder, unable to display their Purity, how was the Army staving off the affliction? Even allowing that soldiers were trained to seek Balance and the lack of privacy left no room for newly Defiled soldiers to unleash their murderous urges, how was it possible there had never been a large-scale outbreak? It shouldn’t take much for an entire garrison to become infected, falling to the Father’s whispers in mass, yet she’d never heard or read of such an occurrence. Did the Empire cover it up?
Looking at it from another angle, the highest penalty allowed in the Empire was ninety-nine days of agony, reserved only for those guilty of capital offence. More often than not, the offender would turn Demon, yet a Purge would not be called. Though the penalty for capital offence included the deaths of the offender’s family, but made her question: was the offender already Defiled or did he turn due to the torture?
Like the age-old question of the chicken and the egg, she wondered if she was the cure or the disease. Were her victims Defiled to begin with or did the terror and horror she wrought force them into the Father’s arms? The question had her tossing and turning in her cot, the past nights haunted by Falling Rain’s aggravating voice, her search for answers only dredging up more questions.
A crisis of faith on the cusp of a Purge, this was a trial set forth for BoLao and her convictions wavered dangerously. Resisting the urge to chew her lip, she prayed to the Mother for guidance as Falling Rain strode through the terrified crowd of villagers. Perhaps he could sense the Defiled and pick out the infected, how wonderful that would be.
His frosty, uncaring disposition stood in stark contrast to the emphatic young man she’d argued with in days passed. How perplexing, which one was the real Falling Rain, the impassive warrior or the impassioned dissident?
Holding her breath as she followed him away, but his statement filled her with disappointment and disgust. Matching stares with Falling Rain, she sneered and said, “Oh? These villagers are all children of the Mother, not a single Defiled among them? I suppose that means I must let them all go free. Should I continue with the Purge then their deaths are on my hands, absolving you of all guilt. How convenient.” Spitting at his feet, she shook her head. “I didn’t expect you to take the coward’s way out.”
Rolling his eyes, he replied in perfect deadpan. “There’s nothing brave about killing civilians. Do what you will, I mention it because I find it strange. There should at least be one or two in a group this size.” In outright dismissal, he turned away and faced Major Yuzhen directly, leaving BoLao standing on the side. “Are they all from the same village? We should question them and find out if anyone is missing and where they might have gone.” He paused, distracted by something in the sky. “I should inspect another group. Because the Defiled might have gathered and escaped. The Demon was fast, more than capable of traversing the entire area in a matter of days.”
Enraged by his worthless lies, BoLao lunged forward to drag him away and show him the errors of his way, as Master had shown her. Her Aura burst from her, but it rolled off him without effect. Exploding into action, Falling Rain twisted aside, eyes burning in defiance as he settled into a defensive stance. Aiming a kick for his stomach, she advanced cautiously, seeking to subdue him and force him to understand, as she was forced so many years ago. His arm swung low and parried the kick, lifting her foot by the heel and stepping forward as his foot scythed out to trip her. Hopping back to avoid his sweep, she jabbed twice, striking him in the face and forcing him to abandon the offensive. Her left foot still in his grasp, she immediately jumped upon landing, her right foot rising up to smash into his shoulder, shoving him violently aside and freeing her foot. Following through with the kick, she twirled in the air and landed firmly on both feet, glaring at the insolent young man. “You dare resist?”
“Cease this foolishness!” Major Yuzhen’s commanding voice put an end to their exchange. “Lady Han BoLao, might I remind you are here as a courtesy. Conduct yourself with decorum or I will have you removed. Assault one of my soldiers again and I’ll have you brought up on charges.”
“You don’t understand,” BoLao said through clenched teeth, pointing at Falling Rain. “He needs to see the truth.” Ignoring the arriving onlookers, she turned and locked gazes with the arrogant savage. “You judge me without knowing, safe on your perch so high, ignorant of the guilt I struggle with each day, praying for Her forgiveness, suffering the consequences of my choices. You’re like the others, sanctimonious and self-satisfied, thinking you have all the answers. You look at me as if I were a monster, call my work into question, yet when asked, you don’t dare take a stand. A hypocrite is what you are.”
In the silence that followed, Falling Rain’s anger melted away, his shoulders dropping as his gaze filled with pity. “If that’s what you truly believe,” he said, “Then why does it matter what I think? Why do my questions unnerve you so?”
His words pierced through her chest, painfully stabbing at her heart, and she refused to dwell on the answer. “No more questions,” she hissed as she turned towards the prisoners. “No more twisted truths. You say none are Defiled. You say I cannot prove a negative. I will show you how wrong you are, on both accounts. If you have any courage to face the truth, then you will stay and watch.” She could not force him to help, not with Major Yuzhen protecting him.
Why hadn’t anyone protected her, ten years ago?
Gesturing for her Aspirants to begin, she picked out her first victim and dragged him away by the hair, a young boy of age with Falling Rain. Pushing him against a pillar, she locked his movements with her Chi and cut away his clothes, his screams soon joining the chorus of voices cropping up as her Aspirants plied their trade. Standing to one side to allow Falling Rain an unobstructed view, she placed her knife to the victim’s chest, beginning with the same cut as she’d done hundreds, if not thousands, of times before, a shallow, vertical line just above the sternum.
Someone here would turn and then Rain would understand, would see that her work was necessary, her choices justified. She was the surgeon removing the cancer of Defiled from the body of the Empire, a cleansing flame freeing these souls from the Father’s clutches. Master was right, her work was Divine.
Please Mother, let it be so.
The villagers stand in neat little rows and columns, the fog writhing around hundreds of them attended to by the Shrike and her Aspirants. As she begins her bloody work, my eyes remain glued to her victim, a kid shivering in terror, his shrill screams sending chills down my spine. Baledagh’s voice sounds in my mind as he sighs, and I can picture him shaking his head. “I told you this was a terrible idea, our actions were for naught. We should have picked a few at random, at least then we wouldn’t have exposed ourselves.”
“I had to try.” I speak the words beneath my breath, forgetting to whisper them in my mind. “I had to try. Even if no one believes.”
Yuzhen pulls me into a half-hug as she whispers, “There was nothing you could have done. You need not stay and watch, I won’t. Come with me, I could use the company in this dark time.”
Unable to turn away from the grisly horrors, I shake my head. “Sorry. I’m staying. Don’t worry, you go.”
Yuzhen stays by my side for long minutes until the Shrike rips out the boy’s tongue, unable to bear it any longer. Presenting a gruesome tableau, the Aspirants work in eerie synchronization, like robots designed only to torture, their expert movements well practised, their faces aloof and distant, unmoved by their work. No pleasure, no distaste, no urgency or deviation, their attitude is more suited for scribes copying manuscripts.
Except for the Shrike. Her beautiful lips are twisted in depraved delight, her flawless white skin stained with blood. The Sanguine Priestess in full bloom, her work makes my former guards seem like rank amateurs, my mind recoiling at the horrors inflicted upon them.
“Brother,” Baledagh says, “We can switch, I can stand in your place.”
This time, I remember to keep silent. “No. Thank you, but don’t pretend like their deaths don’t affect you. Go back, I don’t want you seeing this.” Sensing I’m in no mood for conversation, Baledagh retreats, knowing nothing he says will convince me to leave.
I don’t know how long I stand there, my tears long dried and hand aching from gripping my hilt. I want to draw Peace and end their suffering, but the knowledge of what will happen to those I love keeps me from acting. I’m too weak to do anything, too cowardly to try, and it’s tearing me apart inside.
This world is rotten to the core.
While the Shrike begins work on her third victim, having long since gone through all the villagers I inspected, Zian steps into my line of sight. Beside him stands Dastan with eyes glued to the floor while BoShui watches his cousin with a pained expression. Zian’s pale face studies me as he asks, “What do you hope to prove? It takes a certain mindset to endure this and even a blind man can see you lack it. You risk disturbing your inner calm and unbalancing yourself, or giving into your rage and despair, turning Defiled yourself. This is lunacy, hardly anyone is watching, even the guards have their backs turned.”
Still watching the Shrike at work, it takes a few tries before I can force words past the lump in my throat. “Why do you seek strength, Situ Jia Zian?” He looks at me in question, not understanding. “You’re talented, but that doesn’t mean you didn’t work hard, suffer to get where you are. Why do you devote your life to strength? Is it for honour and glory? Fame and fortune?”
Gesturing at the villagers, I continue without waiting for his answer. “I used to be like them, weak, helpless, mistreated, and tortured. If not for a twist of fate, I’d have died a dog’s death and no one would have cared, like no one seems to care about their deaths.”
Venting my anger and mounting frustrations, my voice rises as my rant continues. “Well, I care. I did not train to slaughter innocents. I did not seek strength to torture the weak. Yet here I am doing exactly that. It may not be my hand holding the knife, but I stand here and do nothing to stop it, which makes me guilty in my eyes.”
With a thought, my Chi swirls within and Heavenly Energy surges into me, swirling violently in and around my body. Unthinking, I draw my sword as my Aura bursts out, filled with my feelings of outrage and impotence. “I trained to protect the weak, and instead, I watch them die. It is all I can do, so it is what I will do. Their suffering should not go unnoticed. They deserve to be remembered.”
The soldiers around us stare and shift uncomfortably at the truths I unveiled. Eyes narrowed in anger, the Shrike glares at me, her blood-smeared smile frozen on her face. Her victim writhes in place, its gender indistinguishable after suffering through the entirety of the Shrike’s tortures, my speech having delayed the poor soul’s sweet release. Hundreds dead and tortured without a single Defiled or Demon to be found, innocent to the last. Unable to stop myself, I hurl Peace as hard as I can, unleashing all my pent-up frustrations. With a dull thump, Peace pierces through the victim’s chest, the one tiny reprieve I can offer.
Silence blankets the field following my public tantrum, punctured only by the errant moans and sobs of the tortured, all nearing the end of their suffering, but not yet there. The Shrike’s mouth moves wordlessly as her anger leaves her speechless. Her face twisted in shock at my audacity, after long seconds, she finally forces the words out. “You dare interfere with the Purge? I’ll have you -”
The sound of a weapon whirling through the air interrupts her outrage. An axe smashes through one victim and post, continuing on to strike another, narrowly missing the Aspirant stationed there. Dastan’s wordless scream follows as tears stream down his face, the young man unable to bear their suffering any longer. Following his example, more weapons find their way into the flesh of the suffering, the only mercy left for these poor souls. The deluge of weapons come to an end, with every victim at rest and the blood-stained pillars used to restrain them shattered and useless.
Looking around, I see the grim determination on the soldiers faces and take solace in knowing others feel the same as I do.
Maybe I was wrong and the world isn’t entirely rotten.
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