Author’s note: I’d like to give a shout out to my two newest Patrons, Naeddyr and Big Butts. Thank you so much for your support!
The pervasive fog swirls around me as I trudge through the bottomless mire. Hushed voices mutter throughout the darkness, unseen and only faintly heard as I focus on my path, ignoring them the best I can. Exhausted by my efforts, every step is heavy and forced, but I continue my arduous journey. My destination obscured by murky mists, it lays ahead, of this I am certain. Forward, always forward, there is no retreat, no surrender, because down that path lies death. To find safety and security, to ensure survival and bliss, I must proceed onward. That’s the way of the world; the strong thrive, the weak die, and everyone else is treading water, waiting to find out which group they belong to. No rest for the weary, no peace for the wicked, no end to the suffering, only an unending stream of trials and tribulations, hardships borne and adversity endured.
Such is life.
Through the opaque haze, I spy shadows dancing in the darkness, their footsteps echoing as they surround me, their whispers invading my mind to taunt me with teasing indecipherable murmurs, their message lost in the howling winds. Circling about me always out of reach, the shadows wait for me to fall, but I am untouchable unless I stop, so I can never stop. Eyes forward, no regrets, no looking back. The mud slows my progress, snaring my feet as they drag behind, my legs bound and arm dangling uselessly at my side, but it matters little.
Slow and steady wins the race. Keep on trucking. Err… Hang in there Kitty? I need more motivational quotes.
The air grows thin and I fight for breath as a warm weight presses against my chest, choking me, hampering me, pushing me to turn back, but there is no going back, no time to rest no matter how exhausted I may be. They wait for me to falter so I must persevere lest I join them. One foot in front of the other, my unending journey continues, countless paces and shadows left behind.
There is no sense of motion, no measure of distance, only an immutable stretch of land extending just past my fingertips, fixed in place as I amble forward, the world dragging behind me. Growls and snuffs sound nearby, but only the shadows reveal themselves, flitting by and fading away, their lives snuffed out once they enter the fog again, and still I move forward. How many have I left behind? How many still trail me?
As I check my surroundings, I see him in my peripheral, a young boy staring with empty sockets, his mouth stretched open in soundless accusation, the stump of his tongue ugly and burned, the gaps in his gums bleeding and raw. Forward. Don’t look at him, don’t speak to him. His cupped hands reach out and my eyes dart over on reflex, horrified to find his severed fingers and missing eyeballs sitting neatly in a bed of extracted teeth.
‘You killed me.’
“No, you’re wrong,” I retort, already on the defensive. “The Shrike killed you so go haunt her.”
…Maybe I’m a little too blase about talking to a walking corpse, but after everything I’ve been through, zombies aren’t so threatening.
Unperturbed by my response, the chatty corpse tries again. ‘You let me die.’
“Well… I didn’t have a choice.”
‘You stood by and watched. You did nothing.’
“What was I supposed to do? I wanted to save you, I tried to save you, but the Shrike wouldn’t listen. All I could have done was die with you.”
‘Then die.’ Another victim of the Shrike arrives, clutching her skin to her frame like a loose dress as she leans against my shoulder, her ruined mouth whispering in my ear. ‘You killed us, it’s only fair.’
Gingerly removing myself from her over-familiar caress, I shake my head, calmer than I’ve any right to be. “No ma’am, like I was just telling your son here, I didn’t kill you.” Out of the mists, the dead emerge to crowd me, and only then do I realize my feet have stopped moving. Hopping to it, I push my way through the crowd, the dead banding together to hold me in place.
“Er… no thank you, I have an early meeting, gotta keep moving.” Ineffectively shouldering my way through them, I try asking nicely once more. “Seriously, it’s not my fault you’re dead, so please let me go?”
‘Maybe not them, but you got us killed.’ Seven familiar faces stand out from the crowd, looking exactly as I last saw them. Murat steps forward, his chest caved in and face twisted in a sneer. “Don’t deny it.” He left behind a young wife and two sets of aging parents, a good man working hard to support them all.
“We followed you here, trusted you.” Dilara’s hand grabs me by the throat, pulling me back into an uncomfortable hug, the sword in her chest poking me. “It’s only right you lead us all the way.” A lovely older woman, she was sweet on one of the Sentinels, but unused to being forward with her affections. Seems death fixed that.
Serik approaches with tears in his eyes, holding his belly while his innards spill out. “How is my old lady supposed to survive? Join us, bring us away from here, we’re begging you.”
One by one my lost soldiers plead their case, my throat closing with grief. “I’m sorry.” Unable to look any of them in the eye, I slip away from their grasp, the dead still ringing around me. “I can’t bring you away. You’re dead. I’m still alive and the others are waiting, so please…”
‘Not anymore.’ I bump into Rustram, smiling sadly as he shakes his head, hanging at an impossible angle from his neck. ‘You don’t remember?’
“What do you mean? What are you doing here?”
‘Camp attacked, night fighting, bad for all.’ Pran steps out and pats me on the cheek, half his face pulped, the bones visible shattered. ‘Boss die in sleep, is lucky yes? Not like little wives.’
‘Idiot.’ Mila’s adorable pout is ruined by her lack of jaw, her crossed arms spouting multiple jagged bite marks. ‘Insist on a funeral, but refuse to move afterwards. Might as well have sent out invitations and rung the dinner bell, you brought the Defiled right to our doorstep. Why Mama betrothed me to a fool, I’ll never know.’
‘They killed me Rainy.’ Lin’s mournful gaze fills me with despair, her body pierced and punctured more times than I can count. ‘It hurts so much, take me away from here…’
Shaking my head, I try to deny the truth. “No, this can’t be happening, I had sentries and a schedule, we should have been safe…”
As I approach Lin and Mila, their faces meld into the crowd and disappear, my soldiers, my friends, my accusers circling me, penning me in and keeping still, their voices blending together to denounce me. ‘You failed us, killed us. Now join us, lead us from here.’
Clutching my head, I dropped to the mud and hide my shame. “I’m so sorry… I had no choice. Everyone was so tired, the quins needed rest, but I couldn’t leave their bodies for the scavengers…”
‘I grow tired of your excuses.’ Baatar’s wolfish blue eyes pierce through me, glaring at me in disappointment as he grinds pepper. ‘I’ve already left my home and sold myself to the Empire, all to protect you. When will you carry your own weight? Why I even bother with you is a mystery.’
‘A disgrace to my Sentinels,’ Akanai adds from her soapy bathtub, her dismissive attitude hurting as much as Baatar’s rejection. ‘Always making trouble, but I tolerated you for Baatar’s sake. A mistake, I see it now.’
‘I should have drowned you the day I met you.’ Alsantset smiles as she strokes my cheek, the twins giggling at her side as they repeat her. ‘It would have been a mercy to us all. You aren’t suited to this life, you don’t belong here.’
‘Don’t belong, don’t belong.’
“I didn’t ask for this!” Her hand slips through my fingers as she leaves me behind. ‘I didn’t ask to come here, I don’t know why it happened…”
‘Don’t lie.’ My eyes stare at me, so full of hate and anger. No, not my eyes. His eyes, Baledagh’s amber eyes, the warrior, the dragon, while I am nothing but a lamb for the slaughter. ‘You know why you’re here. You’re here to steal my body, my life, but you couldn’t even do that right.”
“No, that’s not true!”
‘You already fucked up your first life, why would you think this one would be any different? Everything you touch crumbles to ashes. Go die and let me live my life, without you dragging me down.’
“But… you’re Defiled. I can’t let you go, you’ll turn into a monster…”
With a peal of ugly laughter, Baledagh picks me up and slams me to the ground, his grip cold and unyielding. ‘You stole my body and locked me away in the void. I may be Defiled, but you’re the monster. After all, if I’m Defiled, that makes you the Demon. See?” Thrusting a mirror in my face, it reveals my hideous, inhuman reflection.
A strangled cry escapes my throat as I squirm for freedom, the dead wrapping around me, my body weighed down and unable to move, Baledagh’s cold hand finally releasing my throat.
An unhappy cry jolts me back to reality, the tension fleeing from my body as I collapse in my bedroll, my heart hammering at my chest, desperate to escape. The cubs make their displeasure known with a few plaintive grunts, their cold noses against my skin sending shivers down my spine. Mafu squeaks in protest as I free my arm from under his fat head while Aurie chuffs and kneads at my legs in protest, smacking down with a hefty paw whenever I move.
I’m nothing more than a warm pillow to all of them.
Pran’s head pops in, his growing bull-horns catching on the tent flap. “Boss, everything okay, yes?” Seeing a chance to go potty, the bears scramble out into the night with Mafu close behind, Aurie and Jimjam acting like typical cats and taking their sweet time to follow. It’s nice having Mafu housebreak all my other pets, he’s a great daddy quin.
“I’m fine,” I croak, my mouth dry from fear and face burning with embarrassment. “Sorry to disturb you.”
Taking in the situation, the massive giant’s eyes soften, nodding in sympathy. “Bad dream.” Without waiting for a reply, he shrugs. “Is happen. Purge bad for soul, too much death make for bad sleep. I go find little Miss, ask her for sleepy tea, yes?”
“No, thank you. I’ll be fine. As you were.” Brushing fur and hair off my clothes, I step past Pran and nod at Saluk and the other guards as I pass. Checking the moon, my best guess of the time is two a.m. Damn, I wish I didn’t have to give that pocket watch to Zian. It was so shiny and pretty… “As long as I’m up, I think I’ll go check on the wounded. And maybe the sentries.”
“Boss, is late. You sleep.” Saluk steps in front and pats his chest proudly. “Saluk check wounded and sentries. If problem, I come back, yes?”
“Bad for others seeing Boss in nightgown. Look like fluffy dress.” Pran adds with a grin, though the words rankle. I’m not wearing a nightgown, these are night-clothes. There’s a difference, though admittedly, not a large one.
Coughing to hide my embarrassment, I slip back inside the tent and into my bedroll, still shaking from the nightmare and wanting nothing more than to bury inside my blankets and never emerge.. Unless this is a dream too… A quick pinch proves that theory false so I resign myself to staring at the roof of my tent, contemplating the details of my nightmare. Guilt, anxiety, fear, and paranoia, all coming together to make a perfect storm.
Quickly checking on Baledagh, I find him fast asleep and none the wiser. How would he react if he knew the truth? Anger or shame? Am I really his ‘Demon’ or am I something else? I thought I’d succeeded in pushing those worries aside, but apparently my subconscious enjoys agonizing over it in excruciating detail.
“Rain, are you all right?” Mila sits down beside me in a loose shirt while all the pets make their way back in, settling back into their staked territories. “Saluk was at the medical station, said you sent him to check on the patients and sentries.”
“I’m fine and I did.” Grabbing her hand, I banish the memory of her wounded body and pull her into my arms. With a small gasp, she falls into my embrace, revealing a frowning Li Song behind her, clutching a struggling cub to her chest. “Shouldn’t you be asleep?”
“I was on guard duty. It’s over now so I came to see how you’re doing.” Frowning, she nudges Aurie’s furry butt, the oversized cat grumbling as he moves aside to let her under the blanket. “Honestly Rain, you’re even letting Mafu sleep in here now? What are you going to do when the bears grow up?”
“Don’t worry, I’ve already come up with a plan: A bigger tent. Brilliant, right?”
Letting out a long sigh, her breath tickles my neck as we lay side by side. Nuzzling against my shoulder, she asks, “What’s wrong? Normally by now you’d be making fun of my hammering heartbeat or your hands would wander instead of holding me tight, like you’re afraid I’ll disappear.”
“Do I detect a note of disappointment?”
She lightly slaps my chest and I can picture her adorable pout. “You incorrigible man. You’ve turned me into a shameless woman, lying in bed with a man before marriage. Mama would skin us both if she found out.”
“Well, then we best pray she not find out.”
The cub finally frees himself from Li Song’s grasp and canters his way back onto my chest, dipping under my arm to flop on top of Mila’s hand, his nose safely tucked against my neck. Chuckling, Mila shrugs and says, “Well, seems I’m stuck here with the two of you joining hands. I guess I’m staying the night.”
“I guess you are. Li Song, I’m sure you’d be more comfortable in your own tent.”
Unable to take the hint, the obstinate cat-girl shakes her head. “This one will remain at Master’s side.” Without turning away, she unstraps her armor and I quickly avert my gaze. With a silent Sending to Mila, I ask, “Any idea how we get her to leave?”
“WHY DOES SHE NEED TO LEAVE? WE’RE ONLY SLEEPING, LET HER DO AS SHE PLEASES,” she replies, adding a pinch for emphasis. “SO WATCH THOSE WANDERING HANDS.”
Swallowing my disappointment as I return my hand to her shoulder, I direct Li Song to the spare bedroll which she spreads out next to Mila. As exciting as it may seem, sharing a tent with two women isn’t all fun and games. My mind knows nothing will happen, not with the guards stationed outside and my pets taking up all the room inside, but other parts are insisting I make something happen. Even without all the sexual tension, I’m unable to throw off my apprehension from the nightmare, the truths cutting to close to home.
What if they’re prophetic dreams? The night is still young, we might come under attack yet. And what if everyone really resents me? I mean, I’ve brought the People nothing but problems, and since I’ve arrived they’ve gone from reclusive mountain dwellers to front-line soldiers. I literally ruined paradise for them. No, calm down, it’s not true, it was just a nightmare, everyone is fine. Except those Purge victims and dead soldiers, they’re still dead, but Baatar and Alsantset don’t hate you, and Akanai at least tolerates you. Everything’s fine…
Against my better judgment, I fall back to an old argument. “Mila, in the morning, we’re heading back to hand over the prisoners. When we do, I want you to bring Lin back to the Bridge.”
“I would, but she won’t go.” Mila’s reply is quiet and sleepy, the poor girl exhausted from riding for two days straight. “Lin’s made up her mind and nothing will change it. You’ve never had to deal with how stubborn she can be because you always give in so easily. She’s staying and so am I, accept it and move on.” Squeezing me tight, she asks, “Are you afraid of losing us?”
“Terrified.” Probably shouldn’t have answered so quickly. “I lost seven soldiers today. I could have lost you. Don’t say it won’t happen, all it takes is one mistake.”
Kissing me on the cheek, she sighs. “Maybe Gerel was right, you’re too clever for your own good. If you’d lost soldiers fighting against Elder Ming then you’d be better prepared for this. Dealing with your first losses won’t be easy.” Before she continues, she forces me to look in her eyes. “You’re right, I could die at any moment, but the same could be said of you. Stop trying to send me away, I’ve made my choice. Better to fight at your side than fret at home waiting for your return.”
“No buts Rain. What is there to be scared of? Death? You’re so strange, fearless in battle yet so meek outside it. You risk your life without a care in the world but when someone else does the same, you fall to pieces. Does your life hold so little value? Do you think Lin and I will move on without a tear after your death?” Her eyes fill with tears as she presses against me, holding me close. “You’ve done a spectacular job keeping everyone alive so far. Learn to trust yourself love, everyone else already does.”
Kissing her lips, I rest my forehead against hers, unable to contain my smile. “You called me ‘love’, sucker. Finally got you to admit it.”
I can almost see her face turning bright red. “Idiot. Stop worrying and go to sleep, we still have an army to kill and you’re no use to anyone like this.”
“You love me.”
“Love you too. And thank you.”
My worries melting away, I bask in her warmth and scent, falling asleep as soon as I close my eyes.
Everything’s gonna work out fine.
Wait, that wasn’t even remotely close to what she said…
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