The tranquil calm of the void encompassed Baledagh like a soothing blanket, sheltering him from the real world and numbing his pain and misery. In bleak darkness, there was no heartbreak or happiness, no sorrow or cheer, only a barren, desolate mindscape where nothing mattered and nothing changed. A perfect place to wait out the end as he cuddled in bed with the pets brother conjured up. Idling away time like the insignificant cast-off he was, he found it all so fitting, almost poetic even, fake pets for a fake man, emptiness within matched by emptiness without.
There was no place for Baledagh in the world, this much was clear. It was unnatural having two minds in one body and since brother was undoubtedly better suited for this life, than it was best he live it alone. Qing-Qing’s loss left Baledagh shackled with grief, sapping away his ambition and desires, wanting nothing more than to close himself away from the world and sink into blissful nothingness. Not even the thrill of battle was enough to move him, the anger draining his strength and leaving him empty, a pathetic imitation of a man. There was no changing his nature, so it was best to take a step back and let brother enjoy the life he deserved, a hero of the Empire with his two little wives, unburdened by a useless, worthless Baledagh.
Unfortunately, brother was nothing if not stubborn, his daily visits interrupting Baledagh’s self-pity and marking the passing of time. Like the good person he was, brother did his best to brighten Baledagh’s dark mood but it was a futile endeavour. The love and joy he shared only pushed Baledagh further away, fleeting glimpses of a happy life he’d never have. Brother assured him things would get better with time, but he didn’t want them to. This emptiness was all that was left of Qing-Qing and he clung tightly to it for fear of forgetting her.
Time moved oddly here in the void. Even though brother came to chat every night before sleeping, sometimes it felt like minutes between visits and other times weeks. How long had it been since her death? Two weeks? So little time, yet already his memory played tricks on him, their short time together fading away. An eternity without her awaited him in this life and were it not for brother, Baledagh would have already started on his promise to find her. He’d come so close to achieving his goal but brother was too skilled, deflecting the unseen dagger away with ease. So strong, brother’s talents grew by the day, only lacking confidence to stand alone.
Confidence would come with time, then Baledagh would be free to reunite with Qing-Qing in the next life. Until such a time, there was nothing to do but hide away in the darkness of the void and bide his time. A task made difficult by the sense of disquiet presently intruding on his solitary seclusion, an uncomfortable pall of alarm and concern interfering with his quiet nonexistence. So bothersome, why wasn’t brother dealing with it? Was it another tantrum? Several of brother’s decisions were questionable of late, like taunting the Shrike and acting against Lin’s guards, completely out of character. It was possible he was being influenced by the Spectres, their subtle whispers leading brother astray.
Though he tried to ignore the troubling impression as long as possible, Baledagh’s nagging thoughts soon prodded him into action. He’d been the one to surrender to the Spectres, inviting them in and devouring them, so he couldn’t leave brother to deal with this mess alone. Though Baledagh accepted the label of pathetic weakling, he refused to add ‘disloyal’ to his title too. If brother was suffering because of the Spectres, it was Baledagh’s duty to at least try to fix it, even if all he did was point out the possibility of Spectre influence.
With a sigh, Baledagh reluctantly rolled out of bed and gathered his bearings. Outside the comfort of his blankets, the sensations of his body returned in muted potency, the familiar pain of heartache compounded by an unfamiliar throbbing in his head, ringing in his ears, and nausea in his belly. How unpleasant, had brother been in a fight? With a lazy glance around the void, the endless nothingness shrank into a finite space, making the issue immediately apparent. Willing himself to it, Baledagh inspected the astral body floating aimlessly through the void, brother’s eyes closed in peaceful slumber. Holding back another sigh and the urge to lament ‘not again’, Baledagh eyed the tiny glimmer imprisoning the Spectres trailing behind brother’s body. They’d abandoned Baledagh almost instantly upon brother’s return, whispering their sweet lies and false promises to the one who mattered. They knew who held power here, no longer wasting their efforts on a good-for-nothing layabout.
No, this was no time for moping, brother needed help and Baledagh was in position to provide it. Imbued with his new sense of self-worth, he willed himself into control of his body and vomited, the pain and discomfort of his body immediately hurling him back into the void, more wretched and pathetic than ever. How useless. Steeling himself, he tried again, this time prepared for the wave of pain and nausea. Fighting back the urge to lapse into unconsciousness, he found himself slung across a horses hindquarters, its flank stained with blood and vomit. The beast’s canter flung him up in the air, and the impact upon landing made him spew the contents of his stomach once again, casting him into the arms of sweet, merciful slumber.
When he came to, the first sensation he noticed was the lancing pain emanating from the back of his head. The ground sped by as he craned his neck for a look around, immediately gagging in discomfort from the putrid stench. He lost what little remained in his poor belly, the bile burning as it rose in his throat and poured down across the horse’s leg, pumping furiously as it galloped with all haste. Mentally apologizing to the beast, Baledagh gasped and breathed through his mouth, struggling against the chafing bindings which held his arms in place behind his back.
“Oi, oi, slow down the bastard’s awake.” The voice came from the right, belonging to an older man, low and guttural.
A second voice responded, thin and reedy. “Merciful Mother, what’s his head made of? It hasn’t even been an hour…”
“Remember what Priestess Han said Kanri, that ain’t no man, only looks like one. Knock him one over the head again but don’t break nothing,” Guttural said, sounding pleased. “Won’t be long before we lose our pursuers, and our guest’ll need to be awake to ‘enjoy’ the last rites.” A chuckle. “You hear me apostate? The Priestess will make your sins known to the world, and then we’ll be off to cleanse your heretic tribesmen. This is why you can never trust a fucking savage, can never tell what darkness they’re hiding, alone out in the wilds.”
Baledagh tensed and waited for the blow to land, but it never came. Instead, Reedy, or rather Kanri, spoke as quietly as possible and still be heard over the galloping hoof-beats. “…Do you really think we’re doing the right thing Gunan? I saw him display Purity with my own eyes and we’re taking action based on nothing but the word of a self-confessed Defiled bandit. If we’re wrong, then this is tantamount to treason. We’d be lucky to hang for this.”
Guttural-voiced Gunan snorted. “Have faith in the Priestess, she’s never steered us wrong before. Besides, it makes sense, how else would a snot-nosed kid like this already have an Aura? Monstrous and unclean is what he is, don’t you be sympathizing with no filth now. Now clap him over the head and put an end to his squirming before he falls off and breaks his neck. That’d be far too merciful an end.”
Retreating into the void, Baledagh closed off his senses before the blow landed, sparing himself the pain and disorientation. Why did the Shrike steal him away and what did it have to do with brother’s Aura? Were they jealous of Brother’s talents? No matter the reason, it was clear her intentions were far from benevolent. Though he hoped to leave this life and move on to the next, Baledagh had no desire to die at the hands of a deranged torturer. Best to die in battle, but then brother would die too, so he would make do with wasting away in the Void and fading away into obscurity.
The best course of action was to wake brother and have him deal with this, but Baledagh’s efforts all ended in failure. Next, he took control of his body once more, but between the head injury and uncomfortable seating, he couldn’t concentrate enough to learn anything useful. His weapons were far away, that much he sensed, likely left behind when they captured him. How long until the Shrike felt safe enough to begin her ministrations? He needed to heal his injuries and escape his bindings before then, but healing was brother’s talent, not Baledagh’s.
The shimmering glimmer twinkled as it appeared before him, the Spectres overtly seeking his attention. Frowning in annoyance, he batted them away and returned to his thoughts. True, they might fix his injuries, but brother said not to trust them. Inspiration struck as he recalled a memory all but forgotten, from the time he lay on that beach, alone and afraid. The Spectres sought to use him, so why not use them instead? There might be consequences, but it didn’t matter what happened to him. Brother had people waiting for him and no one to rely on but Baledagh.
Summoning the Spectres back, he held the glimmering prison in the palm of his hand, listening to their whispers. With an effort of will, his weapons appeared, strapped to his waist and back, his armour encasing him just as it did when he first fought the Spectres. Reaching through the prison yet leaving it untouched, he pulled out a handful of wailing Spectres and shoved them into his mouth, hoping without reason it would work again. A warm energy flowed down his throat and into his belly as he devoured them whole, his wounds mending and his body filling with strength. Smiling, he reached into the prison once more and took another handful of Spectres, gleefully consuming them like their brethren and caring nothing for the consequences.
Strength was all that mattered in this world, and once his body mended, Baledagh would ensure the Shrike pay for daring to cross Falling Rain.
Finally the world made sense again.
Head held high, Han BoLao rode through forest and rivers with purpose, filled with vim and vigour from her convictions. Falling Rain, a savage mountain tribesman, talented beyond his years, was Defiled. Why hadn’t she seen it sooner? His tale was complete fiction, surviving for an entire week adrift in the lake, fighting Defiled bandits and Demons, escaping unscathed thanks to the Azure Ascendants, how fantastical. The more she dug, the less sense his story made, especially in light of his advanced talents. Impossible is what it was, and now she saw the light.
All she needed now was proof.
The Mother works in mysterious ways, to send Laughing Dragon as her messenger, but his words brought BoLao clarity, her faith in the Mother rewarded. Rain’s despicable actions made her stomach turn, warning away the Defiled in advance, then calling the Purge and consigning thousands of innocents to their deaths. The fault lay not with her, her hands were clean, her actions just, only twisted by Rain to his own advantage.
The plan was so devious and diabolical, she could only assume it came from the Father himself. The Purge was always hard for the masses to accept, all but the most faithful finding their beliefs in question, and Rain sought to use this difficult time to turn the province’s elites away from the Mother. How terrifying it would have been if he’d gotten away with it, infecting the future Marshal, the greatest young talents, and the captain level talents from four cities. He’d already succeeded, judging by the defiance shown by so many like Dastan Zhandos, denying her the chance to offer the innocent the Mother’s Mercy.
It was the most important part of the ritual, seeking forgiveness and absolving her Aspirants of their sins before sending the innocents into the Arms of the Mother. The needs of the many outweighed the few, and it was her duty to ensure the people were safe from the corruption of the Father, a duty she’d failed. Hopefully she’d corrected her error by taking Rain away from those he sought to taint, and not a day too soon. He seemed adamant on riding to Sanshu and ignoring the Defiled army, undoubtedly a trap of some sort, and his actions had forced her hand. It pained her attacking Yuzhen like that, the Major had been so good to BoLao, but in time, all would be made clear.
Now here she rode, chased by the very people she sought to save. How ironic.
To shake off their pursuers, she ordered her Aspirants to scatter into bands of fifty, each group heading towards a different city. Yuzhen still had the Defiled army to deal with, assuming there was a Defiled army. This meant she couldn’t spare too many soldiers to send after BoLao, not to save one young man, no matter how ‘talented’ he might be. Rain’s clansmen were likely on her trail, but the strengths of their roosequins lay in stamina, not speed, whereas her Acasian Trotters were bred for both. Pushing the horses for a single day would be enough to shake the Bekhai from her trail, if they could even pick out the correct one. With a little luck and the Mother’s blessing, BoLao would reach the Central province within the week, seeking safety in Master’s influence. Once she explained things, he would show the world Rain was nothing more than a Defiled beast, revealing the truth of the Father’s machinations.
The implications were far-reaching, especially in light of Rain’s ability to demonstrate Purity. How long had the Father’s puppets been able to twist the Mother’s gifts to their advantage? She shuddered to think how many managed to escape justice in the past, their actions disregarded in the face of ‘absolute proof’. No one could be trusted, not even all of her Aspirants, their muttered disputes and sidelong glances not escaping her notice. They believed she trusted the word of a Defiled bandit over the gift of the Mother, but it wasn’t true. She trusted her instincts, the voice of the Mother speaking to her. Laughing Dragon’s accusation merely opened her eyes to the truth.
After a half-day of arduous travel, she finally gave the order to rest, bringing the horses to the river to drink. Bringing Laughing Dragon with her, she went to check on Rain. To her surprise, she found him awake and standing on two feet, covered in filth with his arms bound, but clear-eyed and conscious. “Hmph,” she sneered, filled with confidence. “Your hardiness betrays yourself. You were knocked unconscious this morning, yet already able to heal your injuries. How else if not with your corrupted gifts?”
Rain spit in response, his grin dark and bloody. “Haven’t you heard? I’m the Undying Falling Rain, bitch.” Curling his lip, he gestured at Laughing Dragon. “Guess you’ve shown your true colours, working with this Defiled coward. How clever, hiding your murderous urges in plain sight, claiming to do the work of the Mother.”
One of her Aspirants, Gunan, slugged Rain in the stomach, the savage doubling over with a gasp. “You show the Priestess proper respect, else I’ll cut out your blasphemous tongue.” Bowing to her, Gunan smiled. “You have our trust and loyalty Priestess Han. Please guide us through this trial.”
Gunan and his partner straightened Rain up, the savage defiant to the last, confident in his subterfuge. Rage burning inside her, she slapped him across the face out of sheer spite, resisting the urge to gouge out his eyes. “You think to twist my actions against me, but I know my path is just, as you know your own sins, Defiled.”
Confusion flashed across his face, then amusement. “Laughable. I am not Defiled, and have proven it. You think the world will take the word of Laughing Dragon over Falling Rain’s?”
“Ye are, ye just don’t know it.” Laughing Dragon chimed in, his voice desperate. “I seen it before, those who come to the power in ignorance.”
“The Taint,” she corrected.
“Er… yes, the Taint. You see them don’t ye? The Spirits? They give you strength, mend your wounds, guide your actions. Don’t bother lying boy, I knew the moment I laid eyes on you, hear their whispers even now as ye stand before me. Yer every bit Defiled as I am.”
BoLao watched carefully, reading Rain’s emotions like words on a page as they flashed across his face. First shock, then fear as the words sank in, quickly turning to anger and denial. “No,” he said, shaking his head, his breath coming in pants. “No, I’m not Defiled. You’re lying, you’re a liar. I am not Defiled, the Spectres are… no, no, brother help me, it’s not true right? I can’t be please…”
This was all the proof she needed, though the world would need more. Vindicated, she smiled for the first time in days, a burden lifted off her shoulders. “Hmph, as I said, you know your own sins, and soon, the world will know them too. Put him back on the horse, we must continue our journey.”
The Aspirants saluted her and she noted the confidence returning, their faith in her renewed after seeing Rain’s reaction. As she returned their salute, her smile turned to a gasp of alarm as Rain lunged at Gunan, his face twisted in rage. Before she could cry out in warning, Rain was upon him, his teeth tearing through the Aspirant’s neck, ripping a fist-sized chunk of flesh out and spitting it to the ground. Blood dripping down his chin, the shy, smiling teen who’d sapped away her confidence was no more, replaced by a raging monstrosity clothed in human flesh, roaring as he fought back. “I. AM NOT. DEFILED!”
A cold wave of terror washed over her as his Demonic Aura erupted from him, crushing her resolve and stealing away her courage. So wrong, so feral, she could sense the taint within him, horrifying her in ways unimaginable, his glowing amber eyes drawing her into them and granting her visions of unspeakable horrors. Beside her, Laughing Dragon squealed in glee, shrieking, “I told ye, I told ye. See? I weren’t lying.”
Multiple Aura’s emanated from her Aspirants, soothing and calming her nerves as those closest clubbed Rain into submission. Even as he lay in the dirt, bloodied and broken, she continued to stand and stare, breathless and elated from the brief exchange. Soon, everyone would know Han BoLoa was right, that Falling Rain was Defiled, and that Purity was no longer enough to prove innocence. Overcome with joy, she clasped her hands together, basking in the euphoria of a job well done.
Falling Rain is Defiled, and all is right in the world.
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