Sorry for the late chapter, but it’s technically still Friday… cough
Ripped from my peaceful slumber, I find Baledagh’s hand wrapped firmly around my throat, his words echoing in my ears. Heart hammering in my chest, my head throbs in tandem as my feet dangle off the ground. Utterly confused, my body reacts on instinct. Grabbing his wrist with both hands, I pull my legs up and kick out with both feet, the shock reverberating up my legs as if I tried to shift a mountain. Tightening his grip, he throws me to the ground, where my body crashes and skids. Gasping in pain, I inch away on my back before his boot lands on my chest, squeezing the air from my lungs as he roars, “Is it true?!”
“What?” The word comes easily, sounding calmer than I’d have expected under the current circumstances. Oh right, this is in my head, I don’t need to breathe here. The moment the thought crosses my mind, the pain fades and the pressure eases from my chest, though my headache remains in full force. Leaving his boot on my chest, I raise my hands in submission. “In case you didn’t notice, I was sleeping, so you’re gonna have to talk me through this Baledagh.” He doesn’t know it, but I’m fairly certain he can snuff out my existence with a minor effort.
Baring his teeth in a snarl, Baledagh’s primal fury radiates from him, leaving me wishing I could tuck my head into my neck and hide. His breath comes in pants, speaking every word as if it costs him greatly. “Am. I. Defiled?”
My involuntary reaction is enough to substantiate his suspicions, his body crumbling beneath the weight of the truth, falling to his knees with the look of a defeated man splashed across his face. Sitting up gingerly, I ease myself into place beside him, shoulder to shoulder should he need someone to lean on. “To be fair, it doesn’t seem to be… complete? For lack of a better word. There’s hope for you yet.”
“Just kill me.” His voice is steady, his tone calm as he stares out into the void. “End my misery brother, I’ve done nothing right. Those Spectres, I devoured them thinking it would help, invited them into me. Now that I know, I hear their whispers, eating away at my control, urging me to kill you and take your place.”
Well, that’s… not good. “We’ll figure something out. You’re still here, don’t give up.”
He chuckles, shaking his head. “Why bother? What is there to live for? Why should I continue to struggle only to emerge with nothing?” Gathering momentum, he continues his rant, coming to life before my eyes. “Less than nothing in fact. I live half a life at best, hidden away deep in our mind. No one knows me besides you. Who would mourn for me should I die?”
Shoving me aside, he stands to loom over me, his anger feeding him. “Why? Because you’ll have lost your ‘precious little brother’? Why even care? You only keep me around because my misery amuses you, reminds you there’s always someone worse off in the world.”
This is not going well… “Calm down Baledagh.”
“EXACTLY!” He screams, eyes wide and face flushed. The veins beneath his tanned skin bulge, giving him a discoloured red-greenish hue. “Baledagh! That is who I am, yet no one knows me. You are Falling Rain, you live my life, leaving me with nothing but scraps.”
Crab-walking away, I swallow my fear at his transformation, the defeated dog turned into stalking predator, angry, hurt, and hungry. “Relax okay? Let’s talk this through calmly.”
“Yes, let us talk,” he sneers, his form rippling before my eyes, growing and warping as he continues to advance. “Falling Rain, Hero of the Empire, what did he do to deserve it? Winning four duels against the Society, how heroic. Except you didn’t win them. I did. Baledagh’s glory all falling neatly in Falling Rain’s lap. How nice. For you.”
Ignoring my words, he smashes me with a vicious backhand, my body sent reeling into the void. His voice enters my ears as if he’s standing beside me, reverberating in my mind. “You’re a coward, a weakling. Why should I give my life for you?” Another blow lands, this time on my back, sending waves of agony shooting through me. “Without me, you’d be nothing and you know it, seeking to win with your clumsy toys and worthless tricks.” The world stops spinning as Baledagh stands before me, armed with grotesque facsimiles of Peace and Tranquility, the weapons fusing into his flesh as he smiles in challenge. “Come brother,” he taunts, holding his arms wide. “Come fight me. If you won’t live like a warrior, then at least you can die like one.”
Holding my hand out to stop him, his figure blurs as his sword lops off four of my fingers. Staggering back, I try to reason with him again, but before I can speak, his shield slams into my face, snapping my head back. The sword slices once, twice, and again, each stroke taking an ear, a hand, and then half my foot, setting my nerves afire with agony. Booting me away, he grins as I lay helpless, barely able to lift my head as he gathers my severed parts in his hands. Holding my finger like a grape above his head, he drops it into his mouth and chews loudly, taking delight in my horror. “This is hardly a challenge. Come, show me Falling Rain’s great prowess.”
Gagging from pain and revulsion, I push myself to my feet, panting with exertion. God dammit, you aren’t breathing and you aren’t really injured. There is no fucking spoon. Clearing my head with a deep breath, the agony fades and I glance down at my body, hale and whole. With a howl of anger, he charges and unleashes a flurry of strikes. Standing stock still, I watch dispassionately as each strike passing harmlessly through the air around me, guided away by an unseen force.
Leaving Baledagh to flail away, I study him carefully, confused by his abrupt change. Is it the Spectres driving him to this? If so, why did he get weaker? Theoretically, he should be able to tear me apart with a thought, this is his mind, his body. What do the Spectres even want? He told me they kept asking him to surrender, over and over again, even after he begged them to take him. So why didn’t he turn full Defiled? Is it because I arrived first, when he gave up in the mines?
I guess even souls have squatter’s rights.
“Does this amuse you brother?” His face twisted in an ugly grimace, Baledagh stalks around me promising torture and misery. As he lumbers about, shoulders hunched and head hanging low, all sinew and muscle as his arms deform and elongate to drag behind him, I’m struck with a strange sense of… wrongness, a disparity in his appearance. The first time I saw him, I hated him for his confidence. Regal, proud, and dominant, it irked me to no end, everything I wished I was and would never be. A tiger pacing in his cage, graceful, powerful, and even beautiful in a primitive manner. Now, all I can see is an ugly, misshapen thing, lumbering around in a mockery of that once proud warrior, a corruption of who he was.
Huh… I guess that’s why they’re called Defiled.
“You know,” I say, interrupting his rant promising pain and terror, “The Baledagh I know, the Warrior, would have acted by now. Talk is cheap.”
With a howl of rage, the aberration lunges for me and once again, I hold up my palm to stop him. This time however, he stops, his body hanging in the air as if held by a giant, invisible hand. Ranting and raving, he struggles to free himself to no avail, resuming his endless tirade of threats. Ignoring his words, I study him, going over everything Baledagh ever told me. Something’s wrong here, but I can’t quite place my finger on it. Cocking my head, I step forward and raise my hand to strike, watching his reaction.
Not fear, but annoyance, a small huff like someone on the verge of losing a game of chess. Narrowing my eyes, I say, “You aren’t Baledagh.” He’s too chatty, to passive. Baledagh likes to taunt, but only a little before striking to kill, and this… thing hasn’t truly tried to kill me.
My words have a startling effect, the aberration displaying mild shock followed by a smile, relaxing in my mental shackles as his voice changes to an unfamiliar tone, each syllable stressed in a grating manner. “It matters not who we are. We are here, we are eternal, and you will submit.”
…Well fuck. How many personalities are sharing this body?
I should start charging rent.
Panting as the blood coursed through her veins, BoLao rode through the darkened forest, her mind reeling from the attack. Mouth dry and heart racing, she fought for calm and implored the Mother for aid. Too much, this was too much, how could She treat her devout servants with such disdain? Trials and tribulations were the norm but even She must leave a path to victory, else all this suffering would be for naught.
Glancing back at Falling Rain laying comatose behind her, she spurred her horse faster, moving dangerously through the trees. It was obvious she was being herded by those brats, and with only a handful of surviving Aspirants at her side, she held no confidence in breaking through. Who was waiting for her here in the forest? The Bekhai, most likely, those harbingers of the Father, but how had they followed her on their quins? Why was Major Yuzhen willing to devote so many resources towards retrieving a single Warrant Officer?
Her palms ached from gripping the reins, and she threw aside all errant thoughts. Calling for a stop, she steadied her breathing before speaking, glancing around at her remaining Aspirants. So few of them, all lost to infighting when they should be united against the Enemy. “We’re trapped. Split up, break in different directions, and go to ground or escape. They’re after Falling Rain, so I will distract them. At least one of you must make your way back to Central and warn Master of this new threat.”
“Priestess, that would leave you unguarded!”
“I do not fear death. To meet the Mother in your company would be an honour.”
“Give me the apostate, I’ll distract them in your stead.”
A chorus of refusals answered her, but she was adamant in this. “The Mother has given us all this trial, not only myself. Only through my sacrifice will you all live on to further her will. This is my final order: warn the Empire of the Enemy’s new ability to hide among us. May the Mother guide you true.”
Turning her mount, she sped off into the night, yelling as she drove her horse onward. Resisting the urge to look back, she choked down her panic and tears, continue to make as much noise as possible. She didn’t want to die, there was so much left for her to do, but what course was left to her? The Behkai wanted their corrupted young master back and she was the most eye-catching bait to go along with it. Ten years of lonely, heart-rending, arduous service, rewarded with what? Dying at the hands of the Enemy wasn’t enough, now she’d be branded a traitor, her years of holy work discarded as the labours of a madwoman. Worse, her opponents would use this to turn opinion against the Purge and Master.
Too difficult Mother, your humble servant begs for guidance.
Minutes after separating from her Aspirants, BoLao spotted movement in the shadows before her. Releasing her reins, she clenched her fist and turned to strike Falling Rain in the head, to kill this minion of the Father’s so well positioned to cause strife. One last act of defiance before killing herself, denying the enemy the satisfaction.
The familiar voice stayed her hand, filling her with something she’d all but abandoned: hope. Emerging from the trees, his face was barely visible in the dark. “Shui-Shui!” She exclaimed, immediately wincing at her gaffe. He was a grown man, with soldiers to command, even though there were only a handful here with him. She couldn’t keep calling him a child’s name in public, it was ill-mannered. “Sorry cousin, don’t be upset. Thank the Mother you’re here, you have to help me.”
“Of course, just don’t do anything rash.” Even in the shadows, she could pick out his handsome face, seeing the vestiges of the young boy she used to look after, an impish scamp who always found trouble. After Papa took him in as a disciple, they became a happy little family living together at the Bridge, the two of them more like siblings than cousins. Oh how she wished to return to those carefree days…
Eyes filled with concern, Shui rode up and took her hand. So warm, she’d forgotten how nice it was to be held. “Lucky for us they trusted me to block your escape. Leave Rain with my men and I’ll get you to safety, I swear it.”
Weary from her lengthy flight, his words brought tears to her eyes, gratified to know he still trusted her. “Shui, I need to keep Falling Rain as proof. He’s Defiled and a danger to the Empire.”
“Impossible.” Sending his men away with the unconscious apostate, Shui lead her through the forest, leaving only the two of them.
“He is, I felt his baleful Aura myself. If you let me-”
“No, you don’t understand.” Shaking his head, Shui looked her in the eye, his desperation plain to see. “I mean it’s impossible to keep him. Fung has a tracker attuned to his blood. I guess the Bekhai didn’t want to lose him again. It’s how we caught up so quickly. You shouldn’t have split your forces or laid all those false trails, we’d never have caught up if you’d ridden straight towards safety.”
“Then take me prisoner and bring us both to see Major Yuzhen.” Panic set in once more, the thought of failure unacceptable. “She’ll understand once Rain wakes. Laughing Dragon said Rain didn’t even know he was Defiled, which explains the disparity in his behaviour, but he knows now and he’s turned. So much rage and madness in him, it was terrifying to see.”
“Cousin, forget Falling Rain and forget the Empire. If he’s turned, let someone else deal with it. I’m here to save you.” Shui squeezed her hand, offering small comfort. “Major Yuzhen has laid charges of treason, says you’re working with the Defiled Laughing Dragon. It’s all nonsense of course, but she ordered us to kill you on sight. What’s more, she’s sent messengers to bring word of your actions to the cities. She’s decreed that anyone caught aiding you will share in your sentence. If you’re captured, you will undoubtedly be tortured to death before anyone can save you.” Offering a thin smile, he turned back to the forest. “I barely even trust my own men not to turn you in, Rain’s betrothed offered a hefty reward for your head. Bloodthirsty little girl, that one.”
“What about my Aspirants?”
BoShui didn’t answer her, which was an answer in and of itself. More and more she learned of her own weakness. Only a few minutes earlier, she’d been ready to give her life for theirs, but now that she’d found safety, she felt no remorse for their deaths, only the sweet relief of survival. How disgraceful. Hiccuping, she hunched down in the saddle and glanced warily about, imagining hidden dangers in every shadow. “Then how will I get back to Master?”
“You won’t.” Sounding strained as they rode, now clenching her hand so hard it hurt. “Everyone will expect you to go south, it’s too dangerous. I’m taking you home to the Bridge, to see Uncle. He’ll move heaven and earth to keep you safe, and I’ll speak with– no I’ll demand my father fight on your behalf. We’ll claim this whole mess as a misunderstanding, don’t you worry about a thing.”
At the thought of seeing Papa, her whole world went white. Reminded of Master’s prediction, a shiver coursed through her body as pins and needles ran across her skin. Sweat trickling down her spine, her breaths came in pants as she imagined Papa’s disappointment, the pain from his rejection of ‘the Shrike’ so palpable it made her heart ache. Wrenching her hand free from Shui’s grip, she let out a strangled cry and tried to bolt, but he was ready, snatching away her reins and holding the horse in place. Scrambling from the saddle, her foot caught in the stirrup and she tumbled off, her head bouncing on the hard, packed dirt. Barely registering the impact, she sprinted off into the darkness, searching for an escape.
Her flight measured in breaths before Shui caught up, riding her down and tackling her. Tumbling across the ground, she kicked and scratched, shrieking as she fought to escape his grasp. Bucking her hips, she freed her arm and elbowed him in the jaw, rushing off to sweet freedom. A pained groan stopped her in her tracks, her heart seizing at the sound. Running back to his side, she checked his injuries. Blood trickled down his lip, swelling as she watched. “I’m so sorry Shui-Shui, please be all right…”
“I’m fine,” he slurred, holding her wrist tight. She could easily escape, but instead she helped him sit, leaning him against a tree, gently stroking his cheek. Still woozy, he refused to let go and pulled her into a hug. Unwilling to leave him like this, she trembled as he whispered, “Don’t run away again.”
“I’m sorry.” Her check pressed against his chest, she let loose all her fears. “I can’t go see Papa, he won’t understand why I left.”
“He will, he’s your father and loves you dearly.”
Shaking her head, she sighed. It was so warm and peaceful here, tucked in his arms. She missed him so much, but there was always work to be done. “I’ve had to do things Shui-Shui, horrible, terrible things. I have nightmares about them every day, but it was all necessary. My path is righteous, my actions just, no one understands, not even you. I saw your fear, felt you tense when I embraced you. I’m nothing but a burden to you and Papa, only Master understands. Don’t worry about me, Master will make things right, I know he will.” Sniffling, she whispered, “Please, you have to help me get back to him.”
“You won’t go back to see your father?” His chest shuddered as he pleaded once more. “Just come with me to see him, he misses you so much. I promise he’ll understand and keep you safe, I swear it.”
Tensing, she readied to flee before shaking her head. “I can’t. Only Master can help me, only Master understands me.”
Shui-Shui’s arms tightened around her, stroking her back gently. “Okay, okay, don’t run. I’ll help you.” His voice choked and resigned, he uttered those three simple words and all the tension drained from her body. Falling against his chest, limp and exhausted, she closed her eyes and stilled, listening to him speak. “I love you cousin, you’re family. I won’t let anyone hurt you ever again.”
A jolt of pain radiated from her lower back and she stiffened and gasped. His body wracked with sobs, Shui-Shui’s trembling arms clutched tightly around her as he whispered, “I’m so sorry. Oh Mother, what did he do to you? I wanted to rescue you the moment I heard he took you away, but father wouldn’t let me.” Still shuddering, Shui-Shui continued to mumble, holding her close as she bled out, his dagger having done it’s work. Poor thing, he was always so cheerful and sweet, how this must pain him so. “He said it was good to leave you at his side, roping in a strong ally for the clan. Clan first, family second, he sold you off and I did nothing to stop him, I’m so sorry.”
The pain faded as she lay there, smiling at a distant memory. “Oh how things have changed. I remember when you used to lay in my arms, but this is nice too.” Her words brought another wave of sobs and she shushed him lightly. There was so much to say, but so little time. “It’s okay little cousin, don’t cry. This is for the best. Don’t blame yourself. Tell Papa I’m sorry and I love him.” With a small quiver, she added, “Love you too.” Closing her eyes, she snuggled against his chest with a smile, clutching him tight as she breathed her last.
Even if the Mother spurned BoLao for her sins, at least she would die in Shui-Shui’s embrace.
Author’s note: So, a big problem with writing ‘better’ villains that aren’t ‘you no give face’ cut outs, is that I get super attached to them. Hard to lose another character, plus it felt too cheap to let her go without a little redemption.
Hope you liked it, as always, thoughts, comments, criticisms, are all appreciated, and please keep the flaming to a minimum. Everyone is entitled to an opinion, no need to fight in the comments.
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