Author’s note: Hey everyone. It seems I’m always apologizing for being late recently, but I must do so once again. Work gets a little hectic this time of year, and unlike last year, I no longer have stockpiled chapters to make up for it (and haven’t for like 11 months…)
I’ll try to get a chapter out tomorrow and friday, but until the week is over, I would caution everyone to expect nothing and be pleasantly surprised by anything I can manage. I might just end the volume here, since it seems like a good ending place, but I originally planned for a bit more, so we’ll see.
As always, thank you for reading and please enjoy.
Studying the misshapen horror which used to be Baledagh, I remind myself this isn’t him, only some creature wearing his skin. Despite being bound and helpless, the thing stands calm and relaxed, a startling difference from the rage-fuelled monstrosity I faced less than a minute ago. No more threats or growling, after it’s admission of guilt, it seems content to wait and stare, a confident smirk pasted across Baledagh’s warped visage.
Only his eyes remain unchanged, shockingly human amidst the morphed and mutated features that were once a mirror to my own. A disturbing blend of familiar and alien, the creature’s form continues to distort and shift as I pace around it, Baledagh’s eyes track my progress, his head turning a full 360 degrees yet his neck never twisting. Aside from the freakish monitoring, it stands utterly motionless, not even moving to blink or breathe, an unnatural and unnerving thing of nightmares, a predator watching its prey.
Mother help me, what do I do now? Is Baledagh still alive or is he gone now?
Okay, first I need to get my facts straight. There were an indeterminate number of Spectres locked away through the combined efforts of Baledagh and I, though he was unaware of his part. Then, while I was unconscious thanks to the Shrike, Baledagh, believing the situation dire, ate all the Spectres to heal, getting ready to fight. This somehow led to him finding out about being Defiled, leaving me here in the void with this thing. Or would it be these things?
Its presence alone is enough to make my skin crawl, with enough familiar features to make me check my body for irregularities. I want it gone but I stay my hand, unsure if I should kill it even if I could. Know thy enemy and all that, but more than anything, I want my little brother back.
“Baledagh?” I ask, testing the waters. “You in there?” No response, though I think there might have been a flicker in its eyes, or maybe I’m just hoping there was one. “Listen Baledagh, everything is not lost. You need to fight. You’re stronger than they are. They pretend to be dominant and powerful, but they’re liars little brother. Think about it, why else would they constantly demand surrender? They can’t win otherwise. They’re weak and pitiful, unable to act without your permission, so fight them. Defy them. Seize control once more, and come back.” The creature’s face twitches at my words, its eyes narrowing and lips pursing, but still it doesn’t speak. “Pitiful disembodied spirits, they’re nothing but prey for you to devour. Don’t let indigestion defeat you little brother, you are a warrior. Digest those worthless ghosts and turn them into a steaming pile of ectoplasmic shit.”
Not the most eloquent of speeches, but I blame the concussion. My head hurts something fierce, getting knocked out is nothing to sneeze at. My crude language gets a reaction out of the creature however. Lip curling in a sneer, it speaks with its harsh voice. “Ignorant Foundling, we are not weak, we are not prey, neither ghosts nor spirits, no weak remnants of things of flesh.”
Wow, everyone is arrogant here, even the ghosts or whatever these things are. Demons, I guess? Is each Spectres a separate Demonic entity or are they one massive hive mind working in concert? Either way, I can probably use this, there’s no better way to get under an arrogant idiot’s skin than to outright ignore him, or it…them? Whatever. “Baledagh, I know you’re in there. Ignore their worthless whispers, these spooks are powerless. Maybe things aren’t going great at the moment, but that doesn’t mean you get to give up. I’m sorry I haven’t made things better, but only because I don’t know how. Please, come back and we’ll work on a solution together.”
The creature’s displeasure at being ignored grows as its face twists in anger, and I continue trying to reach Baledagh, searching for a sign and hoping against all odds he’s still inside. “Me and you little brother, there’s nothing we can’t do. An unstoppable duo, two parts of a whole, but I can’t do it alone. A great hero once said ‘never give up, never surrender’.” Okay, so I’m lying through my teeth, but I need him back. I didn’t ask to be stuck with him and sure he can be problematic at times, but he’s my closest friend, someone I can share almost anything with, someone who knows my flaws and fears, yet accepts me all the same.
What do you call that besides family?
“Do you desire strength, Foundling?” The creature speaks with a smile, baring its gleaming white fangs. “Is that why you seek the return of the Warrior? We can give you strength, more than you can imagine. What you have here is a mere pittance compared to what we can do. With our help, you can achieve greatness, your every desire made real, your every wish made true. All the worlds women at your feet, tending to your every need, your enemies destroyed before you ever meet them, your friends and families made safe.”
“How intriguing. All my desires?” I answer in deadpan, a little annoyed at my designation. Why does Baledagh get ‘Warrior’ and I get ‘Foundling’? It begs the question, what do they even know about me? “How about you give me Baledagh then you all run off and die somewhere?”
Hissing, it chomps the air in frustration, but my bindings hold fast. Although I kept myself from jumping, I’m ashamed to say I still flinched. How do people stay so calm in these tense situations? “Foolish to taunt us Foundling. We are eternal and we do not forget, nor forgive.”
“Herp derp, fear us for we are legion, yadda yadda. Blow it out your ass. You’re nothing but a bunch of intangible blathering germs, a supernaturally transmitted disease. For every poison there’s an antidote, and I’ll dedicate my life to figuring out how to nuke you all into oblivion. Until I do, you’re less trouble than a rash, so keep quiet while I talk to my brother.” I’m having too much fun mocking the ethereal monsters, but it’s hard to take them seriously when I’m in such a dominating position. “Baledagh, why even bother with these fools? Tear them apart like you destroyed the manor I built, it’s as easy as turning your hand. Envision victory and it will be yours.”
“The Warrior cannot hear you.” Its voice is almost sing-song, a harsh and discordant harmony as if it’s enjoying the exchange. “We can hear him, his screams so musical, his fears so delectable. He sought to devour us but we will devour him, piece by piece until nothing is left. A most succulent morsel, so tender and delightful, anger and torment turning to misery and pain. Would you like to listen?” Without waiting for an answer, its face reverts back to Baledagh’s, his eyes filled with tears as he pleads, “Kill me brother, it hurts so much. End my suffering, I beg you, I can’t take it anymore, I can’t.”
Shaking with rage and horror, it takes everything I have not to strike him down right there, putting him out of his misery. Swallowing the knot in my throat, I shake my head, denying the scene before me. “Liars. Baledagh’s stronger than that. If you were really torturing him, he wouldn’t beg me to kill him, he’d beg me to kill you.”
“Are you so confident Foundling?” Baledagh’s mouth breaks into a smile, his pain and fear gone in an instant, a ploy from the creature inhabiting him. I hope. “You think yourself so clever, but we know the truth. Accept or deny it, the outcome remains the same. Your brother is lost to you, no matter what you say. How long will you let him suffer in our grasp, where every second lasts an eternity? Surrender, and we will end his tortured existence, grant you all we promised and more.”
Overcome with emotion, I draw the creature towards me with a gesture, intending to destroy it, or at least hurt it somehow. Still wearing Baledagh’s face, his accepting smile makes me hesitate, unwilling to harm my little brother without 100% certainty he cannot be saved. I can’t trust anything the Spectres say, they’re liars and deceivers.
Which leaves me with what choice exactly? Kill it with kindness? Yea right. Exorcisms? Who can I trust with this information? Hey guys, I have this alter-ego who’s Defiled, any chance you know of a fix? Relax, put down the pitchforks, we’re two different souls so I’m not Defiled. Only he is and we’re working on it, so no worries.
Somehow, I don’t think the conversation will go that smoothly.
The creature cackles loudly, interrupting my deliberations. “Weak and indecisive, a terrified little mouse frozen with fear. Little wonder you require the Warrior.” So eager for destruction, it seems drunk on my fury, egging me on as if craving destruction of any kind, even it’s own. The Demons appear to thrive on violence and suffering, driving their hosts to wanton bloodshed and destruction for no apparent reason.
What do they gain from turning people into murder hobos? Is it for the laughs or do they serve some other, more nefarious purpose? Sure, there’s the whole Mother/Father dichotomy everyone preaches, but I find it difficult to believe this is all a convoluted game of chess between cosmic beings of phenomenal, life-creating power. They said Baledagh’s pain and misery was ‘delectable’, are they feeding on his emotions? Is that why they demand torture and bloodshed? Are they nothing more than emotional parasites, seeking to drown their hosts in despair or blood lust, becoming full-fledged Demons once control is surrendered?
Or maybe I’m wrong and the answer really is ‘Godly marital dispute’.
Regardless of why the Spectres do what they do, I need to find out if Baledagh is still inside there. How can I talk to him uninterrupted, without these Spectres spewing their lies and sowing seeds of doubt? If only I could somehow send Baledagh a private message and-
Send. I can craft a Sending, or something like it. Reluctant to touch the thing but determined to reach Baledagh, I reinforce the restraints with a thought before placing my hand on its chest. Ignoring its gleeful taunts, I circulate my Chi, gathering it in my palm and readying to emit it all as far as it will go before it dissipates, barely a scant millimetre away from my skin judging from past experience.
Sending isn’t a difficult skill, but I’ve never Sent anything to Baledagh, not really. Every person has their own unique signature, a designation of sorts, and with familiarity or proximity, you can home in on someone’s specific signature and use it to Send them a message. Without a signature, you’re throwing messages out into the air with no one to receive them. It’s easy enough to discern unless someone is actively hiding it, which is more trouble than it’s worth.
Acting as my senses, my Chi will search for Baledagh’s familiar presence within, before a minuscule amount returns and informs me where to Send my message. Even though I share the same signature with Baledagh, and whoever is in the driving seat receives the Sending, it’s similar enough to how I normally converse with him without share my every thought, so I’m confident I can find him like this.
Okay not confident at all, but hell, might as well grasp at straws.
Banishing my doubts and stray thoughts, I sink deeper into concentration and cast my Chi out through my palm, searching for Baledagh’s presence within. Immediately, my senses are assailed by the Spectres within, their ghastly wails filling me with bone-chilling fear while their ethereal hands shred my Chi to pieces with a touch, burning away at my senses. Overwhelmed in an instant, I snatch my hand away, body shaking and chest heaving as I process the emotional assault. The grinning creature, smug and assured of its own defences, taunts me again. “You still seek the Warrior? Too unskilled Foundling, you will never succeed. He is caught within our grasp and we will never release him.”
Not ready to give up, I resume my efforts with the same results, pausing only for a second before trying again and again. Each time, my consciousness sinks deeper into my Chi as I hopelessly attempt to force my way through the storm of emotions, desperate to find my brother. Success eludes me, and I realize I need to protect my Chi, but Yuzhen’s half-hour lesson didn’t cover this. Maybe if I delve deeper, be there in person, or rather spirit, and ward off the Spectres attacks.
Taking a step back to prepare, I hold my forearm in front of my face and gather my Chi once more, charging headlong into Baledagh’s body. There is no impact, no collision, only a shifting of the world, the dark, unending void replaced by a grey, desolate landscape, lifeless and crumbling to dust around me. The world stretches in every direction without a single landmark, an endless and unchanging plain of death. So dreary and dismal, Baledagh wasn’t exaggerating when he said the world was colourless, but how much of his surliness can be attributed to the Spectres?
As if summoned by the thought, countless shadows dot the skies as more surge from the earth itself, the world filled with Spectres as they charge towards me, wailing their discordant harmony. Knowing I can easily deal with the threat, I concentrate on my surroundings, searching for the source of a strange sensation. Something calls to me, tugging at my consciousness, but I can’t place what or where. It’s not Baledagh, but someone just as familiar and inviting, maybe even more so.
Are there more personalities hanging around here?
Before I can figure it out, the Spectres are on me. With an annoyed scoff, I exert a modicum of will to hold them back, intent on parsing the situation. Surging past my non-existent defences, the torrent of Spectres catch me off-guard, sweeping me up in their wake as they swarm around me. For a moment, pain is all I know, unlike anything I’ve ever felt before lancing through my astral body. Screaming in agony, I struggle tooth and nail, but my blows pass through them without affect while they rend and tear me to shreds, my body reforming in an instant before being shredded once again.
“Arrogant Foundling,” they hiss, delighting in my suffering. “To think, you would enter our domain so willingly.” My skin sluices off in one piece, torn gently from my flesh like a sheet from the bed. “You have no power here.” Plucking my head off like an apple, they turn me to watch as they consume my body, even as I regrow everything from the neck down. “You will pay for your foolishness, you will beg us for death, and it will never come. Victory is ours.”
In my frantic struggle for freedom, I reach out to the familiar sensation, silently pleading for aid. My fingers close around a cold, rounded hilt, the weapon fitting perfectly in my grip as if I’d been born with the blade in hand. In a burst of brilliant light, the Spectres explode away as I find my bearings, my feet planted and sword raised.
Peace, my Spiritual Weapon. Of course it’s here in this spiritual world. The metal pulses in my hand, eagerly greeting me for the first time, ready to fight at my side and I dare not disappoint. With a wordless scream, I charge the Spectres and lay about, scything through them with ease as they flee and scream. “Noooooo,” they wail, the harsh tones now music to my ears. “How can this be? This is not your domain, we claimed this for our own!”
Unwilling to answer, I follow the Spectres on their grand exodus, crossing vast distances in a single stride, my sword light striking down dozens if not hundreds of Spectres with every slash and thrust. “Where is Baledagh?” The question erupts from my lips, the world shrinking as I continue my slaughter. “Where is my brother?”
The Spectres are too busy fleeing to respond, but Peace hums in my grasp, turning me towards my destination. Arriving in a single step, I stand over Baledagh, sitting lifelessly on the plains, untouched and unharmed, eyes open yet wholly oblivious to his surroundings. Tucked between his arms is Tranquility, my little brother hugging the shield to his chest, cradling it like a favoured pet. Unresponsive no matter what I say or do, he sits and stares into the distance, eyes devoid of any emotion or reaction, a lifeless husk.
My heart wrenches at the sight and I lift Peace, thinking to end his miserable existence. The blade shudders in my grasp, displaying opposition to my actions, and after a long pause, I lower Peace with a sigh. Sitting beside him, I follow his gaze into the distance, spotting a younger Baledagh strolling through the village, barely older than Tali and Tate. Holding his hands, Baatar and Sarnai walk beside him, turning to glance back at Alsantset and Charok who lag behind. Adopted by the older couple, Sarnai often praises the Mother for guiding Baatar to the orphaned Baledagh.
Time passes and he grows into a splendid warrior beneath Baatar’s dedicated tutelage, far more talented than I could ever hope to be. His family chants his name from the crowd as he’s crowned Champion of the Contests, the young man filled with pride over his victory. Riding home with his Officer’s token on full display, he convinces Baatar to let him travel on his own, using the safety afforded by his new rank to explore the province before heading home. With a retinue of Sentinels to guard him, he heads off into the world to see the Sacred Groves of Sanshu and maybe do a little bandit hunting, but nothing too overboard.
Riding past the lake, he catches a glimpse of a young woman, hard at work digging for clams. Enamoured with a single glance, Baledagh approaches and asks for her name. The young woman smiles shyly, both frightened and curious, giving an awkward curtsy before answering. Ai-Qing. After a few questions, Baledagh leaves, but it isn’t long before he returns, asking to taste a meal of the strange-looking shellfish. In the end, he dislikes the taste and texture, but thoroughly enjoys her company.
Days turn to weeks as he whiles away the time with Ai-Qing, until Baatar sends someone to fetch him. Unwilling to leave her behind, Baledagh asks for her hand in marriage, and she agrees readily, the two head over heels in love. With his betrothed in hand, he returns home and takes up a blessed existence, spending half the year with his beloved and the other half defending the mountain passes from Defiled. He grows older and wiser, and at the tender age of twenty-two, Ai-Qing, his one and only wife, gives birth to their first child during a beautiful spring shower. Holding his son for the first time, Baledagh chooses the boy’s name on a whim: Falling Rain.
Choking back my tears, I turn to Baledagh, the real Baledagh sitting next to me, lost in his delusions. He’s given up on this existence, surrendered completely, because it seems like the Spectres gave him everything he wanted: his very own life. Gathering him into my arms, I lift him out of the desolate landscape and back to the void, carefully bringing the dream with me before closing everything left behind with a thought, the Spectres entrapped once more. Laying Baledagh gently in bed, I leave him to dream his dreams, undisturbed by the Spectres or myself, wishing I had the power to make his dreams a reality.
It would be kinder to let him dream for now, at least until we’re home safe and sound where I can look after him.
Unfortunately, that might be a while. There’s still a war to be fought.
Sitting down in the void, I close my eyes and channel my Chi, healing my body’s injuries in preparation of the journey ahead. Only now do I truly realize the stakes at hand.
The Defiled must be stopped, no matter the cost.
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