Ever since waking from my ill-fated attempt to stop a boat by standing in front of it, I’ve been dealing with a seemingly never ending list of aches and afflictions. It’s not just bumps and bruises but more serious things like unhealed nerve damage from my nibbled off toes, burst blood vessels in my lungs, and minor organ failure. Even with my one trick easy healing, I still feel like shit day after day, and my new concussion courtesy of the Shrike’s goons isn’t helping. None of those injuries alone are debilitating, but combined, they make for an uncomfortable experience.
It’s almost not worth it.
To make matters worse, I’m forced to bite my lip and endure as my poor, virgin ass is abused for hours on end. Up and down, up and down, all day long, my body can’t take it anymore. I blame Fung entirely. Why can’t Akanai force him to ride a quin? How did horses get so romanticized? I don’t care how fast or powerful they are, this is hands down the most uncomfortable ride I’ve ever taken. Am I crazy or do cushions not exist? A thick padding wouldn’t make the ride comfortable by any measure, but it’d be a whole hell of a lot better than sitting on a saddle made from what I can only assume is the hardest leather known to man.
I miss Mafu’s soft, squishy butt, with a thick layer of fat under his dense, plushy fur, swaying left and right in an incredibly soothing gait. Then there’s his dry, pellet-shaped, near-odourless poops, something I never fully appreciated until exposed to the sickening stench of horse farts. With literally kilograms of fibre constantly moving through their intestines day in and day out, you’d think a horse’s bowels would be relatively clean, but nothing could be farther from the truth. Disgusting creatures.
I need a vacation.
After hours of arduous travel, the darkened skies mercifully put an end to our days ride. Sliding off my diamond-backed mount, I close my eyes and sigh with relief, both feet on steady ground, body swaying slightly as I adjust to the lack of motion. Ass bruised, thighs cramped, head pounding, and lungs burning, I stumble towards the river with a basin and wash cloth in hand.
“Fool, you’re in no condition to care for yourself.” Catching me by the arm, Fung takes the basin and cloth from my hands and gingerly guides me away, setting me down in a clearing while his soldiers make camp around us. I didn’t ask for help… But it’s nice of him to do so. I mean c’mon, it’s Fung, born with a silver spoon in his mouth. He’s probably never helped someone sit before in his life. Be thankful.
Unable to find a comfortable position, I abandon all pride and flop to my side like a doll with its strings cut. “Thank you. I don’t understand how you can endure riding those things day after day. I was ready to quit after five minutes.”
“It gets better with practice. Rest for now, I’ll wake you when dinner is ready.”
“No, I need to mediate and heal, it’ll go faster if I concentrate.” Ah fuck. “Err… Help me sit up please?”
Rolling his eyes, Fung saunters off and returns promptly, carrying a log in both hands. Grumbling beneath his breath about taking advantage of his good nature, he places the log down and props me against it. “Anything else, Lord Rain? Shall I play you a rousing tune or tell a tale of bravery and adventure to keep you entertained?”
He’s just joking around, don’t be so sensitive. Play along. “No need,” I answer with a dismissive wave, affecting a false air of superiority. “Go about your business, I’ll be waiting for my meal.”
With a smile and a mocking bow, Fung steps away to oversee his troops while I close my eyes. Fighting the temptation to fall asleep, I reach for Balance and check on my body, focusing all efforts on my head injury first. As tempting it is to soothe my bruised tailbone, there’s the whole triage thing to keep in mind. Truth be told, I don’t really need to concentrate on healing, I’ve been doing it all day. There’s not much I can do without proper rest and large meals. Instead, I slip into the void and check on Baledagh, his astral form exactly as I left him, his mind fully immersed in his perfect dreamworld. Putting my arm around his shoulder, I settle in to watch his dreams together.
Honestly, I don’t really know why I’m here. It’s awkward watching him gallivant through this illusion while his every desire falls into his lap. His dreams are so empty and hollow, a masturbatory fantasy in which all his needs and wants are met. Where’s the challenge and excitement? Every decision he makes is the right one, nothing ever goes wrong for him, with his perfect wife and child.
The child named after me.
I need to be here, help him through this after he wakes. I know from personal experience this dream, this fantasy isn’t so easy to shake off. Happiness is one hell of a drug, it makes all your problems melt away and you accept things as they are. Even if you find it suspicious, you don’t want to delve deeper because, real or fake, you’re happy which is all that matters.
I’m slowly unravelling the mystery of the Spectres and the Defiled. When I first woke in the woods after Ai-Qing’s death, our body was in terrible shape, but Baledagh was running and fighting like he was in top condition. He claimed devouring the Spectres healed our body, but looking back, I’m almost positive he’s not entirely correct. The Spectres healed us, but it was a patchwork job at best, getting us into working order and no more. By all rights, Baledagh should have been somewhere between agonizing pain and comatose. I mean, he’s a tough kid, but dealing with torment isn’t exactly his strong suit. That’s more my wheelhouse.
My best guess is the Spectres healed him, but only enough to get him mobile while numbing his ability to feel pain. It explains how the Defiled can keep fighting after taking grievous injuries, walking around limbless and gutted without falling into shock. I mean hell, it took all my creative efforts to get a Defiled screaming in pain and she was already impaled on a spear. Physically, the Defiled are no different from normal people, so it makes sense their toughness is a mental rather than somatic advantage.
Why leave their hosts half dead? Who knows. Maybe they’re lazy, unwilling to work so hard unless their host is a sure thing. Or they might hold the pain as their trump card, removing their aid in times of stress and shocking their hosts into compliance. Carrot and stick, give their hosts what they want, keep them happy, and leave them in crippling pain should they ever attempt to renege.
Those bastard Spectres really know how to make a deal.
Still, why go to all this trouble? Why not overpower their hosts in a hostile takeover, trapping them like Demon Vivek trapped all those soldiers? Probably because they can’t for whatever reason. They require compliance, or more accurately, surrender, which means there must be a way to fight back, to reject or renounce their influence. It means all hope is not lost for Baledagh.
And I might be getting ahead of myself here, but if Baledagh does manage to free himself from the Spectres, what happens to me? Do I get evicted along with them or do I fall into another category of spiritual parasitism? Does the answer matter? He’s willing to die so I can live, am I too selfish to do the same for him?
“Young hero Falling Rain, water to wash and your meal awaits.” Fu Zu Li interrupts my quasi-suicidal musings, directing my gaze to a basin of steaming hot water and a plate of meat and travel bread.
“Oh bless your heart, thank you thank you thank you.” Welcoming the distraction, I ignore the torturer’s ever present frown and gracefully decline his offer of aid. Running the hot, damp cloth across my face feels wonderfully refreshing, as does wiping away the dust and sweat from my wiry frame. A small fire pit has been dug into the earth, hiding the flames in most directions, but it’s worth risking ambush for the hot water alone. My thin arms and lean chest are revealed by the firelight, the shadows making everything seem worse than it is. I used to be so fit and muscular, not beefy but sinewy and strong, a body to be proud of. Now, I’ve been reduced to nothing but skin and bones, it’s almost enough to bring tears to my eyes.
Calm down, there’s nothing you can do to remedy the situation. You need food and rest, luxuries you can’t afford at the moment, but at least we’re still breathing. Optimism is a hard sell in this world, which really brings to light how easy the Spectres have it. I mean, this world is so bleak and dispiriting, I can’t even enjoy my dinner without feeling guilty. A deliciously rare steak sits waiting for me and all I can think about is the poor horse it came from. Sure I hate riding the animals, but no one’s forcing me to do it. The horse had no choice, we forced him to run until he lamed himself, and how did we show our gratitude? Someone took him into the forest and slit his throat.
Is this what’s in store for me? Following orders and struggling to survive until I’ve nothing more to give, only to die for the sake of convenience?
Nope, gotta stay upbeat and positive, can’t let the Spectres get me down. Negativity, that’s how those bastards get you, slowly unbalancing you until you’ve no choice but to rely on them. They’re tricky, they know to start small. A few harmless observations, like how your friend keeps a master torturer on retainer or widespread animal cruelty. In the grand scheme of things, it doesn’t seem like much, but after days, weeks, months, or years, the little observations start to build up.
They tell you how you have no control over your life, tricked into joining a mercenary force, saddled with two shockingly young wives without being consulted, stuck in a position of command you never wanted with a reputation for brutality you don’t deserve. Your domineering mother-in-law disapproves of you, your wife’s slave turned friend hates you, a veritable superpower wants you dead, and no one will miss you when you’re gone.
After however long it takes, the Spectres are left with a depressed, angry, disenfranchised host, and they begin offering ‘solutions’. Push away your friend with the torturer, you don’t need him in your life. Say something about the horses, this isn’t right. Quit the Sentinels, they don’t need you. Dismiss your betrothals, you don’t want to be tied down.
With each instruction you follow, they reward you with a feeling of satisfaction, like a dog earning a treat. They condition you to behave as they wish, slowly escalating each situation, lending you their strength when needed. Teach the uppity slave a lesson. Kill those who want you dead. If you already have the reputation, then you might as well deserve it. The further down their road you walk, the more isolated and vulnerable you become. Reliant on their rewards to feel good about yourself, you slowly succumb to their desires one by one until before you know it, you’ve gone full on murder hobo, eating the flesh of children and torturing people for laughs.
Insidious is what they are, so subtle and skillful, even knowing what they’re doing doesn’t help much. No matter what I do, I can still hear their voices, so finely woven I can barely discern their whispers from my own thoughts. How do I beat them? Is it even possible?
“Rain?” Shaking my shoulder lightly, Fung looks at me with concern. “Is everything all right?”
“Why wouldn’t it be?”
With a pointed look, Fung answers, “Because you’ve been staring at a basin of water for some time now. Your food’s gone cold.” Blinking owlishly, I glance at the cold water to my plate, then back at Fung, unable to voice my thoughts. Taking a seat next to me, Fung bumps me with his shoulder. “I’ve noticed you’ve been rather introspective of late. Anything you care to share?”
I can’t talk to him, he wouldn’t understand. “It’s nothing young magistrate Fung need concern himself with, I’m just having trouble focusing. Head wound and what not.”
Shaking his head sadly, Fung exhales slowly. “Let’s be serious for a moment. I’ve heard rumours of your actions during the Purge, though the only thing I know for certain is you took an oath of silence, as did a few dozen soldiers across the four cities. A cruel demand considering many have trouble coping with what is arguably cold-blooded murder without help, but I doubt Major Yuzhen would demand oaths if not absolutely necessary. You have a penchant for stirring up trouble, my friend.”
“It’s not the Purge bothering me.” Uncomfortable with the lie, I correct myself. “It’s not entirely the Purge.”
Smiling at my admission, Fung retorts, “So you admit something is bothering you then? Good. If not the Purge, then what is it?”
Raising an eyebrow, Fung sits in silence and waits for me to speak, but unfortunately for him, this power play doesn’t work on me. Grabbing my plate, I stare down at the horse steak, guilt wrestling against hunger as my meal sits untouched. Finally giving up, Fung pats my shoulder and sighs, leaning back to stare up into the night sky. “I won’t continue to pry, but know should you ever need my aid, I am here to help.”
His words fill me with warmth and bring a smile to my face. He’s right, he’s my friend. I have people to rely on, to help me through this. Stupid to try to go at it alone, it’s exactly what the Spectres want. After taking a moment to order my thoughts, I lean back and admit, “I’ve been depressed lately. The more I see of the world, the more I want to go back to the village and never leave again. I mean, my first time out, I ran into bandits and DuGu Ren, then things escalated from there.” Throwing my hands to the air, the frustration is evident in my tone, the words pouring out once my seal of silence is broken. “The Purge is only the latest and greatest in a string of events emphasizing how shitty things are in the world, and now I can’t stop focusing on the negatives. I’ve been sitting here mourning the poor horse on my plate, and I can’t get past it. He just wanted to carry our burdens and we killed him.” All true, though omitting some important details. “I don’t understand how we as a nation built around the concept of Balance are capable of such horrific acts. Genocide, slavery, torture, it sickens me how it’s all so widely accepted.”
Fung’s chuckle strikes a nerve, my irritation flaring as he shakes his head. Here I am baring my soul and he laughs? “Sorry, sorry, it’s just.. I asked a question just like this… when I was five. It really highlights your sheltered upbringing.” My anger subsides as he catches his breath, embarrassment taking its place. After taking a deep breath, Fung launches into his explanation. “Balance is a concept for which we humans are ill-suited. We are fragile, emotional creatures, capable of observation and thought which many scholars believe hinders our progress. Animals naturally seek Balance, but humans must reach for it, struggle to hold it, and there has yet to be a single person who has truly mastered it.”
“How would you know?”
With a pointed look, Fung replies, “Because we have yet to produce the equivalent of an Ancestral Beast.” After giving me a moment to absorb the information, Fung continues. “You’re a good man and a skilled warrior, but you’ve confused Balance with morality. There is no right or wrong, no good or evil when it comes to Balance. Life and death are but two sides of the same coin, both required for the world to continue. Take for example a wildfire ravaging through a forest, destroying trees and killing wildlife without mercy. Many would see the flames as evil, but it is also a source of renewal. The dead trees nourish the soil and without them, the canopy no longer blocks out the sunlight, allowing for new growth. Some trees have even been noted to only produce seeds after a fire, meaning the forest cannot be sustained without the flames.”
“So you’re saying fire is good?” Of course a pyromaniac like Fung’s dad would love fire.
“No.” Animated, Fung sits up and turns to me with a knowing smile. “The fire is neither good nor evil, it is merely an agent of Balance. As humans, we allow our morals and philosophies to colour our judgment, which affects our ability to find Balance. Does the rabbit consider the wolf evil? Does a flower hate the deer? Perhaps they do, but each are merely acting in their nature. Morality is a human construct, Balance a natural one. It’s how people like the Shrike and Fu Zu Li retain Balance, they are merely doing what is required of them.”
Going over everything he’s said makes my mind spin. “Then how come anger and rage are so bad for Balance?”
“It isn’t. Too much anger is another thing altogether. Take all things in moderation. Laugh when you want to, cry when you must, fight when called upon, and stand up for what you believe.” Shrugging, he adds, “It’s all much easier said than done of course.”
After a long pause, I give up trying to understand it for now and return to the root of my problems. “Okay… None of this really helps my mood problems. Any suggestions?”
Another shrug. “We live in a world of trials and tribulations. I usually get drunk and visit the Golden Swan Pavilion, but neither one is a viable option for you. We’ve a battle to fight and your betrothed is not a woman to cross lightly.”
Laughing at his exaggerated shivers, I clap him on the shoulder. “Thank you my friend. You were no help at all, but you have a very soothing voice. I’ll have no trouble falling asleep tonight.”
Rolling his eyes, he settles back down beside me. “Anytime, it is my duty as your Martial Uncle to guide my Martial Nephew. Besides, I enjoy watching your lips move while you struggle to comprehend higher concepts. It amuses me greatly.”
“Ha ha, enjoy your seniority while it lasts. After I marry Mila, I’ll be your Senior Brother-in-law.”
Our banter continues into the night, laughing and chatting around the fire. Whatever problems I face, Fung reminded me I have people to help me through them. My family, my friends, even my pets, I don’t have to go at it alone. My mood lightened, my attention turns back to my rumbling stomach. Taking a bite of the horse steak, I mentally offer a prayer in it’s honour. Sorry horsey, but I’m hungry. It was wrong to kill you, but all I can do is apologize for the necessity. May you have better luck in your next life.
Thank you for being so delicious.
Two hundred Chapters! (Though as I write this, I realize it’s 202 since I did those side chapters with Lin, but whatever.)
I started posting SD in mid-april of 2016, which means I’ve been writing for a little over a year now. When I started, I didn’t think I’d have more than a few dozen readers, and the success of SD has blown me away. Though writing now consumes all my free time, I’ve never been happier to work so hard in my life.
Since Chapter 1, I’ve posted 639,402 words, averaging 3.8 chapters or 12,296 words per week. My generous readers have donated a total of $1068.21 USD via Paypal (after paypal’s cut, I didn’t want to individually add all the transactions) and $1842 USD via Patreon (before Patreon’s cut, again didn’t want to add up monthly totals) for a whopping $2904 USD.
It’s been a wild ride with some ups and downs, and I’ve enjoyed every minute. I wanted to thank everyone for reading, commenting, donating, pointing out my mistakes, criticizing my choices, and pushing me to be better. Without all of you, SD would not be where it is today, and I am grateful to have so many people waiting to read my work week after week. I am humbled at the overwhelming support via donations and Patreon, and wish I could write more to thank you all. Your continued readership has motivated me throughout this past year and kept me writing when I might have otherwise given up and moved on.
From the bottom of my heart, thank you all for reading.
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