Author’s note: Sorry for the late chapter. Had it written then decided I hated almost everything about it, so I did some heavy editing. Here it is, now I’m off to eat some dinner!
Reeling with disbelief, Yo Ling dispatched Spirits and Sendings while wracking his brain, searching for a solution to his woes. The Ascendants continued to delay their deaths, keeping his Transcendents out of the fray. Meanwhile, the defenders of Sanshu fought like beasts possessed. Their vigour unflagging and fury unbound, they scorned their losses while chasing down his panicked Butchers. Fools one and all, if his Butchers stood and fought then they had even odds of winning the day, but his Captains failed in their duties, scattering to the winds and throwing their comrades to the wolves in their desperation to escape. Then there were the Council’s mercenaries, emerging from the shadows strike his Coalition allies from behind, XiaoGong pleading for aid as his elite retinue fell beneath the weight of numbers.
How had things gone so wrong? The defenders of Sanshu should be cowering before his might, their Magistrate and champions defeated single-handedly, yet still they fought on, heedless of his presence. What’s more it should have been impossible for so many blood-thirsty mercenaries to gather without the Spirits knowing, yet there they were, ruthlessly slaughtering his allies with impunity. This was supposed to be his crowning glory, his day of victory, yet trial and tribulation met him at every turn. In desperation, he beseeched the Venerated Ones for aid. “Rise and reveal yourselves, your mere presence can turn the tide in our favour, the treaty left unbroken.”
Impossible. The Predator Lurks, Awaiting Chance.
The predator? “Falling Rain? He’s but a boy! Why fear him?”
The Devourer, Its Instrument. Kill Him.
Their insistence gave him pause. Falling Rain was not the Predator, but he was a danger, this much was clear. “Then you will reveal yourselves?”
Foes Too Numerous. Kill The Devourer, Incapacitate The Predator, Then Away We Bring You.
Their answer weighed heavily upon him, his shoulders slumping as he accepted defeat. Sanshu was lost, this much was clear. Even if he slaughtered every last defender himself, he no longer had the resources required to hold it, whether it be through force of arms or misinformation. His years of careful planning and preparation all for naught, a victory denied him for reasons beyond his control. The Corsairs, the Militia, the Bekhai, the threats to the Venerated Ones, these and a thousand other random factors all working against him, turning grand triumph into bitter failure.
But not without great cost, beginning with these bothersome Bekhai elites.
Raising his mace, he froze in place as he searched for his defeated foes, their bodies no longer lying on the streets. Impossible, all four warriors had all fallen before his eyes, yet somehow escaped without his notice. How could this be? Were there other experts working from the shadows? A chill ran through him as he scanned his surroundings, desperate to find the interlopers but coming up with nothing. His Wraiths were no help, the skulking curs having deserted long ago, fleeing the city like beaten dogs.
“Cowards,” he screamed, his thundering roar echoing off the walls, stone and wood trembling as he vented his rage and frustration. His Aura billowed out in all directions, crushing friend and foe alike as the battle came to a standstill, every eye turning to gaze upon him. “Flee while you can, but know this! You’re all living on borrowed time, your fates sealed. Whether it takes a year or a decade, Yo Ling will have his pound of flesh, vengeance and retributi-”
A flash of steel interrupted his ranting, his mace moving to intercept the projectile. Caught by surprise, he failed to fully deflect the attack, the spear piercing armour and gouging flesh as it glanced across his ribs. Breathless and bewildered, he touched the wound in disbelief, his hand coming away bloody. A minor injury but an injury nonetheless. Gaping at his assailant, the diminutive red-headed half-beast glared back at him in silence, sitting atop her mount with a skinny youth cradled in her arms. A mere child, yet she dared attack him, to injure him, a grievous insult to his dignity witnessed by all.
An inhuman snarl tore from his throat as he charged the girl, erupting with bestial fury. Enemies moved to intercept him but he would not be denied, smashing aside spear and sword, rider and mount, undeterred as he charged towards the insolent bitch, sitting in place with arm outstretched to recall her weapon. Batting the spear in mid-flight, he sent it whirling off into the distance, his mace descending to crack fang and bone and defeat the mount’s attack. Plucking the girl from her harness, he lifted her in the air and threw to the ground, careful not to kill her yet.
Death would be too merciful, this bitch would suffer for her impudence.
A second half-beast girl screamed and attacked, her saber lashing out towards his throat. Moving with exceptional speed, the saber’s edge kissed the skin of his neck before rebounding away, easily stopped by Yo Ling’s mace. Yet another damned brat who dared to injure him, he was beside himself with anger, shattering her collarbone with a glancing blow before throwing her down beside the red-head.
The Devourer. Kill Him.
Startled by their forceful demand, Yo Ling hesitated for a fraction of a second, searching for Falling Rain. Eyes widening in surprise, he realized Rain was the unconscious youth lying before him, the young man previously cradled in the red-haired bitch’s arms. Lifting him by the collar, Yo Ling brought him close, baffled by what he found. Laughing Dragon and Gen both claimed Falling Rain was Enlightened and the Spirits marked him as the Devourer, but yet this child wearing oversized night-clothes was untouched. In fact, the Spirits seemed repulsed by his presence, clamouring in discordant anarchy and demanding Yo Ling end him, wailing nonsensical gibberish about the Devourer and the Predator.
How preposterous, a comatose boy not even out of his teens yet able to strike fear in the hearts of the Venerated Ones and Spirits. So many questions, but his curiosity would have to go unsated. Kill the boy, then flee to fight another day, bringing the two foolhardy little brats with him.
They would rue the day they crossed the Spectre Yo Ling.
Floating through the void, I drift in and out of consciousness as I lay beside Baledagh, watching his conflicted emotions flash across his sleeping face. Blobby bubbles and seethes around us, a churning eddy of currents urging me to wake while carefully avoiding my little brother. A good thing too, even though Bei seemed content with her end, I don’t really understand what happened. Did I save her or merely consign her to a different hell? I’d like to think Blobby is on the side of good, but judging by its actions thus far, my little friend is more chaotic neutral than anything. Blobby does what Blobby wants, even risking my life to sate its appetite. I don’t know if its on my side or if it sees me as a convenient meal ticket. Even if it’s purifying Demon souls or whatever, so what? Am I supposed to risk my life hunting Demons to feed it? How many does it need? Hundreds? Thousands? What if the next host isn’t as supportive as Bei and turns on me? Can I fight someone inside their mind? I doubt it.
Forget saving people’s souls, I might not even survive the next few hours. With the Coalition’s betrayal, things are looking grim, Sanshu’s defenders trapped in the marketplace with nowhere to run. The thought almost stirs me to action, but overwhelming exhaustion wins out, my mind barely able to focus. Blobby continues to insist I wake and I want to, but I can’t. I’ve given all I have and there’s nothing left in the tank, fatigue permeating my core. All I can do is wallow in guilt while watching my suicidal brother struggle to find reason to wake.
I don’t know how to help him. He wanted to die, begged me to let him die. Am I supposed to stand and watch as he’s devoured by a gluttonous, amorphous blob of deitic liquid? Will he thank me for it like Bei did, accepting the end with grace and dignity? Would I ever forgive myself for letting him go? I’ve had my chance to live, shouldn’t he get the same? What right did I have coming here and displacing him? I’m not suited for this world with its endless trials and tribulations, it’s all so exhausting. I’m tired of all the struggles and fights, the politics and face-demanding. I miraculously overcame two thousand Defiled with Blobby’s help, yet the Coalition showed up with fifteen thousand more. Even if I save the city, won’t the Empire just send someone to Purge it? That’s how they work right? Baledagh fought so hard to save Ai Qing’s village, an exercise in futility. Why should I bother?
Then again… What’s the fucking alternative? Lie down and die? No thanks, I’ve worked too hard to stay alive these past few years and I’m not ready to give up yet. It’s not all bad, I have my loving family, my adorable wives, my steadfast friends, and all my fluffy fur babies. Besides, with my luck, I’d probably reincarnate into an even worse situation than before, maybe even downgrading to insect or inanimate object. Hard pass, so I guess I’ve got no choice but to sit up and fight.
The void comes to a halt around me, lethargy and weariness still hanging from me like a cloak as I force myself to wake, Blobby more animated than I’ve ever felt. Patting Baledagh on head, I pull him in for a hug, passing along all the warmth and love I can muster. “Neither of us asked for this, but we’re stuck with each other. You’re everything I wish I was, fierce, loyal, courageous and adventurous, and I love you, little brother. If we survive this, I’ll figure out some way to fix things, even if at the cost of my existence. I swear it.”
Taking a deep breath, I steady my mind and open my eyes, immediately overwhelmed by my senses. The glaring light, the cacophonous din, the foul stench and stinging pain, it sends me reeling in place, my feet flopping about in search of solid ground. Grasping at the air, my hands close around spiked iron, my eyes focusing to see two eyes, one milky white and unseeing, the other light brown and brimming with hatred and delight. With vice-like fingers closed around my throat, his lips stretch into a crooked grin, revealing a set of perfect, ivory teeth. “How fortuitous for you to wake,” he drawls, enjoying the moment. “This humble one be Yo Ling.” His fingers clamp tighter, cutting off air and blood. “A pleasure to meet you, Falling Rain. Now die.”
Geez, take one nap and this is what I wake to. It never ends.
Channelling my Chi, a deluge of Energy surges through me while I condense my Aura, shaping it into a blade before lashing out. Tearing into Yo Ling’s sturdy metaphysical presence, it feels like chipping away at a mountain with a chisel, but the unfamiliar sensation unnerves my foe, his eyes widening in alarm. My efforts buy me a moments hesitation measured in tenths of a second, just enough time to slip into his mind as everything fades to black.
Coming to, my first thought is of regret as I take in the surroundings. Unlike the emptiness of Bei’s mind, occupied only by herself and the Demon, Yo Ling’s mental plane is filled with Spectres as far as I can see. My intrusion noticed, the Spectres swarm in from all directions, screaming in a thousand voices of torture and death. Summoning Peace, it comes into existence with an explosion of light and power, casting aside the darkness of the void. Unleashing my Aura, I wade through the sea of Spectres, the shifting, shapeless shadows surging around me, unable or unwilling to pierce through my barrier and attack. No matter how I move, they keep out of range of my sword and unaffected by my Aura, our battle at a standstill as my physical body lays helpless in Yo Ling’s grasp.
Well fuck… Now what?
The Spectres part and reform around me as I make my way through the void, Peace Guiding the way towards Yo Ling’s presence. There are so many of them clustered together, I can hardly tell where one ends and another begins, each one jabbering away with its voice, a disharmonious chorus of head-splitting proportions, drowning out my every thought. Unsure if I’m rushing towards my destination or fleeing from the noise, I race across the Yo Ling’s mindscape, praying I find him before it’s too late.
The deafening clamour falls silent, the change so abrupt I wonder if I’ve died. In Peace’s soft, glowing light, I see the Spectres have fallen in line, queuing in an orderly fashion, silent and still. At the front of the line is Yo Ling, his form blurred and hazy as he sits upon an ornate, golden throne, looking younger than he does in real life but no less imposing. Six human figures stand by the throne, two women and four men. Naked as they day they were born aside from a collar around their necks, they stare lifelessly at nothing while Yo Ling meets with each Spectre, listening to their whispers before sending them away, the king taking audience with his subjects.
There’s no way I’m gonna wait in line.
Striding to the front, Peace’s light illuminates Yo Ling and his presence solidifies, his image strengthening as he turns towards me, standing in surprise. “How intriguing,” he murmurs, looking me over. “Might you be the Predator?”
Ignoring my confusion, Yo Ling shakes his head and wanders next to me. “No, you are weak, ineffectual. How could you possibly threaten the Venerated Ones?”
Resisting the urge to say what again, I swallow my fear and concentrate on my Aura, searching for the barrier which keeps me from affecting him. Finding nothing, my panic grows as Yo Ling paces around me, studying me like Jimjam studies his meals. All I can feel is his Aura pushing back, a robust, impenetrable defence. Unlike Bei, Yo Ling is wholly in control here, the Spectres bending to his iron will. There’s no point telling him the Spectres can’t hurt him, he already knows it.
Head tilted in curiosity, he spreads his arms and asks, “Why have you come here?”
“Err…To… save you?”
His single raised eyebrow sends a flame rushing to my cheeks, withering before his amused curiosity. “Such a shame, I rather liked you. Tenacious and uniquely talented, you would have made a fine successor. Unfortunately, the Venerated Ones have sentenced you to death, and I but their humble servant.” Shaking his head, he sighs, appearing genuinely upset. “Kill him.”
Swarming over me in a dark tide of torment and misery, they tear through my defences in an instant, their grasping claws seeking to rip me to pieces. Taking everyone by surprise including myself, Blobby spews out of my mouth in a torrent of water. There’s something acutely unpleasant about this which I can’t quite put into words, a vague sense of violation and unease as I vomit Blobby about. Despite the unpleasant invasion of space, I’m glad it came along for the ride, especially since I thought it was only interested in Demons. I’ll probably change this part of the story when I tell the others though. Being a spiritual water sprinkler isn’t exactly awe inspiring.
Making a beeline for the human figures, Blobby emanates glee and triumph as it crashes into them. “No!” Yo Ling bellows as Blobby swells and engulfs the six humans in the blink of an eye, its meal barely finished before turning to hunt down the Spectres. Erecting an unseen barrier to keep Blobby away, Yo Ling gathers his Spectres to safety before turning his attention towards me. “Get out!” At his command, the world collapses around me and I find myself gasping for breath in the real world, Yo Ling’s hand still clamped around my throat. Thankful he hasn’t killed me, so I use his momentary distraction to slip free of his grasp, leaving bits of skin and flesh beneath his fingernails. Landing on my feet, I reach for my sword to perform Tiger Sweeps the Rushes, perfectly aimed to disembowel my foe.
Grasping at empty air, I remember all my clothes melted away after killing Bei’s Demon, including my scabbard. No scabbard, no sword.
Which leaves me standing unarmed and unarmoured in front of the Legendary Bandit King of Butcher Bay as he comes to his senses, utterly enraged by Blobby’s actions.
Maybe if I stand really, really still, he won’t see me.
Warm blood sprays across my face, blinding me to my imminent doom. Frozen in fear, seconds pass in utter silence before my vision clears, finding the tip of a saber only centimetres from my nose. Going cross-eyed for a moment, I back away and trip, falling on my ass as I gaze in shock at the weapon protruding from Yo Ling’s belly, his face contorted in pain and disbelief. Gasping as the blade twists, he drops his mace to clatter across the stones, the only sound audible as every eye watches the saber cut horizontally through Yo Ling’s flesh and organs. The moment the blade slides free, Yo Ling collapses to his knees with a shudder, clutching his stomach in a futile attempt to keep his innards from spilling out onto the streets.
Stepping in front of Yo Ling with the saber in hand, a wizened old man crouches down with a wince, massaging his knee with his free hand. His tired eyes show no sign of glee or triumph, only grief and resignation. “Little brother,” he says, voice tinged with sorrow, cutting through the silence. “It’s been awhile.”
Yo Ling growls, “Bastard Liu.”
With wispy white hair, wrinkled, drooping, sun-baked skin, and an emaciated frame, Liu Shi looks nothing like his bounty poster, marked as the former co-founder of the Butcher Bay Bandits and current head of the Crossbone Corsairs. Though old, Yo Ling doesn’t look out of place on the battlefield, while Liu Shi looks as if he belongs in a hospice bed. “Come now,” he says, frowning. “That ain’t no way to greet yer brother. Every time ye call me a bastard, yer insulting Ma’s honour. She was a good woman, loyal and true to Pa.”
“Yer no brother of mine.” Spitting out a globule of blood, Yo Ling sneers in reply. “Fucking coward.”
“Prudent is how I think of it. I never was strong as ye and damn near a decade older to boot. Hell, it’s been fifteen years since our last tussle and I’m still not fully healed.”
Both men sat in comfortable silence, as if they were in the privacy of their home instead of surrounded by two warring armies. After a long minute, Yo Ling is first to speak. “Ye still remember Ma and Pa do ye? What a surprise. Ye remember how they died?”
“Aye, that I do.”
“Forced from their home of fifty years and into the wilds to die of exposure. Ye ever think about it? Ma and Pa huddled together, dying a slow, painful death because them rich ponces in Sanshu didn’t want to look at the poor while out on their palanquins.”
“Thought about it once or twice.”
“Yea? Well what have ye done about it? Shit all is what. Here I am working hard to avenge em, and what do ye do? Stab me in the fucking back. If that ain’t a bastard’s work, then I don’t know what is.” Yo Ling’s words devolved into a fit of coughs at the end, frothy blood dribbling down his chin.
Pulling out a handkerchief, Liu Shi wipes Yo Ling’s chin and for a moment, I’m treated to a glimpse of better times, an older brother caring for the younger, both men slipping naturally back into their roles. “That was always the plan, wasn’t it? Gather wealth and power to oppose the Empire, dreamin’ of carving out a little patch of paradise for ourselves. A fool’s dream.” Liu Shi sighs, shaking his head. “Ye know, Jariad and Gao Qiu were the last of em, our original band of soldiers turned bandits. Now we two are all that’s left.”
Lapsing into silence once more, the two brothers cherish what little time they have left remaining. His life’s blood pooling around him, Yo Ling slowly slumps to his side, unable to keep upright. “I wanted to avenge em,” he whispers, his breath ragged and laboured. “Change the world. Saw power, so I took it. Doesn’t matter if I’m damned, I’d rather the whole world burn than let things stay the same.”
“Can’t say I agree, but I’ll pray for your soul little brother.”
“No need. I won’t turn. I’ll never surrender. They won’t use me, I used them, ye understand? I used them.”
Before Liu Shi can answer, Yo Ling draws his last, shuddering breath, his body stilling in the finality of death. Tense minutes pass in agonizing anticipation, the entire battlefield waiting to see if Yo Ling spoke true. After a long wait, Liu Shi sighs one last time before lifting his brother’s corpse into his arms. Walking past me, he melts away into the crowd of soldiers and Sentinels, disappearing before my eyes. Only the pool of blood soaking into the stone and the discarded mace serve as proof of Yo Ling’s demise, Butcher Bay’s Spectre finally put to rest.
A hearty cheer rises from the defenders of Sanshu and chaos breaks out as bloody battle resumes. Blowing out a sigh as Blobby makes its triumphant return, I accept my weapons from Bulat before leading my retinue out to hopefully put an end to my duties in Sanshu. With all six Demons falling dead shortly before Yo Ling’s passing, it’s more massacre than battle, with no quarter asked for, and none given.
As the last foe falls, I watch the sun set on Sanshu, my heart heavy and mind in turmoil. Though Yo Ling was a monster, he wasn’t born one. He was moulded into one by the circumstances of his life. What would I do in his shoes, if the Empire killed my loved ones? Would I turn to the Spectres for power, seeking to lead an army of Demons to take down the Emperor?
I don’t know, and I hope I never have to find out.
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