“What do you wish to know?”
Faltering at the monk’s question, Baledagh took his time to think things through. He couldn’t come right out and ask about transmigrated souls which possessed knowledge of other worlds, or multiple souls dwelling in one body, or even about Spectres and what they were. Although the monk appeared friendly and helpful, his motivations were still unclear and he was under no restrictions to keep Baledagh and Brother’s many, many secrets. What did the Penitent Brotherhood, a group of reclusive, self-flagellating monks, want with Falling Rain? Don’t think Baledagh missed the monk’s evasive answer on the subject either; when asked point blank, the fat ascetic said ‘who knows?’, not ‘I don’t know’.
Faced with this dilemma, he thought it prudent to let the monk direct the conversation, making it all the easier for Baledagh to steer it in the proper direction without arousing suspicion. “Pretend I know nothing and start from the beginning,” he said, playing the part of inquisitive mind. “Theology is not a subject I’m well-versed in. All I ‘know’ is the Mother had four elemental babies, earth, fire, wind, and water. She then used them to create our world and everything in it, which made the Father jealous so he created the Demons, who went on to ruin everything. Now, many millennia later, here we are still doing the same old song and dance.”
The monk’s ‘holy man’ facade slipped as he opened his eyes to scowl. “Be respectful and choose your words with more care. There is no call to ridicule or denigrate another’s beliefs.” Baledagh wasn’t sure why, but he liked the monk more after seeing him behave like an actual human instead of a ‘holier than thou’ preacher. Clearing his throat, the monk launched into yet another sermon, the first of which Baledagh was looking forward to. “What you touched on is the most widely accepted version of events, but such things are… difficult to prove or disprove. Dwelling upon them is counter productive and done only in the interest of self-identity, so better to set your mind to other things.”
“Okay.” Seemed like a cop out, but as the monk said, pressing the issue would be irrelevant. “So where does reincarnation come into it and how does it work?”
“While we cannot substantiate the mechanisms behind reincarnation with any certainty, throughout history there have been many examples of individuals recalling memories of previous lives, the best evidence available of reincarnation.” Finally, something to do with Brother and his mysterious circumstances, but the monk immediately moved on. “Thus, we know we live in a cycle of reincarnation and the first Noble Truth tells us life is suffering, but for what purpose? You yourself have felt the Mother’s love, when you first touched the Energy of the Heavens and again when you recently Awakened. You’ve experienced her warm embrace first-hand and benefited from her benevolent teachings, so why do you think She allows us to suffer?”
‘Maybe She’s a sadistic bitch,’ Baledagh almost quipped, until he remembered his manners. “Such is life,” he said with a shrug. “Trials and tribulations without end.”
He’d rather go back to the memories bit, but the monk pressed on, lighting up at Baledagh’s catechism. “Trials and tribulations, but not without end. The Second Noble Truth tells us we suffer because of the Three Desires, sex, fame, and alcohol as you so poorly summarized. The Third Noble Truth tells us there is a way to escape, by divesting one’s self of the Three Desires and attaining Nirvana. Thus, life is suffering but the Mother always leaves another path, which in this case is the Fourth Noble Truth: The way to Nirvana lies in living your life according to the Noble Eight-Fold Path. Right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration.”
Ugh. So many things to remember, but Baledagh tried his best. For Brother. He’d be able to parse through all this, so Baledagh would have to recite it back to him. “Okay… So give up the Three Desires, take up the Four Noble Truths, and follow the Noble Eight-Fold Path to Nirvana, which is…?”
“A higher plane of existence.” Chuckling at Baledagh’s incredulous look, the monk shrugged. “I myself made the same face, and while my belief in the end goal might waver from time to time, obedience to the laws of righteousness matters more than worship of the Divine. If at the end of my life, I discover there is no Nirvana, then at least I will have lived the best life I could.” With a faraway look, the monk reflected on some memory with a smile so genuine Baledagh couldn’t help but be envious. In the short time he existed, Baledagh had done nothing worth remembering. Attacking the Demon Vivek, charging on stage to face the Society when Mila or Yan could have easily handled it all, the entire disaster with Qing-Qing, he’d lived a life filled with failure and regret. If the monk’s teachings could bring Baledagh the same joy and inner peace, then maybe he could afford to be more open-minded about all this.
…Then again, no sex, fame, or alcohol. Losing any one of those was a deal-breaker, not to mention becoming a vegetarian.
Bringing the conversation back on track, the monk continued, “There have been other conjectures made and theories bandied about for thousands and thousands of years. Some claim this world was meant as a test of martial strength and only those who prove themselves worthy may ascend to a higher plane and take part in The Holy War. Others believe there are infinite worlds in the multi-verse and this world is a punishment for transgressions made in previous lives. Some even believe we are all duplicates of a single soul which belongs to the prenatal form of a Divine Being, and this world a tool to teach him or her of humanity. There are countless unsubstantiated theories and to pick out the correct one is no easy task. The theory I present to you is the same, and it is your choice whether or not to accept it.”
“Oh, I have a choice now?” Baledagh smiled wryly.
“Belief is irrelevant to the Brotherhood.” The monk matched Baledagh’s humourless smile with one of his own. “This isn’t to say we have no reasons to support our theory, but a theory it will remain until proof can be found. First, a higher power exists, one which guides us towards a final goal through the Energy of the Heavens. Do you accept this?”
“Not entirely,” Baledagh replied, shrugging in apology. “The ‘Mother’s Embrace’ could be any number of things besides an all-powerful deity instilling knowledge into Her subjects. It could be knowledge from previous lives returning to us, or aliens transmitting knowledge through advanced technology.” Or benevolent spirits working as a counterpart to the Spectres, but he couldn’t say it out loud. No one knew about Spectres except the Defiled, and explaining them would bring unwelcome questions. Noting the monk’s sour glare, Baledagh coughed and added, “But uhh… let’s pretend I do. Please, continue.”
Rolling his eyes, the monk played along. “We also know that even though She made all the creatures in our world, it is we humans who were shaped in Her image and the only ones able to ascend to Nirvana.”
“…Do we? Kind of a big leap in logic there…”
“Is it? Tell me, what separates humans from animals?” Before Baledagh could answer with something snarky, the monk answered for him. “Wisdom! An animal can improve itself, can learn to hunt, hide, track, or fight better, but it cannot learn to suppress its instincts. A tiger will not rear a bull for food in the winter, nor will a horse bribe the wolf for its life. An animal is a slave to its instincts while humans can learn to rise above them. Honour, face, ethics and integrity, these are but a few of the concepts manufactured by the human mind, each one an integral part of human life which no animal will ever understand. Animals also suffer from the Three Desires, but only humans have the capacity to rise above them. It is for this reason alone why, upon reaching True Enlightenment, an ancient beast will instinctively wield the Energy of the Heavens to form a human mind and body. Only with human wisdom will they be able to take the next step in the journey of life, which we of the Brotherhood believe is achieved through reaching Nirvana.”
This was getting off topic. As interesting as this wasn’t, Baledagh was here for answers about Brother and where he might have disappeared to. Instead of directly asking about twinned souls, he thought it better to play the part of skeptic. “Let’s back up a bit to clear things up,” he said, with no need to fake a headache. “You claim reincarnation is real because there have been individuals who recalled memories from a previous life, but if that happens then why doesn’t everyone remember their previous lives?”
Taking the topic shift in stride, the monk answered with confidence, as if he’d been asked this same question many times before. “In time immemorial, one member of the Brotherhood posited that moving from one life to the next is like transferring a flame from one dying candle to another unlit one. The candle changes, but the flame remains the same, just as the body changes and the soul remains. Since memories are stored in the physical mind, then none are transferred to the new candle, but with dedicated training, great luck, or even Divine Intervention, some individuals are able to reach back through karma and recall those previous lives. There are other theories, such as our memories are given to the Divine Being from which we sprung or memories are lost so karma can be severed, or that birth is traumatic for a soul and memories are lost, but the candle theory is what this one believes.”
Trembling with anticipation, Baledagh barely waited until the monk fell silent to ask, “What about being born with memories of a previous life? Has that ever happened before? Could a child spring out of the womb speaking, or a puppy knowing how to play chess?”
After opening his eyes to make sure Baledagh wasn’t fooling around, the monk nodded. “Though rare, it is not unheard of for children to be born with memories of another life, but this one has never heard of a chess-playing dog.”
Finally, he could ask the important question, the one he’d been waiting the entire lecture to ask. “What about two souls sharing one body? Or one soul splitting into two? Like one with past memories and one without?” Balking at the question, the monk quietly studied Baledagh with an unreadable expression. Worried he’d overplayed his hand, Baledagh tried to back pedal and added, “or uhh, like, a male soul recalling female memories. Or the opposite. You know… because it’d be funny…”
After a long, uncomfortable silence, the monk pressed his hands together and bowed his head. “This one must apologize,” he Sent, head still lowered in apology. “Brother SanDukkha’s questions cannot be answered without an Oath of silence. You must swear never to repeat what you hear next unless it is to another member of the Brotherhood, and even then, it is never to be spoken out loud. This touches upon the core precepts of the Brotherhood and our greatest secret, otherwise this one would not insist.”
Now it was Baledagh’s turn to fall silent and stare, wondering if this was worth the effort. Thus far, all the monk had done was wax on about theory, speculation, and philosophy. What could he possibly have to say that would require an Oath of silence? More half-baked nonsense from long-dead scholars? Why even bother with this, just tell him to piss off and be done with it.
But… Brother was missing, and Baledagh needed him found before tomorrow’s meeting with the Legate. A slim chance was better than no chance, so Baledagh cut his palm with Peace and gave his Oath. “I swear an Oath to the Heavens. I will never reveal what I am about to hear to anyone outside the Brotherhood and I will never speak of it out loud. This I swear with the Heavens as my witness.” He hated giving oaths, they felt so restricting, like being told not to think of an elephant and actually not being able to.
“Eh-Mi-Tuo-Fuo.” Still speaking through Sending, the monk placed one hand palm up on the table, ostensibly for Baledagh to touch should he need to Send a reply. “Before we begin, this one reminds Brother SanDukkha to remain calm and know he has nothing to fear from the Brotherhood.”
Crossing his arms in open defiance, Baledagh snorted in contempt. “Why would I be afraid?”
“Because,” the monk Sent, both eyes open and filled with compassion, “this one knows why Brother SanDukkha is so eager to know about multiple souls in a single body.”
Stiffening in surprise, Baledagh held Peace tight and considered his options. How did he know about Brother? Was the monk responsible for taking him away? Pacifist though he might be, the monk was not an easy target to threaten or kill, and it’s not like Baledagh could ask Akanai for help. What would he say? ‘Grandmummy, the monk stole my alter-ego, you know, the personality you’re most familiar with. Make him give it back’. Yea, that’d go over well.
No… be smart about this. Touching his fingers to the monk’s, he Sent, “And what exactly do you know?”
“That you were once Defiled.”
Oh… this is so much worse than expected…
Leaping to his feet with a snarl, Baledagh lunged across the table with Peace in hand, but the monk was ready for him. Slipping to one side while still seated, he neatly avoided Baledagh’s attack. Rolling to his feet, Baledagh turned to attack again, only to find the monk’s palm waiting centimetres from his face. “Brother SanDukkha please,” the monk Sent, calm and relaxed as could be. “This one means you no harm. Your secret is safe with the Brotherhood.”
Smacking the arm with his free hand, Baledagh failed to move it at all. He might as well have tried to shift a massive tree with a flyswatter. “And why should I believe you?”
Withdrawing his palm, the monk closed his eyes and bowed in prayer, giving Baledagh an opening to strike. “Because,” he Sent as Baledagh drew Peace back to throw, “this one, and many others of the Brotherhood, were also once Defiled.”
Freezing in place, Baledagh dropped his sword in shock, staring at the sitting monk whose eyes were still closed in prayer. Heart pounding and throat dry, it took several tries to croak out, “I don’t believe you.”
“The Spectres spoke to you.” The monk Sent, unperturbed by Baledagh’s accusation. “They gave you power and made you strong, promised you more if you only surrendered.” Opening his eyes, he gave Baledagh an approving nod. “But you did not surrender, nor did you succumb. You fought back against the Father’s foul minions, resisted their temptations, but still availed yourself to their power when necessary. Then, a droplet of Heavenly Water found you and cleansed the Taint from your soul, so now you walk in the Mother’s holy light. Eh-Mi-Tuo-Fuo.”
Falling to his ass, Baledagh sat and stared at the monk in wonder. “How did you find out?”
“You met the Radiant Fist Wugang in Sanshu, who was at one point an initiate of the Brotherhood. Like you, he was once Defiled, and like me, the Abbot saved his soul from eternal damnation. Eventually, he parted ways with the Brotherhood over opposing values, but he still understands the good we do and sent word of your good fortune.” With an easy shrug, the monk concluded, “The rest was speculation based on your history, hence the need for an Oath.”
Damn it. Baledagh had been played, tricked into admitting his… second greatest secret about being Defiled. Blobby’s existence, his third greatest secret, was also known, which meant the monk was likely responsible for Brother and Blobby’s disappearance. What reason did he have for taking them? For the monk to admit to being Defiled was a small comfort, but Baledagh didn’t know what to make of it. Mother above, what was happening? He desperately needed Brother’s help to make sense of it all, before he made a mess of things like always. Why was he so useless? Helpless and afraid, Baledagh fought back his tears and whimpered, “Give him back…”
Thrown off by Baledagh’s demand, the monk drew back and furrowed his brow. “Give who back?” he Sent, confusion clear in his voice. “The Heavenly Water? It’s missing?”
“No. Well, yes, but not him.” Leaving Peace behind, Baledagh crawled over to the monk and grabbed his hand. “Give Brother back,” he Sent, throwing all face aside to beg. “Please, I need him. He’s the one you need to talk to, I’m worthless without him. If you need to take someone, take me instead. See, I’m not Falling Rain, I’m Baledagh…”
Under the monk’s careful questioning, Baledagh threw caution to the wind and told him everything. His scattered memories of the mines, his time spent watching through Brother’s eyes, finding true consciousness during the Demon Vivek’s mental attack, his misfortunes in Sanshu, and everything up until the other day when Brother and Blobby went missing. The only thing he held back was Brother’s memories of a previous life, though why he chose to omit that particular detail, he wasn’t entirely sure. Though terrifying at first, the more he spoke the easier it became, like a weight lifting off his chest as he revealed his deepest, darkest secret, hoping against all hope the monk would have a solution.
When Baledagh’s tale came to an end, the monk sat in thoughtful silence and Baledagh was happy to leave him be. While not an ideal candidate, he finally had someone else to rely on. All this time, Brother insisted he would eventually create a new body for Baledagh, but neither of them knew anything about moving souls or creating lifeforms. If the monk could take Brother’s soul away, then maybe, just maybe, he could put a soul in someone else’s body, which meant Baledagh would finally be free to live a life of his own. He’d still stay to fight alongside Brother, but as his own person with his own life. Baledagh the warrior, free to ride onto the field of battle to find glory to call his own, free to make new friends and find new love…
Free to… just be free.
“Brother SanDukkha,” the monk Sent, interrupting Baledagh’s daydreams. “Three things cannot be long hidden: the sun, the moon, and the truth.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“The mind is everything. What you think, you become.” Placing his hands on Baledagh’s shoulders, the monk looked him in the eyes. “You suffered much as a slave, did you not?”
“And when you stumbled across the ruined village in the mountains, when you saw the remains of those tortured children, what did you feel?”
“Anger. Hatred.” Trembling at the memory, he blinked and whispered, “There were fifteen of them. I counted. Fifteen kids tortured and worse.”
“This one believes that is when the Father’s minions first sank their claws into your soul.” The monk’s voice was soft and gentle, without accusation or blame. “It is why the Defiled behave as they do, so you will hate and revile them, to push you out of the Mother’s light and make you susceptible to the Father’s lies. But you resisted them.”
“Yes, because you are a good person with a kind soul. You knew something was amiss, that your dark thoughts were not your own and torturing Defiled was not right, so you protected yourself.”
Swallowing hard, the monk ignored the question and launched into an explanation. “The Defiled are not controlled by the Spectres, not entirely. Instead, they allow the Spectres to control them, a minor, yet significant detail. True control only falls to the Spectres when the host surrenders, at which point the Spectres suppress the original soul and take over, moulding the body to better fit their needs.”
Nodding, the monk held Baledagh in place and continued. “Thus, it is a man’s own mind, not his enemy or foe, which lures him to evil ways. The Spectres tainted your soul and infected your thoughts, but you held strong and refused them. You resisted for years until Sanshu when the Heavenly Water freed you from their unholy touch.”
“… I don’t understand. What does this have to do with Brother?”
“No, I told you, I’m Baledagh.”
“Rain.” The monk’s firm tone set Baledagh back on his heels, and he tried to fight free. Holding him in place with a steely grip, the monk sighed and shook his head. “Your name is Rain,” he Sent, softer this time. “I have seen this before. After your encounter at the ruined village and during the subsequent battles, you discovered something wrong and instinctively rejected the Spectres’ influence, but they are not so easily dissuaded. Inspired by the Demon’s illusions, you created a second persona within your mind and foisted the Father’s taint upon it. This allowed you to continue harbouring those dark thoughts without acting upon them, rationalizing it as thoughts belonging to someone other than yourself, but your first Awakening showed you the truth. Hiding will do you no good.”
Screaming like a wounded beast, he fought the monk with everything he had, kicking and biting to no effect. “It’s not true!” he screeched, tears streaming down his cheeks as he flailed in the monk’s grasp. “Brother is real! You’re a liar, a deceiver! Let me go! I need to find Brother. I need him, I need his help, please…”
Lifting him into the air like a petulant child, the monk ignored his cries and Sent over them. “Even after being freed from the Spectres, you were accustomed to having your second persona there, using him like a crutch to stand or a shield to hide behind. Because while Brother is smarter, Baledagh is braver, is this not so? When you are afraid, Baledagh comes out to face your fears, and if he fails, then it is no fault of your own. Poor, frightened child, you have been free from the mines for many years, and now you are free from the Spectres, so it is time you accept the truth. There is no Brother. There is no Baledagh. There is only Falling Rain.”
How long Baledagh fought for, he didn’t know, only giving up when he had no strength left to fight. Pulling his limp body into an embrace, the monk’s Aura settled over him like a warm, comforting blanket, filled with pure, untainted acceptance and devoid of any judgment or censure. “It’s all right, Rain,” the monk said. “You are not alone. You have your family and you have the Brotherhood. You are a good person, and you will make it through this.”
Weeping softly, Baledagh closed his eyes.
And I open them.
Shaking like a leaf, I’m forced to confront a not-so-Noble Truth.
I am not well, and I haven’t been for a very long time.
So yea. That happened. How you like Baledagh now?
This was the plan from the very beginning, but I’ll be honest: I wavered a bit. For a while, I thought about giving Bdawg his own life, but it didn’t fit with what I had in mind, so I stayed the course. I’m mostly happy with how it went, though a little sad about the loss of a character.
Now excuse me a bit, I gotta go be sad for awhile.
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