05 Jul Kode
A spectral lady stood in socks and sandals upon a stone overlooking a mild brook, purple daybreak lips reflected in her silvery flute.
I had lost something. One thing essential. Why was I here? Her melody, sure. Like warm honey to the ears. My legs ached and my head throbbed. Relaxation. I needed relaxation.
The lady’s oily black hair cascaded down from a lopsided straw hat that forged a shadow across her eyes. Porcelain flesh, delicate palms. Her robe, long and traditional and silky, depicted nightshade. “What brings you to these forests?” came her voice, clean and flowing as her attire.
“I am on a journey,” I stated, “an important journey.”
She grinned. “You should tell me about it.”
“I cannot,” I needed to inform her. Why was I unable? I needed to tell her. I needed to.
She giggled a dainty giggle, floating down from her perch like a dandelion seed on a lazy breeze. She stood taller than me, but I couldn’t be more at-peace—a faint ember in my soul as heat sapphire mild pulsed from her ethereal physique.
“You can tell me, I’m good at keeping secrets,” She stated. “How has your journey been through these forests?”
“They are tranquil, I like them.”
“I’m glad you do.” She cupped her hand towards my cheek. It felt cool. Mist steamed off her flesh. “What is your name?”
“What is yours?” I stepped again. Her hand drifted to her aspect. Her flute melted away into the mist. By no means give your true identify to outsiders first. Father was absolute.
“I’m Lelou, and I live in the palace at the end of the brook,” the lady stated. “It’s really nice there.”
“My name is Kode,” It was okay now. “I live in a temple.”
“A temple?” She floated forwards, so little I scarcely observed. The nice and cozy glow burned stronger. “There are few temples near this place. Why are you so far from home, young one?”
“I…” No thoughts. Mist in all places. I might hear the brook however not see it. Something was flawed, nevertheless it could not be. “I cannot say,” I stumbled backwards with out figuring out why. The mists started to carry. “I should be going.” I did not need to be going. I didn’t need to depart Lelou at all, however I needed to. Wanted to.
She soared by way of the air as soon as extra, her body’s define trailing behind like candle smoke as she weaved a mild, silken, arm behind my again and seemed down upon me, eyes still hiding in her hat, “Come, join me for tea Kode,” she stated, “Zhin returns from the battle today. The battle at the Heron.” An upwards crease set throughout her cherry pink lips. From this shut a distance I saw them in more detail. They have been improper, the unabashed scarlet spread erratically above, under, her mouth if in only the subtlest ways, as though the cherry they resembled had bled its juices throughout them. Bled. Bleeding. Hurt. Hazard.
Worry struck like a lightning bolt and I almost tripped over myself escaping her embrace, “I must be going, I will have tea with you later.”
Her physique fell away into mist. I paced backwards, tracing it gliding over forest soil, over the leaves, unfastened sticks, and branches. My foot caught on one. I crumbled onto my again to see the mists swirl themselves back into Lelou.
“I don’t want you to go,” Lelou stated, lifting her straw hat, which billowed away into a pastel brown fog. No eyes. Cold, sunken, voids darker than pitch the place two small fires no bigger than candle flames flickered a ghoulish topaz. The cherry purple from her lips dribbled around the sockets like tears. “I’ve been alone, my husband has been gone so long.” Her voice quivered, as though she have been about to cry. “Surely you will not leave me, Kode?”
I screamed, scrambling back to my ft and blasting off them in no course aside from away. The mist choked me, filling my lungs with a frigid, horrible, ice. Silence. There have been only my sandals pattering off soil, snapping via twigs and crunching by way of leaves. Timber flew by, thin-trunked, with strands of gnarled moss clinging to skeletal branches upon which spectral blue fires burned. They weren’t burning the branches, simply levitating simply above them. They watched me. I did not understand how, however restless eyes lurked within.
Lelou giggled. It echoed by means of the wooden from every path, however none. The worry I had been numbed to infested me. Strangled me with unseen tendrils and grasped my heart with a bony hand, squeezing it quicker and quicker till it might certainly burst. Father’s teachings referred to as to me somewhere. I needed to listen to them, know what to do once more, but I couldn’t assume. Someplace he was calling me a coward, hanging me to the bottom and ordering me to attempt once more. Someplace was my training and the way to escape this nightmare, but I could not discover it.
Three knives bit into my again, white scorching hearth screaming where they raked throughout flesh. Something warm and moist trickled over my backbone, but the hand gripping my coronary heart squeezed quicker. More durable. No more ache. No ideas. Motion.
Stone steps, lorded over by pale wooden archways, led up a short hill in the distance. I ran to them, stone agency beneath me and the arches, paired pine logs jutting to satisfy each other in a flipped ‘V’ stood watch with rope binding their peaks and rust-worn brass chimes ringing idly. They have been familiar. They symbolized one thing—advised a harmony between man and nature. Sure, these arches led to a shrine. A Xui shrine the place I might discover security from this evil.
I felt the phantom behind me. I might really feel her frigid breath at my nape, disturbed air near my back. I felt her knives rip at my silken gown, grazing flesh because the warmness unfold further. Scorching, but icy. It spurred me forwards like a whip, my physique and soul both wholly targeting operating quicker. Escaping this hazard. Ahead, previous the wiry timber, the winding stone steps, and the moss-laced arches, the shrine beckoned. Previous, common from stone chipped away by the elements. A wicker basket rested on a flat stone where shadows pooled underneath the roof. Candles, flames absent, flanked the basket to either aspect.
I threw myself in the direction of this altar and fell into the past as my hand touched cool, grounding, rock. To when the straw doll brewed with smoke and embers in my palms. I remembered.
Father struck me together with his employees. I had did not recite the Xui incantation for purity. It felt like nails have been pushed into my jaw and a taste, salt and metallic, lingered in my mouth. I lay there, drowning in father’s shadow on the training room grounds. It was deepened by candlelight. Anger over my failings was weak spot, but it growled within like an excellent panther baring its fangs, hungering to pounce and tear and rip flesh asunder. Blood.
I allowed rage to eat me, claiming my employees from the place it lay on the bamboo tiling and swinging with all I used to be, all I might muster, in the direction of him. In the direction of my own father. This weak spot, this failing, did as father all the time stated it will.
My employees splintered to pieces in my arms as the Xui monk before me set his towering physique into one swift strike together with his personal. It did not feel like a employees. It was a steel blades honed edge, cleaving straight by means of my would-be weapon, tearing into my chin simply to throw me again to the bottom in a heap. The ache raged like a demon, slashing me with claws every second, in and out. The panther, instantly, had been completely tamed. My vision clouded with tears as I lay as no more than a doll in a heap. A doll.
I stated, “Forgive me.”
Father swished his employees to his aspect, “Seka, a woman, would not weep as you do,” He produced an effigy depicting a man from his sleeve, usual from previous straw. He tossed it to my ft. “Hold it.”
A weeping Jou doll collected sorrow. Spirits took pity on their holders and warded off hurt. Father bought them to the passing pilgrims and merchants from frontier cities as protection on their journeys. I made them. I did not deserve otherwise till I might show it. I had to. Seka would not outdo me—heir to clan Mezore. No room for defeat, none for cowardice.
I hardened my coronary heart and inhaled as many occasions instructed, trapping the air and feeling my spirit stir in its husk of flesh and bone. I channeled my pain, my unhappiness, my discontent, and drew the fruit. Scorching, scarlet, power pulsed by way of my veins. I seized the doll, seemed father instantly in his coal eyes, set to sockets chiseled from bone and tight, battle-maimed, earthen pores and skin. His dire brows, storm clouds, have been set downwards as they often have been when he was off-put. When a storm brewed. When he was disenchanted.
My anger, my sorrows, my will. I poured them into my palms to bear fruit, as was the Xui method. This mix burned. My palms blazed, searing pink as a ripe apple. They hissed and spewed smoke and embers as the Jou doll took to flame.
Father’s eyes, for the primary time since I might keep in mind, widened. His storm clouds lifted and his mouth fell ajar. One thing overseas to his lips, a smile, as he knelt beside me—setting his employees down and a calloused hand to my head.
He stated, “Good, Kode. You have done well.”
I smiled back. Euphoria, beaming sunlight sparkling by way of gloomy, festering, fog. The pain in my jaw, the blood in my mouth, the splinters biting at my palms from the shattered employees, have been gone. I felt only pleasure, and longed, nevertheless briefly, to embrace father. A fleeting, weak, thought however I didn’t care. Finally. In the end, in any case these years, I made him proud.
“You are ready,” He stated. “Tomorrow, when the sun rises above the mountains, you will go to find the Painter. Venture through the Jiao forests, as I once did, and take nothing with you. Put foul spirits to death. Do not bend. Not to them or anyone but your Lord.”
I nodded eagerly, “Yes father.”
“The journey will be perilous,” he knelt with both legs to the bottom, folding his palms into opposite sleeves of his gown. “Trust, follow, nothing but your heart. Stay near to Xui shrines along your way, and keep your mind sharp as a well-built blade. The Painter will forge you to be feared, as befits a worthy heir to the Mezore family.”
I had set off the following day. The hollow feeling as I left was nothing compared to my delight. My still-glowing elation.
Nothing in comparison with the worry consuming me in the present.
My hand dove into the wicker basket upon the altar and clasped an offering, a necklace stringed from previous black pearls. I spun and thrust it outwards, in the direction of Lelou. “Begone from this place!” I bellowed on the many-colored mists as they progressively took type.
“No, Kode,” stated Lelou. “I am lonely. It pains me so much to bring you harm.” Her body took form again, tooth like sewing needles beared in the direction of me beneath her void-black eyes. Stained crimson.
I threw the necklace at her. It phased by way of her unearthly physique, merely stirred the mists comprising it. She reached for me, cocking her head and forcing my again to the altar. Her breath was colder than winter wind. It rasped from her throat, the croak of an ailing frog. I caught a time-eaten vase at my eyes edge and snuck a hand in the direction of it. I felt if I have been to maneuver it any quicker than a crawl she would certainly lunge at me, chew open my throat. Sacred sands and ashes have been typically saved in vases as offerings. This was the one means.
“Let us have tea, Kode,” Lelou rasped. “Tea at the palace where the brook ends. Zhin is expecting me back. He can join us after the battle.” Her mouth opened further than any ought to, her jaw separating, her upper row of needle tooth dealing with skywards in the direction of swirling gray clouds and an uncaring sky, “eyes” just barely watching from their upright place. Her mouth had no finish in its darkness. I needed to scream, however I used to be paralyzed. Her breath had froze me strong.
Father shouted, “Again!” Somewhere in my mind.
I flung my hand to the vase and undid the lid. Lelou rushed me, gurgling and hissing, arms flailing—grasping for me. Her nails have been honed like blades. I might almost feel their stinging chew. I shattered the vase towards the ground, an ashen cloud billowing over previous stone. It singed my nostrils. Acrid. Sharp. Lelou screamed and wailed, magenta flames licking, engulfing, her phantasmal body. The shrieks pierced my pores and skin and spirit, howling via the wooden as I pressed myself as close to the shrine as potential, batting my eyes away as the lady burned and swirled away into nothingness in my peripheral, along together with her horrible, piercing, cries.
“Why, Kode?” Her voice boomed from throughout.
The skeleton hand launched my heart, yet it beat like a conflict drum and stored me pinned to the shrine. I melted to the bottom, gasping for air and wrapping my arms round my legs until I used to be no more than a ball—cold, afraid, and alone. I sobbed into my gown, clenching at its thick gray materials and cursing myself for being this manner. For letting worry eat me. I wanted father would strike me and spare me this dishonor. To inform me to rise up again and move on. Yet I could not. Did not.
One thing crunched inside the forest, spurring me again to my ft. Instincts claimed me once more. It was a dry crunch, a stick or branch breaking for sure. Had I only a weapon to use I might at the least be content material on this state of affairs, however this journey was sink or swim. I had to offer such things for myself. In this I failed.
A voice: young, nonchalant, and male, filtered between fern followers, “Hello? Anyone there?”
I backed away, main each step in retreat by sandal toe and letting the remaining comply with behind. No sound. I could not afford to make any. I feared both my pounding heartbeat or dashing breaths would give me away regardless. No matter skulked about would trace them to me.
“C’mon, I can’t be worse than whatever made you shriek like that. Probably, anyways.”
My instincts screamed to flee. Was this one ? Right here to avenge his liked one’s soul? Who was I kidding, with time Lelou would merely manifest as soon as more. I had not put her to rest, in any case. In one of the best case Lelou would merely hang-out me. The lackadaisical tone pressed fearful daggers into me. Would this be my fate? Become a pincushion, devoured by some evil spirit? My physique, a tight-wound spring, ready to leap into the air on the faintest trigger. No. I might be no sufferer—I might destroy the evil spirits with my bare palms or die making an attempt, as father would want. At the least I might die with honor intact.
A boy emerged from the ferns, face coming first, and certain the rationale I did not cost upon first recognizing him. A relaxed face, two chestnut pupils uninteresting and flicking about me half-heartedly. Not in a fashion I might anticipate from a bloodthirsty spirit, however somewhat of somebody being pressured to endure a lecture they held no funding in. A sword, positioned to his aspect with a black picket maintain and no guard. Curved, gleaming, a younger moon on a dark night time. His eyes locked to mine and a lopsided grin creased his face.
“You’ve got a really loud and feminine scream.” He stated,
The boy, clad in a pale tunic depicting an orangutan in crude orange brush strokes, drew nearer. I stepped away, “Who are you?” I stated, making an attempt my greatest to deprive the question of hysteria.
He set his swords non-bladed edge across his shoulder so its tip emerged on the other one. A smile. “Call me Monkey, I’m on the Xui journey,” he nodded in the direction of me, “you are too, right?”
“Yes,” I brushed what ash lingered on my clothes away, drawing deep breaths. “My name is…it is Ash.”
Monkey cocked a brow, “Is it because you smash offering urns?” His eyes have been on the patchy gray desert now occupying my vicinity. “I mean, I guess that makes sense.”
“N-No,” I did not need to be known as Ash, “I am Kode. That is my name. Forgive me.”
My eyes fell. I might only hope the rationale I acted this cowardly was because of the horrors mere minutes ago. Simply having a dialog reminiscent of this so quickly after felt surreal. I had failed to completely deal with my experience, it have to be.
“So listen ‘Kode,’ don’t apologize to people unless you’ve made a real blunder. Otherwise they’ll step all over you, right?” Monkey reached to a picket sheath by his aspect, guiding his blade into it with a gentle hand. “Anyways, what was that screaming about? Damn near jumped outta’ my skin.”
“An evil spirit, I smashed the urn to drive it away.”
Monkey made down the steps, stopping only for a quick bow as he moved beneath an archway shadow. He motioned to comply with, setting his eyes to the steps flowing downwards in the direction of a brook. The chimes sung in a mild breeze. Resonant—tranquil like nonetheless waters. The mist started to raise, from each the forest and my mind. Reminiscences returned. Disciplines.
Monkey stated, “Offering ash won’t solve the problem long-term. Besides, some really dark stuff happened in these woods after the rebellion. Plenty more restless souls.”
“I know,” The fires on the tree branches have been no more. Had I imagined them? The ache in my again began to gnaw at me, stinging with hornet pins. The blood along my back had stopped dripping, it was not a priority. “I know permanent ways as well.”
“Hey, are you hurt?” Monkey’s eyes ran alongside the bottom, boring into something I couldn’t see as he halted, sniffing like a hound on a trail. “I smell blood.”
“I will be fine, it is a scratch.” I ran a hand along my back and it registered considerably sticky, returning to me splotched a lush crimson. The hornet pins pressed deeper. A scratch, though. Nothing extra.
“I’ll take your word for it.”
We made along the brook. Monkey, I found, was noble—bestowed an heirloom weapon for his journey from Nation nines capital, Sennou. Empire lands. He too walked the Xui means, but by his temperament and curious demeanor I might inform he was possible much less devout. Lukewarm, as father would say. Nonetheless, I could not picture him reacting to an ill-willed spirit in as cowardly a fashion as I had. I hoped the mist had muddled my mind. He had an curiosity in history, recounting numerous misconceptions about Sennou I held, previous weapons, firearms, battles. I did not respond typically but famous his phrases with interest.
After a while, though, one other spirit took form before us.
Blue hearth, larger than these on the branches prior, roared to life between the sputtering brook and a few shrubbery, stopping Monkey and I in our tracks. Eyes. I felt eyes.
“You, boy,” the hearth stated, voice echoing with unearthly resonance, aged, rough as sandpaper, but highly effective. Pointed. “I see you have spoken with my wife, Lelou.”
Monkey jumped, fading back as if struck within the jaw, “Woah.” He uttered, once-firm eyes going extensive.
I felt a certain satisfaction having felt little but a quick jolt at the spectre’s appearance. It was a spirit hearth—a soul husk hanging desperately on to materials existence, sometimes to satisfy some unaccomplished activity or observe certain outcomes. Father stated they have been not to be feared. While some might place hexes on weak-willed individuals, these knowledgeable within the Xui approach might send them on by drive. Certainly, this lingering flame would not strategy us for ailing reasons.
“Yes,” I stated. “She bewitched me, played games with my head.”
“It seems some things don’t change even in death.” The spirit muttered beneath its…breath? Did spirits breathe? How curious.
“Are you Zhin?” I requested.
“What is left of him. I can guess what you are too, boy. You and your pale-faced friend.”
Monkey chortled nervously, shuffling backwards, “That’s nonsense, right?” I felt his eyes linger on me. “Right, Kode?”
“I suppose we shall see,” I stated, preserving my eyes on the hearth.
“You both are facing the Xui trials. That is why you were sent to these wretched woods to begin with.”
“I thought as much,” the spirit stated, a sure delight in its words, “you seek masters, do you not?”
I nodded again.
“Yes, yes, my ‘deteriorating’ mind has not failed me yet, it seems. Should have banished those foolish retainers when I had the chance, fled as soon as our line broke after all.” I by no means thought I might hear a soul clear its throat in my lifetime, but that is what this one did. “Anyways, I, Lord Zhin, will make you a bargain—set my dear Lelou to rest and I will guide you to your masters before I depart with her to the afterlife. I have tried my best to give her peace, but she is deaf to my words.”
“Are you serious? That shark-toothed demon girl Kode was telling me about is your wife?” Monkey stated.
“Pah!” Spat the spirit. “In life she was more caring and beautiful than any who would wed you, whelp.”
I assumed I noticed Monkey look himself over, “I…bet not.”
Zhin hovered closer to me, and I fought a grin from his retort. “You, boy. I trust the darkness I see in your eyes. Resolve. Will you go to the palace at the brooks end, my old home, and give Lelou peace?”
“Good,” stated the spirit, “I have waited long for one such as you.” The hearth flickered away, leaving Monkey and I in silence, serenaded by distant birds and wind rustling by means of the timber.
I drew an extended breath, collected my thoughts, and made along the dashing waters. I heard Monkey’s footsteps behind me, however not his voice. Not for a while.
The brook ran right into a small lake, upon which pale lotuses floated in bunches in the direction of shore. Lush, pillowy, jewels set to lilypad rings. Their scent, like sweet perfume, lifted my spirits as Monkey and I peered across the glassy waters upon an incredible boulder’s again.
Monkey stated, “I’m not seeing this ‘palace’ that Zhin guy was talking about.” A hand over his eyes like a visor as he scanned the waters proper to left.
“Well, this is certainly where the brook ends.” Fact be informed I could not see myself searching down a phantom with out firm, even with such a promise as Zhin’s to spur me forwards. With Monkey, though, I felt a sure confidence. Because I knew extra of spirits than him? Perhaps. Perhaps that sword he had, probably enchanted to chase away the supernatural. Perhaps that was it. He was lucky to be granted such a software. Regardless of the case, I had not met someone like him earlier than. I did not thoughts sharing company with him, even when father would probably disapprove.
The sun forged a beam via the overcast sky which shimmered a brilliant gold to battle the midnight sheen throughout the waters. A hopeful omen, and with it came willpower.
Monkey dropped to his haunches and seemed out across the water, “Kode, why are you on this journey?” He requested.
“The same reason as you, or so I imagine.”
“To follow the way of Xui, as my ancestors did.”
“Huh,” Monkey’s gaze did not shift, “that’s the whole reason?”
I had by no means paid it such thought, “I suppose.”
Monkey rose, confronted me with a lopsided grin, and clapped a palm to my shoulder, “You gotta’ know why. You can’t just ‘suppose’ and become a true monk, Kode.” He left me in thought, hopping down from our stony lookout and making along the shoreline—balancing on water-wet stones with arms out by his aspect.
We came across the palace shortly after, or what was once a palace.
It lay inside a quiet bay behind a veil of willows, little greater than a set of rotted away foundations, scorched black. The roof, a pagoda, had cut up in two. The elements punched holes via it, reeds and weeds clawing by means of each nook, each cranny, permitting. Frogs croaked away in the distance, birds buzzing a anonymous tune as heraldry to our strategy.
“Hey, you hear that?” Monkey stated, cupping a hand to his ear.
I listened intently, “No.”
Monkey’s bowels belched one thing fierce, the sound greater than audible and the scent to comply with, a mixture between spoiled eggs and the grave itself, shriveled my face, “Such behavior is immature and exceedingly rude.” I stated, making an attempt to swat the stench away.
“Well done young one, you have weathered the infamous ‘monkey miasma.’ Glory and honor are yours.” Monkey cackled beneath his breath, a spring in his step.
“Such behavior does not,” I coughed, “befit a noble.”
My foul-smelling, ill-mannered, ally hopped to the burned-out roof, dangling his head right into a hole with palms to either aspect. I made in the direction of the water to flee the lingering stench, watching whereas remaining considerably apprehensive considering my previous experiences. An odd feeling infested me, a shadow forged over my spirit on no account associated to the expulsion of bodily gasses. I could not come to a conclusion as to its nature. It was simply there. An uneasy, festering, discomfort.
“Woah,” got here Monkey’s muffled voice. “It’s not much of a palace, but there’s some cool stuff in here.” He pulled himself via the opening, a lurch in my stomach following this wanton motion as I drew closer to the ruins.
“What kind of stuff?” I referred to as.
I clambered up the pagoda roof, peering into the breach Monkey had vanished into and darting my eyes about what lay under. Blackened wooden floors, toppled stands nonetheless clutching cobweb-laced armor units. Shredded paintings, frames mangled and depictions burned and corrupted. No Monkey. With little hesitation I dropped inside, touchdown on uneven wooden threatening to splinter beneath my influence, not prefer it mattered. If Monkey was in peril I used to be honor-bound to help.
Stale, musty, air. Dust dancing about the place sunlight filtered via the ruptured ceiling. A silence, the birds and croaks leaving me in purgatory as shadows played in the corners. Foldings screens, thatchwork partitions, had been torn asunder. Corrupted by plants. As I made forward a clatter rattled by means of the room from a stray pot meeting my sandal.
The wind was a ghoulish whisper, moaning by way of each gap and entry it might infiltrate, the foundations groaning back in sort. I made in the direction of a hallway simply ahead, guarded by a display door. My footsteps rang hole, the ground sinking, creaking, beneath each footfall.
“Monkey?” Nonetheless no reply.
I stepped into the corridor, a void staring again at me the place what mild had managed this far fell away into nothingness. It was an abyss that made my abdomen lurch yet still I moved forwards, balling my fists tight and respiration the stale air deep and long. An enormous beetle skittered throughout rotting walls, the wind nonetheless whispering luridly.
Simply once I had reached the edge between the dark and lightweight a fiery, translucent, wisp burned into existence not 4 ft away. An power, a heat, performed towards me. The wisp floated forwards, illuminating the bowels of the constructing and guiding me forward. My heart was racing, the beginnings of a chilly sweat taking type inside my pores. Every step forward was an uncertain one. Father warned me about this. About translucent fires lurking in accursed locations. However, it was all I had to lead me forward. All I had to assist discover Monkey. Despite the fact that I had scarcely recognized him an hour a connection had taken root. Perhaps I simply didn’t need to see him come to harm.
The hearth weaved me by way of labyrinthine corridors, particles scattered haphazardly about starting from shattered pottery to twine and pale, moth-eaten, robes. I used to be being swallowed by this place, turning into more hopelessly misplaced by the second. My only hope was, if this spirit wisp was as benevolent as I hoped, I might discover my means out once Monkey was discovered. A silly hope. My regret grew.
A horrible noise rattled by way of the passages, sounding someplace between a dying cow and a wildcats growl. I halted, apprehension pricking me with a thousand icy needles—daring me to press onwards. My guiding, phantasmal, mild threatening to abandon me was doubtless the one catalyst for my urgent on. Forcing myself on, at any fee. I pictured being alone in such sheer darkness for however a second and my ft simply moved.
The wretched bellows stirring inside the rotten coronary heart of this place tried their greatest to dissuade me. The musty wood partitions shivered and paper lanterns, strung by fraying threads alongside the ceiling, violated with rips and tears, bounced about with every unearthly wail. Streams of mud have been vomited from between the boards overhead, stinging at my nostrils and searing my lungs. I hacked into my sleeve, blinking the pain away and rooting my eyes on the wisp.
It had vanished.
I felt like I used to be going to drown. Like I used to be being smothered by a blanket darker than the vilest sin. I needed to keep in mind to breathe. To tempo forwards off what little reminiscence remained. My footfalls induced the floor to whine in protest, fortunately promoting me out to whatever unseen abominations lurked in this place. I noticed, at the least, a faint blue glow from up forward. Frail, however alive. I turned a corner, guiding my hand around a wall till, to my elation, the fiery wisp shimmered simply forward—illuminating a girthy, lopsided, room tiled in pale rice straw mats. I entered with out hesitation, selecting the wisp in trade for the all-consuming shadow.
I by some means felt comfort as Zhin’s reedy previous voice echoed from the hearth, “She suffers below, in the depths.”
Words didn’t come to me.
“You’re lost. Yes, indeed, you know nothing at all, boy,” the wisp bellowed, “Listen!”
The word was a fist towards my eardrum, jolting me backward, “Yes. Yes, I will listen.”
“Good. You are Xui, yes? Young, perhaps, but duty still stirs in your heart.”
“I see,” the wisp drifted deeper into the depths. “Lelou sits with your stinky, disgusting, friend.”
“Yes, the rude and unbecoming one with the sword worth two of him.”
Despite every thing, I smiled, “Goodness, sir.”
“Stay focused, boy. Ignore this wise old man’s well-deserved criticisms for now,” Zhin hovered down one other corridor and candles, two rows, burned to life as though to type a path. “Go, now. Lelou is below.”
The wisp guided me down the candle path till we came across an awesome, splintered, hole in the flooring. I peered into it, inspired by the previous Lord’s presence.
Under, eight small, spectral, fires hovered just above ground, burning sensible magenta. They shaped a circle around Lelou and Monkey, who sat on both aspect to a flat, bamboo wooden, table with teacups in hand.
“I will help him,” I affirmed to myself. “I will help him and put Lelou to rest.”
“Yes, boy. I know little of the evil that has infested my wife, but I can only imagine it would do well put it to the sword,” stated Zhin.
My physique acted before my mind, throwing me from my perch and into the tea table, splintering it to rubble as porcelain shattered and bamboo splintered. Ache pounded nails into my knees however it might wait.
Lelou’s voice lashed out, words dripping poison, “You—the cowardly monk from the temple. You’re no friend of mine. You’re not welcome here!” She arose, towering over me and tinged by a malevolent aura, violet shrouded by dusk’s edge, flickering like a candle to wind. The heat I had felt from her prior, the ember in my soul. This was its antithesis.
I scrambled to my ft, narrowly evading the tables fragments as I pressed myself to a wall, powerless to stop Lelou as she whisked herself in the direction of me. Sleek, methodical, demise. Monkey clambered to his ft. I could not see his eyes from the place I stood, but might image their vacant, unblinking, expression. One I might quite him not wear. Spurred in-part by raw instinct and part by some ill-pondered plan, I threw myself at Monkey and, with each vestige of power I might muster, picked him up and threw him across the room, immediately into a folding display.
“What are you doing, you idiot?!” He yelped, flailing about in the torn wreckage like a beached fish. In a greater state of affairs I might have discovered it amusing, however my consideration had rooted on Lelou, who, with razor nails ravenous for blood, cleaved a diagonal slash my approach, screaming by means of the air.
‘Again!’ Father’s voice echoed. I spun, cast my palm flat, and slammed it towards the phantasm’s wrist to pressure her blow aside. By some means it labored, a frostbitten jolt and her misty arm went momentarily stiff. Sheer muscle reminiscence and desperation had deflected a phantoms strike. I stepped again, my hand numb and unresponsive, as though it had been submerged in icy water.
Lelou, hardly dissuaded, swiped once more together with her razor-tipped hand, forcing me to roll in the direction of the place I tossed Monkey. He had scrambled to his ft and backed himself, on his own volition, right into a nook.
“Kode, you can’t fight it like that!”
“I must try,” I stated, setting into a defensive stance, one foot aimed in the direction of the ghost and another turned sideways behind.
Lelou wafted herself round, until her face, needly fangs and bottomless voids, locked to us each. She zoomed ahead, another extensive strike aimed my means from the aspect.
I shot my hand out to intercept, however this time it didn’t work. This time her hand merely phased by means of my arm and raked me throughout the chest. Scorching, frozen, knives.
Pain set in, a sharp pain biting deeper each second. Blood dribbled heat down my midsection, dotted across chilly foundations from the velocity I had been hit.
“Don’t fight it, Kode,” Monkey stated, “there’s another way.”
Yes, there was.
I scrambled away from Lelou and appeared to Monkey, “Throw me your sword.”
He shook, rattled, his head, “Kode, that will not work. You aren’t strong enough. I had this under—”
Nonsense, “—Your sword, Monkey. Give it to me now.”
His hand pawed at the weapon as Lelou whirled in the direction of me yet again, but his face had been cracked by worry and his arms trembled. “Please, Kode. You need to trust me on this.”
“I will strike her down.” I pulled myself collectively, and to full peak. I confronted Lelou, targeted my spirit to my arms, and batted away another swipe with a flat left hand, stomping my foot and lashing out with my right. It phased by means of her. Why would this buffoon not give me the sword? Why would he hold a weapon and never use it? Weak. Dishonorable.
The weapon gleamed from its sheath, a glimmer of hope in the crushing darkness as Monkey slid it throughout the bottom in the direction of me. I dashed for it, rewarded with three more icy cuts across my flank. I did not care. As I claimed the weapon from the gnarled boards my coaching seized me. I stomped my foot into the ground so onerous it was a surprise boards didn’t shatter, rooting the opposite far behind as-before till my stance turned unshakable. I held the weapon diagonally before me, arms straight. Agency as this sword’s flawless metal. Indeed, it will be troublesome to seek out another prefer it in these lands. I might prove myself worthy to wield it.
Lelou shrieked, her shrill, horrible, voice clawing at my ears as she reduce down at me together with her talon hand. I shifted the blade in order that its flat, curved, size was before me, and caught the incoming blow on the sword’s edge. Forwards I stepped, pouring my may towards the spirits horrible power to knock her deathly digits upwards, whisk the swords leading edge to my aspect, and slash Lelou throughout her exposed waist, a lightning flash towards the all-pervading darkish. To any opponent, this may be a deathblow.
Time fell to a crawl and a frigid, horrible, realization came to visit me. Lelou seized my throat and my blade clattered uselessly to the bottom as she yanked me aloft, clenching her ghostly hand like a vice to my neck. My bones threatened to buckle and my eyes would certainly blow their sockets. I couldn’t breathe. I kicked and swiped at my unearthly foe to no avail. That is how I might die. My greatest efforts had been fruitless.
From someplace, though, I heard Monkey’s voice, “Come, Lelou. Join me for tea.”
Her grip relented and she or he turned to face the boy now standing over the tea tables ruins.
Monkey bowed and folded his legs upon the ground, arms meeting at his lap to cradle a teacup. From a steaming tea jar he poured a sickly black liquid, resting the pot between him and the spectre at present crushing the life from me.
“Do you expect me to be fooled?” Stated Lelou. “You would have your friend prey upon my hospitality?”
“He’s not my friend, I only just met him,” Monkey’s hand found one other cup within the rubble, set it past the tea jar, crammed it, and set the steaming basin apart. He motioned in the direction of the cup, balled his arms to fists, and bowed his head low and long. “Please, Lelou. I wish to speak to you over tea.”
His eyes tried to drill holes into the floorboards. The spirit wafted in the direction of him with a dancers grace, her sandals tiptoeing over splintered wooden and fractured china alike. No sound. Lelou tossed me apart as casually as one would a grain sack, air bursting from my lungs as a wall crashed met my back like a struggle hammer’s metal. Pain strangled my body, each uninteresting and sharp, cold and hot. I could not move, and splinters pricked at my nape. I gasped for air and simply watched, useless. How foolish, naive, I used to be to assume him my good friend after having simply met. We shared nothing however a journey.
Lelou took her seat in a proper style, resting on her knees and decreasing slowly to the ground with balled fists. She folded her arms into reverse robe sleeves.
Monkey stated, “My acquaintance and I met with your husband.”
“Oh yes, he returns from battle today. He will join us for tea.”
“He’s dead, Lelou. If there’s one thing I know it’s history. I know what happened in these woods,” Monkey leaned in. “The Empire, the black willow crest. Their muskets, don’t you remember them?”
“Black willow,” Lelou murmured. “The black willow.”
“He was a leader, wasn’t he? In the rebellion?”
“No, it cannot be…”
Monkey’s eyes fell, face somber. “He went off to the poppy field, didn’t he? To Heron Valley?”
“Yes, Heron Valley. I remember it. The black willow. Yes, the willow tree.”
“The Imperial crest. It was a rout, Lelou. Their armies flooded these forests and killed everyone. Burned everything to ash.”
The spirits face cut up because it had earlier than, unhinging its jaw like a snake match to swallow prey. A tongue—not more than writhing pink worm—flailed as a horrible wail, an infant cry combined with a dying animal, lanced by means of the room.
Monkey, a hand trembling, stated, “Spirit fires can only commune with the living. He would have told you before, Lelou.”
Sobbing pounded by means of musty air as black, wispy, hair trickled over the bottom, a black river from the again of Lelou’s head, “Why? My Zhin? He has been gone so long.” She whimpered.
My would-be companion produced a necklace, fit with dark pearls, from inside his gown and held it in the direction of the wailing soul, “Take hold and pass from this world. Zhin will await you in the afterlife, I’m sure of it.”
The phantoms arms clasped around it as though to wish. Monkey bowed his head, closed his eyes, and nodded. In a quick moment, I felt it all. The immense, bone-crushing weight of remorse. The burning, seething, tears, the void, the infinite black with no end. Loneliness. Mild, too. A twinkle at the finish and a smile. Heat.
Lelou disintegrated into numerous radiant orbs, like midnight fireflies, scattering and melting away into the dark as Monkey’s pearl necklace glowed with a shiny gold heat, beating as a heart would.
I could not consider it. That giving a spirit relaxation might be such a relaxing, peaceful, affair. Father would name such a thing nonsense. Wishful considering. However, it had happened. This boy who I had met scarcely an hour in the past exorcised a twisted soul with no need for a weapon. No want for violence, or cleansing water, or incantations, or sacred hearth. How was this attainable?
Monkey stated, “I did it, Kode.” Voice nonetheless hardly above a whisper.
I managed to smile by means of the ache and pressure myself again to my ft, patting at my bloodied flesh and making an attempt to stifle my wounds as a lot as potential with my attire, “You have given me much to think about, ‘acquaintance’.”
Before us ignited a blue hearth, blazing noiselessly, “You have done well, monk. I, Zhin Semze give you my earnest blessing, even if I did not anticipate you to be the one to fulfill this task.”
Monkey bowed, wiping his brow, “Truth be told I’m just glad it’s over.”
“The both of you aided me and my wife, and as such I will bestow my knowledge. Ask, and I will answer.”
Monkey spoke up first, “I’m looking for the Tigress who guards the shrine surrounded in reeds.”
“Your master awaits in the marshlands to the north, through a deer trail fringed in stone lanterns. A strong, arrogant, and uncouth woman. Take to her skills, but not her temperament is my advice to you, boy,” unseen eyes fell to me subsequent. “Speak.”
I nodded, “I am looking for the Painter to be my master. I was told he is a very skilled warrior, learned in the Xui way.”
“Go from this place, past red-branched willows, until you come upon a long trail through the great bamboo near the cloudwaters. You will find the Painter at its end, but be warned he is a foreign degenerate and an unremorseful traitor. Skilled in battle, though, there is no denying. Ruthless. Dangerous.”
“I see.” Father described the Painter with extra reverence, but it will do me sick to mistrust a grateful spirit’s words.
“You are both young,” the hearth stated, “don’t be fools as I once was and seek war and battle. Meaningless glory. Cherish others, fight only for those you love, and stay safe on your journeys.”
Zhin’s wisp vanished and silence smothered the room. My body, like a terrific spring, had wound itself close to snapping via these occasions. As, finally, the world simmered to a degree of normalcy I could not converse, only breathe long, stammering, breaths as my coronary heart drummed my ribs.
Monkey stated, “I didn’t know, didn’t truly know, until I saw them.”
“Spirits. They’re real.”
I nodded, “It is where you must be careful. Usually, only the bad ones show themselves willingly.”
Monkey grinned weakly, “Yeah, I was told that before.”
“Then we both served the same master,” I smiled. Father warned me to be skeptical of those outdoors the family, but I found such skepticism troublesome with Monkey for some cause.
I had by no means ventured too far into caves, however the accounts I had read have been most just like our expertise climbing forth from the estate. It might have been dilapidated, abandoned, and rotting, however Zhin and Lelou’s format decisions for his or her residence performed tips with my thoughts. We found a dojo, lopsided and misplaced to time. Dusty stone drinkware stood over rice mats beside vacant sword holds monkey insisted on looking. No master crafted blades or enchanted bows did we find, nevertheless. Zhin talked about the riot, and invading forces would not cross up an opportunity to arm themselves with such weaponry, let alone valuables, regardless that Monkey turned half the home onto itself looking.
I advised him, “Have you no respect for the departed?” Alongside probably the most off-put look I might muster.
“I’ve got mountains of respect, Kode. That’s why I’ll put their stuff to use rather than leave it to time, or some brigand.”
The couple, I supposed, had one last snigger at his expense on their strategy to the afterlife, as Monkey discovered nothing however a rusted silver coin which he clinked into a brown sack with little hesitation.
As twilight set hearth to the horizon we sat upon the estate’s curved black roof, overlooking the lake. It was a wanting glass for the solar and the darkish moon Astrid, a wart on its radiant face. Clouds have been gathering too. Massive, darkish, and ambiguous. I might breathe although, because the sun baked my flesh, as frogs croaking, birds singing, and crickets chirping turned a symphony. As sharp pain nipped my arm and I swatted a gnat, breaking the peace. My hate for them grew. Horrible, garbage-feeding, corpse-festering, creatures. Did they exist only to trigger misery? Yes. It made me respect the dragonfly, a creature with the only intent to eradicate such soulless vermin. In a way, Xui monks for nature.
“I’ll be heading past the lake,” stated Monkey. “I studied the lay of this place, it’s been a mess since the rebellion but if I’m right we only got about a days travel left together, buddy.”
“A shame,” my eyes fell to fractured tiling. Monkey’s hit me immediately, but I did not meet them.
“Come with me, Kode. I’m sure the Tigress will take on a second student.”
I paused to seek out words, “We have just met, Monkey, you said so yourself. I do not wish to walk my path alone, but fate has spoken,” something festered, a deep longing waging battle with certainty and forethought. A void crammed in my creativeness. Loneliness. It tugged at me, but my thoughts had been long made—a rock towards a strong current. Change. Making such selections on a whim was unwise. Foolish. I used to be foolish indeed, simply not sufficient. “It is not to be.”
“Suit yourself, though I can’t say I liked that ghostly grandpa’s description of this ‘Painter’ guy,” Monkey shook his head and set his palms over his nape.
I grinned, “Arrogant and uncouth do not sound that much better.”
At darkish we sought refuge from a light-weight rain within great hollowed tree stumps. The estates would have made effective shelter, however after the day’s events, we each agreed they have been greatest left alone. Early season brought insects without fail, a lot to my chagrin. The flying ones vanished, though, as thunder rumbled within the distance and Segorei, the water spirit, rapped towards my bark roof with casual fingers. So I imagined, anyway. One thing comical, picturing an eight foot tall, sapphire-skinned, lady tapping away as though making an attempt to recall a uninteresting rhyme.
Sleeps haze had virtually enveloped me when Monkey’s voice, quiet and muffled, managed to succeed in my ears, “Kode?”
“Yes?” I mumbled.
“Stay safe. I hope we’ll serve the same Lord one day.”
I settled into my makeshift bedding some extra, “I do too.”
He was gone come the morn, a silver coin grasped by moist grass outdoors my quarters. I shouldn’t have felt mournful for a boy I had only traveled a day with, however as I made in the direction of the bamboo forests to the east my mind solely darted with prospects. Doubts. The solitude with which I shared my life—did I enable it? Was it my fault? The choice was mine. I hungered for an answer. I also merely hungered, but settled for river water.
Books, legends, stated Nation 9 waters flowed from islands in the clouds, where rocky swimming pools lay the ground for fanciful herbs, bestowing every little thing from limitless breath to cures for disease and stagnation. Nonsense, but if any water might cause such progress it have been these. The Empire would have long-since plundered such herbs, although, with their sky ships and armies. I prayed not to in the future meet the misfortune their black willow flag carried. A fantastic want. No less than I knew it.
The place the cloudwaters pooled, nice bamboo took root. Half a day upriver and thru lengthy mists and damp moss. Spirit fires played on the corners of my vision, invisible eyes watching my every transfer as I made previous stone lanterns, candles nonetheless alight within and moss clinging to their stone. Wood arches, easy intersected logs, guided me with mushrooms clinging desperately to their frames. Many met their fate here. A Xui monk stored their shrine, and the wayward spirits adrift close to them. The candles have been tended to. I was close.
Mist choked the forests, an earthy and elemental scent teasing my nostrils as I came across a hill’s crest and adopted the arches to a distant pagoda. Two stories. Chimes dangled from its roofing, ringing with a heavenly, harmonious, tune in the faint breeze. Purifying material, tied in knots, dangled from the archways here. This was a sacred place.
A voice, crusty, sluggish, and accented, from behind, “Why have you come?”
I stood tall, balled my fists, and didn’t turn, “To follow Xui, as my father before me did.”
“You will be an artist who will paint with bodies,” sediment and soil crunched faintly as a shadow performed in my peripheral. “You will suffer no remorse, sever no rule, and betray no Lord or master. Are you prepared for this?”
My mouth opened however I did not converse. Monkey’s words, his actions, minimize by way of my resolve as I contemplated the implications. Eventually, I stated, “I am.” I felt as if at any second this shadow would sever my head from my body.
“You will live nameless and die nameless, be it by your own hand or the hand of another. Do you understand?”
A younger, pale-skinned, man, his eyes purple as polished rubies and accented in purple luggage, materialized from inside the mists to my front, a grin stretched thin throughout leathery lips, “Then your journey has reached its end.”
Credit: Justin Reinarz (a.okay.a. Hetzer) (Official Website • FictionPress)
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