A spectral woman stood in socks and sandals upon a stone overlooking a gentle brook, red dawn lips reflected in her silvery flute.
I had lost something. Something crucial. Why was I here? Her melody, yes. Like warm honey to the ears. My legs ached and my head throbbed. Rest. I needed rest.
The woman's oily black hair cascaded down from a lopsided straw hat that cast a shadow across her eyes. Porcelain flesh, delicate hands. Her robe, long and traditional and silky, depicted nightshade. "What brings you to these forests?" Came her voice, smooth and flowing as her attire.
"I am on a journey," I said, "an important journey."
She grinned, "You should tell me about it."
"I cannot," I wanted to tell her. Why was I unable? I had to tell her. I had 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 warm sapphire light pulsed from her ethereal body.
"You can tell me, I'm good at keeping secrets," She said. "How has your journey been through these forests?"
"They are tranquil, I like them."
"I'm glad you do." She cupped her hand against my cheek. It felt cool. Mist steamed off her flesh. "What is your name?"
"What is yours?" I stepped back. Her hand drifted to her side. Her flute melted away into the mist. Never give your true name to outsiders first. Father was absolute.
"I'm Lelou, and I live in the palace at the end of the brook," the woman said. "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 noticed. The warm glow burned stronger. "There are few temples near this place. Why are you so far from home, young one?"
"I..." No thoughts. Mist everywhere. I could hear the brook but not see it. Something was wrong, but it could not be. "I cannot say," I stumbled backwards without knowing why. The mists began to lift. "I should be going." I did not want to be going. I did not want to leave Lelou at all, but I had to. Needed to.
She soared through the air once more, her body's outline trailing behind like candle smoke as she weaved a gentle, silken, arm behind my back and looked down upon me, eyes still hiding in her hat, "Come, join me for tea Kode," she said, "Zhin returns from the battle today. The battle at the Heron." An upwards crease set across her cherry red lips. From this close a distance I saw them in more detail. They were wrong, the unabashed scarlet spread unevenly above, below, her mouth if in only the subtlest ways, as though the cherry they resembled had bled its juices across them. Bled. Bleeding. Harm. Danger.
Fear struck like a lightning bolt and I nearly tripped over myself escaping her embrace, "I must be going, I will have tea with you later."
Her body fell away into mist. I paced backwards, tracing it gliding over forest soil, over the leaves, loose sticks, and branches. My foot caught on one. I crumbled onto my back to see the mists swirl themselves back into Lelou.
"I don't want you to go," Lelou said, lifting her straw hat, which billowed away into a pastel brown fog. No eyes. Cold, sunken, voids darker than pitch where two small fires no larger than candle flames flickered a ghoulish topaz. The cherry red 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 were about to cry. "Surely you will not leave me, Kode?"
I screamed, scrambling back to my feet and blasting off them in no direction other than away. The mist choked me, filling my lungs with a frigid, horrible, ice. Silence. There were only my sandals pattering off soil, snapping through twigs and crunching through leaves. Trees 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 just above them. They watched me. I did not know how, but restless eyes lurked within.
Lelou giggled. It echoed through the wood from every direction, but none. The fear I had been numbed to infested me. Strangled me with unseen tendrils and grasped my heart with a bony hand, squeezing it faster and faster until it would surely burst. Father's teachings called to me somewhere. I wanted to hear them, know what to do again, but I could not think. Somewhere he was calling me a coward, striking me to the ground and ordering me to try again. Somewhere was my training and how to escape this nightmare, but I could not find it.
Three knives bit into my back, white hot fire screaming where they raked across flesh. Something warm and wet trickled over my spine, but the hand gripping my heart squeezed faster. Harder. No more pain. No thoughts. Action.
Stone steps, lorded over by faded wood archways, led up a short hill in the distance. I ran to them, stone firm beneath me and the arches, paired pine logs jutting to meet each other in a flipped 'V' stood watch with rope binding their peaks and rust-worn brass chimes ringing idly. They were familiar. They symbolized something—suggested a harmony between man and nature. Yes, these arches led to a shrine. A Xui shrine where I would find safety from this evil.
I felt the phantom behind me. I could feel her frigid breath at my nape, disturbed air close to my back. I felt her knives rip at my silken robe, grazing flesh as the warmness spread further. Hot, yet icy. It spurred me forwards like a whip, my body and soul both wholly concentrated on running faster. Escaping this danger. Ahead, past the wiry trees, the winding stone steps, and the moss-laced arches, the shrine beckoned. Old, fashioned from stone chipped away by the elements. A wicker basket rested on a flat stone where shadows pooled under the roof. Candles, flames absent, flanked the basket to either side.
I threw myself towards 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 with his staff. I had failed to recite the Xui incantation for purity. It felt like nails were driven into my jaw and a taste, salt and metal, 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 weakness, yet it growled within like a great panther baring its fangs, hungering to pounce and tear and rip flesh asunder. Blood.
I allowed rage to consume me, claiming my staff from where it lay on the bamboo tiling and swinging with all I was, all I could muster, towards him. Towards my own father. This weakness, this failing, did as father always said it would.
My staff splintered to pieces in my hands as the Xui monk before me set his towering body into one swift strike with his own. It did not feel like a staff. It was a steel blades honed edge, cleaving straight through my would-be weapon, tearing into my chin just to throw me back to the ground in a heap. The pain raged like a demon, slashing me with claws every moment, inside and out. The panther, in an instant, had been thoroughly tamed. My vision clouded with tears as I lay as no more than a doll in a heap. A doll.
I said, "Forgive me."
Father swished his staff to his side, "Seka, a woman, would not weep as you do," He produced an effigy depicting a man from his sleeve, fashioned from old straw. He tossed it to my feet. "Hold it."
A weeping Jou doll collected sorrow. Spirits took pity on their holders and warded off harm. Father sold them to the passing pilgrims and merchants from frontier cities as protection on their journeys. I made them. I did not deserve otherwise until I could prove it. I had to. Seka would not outdo me—heir to clan Mezore. No room for defeat, none for cowardice.
I hardened my heart and inhaled as many times instructed, trapping the air and feeling my spirit stir in its husk of flesh and bone. I channeled my pain, my sadness, my discontent, and drew the fruit. Hot, scarlet, energy pulsed through my veins. I seized the doll, looked father directly in his coal eyes, set to sockets chiseled from bone and tight, battle-maimed, earthen skin. His dire brows, storm clouds, were set downwards as they usually were when he was off-put. When a storm brewed. When he was disappointed.
My anger, my sorrows, my will. I poured them into my palms to bear fruit, as was the Xui way. This combination burned. My palms blazed, searing red as a ripe apple. They hissed and spewed smoke and embers as the Jou doll took to flame.
Father's eyes, for the first time since I could remember, widened. His storm clouds lifted and his mouth fell ajar. Something foreign to his lips, a smile, as he knelt beside me—setting his staff down and a calloused hand to my head.
He said, "Good, Kode. You have done well."
I smiled back. Euphoria, beaming sunlight sparkling through gloomy, festering, fog. The pain in my jaw, the blood in my mouth, the splinters biting at my palms from the shattered staff, were gone. I felt only joy, and longed, however briefly, to embrace father. A fleeting, weak, thought but I did not care. At last. At long last, after all these years, I made him proud.
"You are ready," He said. "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 ground, folding his hands into opposite sleeves of his robe. "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 pride. My still-glowing elation.
Nothing compared to the fear consuming me in the present.
My hand dove into the wicker basket upon the altar and clasped an offering, a necklace stringed from old black pearls. I spun and thrust it outwards, towards Lelou. "Begone from this place!" I bellowed at the many-colored mists as they gradually took form.
"No, Kode," said Lelou. "I am lonely. It pains me so much to bring you harm." Her body took shape again, teeth like sewing needles beared towards me beneath her void black eyes. Stained crimson.
I threw the necklace at her. It phased through her unearthly body, simply stirred the mists comprising it. She reached for me, cocking her head and forcing my back to the altar. Her breath was colder than winter wind. It rasped from her throat, the croak of an ill frog. I caught a time-eaten vase at my eyes edge and snuck a hand towards it. I felt if I were to move it any faster than a crawl she would surely lunge at me, bite open my throat. Sacred sands and ashes were often stored in vases as offerings. This was the only way.
"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 should, her jaw separating, her upper row of needle teeth facing skywards towards swirling grey clouds and an uncaring sky, "eyes" just barely watching from their upright position. Her mouth had no end in its darkness. I wanted to scream, but I was paralyzed. Her breath had froze me solid.
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 were honed like blades. I could nearly feel their stinging bite. I shattered the vase against the ground, an ashen cloud billowing over old stone. It singed my nostrils. Acrid. Sharp. Lelou screamed and wailed, magenta flames licking, engulfing, her phantasmal body. The shrieks pierced my skin and spirit, howling through the wood as I pressed myself as close to the shrine as possible, batting my eyes away as the woman burned and swirled away into nothingness in my peripheral, along with her horrible, piercing, cries.
"Why, Kode?" Her voice boomed from all around.
The skeleton hand released my heart, yet it beat like a war drum and kept me pinned to the shrine. I melted to the ground, gasping for air and wrapping my arms around my legs until I was no more than a ball—cold, afraid, and alone. I sobbed into my robe, clenching at its thick grey fabrics and cursing myself for being this way. For letting fear consume me. I wished father would strike me and spare me this dishonor. To tell me to get up again and move on. Yet I could not. Did not.
Something crunched within the forest, spurring me back to my feet. Instincts claimed me again. It was a dry crunch, a stick or branch breaking for certain. Had I only a weapon to use I could at least be content in this situation, but this journey was sink or swim. I had to provide such things for myself. In this I failed.
A voice: young, nonchalant, and male, filtered between fern fans, "Hello? Anyone there?"
I backed away, leading each step in retreat by sandal toe and letting the rest follow behind. No sound. I could not afford to make any. I feared either my pounding heartbeat or rushing breaths would give me away regardless. Whatever 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 ? Here to avenge his loved one's soul? Who was I kidding, with time Lelou would simply manifest once more. I had not put her to rest, after all. In the best case Lelou would simply haunt me. The lackadaisical tone pressed fearful daggers into me. Would this be my fate? Turned into a pincushion, devoured by some evil spirit? My body, a tight-wound spring, prepared to leap into the air at the faintest trigger. No. I would be no victim—I would destroy the evil spirits with my bare hands or die trying, as father would wish. At least I would die with honor intact.
A boy emerged from the ferns, face coming first, and likely the reason I did not charge upon first spotting him. A calm face, two chestnut pupils dull and flicking about me half-heartedly. Not in a manner I would expect from a bloodthirsty spirit, but rather of someone being forced to endure a lecture they held no investment in. A sword, positioned to his side with a black wooden hold and no guard. Curved, gleaming, a young moon on a dark night. His eyes locked to mine and a lopsided grin creased his face.
"You've got a really loud and feminine scream." He said,
The boy, clad in a pale tunic depicting an orangutan in crude orange brush strokes, drew closer. I stepped away, "Who are you?" I said, trying my best to deprive the question from anxiety.
He set his swords non-bladed edge across his shoulder so its tip emerged on the opposite one. A smile. "Call me Monkey, I'm on the Xui journey," he nodded towards me, "you are too, right?"
"Yes," I brushed what ash lingered on my clothing away, drawing deep breaths. "My name is...it is Ash."
Monkey cocked a brow, "Is it because you smash offering urns?" His eyes were on the patchy grey desert now occupying my vicinity. "I mean, I guess that makes sense."
"N-No," I did not want to be referred to as Ash, "I am Kode. That is my name. Forgive me."
My eyes fell. I could only hope the reason I acted this cowardly was due to the horrors mere minutes ago. Simply having a conversation such as this so soon after felt surreal. I had failed to fully cope with my experience, it must 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 wooden sheath by his side, guiding his blade into it with a steady 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 brief bow as he moved beneath an archway shadow. He motioned to follow, setting his eyes to the steps flowing downwards towards a brook. The chimes sung in a gentle breeze. Resonant—tranquil like still waters. The mist began to lift, from both the forest and my mind. Memories returned. Disciplines.
Monkey said, "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 were no more. Had I imagined them? The pain in my back began to gnaw at me, stinging with hornet pins. The blood along my back had stopped dripping, it was no longer a concern. "I know permanent ways as well."
"Hey, are you hurt?" Monkey's eyes ran along the ground, 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 somewhat sticky, returning to me splotched a lush crimson. The hornet pins pressed deeper. A scratch, though. Nothing more.
"I'll take your word for it."
We made along the brook. Monkey, I discovered, was noble—bestowed an heirloom weapon for his journey from Nation nines capital, Sennou. Empire lands. He too walked the Xui way, but by his temperament and curious demeanor I could tell he was likely less devout. Lukewarm, as father would say. Still, I could not picture him reacting to an ill-willed spirit in as cowardly a manner as I had. I hoped the mist had muddled my mind. He had an interest in history, recounting various misconceptions about Sennou I held, old weapons, firearms, battles. I did not respond often but noted his words with interest.
After awhile, though, another spirit took shape before us.
Blue fire, larger than those on the branches prior, roared to life between the sputtering brook and some shrubbery, stopping Monkey and I in our tracks. Eyes. I felt eyes.
"You, boy," the fire said, voice echoing with unearthly resonance, elderly, rough as sandpaper, yet powerful. Pointed. "I see you have spoken with my wife, Lelou."
Monkey jumped, fading back as though struck in the jaw, "Woah." He uttered, once-firm eyes going wide.
I felt a certain pride having felt little but a brief jolt at the spectres appearance. It was a spirit fire—a soul husk hanging desperately on to material existence, typically to fulfill some unaccomplished task or observe certain outcomes. Father said they were not to be feared. While some could place hexes on weak-willed people, those knowledgeable in the Xui way could send them on by force. Surely, this lingering flame would not approach us for ill reasons.
"Yes," I said. "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 asked.
"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 said, keeping my eyes on the fire.
"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 said, a certain pride 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 never thought I would 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 said.
"Pah!" Spat the spirit. "In life she was more caring and beautiful than any who would wed you, whelp."
I thought I saw 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," said the spirit, "I have waited long for one such as you." The fire flickered away, leaving Monkey and I in silence, serenaded by distant birds and wind rustling through the trees.
I drew a long breath, collected my thoughts, and made along the rushing waters. I heard Monkey's footsteps behind me, but not his voice. Not for some time.
The brook ran into a small lake, upon which pale lotuses floated in bunches towards 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 a great boulders back.
Monkey said, "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 right to left.
"Well this is certainly where the brook ends." Truth be told I could not see myself hunting down a phantom without company, even with such a promise as Zhin's to spur me forwards. With Monkey, though, I felt a certain confidence. Because I knew more of spirits than him? Perhaps. Maybe that sword he had, likely enchanted to ward off the supernatural. Maybe that was it. He was fortunate to be granted such a tool. Whatever the case, I had not met someone like him before. I did not mind sharing company with him, even if father would likely disapprove.
The sun cast a beam through the overcast sky which shimmered a bright gold to conflict the midnight sheen across the waters. A hopeful omen, and with it came determination.
Monkey dropped to his haunches and looked out across the water, "Kode, why are you on this journey?" He asked.
"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 never paid it such thought, "I suppose."
Monkey rose, faced 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 side.
We came upon the palace shortly after, or what was once a palace.
It lay within a quiet bay behind a veil of willows, little more than a collection of rotted away foundations, scorched black. The roof, a pagoda, had split in two. The elements punched holes through it, reeds and weeds clawing through each nook, each cranny, permitting. Frogs croaked away in the distance, birds humming a nameless tune as heraldry to our approach.
"Hey, you hear that?" Monkey said, cupping a hand to his ear.
I listened intently, "No."
Monkey's bowels belched something fierce, the sound more than audible and the scent to follow, a mix between spoiled eggs and the grave itself, shriveled my face, "Such behavior is immature and exceedingly rude." I said, trying 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 into a hole with hands to either side. I made towards the water to escape the lingering stench, watching while remaining somewhat apprehensive considering my past experiences. An odd feeling infested me, a shadow cast over my spirit in no way related to the expulsion of bodily gasses. I could not come to a conclusion as to its nature. It was just there. An uneasy, festering, discomfort.
"Woah," came Monkey's muffled voice. "It's not much of a palace, but there's some cool stuff in here." He pulled himself through the hole, a lurch in my stomach following this wanton action as I drew closer to the ruins.
"What kind of stuff?" I called.
I clambered up the pagoda roof, peering into the breach Monkey had vanished into and darting my eyes about what lay below. Blackened wood floors, toppled stands still clutching cobweb-laced armor sets. Shredded paintings, frames mangled and depictions burned and corrupted. No Monkey. With little hesitation I dropped inside, landing on uneven wood threatening to splinter beneath my impact, not like it mattered. If Monkey was in danger I was honor-bound to help.
Stale, musty, air. Dust dancing about where sunlight filtered through ruptured ceiling. A silence, the birds and croaks leaving me in purgatory as shadows played in the corners. Foldings screens, thatchwork walls, had been torn asunder. Corrupted by plantlife. As I made ahead a clatter rattled through the room from a stray pot meeting my sandal.
The wind was a ghoulish whisper, moaning through every gap and entry it could infiltrate, the foundations groaning back in kind. I made towards a hallway just ahead, guarded by a screen door. My footsteps rang hollow, the floor sinking, creaking, beneath each footfall.
"Monkey?" Still no reply.
I stepped into the hall, a void staring back at me where what light had managed this far fell away into nothingness. It was an abyss that made my stomach lurch yet still I moved forwards, balling my fists tight and breathing the stale air deep and long. A massive beetle skittered across rotting walls, the wind still whispering luridly.
Just when I had reached the threshold between the dark and light a fiery, translucent, wisp burned into existence not four feet away. An energy, a warmth, played against me. The wisp floated forwards, illuminating the bowels of the building and guiding me ahead. My heart was racing, the beginnings of a cold sweat taking form within my pores. Every step forward was uncertain one. Father warned me about this. About translucent fires lurking in accursed places. Nevertheless, it was all I had to lead me forward. All I had to help find Monkey. Even though I had scarcely known him an hour a connection had taken root. Maybe I just did not want to see him come to harm.
The fire weaved me through labyrinthine corridors, debris scattered haphazardly about ranging from shattered pottery to twine and faded, moth-eaten, robes. I was being swallowed by this place, becoming more hopelessly lost by the second. My only hope was, if this spirit wisp was as benevolent as I hoped, I could find my way out once Monkey was found. A foolish hope. My regret grew.
A horrible noise rattled through the passages, sounding somewhere 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, light threatening to abandon me was likely the only catalyst for my pressing on. Forcing myself on, at any rate. I pictured being alone in such sheer darkness for but a moment and my feet simply moved.
The wretched bellows stirring within the rotten heart of this place tried their best to dissuade me. The musty wood walls shivered and paper lanterns, strung by fraying threads along the ceiling, violated with rips and tears, bounced about with each unearthly wail. Streams of dust were 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 was going to drown. Like I was being smothered by a blanket darker than the vilest sin. I had to remember to breathe. To pace forwards off what little memory remained. My footfalls caused the floor to whine in protest, happily selling me out to whatever unseen abominations lurked in this place. I saw, at least, a faint blue glow from up ahead. Frail, but alive. I turned a corner, guiding my hand around a wall until, to my elation, the fiery wisp shimmered just ahead—illuminating a girthy, lopsided, room tiled in faded rice straw mats. I entered without hesitation, choosing the wisp in exchange for the all-consuming shadow.
I somehow felt comfort as Zhin's reedy old voice echoed from the fire, "She suffers below, in the depths."
Words did not come to me.
"You're lost. Yes, indeed, you know nothing at all, boy," the wisp bellowed, "Listen!"
The word was a fist against 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 everything, I smiled, "Goodness, sir."
"Stay focused, boy. Ignore this wise old man's well-deserved criticisms for now," Zhin hovered down another hall and candles, two rows, burned to life as though to form a path. "Go, now. Lelou is below."
The wisp guided me down the candle path until we came upon a great, splintered, hole in the floor. I peered into it, encouraged by the old Lord's presence.
Below, eight small, spectral, fires hovered just above ground, burning brilliant magenta. They formed a circle around Lelou and Monkey, who sat on either side to a flat, bamboo wood, 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," said Zhin.
My body acted before my mind, throwing me from my perch and into the tea table, splintering it to rubble as porcelain shattered and bamboo splintered. Pain pounded nails into my knees but it could 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 malevolent aura, violet shrouded by dusks edge, flickering like a candle to wind. The warmth I had felt from her prior, the ember in my soul. This was its antithesis.
I scrambled to my feet, narrowly evading the tables fragments as I pressed myself to a wall, powerless to stop Lelou as she whisked herself towards me. Graceful, methodical, death. Monkey clambered to his feet. I could not see his eyes from where I stood, but could picture their vacant, unblinking, expression. One I would rather him not wear. Spurred in-part by raw instinct and part by some ill-pondered plan, I threw myself at Monkey and, with every vestige of strength I could muster, picked him up and threw him across the room, directly into a folding screen.
"What are you doing you idiot?!" He yelped, flailing about in the torn wreckage like a beached fish. In a better situation I would have found it amusing, but my attention had rooted on Lelou, who, with razor nails ravenous for blood, cleaved a diagonal slash my way, screaming through the air.
'Again!' Father's voice echoed. I spun, forged my palm flat, and slammed it against the phantasm's wrist to force her blow aside. Somehow it worked, a frostbitten jolt and her misty arm went momentarily stiff. Sheer muscle memory and desperation had deflected a phantoms strike. I stepped back, my hand numb and unresponsive, as though it had been submerged in icy water.
Lelou, hardly dissuaded, swiped once more with her razor-tipped hand, forcing me to roll towards where I tossed Monkey. He had scrambled to his feet and backed himself, on his own volition, into a corner.
"Kode, you can't fight it like that!"
"I must try." I said, setting into a defensive stance, one foot aimed towards the ghost and another turned sideways behind.
Lelou wafted herself around, until her face, needly fangs and bottomless voids, locked to us both. She zoomed ahead, another wide strike aimed my way from the side.
I shot my hand out to intercept, but this time it did not work. This time her hand simply phased through my arm and raked me across the chest. Hot, frozen, knives.
Pain set in, a sharp pain biting deeper every second. Blood dribbled warm down my midsection, dotted across cold foundations from the speed I had been hit.
"Don't fight it, Kode," Monkey said, "there's another way."
Yes, there was.
I scrambled away from Lelou and looked 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 towards me yet again, but his face had been cracked by fear and his hands trembled. "Please, Kode. You need to trust me on this."
"I will strike her down." I pulled myself together, and to full height. I faced Lelou, focused my spirit to my hands, and batted away another swipe with a flat left hand, stomping my foot and lashing out with my right. It phased through her. Why would this buffoon not give me the sword? Why would he keep a weapon and not use it? Weak. Dishonorable.
The weapon gleamed from its sheath, a glimmer of hope in the crushing darkness as Monkey slid it across the ground towards 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 training seized me. I stomped my foot into the ground so hard it was a surprise boards did not shatter, rooting the other far behind as-before until my stance became unshakable. I held the weapon diagonally before me, arms straight. Firm as this swords flawless steel. Indeed, it would be difficult to find another like it in these lands. I would prove myself worthy to wield it.
Lelou shrieked, her shrill, horrible, voice clawing at my ears as she cut down at me with her talon hand. I shifted the blade so its flat, curved, length was before me and caught the incoming blow on the swords edge. Forwards I stepped, pouring my might against the spirits terrible strength to knock her deathly digits upwards, whisk the swords cutting edge to my side, and slash Lelou across her exposed waist, a lightning flash against the all-pervading dark. To any opponent, this would be a deathblow.
Time fell to a crawl and a frigid, horrible, realization came over me. Lelou seized my throat and my blade clattered uselessly to the ground as she yanked me aloft, clenching her ghostly hand like a vice to my neck. My bones threatened to buckle and my eyes would surely blow their sockets. I could not breathe. I kicked and swiped at my unearthly foe to no avail. This is how I would die. My best efforts had been fruitless.
From somewhere, though, I heard Monkey's voice, "Come, Lelou. Join me for tea."
Her grip relented and she 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 currently crushing the life from me.
"Do you expect me to be fooled?" Said Lelou. "You would have your friend prey upon my hospitality?"
"He's not my friend, I only just met him," Monkey's hand found another cup in the rubble, set it past the tea jar, filled it, and set the steaming basin aside. He motioned towards the cup, balled his hands 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 towards him with a dancers grace, her sandals tiptoeing over splintered wood and fractured china alike. No sound. Lelou tossed me aside as casually as one would a grain sack, air bursting from my lungs as a wall crashed met my back like a warhammers steel. Pain strangled my body, both dull and sharp, hot and cold. I could not move, and splinters pricked at my nape. I gasped for air and simply watched, useless. How foolish, naive, I was to think him my friend after having just met. We shared nothing but a journey.
Lelou took her seat in a formal fashion, resting on her knees and lowering slowly to the floor with balled fists. She folded her hands into opposite robe sleeves.
Monkey said, "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 sombre, "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 split as it had before, unhinging its jaw like a snake fit to swallow prey. A tongue—no more than writhing pink worm—flailed as a horrible wail, an infant cry mixed with a dying animal, lanced through the room.
Monkey, a hand trembling, said, "Spirit fires can only commune with the living. He would have told you before, Lelou."
Sobbing pounded through musty air as black, wispy, hair trickled over the ground, a black river from the back 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 within his robe and held it towards the wailing soul, "Take hold and pass from this world. Zhin will await you in the afterlife, I'm sure of it."
The phantoms hands clasped around it as though to pray. Monkey bowed his head, closed his eyes, and nodded. In a brief moment I felt it all. The immense, bone-crushing, weight of regret. The burning, seething, tears, the void, the endless black with no end. Loneliness. Light, too. A twinkle at the end and a smile. Warmth.
Lelou disintegrated into countless radiant orbs, like midnight fireflies, scattering and melting away into the dark as Monkey's pearl necklace glowed with a bright gold heat, beating as a heart would.
I could not believe it. That giving a spirit rest could be such a calming, peaceful, affair. Father would call such a thing nonsense. Wishful thinking. Nevertheless, it had happened. This boy who I had met scarcely an hour ago exorcised a twisted soul with no need for a weapon. No need for violence, or cleansing water, or incantations, or sacred fire. How was this possible?
Monkey said, "I did it, Kode." Voice still hardly above a whisper.
I managed to smile through the pain and force myself back to my feet, patting at my bloodied flesh and trying to stifle my wounds as much as possible with my attire, "You have given me much to think about, 'acquaintance'."
Before us ignited a blue fire, 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 next. "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 more reverence, but it would do me ill to distrust a grateful spirits words.
"You are both young," the fire said, "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 great spring, had wound itself close to snapping through these events. As, at last, the world simmered to a degree of normalcy I could not speak, only breathe long, stammering, breaths as my heart drummed my ribs.
Monkey said, "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 outside the family, yet I found such skepticism difficult with Monkey for some reason.
I had never ventured too far into caves, but the accounts I had read were most similar to our experience climbing forth from the estate. It may have been dilapidated, abandoned, and rotting, but Zhin and Lelou's layout choices for their residence played tricks with my mind. We found a dojo, lopsided and lost to time. Dusty stone drinkware stood over rice mats beside vacant sword holds monkey insisted on searching. No mastercrafted blades or enchanted bows did we find, however. Zhin mentioned the rebellion, and invading forces would not pass up a chance to arm themselves with such weaponry, let alone valuables, even though Monkey turned half the house onto itself searching.
I told him, "Have you no respect for the departed?" Alongside the most off-put look I could 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 laugh at his expense on their way to the afterlife, as Monkey found nothing but a rusted silver coin which he clinked into a brown sack with little hesitation.
As twilight set fire to the horizon we sat upon the estates curved black roof, overlooking the lake. It was a looking glass for the sun and the dark moon Astrid, a wart on its radiant face. Clouds were gathering too. Big, dark, and ambiguous. I could breathe though, as the sun baked my flesh, as frogs croaking, birds singing, and crickets chirping became 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 cause misery? Yes. It made me respect the dragonfly, a creature with the sole intent to eradicate such soulless vermin. In a sense, Xui monks for nature.
"I'll be heading past the lake," said 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 directly, but I did not meet them.
"Come with me, Kode. I'm sure the Tigress will take on a second student."
I paused to find 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 filled in my imagination. Loneliness. It tugged at me, but my mind had been long made—a rock against a powerful current. Change. Making such decisions on a wim was unwise. Foolish. I was foolish indeed, just not enough. "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 hands over his nape.
I grinned, "Arrogant and uncouth do not sound that much better."
At dark we sought refuge from a light rain within great hollowed tree stumps. The estates would have made fine shelter, but after the days events we both agreed they were best left alone. Early season brought insects without fail, much to my chagrin. The flying ones vanished, though, as thunder rumbled in the distance and Segorei, the water spirit, rapped against my bark roof with casual fingers. So I imagined, anyway. Something comical, picturing an eight foot tall, sapphire-skinned, woman tapping away as though trying to recall a dull rhyme.
Sleeps haze had almost enveloped me when Monkey's voice, quiet and muffled, managed to reach 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 more, "I do to."
He was gone come the morn, a silver coin grasped by wet grass outside my quarters. I should not have felt mournful for a boy I had only traveled a day with, but as I made towards the bamboo forests to the east my mind only darted with possibilities. Doubts. The solitude with which I shared my life—did I enable it? Was it my fault? The decision was mine. I hungered for an answer. I also simply hungered, but settled for river water.
Books, legends, said Nation Nine waters flowed from islands in the clouds, where rocky pools lay ground for fanciful herbs, bestowing everything from limitless breath to a cures for disease and stagnation. Nonsense, but if any water could cause such growth it were these. The Empire would have long-since plundered such herbs, though, with their sky ships and armies. I prayed not to one day meet the misfortune their black willow flag carried. A fanciful wish. At least I knew it.
Where the cloudwaters pooled, great bamboo took root. Half a day upriver and through long mists and damp moss. Spirit fires played at the corners of my vision, invisible eyes watching my every move as I made past stone lanterns, candles still alight within and moss clinging to their stone. Wood arches, simple intersected logs, guided me with mushrooms clinging desperately to their frames. Many met their fate here. A Xui monk kept their shrine, and the wayward spirits adrift near them. The candles were tended to. I was close.
Mist choked the forests, an earthy and elemental scent teasing my nostrils as I came upon a hills crest and followed the arches to a distant pagoda. Two stories. Chimes dangled from its roofing, ringing with a heavenly, harmonious, tune in the faint breeze. Purifying cloth, tied in knots, dangled from the archways here. This was a sacred place.
A voice, crusty, slow, and accented, from behind, "Why have you come?"
I stood tall, balled my fists, and did not 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 played in my peripheral. "You will suffer no remorse, sever no rule, and betray no Lord or master. Are you resolved to this?"
My mouth opened but I did not speak. Monkey's words, his actions, cut through my resolve as I pondered the implications. At last, I said, "I am." I felt as though at any moment 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 young, pale-skinned, man, his eyes red as polished rubies and accented in purple bags, materialized from within the mists to my front, a grin stretched thin across leathery lips, "Then your journey has reached its end."