After weeks and months of trials and tribulations, Yan finally had hope that this would all soon be behind them and her husband return to her again.
Hugging Baloo tight as the sweet bear nestled in her embrace, she leaned against the carriage wall to stare out the window at the back of Rain’s vehicle. Though his curtains were drawn and she didn’t have the right angle to see through the windows, she still yearned to know how he was doing and couldn’t tear her eyes away. After weeks spent fast asleep and days shuffling about in a waking stupor, today might finally be the day he regained full consciousness and returned to them in whole. An idealistic outlook, and perhaps premature, but Yan was done with tempering expectations. She wanted her husband back, not just in body, but in heart, mind, and soul, to see him smile, hear him laugh, and feel his hand close around hers as he drew her into his embrace.
This whole ordeal had taken a toll on her, and she was fast approaching her limits. At first, Yan was confident her husband would wake soon enough, but then she started noticing details she couldn’t just ignore. Rain never was a sound sleeper, prone to tossing and turning even after long, exhausting hours of strenuous activity, but after passing out on the field of battle all those weeks ago, he slept the sleep of the dead. Never once did he stir in slumber, not even when she tickled his nose and feet, nor did he sigh and smack his lips when Yan or Mama Bun snuggled into the crook of his neck. In fact, aside from breathing, the only indication of life he showed was rapid eye movement behind closed lids, which Lin-Lin said meant he was dreaming, a fact she learned secondhand from Rain, who himself read it in one of those books he could never remember the names of.
Far be it for Yan to call her husband a liar, but there would come a day when he would finally feel ready to tell them the truth. She had her suspicions that his knowledge was the result of Heavenly Insight, but confronting him about would only make him dig his heels in and deny it even harder. Such a contrary man, her husband Falling Rain, beloved by the Heavens yet resentful of them all the same…
It was difficult seeing him so lifeless and inanimate, utterly unresponsive to the world around him. As the days and weeks passed by, her mind went to a dark place every time she saw him, wondering if his soul had already passed on into the Mother’s warm embrace and this was merely what was left. Worst of all, she felt a mild sense of relief every time she considered it, as this meant she might be free of her marriage vows, relief which was quickly replaced by personal loathing, but the pervasive thoughts continued to torment her. She was better off without him, he never deserved her anyways, what sort of life would she have had as one of his five wives, the reasons kept coming even though she never wanted them. They were all lies, but they came from her own mind, and a part of her wondered if it was because she truly felt this way.
But every time her thoughts grew too oppressive to bear, she would look at Rain and her heart would swell until it threatened to break, which was how she knew she loved him. The pain was a reminder of how much he meant to her, pain which only grew with each passing day and feared would one day subside.
Then, miracle of miracles, one day, he opened his eyes, got out of bed, and walked out to use the bathroom, all on his own, albeit less than a minute on Yan’s heels. Not quite the reunion she’d expected, to have him barge in naked with trousers bunched around his ankles just as she was about to relieve her bladder. Thankfully, she divined his intentions just in time to get out of the way before he opened the flood gates, and not a second too soon. That was enough to tell her not all was right with Rain, but his slack, unseeing expression hammered the point home. This wasn’t her warm and loving husband, merely a shadow of him, a cold, unthinking version mindlessly tending to his bodily needs. Some thought him aloof and distant, a man who only cared about his loved ones and mistrusted strangers, but the truth was, Rain was just awkward and nervous around new people because he was socially inept. Thanks to Luo-Luo’s painstakingly prepared lessons, he’d gotten much better at interacting with other people in recent times, but all it took was a single ambiguous comment to throw him off his game. It was amusing to see Rain dwell over an innocuous statement and wonder what the speaker really meant, when in most cases, people were rarely as subtle and cunning as he expected them to be.
Granted, Luo-Luo was one such person, and many of the people Rain worked with in his capacity as Legate were also the same, so perhaps there was more to it than Yan understood. Either way, this was why Rain preferred animals over people, because they were always open and honest about their feelings and therefore easily read. Oh how she missed her expressive, empathic, emotive husband and desperately wanted him back, if only to see him smile and laugh again. It was to this thread she clung onto, her boundless love which kept her spirits afloat as she tried and failed to elicit a response from him, verbal, somatic, or otherwise. Despite watching him grow healthier and more active with each passing day, her sombre mood failed to improve as she dwelt upon her dark thoughts, wondering just how long she could keep doing this without succumbing to despair.
“This is your husband, an empty shell of a man, one who draws breath yet is dead inside.” Those were the words echoing in Yan’s mind as she gazed upon the man she loved while they strode arm in arm through the marketplace. “What sort of life will you have with him? You once worried about sharing him, but now you should be happy to have others to help share this troublesome burden.”
All true, but not the entire truth, because even if he never woke, she would never give up on him. She needed no Oath to compel her, for love and hope did a fine enough job on their own.
Oh how her heart had raced when she felt him channelling Heavenly Energy beside her, and in the brief moment before Mother-in-law Akanai spirited him away, Yan thought she saw something, something she dared not believe just yet. For a single instant, there was a hint of focused concentration in Rain’s narrowed gaze, his amber eyes fixated on something nearby instead of staring aimlessly out into the distance. Then, he was gone, physically that is, all but carried into his carriage alongside Lin-Lin, Song, and Mother-in-law Sarnai, while leaving Yan to wonder if she’d imagined it all. Add in the fact that all the rabbits were already waiting inside and Ping Ping had trouble squeezing in, Yan had no choice but to ride in Grandpa’s carriage alongside Mila and Luo-Luo. The bears and wildcats joined them and made for a tight fit, but Grandpa didn’t seem to mind at all and was happily rubbing Aurie’s cheeks beside her.
Unable to help herself, she turned to Grandpa and Sent, “How is he? Have they sent word? Has he said anything?”
“No change, but this is a good sign,” came Grandpa’s Sent reply, smiling as he patted her knee. “We suspected your husband’s Core was mended over two weeks ago, but this is the first time he’s put it to use, deploying his Domain and displaying Purity in a rather impressive fashion. Though I know not the reason why, at least this tells us all is not lost and that his spirit still lingers inside, so even if his mind remains closed off after today, there is hope for him yet.”
Buoyed by Grandpa’s confidence, Yan happily shared the good news with Mila and Luo-Luo, wishing she could shout it to the Heavens instead of passing it along through Sending. Luo-Luo insisted on these strict measures when discussing Rain’s health at all times, despite everyone’s assurances that they could speak freely when their defences were deployed, as they no doubt were right now. Luo-Luo responded by saying that there was no such thing as being too careful, so it was best to remain vigilant at all times so that if their defences failed without warning, they would not be caught off-guard and accidentally reveal too much. Not the worst idea considering Xing Yong Wei, an Imperial Divinity and Rain’s supposed Dao Protector, had yet to be seen again and could very well be hiding under all their noses.
Yan noted that while Grandpa Du was put off by the possible presence of a Divinity hidden within their midst, her in-laws seemed utterly unruffled by the prospect, and perhaps even a little amused by their worries. Information which she took to mean the People had friendly Divinities of their own safeguarding Rain, though neither Mila, Song, nor Lin-Lin managed to pry any information out of their respective parents, but not for a lack of trying. Yan didn’t mention it to Grandpa Du either, because she knew his curiosity would get the best of him and he would actively go looking for the hidden Divinities, but she also knew the Ancestral Beasts of the Saint’s Tribulations mountains stayed hidden for good reason. As a child, she dreamt up all sorts of silly raionales for their self-imposed exile, but as she grew older and learned more about Ancestral Beasts in general, she realized the answer was far less complicated than she imagined.
Those powerful beings moved into the Saint’s Tribulations Mountains because they all wanted to be left alone. That was it. They wanted nothing to do with the people who lived there, not even the half-beast children they sired, and as such were only loosely related to the Sentinels, as far as Yan could tell. Even Mila didn’t know much more, having lived her entire life believing her progenitor also lived in the mountains with them. Yan believed the same was true of hers, though she’d never met another half-beast of the same type, with straight, pointed deer horns protruding from her forehead rather than from her temples as was more common in other parts of the Northern Province. Either way, there was little love lost between the people of the Saint’s Tribulations Mountains and the Ancestral Beasts who also called it home, so if Grandpa Du were to kick up a hornets’ nest with his curious investigations, then not even Mother-in-law Akanai could protect him from harm.
Du Min Gyu was a Living Legend and Peak Expert of the Empire, but even then he was no match for a Divinity. The Martial Path was long and arduous, and few ever reached those lofty heights, but Yan was determined to make an attempt, even if her half-beast heritage had doomed her to failure. The Mother loved all Her children equally, or so it was said, and a limit had been placed on half-beast potential to make up for their other gifts. It never made sense to Yan, but that was what everyone said, and no half-beast in the history of the Empire had ever successfully become a Divinity, false or otherwise. Such is life, and Yan was not one to argue, but neither was she someone who let others set her limits for her.
That’s why she loved Rain so much. He knew her well enough to set her free, encouraged her to follow her dream, and in doing so, had ensnared her heart more securely than any cage could ever hold her.
The minutes ticked by in agonizing slowness as she waited with bated breath, hoping to hear good news from Rain’s carriage at any given moment. Her focus was so consumed by her husband and his ongoing display of Purity, she failed to notice the direction they were headed until they arrived at the citadel’s eastern gates. Shooting Grandpa a questioning look, he smiled and Sent, “We publicly announced our plans to visit the District, and Luo-Luo rightly pointed out we cannot abandon our plans without drawing suspicion, especially not with the disturbance your husband is kicking up. Almost every Warrior in the Citadel can feel him Channelling right now, and many can sense his sizable Domain, but they are left to wonder why. Clever Luo-Luo is already quietly spreading word that someone made a clandestine attempt on his life and failed.” Jaw dropping in surprise, Yan turned her gaze to the too-beautiful Imperial Servant who smiled and winked, no doubt discerning the reason for her admiration. “No moves were made and there were enough prying eyes around to see it,” Grandpa continued, speaking in an almost hesitant tone which meant he was repeating what someone else told him. “But everyone will suspect that young Rain sensed a threat and acted prematurely.”
“And from there, believe that he was playing the fool, a false lamb staked out for the tiger, a role he continues to play now as we head out of the Citadel.” Yan wasn’t completely hopeless when it came to matters of politics, just mostly. She was learning though, thanks to Luo-Luo’s patient lessons and even some from listening to Rain’s complaints from before his back to back comas. Yan never wanted to be in a position like Grandpa Du’s, wherein he trusted the wrong people to manage his finances and ended up almost destitute in his old age. Of course, that was no longer an issue now that Yan had married Rain, and though she felt guilty about using his money to buy things for her grandfather, he never brought it up and even encouraged Yan to do more. It wasn’t so simple, however, as it was a matter of face, and everyone would lose if Rain financially supported Grandpa Du without offering to do the same for his parents and Mila’s, even though neither pair needed it. Mother-in-law Akanai had already made her displeasure known regarding the living arrangements, wherein Grandpa Du had moved in with Rain and Yan, but Akanai hadn’t received an invitation to move in with Mila. A mistake Rain amended by promptly inviting her as well, and though Yan was a little put off having to live under the formidable woman’s eye, it was a small price to pay to keep everyone happy, Rain included.
Odd that he had no complaints about living with all his in-laws, especially so soon into his marriage, but that was just the sort of man he was. Others might not see it, but Rain just had so much love to give, he couldn’t possibly be constrained to loving only a select few. One only needed to look at how he collected pets like others collected art, only Rain would never neglect a living creature, especially not one near and dear to his heart. Hence why Yan was willing to share him with his other wives, because no matter how many other women he had in his life, he would do anything and everything to make sure they all felt loved and adored.
As their carriage rolled away from the citadel, she spotted the Medical Saint arriving from on high, plummeting out of the sky at breathtaking speeds only to land lightly outside Rain’s carriage door, with nary a hair out of place nor a wrinkle to be found. It all happened in the blink of an eye, and Taduk made it look so easy and effortless, Yan almost gave it no thought, until she remembered they were still most of an hour away from his bamboo grove. Not much time had passed since Rain began channelling the Energy of the Heavens, yet the quirky Healer was already here to check on his health. Again, Yan turned to Grandpa Du and Sent, “How quickly could you Cloud-Step from the Citadel to the bamboo grove?”
“Ten minutes? Perhaps less if I truly pushed myself.” Looking up from petting Aurie, Grandpa asked, “Why’s that?”
“The Medical Saint is here.” Grandpa Du was every bit as surprised as Yan, perhaps even more so once she realized Taduk’s speedy arrival had gone unnoticed. Despite coddling Aurie and the other animals, Grandpa Du was likely on full alert, sweeping the area for Concealed presences and various threats to their convoy. If Taduk could sneak in unnoticed while Cloud-Stepping over three times faster than what Grandpa could manage, then this meant the Medical Saint’s Martial Talents were not constrained to only Healing. That said, it was difficult to imagine the sweet yet silly half-hare in a combat scenario, especially considering how he spent the last six months butting heads with a ground-hog and emerging defeated. The suspected Spiritual Beast was enamoured with Taduk’s garden, and being a die-hard pacifist who wouldn’t hurt a fly, the poor Healer was at a loss to stop the adorable rodent. While he had no qualms about enlisting others to kill the ground-hog for him, Rain and Lin-Lin both had taken a shine to the thieving ground-hog and were intent on bringing him into the family. Knowing this, Taduk could hardly have it killed out of hand, and the beast was too canny to be trapped by cage or net, leaving it free to come and go as it pleased. After so many successful grand heists without a hitch, the clever beast had grown bold and taken to raiding the Spiritual Plant garden in broad daylight, and was even happy to accept hand-fed treats from most of them so long as Mama Bun was properly restrained.
This was Lin-Lin’s plan, to capture the beast with kindness, and thus far, all they’d managed to do was throw away a literal fortune of Spiritual Plants. Granted, the prices would plummet if someone ever learned how easily mature plants could be grown, requiring little more than a friendship with a Divine Turtle, a steady supply of shrimp, and between three to twelve weeks of time. Sadly, Pong Pong showed no interest in Rain’s plight, not that Yan expected the tiny Divine Turtle to do anything about it. As Rain often pointed out, Divine Beast or not, the operative word was beast, and one could hardly expect a turtle to grasp complex human concepts, much less care to do anything about it.
Still, it would be nice if Pong Pong revealed himself and showed some concern for Rain, instead of arriving unseen for his daily serving of shrimp and leaving without so much as a how you do…
Settling back in her seat to continue staring at Rain’s carriage, she passed the time in silent prayer while Luo-Luo played a quiet tune and Mila stewed and fretted, gnawing on her hair like a nervous child instead of the formidable Warrior she truly was. Reaching over to clasp her hand, Yan offered Mila her silent support, knowing exactly what she was going through. No Warrior liked feeling helpless, or worse, like a burden, but the simple truth was that Rain was safer where he was than at their side. Should his carriage come under attack, Akanai, Sarnai, and the Guard Leader were all prepared to Cloud-Step away with Song, Rain, and Lin-Lin respectively in tow. One dominant Peak Expert per person, with Song’s presence being vital due to the constraints forcing her to remain close to Rain, and adding Mila, Yan, or Luo-Luo into the mix would only further complicate matters. Of course, this meant the rabbits would be left behind, but the sad truth was that if three powerful Peak Experts were forced to abandon the carriage, there was a good chance the rabbits were as good as dead anyways.
A thought which did little to raise Yan’s spirits, but at least she wasn’t dwelling over the what-ifs and envisioning the worst case scenarios like she had been over the last few weeks. A bad habit she’d picked up from Rain no doubt, which gave her a small glimpse into what it was like to live with so much angst and anxiety. There were times when her thoughts almost drove her to panic and she just had to check if he was still breathing, and others when she would convince herself that she was better off without him and start thinking about what she would do next. Which was worse, she couldn’t say, but now she knew how Rain felt so much of the time, and she hated every second of it.
A harmonious cord sent a surge of quiet reassurance willing up from within, and Yan smiled at Luo-Luo in thanks. Beaming beautifully as she plucked away at her pipa, the beautiful woman looked utterly unconcerned by their current plight. It wasn’t that she didn’t care about Rain’s condition, but rather she had faith in his recovery and believed he would emerge from this tribulation unscathed, with a confidence Yan sorely envied. The pleasant tune soothed away the ache in Yan’s chest, and surly Mila even released some of the tension in her shoulders as she sighed and sank into Banjo’s fur, the big baby gurgling away from within her embrace. Luo-Luo’s music was a wondrous use of Chi, so similar to Aura yet utterly different at the same time. An Aura was a sharing of Emotion, whether it be courage, hope, love, or even terror, but once the Aura faded, so too did the accompanying emotion. In this way, Yan believed Luo-Luo’s music was a superior form of Aura, because the emotions elicited by her songs stayed long after her performance ended, and sometimes could even be summoned anew through simple reminiscence. It was the difference between the light of a candle and a distant star in the sky. Both were sources of illumination, but while the candle might seem brighter, it was ultimately finite, while the star was a source unto itself.
The journey to the bamboo grove progressed without incident, though Rain stopped channelling the Energy of the Heavens about half-way through. According to Grandpa’s reports, Rain was still comatose and unresponsive, but as soon as Yan laid eyes on him, she believed there was more to it than that. There was tension in his body that hadn’t been there before, his shoulders square and neck strained as he moved with a stiff, almost hesitant gait. Gone was the slack, vacant expression, and in its place was a slightly focused gaze, but not one fixated on anything around him, his brow furrowed and head lowered ever so slightly. Whatever Rain was looking at did not exist here in the real world, his mind focused on something within, but it meant he was closer to recovery than ever. Striding over simply to touch his face, it pained her to see him not respond, but she would continue to wait. “Come back to me,” she Sent, kissing him lightly on the cheek. “Come back to all of us. We miss you.”
Pain. Defeat. Shame. These emotions flitted through Yan’s mind so quickly she wasn’t sure if she’d imagined it, but the twitch in Rain’s brow was real enough. He was in there, and he was hurting, but for some reason, he didn’t want to come out. “Are you in there?” she Sent, her heart aching as she stared into his eyes, hoping against all hope to see him staring back, but alas, his gaze remained distant and unresponsive. “Can you hear me?”
She felt it for sure this time, his fear and reluctance, but still he did not respond. Whatever it was that caused this coma, it was different from what happened after Ping Ping’s ascension, a realization which filled Yan with dread. Despite all the clues indicating things were different, they all clung to the belief that Rain would eventually recover just like last time, but what if he didn’t? What if there was something genuinely wrong and none of them could see it?
“What’s wrong Yan-Yan?” Peering up at her expression, Lin-Lin hugged Rain tight and asked, “What do you see?”
“…It’s nothing.” Forcing herself to smile, she knew she wasn’t fooling anyone, and Lin-Lin least of all, but she hoped they all wrote it off as Yan’s needless worries. It had to be nothing. There was a time when he yearned for death and sought it out upon the battlefield, but so much had changed since then. As long as his loved ones still drew breath, there was no world in which Rain would ever abandon them, not like this. He would return, Yan was certain of this, as soon as he worked through whatever it was keeping him trapped inside, and when he did, she would welcome him back with open arms and no questions asked.
Rather than telling anyone and risking panic or misunderstanding, Yan merely hugged Rain tight and Sent, “I don’t know what’s wrong, but everything will be okay. As long as we are together, nothing else matters, so take your time and come back to us as soon as you can. I love you, Falling Rain. We all do.”
Breaking off the embrace, she stepped back and smiled at everyone to show she was fine and grabbed Song and Luo-Luo by the arms. “Come on,” she said, leading them into the bamboo grove. “There’s a ground-hog out there, and I mean to tame him today, so Rain will have a new friend waiting when he wakes.”
Which hopefully would be sooner rather than later…
Abort mission! We’ve been discovered. Abort! Aborttttt!
Doesn’t really work when I have no where to abort to, but now Yan knows, I guess. Or she suspects at least, but rather than anger over my cowardly betrayal, she’s hurt by my pain and worried she hasn’t been supportive enough. That’s the worst of it really, that she blames herself for my failings, when it’s clearly all my fault. The flickering monitor screen illuminates the Void and saves me from having to see my own hateful reflection, which is good because I truly cannot stand the sight of myself. Though I can no longer hear her thoughts, I can still glean them from her expression and the emotions pouring off of her, so easily read if you care to look; she’s worried I’m trying to kill myself again, which, and it sounds stupid to even say, I never considered might be the case.
Technically, I’m not trying to die, but functionally, is what I’m doing any different? My goal is not death, only to escape into oblivion, but whether the world is real or illusion, the end result is the same to those I leave behind. I knew this on some level, because I kept trying to tidy up all my unresolved issues so I could leave without feeling guilty, but I never could tear myself away. I could blame the cell phone for tempting me with glimpses of my old life, but I’m pretty sure that was just me giving myself an out. I wanted to see what was happening with minimal interaction, and the cell phone allowed me to do so. It’s the whole kerfuffle with Dream Demon Vivek Daatei all over again, except this time, in reverse. Back then, I knew all those lives were illusions, but I still wanted to immerse myself within them, because they were happy, perfect lives which allowed me to escape the problems of the real world. Now, I’m still trying to escape, but instead of losing myself in the illusion, I’m trying to forget everyone and everything I ever knew so that I can finally be at peace.
I’m still not sure if the world is an illusion, but I’m beginning to wonder if Zhen Shi is even capable of weaving such depth and complexity into his works. I want these visions to be real, I want to go back and see everyone again, to know that their deaths were a lie and everyone is still safe and sound, but I can’t find the courage to step outside this cold, unfeeling shell and risk being wrong. Here, ensconced in the call centre of the Void, I was insulated from my emotions, but not anymore, for those severed emotions have all come home to roost. By Devouring all available Natal Souls, I’ve taken all of it back in, all the anger, shame, fear, and longing I severed and cast away, all melding seamlessly back into my Soul from whence they came. The emptiness of the Void is no match for the hollow desolation of my heart, and Yan’s support only drives home what a fool and coward I’ve been all along. Is it better to hide here and waste away alone in the void, or risk more pain and suffering in hopes of finding love and affection once again? Even if this life is real, it is not a life I deserve, because ever since I opened my eyes to this hateful, spiteful world, I have been lying to everyone I know.
I am not Falling Rain, scared child turned Legate of the outer provinces.
I am Rayne, former call-centre employee and all-around worthless waste of flesh.
This, more than anything, is what I fear most, of my secret getting out which will inevitably lead to overwhelming rejection. I don’t remember all of my past life, but I remember enough to know that I’m a liar and a fake. Would Mom have accepted me as her son if she knew the truth? How will Mila and Yan react when they realize they married a man at least twice their age, if not more? What about the soldiers who follow me because I am a ‘young’ talent? How will they feel when my ‘peers’ catch up and surpass me with ease, because I have long since reached my limits, while everyone else is still growing into theirs? Thus, before this world can reject me for not being Falling Rain, I must reject the world, yet still I yearn to go back to my life as an imposter and pretend to be someone who I am not, all while deceiving the people who love me most.
This is why I made Baledagh in the first place, not to stave off Defilement, which never made sense in the first place since Brother was the one at risk. That’s why he was trapped by Spectres when we met Qing Qing, because Brother was ready to give in and surrender, but Baledagh would not let him, because he is a Warrior. That’s what I needed him for, to be the person I was sick of pretending to be, the person I should’ve been, the Falling Rain of this world without the memories of Rayne from the last.
Then Mahakala shattered that illusion and I became myself again, a mistake, an anomaly, a man out of time and space. It would be best if Rayne could fade away and disappear, leaving only Falling Rain in his place, but unfortunately, I am, quite ironically, a survivor.
So what now? I Devoured all the Natal Souls I could, most of which were on the razor’s edge, not quite malevolent Spectres yet far from the benevolent angels I intended them to be. Fruit of the poisoned tree as it were, for in the end, my Natal Souls were a reflection of me, and I am a bitter, broken, scared man who does not know what to do next. Do I turn off the PC, rid myself of the phone, and retreat deeper into the void, or do I risk another eternity of pain and suffering by returning to the world of the living? Real or illusion, I can’t imagine anything other than calamity awaiting me, if only because I don’t think I can keep lying to the people I love. They deserve to know me for who I am, but I cannot bear to lose them again, and this time, it would be for good.
So true to form, I do neither, and continue watching my loved ones through the flickering monitor on my cubicle desk. It’s harder to know their thoughts without a direct connection to Heavenly Energy, but I know my loved ones well enough to parse through the signs. Heavenly Energy never offered me mind reading powers, only information that was made readily available by individuals with each and every action or non-action. Non-verbal communication, only detailed to the extent that it could almost be mistaken for mind reading, because people in general are not great at hiding their inner thoughts. Some are better at it than others, but my family and loved ones are an open book as I struggle to come to a decision.
Yan and Mila sit me down with Aurie and Sarankho before helping Mom feed all the pets, while Lin-Lin happily baits her ‘traps’ for the ground-hog, who is currently hiding underground and waiting for all the footsteps to die down. Taduk busies himself checking his plants while grumbling all the while about how slowly they’re growing, worried the lack of supply is slowing my recovery and agonizing over what he can do to speed things up by even a single second. After setting up her zither, Luo-Luo pitches in the only way she knows how, by playing a soothing melody meant to assure her audience that everything will work out for the best, a sentiment she must wholeheartedly believe in else she would not be able to share it through music. Lastly, dutiful Song sets to grooming Jimjam, while keeping an eye on me and the rabbits, worried the latter will gnaw on the plants while trying to figure out if I’ve gone too long without visiting the bathroom.
Oh right. I got rid of the Natal Soul responsible for bathroom duties, among other things. That… might prove to be a problem soon enough…
Luo-Luo and Lin-Lin aside, they’re all trying to distract themselves from the big problems the same way I used to, by showering love and affection on those adorable floofs who will always respond in kind. To this end, I reach out to the ground-hog and try to convince him that the people above will treat him well, but his instincts are to remain hidden and guarded unless absolutely necessary. He’ll come around eventually, I think, or at the very least, is beginning to see everyone in a more favourable light, but he’s still an herbivore and clever enough to fear predators in general, unlike a certain sweet, adorable, fearless rabbit.
Almost as if on cue, Mama Bun hops into my physical lap and rears up to stare me in the eyes, and in my distress, I default to finding distractions through floofs. Rather than a series of snoot selfies, the PC renders Mama Bun’s requests as a livestream snoot cam instead, but much as I would like to lose myself in her adorable antics and floofy features, there’s something wrong with the video feed. The camera is in the same, awkward angle as always, with Mama Bun poised to kiss my nose or sniff my eyes, except this time, there’s something blocking my view. Oddly enough, I can’t see what it is, but I am determined to stop thinking about my problems and focus on floofs, so I full-screen the video to study it closer. There it is. Something in Mama Bun’s paws, something she’s holding up to my face as if presenting a gift, all while she twitches her nose and flops her dangling ears from side to side in an adorable display of confused frustration.
So cute, but it hurts to know I’m the cause of her distress. Granted, it hurts knowing I’m causing the others distress too, but they’re all reasoning human beings who will be fine without me. Mama Bun is just a simple rabbit who doesn’t understand why I won’t hug and pat her anymore, and it kills me to see how hard she’s working just to get my attention.
No. Stop. Don’t focus on your fuck ups, pay attention to the floof. What’s she holding there? Why can’t I see it? It’s not a lighting issue, nor is it a matter of something getting in the way. It’s like there’s an empty void in her paws, one my brain ignores and automatically fills in with what I know should be there, Mama Bun’s delightfully soft and floofy belly. Concealment? Quietly activating my Domain, I keep it as close to my skin as possible so as not to alert the guardians watching my every move and gently reach out to probe the nothingness between Mama Bun’s paws. Believing I’ve solved this somewhat obvious puzzle, it strikes me as odd when there’s no response, my Domain passing through empty space without encountering any feedback or resistance, but the answer soon reveals itself as Pong Pong does the same.
Eyes wide and mouth agape, the tiny turtle is cuter than I remember, especially seeing as he’s missing his customary scowl. “Friend,” his emotions and expression exclaim, having sensed my presence within. “Play?”
Oh. My. God.
He misses me!
I thought he didn’t care and was only here for shrimp, but it seems like he realized I wasn’t actually here in spirit or whatever, so he just ignored my physical presence. His invitation to play is laced with a sense of hope and longing, because he truly does not have all that many chances to let loose and have fun. I should play with him, let him know he’s loved, but I can’t. He wants me to come out and see him, but I don’t dare, for so many reasons and more. Not just Zhen Shi, though the Empire’s boogeyman is a big part of why I’m here, but also because I’ve made too many mistakes and don’t know where I could even begin to correct them all. It’s too late for me, there’s no place in this world for me anymore, and everyone would be better off without me, but this complex, nuanced message is above and beyond even Pong Pong’s remarkable comprehension, especially since I can’t use words to explain it. “No play,” I Send, in the same way he communicated with me, through empathy and emotion. “Fear. Danger.”
Mistaking my message to mean that I am in danger, rather than me being the danger, Pong Pong retracts his arms and legs into his shell, but leaves his head poking out. “Flee?” he asks, and there’s no mistaking his unspoken implication that we flee together. “Hide?”
“No.” Struggling to find a way to explain my predicament, I present Pong Pong with the image of myself trapped in a net, one affixed with stones to drag me down into the dark, fathomless depths. “No escape. Despair. Distress. Desolation.”
Pong Pong’s answer fills me with warmth as he pops back out of his shell, peers around, and asks, “Where danger?” There is no concern in the message, only grim determination, ready to fight off whatever it might be that threatens me while emanating calm reassurance. And here I thought he didn’t care. The little guy is a bit of a coward, but that’s in his nature. He doesn’t go looking for fights, but if one comes to him, he’s willing to throw down. What’s more, he didn’t even hesitate before offering to help, even though it’s clear the danger is to me, and not him. The little guy doesn’t show affection like Ping Ping or any of my other pets, but he’s a true friend to the end.
Which doesn’t make this any easier. How do I explain that this isn’t something we can fight? That I’ve grown weary of the struggle and no longer wish to continue onwards? That I love him and will miss him, but he must carry on without me because I am too weak to continue on? How do you say goodbye to your loved ones when you mean to abandon them? How do you make them understand?
You can’t. Or at least, I can’t. I understand this now. Real or illusion, I can’t abandon the people in my life, not like this. All this time, I’ve been struggling to figure out what to do next, but there’s only ever been one answer. Oblivion was a pipe dream, an impossible goal I never would’ve reached, something to strive for while waiting on a proper excuse to cut and run. Whether it be death, abandonment, or something else, I just wanted a reason to justify my selfish cowardice in not even taking a chance to see if my loved ones still live. In fact, I’m fairly certain this is not all an elaborate illusion from Zhen Shi, and that the true illusion was the disastrous defeat of the Imperial Army on the fields of Central. There are too many complex intricacies and implied subtleties even for a master like Zhen Shi, or at least that’s what I suspect, but the pain of losing everyone hurt so much, I’m terrified of losing them again. Not just seeing them die, but knowing that even if they live, they will reject me once they inevitably figure out I’m not who I’ve been pretending to be, which is a bridge I’ll eventually have to cross. The longer I wait, the worse it’ll be, but I’m already far beyond the point of no return. The stress of pretending to be someone I’m not is too much to bear, because I am no Warrior or Legate. I’m just a guy who’s so in over his head, it’s not even funny anymore.
“HUG!” comes the demand, and I instinctively respond. Not with my body, but my mind, and all of a sudden, Mama Bun is here in the Void, wrapped in my arms and snuggled up against my chest. The surge of love and happiness is almost too much to bear as the sweet rabbit’s affections are laid bare, so expressive and coherent she might as well be sharing all her happiness with me. Poking his head out from between her fur, Pong Pong glances around, realizes where he is, and promptly settles back into Mama Bun’s fur as I clutch them both tight, unable to hold back the stream of tears spilling from my eyes, because there is nothing more pure and wonderful than the love of an animal.
I’m an idiot for running from all this. Even if I suspected all my loved ones were dead, my goal should not have been to run from their killer, but to avenge them and see justice done.
When my tears finally slow and the pain fades away, I find myself lying underneath my cubicle with Mama Bun in my arms. Pong Pong is there too, clambering out to look me in the eye. “Home,” he declares, using a jumbled mix of warmth, safety, and comfort to convey his meaning, before using those same emotions again to express a similar, but altogether different concept. “Family.”
That’s the same Aura I used to lure him out of the Azure Sea, the message which drove him out of hiding to come find me in the first place. Granted, at the time I was looking for Blobby, but Pong Pong was the one who responded, and since then, we have become family. Now, he’s telling me that whatever my problem might be, he’s here to help me, and this support means more than he could ever know. I can’t even begin to fathom the trials and tribulations he’s been through, but having felt the depths of his despair and dejection, I can’t imagine it’s been easy. However, based on the promise of home and family, as well as an offering of shrimp, Pong Pong invited me into his Natal Palace long before I understood the dangers that entailed, all because he wanted a family to love and cherish.
Isn’t that what we all want? To love and be loved, but animals are just more honest about it. We all have our struggles, our own personal trials and tribulations, so it’s time I stopped running from mine and reclaim all that is good in my life.
Glancing around at the call-centre of the Void, I do away with this stifling, depressing atmosphere and bring us back to my bedroom, complete with all the fine comforts of home. The ceiling to wall windows offer me a glimpse out into the world, not the world I first hailed from, but the world I ended up in, complete with so many of my loved ones watching over me. They all have their own inner demons too, demons which have nothing to do with Spectres, the Father, the Enemy, or Zhen Shi, and while they also struggle with their problems unseen, unlike me, they have not given up.
Mila has a volatile temper and is prone to internalizing all her frustrations, while Yan has abandonment issues and worries about losing the people she loves. Luo-Luo is a smart, confident, capable woman, but wholly lacking in personal identity or ambition, and Mom cares too much about what other people think when they see her with her ‘young’ husband. Dad and Alsantset are a little too in love with bloodshed, a flaw they both acknowledge, but one Dad has no intention of rectifying, unlike my kind, caring, devoted sister. Not to say she doesn’t have other problems of her own, but she manages them without blinking, almost as well as Li-Li deals with her various traumas. Taduk can never focus on any one issue unless it captures his interest, and Akanai is a control freak who needs to take charge whenever possible, but out of everyone here, the person I empathize with the most is someone I rarely truly interact with, and now I understand why.
Because Husolt, the happy, friendly, bear of a blacksmith who is both my Father-in-law and Grandfather, has been struggling with unresolved issues of burning anger and ponderous guilt for the last five decades.
Unlike with everyone else, Husolt’s emotions speak clearly to me, emanating off of him in crashing waves as he struggles to find Balance in the bamboo grove. His anger stems from his blind eye, an injury he took many years ago fighting alongside his beloved wife. I once asked him about it, and he told me it never healed due to an unresolved grudge, and in a way, he was telling the truth. Fifty years ago, the Sentinels responded to an Imperial call for aid wherein Akanai rescued Fung’s father from a Defiled incursion, a feat which earned her an Imperial summons to Central. Husolt went with her, hoping to finally see his wife receive her due recognition, for she had worked herself to the bone for centuries to defend and enrich the people of the Empire she so loved.
But instead, he saw her derided and humiliated, before being run out of Central and hunted like a prize to be won, all while he was helpless to defend her.
It was during one of those many battles wherein Husolt lost his eye, a wound which I now see has festered and taken root in his very soul. It became a part of his identity, the blind fool who should have seen the truth sooner and spared his wife the pain and misery, and thus resisted all attempts to Heal it. The injury lit a fire within him, a blazing conflagration of rage and hatred, one he keeps carefully banked and contained for fear of it consuming him whole. This forced him to put aside his weapon for fear of Defilement, but now, half a century later, he hopes to conquer his anger so that he might once again fight at her side, a sentiment he broadcasts to all who might hear, which is sadly limited only to his wife, his son, and myself. Even Mila and Song know nothing about his problems, because he is deeply ashamed of his flaws and terrified of the consequences should he ever lose control.
Seeing this part of him leaves me filled with regret, for I have seen a part of him which he is deeply ashamed of and never wanted anyone to know about, but now I do, and I cannot forget. How can he blame himself for the actions of others? I myself saw firsthand how his anger took a hold of him, when Husolt beat the nineteen-years-young Dugu Ang to death for daring to threaten Mila. The worst part is, his brush with Defilement is not solely due to Spectres, for it is in his nature to be passionate and quick-tempered. There’s nothing I can do for him, because these are his inner Demons, and he must overcome them or be controlled by them, a battle he has struggled with in silence for his entire life.
But not alone. He has his loving wife to lean on, who has supported him through these trying times as best she could, and now, a daughter, a son, and so much more to go along with it. He has family to rely on, as do I, and while I fear this might one day no longer hold true for me, I cannot keep hiding from what might be. I, like Husolt and so many others, can only make my way through life one step at a time, and hope for the best.
“Anger is not the enemy,” I whisper, hoping to offer what little aid I can. “Nor is fear, shame, or anything else. They are all a part of being human, so do not try to eliminate them. You must embrace them.”
Advice I could use myself, though I’m still terrified to tell the truth about who I really am.
…Well, worst comes to worst, at least my floofs will always love me. It’s something.
Climbing onto my giant bed, I lay down with Mama Bun and Pong Pong and share my love with both of them before closing my eyes. It’s not so easy to leave the Void, not with all the measures I put into place to separate my mind and body, but soon enough, I will return to the world of the living and face my fears once more. Maybe I’m wrong, and maybe Zhen Shi will be there waiting to snatch me up, but this time, I refuse to go down without a fight.
I am not Falling Rain, Warrior and Legate, nor am I Rayne, call-centre employee and fish out of water. I am… someone else, someone in between, and while I don’t know who that is exactly, it’s high time I stopped denying it and figured out who I really am.
This is my journey. The path stands before me, and for better or worse, I must see it through to the end, because despite having tried my damnedest to do so, I truly do not know how to quit.
And thus, SD comes to an end for 2020. This was as uncliffy as I could make it, and I’ll be back in 2021, but no idea when. Come to discord if you want the most recent SD news or if you just wanna chat. If I don’t see you there, then have a merry christmas and a happy new year! Thanks for sticking with me for this long, and I hope you’ll all be here for SD’s end in 2021! May next year be better than this one, or at the very least, not worse.
Goodbye and take care!
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