“You really did find such a cute girl, didn’t you?” Lars’s mother asked as she sat down at the opposite side of the large wooden table from Lars in the blue-flame-lit room of a white-walled tavern.
“She’s still not as cute as I am . . .” Ophelia grumbled from her spot standing just behind Lars’s mother. Despite their proximity, Lars’s mother couldn’t hear or even see Ophelia, a shining ray of beauty that Lars couldn’t take his eyes off of.
No one is as cute as you . . . Lars thought back at the ethereal woman as she faded out of existence like a cloud of smoke being blown away by a gust of wind.
“Oh, she’s blushing. She’s blushing!” Lars’s mom gushed at Su Ryeon, who was seated on Lars’s right and turning red as a beat under the compliments. “Should I lay off the flattering comments, dear? You have to forgive a mother for pointing these things out. I’m just beside myself with joy that my boy came home—and with such a pretty woman who can even cook!”
“Don’t give her credit for the cooking!” Soseono interjected from next to Lars’s mother, holding up her chopsticks triumphantly. “This meal was made entirely by yours truly!”
“Well, I made the tea,” Nari said as she raised a cup. “And I think it’s about time we toast this meal and dig in before it gets cold.”
“Woulda been nicer if we had a nice cup of alcohol instead of this tea though,” Bong-cha grumbled from the end of the table.
“We can have as many beers as you want after the tea,” Desdemona offered from the other end of the table while raising her glass and giving Bong-cha the stink eye for complaining. “Just shush up and raise your glass.”
“To never shaving a potato unless you plan on smashing!” Soseono exclaimed, making up her own toast as she raised her glass. After seeing the annoyed looks she got in response, she quickly added, “Sorry, cooking joke. I mean . . . uhh . . . to always experiencing life the way it was meant to be enjoyed: with all the love and companionship, tasty foods, delicious drinks, and beautiful sights it has to offer!”
“If she was the one cooking, I hope her hands weren’t half as dirty as her mind,” Lars’s mother remarked with a sly smile.
Lars just nodded as his eyes flitted from Soseono to the one empty chair.
“What are you looking at?” Su Ryeon asked, resting a hand on Lars’s arm.
“I . . .” Lars shook off the feeling that something was missing as he turned back to Su Ryeon. He smiled from the bottom of his heart before placing his hand over the one she had on his arm. “Nothing. I was just thinking about how lucky I am,” he replied.
“More like how lucky we are,” Su Ryeon replied, and her own gentle, mirth-filled gaze melted away his worries. “I never would have imagined that I’d get to be part of such a large, loving family. You’re really the best husband a second wife could want.”
“Tch, you always have to add the number!” Soseono grumbled.
“Well, I did get to him first,” Nari proclaimed proudly.
“Technically, I think his first woman was that dog girl back in Andong,” Desdemona corrected. “I remember watching it happen, even if he didn’t realize I could see. His expression was so cute. It was priceless.”
“I think we need to change the topic,” Lars quickly interjected, not wanting them to fight. “How was the . . .” Lars’s eyes were once more drawn to the empty chair, causing him to stop mid-sentence as he fixated on the vacant spot.
“What’s wrong?” Bong-cha, who was sitting next to the empty seat, asked. “She’s only been gone a few minutes, and you already miss her that much?”
“Miss her?” Lars asked, looking at Bong-cha before his eyes returned to the chair. “Miss . . . what do you mean?”
“Yumi. Right? Isn’t that why you keep looking over at her chair? Because you miss her? Well, don’t worry about it.” Bong-cha shrugged. “She’ll be back in a minute. She just went to get a few beers.”
“She went to get some . . .” Lars trailed off as he felt a pang in his chest. For some reason, the mention of Yumi getting up to get drinks drove an odd sense of anxiety through his veins that felt like itchy ice and sent his heart pumping harder and faster as if it were trying to push the stress-frozen blood through by force.
“A few beers,” Bong-cha assured Lars. “Don’t worry about it. She’ll be back, and everything will be fine.”
As if on cue, Yumi appeared and plopped a beer down in front of Lars with a loud thunk that splashed droplets of alcohol up and out of the cup.
“Gotta love this stuff,” Yumi said as she started chugging the remaining beverage in her hand. “It’s so freaking—”
Yumi’s voice was silenced as an earth-shattering explosion blasted through the room, obliterating everything in its wake. Tentacles of hellfire burst forth from the center like some ancient beast had come to consume them all. The blue flames changed to a hellish red and orange, snaking wildly and consuming anything in their path.
Lars watched in horror as each person was pinned to the wall by roots that penetrated their bodies, leaving them to writhe in pain until death finally came to claim them. His mother had the worst fate of all. Three roots ripped her apart brutally, rending her into three sections that spattered the table and floor with her blood.
His eyes frantically darted left and right as he sat frozen, desperately looking to see if any of them were alive. It seemed that everyone had died. He recognized Su Ryeon despite a tree root protruding out of her eye socket, but the rest were all either too mangled to identify what body part belonged to whom, or their flesh was too covered in flames to be properly identified. But then he managed to find a survivor: Yumi. The sight of her still breathing, albeit wounded, gave him the strength to finally break through his shock. He leapt over the table and scrambled to hold her.
“No! No, you can’t die too . . .” Lars pleaded as he held her bleeding body.
“It—” Yumi coughed up a little blood in his arms. “It’s a little late to ask that . . .”
“Lars,” someone said from behind him. Turning his head, he saw Hsein Ku. “Lars, will you stop and just wake up first?”
“What?” Lars blinked, looking at her in confusion. “I’m . . . What do you . . .? Wake up?”
“Lars, wake up.”
“I don’t . . . What do you . . .?”
Lars’s world collapsed into black, and he felt his body shaking. A moment later, he was looking at a rocky mountain trail that led up to a walled town atop the mountain’s peak.
“What was that?” Lars asked shakily, his vision unsteady as he looked around to see Hsein Ku walking beside him.
“You fell asleep while carrying me, I guess, and then you dropped me, and . . .” Hsein Ku kept talking, but her explanation sounded like it was coming from a thousand miles away. Lars struggled to focus on her words long enough to understand them as he tried to calm his heart, which was still pumping cold, prickly anxiety through every vein in his body.
The dizzying fugue began to dissipate, and he realized that Hsein Ku had finally stopped talking and was now just staring at him.
“Where are we?” she asked. “Do you need me to help you?”
Lars shook his head and took a moment to look around. “No, I’m fine. I think.”
We’re on our way back to the sect.
“We’re on our way back to the sect,” Lars repeated Ophelia’s words, scraping through his foggy memories to double-check that fact. “This is . . . the trail leading up the mountain.”
“Really? But that mountain was a really far way off. How long was I out?” Hsein Ku asked.
About a day or so, give or take.
“About a day or so . . .” Lars repeated.
“Wow. You didn’t take a single break, did you? Of course you didn’t. You were still moving when I woke up, but heaven’s blight, that’s a lot of ground covered,” Hsein Ku remarked.
Lars didn’t respond. He just shook his head to clear as much of the fog as he could and carried on with his walk. He was still tired. He wasn’t sure how long he had been out of it, but his body was telling him it wasn’t enough. His joints were creaking, and his movements felt sluggish like he’d have to sleep a day or more just to get enough rest. Yet his heart told him that every drudging step wasted too much time.
“Not talking today?” Hsein Ku asked as she rummaged about her person for a half-second. “Of course. All my usual tonics are back at my lab, so I don’t have anything to help you wake up . . . not even tea leaves.”
“I don’t think we’ll need them,” Lars replied, pointing to the gate ahead of them. But he still had to get into the sect. Before leaving the sect, he had taken a talisman with him that acted as a sort of entry-exit permit, but he had lost it at some point. Whether it was when the flying house crashed out of the sky, during the siege, or during the massacre afterward, it was gone. He didn’t even have a set of sect robes to identify himself with. If someone didn’t recognize his face—and few people would know him by sight—there was no way for anyone to truly know he was a member of the sect.
Hsein Ku reached out and put a hand on his back. “Lars, are you truly okay?”
“Why didn’t you stay for the funeral?” someone said.
Lars glanced at Hsein Ku out of the corner of his eye, but rather than finding the princess walking next to him, he saw a man down on the ground on all fours. Tears were streaming down the man’s face as he wept, and he kept digging into the soil in front of a weathered gray stone slab in a large grassy field. The stone memorial was one of a thousand others placed at regular intervals in neatly laid-out rows that stretched in every direction as far as Lars could see.
“If you were going to be like this, then why didn’t you stay for the funeral? Why weren’t you beside the victims as they recovered?” he heard Ophelia’s voice ask in earnest confusion.
Lars realized that he was seeing a memory from Ophelia’s point of view. The man, a sobbing mess of snot and tears, didn’t even bother to clean his face when he leaned back and rested his weight on his rear. Lars noticed that the man’s clothes had been ruined by hardened clumps of dirt that still clung to them, belying the hours he had been there already. The man turned to face Ophelia, but there were no words for a long minute as he stared up at her with pitiable eyes, their hollow emptiness magnified by the lenses of tears that covered them.
“Because it was my fault,” the man said, and the words echoed the feelings in Lars’s own heart as he turned back to the grave. “Their deaths were my fault . . .”
“This wasn’t your fault,” Ophelia insisted, despite how much she herself wanted to just stop what she was doing and cry beside him. “You deserve the chance to grieve with—”
“If not my fault, then whose?!” the man demanded, his words croaking. His tear-filled gaze wavered before he continued. “I killed each and every one of them with my incompetence. I laid them in their caskets with my actions and dug their graves with my failures . . .”
“Lars, what do you mean? What happened wasn’t your fault at all.” Hsein Ku’s voice shattered the memory, bringing Lars back to reality. “You didn’t do anything wrong. That’s just how war is. People die. Good people and bad people alike. You shouldn’t blame yourself. How were we to know they’d launch a desperate, last-minute attack?”
For a moment, Lars thought he could see the inside of the bar where his friends had died behind Hsein Ku as she spoke.
“Are you really friends?” her voice asked from a mile away.
It was a question Lars had been asked that night while he was drinking, and he had been certain of the answer then.
“Yes, we were friends . . .” Lars answered, defending how he felt about losing them.
“What are you saying?” Hsein Ku asked confusedly.
“Huh?” Lars looked around him as he began coming back to his senses. “You . . . asked if we were friends, and . . .”
“Lars. Really, are you okay?” Hsein Ku stared directly into his eyes as if trying to search his soul for the truth. “Your eyes are glowing a weird purple-ish blue and . . . Is this a Qi deviation? Do you need to meditate?”
“A what? Meditate? Huh?”
“A Qi deviation . . . when you gain Qi too quickly, and your body can’t handle it, so the Qi begins to destroy and corrode the container. It can also occur if you’re training in a style or using elixirs of an element that doesn’t match your constitution. Did your master really not teach you any of this? Did they never teach you how to circulate your Qi when it is roaring and destroying your meridians and . . . What the heck did they teach you? It wasn’t just alchemy, was it?”
“Well . . .” Lars tried to think of the lessons he had learned from his two masters. Ophelia had actually only taught him a single alchemical concoction, a low-level poison immunity, and the Laughing Lion had only taught him to be careful of whom he hits on. And how to butcher meat. “I learned how to butcher a cow, and I guess I also learned about elements and how they match up?”
“Just the elements? You mean you’ve only learned the circle of five?”
“Uhh . . . yeah? Maybe? Those basics of the elements. Like fire and wood . . .”
“Wait, that can’t be all, can it?” Hsein Ku asked. She looked at Lars as if she had just found out that he couldn’t read or write and had committed some grave sin of ignorance. “You can’t tell me that the only thing you’ve learned is how to cut up a cow and that wood feeds fire, fire creates earth, earth bears metal, metal collects water, and water nourishes wood.”
“Did you have to say the entire circle? Yes. That’s what I was taught. I think it’s kinda important.”
“If you’re a child!” Hsein Ku’s face contorted in complete exasperation. “How is it that you’re a genius alchemist and somehow a super-powerful cultivator, but you don’t know anything else? What ten-year-old child isn’t aware of the dangers of Qi cultivation?”
“Well . . .” Lars motioned to his backside and the absence of a tail. “I kinda did start off a little different than others. Who is to say that I simply will never have to learn those basics? If my master thought they were worth teaching, she’d have taught me,” he added, quite confident that Ophelia wouldn’t have forgotten to teach him something that he might need to save his life.
“You’re . . . ridiculous,” Hsein Ku fumed. “Do you know that? And this is so disappointing. It means that any research I do involving you might not be at all applicable to me, and any research we do testing regular people might have no application for you.”
Lars shook his head. “Really? That’s what bothers you? That you can’t experiment on me?”
“No, I just . . . You looked . . . Nevermind.” Hsein Ku sighed as she slumped against Lars. “You mind carrying me the rest of the way if you’re awake again? My legs still need healing.”
“Yeah, I got you,” Lars agreed, picking her up once again as easily as if she were a small bag of rice. He held her against his chest with one arm and began walking the rest of the way up the mountain trail.
Even though Lars was relatively new to the whole organization and had never actually spent a lot of time outside on the sect’s mountain, he felt an odd familiarity as he pressed up the well-worn trail toward the mountain gates. While there was a little bit of pleasantness in walking the same path he’d walked before, that little bit of comfort turned bitter in his mouth the moment he saw the line of people waiting outside of the sect.
The worst part was that, unlike the last two times, there weren’t multiple senior disciples handling the queue. Instead, there was just one woman standing watch quietly, not even talking to the people in line as she guarded the gate.
“How are there always so many?” Lars asked out loud as he approached the end of the line.
“Because they aren’t letting anyone in,” a rough-sounding middle-aged dog cultivator grumbled through canines as he turned to face Lars. “I’ve been here for two hours, and the line hasn’t moved a single person. I heard they shut the gate a while ago because of some internal conflict, so now the only way you can get in is if you have one of the fancy sect robes.”
“Oh . . . Is that so?” Lars asked. He looked over at the woman once more, trying to recall how he knew her. It had been a while, but he was positive he did.
“Yup, not even a merchant king was able to get an audience. They’ve just completely locked down and gone silent even though the big tournament starts in a week and—”
Lars looked back to the dog cultivator. “Wait, the what?”
“The martial tournament? Why did you walk all the way up this mountain if not to try and get a vending license for their tournament? Or get a chair if you’re one of those freak martial arts enthusiasts?”
“What tournament are you talking about?” Lars vaguely remembered hearing about some sort of competition when he first came to the sect, but it had been one of the bits of information that seemed to go in one ear and out the other. He hadn’t paid attention to it at all afterward because he had been so focused on his job as an apprentice butcher.
“Kid? Are you pulling my tail? How do you not know about the tournament?”
The goat cultivator in front of the dog fellow turned around and looked at him suspiciously. “Everyone in line knows. Why are you acting dumb?”
“Well . . .” Lars looked around. “I . . . I’m from a very tiny village, and when I last came by here, I was busy.”
The dog cultivator sighed. “How small of a village do you have to be from to not even know about the advancement tournament? It’s their promotion tournament. They host a small version of it every month, and then a slightly larger one every season, but this is the most important one. Every year, on the longest summer day, when the sun is at its highest, they begin the festivities. Each class must duel the class above it for a chance to be promoted. They even allow their servants to battle it out for a chance to be welcomed back into the sect as a proper outer sect disciple. The outer sect disciples fight for the chance to be inner sect disciples and the inner sect so they can become core disciples. Even the champion of the core disciples gets a chance to challenge an elder.”
“Wait, what happens if the challenger wins? Is the sect just going to get rid of the defeated elder?” Lars asked. He was curious how that worked but was careful not to mention the fact that the sect leader had gone missing or that the leadership was already in turmoil. To the best of his knowledge, the sect normally had five elders but currently only had four. Third Elder Changhoon, who was the sworn brother of First Elder Apep, had been killed by Apep following the revelation that Apep’s wife, Dea, the leader of the sect, had cheated on Apep with Changhoon and produced a useless child.
This had, of course, also caused Dea to flee, so now there was an open seat for an elder and a missing sect leader. Even if Dea did return, it was very unlikely that she would even be considered an ally of this sect, Spring Rain, as her attack on Andong was a clear sign that she was working with their chief enemy, the Sect of Falling Flowers.
“Well, if a challenger beats an elder, then . . . well . . . I don’t know?” The goat cultivator shrugged and looked to the dog-tailed cultivator for an answer.
“How do you people not know this?” the dog cultivator chortled, his tail wagging as he puffed up his chest. “The moment a core disciple wins the tournament between core disciples, he gets to challenge an elder. Then, even after losing, he can receive tutelage and guidance from the elder, and the core disciple can eventually take the seat of the elder when the elder steps down. To prevent infighting and keep harmony within the sect, there is only one such disciple for every elder.”
“You know, your friend seems kind of injured,” the goat man said, pointing out the obvious as he gestured at Hsein Ku, who had fallen asleep in Lars’s arms.
The dog man gestured toward the gate and said, “Maybe you can ask the gate lady to find you an attendant for the woman. They probably won’t let you inside, but I don’t think they’d want someone to die in front of their gates. That can’t be good for their reputation.”
“I once heard that a pompous child killed everyone waiting in line in front of these gates,” Lars replied, remembering the story he had heard from Su Ryeon about the time that Dea’s son had gone on a murderous spree. Even though it wasn’t his intention, his remark made the two cultivators freeze up in shock and look between him and the gate. Lars quickly added, “But . . . he did end up getting killed, so there’s that.”
The dog man sighed with relief. “Oh, of course. They wouldn’t tolerate that at all.”
“Anyway, you should just go ahead. No one will stop you if all you’re doing is seeking respite for a wounded woman,” the goat man said, gesturing for Lars to go past them.
“Thank you.” Lars gave a small bow in return for their consideration before adding one more “thank you” and walking up to the front.
Just as the two had predicted, everyone let Lars pass by without a complaint. Even though it seemed like they were all being kind, Lars wondered whether everyone actually was that nice or just moving out of an odd combination of peer pressure and a desire to see if Lars’s situation might break the ban on entry. Either way, letting him in front wouldn’t change anything for them for the worse, and not doing so was sure to make them look like monsters.
When he reached the front, he was able to get a clear and unobstructed view of the guard, and he couldn’t help but mouth her name. “Ailiseu?”
“Senior Brother L— Stranger, return to the line and wait your turn.”
“Stranger? Are you really going to call me that and act like you don’t know me?” Lars quickly grew irritated as he stared down Ailiseu. She clearly almost called out his name before she caught herself, and yet she still chose to feign ignorance as to who he was. Why is she messing with me? And not just messing with me but trying to prevent me from even entering the sect? She knows who I am . . . He racked his brain trying to remember when he had created this much bad blood. Then he recalled exactly how: he had humiliated her. It hadn’t been his original intention, but he had gotten carried away with the flow of things and slapped her across the face in front of her peers after she and several of her colleagues had fought him at the same time and lost. He had then slapped her again publicly the next day in front of her friends with a strike so pleasurable that it had granted her a “little death.”
“How am I, a prestigious and well-known inner sect disciple of the great and mighty Sect of the Spring Rain, to know every beggar waiting outside our glorious sect’s door? As if any of the people here are worth remembering? If you were someone important, you wouldn’t be waiting outside this gate, would you now?” Ailiseu taunted, a sly and mischievous smirk slowly crawling across her face.
“Ha! HA!” Lars couldn’t help but laugh at the ridiculous statement. “You’re standing in front of a head disciple, a student of both Apep and the Laughing Lion, and an Andongian princess, and you pretend that because you don’t know either of us, we must not matter?”
The mention of a princess of Andong caused Ailiseu to shift uncomfortably as she glanced down at the injured Hsein Ku.
“Ah, in that case . . .” She briefly paused, making Lars think that perhaps she had seen the error in her ways and would let them pass, but then she stiffened up, straightening her back and sticking her large hyena tail into the air behind her. “What is a mundane princess in the face of a great and powerful sect like ours?” she proudly proclaimed. “She’s barely at the Qi Condensation Stage with nothing notable about her except perhaps her title—if you’re the type to buy into that. If she even is a princess. I’m sure a dozen people like her could die without it even matt—”
The moment she mentioned dozens of people dying, time stopped. Ailiseu’s mouth hung frozen as Lars’s brain absorbed the words. The world swirled around them, and all Lars could see were the dead bodies. Then time began again, and Lars realized he had already moved. His hand was sitting where Ailiseu’s face used to be, and the woman who had mocked him was down on the ground five-odd feet from where she had been, holding her cheek and struggling to stand up.
“Mmm . . . That feels exactly like I remembered it,” Ailiseu said from the ground, licking her lips as she slowly rose and dusted herself off.
Lars looked down at his hand only to see the Lightning Qi from his Divine Finger Technique crackling off of it, not understanding what had happened or why she would think it felt good.
Don’t think about it, Lars. You just need rest. A good night’s rest in your own bed with a nice meal will have you feeling good and normal again. This was all just you being frustrated. You’ll have better control of yourself once you rest.
A cultivator rushed out from behind the gate and positioned himself in front of Ailiseu. “Should we do something? Is this okay? He hit you and—”
“It’s fine,” Ailiseu muttered. “He’s the disciple of the first elder, the current de facto leader of the sect. Do you really want to get yourself exiled over a slap?”
“But he hit you, and—”
“I said it’s fine!” Ailiseu nearly yelled this time before turning to Lars and giving him a small bow. “I apologize, Senior Brother Lars. I had to authenticate your identity before I could let you in. There have been cases of people using the identities of those who have left the sect to gain entry during this period of isolation. Please understand.”
“When?” Hsein Ku asked, pushing herself back into the exchange. It seemed Lars’s sudden movement had encouraged her. “When has there ever been a case of someone managing to completely copy the face and voice of another cultivator so exactly? And if such a cultivator existed, why would they choose to pick a tailless cultivator such as Lars when mimicking him would require them to either be tailless themselves or to remove their own tail by force?”
Ailiseu froze at the question. “Uh . . . well . . . you see . . .”
“No, no, go on. Tell us in detail about these past incidents that made you so certain he wasn’t the man you knew and so confident in turning him away at the gates,” Hsein Ku pressed. Even with her injury and the obvious disparity in their cultivation levels, her fiery eyes showed no signs of backing down or relenting as she pushed the issue.
“It’s not that it happened to me. It’s just that . . . I’ve heard . . . and well—”
Ailiseu was cut off by Lars slapping her again, this time on the other cheek.
“There, are you satisfied?” Lars asked Hsein Ku. “Is that enough, or do you need me to slap her again?”
“I don’t know. She did insult my family’s honor by dismissing those of us outside of the sect’s political world as merely being mundane. My ‘mundane’ father could squish most cultivators from even the greatest sects like bugs. It is how his throne still stands untouched like a fortress of power in the middle of four feuding sects’ territories after centuries, not that someone like her, stuck inside this— You didn’t have to do that again!”
Annoyed at having to wait outside of what felt like a cursed gate and just wanting to go through the doors before some other complication arose, Lars simply slapped Ailiseu again while Hsein Ku droned on. Lars ignored the throaty moan that escaped from Ailiseu as she struck the dirt yet again. “Are you happy now? Did that vent your frustrations enough, or should I keep going? Do you want me to just slap her so hard she hits the ground again and then spank her repeatedly until she cries so you can feel like this petulant disciple got what she deserved? Or, just maybe, we can go inside, have a nice hot meal, enjoy a drink where it’s finally safe, and just relax? How about that?”
“Y-you don’t have to snap at me so much. I was just . . .” Hsein Ku trailed off. She had already started to look uncomfortable at Lars’s reaction halfway through his suggestion, causing him to mentally adjust and lower his tone, suddenly aware that he was being far too loud.
“I mean, if it makes her feel better, I understand,” Ailiseu piped in. “I understand. It is the way of the world: the strong sometimes must punish the weak for being disobedient. I’ll gladly acc— I mean, I will understand if that’s what you feel you must do and be thankful that the punishment is only a few spankings.”
“Understand, understand, understand!” Lars had no idea how someone could be so understanding. “Could you please just understand that the door needs to be opened so I can go through?”
“Fine,” Ailiseu grumbled as she climbed to her feet for the final time. She took a moment to rearrange her clothes, her cheeks still flushed from Lars’s gift, and gestured to open the gate and for everyone to move out of the way.
“She really is strange,” Hsein Ku whispered to Lars, and the two shared a look between them.
“I can slap you if that’s really your thing!” one cultivator quickly called out, only to get knocked out in a single blow. Ailiseu didn’t even bother giving the man a warning before nearly killing him.
Lars glanced back at the line as they passed through the gate, and he couldn’t help but notice how everyone waiting in line had their jaws nearly falling off their faces as they stared in complete shock at them.
“She would make an excellent test subject,” Hsein Ku mumbled, turning back now and then to occasionally glance at Ailiseu. “Is that why she’s so fond of you? Did you perhaps augment some of her bloodline?”
“Fond of me?” Lars looked at Hsein Ku incredulously. “What do you mean, fond of me? She started a fight with me the moment she realized who I was. She’s probably still mad about the humiliation I gave her in front of all of her friends last time.”
“I’m not so sure about that. The tonal change in her voice, the flushing of her skin, the dilated pupils . . . She had all the signs of attraction. I suppose if we got a few samples and then did testing, we could determine the accuracy of the indicators, but— Oof!” Hsein Ku’s mumbling was suddenly cut short as she bumped into Lar’s back. She had instantly become caught up in her hypothetical experiment and tuned out the world around her, only following Lars instinctually.
Hsein Ku took a step back while rubbing her nose and then peered around Lars to see what had brought him to such a sudden stop. It turned out that he had halted right in front of a large circle of people gathered in the middle of the sect’s central street. “It seems commotions are quite common for a sect that is supposedly above worldly concerns,” she remarked. “I suppose these are the ‘internal issues’ that caused the gate to be closed. What’s going on this time?”
“I said leave us alone!” a very familiar voice shouted out.
“Hah! And why should I? You’re the one that caused my frustration, walking around flaunting your figure like that, throwing that bushy tail in the air as you teased me . . . Why shouldn’t you be the one to relieve it?” a young man’s voice replied.
“I . . . We should go, Senior Brother Gim. We’re drawing too much of a crowd, and she . . .” The woman’s voice trailed off as she weakly tried to defend the slave.
“She what? She’s talking back to me when she’s nothing but a mere slave at best. Look at the collar around her neck. Even if I were to overstep my bounds and kill her, all I’d need to do would be to compensate her master with whatever it cost to replace her. She’s not a person. She’s not even a sect servant. Stop trying to protect her like some knight in shining armor,” the young man shot back.
“It’s just . . . Everyone is watching,” the protestor objected. “You can’t just steal from a fellow sect member!”
“You wanna take her place? You keep complaining about headaches. If you don’t want to be just like her, then—” The man’s voice was interrupted as a scream echoed out through the sect compound’s streets.
“I TOLD YOU NOT TO FREAKING TOUCH ME!” the familiar voice rang out. “I told you I WOULD FREAKING KILL YOU! ARE YOU HAPPY NOW?! THAT’S MY SPACE! MY SPECIAL PLACE! NOT YOURS! NOW YOU’RE DEAD AT THE HAND OF A MERE SLAVE! Feel GOOD?! You happy?! You get what you freaking wanted?!”
Lars began forcefully pushing his way through the crowd, parting the people with heavy thumps and bumps as he made his way toward the spectacle.
“Hey, don’t . . . Don’t come near me! I killed one of you bastards already, and I’ll gut another one too. Don’t test me!” Lars heard the woman say as the sweet sensation of Qi entering his body welled up in him.
Congratulations. You have successfully killed Do-kyong. You have gained 10,002 stat points. Your elemental affinity with Fire Qi has increased by 6,802.
Lars finally made it through the crowd and emerged into the center of the circle they had formed and immediately spied Soseono with her hands forcibly held behind her back while being pushed into the ground by two men. “No! Don’t! Stop! GET AWAY FROM ME!” she yelled and pleaded. “I was JUST DEFENDING MYSELF!”
“I think that’s what happened too,” Lars called out as he activated his Qi blade using the skill Knife Hand. His Qi blade roiled with dark purple and black Qi that swirled around the weapon as it extended upwards from his hand, and little droplets of Qi dripped from the blade, swirling like a helix before entering into Lars’s forearm. He quickly sized up every person around him, looking for anyone that might be a threat.
“That’s exactly what happened!” exclaimed Su Ryeon from the ground next to Soseono. She was struggling to break herself free as well while three people held her down and began to shackle her wrists. “And all I did was try to defend her.”
“Shouldn’t slaves know their place? Why are you trying so hard to act like you’re a real person?” one of the men pressing his knee into Soseono’s back said. “If you two had just done what he wanted, you could have at least kept your heads. Probably.”
Lars didn’t feel like dealing with whatever argument they were going to put up. He raised his hand, ready to murder the people holding Soseono and Su Ryeon, when Fourth Elder Jee descended like a lightning bolt, landing squarely between Lars and the people he wanted to kill.
“I believe you should consider your place before raising your hand, or we will have to apprehend you as well,” Second Elder Bong warned as he flew into the center of the group as well, his stern voice silencing every bit of the commotion around them. “One of these slaves has committed murder, and the other one has tried to prevent the apprehension of a criminal. The law of the sect is very clear.”
“Funny. Is that the same law you quoted in your defense when you wanted to protect an adulterer and apprehend a man carrying out justice? Are you going to use it to defend what is indefensible once more? That man tried to have his way with two people I care about in broad daylight, and no one raised a finger to protect them. But these women protect themselves, and now you wish to punish them for it? What type of hypocrisy is this? How dare you?!” Lars exclaimed. He had to control his rage as he considered how the battle would go. Even though he was strong—in fact, he was much stronger than he was when first entering the sect—he didn’t know for certain whether or not he could kill even one of the two men in front of him, much less both. Their movements when they had descended were too fast for him to catch.
“These people didn’t act because there was nothing to act on. Those women are not your wives. They are not your mistresses. They are not your sect brothers or sisters, your fellow disciples, or anyone’s friends. They are your slaves. That is all they are, and that is a fact your emotional reaction shows you do not comprehend,” the second elder lectured, his flared nostrils and sharp eyes showing he was doing his best to control his own temper.
“You talk of slaves as if they’re nothing more than beasts of burden and not living, breathing people with hopes and dreams who have merely been forced into a bad situation by circumstance,” Lars retorted, hating the condescending elder and how he viewed those that were dealt a bad card. Less than a month ago, Lars would have been the one killed for merely defending himself, not that he had been strong enough back then to raise a hand in protest, much less be as successful as Soseono had been.
“Aren’t they though? They’re objects. Property. Things we buy and sell. Why are you acting like they’re people?” the second elder replied with a laugh. “The next thing I know, you’re going to be treating your livestock like family and tucking your chickens into bed with you before you take them to that butcher you call master in the morning—despite supposedly being the first elder’s disciple.”
“Tch.” Lars clicked his tongue the same way Yumi did when she was frustrated and stared at the second elder, trying to think of a way around fighting someone who was probably much stronger than he was while surrounded by people who would likely try to kill him the moment he gave the elder what he wanted. “Just property, huh? Are you telling me in your entire life you’ve never once been with a slave? Never once found yourself attracted to one?”
“I . . . would not deny that there have been times where I’ve enjoyed my status. What man or woman of my position hasn’t partaken in the fruits of their labor at least once?” the second elder answered, showing no shame as he bragged about exploiting people.
Lars ground his teeth and worked not to punch the man in the face. If Bong had been the one to discover his mother first, when she had been forcibly enslaved by the Sect of Falling Flowers, he could only imagine the atrocities the second elder would have justified doing to her.
“There is no reason to be so angry,” the second elder continued. “It’s not like I didn’t buy them properly and legally before doing anything. They were mine by right, and I—”
“So you’d have sex with a cow or a goat then as long as you owned it?” Lars interrupted, no longer able to stomach the callous arrogance leaving the second elder’s mouth. “Maybe even a tree, a piece of furniture, or a well-cooked pie?”
“What?! How dare you?!” The second elder’s face turned red as he clenched his fist and looked like he might be the first one to throw the punch.
If he punches first, then I can fight him one on one, and I’ll be within my rights to kill him here and now, Lars realized as he watched the second elder’s hatred rise.
“Yes! How could you dare throw such accusations at an esteemed elder of your own sect!” the fourth elder shrieked as he came to the second elder’s defense.
“I’m just saying that he tells me a slave is nothing more than a beast of burden, yet he has no issues enjoying one for the night. So, when he brags that he has ‘enjoyed’ his status and wealth by being with a slave, is he not basically telling every person here that he has enjoyed his status and wealth by being with a beast of burden? There is no difference between a slave and a chicken to him, so if he openly admits being with a slave, isn’t he openly admitting that he has probably been with the same type of chicken I might have to take to the butcher in the morning?”
“That’s . . . You’re twisting my words! Brainless farm animals and people are not the same. Even if they’re property, they’re not filthy animals. They’re still people who—”
“Careful now,” Lars interjected quickly. “You can’t tell me they’re people now when, just a moment ago, you insisted they weren’t. Wasn’t it you who questioned me for trying to treat them like people?”
“I’m sure that isn’t what the second elder meant,” the fourth elder insisted. The second elder seemed to have broken, and he just stared daggers angrily at Lars. “He was not implying that they are physiologically the same. He was implying that their rights are no different than those of animals. Their rights. Not their bodies.”
“Yeah! That’s what I meant,” the second elder insisted. “How could you possibly assume that I’d be likening their bodies to those of animals?! I’m only saying that they have no more rights than an animal. Don’t twist my words.”
“Lars shook his head. The fourth elder had indeed saved the second elder from his trap, and Lars knew it. Rights and status were all that mattered to someone like the second elder, and that was an inescapable fact. Still, he needed to clarify that last point. “So, it’s only the rights then that make a difference? A person isn’t a person if they’re below you and don’t have rights?”
“That’s . . . That’s what I mean, yes,” the second elder readily agreed to Lars’s supposition. “It’s the rights that matter! The rights are what make things as they are. These slaves don’t count because they don’t have any rights.”
“Do you even know how slaves are taken? When you purchased those slaves you abused, did you ask them how they ended up in that situation? What led them to be collared?” Lars asked.
The second elder looked hesitant as he answered, taking his time with his words as he looked at Lars incredulously. “Well, I purchased them through a reputable trader like any dignified person might. Why should I be bothered with the minutiae?”
“Have you never seen it then? Have you never been there, first hand, when a person became a slave?” Lars found this somehow more aggravating than anything else the second elder had said, the images of his own town’s desecration still fresh in his head. “Have you not witnessed what it is like to see a town butchered? When most of the citizens have been killed on the spot, and those who survived were collared and enslaved against their will? What gives those merchants and slavers the right to do that? What gives them the authority and rank you brag about and lord over others to take away the rights of those around them?”
Whether it was the gravity of his words or the fact that the dark-purple Death Qi of Ophelia had begun to swirl around his feet as he spoke, creating the illusion for a moment that Lars’s shadow was now purple and growing like a demon behind him, no one said anything for a minute after Lars asked his question.
The second elder finally broke the silence. “That’s just the way the world is! The strong take from the weak. That is how things are; that is how they have always been. If our sect loses a war, we will be the next on the chopping block like that town you described.”
“Hah. So that’s all it is to you.” Lars took in a deep breath. “Fine then. The strong take from the weak, is it? Then what that woman you call ‘just a slave’ did . . . Was it not proof that she was the strong? The man she killed was weak. All that happened was that the strong took life from the weak, no differently than how she got the collar in the first place. So no sin has occurred, right?”
“It’s more complicated than that. We’re in a sect, and the rules of the sect state that—”
“And if I’m stronger than your loved ones, then I can collar them and tear them out of their comfortable lives too, right?” Lars pressed. “So long as I’m powerful, I’ll have that authority, right?”
“It’s . . .” The second elder gulped. Lars hadn’t anticipated it, but his threat had actually landed. “You can’t do that. That’s not how things work. There are rules and regulations and—”
“I can, and I will, if you do not walk away and let me take my people back with me,” Lars asserted, gripping his fist tightly as he began to prepare for the fight. He knew words had failed and that he would have to resort to violence, no matter how strong the opponent was, to prevent the two women on the ground from going through whatever hell awaited them as true slaves and prisoners. “I killed the soldiers of the Falling Flowers sect, the enemies of Spring Rain, outside of the gates of Andong with these two hands. I felled them by the dozens. And I come back to see my people being harassed and abused. If you think that I will not pay this enmity with enmity, then you are mistaken, great second elder. I will pay all my debts with interest. But don’t worry, Elder Bong, I’ll make sure to obey your favorite rule: that people don’t matter if you have the strength to put a slave collar on them.”
“Senior Brother Lars! Senior Brother Lars! Don’t do this! How about I handle this for now?!” Gyuri, the senior sister who was considered the most beautiful one in the entire sect, exclaimed as she pushed her way through the crowd into the middle of the circle. “I will take them to the discipline hall myself, and I will make sure they are safe and sound. No one will touch them so long as I am breathing, and you can talk to your Master Apep to get this sorted out. I’m sure he’ll be able to help. If he can’t, I’m sure Laughing Lion can.”
“Hmph. There is nothing to be worked out. Their crimes were clear as day for all to see,” the second elder said.
“But if . . . But if they go to the discipline hall, then they are no longer our concern,” the fourth elder noted, his eyes glued to the dark purple blade extending out of Lars’s hand.
“Then that’s what will happen,” Senior Sister Gyuri pleaded with Lars. “Please. I’ll stay with them myself until you figure something out, but we must follow procedures for now. Go get your friend treated, and we’ll figure this out together, okay?”
“Fine then,” Lars replied. He deactivated Knife Hand and took a deep breath. He didn’t know why Gyuri was sticking her neck out for him as she was clearly angering the two elders, but he knew enough about her character to know that she took her word seriously. If she said they’d be safe, he could count on it—or at least on the fact that she’d get him if something changed. “And thank you.”
“It’s the least I could do,” Gyuri insisted. “Now, go find First Elder Apep or Laughing Lion, and I’ll take care of this.”
“No matter whom you talk to, nothing will change. Rule breakers will suffer for breaking rules. The law is absolute, and your slaves will not escape it,” Second Elder Bong humphed before taking off into the air.
“What . . . What he said! The second elder is absolutely correct. The rule of law will easily win out!” the fourth elder added before also shooting into the sky. They liked to pretend that the two of them could fly, but Lars knew that wasn’t the case at all. It was much more likely they were merely taking advantage of their tremendous physical power and simply jumping to their next location.
The circle of onlookers began to slowly disband after the two elders left while Lars just stayed rooted in place like a tree despite Gyuri pushing him to head off. He was unable to take his eyes off Soseono and Su Ryeon, who were both being dragged away by the sect members of the discipline hall.
They just watched, didn’t they?
So you’re back . . . Yes, they did. Lars nodded in agreement with her words. That was exactly how it had gone down: the onlookers had done nothing more than watch.
It wasn’t different back then either. During the culling. The few people who claimed they were good just watched as humanity was slaughtered. When someone did stand up, the same excuses were used, the same law, and people hid behind rules and authority.
Lars remembered in vivid detail the massacre he had witnessed in Ophelia’s memories of the apocalypse. During the heat of the battle, no one else mattered to him except the cultivators and the people they were slaughtering. He thought he hadn’t seen anyone else. But now, as he recalled the vision Ophelia had shown him, he could also now see the faces of onlookers. They were the exact same wide-eyed, slack-jawed faces staring like they weren’t at all a part of what was going on.
I’m surprised you didn’t encourage me to kill them with a quest—or at least slap them, Lars thought, knowing Ophelia’s usual methods.
I thought about it, but what good would have come from it? Right now, you’re unstable just like you were back during the first journey to Andong, and this time, you’re powerful enough to make mistakes that can’t be taken back. That’s why I keep telling you that you need to rest, Lars. I’m worried about you.
“Don’t be. I’m fine . . .”
“Don’t be what?” Hsein Ku asked.
“Nothing,” Lars grumbled, wondering what was going on with Ophelia. Normally, not only would she have generated a random quest for him to humiliate one of the elders but would have also combined it with taunts and pressed him to kill everyone around him. She wasn’t the type to remain quiet like she had. It had Lars thinking as he watched Gyuri give him one final “it’ll be okay” wave before disappearing behind the corner of a building.
“Alright. I guess it’s time to go see Apep,” Lars mumbled to himself before turning to Hsein Ku, “but I think I need to drop you off first at a doctor, get your wound treated, and then take you home.”
“I . . . Yeah. I would appreciate that,” Hsein Ku sighed. “I just . . . I don’t want to feel like a burden. If you need to go see Apep first, you can go.”
“We don’t have doctors to treat her,” another familiar voice said, causing Lars to turn around and see a welcomed friend. “And sorry I was late. It seems the elders made their move first and still lost out. Interesting.”
“What do you mean?” Lars asked Bong-cha, who was baring her teeth and scowling angrily as she stared at the spot where the scene had occurred.
“I mean exactly what I mean. That bastard clearly set a trap, removing two of Apep’s minions from play in an attempt to isolate Apep himself,” Bong-cha explained. “You did notice that, right?”
He hadn’t though. He had been so angry that he hadn’t once thought about the sequence of events, but now that he realized what had happened, he was floored. There was simply no way that someone would have chosen the very day, the very moment Lars had returned, to harass those two and then done so on a street any person would be guaranteed to pass by on the way to Lars’s house. If someone had been waiting, though, if they had been watching the gate and then ran off . . .
“If you knew he would do something, then why didn’t you help?” Lars questioned.
“I didn’t know what would happen or where it would happen. I only found out because of Ailiseu, who had noticed one of the second elder’s scummy hangers-on dart off from gate duty the moment he saw you. She then tried to stall you at the gate so you wouldn’t fall for the trap. She had one of her friends get Gyuri for assistance, and Gyuri’s friend ran to get me. I would have been here sooner if he had been faster or if he hadn’t taken so long to get the point out. I swear, they waste so many words. They don’t understand the importance of brevity.” Bong-cha frowned. “Either way. At least you’re safe, and so is she.”
“Yeah, for now.” Lars nodded and then turned to Hsein Ku. “But if there aren’t doctors, where do we take her?”
“I can treat an injury as well as I can make one,” Bong-cha stated. “I’ll take her off your hands. Not to mention, if she’s with me, there is no way anyone will bother her. Even if the second elder hates you, he knows better than to create trouble around my father. No matter how strong he is, my father’s teeth are stronger.”
“I’ll . . . keep that in mind. Are you comfortable going with her though?”
After a moment of hesitation, Hsein Ku replied, “Yeah, I think it’d be better if I were somewhere safe and if you didn’t have to take care of me for the moment.”
“Fine,” Lars replied, “but where is Apep?”
“He’s in the makeshift castle at the center of the sect. You can’t miss it. His desire for opulence and waste is written across its walls.” Bong-cha sounded like she was cursing more than describing the place. “Though he still claims he’s in closed-door cultivation, you should be able to gain entry.”
“Thanks. I appreciate you offering to help out by taking care of her,” Lars replied before starting off in the general direction Bong-cha had pointed. He had wanted to put the visit off for a day, but with Yumi’s rescue and now Soseono and Su Ryeon’s fate hanging on his interactions with Apep, he had to take care of things as soon as possible.
We actually need to make another stop first.
What? What could be more important than dealing with this situation?
Yeah . . . sorry. We need to go see Nari. Sorry. I usually like to let you play these things through, but trust me, will you? Go back to the house, put on some good robes, and then go see Nari before you see Apep. It’s a must. You trust me, right?
Why do you have to put it like that? Lars asked as he sighed and then turned around and headed straight toward his house to get nice robes just as Ophelia had instructed.