Grimdark Story Battle Royale 2: Semi-Finals

Nunnery of the Damned vs. The Evershifting Path

Story 1: Nunnery of the Damned

Don’t go that way.”

The old man face contorted and twisted like a cow as he chewed a wad of… something. Maybe it was tobacco, maybe it was tough meat, maybe it was strips of flesh from the inside of his own mouth, sloughing off from the rot. Honestly Antonio didn’t want to know either way.

Excuse me?” Antonio asked. He was sitting at a table with his groomsmen, drinking far too much wine at a filthy tavern in a village he had never even heard of. Saint’s Cave? Salty Cove? He had no idea, and was too drunk to care. The five of them were celebrating Antonio’s upcoming nuptials. It was a newfangled sort of gathering the folks up in Dyskovenia called a “bachelor party.”

It was Antonio’s best friend Thorvald’s idea, this bachelor party business. All Antonio knew was that he’d been loaded for a week, and if his fiancee found out they’d spent enough coin on booze and whores to buy a summer cottage she would be pissed.

Don’t take the Almoner’s Road.” The old man was grey and bent, with a wild look in his eyes. He was seated alone at a table a dozen paces away from Antonio’s party. When he spoke, the whole tavern grew quiet.

Thorvald, a scrawny rake with the arrogance and loudness of a man three times his size, sneered at the oldtimer. “We’re trying to get back to Whyte-upon-Rice. They say the Almoner’s Road is the fastest way.”

We got a wedding to get to tomorrow!” added one of the other revellers. He was a young fellow named Drebin, called “Titmouse” by his friends on account of both his terrible haircut and because of the night he got drunk and tried to nurse from the teet of a vole. Titmouse was barely old enough to shave, and unfortunately thought himself a bit of a wit. “Though why anyone would want to stop this party to have a chain clamped around their balls is behind me.”

The men at Antonio’s table laughed and clanged their flagons, but the old man didn’t so much as crack a smile.

Aye, it’s faster.” The old man nodded, then spat something horrific onto the sawdust of the tavern floor. Antonio tried not to look directly at it. He was pretty sure it was moving. “But you’ll regret it. No one who goes up that way at night ever comes back the same.”

Are there highwaymen?” Antonio asked, quite earnestly. Antonio was a plain, simple man, a little older than Titmouse and not as brash as Thorvald. He had always held a fear of being robbed on the road, ever since a gang of bandits had ambushed his father and uncle when he was but a boy. His uncle said the bandits had stripped his father bare, buggered him with a mace handle, then chopped him into little pieces and fed him to the gang’s pet boar. Antonio hadn’t seen any of this of course, but his uncle had painted quite a picture. Literally. Uncle Auk was an accomplished artist, and had painted a triptych of the event which still hung over the fire in the family’s ancestral manor. The scene had haunted Antonio since he was three years old.

Nothing so banal.” The old man continued to chew. “You go up there and you’ll wish you were only buggered by a mace, chopped up and fed to a boar.”

Antonio shuddered. Either the old man was a seer, or that must be the prefered, and very specific, method of banditry in these parts.

Have you heard about the Nunnery of the Damned?”

Sounds like a minstrel’s troupe.” Thorvald guffawed at his own joke.

Laugh all you want, but what happened to those poor women is no joking matter.” The old man leaned back in his seat, and everyone in the tavern unconsciously leaned closer . There was a feeling in the air, the unmistakable, universal understanding that some crazy old coot was about to tell a ghost story. It was a primal instinct, like blood turning cold at the sound of a wolf’s howl, or running from the room covering your ass when your father reached for his belt. The tavern grew deathly quiet.

I don’t know how long ago it happened, but this was an old story when my grandpappy told it to me as a lad knee high to a pubic louse. There’s an old nunnery up on the hill along the Almoner’s Road, about a league and a half from here. They say it used to be called the Convent of Sacred Salvation, or some bullshit like that. Maybe it was Holy Heart Nunhouse, I don’t remember, the mind isn’t what it used to be.”

What did it use to be?” asked Titmouse. “A potato?”

Shut up, Drebin.” Antonio was on the edge of his seat. He hadn’t taken his eyes off the oldtimer, who continued his tale.

The important thing is that now it is only known as the Nunnery of the Damned, and this is why: Many years ago, on a full moon just like this, a gang of bandits rode up to the nunnery, looking for something to ease the boredom of the backwood roads. Now, even the most vile and bloodthirsty robbers will usually steer clear of a nunhouse, for to harm the anointed sisters will surely bring the wrath of the gods. But these men were not just vile and bloodthirsty, they were drunk, and desperate, and had not seen a coin or a whore’s embrace for many days. They were not thinking clearly when they kicked down the nunnery door and the bandit leader demanded the mother superior suck his cock.”

The tavern was silent but for the sound of the fire crackling and the old man chewing. No one laughed. They all knew this story was about to get as dark as a witch’s asshole.

The sisters pleaded, and begged for mercy, but their cries fell on deaf ears. The bandits raped and murdered every one of them, some of them many times over. The mother superior was the last, who had watched all of the others butchered and defiled, and with her dying breath cursed the bandits. She swore that from that night forward any man who stepped within sight of the convent would be struck with all the fury and vengeance of the gods, and that any who felt their wrath would beg for the solace of death, which would be a mercy compared to what horrors they would wreck upon their souls.”

Antonio contemplated the story. He did have a question about how someone could be murdered many times over, but he let that one slide and asked another instead. “What happened to the mother superior?”

The bandit leader cut off her head and fucked the stump of her neck.”

Now there were uncomfortable coughs and mutterings throughout the room. The bartender put a tankard down hard on the bar and half the room nearly leapt out of their seats. Antonio squeezed his fists together so tightly in his lap he nearly broke his own fingers. This was getting far too close to his nightmares of his father’s death.

The old man spat on the floor and continued. Several people pushed their chairs a little farther away from the growing black stain. “The bandits piled the corpses of their victims in the chapel and collapsed at dawn, exhausted from their slaughter orgy. They slept through most of the day, for when they woke the sun was once again low in the sky. If they had left right away perhaps they would have survived, but instead they went about cleaning out the rest of the nunnery’s stores, taking whatever food and wine and brass candlesticks they could carry. When the sun set, the ghosts came.”

Thorvald rolled his eyes. The thin man with an even thinner mustache and eyes that looked like two piss holes in the snow did not believe in ghosts, Antonio knew. Nevermind that Thorvald’s own mother had been a fortune teller and soothsayer; Thorvald always called her a filthy thief and liar. “So I suppose the ghosts killed them, then? Magic invisible ladies stabbed them with glowing daggers?”

Still the storyteller would not rise to the rattish man’s bait. He remained level-headed and calm, laying down his wisdom as but a courtesy, leaving those in attendance to decide whether they would heed his warning. “No. They lived. But the men who walked out of the nunnery the next morning were not the same. They were broken, their lives and souls crushed. They say that within a week, one by one, each of them perished by his own hand, begging for forgiveness and peace in the next world.”

And how do ‘they’ know this story, old man?” Thorvald’s question dripped with disdain, like the oil that dripped from his slick-back hair. “Sounds like a made-up story to scare babies.”

Antonio had never heard a children’s story about fucking a dead nun’s neck stump, but he held his tongue.

I know it because they say the bandit leader himself climbed to the roof of our temple, just across the town square from this very inn, and he confessed his sins at the top of his drunken lungs before throwing himself down to smash his head like a rotted gourd on the cobbles below.”

They had seen the temple outside before they stumbled into the tavern. It was plain and perfuntury as far as places of worship went, but the spire was pretty tall. A good twenty, thirty feet at least. Antonio’s stomach lurched at the thought of it. He hated heights, on account of his Uncle Auk making him re-shingle the roof when he was a child.

The old man continued. “But I don’t need to know the story, because we’ve all heard the ghostly voices from up the Almoner’s Road. We’ve all known the foolish men who dared to go up that way at night, and seen them come back broken the next day. Folk don’t go up there much at all anymore, most use the new road down by the river, but every few years some dipshit – usually from out of town – gets too drunk or too careless and takes the Almoner’s Road. If they live to regret it, they don’t regret it very long.”

Because they get over it?” asked Titmouse, thoughtfully.

Because they don’t live,” said Antonio .

Your groom is a wise man,” said the old man, beginning to rise. “You all best listen to his counsel. Or not, bugger if I care. I’ve got to take a shit.”

The storyteller shuffled out of his chair and around from behind his table. The groomsmen all watched him for a moment, then realized he was an old man who moved with the velocity of an crippled sloth, so they turned their attention back to their own table when he was about a quarter of the way across the tavern.

What a sodding load of shit.” Thorvald chuckled and downed half a mug of ale.

I don’t know, Thorvald, I’m not particularly fond of ghosts.” Titmouse looked more skittish and pale than usual. “Perhaps we should listen to the crazy old coot.”

Thorvald slammed his tankard down on the table. “There’s no such thing as ghosts!”

No, but there is a such thing as bandits,” said Antonio, diplomatically. “Perhaps taking an old, overgrown road at night is not the best plan anyway.”

It’s the only way to reach Whyte-upon-Rice by morning.” Thorvald shrugged. “If you want to be a coward and listen to a dysenteric codger…”

He shit himself on the way to the door.” Titmouse’s face twisted horribly.

Fuck you,” called the old man, still only two-thirds of the way across the room, but the smell wafting from him was unmistakable. “We’ll see how well your bowels work when you reach three score and ten!”

While Titmouse did some arithmetic on his fingers, Thorvald continued. “I’m sure Melissa would be very understanding if you miss your wedding.”

Antonio sighed. “It’s not Melissa I’m worried about. It’s her very wealthy father who is just looking for any excuse to call off his only daughter’s wedding.”

Seventy.” Titmouse nodded, satisfied. “He doesn’t think much of you, does he?”

No, he did not. The family had taken a river boat journey to celebrate the engagement, and when Antonio fell overboard, Melissa’s father had only tossed him a rope after someone assured him the other end wasn’t tied to anything. Nevermind the fact that Antonio was pretty sure his future father-in-law was the one who had pushed him over in the first place. Melissa’s father would be more than happy to call off the wedding if they arrived late tomorrow, and Antonio would be out all the lands and gold the union would have brought him.

And Melissa’s love of course. He would also lose that, probably.

But the gold and lands… with that kind of wealth he could lock himself in his manor and never have to leave and worry about bandits again.

We take the Almoner’s Road,” Antonio announced to the table. “How soon can we leave?”

Thorvald smiled. “Right away. Let me just go vomit first, the smell of that old man is turning my stomach.”

*

Shortly, after Thorvald and one of the other groomsman had emptied their dinners and a gallon of wine and ale in the latrine behind the tavern, the party was on the road again. Antonio rathered wished he had emptied his own guts. He was feeling queasy himself, but whether from the drink, the threat of ghostly murder or just nerves over tomorrow’s wedding, he could not say. He felt as he did that time as a boy when Thorvald dared him to eat a live sparrow, and Antonio swore he could feel it fluttering and clawing around in his stomach for hours afterward.

The Almoner’s Road was dark, and narrow, overgrown with years of alder bushes. It had taken them over an hour just to find it, even with the directions from the obnoxious farmer who had laughed at them the whole time.

Follow Hackett’s farm up to Frisky Hare Rock,” the farmer had explained after asking them several times if they were sure they wanted to go that way. “You can’t miss it, it’s a big rock shaped like two rabbits rutting. Then take the East road toward the forest, that’ll take you straight to Almoner’s Road.

Then, bend over, put your head between your legs, and kiss your ass goodbye. ‘Cause you won’t be coming out of there alive.”

Actually, the old man in town assured us we would live, but be forever changed.” Titmouse smiled, but he didn’t have the usual jovial tone to his voice.

After eventually finding the road (Frisky Hare Rock actually looked more like two badgers wrestling, at least according to Titmouse), their travel went fast enough through the woods. It was ominous, and the sky was so dark from overcast clouds they had to rely fully on their lanterns to lead them through. The swinging lamps cast dancing, constantly shifting shadows that made the trees around them appear to be alive with movement. The only sound was their laboured breathing and the crunch of their boots on dry leaves and dead branches.

Though it was a warm late summer night, Antonio felt cold. Icy sweat ran down his back and his hands were trembling. This was not right. This was not natural. At Uncle Auk’s wake young Antonio had been so terrified of the corpse that he hid in a cupboard. He fell asleep there, so when the family left for the night they accidentally locked him in the old funeral parlour with Uncle Auk. Terrified and beside himself with horror, Antonio pounded on the door until the townspeople, certain that Auk had risen as a bloodthirsty ghoul and was trying to escape, set fire to the house to destroy him. Antonio survived the ordeal, but the combination of being trapped in a funeral parlour with a corpse and nearly dying by arson had without a doubt been the worse, most nightmarish night of the bridegroom’s life.

Until now.

There was something in these woods. Something besides the five, drunken, scared men who kept looking over their shoulders and jumping at shadows.

The trees thinned and parted, and the forest gave way to a sloping hill on their left. Atop the grassy, overgrown hill sat the ruins of a monolithic old structure, as big as a small castle. The Nunnery of the Damned.

We should go back.” Antonio’s words felt sharp and scratching in his throat, like he was choking on gravel.

Thorvald guffawed. “You’re afraid of an old nunhouse? We’re halfway home my friend, no sense turning back now.”

Help me.”

The voice came from the trees behind them. Or Antonio thought it came from behind them. Titmouse pointed at the nunnery. “There!” he said. “There’s someone in trouble up in the ruins.”

No, that way!” said someone else, pointing at the opposite side of the road.

Let’s go!” Thorvald called, waving them to continue on the road. Only once before in their long lives together had Antonio heard that kind of fear in Thorvald’s voice. It had been the night Thorvald crept into his room and told Antonio that his father found out he’d gotten his cousin pregnant. Antonio didn’t see Thorvald for two years after that, until his cousin had moved away with her ugly, rattish baby, and Thorvald Senior had died in a freak millinery accident.

They turned back toward the road to Whyte-upon-Rice and found a woman blocking their way. A young woman, dressed in nun’s whites and blacks. Her dress and face were soaked in blood, her eyes glistened with tears. “Help me,” the voice came again, but it didn’t come from the woman. It came from all around them.

Begone spirit!” Antonio howled. “We mean you no harm!”

Help me,” said the voice again. “Help me pave the road.”

The men saw that she had a knife in her hand, and they ran. They scattered in every direction, some into the forest, some back the way they came. Titmouse even ran blindly toward the nunnery.

The ghosts caught every one of them.

*

Antonio staggered through underbrush, alder branches scratching at his face and hands. Something tore at his eye and drew blood but he just kept plowing ahead, cursing under his breath.

When he tripped and fell he rolled down a small hill into a ditch, landing face down in foul, knee-deep water. He suddenly had a vision of childhood, when his father tossed him off a bridge into the river on their estate to teach him to swim. He could not remember how long he sat on the bottom of the stream, but he vividly remembered a trout swimming up to his face and poking its nose against his as if to say, “My, you’re an ugly friggin’ fish, get out of my river.” Eventually his father pulled him out, gasping for breath, three-quarters drowned. He had been about two years old.

Antonio came up sputtering out of the ditch, and immediately rather wished he’d drowned. The woman was standing over him, her ethereal, misty form staring down at him with a wicked smile on her face, the kind Uncle Auk had when he’d drunk to much and came to visit Antonio’s sister, Bernice.

Antonio tried to run, but he felt the ghost nun’s fingers in his hair and his head snapped back as if a troll had grabbed him by the scalp. Her fingers felt like cold, hard marble. He came off his feet and landed back in the filthy water, then scrambled backward as she yanked him out of the ditch with impossible strength. Antonio wasn’t sure what was going to tear off first – his hair or his head. He didn’t particularly want to find out.

The ghost nun held him down with one hand on his chest. It felt like a blacksmith’s anvil, threatening to crush his ribcage, just like the anvil Bernice had pushed off the stable onto Uncle Auk. It held up a long, slender knife in front of Antonio’s eyes. He noted that it glinted like polished silver, which struck him as odd since it was ethereal and semi-transparent, not to mention there was no light for it to reflect.

Please!” Antonio begged. “Spare my life!”

It’s not your life that I want.”

The knife moved down past Antonio’s throat, across his chest, until it hovered above his crotch.

The ghost went to work, and Antonio began to scream.

*

Just before dawn, five ghostly nuns left five small new mounds alongside the Almoner’s Road, just outside the Nunnery of the Damned. The mounds joined dozens, possibly hundreds, of other tiny piles of dirt and rocks that lead halfway back to the village. The five new victims stumbled out of the forest at Whyte-upon-Rice later that day, pale, shaken, and forever changed by their short journey.

As the old man had foretold, none of the five survived the week, and all of them died by their own hand. Titmouse drowned himself in the river, coincidentally the very same river that Antonio’s father had tried to drown his toddler in twenty years prior. Thorvald threw himself under a carriage racing down a main thoroughfare. The first pass only broke an arm and a leg so he had to drag himself up and throw himself in front of another one to finish the job.

Antonio went through with his wedding to Melissa, though he looked sick and half-dead through the whole ceremony. The next morning Melissa went back to the town priest and demanded an annulment on the grounds that Antonio could not consummate their marriage, nor sire any heirs. When they went looking for Antonio they found him dead in his ancestral home, hung by his neck in front of the triptych depicting his father’s dismemberment.

On maps the old road between Salty Cove and Whyte-upon-Rice is named the Almoner’s Road, as it was once where nuns and monks would beg for alms from passing travellers. But the locals of Salty Cove have a different name for it, a secret name that they don’t share with travellers.

They call it the Road of Bones.

END

Story 2: The Evershifting Path

The ancestors murmured in assent as Azhi took another slow step against the blustering desert winds. He leaned his slight frame forward, listening for the whispers to confirm he kept to the hidden path. Wind howled in his ears despite his hood being pulled low, and sand battered against his veil. The veil was finely made, carefully crafted by the Master Weaver of his Sa He, Azhi’s home village. Using the gift passed down by the ancestors, he’d made the weave was thin enough to see through and fine enough that none of the sand from the Wumofu desert spilled through. But it paid to be careful during a storm, particularly for a twelve-year-old boy who had never trained as a Drifter.

Especially while he walked the Evershifting Path on a quest he’d stolen from another.

Azhi put the guilt from his mind and concentrated on putting one foot before the other, keeping his feet to the path the ancestors called to him. The elders of Ha Se said their bones were buried deep beneath, keeping the ancestors true to the path. For every generation, there came a time when the one groomed from birth would walk it and calm the White Chains.

The Yusishu, the one chosen to bear the Binding Ruyi on the sacred quest, one from which they were said to never return. Before, Azhi had listened to the stories and thought them no more than that. But then the elders had spoken of the honors bestowed upon the Yusishu: the statues carved, the reverent way his name was spoken, the offerings burned to retain his favor. And though he doubted the truth of the legends, he yearned for those attentions.

That another had been born before him to claim the honor had rankled him since birth. All said that if he had been born but a few years earlier, it would be he who had been offered up as Yusishu. Instead, it had been Yuan. Yuan, who knew Azhi burned with jealousy and spared no opportunity to remind him of it. Azhi had always told himself he would get back at Yuan someday, though he never knew how.

Then Imoan had called to him in the Memory Grotto.

As he took another weary step forward, he felt her nudge in his mind, urging him to step a little more to the left. He followed her guidance and felt again the echo of the ancestors’ approval. Keeping his mind open to the spirits gave him a pounding headache, but Azhi didn’t dare close himself off. To stray from the Evershifting Path would mean sure death, even for a child of the desert. And now that he bore the Binding Ruyi, it would mean no Yusishi would ever be able to calm the White Chains again.

He worked the small amount of moisture left to him around his parched mouth. “Is it close?” he asked Imoan aloud. She could hear his thoughts when he formed them clearly enough, though outside of the Memory Grotto, Imoan seemed able to answer only with impressions.

The nudge she sent him was not reassuring. Not far, but not near, the White Chains lay. Azhi took a deep breath and imagined his disappointment as his mother had taught him, nothing more than desert sand running through his fingers. A moment later, no more than a trace was left behind.

Yet the doubts had not dissipated. Azhi had not been the one trained to be Yusishu. Why Imoan had insisted he must go, that he must be the one to tame the White Chains before Yuan could try and ruin all, he did not truly understand. All he knew was that when one of the Elder Ones called upon you, you answered. That he had done so eagerly did not matter, so long as he performed his duty. He clutched at the ruyi swinging from his belt, bone-white and as crude as if it were no more than a branch from a tree. Yet all the same, he felt a comforting power resonating from it.

That Imoan was an Elder One, he was sure, no matter how young she sounded to his mind. Spirits who tempted unwitting children into the desert would not help Azhi walk the Evershifting Path. They would not have the wisdom to. Their beings were full of a lust for human essence, with no guile to fool a strong mind. The foul spirits, according to the elders, longed for living minds because they thirsted for anything to help them not fade away. Azhi, ever inquisitive, had asked if Elder Ones did not fade then as well, and the ancestors besides, to eventually all become the pathetic things that preyed on the foolish. The elders had not answered to his satisfaction.

And now Azhi wandered the Wumofu over the bones of those lost long ago. He hoped that his fears were only that. Until he saw otherwise, he refused to give them more substance than dust. You did not water the tumbleferns unless you wanted them to grow, as his father had always said.

Azhi raised his eyes for a moment to stretch his aching neck and back. It was a mild storm, but he could only barely see a hazy line of sky above the waves of swirling dust. He could hardly tell it was day from the gloom that settled over the gray land, nearly as featureless as above, with nothing to see but rises and falls of dunes formed over thousands of years. To the eye, Azhi truly was lost. But he heard the song of the ancestors below him. He knew he drew closer.

Closer to the one who had destroyed them and their great empire.

The Corrupted. Taozu. The name came to his mind unbidden, and he flinched as if from a brand flourished before him. He felt Imoan recoil in his mind as well. That the name of the Corrupted bore such power was his greatest affirmation that the White Chains needed to be tamed. Only when he came close to the surface from his stonebound prison did his name hold the power to burn.

He felt another nudge from Imoan, corrected his step, and kept shuffling along.

***

She did not dare take her attention away from him. Fire, force, and lightning flickered through the girl’s form she had forged for herself, but Imoan did not let them disperse her. The Higher Realm ever endeavored to break apart lesser beings such as her, the pure energies that composed it flowing like raging rivers through her. But she had waited too long to find one such as Azhi, one who burned in his world as well as hers strongly enough to draw her in. Even as strong as his connection was, he still felt as a mirage on the desert horizon. Yet she was the sand cat: ever watchful, always keeping him in her sights for a little longer. She could not let him stray from the glowing path that flowed out before her, forged of those fools who had sacrificed their essence to it. At least Imoan could use it now.

Soon, he would be more than a shadow. Just as in the place his people called the Memory Grotto — her people, she reflected bitterly — the ancestors’ path drew their planes ever closer together. And when they reached the colorless tree that spanned their planes, it would be as if no distance existed between them. They would be together in one place.

A shiver ran through her, a sense of cold in a place always roiling with heat. It had been days since that feeling had arisen in her. Perhaps it was anticipation at their impending arrival. Perhaps. But Imoan still retained enough of herself to know better. Doubt — the primary killer in the Higher Realm — plagued her. But she had not survived this long to let a scrap of conscience stop her now. She drew on the fire around her and inflamed her passions, then sent the boy a nudge as he strayed from the path once again.

She would watch, and wait, and protect. Until he reached the White Chains.

***

The ruins were all around him when Azhi next looked up. They were gray from the sands, and many of the broken walls had been buried in drifts thrice as tall as him. Yet some of them were not so badly off he could not tell what they’d been. Houses, three in a row, emerged from the billowing sands as he passed. Shelter. A night out of the sand and wind would be a blessing. And even though he knew he drew near, he couldn’t possibly tame the White Chains tonight.

I have to go rest,” he announced, then began making his way to the house.

Chains. Her faint whisper reached no further than his mind.

He paused, hesitating. She was his Elder One, his guide to acting as the Yusishu. But if the Corrupted had been contained for a thousand years, surely he could wait one night more. “I’m too tired,” he said, trying to make it not sound like whining. “I can’t do it now.”

A force like a punch hit him in the head. Azhi staggered and fell to his knees, the soft sand cradling his fall. Dazed, he looked around for what had hit him as he felt his scalp. When he felt no pain on his skin, it dawned on him. It had not been a wound of the flesh, but of the mind.

He knew Imoan hadn’t meant to hurt him. Outside of the Memory Grotto, she couldn’t communicate well. She just felt very strongly about this.

Chains, she repeated urgently.

Azhi rose once again. He had followed his Elder One this far. If she was this concerned, he should follow her to the end. He couldn’t fail as Yusishu now.

Alright,” he said quietly. “Lead the way.”

***

It rose out of the gray land, its branches spreading across the sky like pale lichen over a huge boulder. The White Chains resembled a tree, but Azhi had only seen the stunted, twisted plants that could survive the brutal conditions of the Wumofu. Never had he seen a tree that could grow so tall that the tops of it disappeared into the swirling sand above. The storm around it had grown so thick he was surprised any of it was visible, and even with his veil, Azhi had to raise a sheltering arm to feel as if the wind wouldn’t peel the very skin from his face. He wondered if the Chains didn’t reach to the very edge of the Higher Realm itself.

Suddenly, sand swirled together next to him in a small twister, and Azhi flinched. A figure formed out of the sand, so exquisite in detail that he could tell it was a girl slighter and shorter than himself. Warmth and serenity radiated from the desert spirit. Azhi knew her at once.

Imoan,” he breathed. “Are you truly here with me?”

He felt more than saw her smile with lips of shifting sands. “Not yet.”

Then you will be soon?”

She did not answer him, but turned her gaze toward the smooth white tree rising high above them. “Do you feel it?” she whispered in a voice that echoed through his mind. “He thrashes against the ties that bind him. Taozu.”

Azhi nearly cried out as the name split through his mind. “Why do you say that here?” he asked, anger and fear sharpening his words.

The sand spirit did not look to him. “We must perform the calming. Quickly. Or I fear he will break loose.”

He looked to the White Chains and felt what Imoan had described: a presence pulsing from the tree, contained within its vast trunk and wide-spanning branches. Without meaning to, he felt himself plumbing the depths of the trapped being and knew with the certainty of peering into a black hole that it had no end. Azhi faced something far vaster and greater than anything he had felt before. He wondered that any chains could hold it fast.

The Corrupted,” he whispered. And he was supposed to tame it.

Imoan placed a swirling hand on his shoulder, but it felt more painful than comforting. “I would not have selected you for the task if I did not think you capable. You can do this, Azhi. You must. You are the only one who can.”

Her words stirred something in him, a measure of the resolve that had been faltering inside him hardening once more. Azhi had stolen this honor for himself. Now he had better prove he was the one deserving of it after all.

He took one step forward, then another. This close to the White Chains, he did not need Imoan to know he walked the Evershifting Path. The ancestors sang with each step, affirming his journey as he drew close to his final destination.

***

It took all of Imoan’s ancient patience to wait for him to make his own lumbering way through the storm. She strained the last of herself to appear by him in the form of sand, to show him a comforting presence so that he might persist in the face of exhaustion and hopelessness. And Azhi had. He had even more force of will than she had anticipated.

Enough to make her concerned. Enough for the doubts to begin cracking her time-worn resolution.

She had brought him here for a purpose. Guiding him by day along the Ancestors’ Path, watching him by night and fighting away straying spirits seeking to claim him for their own, all along she had kept to that purpose. Yet now, drawing near to the place where she might finally find relief from her long, slow decay, she found herself faltering.

Yes, he might overcome her, she thought as her form drifted alongside him, bent against the ever-storm’s winds. But that was the smallest part of the fear. After all, he might succeed in this task, a task only a Yusishu should be able to perform, if only she gave him her guidance.

Then there was the third fear, the greatest of the three, that swallowed the other two. She did not even dare consider it. She could not imagine that her greed had wrought the world’s end. Never would it come to that.

The shining path almost intersected with the boy’s world now, the fools’ solemn song so deafening Imoan wondered if she would hear Azhi if he spoke. She braced herself and drifted next to him as they drew ever closer to the base of the White Chains.

***

As he stepped within a dozen feet of the trunk’s base, the winds abruptly died around him. But the world was far from silent. Behind him, the storm raged on, howling with all the fury the Wumofu could muster. And all around him, the ancestors sang, the chorus at once dissident and beautiful in a way that made Azhi tremble.

Continue,” Imoan urged him, her voice reedy and thin amongst the others. “Continue, before it is too late.”

Azhi could not hurry anymore. It took all his strength just to put one foot before the other. As any other child of the desert, he had run the dunes of the Wumofu for many turns in their endless games. But this continuous march with scant food and water had borne even his buoyant spirit down. Only the song of the ancestors kept it aloft now.

Then he reached the base and paused, confused. The path, ever one road before, had split around the base of the White Chains. The one that curved to the right streamed up and wound around the trunk like a vine. The other to the left dove into the earth like one of the tree’s great roots. Yet though Azhi could perceive them by the strength of their songs, he could not follow either.

What am I to do?” he called to Imoan.

The girl of sand drifted next to him. Her body swirled less vigorously than before, as if it were more difficult to maintain her winds here. “Follow the path,” she murmured.

Which one?” He could not keep the edge of despair from the words.

The girl looked up. “Whichever you feel is right.”

Azhi followed her gaze and gasped. Here next to the trunk, he could see the White Chains extending ever up. Now he knew it must reach the Higher Realm in truth, for he saw no end to the pale trunk. He strained to remember all he knew of the Yusishu’s journey. Always they spoke of claiming their place in the Higher Realm once their task was complete. Azhi knew which path he must take.

But how?” he asked, more of himself than the spirit, who he sensed had given all the aid she could. But he knew he could not walk a path without taking the next step. “Ancestors guide me,” he murmured, then took a step onto the right-most path.

His foot stopped a finger’s width above the sands. Awed, Azhi took another step, then another. Like he climbed an invisible stairwell, each step brought him further from the ground. It was true. The tales of the Yusishu ascending skyward were true. He almost felt light as he took the next step, then the next.

Beside him, Imoan grew more present. As sand trickled away from her body, the faint glow of her spirit beneath began to form. The Elder One by his side brought a warmth into him. This was what Azhi had been born to do. He had been born the true Yusishu, not Yuan. That he had stolen both ruyi and opportunity had been out of necessity. He did this to save the world.

Take out the Binding Ruyi,” Imoan said next to him. “Draw it along the trunk as you ascend and feed of yourself as it demands, though sparingly. Your essence must last the whole length of its trunk.”

Azhi did as she instructed, unhooking the ruyi from belt and holding it out in his left hand until he hesitantly placed the tip against the trunk. As soon as the end of the scepter made contact, Azhi felt a jolt of awareness. The being trapped within the White Chains, silent until this point, thrashed like a desert creature caught in a hidden trap. The Corrupted roared soundlessly, vibrating through Azhi so that, unprepared, he almost lost his footing. The ruyi strayed from the trunk, and as abruptly as it began, the awareness broke off.

He stood trembling for a moment before Imoan placed a hand on his shoulder. “He is more a force of destruction than sentient being. One that only knows hunger and how to sate it. The Corrupted is one of the oldest inhabitants of any realm, and he will remain long after all of us perish. But by your hand, he will be trapped for that remainder, until dust is all he may scour. Rise, Yusishu. You must perform your duty.”

What else could he do? Azhi climbed to his feet, anchoring down the ruyi as a support. His legs trembled, and he swayed as he straightened up, but he stood to do his duty. He was the Yusishu. Only he could tame the Corrupted.

As his eyes fell to find the next step, he saw again nothing below him, nothing but empty air and the sands framed by the circle of wind dozens of feet. Panic rose up in him, instinct warring against belief and winning. His head flushed with fear, and he felt his leg give out under him.

Azhi pitched and fell from the Evershifting Path.

***

Imoan threw herself higher into the Higher Realm as the boy began to fall. His descent slowed as she drew further away, using the strange laws of the planes to her advantage as she frantically thought of a way to save him. But no matter how quickly she plotted, she could think of nothing. She was not strong enough to catch him. She could summon no aid that would not destroy him as well as her. She could do nothing but watch as he slowly sank through the air, like a stone through water, toward the ground far below.

Regret for the boy was not her greatest though. Now she would not know if her doubts would have triumphed over her resolve. If she would have stolen his essence and body for her own when he was weak enough that even her feeble spirit could overcome his, or if she would have continued to help him calm the White Chains. She feared the answer, feared that what had driven her to bring the boy this far out into the ruins of an empire would have driven her to darker deeds. Yet not knowing was worse.

She did not want to watch this slow death, yet she could not bring herself closer. Only at a distance could she witness her sin against the world.

His head hit first, splitting along the back and up the sides in red lines, like a cactus fruit dropped on stone. Even sand grew hard when hit with enough force. His neck buckled first, cracking and bending at an unnatural angle as his body followed fast after. The limbs splayed out and lashed limply against the ground, bones snapping so he lay like cloth on a windless day. Blood leaked from his many wounds, seeping into the sands.

It took all of Imoan’s resolve to watch, unshifting, as his spirit started to peel free. The hunger inside railed at her, urging her to snatch him for her own, to absorb him into herself and thus prolong her ethereal existence. But she resisted. Why persist, she suddenly realized, when all the world would end, and by her doing?

All she did was watch as the pink haze began to creep up the base of the White Chains. And the great being captured inside began to slake its unending thirst for the first time in a thousand years.

***

All Azhi could feel was the drawing on him, patient as a sand cat gnawing on a sun-bleached bone. Frantic, he tried to move his arms and legs to bat it away, but they did not respond. He could not see. He could not smell. He could not truly feel. Only the pain was still with him of the creature feasting on him like he were nothing more than carrion.

Stop! he tried to cry out. Stop it!

But the being paid him no heed. He felt all of its attention on him, but did not feel as if it knew his thoughts as words. A predator it was, and he was nothing more than meat to alleviate its hunger.

Azhi abandoned attempts at moving his body and pushing with his essence as he did when diving into the sands. This finally drew a reaction, and the great being almost seemed surprised, drawing back as if to examine Azhi afresh. He didn’t waste any time but wrenched himself away, or tried to. But something bound him down. His body, he realized with horror. Memory of what had just happened seeped into his awareness. His body, broken and bleeding into the sands.

The shock gave him pause long enough for the great creature to seize him again. This time, it knew he would not go quietly, and it began to chew into him more furiously. Azhi cried wordlessly out as he was rapidly torn apart.

His pleas finally formed into coherent thoughts. Imoan! His Elder One had guided him this far. She would come and save him. But why hadn’t she come already? Imoan, please! He has his claws in me!

Her answer was like breath on the wind. I am sorry, Azhi. For deceiving you. For what I have brought upon the world. Then she peeled her mind away from his. She had left him alone.

Azhi screamed as the great being continued to gnaw into him. Taozu, he suddenly realized. Taozu consumed him. The being pulsed at the recognition, as if gratified that once again he was known to the world. The Corrupted was working his way free, and Azhi was his instrument. No matter how he struggled, Azhi could not break free. The overwhelming emptiness behind the veneer of Taozu’s mind sucked him further in, into depths from which he knew he could not return.

Then he heard chanting.

It rose all around him, twisting and looping around him and Taozu like a noose. The Corrupted roared with rage and surprise, and for a moment, his attention was pulled from Azhi. He seized his chance. Ripping free of the last weak bonds of his body, he fled into the great unknown plane about him.

Slowly, senses were coming to him, though they were not the same as he’d had alive. There was an energy that pulsed in this world, and a heat that radiated through and around him. Azhi suddenly feared he would lose himself if he did not cling himself together in this ever-changing world.

Taozu roared behind him once more, bringing Azhi back to the present. He sensed him now as a rising inferno, raging and seething as a glowing white rope sought to contain him. As the chanting grew ever louder, Azhi suddenly understood. The Evershifting Path, formed of the faded essence of the ancestors, had risen up in one last effort to contain the Corrupted.

But as rope before fire, they were quickly thinning and fading, their song growing fainter. Despair froze him in place as he realized the truth. Taozu would work his way free soon. As he had destroyed their empire of old, so he would destroy the Four Realms, the last civilizations in the world.

And it had been Azhi who had freed him.

Taozu only seemed to grow with his rage. Azhi felt his hunger for essence as if the hunger were his own and trembled at the horrifying feeling. To consume another mind to survive — he did not want to want that.

Yet now he was one of the wandering spirits of the desert. Was that not his fate as well? To feast or fade away?

Azhi fled. He had never been the Yusishi. He had been a stupid boy following a glorious mirage. Imoan had deceived him, but only because he had let her.

He was the boy who had doomed the world.

Wanting only to leave it all behind, Azhi soared fast through the Higher Realm, far away, and left Taozu to destroy the Evershifting Path and break loose for one last, great feast.

END

 

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