It had been a few hours since the upper district was attacked, but people still bustled through the courthouse as if another one could happen at any moment. Old men squinted at the sky before moving out from their homes, enlisting the help of their goblin servants to carry important documents and family heirlooms. Pots and washing boards were left abandoned as women and children fled to safety. Khulan and I slipped in the back without anyone noticing. They probably weren’t expecting anyone to come from the door leading to the upper district. Well, the ash-spotted waste that was once the upper district.
A crowd huddled in the open passageways surrounding the courtyard, trying to avoid standing out in the open. Eeluk, however, stood on some crates piled high on the grass. Some people were just covered in ash, but others had been burned. A few had lost limbs. No one spoke, save to answer Eeluk’s role call.
I peeked out from the crack of the door to a small storage room. I’d tucked myself away until I could heal, and I sent Khulan to fetch Erhi and Batu. The room didn’t offer much in terms of comfort. Some sacks of corn were stacked by the window, webs stringing from the top all the way down to the broken tiles on the ground. I could still see the smoke streaking from the upper district from the window. The only piece of furniture was a creaky cupboard, and the only thing inside was an old guard’s uniform still stained red with an arrow through the chest.
Captain Eeluk stood on a stack of crates, holding a piece of paper and a piece of charcoal. “Bataar family?”
“Present,” a voice squeaked. A little boy. “But mother… she…”
Eeluk nodded and marked the page with his charcoal. “Bat-Erdene family?”
No one replied. The people in the crowd glanced at one another.
“Bat-Erdene family?” Eeluk said, louder this time. “Has anyone seen the Bat-Erdene family?”
He shook his head and didn’t mark the page with charcoal.
My view went dark.
“I’ve brought them,” Khulan whispered.
I moved away from the door.
“Kublai?” Erhi scanned the room before her eyes settled on me. “Kublai! Your leg. Your hand!”
“My arms too.” I held them up for her to see.
“I see why she was so shaken.” Erhi looked at Khulan. “I just assumed she was trying to trick us.”
“I wasn’t shaken,” Khulan said. “I was merely expressing my urgency… physically.”
Batu whistled. “I won’t ask about the other guy.”
“I will.” I glanced at Khulan. “And she’s going to answer.”
“Please do go on.” Batu slumped down onto the sack of corn I’d put my satchel on. A cloud of dust filled the room. “I long to hear the tale of the man who mildly inconvenienced my brother.”
“Mildly!” Erhi snapped. “This is going to take hours to heal.”
“Hours?” Khulan said. “This’ll take months.”
Erhi started with my leg. She pulled it onto her lap and waved her hands around it like a potter shaping his ornament. Thousands of tiny blue spirits flickered into existence, falling over one another as they did their work.
“Oh.” Khulan put a finger to her chin. “Interesting. This’ll all only take hours?”
“Hours!” Erhi shook her head. “I’ll be exhausted afterwards. It would go faster if we could use the map to get to the First Capital, but from the looks of your body, I don’t think you can afford to enter the Spirit Realm for some time.”
“I’ve seen him get hurt worse.” Batu shrugged. “Remember that time we found that rusty bear trap in the forest and tied a rope to it?”
“The Spirit Realm is much less forgiving than a bear trap,” Erhi said. “If you push yourself further…”
“There won’t be anything left for you to heal.” I flashed her a grin. “Got it.”
“Way to put a damper on magical teleportation,” Batu said. “You know, when I first saw you with your magic hair-flowers and little skirt, I didn’t think you’d be such a downer. She…” He pointed at Khulan. “Now she looks like a downer. I know what to expect.”
“I don’t think you do, brother,” I said. “You’re a terrible judge of people.”
“I was right about you, wasn’t I?”
“You once said I’d become a cobbler.”
He gave me a flat look. “That’s because I was terrible at telling fortunes. I swear I can see right through anyone.”
I guffawed. “The only way you’re seeing through anyone is if you cut a hole in them first.”
Batu waved a finger. “But see through them I do.”
Erhi slapped Khulan’s hand away from the spirits surrounding my leg. “Stop trying to touch them.”
“Can these heal any wound?” Khulan asked.
“Even ones of the mind?”
Erhi paused. “No. The Spirit Realm can only affect our bodies, as far as I know, so I can only heal flesh.”
“Let’s say I knew someone who’d been driven mad… by the Spirit Realm, if that makes a difference.”
Erhi shook her head. “Not possible.”
Khulan put her hand on her lip. “I shouldn’t be speaking about this.”
“About what?” Batu said.
Khulan pursed her lips and sat cross-legged. “About someone I used to know.”
“Him?” I said.
Khulan nodded. “It’s just a suspicion I have.”
“That he’s mad?” Erhi said.
“No,” Khulan said. “That the Spirit Realm isn’t as benign as we believe.”
“Judging by the present state of the upper district,” I said, “I agree.”
Khulan walked over to the cupboard and dragged it over the door. She wiped her hands on her already-ruined gown. “The Spirit Realm isn’t to blame in Oktai’s case. He’s been acting strangely for a long time. Years, in hindsight. Do you know why the Council of Lords is based in the First Capital?”
“I assume it’s not the scenery,” I said.
Khulan strode over to the sacks of corn. “When you enter the Spirit Realm…” She stuck her hand into the sack of corn, then clutched as much as she could and pulled her hand out. “…you bring some of it back.”
“Too much, more often than not,” Erhi said.
“But what happens when you stayed in our realm? What happens to the spiritual energy when you feel it slipping from your body?” Khulan waved her handful of corn, scattering cornels over the ground. “It gets absorbed by your surroundings, like a fire losing heat. Only this heat lingers for lifetimes.”
I nodded. “And that’s why the Split-Skull Forest feels like the Spirit Realm.”
“That place was a mistake,” Khulan said. “That’s the difference between the forest and the First Capital. Before the First Empire, only dragons regularly slipped between the realms. Something about their blood allowed them to, and without the same risks as men. Even after men discovered that, only one or two in a generation would ever see the Spirit Realm. Then three or four a generation. Then a dozen. Fifty. Five hundred. Two thousand.
“One man going into the Spirit Realm?” She dropped one cornel. “Not much. Ten thousand?” She released the whole handful. “It poisoned the land. When those men returned, everything about them had been altered. Their bones. Their flesh. The food in their stomachs. The blood in their veins. The air in their lungs. All of it was tainted by the Spirit Realm. And they kept returning to the Spirit Realm… until they died.” She paused. “The Split-Skull Forest was their graveyard.”
Erhi pulled her hands off my ankle, but the spirits continued healing me. “I lived there for years. I didn’t see any bones.”
“They burned them back then,” I said.
“Not exactly,” Khulan said. “Going to the Spirit Realm makes your body stronger in the short term, but in the long term, your body degrades to dust. Sometimes while you’re still alive. They didn’t choose to burn their dead. Their dead became ash regardless, and that ash seeped into the soil of the Split-Skull Forest. The dragons were the first to notice what was happening to the land. Some men saw it too, but others…. Others wanted to keep drinking from the Spirit Realm.”
“Let me guess,” Batu said. “The ones with the magical powers won?”
“Easily,” Khulan said. “And after they killed the men who opposed them, they turned on the dragons. At that point, not even the dragons could stop them. The forest was where they buried men. The First Capital was where they slaughtered dragons. The First Capital’s foundation is soaked in dragon’s blood. That’s why it hasn’t decayed like the forest. The blood preserves it. But the blood preserves men too. That’s why he chose it—”
The wind slammed the door against the cupboard, whistling through the gap. The spirits surrounding my ankle froze. Erhi shifted closer to me. Batu’s hand rested on the hilt of his sword.
“But Oktai,” Khulan continued, unshaken, “has always been jealous of him. I could tell by the way he looked at the throne. Even by the way he tried to speak sometimes. For the last few years, however, Oktai graduated from mimicking his voice and acting with the same authority to… darker aspirations.”
“Darker how?” I asked.
“People kept disappearing around the First Capital,” she said. “I had one of my men look into the number of similar disappearances in every city on the continent. There weren’t many disappearances… except in Oktai’s territories: hundreds of people every year. The bandages on his body. The disappearances. They both started happening at the same times. I’d hear about a small mining town being stripped clean of life, and the next day Oktai would have new bandages in different places, covering up burns.”
“He’s using people… to gain those abilities somehow,” I said.
Khulan nodded. “I think so. Everyone on this continent has some amount of spiritual energy in them. Kublai, you take energy directly from the Spirit Realm, but he’s taking it from people. He’s using them like twigs on a fire. I didn’t put it together until I saw him in action today. You don’t turn into that without sacrifice. And the fact that he’s used hundreds of people means he’s even more powerful than he appears.”
“That explains his entrance,” I said. “He wasn’t trying to make a statement. He was absorbing the people in the upper district.”
Erhi reached for my arms and put them together. She started waving her hands over them, summoning more spirits to heal me.
“I should have seen it sooner.” Khulan leaned against the wall. “I had my suspicions, but…”
“When you say absorbing,” Batu said, “do you mean to tell me that he ate the upper district?”
“I… suppose,” she replied.
“I would have thought the fat one would be up to that particular task,” Batu said.
“It was a joint endeavor,” I said. “Erhi, how much longer—”
Erhi glared at me. “Don’t. Even. Think. About. It.”
“Oktai is using people to fuel his power trip.” I looked into her eyes. “I can’t just let him burn his way through Karakhorum—”
“If you face him like this, you’ll be the one he burns through,” Erhi said. “Then he’ll just go on burning whoever he likes.”
“I’ll make sure he dislikes me,” Batu said.
“That won’t be too difficult, brother,” I said. “Some might say you have a particular talent for making others dislike you.”
“Don’t worry.” Batu nudged Erhi. “Oktai probably doesn’t like Kublai either.”
“After I threw a rock through his chest, I would assume not.” I stood, shaking the tiny spirits off my arms.
Erhi tugged on my arm, trying to keep me down.
“Erhi,” I said. “I need you to heal the injured citizens as much as you can.”
“I still haven’t finished healing you.”
I felt the flesh on my arms. It felt rough, rougher than an ordinary burn, and the spirits had mended the cracks into mostly-healed scars. “I’m fine.”
“Are you sure?” Khulan asked. “I can’t have my allies dying in a storage room.”
“So we are allies now.” I grinned. “Welcome to my empire.”
“Empire?” Khulan raised an eyebrow. “Is that what you’re hoping to achieve?”
“Part of it, at least,” I said. “Batu, I need you to scout for Oktai. Anything strange should be considered a lead. A man on fire tends to leave an impression on people.”
Batu nodded. “Needle in a haystack, except the needle’s evil and on fire? I’ll find him.”
“Erhi,” I said. “Heal as many people as you can, but don’t push yourself beyond your limits.”
Erhi got up and hugged me. “I would say the same to you, but I know you won’t think twice about pushing yourself. Just… don’t die.”
“Bold of you to assume he think’s once about pushing himself beyond his limits,” Batu said.
“Bold of you to assume I think I have any limits.” I walked to the cupboard and slid it away from the door. Erhi slipped out. Batu gave a little bow as he followed her.
Khulan stepped forward, but I put my hand out in front of her.
“What, do you have a mission for me too?” She smiled briefly.
“It’s not your fault,” I said. “For not seeing what Oktai was doing.”
She looked out the window. “I should have seen it. I just assumed his cities were riddled with crime and it was a coincidence that he got new bandages.”
“Did you see Batbayar’s scheming?”
“Blind men could see that fool for what he was.” She chuckled slightly. “I actually got my interests in gambling establishments because of him. He frequents… frequented this place called the Empty Grape, and I ended up buying it for the eyes and ears. It took him three hours to spill his entire plan for quelling the revolutionary factions in his cities. Six to reveal his… private activities.”
“But you saw him for what he was, and look at him now.” I put my hand on her shoulder. “Just like you saw Oktai for what he was. He won’t end up any better than Batbayar.”
She put her hand on mine. “I can’t just walk up to Oktai, though.”
I smiled. “I can.”
“If we knew where he was,” she said. “Batbayar was in front of me. Oktai might not even be in Karakhorum anymore.”
I patted my satchel, the map protruding beneath the leather, and smiled. “Everywhere is within walking distance when I have the map.”
“If it doesn’t kill you first,” she said. “Her name was Erhi, right? She said you couldn’t use it for a while.”
My smile died. “I don’t have a choice if Oktai is killing people in my city.”
“If he’s still in Karakhorum.”
“If he’s in any city,” I said. “Here, Ulaanbaatar, the First Capital, Daarkhan… They’re all my citizens.”
“Then you really don’t belong on the Council of Lords. Everyone on the Council thought every city was theirs and none of the citizens were. The Council just sat, safe in our courthouses and walled palaces. Meanwhile, citizens were getting beaten or worse, and we wouldn’t even toss them a rag to wipe their blood.” She looked down. “I can’t say I was any better than the rest of the Council, in that regard.”
I lifted her chin with my finger. “I can’t say that you were, but I can say that you’re helping them by helping me.”
“That’s what everyone says.”
“Not everyone’s actually trying to help them, though.”
She paused. “Normally, I’d be more cynical, but I… I trust you, for some reason. It probably has something to do with the fact that I’m not, well, a pile of ash—”
A rush of footsteps cut Khulan off. I peeked through the crack of the door. A dozen men and women, all unscathed, ran up to Eeluk. I strained my ears to hear.
“…a man on fire forced his way into our home.”
“…barely got away.”
I glanced back at Khulan. “Guess I’ll be saving others from becoming piles of ash sooner than I thought.”