The hallucinations are much more vivid this time. The sudden shock wakes him from his sleep, like the start of every day. But soon after the bursts of pain fade, and he plunges into the strange world once more.
It’s cold. So very cold. When Shu opens his eyes, a sheet of frigid white stares back at him. His vision sharpens. He lowers his head even more, and notices a pair of torn leather shoes where his feet are. His feet are a lot smaller than he remembered. Then, as his eyes glaze over to the rest of his body, he realises his feet aren’t the only things that are small.
Shu’s heart skips a beat. There’s no mistaking it－ this is a child’s body.
“What’re you looking at?” a voice calls from behind. It’s a boy. The voice－ so familiar and yet… there’s something odd about it. Something not quite right.
Shu slowly turns around, and the sight punches him with a fistful of emotions. Shock at first. Then, confusion. And finally, dulling into an aching sense of dread or horror. It’s a boy of his age, with short silver hair and sidelocks long enough to touch his shoulders. But it’s those unmistakable dark grey eyes that crystallise Shu’s suspicions.
“Song?” he asks shakily, both from the cold and the apprehension of the boy’s answer.
There’s no way. There’s no possible way.
“Song, is that… really you?”
“Hah? What’re you talking about? Of course it’s me.” The boy who bears the splitting image of Song’s childlike form tilts his head, looking a little more concerned now. “Oi, you all right? You don’t seem like yourself. Cold?”
That monotone voice, the cold, every bit of sensation he’s feeling right now－ they all feel real, too real for it to be a mere dream.
Something isn’t right… wait, what was I doing before this? Though everything is confusing right now, he knows they’re supposed to be older than this. What happened to their present forms?
“So the cold really did freeze your brain. What a drag.”
Song moves over to embrace him. Snow continues to land all around them, but Song’s warmth is like a blanket that blocks the cold out. An abstract feeling sprouts within Shu. He knows where he is－ when he is, rather. Their age and their rags give it all away.
Song eventually releases Shu. “Come on, let’s go already. I’m starving.”
They both make their way through the neighbourhood of ramshackle houses. Shu recognises the place. It’s at one of the corners of Bai Hu town, a slum district called An Huo Chun. By five, they’re accepted as Initiates and thrown out of the Palace during nightfall each day. Like all Initiates, they weren’t given a place in the Palace to live in. The purpose was to force them to be independent and self-sufficient in a harsh world like this. Most Initiates chose to live in the slums because of they blend in with these paupers better than the average townsfolk.
“Winter sucks,” Song grumbles as they jog through the narrow alleyways. “No birds to catch.”
“That won’t stop me though.”
His footsteps are brisk and his posture is slightly hunched; there’s also a raise from his usual pitch, and the way his eyes are gazing forward intently－ Song’s younger self is so much easier to read. He’s excited. Whenever he looked like this back then, it could only mean one thing.
“Let me guess,” Shu says. “It’s ‘harvesting’ season.”
“Did you even need to ask?” Song smirks.
The vast majority of the slum district is poorly illuminated, with only a small lantern hung at sparse intervals on the streets. Most of the people around these parts usually gather at the makeshift fire pits. Along the way, Shu notices that there are still tramps lying about on the sides of the streets and in alleys, huddled beneath their blankets for warmth against the wintry night, half-starved. Shu remembers those days. Many of these people will die even before the worst of the winter arrives. The only service that the city guards will do for them is to clear their bony corpses off the streets by the end of each day.
Interestingly, Shu has never met a single Initiate in such a sorry condition before. He doesn’t remember much about the other Initiates of his time, but he knew that he and Song were resourceful enough to survive those days without help from others. Shu can only assume that the other Initiates were just like them.
“Hey, look.” Song taps on Shu’s shoulder and points towards a two-storey building ahead. It’s a general goods store, a big one.
This is wrong… Shu thinks to himself, but then his belly suddenly growls, as if to protest.
“I heard that.”
“Shut up.” Shu rolls his eyes. Stealing is wrong, but it’s much better than dying from starvation, at least. “Know a way in?”
Song ushers for Shu to follow him. They both make their way around the back alley, behind the store. Scattered around are wooden planks and bits of trash. Just a short distance away, Shu spots the entrance to the store’s basement－ a set of wooden access double doors on the floor.
“Doors are strong. Damn, kinda wish I’m a little stronger,” Song mutters.
That’s right, back when they were Initiates they still didn’t have their Arcana abilities. It was only when they were finally accepted as full-fledged Purgers were they given those powers, which involved forcefully evoking them of their beings through a ritual. But that’s a story for another time.
“I don’t know how to pick a lock,” Shu says.
Song rummages through a stack of wooden planks in the corner and pulls out a big two-handled object, connected to a metallic pincer in the front－ a lock cutter. He lumbers back with the cutter, looking lopsided thanks to its size.
“How’d you get that?” Shu asks, but he already knows the answer.
“‘Borrowed’ it from the old man.”
And by ‘old man’, Song probably meant the equipment trader from down the street, like always. After seeing his partner fumble over the huge cutter like a newborn child, Shu goes over to help him. Both boys take a handle each and give it a push, and the shackle snaps open with ease.
“Where do we put this?” Shu asks, looking at the cutter.
Song shrugs and drops it on the ground. “They’ll find it anyway even if we hide it.”
The duo open the doors and drop into the basement below. It’s pitch black, but much warmer than the air outside. Shu closes his eyes and focuses his Chi. A stream of his life force gently flows to his palm and soon, a sunseed appears in his hand. Song conjures one of his own as well. It’s one of the most basic skills taught from the Palace, so it’s no surprise even at this age they can do it.
Wooden shelves line the massive basement, forming isles, each chocked full of all kinds of goods; fishing equipment, fabric, firewood, bags, even small knives used for kitchen work are arranged neatly. But so far, no food can be seen anywhere.
As Shu continues rummaging through the basement, an unknown sense of foreboding plagues his consciousness. His stomach begins to twist in knots. And yet, he can’t seem to understand why he’s feeling like this. It’s like he’s forgetting something important.
“Whatever,” he mutters, trying to ignore those emotions. But like a rash, it simply won’t go away.
More shelves, more useless goods that aren’t food. Shu is starting to believe that the actual food items aren’t even in the basement. Maybe it’s somewhere else upstairs and they’re just walking around in circles.
A rattling noise cuts through the darkness, startling Shu. He then hears a faint hissing sound, something like a “psst” coming from the direction of the commotion.
“Song?” Shu whispers. Maybe he found something.
He makes his way towards the other side of the basement. As he presses on, the unexplainable dread deepens, so much that it’s suffocating him. Shu feels as if he’s about go mad. What’s wrong with me, he curses as the sensation slowly morphs into fear.
Shu spots a silhouette, beyond the reaches of his sunseed. He stumbles forward, desperate to return to Song’s side, desperate to escape his madness. It feels as if the darkness is silently watching him, hiding something and waiting for the right moment to pounce on him. It’s like he’s being watched every step of the way. He can’t explain why, but everything about this place is wrong.
“Song!” Shu cries out.
The light splashes over the silhouette. The figure turns around and rises in height.
It’s not Song.
The man suddenly grabs Shu by the arm. At this moment, the madness that Shu’s been repressing explodes violently. The boy screams, the emotions giving him a burst of strength to kick the man in the shin. He groans. Shu breaks free from his grip, but then topples onto the floor, dropping the sunseed. He tries to push himself back up, but his legs refuse to obey. He flails his jelly limbs, frantically trying to shuffle away.
Shu feels the man grab his ankle, then drags him against the floor. He screams again, only to have his mouth clamped by a massive hand. The sunseed rolls closer to them, and that’s when Shu is finally able to see his attacker’s features. It’s the owner of the store, a beefy bullnecked man with stubble beard, and ugly red pimples dot his face like droplets of blood.
“My my… what do we have here?” There’s a ravenous twinkle in his eyes, like a man who hasn’t eaten for days and is staring at the plumpest leg of goat he’s seen in his life. “A lost little duckling in my home? This is too good. Too good!”
The man lets out a deranged chuckle… and that alone is enough to obliterate the last fragments of Shu’s sanity. Tears stream from his eyes as he squirms weakly against his captor’s grip. Shu lashes his free leg against the man, but he doesn’t even flinch. The man lets go of his mouth to hold his other leg down. Shu lets out a half-scream, half-sob, only to be slapped hard twice. Shu can now taste iron in the corner of his mouth, but more than anything, the bitter fear balling like phlegm at the back of his throat.
“You’d better keep your mouth shut, little girl, if you know what’s good for you.” The man sneers. His hands move up against his leg, producing a tingling sensation that disgusts Shu beyond his worst nightmares. He lets out a panic-stricken cry, only to be punched in the face. “What did I say, stupid brat? There’s no one here who can you save you, no one who will help a worthless piece of thieving trash like you. You can’t even tell the authorities anymore!”
As the repulsive man laughs again, his actions are becoming even more feverish. Shu whimpers, too weak to fight back, too afraid to call out again, too pathetic to do anything. Despair, regret, resentment, all of these emotions burn hotter the more he touches him. The hatred burning within him－ he loathes the man, but more than that, he loathes himself for being so helpless.
The man then tugs at Shu’s ragged shorts, a trickle of drool leaking from the side of his chapped lips. Shu whimpers louder this time, but the man doesn’t hit him for it. In fact, he looks as if he’s relishing his pitiful cries.
“I like that sound,” the man says, allowing himself another brief chuckle. “Yes, more like that. I like hearing－”
Something smashes him from the back of his head－ a metal pot, and holding it is Song. Even under the weak lighting, Song’s infernal fury is evident from his features. With a war cry, he brings the pot down on the man again, earning himself a satisfying yelp this time.
Still trying to shake off the fear and shock, Shu flops on the ground as he struggles to get back onto his feet. Song grabs him by the arm and hauls him up, leading him away. They muddle around in the dark, knocking against shelves and merchandise. Shu isn’t even sure if Song knows where he’s trying to run to, but he lets his partner lead anyway. Running is better than sitting around and waiting for that pervert to get them.
Song suddenly stops. “Shit!” He taps his palm in front of him, and the sound of hollow wood answers him. “Back, back, back!” His grip on Shu’s hand tightens as he retreats with him.
But the both of them collide straight into a wall of flesh. It’s the shopkeeper. As he realises that, Shu instantly feels a force blasting him from the side of his face, throwing him against the wall. Then, the sound of skin cracking rends the air, followed by Song’s pained screams. Shu can’t see anything, but he can still hear his partner being beaten.
Spurred on by his partner’s cries, and he quickly channels his Chi into his hands. A sunseed forms, its weak light just enough for him to see a few good meters.
Ahead, the shopkeeper has Song pinned against the side of the shelf, slugging him in the stomach over and over again. Song gags from each blow, completely powerless. Rage gushes into Shu’s vessels, giving him strength. With a roar, he throws himself against the bulky figure. It’s like ramming against a brick wall, but he budges. The both of them crash onto the floor, and Shu quickly fires his fist against the man’s crotch. The shopkeeper groans in pain. But his victory is short-lived. Shu suddenly feels a crack on the side of his head, and he sprawls to his side.
“You worthless brat!” The furious shopkeeper grabs Shu by the head and smashes it back down. “I’m going to crush you, then ravage you. I’m going to make you my toy, and then, and then I’ll… I’ll…” He lets out a frenzied roar, foam pouring from his mouth. Then, he proceeds to hammer Shu’s head against the floorboards repeatedly. At first, Shu can feel the pain pounding on his skull, but soon after, nothing－ just the sound of wood banging that rings in his ears.
Shu’s head is suddenly released from the man’s grip. He collapses back onto the floor. Through his blurring vision, he sees something jutting out of the shopkeeper’s throat－ a silvery metallic blade, a vegetable knife. The life fades from the shopkeeper’s eyes, and he rolls to the side. Song’s body looms into view, panting, his head bloodied from the ordeal.
But the boy doesn’t stop there.
A second blade glimmers from his other hand. With eyes of demonic hatred, he screams and brings the knife down on the limp body, stabbing and stabbing as if it’s a straw dummy, filling the air with wet, pulpy sounds along with his desperate cries.
As Shu watches and listens to the terrible symphony of sounds, horror paralyses him. Song’s savagery and cruelty borders on insanity. Those stretched brows and bulging eyes of his, that agonised cry of desperation each time he plunges the blade down on the corpse－ it’s like he’s possessed, a completely different person from the lovable boy he’s known him for.
Eventually, Song ceases. The knife clatters onto the dusty floors. Song falls back, panting. The both of them lay there in the silence for a moment longer. Although the shock has left Shu’s systems, something else lingers within him; guilt perhaps, or maybe relief… or maybe even regret, Shu may never know.
Then, Shu hears a soft sob.
“I killed him,” Song whispers, sniffling, trembling slightly. “I’m… I…”
Shu’s heart shatters he listens to his beloved partner’s sobbing. Despite the pain, he pulls himself towards him. When Shu finally arrives at Song’s side, he embraces his shell-shocked partner. As he does so, Song’s heaving grows heavier, and he buries his face in Shu’s shoulder for a muffled cry.
Now, Shu is beginning to understand the strange onslaught of emotions from before. Whatever this world is, he’s experiencing the night that forever changed them both. It’s the first time that things went truly wrong for them, and it’s the first time Song killed a person.
I don’t know why I’m here now, but this night… if only I was stronger… Shu curses himself. Even now, he hates himself for his weakness. If only he was a little stronger, perhaps Song wouldn’t have needed to kill this man.
“I’m sorry,” Shu whispers, stroking his partner’s silver hair. “I’m so sorry…”
Sorry… sorry… how many times have I felt this way to him? When I was weak, he’s always been the one stepping up for the both of us. He keeps taking everything upon himself because I’m always so weak.
Amidst the swamps of regret blooms an intense love for Song. He’s always loved him, but this time there’s a deeper meaning behind this emotion. His body, his soul, his very existence itself－ he would give everything to his beloved partner if he so asks for it, if he needs it. He would do anything to keep moving forward.
I need to be stronger, so I can stop standing behind him when the going gets tough. When that happens, I want to stand beside him, together. As his partner.