I had been walking through darkened tunnels of the Underworks, trying to figure out where I was and to find a way out, when without warning everything changed. I suddenly stood amongst a forest of beautiful crystal trees, shimmering with iridescence. Overhead, three bright suns floated across a blue sky, and beneath my feet the earth had an unusual feel, soft like a bed of leaves.
But even more than the sudden change from darkness to light, I felt the change in Breath. Ever since I had realized the true nature of the Anubai concept of Breath, I could feel the Breath of the world around me. I could feel the movement within the air, the water, even within solid rock — I could hear it, like a song, a haunting, familiar melody. For the first time, I felt connected to the world around me. It was a wonderful feeling.
It was also extremely confusing. I could hear, feel, too much. Perhaps, if I had been back in the Crystal Palace beneath the Cerulean Abyss, or even by myself in some secluded part of the forests surrounding North Pine City, I might have had an easier time adjusting to my new sense of motion. But the tunnels I had found myself in, after my encounter with the Oracle, were damaged in ways that even now I find difficult to describe. There was something very wrong about the Breath in the Underworks, and I did not have nearly enough experience to unravel the ways that time and space had been twisted in that place.
Additionally, I had no idea that I was actually beneath North Pine City at that time. I had heard rumors of the Underworks, among my monster hunting peers, but I had no idea of their extent, or their strangeness. I was not afraid, of course; in my ignorance, I thought my new grasp of Breath would make me the equal of any challenge I might now face. But it was confusing, and disorienting, and I was having a difficult time making progress.
In stark contrast to the chaotic flow of the Underworks, the Breath of this new place I found myself in was placid and uniform. It sounded soothing and nostalgic to my ear, and it was such a relief after the dark tunnels of the Underworks that for a time, I didn’t even consider where I was or how I had came there.
Had I been paying closer attention, my own muted emotions might have told me exactly where I was. But in my relief, I only realized my true location when I felt the change in the Breath around me. A huge Breath streaked in my direction, drawing motion from everything around it and channelling it all into a huge, terrifying cyclone of pure destruction. If that blow landed on my body, I might have been torn apart entirely.
But Breath is movement, and movement is Breath. The movement before me, the Breath, could not possibly be opposed; but it was the simplest matter in the world for me to become one with that movement instead.
There is only one Breath.
And so, instead of tearing me apart, the Breath went alongside me, as I danced alongside the Breath. It — or rather, she — turned at the same moment, trying to swallow me up; but for all the lethal grace, I could feel her playfulness as well. Somehow, she already knew that I knew, that I could keep up with the dance; I could let the Breath move me, and not be destroyed. And she was happy.
And so I moved, and she moved, and for all it’s apparent lethality, it was just a playful dance. Both of us spun around the other, twisting and roaring, but neither of us were harmed by the forces we unleashed.
Our surroundings were not nearly so fortunate. The forces we unleashed spun with us, ripping through the surrounding crystal trees, tearing up the ground, and reducing everything to shards and debris. We danced, and the world was ripped apart — or so it seemed; but the Breath told me a different story.
Were we to perform this dance among the forests of North Pine City — and we could, I was certain of that — the surrounding life, the trees, the animals, even the monstrous beasts, would all be snuffed out, their Breath stolen to fuel our furious storm. There, the devastation would be real, and permanent.
But this place was something else; like Breath itself, no matter how it appeared, it was all one thing. One substance, one sea-like Breath; and for all that she and I stirred the surface, it was just a ripple on a placid lake. We could inflict no real damage here.
And then the dance was done, as if by mutual unspoken agreement, and we stood motionless together upon a landscape that looked much like it did before our dance began, as though the devastation we had inflicted was just an illusion all along. Between those beautiful crystal trees, I faced the black-furred Anubai woman, Marah.
The woman that the Oracle had named Bloodslayer grinned happily at me, her ears flicking with approval. “Well done, pup, well done! It’s been a long, long time since I had such an enjoyable dance!”
I answered pensively. “Thank you. But, where are we?”
“…Huh?” Marah seemed startled by my words. “What do you mean, ‘where are we’? We haven’t gone anywhere.”
“No, but… the Breath in this place is… strange,” I replied slowly, cocking my own head to listen. “It sounds… vast. And strong. But it’s so quiet…”
“Well, of course,” she answered impatiently. “This is the Crux. It’s our true home, you know, of course it’s quiet here. Especially now, with almost everyone asleep.”
“This is… the Crux?” I asked, startled. “But I didn’t fall asleep…”
“No, no, of course not,” replied Marah. “You’re the most awake of all of us, it would be big trouble if you fell asleep, you know?”
We looked at each other for a moment. Marah appeared confused, and I probably had a similar expression on my face.
Eventually, I said carefully, “Just now… I was walking through some unfamiliar, dark tunnels. In the real… in my world. The Breath there was strange and chaotic… but then I was suddenly here.” I watched Marah’s face carefully, but she just cocked her head slightly.
“…Yes?” she prompted after a few moments.
“Normally, I enter the Crux in my dreams, when I’m asleep,” I explained. “Why would I suddenly appear here while awake?”
“You are always awake, though,” protested Marah. “That’s why you can move freely in the material world, you know?”
“…I’m sorry, but I don’t understand,” I said with a sigh. I knew that I wasn’t asking the right question, but Marah couldn’t seem to understand where my confusion was coming from. In the end, she clicked out a small laugh and patted me on the back.
“Well, don’t worry about the details. I never do,” she announced happily. “The main point is, you’ve grasped your Breath now! That’s excellent! Now — can stop worrying about your progress. Ha! Who’s a worthless teacher now, — !?”
I blinked. “Sorry, what? Who can stop worrying?”
Marah snapped her fingers. “Ah, that’s right. By the structure, only the teacher can grant the student their name. So you can’t hear me if I talk about —, —, or — the Sikarnikar, right?”
“Um, no,” I said, eyeing her sidelong. I half-expected that she was just teasing me. “What is the Sikarnikar?”
“Remember that scary guy with the red fur from before? That’s his title,” said Marah, nodding. “It means… Actually, I have no idea what it means. I think a human gave it to him, originally, although I don’t remember the actual legend. His era was well before my time, and to be honest the Sikarnikar kinda scares me. He scares everyone,” she said in mock-whisper, glancing around as though he might be hiding behind one of the transparent crystal trees.
I nodded thoughtfully to myself, and said, “Sorry, I didn’t understand any of that.”
“Don’t worry about it,” Marah insisted breezily. “Just be glad he’s on your side. And your teacher, no less, you lucky pup.” She slapped me on the back again in a friendly fashion. “Don’t worry, I’m sure you’ll grasp the Path soon enough, and you can exchange names for real. And apparently he doesn’t mind being called Sikarnikar either, so you can call him that too. I wonder what it means…”
“Exchange names?” I asked, puzzled. “Does that mean something?”
“Of course!” she answered brightly. “The exchange of names represents the unbreakable bond between teacher and student. You have my name, and I have your name, and our experiences are linked…”
As she spoke, her voice became quieter, and her eyes widened in surprise as she trailed off. I watched as she coughed slightly, suddenly looking around as though to avoid my gaze. “I… did ask you for your name, right? I’m just forgetting what it was temporarily, I’m sure…”
“Um… no,” I admitted. “I don’t think you ever asked me for my name.”
We stood there in silence for a while. Eventually she said, “So… we don’t have an experience bond, then.”
“I have no idea,” I told her truthfully.
“And you couldn’t tell what I was doing in the earlier lessons,” she continued, an apprehensive look on her face.
“Not really, no.”
“Oh.” We stood in silence for a while longer. Marah scratched the side of her jaw, seemingly extremely embarrassed. Eventually she coughed, and announced, “Well, as long as you learned, that’s the main thing, right? I’m sure I won’t get in too much trouble…”
She coughed again, then finally looked back at me apologetically. “Um, can we start over? Hi, I’m Marah, what’s your name?” She looked at me hopefully, like a puppy; I was actually tempted to pat her head, but restrained myself.
“My name is Gan Zhu,” I said, or tried to say. For some reason, my own name seemed slightly foreign to my ears, as though the pronunciation was not quite right.
“Genju?” repeated Marah. “That’s an interesting name. Genju, Genju…” She murmured the name to herself a few times, before nodding. “I like it.”
I opened my mouth to tell her that she was pronouncing it wrong, but I stopped as I became aware of a new feeling inside myself. Or at least, I thought it was within myself; but when I finally figured out what had changed, I felt my eyes widen with shock. Ever since Marah had appeared before me, I could feel the Breath in her body move: that was how I managed to dance alongside her. But now I was feeling the Breath inside her from the inside; I could feel her Breath as though it were my own.
I looked at Marah, feeling slightly reproachful. “This would have made things a lot easier, you know.”
“Ha ha ha,” she laughed uncomfortably. “Well, no harm done, right? And we got to know just how much of a genius you actually are. After all, learning Breath without any guidance is a major accomplishment, you know?”
“Mm,” I said, unconvinced. “It wasn’t like I had no help at all, though. A strange woman called the Oracle gave me some hints.”
“…Huh?” This seemed to surprise Marah quite a bit. “Where did you meet another Anubai woman? It couldn’t have been —, right? You said you couldn’t hear her name yet…”
“Uh, no. It wasn’t an Anubai, it was a human woman…” I hesitated briefly, before amending, “I think she was a human, anyway. I’m not completely sure.”
“Yeah, humans are like that,” said Marah, nodding. “Not sure how she could have known anything about Breath, but whatever. It works out fine, no problem. Weird, but good.”
“…She also called you ‘Bloodslayer,’” I said hesitantly.
“Yep, that’s my title,” she said, puffing her chest out with pride. “Marah the Bloodslayer, they called me. Ah, that brings me back…”
“It sounds… rather ominous, actually,” I admitted. Marah laughed and nodded.
“Yes, it was supposed to, I think. I always rather liked seeing on the criminal postings,” she said, grinning so happily that I almost missed the significance of her words.
“Criminal postings?” I asked apprehensively.
“Yeah, that’s right,” Marah agreed. “Well, let’s see here… You know how those Blood Arte types like to gather together to play at making artefacts and societies and things, right?”
I nodded agreeably, and said, “Not even slightly.”
“Well, they do. Anyway, a bunch of them, some of the strongest at the time, had gotten together to make a cure to some plague… or to create a stronger plague, I can’t quite remember which. Anyway, it was something about the Melcine… or possibly the Purge? I’m almost positive it wasn’t humans, it usually isn’t… Well, that isn’t important. So about twenty of really, really powerful Blood types got together, and started to make their doomsday whatever.
“So I killed them,” said Marah the Bloodslayer. I stared at her blankly, which caused her to explain, “No, it really is a big deal. Those Blood types, they work well together, you know? Almost as good as us Breath types, but wordier, you know? And I beat them all together, by myself!”
I continued to stare at her as she bragged about her accomplishments. Finally, I had to ask her: “Why?”
It was her turn to stare at me blankly. “Why what?”
“Why did you kill them?”
“…I don’t understand the question,” she answered, tilting her head quizzically.
“Were they your enemies, or threatening you harm, somehow?” I pressed her.
“Not at all,” she replied. “Anubai don’t really go in for the feuding that humans seem to enjoy so much.”
“So why kill them?”
“Well, because they were powerful,” Marah replied, still tilting her head in confusion. “What other reason could there be?”
I stared at her, slightly appalled. “That… doesn’t seem like much of a reason.”
“Well, the Elders and Authorities felt the same way at the time,” she said with a laugh, “but it was reason enough for me. Of course, it’s always a crime for Anubai to kill each other, but I’m sure it was still the right thing to do. And it turned out pretty well for me, too: I got a cool title, I got chased around the whole galaxy two or three times, and when they finally executed me, I got bound to the Crux as a teacher, which means I got to teach a lot of young Breath users like yourself.
“Besides, my sentence is almost fulfilled,” she added almost as an afterthought. “So if you can dig us out of this pit of a world, and get us back in the solar winds where we belong, I might even get to undergo Samsara, and live again.
“So work hard, Genju!” Marah slapped me on the back again. “I want to get back out there and cause problems for people who probably deserve it, and you are our boat out of here.”
“I’m… not a boat,” I said bemusedly.
She waved my words off breezily. “It’s a metaphor, a metaphor… I think. Anyway, you need to get back to work already. Not that I’m not glad to see you, of course. Stop by anytime. The only people awake enough to talk to right now are — and —, and she’s annoying and he’s stuck up, and vice versa. And the Sikarnikar scares me. So yeah, I look forward to your visits.”
“Well… all right. I’ll be back, then,” I replied hesitantly. “But… how do I leave here?”
“Oh, that’s easy. You just… well, I can’t actually show you since, you know, I’m dead right now. But if you use your Breath like this–” and I could feel the Breath in her body circulate in a strange, abbreviated fashion. Intrigued, I attempted to mimic the feeling within myself; and to my surprise I felt myself rising from the Crux, and focusing back into the Prime Material Realm. Behind me, I felt the shifting Breath as Marah the Bloodslayer gave me a friendly wave, and I had to shake my at the frivolous behavior of my enthusiastic, but dangerous, self-proclaimed teacher.
It was quite literally a change between one moment and the next.
Until that point, Gan Zhu had been wandering alone, lost in the tunnels of the Underworks, unaware of his own location and unable to find his way out. He had been attacked a few times, by monstrous beasts and other, worse things; but the denizens of the Underworks were not prepared for the sheer destructive power of the Anubai Arte of Breath. But his face clearly showed his anger and frustration, and his steps lacked direction.
And then, a moment later, he stopped dead. He was still lost in the chaotic, confusing Underworks, with no idea of the correct way out; but something had obviously changed inside of him. His expression had firmed, the frustration fading away and leaving a certain confidence. A smile seemed to tug at the corner of his lips, like it was all he could do to keep from grinning. He seemed… older, more mature; as though he had suddenly gained a wealth of experience between one step and the next.
And that was, of course, the truth: he was no longer alone. Even lost in the dark, he remained connected — to his teacher, the demon woman, the Anubai, who held his name as he held hers. An unbreakable bond, born in the Crux, which no force in the three realms could sever, neither man nor god.
And so he stopped, and considered the Breath of the Underworks once more. It remained twisted and chaotic; but his instincts had sharpened, and his patience had grown deeper. He listened; and what he heard was the constants, the patterns; even in this fell location, certain places remained stable. In fact, the longer he listened, the more he became certain that the chaos around him existed solely for the purpose of protecting those stable places.
“Is this… a formation?” he muttered aloud. “But who could have made such a thing… and what kind of threat could it be sealing away…?”
And then, Gan Zhu made a choice that sealed the fate North Pine City, and of the entire Balkiri Continent. He had identified the borders of the Underworks, and a path that would lead him back to the surface, but instead–
Instead, he turned inward, toward the heart of the formation. Above him on the surface, the sun had just begun to set on North Pine City.
Tomorrow was the day of Fan Bin’s wedding. But no one — not Gan Zhu, walking deeper into the darkness; not Sun Lan, worrying over her missing maid; not even Fan Bin himself — had any idea how momentous that day would become.
Only one bald, fat man, who came and went like a phantom, even realized that something unbelievable was starting. He watched worriedly as Gan Zhu headed deeper into the tunnels of the Underworks, heading for the one place that should never have been disturbed.
“This… could be very, very bad,” announced Zebu Biel. Sadly, no one could hear his voice, and soon, even his form could not be seen.
Next Chapter >>
- You had one job, Marah. One job!! 😛
- The timing for this chapter felt a little off, but I wanted this conversation to happen before the action starts happening. The next chapter will be one more interlude with Bi’er and the Weaver, and in the chapter after that, things kick off for realz. Personally, I can’t wait. 😉
- Thanks for reading, as always! 😀