I. The Past
The heady scent of tea hung heavy in the air around the tea house. The high pitched cries of the urchins hired to serve the snacks mingled with the laughter of the elders as they nibbled on melon seeds and sweet desserts while listening to the bawdy tales of the story teller.
On the second floor, slender young maidens daintily hid their mouths with their handkerchiefs, blushing furiously as they peeped at the scholars and gentlemen making their way to the nearby courthouse.
The courthouse in this town was nowhere near as foreboding and intimidating as those in other towns.
In the baking afternoon sun, the court bailiffs and runners had stripped off their shirts and rolled up their trousers. They sat near the gates of the courthouse, heartily tucking into large slices of watermelon that had been earlier chilled in the cool waters of the nearby well.
The passersby did not object to this crude behavior. Indeed, it was more annoying and problematic that some pedestrians even waved and shouted cheery greetings to the runners.
The single table in the courtroom of the building was piled high with documents pertaining to local complaints, disputes, and lawsuits. Next to the wobbling stack of documents was a plate pilled high with slices of ruby red watermelon.
And the magistrate carefully studying each document, still dressed in his official robes despite the heat, is my Master Attendant. He had at least enough sense to roll up his sleeves.
With his brush in one hand, and a slice of watermelon in the other, he looked more like a clown from some opera, and absolutely did not carry the imposing gravitas of a magistrate.
Still, a magistrate like this is arguably the best possible match for a small town like this.
The town was nestled between a mountain and a river. The clear waters of the mountain streams ensured that the children of the town grew up strong and healthy, and the constant background music provided by the flowing river was comparable to that produced by an accomplished musician and her zither. In comparison with the cities we had stayed at in the past, I much preferred living in this town.
Here, there was no need to worry about the opinions and views of other officials. And of course, the little children, who would normally have been locked in a coop in the city, were free to follow me in the streets or wander off on their own.
Nevertheless, I held some aversion meeting some shop owners who had become too familiar, and I dreaded being dragged off to one side and piled high with snacks and fruit in exchange for listening to their gossip.
"Oh, you! You simply must tell him! That boy is going to be roasting in this heat, and he still has to work!? Can you imagine how hot it must be in that silly robe? Why not get him to come outside for a bit?"
"Oh, I know! It’s been so hot these past few days! One of my neighbor's daughters, she’s at marriageable age now, why not get him to ask her out?"
It took me a considerable amount of effort to escape from the badgering and gossiping old ladies. Arms filled with sweetmeats and fruit, I staggered back to the courthouse.
At least he’d finally finished his work. Currently he had slumped backward into his chair, sweat pouring off his brow.
I selected a pear and tossed it accurately at his head.
"Auntie Zhang sends her regards. And Auntie Li is asking if you have the time to see the second daughter of the family that lives next door."
To his credit, he had not reacted at all to being struck in the head by a pear. However, he did show a sign of life when I mentioned the second daughter.
"Hm… Oh, please spare me… She’s twice as wide as me, and isn’t she already engaged to that chap from the butchers’ shop?"
I pulled up a chair next to his and sat down to inspect the documents he had signed. Most of them were just minor disputes and complaints. I couldn’t help shaking my head, sighing as I replaced the cases.
The wreck in the chair next to mine turned sharply at the sound, eyes narrowing as he glared coldly at me.
"Speaking of which, if you’re free enough to wander in the streets, why not help me with the paperwork?"
"Keep on dreaming. This is your job, you ought to do it well. Also, that young lady from West street gave me a letter to pass to you. I’ve left it in your private quarters."
"The heck!? You could have said it earlier! Ah, right, I bought you a new tobacco pipe earlier, and a nice pouch for your tobacco. I left it in my drawer somewhere, help yourself to it – it was pretty pricey. Anyway, see you around, I gotta reply to her at once."
In a flash, the man leapt from his chair and dashed toward the door, nearly killing himself when he tripped and stumbled on the floor. I sighed again.
Still, those were good times, and I remember once thinking that in this way, I would watch him mature, find a wife, have kids, and in due time, be surrounded by his grandchildren and great grandchildren. As peaceful and innocent as the town we now lived in.
A thin layer of snow lay upon every roof, and young grass shoots had begun to push themselves out of the snow, speckling the ground with pinpricks of green. Where in the past, the villagers would have gathered to idly chatter while drinking tea and watching the snow melt, there was now only silence, and an oppressive atmosphere of death.
The snows of winter had fallen too heavily that year, smothering not just the farmlands, but burying the roads, cutting off the town from the rest of civilization. The snow piling up on the familiar mountains surrounding the village had all too frequently come crashing down in an avalanche, and many had been buried alive under a wall of crushing ice.
Starvation, disease, and pestilence followed in its wake. In a single season, the peaceful town was brought to the brink of destitution.
One by one, the merchants shuttered their businesses. Early in the season, lanterns had been hung outside the houses to guide passers-by home in the dark winter. Lanterns still hung from the doors, though the character painted on them in black ink indicated that the household was in mourning. All neighborly spirit had deserted the villagers.
My Master Attendant was frustrated and agitated by the tragedy that had befallen the village. Food and grain from his stores, which should have been used to feed his wife and child, were distributed to the villagers who were dying of starvation. In front of my eyes, the man who had once filled out his robes grew thin and sickly.
His young son would often cry himself hoarse from hunger. I repeatedly advised him to at least leave his own son enough to eat. He never gave me a response, hugging his son desperately while his heart ached and his hands went white from exertion.
And so, the despair of the townsfolk led them to easily fall into the grasp of twisted salvation.
A sinister and vile rumor began spreading in the town.
At some point in time, the warm gentle smiles of the townspeople were replaced with drunken and blazing intense smiles.
Slowly, the intensity of the smiles grew into a kind of insanity.
The empty streets filled up once again. Crowds of devotees flooded the roads, headed toward the shrine of a cult that had been secretly constructed in the dead of winter.
Master Attendant decided to investigate and made inquiries.
The brainwashed masses gathered at the shrine had all said one thing, and nothing else – their new god was great. It was as if their personalities had been erased, leaving nothing but unfathomable faith in this strange god.
It began with tithes of gold and silver. Soon, it was beautiful young women and men, to serve the priests directly. Finally, it was human sacrifice. Entire families would commit ritual suicide to appease their vile deity.
Even Master Attendant’s runners had fallen to the snares of the abominable faith. Before long, I was the only one left standing by my Master Attendant’s side. But what could we do?
Just as he was driving himself mad trying to think of a solution, a strange man dressed in long robes and covered in sinister tattoos called upon him at his home. He brought with him gifts of exotic food and chests stuffed full of jewels, gold, and silver.
"All we require from you is to report all the deaths that have occurred here in this town as having been caused by the harsh winter when you send your annual report to the officials in the capital. If you are willing to turn a blind eye to our existence and expansion, all these gifts will be yours."
"What exactly are you trying to do?"
"We just want prosperity."
"Human sacrifice? You just want prosperity? And those drugs you’re forcing on people at your shrine!? Is that just for prosperity too!? You are destroying lives and killing people!"
"It simply makes their faith stronger. Especially since they’re unable or unwilling to pay the cost of losing their faith."
"I will destroy you."
"… Well, I hope you don’t live to regret your words today. My offer still stands. If you ever change your mind, just have that fellow beside you come to the shrine to find me."
As a Food Soul, my actions were limited to protecting my Master Attendant from frontal attacks, traversing dangerous places, and completing dangerous tasks on his behalf. When my Master Attendant’s spirit has been crushed so utterly, I was also able to reassure him that he was not alone.
I arrived at the so-called Shrine. At the time, the priests had yet to start burning the herbs they normally used in place of incense. Even so, the stone tiles of the floors had been exposed to the repulsive hallucinogenic herb for so long that they continued to faintly exude its vile stench.
The vile stench of the herb added yet another dimension to this grotesque parody of a temple, with its strange totems and detailed carvings of Fallen Angels, making the tableau of the child lying on the sacrificial altar all the more disconcerting.
I knew this child. She had once helped me to care for my children while I was working. An adorable young girl with a sweet smile. How have things come to this point?
"Peking Duck Big Brother, why do you always walk around with so many ducklings?"
"Peking Duck Big Brother, where did you get the pipe you’re always smoking?"
"Peking Duck Big Brother…"
I gently lifted up her body, and brushed her unkempt hair. Then I retied her hair ribbons, the red stains on them already slowly turning brown.
It was all I could do for her.
When I returned to the dilapidated courthouse, my Master Attendant was seeing his family off. He was sending them to a town far away, where he knew they would be safe. I understood that he had made a decision from which there was no return.
We set off for the capital of the Light Kingdom that day.
Despite his old and tattered magistrate robes, his figure was far more noble and honorable than the Capital’s officials, whose brilliant and brand-new robes of office could not hide the stench of corruption.
The "esteemed guest" standing behind the official was all too familiar to Master Attendant and I. I could not help tightening my grip on my pipe.
Yet, my Master Attendant, who had never in his life been a patient man, proved more prudent in this instance than I had ever known him to be. He stepped in front of me, as if sensing my intentions.
"My lord, what is the meaning of this?"
"My guest, the Messenger of the Sacred Deity has requested to meet with you as well. He wishes to know if you have changed your mind?"
The official arrogantly gestured at the lavish decorations and trappings that surrounded us, showing off his wealth.
Ah… so that's what had happened to all those requests for aid and all the food that could have averted the meaningless starvation and death. They were traded for gold.
When we returned to the inn we were staying at, I asked him if he needed my help. He surprised me with his reply.
"This is a fight between humans, and I don’t want a dear and treasured friend like yourself to be dragged down into this swamp. All I ask is that you protect my wife and my son."
I stared into his earnest eyes, and vowed to respect his decision. Just like when he decided he’d rather serve as official in a small town on the outskirts of the kingdom, rather than in the Capital city, I believed that he had a good reason.
The outcome was not the one I had hoped for.
However good a reason he might have had, the imperial troops that stormed into our room shortly after, on orders of the Emperor himself, did not give him a chance to explain. Before I could act, he had already been forced to the ground, unable to move.
Even then, his eyes remained the same as they had always been. He would not run.
And so, my Master Attendant lost this battle without swords before the fight had even started.
I stood outside my Master Attendant’s cold and damp cell, staring at his scarred body. I knelt down beside the prison bars, and slowly passed him the official notice which had been issued to every household.
The most honest and honorable person I had known was about to be branded a traitor and a criminal, to be spat upon in contempt by the masses, carrying a blame that was not his to bear as he walked to the hangman’s noose.
"Is this worth it? I can take you away, to your wife and son."
"Make sure they get away safely… but this is the end for me. As the master of my house, as the father of my son, as the husband of my wife, I am unable to fulfill my responsibilities and my duty. However, I am a citizen of my country. The law must be obeyed. If I do not suffer for sins the people are certain I have committed, then what would be the point in having a law."
"Is that worth it? Giving up so much for a law that plays with the lives of man and punishes the honest? I can take you away, back to your wife and your son."
"It’s worth it. Believe me. I know it’s hard to accept right now, but there may come the day where my name will be washed clean, the true sinners are punished, and my decision today will become the mirror with which humans judge themselves."
"There’s one more request I’d like to make."
"Should that day come, kindly take a history book containing a record of this incident, and burn it for me that my soul may give it a read..."
I escorted the woman and her son to a safe haven in a town near a peach blossom forest, then made haste back to the capital.
I was just in time to collect the man’s ashes and bones where they had been scattered in the grass for the dogs.
IV. Historical Records
The mistakes in history must be corrected.
If no humans are up to the task, then I will just have to do it myself.
The most laughable and insulting thing about the whole affair: Since I hadn’t acted when Master Attendant was seized by the guards, I was able to infiltrate their organization without any real difficulty.
And so my position in the organization rose, and my knowledge of the darkness grew with every passing day. Sins and crimes were committed of a nature so vile they could no longer be put into words.
And finally, I possessed the right to stand atop the organization built on the bones and blood of countless innocents. But the organization had become a "kingdom."
I had enough information to know the truth, but I had not obtained the evidence that would shatter the false history and force people to change their minds and accept the truth.
And so I stood on soil stained black by the evils of humanity, watching everything.
From the old men squatting by the road, to the young women laughing and giggling with their friends, and, yes, the self-declared ruler of the independent city state. None of them would be forgiven.
As luck would have it, a certain individual chose this time to sneak into my study. I could not have been more delighted.
This bloodstained country did not deserve to exist.
I observed the Food Soul for some time. She did not seem aware that this so-called country itself was a disguised existence – an existence akin to a monster that devoured the flesh and blood of the weak. She also seemed to be unaware of my purpose.
When I had completed my preparations and finally appeared before her, she had in her hands the black history book, containing a record of the blood and tears of the countless dead that had been sacrificed to bring about this country.
"I need you to record everything you see, so that what happens will go down in history."
Night was the best coffin to bury evil in. I would not allow these people to die under the light of the sun.
The explosives I had prepared throughout the city-state detonated simultaneously. Chains of explosions rang out as showers of sparks and flame burst into the sky in a deafening roar, replacing the blackness of night with the red of fire.
And the flames that licked at the sky would weave a dream from which this "country" would never awake.
It had been a cloudless night, the moon hanging bright in the sky. Master Attendant loved nights like these. Now rolling clouds of oily, black smoke obscured the sky, while infernos raged in every corner of the country.
The wails of the dying rang above the roar of the flames, a harmony of despair.
Finally… It’s almost over…
The flames devoured the entirety of the country.
All sins and evil alike drowned in a sea of fire and tongues of flame. And so the fires purified all: tea houses glowed red as they burned, music halls and opera houses twisted in the cleansing heat and collapsed in on themselves, leaving nothing more than a memory of opulence.
The fire raged on for a full night.
As the sun rose, its rays still could not chase the chill from my soul.
My spiritual energy was almost completely used up. After all, mere explosives and gunpowder were not enough to exterminate all survivors. Still, perhaps I had pushed myself too far.
Selfishly, I transmitted a shred of my remaining spiritual energy into the sole witness, the sole survivor, infusing her with life and forcing her to remain in this world.
"I seem to recall that you made me a promise that you would record everything, did you not?"
V. Peking Duck
History has always been filled with blood and darkness.
The history of one particular country, however, could be said to be the darkest.
Originally an impoverished and dying town, it slowly became powerful and wealthy.
They did so by invoking the name of a false god, and conned, and lied, and swindled.
They had obtained a peculiarly shaped rock from somewhere, which, when used in combination with several common confidence tricks and a powerful hallucinogenic herb that grew in abundance in the outskirts of the town, was enough to convince the desperate and despairing townspeople that they were witnessing the miracles of a vile deity.
And in the shrine of the vile deity, the hallucinogenic herb was burned while the worshipers prayed. The unbelievers were identified as the source of the disaster that befell the village, and put to death. Then their false god granted a boon, small miracles to further earn their devotion. Those whose faith was found wanting would have their families drugged into stupor.
It was simple, brutal, and effective. And it was enough for a people driven to desperation by the hopelessness of their lives to find their new faith.
Tithes were collected. Food at first. Then gold. Then human sacrifice.
The riches taken from the people would then be used to bribe the authorities, allowing them to hide their tracks and giving them greater leeway to operate and expand.
In a short time, these tactics allowed the cult in this small town to amass incredible riches and power, rivaling that of a small country.
And the leader of this organization, having spent a great deal of time enjoying the toxic fruits of his efforts, decided to take the next step and build his own kingdom on the blighted land.
Only those who had committed great sins had the right to enter and thrive in this kingdom, built on land that had once been so dry and desolate that the wells contained only bitter, brackish water.
Every person seeking residence in this new country was forced to record their sins in a black book, and provide evidence of their sins to its leader. In this way, the country protected itself from the possibility of traitors and betrayal.
The country, possessing unimaginable wealth and power, allowed itself to become a safe haven to the worst criminals, thieves, and murderers on the continent.
And in this tiny country, comprised of a single city, it was those whose sins were the greatest, for whom evil came as easily as breathing, who truly held power and authority.
And this country was destroyed in a single night.
All the crimes and evil that had been hidden by careful application of wealth, power, and murder were exposed.
Peking Duck stood in front of a nameless tomb erected in the outskirts of the Capital. Slowly, he tore pages out from the book, holding them to the candle until they had burnt to ash.
When he had completed his task, he stood up, turning to the old woman and her son, who had been allowed to return to the capital now that her husband’s name had been cleared. He gently patted her shoulder reassuringly.
"Now, even if we carve his name onto the tombstone, no one will ever spit on it."
He left the two of them crying quietly in front of the tomb, and noticed Yuxiang waiting for him from a tree some distance away.
Before the "king" of the so-called country had died, he had tried to bargain with Peking Duck for his life. He had offered Peking Duck a "tool of the Gods."
Peking Duck removed the item from his breast pocket.
"He told me, someone had given this to him. I can feel the essence of a Food Soul radiating from it."
"From the records I found, the Cult had once sacrificed a Food Soul to their deity. The remains were never found."
"So, while I have completed what you asked of me, I have still yet to start enacting my vengeance."