Tao returned to the inn only to find his room empty. Zhi had wandered off somewhere, no doubt drunk, his tinker’s pack left strewn next to his bed. Fu was curled up in a tight ball on Tao’s pillow, her feet gently twitching as she dreamed. Tao didn’t bother to move her and collapsed at the foot of his bed. His arms were heavy, his legs were led, and all he wanted was the deep, dreamless sleep of the dead.
A dark hallway stretched out before him, light trickling from the single door at its end. A dreaded fascination crept over Tao – a dark compulsion that moved him foot by foot, inch by unwilling inch, closer to the door. And when he finally peered through its opening, he saw a young man, no older than him, sitting in meditation by a brazier. The light of the flames gleamed off his shaved head, his eyes closed in concentration. Tao wanted to speak, to get closer, and he felt himself cross the threshold into the room.
The young man opened his eyes and watched as Tao came to him. Tao tried to speak, but his voice caught in his throat. The young man shook his head slowly, side to side, and put a finger to his lips. Tao was silent as the young man stood up and walked to a small desk. He removed a black, lacquered box, its wood glowing like obsidian in the firelight. He sat back down in front of Tao, removing a small knife from the box. He held the blade almost reverently, his eyes transfixed on the glint of its edge.
He then looked to Tao and spoke, his voice drifting from his mouth as if he was very far away. “It’s dangerous to wander through a dream alone.”
The young man smiled, before plunging the the dagger into his own chest.
Tao awoke gasping for air. His wild eyes searched the room, as he struggled to remember where he was. Fu whined, her paw gently scratching his side. Tao looked at her and breathed. A dream. It was another dream. Tao steadied himself and walked to Zhi’s pack, fumbling to find a beer squirreled away amongst the pots and pans inside. Tao opened it, and took a deep sip. They were getting worse, the dreams. Realer. Darker. Tao shuddered at the memory of the blood, and downed the beer. Only a days earlier, he had seen three dead bodies. Now he was dreaming of them. How was going to make it to Xiangbala?
Tao needed to get up – to walk around, move, and forget. He left the room, purposely closing the door to keep Fu from following after him. But as he was descending the stairs though, he heard Zhi and the old innkeeper, Ming, talking in hushed voices in the lobby. Something about their tone stopped Tao at the foot of the stairs.
“When you’re young, you think you’ll gain experience – perspective – when you get older,” Ming said. “But now I’m old and all I have are doubts, and all I see is confusion…”
“That’s called Alzheimers in the outside world,” Zhi returned.
“Don’t be a smart ass… There’s something very wrong with Xiangbala.”
“Leave Xiangbala to its sages. Have the whole thing collapse into itself for all I care.”
“Cheng was murdered,” Ming said. There was power in his voice – anger – and for a moment the entire night was cowed by it. Silent. Ming continued, his voice barely a whisper now. “I still remember when you two first came to me in Xiangbala. That boy is gone now. Dead.”
Tao couldn’t be sure, but he thought he heard Ming cry then.
“And I buried him,” said Zhi. “I lowered him into the earth and buried my best friend. I still have the dirt under my fingernails. I don’t know who killed him or what they’re planning. But I know their next target… I kill them. Every. Last. One of them.”
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