In his mind, his people screamed, and the monastery burned.
It was always burning, every time he visited. Always in a perpetual state of partial ruination, flames licking and crawling up the tumbled stone. Banners blazed, calligraphy going up in ink-black smoke. Ancient statues and works of art were put to the hammer, the torch, the boot. The Crimson Host destroyed everything it touched, or could pull down with a prybar. The same tools took man and woman apart just as easily, and with more pleasure.
His shade wandered through it all, lifeless, invisible. His swords burned in his dreaming fists, aching to be real, to be soaked in red. As ever, he was unable to touch the events around him. As ever, he longed to change the past.
The screaming eddied, flowed around him, seemed to come simultaneously from distant lands and right behind him. His sandaled feet carried him from room to blackened room, watching his friends kill, and die, and return to life to die again. Everywhere, the red warriors of the invaders, laughing, roaring, smashing centuries' worth of knowledge and work. He ground his ethereal teeth, but no tears came. This was a scene he had visited many times before, and his tears had long since ceased to flow for it.
And then, change. One monk flew backwards from a spearthrust to the sternum, to land at his feet. He had seen this many times before; his foot was half-raised to step around the expected casualty. But the face was different. The face was strange, and earless, the fur around the muzzle stripped away. Blood flecked in her dying eyes. The look on her face was one of surprise, and pain, and disappointment.
His mouth opened, just a little, and he bent to tend to her wounds. As ever, his hands passed through her form. She bled to death in a matter of seconds, twitching, trying insanely to smooth her robe before she passed.
Thousand Roads looked around. Everywhere now, the snow-white fur of the novices was on fire, or being pulled from skin, slowly, to cause as much hurt as possible. Some blazed from head to toe, tails thrashing, claws extended in twisted curves. Men in red carried off ears and heads as trophies, strung them to their armor -
The monk awoke with a start, breathing sharply. His hands clenched around Rainfall in Spring, blade unbidden in his hands. He blinked once or twice, and swung over the side of his bed, to the floor of the cabin.
A few long minutes passed as he endeavored to control his breathing, his heart. Yaicha breathed deeply behind him somewhere, lost in dreams of silver and gold. Omi shivered in her sleep, caught in the throes of her own dreamland. A name kept forming on her lips, over and over. Elsewhere, the Phoenix dozed lightly, feathers flickering in time with her breathing. Kumir merely lay still, as if dead. Thousand Roads offered the last a look of concern, almost brotherly in its warmth, before he stood.
Perhaps a walk would calm his nerves. Some active meditation, yes. That was what he needed.
A few steps carried him out into the night air, down the steps, and up the path towards the tavern. It was long past anyone else would be awake, he reasoned, though the night was warm and quiet. People here kept strange habits, and sleeping until after the dawn was one of them. The monk frowned to himself. So many people sleeping at all was strange. The Shattered City still didn't feel quite right, no matter how he tried to integrate himself. Perhaps it never would.
He was so engrossed in this train of thought that he didn't notice the shadow detaching itself from the the treeline until it was almost upon him. Frozen Smoke sprang into his hands, and his feet planted themselves firmly on the gravel.
"Who goes on the road?" he called, the challenge traditional and strong. No one was ever up this early, not even the kind farmer who gave him sweet coffee. These were his roads, this early, an hour before the gloaming and the red dawn.
"A wanderer, like yourself," the voice replied. The figure stepped closer. It wore green and black-spattered pants, flowing gently in the breeze. Its chest was uncovered, revealing a muscled chest and faded, swirling tattoos. His eyes were piercing, judgmental. A ruined kimono stretched loosely over his back.
Hundreds of naked blades jutted from the figure torso and extremities. They clicked and chimed as he walked towards the monk. Every last one was clean of blood or gore, and they shone in the fading moonlight.
"Oh," Thousand Roads remarked, sheathing his blade and continuing past the stricken man. "It's you. Go away, if you please."
But the figure fell into step beside him, and kept pace easily. "You know I can't do that," it replied casually.
Thousand Roads shook his head. "Of course you can. Just...go bother someone else. I'm out for a walk, not a killing spree."
"You would wish me on someone else?" the blade-man replied. "One of your friends, perhaps? Omi, do you think? Would she enjoy my presence? Or Kumir? Though I am given to understand his head is pretty crowded as it is." A pause, and the figure smirked. "Or Trixie, perhaps?"
The monk sneered, and spared a glance for the offender. "Fine," he said, almost spitting the word. "Stay with me. But keep quiet. I'm trying to think."
Together, the two men strode up the path, past the empty tavern and the ruined halls of Upper Town. Night insects chirped and sang to one another, but fell silent as the pair passed by. A long blacksnake crept past, but upon seeing the approaching men decided it had urgent business elsewhere, and slithered back into the grass. Nothing bothered them as they made their way past the buildings, towards the upper fields, and the edge of the mists.
The blade-man made music as he walked. The swords banged and clattered against one another, sending ringing tones echoing throughout the night. Thousand Roads found the noise comforting, almost beautiful, though it was made from such ugly instruments, and there was an undertone of formless screams. He did his best to ignore the noises, and keep walking.
"Where are you going?" the blade-man asked, voice tinged with curiosity.
"Up to the field, I suppose," the monk replied. "I don't know. Elsewhere. I need to think."
"Think? What about, pray?"
Thousand Roads shook his head. "As if you don't know," he muttered, stepping over a sky-blue wildflower.
The blade-man grinned. "You're worried for the monks of this world," he decided, after a moment's apparent consideration. "You're afraid for the Snowbound Temple."
"You aren't really afraid for them. Not really." A two-handed sword clashed into a short stabbing blade; the sound was irritating, jarring. "You hope they get attacked."
Thousand Roads stopped and slapped his hand out with incredible speed, teeth bared in the darkness. His fingers smashed into the hilt of a broadsword, and he pulled back the wounded paw with a hiss.
"I don't hope it happens," the monk of the Way growled. "I hope they live in peace for the rest of their lives."
"Oh, don't lie to yourself," his companion said. "You want someone to come attack those monks. You want them to spill blood and light fires. You want this because you're not done killing yet. You want your revenge. I want our revenge." A chuckle, dark and low. "You can't just come through some magic gate, away from all that death, and just turn back into a peaceful doddering monk of the Way, you know."
"Be silent. You're just a sword," Thousand Roads frowned. He made to keep walking, but couldn't quite bring his sandals to move forward.
"Just a sword?" The figure reached into his chest and grabbed a thick bluesteel blade by the hilt. In one swift pull, he drew the weapon out and held it flat for inspection. "I saved you from this sword, do you recall? It was inches from your ribs, intent on your heart. I leapt to your defense, saved you from the cultist and his friends. Or this?" He ripped another blade from his lower thigh, this one decorated with gold filigree and rubies. "That warlord's overhand swing? I stopped it cold, broke this blade in half and tore into his eye. Or do you remember these?" Two short blades this time, cold and simple. "The Mad Master Ripping Crow's swords? When he attacked your group from within, kept laughing and swinging these around? You threw me from fifteen feet straight through his throatbox. I ended him. I saved you from all of these. All of them!"
Thousand Roads spared a glance to his belt, and the blade-man sneered.
"Her? She's nothing compared to me! Barely said a word to you since the Host arrived, has she? Frozen Smoke shouldn't have come here; she's not suited for a life of war. It was a mistake to carry her along."
"She is part of me," the monk replied, looking away. "You are not."
"Of course I am. You've carried me for years this way. I'm your sullied blade, your unclean knife in the dark. When you went after the Dark Masquerade, who did you bring?"
Thousand Roads said nothing.
"When you walked the forest paths, hunting the assassins who ate your friends, who did you unsheathe for the work?"
The blade-man chuckled darkly. "Every time there is black work to be done in this town, your draw me from my sheathe. Reluctantly, sometimes; eagerly, others. When the killing would stain a pure blade such as Frozen Smoke, you use me. The blood doesn't show on the end of my steel. It sinks in, silken, forever trapped away from sight. You need me in a place like this. Admit it."
The monk said nothing, merely watched the trees swaying in the wind. The blade-man stamped his foot; his chest of swords rattled and smashed into one another.
"Admit it! You need me! You won't survive this place without me! When the monks start dying, you'll draw me first! Me, and only me! Dark work is coming, you fool, and to deny me is madness! Even you aren't that stupid!" The yells grew in volume, the man stepping forward to scream, grinning, into the monk's face. His swordhilts pressed against Thousand Roads' chest, his neck, painful and everywhere.
Squeezing his eyes shut, the monk of the Way ground his teeth and started to scream.
His eyes opened with a snap. His chest heaved. A few moments passed before he saw he was in bed, still wrapped up in his blankets. Every inch of him was soaked with sweat.
Both his hands were wrapped around Rainfall in Spring's hilt. The blade was likewise drenched in sweat.
Gasping in horror and surprise, he flung the blade down onto the floor. Its hilt banged into the wood, the blade skipping across the floorboards. Then it lay still, in the middle of the room.
Thousand Roads eyed it for a moment. He willed his heart to calm, his breath to slow. With both hands, he gripped the edge of the bed, and began to sink into a healing meditation. Seconds passed without any noise, any sound but his own lungs pushing and pulling in clean air.
Then, at the edge of hearing, a skritching sound. Metal on wood.
His eyes found Rainfall in Spring. Inch by shuddering inch, the blade was dragging itself, tip first, along the floor. The hilt bumped over knots and discarded bits of clothing. It left tiny shavings of shorn wood in its wake, heading towards the far wall.
Half a minute crept by until it lay before Frozen Smoke. The kensai blade was standing, sheathed upright by the door. Its silver hilt glinted in the moonlight.
Quiveringly, an inch at a time, the black sword tilted upright, against all reason, until its hilt rested against the other sword's sheath. It shivered slightly, as if cold, and ceased to move.
Minutes passed in silence and stillness. The monk waited for the sword to move again, but it remained motionless in the dark. A few more minutes passed before he resolved to get out of bed and go find Trixie. Despite her companion's snoring, her presence would be more than welcome tonight.
Thousand Road's feet hit the floor soundlessly. He padded to the door, and slung Frozen Smoke over his shoulder. His gaze fell to the midnight sword.
After a moment, he slung it over his back too.