A year later, Old Chief Komi is back to practicing his writing. If anyone could give me their thoughts on the first part of The Halberd and The Fox, I would be grateful.
A soft growl from her fuzzy pillow woke Li up with a startle. Despite having lived with the massive tiger for years and serving as a guardian along side him, waking up to a tiger growling at her was still a shade unnerving. Though Ren would never do anything that would cause harm to her, primal instincts still won out over logic when her consciousness was not at its peak.
“Good morning, Ren.”
Li opened her eyes to the world, taking in the rising sun in the distance. There was something calming about waking up with the sun, her shield against the darkest spirits of the night. It had only been two days since one of those spirits had tried to claim her life. Even though she had came out victorious in the scuffle, the young spirit guardian was still spiritually shaken from the battle. Standing up and stretching, Li looked around for the young monk who had shaken her so.
The man with the long black hair hidden behind his ceremonial caretaker robes had seemed so innocent, so pure of heart. Finding out that he had allowed himself to lose his charge, adopt a vile grule spirit, and then willingly allowed that spirit to take possession of his body... Ren told her that she could trust the man after she had slain the spirit, but any soul who would care for a monster that had the blood of the innocent on its claws could not be so pure. Even though she had agreed to let him accompany the pair, Li could not help but watch him with the utmost care. If he tried to stop her or bring harm to Ren, she would be ready with weapon in hand.
Saka was not around, strangely enough. The monk had been late to rise for the past few days. Had he simply awoken early today and decided a morning walk was in order or was there something more sinister afoot. Li rolled up her blanket before securing it on Ren's back. If they needed to travel with haste, she did not want to worry about losing her few supplies along the way.
“Good morning!” Saka called out as he approached from the woods. Calming herself, Li knew that the likelihood of something evil happening in the presence of Ren was low. The tiger wasn't reacting aggressively like he had that first time. “I brought some breakfast!”
“That sounds great.”
Gathering near Saka, Li peered into the small tawny bag that the young monk pulled off of his belt of cord. Inside were a small handful of pale blueberries that couldn't have been bigger than the tip of Li's pinky finger. “Berries again?”
“I also got some leaves to brew a nice tea.”
“Berries and leaves aren't going to sustain us on long hikes or if we get attacked by rogue spirits, Saka.”
“I'm not going to kill innocents for you.”
“I want to survive, Saka. You need something solid in your belly to properly train and fight!”
“A true monk doesn't need the flesh and souls of the creatures to survive.”
From the very first meal they had shared together, this had been a hot topic between the duo. The first night that Li had brought in her catch, a rabbit, Saka had began to retch and ended up running into the forest until Li had cleaned up. The spirit guardian couldn't understand how the young monk could survive on such an insubstantial diet. While she admired that resolve in him, it hadn't served her well when it came to having a solid breakfast before another long day of traveling.
Behind her, Li could feel the slight rumble of the earth as Ren stood up and walked off into the forest. “Where is he going?” Saka asked.
“Probably to get his breakfast. If you wish, you could try and convince a tiger not to eat meat. I'm sure you'd be quite tasty.”
Saka wouldn't be baited in by her jabs. Instead, they ate the berries in silence and waited for the tiger to return.
It was late in the afternoon when they finally reached the small village that Saka had pointed out. Though not a large village, they had to have an inn. The thought of a soft bed out of the elements was an enticing one. Li patted Ren on his soft head and hopped down. “Come on, Saka. Let's go find some supplies and a place to rest for the night.”
“Why can't we ride Ren into town?”
The question brought back several poor memories of times she had tried that. “Most villages don't take kindly to large tigers lumbering through. Ren tends to accidentally cause damage to stands and buildings.”
“Like how he smashed up my shrine?”
“You don't have to come with us, Saka.”
“I will not back down from my duty, Li.”
Nor would she. Her sworn duty was to protect the world from those spirits who threatened the order. Some day, she was sure, that he would understand that it meant the she had to convince some spirits with her weapon, then that was what had to be done. Saka was not wrong, simply misguided. Before that day she had met Ren, she might have believed the same thing Saka did. Those days were long gone now, the true world of spirits shown before her.
As the duo walked into town, Li began to wonder if perhaps this was a town that did not exist in that world. The dirt paths were in ill repair, holes littering her path. No voices, either human or spirit, could be heard. She had truly walked into a void of life. In her heart, warning bells were ringing and fear was starting to creep into her heart. Her hand crept towards her blade before getting turned away by a light slap on the wrist from Saka.
“These people are scared enough without a potential bandit prowling their streets,” he said quietly. “Don't frighten them or it will be another night sleeping under the stars.”
“They are not the only ones who are a trifled scared, Saka.”
Saka gives me an encouraging smile. “A spirit guardian who travels the land with a giant tiger can get scared?” he chuckles. “It's nice to see that you have a human side, Li.”
Li sighed, unable to retort. If Ren were here, he'd be nipping at her hand for showing hesitation. Those who faced the darkness had to be fearless, else their emotions could be used as a weapon against them. Base emotions were what had allowed Saka to take in a grule and treat it like an honorable spirit; he wouldn't understand what a girl raised by the elders of the Tiger spirits had learned long ago... even if she couldn't quite perform it yet.
“There's the inn,” Li pointed out, trying to get the topic away from her shortcomings. “Let's go get dinner and a room.”
The inside of the inn was almost as vacant as the outside. The small tavern that was connected to the rooms was empty minus a short boy with long reddish-brown hair polishing the same mug again and again. Li thought she saw movement in the corner, a pair of sharp green eyes staring out at her from the darkness. When she took another glance, the pair of green was gone, disappearing into the void. If it was simply the reflection of a bottle or a person walking past, she could not tell.
“It's peaceful here, isn't it?” Saka asked.
“Is it peace or trouble?”
“Trouble.” It took Li a moment to realize it wasn't Saka talking, but the boy at the bar. “Are you here for the bounty?”
“Bounty?” Li asked. Her mind instantly drifted to the nearly empty coin purse in her pocket. “What sort of bounty?”
“Always eager to kill, are you?”
Li shook her head. “No, always eager to keep good food in my stomach and something other than Ren under me as I rest.”
The boy stared at Saka for several long moments, his face emotionless. Before Li could ask about the peculiar behavior, it finally broke into a wild grin. “Qiao! Qiao! Come downstairs! Our prayers might be answered!”
The sound of plates clattering in the back echo through the tavern. A split second later, a tall, lanky girl wearing a bright robe of fuchsia came running out of the back, looking around with a frantic on her pale face. The purple hue of the robes bothered Li a little bit. How a worker of a inn could afford the pretty robe that easily cost several gold bullion didn't make sense. Still, the warm smile and enthusiasm on her face showed a joyful girl, perhaps a trustworthy one.
“A monk! Oh, brother, our prayers to the spirits have been answered!” She ran over, almost knocking over several chairs, to grab Saka's hand. “I am Lady Qiao. We've been waiting for someone like you for so long! Xiao, get him something to drink! Some of our finest!”
“While I am grateful for your hospitality, could you please share some with my companion?”
Qiao blinked, as if seeing Li sitting there for the first time. “Oh, umm, yes. Of course.”
“I'm still upset with you, Saka.”
“As I am with you, but we are companions, are we not?”
Even though he was more of a forced companion than a chosen one, Li had allowed him to come with her. “Thanks for thinking of me, Saka.”
Out of the corner of her eye, she could have sworn that Qiao was glaring at her. The look was one of annoyance, unfitting for a inn worker... Perhaps Qiao was the owner, which would explain her rich robes. Still, that creeping fear wouldn't go away with Qiao staring daggers at her. The only source of comfort was that a spirit guardian with her armament would be more than enough of a challenge for an angry innkeeper.
The man, for seeing him up-close made Li think that he was at least over the age of responsibility, set down a mug of purple liquid with a fruity smell in front of her and one in front of Saka. Li cautiously took a sip and was almost overwhelmed by the sweet draw of the fruit drink. “I-I-It's our village's specialty,” he said with a shy stutter. “Do you like it? I make it myself.”
“I like it. I've never tried anything quite like it before.”
“Really?” he said, a smile blooming on his face.
Qiao gave her brother a tap on the shoulder. “That's enough for now, brother. We have business to take care of!”
Li's eyes narrowed, the luscious drink forgotten in the moment. “Does it pertain to why the town seems so... dead? I couldn't feel any spirits anywhere in your quaint village.”
“That's because there are none left. Ever since that... beast... arrived, things have fallen apart. The spirits that once drove our land have disappeared! People, good people, have vanished! Everyone is afraid that they are going to be the next ones. Please, we need your help to banish the spirit! Out little village has little it can offer you, but I promise warm beds and a good meal!”
Saka look tense as he thought over the offer. For Li, there was no question about it. A rogue spirit that had turned on both man and spirit alike was a threat to the land. If it ensured both the town's safety and warm beds for them, Li would not hesitate to pick up her halberd. “Saka,” she said, “I think we should help them.”
Leaning over her juice, Xiao grabbed Saka's hands. “Please, kind monk! Only you can banish the spirit and save us all.”
“I make no promises, but Li and I will help convince the spirit to stop its crimes. I fear you simply are misunderstanding it.”
Again, Saka just couldn't see that there was only one way to deal with monsters. Li bit her tongue, but said nothing against him.
“Wonderful! You are a true hero!” she cried, grasping Saka's hands and nearly knocking Li's drink over again. “My wonderful, strong monk! The legends are all true!”
“We haven't had a chance to introduce ourselves,” Li interjected, trying to get back into the conversation. “I am Li Mengli of the Great Tiger Temple. This is Saka of the Third Western Fox Spirit Shrine.”
Once again, that hateful look crossed Qiao's face as she heard Li's homeland. If anything, the look had sunk to even levels of unrestrained annoyance. Li prayed that Saka had noticed the strange behavior of the innkeeper. She would have to be on her guard for anything foul.
“My name is Qiao, the innkeeper of the Traveling Guardsman. This is my brother, Xiao.”
“I-i-it's a pleasure to meet you, Li.”
“Stop looking so awkward, brother! Come, Saka! We shall go look for the beast while my brother and Gee stay here.”
“It's Li, and I am not staying here! If anything, I would be more useful for removing an evil spirit than Saka.”
“What does that mean, Li?” he said. “You would simply murder it without a second thought.”
Li tried to remember some of the calming techniques she learned as a young girl, but none were helping. “You let a grule possess you! What if the spirit influences you to turn on us?”
The monk was keeping his calm demeanor a lot better than she was, but the anger was starting to seep into his face. “There is no such thing as evil spirits, just misguided ones.”
Qiao sighed. “Alright, if you will stop arguing, you and Xiao can help as well. Keep her out of trouble, brother.”
She was being treated like a child! Li wished Ren was here to hear how this woman was treating her. The tiger didn't like anyone coming close to Li, much less disrespecting his guardian. Li sighed, knowing she was being childish and egotistical, but it was annoying. “If anything happens to either group, yell for help. We'll meet back here at sunset.”
“Try to stay safe, Saka.”
“Try to be rational, Li.”
Without another word, Li grabbed Xiao's soft hands and pulled him away from her angry companion's presence. She was going to find this evil spirit, put an end to its actions, and save the town. Those strange green eyes floated back to the forefront of her mind as she strode out into the fading light of the day. Did it know she was already hunting it? Li steadied herself, weapon in hand. Much to Saka's dismay, Li could feel in her gut that a fight lay ahead of the young spirit guardian and she was prepared to win once again.