64 To Return is Another Form of Beginning
By the time Nie Zun and I were done washing up at the dormitory arranged by Jiao S, it was already ten hours into the night. As per Jiao S’ instruction, we made our way to the stone table near the entrance to the Academy. When Nie Zun, Jie Pa and I arrived, Tao Lie the Muscle Man and Mu Li the Bandage Man were already there, reporting back to Jiao S.
“Long time no see, Bandage Man.” I’ve always had the inkling Bandage Man did not have a particularly favorable impression of me, but it didn’t stop me from being intrigued by his appearance––all wrapped up in bandages. I stepped forward and casually pulled at one of the loose strips around his head.
Bandage Man glared and while he didn’t say a word, his indignant expression still amused me.
Jiao S glanced towards Mu Li and said, “I asked him about it. The reason why you could smell the bugs on Mu Li was because he had been bitten by them.”
Mu Li’s expression had a trace of embarrassment but with the quick shift of Jiao S’ eyes, he complied and began unravelling the bandages on his arm.
As he unwound, I was momentarily stunned by the sight. His left arm was densely packed with a sort of white and squirming entity––it was the same silkworm pupa-esque bugs that gnawed on the back of the man who had fallen from the building! However, there was a key difference: the bugs were not feeding on Mu Li’s flesh. Rather, they seemed to be settled in him, compactly mounted within his flesh without moving. His entire arm looked fake, as though paved with white cobblestones.
For someone with trypophobia like me, the image was simply too disturbing to look at.
“Ugh…!!” I turned to support myself against Nie Zun, spewing out mouthful after mouthful of stomach acid.
“S—sorry about that, Little Bandage.” Panting while still holding on to Nie Zun, I looked apologetically towards Mu Li. “I didn’t mean to turn my back on you, but my trypophobia is pretty serious.”
The usually hot-tempered Mu Li was actually calm. “It’s alright. Even I’m disgusted by the sight, let alone you.”
In that moment, I was flooded with compassion, “What happened?”
Mu Li’s eyes were downcast for a moment. “It was a long time ago and part of the reason why I’ve always wrapped myself in bandages. Half a year ago, I took a trip down to the Western District. While I was in the boundary forest, I met a masked man who attacked me out of the blue. I didn’t feel much at that time but the part of my arm where he took a swipe started growing these… things once I got back. While it was disgusting, they didn’t seem to be causing me any harm nor did they feel alive, so I’ve always chosen to ignore it.”
Jie Pa pushed up his glasses. “If you don’t mind, Mr Mu Li, may I extract one of those worms and conduct a study on them?”
Jiao S spoke up, “Mu Li, Jie Pa’s a well-known doctor and informant, you can trust him with this; let him handle it. Also, Ah Shen, I have faith in Mu Li’s loyalty.”
Since Jiao S’ declared her stance on the matter, I motioned for Jie Pa to proceed. Jie Pa took out a pocket knife and a glass bottle from his bag.
Even as Jie Pa carved against his skin, Mu Li was unfazed; he didn’t even furrow his brows but kept his eyes on me instead. “I apologize for the misunderstanding from before but I hope you can understand. I will never risk anything that may harm the Eastern District; I am loyal to our Commander beyond a shadow of a doubt!”
He was fired up when he spoke those words, his eyes staring wild and wide, as if there was a large glass ball bound within that wrapped up mummy.
I nodded fervently. “I know, I know. Calm down.”
Tao Lie the Muscle Man, with his immense stature, emerged with his sunglasses on. “Ms Li Shen, our Commander had more or less briefed us on what happened. During the period you were all away, our people had been guarding by the boundary forest and we have unfortunate news to share.
“According to my subordinate’s report, Western District had similarly suffered more than a hundred casualties not that long ago. Among them, there were seven in the ranks of floor manager. The serpent woman who once served her duties under you seemed to be spreading a rumor that you have abandoned the district, causing a revolt. Mr Blond had yet made his appearance during this time either, so residents in Western District are growing resentful. The situation has been hostile.”
To be honest, I had long prepared myself for numerous possible scenarios in Western District. Despite that, I was still stuck in disbelief.
Tao Lie continued, “Since you and our Commander had left for the Southern District which isn’t accessible to just anyone, you may not be aware of the events that occurred. There had been casualties in our district as well, but the S Clan was distinct in its rank hierarchy and so everything remained orderly. We’ve been able to suppress the incident about these freak deaths while awaiting for our Commander’s return.
“Your district wasn’t as lucky, however. They’re without a Commander now and though you’ve always trusted that serpent woman, she has turned against you as well. As a result, the situation at Western District has been chaotic. I hope you’re mentally prepared to face this before heading back.”
While I knew he hadn’t said them with malice, his words still fuelled my reaffirmed my incompetence as a Commander. Apart from the old system initiated by Li Qing and You Ji, there was seemingly no other protection in place.
A heavy feeling of guilt and remorse weighed on my heart. Even though I had never expressed much concern over the life or death of others, it was impossible to assert that this didn’t affect me, impossible to pretend I didn’t care.
Jiao S seemed to detect my sentiments and indicated for Tao Lie to stop. In turn, she attempted to console me. “It’ll be fine. Although the brief update about Western District’s situation didn’t sound too optimistic, there’s still a silver lining––I have been amassing strength over the years, and we will definitely lend a helping hand as and when you require assistance. You don’t have to worry too much about it. The residents in Western District are just lost without a mainstay. Once you’re back, I’m sure those matters will be resolved eventually.”
I nodded dejectedly.
All of a sudden, Jie Pa exclaimed. “This thing—!”
We followed his voice and took a look. Jie Pa had extracted the soft, white bug and placed it into a glass bottle. Observing it up close, the bug had two holes that looked just like eyes. What’s truly peculiar was the hollowness in Mu Li’s arm—there wasn’t a drop of blood from the gaping hole where the worm was extracted. Instead, there was a white, sticky fluid. It seemed to flow white within the blood vessels of his arm, taking the place of blood.
Jie Pa looked grim. “Mr Mu Li, I have a bad feeling about this worm so I hope we can stay in contact. With regard to any changes to your arm, I hope you’ll be able to convey them to me in detail. If it is as you said, then it’s not reproducing too quickly. Perhaps one in several days. However, it had already covered your entire arm. Even if you haven’t yet felt much of its effects, I suspect the damage it can cause will be unprecedented.”
“I understand,” Mu Li nodded. “I will keep in touch. It seems I’ll have to keep bothering you with this.”
Jie Pa smiled warmly. “It’s not a big deal.”
“Oh, that’s right, how did those residents from your district die?”
Jiao S sighed. “They all had their hearts torn out. I figured they must have been contaminated with the blood that stopped them from healing. I can think of no other reason from which they could die, or for their hearts to vanish.”
Nie Zun frowned. “From the information we’ve gathered so far, only Song Lu and Li Wen had such a blood composition. Could it be Li Wen’s doing?”
Jiao S shook her head. “I can’t be sure. Even though I abhor her, and the blood of those in the Southern District are indeed on her hands, I can’t say with certainty that this was her doing. From what she had mentioned, I think the deaths within our districts were a warning from the conspirators to Li Shen and I. They wanted us to leave the Southern District.”
“That’s right,” I conceded. “This was just a warning. They are much stronger than us, hiding in wait. If they truly wanted to attack us, I’m afraid things wouldn’t have ended this simply.”
Jiao S tilted her neck and fixed her gaze on me. “And so, before they find success in their scheme, we must be fully prepared for the dawn of doom, find out every detail we can. I’ll send my people with you when you return to the Western District. You and I have to form an alliance. Otherwise, we’ll just be pawns in their game.”
My gaze drifted in the direction of the Western District, but it was too far in the distance for me to see it.
“I’ll need to restructure my S Clan. You should go back and settle things in the Western District, then we’ll head back to the Southern District together.” Jiao S continued.
Jie Pa echoed her sentiments. “And upon my return, I can give Ms Ah Shen some of the forces I’ve collected.”
As I turned back, I was stunned by those gazes of theirs which held nothing but utter confidence in me.
Jiao S… you’ve said before that you had no idea why Li Qing and Mr Blond would choose me as Western District’s commander. Yet you’re being so supportive of me now. Is it because you’ve figured out why? If you did… could you let me know? Because I’m still in the dark. Why did they choose me? Why have they placed so much trust in me?
You’ve seen it with your own eyes. I’m really… good for nothing.
Jiao S seemed to have understood. Her hollow eyes watched me quietly but her rigid face held a small smile to them. On a night like this, it didn’t look all that unusual anymore.
“Jie Pa,” she said, “you won’t have to keep in contact with Mu Li. I’m going to send both Mu Li and Tao Lie to the Western District with you. Don’t underestimate them––they’ll be able to protect all of you.”
Tao Lie seemed ever so compliant with Jiao S’ commands regardless of the instruction. With his huge stature, he seemed dependable with a hint of sternness but in front of Jiao S, he’ss her loyal servant, never overstepping his boundaries.
Mu Li, on the other hand, seemed caught in a dilemma, “But the Eastern District…”
Jiao S waved her hand, brushing off his concerns. “I’ll keep Feng, Huo, Lei with me at all times. You don’t have to worry about me.”
(T/N: Feng, Huo, Lei are directly translated into Wind, Fire and Lightning respectively. Since they are names in this case, I left them as is to avoid confusion.)
Tao Lie was unperturbed when he addressed Mu Li. “That’s right; the three Lords will be able to protect the Commander. There’s nothing for us to worry about. Besides, Guan Nie is back too.”
The three Lords? Feng, Huo, Lei? Are those the three person with big bamboo hats who once followed Jiao S wherever she went?
What commanding names they have…
Nie Zun chuckled. “In any case, thank you for everything.”
Jiao S smiled. “It’s an honor in itself to have the one and only Nie Zun voice his gratitude. You should rest here for the night, and leave only when day breaks tomorrow.”
I looked up at the pitch-dark sky and couldn’t help the mixture of feelings in my heart. Western District, I’m back. It has only been less than a month but could I still live comfortably in Western District, where I had always perceived as peaceful and calm?