64 To Return is Another Form of Beginning
By the time Nie Zun and I were done washing up at the Academy Dorms 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 noting how intriguing he looked all wrapped up in bandages. I stepped forward and casually pulled at one of the loose strips of bandage around his head.
Bandage Man glared at me but didn’t say a word––his indignant expression amused me.
Jiao S glanced towards Mu Li and said, “I asked about it. The reason why you smelled the bugs on Mu Li was because he had been bitten by them.”
Mu Li seemed a little embarrassed at that, but seeing the gesture of Jiao S’ eyes he slowly started to unravel the bandages on his arm. As he unwound, I was taken aback. His left arm was densely packed with a sort of white and squirming entity––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 offend 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. I don’t blame 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 I’ve always wrapped myself in bandages. Half a year ago, I took a trip down to the Western District. 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 at started growing these… things once I got back. While it was obviously disgusting, they didn’t seem to be causing me any harm, nor did they seem alive… so I’ve always just ignored 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 as he spoke those words, his eyes staring wild and wide, as if there was a large glass ba
ll 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 an unfortunate news to share.
“According to my subordinate’s report, the Western District suffered more than a hundred casualties not that long ago as well. Among them, there were seven in the ranks of floor manager. The serpent woman who had once served under you seemed to be spreading the rumor that you abandoned the district residents and caused a revolt. Mr Blond had not made his appearance during this time either, so the Western District residents are resentful. The situation has been hostile.”
To be honest, I had long prepared myself for numerous possible scenarios in the Western District, but hearing the actual situation I was in shock
Tao Lie continued, “Since you and our Commander 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 with these freak deaths, and awaited our Commander’s return.
“Your district wasn’t as lucky, however. They’re without a Commander now, and though you’ve always trusted the serpent woman, she turned against you as well. As a result, the Western District has been very 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 fuelled my fears of incompetence at holding the title of Commander this whole time. There was seemingly no protection for the district, apart from the old system created by Li Qing and You Ji.
The guilt and remorse I felt was immense and surged through my heart. Even though I had never expressed much concern in the past over other people’s lives, or deaths, it was impossible to assert that this didn’t affect me, to pretend I didn’t care.
Jiao S seemed to detect my sentiments and indicated for Tao Lie to stop talking. In turn, she attempted to console me. “It’ll be fine. Although I’ve only just received a brief update about the situation with the Western District, and admittedly it 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. Don’t worry too much about it. The residents in Western District are just lost without an opinion of their own. Once you’re back, I’m sure the 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 the bottle. Observing it up close, the bug had two holes that looked just like eyes. Strangely, apart from the hollowness from losing that weird worm, Mu Li’s arm didn’t have a drip of blood––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 hope we can maintain contact via the phone. With regard each new change to your arm, I hope you’ll be able to tell me in detail. I have a strong sense of foreboding, and if it is as you said, then it’s not reproducing too quickly. Perhaps once 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. About the deaths of those hundred or so people in your district, how did they die?”
Jiao S sighed, “They’ve all had their hearts dug out. I speculate that it must have been contaminated with the blood that caused them to stop healing; there’s no other reason they would die and their hearts vanished.”
Nie Zun frowned. “According to what happened during this period of time, 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 Southern District had indeed been in her hands, but I can’t say with certainty that this is committed by her. From what she had mentioned, I think the death within our districts might have been a warning from the conspirators to Li Shen and I. They wanted us to leave Southern District.”
I conceded, “That’s right. This was just a warning. Otherwise, with them being much stronger than us and in hiding, it wouldn’t have ended this simply if they truly had the intention of attacking us.”
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 and find out about the details of it. I’ll send my people with you for your return to Western District this time round. You and I have to form an alliance. Otherwise, we’ll just be pawns in their game.”
I lifted my eyes towards the direction of Western District, but with the distance in between, I could see nothing of it.
“I’ll need to restructure my S Clan. You should go back and settle things in Western District, and then we’ll head back to Southern District together.” Jiao S continued.
Jie Pa echoed her sentiments, “And upon my return this time, I can give Ms Ah Shen some of the strength I’ve accumulated.”
I turned back, and observed those gazes who held nothing but utter confidence in me.
Jiao S, you’ve said it yourself 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 the reason?
If you did, could you let me know? Because I’m still in the dark about it; why had they chosen me, why had they placed so much trust in me…
You’ve seen it with your own eyes, how I’m… good for nothing. How I just can’t do anything right.
Jiao S seemed to have understood. Her hollow eyes watched me quietly, but her rigid face held a small smile to them. During this night, it didn’t look all that strange anymore.
She said, “Jie Pa, you won’t have to keep in contact with Mu Li. I’m going to be sending both Mu Li and Tao Lie to Western District with you. Don’t underestimate them, they’ll be able to protect all of you.”
Tao Lie seemed to remain compliant to Jiao S’ instruction regardless the instruction. Even if he had a huge stature, always seemed dependable with a hint of sternness, but in front of Jiao S, he’s always as loyal as a servant, and would never overstep his boundaries.
Mu Li, on the other hand, seemed to be caught in a dilemma, “But the Eastern District…”
Jiao S waved her hand, gesturing that it would be fine, “I’ll have Feng, Huo, Lei with me. They’ll never leave my side even for a split second. You don’t have to worry about me.”
(T/N: Feng, Huo, Lei are directly translated as Wind, Fire and Lightning respectively. Since they are names in this case, I left them as it is to avoid confusion.)
Tao Lie was also unperturbed when he looked towards 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 with those big bamboo hats, who had once followed ever closely by Jiao S’ side?
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 Nie Zun thank me personally. You should rest here for the night, and leave only when daybreaks 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 can I still live as comfortably as I used to, in the Western District that I had always perceived as peaceful and calm?