Jinghua never called for help. At the time, Xi hadn’t been paying attention to his shadow. To busy fending off a different enemy, Jinghua’s soul had been rend to bits while Xi wasn’t looking. The pieces had exploded across the globe in a spectacular shower of lights. The point of origin somewhere on the other side of the mountain. When had he drifted so far from the fight?
Like a lifeless marionette, Xi stumbled and fell to his knees before his own battle was over. Their bond was a blessing and a curse. Souls bound together... they lived together and died together. They were even suppose to reincarnate together. Bound eternally as each other’s companion and protector.
So, why was Xi still alive? His best friend and soul-bonded was dead.
Soul Shattered. Gone.
Except, Xi was still here.
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“Catatonic”, they twittered behind closed doors.
At first, he’d struggled just to keep living. Eating without Jinghua’s nagging taunts for food in his ears was impossible. Sleep was abandoned in fear of being trapped in waking nightmares. He didn’t respond to anyone. A shadow made flesh, Xi haunted the halls at night. At night, there were no sunshine smiles around every corner or robust cheers of pending mayhem taunting in every sound the servants made during the day. There was no life to him without his un-expectant cornerstone.
“Mahi, Mahi, are you going to sulk all summer, Master? It was just a mutt... ”
Closing his eyes against the world, Xi was drowning even in his soulscape. A hurricane ripped through the air and tore at his soul tree. The waters were rend with riptides and whirl pools, huge branches crashing and colliding like ship wrecks. Echoes of devastation surrounded him; a mural of shattered anchors.
His duties were now restricted to rituals no one else had the shear power to perform. Maybe the next one would be his last, he prayed. Let it take him as his soul tether hadn’t. Being the Yangming wasn’t possible without a light in the world to guide his way.
“Master, you must move on! Make me your shadow! Please, they’re circling master! Are you really so pathetic, to let them win?” The fox demon was back and hissing in Xi’s ear. The kitsune was right.
Every night for weeks he’d cast a summons during the witching hours away from prying eyes.
Another knife wound... another bloody pentagram across his wooden floors.
He could bring him back!
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He was discovered far too soon; they whispered and plotted anew. It was the lifeline of the Duan Mu Family, and there was blood in the waters. The most sacred rite as a Yangming master, the establishment of a soul shadow, a practice more sacrosanct then marriage, had been disgraced. Marooned to the new stigma, the eye of the entire community was on him, determined to shred him, and no one was going to help. His was now under siege, every action vilified.
“Make me the new head, Grandma! He’s broken!”
“Yes, do make Siyun the new Yangming. She has shown herself more than capable over the years.”
“Ever since that boy took in that stray! His actions have been below the standards of the Duan Mu Family!”
“With the mutt dead, he has no right to the Louyue sword! It must be returned to the vault!”
“The captured spirit tiles need to be cleansed by the Yangming! What is he doing that demands this kind of negligence!”
“His missions abroad have been postpone too long! He needs to be sent away before the rest of the families find out!”
”Where is he hiding the contract rings? The next shadow can not be had if there is no binding rings!”
It just keep going. The expectations getting more tedious.
At first, he hadn’t noticed the pings. How could he? It was like noticing a tap on a door when there was an orchestra playing inside the room, so lost in the chaos it was impossible to detect. On the anniversary of Jinghua...
It tinged though his mind. A sound. A feel of metal being stuck. A chime where there was none. Sometimes, it was a bell or a dull ding. For most of the second year he heard six different kinds of pings.
The family thought he’d gone mad.
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Maybe Xi would have... if he hadn’t sought help from his old Sensei.
“You know the price, young master. Beat me in a duel and we’ll discuss whatever ails you.”
It was one of the hardest and most humiliating fights in his life. Worse that his training evaluation at ten years of age. His body was in poor shape, he hadn’t trained since Jing’s de—. The sword shook in his hands and he couldn’t focus; the fight in front of him might as well be over. The broad side of a tree could win a fight against his master sooner than him.
The master heaved an exasperated yawn. Shooting Xi a look of pity, his Sensei retreated into the cottage. “Tea, then we’ll talk. Next time, you owe me two victories.”
Then the needling questions began. What was wrong? Where was Yang? Ringing? Was it in his head or an affliction of the ears? When did it start? Was there variations? How often? Was there any common themes? Did he even know where they were coming from. Had he any experience with coma patients?
“Wait! What does that have to do with this?”
“Coma patients, young master.” The older man took him time to contemplate, slowly pouring another cup of tea for his student. Saying nothing as Xi returned the favor. “Let us say, for arguments sake, since you are alive, Yang isn’t dead. Where would he be? Why is he not responding? Could he respond? Is he even awake? Have you tried summoning him? Could someone block a soul bond? What about the distance and barrier between realms? Would it be a problem, if he was stuck in the spirit or demon world?”
“Sensei, say he is alive.” Hope, he believed was a folly for fools. “Why coma patients?”
“They are neither dead, nor alive.” The Master punctuated with a slow and thoughtful sip of tea, letting the seconds tick by. “Much like our missing friend.”
”To us, the patients can not respond; therefore, they are not awake. However, they do make involuntary reactions to outside intervention: a twitch of a finger, a skip of a heartbeat, a change in brainwaves. They can hear their surroundings. If people talk, they can do nothing, but listen. What if... what you are hearing is involuntary feedback —from him?” Tapping the sugar spoon dramatically, a familar twang echoed between the two masters.
“If he is alive, he could very well be sleeping and dormant beyond your reach. Have you tried echoing back? Tried getting a response from your bond? Then again, you would never know what to look for. Your soul is in such shambles, young master, you would never see his reply.”
”Either way, you do not need me to tell you the basis of your own bond. His existence and powers are entirely dependent on you. This state you are in? It can not be good for him. If he is alive, you are doing him a disservice by being so ill of health.”
“My soul. You mean get healthy and maybe I’ll find some answers.”
“Hmm!” The old master nodded, pleased. “The hardest roads traveled are the ones worth fighting. For all we know, he’s wide awake and screaming obscenities on the other side. I certainly would if my corporal form and powers were a reflection of you.”
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His soul had been slow to heal and hadn’t settled until Jing’s second anniversary.
By then, those sounds had a source. It resonated from all around his soulscape, but the feel of it... was all Jinghua.
Echoing back was slow at first. It was a mental muscle he’d never had to use, different than reminiscing in a memory. Every sound heard he tried to mimick, half-strangled mockingbirds could have performed better than him. His sounds evolved into tunes being chimed back in comfort to certain twangs, and songs they both knew were sung as Xi meditated. Sometimes, when things turned desperate, he tried to mimick words.
It was like puzzle pieces falling into place. Somewhere out there, Xi knew, he was being heard.