To eat alive

The earth surrounded Kun, as though it were going to swallow him up. Even his great eyesight couldn’t help him when there was no light at all. Only Ling likely would be able to see. Or at least smell his way through. If he was even awake. Kun couldn’t make any assumptions.

Placing his hand against the wall of the tunnel, Kun felt his way forward. He could still hear the keening sound of the dragon from the far back entrance into these caverns. Not enough space down here for a dragon. As much as Kun would’ve felt safer with one beside him. At the same time, the surface had to be much safer right now. Better that only four of them were in danger, not five.

Or three. Kun didn’t feel like he was in much danger now. He hoped to keep it that way.

He moved forward slowly, halting occasionally and listening. There were times he could hear the shifting, the arachnids deeper in the earth. None of the sounds were Shui or Ling. They would be much more obvious.

Jin, less so.

A wave of pain rolled through his body, starting at his temple and running down his spine. Kun gripped at the earth even tighter, feeling the soil under his nails and between his fingers. No, he was not in danger.

If he found the other three though, they might be.

Kun turned in the direction of the sounds. His eyes sharpened. Even in this lightless underground, now he could see. The pain sharpened everything.

His curse, then.

He would finish off the spiders.

A tale of souls

It was said that children of the earth had no souls. They were only made of the containers which housed them. A different race of beings that could be molded into any of the other more solid creatures of the world. For most, it was nearly impossible to tell the difference between the children of the earth and those they appeared to be.

“Why’s that?” Ling asked.

Jin shook his head. “Because they look the same. Weren’t you listening?”

“Then…” Ling rolled over on his bed and looked over at him. Jin didn’t look up from his book, but from his peripheral vision he could see the boy’s curiosity. His hair, messy from another botched haircut. His fatigue, from the work Jin had had him do today.

And, as Jin was one of the few mortals who could, he saw Ling’s absence of soul.

“What’s the point?” Ling finally stopped pondering to ask his question. “The only difference is not having a soul?”

“Some people would exclude those without everlasting souls as being real.”

Ling frowned. “Why?”

“They don’t ascend to Heaven. There is nothing after for them. They simply return to the earth.”

“Is there anything wrong with that?”

Ling tried to play that off, but Jin could hear the uncertainty in his wavering tone. Jin considered Ling’s death, his complete end. It disturbed him. “The sky encompasses all. The earth doesn’t take the soul. That’s all.”

Sitting up, Ling pulled his legs to his chest. His own concerns seemed to vanish as he thought. Jin didn’t know whether to envy him or not. “Would you sing an aubade for an earth child? When you finally get the cloth?”

“What would be the point?” Jin sighed, closing his point. “I suppose. If they asked me to in life. There isn’t much of a point for the song for those who’ve ascended either.” Ling smiled at him. “Now. Go to sleep already.”

There was no point in telling Ling what he was, if he didn’t already know. If he hadn’t caught on through this. Jin opened his book once again.

He was grateful to be older than Ling. Hopefully Jin wouldn’t have to worry about Ling’s afterlife if he died first.

The day before

If there was one thing Jin had never considered himself to be, it was normal. However, he spent less and less time as he left his youth behind considering other people’s opinions to be as valid, he became normal and every other person became odd. His beliefs didn’t line up with everyone else’s, despite what he trained to become.

Jin hated Shui, but found him completely normal. Maybe it was the shared irreverent attitude, that Shui could express and Jin found ways to excuse or change. Probably why he still saw the man despite not liking him much. Shui had always seemed normal, not strange like everyone else. Probably Heaven’s way of spiting him for not being like the other students of the cloth.

Ling was not odd. As obnoxious as he was, as childish as he was, as much as everyone else around Jin would comment on the child’s oddity. Jin could not see it. Somehow Ling had fit in his life as naturally as something that Jin had actually chosen. Maybe it was because Ling seemed to think the odd things were odd and the normal things were normal. What Jin thought was odd, what Jin thought was normal. Not that either odd or normal mattered much to Ling, as long as he got what he wanted. The typically selfish child. Jin felt more accomplished in taking care of him. Probably why he did it, despite everything else.

Jin couldn’t place a finger on Kun. He should have been odd, to Jin. The man came with a dragon, for gods’ sakes. Despite sharing similar interests, the two of them were not similar at all. Kun told him once, in his usual manner of complete politeness, that if there was a heaven he wasn’t very interested in it. Those were his words, but Jin saw underneath them, to where Kun meant “and it could burn forever for all I care”. Kun was usually better at hiding his true intentions, so he must have wanted Jin to understand.

“But I admire your dedication to the faith. Your belief. It means something to you.”

Not what it meant to everyone else, but that was correct. Kun poured him more tea as they watched Shui try, once again, to teach Ling how to catch a fish from the pond. Neither were very good at it.

“Won’t your masters be upset with that?” Kun asked, referring to Shui and Kun’s actions.

“Probably.”

“Ah.”

Normalcy had struck Jin as odd, but here they were. The last day, before all of this would disappear for him, forever.

Jin would miss normal.

After the journey

“I have to go back.”

“I’ll go with you.”

It had been a difficult decision, to leave behind the work they were doing here. But it was a choice he made, to return with the two, to go all the way back to where they had started.

When he woke up in the morning, he was alone. He knew then that they had left without him.

A frantic knocking at his door admitted Shui. “Fuck! I knew it! They’ve just left, you can catch up with them. She’ll fly you after if you-”

Kun put on his glasses. “No, that’s all right.”

It wasn’t. He had been left behind.

Jin just should have told him.

Two degrees of separation

“Put that back please.”

Ling did as Kun asked, because he’d asked nicely. “Can we get this?” he asked after, pointing at it.

Kun shook his head. “I’m sorry. We’re on a limited budget this time. Be patient, Ling, we’ll have dinner when we meet back up with the others.”

Ling nodded, contrite, and followed after Kun. Then a thought occurred to him. “Then we’re buying just… food?”

“And the other necessary travel supplies.”

“Beer?”

Kun stopped and looked at Ling. Ling could have sworn a very pleased looked was there, but looking closer Kun looked as he always did, simply content. “I don’t think I consider that necessary travel supplies.”

Jin and Shui were going to be livid. Kun was the only one who could get away with this. Ling smiled. “Yeah!”

More for food.

The mystery of a name

“What’s the dragon’s name?” Ling asked Kun one day. Kun chuckled, but before he could say anything Jin spoke up.

“Idiot. You don’t name a dragon.”

Ling pat the dragon on the head. No one told him to stop and the dragon appeared to like it, so he kept going. “Why not?”

“Because.”

As usual, Jin was very helpful. Kun looked up from the dragon’s scales as he cleaned them. “There is much power within a name. A type of magic that dragons are more close to than the rest of us.”

Ling frowned. “Don’t dragons get names?”

“Of course they do,” Jin said. “So why give them another one?”

Something about that didn’t seem right to Ling, who thought names were important. “Can you tell us your name?” he asked the dragon.

“Idiot!” Ling winced, almost as though Jin’s words actually slapped him. “You don’t ask a dragon for their name.”

Ling looked over at Kun, who smiled at him. “I don’t doubt that one day the dragon will tell you, Ling.”

Something about that didn’t make sense to Ling, who thought the dragon should tell him now. Or at least Kun.

Then Shui showed up. “Hey guys, I-”

The dragon closed the barn door. Kun stifled a laugh. Even Jin smirked.

“What the hell, man!” Shui shouted from outside.

If there was one person the dragon wouldn’t tell, Ling decided, it was probably Shui.

When on the hunt

With silver eyes, the dragon watched the traffic flow by. So did Jin. Not that he didn’t trust that, if something were to happen, the dragon would be the first to notice and the first to react. No, it was habit to use his own senses to look out for himself. He appreciated the dragon’s gaze nonetheless. Considering the fact he was waiting out here, when who knew what was happening with the others.

Jin didn’t belong here, waiting behind. The others might claim that as well, and it would be true, but not as much as Jin. Especially right now, when who knew what was happening to Li-

It wasn’t time to think about that. Jin ground his teeth. He felt the dragon’s muzzle press gently against his shoulder. Anyone else would have been in trouble for that. The dragon was allowed. There was no nefarious intentions behind that. He knew there was as much concern there as anything, not pretend feelings. The dragon missed Ling too.

Nevertheless, they had to focus.

He felt the dragon’s entire form tense beside him, those silver eyes swirling in a clockwise direction. Jin followed the gaze, finding their target easily.

The dragon waited for him. He recognized the respect in that decision and returned the favor. He asked all of his traveling companions to cede to him that leadership. It seemed as though only the dragon regularly remembered to do so.

“Save a piece for me.” There was no time for specific actions of revenge, but Jin would take his anyway. As would the dragon.

The crowd was startled and scared, but neither of them cared. They went for their victim with the viciousness their victim had showed them earlier.

The only option allowed would be victory.