Susha Unhuor might have said that he would go and pack his things but actually, there was not much to pack. He went to his room, opened the wardrobe, and looked at the three robes lying inside with a blank expression.
He had traveled for four years before he finally settled down in the Sundang temple. Since then, another three years had gone by. He had thought he found his place here but considering how easy it was to grab his things and just leave, maybe that wasn’t the case. While he had never been someone that cared much about worldly possessions, he had still been carrying more with him back when he actively did his duty as a zhireng. Maybe this was a sign.
Susha Unhuor sighed, grabbed the old cloth bag he had thrown at the back of the wardrobe, and stuffed the robes in there. Then, he grabbed the weapon that was standing in the corner of the room, had a look around, and left the room.
He had hardly stepped outside when he saw the old abbot of the temple walk toward him, one of the younger apprentices supporting his arm and watching every little step worriedly.
Susha Unhuor could understand his worry. The old monk looked as if he wouldn’t be able to keep walking by himself, his hands slightly shaking while he moved at the pace of a snail even with the apprentice’s help. Still, he was walking toward him, obviously having some goal in mind.
Susha Unhuor glanced toward the path behind the two monks and the staircase leading down the mountain that could be seen in the distance. The young king had already waited for several hours. To let him wait again … Still, he had spent three years in this temple. He could hardly ignore the abbot at this point.
He walked over, meeting the old man halfway. “Anqeng.”
The old monk smiled kindly. “Zhireng Susha, have you finished your meeting with your guest? Should we prepare a room so he can stay here as well?”
Susha Unhuor glanced at the bag he had slung over his shoulder and shook his head. “That won’t be necessary. Instead, I am afraid that I will have to leave with him.”
The abbot slightly furrowed his brows. “Is that for certain? I know this is not my matter to get involved in but you were trying to find peace of mind when you came here. I don’t know whether you have found it yet or not but leaving might put that goal in jeopardy. Are you sure you can’t stay?”
Susha Unhuor’s gaze slowly traveled over the winding paths, the temple in the distance, and the other buildings. This was indeed a peaceful place but if he was honest with himself, then maybe it wasn’t a place to achieve peace of mind. Instead, he could not help but question himself inwardly.
Had he made the right decision back then? Had he not? What alternatives had there been? Had his decision changed anything? He didn’t know the answer to any of these questions. But he did know that if he didn’t listen to the dan’s plight and followed him back to En, he would forever regret that decision. Since he already knew that, there was nothing more to think about, was there?
Susha Unhuor turned back to the old monk. “Anqeng, I am grateful that you are looking out for me. But … I am a zhireng. We are born with the blessing of the gods and we die with it. This power … it has been given for a certain reason. In this case, it is to give the people the ability to resist the darkness and vanquish the demons. If I did not go, then would I not betray that reason? As a priest, you probably feel that the gods’ will should not be ignored.”
The old monk’s expression was a little difficult when he looked at Susha Unhuor. “While you are not wrong in general, it is difficult to say what the gods’ plan is for a single person. Maybe your path is supposed to diverge from what the zhireng usually do.”
Susha Unhuor nodded. “Maybe. I guess I will find out in due time.” He lightly grabbed the spear, his gaze softening. “I have been hiding from this for a long time. Maybe it is time to return. At the very least, I will give it a try.” He gave the old monk a bow. “Farewell.” With that, he left and instead went back toward the waiting hall.
When he reached the entrance, nothing could be seen of the young dan and his two guards. Susha Unhuor raised his brows and looked around, finally spotting them a little further away, each of them holding the reins of a horse. Obviously, they were already waiting for him.
Susha Unhuor made his way over and nodded at the king before glancing at the horses. Well, this was awkward.
Jusha Lale looked from him to the temple and back again before slowly raising his brows as well. “Zhireng Susha does not have a horse?”
Susha Unhuor gave him a noncommittal smile in return. “I haven’t had one in a long time. There was no need to here in the temple and not much of a need to while traveling before that.”
Jusha Lale looked at him for a moment longer and then turned to one of the guards. “Shunche.” He motioned for him to give Susha Unhuor his horse and ride with him instead. Only then did he turn back to the warrior. “I am afraid you will have to ride though. It is still a long way until En and we do not have the leisure to just walk there. The sooner we get back, the better.” He made a small pause and lowered his gaze. “Well, I certainly don’t need to tell you that.”
Susha Unhuor nodded. This was indeed the truth. With demons, it was best to take care of the matter as soon as possible. Otherwise, one would only give them time to grow and the consequences would be dire.
He didn’t know how long the king had traveled but if he had gone to see other zhireng before him, it should be quite some time. Also, En was not just a few hours away. At the very least, a week or two should have passed by now for traveling here alone. Add that onto the fact that demons were not always discovered immediately … It was hard to say what would await him when they reached the capital city.
Thinking of this, Susha Unhuor’s gaze turned grim. Yes, they could lose no time. He got onto the horse, nodding for them to move.
The two guards looked at their king and then started to move as soon as they saw him nod as well. Even though they had come to ask this zhireng for help, he was not the one who could command them. No, no matter what happened, they would only ever listen to their king.
The group silently left the temple in the direction of the capital city En.
They would need several days at the very least, maybe even up to two weeks if the weather was bad or if the darkness had spread past the city’s walls already. There was nothing that they could currently do so Susha Unhuor did not ask any further questions. He did intend to do so but only when he felt that it was about time to get the answers.
The dan was not one for mindless chatter either. He sat on the horse in front of his guard, keeping his gaze on the road in front. En … he had grown up in that city. When he had been crowned king, he had sworn to protect the whole kingdom and its people, and he had especially thought of this place that was so close to him.
Now, after reigning for not even a decade, he met with his first crisis and there was nothing that he could do. Over and over again, he could only ask others, beg them, and offer whatever they wanted in return, only to be helpless if they refused.
It was not a good feeling. It made him realize just how inadequate he really was. When it truly mattered, he couldn’t do anything. His people … did they not deserve better? But alas, there was nothing he could do. By now, he could only hope that this zhireng would keep his word and indeed try to eliminate the demon.
The two people were occupied by their own thoughts, not interacting with each other at all. For the next half a week, the group continued on in this very same manner: While following the path toward En, they would keep quiet. The only ones speaking up were usually the two guards that were fussing over whether their king needed a rest, whether he was hungry, whether he would rather stop in a town that night instead of camping outside.
Jusha Lale dealt with them patiently, always denying whatever good thing they were trying to push onto them, reminding them that they needed to make haste and reach En in the shortest amount of time possible to ensure that the demon would not get the opportunity to grow even stronger.
The guards looked especially unwilling to accept this but since their dan had spoken, they also did not dare to contradict him, and could only hang their heads. Then, a few hours later, they would start the same thing again. It was a bit funny to watch.
Jusha Lale only spoke up on his own accord when he felt that there was something to communicate like ending their travels for the day or continuing on their journey the next morning.
Five days went by before this pattern was finally broken. They had stopped at the edge of a forest for the night. The two guards, Shunche and Chomong, had hurriedly set up a makeshift camp with a small fireplace and one of them had gone to catch some fish in a nearby stream. The other one handed the dan a blanket while once again fussing about him. Jusha Lale just nodded though, not entertaining him for too long.
Susha Unhuor had been sitting a little further away, watching their interaction unfold. The longer he observed these three, the more he felt that Jusha Lale’s standing among his people should be very good. A guard was there to, well, guard somebody. But these two gave the impression that they were constantly worried about their dan and his well-being, going far and beyond what should be expected of them. Clearly, their own feelings regarding this man played a big part in that.
When Chomong returned with several fish a few minutes later and put them on sticks to fry, Susha Unhuor used the opportunity to go over and sit down next to Jusha Lale at the fire. Immediately, the two guards turned to stare at him, obviously suspicious about his intentions. The zhireng did not bother about them though and instead looked at Jusha Lale.
The young dan also glanced at him but then continued to poke the fire in front of him with a stick he had found on the ground. Clearly, he still had nothing to say.
Susha Unhuor watched him for a while longer before finally speaking up. “A dan that would tend to his own fire. I never thought I would get to see something like this.”
Jusha Lale glanced at him once more, the corners of his mouth raising slightly. “Has zhireng Susha seen many dans in his life?”
Susha Unhuor smiled as well. “A few. They were … quite different from you though. My idea of what a dan is supposed to be like was definitely a different one as well.”
Jusha Lale put down the stick in his hands, dusted off his hands, and leaned back, folding his hands on his knee before he turned to face Susha Unhuor again. “Then in your mind, how is a dan supposed to be?”
Susha Unhuor raised his brows, feeling that he had offended him a little just now. Well, he probably should have expected that. What he had said just now could likely be interpreted as telling him that he was not how a dan should be, that he was lacking. Especially in the current situation, that would sting. After all, leaving the capital city himself and searching for a zhireng willing to defeat the demon was no easy feat. Thinking back to the dans he had met before, he couldn’t imagine a single one doing something like this. Obviously, he had inadvertently mocked a good person just now.
Susha Unhuor lightly rubbed his neck, trying to think of words to diffuse the situation. If his explanation was good, the dan would not fault him any longer. He generally seemed to be quite even-tempered, after all.
He cleared his throat and gave it his best shot. “What they are supposed to be … is a good leader for their people. That is all that they need to be in my eyes. But as for what I thought they would be … I always imagined a man that was a little older maybe, somebody with a lot of experience, who has seen the world and the things happening in it.
“I would’ve thought that that is what makes a dan steadfast no matter what crisis occurs. I also thought …” He looked at Jusha Lale, noticing that the dan’s expression had softened again. Sure enough, he was not one to hold a grudge. He was forgiving, something that was definitely an important quality in a king. The longer he thought about it, the more Susha Unhuor felt that this Jusha Lale was actually an excellent dan. His gaze turned complicated at that. “Your looks are a little deceiving.”
Jusha Lale smiled and turned away. “Are they? They are what I was born with. In any case, I do not think that they are what makes or doesn’t make a good dan.”
Susha Unhuor nodded. “They certainly aren’t. Just from the fact that you came to visit the Sundang Temple, I can see that you care about your people a great deal. So in my eyes, that already makes you a good dan. No matter how much you diverge from the mental image I had before.”
Jusha Lale lowered his eyelids, the same smile playing at his lips. “And yet … you’ve come to see me. That means there is something on your mind that you feel the need to talk about. Judging from the way you have behaved up until now, I guess that this will be about the demon and most likely, you want to ask about my uncle.”
Susha Unhuor raised his brows at that, giving the dan a lingering look. “Not only do you care about your people, but you are also quite well-equipped to handle this kind of discussion.” Obviously, he shouldn’t have judged him by how he looked. This man … he was not as simple as he seemed. In fact, he might be better suited to be a dan because of his looks. He couldn’t fool anyone if he did not have the capabilities. He should have thought of that before. “You’re exactly right. I would like to know more about the situation.”
Jusha Lale sighed. “To be honest, I do not know what to tell you. My father was the previous dan. My mother — my uncle’s older sister — was a beautiful woman, one who was able to catch my father’s eye when they first met. She was also lovely enough to have him stay with her for his whole life. Unfortunately, she died early. He never married a second wife so I am his only child. When my father followed her some years later, I was still young.”
Susha Unhuor nodded slowly. From what he had heard, this dan of Alo had not been reigning for long. Maybe it had only been half a decade, maybe a little more, maybe a little less. But it should have been around that amount of time.
“When I acceded to the throne, there was talk about whether I would be able to handle it. There were some people that were sounding me out, trying to see if there wasn’t a chance to take advantage of the situation. Thankfully, since my father never intended to have another child, he made sure that I was prepared for this kind of situation. So no matter how hard they tried, not one of them succeed. Maybe there were one or two that were not quite happy with that and were biding their time to find a better opportunity.”
“So you think that this might be a conspiracy against you?”
Jusha Lale raised his gaze to the zhireng’s face, giving him a long look, the red hue of the fire making his hair shimmer like silk. “A conspiracy? No, I don’t think anything like that would’ve happened. Maybe there were some that hoped to have somebody else accede to the throne. Maybe there were even some that would’ve supported my uncle in that position rather than me. Maybe some even mentioned it to him and made him get this idea. But I do think that, in the end, he was the one who made the decision to actually summon a demon. There are not many people stupid enough to take such a risk. Most will know it would just come back to bite them.”
Susha Unhuor nodded slowly, feeling that it was true. There were not many demons. In fact, he felt that with the years, their numbers had waned. After all, with the horror stories of what chaos even a single demon could cause being spread, people had started to realize that this was something they should not mess with.
Even those that had the fleeting thought of maybe summoning a weak one would usually not go through with it. And those who were actually dumb enough to give it a try would normally run to find a zhireng to clean up their mess immediately.
To summon one that was actually supposed to assassinate a king … No, he did not believe that there would be a row of people stupid enough to try that. It was much more likely that the dan’s uncle had acted all alone. The timing was curious though. Jusha Lale had been reigning for several years already. Why would his uncle try this right now? “Did anything happen recently that might have prompted your uncle to do this?”
Jusha Lale shook his head without hesitation. “Believe me, I have thought about this all the time since it happened. But I cannot think of anything. In fact, my relationship with my maternal family is not bad. My uncle’s status is also high thanks to his relationship with my mother. I really do not see the reason for him to do this. Especially considering the risk it would bring.”
Susha Unhuor gave a hum, trying to make sense of it. He could understand if someone in the dan’s position would not want to speak about the true things going on behind the scenes but Jusha Lale seemed pretty open-minded. In the situation that they were in right now, he probably wouldn’t lie. That had to mean that he really did not think that his uncle had any reason to do this. Maybe it really was that he just wanted the throne and wasn’t willing to wait any longer. His patience might have run out. “Well, that probably makes things easier. Does your family know what happened?”
Jusha Lale shook his head. “No, I did not tell them any details. In fact, save for the high priest that was with me at the time and Shunche and Chomong whom I told, nobody knows what exactly happened that day.”
His two guards nodded promptly. “We were right outside the Hall when it happened to make sure the dan is safe. Because of that, we were able to see a little when we turned at the sound of the brazier falling. Everyone else was further away so they shouldn’t have been able to see.”
Susha Unhuor nodded and turned back to Jusha Lale. “Then what do they believe happened?” It couldn’t be that he had just let the body disappear, right? The dan did not strike him as that kind of crude person.
“That my uncle is a hero who saved my life. That day, the temple caught fire immediately. Both the high priest and I managed to leave without further injuries. At most, I suffered a fright. I knew though that, later on, when people went to clear out the hall and see what could be salvaged, my uncle’s body would be found. Thus, I excused myself and had Shunche tell people that my uncle had gone to try and save me but was unfortunately stuck inside and thus died.”
Susha Unhuor stared at the young king in a daze. What quick thinking … Honestly, this was a little horrifying to think about. But then again, that really was the best way to solve the situation. This way, he could play it off like an accident caused by the demon and that his uncle had just been at the wrong place at the wrong time. He could let this person die a hero instead of a criminal, making sure that there would be no fallout with his uncle’s family while also reassuring everybody else. What better way was there to deal with this?
Susha Unhuor finally nodded. The fewer people knew about this, the better it was for him anyway. If there was chaos among the public, it would be hard to go and fight the demon. “I see. So, right now, nobody other than these four people knows about the origin of this demon.”
Jusha Lale nodded. “That is the case. Unless … my uncle told somebody beforehand. I wouldn’t know about that but I doubt it though. He always struck me as a … Well, I wouldn’t want to call him a secretive person but at least he was somebody that rather kept to himself. Especially in the last few years. Maybe there were a few confidants that he had but not many and the ones that I know don’t strike me as people that would want to kill me.”
The zhireng gave a grunt. His uncle hadn’t struck him as one either so he wasn’t sure if he should trust in the dan’s gut feeling. “I might need to talk to do these people. The more information I can gather upfront, the safer it will be to fight this demon, giving me a higher chance to succeed.”
“Then I will send one of my guards ahead with the message. Would zhireng Susha want to meet them in the capital city or would it be alright to meet them outside?”
Susha Unhuor smiled lightly. He really liked this dan’s style of discussion. “It would be safer to meet them outside. Will that be possible?”
“I had everybody evacuated from En. So all of them will already be outside anyway. If the darkness hasn’t spread until there, then it should not be a problem. We can just stop there on our way to the capital.”
This time, Susha Unhuor didn’t know what to say. He kept quiet for a moment but then couldn’t help but make sure that he had understood right. “You’ve had the whole capital city evacuated?”
Jusha Lale slightly raised his brows at him. “Should I not have done that? If I understand it right, then there is no way to tell what kind of person will be the demon’s next victim. If it cannot get a person, then it will take whatever else it can get its hands on. Whether it is artifacts, the palace, the buildings, anyone’s belongings … While it might be sad to lose it, it can be replaced. Human lives, on the other hand, can not be replaced.
“Thus I had the guards escort everybody out under the lead of my ministers. They have been distributed over the towns and villages close by. The ministers and generals have been instructed to escort them further away from the capital city if necessary. They will fall back no matter how far it has to be. In the worst case, they will have to leave the kingdom. But that … would be much more difficult so I did not want to take any chances. For the time being, they will still stay close to En.”
“Aren’t you afraid?”
“Afraid of what? A rebellion?” Jusha Lale actually laughed at that. “Zhireng Susha, there is a demon inside the palace. The capital city might fall. What would I have to be afraid of? A king is nothing but a normal man without his people. If I do not save them, why should I try to save myself?”
Susha Unhuor stared at him, unable to form a coherent thought for a moment. This king … he really was not what he had expected. He was afraid that if it had been anyone else, they would’ve put their own lives first. But instead, this Jusha Lale had made sure that no matter whether it was the high-ranking ministers or the simple citizens, they had all been evacuated from that place to make sure that they would not be swallowed by the darkness. He could not deny that he felt some admiration toward this man.
The longer he thought about it, the more he was intrigued. “Why did you come yourself to ask me? Did you do the same thing with the other zhireng?”
Jusha Lale didn’t know why he would suddenly ask this but he nodded, turning serious again. “I don’t know if I should say this to your face but not all of the zhireng are like you. As somebody chosen by the gods, naturally, some of them will have quite the proud temperament. It is likely that they would never answer if I didn’t come myself to ask them.”
Susha Unhuor could not deny it. “Yes, I know what you mean. I’ve met some of those myself.” They were indeed haughty and they would take advantage of their status without a second thought. That, as well, was one of the reasons why he had grappled with being one of the zhireng. He just could not shake the thought that maybe he wasn’t any different from these people.
Jusha Lale did not seem surprised. This zhireng in front of him had proven to be quite different from the others. There was no reason for him to deny such an obvious fact. “So you see, I really had no other choice. I really would’ve liked to stay if I am being honest. It makes me not just a little nervous to think that I have been traveling for so long without result while my people are still there, in a situation fraught with danger.
“Even though everybody has made it out of the city, that doesn’t mean that they won’t have to worry anymore. The darkness will inevitably follow them. And being so far away, there’s really nothing I can do. I don’t know what the situation is, I cannot give any comments. I can only hope that they will still be alive when I return.” Once again, worry clouded his expression, making Susha Unhuor turn away.
“I’m sorry for bringing it up.”
“There’s no need to. Whether you bring it up or not, it will not change the situation. It is as it is. Anyway, I am glad that you are willing to help out.”
Susha Unhuor nodded slowly but didn’t say anything else. In his mind, this was his duty. If there had been others willing to do it, he likely would have refused but since that wasn’t the case, he could not bring himself to say no. After all, he had been given the power to help in such a situation. To not use it … Well, he just could not bring himself to do that.
Jusha Lale waited for a while and then couldn’t help but speak up again. “About sending my guard … should I do so now or only when we get closer to the city?”
“We still have to travel for a few days but it would be best if they could prepare. If you can, it would be good if you send him right now.” He looked at the two guards, wondering if they would indeed just leave. A dan only traveling with two guards was already quite a risk. To reduce that to just one man … it likely would be worse. Especially in a situation where there was already great risk to the capital city. Having trouble dealing with the demon was bad enough. If the people also lost their king, that would be even worse.
Jusha Lale looked at his guards thoughtfully. It seemed as if he was pondering the very same question. In the end, he motioned to one of them. “Shunche, you will leave tomorrow morning. Gather all the people that were in regular contact with my uncle. I don’t care if it is any of his friends or the servant working in his house, even his wife or children will do.
“Don’t tell them what this is about it. We cannot give anything away. Have them wait in separate places so they can’t talk amongst each other. If anybody knows something, it would be bad for us if they noticed beforehand and made up some story. Questioning them without preparation is the most important.”
Shunche gave Susha Unhuor a worried look and for a moment, it seemed as if he wanted to speak up but, finally, he inclined his head. “Yes, dan.” With that, he went back to taking care of the food, not saying anything else.
Susha Unhuor slightly raised his brows. It seemed that the young king had his two guards under control rather well. Even if they had different thoughts, they still wouldn’t speak about them and just follow his orders. In the situation, it really was valuable.
He turned back to the king, wondering if there was something else he had to bring up. Since speaking to him was much easier than expected, he was willing to give it a try to work together. Unfortunately, he couldn’t really come up with anything. “Well, when we do reach that place, I would like to question them together with you. You know them so you will also know more about their relationship. Furthermore, they might have some misgivings about telling me but it might be easier when it is you.”
“I will do that. But you can’t forget that, on the other hand, if they knew about any plans to assassinate me and take the throne from me, that would be a crime on their heads as well. They would be unlikely to confess to anything of that matter.”
Susha Unhuor nodded. “Then maybe just stay close by. Anyway, they will know that I’ve spoken to you. And with the threat of the demon looming over their heads, they might be willing to at least tell us part of what they knew. That would already be very valuable.”
Jusha Lale nodded. “We will do as you suggest then.”
The two of them fell quiet and the next morning, they once again went on a silent journey, until finally, the towns and villages surrounding the capital city came into view.