Alisha stood in front of the shop; the afternoon sun blocked by Gray's large shadow. Her father had already shut the door to the shop so she was left with no choice about the matter. She adjusted her shawl one last time to hide her face and set off down the street, with Gray following close behind.
“What’s wrong with your dad?” Gray asked. “He seemed a bit weird when you were talking about the four great sects.”
“Nothing!” She snapped. “It doesn’t concern you.”
She didn't know why her father liked Gray so much. Gray was loud, smelly, and ate far too much. He also caused trouble every way he turned.
“Oh, um… sorry?” He said uncertainly.
“I didn’t mean it like that. It’s just a private family matter.” She replied.
She continued walking. Her footsteps were automatic as she went over the shopping list in her head, fresh vegetables, preserved vegetables, spiritual meats, rice, flour, spices... She should have been more begrudging about feeding the hungry ghost behind her but she found herself looking forward to dinner. When Gray was around, her father was happier and his appetite was also better. And after Gray left for his mining trip, her father's condition regressed to what it had been previously.
It was strange and inexplicable, just like Gray. Now that he was back, she was determined to make even more dishes if only to see her father each just one more morsel.
They walked through the streets in silence toward the south gate. It was a place with shops and markets that catered to the common people. It was late afternoon and the townsfolk were out in force, many also doing their grocery shopping for dinner. Some glanced at the strange pair, intrigued by the contrast between a giant man and a petite woman. They were like a young couple, out on an intimate stroll.
They emerged in front of a busy town square, a large flat area where several streets intersected. It was filled with people going in a direction as well as people milling about the middle, waiting to get water from a large public well. Next to the public well were several signboards. Pieces of paper and posters were nailed onto it, covering almost every available surface with various advertisements and announcements. At the very center of the square was a life-sized statue made of white stone sitting atop a plinth. The eye-catching statue depicted a valiant warrior clad in armor, with a slim sword in one hand and the severed head of a defeated foe in the other.
"Holy King, bless me with strength!"
"Holy King, bless my family!"
Various prayers from the common people could be overheard as they paused briefly before the statue.
Alisha also stopped and uttered a prayer, "Holy King, bless this town and my father..."
It was more of a habit than anything else. It felt good to say those words out loud even though she held no hope that a mighty figure from legend could solve her problems.
"Wait! Who's that?" Gray called from behind.
She paused and saw him still looking at the statue.
"He is the Holy King." She replied, "A supreme human cultivator that reached the Spiritual Sovereign Realm..."
"No, I don't care about him. What is that!" Gray said, pointing at the outstretched arm of the statue with the severed head.
The face on the severed head had ordinary features. It looked like any nondescript man except for the two short horns poking out of his hair. If it were not for the horns, he would have seemed completely normal. But with the horns, it was remarkable and instantly memorable.
“What? Oh, that’s a demon.” She said like it was a matter of fact.
He stared at her like she had horns growing out of her head.
“Oh, I guess you’ve never heard about demons before.” She said.
“Demons… demons are real?” He blurted.
Gray was stunned. Demons were a myth, something that people of the King’s Mountains treated as a fairy tale. It was the invisible monster that everyone blamed for inexplicable matters and misfortunes. It was treated as a joke, something to insult each other with, and as a tool to scare children.
He didn’t expect that they actually existed!
She continued, “The demon race is similar to humans in many ways but they grow one or more horns from their heads. They are enemies of all humans. They are scheming, treacherous, and bloodthirsty. There is no reasoning with a demon, only a battle of life or death.”
“Really? That bad?” He asked.
“Yes, the two races are at war. It has been so for thousands of years ever since the Holy King freed us from their control. Now, either we win and wipe them out or we’ll be destroyed instead. Luckily, the King’s Mountains and the Rising Sea Kingdom are far away from the frontlines which lie toward the east. We’re safe here and we only have to deal with taxes that support the ongoing war effort.” She pointed to the sign at the base of the statue, “This statue is everywhere throughout the kingdom and the human world in various forms and warns the common people against demons. Anyone that sees a demon should report it to the local authorities immediately. It also lists out the possible reward for killing a demon; either formal citizenship to the kingdom, forgiveness for past crimes or debts, or other special awards depending on the situation.”
Gray's surprise turned into excitement. He needed citizenship so this was a great opportunity, one that didn’t cost him a hundred thousand gold coins.
“Really? that’s great! Where can I find a demon?” He asked.
“Stupid! If there was a demon here, the town would quickly turn into a wasteland. The four great sects would have dispatched their experts and turned this region upside-down in search of them. The reward is too good for them to pass it up. But don’t worry, this sign is just a warning. The kingdom has been safe and peaceful for many generations. There are no demons here so don’t worry about it!”
“How can you be sure? Maybe… there’s one hiding somewhere.” He said hopefully.
Alisha looked to the skies in exasperation and then simply walked away. Gray shot a final longing glance at the statue of the demon head before chasing after her.
They passed through the town square and went into a wide street on the opposite side where an expansive market lined both sides. Countless carts were lined up in an orderly fashion, filled with bags of rice and flour. Tables were laden with colorful fruits and vegetables of all shapes and sizes. There were even stalls with fresh meat from all kinds of beasts found in the plains.
The market was a buzz of activity. People filled every possible corner and had to squeeze past each other. It was noisy, it was smelly, and Gray enjoyed every bit of it.
Alisha put his size to good use as a way to plow through the crowd. He happily obliged, letting her steer him around. His arms became steadily laden with more and more sacks of foodstuffs. His job was to be the pack animal but he didn’t mind. Most of it would go into his stomach in the end.
“Granny Song, your prices have all gone up a lot. Is there anything wrong?” Alisha said, stopping by a vegetable stall.
A frail, old woman in dirty brown clothes stood in front of unsteady stacks of radishes of all shapes and colors.
Granny Song gave a weary sigh and shook her head. “My son… he was working for one of the trade caravans to the mountains. But the caravan never made it back. I don’t know what happened, the lord won't tell us anything. Without him, I… I can only raise my prices a little to survive. I hope it is still acceptable for you, young miss.”
Alisha's expression softened and she squatted down to eye level with the old woman. She then dug out a slip of paper and handed it over.
“This pass will allow an audience at the lord’s castle. Seek the treasurer and you can ask for your taxes to be forgiven for five years.”
Granny Song tried to refuse but Alisha rejected her kindly.
“Lord Reddy is working hard to solve the bandit crisis. Although it will not bring your son back, please believe me when I say that the lord will do everything to help those affected.”
Madam Song accepted the gift with shaking hands and gave three deep bows. “Noble lady, thank you… Thank you!”
Alisha returned the bow once out of respect. She also bought two sacks of radishes which earned her another round of praise from the crying woman.
“We’re done. Let’s return.” She said to Gray.
Alisha left him to figure out how to add those two sacks to his already laden arms. With his considerable strength, he managed to hook each heavy bag of radishes with a pinkie. He almost fell over several times but managed to balance himself with great effort.
“Are you allowed to do that?” Gray asked, following behind her.
"Why wouldn't I?" She retorted.
“Won’t the lord be angry? Taxes are rather important to him.”
She scoffed, “The lord is not as stingy or greedy as you think. Lord Reddy cares about the people of Jade Hill Town greatly.”
“Uh-huh.” He replied, not believing her.
“I don’t care what you think.” She said sharply, “What will you have the lord do? With the bandit raids, the northern plains have turned into a bloodbath. The trade routes have been shut down, several caravans were completely lost. Nobody is allowed to go north past our borders. We’ve even had to step up patrols to deter further incursions.”
“Shit… I didn’t know it was that bad. I’m sorry.” Gray apologized.
Alisha sighed heavily, “It’s fine, you didn’t know.”
“No, I really am.” He said earnestly, “You know the lord better than anyone, certainly better than me. I shouldn’t have complained to you and insulted him behind his back. Since you and Anand have helped me so much, if you need anything…”
He trailed off, unsure of what to say next and taken aback by his own sincerity. He was a loner, preoccupied with his own survival. He seldom cared about others. But the Patel family had barged into his life on their own accord and refused to leave him alone. He was initially suspicious but that was gradually worn down over time. Although he did not see them in nearly the same way as Xueling, who he viewed as his dearest person, he believed that they were good people.
Alisha turned to him with a beautiful, genuine smile that relieved his nervous heart.
“Thank you.” She said, “Your enthusiasm is noted but all you need to worry about right now is your cultivation. Keeping working hard.”
"And don't get into any more fights with the Southern Seas, please!" She added to which he simply laughed.
The completed Book 1 with 105 chapters is available for download in Ebook and pdf format on my Patreon at https://www.patreon.com/kigreenwriting
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