They laid the remains of the dead Outsiders on the snow. Seven warriors, one shaman. It didn’t necessarily mean there were eight enemies, only that they had recovered eight bodies. As Sam Yung stood watch, the Protectors broke out their field knives and multitools, and got down to the bloody and grisly work of field dressing the carcasses.
The process was straightforward. Cut out the carapace plates. Unzip the body from sternum to anus. Remove the viscera. Separate the internal organs from the bowels.
And remove the core.
Where most animals had hearts, Outsiders had cores. A fist-shaped lump of smooth crystalline matter, located in its center of mass. Like the dantin of the human body, an Outsider’s core gathered and concentrated hei from the cosmos. He could turn it in for a bounty. Or…
Gam Fong held a core in his hand, admiring it in the sunlight. Grasping it with his fingers, he squeezed the lump, as if trying to crush it with his bare hands.
“Stop,” Wai Kit said.
Gam Fong blinked. “Excuse me?”
“I know what you’re doing. Don’t.”
“Profane? What do you mean?”
“How does the core feel?”
Gam Fong hefted it.
“Warm. Heavy. Dense. It’s filled with hei.”
“Not just hei. Bak.”
“Yes. From the term wanbak, the incorporeal essence of consciousness. When a living being dies, its wan leaves the body, while its bak stays behind. That core contains a lingering fragment of consciousness.”
“What’s the problem?”
“If you consume the core, you’re not just consuming the stored hei. You are also absorbing the bak. It is profane.”
Shaking his head, Sam Yung strolled over. “Not that this again.”
“It doesn’t make it any less true.”
“Hei exists. But wanbak? Really?”
“How do you know hei exists?” Wai Kit asked.
“We use it. We can measure it. It powers our guns, our gear, our vehicles. But wanbak? How do you know it’s even there?”
“If you cannot measure something, does it mean it doesn’t exist?”
“Aiya, you’re not a monk any more. Save it.”
“It doesn’t make consuming cores any less dangerous.”
“It’s not dangerous. It makes you powerful,” Gam Fong said.
“In the short term, yes. But it changes you. When you kill a living being, its mind becomes violently disturbed. It leaves behind a bak filled with hatred and sorrow. When you consume a core, you consume the hatred and sorrow of the one you’ve killed. It contaminates your own wanbak, twisting your very essence.”
Sam Yung sneered. “I need that power now.”
He held out his hands. A bloody bandage covered his right hand. In his left hand, he held a core.
“Look at this, rookie.”
He crushed the core.
A burst of searing golden light flashed from his fingers. Dust showered in the air. Sam Yung inhaled sharply, pulling as much hei as he could into his being.
Golden light, softer and weaker, surged through his right arm, gathering in his hand. Sam Yung breathed deeply and audibly, his eyes squeezed shut in total concentration.
When the light faded, he unwrapped the bandage and flexed his hand. The exposed skin revealed in the torn fabric of his glove was as pink and smooth as a newborn’s.
“See? Good as new. And now I’ve increased my hei by a hundred and eighty points.”
Wai Kit shook his head. “The spine also broke your prism. The magic didn’t fix it. And if you want power, neikung is a safer and more sustainable way to grow your hei.”
Sam Yung waved his hand dismissively. “We don’t have time for that.”
Gam Fong interrupted the exchange.
“How is consuming a core different from eating meat?”
Wai Kit could explain it, but he doubted the kid would appreciate a full explanation at this time. Besides…
“Fundamentally, there is no difference.”
“You eat meat too!” Gam Fong exclaimed.
“Only vat-grown meat. Meat that had never been alive, that had never possessed wanbak.”
“You don’t have to observe the Five Precepts anymore,” Sam Yung said cynically. “Didn’t you just break the first of them?”
“It doesn’t mean I should just turn my back on the teachings completely.”
“Our suits and weapons are made from Outsider cores. How are you not contaminated?”
How could Wai Kit begin to explain a lifetime of training to someone with no background in such things?
“I do not eat my kit. That’s the difference.”
“We’re down a man. The kid needs to cultivate hei. Why are you stopping him from becoming more powerful?”
“Because trading your soul for mere power is never worth it.”
“That’s what you think. You had the opportunity to cultivate hei the old-fashioned way from grandmasters. Most of us never will. We have to use what works for us.”
“Gam Fong, what do you think about all this?” Wai Kit asked.
Gam Fong looked down on the core. “I… I don’t know.”
“We’re not expecting to face combat. Just stow it somewhere safe. You don’t have to do anything about it now.”
Gam Fong nodded. “Alright.”
Sam Yung shook his head and walked away.
Wai Kit reminded himself that the Protector had been wounded. He’d taken a hard blow to the head, then he’d been shot in the hand. Even though he’d just used a healing skill, a man who had recently experienced such trauma couldn’t be expected to comport himself the same way as a calm and healthy one.
Per Protector etiquette, the spoils of war went to the killer. Joint kills were, in theory, divided among the ones who had worked together to fell a monster. Not Wai Kit. He never split the cores of joint kills, preferring to give them up entirely. The Protectors thought he was strange.
He didn’t want the fruits that came from splitting a soul.
Wai Kit dropped the three cores into a spare pouch into his backpack. Under more normal circumstances, the Protectors would have continued to process the carcasses. They would remove the skin, pack the meat, take everything useful they could from the bodies. Not now. They’d spent way too much time stationery as is, and there wasn’t any space in the trucks to stow harvested bodies anyway. Instead, they hung them from the trees.
Far, far from the tent.
As they readied to depart, Wai Kit checked in on the tent one last time. It was a four-man tent, a goodly size for a hunting party. Personal effects lay scattered across the tent floor. Dried blood caked the interior fabric in wild sprays. Drag marks led to nearby trees, to the carcasses Leopard One had spotted.
They were human bodies.
Four men, butchered and gutted and exposed, exactly in the same way the Protectors had done to the Outsiders. But left out for far longer. Long enough for the beginnings of rot to set in. Gut piles lay at their feet, blackened and swollen, infested with mold and maggots.
Wai Kit didn’t know whether the Outsiders had learned this behavior from humans, or if they had developed the practice by themselves. What he did know was that man and monster alike were caught in this torrid spiral of jangwo, each doing unto the other before they could do the same unto them—or perhaps because.
The Outsiders didn’t need to do this to feed. Or if they did, they didn’t have to hang the bodies by the clearing. They’d done it to attract the attention of passers-by.
And to ensure that the survivors would remember.
Wai Kit stood before the bodies, clasped his hands, and lowered his head.
“Nam mou oneitofat.”
He recited the mantra thrice, then bowed.
Though he had traded his robes for his suit and his begging bowl for his gun, he still remembered the vows.
He was not a priest. It was all he could do now. The Protectors had to move on. But when he returned, he would pick up where he had to leave off.
As a man, he could do no less.
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