Though books and lab equipment ported back from the late Valicross' lair add to the stash, the cabin Qing occupies out behind the Inn is still relatively spare and tidy. Most of the furniture has been pushed to the sides of the room by now, and are laden with rows of tomes or tools. Some chairs and a table have been left in place and unoccupied as a concession to the mage's apprentice.
After his final remark in the dungeon, Morgan has been uncharacteristically quiet. Ears back and tail still, he looks a bit smaller now, as if the revelation had taken a great deal out of him once it had timed to sink in.
Now, Morgan is busying himself sorting the books a task made difficult by the magical expenditure needed to trigger the text on each one. He's dutiful, if quiet, staring somewhere past each book with a focus that says his mind is elsewhere.
The mage himself is coiled neatly in his usual place at a writing desk, near a cushioned stand upon which rests a grisly staff made of bones. Qing continues to add to a lengthy list of the victims gone into making the staff, the reptile's silence more characteristic than the Kadie's.
With a sudden sigh, Morgan pauses in his work. He stares at the text on the page in front of him as if not seeing them. Then, just as suddenly, he lets his head fall against the book with a soft thud. "I can't believe it," he says in a low voice.
Qing pens another name, then sets his quill in its inkwell and sets the scroll aside to dry. Though he doesn't say anything, Morgan has spent enough time around the mage to know by the angle of the snake's head that he isn't being ignored at the moment.
"How can this be? How can I be my own father?" The words spill out like water from a dam breaking, with the Kadie's body being the dam. He keeps his head down, the strength drained from him. "All this time I thought I was chosen because I was the one. I could have confidence in that, and so could Amelia! But, but it's not true, is it? Somehow, somehow I've … stolen Amelia's fate, and fooled myself. Or, even if I'm not Lord Xochi, I have his soul. He is my 'father,' I have his spirit. His burden is … mine to bear." Morgan lifts his head up, but, let's it fall right back down with another thud. "What has it all been for?"
The mage flicks his tongue. "Nonsense," he hisses. "Again you are confusing spirits and souls. I'll have no such amateurish blundering while you study under me, Nightshade. Your soul, if any of us have such a thing, is yours alone, as is your fate."
Morgan lifts his head again, twisting it to look at the mage. "You speak of them as if they weren't worthy of acknowledgment, Mage Qing. The spirits." Pushing himself back up to sitting, Morgan rubs the bridge of his muzzle with a hand. ""Whorls of energy," you called them. I wonder. I have always been taught to respect the spirits of the land, but I've never thought about if they had souls or about their existence. Does Pilli seem so different, from you, or I?"
"On the contrary, Nightshade. There are few who understand the potency and importance of spirits as I do," murmurs Qing, slowly uncoiling himself. "It is because of my intimate knowledge of spirits that I say the things I do. A spirit is a thing that can be measured and manipulated, a force like wind or heat. The soul is a much deeper enigma. Pilli himself said he and their fellow bog fairies did not have them, that Xochi was consumed in a drive to attain one."
"But … No one knows what a soul is, correct? And Pilli, speaking and acting as we do, he is so similar. And I … " The Kadie takes a deep breath, holding it a moment before letting it out in a ragged burst. "I am … I don't know. Lord Xochi's son? Lord Xochi? Morgan Nightshade, Lord Xochi's second life? Some combination? I wouldn't believe it, if I hadn't heard this story before … " He reaches up and rubs his eyes tiredly, then grabs his tail to rub with that too.
Qing answers, "You are Morgan Nightshade, overly excitable Kadie and my apprentice." The snake begins pouring slowly across the room, taking up one of the blank books to idly look it over. "You have the dubious distinction of having your conception tampered with by a spirit, which has shaped you and left you with a strange ability." He sets the book down. "This does not differ from any other way a person's life is shaped. You are a different person than you would have been had the spirit not manipulated you, but so would you have been if you had been born into wealth, or born with a club foot."
"Hmmmmm." Morgan nods slowly, seeming to agree. Or, at least, accept the answer without argument. He closes his eyes now, folding his hands in his lap. "Then, there is the matter of … Amelia. Lord Xochi tampers, but Lord Xochi is … somehow a part of me. To what degree, I don't know. But, if he is here, I am he or the closest one to being he as exists. If, I understand it all correctly." He licks his lips, then continues. "I can't just … ignore what he did. If I'm him or not, whatever I am, I feel the guilt. Father, soul, or self, his responsibility is mine, yes?"
The Rokuga crosses his many arms. "It most certainly is not. This outcome was determined before you ever left your mother's womb. There are enough things determined by birthright, such as status and class. Fate need not be among them. I am an example of this."
"How so, Mage Qing? I know next to nothing of the culture of your people. Yours is a world away, beyond even our stories," the Kadie replies. He reaches over and takes the back of a chair, turning it around so that he may sit somewhere other than the floor.
Qing's crimson eyes take on a faraway look, as if his gaze were returning to the very place Morgan mentioned. "It is very different than yours, apprentice," he hisses. The reptile unfolds his many arms, fanning them out. "I am Jingai, specifically Rokuga, the "People of Six."
The reptile takes up one of the books near where his luggage is piled, not one of the blank ones. The title on the spine is in odd characters; the flowing script of Imperial. Qing opens the book, flipping a few pages and holding it out for Morgan to see. It appears to be a medical tome, and is opened to a page of sketches detailing the physiological makeup of a two-armed serpent, a Naga. "This is a Naga. They are the the people of purest blood, and it is they for whom all the rights of citizenship are reserved."
"Sort of like … Gallee and Gallah, to the south?" The Kadie lifts a brow, curious, and quite likely glad for the slight change of topic.
Qing's forked tongue flicks thoughtfully. "Somewhat, but more strictly defined," he says, turning a few more pages and arriving at a sketch of a lizardy fellow. "Jingai are all those who are not of the Naga shape. They are relegated to lives of labor, a caste beneath the People. So it is that birth decrees status, and so it was that my status was decreed. Yet I learned, and I grew. I was not given power, so I created it. I was not given respect, so I earned it."
"I see." The Kadie flicks his hair over his shoulder, casting it out of his eyes, and frowns. "You struggled to get what those around you thought you did not deserve, or could not have. Your birth decreed your status, as mine decreed mine." Eyes narrowing in thought, the Kadie rubs his hands together slowly for warmth. "Amelia, she was 'supposed' to be the witch. She has put herself to her martial task, as a replacement. Lord Xochi wanted a soul, so set forth to find one." He chuckles slightly. "Different, but the same, don't you think?"
The snake closes his book and sets it aside, flicking his tongue again in thought. "I suppose I see the parallel. In any case, you take my meaning. Had Blacktail never taken the steps down her martial path, who is to say what would have happened when Valicross arrived? All things impact other things, change them and divert them like a boulder in a stream."
"Who is to say … except us? I see what you mean." Morgan reaches over and drums his fingers on the table, staring at them. "It's the choices we make with the options we are given. So, then, what do I do with this option?" Instead of tapping, the squirrel switches to making circles with a finger, reminiscent of Pilli's flight. "I like Pilli," he admits after a moment. "And, I feel responsible to my duties. My duties demand I bring no harm to the women of the village, nor trouble them, but always seek to help them. It is our way. I wonder, if this was what Lord Xochi thought it would be like?" Another sigh, and Morgan nods. "I've decided. I will be Lord Xochi, and I will be Morgan Nightshade. I will pay my own debts, if I can, because it is our way it is what I want."
Qing begins winding his way back to his writing desk, waving a hand as if shooing a fly. "Be wary of clinging to these spirits. Call yourself as you will, and make your own way. Remember what you have said; duty and loyalty are admirable."
"I must make up what I have taken from Amelia, but … I will let her chose if she wants to take it. Then, I can discharge my debt to her," Morgan insists. "And, I'm sorry to be so unstable right now. We're really a much more peaceful town. This must be very vexing for you."
The reptile begins coiling himself again. "If you feel you must. You will accrue many debts without having to imagine new ones. Speak with Blacktail, I suspect you will quickly make your peace." He rests his hands on the desk while his lower body arranges itself into neat loops. "The turmoils of your town are insignificant compared to what I have dealt with in the service of nations."
""The turmoil of nations are the struggles of individuals," I read that in a text I found in Dr. Pike's lab, once." Morgan reaches over and picks up the book he had been sorting, placing it open in front of himself. The magic-traced words are already beginning to fade. "You seem to loathe them," he says neutrally as he turns through pages, "the spirits, I mean. Your people, they do not walk with them?"
The mage's nose wrinkles slightly. "Tss. Do not mistake my professionalism for hatred. I do not hate spirits any more than I hate storms or fire, else why would I create them? Your sentimentality colors your viewpoint."
"There, you see? "Storms and fire," as if they were unable to speak to us. You called Lord Xochi a "whorl" with an unfulfilled desire, and Pilli a mere fluctuation of the elements, easily manipulated, but I can't accept that, myself. I have spoken with them, and though they are not as we, they are a life in and of themselves. In some ways, they are a more refined life than we, devoid of complication a pure element, in some cases." Morgan keeps his nose firmly buried in his book, unwilling to endure whatever scourging look he expects to face soon. "And what of men, who become spirits? And spirits, who become men."
It's dim enough in the cabin that Qing doesn't need to wear his dark spectacles, but it's difficult to tell if his lidless stare is a reproachful one or just a gaze. "What of them? Men die, they don't become spirits. They leave an echo in the energetic field of this world, an imprint of their life and last moments that remains in that scope, without the capacity to change or grow. Spirits tamper and possess, they do not become men. There is no bridge in the natural order between spirits and the living, any more than there is between man and lightning. You can write in a book, and it can tell you things, but it is not alive."
Morgan keeps to his book, even as he feels his elder's gaze against his skull. "And what of me, then? My mother is mortal, but my father is … what? The wind? The rain? A … whorl?" He closes the book with a soft thud, pushing it across the table as he grabs another.
"A Kadie," hisses Qing.
"A Kadie? Do you know something I do not?" Morgan flips open this next book, and Qing can feel the charge of magic as he begins to try and reveal its words.
The mage snorts. "I suspect you know how it works as well as I do. A male and female Kadie produce offspring. That a spirit came to possess you, possibly tamper with your birth, is remarkable. The notion that a spirit conceived you is absurd."
"I have no father, that I'm aware of. Do you think I pursued the spirit as I did, because I knew of a Kadie father? Believe you me, I wasn't looking to the spirits to find my father, when first I sought him out," the Kadie explains. The words on the page slowly form, their manifestation hindered by Morgan's vexation.
Qing's tongue flicks again. "You are hardly the only person in the world who does not know their father, Nightshade. I do not know mine. That does not leave the manner of my conception in doubt. What does your mother say?"
Morgan is silent for a moment, sinking in his chair. He closes his eyes and runs a hand back through his long black hair. "Please forgive me," he whispers, for his mother's sake. Louder, he explains in a tired voice, "I asked, once, you know. I asked my mother, who my father was. Do you think I sought that spirit out without knowing what to look for? It all connects. Unless we have been deceived, it all connects." Lifting a hand, the Kadie looks at his fingers as he wiggles them. "A rainbow of Creens. She sought the one who loved her most."
"Explain," hisses the mage.
"It was a ritual, to chose who she might be with, to find who loved her most. She described an event similar to what Pilli described. There was never a mention of a Kadie man, or any other race. Just a ritual, and … me." The Kadie's brow raises, and he glances over at Qing now. "And believe me, I asked about Mister Blacktail he was my first guess. But, no. Beside, it would make Amelia my sister." The Kadie looks back, frowning as he adds, "Please don't mention this to anyone else. I feel bad enough telling you; I do so because of your professionalism."
Qing's long mouth pulls tight. "Rest assured." He pauses to consider this story. "So then, if I am to understand correctly, your mother claims to have initiated a ritual to find out the person who loved her most. She was approached by various colored Creens, and became pregnant, having had no contact with men before this?"
"That would be the case. Spirits, now I feel awful for just telling you that! Is there no one I haven't betrayed?" The Kadie grabs his head with his hands, closing his eyes. "Arrgh!"
Morgan lets his head fall back on the table, with a groan of, "I'm going to run away and join the faeries."
The snake lets out a sharp hiss, like a blast of steam from a boiler. "Show some discipline, weakling! If you fall apart every time your emotions tug at you, you will learn nothing and accomplish less! It is enough that you resist basic notions on spirits that I am trying to teach you. I will not waste my time on washuu-boned bawlers!"
Morgan winces at the sudden heat from the mage, rolling his head to peek at him with wide eyes. "Er." His tail flicks, and he swallows as he sits up, pushing his hair out of his face.
Qing dusts at his robes with sharp swats, straightening out the already pristine white of his mantle. "As it stands, I have no intention of speaking with your mother about this, anymore than I have a desire to speak with her at all, or she me, I would imagine. You have nothing to fear in that regard."
"Well, well … That's a relief," the Kadie says in a wavering voice. He blinks at the mage, disoriented by his anger, and adds, "You're really rather similar in some respects."
"Hmph. If by that you mean she has little tolerance for nonsense, then I am glad," murmurs the mage, his voice leveling out again. "Perhaps there is hope for you. The subject at hand was spirits, however. I propose a compromise until such time as you can learn more correctly."
Refolding his hands, the Kadie takes a moment to steady himself as he peers at the hands in his lap. "I'm willing to learn, Mage Qing, but … " his head shakes, " … I don't think I can accept the spirits are nothing more than, than … " he gestures towards the text he had been working on, " … books. No, not accept: I just plain think you're mistaken."
"I have spent more time at this art than you have lived, boy," murmurs the witchdoctor, laying his hand on his desk. "My notions are very secure. However, I will not claim there is not more to learn, so I propose this: we will work under the assumption that a spirit may have a soul, but you will acknowledge that a spirit is not itself a soul. A spirit may have a soul, but souls are not spirits."
Morgan eyes the mage a moment, then nods in agreement. "I can live with that. I needn't let my own bewilderment over my own existence distract us, either. That, I'll solve myself, as will I the matter of Amelia and my mother," he says. He reaches over and slides the book he was working over, giving it a wry look. "Who knows, perhaps our 'good friend' Valicross had a word on the subject. Certainly, if he could have a soul … Or if a mortal could be soulless … " He tsks.
"You know, what does a soul matter? If Pilli is soulless and Valicross not, I can do without, too," the Kadie decides.
The reptile glances down at the macabre staff. "Mm. Powerful as he was, I would not take Valicross at his word. Though if you wish to be exacting on the matter, what you knew as Valicross had no more soul than Pilli, and in life he worked feverishly to discard it."
"Are you suggesting a soul is in the good deeds we do, Mage Qing? Could there be a heart of gold within that cold-blooded exterior?" Morgan raises a brow, then quickly holds up his hands in defense.
Qing looks briefly lost in thought, studying the linked bones of the artifact resting nearby. Either he misses the latter part of what Morgan says, or he simply doesn't rise to it. "I suppose this is necessarily an inexact thing, given the unknowable nature of souls. It is generally understood or assumed all sentient, living beings… that being intelligent creatures who have grown and developed… possess a soul. Valicross sought to immortalize himself in a spirit, but that necessitated killing his body. All he left behind was a very complex, very powerful echo of his life."
"But without any indicator of a soul other than assumption, we may never know if it was truly him, or not? Indeed, it sounds like, by your education, you believe that it is impossible to prove that anyone spirit or man has a soul. Which suggests to me, … it's something we should leave to speculation and faith," the Kadie says. He rubs his chin a bit, then tilts his head. "I've told you little of my own belief, our ways: and that is because it is forbidden. Undoubtedly like you, I have secrets I cannot share. But, you've heard enough to know I respect the spiritual weave. It is the land, the air, and what I have heard … in me. That and more, is why I can't discount them. I know them: we speak! In many ways, they are like the people of this town."
Qing rolls his shoulders in a multi-layered shrug. "Perhaps my choice of words was poor. I say it is difficult to prove the existence of souls, but that is because there is no scientifically tangible way to measure them. However, souls are a belief common to all the cultures of Sinai, and we cannot discount the impression that leaves on people. Thus, with that assumption made, we are left separating what does and does not have a soul. If we are to assume spirits have them, then we must assume any force, any pattern, any thing can have them. Being able to communicate does not necessarily mean anything. I can create things that communicate, and dismiss them as easily. It is because I have learned so much of spirits that I speak as I do."
"Science? Zahnrad goes on about science, now and then, as does Dr. Pike. I hear it's something akin to magecraft, or herbary, in that it's a learned method." The Kadie's tail flickers, and his head tilts the other way. "Do you ever wonder, if we claim to have souls as a grand bit of superiority? If spirits are counted as souls, no longer can you discount them, no more can you consider them less than you are. You manipulate an equal and so too might you be manipulated. I suppose, we all want to be special, too." He smiles. "Personally, I would find it more comforting to know we are as spirits, than that we are not."
Qing's mouth creases again, corners pulling taut and tongue flicking. "Mm. Your reasoning is flawed. Not everyone with a soul is my equal either. There are many people less than I am, and they serve in much the same way as I would serve those above me. Even if that were not the case, the spirits I create are under my absolute control, created to my specifications. They do not feel or think any more than I require them to, and no more than a fire thinks to consume the wood I feed it, and certainly no more than the rabbit I consume for my repast. I have no qualms using all of them, and so have no qualms using spirits to suit my needs."
"Then there is a line, somewhere. Perhaps for all of us, or, for each of us, yes? Where, we decide if a being has a soul. I wonder, do you feel there are beings with … more soul than yourself? These Nagai? Your rulers? Would they see you as a soulless tool?" The Kadie turns his attention back to the book near him, reading a bit before adding, "I don't mean to insult you. I am just curious, I … guess I'm looking for something. I, I think I want to assure myself, but it keeps … slipping from my grasp."
The snake shakes his head. "That is something we judge based on what we can see and measure. If a Naga proves himself to be an idiot, I will find him an idiot. If he proves himself to be a leader, I will follow him. If he proves himself to be an enemy, I will kill him." Qing looks down at a book he's separated from the rest, frowning briefly then opening a drawer and putting it in. "There are plain Nagai citizens just as there are lords, this is recognized. The establishment in place has its own origin and reasons."
"It sounds complicated. I've wondered what traveling is like, but, perhaps I'll just stay here," the Kadie admits. He closes the book in front of himself, noticing Qing's action, and grabs another one. "I think I can only read these for short periods. The venom in the words alone could kill a village." Again, Qing feels the tug on the magic weave as Morgan begins drawing the words forth. "So, I've also been thinking that Pilli may still see me … Lord Xochi? … " the Kadie laughs tiredly, "Oh, bother, I'm just going to say me I'm fine with that now, I think," and shakes his head, "Anyway, he may see me as his lord. I'm considering what to do with that."
Qing checks the ink on his scroll, and then rolls it up, satisfied that the script is dry. "Whatever my thoughts of spirits, I know full well that working with them can make things easier. Take the opportunity to learn if you think you can, but keep your eyes open. The bog fairies appear more or less benevolent, but they are capricious."
"I think … I want them to be kin. And, they are, are they not? Resonance. Kin, in a way, or kin in truth. I've always been a bit of an outsider, after all," the Kadie explains. He pushes his current book with the others of its ilk, then grab a regular, non-magicked book. "I actually think Pilli is a lot of fun. It's vaguely intoxicating. Or, well, maybe that was the shock. Still, I suppose if I give Amelia what she was denied, I may need a new path in life. Fairy king, it has a nice ring to it."
Qing turns his head to glance at the Kadie out of one ruby eye. "Mm." is all he says, at first, then at length he hisses, "I shall rest before I continue with the next bone fragment." He settles down into his coils without another word.
"Ahh, well." The Kadie gently closes the book he was working on, then rises. "Good eve, Mage Qing. Thank you for listening." Then, he walks over to a pile of sheets from the pushed aside bed, and takes up a blanket. "I'll see you soon." He places the blanket around the mage's shoulders.