“Wake up.” A heavy boot prodded Gen in the ribs, waking him from his stupor. Leaping to his feet, teeth bared and ready to fight, Gen blinked the sleep out of his eyes as he faced his attacker. Laughing Dragon stood before him with a cocksure grin, arms crossed and covered in blood and gore. Looking him up and down, the bandit leader tilted his head. “Don’t you look like a tuckered toddler, had fun didn’t ye? Nothin’ like cutting loose for the first time, familiarizing yerself with true freedom. Liberation sure is sweet, ain’t she?”
Glancing down at his body, he noted the crusted remains of the dead plastered across his skin, a dark, delicious looking red. His memories were a haze, but he remembered enjoying himself immensely, the mere thought enough to send a shiver of pleasure through his body. The heat surged through his veins as he released all his pent-up rage and frustrations, the heady, euphoric rush afterwards, it was all so incredible and exhilarating, how did he ever live without it? Hands shaking as he moved, he paced about the tiny hut, searching for another victim to play with, but they were all dead, not a single breathing soul in sight.
Besides Laughing Dragon.
Seeing the glint in his eyes, the bandit leader’s gaze hardened, his smile darkening as he spread his arms in welcome. “Wooo, ambitious one, aren’t ye? It’s good to have dreams, but you should listen to yer gut.” Leaning forward, his smile grew wider, teeth bared like a threat. “What’s it sayin’ to ye now?”
Gen warred with the urges insisting he stay his hand, wanting nothing more than to tear into the bandit leader’s flesh and cover himself in the warm, sticky blood beneath. A chorus rose in his mind and bade him stop, his instincts given voice, overpowering him and demanding he calm and rein in his desires. The adversary is too strong, too ready. We must be patient, we must be smart. We are the hunter, the killer, the predator.
Our time will come.
Exhaling slowly, Gen straightened his back and unclenched his fists, glaring darkly at Laughing Dragon, surrender without submission. A weapon, that’s what he needed, an item of power to better let him channel the worldly energies infusing him. The others had them, Laughing Dragon’s fiendish sabre one of many, a crude creation unworthy of Gen. His instincts would guide him to a suitable one given time, patience his only weapon for now.
“Good. I’d hate to put ye down, we don’t get many walk-ins.” Indicating he should follow, the bandit leader strode out of the room, presenting his back without hesitation. Gen listened to his instincts, a test, the crafty bandit ready to defend himself should Gen attack. Too easy to spot the hand on his weapon, the measured paces, the ready posture. “Not every Liberated soul learns to control their urges, especially those who come into it on their own. Most go stark-raving mad and lose themselves to the power, bunch of bastards making things difficult for the rest of us.” Pointing out the surrounding sheep, hard at work stacking bodies for burning, he added, “Makes it difficult to recruit unless we take careful measures, bring them into the light slowly, step by step. Tiresome shit, which makes it all the better when new blood prances on in by its lonesome.”
Acting on a hunch, Gen stepped forward and grabbed a sheep by the throat, a young man of similar age and similar build. In spite of this, Gen easily held the bandit steady with one hand, the little lamb struggling helplessly in his steely grasp. Yes, this was power, the path laid out before him in blood and revelry, strength bestowed upon him by the heavens. More sacrifices would be needed, more indulgences desired, more lives consumed. To do that, more wolves needed to be reared, and this little lamb would do nicely.
The natural energies of the world spewed forth from Gen to baptize the little lamb, invisible and formless to the natural eye, but a grey, swirling mass in Gen’s vision, beautiful and fearsome to behold as it merged with the energy within the little lamb. Choking slowly, his face turned purple as he struggled for air, ruminating on the answers he searched for so desperately the night before, and in the blink of an eye, the sheep died.
In its place rose a wolf, eager and ravenous for violence.
Releasing his new brethren, Gen studied the others, able to see the pitiful and meagre energy within them. Guiding them would be pointless for now, the expenditure wasted like it’d been wasted on Kash. A deluge of images flooded his mind at the thought. Kash’s smiling face as he brought Gen to his hidden perch by the river, the two boys looking out at the bathing women. Kash puffing up as he carried a ten-point buck, his greatest catch yet, proudly displaying his prowess before the village. Kash pleading at Gen, his eye hanging out of the broken socket as his mouth moved wordlessly.
Kash, his friend, his brother, his prey.
Stumbling back, Gen collapsed to the ground, weakened by emotion. Helping his new comrade drained him, else these thoughts would never have surfaced. With time, his strength would grow, these errant thoughts fading away. Courage and resilience would be rewarded in time, he only needed patience. A boisterous laugh broke the silence, Laughing Dragon clapping slowly at the display, weapon in hand. “Well ain’t you just slicker’n dog shit, liberating another comrade all by yer lonesome. Almost cut yer damn throat, thought ye were killing one of my precious little students. Can you do the same for the others?”
Gen shook his head, wiping away his sweat. “This one was ready to accept the truth, I merely helped him along. They’re not yet ready.” With more strength, he wouldn’t need to wait for these sheep, he could force them to see the light, but not yet. Soon. Patience.
“A damn shame the others ain’t up to snuff. Well, c’mon then, still plenty to do before the day’s through.” Gesturing for Gen to lead, Laughing Dragon walked at his side, no longer comfortable leaving him out of sight. A compliment, in a strange way, acknowledging that Gen was more dangerous than expected, worthy of caution, and Gen held his head high at the unspoken praise.
They soon reached the river where the others like them were washing off, and Laughing Dragon promptly jumped in, one sheep rushing to pick up his discarded bloody clothes. Gen followed in after, delighted at having someone pick up after him, a servant of sorts. Yes, he should find someone specifically for his own use, he was a man of importance now, a powerful warrior. He couldn’t be bothered with trivial matters, he deserved an army of slaves and concubines to care for his needs.
Scraping a blade across his chin, Laughing Dragon shaved and groomed himself meticulously, earning Gen’s scorn. A dandy, caring so much for his appearance, the bandit leader preening as he glanced at his own reflection in the water. Despicable. Catching Gen’s eye, Laughing Dragon grinned once more, an irksome smile. “Amazing what a little soap and a nice shirt will do for ye. People see a well-dressed, well-groomed band of warriors and immediately think ‘soldier’ or ‘mercenary’, dropping their guard. Can’t tell you the number of times we’ve been invited in without a second thought, before we’ve even said a word. So delightful, the hardest part is not laughing too much at their naivete. Scrub yer hair nice and thorough, ye got plenty to wash out.”
Exiting from the cold waters, another sheep greeted Gen with clean clothes, a uniform of sorts. A simple farmer’s outfit, a drab long-shirt and loose trousers, held up by a wide cloth belt. The sheep helped him dress, wrapping his hands and tying a scarf around his neck, arranging it to naturally cover his face without seeming to hide. Add a wide-brimmed woven-reed hat, a leather vest, and a hatchet tucked into his belt, Gen looked the part of a warrior, the little village hunter nowhere to be seen.
Patting him on the shoulder, Laughing Dragon guided him back to the village. “The clothes make the man and we Firebrands like to look the part. You look like a sack of gold, all dressed and fancy.”
Gen snorted derisively. “Hmph. Why bother with the deception? There is no need to fear the Emperor’s soldiers, we are warriors, enlightened to truth. We should spread the news to all who will hear!”
The hand on his shoulder tightened as Laughing Dragon spun him about, looking him face-to-face. “Now, now, don’t be doing anything foolish. You keep yer mouth shut about yer ‘enlightenment’. Fool boy, ye looking to tell the world about us? We’d be hunted down without rest, no fun to be had at all.”
“The warrior families of the Empire seek to keep the truth from the common people, how despicable. If we tell everyone the truth, the commoners would rise to our cause and together, we can sweep aside any who stand against us, even the Dog Emperor himself!”
“Haha, I like you boy, you dreams big. Rallying the people to our side, that’s a real laugh. Keep yer mouth shut all the same.” Resuming their walk, Laughing Dragon draped an arm around Gen’s shoulder, like they were the best of friends. “Anyway, serious business now, this village we hittin’, tell me about it. Yer old home?”
Gen answered the questions while studying the bandit leader. He played his part well, a handsome, amicable ruffian who rose to prominence from a common background. If not for Gen’s heightened intuition, he would think Laughing Dragon nothing more than a mere bandit, albeit an infamous one. The tales of his benevolence and righteous ways were commonly told around the dinner table, with wine and food in hand, taking delights in their exploits and escapades. Only robbing the Council and their ilk, leaving guards and drivers alive unless facing staunch resistance, Laughing Dragon was almost a hero to the people, his comrades in arms who marking themselves with heated irons. Honourable thieves who never betrayed their own, they often appeared in smaller villages, paying for food and wine and spreading good cheer. A romantic fiction, Gen disliked the need to take such drastic measures, hiding who they truly were.
Soon, there would come a time when they need not hide, and could freely embrace the death and destruction. A glorious age when the truth could be freely spoken, the ways of the world laid bare for all to see, righting the imbalance of this rotten world. Gen would be the first of many, leading the way to salvation for all, the dawn of a new age of equality and prosperity for all who survive. Such would be the way of the world once he was through.
Lighting a torch, he stared into the flame, dancing about as it reached for the skies, seeking to consume what it can, yearning for true freedom. Much like he’d been, these little flames were constrained and restricted, unable to reach their true potential. Turning to the pile of bodies, he waited with a smile as the others gathered pitch and tinder, setting the stage for a dazzling display, efficient and well-practiced at this craft. Once everything was ready, Laughing Dragon nodded at him and Gen giggled before tossing the torched in a lazy arc, the tiny light hanging in the air for a breathtaking second.
Igniting in a brilliant orange and yellow tempest, the flames consumed all within its path, calling to him. The others fled the heat as he took in the sights, feeling a kinship with the flames, the raging inferno not bothering him one bit. Reaching out, he grasped a wisp in the palm of his hand, feeding it with the roiling grey mists within and for a moment, the flame flared up into the skies in radiant splendour before blinking out of existence, exhausting all he had given it.
Understanding dawned on him, as if a veil lifted from his eyes. He was the fire and the flame, devouring all which lay before him, fuelling him to new heights, empowering him until none could stand against him. So long as he continued to feed, he would become unstoppable, a volatile destroyer of man and beast alike. His time had come, the father of a new era.
But first, he had to return home and see his family. How wonderful it would be to turn his hometown into a scene like this, sharing a loving reunion amidst the flames and carnage, the mere thought had him salivating in anticipation. Striding untouched through the fire, he imagined their surprised and fearful visages would be much like what he saw in the eyes of the bandits gaping before him, Laughing Dragon awed by his power. The lives of his parents and friends would become a tribute to the heavens, their deaths setting him free and fanning his flames, granting him unrestrained power.
Humming a little ditty, he set out at an easy run, leading his new friends back home to meet his family. His parents would be so proud of him once they learned their son would usher in a time of prosperity and bloodshed.
Peering down the length of his arrow, Baledagh hesitated for a moment, and the opportunity was lost. Something spooked the fat rabbit, its nose twitching adorably at the air before scampering away with a hop and a skip. Pursing his lips and shaking his head, he set out in search of other prey, hoping to fill his belly with a hot meal. Why did he hesitate? That rabbit would have been delicious, a sumptuous feast to begin their journey. Maybe he could set snares at night and check them in the morning, there were plenty of rabbit trails to be found.
They looked so fluffy, it reminded him of his hare, feeling a pang in his chest as he thought of hugging the soft creature. Maybe it was time Baledagh found a pet to call his own, instead of always sharing with brother. A rabbit and wife for Baledagh, that was all he wanted, no need to be greedy. Brother did the lion’s share of the work, so brother should have more, but why shouldn’t Baledagh have something to call his own? Brother would understand, but with no signs of improvement as he slept in the void, who knew when that might be? Baledagh had slept for years before waking again, perhaps the same would happen to brother.
Truth be told, he didn’t need to be out here hunting, but Qing-Qing was a mess, alternating between long, emotionless staring and bouts of hysterical sobbing. Although he tried to console her, there was only so much he could handle, excusing himself to travel ahead and ‘clear the way’. Lovely, sweet Qing-Qing, the journey was hard on her, not even an hour into their travels and already a wreck, although somehow through the tears, she’d braided her horse’s mane in a lovely pattern. Yes, she loved animals as much as he, a pet rabbit would be good for her too, something to care for now that he was better. She would make a magnificent mother someday.
With the lake to the east and the sun shining through the trees, Baledagh enjoyed the travels in silence, killing five wild birds for lunch. Small things, more feather and bones than meat, he kept his eyes open for a nice succulent duck or goose. The hours slipped by and he continued to hunt, gathering more than enough for the next two days, but he was still loath to return. Following a set of day-old bear tracks, he deviated away from the path, thinking to give Qing-Qing more time to herself. Seeing her so dispirited only made his chest throb with pain, unable to help. Besides, she seemed to prefer solitude, always on her guard around him.
A rustle in the bushes confirmed his prey was near, and Baledagh readied his bow and spear. He didn’t expect to find a bear, but better cautious than dead or injured. The shame might kill him should he be forced back to the village so soon, especially if Qing-Qing had to save him once more. Patiently waiting, he backed away slowly, searching for a better angle to approach.
Bursting out of the undergrowth, a knee-high bear cub charged towards him with a happy cry, scenting the meat he carried. Alarm pulsed through his body and Baledagh readied himself for the mama bear’s charge, never far from her cubs. A second cub joined its litter mate, both stopping several arm-lengths away, fearful to approach, but he ignored them, still waiting for the mama bear. Long minutes passed as he clenched his bow, sweat drenching the shirt Qing-Qing sewed for him, the cubs mewling piteously at him, pawing the ground and gingerly stepping back and forth.
Making a move, Baledagh darted towards the cubs, feigning an attack and ready to flee. Still no mama bear emerged, and he lowered his bow in confusion, looking down at the terrified animals, frozen in fear. Scrawny and dirty, they were skinny little beasts, dark-furred with a patch of white on each chest. Too small, were these runts abandoned by their mother? Tossing two birds at them, he wandered the area while they ate, carefully searching for recent bear tracks, but aside from the cubs, all the tracks he found were days old.
Returning to the cubs, he pursed his lips and sighed as he stared at the wretched animals, their meal finished and staring expectantly at him, hoping for more. While he’d been hoping for a pet, bears were a little too much, even for brother. At full size, one of these creatures could easily eat more than Aurie and his siblings combined. Hell, they might even eat Aurie. Leaving them here was out of the question, it would be cruel to let them starve to death, so there was only one option left.
Reaching for his knife, he stepped forward and steeled himself, ready to grant them mercy. Standing on its hind legs, the little cub cried once more, reaching for Baledagh’s belt and the birds fastened there, trusting him with its little life. Sighing once more, he tossed another four birds to the cubs, crouching down to watch them eat. Reaching out, he cautiously pet one, the little animal ignoring his touch as they devoured their meal, likely the first in days. Their fur was delightfully soft and dense, their little faces scrunched in satisfaction, cute and charming. He idly wondered if these were the cubs of the bear that killed Gen.
The thought put a smile on his face and he decided to keep them, as thanks for ridding the world of a nuisance. Worst case scenario, he could leave them in the woods once they grew to adolescence. Few wild creatures would risk tangling with a bear, their sheer size enough to intimidate most foes. Picking one up, it gnawed briefly on his arm before yawning, a full belly lulling it to sleep, exhausted from all the worrying. Grabbing the other, he carried one in each arm like a child, the creatures nuzzled against him, trusting in his care. Simple-minded animals, but it made things easier for him.
Coming to a clearing, he noticed thick clouds of black smoke rising in the north, a day’s ride away. A forest fire in the middle of summer was not uncommon, but to have it set in his path was worrisome. With Qing-Qing and the cubs, getting caught by the flames would spell death for everyone but himself. Perhaps he should delay their journey to track the fire’s spread, moving forward once any danger had passed.
Cuddling his two pets, he hummed a nonsense song he often heard Tali sing, a spring in his step as he searched for Qing-Qing. He couldn’t wait to see her expression when he brought the adorable little animals to her, the extra effort to feed them well worth it if she would smile again.
One wife and two bears for Baledagh, that wasn’t too much to ask for.
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