Bursting from the undergrowth, Gen laughed as he ripped through the foliage at a breakneck pace, running directly south without deviation, no obstacle too difficult for him to pass. Leaping over natural trenches and powering through the shallow streams, he revelled in his newfound power, throwing caution to the wind as he journeyed home, ready for his triumphant return. How delightful it would be seeing the faces of the newly enlightened as he opened their minds, instructing them in the truths which escaped their notice.
Peering over his shoulder, he sneered at the lagging sheep, unable to keep pace with true warriors, a wretched lot. If not for these useless bastards plodding along, he could be home in the blink of an eye, with energy to spare. Were it not for Laughing Dragon’s insistence on keeping them close, Gen would have left them all behind, eager to see his family and friends. Slowing his pace, he enjoyed the intense euphoria which filled his mind, enjoying his rise to glory and noting the changes, discovering more and more as the day wore on.
After the humiliating beating he’d suffered at Baledagh’s hands, it’d taken Gen the better part of two days of continuous running before he found the Firebrands. Now, even with the sheep slowing him down, they were on course to arrive home in less than a day. Astounding how much he’d changed in so little time, his lungs stinging comfortably and heartbeat steady, with only a light sheen of perspiration glistening upon his skin. An astonishing transformation, the natural energies of the world released him from the shackles of mediocrity, infusing him with tremendous strength and stamina, his mind fresh and body full of vigour despite the strenuous labour.
His physical prowess only scratched the surface of his recent improvements. The world was more vivid than ever, the sun almost too bright for his eyes, wincing every time it poked through the forest canopy. Even at these speeds, a moment of focus was enough to perceive the patterns on an individual leaf, or catch the motion of tiny creatures in the woods, scampering to survive. The air was sharper, the distinct scents of earthy soil and fresh flowers intermingled with iron blood and rotting decay, the cycle of life and death laid bare around him. Even his sense of touch had been enhanced, able to discern individual fibres his cotton shirt, soft and smooth compared to his old rough-hemp rags.
This was what true power felt like, the freedom to do anything and everything his heart desired. Truly, the weak survive while the strong thrive, and for the first time in his twenty-one years, Gen knew what it felt like to thrive. A week ago, he’d have moved carefully through these woods, wary of dangers lurking in the shadows, but now, those same dangers moved aside from his path, unwilling to test his mettle. A shame, for he wished to know how far he’d come, but no creature dared crossed his path. Were he not so eager to return home, he’d spend time to hunt down worthy prey, perhaps a pack of wolves or another bear.
“Hold, time to rest.”
Ignoring Laughing Dragon’s command, Gen continued to run for some time, but a nagging voice in his mind caused him to slow his steps, insisting it was better to stay with them. No matter how strong Gen had become, he was only a single man, help would be needed to keep the villagers contained, lest they flee from his lessons. Turning back, he let out an exasperated sigh and trod back towards the resting bandits where Laughing Dragon greeted him with a smile, tossing him a bag filled with food. Biting into a piece of jerky, Gen immediately grimaced at the unpleasant meal. No tender texture or melting flavour of raw meat, he might as well chew a strip of leather. What he needed was something fresh, still bleeding and delicious.
His body craved sustenance, demanding more, so he choked down the disgusting morsel. The bear meat he’d eaten during his journey north should have lasted him more than a week if not for his changes, all of it devoured to fuel his newfangled growth. Had he known earlier, he’d have butchered the entire bear and brought it with him. With enough food and time, his body would be reforged into something more suitable for a warrior, taller, hardier, a hulking beast of a man. The natural energies were not enough to fuel his growth, he would need more nourishment than this slab dried meat could provide.
Glancing over the nearby sheep, he felt nothing but disdain. Exhausted and spent, they lay strewn about, their tired, weak bodies unable to process the natural energies of the world. Aside from the wolf he’d turned this morning, the rest of the recruits were lacking, the grey, turbulent energy within them barely enough to pick his teeth with. A feeble bunch, they were too far from reaching true enlightenment to be helped along, the price too high for Gen to pay. All they did was slow his progress, keeping him from his vengeance, delaying his glory.
“Now now Gen, don’t you be glarin’ at my precious students. They’re a little weak, and few of em will make it through to the end, but I put a lot of effort into raising my crew.” Stepping between Gen and the sheep, Laughing Dragon puffed up his chest with pride. “Almost seventy strong counting yerself, not too large a group, but it ain’t easy. Gotta find those with the right temperament, keep them under strict watch, and less than one in five make it all the way through, but a single one of my Firebrands is easily worth ten common bandits. These little students aren’t far along, picked them up less than a month ago after some Warrant Officers hunted down their leader, but they’ve got potential.”
“One in five survive?” Hearing those odds, Gen smiled and studied the little sheep once more. Seventeen little sheep, only three or four able to succeed, which meant the others were dispensable…
“Oi, enough, yer dark gaze’ll spook em off. Damn me if I want to be chasin’ them through the woods.”
Ignoring him, Gen summoned the natural energies of the world and grabbed the closest sheep to test, his power surging through its body, evaluating the sheep’s progress and testing its limits. Acting under the influence of his intuition, he found it was easier than baptizing them, a small effort to determine whether they were worth cultivating. His first subject glared back from a seated position, defiant and angry, moving to pull himself away, but Gen’s power rushed through its body, eliciting a melodic, agonized scream. So pitiful, barely a fistful of energy within its belly, nothing compared to the infusion of energy flowing throughout Gen’s entire body. The next subject tried to meet his eyes, but failed, echoing the screams of the first, another disappointment with barely two fingers worth, scattered and diffuse.
Reaching for the third sheep, the worthless bastard had the gall to draw his weapon, a crude hatchet which matched his own. Smacking the weapon aside, Gen casually punched the offending sheep in the jaw, annoyed by the similarity of their equipment. In their eyes, was Gen worth so little? The other Firebrands carried true weapons, power emanating from the iron-covered bone implements, necessary camouflage to hide their true appearance.
A hand clamped about his wrist and twisted back, halting his progress. Baring his teeth, Gen snarled angrily and brought his other hand to bear, striking at the offending creature who dared to bar his way. Catching his fist easily, Laughing Dragon stared him down, a fearsome giant towering above him, his handsome face no longer smiling, twisted in an angry scowl. His voice calm and cold, he spoke quietly, with all the patience of a father speaking to his misbehaving son. “I told ye to leave them be boy, so what the fuck do ye think yer doing?”
Struggling helplessly in the larger man’s grasp, Gen roared in fury. “Release me fool, you know not whom you deal with. I will rend your flesh and –” The world exploded into darkness as he reeled back and fell to his knees, blinking away the bright lights blinding him. An ethereal voice reported he’d been headbutted, a crude yet effective strike. Do not test the dragon, it said, our strength is yet to mature. Obey and show proper deference, lest you be killed before your time. Endure.
“I asked ye a question and I expect an answer.” Laughing Dragon’s voice hardened, the threat left unspoken. “Now.”
Blood dribbled down Gen’s chin as he sputtered, his voice nasal and low. “I was – I was testing them, to determine which ones were worth keeping. Energy of the world within them, thin, wispy, scattered. Not like me, dense, encompassing, powerful. Weed out the weak, cultivate the worthy.” This wasn’t fear, but pragmatism. The strong were to be respected.
“Oh? Ye think I don’t know as much? I can sense it all the same, they’re all weak, but they’ll grow given time and proper guidance.” The familiar smile returned as Laughing Dragon studied him, holding both his wrists as he knelt in submission. “This is good, I like ye kneeling like this. I’ve given ye plenty of slack, but sometimes, it takes a good smack for the lesson to stick.” Releasing his hold, he wiped the blood from his forehead and patted Gen’s shoulder, a paragon of forgiveness. “Now listen, you leave them be, I’ve invested too much to have ye spooking them off with yer longing gaze. Haven’t ye heard? Ye can’t rush true love.”
Waiting for the annoying laugh to end, Gen pointed at the sheep. “I can hurry them along, give me a chance and you’ll have your new Firebrands today.”
“How? Just this morning ye said they weren’t ready, and helping Torg took too much out of you.”
“Divided they are weak, but together they are strong.” The words sprang unbidden from Gen’s throat, unsure how he knew this to be true, but after a moment’s introspection, Laughing Dragon’s eyes lit up in understanding. Nodding enthusiastically, he motioned for Gen to return to work, standing by to watch, almost salivating in anticipation.
The remaining sheep didn’t dare pull away from Gen after he’d received their leader’s blessing, and he quickly evaluated the rest. Too pathetic, the first sheep he’d checked was the furthest along, the rest hardly even worth consideration. Gathering five worthless sheep around his strongest patient, he went all out with this one, desperate to prove himself to Laughing Dragon. Asking for permission, he glanced at the bandit leader in unspoken question. His head cocked as he stared into nothingness, Laughing Dragon took several minutes to consider the question before breaking into a grin and nodding once.
Finally. Five sacrifices and a single soon-to-be wolf. Grabbing his hatchet, Gen chopped through the closest sacrifice’s neck, killing it instantly as the sweet, warm blood splashed across his face. The energy within its corpse moved to escape, but with an arduous effort, Gen forced the energy into his patient, sweating as he ignored the pained screams emanating from its mouth. After strenuous seconds, he completed his labours and savoured the taste of blood after a job well done. Eyes widened in sheer delight, Gen lashed out at another sheep, still in shock, cut down in an instant, and he repeated his actions, his patient’s screams increasing in pitch and volume, the energy seething within as it grew in volume, bringing both ecstasy and agony, intertwined and inseparable. How lucky for this little patient to have met Gen, its life altering in this very moment, its body moulded into a powerful vessel, fated to soar into the heavens as a rising dragon. Jealous of the patient’s great fortune, Gen continued with his work, swinging his hatchet in a backhand arc, but the little sheep were ready now, their weapons drawn in futile struggle.
Good, it was more fun if they resisted.
Waving his weapon wildly, he slashed the air between the sheep, separating one from the others. Singling out the isolated prey, he smashed his hatchet against its weapon, gleefully watching the club fly aside, the little sheep unable to withstand a single blow. Grabbing the weakling by the throat, he brought it close to his patient before ripping its neck apart, giggling as the blood spouted like a leaky faucet. Never one to waste, he brought his mouth close to the spraying fountain and drank deep, absently guiding the escaping energy into his patient as he sampled divinity, smiling as the power grew within his patient, from a fist size ball to a mass covering its torso, circling throughout its body.
It was becoming easier once the energy learned his purpose. Not some mindless force, the grey masses had purpose and desire, spirits seeking a powerful vessel to inhabit. Those they had chosen were far too weak, but with Gen’s guidance and a small sacrifice of his own energy, he allowed the spirits to share a single vessel, empowering his patient in ways unimaginable, their strength not adding together, but multiplying as two merged into one. Glancing longingly at the remaining two sacrifices, he lapped at the blood, brimming with energy as it spilled out, hungry for more. Gen couldn’t take too much, the little wolf would wake hungry, but a little taste wouldn’t hurt.
The sacrifices glanced at one another, leery of facing him alone, and Gen swelled with pride. His power was worthy of caution, his strength far above theirs, but they did not flee. Sheep though they may be, they aspired to become wolves, and although they would never reach those goals, Gen respected their determination. A gracious man, he would allow them to die at the hands of a true warrior. Howling with delight, he launched himself at the closest sacrifice, chopping down in a one-handed strike. His hatchet split through the haft of the sacrifice’s weapon, showering him in a rain of splinters and blood, his effortless victory stoking the fires of his ego.
Courage was worthless in the face of overwhelming strength, the little sheep left with no choice but to die, its trapped spirit ripped from the fleshly remains and shunted into the patient. One last sacrifice, scared and shivering, the pungent stink of urine and feces filling the air as Gen approached. Putting away his hatchet, he sidled up with no resistance and plucked the weapon out of its trembling hands. Sighing in disappointment, he reached out and cupped the sacrifice’s cheeks in both hands, staring it in the eyes as he sadly shook his head.
So disappointing, almost no fun to be had.
Squeezing tightly, he casually pressed against the sacrifice’s skull, relishing the panic and pain registering through its fear, clawing fruitlessly at his wrists to free itself from his vice. Slowly crushing its skull, Gen gazed lovingly as its face distorted, fluids leaking from every aperture, the meat pulping beneath the pressure, oozing from between his fingers. Bringing one hand to his mouth, he lapped up the mashed delicacy, the smooth, pleasing texture almost melting on his tongue. The spirit howled in triumph as he drew it into himself, refreshing his spent energies and fortifying his strength, an euphoric rush like no other, his mind whirling in rapture as he absorbed the worldly spirit slowly, consumed in the same way he devoured the flesh before him, tearing strips of flesh from still gibbering sacrifice.
Engrossed in pleasure, he didn’t know how much time had passed before he regained clarity, kneeling on the ground amidst scattered bones, each one picked clean and cracked open, not a single drop wasted. To the side, the new wolf had awakened, devouring his meal ravenously as the other sheep looked on in horror, held fast by the Firebrands who stared at him with a mixture of apprehension and respect. Yes, kneel in awe of my power, adoration and recognition would always follow true strength.
Clapping him on the shoulder, Laughing Dragon nodded proudly, like a father admiring his son’s work. Gen had never received such a look from Pa, nothing he did was ever good enough, the miserable fucking bastard. “Well I’ll be damned, looks like we got ourselves another new recruit. Three in less than 24 hours, yer just all sorts of useful aren’t ye? I noticed you killed five, but took one for yerself. I don’t mind ye wettin’ yer beak, but don’t get too greedy now, ye hear? I’m a sharing sort, the more the merrier.”
Smiling at the bandit leader, Gen hid his anger deep. “I spent significant energy to help my new comrade see the light.” Not true, but the idiot could never know for sure, his perception unable to match Gen’s own. “This one was the strongest, but I can help another three, although I will need to replenish myself.” Share? No better to concentrate it in himself, a single powerful expert. Laughing Dragon stepped back as Gen stood, his bones cracking as his body shifted, growing more powerful from the sumptuous meal. The bandit leader was wary of Gen’s strength, but he took no action aside from separating the chosen few and patiently awaiting for permission.
He would play the dutiful subordinate for now, it was not yet his time to lead. Strength was to be respected, but soon, their roles would be reversed, as Gen continued to devour the energies of the world, empowering him in ways unimaginable. The weak became food for the strong, such was the way of the world. Once he finished here, he would move on and return home, enlightening everyone there to the truth, except for the bastard thief Baledagh, he would devour him whole, relishing his tortured cries.
Oh how Qing-Qing’s loving gaze would settle upon him after he showed her his true value, by destroying the bastard who dared to steal her away. His mind filled with visions of lust and bloodshed, Gen set about his work with a smile, the wailing screams like music to his ears.
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