Awakened by the squirming bear cub’s plaintive grunts, Baledagh yawned as he rubbed the sleep out of his eyes. The little animals slept soundly through the night, snoring lightly as they laid limply on their backs, trusting him as only babies could, but with the sun rising, they were eager to resume playing. One bear wiggled about side to side, its limbs waving in the air as it struggled to turn over onto its belly, succeeding after a strenuous effort to flop onto its stomach, staring happily at him.
Resisting the urge to make unmanly noises like brother would, he patted the cubs, each one demanding his affection with tiny grunts. Their guard lowered after only a single meal, the cubs accepted him as their guardian almost instinctively, clever enough to know how harsh nature could be. Their loyalty won at the low-cost of two birds, they’d be willing to follow him forever.
Animals were more noble than most gave them credit for.
Grabbing the smaller cub, he lifted it into his lap to cuddle, glancing at Qing-Qing as she slept. Wrapped in her blanket an arm’s-length away, with only the bears separating them through the night, she was beautiful to behold. That she remained close by was a good sign, even if only for the adorable cubs. A caring, loving person, she would make a splendid mother, gently teaching the cubs how to behave with treats and firm language, a patient smile on her face the entire time.
He couldn’t imagine the other women in his life behaving the same way. Both Lin and Mila were no help with the cats, leaving all the work to brother and Song. Lin was too childish and flighty, losing interest within minutes, while Mila was too stubborn and impatient, easily frustrated when things didn’t work out, even trying to bully the animals into obeying her. Yan was a mystery to him, having spent little time with her, but she seemed too aloof and vulgar to properly raise children. Besides, she’d left before brother claimed her, she might already be in the arms of another man.
Although he liked the other girls, it was different with Qing-Qing. Being around her intoxicated him to the point of giddiness, his body light and heart racing. Their relationship improved much in the last day, now comfortable enough to scold him without apologizing too much, a promising development. As much as he loved her flustered reactions and nervous laughter, being the cause for her fear pained him. Sweet and gentle, caring and motherly, with the voice of a songbird and a heart of gold, she seemed the epitome of ladylike behavior. So endearing, it took tremendous strength of will not to pull her into his arms and kiss her. How would she react if he did? Would she push him away in disgust, kiss him back passionately. or freeze up and submit to his desires, fearful of resisting?
He couldn’t act until he knew the answer lest he scare her away, but she was a mystery even at the best of times. One minute she would laugh heartily while patting his arm, treating him like a dear friend, but the next, she would retreat into her mind, watching him as if he were a criminal to be wary of. It was the price he paid for saying such awful things during the duels with the Society. He wasn’t even sure what came over him in the heat of the moment. Zian’s mother was attractive but far too old, more to brother’s taste than his own.
Reminded of brother, he closed his eyes and sought the safety of their mental home, calming his mind and heart. It still took great effort, but he was getting the hang of this meditation business after so much practice. As always, the fearsome wails of the spectres greeted him, their ugly faces twisted in anger and greed as they charged towards him. Almost diving into his astral belly of their own volition, they foolishly hurried towards their own demise, and Baledagh was not one to pass up on a free meal. He’d yet to understand exactly what was happening, but devouring them left him warm and satisfied, so he continued to do so every day. There was no marked increase in his strength, but perhaps that was because it helped heal his body, or maybe because he didn’t know how to properly use it.
No matter, knowledge would come in time. Quickly checking on brother, he reported the previous days events, a cheerful, one-sided conversation where he asked his questions and vented his frustrations. “Ah, brother, if only you’d wake. I’m not sure how to explain about our situation, and I could use your help winning her over. My hunting skills and battle prowess do little to impress her, and I’ve nothing else. I’m sure your cooking skills would win her praises, but I can barely peel vegetables without cutting myself.” Chuckling ruefully, he shook his head and sighed. “This has been an eye-opening experience for me. I used to pity you for lacking skill, but I know nothing. She spent the day telling me about her life, her losses, her daily struggles and fears. She gave away all she had to remember her parents just to fill her belly, and still she never gave up hope for a better future. In comparison? I’ve barely lived, experiencing so little since I woke and remembering almost nothing from before. This is the first time I’ve been in control for so long and everything is so new, so wonderful, I wish…”
Biting his tongue, Baledagh pressed against the door frame and glanced at brother’s battered body, feeling guilty for his horrible thoughts. Brother was here struggling against the spectres, while Baledagh was out in the world, flirting and enjoying life, hoping it might last forever, a terrible person. “Sorry brother. I’m a foolish idiot, we are two parts of a whole and I am in over my head. I chose to leave and the forest bursts into flames, perhaps Heaven’s way of telling me I’m wrong. What do I do? How can I help you? I can’t do anything.” As if to prove himself, he stepped through the barrier and found himself turned about, his back to the door, the same result each time, as if he were one of the many spectres circling brother. “You keep trying … whatever it is you’re doing, I have confidence you will succeed.” Just give me more time with Qing-Qing.
Retreating from the mental manor, Baledagh opened his eyes and was treated with a view of Qing-Qing, hard at work preparing breakfast. The two cubs paced anxiously around her, nosing about with a few cries, eager to be fed. Humming softly beneath her breath, she brushed aside a stray lock of golden-brown hair, peeling and chopping with deft, well-practiced motions. Every now and then she tossed a scrap of food to the animals, alternating between them to ensure both were fed, her face scrunching up in delight each time. Noticing his gaze, she smiled radiantly at him, her head tilting slightly as she greeted him. “Morning. Breakfast will be ready in a few minutes.”
Averting his eyes, he nodded absently and checked the fires to the north, the dark clouds still continuing to rise, darkening the horizon with ashes. “It seems we’re stuck here for another day, the fire seems to have spread.”
“Oh, it’s not so bad, I rather like it here. Not too far from home, gives me a chance to get used to the traveling.” Flashing him a coquettish smile, her gaze seemed to linger on him for a moment, sending his heartbeat racing. “Talking with you is enjoyable and these lovely little darlings are a delight.”
Barely able to control himself, Baledagh stood quickly and gathered his gear, blood rushing to his face and other regions. “Er, I think I’ll go hunting, find food for the bears. There should be plenty of game, all fleeing from the north. No need for breakfast, I’ll eat some travel rations.” Coward.
Making his escape into the forest, he followed a rabbit trail away from the camp. After ten minutes of light jogging, he crossed a well-traveled area, signs of dozens of men passing through. Oddly enough, they all headed straight towards the village, and Baledagh stared south in confusion, wondering why a large party would be headed in that direction.
Well, no matter, the village was not his concern. Resuming his hunt, he wracked his mind coming up with conversational topics to share with Qing-Qing, practicing his lines should she ask questions and imagining her responses so he could act accordingly. Why was he so nervous around her? Bah, perhaps he should check on the village, for her sake. Besides, if there were bandits behind him, better to know than remain ignorant.
Either way, he swore to never laugh at brother for being tongue-tied around women again. It wasn’t easy, but nothing in life ever was.
The little village seemed so different after a few days, tiny and insignificant, an eyesore as Gen watched from afar, hidden in the shadows. Little sheep all herded together, as if by banding together they might escape danger, going about their dreary lives with no hope of advancement or relief. How pitiful his former aspirations seemed now, dreaming of lording over this worthless swathe of land and acting as guardian to these wretched peasants, or stumbling across some fortune that might see him fed for a season or two.
Citizens from all over the Empire were no different, oppressed by the nobles who hoarded their secrets and gold, growing fat from exploitation of the common worker. Unjust and inexcusable, Gen pledged to free the people from this miserable existence, shedding light on the lies spread to further the agenda of those in power. Balance was a fiction created to give false hope, obscuring the truth hidden beneath their noses. With Gen to guide them, he would bring upheaval and chaos to the Empire, leading the citizens in revolt, defeating the Imperial dogs and tearing the mongrel Emperor from his throne.
Soon, in the annals of history, they would speak of this tiny, unnamed village from where the seeds of revolution sprouted.
On signal, the Firebrands moved from their hidden positions, converging upon the village from all angles and herding everyone into the central square. Screams of alarm sounded as bandits crashed into their homes and dragged them out to hear the truth. Light on his feet, Gen strode next to Laughing Dragon, his hat and scarf sufficient enough to obscure his features. Giddy with excitement, he tried to imagine the look on his parents faces when they saw how powerful their son had become, barely able to contain his laughter. Waiting patiently, he looked over the familiar faces, searching for Baledagh and Qing-Qing, eager for his vengeance.
The scared little sheep huddled together, ignorant of their great fortune to come. Interestingly enough, he sensed the natural energies of the world in a handful of them, less than even the worst of Laughing Dragon’s former students, but it was there. A handful of hunters, two of the village women, and Bao Bei, good seeds to raise, future warriors in his army. Besides, more may open their eyes, and while not every villager would find enlightenment and a place among his pack, those unworthy would still be useful as fodder.
Escorted by the Firebrands, Pa made his way into the square, bruised and battered, having tried to put up a fight. The rest of his hunting party followed, scared and defeated, no match for any of the Firebrands. These were the people he’d looked up to, idolized even, Pa’s friends and lifelong comrades, all helpless in the face of true strength. It wasn’t their fault for believing the lies, but after today, weakness would not be tolerated. Thrive or die, that was how it would be.
Head held low, Pa knelt and bowed his head to Laughing Dragon, forehead touching the dirt, the sight paining Gen, angering him. “Great Warrior, this lowly one is called Tuan, and I beg for your mercy. We are but poor folk with little more than the clothes on our backs. Take all we have, I only ask you leave us unharmed. We are unworthy of your efforts, I beg you Great One.” To think, Gen once thought the world of his Pa, nothing more than a weakling, a worm. Raise your head Papa, you needn’t bow.
Ignoring him, Laughing Dragon nudged Gen, reminding him of his instructions. Counting the heads, he searched the crowd of familiar faces, taking stock of everyone present and coming up three people short. Ah, discount Kash, he’s dead and… “Where are Baledagh and Qing-Qing?”
At the sound of his voice, Pa’s head whipped up, tears welling from his eyes. “Gen? Gen my boy, is that you?” Rising from his knees with arms outstretched, the old man scurried over and embraced him, embarrassing Gen to no end. How humiliating to be fathered by such a worthless man. All the same, a warm emotion stirred in his heart, a lump forming in his throat at the sight of his Pa in such high spirits. “Oh I knew it, deep in my heart I knew you’d be safe, it made little sense. Thank the Mother you’ve come back, Ma look, it’s our son, our precious son.”
Light-headed and shaky, Gen clutched at his temples and breathed deeply, ignoring the old man’s rambling as he tried to focus on the task at hand. A voice whispered in his mind, stay true to your purpose, you are here for revolution. Stray not from your convictions, weakness cannot be tolerated. “Enough,” Gen snarled, pushing away the old man, when all he wanted to do was embrace him. I’m home Papa, safe and sound, sorry for making you worry. “I asked you a question: Where is Baledagh?”
“Is that why you brought these… these friends of yours?” Confusion and concern warred on the old man’s face, his eyes flickering between Gen and Laughing Dragon. “Thank you so much for bringing him back Great One. A thousand praises aren’t enough, he means everything to us.” Turning back to Gen, he stood and backed away, motioning for Gen to follow. “Don’t you worry my boy, Baledagh is gone, he left yesterday, headed north to find his people. Your friends will catch up easily, they’re riding a pair of work horses, no good for riding. Drove that bastard away I did, put my foot down and told him to leave. Qing-Qing left with him, we don’t need no black-starred jinx staying with us, only put up with that little vixen because of her father, but that’s all i-”
Hearing Baledagh was gone, Gen grabbed the old man by the throat, snarling with rage. “Your son disappears and you ask him to leave?” It must have been difficult, you couldn’t have done anything if he refused. “You sniveling coward, if you thought him responsible why did you not take action?” It’s not your fault papa, I know you had to think of the others, protecting them, putting their interests first. “I suppose you packed his supplies and gave him my old clothes too, sending him off with a smile and a wave. Did you send your wife to fuck him before he left, or did you suck his cock yourself? You disgust me.” I don’t mean it Papa, I don’t know why I’m saying these horrible things.
Trapped within his mind, his body moved of its own accord, as if watching through the eyes of a stranger, striking his Pa in the mouth. Blood dribbled down his chin as he stared at Gen, shock and disbelief etched on his face, and Gen stared back, screaming for his body to leave Pa alone. Why didn’t Pa fight back? Why didn’t he defend himself? A second blow landed with a crack, Pa’s hands rising to protect himself, but it was too late as a third blow followed, throwing him to the ground. Gen felt his face stretching in a grin as he stepped on Pa’s throat, Gen begging and pleaded for this nightmare to end.
His voice went unheard and he watched helplessly as Pa’s face turn purple, clawing at Gen’s ankle, desperate for air. His mother’s heartrending wails tore a hole in his chest, the light fading from Pa’s eyes as Gen stared down at him with a look of disgust and revulsion. Despair overwhelmed him and he shut it out, the void closing in around him, rejecting the world and everything within it. This was just a nightmare, nothing more. He was in bed, recovering from his beating, and soon, he’d wake and all would be well. Pa will pat him on the shoulder and Ma will make him some food, and when he recovered, he’d go hunting with Kash and ask Bei to marry him. He’d father several children, at least one boy and girl, raising them with the help of his parents and become a pillar of the community, the next village chief, decades from now. That was his life, not this horrible illusion.
Ah, finally, that annoying little voice was gone. The old man died slowly, his body going limp and Gen continued to press down, whistling a catchy little tune that Qing-Qing always used to sing while working. A shame she’d left, but only a day ahead, he’d find them easily. Licking the blood from his knuckles, he turned away from the body and looked over the rest of the villagers, basking in their fear and veneration, their terror a delicious nectar ruined only by some woman’s incessant howling. “Quiet. I will now speak.”
A minion pummeled the woman into silence as Gen paced about the villagers, enjoying his moment of triumph. The sweet, clean air, the sun shining upon his face, this was freedom, unfettered, unshackled, true power to do whatever he pleased. Might makes right, and he would be the mightiest of them all. “You all recognize me and I’m sure you’re all thinking the same thing: How did Gen become so strong?” Picking Bei out from the crowd, he wrenched her from her father’s grasp, kicking the old man away. A sliver of natural energy within her, she was barely worth cultivating if not for her beauty and his curiosity. “Well, through trials and tribulations. I overcame my sorrow, my despair, my defeat, and I rose up, stronger than ever. I am not a petty man, so I offer you all the same chance.” Smiling at the Firebrands, nodded. “My friends here have graciously offered to supply the sorrow and despair. Accept the energy of the world, give in to your base nature, throw away the lies of Balance. Those who survive will be reborn, and I look forward to meeting you.”
Laughing madly, he dragged away the struggling Bei while listening to the screams behind him, a day of fun and experimentation ahead of them, learning how to strengthen the energy within her. After that, he’d hunt down Baledagh and Qing-Qing, killing the bastard and turning her to his side. A wonderful day, his future was bright and limitless.
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