Enjoying the exercise, Baledagh basked in the simple pleasure of his morning run, stretching his legs and pushing his limits. Qing-Qing’s home had been so gloomy and drab, the village too clustered and disorderly, he found it far more pleasant being out in the wilds. With the forest canopy as his roof, soft dirt underfoot, the wind in his face, and the sun on his back, his mood improved greatly as he moved through the vibrant forest, shedding his worries over the situation and his relationship issues. Life wasn’t so bad like this, unfettered and free-spirited, doing as he pleased and going wherever his feet led him.
For now, his feet followed the trail of broken branches and flattened grass leading directly towards Qing-Qing’s village. Whether they were friend or foe was yet to be seen, but it was almost certain these strangers were the unfriendly sort. Brother’s retinue wouldn’t be travelling on foot when they had access to quins, and small chance these were soldiers investigating rumours of a fast-healing warrior.
Conflicted, Baledagh didn’t know which outcome he preferred. If friendly, then his intimate journey with Qing-Qing would end far too soon, after only a single day. Then again, hostile bandits or soldiers would sour the pleasant mood, making for an unpleasant journey full of tension and fear. Qing-Qing, a delicate woman, would not fare well under such conditions.
For now, Baledagh had a simple solution in mind: if friendly, then he would order them to guard himself and Qing-Qing from afar, out of sight and out of mind. If unfriendly, then he only needed to slaughter them all before returning, straightforward and easy. Although he cared nothing for the villagers, they were innocents who’d done little wrong. Besides it didn’t sit well with him to leave them to their fate, not when he was arguably the cause. Either way, there was no reason to fret over the details, he wasn’t clever enough to come up with a better plan. Let things fall where they may, he would strike down any who dare stand against him.
Coming close to the village, he slowed his pace to an easy walk, drinking deeply from his water skin, quenching his thirst after the strenuous run. Brother said they ran the entire distance from Shen Huo to the Bridge whilst Baledagh slept, and though leery of calling brother a liar, he found it difficult to believe. Almost exhausted in less than an hour of running, he couldn’t fathom how brother endured an entire week, keeping pace with the quins from dawn till dusk. Another area where Baledagh fell short, he made a note to ask brother after he woke.
A heartrending wail echoed through the air, silencing the woodland creatures and ruling out any possibility of a friendly encounter. Ducking into the shadows, he slung his bow over his shoulder and strapped on Tranquility. Moving through a few drills, he took a few seconds to acclimate himself with the weapon after a long separation. Not entirely necessary, for the shield was masterly crafted, almost an extension of his arm and stronger for having it in his grasp. Moving silently with spear and shield at the ready, he rushed towards the village as quickly as he dared, the screams continuing for several minutes until cut off without warning.
That wasn’t a good sign.
If these ruffians were here for him, then why were they assaulting and killing the villagers? Torture for information? Or did the chief let slip about the gold, and these brutes here for wealth? No, the why didn’t matter, this was a time for action. Kill them all and let the Mother sort them out.
Suspecting danger, he stopped in place and slowly melded into the shadows of a large tree. A branch broke to his right and he steadied his breathing, peering towards the sound from his hidden position. A sentry ambled towards him, well-dressed and well-armed as he patrolled the outskirts of the village. Waiting patiently, Baledagh studied the bandit meandering about, scanning the forest in a relaxed manner, his attitude screaming indifference.
Not expecting to cross paths with any enemies, the bandit’s carelessness would mean his death. Slipping around the trunk, Baledagh kept out of sight of his prey, eyes open for signs of other sentries, tuning out the screams of terror and pain. Their suffering displeased him, but he was only one man, and if he was going to save the villagers, he needed to approach this carefully. Seeing the bandit was alone, he slithered from the shadows and stepped across the grass without a sound. Lunging towards his target, he clamped his hand over the bandit’s mouth as Tranquility punched cleanly through his spine and into his lung, the gasping death rattle muffled as he tried to draw a breath which wouldn’t come.
Dragging the cooling body away, Baledagh hid the corpse in a thick brush to keep the next sentry from stumbling over it and sounding the alarm. Tranquility was in top form, sharp as ever even without brother here to hone it. Glancing at his target’s belt, he spied a short, straight-edged sword sheathed at the hip, claiming it for himself. Although a hunting spear had better reach, it was unwieldy when wielded with Tranquility, not balanced for one-handed use. The sword was a better fit, albeit crudely made, but with a familiar weapon in hand he was a tiger given wings, full of confidence and power.
Smiling at his good fortune, he stretched briefly before padding off in the direction the bandit came from, circling around the village in search of his next target. The villagers would have to endure for a little longer while he cleared an escape route for them, their screams grating his nerves. Quickly finding a second sentry, he repeated his actions and killed the man with his new sword, cutting his head off with a single blow. A good weapon, it grew warm in his grasp, eager for more blood, almost molding itself to his grip, the shield in his hand foreign and awkward in comparison.
Sensing the sentries before he saw them, he killed four more in as many minutes without being discovered, a wraith in the shadows striking without warning. His mysterious intuition told him there were no more sentries close, and trusting his instincts, he made his way towards the village proper in search of more prey. With fewer areas to hide he risked discovery, but after his first taste of bloodshed in so long, he longed for more.
This was life, kill or be killed. How did he manage so long without this thrill?
His new sword brimmed with energy, warm and comfortable in his grasp as he stalked into the village unchallenged, the bandits too engrossed in their horrific activities, spread out and isolated in the various buildings for privacy. Slipping through the closest door, he smiled at a pair of bandits, their surprised faces covered in blood as their victim screamed through his gag, wide-eyed with terror. Darting forward, his sword and shield scythed out, reaping two heads like plucking apples, both bandits dying without a sound.
The villager only had superficial wounds, the bandits intending to keep their plaything alive. “Can you keep quiet? If so, I will remove the gag.”
The bound man nodded frantically, speaking in pained whispers once freed. “Please Baledagh, save us! The Defiled, Great Mother in Heaven, the Defiled are here! They ate my flesh, chewed at strips like they were eating a delicacy, monsters all o-”
The hysterics were growing in volume and Baledagh silenced him with a glare. “Quiet now, or I’ll leave you here to rot.” Spineless coward, why did he even bother with these villagers? The strong live, the weak die, that was the way of the world. No, no, he was here to help, that’s what brother would do, a protector, a defender, a Sentinel. Besides, all Defiled deserved death and worse. “What’s your name?”
“Deng, sir.” A mouthful of water was enough to calm him enough to speak, working deftly to bind his own wounds.
“Well Deng, you head north to the forest and wait. You know how to use a bow?”
“Aye, I was a hunter, I can… I can help if you need me. I’m a f-fair shot, second only to… Oh Mother, Gen, he’s one of them, he turned, he brought calamity down upon us! End his life, please I beg you, if the Empire finds out, we’re all doomed, they’ll kill us all to keep the taint from spreading.”
Oh? Gen was Defiled? How worthless, a little beating and he fell to darkness. “You’ve more pressing matters to worry about right now. Take my spear, bow and arrows, head north and wait in the treeline. You see a bandit, shoot him, but make sure it’s a bandit before you fire. I’ll be sending more villagers your way soon. That’s all I can do, the rest is up to you.”
Waiting to make sure Deng escaped unnoticed, Baledagh rummaged through the shack, searching for a snack. All this killing made him hungry, and finding a stash of dried meat, he chewed voraciously, the meal tasting bland and unappealing. Not enough salt perhaps, these destitute peasants saving every copper they could, hardly worth the effort of saving. If only he could find something fresh and juicy for him to tear into…
Food would have to wait. Cracking open the door, he peered around before slipping out and making his way to the next shack. Bandit or Defiled, it mattered little, his appetite for blood had been rekindled, and he would not rest until sated.
Carnage and violence, how I’ve missed you.
“There ye go lad, take it nice and gentle, don’t want to be killing her too soon. Pull it out slowly, there are plenty of entrails, more than ye’d think.” Patting a new Firebrand on the shoulder, Xiao HuoLong nodded sagely as he watched the young ones at play, filled with a sense of accomplishment. Seventy-one Enlightened warriors, each one following his lead, uninhibited and unreserved as nature intended. The spirits approved of his work, and he enjoyed listening to their praises.
Giving his customary laugh, he paced around his four newest recruits, offering advice while preaching the truth for the unharmed villagers, each one a possible recruits. “Compassion, empathy, love, these are all lies cowards tell themselves to keep from doing what’s needed. Only through rejecting your weakness and indulging your base desires can you truly reach the pinnacle. Feed your hunger, play out your darkest fantasies, there is no judgment here, no line you cannot cross. Heed my words, embrace the power, and rise from mediocrity.”
The new ones usually needed a little prodding and demonstration before truly abandoning reason, but these four took to it like a fish in water. Truth be told, he felt out of place helping them along, his advice barely heeded as they lost themselves in the pleasures of the flesh. That Gen was the same, come into the light on his own, a rarity in this day and age. Fear of the truth was so ingrained in their bones, indoctrinated from a young age, making true surrender difficult to accomplish for most.
Not for these few, no, they would go far. An imaginative bunch, their creativity impressed him, an old hand by now. He’d never met the true Enlightened, those living north of the Bridge, but these four matched the stories of their cruelty, true adherents to the faith. Inspired by their work, he wandered over to the watching villagers, putting his arm around one of the older men as if he were a close friend. “Ah, ain’t it wonderful? What’s going on in that brain while you watch your friends suffer so deliciously. Are you terrified for your own fate? Relieved that it’s not you?” Locking eyes, he grinned and winked, patting the mans crotch and holding eye contact until he looked away. “Aroused? Answer me, don’t be shy, I’m dying to know.”
“M-Mercy Great One, let me go, I’ll not tell a soul about this…”
Shaking his head, Long sighed dramatically, enjoying the game. “How disappointing, always the same pleas, so boring. Mercy to others is cruelty to oneself, and I am not a cruel man.” Chortling at the joke, he patted the villager on the face. It always put them off when he acted congenially, their frail minds unable to understand the contrast, shocked speechless with a bug-eyed look. “There’s hope for you yet though, ye only begged for your own freedom. What’s yer name?
“You have any kids? A wife?”
“Yes Great One… My daughter taken by Gen, and my wife…” His eyes flickered towards the recruits at play, and Long belted out a hearty laugh. His wife was being played with, her screams delightful to hear, and old Wei could only think of himself until reminded otherwise. Like he said earlier, compassion was nothing but a lie.
“So that’s yer old lady, huh? Why didn’t you ask me to spare them too? Not judging, I can’t stand children and yer wife’s an ugly hag, I’d have fed her to the crows. She might have been pretty once, but age ain’t been kind.”
His errant comment broke the man, Wei openly crying as he fell to his knees, slapping himself repeatedly. “Ting-Ting, I’m so sorry, your husband is a useless man who cannot save you.” A stream of curses and sobs followed as Wei continued to berate himself before his tortured wife.
“Enough of this.” Bored of the theatrics, Long put an end to Wei’s self-flagellation and pressed a knife into his trembling hands. “I meant to carve ye up myself, yer a little old for recruiting, but you’ve darkness in ye. I like that, and all these younglings make me feel damn old, so I’ll give ye one chance. You go over there and slit yer wife’s throat, pick someone from the crowd to take her place, and you’ll be unharmed. That’s a promise from Laughing Dragon himself, a priceless gift. Go on, her guts are hanging out already, end her misery, there’s a good man.”
Leaning back, he watched the aged man struggle to his feet, a bad back judging by his posture. A terrible thing for a peasant, ain’t no one going around healing them, likely the cause of his anger and hatred, the spirits drawn to him. If only more would accept the truth, then men like Wei would either gain strength and thrive, or die. Weakness was a blight on the earth, unwelcome in a perfect society, but Long took great pride in converting the weak. After Wei killed his wife, perhaps he’d bring him to check in on Gen and see his daughter, letting him experience true despair.
Despair and hatred was needed to gain the attention of the spirits, and after fifteen years of practice, Long had mastered the art of inciting both. Wei would feel no gratitude from killing his wife, only guilt for not acting earlier and sending another in her place. Seeing his daughter suffer worse would likely put him over the edge. The spirits were ready and waiting, Wei’s body primed to accept them after years of struggle and anger, waiting for his approval before moving in, and another student would be added to the roster. His third group now and first time leading, the last two had run afoul of Imperial soldiers and the Butcher Bay Bandits, neither group realizing his true nature.
He’d always hidden himself well, indulged in the shadows before removing all evidence of his exploits, but soon, there would be no need to hide. The true believers were knocking at the gates of the Bridge, and when they swept through the false Emperor’s dog soldiers, Laughing Dragon would join them in their crusade. The spirits whispered of a new age approaching, an age of strife and chaos where the strong survive and the weak die. Only through suffering and struggle would the human race improve themselves, unbridled savagery their true nature. The niceties of social etiquette and familial bonds served only to domesticate them, neuter them.
Wei here would soon shed those burdens, knife in hand as he approached his wife, the new recruit baring his teeth at the intruder. Ignoring him, Wei knelt down to stroke Ting’s hair, muttering quietly beneath his breath, Long giddy with anticipation. This was better than sex, better than killing, aiding in the birth of a new enlightened, procreation of a sorts. The knife rose and slashed across, shocking Long as blood spurted from the new recruits throat, Wei roaring in anger and desperation. The knife flashed again, cutting the woman’s throat, and Wei slumped down, the weapon falling from his hands as he sobbed.
Ah well, it was only a fledgling, nothing of value lost.
Before he could punish Wei, a thunderous crash caught his attention. Turning to see what the fuss was about, he was treated with the sight of a Firebrand smashing through a shack wall, thrown violently out from within. A scrawny village child stepped through the broken rubble, not even twenty years of age yet unperturbed by the death around him. Exuding an atmosphere of death and power, he carried a strange, bladed shield and a familiar sword, likely taken from one of his men. Confident, he stared in challenge at the shocked onlookers, basking in the attention as if putting on a performance.
Wonderful. One dies and another rises to take his place. Arms wide in welcome, Long laughed and greeted the newest Enlightened, recognizing him for one of his own, though oddly enough, the spirits were silent. “Welcome to the Firebrands and congratulations on seeing the light comrade. Damn me but yer a strong one, Laughing Dragon’s luck has never been better.” All these powerful rookies, a time of prosperity and fortune indeed.
“Your name is Laughing Dragon? Hmph, how audacious. If you’re a dragon, then what am I?” A crazed grin on his face, the boy twirled the sword and laughed, smashing it against the shield as if sounding a meal bell. “I grow tired of sneaking around. Come, death awaits the Defiled and Baledagh is here to send you off.”
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