Trudging through the burnt out remains of the forest, Ravil uttered an endless string of curses beneath his breath as he kept pace with the damnable bastard Lei Gong. Lord of Fucking Thunder, more like Lord of Thunderous Farts. The old stinking bastard insisted on following Ravil and his chosen bandits, including a dozen Sentinels, leaving the rest with Bulat to keep an eye on Jordan. That meant that Ravil was forced to help fight the fire, as it was his excuse for leaving. If not for the fortuitous rainfall, he’d probably still be tossing buckets of dirt and water onto the blaze beside some stupid bastard civilian, time wasted when he could have instead been searching for the boss.
All because a senile bandit wanted to ‘stretch his legs’.
Just put an arrow through the back of his skull, he’ll never see it coming.
Sighing wistfully at the imagined image, he quickened his steps to march beside the old bastard. “So where exactly are we going? You haven’t exactly been forthcoming.” No, you spent all your time drinking and eating like a king, until we came across a burnt up village. Now here we are running like dogs, and for what?
Lacking his customary grin, Lei Gong stared into the distance as he moved, like a starved predator in search of a meal. “Ye can’t smell it?”
“Can’t smell anything but smoke and ashes.” And your flatulence, like something died inside you and is slowly rotting away.
“Well the forests are thick with it, the stink of Defiled power clinging to the air. Something big went down here, enough to taint the lands, and it’s getting stronger as we move south.”
Fucking Defiled… But if the boss were to be found, it’d be fighting the Defiled with a smile on his face, the battle-crazed maniac. Wanting to be rid of the old man so he could slip away with the Sentinels, Ravil took a swig of water before sneering. “So? I’m no soldier, don’t get paid to fight anymore. Let the army handle it.”
Waggling his snowy white eyebrows, Lei Gong chuckled softly. “Ye fight fires but not Defiled? Ye a coward, is that it? Deserters usually are.”
Resisting the urge to take a swing, Ravil grit his teeth and counted to ten. “Fuck you. I’ll be leaving now and taking my men with me.”
“The fuck ye are.” Fixing Ravil with a steely glance, Lei Gong bared his teeth. “Listen here, I came along out of curiosity, wanted to find out who ye really are. That don’t matter much now.”
“Told you who I was.” Damn paranoid old bat.
“Can’t lie to a liar. Former soldier fer sure, which explain yer skills. Ye got the city rat look to ye, ready to knife anyone who looks at ye funny, so I believe that too.” Glancing him up and down, Lei Gong sneered derisively. “Problem is, no way yer from Shen Mu. Ye would’ve shanked me in the dark for comparing the Divine Tree to Sanshu Grove.”
Shit. Opening his mouth to speak, he quickly snapped it shut at a glare from the old bastard. Decrepit though he may be, the grizzled veteran, was too strong for Ravil to beat in a fair fight. Good thing he didn’t like fair fights. Behind his back, Ravil flashed a series of hand signals to the Sentinels.
Heedless of the movement around him, Lei Gong continued to ramble. “Found plenty of suspicious ‘bandits’, yer not even the most dangerous one. A small core who fight well, ride well, and shoot like they were born with bow in hand. So why is there a group of elite warriors backing a bandit gang, stealing army supplies from the Council only to work twice as hard so they can deliver them north of Shen Yun?” Waving his hand to forestall any excuses, Lei Gong shook his head. “With Defiled in the mix, I don’t give a fuck anymore. Yer soldiers, forcefully conscripted by yours truly. Until we find and kill those Defiled scum, I’m yer ranking officer and yer my little grunts. Now shut up and march, that’s an order.”
Smiling cordially at the old bastard, Ravil threw a casual salute and continued running alongside, signalling for the Sentinels to relax. The man knew too much, but he might come in handy against the Defiled so no point feathering him now. Worst comes to worse, he could always send some friendly fire the old man’s way, Ravil liked those odds more.
Marching all night and day with barely a break, Ravil was eager as Lei Gong to find the Defiled. As they moved south, the forest grew thick around them, verdant and lively. It wasn’t long before they stumbled across the trail markings of a few dozen men, likely candidates as any. After following the trail for an hour, they heard hoof beats approaching and spied a panicked horse galloping through the trees. Spreading out, they captured the horse with little effort, its mouth frothing white as its flanks heaved in exhaustion.
A small, plaintive cry caught his attention, and Ravil cautiously opened a saddlebag to find a bear cub sitting within, shivering in fright. The other saddlebag revealed another cub, and Ravil exchanged a knowing glance with the other Sentinels. Small, cute animals? Who else could it be?
“Ye have something?” Lei Gong’s voice boomed with authority.
“Maybe. I’m thinking we head east, find out where this horse came from. Had to be running from something.”
With a pensive look, Lei Gong looked to the east, and then back south where the trail led. “Seems a little thin. Care to come up with a better excuse? Or maybe ye feel like telling the truth?”
With a relaxed shrug, Ravil feigned indifference as he struggled for an excuse, but the Mother provided. Lei Gong’s head snapped back to the east, seeing or sensing something the others could not. Taking off without a word, the old bastard darted off, leaving Ravil gaping at his speed. Offering a silent thanks to the Mother, he assigned a Sentinel to care for the horse and cubs before following Lei Gong.
It was important to make sure they were well cared for. Chuckling as he jogged, Ravil shook his head in wonder. In the middle of fighting Defiled by himself and still the boss has time to collect pets.
Hell, knowing the boss, he might even have another wife lined up.
Her stomach seethed with anxiety as Qing-Qing prayed for Bei to take her hand. Baledagh’s battle with Gen continued to rage in a concert of clanging, Baledagh’s ferocious smile terrifying to behold. Dancing around Gen’s inept thrashing, he made the skilled hunter look like a child, albeit one with a freakish hand spawned from nightmares. She’d been awakened by Deng’s frantic shaking, confused and panicked by the chaos around them, terrified by the slew of mangled corpses around her, but she refused to leave without Bei. “It’s not your fault Bei, it’s his. Gen did all this, come away with me for now. We’ll be fine, Baledagh will win and Gen will pay for his crimes.”
Poor, pitiful Bei, betrayed by the man she desired for so long. Qing-Qing always knew Gen was jealous and possessive but she’d never thought him capable of such sadistic torture, never in ten-thousand years. Baledagh was known as a skilled healer, perhaps he’d be able to help Bei. Her eyes glued to the battle, she prattled on without thinking. “You didn’t have a choice, you had to kill Uncle Wei or Gen would have killed you.” The words barely left her mouth before she realized her slip, hands shooting up to cover her mouth as the blood drained from Bei’s face. “Oh Bei, I’m so sorry I didn’t mean to bring it up. Please, just come with me and we’ll get through this together. I’m here for you.”
An excruciating lull passed as Bei’s empty expression stared back, loss and self-blame plain to see. Desperately tugging her arm, Deng hissed, “We need to leave now, Gen hasn’t noticed us but if he does we’ll be in danger.”
Waving his concerns away, she focused on the uninjured side of Bei’s face, looking her in the eyes and praying her words reached her best friend. “Please Bei, don’t give up. Remember all those times we talked about running away together? They couldn’t have all been lies. We were friends once, close as sisters, and I want to be like that again. A new beginning, okay?” A half-smile broke out as Bei nodded almost imperceptibly, the tension easing from her shoulders as her body relaxed, and Qing-Qing let out a sigh of relief.
Thank the Mother, everything would be all right.
Gen’s screams pierced through the silence and she flinched away, turning to see him fall into the fire, rolling about in a frenzied panic. With a satisfied smile, dark and foreboding, Baledagh stalked over to Gen with shield in hand. “Defiled or commoner, you amount to nothing. An insignificant fly, hardly worth the effort to swat away. Dying by my hands is an honour you don’t deserve, but I’ll grant it all the same.” His arm raised into the air, Baledagh froze in mid-swing, turning towards her with eyes wide in panic. “Qing-Qing, run!”
Darting away instinctively, Qing-Qing turned to see Bei’s face split apart as her mouth opened in silent suffering, her untouched skin curling in a thousand ribbons, peeling away to reveal pink flesh and crimson blood beneath. Clear pus erupted from within, mixing with the blood and coating Bei’s body as it spilled forth in a torrent, hardening around her in transparent, glassy-pink flesh. An inhuman wail exploded from its mouth as the creature swelled in size, sprouting into a sleek, slender frame with lustrous curves ending in sharp, rounded edges. Bei’s long, black hair flowed like silk from the creatures tilted head, framing a flayed face with empty eyes and luscious lips twisted in a malformed smile, promising pleasure and violence with its seductive glance.
Deng’s pulling ceased as he shouldered Qing-Qing aside, stepping towards the creature with wide-eyed admiration. “So beautiful…” Arms held open as if ready to embrace a lover, Deng wore a foolish grin as the creature reacted. Its hand snaked out to stroke his face, leaving a trail of blood before it pulled him into its bosom. Shuddering in ecstasy, Deng accepted the embrace without resistance, mouth open in silent rapture as his skin peeled away, his flesh melting into the creature in a visible stream of gore and viscera flowing around its body.
Shocked and appalled, Qing-Qing barely felt Baledagh’s arms wrap around her waist and lift her up, carrying her away from danger. Hands resting on his shoulder, she had a clear view of the creature behind them, writhing about as it devoured poor Deng, leaving nothing but skin and clothes. Time slowed as the creature turned to face them, its exposed glassy flesh bunched up in a grimace. Raising a single hand, it wagged its finger as if lecturing a child, standing coquettishly with hand on hip in parody of housewives everywhere.
Appearing before her in the blink of an eye, Qing-Qing’s chest exploded in pain as the creature’s powerful strike threw Baledagh aside. Her eyes fell to see the creature’s hand buried in her chest, the skin peeling away from the injury in all directions. The metallic tang of blood filled her mouth as her hands and feet dangled uselessly in the air, the creature which used to be Bei smirking as if to say ‘I always hated you’.
“NO!!” A heartrending scream echoed through the forest as Baledagh slashed clean through the creatures arm, and Qing-Qing fell to the ground in a limp heap. Her body growing cold and unresponsive, she watched the battle unfold, Baledagh as helpless before the creature as Gen was helpless before him. Ending quickly as it began, Baledagh’s weapon bounced off the creature’s skin while its remaining hand pierced through his belly. With a powerful flick of the wrist, the creature threw Baledagh to the ground, his body sliding across the dirt to a stop only a few meters away from her.
Groaning as he looked in her eyes, she saw sorrow and desperation etched on his face, her heart breaking for him. The creature in no hurry to finish the battle, it ambled off to pick up its severed arm. Dragging himself over to her, Baledagh left a crimson trail of blood behind him. Tears welling in his eyes, he reached out to stroke her hair and cup her face, breathless with agony and despair. “I’m so sorry Qing-Qing, I’m not strong enough. I’m worthless, can’t even protect the woman I love.”
With a shuddering breath, Qing-Qing smiled, stupidly happy in spite of their situation. Foolish man, professing his love for a common girl with no redeeming qualities to speak of. What a story that would have been, star-crossed lovers meeting in unfortunate circumstances. In another life, with other decisions, it might even have all worked out for the best, though she doubted it. He was so much like the bear cubs, bashful and guileless, adorable and reliant upon her for a short time, yet fated to become something too formidable for her to handle. They were from different worlds, and it was fortunate she met him so early in his life. So young and capricious, able to declare his love after their two short weeks together, in a few years he’d be a different person altogether, the person she expected him to be, cold and ruthless.
If only she hadn’t misunderstood him, maybe things would be different. If only she’d been kinder to Gen, then maybe he wouldn’t have snapped and Baledagh wouldn’t have had to beat him. If only she’d ridden a little faster on their first day out, then they might have rushed past the fire and left all these troubles behind. Or if only she wasn’t such a coward, slipping away as he slept, perhaps she could have escaped this terrible fate.
They would have woken in the morning and left to find his people, maybe even truly falling in love, a whirlwind romance to take the Empire by storm. She would bear his children to raise alongside their adorable cubs, chubby little children laughing and playing with nothing to fear. She’d study to become a herbalist or physician, maybe even a healer given time and teaching, making her parents proud. A wonderful life full of love and adventure with her hero, her Baledagh.
So many ifs and maybes, cruel words better left unspoken. Reaching up to clasp his hand, she tried to thank him, apologize to him, to say it was all her fault, that he wasn’t worthless and she didn’t deserve his love. Unable to find the breath to speak, she stared lovingly into his dazzling golden-brown eyes, desperately trying to convey her words to him.
You are extraordinary and without peer, brave and heroic, so save yourself. Don’t die here, not for a nameless orphan with nothing to offer. Leave me behind, run away, and forget all about me. Don’t become bitter and jaded, I’m not worth it. In another time, in another place, if the Mother is willing, perhaps we’ll meet again and fall in love, living our lives together in blissful harmony.
But not in this life. We simply aren’t meant to be.
Thank you for giving me hope, my sweet, blushing Baledagh.
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