Hugging his knees, Baledagh felt drained of all tears and emotions as the last tendrils of flame died out atop Qing-Qing’s pyre. With them died all his hopes and dreams, leaving nothing but a few meagre memories, forever tainted by her loss. Now that she was gone, truly gone, it was difficult to even imagine ever being cheerful again. So lovely and vibrant in life, now she was nothing but glowing embers and blackened ashes. What was the point of living if that was all that remained after you died?
Retreating silently into the void, Baledagh curled up in a ball and tried to forget, to fade away into nothingness, rejecting the rotten world which stole his love away. There was nothing left for him anymore. Finding Qing-Qing only to lose her before sharing a kiss was testament to how unfair the world was. If the Mother truly was as powerful and loving as the stories say, then why would she allow such injustice, such cruelty?
Why hadn’t he been born in another time and place, where he and Qing-Qing could be together, grow old together, could die together? Better to give up now and be reunited with her that much sooner.
“Boss, we got a problem.” A voice from the world intruded on Baledagh’s thoughts, and he ignored it, only wanting to be left in peace. Let brother deal with the world at large. The voice continued to persist, even daring to shake Baledagh, disturbing his bout of self-pity. “Boss, you there? … Boss? Wake up! Ah damn it all, what the fuck happened? Snap out of it boss, we need you.”
Curious why brother wasn’t dealing with this nuisance, he glanced around and immediately found the problem. Brother drifted listlessly about the void, unconscious and unresponsive as the twinkling whirlpool of Spectres followed behind. No wonder he wasn’t taking care of things, brother must have drifted off to sleep during Baledagh’s vigil. Even though he must have been exhausted from weeks spent evading the Spectres, brother had still stayed awake to help Baledagh through his grief. There was nothing could be said or done to help, but at least brother tried. All wasted effort but Baledagh appreciated the sentiment. No matter, it was time to disappear and let him live his life as Falling Rain, hero of the Empire, without the burden of Baledagh, the worthless fool.
Struggling with indecision and indifference, Baledagh studied brother’s sleeping form. Gaunt and haggard, brother was in worse shape than he’d ever seen, even though it was merely a mental projection. If this was how he felt, then brother must have suffered terribly. He’d need strength for the days ahead, and Baledagh decided he would help as much as he could before leaving to find Qing-Qing. Returning to his body, he watched Ravil pace about, muttering beneath his breath. “Shit, shit, what do I do?”
Best to get this over with as soon as possible, nothing seemed right. The air smelled off, the colours too dim, the trees closing in around him. “What’s the problem?” He just wanted to be left alone.
Leaping in place, Ravil recovered in an instant, falling to his knees to inspect Baledagh. “Oh thank the Mother, I thought you’d gone all loopy, staring off into the distance like that. Seen it happen to a few warriors in my time.” Nervously rubbing his head, Ravil sighed. “It’s the old bastard, he slipped away while I was taking a piss, disappeared like a fucking ghost. I’ve got people searching for him, but I’m not optimistic. Even if they find him, there’s nothing they can do.”
Frowning, Baledagh scoured his memories and came up empty, ignorant of anything happening after brother took over. What old bastard? “Is this a problem?” Baledagh felt utterly useless. Perhaps he should wake brother after all.
“Er…” Caught off-guard by the question, Ravil froze in place for several seconds while Baledagh cursed himself for being foolish. He should have kept his mouth shut, or at least asked a better question. Just as he was about to slip back into the void to wake brother, Ravil came out of his shock. “Well, I guess not. Everyone’s still alive and the old bastard already took an oath of silence, so he won’t be squealing about the Mother’s Militia. I guess I was overthinking things when you asked me to keep an eye on him…” Faltering, Ravil added, “But what about the Purge?” In response to Baledagh’s blank look, he continued, “Weren’t you trying to delay things? He’ll ruin those plans. I assume you have… friends? People you want extracted before the army gets wind of the Demon and lock down the area. We’ll need to move now, anyone caught will face investigation, and the army does not fuck around when it comes to an outbreak inside the borders. Like they say, ‘where there’s one, there’s a dozen’, and ‘Better a hundred dead civs than one breathing Defiled’.”
The world closed in around him as he processed Ravil’s statement, his stomach twisting in horror at the revelation. A purge. His actions had all been for naught, all those he saved from Qing-Qing’s village still fated to die, only this time at the hands of the Empire. If he’d ignored the plight of the villagers and left them to the Defiled, he could have brought Qing-Qing away, safe and sound.
If not for his foolish dreams of heroism, she’d still be alive.
Why did he waste his efforts saving those villagers? He’d owed them nothing, their aid bought and paid for, a worthless bunch doomed the moment Gen gave in to darkness. Because he was too soft, foolishly helping those who spurned him. He should have turned around and left the moment he saw those tracks, knowing nothing good would come of them. A futile effort which cost Qing-Qing her life, everything he did, every choice he made resulted in failure and death. Why even bother? What was he to do now?
A single, silent word, whispered from the darkness of his mind, harsh and discordant to his ears. Though he knew the Spectres were trying to manipulate him, they weren’t wrong. If the Mother would not provide justice, then he had no choice but to seek it out himself. His hands were not the only ones covered in Qing-Qing’s blood, there were others who needed to pay. If the army moved fast enough, perhaps they might even catch the other culprits. Gen, Bei, Laughing Dragon and his band of Defiled, all of their heads would not be enough to appease his fury, but it was a start. Whatever brother sought to do, he was misguided by empathy and compassion. “Ravil, what’s the quickest way to send word regarding the Defiled?”
“Without your Token, we’d need to make use of the Mother’s Militia. They can get a message to Sumila and Rustram in three days. From there, they’ll contact the Major and she’ll set things in motion. We’ll send word to whoever you need extracted, maybe even move the Militia further north, though finding a new hideout will be tricky.”
“All right.” There was still daylight yet, a few hours of travel would put them closer to their goal. Moving to stand, Baledagh nearly fell flat on his face, his legs numb and useless from hours of sitting. “Fetch my horse, we set out immediately.” Three days, slim odds of catching Gen and the others, but still worth trying. Shooing Ravil away to carry out his orders, Baledagh leaned against a tree and waited for the blood to flow back into his legs, determined now that he had a purpose. It was better this way, Baledagh would carry the burden of guilt, he cared nothing for the innocent.
The cubs ambled over to him, standing on two legs with paws outstretched, seeking warmth and affection. Cradling them both in his arms like Qing-Qing used to, he rocked the little animals as they snuggled against him. Poor little cubs, deprived of a mother twice in almost as many days. Well, they would not go unavenged, nor would Qing-Qing.
He would have his retribution no matter the cost, and anyone caught in his wake had only the Mother to blame for their fate.
A strangled cry pierced through the forest, waking Gen from his pleasant dreams. Yawning as he stretched awake, he breathed in the smell of blood and death, peering about with a smile on his face as the scream cut off abruptly. Following the sounds of battle with a bounce in his step, he admired the orange-red glow of the setting sun as it illuminated the blood-dyed leaves, an enchanting vista for him to behold.
This was all due to opening himself to the world, accepting the truths which the nobles hoped to keep secret. Without them, he’d have never noticed such beauty in a hundred years, wasting his life toiling away in a nameless village. Instead, he’d shown everyone how they were wrong, enlightening them, empowering them. A damn shame only Bei opened her eyes and accepted it, his time cut short by Laughing Dragon’s cowardice.
Ah, his beautiful bride, her transformation seemed nothing short of miraculous. Not only in looks, but in attitude, silent and submissive, with a seductive, swaying gait, and coquettish mannerisms, she’d become the perfect wife. Content to watch her at play, his eyes drank in her pink-crystalline flesh, her luscious, cherry-red lips, and her voluptuous hourglass body as she ripped a soldier in twain, sending a spurt of blood and viscera hurtling through the air.
Well, almost. The scars of battle still marred her skin, a myriad of cracks resembling a spider’s web. That damnable old grandfather poking his nose where it didn’t belong, interfering with Gen’s plans to tear Baledagh to pieces right in front of Qing-Qing’s eyes. Oh how sweet that would have been…
The games ended too soon, Bei’s actions ruthless and without mercy, as it should be. Wandering to her side, he placed his hand upon her nape as she prepared their meal, a good wife providing for her husband. The corpses melted in her hands and she absorbed them into her body, her flesh mending before his eyes. When she turned to glance at him, he gazed upon his work, the triangular pattern of the fire-poker marking her featureless face, as if she wore a skintight mask that left only her mouth free. Frowning, he tightened his grip around her neck. “Let me see your eyes, wife. I like you better that way.”
Her head tilted to the left, then the right in childish curiosity, offset by her long tongue running over her lips. For a moment, he thought he’d have to teach her a lesson, readying himself to unsheathe his claws, when Bei’s face appeared without warning. A flat image pasted beneath her skin, the eyes filled with fear and loathing, just like he remembered. “Perfect.” Leaning down to kiss her, she passionately probed his mouth with her tongue, feeding him the delicious nectar made from the dissolved flesh of their enemies.
The kiss left him breathless as he pulled away, his appetite sated and legs weak, his blood boiling with lust. Stumbling back, he fell to the ground and sat still, his blood pulsing as the nectar strengthened his body, his jade-white and fire-red hands throbbing in comfortable agony. While he waited, Bei tided up the area and within minutes, the remaining corpses of the patrol unit were dissolved and consumed. So efficient, a full twenty-odd soldiers who left nothing behind but ruined armour and weapons. Her skin gleamed and shimmered as the fluids moved beneath her skin, a captivating spectacle of innumerable colours moving in hypnotic patterns. As she lifted him into her arms and carried him away, he pressed his cheek against her bosom, studying the mesmerizing designs and listening to the coursing stream of her life’s blood, satisfied and at peace.
It was true, a good husband makes a good wife. If only he’d had the time to show Qing-Qing the same love and affection, open her eyes to the truth……
Drifting out of his haze of blissful euphoria, he blinked and looked around as the world came back into focus. The dark night was tinged with a hint of red, his new gifts allowing him to see things clear as day. Cradled in the arms of his wife, he realized he was no longer alone, recognizing the remnants of Laughing Dragon’s Firebrands, the man in question watching him with a smirk. “Well bless my black heart, aren’t you two just sweet as honey.”
Irritated by his mocking, Gen struggled out of Bei’s grasp and stood tall, wiping the drool from his chin. “What are you doing here? Didn’t you lose your nerve? Laughing Dragon, fleeing in terror before nameless Baledagh.”
His smile souring, Laughing Dragon spit at Gen’s feet. “Couldn’t have been nameless, ye slack-jawed bumpkin. He was more skilled than any whelp has a right to be. With some time to think, I figured he’s gotta be the Bekhai Warrant Officer, Falling Rain. The eyes, the weapon, the age, it all fits. Confused little shit he is, a fool who doesn’t even know he’s one of the Liberated. I’d like to see his face when they put him through the Inquiry.” Fixing him with a cold stare, Laughing Dragon added, “And don’t think ye can mock me just because you’ve a Demon at yer side. It won’t lift a finger if I gut you here and now, so watch yer tone.” They locked stares for long seconds, Gen refusing to give way. Though he’d have been cowed only a day ago, much had changed in a short time. Realizing this, Laughing Dragon scoffed and gestured towards Bei. “As fer why I’m here, the Demon here popped out of nowhere and stopped us from heading north. Won’t let any of us leave, else I’d be long gone.”
Frowning at Bei, Gen pursed his lips. Why did she want the Firebrands with them? Fucking slut, some things never change. “Explain yourself!”
She tilted her head back and forth once more, before pointing at him with her right hand. Lifting the index finger on her left hand, she then pointed at Laughing Dragon and lifted a second finger, then another Firebrand and a third. This continued until she’d raised all five fingers of her left hand, at which point she gestured to the remaining Firebrands before turning south, her arm sweeping across the land as if gathering the air into her embrace. Turning back to Gen, she cocked her head once more, asking if he understood.
“Fuck no.” Laughing Dragon was first to answer. “Ain’t no way I’m staying, the Purge is coming. Let those other fools fend for themselves.” Still, he didn’t move, his feet planted and arms crossed.
Ignoring him, Bei continued to stare at Gen, his brow furrowed in thought. Dismissing his thoughts of her infidelity, he questioned her motives. “You want me to find others like me and bring them to you?” She nodded, then shook her head and pointed north. “Bring them north?” A nod. “Why?”
Her lips broke into a smile as she leaned forward to whisper in his ear. The low, guttural voice set his body spasming in pain, a delicious agony emanating throughout his body. Falling to the ground, he screamed and squirmed as he bled from his eyes, the voice consuming his mind, echoing endlessly within his skull. After an eternity passed in a moment, Gen shivered and panted as the pain subsided, staring up at his wife in shock and confusion. That wasn’t Bei speaking, the power and malevolence behind the voice unlike anything he’d ever experienced. Who was that speaking through her?
The message was simple, three short sentences.
“No more hiding. Gather my children. Destroy the Empire.”
A smile crept onto his face as he stared north, awed by the display of power. They had friends beyond the Bridge, and no matter how powerful they were, they needed Gen’s help to let them in. Images of death and destruction flooded his mind, relishing the changes to come. Ah, what a time to be alive.
A time of revolution, of bloodshed, and of reckoning.
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