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Howling into the night sky, the Firebrands broke ranks and ran towards the quiet little village, still more than a kilometre away. His customary grin slipping from his face, Xiao HuoLong’s jaw dropped as he watched the chaos unfold. No plan, no coordination, only a disjointed crowd of feral idiots screaming murder as they charged. These unrestrained madmen were his Firebrands?
No, his Firebrands were disciplined professionals, unlike these amateurs and incompetents unable to keep the darkness in check. No one moved to surround the village as its occupants, alerted by the idiotic howling, fled into the forest, abandoning everything without hesitation to save their lives. They would likely escape too, his people leaving chase to indulge their base desires using the villagers too scared, slow, or stupid to run. Like a pack of starving animals, his people tore into the tiny village and carried out wanton destruction and carnage, literally frothing at the mouth as they satisfied their murderous urges.
The terrified screams he normally savoured did little to improve his mood as he wandered into the village, fighting to keep himself under control. Gorging themselves like convicts at a feast before their appointment with a noose, his comrades acted no different from rabid dogs. Were it any other time or place, he’d put them down without hesitation. These weren’t the Firebrands he’d brought into the fold, his hand-picked warriors and kindred spirits, comrades who walked with both eyes open in a world of the blind and obstinate.
No, his comrades were gone now, replaced by a gibbering pack of deranged buffoons.
Stolen from him by Gen and his bewitching Demon.
At the thought of the obscene pair, his eyes instinctively sought them out in the crowd. Hands clasped behind his back, Gen strode leisurely through the anarchy with a satisfied smile, making his way inside the largest, central shack. As for the Demon, it flitted about the village in bursts of speed, disappearing from sight and reappearing at another location in the blink of an eye. Stopping to grab random villagers, it deposited them inside the shack for Gen to play with. After capturing maybe a half-dozen prisoners, it settled down outside the shack, ready to guard Gen as he entered.
How sweet, the wife preparing a meal for the husband.
The Demon sat with grace and poise, treating the shabby bench like a royal throne as it surveyed the festivities. Its posture perfect and hands folded in its lap, it exuded an unearthly beauty and the scent of seduction, a single smile enough to charm his Firebrands and mold them into these biddable idiots. How else to explain their sudden transformation, so eager to follow Gen into certain death? The Purge was coming, and anyone caught inside the Army’s perimeter would be killed, including the Demon.
It was the height of madness to believe otherwise.
As if sensing his gaze, the Demon turned and smiled at him, licking its full, feminine lips. Quickly averting his eyes, he cursed beneath his breath and struggled to keep himself in check. A pox on the glassy Demon whore, what good is it if it doesn’t have a cunt to fuck? Worthless defective monster, bringing Gen to them, listening to his every word. A snot-nosed, wet behind the ears brat, he had no shame. Bleeding from every orifice after flopping around on the ground, and still he had the gall to demand Laughing Dragon’s obedience?
In all his years, he’d never been an overly proud man. Retreat was nothing shameful, only a tactic to be used in the right situation. Soft gold bends where rigid iron breaks, and he had no intention of breaking, but to be forced into service by a madman and his damaged pet vexed him beyond belief. Claiming to hear the Demon’s voice and ranting about gathering an army, if not mad, then at the very least incompetent. In this land of failed treasure hunters and resigned dirt farmers, where did Gen think to find warriors for his army? And how convenient he was the only one who could hear the Demon speak.
Disgusted by his predicament and the lack of discretion from his cohorts, HuoLong turned his back to the slaughter and slipped out into the forest, sensing the Demon’s gaze locked firmly upon him. He had no choice but to obey, the Demon was too fast and strong, but there was no need to do so blindly. Familiarizing himself with the surroundings, he set out on patrol, keeping watch for soldiers and other threats, all the while grumbling to himself about the injustice of it all.
Hours passed in relative calm as he kept vigil, accompanied only by the constant tortured screams of the villagers. The spirits raged and rambled inside him, demanding he take part and surrender to the hunger, but he was accustomed to ignoring them when it suited him. It wasn’t until the sun rose when he returned to the village, scowling as he surveyed the scenes of beautiful carnage. Jealousy bubbled up from within, warring against caution as he took in the ambience, each view exciting him more than the last. How he yearned to be a part of the bloodletting, to throw off all inhibitions and submerge himself in the pleasures of flesh and blood, but after a long struggle, caution won out. So long as he kept a cool head, he might eventually find a chance to escape from Gen and his Demon.
“Brother Dragon.” Gen’s greeting took him off guard, and he turned to face the little upstart, covered in viscera and gore. Who the fuck is your brother, you little shit? “You missed all the festivities.” Eyes wide and smile strained, Gen appeared high-strung and restless, barely able to keep still as he paced about. “Did none these sheep catch your eye?” Three new comrades ringed the whelp, the flayed skin of their faces doing little to dim the fervour in their eyes.
Seventeen recruits brought into the light by Gen in less than a week. How did this little shit Awaken so many? “Somebody had to keep watch and none of these idiots volunteered.” No need to hide his disdain. Let the whelp try to take Laughing Dragon’s head, he’d find the cost higher than expected. “It’s been almost a week since Baledagh – or rather Falling Rain, discovered us, so the Army will be on its way. There’s no escaping once they settle in, they’ve mystical means of tracking runaways.”
“Oh no need to keep watch, my beautiful wife is ever alert. Stop worrying and indulge yourself, let loose and satisfy your every desire.” Sidling up beside him like a bosom buddy, Gen threw an arm around HuoLong’s shoulder, the mangled, deformed hand clamping lightly around his neck. “You play the part of calm and carefree rogue, but who would have thought you were so uptight? You need learn to surrender to desire, let the power guide you.”
“I haven’t survived this long by surrendering. Ye’ll see soon enough.”
Rolling his eyes, Gen let loose a long, suffering sigh. “A shame you’ve yet to realize: there’s no need to hide your true self anymore. No more hiding, those were His words. How long since you’ve let yourself be free? You starve your lust for weeks at a time, feeding it scraps and leavings whenever you can. I offer you a feast fit for kings and you scorn me, running off to sulk in the woods. Is it because you wish to lead? I did not ask for this, but He spoke to me.”
Already on the knife’s edge, HuoLong’s rage got the better of him as he threw the whelps arm off. “Offer me a feast? If I want something, I’ll fucking take it meself. Yer nothing more than a pup whose teeth have just come in, biting whatever ye can. Ye’ve no inkling of what’s to come, no sense at all, wasting time which should be spent getting the fuck gone.”
“You’re right.” The admission threw him off guard as Gen nodded sagely while guiding him to a table where his new recruits laid out a meal. “I’ve no inkling of what’s to come. We are all His children, so we must work together through these trying times. Come dine with me.”
Confounded by Gen’s attitude, HuoLong narrowed his eyes and reached for a leg, never one to turn down food. Biting into the delicious meat, he eschewed all subtleties and asked, “What’s yer game now?”
“No games, brother Dragon.” The whelp was too relaxed, tired after the night’s activities, but satisfied. “He has given me a mandate and your knowledge and experience will be needed in the days ahead. We all want the same thing.”
“Yer wrong there. I want to put as many kilometres between me and Sanshu as possible. Yer looking to sit around and wait fer death.”
Finally, his words rattled Gen, the whelp narrowing his eyes. Speaking through gritted teeth, Gen’s mangled, deformed hands smouldering as he clenched them tight. “You’re wrong. It is the Dog Emperor’s soldiers who march towards death.” Fucking hell, he was growing more powerful by the day. Maybe there was something to be gained by going full-crazy, but was it worth it?
Feigning a laid-back attitude, HuoLong rested a hand on his saber while continuing to eat, ready to strike the moment Gen lost control. Maybe he would die today, but he’d not go alone. “Yer a frog stuck in a well, thinking yer strength makes ye untouchable. Ye don’t know the height of the heavens. The soldiers coming for the Purge? They won’t be yer standard rank and file. Each one will have Captain-level strength at least, and there’ll be tens of thousands of them. Even if we gather every comrade in Sanshu we won’t match their numbers, much less their quality. Yer fucking delusions ain’t worth a fart, ye bird-brained lunatic. We’ll all be cold and dead within the week, or wishing we were. They don’t treat our type kindly, like to torment and torture us, try to get us to turn like yer little pink bitch. It inflates their sense of self-worth, killing fresh Demons so they can earn themselves a promotion.”
Contrary to his expectations, Gen controlled his anger, breathing heavily as he glared. Ignoring him, HuoLong ate the rest of his meal in satisfied silence, smacking his lips as he ate with obvious relish. Legs were usually tough and stringy, on account of all the use they saw, but this one was young and tender, a real treat.
Finished with his snack, HuoLong moved to leave when Gen finally spoke. “You will not speak of my wife like that again. You lack faith brother Dragon. True, our numbers are not enough, but He will provide. There are far more of us than you know, hiding, waiting, and I will Inspire more to join us. Those who have glimpsed the truth but have yet to take the first step, we will find them and open their eyes, and together, we will blaze a trail through the province like none before. History will remember us as the victors, this I promise you.”
Without bothering to acknowledge his rant, HuoLong sauntered off as if without a care in the world. Idiot child, building an army two or three soldiers at a time. At this rate, they’d match the Army in two years, if lucky.
Sensing a new presence, he stopped in his tracks and turned to watched more than a dozen Enlightened warriors wander into the village, an unfamiliar bunch. They had the look of hardened veterans, surveying the area without blinking, ready to explode into controlled violence without warning. Sporting a mishmash of stolen army gear and travel-worn furs, each one held a primitive weapon, crude things that exuded power. Catching his gaze, the leader of the newcomers strode towards him, nodding warily in greeting. A massive beast of a man with sun-browned skin and a thick, pale beard, he towered a full head and shoulders above HuoLong’s two-meter-tall frame, exuding a suffocating Demonic Aura. This was not a warrior to cross lightly. “You warleader?” He spoke with clipped, guttural tones, unfamiliar with the language.
“No, he isn’t. I am.” Smiling calmly, Gen strode up with the Demon following behind, its head lowered and hands clasped before it like a dutiful wife. “I am Gen.”
“I am Vithar.” Looking the whelp up and down, the massive warrior sneered. “The ancestors tell me to come, to join, to fight, and Vithar listen, but why Vithar join tiny whelp? Better you to join Vithar, Vithar lead all to kill and maim.”
Stepping forward, the Demon locked eyes with Vithar and the warrior fell to the ground, spasming exactly as Gen had, even bleeding from his facial apertures. Several of the newcomers joined him there, but despite the obvious pain, not a single one screamed as Gen had. After a minute of flailing about, Vithar pushed himself to his feet and wiped the blood from his face, chuckling beneath his breath as if this were a normal occurrence. “Okay. We follow. Kill and maim, yes? Others coming soon.”
HuoLong stood in place, gaping in wonder as Gen greeted their new friends. These were comrades, true Enlightened from beyond the Bridge, the heroes who brought down Shen Mu sent here to aid in his escape.
No, not escape. To slaughter.
For the first time since his match against Falling Rain, Laughing Dragon was true to his name, cackling madly to the skies.
Guess Gen isn’t crazy after all.
Well, not completely crazy, at least.
It’s disorienting waking with no sensations, not something I’d care to do often. Nothing to see, touch, hear, taste, or smell inside the void. No warm blankets to curl under, no eyes to rub myself awake, no full bladder to coax me out of bed, how do I know if any of this is real? How can I be real if I only exist in thought? ‘I think, therefore I am’, but what exactly am I?
Am I also Defiled, like Baledagh? But I can use chi, and that’s supposed to be proof positive you’re not Defiled. So maybe I’m a Demon? They use all sorts of magical quackery, who’s to say it isn’t another type of chi? Or am I something else? I mean, the Father has Demons, so does the Mother have Angels? Is that what I am? An Angel sent to… err… Get drunk and bang prostitutes? I’ve done nothing else of note.
…Okay, probably not an Angel.
Coming out of my stupor, I explore the empty void around me. The whirlpool of Demonic Spectres floats off to the side, oddly silent for once. Too quiet, in fact, my paranoia ratcheting up several levels as I study their cage, search for flaws and weaknesses, even rattling them about to listen to their wails.
I take no satisfaction in it… Well, a little but they tried to eat me, so fuck them.
Convinced they can’t escape and thanking my lucky stars for their silence, I raise my head to study the surroundings. With no point of reference, it’s impossible to tell how long I spent staring at the cage. I don’t breathe, I don’t get hungry or tired, my muscles don’t cramp or ache. The void surrounds me, envelopes me, yet at the same time, I have all the room in the world, though there’s nothing to mark the distance travelled. Forward back, up, down, no matter where I go, it’s exactly the same. Screaming just to hear noise, I’m not sure if I’m actually screaming, or just think I am.
I hate it here. Nothing to do but get lost in my own thoughts.
But are they my thoughts, or is an echo of thoughts I’ve had before? How do I think without a mind? Am I using part of Baledagh’s brain, even while dormant? Or do spirits have their own… physiology or whatever?
Holy shit, is this what it was like for Baledagh before I built him the Manor? No wonder he slept for years, this shit is unbearable. Forcing myself to take a breath, the ‘air’ rushes through my ‘nostrils’, filling my ‘chest’ and ‘lungs’. Ugh, fuck me. Focus dude. Concentrate. Out of the Void and into the World.
My mind is overwhelmed by all the sensations. Sunlight bursts into view, children cry and adults shout, the acrid scent of sweat and fear, the coarse texture of my clothes, a thousand things coming into awareness in an instant. The Militiamen march through a tiny village while the unmistakable voice of Ravil screams obscenities. The villagers gather in an empty field, lining up in single file at his directions, men and woman, children and elderly, close to fifty in total, huddling together for comfort as they try to make sense of things.
After a few seconds, I can even feel Baledagh’s emotions, a hollow, empty pain emanating throughout his body. Poor kid. “Baledagh, what’s going on here?”
Tensing up at the sound of my voice, Baledagh checks to make sure no one is watching before closing his eyes. His voice booms from every direction, echoing into the void. “Brother, it’s good to have you back. You slept for so many days, and when you woke, I found you staring at the Spectres, lost in thought, my voice unable to reach you. Are you well?”
“I’m fine, I think. I was exhausted, then I was checking the cage and… lost track of time. You didn’t answer me though, what’s happening here? Are we robbing these people?” Wait… what? “I’ve been out for days? How many?”
“Yes brother, close to seven days, and we’re here searching for the Defiled. I can feel them here, but I cannot tell who.” Ravil calls out to us and Baledagh steps forward, his face hidden by a hat and veil. “I need to concentrate brother, but know that the Purge has been called. You couldn’t have stopped it, but worry not. We’ll save those we can, including anyone here who has not been tainted.”
Swallowing my protests and questions, I quiet down as Baledagh clasps his hands behind him and walks up to the first villager, an older gentleman with greying hair and clouding eyes brought forward by a Sentinel. After a few seconds, Baledagh nods and the Sentinel brings the old man out into the forest, while another Sentinel brings the next villager forward.
I’m not thrilled that the purge is coming, but then again, he might be right. We couldn’t have stopped the purge, but he’s doing something about it at least. We’ll figure something out. Little Baledagh, still in mourning, he toughed it out for days while I slept, even working to save villagers. He’s growing up and I couldn’t be prouder.
The inspections continue without change until a meek young woman is brought forward, carrying a girl no older than Tali in her arms. An adorable child, her eyes are red and swollen, her tears staining her mother’s shirt as she stares fearfully at us from her mother’s embrace. Poor little thing, we’ll make it up to her later. I can cook up something sweet, or let her play with the bears.
While lost in my thoughts of cheering her up, Baledagh nods once again, as his fingers flash behind him, signing ‘Kill’.
“What are you doing?” The words burst from my mind before I can stop it, frantic as I watch the Sentinel lead them both away. “Wait, stop, call him back. You didn’t tell them to spare the little girl.”
Stopping in his tracks, Baledagh speaks carefully, his anger smouldering beneath the surface. “Brother, they are both Defiled, woman and child alike. I can sense the taint in them, weak but unmistakable.”
My innards twist at the sound of his words, our eyes watching the doomed pair walk away. Pleading with him, I try to take control, to make his mouth utter a single word, all to no avail. “Baledagh, stop them, take the time to think this through. You said it was weak, she’s just a kid. We can teach her, we can save her. You don’t want to do this, I know you don’t. We’ll find a solution for this, together.”
“You’re right, I don’t want to have her killed.” His sorrow is palpable as he sighs, but quickly overshadowed by determination. “I wish there were another way, but there isn’t. They are Defiled, and will grow in power, given time. You are too weak… no not weak. Too kind, too empathetic perhaps, but I am not the same, so I will shoulder this burden for you. That child is not the first, nor will she be the last, and this will be a mercy compared to leaving her for the Empire.” The void closes around me as he sends me away, his words heavy with regret. “Go back to sleep brother. This is all I can do to help. I’ll wake you when we reunite with the others.”
The darkness consumes me, and all I can see is the little girl’s face flooding with relief as she’s brought away, blissfully unaware of what fate has in store for her.
Baledagh… why are you doing this to yourself?
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