Clanging his weapons together in rhythm, Baledagh eyed the bandit chieftain, eager to test his mettle but leery of charging out into open ground, the bandits awakened from their grotesque revelry. Though he gave up the initiative by remaining close to the shack, his instincts warned him against crossing blades with Laughing Dragon in single combat, much less outnumbered and surrounded in open battle. The handsome and well-groomed older gentleman seemed out-of-place amidst the blood and carnage, dressed in an embroidered cotton outfit, sporting an enviable, manly moustache hanging past his chin. Looking every bit the part of an honourable mercenary, if not for the blood smeared across his face and the crazed look in his eyes, Baledagh might have thought him a bystander, somehow caught up in this mess.
Arms still spread in welcome, Laughing Dragon stood silently, staring with head tilted and lips pursed. Reaching up, he stroked his moustache, studying Baledagh like a puzzle to be solved. After a long pause, he shrugged and smiled, speaking in a lazy drawl, unperturbed by the situation. “Ah, whatever. Ye offering challenge are ye? Think yerself strong enough to lead my Firebrands? Haha, I swear, kids these days don’t understand the immensity of heaven and earth.” Shaking his head, he drew his weapon and rested it on his shoulder, waving Baledagh forward without a hint of apprehension. “Come boy, let Uncle Dragon teach you some manners. Be warned though, a dragon uses its full strength even when hunting a rabbit. Don’t disappoint me, try to stay alive.”
Caution warred against desire for battle, but Baledagh’s enthusiasm won out, stepping out across the ruined wall. Truth be told, he didn’t mean to expose himself so soon, only killing fifteen bandits and saving less than a handful of villagers. Stronger than ever and over-eager to finish the fight, Baledagh accidentally kicked a bandit clean through a wooden wall. Flimsy though it was, he’d never have been able to perform such a feat of strength before his convalescence.
Something was different about these bandits, each of their deaths accompanied by an addictive rush of power, and Baledagh grew in strength with every kill. Hungry for his next victim, he’d almost forgotten about the villagers, but things worked out better this way. Most of the ones he’d found were too injured to move or raving mad from their pain, and he gave them mercy, their lives too weak to provide any sustenance. Now, he’d found almost two dozen uninjured villagers cowering in the courtyard, glancing at him with hope-filled eyes.
Saving them would be more than enough to pacify his irritating conscience, that fussy little voice in his head which claimed he was to blame for all this. Putting it out of mind, he strode towards his worthy adversary, Laughing Dragon directing his bandits to make way, spreading them out around the square. Strewn about were villagers in various stages of mangled mutilation, their pitiful cries bringing a frown to his face. Distasteful to take such pleasure in so pointless an act. If the bandits were after information or toying with a deserving foe he might understand, but what sport was there in torturing the weak for no gain? Shoving aside a bandit blocking his path, he cut the throat of a screaming villager, the tortured cries coming to an abrupt end. He wasn’t a hero or saviour, only able to grant mercy and vengeance.
The bandit responsible scowled and spit in contempt, oblivious of Baledagh’s sword until it hacked into his head, splattering his blood across the ground. The kill relieved some of his frustrations, filling him with energy as he smiled at the surrounding bandits, daring them to approach. Flies, every last one of them, he’d taken their measure and found them lacking, no match for the Great Baledagh. Killing them would be as simple as turning over his hand, and if not for Laughing Dragon, he would have slaughtered the bandits to a man, delighting in their fearful cries as they struggled uselessly to escape their fate, fodder for him to consume.
“Well look at that, ain’t you some hot shit? So yer Baledagh, heard much about ye. Gen didn’t say nothing about a spiritual weapon though.” Rather than alarmed or upset, Laughing Dragon seemed indifferent to the death of his lackey, stretching lazily with saber in hand. His piercing-brown eyes gave away his true feelings, controlled rage swimming beneath the surface. “Now, why are you here? I was told you left a day ago, was I lied to?” The villagers trembled and cried as he glanced at them, all of them proclaiming their innocence as if it mattered at all.
“You worthless shit-sac of a Defiled beast, your life ends today.” Settling into a familiar posture, Baledagh extended Tranquility forward, his sword held at his side as he stood ready to charge. The name of the Forms came unbidden to his mind, Balance on Windy Leaf and Pierce the Horizon, brother’s favoured opening. Wary of a counter attack, he held in place, studying Laughing Dragon who appeared at ease, weapon resting on his shoulder as he waited.
Chuckling, the bandit leader shook his head. “No wonder Gen hates you, yer a cocky son of a bitch, ain’t you? So let me guess, you think you had a claim on these villagers? Don’t like me taking what’s yours, do ye? Well let me explain something.” Without a change in bearing, Laughing Dragon changed from affable madman to dangerous adversary, radiating threat and menace without effort. “I’m the same way. Ye killed at least three of my boys, likely more since you got so deep without sounding the alarm, so I’m gonna teach you a lesson.” Palm up, he curled his fingers towards him in invitation. “Come on, enough foreplay. This daddy’s gonna give you a beating.”
In an instant, his presence became overbearing, terror given flesh, a palpable ambience of dread emanating around him. Barely able to breathe, Baledagh shivered in place, the icy hand of fear clutching his heart, reminiscent of his match against Zian, except this time brother wasn’t here to save them. An oppressive, invisible force bore down on him as he helplessly watched his opponent advance, a slow ambling gait, turning back and forth before him in exhibition as the other bandits laughed and cheered.
“That’s our boss, beat him black and blue!”
“Ha, looks like the little cocksucker’s ready to piss his pants.”
“Ain’t no match for the Laughing Dragon once the Aura comes out, ye worthless little shit.”
Fucking Aura. Unfair. Brother, please help, I need you.
Laughing Dragon egged the crowd on, patting Baledagh’s cheek like a favoured nephew while he was unable to even flinch away. Lifting his leg theatrically, the bandit leader grinned with glee as he lashed out with his boot, crashing into Baledagh’s unguarded stomach. The air rushed from his lungs as he sailed through the air, landing heavily on both knees almost a meter back. Gasping for breath, he struggled to fight or flee, to do anything besides play the part of wooden dummy, but the tyrannical Aura was too much for him to bear.
“See, what’d I tell you? Can’t see beyond the tip of yer nose.” Flicking Baledagh on the forehead, the bandit leader snorted with glee, lifting his hand for a back-handed swing, savouring the moment as Baledagh knelt before him. The impact cracked against his temple, sending him reeling, both weapons dangling useless at his sides. A second smack followed in the other direction, and he tasted blood in his mouth as a tooth went flying out. “Ah, look at that, make a wish before it hits the ground, boys!”
Grabbing him by the hair, Laughing Dragon pulled him to his feet to continue the beating. “Ye’ve no one to blame for this but yourself.” A right hook to the jaw afforded him a view of the villagers, hunched over in defeat as they watched him disgrace himself. “Can’t let ye off too easy.” A blow to the kidney elicited a pained groan, absently noting the darkening skies as rain clouds formed overhead. “You know how hard it is raising a proper Firebrand?” An elbow to the ribs resounded with a loud crack, his breath coming ragged as blood frothed up from his throat. “And ye just come along killing them like they grow on trees. I run a tight ship, no killing comrades, else I’d be wandering around all by my lonesome.”
With slow, methodical strikes, the bastard paused between each hit, using the time to make some inane comment. The saber remained in place on his shoulder, using only his fist and feet to get his point across. Unable to accept his weakness, Baledagh weathered the flurry of blows, gritting his teeth as he strove to fight back, but his body ignored his commands, worthless before his enemy.
Rain fell in a slow, ever-increasing drizzle as the beating continued, and a trickle of power began circling through him, originating from his belly and propagating outwards, a layer coating his skin and numbing the pain. Laughing Dragon’s smile slowly faded as his punches and kicks lost their sting, the strikes directed away by his protective energy. His injuries healing, the blood rushed in to soothe the aches and mend the breaks as he glared defiantly at the bandit leader.
Spitting out a mouthful of blood, his vision narrowed until he could see nothing but Laughing Dragon. Teeth bared in an uneasy grin, the bandit chieftain was less imposing, less frightening, his posture in retreat even as he struck at Baledagh with full force. The weight lifted from his shoulders, the icy hand releasing its grip, and he grinned back at the bandit, eyes full of promise. Thunder boomed again, closer this time but still in the distance, and overhead the rain clouds unleashed their burden, the skies opening to wash away his pain and fear in a torrential downpour.
Roaring in rage and retribution, Baledagh shook free from his trance and leaped at Laughing Dragon, the battle beginning in earnest. Sword met saber with a hollow ring, the shoddy iron weapons scraping against one another. Cackling madly, he swung both weapons in a frenzy, a discordant melody playing out as they traded blows, Laughing Dragon backing away from his ferocious assault. Bestowed with guidance once again, he moved flawlessly through the combinations, the names coming easily to him unlike before. No surrendering control to the ancestors, this was true understanding, his mind directing his body with knowledge previously hidden away.
An overhand chop followed by a low slash, Grasping Paw into Swiping the Rushes gave Baledagh his first taste of his opponent’s blood. A deceptive step forward earned him an opening, Tranquility piercing through his opponent’s flank, Rising Steps into Darting Fang. A flourish of his sword batted aside the sabre and his heel rose to smash into Laughing Dragon’s jaw, flinging the bandit backwards in a perfect arc, Fluttering Raindrops into Disembowelling Kick. Baledagh was familiar with every attack, having seen brother practice them time and time again, the skills now at his disposal.
Staggering in the rain, Laughing Dragon’s face twisted in hatred and incredulity. “How?! Yer just a brat, how can you already have an Aura?” Backing away, he whipped his saber about in the downpour, water flinging about with every pass of the blade, defending himself in a whirling screen of iron. “How are you so strong?”
“Didn’t I warn you?” Sneering at the scared bandit chieftain, Baledagh laughed mockingly. “Death awaits you.” Revelling in his newfound skills, he took up the familiar stance once more, Tranquility pointed blade-first, his sword readied to thrust at shoulder level. Insight poured into his mind, remembering an unstoppable charge, a perfect fusion of speed and power. Executing the maneuver, he leaned over, momentum driving him forward. His calves exploded with power, wet dirt spraying out behind him. Closing the distance in a single bound, he blocked Laughing Dragon’s counter-strike with Tranquility, a melodious chime echoing through the village like a victory bell. Twisting at the impact, he thrust with the sword, pouring every scrap of power into the strike.
The sword ripped out of his hand as Laughing Dragon careened away, the stolen weapon jutting from his shoulder. Collapsing into the mud, defeated but not dead, the bandit chieftain screamed orders as he scurried away, hardy as a cockroach. “Idiots, don’t just stand there. Kill him!” Snapping out of their stupor, the bandits drew their weapons and charged, Baledagh laughing as he accepted the challenge.
A pocket of calm amidst the chaos, he was untouchable dancing between the bandits, their weapons directed away from him by an encircling energy. Grabbing a bandit’s wrist, he slashed through the arm and took the hatchet, embedding it in the skull of another. The sweet, addictive surge of energy infused him once again, clashing against the power that circled within, causing him to stumble briefly, almost taking injury. Leaving the hatchet with its new owner, he stabbed another bandit in the gut before grabbing him by the shoulder, pulling Tranquility out in a horizon slash, taking another limb and head as he circled around. Howling exultantly to the heavens, he chopped, slashed, and carved a swathe through any who dared stand against him, abandoning all thoughts for the glory of battle.
Over all too soon, he stood in a puddle of blood surrounded by the dead, chest heaving as he searched for another opponent, still eager to test his newfound skills. Laughing Dragon was nowhere to be found, retreating in the free-for-all along with the majority of his Defiled their presence fading away into the distance. Huddled together in the rain, the uninjured villagers stared in undisguised awe and fear. Reining in his temper, he swallowed a scathing criticism and pointed north. “Deng is in the forests, find him and follow him away. The path is clear, I’ll sweep for survivors and follow shortly.” The idiots didn’t even think to run from danger even after their guards abandoned their posts.
Leaving them to themselves, Baledagh stepped into the closest shack and found nothing but the dead. Leaning against the wall, his body shivered uncontrollably as the fight left him, the aftereffects of his injuries rushing up to meet him. Pain and fatigue struck him like a hammer, his head spinning from his injuries as he dry-heaved in the confines of the shack, the raindrops drumming on the roof while nausea overpowered him. It wasn’t the death, he’d seen far worse than a simple flaying, this was something else, but what? He’d been invincible only minutes ago, aside from a misstep after his first kill. Why was this happening? Was that brother helping him?
The nausea passed in minutes and he put aside the mystery to resume his search, finding no other survivors. Stopping only to pick up another sword, he quickly caught up to the fleeing villagers, foolishly burdened by their dead and injured. The dead were food for the crows, and with no medical supplies or shelter, the injured would soon join them. Better a quick death than slow agony, but he’d done his part. It was time to leave them to their fate.
Slipping into the shadows, he ran deeper into the forests, avoiding the villagers. Favouring his half-healed injuries, he walked back to camp, humming beneath his breath.
Qing-Qing would be worried; it was almost time for lunch.
Absently poking the fire, Gen stared around the dismal hut in wonder. How did Qing-Qing stand living in this shit hole for so long? A cramped, musty interior with no windows, the patter of rain was deafening. Stupid bitch, he’d offered her the world and she scorned him for a worthless bandit. She would regret that decision once he found her, he’d make sure of it. Returning his attention to the flames, he watched them dance and flicker in the fireplace, endless hunger personified, devouring all within its path. Waving his hand close, the flames seemed drawn to him, swaying with the motion in hypnotic fashion. So beautiful.
A pained sob interrupted his musings and he glanced over his handiwork, the fear in Bei’s eyes delicious and arousing. “Foolish little Bei, always lusting after me. Well how lucky for you, I’ve accepted you now. Aren’t you happy?” Chuckling, he removed the red-hot iron from the flames and returned to her side, her miserable mewls of terror amusing him to no end. He’d removed her tongue first, which was regretful. Listening to her plead and beg was enjoyable, but the stupid bitch kept trying to remind him of the weakling he used to be, angering him to no end.
Grabbing her chin, he turned her face left and right, enjoying his handiwork. The right side was beautiful and untouched, if a little messy from all the crying, but lovely nonetheless, while the left was a masterpiece of patterned burns, the skin melted in hideous deformation. A shame he didn’t have a mirror to show her his work, Bei always loved to compliment his efforts.
The pleading intensified in pitch as she struggled in his grasp, the hot iron closing in on her jaw to continue the pattern downwards. Hovering over her skin, he relished the moment before the pain, Bei straining with all her might to escape, helpless and exposed before him. His intent was to pepper the entire left side of her body, leaving half her beauty so it was more pronounced each time she glimpsed her reflection. She was a vain girl, thinking herself beautiful, her arrogance earning her his scorn in the past, but now, he used it to his advantage. Seeing the ugliness would throw her into despair, soon ready to accept the truth of the world.
Besides, the oozing, bleeding skin beneath the burns wasn’t so hideous, almost enticing the more he gazed upon it.
The door burst open and he snarled at the intruder, throwing aside the iron to cover Bei with a blanket. She belonged to him and only him, no one else was fit to see her. Laughing Dragon stood in the doorway, shivering from the cold as he bled, a sword embedded in his shoulder. “Time to run, yer fucking Baledagh is a damned monster.”
“Forget it, you aren’t his match. He damn near killed me back there, there’s something wrong with him, I don’t understand it. We need to leave, the villagers know we’re Defiled and they’ve escaped. Should have given the order to slaughter them before leaving, but I fucked up. We’ll go north, cross the road and head towards Shen Mu, try to join up with our comrades from beyond the Bridge.”
Laughing Dragon rambled on as Gen stared in amazement, the formerly powerful bandit leader nothing more than a pup, soaked and scared, ready to run for the hills. Reaching out, he grabbed the sword hilt and ripped it out in one smooth motion, laughing as the thrum of power surged through his body. Soaked in the deaths of the bandits, the weapon had absorbed their natural energies and now, those energies were Gen’s to wield. Grabbing Bei, he pushed Laughing Dragon aside, ignoring the wounded bandit’s accusations and insults to circle around the village, holding her close while patiently waiting.
He felt the bandits leave, running away with their tails between their legs, and still he continued to wait, his chin resting on Bei’s shoulder, enjoying her pained spasms as he rubbed cheeks with her. The rough, unhealed skin comfortable against his and he hummed quietly, resisting the urge to continue his play. There was work to be done now, and Laughing Dragon could no longer be relied upon. Pa always used to say, a job was best done with your own two hands.
Soon, he spotted his quarry running north into the woods and he giggled in delight. Baledagh had the energy within him, vindicating Gen’s discovery of the truth. Even better, he carried a bandit weapon on him, the energy marking him firmly in Gen’s mind. Following him back to Qing-Qing was now as simple as turning his hand, and with a few minutes to spare, he kissed Bei on the cheek, lapping up the blood and pus oozing out. “Oh how wonderful. Maybe I can’t defeat him in single combat, but I can kill him while he sleeps. Then it will be me, you, and Qing-Qing, all reunited together again.” After giving Baledagh a few minutes head start, he carefully followed Baledagh with Bei in tow, giddy from imagining the scene of his vengeance over and over again.
What a wonderful day, freed from his conscience and a chance to right all the wrong in his life.