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“Great Warrior Baledagh! Please help!”
Shooting to his feet, Baledagh drew his sword and listened, his head foggy and body tired. The plea repeated itself, echoing in the distance, a shrill, breathless voice identifying itself as Deng and calling for his aid. Was it a trap? Then again, did it really matter? If Laughing Dragon had returned, then Baledagh would finish what he started. “Qing-Qing, stay here with-” Scanning his surroundings, he found no trace of her, panic rising in his chest. Did she step out into the forest? The voice grew closer and he acted, running towards the voice in a hurry, worried for Qing-Qing’s safety. If she heard Deng and went to investigate, she might be in grave danger.
Within minutes, he found a startled Deng. Taking in his surroundings, he spoke curtly. “What?”
Panting heavily, the hunter looked a little ragged, but uninjured. “Great Warrior, please, it’s Gen, he found us and killed so many people, it was horrible. He has Qing-Qing, I tried to save her but he’s too fast -”
Grabbing him by the collar, Baledagh screamed his fury for all to hear as he dragged the worthless worm behind him, returning to camp at a breakneck pace. Dumping the contents of two saddlebags to the floor, he picked up the bears and placed one in each, leaving them with a few apples to keep them occupied. Lifting Deng onto the horse, he barked his orders. “Bring me to them. If Qing-Qing or the bears come to harm, I’ll gut you like a fish.”
Shrinking at the declaration, Deng led the way in a hurry, Baledagh fuming as he followed. What was happening? Why did Qing-Qing leave him? They’d been getting along so well, he’d wasted all his efforts playing the gentleman, resisting his urges, even putting himself at risk to save her former villagers, and for what?
That bastard Gen, if he touched a hair on her head… Enough of this. Gen was an eyesore, and if Deng was right, newly turned Defiled. Hunched over the reins, Baledagh glared ahead as if Gen were already in his path, his anger mounting as he gripped his sword in silence. Maybe he should kill Deng and the other villagers, then Qing-Qing would have no choice but to remain at his side.
Power erupted from within his body at the thought, images of death and slaughter floating through his mind. Yes, that was how he should be, taking what was his. Might made right, the strong thrive and the weak survive.
Smiling to himself, he decided he would end Gen’s life slowly, venting his frustrations before speaking to Qing-Qing. After all, the last thing he wanted was to say the wrong thing and scare her away.
Holding Qing-Qing in his embrace, Gen leaned against a tree trunk, gently serenading her as she slept. Finally, they were together, his dreams and desires realized in full, her soft, sun-browned skin glistening in the firelight as her chest rose and fell with her breath. Nearby, Bei was hard at work preparing their wedding feast, her sobs harmonizing with his singing. Oh what a trio they made, two lovely wives to care for his needs, it was only right for a man destined for greatness. In fact, he deserved more, deserved better.
The delicious aroma of grilled meat filled the air, sizzling on a slab of stone. “Wife, meat is tastiest when rare. Father-in-Law will be less than pleased if you overcook him.” Chortling at his good humour, he cuddled his sleepy Qing-Qing, eagerly awaiting their nuptials. She had to be awake first, he didn’t want her to miss a moment of the excitement to come, his iron sitting in the fire next to their cooking food, tucked neatly into Father-in-Law’s cold, dead hand. A useful man Uncle Wei, even if only in death.
A stir of power to the north caught his attention, his head snapping up to stare through the trees. Reaching for his sword, he felt the power thrumming within, the natural energies eager for release, ready to strike down any who stood in his path. Pursing his lips, he bound Qing-Qing’s wrists with a belt, tying her to the tree lest she find herself with cold feet. She was so flighty and capricious, never able to make up her mind, her attitude would improve once he showed her the truth, like Bei. Patting his obedient wife on the cheek, he leaned over and kissed Bei deeply, his hands eagerly grasping her buttocks as his tongue explored her empty mouth, tasting the remains of her cauterized tongue.
The disturbance to the north grew closer at an alarming rate, Baledagh running towards his doom. Leaving Bei gasping for breath from their passionate kiss, he reached into the fire and plucked out a thick slab of meat, blood pooling on the seared surface. Belly meat, soft and tender, his wife made a mess butchering the chest and shoulders, but he was a forgiving man. Bei would learn with time and practice, as would Qing-Qing.
Feeding his wife, he chewed voraciously as he watched her eat, her eyes closed and tears bright, his desire for her growing by the second. Beautiful Bei, he’d been put off by her bold advances and shrewish behaviour in the past. A woman must be meek and subservient, catering to her husband’s needs, but with an attitude like Bei’s, he’d be scolded and harangued day in and day out. His reasoning was wrong, the thoughts of a worthless village boy. He only needed to mould Bei into the image he desired, simple as can be. Respect was earned, like he’d earned Bei’s, and if he wanted Qing-Qing to respect him, he’d have to show her what sort of man he was.
By killing Baledagh slowly as she watched.
Devouring all the meat already prepared, he chopped off Father-in-Law’s foot, biting into the treat raw. The crunch of bones added a flavourful texture to the meal, staring into the flames in preparation of the trials ahead. Trials and tribulations, after hearing it so many times, he finally understood the age-old adage. Only through struggle would one advance in life, those who succumb becoming fodder for the strong. Only by killing Baledagh would he be able to move forward and grow.
The flames grew in response to his thoughts, dancing before him in a hypnotic display of truth and light, the mysteries of strength revealed before his eyes, enlightenment and understanding made easy. Drawing his sword, he touched it to the fire and felt it come alive in his grasp, feeding on the heat of the flames, growing hot to the touch. Minutes passed and his hand crackled, burning as he held fast to the searing weapon, his brow furrowed in concentration as he ignored the pain. Channelling the natural energies into the weapon, he drew in more heat, the shoddy iron melting along with the bone core, his hand blackening by the second. Laughing Dragon was a fool, confining true power in common metals, isolating it from the world, only able to feed when killing. It needed to be free of its constraints, the spirits demanding liberation and Gen was happy to comply.
His hand burnt away to a crisp but the loss did nothing to deter him, his determination soaring as he worked, certain of his purpose. The weapon congealed into a silvery liquid of metal and bone, fusing together in visible layers of each as it swirled around his blackened stump. Euphoric agony consumed him as the liquid hardened, his flesh cleansed and gifted with a new hand, forming itself into a weapon unmatched by any.
A blend of iron and bone encased his arm stopping just short of his elbow, a fluid, malleable skin-like substance, durable yet flexible. Larger than before, his right hand was now jade-white, almost luminous in the firelight, grey strips of the skin wrapped around like a bandage, the bones exposed through the gaps. Reaching out to test his new weapon, his thick fingers closed around Bei’s head, easily engulfing her in his palm before he changed his mind, releasing her to find another object to test his mettle. Grabbing a stone protrusion, he ripped it from the earth with one fluid motion, hefting a rock easily half his size. Laughing with glee, he swung it about like waving a branch, his entire body empowered by his trials. He’d come through the fire unharmed, reforged into a destroyer, an inferno made flesh ready to consume all within his path.
Crushing the stone into fragments, he returned to father-in-law and tore an arm off. Devouring his meal with insatiable hunger, his body craved more sustenance. Opening his mouth wide, he shoved more appendages into his mouth, the meat and bones sliding down his throat without the need to chew, barely taking the time to remove clothes in his ravenous hunger. Two whole corpses disappeared in as many minutes and yet his stomach still demanded more. Staggering to another corpse, he reached down as the sound of hoof beats reached his ears, his instincts whispering to ready himself. The enemy was here and glorious battle was to be had. Panting heavily, his body tensed in anticipation of the battle ahead, shaking from joy at the thought of devouring the hateful Baledagh.
With sword and shield in hand, Baledagh emerged from the forest at full speed, his horse frothing at the mouth. Roaring in jubilation, Gen thanked the spirits for his meal. Meeting the charge head on, his fingers elongated into sharpened blades, each one the length of his forearm, slicing neatly through horse-flesh and bone. The impact jolted up his fingers and dissipated before reaching his wrist, a testament to his new level of strength.
Baledagh was not so easily defeated, no, else he would not be a worthy tribulation. Leaping neatly from the animal as it crashed to the dirt, he landed gracefully on his feet, his sword cutting through the air as he landed. Covering his face, the sword bounced off his bladed fingers, Gen barely feeling the impact. Flicking aside a follow up strike with his bladed finger, he sneered. “Weak and pitiful, is this all the ‘Great Warrior Baledagh’ can offer? Pathetic.”
Surprise registered on Baledagh’s arrogant face, quickly replaced by delight. “Good! I worried killing you would be boring. Try and keep me entertained, Defiled scum.” His golden eyes glinted in the forest gloom as he raised his sword, darting forward to strike. The blade chopped into Gen’s shoulder, his arms rising too late to stop it, his toughened skin unable to keep it from cutting into his flesh, Gen’s smile disappearing as his mind filled with alarm.
How was it possible for Baledagh to move so quickly?
Retracting his sword, Baledagh pivoted and darted to the left. Gen turned to follow him with hand raised, slashing at empty air as Baledagh spun to the right, his sword gouging a furrow horizontally through Gen’s shoulder. Superficial, he could still fight. Charging forward, Gen sought to impale the slippery bandit and taste his flesh, but with a flutter of his sword, Baledagh slid past the attack and planted his boot into Gen’s back, sending him tumbling through the dirt.
Sputtering, Gen leaped to his feet and turned, hand held defensively before him, only to find Baledagh standing at ease, his arms spread wide as he smirked. “Come now little hunter, is that all you can offer?” Rage consumed Gen as he charged again, and again the bandit twirled aside, the sword marking his face this time, another light cut. “Try something besides charging perhaps?” Spinning around, Gen slashed powerfully through nothing, Baledagh easily stepping out of his reach. “So slow, so boring, I haven’t even used my shield. Come on, dig deep, you’re the most pitiful Defiled I’ve ever met.”
“No, no, no… This isn’t supposed to happen, I’m the stronger one now, I’ve learned the ways of the world.” Breathing heavily, Gen stared at his opponent as he backed away, the difference in strength astonishing to believe. This was impossible…
“Don’t run. Fight!” Baledagh danced about the clearing, moving back and forth without clear pattern. Gen blocked blow after blow, shielding his body as best he could, hiding behind his bladed hand, but the other was too fast, too skilled. A diagonal chop turned into a piercing thrust which tore through his belly, a heavy kick followed by a quick slash left a gash across his chest, his injuries piled on as Baledagh’s movements sped up, a blur even to Gen’s empowered senses. Within minutes, his body was covered in nicks and cuts as he fell back before Baledagh’s ferocious assault, helpless before the speedy warrior.
Laughing as he stalked around Gen, Baledagh shook his head. “Oh Gen, the look on your face, did you really think you could match me with your grotesque hand? The only thing that’s good for is to finger yourself in the ass, you bony-handed freak.” Planting his feet, Baledagh gestured for Gen to charge. “Come, I’ll show you true skill before you die. Charge me again, I’ll not move my feet this time. Strength against strength, do you dare?”
Eyes darting left and right, Gen paused in his retreat to consider his options. Fight, Run, Kill, Grovel, his instincts screamed conflicting advice, a cacophony of directives merging into an imperceptible din. The bastard was toying with him, impossibly strong. Time was what he needed, time to grow in strength to match him. Flee to fight another day.
Baledagh’s arrogant laughter tore through the clamour, the voices hushed by his taunting. “Cowardly little Gen, can’t even find the courage to die like a warrior.” With a flash of motion, Gen blocked an attack with his right hand, reeling from the shock. Throwing his left hand forward to catch his balance, he watched as Baledagh’s sword pierced through it, a scream wrenched from his throat as the metal exploded through his palm and up his wrist, embedding deep into his forearm.
A powerful blow smashed into his head and he stumbled away with the weapon stuck to his flesh, falling into the fire. Shrieking madly, the heat burned away his clothes and skin, his body erupting in flames as he rolled about in futile effort to extinguish them. The world spun as he wailed to the heavens, tormented by agony and injustice.
A thousand voices whispered into his ear, unified in a single message.
‘Foolish child, you are not the flame but the fuel. Surrender and the bandit will die.’
A strangled cry erupted into the heavens as he rejected them, his body wracked with spasms as the fire burned away at him. I am the Devouring Inferno. I am the Consuming Flame.
I will not accept defeat.
I will not surrender.
Bei sat frozen in fear as she watched the fight unfold, her heart hammering in her chest. Beautiful, heroic Gen, being beaten by that ruffian Baledagh, she had to help him.
No, Gen had done so many horrible things to her, how could she even think that?
But she’d wanted him for so long and this was who he was. A powerful man who loved her, cherished her, held her close in his embrace. The pain was her fault, her doing, she shouldn’t have cried and screamed, shouldn’t have said those horrible things.
Jerking from a gentle touch, Bei turned to see Qing-Qing staring at her, concern and pity clear in her eyes as Deng motioned for them to hurry. “Bei we need to leave now so we don’t get in Baledagh’s way.” Grabbing her hand, Qing-Qing tried to pull her away with bound hands. Snatching her arm back, Bei screamed wordlessly, unable to speak after her husband’s first punishment. Gesturing for silence, Qing-Qing reached out again, holding Deng back as she waited for Bei to take her hand. “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.”
The words rang through her head, a clarion call of awareness. It wasn’t her fault. She loved the old Gen, the hunter she grew up with, brash and cocky, handsome and funny, the future village chief. She didn’t ask for the pain or the humiliation, she didn’t want it. Trembling, she reached out to take her best friend’s hand, as Qing-Qing continued to reassure her. “You didn’t have a choice, you had to kill Uncle Wei or Gen would have killed you.”
The scene changed before her eyes and she found herself staring into Papa’s eyes once again, his hurt, loving glance from his knees, clutching at his belly. ‘Why?’ He asked, a single word without a hint of blame, his warm blood coating her hands. Why? Why did she kill Papa?
‘Precious child, why indeed? There is no need to suffer so. Surrender, and your pain will disappear.’
Tears falling from her eyes, Bei nodded once as the world disappeared into oblivion.
I’m sorry Papa. Please forgive your little Bei.