(Zhuo Hao) (Wei Yun)
(Pictures courtesy of Sina Weibo and SecretChina)
“Please. Be a good son. Just kill me. Please? Please?” The quivering figure in ruined silk lying on the cold granite looked up at him, one eye visible from the mass of sticky, bloody hair. Stray strands with scalp still attached lay all over the floor, she had pulled them out on her own.
There were bite marks all over her arms, chunks of missing flesh where she tore it out herself. Parts of her legs were green, rot was setting in and the stench was unbearable.
Once the most powerful woman in all of Yue lay one the floor, hands and feet manacled to the bed post, begging for her only son, her twelve year old son, to kill her. Begging for anyone to kill her.
Firm hands clasped Zhuo Hao’s shoulders, a man in gold and black bent down to whisper, “Pitiful, isn’t she?” Zhuo Hao and the Emperor stood at the door, behind gold prison bars that separated the woman and them.
There was mild amusement in the Emperor’s voice, Zhuo Hao had heard it before, once on a bear hunt, “She’s lasted 4 days already. Most people only last 2 once they’ve drunk the poison.”
The Emperor looked at the woman who use to share his power, “Do you know how the poison works?” Zhuo Hao shook his head, he must keep his face like stone he told himself over and over as the sounds of teeth tearing into flesh filled his ears. He wanted to cover his ears, he dug his hands into his sides and bit the inside of is mouth until he could taste the blood.
“It attacks your skin, your eyes, your arms and legs first. Anything that’s not vital to your survival. Then it slowly, painfully, moves to your heart” The Emperor explained cooly, “The pain is so intense that the sufferer would rather tear off their own limbs than deal with it. They usually die before they tear out their own heart.”
Zhuo Hao kept his face impassive as he answered in a similar tone, “Perhaps this the price of crossing the mighty Emperor.” Ever since he was young, his mother had ingrained in him that his father held the lives of not only Zhuo Hao, but his mother’s entire extended family in his claws. One wrong word was all it took.
The Emperor guffawed and patted his son’s shoulder, “Good man. You take after me. Good. Otherwise you would be in there too.”
Zhuo Hao felt his stomach turn as his father spoke, “If I didn’t have the guards stop her from killing herself every time she got too close to doing it, maybe she would’ve died already.” He talked as if he was discussing the weather, “The guards will let out once your hour is up. Then come to the main palace, I’m choosing a new concubine today and I want your opinion.”
With that, he petted the head of his 12 year old son, and left. He gestured to the guards lazily, “You may take your leave now. The prince may want to talk to his mother alone.” The guards bowed and shuffled out.
Once there was no one, Zhuo Hao collapsed, shuddering. The only sound was his mother, whimpering on the other end of the room, kept away from him by the bars that separated them. He swallowed hard, “Mama, I.. I have a knife.”
He was about to toss it to her, but she whispered, “If you value my legacy and your family, stop right now!”
She was in a ball on the corner of her bed, panting at the brief respite from the pain, “This is the Emperor’s test. If he finds me dead, he’ll have you executed tomorrow.”
Her mind was clear for the moment, she was once again the wisely cruel Empress, she continued, “No matter how hard this is for you, you are the prince destined to rule this great nation. Remember today. Remember all that I taught you. Become the man I made you to be.” She looked at him as she pushed the words out, “You will not fail me.”
Zhuo Hao could not cry. He had never been allowed to cry. If he did now, his mother would just sneer at him through bloody lips. All she had done for him would be for naught.
His mother stared at him, her body shuddering in pain as the poison tortured her from inside out. She closed her teeth on a finger and started gnawing. Zhuo Hao was not allowed to scream, he could not look away as blood dripped from her lips. The finger fell to the floor. She began chewing on the next one. The stench of rotten flesh, the body, his mother’s torture face….
Zhuo Hao gasped as he sat up, he had sweated through his clothes again. He dragged his weary body out of bed and gulped down water, waiting the for the shuddering to stop. He was in the safe confines of the monastery. It was only after midnight.
How many years has it been since his mother died? 13? 14? He could barely remember what she looked like when she was an empress. All that remained in his memory was the tortured monster who finally died on the eighth day of her imprisonment.
The room was stifling, he could still smell his mother’s perfume mixed with the iron smell of her blood. He opened the door and strode out.
Once he was out of the sleepy monastery, he leapt into a tree, a grey blur of monk clothes in the dark forests. In the gentle cacophony of the forest, peace once again returned to his heart. The screams of his mother faded into the mists of the canyons. He took a deep breath.
A sweet memory took the place of the bitter one. A girl in light green laughing and dancing in the wind. He was awed by her martial arts when they had first met. She had attacked the bandits that held him hostage, throwing them off a bridge. She had also mistakenly thrown him into the water too.
In the cold water, Zhuo Hao had closed his eyes, intending to never rise from the depths. He had fought long and hard to become a Thief Lord. And for what? The ghosts of his past continued to haunt him, even after he left the palace. An arm had gripped him by the nape of the neck. When he looked up, a delicate girl in green was single-handedly dragging him to shore.
It was only when she apologized profusely saying that she was bad at faces and she hadn’t mean to thrown him into the water, did he laugh with a warm feeling he had long since forgotten. The look on her face had made him laugh and laugh and laugh.
When he met Lin Yu, he was a deeply bitter man. She took his hand and showed him the night sky, pointing to the stars she loved the most. That night, the light of the stars reflected in his eyes as he looked at her.
The days passed into months, the more he knew of her, the more he resolved to stay by her side. She made dishes which Yu Zhu had said was more dirt than vegetables. Zhuo Hao smiled happily, he only tasted the wildness and freedom that seemed to burst from her in her cooking. He didn’t care, he would willingly eat it until it killed him.
When he looked int her eyes, he found peace, something the had never known before. The lightest touch of her hand made his heart soar. Slowly, hesitating, he felt his heart beat faster whenever she was near. He dared to dream when he was with her.
Zhuo Hao had been initially shocked to find out that she wasn’t human, but then realized that it didn’t matter to him at all. He fell in love with her soul, not her form.
Zhuo Hao savored the sweetness of the memory, letting the happiness wash over him like calming waves. He wasn’t the man his mother wanted him to be. He didn’t want to kill his way to the throne. Let the others bleed. He only wanted Lin Yu.
Zhuo Hao was sitting on the branch of a tree. He looked down and smiled, “Pei. You’re here.”
She leapt up gracefully, “You shouldn’t be out so late. The monks will wonder where you are.”
Zhuo Hao shrugged, “What would they do? Tell my father? Or will you do it?”
Pei blushed, “You figured out that I was the Emperor’s spy the first week I met you, all those years ago.”
“It didn’t take you that long to realize my true identity either.” Zhuo Hao pointed out with a smile.
Pei swallowed, still shamefaced. He had forgiven her completely and he was always so good to her. She could never live with the guilt.
Zhuo Hao sighed, “My father is a cruel, callous man, but no one can deny that he’s smart. He has a pretty good idea of who’s helping the Midnight thief. Why do you think he sent my brother?”
Pei gasped, “On my life I never revealed anything about the Midnight Thief to your father! I would never.” She blushed and mumbled, “My life is yours and I would protect you without fail.”
Zhuo Hao smiled sadly, “Don’t say that. Never waste your life on me. I’m not worth it.”
He waved lazily, “Even if you don’t tell, there are at least three people in our organization that works for the Emperor. And let’s not forget those imperial spies working in other thief lord circles. He knows I am the Thief Lord.”
Zhuo Hao gestured for her to walk with him as he landed gently beside her, “My father is a paranoid man with a practical side. On one hand he knows that the Midnight Thief is doing good for the people he can not help. He also knows that I’ve used my position to further the needs of the empire. He’s not a god, he can’t stop every corrupt merchant and official.”
“Then why did he send your brother?” Pei asked, she had always thought the palace was a wonderful palace filled with beautiful people, but this wasn’t what she knew at all.
“He did so, because the war is ending. He wants to capture the Midnight Thief and use him for his own purposes, assassinations, spying, you name it.” Zhuo Hao smiled wryly, “Also because he wants to get rid of me. Before I grow any more in power. Or maybe Zhu Zhan Ye is beginning to show he could be a capable ruler”
Pei understood, “Either Zhu Zhan Ye finds out you are the Thief Lord of Ning City and kills you outright in battle or you quietly kill him to prevent the news getting out.”
Zhuo Hao smiled sadly, “That is the genius of my father. He’s so afraid that a worthy son inherits the throne and outshine his legacy that he sows the seed of distrust amongst the brothers now.” Zhuo Hao’s voice was bitter, “Such is the imperial way.”
“What will you do?” Pei whispered. She was afraid of the answer.
“Nothing, for now.” He smiled, he was carefree again, “Wait and watch. Stop him if he get’s too close to Yu Zhu and Lin Yu. Perhaps I don’t trust Zhuo Zhan Ye enough. Maybe he’ll be an ally.”
“And if he doesn’t?”
“I am the son of a monster.” He sighed softly, “Perhaps it means I will become one too.”
The Demon Realms
“This bloodshed of yours.” Grandfather asked Wei Yun who looked out onto the vast demon palace grounds that once belong to the powerful Ox Empire, “When will it end?”
Tu Suo sat on the dais, dressed in the rich red brocade of a Demon King, “The rooster, the rat and the pig have all bowed to our wishes, they are subjugated.”
Wei Yu shrugged, “Do what you like. I will spare the ones who surrender. I will take my leave now, I will destroy House of the Tiger, Dog, and Monkey.”
Tu Suo and Grandfather looked at each other, “We do not need all the territory. We’ve taken most of theirs anyway” Grandfather began but Wei Yun turned to look at them. He wore an expression of stone, “when I promised you I would help you, perhaps I did not make it clear.” The air shifted around him, Grandfather felt the God’s power and frowned, it was a hundred thousand times more powerful than before. Even more than the Gods in Heaven. There was something unstoppable about Wei Yun now.
Grandfather shuddered at the hollow look in Wei Yun’s eyes as the God continued, “I will continue killing until the Zodiac bows down. All of them.”
With that he nodded and left, leaving for the enemy territory in a streak of white hot light.
“All..of..them..” Grandfather’s eyes widened. Tu Suo rushed down the dais as he caught Grandfather before he could fall to the ground.
“What have we done?” Grandfather whispered, “What have we created?”
Tu Suo didn’t understand. “Grandfather?” He led the man to sit on the throne, grabbing a cup of tea for the old man.
The old man looked at Tu Suo tiredly, “Do you know why demons kill humans and other demons?”
“For their essence.” Tu Suo said immediately, “To become stronger and become a god faster.”
“Gods don’t need to kill because they are already the most powerful of beings.” Grandfather’s face was haunted by the possibility, “they never kill unless there is a massive demon war…or if they need to defeat other gods.”
Grandfather put his head in his hands, “I hope I am wrong about this. If not, we may have just destroyed the balance of the realms.”
“Grandfather, stop speaking in riddles.” Tu Suo was frustrated.
After a moment the old man looked at the young king, “This may be just a haunch, we have to investigate. But,” He hesitated before speaking, “The one who rules the heavens is the Dragon of the Zodiac.”
There was fear in Tu Suo’s eyes as the realization hit him, “He wants all the zodiac to bow down. He means to go to war with the heavens?”