KINDLING

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CHAPTER 2: VALOR

Large obsidian rocks crumbled to powder under Huxian’s heavy paws as he and his two friends made their way up a large black mountain. Not a single living thing could be seen in this ravaged land. Streams of lava burned deep canyons into the mountainside as they meandered up its steep slopes.

Have you spotted anything on the lower half? Huxian asked as he continued his arduous climb. Lei Jiang was lazily seated on his back, occasionally sending out bolts of lightning to deflect rocks that flew toward them from the peak.

Negative, Silverwing said. I can’t fly any higher because of the clouds.

Likely demon-bone ash, Huxian said. Even the lava’s been manufactured. This mountain isn’t a volcano—it’s a lair that’s been camouflaged as one. Come back down. I’ll get us through this smoky mess.

Silverwing let out one last cry before landing on Huxian’s back. He shrunk his size down until he was a dozen feet wide, which was a pittance compared to the fox’s enormous three-tailed frame. Lei Jiang was perched between his large ears. He looked around the mountain with great interest.

Huxian’s Eyes of Pure Jade and Demon-Subduing Eyes were both active. A subtle purple and ochre glow emanated from the peak of the mountain through the ash-gray clouds. As they climbed, the glow grew stronger, and a malevolent and wild presence sought to repulse them during every inch of their climb.

Soon they crossed the clouds and arrived at the peak, revealing a plateau obscured by a thick smog. But Huxian was unfazed, as his eyes could see through this deception. They trudged along for a quarter mile before the smoke vanished and revealed a ring of lava, which occasionally spewed excess liquid through channels that led to the mountain below. And within this ring stood a lush island, which could only be accessed by a lone black bridge.

As they approached the bridge, a gigantic phantom appeared before them. It was a bloody, four-headed black dog with fierce ochre eyes and sharp white teeth. “Who dares to intrude upon this mountain without invitation? What brings you to this place?”

Huxian grinned. “We heard that the monarch here was fierce and without equal. We’re beasts who like a challenge. That is, unless you’re afraid to accept.”

The four-headed hound looked Huxian and his two helpers up and down. Huxian was currently disguised as a red-and-white three-tailed fox.

“You must be that bitch’s pup,” the four-headed dog snorted. “She killed my son when he was trying to steal you in your crib. It seems you were lucky to survive. Are you angry? Do you want revenge?”

Huxian felt a small flame grow within his chest. He violently suppressed it with Devil-Sealing Intent. “You sure can talk a lot for an apparition. So, are you letting us in or not?”

The four-headed dog looked at them uncertainly. “Your offer of flesh and blood is acceptable,” it said. “You’d make excellent fiendish demons. But are you sure you want to commit suicide after your mother died to protect you?”

“Cut the crap. Are you accepting or not?” Huxian barked.

“Of course I accept,” the apparition said, snorting. “But you need to come in with your two friends. When it comes to parties, the more the merrier.”

Huxian hesitated but nodded. “It’s a deal.”

The three-tailed fox, a falcon, and a mouse crossed the black bridge and entered the woods. A poisonous miasma oozed out from the lava toward them, herding them to the center of the island.

As they ventured deeper, the woods thinned. The trees, which had originally been lush and vibrant, became barren and dry. The leaves beneath them crumbled to dust as Huxian’s mighty paws swept across them.

They made their way to a pond in the center of the island, which was filled with black blood containing purple and ochre specks Once they arrived at its shore, a golden contract with black writing burst out from it. It was written in the ancient beast language and contained the terms of their duel. As per the ancient rules, the losers of the battle would be devoured by the winners.

Huxian and the two others sent out a drop of blood toward the contract, which burned with intense purple light. A drop of black blood flew from the pond and entered the contract as well, glowing for a moment before disappearing in a puff of smoke. Then, the blood pond rippled. It grew and grew until it formed a massive four-headed hound. It was a late-core-formation creature, significantly more powerful than the three of them.

“Any last words?” the four heads said simultaneously.

“Yeah,” Huxian said. “Now!”

His fur suddenly shifted to black and white, and his three tails lit up with three stars. Domains of devouring and purification were overlaid with the stronger domains of swamp and lightning and the weaker supporting domain of wind. Two of the stars were connected to Huxian’s two friends via a gray tether.

“If you think that’s enough, you’re horribly mistaken,” the four-headed hound said. Its four heads roared simultaneously, causing the three of them to shiver down to their bones. Their surroundings began dissolving, flowing back into the bloody black pool. The hound’s power was corrosion. It was also clear why the hound wanted all three of them to enter at once—it wanted to catch them all in a dragnet and overwhelm them with its superior power.

Fortunately, Huxian and his friends were playing the pig to catch the tiger. Huxian sent both his friends a silent message, and their eyes glowed jade and purple simultaneously. They combined the thick Devil-Sealing, Demon-Subduing Intent they’d accumulated through killing thousands of fiends. The hound’s abilities were reduced by a full sub-realm down to the middle of core formation.

“How can this be?” the four-headed hound roared. “There are only three foxes in the Bagua lineage. How could a fourth suddenly appear?”

Four sets of teeth tried to devour them, but with every exchange, a piece of the fiendish demon’s energy was absorbed by Huxian’s devouring domain. They howled in agony as they perished, leaving behind only a pond of black blood containing the purest, most concentrated fiendish energy Huxian had ever seen.

A black-and-white funnel appeared over the pond. It lapped up the black blood, purifying its corruption and feeding the refined energy into the three demons. Their bones crackled as they rapidly broke through to early core formation to match Silverwing.

“It’s a good thing we managed to get him to sign a dueling contract,” Huxian said. “Otherwise more than half of this energy would have gone to waste.”

“Boss is definitely the smartest,” Lei Jiang said as he absorbed the last of his portion. “Though, I’m a little concerned. I’m already an early-core-formation beast, but I still haven’t grown in the slightest. My largest size is still six feet long.”

“Maybe you won’t grow bigger.” Huxian shrugged. “At least you’ll be used to your size when you obtain your human form. Silverwing and I will have a really hard time adapting.”

Looks of longing appeared in their eyes. They couldn’t wait to exit the wilds and interact in cities. Most importantly, once they achieved a human form, their fear of walls would completely disappear. No one could stop them then.

Suddenly, Huxian’s ears perked up. “Oh? They’re in danger? Let’s head out.”

The three of them jumped off the black mountain, whose cloud of smoke was dissipating and whose lava was growing hard. They ran twenty miles in a few breaths and stopped a short distance away from three humans who were surrounded by twenty fiendish wolf demons. Their leader was an initial purification beast, a very difficult challenge for them to face alone.

“Let’s see how they handle this,” Huxian said, lounging on a small outcropping.

 

***

 

Ling Dong, Zi Long, and Yue Bing clashed frantically with the pack of demonic wolves, carefully keeping their backs to each other as they defended against their insidious tactics. Ling Dong smashed down lightly with his heavy sword as a wolf bit toward them, not daring to overextend and fall into their trap.

“I’ll create an opening for you to escape,” Ling Dong said. “You two are the fastest, and if I stall, you both stand a good chance at escaping.”

“We can’t leave you,” Yue Bing said as she threw out a fire talisman toward another wolf, singing its fur. “How could we ever face Teacher if we did?”

“Silly!” Ling Dong said. “Teacher will understand. Am I the leader, or was that all for show? Zi Long, make us a plan.”

Zi Long didn’t need to be reminded. His mind raced, computing the various possibilities. “I have a plan, and it gives me and Bing Er a six-out-of-ten chance to live. Since many of the beasts will be distracted, you might have a one-in-a-hundred chance of surviving, but that’s being optimistic.”

Yue Bing glared daggers at Zi Long as he logically broke down the situation.

“Brother Long, you never let me down,” Ling Dong said, laughing. “All right, we’ll follow this plan. Don’t save your talismans, not even the ones Teacher gave us before we left. I know that magic talismans are precious, but they’re only worth money. They can’t replace a life. Let’s go!”

Despite her misgivings, Yue Bing joined Zi Long in throwing out constricting talismans and techniques. Shards of ice and vines appeared around them and entrapped their foes. The wolves howled as they pounced toward them, only to be stopped by walls of earth and Ling Dong’s powerful body. He stood his ground and hacked at whichever beast tried to pass him with his mighty blade.

“Run!” he yelled, not daring to look back.

Zi Long and Yue Bing broke away with ten fiendish wolves in tow. Their leader and ten others were trapped behind Ling Dong, whose impressive defense kept them at bay. His bones creaked with each clash, but he used the heavy blade to his advantage, felling the weaker wolves one after another. He constantly used Earth Wall Talismans to delay them. The larger wolf, fed up with his antics, finally pounced on Ling Dong with the intent of finishing him off.

Seeing the wolf jump toward him, Ling Dong activated his Five-Element Shield Technique and barely managed to resist. A massive blade mark appeared on the wolf’s fur, but it barely cut an inch deep before stopping.

The other wolves surrounded him and nipped at his heels as the large wolf circled him. It was only now that he got a good look at them. They weren’t like spirit wolves or dire wolves. Rather, their mouths were much larger and their paws more impressive. Their frames were skeletal, and their eyes glowed with a subtle ochre glow. They looked less likes wolves and more like devilish creatures from fairy tales, evil beings whose sole purpose in life was to devour and destroy.

“Just what are you?” he muttered as he batted away one wolf after another. He didn’t rush the fight—every second stalled for was a second bought for his companions. Fortunately, whatever creature the demonic wolf had become hadn’t lost its fighting instincts. Wolves were cautious, tactical creatures by nature. They would trip him up and grind him down as they waited for an ideal opportunity.

Suddenly, he felt a tug as a wolf bit into his leg. It barely managed to pierce his flesh, but this delay was all the wolves needed. They cackled as they pounced on him all at once, their leader playing the main role in this offensive. Ling Dong grinned maniacally and withdrew a golden talisman, the single protective treasure their teacher had gifted them.

“Just a single least-grade magic treasure,” Ling Dong muttered under his breath. “Why did you have to be so cheap? Aren’t you a mighty core-formation cultivator?”

The talisman burned away as he poured his soul force into it. As he did, the world turned golden. The wolves’ movements turned sluggish and unpracticed. Meanwhile, Ling Dong’s senses became quick and calculated. His blade felt incomparably sharp. He wasted no time in rushing toward the larger wolf. His blade carved through its gigantic black body like a knife through hot butter. The wolf’s corrupted entrails spilled out as he cleaved through and hacked another wolf in the process.

Ling Dong used his enhanced senses to systematically cut down each and every one of them in as little time as possible. They turned to flee once they realized their leader had fallen, but it was too late.

Ling Dong threw out Earth Wall Talismans and trapped them before finishing them off like fish in a barrel. Then, the golden glow faded. Exhaustion overwhelmed him as he realized that the talisman had pushed him to the peak and suppressed his opponents to bare minimum performance.

There’s no way that was only a least-grade magic treasure, he thought as his consciousness faded.

 

***

 

As if Brother Cha Ming would only give them a weak magic talisman, Huxian thought as he walked to Ling Dong. His tails billowed as he approached the young man that hovered on the fine line between sleep and wakefulness. He resembled a fierce Godbeast that could trample mountains and open seas.

“Silly fool,” he said. “You know that with your power, you could have escaped instead of your friends. Why didn’t you leave?”

Ling Dong’s eyes opened slightly as he chuckled hoarsely. “But would that have been a life worth living?” he said.

Huxian grinned. “That’s right, it wouldn’t. I like your attitude, young pup. You’re brave like a tiger and faithful like a fox. For that, I’ll give you a gift.”

A small black-and-white ball inscribed with purple and jade runes tumbled to the ground just in front of Ling Dong’s mouth. The young man hesitated before ultimately eating the strange pill. As soon as he did, his eyes glowed jade and purple as he acquired both the Devil-Sealing Scripture and the Demon-Subduing Eyes. Then, he closed his eyes and fell asleep.

“Are you sure it’s a good idea to gift him the Demon-Subduing Eyes?” Lei Jiang asked as he ran up beside Huxian.

“If it was a normal situation, I wouldn’t,” Huxian said gravely. “A human with those eyes would hold an unreasonable advantage over all of beastkind. However, how long will we remain on this mortal plane? Even fiendish demons have set their eyes on this meaningless mass of land. The humans and demons will have to band together for survival. Even then, who knows how many will survive?”

“Shouldn’t you just gift them to demons?” Silverwing squawked.

“And then what?” Huxian said. “Should I give them to someone like the Bear Sovereign, who was willing to betray his people for power? Or to the geomantic boa, whose greed knows no bounds? We entered a dueling contract with a fiendish demon, but you have no idea what they’re capable of. They aren’t just contagious—they’re conniving and seductive. They target a demon’s base instinct, and it’s something that the mediocre bloodlines of this realm can’t resist.”

He looked toward the Silverwing Mountain Range in the distance. “The Owl Monarch was willing to bet the future of his people on humanity. I’m just doing more of the same.”

An awkward pause ensued. “Boss, aren’t you only a few years old?” Lei Jiang said. “Why are you acting like an ancient, thousand-year-old demon?”

Tendrils of black and white mist reached out and muzzled him. The mouse struggled, but to no avail.

“It’s all I can do…” Huxian said in a mystical voice. Although Silverwing felt nauseated, he said nothing. He was far wiser than his rodent counterpart.



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