Summary: When he comes from the stone face, he will judge your worthiness. He will spread his terrible wings, bare his powerful fangs, while the death rattle in his throat seeks to frighten away the demons at your feet.
So tell me...are you enlightened enough to confess your love to my god?
Warnings: Gore, Sexual Content and Kinks, Sacrifices, Violence, etc. (ALL THINGS UNHOLY –mods [ahihi, we kid, but there are a lot of themes in this story])
Word Count: 28, 500
In the lands of the East, where the pine trees grew tall and the rocky cliffs towered high above thrashing rivers, there were many who believed that the gods breathed life over their world. It wasn’t uncommon to worship a deity, far from it, but it was certainly peculiar how these lands, so far-flung from the rest of society, so expansive and yet sparse, could be home to many gods and goddesses.
Each deity had its own creation myth, its own practices and trivial knowledge, each story and legend anew and different from another. There were overlaps, yes, but one could easily tell where the differences lay. Some huntresses hunted with bows of deer-hide and catgut, others with the wood of a blessed basswood and the hair of a benevolent virgin. Heroes who gained immortality would fight all kinds of demons and ghouls in order to maintain their status, and every mortal no doubt flocked to their marble columns and temples, ready to throw themselves at the feet of those so amazing and benevolent, in order to receive their praise.
And the village that Zitao inhabited was no different. Why, he couldn’t count on two hands the many different temples that were within walking distance from the front of his door, all peddling and offering the best services in exchange for the best forms of worship. They offered medicines, gold, even oracle-like powers, if only people would come and pray to the true god, the one who knows the way!
His own parents were subject to this school of thought, though they had been sure to make their son follow in the same footsteps. They dressed him in blue and red every quarter-moon, draping his shoulders with scarlet muslin and tucking in the front of his shirt. Zitao would squirm as he was forced into the horrific costume, though it always ended the same way: his trousers would be shoved around his ankles and his father would tan his hide with the flat of his palm.
“Head up, Zitao. We are going to pray before Him tonight, and I want you to look good before His gaze. He does not tolerate children who look improper.” he would grunt roughly, his mother pulling up the trousers around her son’s thin legs and pushing him out into the street and towards the more modest-sized of temples.
And even then, their religion was nothing short of...average. While other temples entertained fire-breathers and buxom harlots with painted faces, there was nothing of such debauchery in the temple of the Burnt god. An apathetic face painted the brickwork of the temple, a gnarled old man with a royal blue mask pressed over his ugly scarred face, decorated with flares of indigo, underneath giant burning brands and tended to my solemn faced virgins.
Inside the temple was usually the point where Zitao would doze off, eyes fluttering shut and having a little snooze during the moments of solemn prayer. But their tedious speeches drove him to despair like no other could.
He was fifteen summers, surely he could choose where he went by now! His friends had all drifted from their homing nests and settled elsewhere, with different gods and different rules. There were many times he saw Baekhyun laughing drunkenly on a full moon’s light, crying beautiful songs to the Beloved Golden One, a maiden of mead and madness who insisted that everyone should strip and behave like dogs in heat every full moon in order to receive happiness that was unlike anything upon this mortal coil.
Well, Baekhyun certainly looked happy, though Zitao couldn’t help his jealousy as he sat down for another day of copying out prayers from the Book of Fire and Water.
Of course, Zitao’s mother and father were incredibly devout in their beliefs, considering all others to be sinners of unforgivable proportions. Zitao was expected to remain devout to the Burnt God all of his life, unless he face the consequences of those who were considered traitors and deserters. There would be no celebrations for him anytime soon.
The only celebration he could think of was between noon and evening, when those devoted to the Burnt One would go about their business – still muttering prayers under their breaths - while also tending to their fields and letting their children out to play. It was perhaps one of the few times Zitao would escape the belt across his buttocks for leaving the house “without permission”.
And this time was, rather thankfully, spent away from the other children who considered that their spare time should be spent devoted towards the god that dominated the rest of their lives.
Instead, Zitao hopped a few fences, crawled under a few gates, squeezing through just enough of a wall to find Baekhyun drinking away the morning with the rest of his group. No doubt he would stick out like a sore thumb, but with the rest of Baekhyun’s group drunk to the eyeballs, it seemed alright to venture into their small tavern.
Lucky for him, only Baekhyun seemed to be mostly conscious. Having pulled his face up from a flagon of mead, he smiled that dumb smile of his and waved his arm around. “Ah! Taotaozi!” he chirruped, though it was so slurred that Zitao wondered how on Earth he had been able to decipher it. “You come for a drink? I thought yous...yous don’t drink!”
“No, Baek, we don’t. I tell you that every time we do this.” He shifted himself along the makeshift counter of the tavern, though he wasn’t all that sure if this place was allowed to serve customers. Especially when the tap master seemed too drunk himself to even pour a pint without sloshing half of it over himself. “Anyway, I wanted to see you. I need to talk to you about going for our walk today.”
“Walk.” Zitao couldn’t help but roll his eyes; he knew where this was going. “You know, the one we’re meant to take during my free time? And when you’re not piss drunk?”
“Oh, yeah. That. Well, can it wait until some other time?” came the grumbled reply, half-echoed into the base of the flagon. “I mean, we gotta get limbered up for the mysteries tonight, and I heard that they’re bringing in the new devotees tonight. Me and Chanyeol get to take care of the new virgins, if you catch my drift.”
The thought of such wild intercourse made Zitao shiver; as much as he didn’t like it, it had been instilled into him that intercourse was only a possibility that should cross the mind if marriage and childbearing were in the same string of thought. “So...no walk today? But you said that we could go to Fang Gorge today!”
“Well, whatever the Beloved commands, I must obey. And she has commanded me to get drunk off my face and finger me some lovely girls. Besides, you’re a big boy, aren’t you? Go and have a look yourself!”
It was will a huff and a puff that Zitao ended up bending to the will of the elder, skulking out of the tavern and narrowly avoiding the puddles of beer and vomit on the floor before stepping out into the sun once more. He was a big boy, yes...but it wasn’t any less scary when he did so.
Or if his parents caught him. At least with Baekhyun, he had the “drunken friend” excuse to toss about.
But for now, Zitao would have to content himself with a walk on his own. He threw his crimson shawls over his shoulder so that he could easily free his arms for movement, tapped his sandals to the ground, and raise a hand to guide over the horizon. If memory served correct, as his usually did, most of his “adventures” had taken place across the Far East of these lands. At least, as far as he could walk within half a day. But Fang Gorge had always been an intriguing site, considering that it was a sight of pilgrimage for many, as well as a place of natural beauty.
And Zitao was able to walk considerably faster than most of those old slowpokes. He could walk its length and breadth, easy as pie!
With his waterskin tied firmly to his side and his satchel holding whatever scraps of bread and meat he could sneak away from the family pantry, he set off down the lonely dirt path towards the west of the village. A path not often tread, now that he thought about it, aside from those pilgrims setting out to pay homage to their gods. Perhaps it was their closeness to the boundary of the North and Centre of these great lands, but travellers from those worlds were so few and far between. It didn’t help that Fang Gorge had a rather famous reputation for swallowing up those weary travellers who were most unfamiliar with the terrain and layout.
Zitao, thank the Burnt One, had been well raised around the area, even though he had never quite had the pleasure of going there himself. His tutors spoke it when he was younger, more malleable to teach, and how there were legends that it was a well for demons to spring up and devour travellers and foolish children. Others said gods and heroes sprang up from the earth too, in order to combat them. Which one he believed, he wasn’t too certain; after all, he had never seen any demons or gods wandering by.
Fang Gorge was – thankfully – not as far away as Zitao first imagined, having only proven itself to be a short walk from the fork in the road where one would reach the Forests of Beyond. His waterskin remained fixed in place, food untouched, as his footsteps took him down the rocky paths of the gorge, where the well-trodden earth indicated the safest places to go.
Then again, Zitao had never been the best on his feet. So it only seemed right that he should end up slipping a little on the path.
“Baekhyun’s drunk to the eyeballs, but he walks better than I can!” he couldn’t help but huff, in between pants for breath and the gradual wear of his thighs. He was tempted to try and venture a little further down towards the river, hoping to perhaps soak his feet for a minute or two to relieve their swelling, though he wondered if it would be any better having wet sandals and lower robes. “Then again, it’s still rather early...”
Further walking carried his rapidly tiring self to the highest overhang of the gorge, marked out beneath the shade of wilted trees with gnarled branches and twisted roots. Not much, but in terms of shade, it was a life-saver. Perhaps it was the fact that Baekhyun wasn’t around to provide entertainment, but Zitao wanted nothing more than to sit and catch his breath somewhere cool before heading back for home.
Then again, anything was better than what his parents expected him to do during his free time, namely indulging their desires and keeping his nose pressed firmly between the pages of their holy book. Even now, his rear still stung rather painfully from the licks of the leather belt after he was found to have been drawing in class instead of practicing his cursive for writing down psalms.
You are here to spend time away from the thought of gods, Zitao. Relax. But his spine remained stiff against the trunk of the tree he rested beside, as though it had a metal pole lodged right against it. It had been bred into him almost, this obedience, to sit proper and tense, like he was ready for inspection. Even resting was a challenge in itself!
Speaking of which, it was the night of offering back in the village. Every week, he was expected to dive into his pockets and offer a portion of his money to the feet of the deity he was told to love and respect with all of his heart. If anything, it only bred contempt; Zitao earned little as it was, seeing how his parents refused to have him interact with others, which only made it worse when it came to trying to work. Instead, everything he earned was through the temple...which he ended up having to pay back through his donations.
The whole thing felt so wrong. Not that Zitao could say that to their faces, though...
Maybe his bad thoughts had been heard by the divine forces he was to pay his tributes to, for his fumbling around for a sip to drink was interrupted by the rattle of gold along the ground, as a lone coin slipped out of his bag and rolled away along the cliff. Inward curses left his mouth and he stumbled after it, catching his feet on the stones beneath his shoes while it rolled away into denser vegetation.
It seemed that it would be just his luck for the coin to then go rolling away into a cavern carved into the gorge’s side. “I’m just having so much luck today...,” he grizzled, tucking his flowing robes tightly around himself so as to avoid tripping over himself. It happened anyway, resulted in grazed palms and knees, but at least he wasn’t totally blind after tearing through the curtains of leaves covering the entrance to the cave in the wall.
Crawling beneath the bushes and shrubs, he followed the sound of the coin clattering against stone, fumbling blindly in the dirt and vines for the offering he was to make tonight. He picked up the shimmering metal, catching the glinting surfaces in the darkness beneath a curtain of foliage that clung to the wall with withered and greying tendrils. It was strange that they grew in such poor light, and even more so with such little nutrition. Then again, the heat in the cave was unbearably strong...strange, considering how the curtain of leaves over the entrance should have rendered its stone walls frozen on the inside.
As Zitao’s arms brushed against their pale leaves and curling stems, it was apparent that they were feeding from some unknown source of warmth. For they were almost like human skin in their warmth, like fingertips against his flesh. It was almost stupid to think that Zitao squealed when he bent over to retrieve his escaping coin, only to be spooked by the feeling of alight hand falling over his lower back. It was almost stupider for him to continue to squeak when they seemed to disintegrate at the mere touch of his hand.
And yet, Zitao could not help himself from gasping in awe, despite the undercurrent of fear running through his veins.
He would never have noticed such a creation underneath all of these vines, overgrown and curling over the great carving in the side of the cave, and even then, it would have been no doubt hard to find. It was a miracle that Zitao had even come across it to start with, having found it through mere accident and injury. But as he pulled away at the rest of the vegetation, grown haphazardly over the massive stone body, he revealed a curled body far larger than anything he had seen of its kind before.
A dragon motif, curved and splendidly encased in a ring of stone with its wings tucked close to his back, took up a large portion of the wall, feet outstretched with each claw as sharp as a dagger. It was amazing that it had managed to keep its detail in spite of its supposed age. Then again, it didn’t look quite right when compared to the rest of the sandstone it was surrounded by. It was smoother, less chipped, as if it had been carved with marble or coated in a dense plaster. Sandstone itself was much too soft, too prone to weathering, to possibly form this most intricate of carvings.
And the power of it...the power that one could feel emanating from the statue...it was unlike anything the boy had ever encountered before. It was a commanding presence, a prowess that made Zitao want to fall to his knees at the very sight of those unseeing eyes. Whoever had crafted this statue, to whatever god it held within, they had been powerful indeed. For not even his own familiar gods could render Zitao so awestruck, so subdued into a sense of respect.
In spite of his fear, Zitao was drawn to the creature’s curled form, resting his hand against the arch of one of its large paws. It felt warm, that he couldn’t deny; it was strange that it would feel that way, considering the curtain of vegetation would no doubt have prevented the stone dragon from receiving any warmth from the sun. So why did it feel so warm against his hands? Why was it still in such pristine condition?
Zitao sat down in the dust and stared up to the great figure, hands pressed into his calves. He had heard many stories growing up of statues that needed to be worshipped, in order to get a reaction from their ruling god or goddess. They may have required prayer, an offering, maybe even constant vigilance. But this one...this one was peculiar. There were no words inscribed on the foot of the carving, not even a name or a ruling deity upon which to focus. Unless the devotees had run out of time before finishing their idol, Zitao couldn’t figure out any excuse for this nameless being.
“What are you...” he murmured as his hands grazed over the winding tail of the creature carved into the sandstone. He didn’t expect a reply from the statue, but it was still rather disappointing to know that there would be nothing but silence greeting his question. “I wonder who made you...maybe they left a marking somewhere...”
His proposal was left without an answer, as there appeared to be no inscription upon the dragon’s form. And yet, he couldn’t figure out why, especially when the carving was so beautiful in its design. Handiwork like this needed recognition!
Unless it wasn’t mere handiwork. After all...where else would he be able to feel power like this?
It was rather disturbing to think about; it could only mean a small handful of options, and none of them sounded appealing whatsoever. And Zitao wanted no part in it. Instead, he grabbed his bag and waterskin as fast as he could, the coins rattling inside his bag as he fled from the cave and back towards home, palms still stinging, knees still aching...
And the feeling of burning stone still was sending him into a cold sweat.
It felt bizarre to exit the cave and venture back out into the light of day, considering that Zitao couldn’t shake the feeling as though he had sensed something that hadn’t been in his thoughts previous. As though he had some brief kind of enlightenment, a flicker of a glow that pierced the caked-on layers of mediocrity that was usually pelted at him through his various teachings.
Perhaps what made it even stranger was the fact that it wouldn’t go away.
“Back straight, Huang!” The snap of the cane against his thighs made Zitao stand a little taller, as the passing Blue Priest made sure to file through his students and weed out those who hadn’t been keeping up with their readings and teachings. Zitao knew that he was severely lacking, but the fact that he kept himself submissive seemed to work wonders for avoiding detection. After all, I quick yip of “sorry!” was enough to have the elderly man grunting in satisfaction. “Good. You must look your best before the altar, after all. I will accept no less!”
Zitao felt his eyes roll a little backward into his skull as he continued to ramble away in the poems and prayers of the Burnt One, while he mindlessly pressed his hand over his heart and hummed along with the rest of his ilk.
And yet, he couldn’t help but feel that small ray of light in his mind grow. It wasn’t enough to blind him yet, no, but just enough to make him want to shy away from it.
Monotonous action after monotonous action led Zitao onward in his classes, or rather, his special prayer sessions, where he was to lie out sheaves of wheat and coin before his deity as a sign of respect and thanks. It was usually then that questions would be asked as last respects paid to his teacher, who was currently lying down his own offerings at the feet of the burned figure that was their god.
“Excuse me, sir?” He made sure to act as respectful as his body would allow, waiting for the rest of the class to vacate the premises to afford secrecy. The Blue Priest mumbled something under his breath, passing an incense stick beneath his nose and rushing wisps around the coins in his hand. “I have a question to ask you.”
“Is it about your readings?” came the hushed reply, an aged voice that crackled and clicked. When he turned around, the blue veils atop the old man’s head fell back to reveal an aged face. “Because I have noticed your psalm recitals have been rather lacking. I have every right to let your parents know, should I feel that you are simply being stubborn.”
But Zitao shook his head vehemently, hand raised to cover the skin over his heart. It was a sign of respect, usually to swear something...yet his lips refused to move. Perhaps he knew inwardly that he was lying already. “No, sir, I mean to ask you something else. About a carving.”
“A carving, you say?”
“Of another god. I think it might have been an idol, though I’m not sure.”
A frown furrowed the brow of the elder, lips puckering as though he had just bitten into a fresh lemon. “And what makes you think you should know about the other deities out there? Those false creations that distract from our one and true leader?”
“I’m not turning away, I just want to know!” He kneeled down before the Blue Priest while taking handfuls of his own blue robes between his hands as he breathed in the incense wreathing his feet. Worry began to pulse through him; one wrong word could end up landing him with a beating from the priest, or even worse, one at the hand of his own father. “I saw this statue, but it has no name and no creator’s mark. I wondered where it could have come from, and why it didn’t have anything to identify it with.”
The Blue Priest didn’t seem impressed by the fact that his pupil’s attention was diverted from what should have been a pure focus upon the deity standing before him. And yet, he understood the desire to know would only increase without answers. “Deities are always crafted with a name or the mark of their creator. Perhaps a name or a symbol.”
“And what of one that doesn’t have a name or a symbol? I tried to find one to stop being so curious, but the carving didn’t have a single mark upon it!”
“Then perhaps...you should leave it alone, my pupil.”
“...Why?” Zitao’s shock couldn’t be hidden as he saw the old man turn away, and it certainly couldn’t be prevented from bubbling up in his stomach and blasting out of his mouth. “Why should I leave it?” The priest paused mid-footfall, with the younger watching his shoulders sag with a weight akin to the entire world upon his frail bones. But his face, oh, it bore a look of thunder, sparks of fury lighting up the steel in his eyes.
“Because only those who have inspired great love or great fear do not need to have names.”
Love or fear. Love or fear...
Under the cloak of midnight, when he should have been offering his prayers and gifts to the feet of the Burnt god, Zitao found himself paying homage to a different idol. Oh, how his mother would tan his hide when he got home, if she knew...
For ever since the Blue Priest had spoken such curious words, Zitao found himself spending more time in that cavern alone. There was no name, no symbol, nothing of an identifying nature. Love or fear, that had been the reason why. And yet despite the fact that it was a massive gamble, he was more than ready to see if he would reap great rewards.
But despite his best efforts, every night that he spent trying to rouse some sort of reaction from the stone beast turned out to be completely fruitless. Nothing ever came from his ventures; expect his own tiredness and displeasure, if that could be counted.
Zitao had offered everything he could possibly think of to the dragon in the walls. He had offered prayer, love, and wheat grown from his own fields. Coins taken from his room that were meant to be given to his family’s god went missing, only to find themselves scattered at the feet of the being surrounded by stone. Books soon followed, along with burning brands and oil lamps allowed to hang from the cave walls. But nothing worked.
The following night seemed to be the same, despite the fact that Zitao was willing to go further than he had originally hoped. After all, it was forbidden for him to engage in sacrificial killings. Even more so when it wasn’t his own god that he was sacrificing for.
But as he spent more time with the carving, he couldn’t help but think that it was the last resort. Such a fearsome looking deity required a fearsome kick-start to be awoken, surely! And it was well documented that the most fearsome gods demanded more brutal offerings from their devotees.
He spent the afternoon chasing after hares in the quiet of the forest, eventually snagging a live one in a snare, though its screams did nothing to console the inner turmoil running through him. It squealed and sniffed and cried out as he took hold of its paws, stone-faced as he treaded the familiar path to the dragon carving.
“Maybe this...will change your mind?” he asked it. Maybe it will, he wanted to hear, reaching for his belt for the ceremonial Burning Knife. He should have only used it to cut bread and meat during mealtimes, but now, it would be put to an entirely different purpose. He held the hare still with one hand, pressed down hard upon the back of its neck, and brought down the shining blade as quick as he could.
There was a sharp squeal from the mouth of the hare, a spatter of blood across his skin, but there was no more, its head left forlorn on the ground. The body twitched erratically between his hands as he pulled away from it, robes dirtied with his awful deeds, before he managed to pick it up gingerly and gather its warm blood in his palm.
As he smeared its blood across the tail of the great beast, he felt the air grow warm. “Please say this will work...please...” he murmured to himself, eyes fluttering closed as he listened for any kind of sign. The stone was still warm – warmer than he remembered, in fact – and he swore that there was a gentle rumbling in the air. But there came nothing else; his eyes fixed upon the carving of the reptilian head, only to find there had not been so much as a blink pass that one pale eye.
He tried again, with even more blood and sinew and innards, until his fingers stank of death and the dragon’s winding tail was coated in drying red filth. The growling grew in intensity, but nothing else happened. It wasn’t enough to rouse the beast from his slumber...not yet, anyway.
So it was with a defeated sigh that Zitao picked himself up, hands outstretched so that he wouldn’t be dirty his clothing any further. He would wash it in the gorge and come home with damp rags, saying that he had fallen in the river at one point trying to find further places to explore. But that would be an easy problem to solve.
The hardest one, right now, at least, was the one currently purring away in its stone confines behind him.
“You are going for longer walks, Zitao. And without that drunkard beside you. What is it that you’re doing out there?”
The boy tucked his feet in underneath his stool at the question, toes curled up tight as he gripped onto his knife and fork. He had expected it...but the plans were harder to put into words. “Baekhyun just drags me down. He always insists we go slow so he can drink more.” he sighed through a mouthful of cabbage, eyes downcast onto his plate of chicken and vegetables, lest he see the accusing glance of his mother, awaiting an answer. “I can go exploring further without him. See more of the world, you know?”
“Perhaps your curiosity is detrimental. You almost missed the evening ceremony a few times this past moon.” she countered, the bracelets of seeds and stones upon his wrists rattling forebodingly as he took another bite of her meal. “Unless you want your father here to tan your hide, I suggest you rein in your desire for adventure. You’re never too old for a beating.”
His father grunted his agreement, having found his thin lips fixed to the rim of his wooden cup of water. “In fact, I suggest we go even further than that. Perhaps you should come and work in the fields with me tomorrow. Spend less time filling your head full of clouds and cotton fluff, and spending more devoting yourself to the gods.”
Zitao’s jaw clenched. They couldn’t do that! “But Father, it’s my free time!”
“Don’t raise your voice to me.” There was a dangerous tone in the elder man’s voice, as well as a sharp glint in his mother’s eye. “You will come to the fields with me at noon. No ifs or buts.”
“I am the head of this household, and I order you to do so! Don’t talk back to me!”
He really shouldn’t have spoken back, but it was just so... unfair. The sheer absence of fairness made Zitao almost froth at the mouth as he watched his father undo his belt, while his mother grabbed the back of his head and pushed his upper body down upon the table. He yelped out as the fabric of his trousers was shoved around his knees and the back of his shirt flipped up at the rear. But he knew that thrashing would only earn him more beatings, so he merely gritted his jaw as hard as he could.
The whistle of air was barely enough to warn Zitao of the inevitable, but he thanked the gods that he had been taught to expect pain quick. Because the burning lick of leather over his bare skin was akin to no other pain he had ever experienced. The lash forced him to break out in a cold sweat, as if it would somehow cancel out the burning sensation building up under the skin of his thighs. A second whip drew the faintest of mewls from behind his teeth, and tears welled up too quick to hide.
“You will not disobey me again, boy,” came the heaving grunts, in between a set of five rapidly-paced lashes of leather. Zitao cried out for the last three, for he knew the skin would split and bubble with blood. “and you will not bring shame upon this family!” Another three strikes and he could feel the skin peeling away. His mother pushed his head further down into the table to muffle his shrieks as his legs gave out. “Will you?!”
“No, sir, no!” he cried out in response. It would always go this way, whenever he accidentally let his tongue loose in the wrong scene. His father would beat him and demand a name of authority, and of course, he would fall over and fawn, a simpering child once again under the command of the thick cowhide belt.
An extra hard lash struck him by surprise across the back of his knees, knocking his breath away as his legs hung uselessly, all his weight focused upon the table. “We expect you to keep your word, son.” His mother released her grip and let Zitao slump downward, trousers still tight around his knees as they slunk away. He yelped in pain as his open wounds folded against fresh skin, but he was too tired to even try and relieve the pain of it. Instead, he sat and shivered through the throbbing beneath the skin, willing himself to summon the strength to crawl into bed.
But even then, their whispers travelled through those paper-thin walls, and Zitao’s lip curled into a sneer as he dabbed at his blistering skin with cloth and water.
How dare that boy disrespect me? How dare he?! I swear, I’ll have him in front of the Blue Priest in a heartbeat if he doesn’t show me more respect.
And you would be right. In fact, I think we should speak to the Blue Priest about him. This unnerves me...he isn’t as included in the temple as he should be.
Especially for his age. You’re right...I’ll have a word with him tomorrow. He can maybe send Zitao somewhere where he can devote himself in more useful ways.
For the glory of the Burnt One.
And with their utterance of the nightly prayer, Zitao knew what he needed to do. Fingers came to clasp around his satchel’s strap, ready to pack with items ready for his escape.
The trip towards the abandoned shrine ended up being swifter than any of the previous attempts Zitao had made since stumbling upon its existence. And for good reason; he only had an hour’s advantage over his parents before they would soon discover that he had fled their home and old into the wilderness. He had only hoped that nobody had spotted him since jumping out of the window and racing towards the fields of barren ground.
He hoped against hope, prayed to the god he was blatantly forsaking, that he would at least have a little time left to beg for mercy from the stone deity.
His feet scuffed and scraped against the ground, shoes wearing thin as he slid down the rocky sides of Fang Gorge, where the grit dug into his palms and dusted his ebony hair. His mouth was so dry, but he didn’t have even a heartbeat to drink. Not here, he thought between flickering images of his father’s enraged face, his mother’s hateful expression. They could easily spot him out in the open.
Parting the curtain of foliage he had cast over the entrance, Zitao slipped into the cavern of the dragon, immediately bowing his head before it. There had been no change there, nothing since his last visit. Even now, the hare lay before its hardened body, flies buzzing around its bleeding neck and rubbing their feet in its fluids.
“Please...if you can hear me,” Zitao started with small words, gulps of air taking up the larger portion of his breath. “I need your help.” He cast aside the blue robe of his god, bearing his neck and torso for the stone figure to see. “I need your protection. I need you to keep me safe... please.”
There came to be no words from that mouth. The dragon’s head remained raised, proud and tall with only Zitao to gaze upon. He sank to his knees before its might, holding it in the greatest of respect, anything that would let it bear a glance in his direction.
“I can feel the power in you.” he whispered, hands coming to scrape against the great beast’s tail. “I can feel the heat inside you...and I know that you can hear my pleas. What can I do...what can I do to free you? What can I do to make you answer me?!”
Heat welled beneath his palms, and he cast a glance across the many smears at the base of the tail. Dried into the pale stone, the blood of the hare remained where it had once been daubed by his previous hand. He remembered the surging heat that had poured beneath his skin since then, the flames that licked beneath the cold hard surface of the rock, and he knew. He knew what must be done.
The blade against his thigh had never left its leather casing faster than now.
“I beg of you,” Zitao’s mouth opened wide in a gasp of pain as he let the tip of the silver blade slice against the skin of his palm, drawing a crimson line against the pale bruised flesh. “please save me. I know you can hear me, and I can feel your strength. I don’t want to leave you; I don’t want to go away!”
Time was running out, for he could hear footsteps carving a path over his head, grit falling from the ceiling and dusting his skin as he pressed his bleeding hand to the base of the creature’s tail.
Another rumble echoed through the cave, the fire growing ever fiercer beneath the stony shell. I beg of you. But there came to be no words of comfort, not even a shielding wing. Zitao squeezed his hand tighter, until scarlet rivulets trickled from his wound.
It was too late though, of the wild scrabbling at a fake cover and the angered hissing and spitting betrayed the fact that Zitao was not anywhere near as well hidden as he thought.
“How dare you?! How very dare you, Zitao?! ”
The first strike was strong enough to knock Zitao completely off balance, sending him sprawling against the floor in a dizzy stupor. “Father, please...” Unfocused eyes watched as the ceiling blurred into a single shade of grey, before he was dragged to unsteady feet and left propped against a wall.”Mother, you both don’t-“
“I don’t what?! Understand?! I understand perfectly, you heathen!” His father’s face grew to take on the shade of a plum, veins snaking across his forehead as he stormed to where Zitao’s collection of offerings were perched against the stone face. He took hold of the first offering, coins of gold and silver, and Zitao could almost feel the ire radiating from his father’s skin. And it frightened him. “You were to offer these to the Burnt god! You swore on his scarred hands that you offered your coins to him!”
His mother dropped to her knees beside her husband, holding dusty entrails from the hare that Zitao had offered. She wept with a fury, her bloodshot eyes narrowed as he spat poison to her child. “And you have sacrificed?! The god burns you, you have taken innocent life! ” Her hands came flying to her mouth as soon as she saw the blood dripping for her child’s palm, where a single cut ran across the surface of his skin. “Blood magic! You use the dark arts!”
“You don’t understand! This isn’t what you think it is!” Zitao should have known that he would be caught, should have known that his time was borrowed with every step outside the family domain. But he couldn’t help but plead innocence, in spite of the evidence littering the foot of the great stone beast. And as his parents stormed forth, he took equal steps back, until he was pressed flat to the base of his new point of intrigue.
“Idol worship too! By fire and water, you’re a sinner. A sinner far beyond the redemption of any priest.” His father’s bitter tone made him flinch, half expecting poison to fly from his mouth like a cobra. He lunged out with one of his strong arms, pinning Zitao the wall and hoisting him up so his feet dangled in mid air. “We should have known that there was something wrong with you-“
Whatever he was about to add was swiftly cut short as Zitao swung out his leg, kicking his father square in the stomach and punching at his arms to deaden them. “There’s nothing wrong, I’ve done nothing wrong!” Wheezing and panting, he crawled away, only to be stunned as the elder man once again went to attack, kicking him hard in the side.
“You will not strike your father, you insolent brat!” Zitao barely had time to recover from the dizzy blow his father had landed, before his mother swung her fist at his jaw and sent a spray of blood flying from his mouth. His head came to crack against the stone, blood gushing from behind his ear, while the world only spun faster and faster around him. He saw the figure of his fallen father, his wife helping him to his feet and unsheathing something from underneath her many blue-dyed skirts.
But behind him...beneath the rock, something stirred.
He could feel the rumbling well beneath his feet, behind his back, and Zitao knew there was something coming. An earthquake wouldn’t have arrived with such suddenness, and the sky was too clear to betray an oncoming storm. As he raised his bloody fingers to the stone, trying to right himself back onto his feet, he hissed as the contact of his flesh upon rock seemed to cause a burning in the flesh. The blood was drying against the statue. And the deity was awakening.
Yet his parents seemed blind to the tremors that ran through the cliff, and instead focused all over their energy upon pinning Zitao against the wall and tearing the front of his shirt. “We should have known that you were straying from the flock.” His mother’s voice was no more than a husking rasp, a death rattle that echoed deep in her throat. “That you were slipping away from the eyes of God. But we will make things right!”
“And He of burnt skin shall accept the smiting of the wicked,” he heard his father boom, with the ceremonial dagger kept in his mother’s skirts raised high to the sky as his eyes rolled backward into his skull. “and those who turn away from the flock. We pray for his damned soul, so that He of burnt skin and blue flesh will have mercy upon this lost child!”
“No, you can’t do this!” Zitao’s cries fell upon deaf ears as his parents came to restrain him against the stone wall. The rumbling grew in intensity, and he could feel his vision shake in response. “I’m your son, you can’t!”
“You’re no son of ours! Not when you tried to leave the care of our great shepherd!”
“Please, I’m sorry! Take me back, put me back into His care, I’ll come home!” Zitao’s frantic pleas earned him no remorse as his mother struck him in the face, her own personal revenge for his self-defence against her. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry!”
“Lies! Lies and filth, that is all that spills from your mouth!” she sneered. “But you needn’t worry for much longer. We will remedy this wrong in our lives. Strike him now!”
But there was something that forced Zitao’s father’s hand to still. His eyes rolled forward once more, filled with a horror that he couldn’t seem to contain. His mother copied the expression with almost perfect mimicry, holding her chest with a terrified gaze fixed upon the walls above her only son. Zitao panted and clutched his bleeding hands over his exposed chest, though was quick to follow their gaze as flakes of stone came to settle in his hair and his clothing.
For the great beast’s head, once thought to be only in two dimensions...had twisted. It had come clean away from the face of the cliff, revealing an equally intricate carving on the other side. It stared downward at the two adults fighting beneath its shrine, before the grating of its neck soon had it casting a blind gaze down to where Zitao was huddled. A dangerous purr ran through the stones, shaking the dust around the trio’s feet as its talons relaxed and flexed in their hold.
“It’s a demon!” his mother hissed, though it came out as nothing more than frightened little mewl. “It senses our rage and comes to feast upon us!” She dropped her hands and bowed her head, quickly backpedalling for the entrance to the cavern. Though the monster never quite took its eyes from her; instead, its powerful gaze, though coated with stone, forced her to cower on the ground in a series of soft whimpers.
Zitao’s father didn’t seem so convinced. If anything, his face drew darker and darker, and he lunged once more for his son. “You...what sorcery have you committed?!” He seized the boy around the throat with his large calloused hands, no mercy spared as Zitao flailed in his hold. “What dark magic is this? You foul snake!” He stared up to the creature once more, for its mouth had started to move ever so slightly. It was almost like the great statue was breathing, the skin across its chest rising and falling and sending flakes of stone down upon them. “What demons have you brought to do your bidding?!”
“I haven’t done anything! I swear on the Burnt-” It only earned him a harsh slap across the cheek, sending a spray of blood across the boy’s face. He had tried to appeal to the nature of his parents’ god, but it only earned him greater revulsion.
“You will never use the Burnt One’s name in vain, demon! Least of all when you turned your back upon him! I will see to it that you never walk his sacred lands again, you little-“
He never got to finish his words, for there was scarlet running from his chest, the tip of a long black claw digging into the flesh and smeared with his blood.
With an almighty roar, the beast in the wall had come away from its stone prison, and instantly set itself upon Zitao’s father, having gored him with one of its talons. A howl of agony tore through his mouth, unlike anything Zitao had heard before, as the dragon opened its fanged mouth and shed layer upon layer of stony skin to reveal ebony scales beneath. They crackled and burned with a fire not of this earth, as the monster lunged down upon its claw, where Zitao’s father wailed and writhed upon the claw pinning him there.
Zitao watched in horror as the beast’s great mouth descended upon his father’s torso, taking his entire upper mouth whole and sinking long ivory fangs into soft vulnerable skin. Muffled shrieks left his mouth as he was ripped in half and devoured, splatters of blood splashing over his skin as the screaming died down into gurgling murmurs in between loud ferocious crunches. The beast bolted down what was left between its long claws with only a few snaps, but didn’t dare try to take Zitao down with his father. It was as though the boy wasn’t even there; not even a glance was spared in his direction as a forked tongue slid out to lap the blood from each talon.
It was then that the monster whirled around towards where Zitao’s mother lay crouched upon the stony cavern floor. She had watched with screams of terror as her husband was devoured before her very eyes, but now it was her turn to suffer. She saw the creature twist its narrow snout in her direction, still dripping with the blood of her betrothed, and howled in fright as she gathered her skirts and prepared to make haste for the opening of the cave.
A heavy hand descended upon her back, and Zitao screwed his eyes shut and prayed for safety as he heard bones split and skin rip wide open.
He was going to die. That much was certain. Whatever had emerged from the stone had not been friendly, and it seemed to hunger for only the flesh of a human. It had awoken as Zitao’s blood had stained its hardened body, but hadn’t even batted an eyelid when he had smeared the foot of its pedestal with the blood of a hare or a deer. This was a god of extraordinary power...only a few gods could ever boast the need for the sacrifice of a human life, but this one was particularly vicious in its motivations.
Why, even now, Zitao’s ears could still pick up the sounds of chewing and ripping, bones being snapped between powerful jaws. His mother’s voice had died down long ago, while his own frantic breath had begun to increase. His fingertips tingled as the creature huffed out a few breaths in between mouthfuls.
He wanted to look. Perhaps he could escape before the creature had finished devouring his mother’s remains. He could slip by it while the creature was still eating, surely!
But as he dared to open his eyes a mere friction, he wasn’t sure if that was still going to be possible. For the monster, while still merrily gnawing away the bones ripped from the woman’s chest, was no longer quite so big. Or quite so...monstrous.
Zitao followed the slender tail that had originally come to rest at the blood splatter that had once been his father, eyes tracing along its blackened form, to where it merged against a thin pale back. It was a far cry from the hulking mass that had pinned down his mother and ripped into her frail mortal body, but it was no less intimidating with a pair of leathery wings ripped from the shoulder blades and fanning over the entrance of the cave. Nimble fingers plucked from the remains of the body and fed towards a small fanged mouth, so unlike the great toothy snout of the dragon that had slaughtered his parents.
Whether this would help or hinder him, Zitao wouldn’t know. Unless he put it to the test and tried to run. Catching his startled breath and slowly parting his feet, he prepared to spring up and for the entrance while this strange being ate his fill. It’s only twenty long paces. I can make it, can’t I? I’m sure I can. His feet shifted a little more against the dirt, further and further, letting his legs flex just enough to have him preparing to sprint.
“It would suit you best if you didn’t try to run.”
The tail that had once lay flat against the ground seemed to rise up of its own accord, slithering over the ground to block the path that Zitao had turned himself in the hopes that he could escape. It slid over the dusty ground like a serpent, drawing side-winding shapes in the sand beneath it, before curling up beside its master.
The creature craned its next to the side, hands soaked with red liquid and strings of muscles hanging between elongated talons, and Zitao found himself already scrambling behind himself for somewhere to hide. He crawled underneath what he had assumed was some kind of primitive altar, hoping to avoid that most evil of gazes, knees drawn up tight to protect himself. Though those claws...they’d most likely rip through him regardless.
But as Zitao raised a hand, ready to grip hold of the rock and dash out towards the mouth of the cavern, something scraped only inches away from his hand. His heart froze as scales rushed by his arm, falling flat on the ground as the winding tail trailed down upon the ground, sliding beneath his leg and slithering across the ground as its owner shifted behind him. Bite marks indented the skin of his hand where he had forced himself into a silence, though it was little consolation when the light of the cave’s mouth seemed to dim above his head.
The shuddering whimper that left him was likely to be his final utterance, for a mouth dripping with blood and saliva lingered overhead, bearing a malicious grin and a femur wedged between white fangs.
It was peculiar...this thing. Zitao wasn’t sure whether he should bow down before the might of such a deity, or whether to try and run way in fear – no matter how in vain the attempt would be. Because this wasn’t simply a man, nor was it simply a beast. Its body seemed to be wholly man, having possessed the general figure of a male, but as though he were the plaything of some divine creator, he had many a monstrous feature in addition. He had no fingers or toes, as discernable to a human. Instead, his hands were blackened, as if frostbitten, with the digits tapering into long ebony talons, similar to those of a bird of prey. His skull erupted with two pairs of protrusions, equally as black and terrifying as his claws, though they seemed to flare outward into tapering points; Zitao would be forgiven for imagining they took the image of a crown. And those wings...those wings. Dragonlore was heard of, and this was no exception, skin connected to the spine and hipbones, leather-like and dotted with dark scales, like an elderly bat. Even the serpentine tail rang bells in his mind, of old lessons and lore taught in the mornings before prayer.
The boy gaped like a fish out of water as he spun around, scrambling backwards to press his spine against the wall and pant like a dog. This was the end. It was surely the end; there could be no way that he would be spared, surely not! The creature snapped the femur between his strong jaws, dragging a talon down its pulpous marrow centre, the spongy material easily clinging to the smooth texture of the claw. Perhaps he was mocking him. He could surely smell his fear, and maybe took his sweet time in dragging out whatever terror he could offer.
But he didn’t. He merely waited.
Zitao choked on air as the creature gazed down at him, as if casually watching an insect. He took a few more mouthfuls of marrow, seemingly unfazed.
Tossing the bone aside, the creature stretched downward against the stone, his talons running grooves into the surface and leaving clouds of dust and sandy grit beneath him. The way he moved was akin to a cat, flexible and loose limbs carving a path down to crouch before Zitao’s trembling form. He crawled down and let the tail slide around the stones behind him, grating along the grit and sand as his throat seemed to vibrate with a purr. Zitao could almost feel hi bowels turn to water where he sat, while claws hovered only inches away from his face.
When he spoke, it was as if the ground itself had erupted, a deep rumbling purr that echoed softly against an almost human voice.
“You knew that you stood in the presence of a god.” A deep breath followed those words, as a forked tongue languidly brushed over the back of dark talons. Zitao saw it slide out from behind ruby-red lips, its rough surface scraping along the bone claw and wiping it clean of fluid.
Zitao shifted uncomfortably as the hand came for him once again, still dripping in blood and saliva. “I-I...I di-...”
“You could feel my power, even though I had been encased in stone for so long.” Those long claws of his danced underneath Zitao’s chin, no doubt leaving impressions in the young flesh as he tilted his head back. “There is...something about you, boy. Something you possess. It runs in your blood, it burns bright in your mind...,” There came a dangerous rumble, air sucked in through huge lungs and exhaled as a deep, foreboding purr. “...tell me, dear boy. Who did you worship before you found me?”
“I...my family, they follow... followed the Temple of Fire and Water.” Zitao cowered underneath the talons of the beast, but tried his best to control his breathing. For every time he inhale, mouth falling open and jaw resting upon those terrible claws, he feared the creature would only grin, using one of those claws to cut through the vessels that beat heavily beneath the skin of his neck. “The Burnt One. My Lord. ” Though no sycophant, this was indeed a being of great power he was seated before; they demanded respect, no matter how silly it seemed. It was what spared him many beating from his parents, after all...
But it pleased the dragon, his lips curling upwards into a smile as he ran his claws against Zitao’s jawline. “You worshipped a foolish god. But at least you learned respect in those worthless temples.” came the reply, the slits of the god’s pupils widening as he took in the sight of Zitao’s bared throat. “It seems almost irrational that someone of such power, like yourself, was wasted in those old halls.”
Zitao furrowed his brow, a whimper escaping him as the nails to his throat gradually drifted down the plain of his chest. “Power? M-me? My Lord, I think you’re mistaken.”
“My eyes may have been encased in rock for centuries, but I am not blind. I can see when there is one of worthiness in my presence.”
“I don’t understand-“
“You need not understand. All you need to do is listen. ” Listening had been rather low on Zitao’s mind, initially; the desire to flee for the hills was a lot stronger than any conversational urges, especially when he was still in such a shock over what on Earth he had just witnessed. But the dragon was insistent, and almost curled himself around the boy, winding his tail closer like the serpent came to enclose its prey. “It’s all very simple, when I get down to the bare bones of things. You see, even though I am a god, I do still require sustenance. I need to eat before I can truly reach my full powers.”
Zitao could practically feel the current of disgust well up inside his chest, for he knew what the hint may have been. And yet, he played dumb, feigning innocence as he watched the stranger’s fangs glint as he took in a deep breath. “And...w-what do you need to eat?”
A sly grin was given, and a flick of the tail directed the boy’s line of sight to the scraps of fabric left behind from his rampage. “I think you already know the answer to that, boy.” came his murmur, sucking on the tip of his index claw in thought. Or perhaps he was reminiscing on the taste... “But yes. In order for me to truly... come out of my shell, I require a sacrifice of greater worth than mere coins or grain. Hence the reason I didn’t reveal myself to you in spite of your pleading.”
“Oh...” The boy bowed his head, deliberately looking at his hands so as to avoid the sight of what remained of his parents. “Then...y-you’ll eat me too, won’t you?”
“Goodness, no! I only need to feed once. Once I have eaten, I remain out of my stone form for a single night. You see, your devotion warmed me greatly, from when I first saw you. You continued to visit, after so many years alone, and when I saw you put into harm’s way, I knew I had to strike back. You are the first devotee I have had in many many centuries...naturally, I think that deserves protection. And a reward.
“All that I ask of you is this. I require nourishment in the form of the flesh of man. I can’t leave this cavern, not like this, for how will I lure my prey close enough to eat? No, that is simply impossible. But you...if perhaps you can lure them here, bring them to me, then I will be able to eat in peace. I won’t attack you, should you do this.”
Claustrophobic and uncomfortably wheezing, Zitao watched the creature’s chest expand and contract, scales rippling over his belly and down to where his legs were bent at awkward angles. He couldn’t look up... “I can’t...you can’t ask me to do something like that! You’ve just... eaten my-!”
“I did you a great service. You were prepared to die for them? Because I am certain you were begging for my protection only moments before I tore their pretty little heads off.”
“But this is sick! You’re a monster, I can’t kill people for you!”
“Gods require many strange things from their subjects, and I am no different. And you won’t kill them, stupid. All you need to do is lure them here for me.” There came to be a strange glint in the creature’s eye, while his slippery tongue came to lap once more at the back of his hand, the darkened crux pressed against the delicate bones of his fingers. “I know that you mortals have many wiles. I doubt it’d be hard for you. And with age comes practice...but I can always reward you in that sense too.”
Zitao found himself shivering, his fingertips coming to press against the sides of his skull as tears welled up in his eyes. He didn’t want to die, not here, not now, but it was becoming a very real possibility. The monster was still hungry, and wouldn’t hesitate in tearing him limb from limb if he so desired.
“Think about it, mortal. An eternity in which you never age, in which you will never wither in skin or mind.” The crooning purrs, followed by the gentle strum of talons against his forearm, made Zitao tremble more than any amount of strikes of the belt upon his skin. “A life where you will not hurt, where you will truly be able to express your power. I feel something in you. A fearless nature.”
Fearless... Zitao didn’t quite know how on Earth he could be considered fearless, seeing as he was mere seconds away from screaming in terror as his parents prepared to dash his brains out across the floor. “But you might be mistaken, my Lord.” he confessed. “I’m not... powerful. ”
“Yet. All you must do is follow my command, offer yourself to me. And I can make you more powerful than you could ever know.”
“You can never be rewarded without something being taken in exchange.” Zitao recoiled from the touch of the burning claws, fright pulsing through his mind as he watched the pupils of the beast contract into mere slits, leaving the golden irises to practically glow in the poor light of the cave. “What do you want in return for this?”
“As I say, you offer part of yourself to me. I’ll only take a little, perhaps offer my own in exchange for your services. Like your mortal skin...your eyes...your tongue,” His gaze drifted down to where Zitao’s legs were bent close to his chest, preserving his core. “perhaps even sampling whatever else your divine little body has to offer.”
Sweat poured from his brow, a fever raging beneath the skin, in spite of feeling so cold. “It can’t be so...s-so simple. There’s got to be a catch.”
“No catch. Let me take part of you...and I will give you part of me. It’s an equal trade, even the blind could see that!”
“But...even then! If I accepted this! How on Earth could I attract anyone? How can I convince them, my Lord?”
Perhaps it was better that Zitao did not ask, for he didn’t have time to prepare at the serpentine tail whipped around his ankles and knocked him flat onto his back. The sores wounds on the backs of his thighs began to weep, and he curled inwards through the racks of agony. But the winged creature only crept forward, turning him over with one taloned hand and peeling away the fabric of his trousers with the other.
“A good question. How else will you lure them here?” came the deep-throated hum, as burning hands pressed down upon the wounds. Zitao cried out at the pressure on such fresh openings in his skin, half expecting to feel the seeping of blood soon after the hands made contact with his skin.
Instead, he was only filled with confusion as the heat pooled underneath the skin and sank deeper into his muscles. It was soothing sensation, a calm that he hadn’t felt since he had first stumbled upon this strange place to begin with. The stranger hummed in thought as he ran his clawed hands up and down the backs of his legs, over the many wounds and scars that had littered the boy’s skin after years upon years of beatings.
But as he managed to slide away, wings beating against the ground as Zitao rolled away and frantically began patting the backs of his thighs...he was more than shocked to realise that they had disappeared. The many scars and layers of thickened skin had softened away, melting into pure a perfect skin.
“This is merely one of my many talents. After all, what kind of deity would I be if I couldn’t heal wounds?” He stared down to where Zitao was rubbing his hands over the newly grown flesh of his thighs. “And yet,” The boy almost recoiled as he felt the weight slither back over him once more, the tail lying heavy against his legs, winding around them and constricting like a python. “it’s only a small miracle. If you really wanted to feel it, I think we would have to become a little more intimate.”