What Happens In Venara
They could hear Venara across a mountain range. As their horses leapt closer, the sound of cheerful screams filled the air, and the smells of spices cooking at a dozen restaurants greeted them. Xu had hoped they would arrive there during the day, when it was quieter. They arrived on the ridge-line above the city, just before the hour of the Ox. The moon was high above, its crescent still bright, like a lantern in the sky.
The city was lit up by rows of lanterns hanging along each street. Fireworks and small explosives went off from time to time, as they fed their horses. The explosions were usually followed by cheers. Even at this late hour, drummers beat away, and street musicians around the city played tunes as groups of citizens danced.
Xu rubbed his horse's neck as he ate from the food they bought at the stable. Kui looked at the city as his jaw slowly dropped. Xu patted him on the back. “That is no place for a monk.”
Kui looked surprised. Shun lifted his pack of scrolls and tied his sword around his waist.
“You don't expect me to stay here,” Kui grabbed Xu's arm.
“Watch the horses, I'm just going to find an old friend; we'll head back to the capital in the morning.”
“Master Zhen wanted me to represent the temple, I--”
“He didn't want you going down there. We're just getting an idea of what is going on.”
Shun gave Kui a pat. “I'll write scroll for you.”
The city was walled, and had a wooden door in the gateway the height of four people. Two guards stood at the entrance, but didn't question the blind man and Xu, dressed like a monk. They watched the odd duo as they passed, and Xu gave them a salute. Inside the walls they were greeted by vendors selling food. Souvenirs with the Venara city crest on it caught their attention, written in a language that neither man recognized.
The crowd was not all Chinese, it was not all Asian, nor human. Xu stopped at a food stand and pretended to scan the vegetables and cuts of meat on the table. White-skinned men with golden hair walked in as a group. European traders worked some of the tables. This wasn't such a surprise. The surprise came when a wraith, its wings curled up at its sides, walked up and stood beside Xu. The beast pointed long clawed fingers at a large rack of fresh cut goat-ribs displayed on the table. It screeched at the vendor. “Twenty! No less.”
The vendor did not move an inch. The beast dropped several gold coins on the table and grabbed the hunk of meat. The vendor snatched the coins as the wraith unrolled its wings and took off into the sky. Now that Xu looked deeper into the city, he could see them. The city was filled with creatures, some walked on four legs, others took advantage of their wings. No one seemed bothered by this.
“You want something?”
Xu looked at the vendor and smiled.
“Do you know where I can find a man named Chi Zhen?”
“He owns a bar on the north end.”
Xu saluted the vendor, who laughed at him.
Xu turned around to Shun. “He owns a--”
Shun was gone. Xu looked past a crowd and saw Shun with his eyeballs resting on his palm. The old man watched a man and woman as they danced on stage. Xu had seen this show before. The group on stage were battling with swords at a ferrous speed, slow and heavily. One of them fought with only a stitch of his pants remaining. His oiled chest rippled with muscles and cuts that bled downward to his stiff penis. The woman danced with her sword pointed at him, the curves of her body exposed by intentional cuts. Shun knew this was more that just a battle. It was a courtship.
The gathered crowd had different reactions. A couple had started to make love following the rhythms. Several were masturbating. Some taunted the warrior lovers, from the sidelines. Shun withdrew his second eyeball as Xu pulled him along.
“You're sweating, Shun.” Xu smiled.
Shun jumped, caught, and held his eyes momentarily toward Xu.
“You scared me,” said Shun.
Xu lifted Shun's hands up so he could look straight into his eyeballs. “When the warriors climax, a battle will break out. You don't want to be there.”
“Trust me,” Xu pulled down his robe over his chest. A long jagged scar reached across it to his shoulder. Shun cringed.
“I've seen this one before, and it's not worth it.”
Shun nodded and they walked on.
“Lets go see my friend.”
Chi Zhen's lodge was dark inside. The name on the sign was fitting: Ill Begotten. Many of his customers chose this bar for the dim lighting. The booths were so cast in shadows, you could not see the scars on the immortal warriors, nor the hideous faces of the monsters that had collected to drink away their many sorrows. Shun smelled the gamely inhuman smells in full force as he stepped into the bar. He didn't need his eyes.
Xu didn't want to be obvious. He was interested in the creatures around him, but needed to act natural. At the far end of the room, Chi Zhen stood at the bar, wiping a glass clean. There was little conversation but plenty of sorrowful moans as Xu stepped into the bar. Each footfall brought with it an eerie creak of the floorboards.
Chi Zhen looked up from the bar and stared in stunned amazement. The last time he had seen Xu, was a lifetime ago. Chi Zhen was still a monk, begging Xu to come back to the temple. Now it was Xu who walked into this den of immorality wearing the orange and yellow robes of Shaolin. Chi Zhen put down his towel and laughed.
As Xu reached the bar, he noticed a creature sitting across two bar stools. The creature was a ball of tentacles, pock-marked with random mouths lined with razor sharp teeth. Xu looked at the thing and tried to determine if it had a face.
“Chi Zhen, can we talk--privately?”
Chi Zhen laughed again. “That Taflagar has various mouths, but no ears.”
The creature rolled over on its fat, using one of its pudgey tentacles to lift a glass to one of its many mouths. After it swallowed, a dozen pair of lips belched up a rancid gas. Six of the mouths spoke in four different languages that ended up sounding like they were having an argument with themselves.
“It's offensive,” Shun said and introduced himself to Chi Zhen.
Chi Zhen leaned across the bar toward the Taflagar. He clapped his hands and made two hand signals. The Taflagar dropped four tentacles to the floor, and pushed off. The beast rolled across the bar in a ball to a booth at the far end, leaving the two bar stools open.
“Welcome to the Begotten.”
Xu used his robe to wipe down the seat, and sat down.
“I think I'll stand,” Shun smiled.
Xu gave Shun a look that said a thousand words.
“I think I'll get some fresh air,” said Shun, and walked away.
Chi Zhen smiled at his old friend. “It looks like you went back to the temple, but if that were the case...then why are you here in Venara?”
“I think that is my question...” Xu looked off slightly.
“I guess your leaving had a bigger impact on me after all.”
Xu made eye contact then. Chi Zhen didn't look like the young, naive monk anymore. His eyes held back the sorrow of years spent struggling to survive. Xu couldn't help but blame himself. Chi Zhen had looked up to him. Wanted to be the next generation of demon slayer. Chi Zhen tried desperately to keep Xu in the Order. Xu's heart was already gone.
“Neither of us are monks now...can we start again?” Xu asked.
“You hurt me.” Chi Zhen set his glass on the bar and thought about a drink. He didn't pour it. “I believed in you, and long after you had fallen, I kept the faith in myself. I just hated to hear about you.”
“So how did you end up here?”
Chi Zhen leaned in closer. “We monks don't know about hunting because we don't eat meat. I decided, instead of hunting prey, I would let the prey come to me.”
“Does the temple know?”
“Master Zhen and a few elders, but to most, I am just another fallen monk.”
Xu smiled. He always found it hard to believe that Chi Zhen had turned his back on the temple. Xu felt the weight of guilt ease, after years of believing it was his fault.
“Now you tell me,” Chi Zhen poured the drink and pushed it to Xu. “Why are you here?”
Shun walked outside into the street. Musicians danced, and fireworks went off. In the haze of the smoke, Shun's sense of smell was blunted. He pulled out one of his eyeballs and looked down the smokey street. Across from the bar, a stage that had been empty moments ago was full of women half-naked and tied up. They were hung by their arms.
A crowd of drooling men ran up to the stage, which was drowned in sparkles from the fireworks. That spelled slaves. Shun gasped as three of the four women screamed. One beautiful young woman remained silent, but continued to fight at her restraints.
A muscular European man stepped to the front of the stage and bowed. He spoke in broken Mandarin. “Welcome men of Venara. Are you ready? Buy a lifetime of service and pleasure.”
Shun was disgusted. The defiant woman spat at the crowd. With her hands bound, it was all she could do. The other three begged for help. Shun turned back to Chi Zhen's bar. He considered going back inside; he did not want to bear witness to this. From behind, he heard a loud crash.
When Shun turned around, he saw the defiant woman had lifted up her legs and locked them around the master of ceremonies. She tightened the muscles of her thighs until the white man's face turned purple as a grape. It wouldn't be long before it popped and spit seeds. The slaver's security team rushed the stage with swords drawn.
Shun didn't think, he pulled his sword free and ran toward the stage.
Xu swallowed the drink in a gulp and slammed the glass to the bar. Xu went over everything. He told Chi Zhen of his years in the wild, the depths to which he had fallen. The battle in the temple for his hair. Then the offer. The mission from the emperor. Chi Zhen listened carefully.
“You came to the right place, Xu. The Manchus have made many allies in Venara.”
“Have you heard of Venara's mayor? Horatius.”
Xu shook his head.
“He is from a faraway land. Very old, but does not look it. He was a general in an army of a vast empire called Rome.”
“It is my understanding that empire has long since passed.”
“True,” Chi Zhen scoffed. “To a demon, our empires and civilizations are but moments in time.” Chi Zhen snapped his fingers.
“The question is, do they mean to make this one fall,” Xu mused.
“Yes, they are influencing events.”
Xu took a deep breath. He couldn't just collect the money. More was at stake here than he wanted to admit.
“They intend to help the Manchus take down the Ming, and then...”
“Finish off the weakened Manchus,” Xu completed the thought. He stood up. “The emperor doesn't need an army,” Xu stated, and shook his head.
“No... he needs a demon-”
Xu put his hand up and stopped Chi Zhen. “How about two?”
Chi Zhen sighed and looked around. “I am more good to you here. Keep my secret--I can help you.”
Xu held his friend's hand for just a moment. “Your secret is safe.”
Xu walked out and got a long, low snarl from the Taflagar as he passed. When he opened the door to the street, he heard Shun scream.
The blind man stood on an open street stage with sword drawn. He was swinging it, fighting off two other swordsmen.
“What the-” Xu put his hand on his sword and jumped toward the battle.
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