Chapter 121: Imprisoned

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The Eight had proclaimed themselves free of all chains and restraint. But, in time, it became apparent that whatever personal devils they struggled with -lust, avarice, gluttony, vanity, among others- became the chains they willingly shackled onto themselves. They didn't understand the concept of a love that drove men to fight, to die, for something greater than themselves. Mockery and flippancy were bound to come from that. They mocked heroes because they didn't understand them, and they mocked these powerful loves because they couldn't comprehend them.

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Seven Years Ago

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The prisoner was a curious one.

Yan stared at the monster warily. He claimed to be one of the Changed, but no Changed looked like him. They normally had parts of the animal grafted on them, an arm replaced or a leg twisted and replaced with beast-flesh. They weren't supposed to look like... whatever this thing was.

The thing claimed he was a dragon Changed, but Yan doubted that. All the scholars of the Empire of Qin knew what dragons looked like. Manes like fierce lions, eyes like burning coals, antlers like proud stags, and scales like shimmering koi. The Changed looked like none of those.

The beast was contained within a wooden board, lined with cast iron, with holes for his neck and wrists. He leaned against the wall, amber scales around his eyes darkening, the crimson lines of dried blood tracing their way down from the corners of his mouth. His eyes studied Yan, tracking the guard's every movement.

"Why are you watching me?" Yan asked.

The prisoner straightened from his slouched position. "There's nothing else to look at," he said. That was true. The cell the prisoner was in was unadorned, a lattice of steel bars, with a threadbare blanket, and a chain connected to the iron yoke the prisoner wore.

"Well, stop," Yan said.

The monster shrugged, and stared at the ground. "Very well then." He was silent again, the only sound was the rustling of the prisoner's ragged tunic, and the prisoner's uneven breathing. The monster, Yan thought, would have raged against the bars and tried to rip Yan to shreds. He had decided to guard this prisoner, after all, to see the monster, and test himself. How many of the other guards could say that they had kept watch and survived guarding a demon?

Of course, he was too tame. Too... mundane. Yan expected a monster, instead he got a model prisoner, a perfect captive in all but one way. It was his duty, sanctified by the laws of the Emperor, ordained by Heaven, to guard those who defied the laws, and defied Heaven's mandate, given by the Emperor of Qin. This prisoner, instead of defying Heaven's decrees, was perfect.

Of course, that didn't explain the laughing.

It was almost chilling, Yan thought, remembering how the scene had unfolded. He had been in the room when the guards started the first of the beatings. It was to break his spirit, prevent the prisoner from fighting back. Turn him into a submissive prisoner who didn't want to escape or resist in any way, a prisoner afraid of upsetting any of the guards.

They had kicked him in the stomach, the legs, the arms. Not the head though. They wanted prisoners who were too cowed to fight back, not brain-scrambled half-wits who couldn't feed themselves. He had grabbed the first man and twisted his leg, dragging the guard down to the ground and dislocating his knees. He fought back, which wasn't unusual, but he did it so quickly it stunned Yan. He wasn't a commoner who got a few lessons from an ex-soldier, or a bandit who used overwhelming strength without skill to threaten the unarmed peasantry. He had training.

They had taken the other guard screaming out, and had used quarterstaves to beat him. He stopped fighting, which was usual, but he started to laugh. That sound was alien to the blood-stained room the guards used to break prisoners, and it chilled Yan. It wasn't a madman's laugh, or a cruel laugh, but one of pure and simple joy.

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