In the beginning, there was only darkness.
Slowly, he begins to discern a rhythm that beats in his chest. A steady beat that upon closer inspection turns out to consist of itself and another.
Outside, the reedy screams in the air sound like the winter wind whistling through cracks in the rock.
Beside him, his brother whimpers as he curls closer into him.
When the screaming chokes off at last, he opens his eyes and rouses himself.
He is small for his age, but he is fast and learns from his mistakes. By this time, he knows better than to rush towards the kill. He has seen this mistake played out time after time among the demon beasts, when those driven mad by the alluring scent of a fresh kill circled the victors of the bloody battle and attempted to snatch the meat from their jaws. More than once, he’s seen them fail, with the slowest among them brought down, their throats torn out and devoured on the spot.
As the pack circles the bloody scene, he keeps his eyes peeled until he spots one of them hanging back, favouring his left leg. The frenzied howling intensifies as a new contest over the spoils commences. No one notices as he appears behind the demon.
In his ears, he hears his heart pounding.
The wind buries the scream that stops almost as soon as it begins.
He blinks as blood sprays across his face. Swallowing the cool, salty liquid instinctively, he runs his tongue over cracked lips and feels the pain in his stomach begin to abate for the first time in days. As quietly and slowly as he appeared, he pulls his prize steadily into the mountain.
‘Brother,’ Ye Zun says again, a hint of impatience in his voice alerting Shen Wei that it was probably not the first time that his brother had tried to get his attention.
He blinks tiredly back at him.
They’ve been travelling for three days. In his stomach, the hunger has solidified into a cold knot. Soon, they would have to stop for the night, but an open field leaves them open to attack from all directions. The demons who have clawed their way to the surface are unlikely to go down easily, and their supplies are running low.
‘How much longer do we have to keep walking?’
Shen Wei says nothing but his twin hurries forward and blocks his path before he can push past the next clump of tall grass with his stick.
‘When are we going to stop running? No one is coming after us. If we’re going to live like this, couldn’t we just go home?’ Ye Zun says bitterly. His face is pale despite the sunlight, and Shen Wei can hear the signs of another coughing fit threatening to emerge.
‘Just hold on a little longer, all right? This place is too bright. Too open. We need to get higher up where it’s easier to see demons coming.’
‘If they come, I’ll kill and eat them all,’ his brother says with a rapacious gleam in his eye, and Shen Wei’s smile becomes real.
‘You’ve never liked doing the killing,’ he reminds him. ‘And you’ll never need to as long as I’m here. As your elder brother, that’s my responsibility.’
‘Then you can’t ever leave me,’ Ye Zun says, eyes fever bright, caught in another mercurial mood swing. ‘Swear to it.’
The words pass his lips easily.
‘Besides, with this face, where can I go to escape from you?’ Shen Wei adds, just because he likes teasing his little brother and seeing him twist his face in annoyance.
‘How dare you! I should be the one saying that!’
And then they’re tearing through the grass, chasing each other under a sunlit sky.
In his heart, he has a box in which he locks away all the things he holds dear.
In it, he keeps the last sunlit memory he has of his brother and dares not take it out too often, afraid of tainting the only souvenir he has of him.
But sometimes, when he closes his eyes, he hears the wood groaning and crackling as the flames blaze all around him, licking the air as golden sparks dance across the night sky. The oily smell of burning meat stings his nostrils as he kneels by the bodies piled haphazardly on top of one another and set ablaze. His eyes, long accustomed to the darkness of Dixing, refuse to budge from a familiar set of white robes.
An odd sound catches his attention. A woman is watching him, her head upside down, from where her body has fallen across the raised threshold.
Her mouth moves but no sound emerges.
His vision has become blurry but he sees enough to know that it is unlikely that she will survive after losing so much blood. His fingers are white around the handle, but he still has the strength to hold the weapon aloft. As the blade swings down to make its first ever kill, he thinks he hears her say something.
Since the meteorite strike, the Dixingren have been fleeing to the surface in droves.
His brother and he had hardly been the first, and countless others followed after them. Over time, some Dixingren learnt to blend in, while others took it as their moral right to take what they wanted from a people who were clearly unused to fighting and pathetically unfit to survive.
On the day his abilities manifested, the voracity of his appetite had left him stunned when he returned to his senses and found himself surrounded by the bloodied remains of over a dozen Dixingren. The memory of an ambush returned to him gradually, and with it, came the realisation that he could perfectly replicate every ability he had witnessed his attackers using. As though that first taste of demon flesh after so long had kicked his appetite into overdrive, in the days that followed, he knew nothing but the taste of blood and rancid flesh and the sharp, electrifying rush of new abilities assimilated one by one.
As the years go by, he turns less and less to look for someone who is no longer there. The sharp anguish is ground away steadily by time till it eases into a dull sorrow. He no longer feels the void in him calling out to be fed, and doesn’t feel the same compulsion to devour everything in sight as though he's eating for two. Soon, he learns to kill only that which he can eat, and he eats only that which is as revolting and depraved as he is.
After a period of aimless wandering, for want of a better destination, he makes his way towards the distant mountains. Capped in white with glimpses of grey revealed in between the clouds, they look nothing like the black rock of his childhood, and yet the sight of the mountain range fills him with an inexplicable longing.
‘Brother, we’re going home. Are you happy?’ he says to the space by his side as he sets off.
No one answers him but he has long grown used to the silence.
‘I wouldn’t eat that if I were you,’ comes a voice from behind him, and Shen Wei startles badly, almost toppling into the stream.
Standing before him is a stranger in immaculate green robes which look as though not a speck of dirt or dust has dared to land on them. Involuntarily, Shen Wei looks down at the dust and mud on his own black robes, and self-consciously wipes the blood away from his mouth. He puts down the corpse and gets to his feet. Though he is standing on a boulder that gives him a significant height advantage over the stranger, not only does the man appear to be unintimidated, he even seems faintly amused.
Reaching out with the edges of his energy, Shen Wei sizes up the stranger and senses a new type of being he has not met before.
The stranger’s energy signature is neither chaotic and vicious like the demons, nor aggressive and fiery like the beasts of Haixing. It is overpowering, unlike the bland and muted energy of Haixing’s humans, and the man smells nothing like the sharp scent of ozone that follows the witches wherever they go. When Shen Wei probes deeper, he finds that the flow of energy from the ground mingles with the stranger’s life force so smoothly that he is unable to perceive where one ends and the other begins.
‘What are you?’ he asks at last.
‘What terrible manners you have,’ the man says severely, fixing him with a stare. ‘Were you born in a barn?’
‘No, in a mountain cave,’ Shen Wei replies after a moment.
The man is silent at that.
‘And what is your name, child of the mountain?’
‘Shen Wei. “Wei” like the mountains and like the ghosts.’
The man cracks a faint smile and his cool demeanour seems to fall away at once, like leaves swept up in the autumn wind. Stepping closer, he inspects him for several long moments before Shen Wei apparently passes whatever test he had given.
‘I suppose it was fate that brought you to my territory. I am Kunlun, the god of these mountains before you.’
‘What is a god?’ Shen Wei says, baffled.
The other sighs deeply.
‘Never mind. I suppose you better come with me. There’s no telling what sort of trouble you’ll get into otherwise, and there’s enough of that going around these days.’