A Future Rewritten Chapter 2

Pointless Efforts

By Tierl

First, there was pain, unbearable and fervid. Then a vague notion of being lifted and carried in strong arms. After that, sweet oblivion.

When Fou-Lu first regained consciousness he found himself stretched out on an uncomfortably hard surface. There was a set of coarse blankets under him and a pillow at his head. They did little to soften the wooden floor, but it was obvious some attempt had been made to make him comfortable. The feeling of air against his skin alerted him to his shirtlessness, though he had enough bandages across his chest that a shirt wasn’t really necessary, in any case.

Sitting up was painful, but he managed. He turned his head away from the blank wall facing him and found himself looking out into the main room of a small cottage. The floor (except for that of the section that had been made up as a bed) was dirt, the walls stone. Everything else was wooden, and it was all hardily serviceable. There was a small table at the center of the room, a stove on the wall to the right of the door, and woodpiles were stacked haphazardly around the room. The room was fairly devoid of trinkets, though several knives and a set of carver's tools were against the far wall. On the small table was a roll of bandages, a water skin, and the rest of Fou-Lu's clothes.

If sitting up had been bad, standing was worse. His side and chest felt like they were on fire, and he grew dizzyingly lightheaded as he walked over to the table. He steadied himself against it as he slipped his undershirt over his head. It was silk, so it didn’t chaff or rub against the bandages, which was a relief. His other shirt went over it, and he bent rather laboriously to put on his shoes. The clothes had been mended carefully by a steady hand, though some of the scorch marks were still there. His gloves went on last, and, feeling more prepared to face the world even in his weakened state, Fou-Lu made his way over to the door and outside.

The emperor blinked in the sun, feeling suddenly dizzy. It was bright, the sunlight shining dully off sheets of rock and shale. Mountaintops could be seen in the distance, silhouetted against the blue sky. The mountain on which he presently stood provided a good view of the surrounding area, which was unfamiliar to his eye.

"You're awake, eh?"

Fou-Lu turned his head slowly to look for the source of the voice. It had come from a large, bearded human seated on a tree stump with an axe across his knees. A large woodpile was at his side, logs split neatly into a more manageable size.

"How do you feel? You were asleep for a long time, you know," the man commented, unperturbed by the lack of reply. He had thick brown hair and tan skin, and, from the look of him, spent most of his time outdoors. "You must be wondering where you are. My name is Bunyan. I live here, in the Zhinga Mountains."

Fou-Lu looked at him and turned the rest of his body to face Bunyan, raising a brow in question. He knew of the Zhinga Mountains, though they looked little as they had hundreds of years before. However, the Zhinga Mountain Range was a good ways south of where he knew his tomb to be.

"I found you a few days age, collapsed down by the river. I brought you here, and dressed your wounds," the woodsman explained, getting up off his stump and laying his axe aside. He was watching the dragon with apparent concern.

Ah. 'Twas the river that carried us hither. The First Emperor chuckled. Betrayed by humans, only to receive another's aid…verily, they art confusing creatures. Perhaps this one mayest be trusted…but mayhap not…

"Then w…" he stopped mid phrase and frowned, continuing after a moment, concentrating as he tried to imitate the human's manner of speech. "I am in your debt…Bunyan, yes?"

"No need to thank me," the woodsman said as Fou-Lu started walking past. Bunyan frowned and continued, "More importantly, are you alright?"

I needst make mine way to Chedo, the emperor thought tiredly…I hath not time for this weakness… His chest seemed to have constricted itself around his lungs, hindering his breathing. And the bandages…to his wounded body they felt too tight, as if they harmed rather than helped, and his hands itched to rip them off and ease the pressure on his chest.

"Don’t push yourself so hard," Bunyan exclaimed as Fou-Lu kept going, ignoring his dizzy light-headedness and the burn throughout his body. "I've seen men die from burns as bad as yours."

I be not a man, mortal, the dragon wanted to say, but at that point his legs gave out on him and he stumbled. The traitorous appendages refused to obey him when he attempted to rise. As his body lay facedown in the dirt, Fou-Lu felt bitter amusement at his own predicament. So weak he couldn’t even walk…Mine own body hath betrayed me…

Strong hands lifted him from the ground. "Overdid it a bit there, I'd say," Bunyan commented sympathetically as he helped his charge back inside. The emperor had to submit to being carried, as he himself was, for the moment, helpless.

Soon the First Emperor was sitting back on the makeshift bed, wearing once again only pants and bandages. This time, however, he was in a great deal more pain than when he had first awoken. Bunyan sat in a chair a ways away, drinking from the water skin. "You should rest some more," he suggested kindly, obviously feeling some kind of sympathy for the dragon-god's plight. "Unless, of course, you’ve got someplace to go…"

"Fou-Lu," the dragon said, staring at the wall, holding his burnt side. It didn’t do anything to alleviate the pain, but he did it anyway. Bunyan looked at him questioningly, and Fou-Lu woodenly turned to meet his brown gaze. "Mine name," the emperor explained, wishing he had thought of a false title to use. He was tired, so tired…

"Fou-Lu, you say?" the man looked surprised, then intrigued. "That’s interesting…same name as the First Emperor, eh?"

Fou-Lu went back to staring at the wall.

Bunyan looked up from his work as Fou-Lu walked out of the hut, attired in his usual clothing and with certainly more of a spring in his step. "Well, you're looking a lot better," the human approved from where he sat on his log. He had been splitting rails, but he put down his tools to greet the other.

"Thank you for your caring ministrations, Bunyan," Fou-Lu intoned formally, trying hard to sound like he hadn't been born hundreds of years ago. The days of listening to Bunyan talk had helped, and he felt he was getting pretty good at it. "The time has come for me to quit this place." He walked past Bunyan towards the downhill path off the mountain, but the woodsman's voice stopped him.


The emperor turned his body halfway to look at Bunyan, taking in the human's appearance. The man was sweaty and red-faced from hard work, and he had the start of a nasty sunburn about his nose. He looked unusually serious as he met Fou-Lu's gaze.

"Looks like you're in a hurry over something," the forester stated bluntly. Fou-Lu's posture took on a slightly defensive aspect. "I don’t need to know, but tell me this." There was a pause before he continued his line of thought. "You were on the run from someone, weren't you? Does this mean there's going to be another war?"

Fou-Lu started to shake his head, but found he could not fully deny the man's assessment of things. He let his gaze drop.

"I did my time," Bunyan said frankly, leaning forward to rest his arms on his knees. His voice was honesty, and it seemed to demand answers. "I've seen my share of fights. Something tells me that there's a big one brewing."

Turning fully to face Bunyan, Fou-Lu forgot for a moment to mind his words, and blurted out the first thing that came to his mind. "Thou…wert a soldier?" It was surprising. Somehow the man had seemed too peaceful to have been a fighter. Also, the gentleness Fou-Lu had seen while being healed at his hands did not fit that of a warrior.

Bunyan looked surprised, then curious. Fou-Lu wondered at the thoughts that were going through the mortal's head. "Yeah…I was." He seemed less than proud of the fact. "Maybe it's just because I'm older now, but when I look back on it now, it all seems so pointless." Bunyan shook his head slowly, then shrugged.

Pointless. 'Tis a good word for it. Life 'tis pointless…war 'tis pointless…and death…'tis most of all… The emperor felt his lips curve in a slight smile at his own pessimism.

"I mean, sure, maybe when the First Emperor started it, that war had some kind of purpose, but it went on so long, it was as if the war itself became the purpose," the man rambled, seeming lost in thought. "None of us knew what we were even fighting for. The war took on a life of its own."

Fou-Lu turned away, chuckling, his face thoughtful. "The mortals…they understand not." Hath any mortal, anywhere, understood? Nay, 'tis we, the gods, that must needs watch the folly that 'tis life, and striveth to give it meaning…A bitter draught is godhood, for one's charges embraceth their own destruction in spite of those who wouldst save them…

The questioning look Bunyan sent him made him realize he had spoken aloud. Fou-Lu shook his head to clear it, before addressing his host. "Forgive me…I merely spoke aloud mine thoughts. Farewell."

The woodsman acknowledged the goodbye, but added, "I don't know where you be heading, but safe journey to you."

Fou-Lu nodded one last time, then turned and descended the cliff that the house was perched upon. The path down the mountain was rocky and jagged, though there was little danger of falling. Even as it fluctuated back and forth it remained wide enough for several men to walk abreast. It was a barren place, although when one looked hard enough traces of life could be seen. Lichens grew in among the rock, and a variety of rodents played under boulder outcroppings.

When he was almost down the mountain, Fou-Lu found he wasn’t the only one using the pathway.

"How…" the dragon exclaimed, as the human Yom and six soldiers walked forward to hinder his route. "By what means didst thou find us?"

Yom (for whom Fou-Lu had developed an active dislike) bowed his head, unintentionally pointing the bald shiny spot in Fou-Lu's direction. "Even if Your Majesty is still not fully recovered…you are still a god, one of the Endless." The small man straightened back up, daring to look Fou-Lu in the eye. "Even if you do not avail yourself of your powers, the act of simply speaking your own name," Yom said with relish, delighting in his own cleverness. "Creates a ripple in the world large enough that those sensitive to such things can sense your presence immediately."

The general seemed rather disappointed he had failed to get a rise out of Fou-Lu, who was shaking his head and smiling. "T'would appear," the god-emperor stated calmly, "That thou wouldst not have us enter the Capital by any persuasion."

Gesturing widely with his arms, Yom acknowledged Fou-Lu's statement, "Indeed. Time has not blunted My Lord's perceptions." The little man smiled, baring blocky yellow teeth, as the soldiers behind him looked up and backed away.

Fou-Lu followed their gaze, then quickly changed form as a huge bird dropped down out of the sky.

It was an owl, with blue wings decorated with green dots and half-moons. Its tail was pink and tipped with emerald. Pink-rimmed eyes sat in a white face elaborately made-up with a variety of colors. In between those eyes was a jewel, glittering with an inner fire.

The bird tore at the ground with its huge talons and let a screech loose from its hooked beak. Fou-Lu answered it with a cry of his own as he lost his human shape and turned to a creature half dragon.

The sight of its prey suddenly changing forms did not intimidate the owl. Its head did one total revolution around its neck, before blasting him with a stream of pink fire. The First Emperor managed to dodge most of the blasts, but one caught him in the shoulder, providing him with a source of extreme pain. After the first hit, that was the only one the bird got in before Fou-Lu pounded it into submission with a hail of knife-like shards of ice. When the bird's body was only so much mangled meat, Fou-Lu ended the hailstorm and turned back to a human, exhausted from the effort.

Yom looked impressed, but was yet to be intimidated. "I should have known that toppling Your Majesty would not be so easily achieved. I had not realized your powers had returned to such an extent."

Fou-Lu was breathing heavily from the fight, but managed to regain his composure. He looked contemptuously in the human's direction. "While 'tis true that we have recovered but a portion of our power…" He shook his head slowly, maintaining eye contact. He chided, "Thou should knowest that thee, a mere mortal, poseth no danger to us. One such as I cannot," he said softly, with an edge of steel hidden under the deceptively gentle tone. "Be vanquished by one such as thee."

"Perhaps," Yom admitted, his gaze going to the cliff above them, where another of the giant owls had just landed. The summoner regarded it with the fond look of a parent to its offspring. Fou-Lu followed his gaze, eyes hardening as he saw the giant bird. "The creature which Your Majesty just defeated is but one of many I command."

Having raised his gaze to examine the owl, Fou-Lu looked back down at Yom, his face a blank mask.

"Furthermore," the summoner said, with definite smugness. It was obvious he believed he was the one holding all the cards, so to speak. "Unless I am mistaken, I believe that your other half is but recently born, yes?" The soldiers advanced in front of Yom, their weapons out and shining in the sunlight. "Even if he should be a god such as yourself, he would be somewhat…easier for us to deal with, would he not?"

"Verily," Fou-Lu agreed, giving somewhat of a shrug and nod. "Though I wouldst fane admit it, thou speakest truly. Mine path then is clear. I must hasten to the capital ere thou findeth him!" With that, the emperor jumped from the cliff, turning into a dragon on the way…the same dragon that had destroyed the two watchmen so many days earlier. His wings moving at a speed a hummingbird would envy, Fou-Lu flew to the east, skimming over the canopy of the forest below. Trees snatched at his belly, and he was forced to gain altitude to avoid collision.

"Blast! Already he has enough power to fly!" Yom cursed, calling his owl down from the cliff top. The animal cocked its head at him, waiting patiently for directions. "After him! Don’t let him escape!"

Obeying its master, the owl flew after Fou-Lu on wide wings. The dragon that was the first emperor sped its flight as it heard the pumping of huge wings above it. Avoiding its snatching talons proved easy for the sleek reptile, so the bird utilized its other weapon. A dozens thin beams of flame were shot off in quick succession. As dragon dodged them the flames ate into the forest canopy, spreading streaks of destruction that burnt ancient giants to the ground and left brown tracks across the peaceful woods. Having avoided all the prior blasts of flame, it was the last that hit its target.

The lance of flame seared through toughened scales and thick skin. Faltering with a screech, the dragon was suddenly vulnerable to the owl, which dived immediately. The dragon flew up to escape the stooping bird, but the raptor followed, slamming into him repeatedly in the air and rending him with its talons. Agony smashed through his body, but he flew higher, trying to escape the vengeful avis. Finally, he could fly no longer, and fell from the air, towards the forest below…

Chapter 3

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