I See a Great Beast within the Fires
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The young man watched as the bronze machine hammered down onto the golden metal. The loud clash boomed throughout the chamber, fading into the melting heat. Patina had taken over the machine's surface, coating it with a shade of dark green. But the piece itself was too grand for the flaw to be noticeable.

It was unlike any clockwork device he had seen, its mechanism a mystery to him. He could make out a few gears here and there, but nothing else was within his knowledge. In fact, he could no longer claim to understand any kind of machine, not after he was picked up at the Mehkanite temple that was burnt down, and was led through mountains and seas, traversing the vast desert into this foreign land. The machines that were such a part of his life, a part of himself even, now seemed so alien to him. He could not even state with confidence that he understood his god, not towards the man that had brought him here.

That man was now slithering through the dark chamber, pushing keys that subsequently lit up. His scales rustled against the heated floor. His clawed hands went through the intricate patterns that were engraved on the machine’s surface, their purpose unknown. They too were blurred by time, no longer sharp shapes and lines, but dazzling nonetheless. On the far end, between the wavering lights of the flames, automatons could be seen adding fuel into the machine, building the flames higher.

The young man was not sure if they were machines built into human shape, or men reduced to the simplest kind of machine, and he dared not ask. After all, the man with scales and claws and slit eyes seemed so inhuman and sinister, so much like the flesh beasts that attacked their temple, the beasts that howled and laughed and slaughtered. The very evil he was supposed to fight against.

But the serpent man found him, dragged him out of the burning ruins of what he once called home, and healed him with some sort of miracle. "Medicine." The man had answered him, but no medicine could heal what was inflicted upon him, not even as parts of his body were already replaced with metal. The human body was weak, nothing compared to what their god could offer. He still remembered when bone spears pierced through his organs, the ones he was yet to, and maybe couldn't, replace with clockwork. He only remembered the laughter ringing through his ears, mocking the futility of their resistance, before it all faded into blackness.

But now, he sat in this dark chamber, in front of a large piece of golden metal that was hammered down by the heavy machinery again and again. His metal arm was replaced anew; polished and lighter than ever before, so flexible that even his tortured body could command it with ease. The serpent man certainly knew the machines better than he did, maybe even better than the elders of his temple. And as they talked through the long journey, when they traversed the cold mountains, the lonely seas, and the lifeless desert, he learnt of a different tale about his god that existed in the Far East. Child of flesh and metal, the man that resembled snake more than man claimed to be. Children of flesh and metal, the man claimed that they all were.

As the rhythmic booming sound rang through the chamber, as the fire grew higher, as the automatons worked tirelessly, the serpent man slithered near. He wore a strange robe, long sleeves covering his hands. Some sort of metal bracelet could be seen underneath, with the same shade of dark green as the machine.

The scaled man stopped in front of him, and the young Mekhanite spoke: "You promised me vengeance."

"Yes." The answer came with a cold hissing sound, one that the young man had grown accustomed to. "All is set, but you need to be ready first."

Before he could answer that yes, yes he was ready, the serpent gestured towards the machine and the strange metal placed onto it. "Long ago," He said, "Our empire was strong and prosperous, the land was lined with machines of miracle, we reached the stars and looked into the brass prison of the Dragon," His hand stroked the surface of the device. "These are but remains of the glorious days."

For a moment, it was hard for him to imagine. A dark chamber lined with heavy machines, with fires maintained by robots, was but shadows of the past. What other things the man implied he dared not think about. They weren't things he could comprehend, or believe in.

The serpent man continued. "But even before that, our ancestors fought against other tribes who too worshipped the Serpent and the Dragon, and united them to be a common kingdom. Such were the great deeds of the Yellow Emperor, the first king of Xia."

Abruptly, the hammering stopped. The underground chamber was suddenly quiet. The automatons moved and clicked at the far end, but only the sound of the serpent man’s speech boomed throughout the heated room.

“But Chiyou rebelled against the great emperor. Like us, they were worshippers of Father Fuxi. He and his tribe sacrificed their body of flesh and blood to the Great Brass Dragon, and gained bodies of brass and iron.” The serpent man paused, and explained. “It was not ‘augmentation’, as you would put it. They turned themselves not into machines, but living metal. Machines can be broken down, disassembled, but metal itself—”

“An invincible body.” The young Mekhanite kept his voice calm, but a fire quietly burned in his eyes.

“Not invincible, far from it.” Even on a reptilian face, the frown was visible. “Weapons were indeed useless against them. They knew no pain, knew no rest, an army unparalleled at the time. The metal was gifted by our Father, and thus does not rust.”

He turned to look at the strange metal — it was no longer golden, heated to show a glowing red. “But the Yellow Emperor defeated them. He melted them down into liquid, and then forged them into metal cubes. As such, they were longer a threat.”

The serpent man was not fluent in the young man’s language, but the words hammered down into him clearly. The young Mekhanite fell into silence as he now understood what he was looking at.

The metal had completely melted now. The serpent man reached out, and pulled a lever. The machine shifted, and the liquid was poured down into a pool beneath. A feeling of unease rose from the young man’s stomach. As he watched, for a moment, it was as if the molten metal twisted unnaturally, before falling down into the pit.

The serpent man turned back, the slit eyes met his gaze. “Some say their souls are still trapped there. Shattered minds fused into a vengeful, insane spirit, longing for freedom.” He said.

The young man looked at the pool of metallic liquid that seemed to be withering and silently screaming. He couldn’t tell if it really was there, or it was merely in his mind. The chamber seemed much darker now, even as the automatons worked harder and harder to put fuel into the giant machine. The intricate patterns, under the wavering light, now seemed menacing and shadowy. And the ones that glowed emitted an eerie light. The hammer hanged high above, its presence pressed against his being, like a dark cloud hovering. He looked at all these with silence, slowly taking everything in. The fire in his eyes grew.

“I am ready.” He finally said.

“Hundreds had joined Chiyou, yet only eighty-one withstood the ritual.” The serpent man said.

“I will make it.” He said.

The man only nodded as a response.

Inside the pool, the liquid metal was boiling now. Steam rose, but was somehow confined within the pool. This machine was really something beyond his understanding, but for now, he stopped thinking about that. The heat was scorching, which his bare foot felt the most.

The serpent man said something to him, but it slipped through. His mind wandered back into the night when the Sarkicites destroyed his temple and slaughtered his kind. Even the strongest of them, the elders that had fully converted, were no match for the unholy beast of the flesh. They were torn, pieces of gears scattered, their weapons broken. And the beasts laughed, their laugher so piercing, much like the bone spears through his body. But a wave of heat hit him, and dragged him back into reality.

“I have tried this so many times before. None successful.” He caught the serpent man saying. “So maybe you, someone who truly believes in the Father Serpent—” He paused and corrected himself, “Truly believes in Mekhane, can do it.”

“There are better candidates than me.” He said.

The serpent man shook his head. “None of us believe in them deeply anymore, neither in the Dragon, nor the Serpent. We were never good followers to begin with; we call them Father and Mother, yet we fear them the most.” He forced himself into a smile, a rather eerie one with serpentine features. “I can only wish for your success.” He hesitated, but went on, “But tell me — what do you wish to become?”

“A beast.” The word came out without thinking. He was unsure why he said that, but as the man looked at him curiously, he added: “The pain the Sarkicites have inflicted upon us and our holy land; I shall return the favor.”

The serpent man nodded, and stood back. The young Mekhanite took in a deep breath, and slowly descended into the pool. The sound of the machine and the automatons seemed so far away now, as the liquid boiled and bubbled in front of him.

There was no pain, he realized some seconds later, as his skin and flesh were instantly burned. In the next few seconds, his bones melted. He could no longer see, and no longer feel anything at all. Darkness had encompassed him. But it was not the cold, silent darkness of death people often speak of. An immense heat surrounded him; the same dark, ancient presence that loomed in the underground chamber was now closer than ever. The heat scorched him, but there was no pain. Bodily sensations no longer mattered.

He remained in the darkness for a few more moments, before hearing a loud sound. At first, he thought it was the hammering sound he heard over and over again, but as the sound grew even louder, he recognized that it was something else. He was still in the darkness, but somehow, in his mind, he could make out fires furiously burning, and among them, a shadow stood there.

It was a beast, he recognized, as the sound reached his presence. He could feel himself resonating with it. The sound was not of a hammer, but the beast roaring. Somehow, among the heat and the darkness, he felt drawn to it, as if the beast was calling, and that the roar was a language.

He reached towards the beast within the fires.

For a split second, he saw its fiery eyes, its body of a golden metal that shined brightly. It stood there, its mouth open, as the fire scorched and burnt. And then, he opened his eyes. The pool of metallic liquid was gone. He was standing there, at the bottom of the pool. The machine around him came to a halt, and the serpent man looked at him in disbelief.

He looked down to see his hands, but what he saw could no longer be called hands. Golden, metallic claws were in front of him. The metal that surrounded him minutes ago now made up his whole body. He moved his fingers, and then elbows, arms, torso, and legs, and they responded immediately to his thoughts. There was no longer muscle straining, but nor were there sounds of ticking and grinding. Everything just fit together perfectly; the movements felt to him even more natural than the body he was born with.

He had expected to see lost, vengeful souls, or to see his broken lord reaching out to him. But the image of the beast was now scorched into his being, and somehow he found comfort.

He was still in the vague shape of a man, but nobody would mistake him for one. Even aside from his now beastly headpiece and claw-like hands, he was filled with a fiery presence, the same presence that turned and twisted in molten metal.

He was successful. He thought, as he walked up from the now empty pool.

“I have a favor to ask,” He recalled the serpent man’s words, before he led him deeper into an underground cavern. “Take it as your first battle, the first beast to slay.”

He had agreed, as he was eager to try out his new strength. The cavern, unlike the chamber, was cold and damp. As he walked down with the scaled man, he could hear an underground river flowing nearby, and occasionally, water dropping from the cavern ceiling.

It had been four days since his coversion, and he neither slept nor ate. He could still sense the heat in the chamber, and smell the thick metallic scent, but no longer experienced pain or exhaustion. The serpent man, meanwhile, had been busy taking notes and testing with visible excitement.

But today, it was different. As he led the young Mekhanite down into the underground tunnels, deeper and deeper, as the automatons carrying lanterns and torches drove away the darkness, he was almost silent. But finally, as they stopped in front of a dark cave entrance, the serpent man spoke: “This is it.”

“The first beast to slay?” He asked. His sound now carried a strange echo.

But the man didn’t answer. He only looked up the cave, and called out a strange name. The Mekhanite recognized that the name was in that foreign language he couldn’t quite understand. Then he heard a rustling sound, that of large scales slipping through wet floor, of something smooth and wet slithering towards them.

The first thing he saw was an eye, or rather, a vertical slit in the head. Then, the head of something resembling a snake, with mouth filled with unnaturally sharp teeth and bone horns protruding randomly from all sides. Its color was a pale white, its scales almost translucent. There were a row of half-formed appendages alongside its body that occasionally twitched. The first two of them looked alarmingly like human hands. As if responding to the name, the creature quickly slid towards them.

Immediately, the young Mehkhanite recognized that stench, the same stench of the flesh beasts that plagued his lands. But even then, none of the flesh beast he had enountered was this… enormous. Its head alone was thrice of his height, and its body seemed to stretch infinitely into the cave’s darkness.

“What?” He asked, shocked. “What is this?”

“My father,” The serpent man said, there was a coldness in his tone. “Please release him from this.”

Before he could ask or even comprehend the words, the Mekhanite was thrown to the side of the cave, his body hitting the stone wall with a loud clank. The giant snake turned to him, and hissed so loud that it was almost a roar.

He expected pain, but as his metal body clashed against the stone war, he realized he no longer needed to worry about that. He got up, but his mind was still in shock. “What do you mean?”

“Release him from his pain, please,” The serpent man said. His servant automatons had retreated to a safer distance, but he remained where he was. “Slay your first beast.”

The Mekhanite looked at the man, and then the giant snake coming towards him. And as he sought a weapon, a blade came out of his arm. He struck quickly, slashing the serpent, and with a painful howl, a translucent liquid poured out.

And as he fought on, he realized that dodging the snake was easy enough, as the cavern was too narrow for it to move freely, and somehow, it seemed unwilling to damage the surroundings. But to his frustration, even though his blade could cut through the white snake’s skin easy enough, seconds after the cut, the wound would heal.

“Such are the worshippers of Mother Dragon, no organs they can’t regrow.” The serpent man said, “You may want to take out the brains first — and then burn their bodies.”

Hearing this, the Mekhanite climbed onto the serpent’s back. Grabbing the bone horns, he easily made it to the head. As he clawed his way up, to his disgust, he realized the scales of the large snake resembled fingernails more than actual reptilian scales. But he holds tight against the writhing serpent, and plunged his blade into its skull.

The bone cracked as if it was nothing against the sharp metal. The snake screeched, and he hit again. And once more. He hit it over and over until its body slumped to the ground, still twitching, but no longer moved.

“You slew your first beast.” The man said, slithering close.

He looked at the man with scales and tail and claws so much like the snake he had just slain. But he only responded: “Much easier than I expected.”

“Your enemies back home will have intelligence, but he had none.” The serpent said, his voice distant and cold. And before the Mekhanite could ask any question, he continued: “Like me, he wished to rebuild our past glory. But as you can see, he failed. His methods failed; the power of the Dragon of Flesh is too uncontrollable.”

“I am successful, then.” He said, standing up.

The serpent gestured, and one of the automatons handed the Mekhanite a package. “The map back to your land, some robes, and a few other things you might need.” He said. “I can only wish you good luck.”

He nodded, and started walking back up. His thoughts once again flew to his home, so far away from this foreign soil.

The serpent looked at the remains of the giant snake, its one eye staring back at him. He bent down to close its eyelids. The torches the automatons held ignited the body.

Among the smoke and fires, the serpent man watched silently, as the beast, blessed with the golden armor of the Great Brass Dragon, faded into the shadows of the cavern.

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