The east burned.

It had been one hundred years, and still, it burned. Since that day of Cataclysm when all the sky was washed in flame, the east had burned. Millennial groves had been laid flat by the pressure of the Sun’s dying, and their children burned each summer. Fresh shoots caught flame when summer came. Newborns, men and beasts alike, suffocated when the sweltering heat grew too much.

For one hundred years, Wu Jin had come each morn to meditate upon the tallest standing hill which overlooked the devastation. The tap of his staff stirred up ash and dust as he ascended, and the only sound was the scuff of his sandals and the soft whisper of wind. As he reached the top of the hill, the wind picked up, and dust and grit swirled. Wu Jin raised a hand to shield his mouth, and when it passed, he adjusted the cloth which covered his empty sockets, ensuring it was snug. The sand would get in and irritate them otherwise.

Wu Jin stood at the top of the hill and tapped his plain wooden staff against the ground thoughtfully, feeling the land around him in the echoes. He recalled the first day he had stood upon this hill and looked east. He remembered the terrible pressure, and the sky going white. He remembered the feeling of his eyes trickling down his cheeks like tears.

All in all, he had been a lucky fellow, Wu Jin mused. Carefully, he sat down, feeling the ache in his aging bones. He was going to die soon. He knew this with the certitude that only a cultivator could have. There would be no fourth realm for him, no adjustment to Death’s ledger granting him another hundred years.

Wu Jin hummed to himself and heard the land in his echo. It was so easy to be macabre here, surrounded by the dead. He remembered the grove which had once stood here, the burbling brook which had wound round the hill. Now, there was only a plain of ash.

There to the north was where the home his father had built with his own hands had stood. Now, there was dust and glassed foundation.

Yet still, the land lived. He heard it, the roots and life deep in the earth, struggling on after a hundred years. For his first three decades, he had worked tirelessly to aid them. He had sung songs of spring to growing shoots and cared tenderly for rising saplings.

They had all burned when summer came. They always burned when summer came.

He had spent his meager wealth importing soil from the west and spent more still on wardings and artifice.

Dirt became dust, and the artifice of man crumbled before the heat of the dead sun.

Wu Jin dug his fingers into the dusty earth and weighed it in his hand. Just ash and dust, hardly even a worm to be found. When the rains came, it made not for fertile mud, but merely a gritty slurry.

In the next three decades, he had despaired, and the land lay fallow. Joining the Sunguard, a lordless company, he had struck out again and again into the dunes. He had slain the Walkers of Ash in their hundreds and thousands and came close to death a hundred times in turn.

Wu Jin’s grip on his staff tightened, and old sun-cracked leather creaked. His wrinkled lips twisted into a smile as he hummed the beat of his company's marching song. He had never seen the banner he carried into battle, but his comrades had assured him it was glorious.

Wu Jin remembered the crack of dusty bones under his staff, the sounds of battle. He remembered voices going silent one by one, never to be heard again, unless beyond the veil of this mortal realm. One day, he had found himself alone in a company of strangers, and never had the banner weighed so heavy.

So in the seventh decade after the Cataclysm, he laid it down and returned to his hill.

Once more, he laid down the seeds. He sang the old songs of soil and root.

Summer came, and they burned.

Wu Jin had made his peace with that. He had no children, no nieces, no nephews. No living kin at all. When he passed, this land would merely be wilderness once more. There was no one who would be harmed by his failure. No one would remember the grove and the babbling brook or the song of the wind in the trees on a spring morning.

It was a sad thing, but the world was filled with many sad things.

Wu Jin listened to the sway of the saplings he had planted, the rustle of leaves and young branches. It was the first day of summer. Just one more time, he would allow himself to hope. After that, he would see about finding a place to rest and wait for his end.

The sun peeked over the horizon. The hot wind from the east blew on Wu Jin’s sun-lined face, and the edges of his ragged robe began to smoke as the sun qi so deeply ingrained in the earth responded.

Wu Jin heard the first crackle of flame, then a heavy crack as a trunk burst, sap boiling. He lowered his head as he heard leaves take to flame.

Wu Jin’s staff fell from his hands, and his shoulders fell. How was it that after so many times, it still hurt so keenly?

Once more, the trees burned.

But one lived.

He felt it first, a rustle of leaves where there should have been ash. Wu Jin raised his head, and his gasp of surprise carried his sight. There, at the center of the grove he had planted, stood a single sapling. Already, its siblings had collapsed into ash and tinder, but the last tree lived. It burned, and it lived.

Wu Jin crawled forward on his hands and knees. His staff lay forgotten. His aching bones lay forgotten. He tumbled down the hill like a clumsy child and staggered to his feet, covered in dust and grit. His empty sockets stung with grit as he walked forward unsteadily, ignoring the hot ash that clung to his skin.

His hands found smooth bark, and flames licked his hands. Wu Jin felt his lost eyes burn, not from grit, but from tears that could no longer fall.

It looked as if he would be seeing tomorrow after all.


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