The sun disappeared behind the hills, and twilight came. But The village was not plunged into darkness. Paper lanterns cast red shadows, and giant fires blazed, as the village gathered at the shrine.
“And that was how the Great Sage San Ta defeated the wicked Kram Pas, and banished the child-stealer from the world.”
Little Xian gasped from his perch on Chun Ke’s back, eyeing the stuffed dragon he had received. “So this is a protective talisman that can ward off evil?” He asked, and Jin shook his head.
“That's what they started out as, but… that's just a toy. Nothing protective about it.” The boy pouted, but didn’t seem too upset. He was too busy thinking about San Ta chasing the demon all over the world on his trusty horned steed. He grinned, and settled on the great boar’s back, peering through the horns tied to the pig’s head.
“My eyes see all the wicked, and all the righteous!” he cheered to himself, “Ya! Charge, Chun Ke, lets jump over an ocean in a single leap!”
The boar obligingly trotted forwards, chuffing with amusement, until he was interrupted.
“Chun Ke, to the shrine, please, not an adventure.” Meiling said reproachfully. The boar stopped in his tracks, and turned to the woman. Somehow, he managed to pout.
Meiling was having none of it.
“Shrine.” She stated simply, and both boar and boy slumped.
“Alright... Kram Pas.” The Xian muttered.
“What was that?”
“Nothing!” Xian yelped, and muttered again, “Demon sister.”
Meiling eyed his back. “He's getting entirely too cheeky.” she sighed.
Jin shrugged. “You can always put on some horns and haunt the end of his bed. Kram Pas liked naughty children the most.” His tone made it clear he was joking.
Meiling’s eyes, on the other hand, gleamed with the kind of gleeful malice only an elder sibling could possess.
Jin sighed, and wrapped an arm around her. “So, what's happening at the shrine? I know most people pray for a good year, but I get the feeling this is more than that.”
Meiling smiled. “You’ll see very shortly. A lot of the villages around here do this..”
They had all gathered at the shrine, when a hush swept over the crowd.
Hong Xian the elder strode from his home. His robes were the colours of the dawn. Reds, oranges, even pinks and purples, spreading out like the sunrise. On his face, he wore a mask, a stylized depiction of the sun. He carried a staff, with loose rings on it.
Jin’s eyes widened at his measured steps, and his almost trance-like breathing. The crowd parted for him, as he strode into the ring of coals that had been constructed, braisers burning with barely noticeable flames.
From the other side of the village came Yao Che, his robes dark blacks and deep purples, the mask of the moon on his face. He took up position outside the ring, before a massive drum.
They both stood, absolutely silent, as they waited.
A gong sounded.
The last of the twilight faded away, giving in to the Longest Night.
The drums began to pound. Slowly at first, and then with increasing ferocity.
Hong Xian danced. His body moved through old forms, passed down from father to son for generations. For centuries. His bright robe whirled. His feet stomped. The staff jangled and chimed, as it went through the motions that had remained unchanged since their inception.
For nearly ten minutes, the dance continued, Xian’s body never stopping it’s movements, his breath just as perfectly steady as it had been at the start.
The gong sounded again. The drums pounded. The dance continued, repeating it’s first movements. Some of the watchers broke off at the sound of the gong, those with children too young to even attempt to stay up all night. But most stayed, standing together in front of the shrine. Some had their heads bowed in prayer. Some simply stood with their family. Others started to dance as well, leading their children though old steps.
“...he's going to go all night, isn’t he?” Jin whispered to Meiling. She looked up at her betrothed. His eyes were locked on her father’s form, genuine respect shining in them.
“Until the sun rises again.” She confirmed.
“....is there anything I can do to help?” Jin asked.
“The fires are to get higher throughout the night. More wood, more flames, a beacon to call the sun. You can help, add to those, if you really want to. They’ll start stoking the fire in three more repetitions, and then every ten after that.”
Jin nodded, still entranced by her father’s dance.
“Until that time…. Come here.” She grabbed his hand, and dragged him off to the side.
“These are the moves to the other dance we do…”
His eyes lit up.
Bi De’s night was extremely pleasant. He knew now why The Great Healing Sage wished to visit his Great Master as often as she did. The time spent without Sister Ri Zu had been a trying one. Her company was a balm upon his soul, her presence a calming draught, her weight on his back a welcome pressure.
It was even more welcome to hear of her time spent in this place, apprenticing under the Great Healing Sage. She spoke with great enthusiasm, of medicines and concoctions, and though he comprehended bare fractions of what she said, he enjoyed hearing about what she had learned.
The Great Master was right, as always. Spending time with one’s friends and family upon the solstice was only right. Even if they were here, instead of on blessed Fa Ram. His fellow disciples had been received with great enthusiasm by the mortals of the village, even as he kept largely apart. Most pointed covetously at his hat, a gift from the Great Master, so he had retreated to the rooftops lest they pester him enough to draw his ire.
Brother Chun Ke was already a fixture, beloved by the children. His kindly Brother let them clamber over his body without reservations, and so received much affection. Bi De could not imagine what he liked in their screams, they were most annoying, but to each their own.
The only other who remained aloof was Sister Tigu, who was consumed with the training aid the Great Master had gifted to her. She had not put it down since she had been gifted it, and even now was asleep in the sleigh, curled around the gift.
Bi De sighed in contentment as the instruments below clanged. The mortal’s dance was mildly entertaining, but his movements were slow. On the third repetition, he turned his gaze away from the sight, and to the heavens. The moon, which had been obscured by the clouds, was revealed.
The full moon.
It was auspicious, that the longest night of the year was also the night with the brightest moon. It took over for the sun, shining its light upon the world.
He gazed upon the celestial body, and pondered upon this cycle. If there was a longest night, there was also a longest day. His awareness back then had been...limited, so he could not remember seeing this longest day.
He pondered, not for the first time, on the moon’s counterpart. Though it was his duty to herald its coming, he could not bring himself to love the sun like he did the moon. He could not observe it directly. It’s light gave life, but it was also harsh and unforgiving, gazing sternly down upon the world. He knew he would have to spend more time pondering it, in order to be able to truly comprehend the cycles, but he had decided to complete his contemplations upon the lunar glory first.
He gazed upon the moon as it traveled across the sky, waiting for the sun to reclaim its rightful place. He noticed there was a brighter glow coming from beneath, and he turned his attention to it.
He chastised himself. He had been arrogant again. The mortal was still dancing. The other, still drumming. The snow had completely melted around his legs, and the flames around the dancer surged with passion and energy.
What had started lowly was now a mesmerising sight. The mortal, nay, the man, still danced with skill, his breath as perfect as Bi De’s own, despite having so little qi he might as well have none.
The qi that was around the dancer seemed to be invigorated by the Great Master’s own energy. It danced through the air, swirling around the dancer and the drummer, yet not touching them. It was a formation of fire, and yet they took not from it. He observed carefully the qi, and they way it moved. It was gathering and dancing, swirling and twisting.
It spiraled. It cycled. The day into night; the night into day. He watched the dance, and watched the dancer’s breathing, his movement and his kicks.
He paused, and examined it more closely. There was a thread, as thin as could be, trailing from the formation, and into the distance.
‘Hold on please, Sister Ri Zu’, he requested, and at her acknowledgement, lept into the air. His ability to fly was limited. His legs were more powerful than his wings.
But just this once, he offered an apology to the heavens, ascending high into the sky. So high he reached the clouds, and he turned around to gaze upon the world.
The tiny thread of flame went off into the distance. He saw, from this most high perch, another spot of fire. It was not as grand as the fire tended to by the Great Master, and the tiny thread was trying to invigorate this one as well.
He saw the tiny spots of flame, and in his mind’s eye, he saw where more portions of flame should be.
But there were none there. Dark spots, in a formation of fire.
Something stirred at the back of his mind, and yet did not coalesce.
He and Sister Ri Zu fell back down to earth, alighting upon the roof of the house again.
That was fine. He need not break this code tonight. He watched the man diligently instead, as the moon crossed the sky, and light began to return to the world. The swirling bands of qi dispersed.
The sun broke the horizon, the great lord of the heavens peeking out almost shyly from behind the hill. The world seemed to sigh contentedly as the celestial body revealed itself.
And in it’s deep, deep slumber, the earth stirred once.
Bi De shouted his greeting, as the warm rays touched his body. The humans below, and his fellow disciples all added their voices; Even Tigu yowled from where she was on the sligh, and Wa Shi splashed happily.
It was nothing more, and nothing less, than a beautiful view.
Hong Xian staggered as the sun crested the horizon. Those who were still awake cheered as the first light of dawn hit them, including his own son, who he could hear shouting with glee that he had made it.
It got harder every year. It got harder every year, and yet this year...Xian’s body felt as though it was on fire, his breath had finally failed him, and he nearly fell to his knees.
But he felt so alive.
A hand on his back steadied him, before he could fall.
“Are you alright, father?” a male voice asked.
It was a strange still, to hear those words out of Jin’s mouth. They were not family yet, but… his eyes were full of genuine concern. Jin’s hand was gently pressed against his back, and yet it felt like the entire world was supporting his exhausted body.
His breathing evened out, and his shaking legs steadied.
Just in time for his son to collide with his middle. If Jin’s hand hadn’t been there, he would have been thrown onto his back.
His son grinned toothily up at him.
“I did it!” he cheered again, through the bags under his eyes.
His hand rested on his son’s head.
“I’m proud of you.” he rasped, his throat terribly parched. His legs wobbled again. “Jin… help me sit.”
The man nodded at his request. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw the Xong brothers helping Brother Che. The poor man was without any family of his own this year, with Meihua unable to make it back home, but he would still be well taken care of.
Jin helped him walk, his arm steady in his back. It was a light touch, so light that he felt like he was walking of his own power. Last year he had to be carried. He was escorted to the shrine, where he was gently allowed to sit. His daughter came with water, and helped him drink when his hands shook too badly.
He gazed out over the world, the sun rising up from its slumber. His youngest was in his lap, having finally succumbed to sleep. His daughter supported him on one side, and his soon to be son on the other.
The shakes stilled. He closed his eyes in contentment, and settled his breathing.