Zhang Fei was bored out of his skull. He had to look after his little sister today, and that meant sticking close by in the village, because she was too young to actually do anything. At least he could go for rocks, and she wasn’t too heavy, especially with the cloth bundle keeping her in place. She was babbling and making little noises. He skirted around giant rock, and nodded to a shepherd as he wandered around the grassy knolls in the sun.
You always started a walk going up. You exhausted yourself going one way, and then headed back the other when you got tired for a more leisurely experience.The entire Gutter was sloped, heading to the mud-bowl at the end of it, where the water would sit, and disappear, and everybody would trawl over, looking for whatever washed out of further upstream.
Truthfully, he didn’t know exactly why everybody called this place “The Gutter”. Was it because of the sluiceways? They did kind of look a bit like the gutters in Verdant Hill. He heard the Lord Magistrate built them. Whenever the hills rumbled, and the torrents of water came gushing down, all of the adults would come out to watch them warily. And then when the sudden surge was over, they’d all go back to the center of the village, and they would raise a glass of rice wine to the portrait they had of the Magistrate.
It was dumb and boring, sitting around watching the water. So he had made something fun, even if his mother tanned his hide black and blue after he jumped into the Sluiceway on a plank of wood and rode it to the next village. Screaming that it was dangerous.
Feh, it wasn’t dangerous. It was fun! And the adults, no matter how much they grumbled, were rapidly losing the battle as news of his exploits spread.
Sluicing, they called it. And he was its father. “Fei the Torrent-Rider” was such a cool name. Almost as cool as the Demon Slaying Orchid!
He grinned, as the Lord Magistrate’s gutter came into view. He hoped there would be another rumble soon, it had been hot recently.
He walked a bit more up the slope, and looked back down it. On to the small, patchwork forests, the mine, and the balls of fluff grazing everywhere.
His sister gurgled, as he transferred her to his lap. He idly wondered what he should do next. He could go to the shrine, but there were way too many stairs to get to the top of the steep hill.
And Fei wasn’t particularly feeling like doing that in the heat. Doing it for the solstice was bad enough. So instead he sat, rocking his sister, and occasionally making faces at her to make her giggle.
It was then when he heard a commotion.
It was coming from a bit further up the road. There were the shouts of people, anger and distress.
He eyed his sister, and then looked back up the road.
He tied the cloth bundle to his back, and went to go see what was happening.
At first he snuck, just in case, but it proved to be unneeded. He knew these people. The pack of caravaneers certainly weren’t bandits. They were loud and stomping, and a bunch of them were pulling the carts by hand, four of them hitched up to where a horse would be. The other horses were skittish, and jumping at anything that moved, drawing curses from their drivers as they worked to keep them in line.
Several of them were uttering curses that Fei had never heard before. He carefully added them to his ever growing repository.
Satisfied that they weren’t a threat, he popped up out of his hiding place and approached.
“What happened?” he called to the men.
The leader of the caravan snarled viciously.
“Wolves, boy!” he shouted, his voice full of rage. “We set the horses out to graze, and the damned creatures took two in the time it took to blink! I’ve never seen a pack kill that fast, and certainly not a horse. The next day, they got another! It was madness! There’s something odd coming from that forest, mark my words!” He spat on the ground, and glared back up in the direction that he came.
“I can get some oxen from the village?” Fei offered, and the man smiled at him with relief, slumping from where he was hitched like a beast.
“Good Lad!” the man complimented him. “Heavens bless you all. We’re going to have losses this run, no matter what we get, but maybe it will be salvageable.” He grumbled. “Never going through that forest again.”
Zhang Fei went and got the oxes, and some more men.
That night they commiserated with the caravaneer’s losses, brought some of their wares, and then the next morning, they were on their way. The deals they made would be loaded on the way back up, instead of having to carry their full burden all the way to the bottom of the long slope, and all the way back up as well. Less strain on the animals that way.
By the next week, Zhang Fei mostly forgot about the wolves. It wasn’t like he ever went into that forest anyway.
Zhang Fei came back to choked sobs, after his morning with his father. He was hot and sweaty in his heavy apron and thick gloves. Learning how to separate out silver was a disgusting task. Full of foul smelling reagents that his father constantly warned to never get on his skin, and to breathe in as little as possible. His hair was sticking up all over the place, and his face was bright red as he pulled off most of his equipment.
At first, he thought it was his sister again, but there was grief in those sobs.
He wondered what was happening. A bunch of people were around Xi Zhao, patting him on his back, with looks of anger on their faces.
His mother saw him, and waved him over.
“Wolves took three sheep… and they killed Shaggy Boy.” She whispered to him, and Fei felt a flash of anger and sadness. He used to ride that dog. All the children loved the big friendly ball of fluff. People used to joke that he was Zhao’s third son, such was his affection for the animal.
“This Xi Zhao swears to the heavens, should they be kind,” the distraught man snarled. “That he shall slay each and every wolf in the Gutter for this!”
The men nodded their heads. Hunting parties were organised.
The first night, they were successful. Four wolves, as the men of the village set forth with a vengeance.
The next night, they got three more. One of them even boasted that he had put an arrow into the leader of the beasts, straight into its breast.
The wolf attacks dropped immediately after that. The men patted each other on the back, and the hunting party disbanded. All except Xi Zhao, who went out, day after day, to track down and slay the ones who had killed his loyal friend.
Until one day, a week later, he didn’t come back. All they found was his head, at the edge of the village. Like it had been placed there deliberately.
The attacks on the sheep began again with a vengeance.
The hunters were assembled. They sallied out with their bows and their spears, determined to put a stop to the onslaught.
Ten men went out.
Four men came back, their faces ashen, and their eyes wide and wild with terror. Telling tales of an ambush.
Howls echoed from the rocks and the hills. A wolf. It had one normal eye, and one that burnt red in the darkness. The malevolent orb gazed down upon their village.
There was intelligence in those eyes. Hatred. His pack surrounded them all.
An arrow stuck out of his breast, the fletching broken off, but still penetrated into muscle. Around the shaft, the beast’s fur was turning stark white.
With deliberate ease, the wolf pulled the shaft from its chest, and threw it to the ground, before picking up some small bundle.
The wolf dropped the head of a hunter at the edge of their village. The same hunter who had boasted about killing the leader.
Their village had no walls, but sharpened stakes were driven into the ground, and gates and barricades assembled as the beasts retreated from a shower of arrows.
The next morning, one man tried to break through the cordon. To beg for help from the Lord Magistrate. The sun was high. The horse was fast.
He didn’t even make it a mile, before the wolves were upon him. The Pack leader struck. With a far too powerful pounce, it tackled the horse to the ground. Its fangs fixed around the horse’s neck.
And with a single ripping jerk, the wolf tore the horse’s head off. Its pack set upon the messenger. The man died screaming.
They could not leave. They were trapped. Trapped like rats.
Zhang Fei’s village was under siege.
The air was tense and nervous in the village. Terror had slowly given way to resignation, and grim resolve. The wolves stalked outside the village. The humans had their makeshift walls. So far, they had not attempted to brave a full assault. But the pack leader was watching them. Watching them with disturbing intelligence.
Something had to give, and soon. Their flocks needed to graze.
Zhang Fei knew, deep in his heart, that the pack leader would not rest until he found a way to break their village open.
Every night, the beast howled, its haunting hellish moan driving the men to call it “The Terror.” The spirit of every slain wolf, come to take its due from the flocks.
“When the next rumble comes, I’ll go down the sluiceway, and ask for help downstream.” Zhang Fei told his parents. Surely the wolves wouldn’t be able to follow into the raging river?
Their salvation would be what his parents swore was once destruction.
But the heavens laughed at them. They waited, and prepared. No rumble ever came.
And howls echoed over the village once more.
For all that it was terrifying, and the beasts were unnaturally coordinated, most of the wolves were just that. Wolves. Arrows shot out of the village at the horde, piecing flesh, and sending the beasts staggering, or dead to the ground. They leapt at the barricades, and were repulsed by spears stabbing deep into flesh.
But the men were getting tired. Sleepless nights from the howls combined horribly with exhaustion. The assault ebbed and flowed, and the howling of the wolves wormed into the minds of the men of the village. They reverberated all over the gutter, and they could likely be heard down the slope. It was maddening. The men’s eyes were wide and wild. Their spirit failed them. And the Pack leader, The Terror, finally designed to descend.
The beast leapt. It soared through the air and over the barricade with nearly a leap that looked as if it was flying. A man managed to strike it, but his spear barely penetrated flesh. With a snap, he was relieved of his hand, and he fell back, screaming in pain. The Beast’s lips were pulled back into a satisfied snarl, exposing gleaming teeth. The men levelled spears at the creature, but in their hearts, they knew it was futile.
The Wolf stalked forward. The men fell back. They fell back, fear in their hearts. But not Zhang Fei. The boy bellowed. He roared in defiance racing towards the creature that wanted his family dead.
It was a foolhardy strike. One backed by the incensed rage of youth. There was no possible way he could have hit it, with the telegraphed blow. The Terror snorted. The wolf dodged, weaving around the strike, with contemptuous ease, and closed the distance. Its maw opened wide, ready to slay a young man just as easily as it slew a full-grown horse.
It hadn’t noticed that the boy had taken one hand off the spear. Chemicals used to separate silver from rock flew into the shining red orb.
Zhang Fei’s aim was true.
The Terror screamed in agony.
The wolf, shocked and in pain, veered off. Both hit the ground and rolled, before surging to their feet. The rest of the men roared, seeing this blow struck against their enemy, and surged forward, intent upon its end.
Teeth snapped down on wooden hafts, shattering spears. Clawed paws slashed, and shoulders rammed, throwing grown men like children. The wolf rose, on shaking legs.
Its spirit firmed.
The one normal, yellow eye, its remaining one, the other scarred by acid, began to change.
Glowing red bled into yellow. The white fur on the beast’s chest spread like it’s body was being bleached.
Zhang Fei held his ground, gazing hatefully at his foe. His heart pounded in his chest, his eyes blurred from sweat, and he felt lightheaded.
Zhang Fei knew there would be no more tricks. The arrogance with which the first blow had been made was gone. The wolf was taking him seriously now. Illuminated under the light of the full moon, he faced down his adversary.
It was a doomed task. The wolf moved with speed he could barely track. Dirt exploded behind it from its charge. Wolf howled. Boy roared in defiance, bracing himself so that maybe, just maybe, the wolf would impale itself upon his spear with its headlong charge.
But he knew in his heart, this was his end. He only prayed that it would be wounded enough to retreat. And that something, anything, would protect the rest of them.
His prayers were answered. The heavens descended.
Something, drawn by the echoing howls, had heard their pleas.
[Aegis of the Full Moon]
A silver barrier sprung into existence between the two combatants. The wolf slammed face-first into a shield of holy light, rebounding off the shining Lunar Disk.
A small form landed gracefully in front of Zhang Fei.
Everybody stared, as the barrier faded, incredulous. Even the howling had stopped.
Zhang Fei blinked, and rubbed his eyes, wondering if this was some strange hallucination brought on the moment before death. Had the Terror struck him already?
But no, as far as he could tell, he was seeing what he was seeing.
It was a chicken.
A magnificent cock, to be sure, wearing a fine, fox fur vest, along with what looked like a small pack on his back. His colours were radiant, and he seemed to glow under the moonlight, otherworldly and ethereal.
With a swift jerk of the chicken’s head, the pack fell to the side, as the rooster took an obvious breath, preparing himself.
The rooster turned his head back to Zhang Fei, and nodded, respect in a single gimlet eye.
The wolf roared. It rose to its feet, its eye burning crimson. Something started to leak out of it. Shimmering in the air, and oozing.
The rooster turned back to his foe, unimpressed. He clucked once, gesturing to the wolf.
The Terror howled again, and threw himself at the rooster, mouth foaming with spit and madness.
None could perceive what happened next. There was movement.
The Terror’s head hit the ground of the village, severed by blades of the purest silver.
There was silence.
The stoic, silent warrior bowed his head, as silver light suffused the area.
Abruptly, the howls from the wolves outside the barricade returned. But these were not howls of rage, but instead confused yelps and barks of terror. Eyes wide, and tails between their legs, the army of wolves fled, running away as fast as their legs could carry them.
The oppressive feeling faded. Nobody knew what to do. Nobody, save the rooster. All eyes were on him, as he went into his dropped pack, and retrieved an item. A roll of parchment.
The rooster, with deliberate slowness, walked up to Zhang Fei’s father. He was holding a spear, and propped up against the wall, despite his crippled leg.
The rooster bowed to him. It was refined and graceful. Somehow, it didn’t look absurd. The trembling man dropped his spear, and clasped his hands together.
“This Zhang Fei greets his saviour.” He managed to get out.
The rest of the village followed suit. Some dropped to their knees.
The rooster nodded imperiously, and pressed the paper forward at him. With trembling hands, Zhang Fei the elder took it.
“....the seal of the Magistrate…?” He asked, in incredulous wonder.
There were gasps of shock and awe.
“You have our utmost gratitude, Master Bi De. I beg you, partake of our hospitality!”
The rooster nodded, stroking his wattles.
Zhang Fei was still sitting, numb, when the cheering started. They were saved. They had lost too much to be truly jubilant… but they were lucky it was not far worse.
The spear dropped from shaking hands. He had almost died. A wing patted him twice on the shoulder.
He stared up at the rooster. The approval, and respect in his eyes.
The shakes stopped. Zhang Fei swallowed, and nodded back.