‘Now, we spread the lacquer. This will protect it from the elements, and give it the proper colour,’ Bi De instructed. Both regal rabbit and burned snake looked curiously at it. It had been two days since that encounter, and Bi De was still unsure of how to broach the subject. Should he just bluntly confront it? Should he never tell them? He did not know. Both of them were warming to him, however. Sharing meals had a way of bringing people together.
‘Smells like shit,’ Yin observed, blinking long eyelashes languidly at the concoction. The village Bi De visited had remembered him, and had a ready supply. The slightly charred coins he had been given by Miantiao had easily covered the cost, after the snake had refused to let Bi De pay for it.
‘Language,’ Miantiao scolded half-heartedly.
Yin snorted. ‘This one declares it smells positively repulsive,’ she corrected, her voice haughty.
Miantiao ignored the sass, as Bi De chuckled.
‘Indeed, it is mildly poisonous, and it stains easily. Take care not to get any on your fur.’
‘If it stains, it stains,’ Yin shrugged, unconcerned with the potential damage to her fur.
‘If it sstains you, that means you were carelessss. Allow not a drop to hit yourself or the ground,’ the snake commanded, and Yin straightened up immediately, her eyes blazing.
‘Yes, Shifu! Not a drop.’ She grabbed the pail of lacquer in her mouth and strode toward the reconstructed shrine with purpose.
‘Thin coats,’ Bi De called after her retreating form, and she nodded, eyes focused intently. She bounced back easily from her own troubled emotions. Burning bright and hot for a moment, before settling to a simmer. Blunt, direct, straightforward.
‘...I do not think the amount of poison would be enough to harm her,’ Bi De told the snake, and he cocked his head to the side.
‘Thisss one could not sssay. Poisons elude me… though not for lack of trying,’ he muttered. ‘Ssshe should take better care of herself, though that may be hypocrisssy spilling from my lipsss. Ssshe has a life ahead of her. Ssshe will have a life ahead of her.’
It was a quiet conviction, but one absolute.
‘Now, it doesss us no good to ssslack. Teach thisss old snake how to spread lacquer,’ he declared.
They got to work with their brushes. Miantiao was surprisingly dexterous, even with his broken back, his coats of lacquer thin and even.
‘…Would you tell me about your Master?’ Bi De asked conversationally as they worked.
Miantiao paused. ‘Thisss one supposes it is only fair. You have told us of your Great Master, and his Fa Ram.’
‘I have no memories that do not begin with him. We were both young. So young, when he found me in the first, and took me in. I was weak, and starving. Yet he picked me up. He took me in and fed me. He gave me my name, because I was long and thin. Miantiao.’
‘He was the son of the chief here. Producers of the finest earthen vessels, and glass, with the clay from the river, and the sand from the great sandpit nearby. Those over there—’ Miantiao gestured to a section of rubble, ‘are the remains of the great ovens that baked them, and the great furnaces that heated the glass.’
‘My awareness came all at once. It was during the winter. This one normally slept through the snows, curled in a box. But that night… that night I woke up. I did not know why, only that I had to. I had to see my Master. What I beheld was beauty itself. The streamers of fire Qi, in the middle of the night, as my Master performed something indescribable. Even the other men could only stare, transfixed at his skill.’
‘From that day, from that sunrise… I was never the same again. I copied my Master’s movements, much to his delight. The rest of the villagers called me the dancing snake. And each solstice, he would dance. He would dance all night, in the motes of fire, and I would dance with him. He tHe taught me. He confided in me. He spoke of his dream to travel the land and witness these dances, and unravel the secrets of the dance of fire.’
‘For many years, he worked, so that he might honour his father, and gain enough coin to travel for a time. We shaped glass and clay into new forms. We created. I know little of carpentry, it is true, but this one knows how to make glass sing.’
Miantiao’s eyes were lost to memory, his smile triumphant.
‘He sounds like a wonderful Master.’ Bi De complemented.
‘...Yes. Yes he was.’ The triumph faded. ‘And then he was taken from me.’
‘On the eve he was to leave, nearly a man grown… the Demon came. The town was set ablaze. He slaughtered and butchered without a care. I was crushed beneath the house, one of the beams falling upon my back. I struggled. I struggled so hard to get out. And My Master… Oh, my Massster. He did not run. He went to confront him. They laughed at him. The demon himself came to personally kill him. My Massster’s dance let him dodge three blows. Three blows, and strike once. A mere mortal man, against a demon, and he landed a strike. But all that strike did was enrage the beast. In the end, my Massster could not stand against him.
He was ssslain by the demon, sundered in a single blow. And all I could do was watch. Watch, as the flames consumed the house, consumed me. Such was my hate, my burning fury, that the flames could only take my flesh. I survived the night. Injured, and crippled, but alive. I thought that the heavensss had spared me for one reason. Vengeance.’
His eyes blazed with something ugly, before it faded. Miantiao sighed, and started layering on the lacquer again.
‘And then Shifu found me!’ Yin said cheerfully. ‘On the night of the solstice! Surrounded by enemies, he defeated them, and took me in.’
‘Yesss, the heavensss blessed me with a ssstudent,’ Miantio said affectionately. ‘She even knows how to dance.’
‘Even!? I dance damned better than you can!’ Yin ceased her work, and leapt down to the ground, so she could begin her dance.
She was very good. Her fur was like captured moonlight. Her aura, graceful and refined.
‘I’ll lead the dances, I suppose, and Shifu can lead the village,’ she declared with the conviction of one searching desperately for a purpose. ‘Once all the people come back, everything will be better!’
She did not see the grimace on the snake’s face, turned as he was against the wood.
Yet the snake put on a satisfied face, as the day progressed. He was animated, wiggling around, and shouting commands at Yin, much to her delight. She performed each one without fail.
‘…You’re not bad, Bi De. You made Shifu happy today!’ She had a small, satisfied smile on her face, as they sat outside the shrine, the interior finished. ‘Maybe he’ll even start back on the combat lessons soon!’
Bi De nodded, but he was troubled.
‘I’ll go tend to the graves, and start getting shit—stuff for dinner!’ Yin hopped off, bouncing along. She was so happy. And her master…
Bi De took a breath. He still didn’t know what was going on here.
Enough beating around the bush. He approached the snake, intent on confrontation.
Miantiao did not know why he did this to himself. Why he came back to the village every year, after searching the rest of the time for something, anything to improve his chances against the Demon.
But there were some things that needed to be done. This was the last way he could honour his Master.
The graves were covered in snow, but still visible. His body screamed at him to rest, but he could not. He could not sleep. Every moment was precious in his quest.
But it was a quest he knew he would fail. He was weak. He was still too weak. With his injuries, he was beginning to doubt he could ever be strong enough to slay the demon.
Hate began to gutter, as it mixed with despair. He had lived through the fire. And for what? The only thing he could say now is that perhaps the house falling on him would not hurt him as badly.
He pondered on his next course of action, as he prepared.
Slithering through snow was a monumental task, especially with his back as it was, but it was something he had long since mastered. He carefully dug away the snow, revealing the ground. He filled the braziers with wood. And as the longest night began, he honoured his Master’s dance.
The Qi was faint, as it always was. Barely there, swirling through the air. Miantiao danced and he mourned. He prayed to the heavens for a sign for something that would let him lay low his hated foe. The fires surged around him.
Miantiao stopped his dance, as the steamer of red Qi lingered.
He set off immediately. It was a sign. The heavens had heard his prayers!
His body surged through the biting cold. Through the powdery snow, and over the hill. Until he found her, sitting in the snow by the stone pillar. Cold. Shaking. Near death from her wounds… and a dead wolf beside her, killed by her kicks. The others sported injuries.
Miantiao beheld a jewel. A bright, silver spark.
And coveted it. The heavens had heard his prayers. Her body was already this strong, to do battle against her foes so, and so young.
He drove the rest of the beasts off, and took her. He took her to the house, and warmed her by the fire.
She awoke the next day, frightened and weary.
‘You saved me,’ she whispered in awe and respect.
‘I did. Tell this old sssnake, why were you out in the cold all alone?’
‘…I am lost. My family drove me out. I do not know what to do.’
Truly, the heavens had smiled upon him.
‘Then let Shifu give you purpossse.’
If Miantiao could not slay Sun Ken…he would craft a weapon that could.
A saviour came in her darkest hour, and offered her everything she ever wanted.
‘Thirty more!’ he commanded sternly
‘Yes! Shifu!’ the rabbit called.
Miantiao pushed. He pushed and pushed this little spark, pushing it all he could, only mindful if it broke.
Every night, he told her of the wicked demon, and every night, she swore to help him slay it.
The training was harsh, but she loved it. The feeling of getting stronger.
She knew the demon had to die. She even dreamed about it. Whatever had hurt her kind Master had to be wicked, and deserving of death.
It was years. Years of travelling. Of training. Of forging his blade.
Of seeing her blossom like a star in the sky.
They worked in tandem. He offered his everything to the cause. They searched far and wide for power.
They came upon another awakened one. It guarded its patch of spirit grass jealously, and would not listen to his entreaties for a portion.
‘A test of your abilitiesss.’
The rabbit smiled, and did as he bid, ever trusting of her Master. Miantiao tasted only bile. He was exactly as Sun Ken had been. Descending upon this place, and slaughtering those who resisted, all for his own aims.
‘I’ve got it, Shifu!’ The rabbit cheered, over the broken form of her adversary.
He would pray for their souls when this was done, even as he stained both himself and Yin.
But he would kill Sun Ken.
He always got her the best things. He found her opponents. He gave her all the Qi she needed to be strong. He tended her wounds. He stroked her fur. He showed her how to dance.
She loved her Master. He saved her, and gave her something to strive towards.
They found the village. They found the trail. She was strong. And he was prepared to give her the opening she needed.
His heavens-sent champion would not fail him.
It was time, and Yin was ready to fulfill her destiny
He felt as if he had gotten his back crushed all over again. The people cheering. The laughter. How they said the Demon-Slaying Orchid had proved victorious.
What had he done? What had it all been for?!
Yin… Yin looked just as devastated, but she recovered quickly, turning to him.
‘What do we do now, Shifu?’ she asked, with the simple conviction that he would know.
Miantiao didn’t know.
All he could feel was the emptiness.
Emptiness, and shame as Yin looked at him with such eyes.
The rooster frowned at the story.
‘And what does this have to do with your lie?’ he asked again, as Miantiao stared off into space. Miantiao sighed, but he supposed he had been dodging the question.
‘Because this one must atone for his sinsss,’ he explained.
Bi De’s eyes narrowed.
‘...I took that bright, beautiful spark, and twisted it for my own ends. The strict tests. The harsh training. She never complained. I taught her not the secrets of the glass, nor how to craft an urn. All she knows is war and violence.’
Miantiao laughed bitterly.
‘And for what? The demon is dead. I ruined her, and for no reason at all, instead of acting as a true Master. Instead of nurturing her spark, as my Master nurtured me.
What is the lie, then? The lie is that I shall stay here together with her. To reforge the village with her. But… I cannot. I cannot live like this, in the ashes of the place I love. I cannot look at the child I broke. I cannot hear her call me Shifu any longer.’
Miantiao let out a sigh. It did feel good, to finally tell another.
‘...I will seek out the Demon’s slayer, and offer this unworthy flesh to them. Perhaps I shall be refined or eaten? I have heard that this is the way of human cultivators. Perhaps this wretched life will finally have value, and Yin will be free of me.’
The rooster stared, stunned.
‘If you can, I would ask that you aid her in thisss. Maybe your Fa Ram will be kinder to her than I was.’ He knew little of Bi De, only that he was a kind soul. He would surely take Miantiao’s Yin with him, and give her a better life—
He froze, as the wind shifted, and he tasted an all too familiar taste.
There was rustling.
‘No! Shifu! No, please, you can’t!’ Yin burst out, her eyes wide with panic. Miantiao grimaced at her appearance, as she nearly tackled her master.
Miantiao sighed, as she pressed up against him. ‘Child, child, child… pleassse. I have done you injury—’
‘No! You’re not allowed to die like that. You— you need to teach me more! You need to teach me like you said!’ Yin begged.
How embarrassing, to do this with Bi De here. Really, she was such a difficult child. The rooster pondered them with dispassionate eyes.
‘…I mussst.’ Miantiao stroked Yin’s head, trying to soothe her.
‘You won’t, you miserable old bastard!’
‘Indeed, he will not,’ Bi De interrupted conversationally. The arguing stopped as they turned to him in confusion. He stood tall, his eyes narrow.
‘The slayer of Sun Ken stands before you. I do not accept your life.’
That was preposterous—!
Holy Light filled the clearing. Qi pressed down on them both, forcing them to accept the truth of his words. ‘To flee from the consequences of your actions is cowardice. The easy way. If you are as stained as you claim, Miantiao, then as you say, you must atone with your life. A life spent doing as you should have.’
‘Speak with your disciple. I will either aid you again on the morrow—or I will leave.’ Bi De commanded.
The rooster left them, departing the village.
His disciple stayed pressed to his side. ‘You’re not allowed to leave,’ she insisted. ‘I’ll hunt you down if you try!’
Miantiao sighed, and stroked her head again, but his heart was disturbed.
The slayer of Sun Ken was here. Here. Perhaps… perhaps the heavens still were looking out for him.
“Whether I leave or not… Let usss make a wager, Yin.’
The rabbit’s eyes narrowed, but she let him speak.
Yin was still not convinced of Shifu's wager, but she had accepted it anyway. Bi De was strong, from all she heard of Sun Ken, and she could believe that maybe, he was stronger.
She would win it. She should show her strength, and her damned Master would’t be so damned stupid.
How dare he make her think he wanted to die. How dare he decide that he was bad for her. Stupid snake! Bastard of Bastards!
They waited for the rooster in the dawn light. Shifu was still quiet, but he had his air back. He was quiet, controlled, and ready. Ready like she hadn’t seen him in months. She could barely wait!
Bi De approached. His feathers were regal, and he was very handsome. But she ignored that. Now… now, it was time.
The rooster was silent, observing them both.
Finally, Shifu spoke.
‘I want to know,’ he said quietly. ‘I want to know if it wasss enough. I want to know if we could have ssslain the demon, or if I was just leading usss to our doom.’
The rooster sighed, as Shifu uncoiled, and she got into her stance.
His Qi raised around him. The light of the moon, in the middle of the day.
‘Show usss. Show us if this strength would have killed Sssun Ken!’ Shifu commanded.
Everything she had trained for. Each bruise. Each day. Each moment with Shifu.
Was it wrong to be happy in this moment, while her Master was so sad?
The sun was so warm on her back, as she thought back to the dance she had been taught.
Yin moved, erupting forward, and wreathed in golden light.
[Armor of the Sun]
Golden armor formed around her body, its sections wreathed in fire.
The Rooster’s eyes widened at her speed. Like the sun cresting the horizon, and fully blazing it’s light over the world, she moved. Yet she was not fast enough. A wing rose to meet her.
Yin’s eyes narrowed as she was stopped dead. The rooster let out a huff, and started to spin in a mad, whirling dance. His wings lashed out like swords, as she ducked and weaved around the strikes. They were sharp. Full of the intent to cut, and she had to spend her Qi more than she thought to avoid being split open.
Yet she was undeterred. She struck again, flowing into a series of blows as she ripped and tore at the rooster. She could do this. She would win, and then Shifu would stop being an idiot!
And yet… this was merely buying time. This was merely the first act. Her Master, after all, was not quite as criplpled as he seemed.
And the area which he had occupied was empty.
The Rooster’s eyes narrowed, as he noticed something amiss.
The air around them distorted, like light seen through imperfect glass.
A strike snuck through, and gauntlets slammed into the rooster’s side.
Yet at the last moment, he dodged. With a pulse of Qi, Shifu’s technique shattered. The rooster raised an eyebrow.
[Split Faces of the Half Moon]
Yin frowned at the technique, so different from the strange whirling dance, when she realised what he was doing. He was fighting like Sun Ken did.
‘There were more than one,’ the roster on the left declared, as dark as midnight.
‘Four cultivators were within his entourage,’ the right spoke calmly, his feathers shining silver.
They struck as one. Yin backpedaled, throwing herself out of the way out of the whirling dances, wings slicing through the air in ways that confounded the eye, momentum building as each blow led into the last.
[Shardsss of the Ssshattered Urn]
The ground suddenly erupted into a pit of spikes, forcing the roosters to jump, and Yin took the opening.
Her legs smashed into the silver rooster, discharging with an eruption of fire.
The silver rooster shattered… and then reformed.
Shifu started to suddenly strike from the ground, erupting upwards with snapping teeth, or a blast of razor-edged glass fragments.
Everything narrowed. It was just the two of them as they once more slew one of the rooster’s shades.
The image of Bi De blurred into some demonic thing, with a massive sword. Even as Bi De’s movements became faster and faster, whirling and twisting with a grimace on his face.
But it was getting harder to keep up. Shifu had made jokes about her limitless stamina, yet she was getting pressed. She was failing. Even as Shifu added his strength, she could see the resignation on his face, as he knew that this would end in failure.
No. It would not end in failure.
Yin took a breath. She took a breath as Shifu taught her.
To feed the growing flame within.
A wing snuck through, hammering into her side. Shifu was tossed away, as he tried to wrap up the rooster, and hinder his movements.
Another rooster shattered.
All that was left was battle. All that was left were her memories of the dance.
In this storm of violence, she was at peace. In her mind, she performed not the violence, but the dance of the sun. Shifu was always happy when they talked about that dance.
The rooster became faster, and yet she kept pace. Shifu supported her as he could, his strength flagging, but always, always there.
A kick slammed into his sinuous body, as he guided her out of the way of it, even as he bit down on a leg with fangs made of hardened glass.
Like the sun, she rose, slamming into Bi De, and carrying him into the sky. He seemed surprised, but there was a measure of respect in his gaze.
And then, she was struck. She slammed back down to the earth. It hurt. It hurt so much, but she was on her feet immediately.
The rooster had stopped acting like Sun Ken.
[Light of the Full Moon]
Day turned to night, as darkness covered the sky around Bi De— he was pulling the light out of the air, redirecting it into the silver disk that formed behind him.
‘We go through, little one,’ Shifu declared, as he settled onto her back. He spat out a mouthful of blood.
The distortion formed in the air.
A shield of Glass, against the Light of the Moon.
They rose, on streams of fire, to meet the heavens.
The shield was not enough. Shifu threw his body in front of her. Scales burned, and yet the snake laughed.
They were through, even as Shifu fell back to earth.
It was a lethal strike. Everything she had left was put behind it.
[Wheel of the Crescent Moon]
The light of the sun met the light of the moon.
Yin let loose one final yell of effort.
But she could not break through.
Yin fell, landing on her feet.
She pulled herself together, ready for another exchange… when the rooster held out a wing.
The fight paused, even as her blood boiled with heat.
‘That was the strength of Sun Ken.’ He let out a breath, and shook his head. ‘His Qi was corruptive, and would have slain your Master. But likely the demon would have perished as well.’
Yin jolted, her head whipping around to stare at her Master. His body twitched and wiggled, burned, and injured, but still alive even after facing the attack..
‘Would it truly have been enough?’ the snake asked.
Bi De shrugged.
‘We can never say for certain. From ambush, likely. From directly in front? Or at the height of his power? I do not know.’
Shifu, charred and smoking, stared up at the heavens, with tears in his eyes.
Her heart hurt, to see him so happy that he would have died killing Sun Ken.
But still… ‘I won,’ she stated, staring at Shifu. The snake jolted.
‘…I suppose you have, Yin.’ His eyes were melancholy. But he still offered her a smile.
‘…are you certain?’ Bi De asked the snake and the rabbit. Both nodded firmly.
‘...We cannot ssstay here,’ Miantiao whispered. The reconstruction had been stopped. Instead, a large piece of stone was planted in the center of the village, the names of the fallen etched upon them. ‘We must find a new purpossse’
‘And I won,’ Yin stated smugly.
‘Yesss, you won. I must live on. It would not do to renege on an agreement with my disssciple.’
‘Where will you go?’ he asked them. The graves had been cleaned one last time.
The snake and rabbit shared glances. An invisible conversation happened.
They turned to him, and bowed. ‘Young Master Bi De, you have the same mission as my own Master once did. Please, permit us to follow you in your journey.’ Miantiao asked.
Bi De stroked his wattles, as he beheld them. An earnest wish. He bowed his head, accepting their request, as he once accepted Sister Ri Zu’s request.
He took out his map. ‘Then, this is the way to the next place…’