Chen Feiyan X
the Monastery, Heguri Empire
an End, and the Beginning
Chen Feiyan stood at the top of the staircase inside the tower. The stone beneath her feet was cold. The tower shielded Fei and Spider from the winter storm outside, but the temperature was low. Balls of light suspended in the air, lighting the staircase below. Spider stood to the side, looking down the twisting stairs. She held a wooden tray of teacups. Each cup was dark red clay, finished with a polished brown glaze. Each of the six cups was empty. Fei watched Spider stand motionless. It had been over ten minutes now, Fei thought. She waited for Spider to move.
Suddenly Spider dropped the tray, and Fei watched for a moment as it tumbled into the air. The cups had been in a neat three by two order, but now they fell. Fei took a breath to calm her mind, then harnessed her speed.
Don’t rush; move carefully.
Slowly Fei moved down the stairs with her healing arm still splinted to her chest. The tumbling cups and tray. She watched them move slowly now as if they were light as feathers. Fei knew her body moved faster than the surrounding fabric, but the sensation was that everything else moved slowly. She made her way down the winding stair until she was directly underneath the falling tray. Fei stood and looked up. Carefully, she collected each cup as they drifted down to her and held them against her body using the splinted arm. The tray was last. When she had the tray, she rearranged the cups back into the two-by-three pattern and walked back up the stairs. She released her energy and returned to normal speed.
Fei staggered and fell to her knees but managed to keep the cups arranged orderly on the tray. She felt the pull of the earth, and her stomach lurched. Each time she came out of speed, it felt like something hit in the stomach. Spider walked over to her and took the tray.
“Well done, Moth.”
“Thank you,” Fei gasped for air.
“That will be all for the day; you don’t have any more in you.”
“I can do more.”
“You can’t. Even experienced priests can’t use the speed for long periods. Rest. We will continue tomorrow morning.”
Fei knew better than to argue with Spider. She did not give way like Badger. Fei managed to get to her feet. She grabbed her wool coat and hat that sat against the wall and began the walk down the hallway tunnel out of the tower. Fei stood facing the wooden door at the end of the tunnel, knowing what awaited her on the other side. She covered her face with a wool wrap and tightened her boots.
As Fei opened the door, the wind hit her hard, and snow flurries blew into the tower. She walked over the thin snow cover in the courtyard and slowly closed the door behind her. Black smoke billowed out of the kitchen chimneys, but the rest of the sky was white with the winter storm. The courtyard was empty, priests walked the ramparts, and the maples stood barren, creaking in the wind. It was only midmorning, but the snow had been falling for some hours now. The light snow cover crunched under her feet. Fei wondered what the rest of the monastery was doing. They would be inside, huddled around wood-burning fires, drinking tea, reading texts, and sharing stories or gossip. The kitchen workers would be busy preparing the midday meal. Animal husbandry might be checking in on the pigs to make sure they were warm. A few unlucky cleaners would be clearing the courtyard of snow soon.
Fei looked over to Badger’s quarters. She had not been there since before the night Mushroom died. Fei barely saw Badger anymore. If she did, it was from across the courtyard or the eating hall. Badger refused to look her way. Fei knew that was smart; Spider would know. Spider had not been exaggerating about playing god. Fei was confident that either the fourth or fifth level in the tower let Spider into minds.
Fei’s quarters moved to be next to the other priests. Her new room was spacious and had a small wood-burning stove. Fei put a few fresh pieces of wood with her free hand on the remains of her last fire and lit some small sticks as kindling. As the flames started to burn, Fei blew into the stove as her father taught her. The flame grew and began to lick the underside of the wood Fei had just placed.
Fei stood back up, disrobed, and crawled into her bed. She pulled the thick wool blanket up over her. She was exhausted. The light had been easy enough to master. Gliding took more time, but with enough training outside the walls with Mushroom, she learned it. The speed was proving more difficult. It took her longer to recover, and each training session with Spider left her reeling. Spider assured her that was normal. Each level took more out of you. Spider needed to sleep and meditate for most of the day to use her powers. The woman had not told Fei what the fourth and fifth levels held, or the sixth and seventh for that matter. Fei wasn’t sure she knew.
There was a knock on the door, and one of the workers entered with a tray of hot food. Gourd was from the western continent. She was tall, pale white, smelled of milk, and had a long bulbous face. Gourd was quiet, though, and kind. Fei did not know how she ended up here in the mountains of the eastern continent. Some said she was Dinn; others said she was too tall and must be others who live on the continent’s edge. Others claimed she had royal blood. Whatever her past held, Gourd seemed content to bring Fei and the other priests trays of food.
“Thank you,” Fei said in the Heguri tongue as Gourd placed her tray down next to her.
“Not a problem.”
“How are you?”
“Fine, thank you. You look tired.”
“I see. Tea?”
Gourd poured Fei a cup of tea from the kettle and brought it to her in bed. As she reached down, Fei noticed the ink spiraling up her left arm.
“What do you want to know?”
Fei looked up and saw Gourd watching her eye the ink.
“Don’t be; it’s alright.”
“It looks like a creature.”
Gourd pulled up her sleeve, revealing a serpent-like creature wrapping around her lean arm. It was unfamiliar to Fei. It almost looked like a dragon, but it was too strong and had wings like a bat or a bird.
“What is it?”
“It’s a creature from our stories,” Gourd said.
“It looks like our dragons.”
“That’s a close enough word. Ours bring fire, though, not rain.”
Fei looked at the ink some more, imagining how that creature might bring fire.
“Is there anything else?”
Fei looked up and saw Gourd watching her again.
“Oh, no. Thank you, Gourd.”
Gourd nodded and quietly left the room.
Fei sipped the tea slowly and felt herself drifting off to sleep. She spent much of her days sleeping now as she struggled to master the speed. Her energy always felt spent. Fei closed her eyes and drifted off for what she hoped would be a long sleep.
When Fei woke, her wood stove fire was out. All that remained were smoking ashes. She looked towards her boarded windows. Not much light entered the room.
Sun will set soon; it must be getting close to dinner.
Fei’s food from earlier was untouched. She reached down and picked up the bowl of cold pickled vegetables. She ate slowly and poured a cup of tea, now cold. Spider would not summon her tonight. She would be heading down for her nightly rest soon. Fei finished the bowl of vegetables and stood up, draped in her wool blanket to look out the front door. The front door creaked open and cold air and more snow flurries blew into the room. It was getting dark, and the sun was indeed setting.
Fei closed the door and went back into her room. She summoned a small ball of light to follow her around in the dark. Her broth was cold, but she drank it anyway, hungry from not eating all day. Fei put her light blue silks back on and grabbed her wool coat, hat, and boots. She would dine with the priests again tonight: Deer, the hard-working but jealous woman, Bobtail the second oldest, Duck, the second youngest, still thirty years old, and Blossom, the quiet woman with the broad face. Fei knew the schedule well enough now to know they were on the ramparts tonight. They would eat with Fei, then head to the walls to replace Turtle, Pheasant, Hornet, and Willow.
Those eight priests made up most of the priests, with Spider, Fei, and Badger also knowing the tower’s secrets. Four more priests had the morning shift, but Fei did not know them yet. She was always working with Spider when they ate breakfast after their shifts.
Fei made the cold walk to the dining hall. It was starting to get very dark on the mountainside. Oil lamps lit against the walls. The massive fires on the ramparts struggled to stay going in the flurries and wind. Fei knew the lights suspended in the air illuminated the inside of the tower. The black smoke billowing from the kitchen was gone now, but smoke rose out of the corners of the dining hall, and smaller trails of smoke continued to rise out of workers’ quarters. Fei watched others start to leave their quarters and head for the warmth of the dining hall as she walked. The large wooden stoves in the corners of the hall would be burning beechwood logs.
Dinner would be frugal, Fei knew. Rice with hot tea or leftover broth poured over it with fermented beans or pickled vegetables. Winter meals at the monastery were simply about filling stomachs as efficiently as possible. The room was starting to bustle by the time Fei arrived. Various kitchen workers were beginning to make their rounds with their carts. The fires were crackling in the corners of the room, giving the room a slight haze and smell. Small groups of workers clumped together at different parts of the long tables, making conversation. Fei spotted Hare and Frog. She hesitated for a moment, hoping to catch their eyes, but they were deep in conversation and would not turn she knew.
I wonder how they’re doing.
Fei retreated to the far corner where the priests sat; it was the furthest corner in the room from the door. As she sat and poured herself a cup of tea, more and more workers streamed into the room. The noise of conversation rose, clumsy chopsticks knocked on edges of bowls, and the creaking wheels of carts rolled by tables. Bobtail and Blossom quietly made their way over to Fei and smiled politely before sitting down. That was more than Fei often got from them. Deer was next. She sat down next to Fei but didn’t speak. Although jealous of Fei’s time spent with Spider, Deer was still the kindest. Finally, Duck arrived as the room was mostly full. Conversation echoed off the walls now as the workers talked, and the priests ate quietly.
Fei had hot tea over rice with pickled green beans. She looked up in time to see Badger entering the dining hall. Badger removed her thick cloak, revealing her broad shoulders. She looked around for a moment, then walked over to Rat and some of the older workers. Fei watched Badger greet them with a smile. Something she said made them laugh, even Rat. She watched Badger eat, and talk, and gesture with her arms. Fei quietly harnessed her speed and watched Badger move slowly. She savored the sight more than her bland meal. Quickly she returned to normal speed as she knew it would take too much out of her.
“How was your training this morning,” someone asked.
Fei looked over to find Deer staring at her.
Deer paused before responding again.
“Are you working on the speed?”
“That must be difficult.”
Fei’s mind wasn’t with Deer. She looked up to steal glances at Badger.
“Am I bothering you?”
“No. I’m just not feeling well.”
“I see. Learning a new skill is always difficult. I remember when I was first learning to glide. Each jump made me want to pass out. The speed must be even more difficult.”
Fei smiled politely and sipped from her tea. It was quiet then. Deer gave up trying to make conversation and returned to her bowl. Fei turned her attention back towards Badger’s table with Rat and some of the older works. Badger was standing up now. She was talking with a priest by the front door of the dining hall. The priest was taller, wispy, with long arms; it looked like Hornet.
It’s too early for her to be off shift.
Hornet’s arms moved with urgency while she whispered into Badger’s ear. Badger looked back towards their table. She looked at Fei for the first time since the night Mushroom died. Their eyes locked for a moment before Badger started moving. She strode towards their table. Fei watched Hornet rush back through the front door into the snow. Various groups of workers picked up their heads to watch Badger move.
“Bobtail,” Badger asked, “Can I have a word.”
Bobtail stood up, looking bemused.
Badger whispered in her ear, now. Bobtail listened intently but didn’t say a word to Badger.
What’s going on.
Badger left without looking back at Fei. She headed for the front door, too. Bobtail turned to the four of them.
“We are needed at the wall. There is some urgency.”
The three other priests stood without asking any questions. Fei stood to join them.
Bobtail put her hand out, “Not you, Moth. Please, stay here.”
“No,” Bobtail shook her head, “Your arm is still healing.”
If this were any other priest with an injured arm, you wouldn’t be stopping them.
Fei sat back down and watched the four priests put on their wool cloaks, boots and leave the hall. The rest of the workers were watching them, but they did not seem to mind. When the front doors to the hall slammed shut, all the eyes turned to look at Fei sitting alone at the end of the table. Fei looked down at her food, embarrassed.
Stop looking at me; I know as much as you.
Fei sipped at her tea. Slowly conversation returned to the hall, and the carts wheeled around to tables again.
What is going on? Why the urgency?
Fei poked at her food. She suddenly had no appetite. She looked towards the closed front door.
I better see for myself.
Fei got to her feet and started towards the front door. The room went silent again. She could feel the eyes on her. She put on her cloak and boots and left without saying a word.
It was still frigid outside and now very dark. The snow flurries stopped for the moment, but the wind continued, blowing snow across the courtyard in gusts. Fei scanned the courtyard looking for the rest of the priests. She spotted Turtle and Willow walking the wall, looking out towards the fields. They moved normally. Her eyes moved over the rest of the wall. On the far side of the courtyard, she made out the large group clumped together. They were looking out over the forest below. Fei began to walk and quickened her pace. She began to run now, her boots keeping footing in the snow below her feet. Snowfall crunched as she ran.
Fei made it to the closest stone stairwell that took her up to the ramparts. She ran to the top of the wall to join the group. Bobtail and Hornet turned to look at her. She caught the annoyance on Bobtail’s face, but she ignored her and returned her focus to the group. The four priests she didn’t know were awake and with the group. They all stood quietly, looking out into the winter night. Winds gusted on the mountainside cutting through the silence.
“Another group,” Pheasant said quietly.
“Where?” asked Badger.
Pheasant squatted slightly and pointed towards a small clearing in the canopy below.
“I see,” Badger replied.
“How many is that now,” Bobtail whispered.
“At least fifteen,” said Badger, “Someone wake Spider.”
“Send the girl,” said Bobtail, not looking at Fei.
Deer turned to Fei now, “Go to the tower, Moth. Tell Badger we need her awake at the wall.”
Fei nodded, “What’s down there? Shadows?”
“Go!” Badger turned to her, her voice stern, “We have no time to lose.”
Fei turned and ran back down the wall to the staircase below. Once she hit the courtyard, she took a few steps and then lifted off the ground, gliding towards the tower. Fei floated effortlessly even through the winter winds. She reached the base of the tower in no time.
Thanks for the training, Mushroom.
Fei opened the large wooden door to the tower and sprinted down the hall. She stole a glance down the staircase as she moved towards Spider’s quarters. When she arrived, she knocked on the door. Spider answered quickly.
Fei entered the room. Spider sat, eyes closed, legs crossed.
“Spider, they need you.”
Spider opened her eyes and stared into Fei’s.
Spider calmly stood up and walked to the back of her room. She unrolled a small canvas bag. At its heart were three blades, sheathed. Spider drew the blade and handed it to Fei. It was a Heguri blade, with one straight blunt edge and one sharp curved edge. It seemed to shine a light blue hue even in the dark light of the tower.
“Do you know how to use one?”
Fei shook her head.
Spider nodded. She returned the bag and picked out the smallest blade.
“Take this, then.”
Fei exchanged the sword with the shorter blade. It was about the length of Fei’s arm and still had a long handle to accommodate both hands.
If only I had both hands free.
“Tie it into your silks under the cloak,” Spider instructed.
Fei slid the blade into her waistband and used the small rope attached to the sheath to tie it down.
“Don’t use it if you don’t have to. If you have to, make it count. You are trained in the arts, the light, and gliding, but you are no match in combat with your arm still healing. Evade them.”
“Do not use the speed; it will take too much out of you.”
“Who is out there?”
“We’re going to find out. Stay off the ramparts once it begins. If they breach the wall, you may defend yourself. You might as well take off that splint in that case. Is that clear, little Moth?”
Spider walked swiftly out of the room, and Fei followed. Even in her old age, Spider moved like a young acrobat. Fei stole one more glance down the staircase on the way out of the room.
When they reached the courtyard, Spider breathed in the fresh air deep through her nose.
She turned to Fei, “Can you glide?”
Spider took two steps to get a running start and then shot out through the air across the courtyard. She was faster than Fei, or Mushroom, or Badger. Fei took a running start and leaped to follow her. Fei watched the barren maples creak in the wind as she flew. Turtle and Willow still patrolled the wall over the fields. The rest of the priests spread out overlooking the forest below. By the time Fei landed, Spider was already up the stone steps and on the ramparts. Fei rushed up to join her. Spider talked with Badger and Bobtail.
“We’ve seen over twenty now.”
“Armed?” asked Spider.
“Well-armed. Each wearing metal plate,” Bobtail replied.
Spider thought for a moment, looking out over the forest. Badger and Bobtail watched her.
“Hornet,” Spider called.
Hornet ran over from the following position on the wall to meet the group.
“Go to the dining hall. Instruct the workers to barricade themselves in and not to leave. Tell Beetle to have the kitchens distribute knives, pots, and whatever else might help someone defend themself to the workers.”
“Tell them we are under attack and that they are not to join. If we are overrun, they may go easily or defend to the end. It is their decision.”
Hornet took two steps and lept from the top of the wall down to the courtyard below. Fei watched as she elegantly stepped down, only to lift off again towards the dining hall.
Spider turned to Fei, now.
“Little Moth, take Hornet’s position on the wall. When she returns, go below to the courtyard as I asked.”
Fei ran over and took Hornet’s place on the wall. She looked over to Badger and Spider. They both looked out into the forest canopy below. Slowly, Badger’s eyes moved to Fei. Badger’s face was solemn. It was not its usual warmth. She sighed and turned to talk to Spider. Spider looked at Fei now and nodded. Badger turned and walked towards Fei now. The large wall fire behind Badger lit her broad frame as the wind tugged at her wool. She continued looking at Fei until she reached her.
“How are you.”
“Things could be better.”
“Nice silks. I don’t even have those.”
Fei smiled, “Thank you.”
“Spider said I might speak with you, quickly.”
“There’s something I wanted to say. Little Moth, I do care for you. I wasn’t taking advantage of my position.”
Fei blushed in the winter storm.
“I know, Badger. I care about you too.”
“Don’t lie. Don’t say it if you don’t mean it.”
“I mean it.”
They stood in silence for some time. The night fires on the wall raged all around them.
“I’m sorry about Mushroom. I’m sorry we didn’t tell you.”
Badger looked sad now, “I knew.”
“Why didn’t you stop us?”
“You two seemed happy. I thought it was going to be ok. You were, weren’t you? Happy?”
“I was,” Fei said.
“And now? Are you happy learning from Spider?”
“I am,” she admitted.
“I need to go now.”
Fei reached a hand out towards her, but she pulled back.
“Not now,” said Badger.
Fei watched as Badger walked back to Spider. Spider stood motionless, watching the forest below.
It wasn’t long before Hornet returned. Fei watched Spider dispatch her off again, this time along the wall. Hornet ran down the length of the ramparts, stopping to tell each priest a message. When she reached Turtle and Willow on the far side, Fei watched her glide down to the courtyard, take two running steps, and step back off the ground again, this time heard for her. She landed on the edge of the ramparts and scampered over to Fei.
“On Spider’s signal, light up the forest below where you stand. Spider wants to get on with it. She wants them to know we know they’re here.”
Hornet turned to run down to the next priest before pausing and looking back.
“After you light up the forest below, return to the courtyard. Spider asked me to remind you.”
It was only a few more minutes before Hornet told the rest of the priests. All twelve priests were stretched across the ramparts, now. Spider and Badger made it fourteen. Badger and Bobtail said there were at least twenty well-armed men below. That should be easy enough for fourteen priests, Fei thought. Hornet returned to her position on the wall next to Fei. She looked past her, towards Spider. Fei noticed the rest doing the same.
They’re waiting on her signal.
It was only a minute later that Spider reached into the air and released a small ball of light. Priests moved swiftly from all along the ramparts. Giant balls of light emerged from all over the wall. Fei watched Hornet form a large ball of light in between her two hands. Fei did the same with her free hand. Hornet released hers down into the forest below as many of the others did, too. Badger released one the same size and shape as Hornet, while Bobtail’s looked like a serpent, weaving in and out of the trees below. Spider’s light broke up into what looked like hundreds of shards; each grew legs and crawled around the tree branches below. Fei released hers, too, and as it flew, she shaped it into a giant moth. She flew it down in and out of the tree trunks below her position with Hornet. Suddenly the dark forest canopy below them was lit with light from all over the ramparts. Dozens of armed men in green armor shielded their eyes from the light. There were far more than twenty men.
Slowly the lights died out, and the canopy returned to darkness. It was silent on the mountain but for the wind. None of the men below made a sound.
“Go,” Hornet turned to Fei, “Go below.”
There was an urgency to her voice. Fei stepped back onto the rampart railing that led back below to the courtyard and floated down. As she glided through the air, she heard the call from below.
“Attack! Attack!” a gruff voice called out.
My mother tongue, those are Daming men.
Men’s voices called in return. Drums beat outside the walls in a short rhythmic pattern. Fei turned to look at the wall; it was too high. She could not see anything but stone and the priests’ heads on the wall above. She heard them unsheath their blades.
I’m no use down here.
Fei looked to a large maple to her right. She took two swift steps and then lifted off the ground. Fei perched herself on the top of the maple for a vantage point, just like she used the gnarled pines during her training with Mushroom. From her view on the tree, she was level with the ramparts now. The priests removed their wool cloaks leaving their light blue silks flapping in the winter winds. Drums continued to beat, and men yelled from below. Snow flurries blew off the top of the wall and down into the courtyard. Each priest held her blade at the ready. Badger stood with a wide stance. She kept her broad shoulders open and held her large wooden staff at her side.
Fei saw movement to her left; Turtle and Willow ran towards the rest of the priests from the wall’s farm side.
No use being over there. The attack is from the front. You can’t reach that part of the mountain from below, anyhow.
Fei turned back to Badger, Spider, and Hornet in front of her when she heard the sound of metal clanging on stone. Over and over, iron hooks appeared at the top of the wall. First, there were only a few; then there were ten, then there were dozens scattered along the wall. Hornet moved swiftly to the closest hook and slashed at the wall below. She quickly dropped to the ground as an arrow whistled past her head before jumping up and slashing at the next hook. Fei heard a man cry out as Hornet cut his rope. Elsewhere along the wall, priests slashed at the ropes attached to the iron hooks. Fei watched Bobtail flash a huge fan of light below her position on the wall, presumably to blind the attackers temporarily. All around now, arrows flew up as the priests struggled to cut the ropes attached to the hooks.
Suddenly a priest cried out to her right. Fei watched as Blossom, the quiet broad-faced priest, held her stomach and turned to face the courtyard. A dark pool of blood formed around an arrow in her stomach. Another arrow whistled and thumped in her back; then another. Blossom fell, and her body crashed against the hard stone below. Fei gasped, her free hand instinctively covering her mouth.
Another priest cried out. Fei looked further down the wall to her right. It was one of the priests she did not know. She had an arrow lodged in her neck, and quietly she slumped down onto the rampart until she stopped moving altogether.
Men in green armor crested the top of the wall. Hornet flashed one in the face with her light right in front of Fei’s position atop the maple tree. He staggered back, and Hornet effortlessly kicked him over the wall, back from whence he came. More and more Daming soldiers crested now. Hornet’s blade whirled as she cut them down, one after another like a spoon through soft bean curd. Elsewhere along the wall, the priests did the same. Badger thumped a soldier cresting the wall with the end of her staff, sending him back. Spider elegantly dispatched the armored men with ease, using only her hands.
More cries came from the right of Fei’s position. The priests at the end above the gate were struggling to hold back the soldiers. More and more men were cresting the wall, pinning the priests against the back of the ramparts. Each had their blade out, slashing at the armored attackers. Drums continued from below. Another priest fell as two soldiers skewered her with their swords; it was the next youngest, Duck. Just earlier, they had been eating together in the dining hall, and now her body crumpled against the hard stone of the courtyard. The far side was overrun. Fei looked to Badger and Spider; neither seemed to be paying attention as they held off forces in the middle. On the far side, Turtle, Pheasant, and Willow were dispatching their attackers.
Another priest Fei did not know was cut down, and then another. Men swarmed the ramparts to Fei’s right, and two attackers began running down the steps to the courtyard.
“Badger! Badger!” Fei cried out through the storm.
It was no use. The fighting on the wall was thick, steel clanged against armor, drums beat below, and the wind blew hard on the wall, carrying with it snow and ice.
They’re going to open the gate!
Fei leaped from her position towards the two before thinking. Suddenly she was facing them, blocking their passage to the gate. The men smirked.
Their blades were drawn; blood covered one of them.
Fei stood in a defensive position at the ready.
Spider told you you could defend yourself. Do it.
The men charged, and Fei flashed them in the eyes with a fan of light with her free hand, copying Bobtail’s technique from earlier. The men staggered, and one slipped on the icy stone beneath his feet. Fei pounced on him, drawing her short blade as she moved; she slowed time every so quickly to slip past the standing man and drove the blade between the fallen man’s plate and into his neck. As soon as she pushed it home, she returned to normal speed. There was no stomach ache; no need to vomit. Fei whirled around to find the other man regaining his footing. He glared at Fei and charged her holding his blade high with both hands.
Fool, leaving his stomach open.
Fei swiftly stepped to the side as he crashed towards her and dragged her blade through an opening under his armpit. Blood sprayed out onto the white snow covering the courtyard, melting it where it fell. The man held his arm and dropped the blade. Fei was on him before he could defend himself, kicking him to the ground and planting the sword in his neck.
I could get used to this.
There was a crash behind her; another priest fell to the ground. Two arrows lodged in her side, and her head was caved in from a blunt object. Fei looked up; there was only one priest left defending the wall above the gatehouse. Men streamed down the steps now, heading towards the gate. They outnumbered the one-armed Fei. They were all outnumbered. Hornet and Deer flew down from their position to meet the stream of men heading towards the gate. There were at least twenty now, with more spilling over the ramparts above.
We’re outnumbered. They’re going to open the gate.
Fei wheeled around, looking for something, anything, to help her parry them back. Then she saw it: the tower. Fei glided up to the top of the maple to watch Badger one more time. Badger and Spider were holding their section of the wall. Spider had her blade out now and was slicing through the attackers. Badger’s broad shoulders moved gracefully even now in the heart of the winter storm. Her staff thumped steel helmets over and over, sending men crashing back into the forest below. She kicked an oncoming soldier in the chest, sending him reeling over the wall.
I’m sorry for what I’m about to do, Badger. I promise I’m only trying to help.
Fei lept from the maple, hit the stone, and took off again, gliding towards the tower. She glanced over to the other end, only to see Willow dead in a pool of blood on the snow-covered courtyard stone; Pheasant and Turtle struggled with the rush of bodies.
Fei hit the ground and ran past the blockaded dining hall towards the tower. She pushed open the large wooden door and slid into the tunnel that led back to the stairs. The building was silent and dark. The drums faded into a dull pounding, and the cries of men and clangs of steel died down as she ran down the tunnel. There were no lights suspended in the air this time. The tower was pitch black. Fei threw a small ball of light into the air and fashioned it into a moth again. She threw four more until five moths led the way for her, lighting the tunnel as she ran towards the stairs. Fei ran past the stairs and turned right into a side room to get more root. When Spider took her to the third level, she showed Fei where they kept dried maple root and small wooden pipes in a room above the stairs. Fei grabbed dried root and a wooden pipe before heading back towards the stairs.
Fei’s moths lit the stone stairs as she ran down into the abyss of the tower. She ran past the first stone tablet and down the next set of stairs. It was now completely silent; she could not hear any more drums. The tower was too far below ground.
Fei passed another stone tablet, then another, until she reached the fourth level. She paused in front of the fourth tablet.
No, whatever is here is not helping Spider above ground. It won’t help you either.
Fei kept moving deeper into the tower and blew past the fifth tablet to the next set of stairs. Her moths floated in front of her, keeping the way lit enough so that she did not stumble. Finally, Fei paused in front of the sixth tablet. She knew Spider even feared learning whatever it held. Fei paused and thought back to the stream of men heading towards the gate and Pheasant and Turtle struggling on their end of the wall. The attackers would encircle Spider, Badger, and Bobtail soon.
If I do nothing, we all die anyway.
Fei reached down into her pocket and pulled out the dried maple root and wooden pipe.
Like Spider taught me.
Fei packed the pipe with dried root. When Fei smoked the root for the third level with Spider, it worked almost immediately; there was no ten-minute wait. Fei shot an intense beam of light down onto the packed root until it began to smoke; she blew into it gently until she saw the orange and red embers start to burn. Fei put the pipe to her mouth and inhaled deeply.
I want to save the monastery. I want to kill the attackers.
Fei stepped forward and paused. She took another deep inhale. More than she needed, she knew.
Might as well.
The walls around Fei began to move almost immediately. She was used to the feeling now, but it still overwhelmed her senses. Her body disappeared into the surrounding room once again. Stone spiraled in on itself all around her. She did not need reminding of her intention this time.
I want to kill the attackers.
Fei stepped up towards the stone column holding the tablet. The letters were strange and foreign as always, but as she brushed them with her hand, they came alive, moving, and flashing color. More characters emerged all around the room, some as if suspended in the air. Fei looked at the wall ahead of her, and a small fox, her fox, bounded up to her. It was multicolored with six eyes. She connected to the animal, just like her first time. The fox bounded further along the wall and took flight in the form of a dragon, landing on the tablet. Fei became one with the words. Energy flowed through Fei’s body, leaving her warm, almost too hot. Fei felt herself vomit a little out onto the floor next to her, but everything was so multicolored, she could not tell her vomit from the surrounding stone. The rush hit Fei again, leaving her tingly; she could not feel where her body started, and the rest of the room ended.
I can see. I can see everything.
Fei closed her eyes and looked behind her. She could see the stairs leading up to the rest of the tower as clear as day. She went further to the courtyard above. Fei saw the fighting in as it was happening above her. It was all there; she could see it as if she was there. Fei watched Pheasant dispatching men elegantly on her side of the wall, but Turtle was missing. Fei moved close enough to touch the silks on Pheasant’s body. She was there, but her body was not. She turned her focus to Badger and Spider and moved back to the center of the fight. Bobtail was there, too. The three were encircled, with their backs to the courtyard.
Fei looked to the right. The last priest she had not known lay dead as Hornet and Deer fought on. The gate was open, and men were pouring into the courtyard.
They’re trapped. Badger run!
But Fei could not call to her, and Badger did not hear her. Fei could only see. Fei knew she could visit anywhere on the continent world from where she stood, but there was nothing she could do. The sixth tablet did not help her act.
Fei watched the men streaming in from the gate surround Hornet and Deer. Hornet moved quickly, took a step, and flew back towards the dining hall. Deer went to follow but was too slow. Outstretched arms snatch at her as she took off, pulling her back to earth—a mass of bodies pounced on Deer, driving their swords into her body. Fei watched Bobtail, Badger, and Pheasant leap towards the dining hall, too. Spider only jumped to the middle of the courtyard. She pulled out a second blade as the oncoming rush of almost fifty armed Daming soldiers descended on her. Spider cut through the first wave like soft bean curd, blood spilling out onto the cold snow below her feet. She flashed men as they came near, sending them reeling backward, holding their eyes. Men started firing arrows at her with no regard for their fellow attackers. Spider used her speed, dodging countless arrows as if they were dead leaves falling from a tree in autumn.
Even experienced priests can’t use the speed for long periods.
Spider kept it up for almost a minute before she fell to her knees, vomiting across the snow. The Daming soldiers laughed as she collapsed; Spider had nothing left to give. Her petite body looked so delicate now lying in the snow. The men circled her, and their captain stepped forward, wearing a more elaborate helmet. The closest soldier tossed him a spear, and he drove it down into Spider’s chest. She did not move. Slowly, the men’s eyes moved towards the dining hall. Fei looked inside; Badger, Hornet, and Bobtail were there. They barricaded the door with the help of the workers.
I need to act.
Fei returned to the sixth room. Bright colored spirals move in on her from all sides. Fei had nothing left. She stumbled towards the next set of stairs. Her eyes desperately wanted to close. Her body wanted to give up.
Fei dragged herself to the top of the stairs, unable to walk, as her moths gave out, leaving her in darkness. She rolled over the edge, tumbling and crashing down the stone stairs until she landed with a thud on the stone floor of the final room. Fei vomited blood. Her world was spinning; she was dissolving into the fabric now.
Not yet, please. Not yet.
Fei dragged herself forward in the multicolored darkness. She could see nothing but spirals. With every drag of her body, she reached out into the emptiness of the room, looking for the column.
Where are you, where are you!
Fei coughed up blood onto the floor again and dragged herself forward. She swung her arm forward, and it crashed against something smooth and stone. Fei grabbed it with both hands and slowly pulled herself to her feet.
She felt for the tablet and put both hands on it.
Energy crashed into her body as the characters on the tablet lit through the multicolored nothingness of the room. Everything became characters; she could see it all: the walls, the tablet, the column, and even the air. She could see herself; she could see her energy. Fei had so little left.
I’m not going to make it out of this tower.
The dragon swooped past her head, landing on the tablet. Its eyes locked on Fei.
My intention; I want to kill the attackers.
Another rush of hot energy flew through the fabric and into her body. Her whole body went numb and tingly.
I can create and destroy. I can take life, and I can give. I can build.
Fei knew she had little time left. She looked back up into the courtyard; the attackers surrounded the dining hall. They pounded on the doors—the women inside all held knives, iron pans, and clay pottery. The doors began to give, breaking in places. Attackers launched arrows inside the building. Badger stood at the front of them all. The women all looked to her for strength. Badger opened the door, and a flood of workers streamed out to meet the attackers.
I can create and destroy.
Hornet, Bobtail, Badger, and Pheasant led the sortie as the mass of bodies crashed into the attackers.
No, I can do this. I can take care of this.
Fei looked at the attackers’ life energy. So many had so much left.
Time to take it away, all of it.
Shards of bright hot white light shot from her body and through the tower and ground above. They moved like dragons, slithering up to the ground above. Fei watched as the attackers began to cut down the helpless workers. Pheasant fell amidst the chaos. Her dragons in pursuit were there quickly; perhaps in no time at all, Fei could not tell. Once they reached the courtyard, the white lights weaved into the fray, thumping the soldiers in the chest. Each time the light shot through the men, their energy disappeared, they dropped to the snow, and they became part of the vast fabric once again. The workers stopped; they looked confused. Badger paused and looked towards the tower.
Badger ran to the tower as the rest of the workers stood motionless. Bobtail and Hornet were quick to follow her. Fei knew she had nothing left.
I can create and destroy.
Fei looked further now. She scanned the world around the monastery. There was a man, alone in the cold. He was bleeding. She knew she had seen him in her visions before, but only as a boy: the scrawny unkempt boy who had waved to her. He had been looking for her. He wanted to help her. He was imperfect, but Fei felt his heart. She looked further now, to the governor’s estate, but he wasn’t. She searched the northern Daming lands until she found him. Governor Guo stood above a dead man; he was laughing. Fei reached to snuff out his life energy like she did the attackers, but her reach could not take away from this far. She collapsed onto the floor, spitting blood.
No, no, not yet.
Fei sat against the stone pillar. She slumped low but still looked onward; she looked for the girl from the visions. She was still running, but she was large now. Broad chested, strong, and scared. She was far from home. Someone had taken something from her. Someone had taken everything from her.
Fei looked further. She looked for the boy that sailed away and saw the young man adrift from her visions, too. Far from home, his home was gone. He was cast away at sea on a ship.
She looked at everything she could create, everything the fabric allowed her to make.
The creator of this monastery used the seventh tablet. I can create anything.
Fei had so little energy left. It would all be over soon.
Make it count.
Fei called back to her childhood. She remembered the creatures from the stories she told Meifang. Fei needed a serpent, a dragon that brought the summer storms. She called on the fabric for one now. Fei shaped a dragon with dark blue scales that shimmered in the sun. Its whiskers and tail were shades of light blue and white. She made it broad and strong. She gave it to Badger.
It will find you. Use it. Avenge us.
Fei recalled her fox, a skin-changer. Its body morphed into anything. Its fur was a brilliant orange; its undercoat a bright white. The fabric allowed her to create one too, and she gave it to the lonely man hurting in the cold.
It will find you. So you never go alone, again.
Fei asked the fabric for another dragon, but one from the Gourd’s story. The creature had great wings and, instead of water, brought forth fire. She gave it dark red scales, darker than the muddy Red River that separated the Daming from the Heguri. She gave it to the girl, far from home and scared.
It will find you. It will protect you.
Fei saw the sea monster, the one with many legs and sharp teeth. The ones that stopped travelers from crossing the sea for many years. Fei asked the fabric to create one last monster. She gave it to the young man, adrift at sea.
It will find you. It will help you find your family again.
Fei knew she had one more promise to fulfill. Fei looked to Loghua for her family, but she could not see them. Knowing what kind of man the governor was, she made peace with this long ago. Her old home was in shambles. No one had lived there in years. Her father’s fisheries were empty. The market was empty on the winter night with only a handful of stalls still open.
Mei was there, hidden deep in the forest outside the village, but she was there. Fei asked the fabric to create another dragon for her sister, but her life energy was empty.
What else can I give?
Fei felt her energy leaving her body. She looked up and one of her small moths was back, still illuminated against the multicolored room. It landed on her nose.
Bright like a star; I promised her one.
With her last breath, she called on the fabric to give Meifang her light.
I’m sorry, sister. It’s not a star, but it will have to do.