The sun bled into the sky on the day she opened her eyes again. She hadn't realized that death had been so cold until she regained the sensation of warmth seeping into her flesh.
A second chance at life. That's what it was, wasn't it? She didn't like the thought of being a tool, even if she was now a tool of a god, but she supposed that's what she had been raised for since the day she was torn from the dying hands of her guardian.
A broken, discarded tool. Born Shui Yu, she was christened Jen Zi by the Glorious Strategist bathed in the blood at Dirge. She had earned the title "Radiant" on her own, but she couldn't shake the feeling that her name no longer belonged to her. Abbot Song had spoke truth; she had lived a lie.
She stood, pushed herself up from the floor of the temple. She moved slowly, testing her newly animated muscles. The Water Dragon's gift? She smiled; all things had their price.
The battered temple at Dirge was poor shelter to the elements. Drifts of snow gathered at cracks in the stone walls and at doorways. The last of the Spirit Monks made her way towards the temple's fountain and disrobed.
Abbot Song had said that she had been cleansed in the fountains as an infant. It seemed fitting that she be cleansed a second time after her rebirth. The frigid water sent her teeth chattering. There was something soothing about that; the gooseflesh forming on her skin, the uncontrollable shivering. That pain never would have occurred had she still been dead.
She managed to dip her head beneath the water once before she had to accept how ridiculously cold the water was. Puddles formed at her feet as she climbed out of the fountain. She conjured a small fire to dry and warm herself by before hypothermia set in.
Dirge was quiet, touched not even by the whispers of the dead. She worked her fingers through her drying hair. She really was alive. The Water Dragon had restored everything, down to her red and blue silks.
It felt too surreal. Her friends were on their way, the Water Dragon had said so; and when they arrived, they would face her former master and end his tyranny.
Dry, she slipped her robe back on. After her boots were laced tightly, she pulled her hair back into an elaborate knotted bun and fixed a ribbon to it. She couldn't wait to see the look on Sky's face.
She made her way down the temple steps as she wrapped her hands. Greeted with silence, she assumed that the Water Dragon had enough strength left to finally grant Abbot Song and his Spirit Monks some peace.
Dirge, home of the Spirit Monks, her home, was a shadow of its onetime glory. At the start of her journey from Two Rivers she had thought that seeing Dirge would have filled a missing part of herself, but she realized that it just tied her stomach in knots. It seemed different viewed from the Spirit Realm. Still torn asunder, perhaps it was the bright noonday sun, but she could see new markings cleaved into the stone by what could have been an enormous axe.
There were tents in the courtyard. She increased her pace; there hadn't been tents in the Spirit Realm. Her friends had come for her.
"Sky!" she called out. "Dawn Star! Everybody!"
There was no reply.
"Anyone?" She flipped over the flap of one tent to discover it had long been deserted. Perhaps it had been left over by the Imperial Army twenty years ago, she hazarded.
Whoever had been there hadn't left much behind. An empty, broken wine bottle and a strange looking cask. Whirlwind wasn't the only one in the empire with a taste for wine; it could have easily been any random soldier celebrating after the slaughter at Dirge. But the cask, that was a bit more dubious.
She gauged the weight of the cask with her right hand before she crept from the tent. She offered an apologetic bow of her head to the massive statue that guarded the walkway before she hefted the cask at the likeness of one of the Thirteen Brothers. The concussion knocked her onto her back.
"Earth meets sky," she murmured after she had regained her breath.
She leapt to her feet and ran to the other tent. Nothing but a single scroll.
This wretched place is nothing but a massive graveyard. I was a fool to listen to Dawn Star. Everyone knows that ghosts are stuck at their final resting place.
"Impossible." They had come for her. But the tents were long abandoned, the scroll yellowed with age.
No, the very idea was preposterous. A roving band of vagabonds, they had limited supplies, Silk Fox had written her message on old parchment. They had arrived early, but why did they leave? Perhaps they had run into trouble or had gotten low on food and supplies. She giggled; knowing Whirlwind, he had run out of wine.
The remainder of the day she spent looting the remains of Dirge. Her obligation was to the Water Dragon, not the dead; too much was at stake for her to tread carefully among their bones.
She spent the night in Silk Fox's tent. It didn't have broken glass on the ground and she could almost imagine the scent of the orchid perfume that the Heavenly Lily was so fond of. Her sleep was a dreamless, abysmal black.
She woke with the sun and began preparations to leave for the Imperial City. Golden Star, her staff was strapped to her back as she gathered all the gems and silver she could find in the temple into her small leather pouch and ignored the rumbling in her empty belly. The rusted gates were forced open with a kick and she was on her way.
A single mountain pass led from the temple of Dirge to the whole of the Jade Empire. She made her way down slowly, careful of her footing in the ankle deep snow. It had been a good two hour's hike when she heard the even tempo of marching footsteps in the distance. Soldiers.
If they had come for her, they had numbers on their side. Hungry and cold, it would have been too easy to submit. She pressed her body against the jutting rock of the mountain and stilled her breathing. If it was the Imperial Army and not the Lotus Assassins, she had a chance.
As the pounding of feet grew louder, she ventured a look. Instead of answers it only provided more questions.
The men that trudged up the mountain were outlanders. Pasty skin reddened beneath the sun, their hair in a variety of colors. Orange, brown and yellow, it appeared natural on them. They carried bright banners and in the distance, she could hear the sound of some sort of horn.
She recognized the clunky metal armor, their strange garments, pantaloons she thought they were called. Men from across the Glass Sea. It made no sense. She stepped into their ranks.
"Excuse me," she called out. "Who is in charge here?"
The procession stopped and the men stared at her. Their voices were thick with a guttural tongue that hurt her ears. One man yelled something and she had the sinking feeling that perhaps she should have stayed hidden. She reached for her staff as they surrounded her, their own weapons pointed at her. Her knowledge from the previous battle she had fought against one of their kind made her consider her actions carefully. Slowly, she set her staff down on the ground and raised her hands submissively.