Title: The Garden of Two Rivers, part 5 of 5
Summary: Wu the Lotus Blossom reflects on her destiny and the repercussions such a promise will bring. A different look on the first chapter of the game.
Notes: Nearly a year since the beginning, and it's done! I hope you've enjoyed reading it. I welcome all forms of feedback, so fire away! Oh, and though this is a retelling of the first chapter of the game, I hope that I have taken away the feel of game-play and given you a feel of storytelling instead. Enjoy!
Smiling Mountain commented that afternoon how rare it was to see the top student going into the school's archives of literature and history, and how he hoped that it would inspire the other students to do more to advance their studies than spar all the time. Knowing where we came from, and how we got here, is important, he said. Wu had only smiled pleasantly at him and without a word entered the dark and musty old library across from the student quarters for the rest of the day.
She skimmed through all the books, all the scrolls, and found different stories, myths, and legends, and with a heavy heart she rarely read past the first paragraph, or chapter, or verse. As the sun began to set behind the hills and she could no longer rely on its light to read, she returned the books back to their respective shelves, and she leaned against the wall and closed her eyes as she let the sounds of combat from the ring just outside soothe her.
Every story had the same beginning, and what a horrible beginning they all were.
Master Li had said something about her destiny to one of the other students that morning, while he was berating him about his lack of attention to his studies, and she overheard Wen regale Si Pat with one of his favorite hero legends that was very popular in the Imperial City. Wen had said something that bothered her, something she could not keep off her mind, and she remembered her dreams of flames and ash that had plagued her the past few nights. She had shrugged them off as merely nightmares, her subconscious disturbing her with some poetic idea of self-discovery, but now she wondered, and feared, that they were far more than that.
No great destiny comes without great tragedy.
That was ridiculous. She stood, stretched her back and rolled her neck and decided that a good spar could clear her head and help her forget all about it. It was useless to dwell on some unknown of the future.
Wu slid open the door of the library and saw that every open space to spar in the school was occupied by other students. Lin and her friend took the ring, as they usually did, and she could hear matches in Smiling Mountain's training grounds and back behind Master Li's house. Besides that, nobody else was available to spar—anyone who could was already in a match or nowhere to be found, and everyone else had to keep to their required non-combat studies and chores that Smiling Mountain had insisted Wu not bother them to abandon. Si Pat ran around the school lighting lanterns, and Wu decided she was better off finding something else to do.
She circled the ring from a distance, so that whoever was waiting to use the ring after Lin would not assume that she wished to use it after her, and so that Lin would not get distracted with knowing that Wu was watching. Wu refused to let herself be critical about other students—she only watched Jing Woo out of habit, and Kia Min out of curiosity—but she did notice how, as soon as Lin saw Wu watching, her style would change from flowing, natural moves to rough and rigid displays of skills she did not yet possess. Wu enjoyed watching Lin when she danced in the ring, and if only Lin would let herself fight like that even when—
Wu shook her head. She must find something else to do.
She quietly snuck out of the inner gates and made her way to the garden. Dawn Star was in private training with Master Li and would not emerge until it was time to retire for the night, but perhaps a quiet meditation by the creek would be good. Hardly anyone, barring Gao the Lesser, thought to come here unless they had to run an errand, or were claiming to, and so Wu found a nice, open patch of ground, where Dawn Star had recently planted new seeds. She knelt, and as she bent her head to begin her meditations, she could not help but to smile.
Little green sprouts had risen from the dark, rich soil, their simplicity a clean slate for how they would bloom. She did not understand the growth and intricacies of the life of flowers the way that Dawn Star did, but she appreciated her friend's philosophy behind each flower planted. Wu brushed her fingers over one of the tiny leaves, and she remembered a story she had read when she was younger, about a young woman fulfilling her destiny with no tragedy befalling her home—only a call to arms, and she saved the empire, and her family, her friends, and her love, all survived. Wu already knew about her destiny, and Master Li had all the other details, which was a lot better than most of the other heroes stacked up in the Jade Empire's lore and history.
She had nothing to worry about. She would go and save the world, see the empire, and she would come back to Two Rivers, and everything would be okay. It had to be.
She heard a soft chuckle from behind her and a cheerful voice say, "You're that bored to be taking up gardening, now? It's unlike you."
Wu looked over her shoulder to see Jing Woo approach her with an easy smile and laughter in his eyes. She stood to face him, and she crossed her arms and matched his grin. "Is that so bad? Dawn Star does it. It seems to work for her."
"For her, maybe, but not for you. I'm surprised you're not hovering around the ring or asking Smiling Mountain to set you up with a match or two. If you're not careful, Kia Min will one-up you again."
She frowned; he, of course, had to bring that up. "Maybe you should be more concerned with your own training than mine," she said. "Besides, to one-up me anymore, she'd have to start breaking my records. I made sure that they were not easy records to break." A beat. "It'd do you good to try to catch up to her, at least. There's still a considerable gap in your skills to hers. What are you trying to do, embarrass me, my former student?"
Jing Woo laughed. "There are much, much easier ways for me to embarrass you anymore, my former master," he said. "You make it too easy for me."
Wu snorted. "Well, then, I guess I have to make it harder for you, now, won't I?" she said as she pushed past him. She smiled when he grabbed her arm and bid her to wait, and she remembered the first time he had done so in front of all the other students, not really knowing what he was doing, but still firm and unafraid, and refreshingly different.
"I wasn't complaining," he said more softly, and he pulled her close to him. "It's nice that I have that over you."
"Hm," Wu pouted as he leaned forward and lightly brushed his lips over hers. "I'm not sure if you deserved to do that. Maybe we should spar for a few minutes, get some practicing into this free time of yours, then maybe you would have earned it."
"This, after not getting beat by anyone today?"
"You're getting cocky. You do realize that anyone who could have beaten you was preoccupied all day today?"
"I know, I know, all four of you were busy with other things. Or, in Gao's case, on his last day of suspension." Jing Woo grinned. "You know, I wonder how long it'll take before he cries home to his father for the last time and Gao the Greater decides it's not worth sending his son here."
Wu shrugged. "Hopefully sooner rather than later. Are we going to spar, or what?"
Jing Woo raised an eyebrow. "You weren't kidding."
She grinned, and she broke out of his arms and grabbed his wrist. "Am I ever? Let's spar!" Besides, it was a good diversion. It was like Dawn Star said—to speak of Gao the Lesser, to think of him, when he was absent, was giving the boy more power than he needed or deserved. For Wu to start ranting about the indignities of the boy's presence in Two Rivers when he was nowhere in sight would be to lose to him. And that, she would not have.
Wu tried to pull Jing Woo towards the small clearing of the garden, but when she took a couple of steps forward and felt a small tug pulling her back, she frowned and turned to him. His normally laughing face wore a puckered brow, and Wu released his wrist.
"What is it?" she asked. She had seen this face once before, and what a scene they had made in front of the entire school when he refused to own up to what was bothering him. She hoped that he learned his lesson from that episode.
"You looked troubled. Earlier," he clarified. "All day, actually. And even now. Are you okay?"
Wu pursed her lips. Her worries sounded so silly in her head. No great destiny comes without great tragedy, how could she tell Jing Woo that without him poking a little fun? Besides, most of her examples were just legends, stories, and not historical accounts, and he would point that out, and it would do her no good.
And had she not just convinced herself that everything was going to be okay?
"It's nothing. Nothing big, anyway. I'm over it now. Are we going to spar? It'll be twilight soon, which means this is our last chance for the day."
Jing Woo was quiet for a moment, and Wu headed towards the clearing, not waiting to hear a retort or a "are you sure?" Yes, she was sure, and they were going to spar, now, before Dawn Star returned and they no longer had any time alone together. That seemed to have worked, and she heard the soft crunch of grass following her. Good. She spun and grinned wickedly at Jing Woo, whose carefree face had returned, and he bowed to her, shaking his head.
"I swear, one of these days," he said, "I'll find a way around your guard."
Wu laughed. "I'd have to wear a blindfold for you to even have a chance." She tugged at the white ribbon that bound her hair together. "I have one handy."
"Now who's the one getting cocky?" And the two fell into battle stances to begin their bout.
As she threw the first kick to his torso, which he expertly blocked, she remembered their first match together, when she moved, and he didn't, and he was on the ground defeated. Now he sidestepped, and he ducked, and he threw his forearm in front of him, much like their many fights after, and now he was able to land more than a few blows to her body. Wu grinned through the bout, silently thanking Master Li for allowing her to be a part of another student's development, for letting her get close to someone else in the school, and for giving her a very good reason to return to Two Rivers when her adventure was over. Jing Woo still had a long way to go before he came close to her in skill, so he would still be here. Whatever happened after that, she really didn't care.
Wu spun and landed a solid foot into his chest, and he sprawled backwards and lost his footing. The match was over, and if Wu had timed it correctly, he lasted five seconds longer than he usually did. She extended a hand to him, and he grabbed it, but too late she realized that his smile was not one of satisfaction but of wicked intent, and he pulled her down and stole a kiss as she planted a hand on the grass to catch herself.
"Told you so," he said when he pulled away. Wu glared at him.
"Cheater." But she relented and leaned down to kiss him again. The position she was in made up for his little trickery—he was hers now, and all trespasses were forgiven. Or, better yet, she thought as she smirked through their kisses, revenge shall be hers. Yes, that was a much better plan.
The doors above them squeaked open, and Wu swore as she hopped to her feet, Jing Woo begrudgingly following. And, of course, it had to be Gao the Lesser entering through the gates, returning from his suspension. Perfect.
"What do you think you're doing, Gao?" she demanded. "You're cutting it close to curfew, don't you think?"
Gao snorted and didn't break his stride as he walked down the hill from the gates. "What's it to you? Am I interrupting something? Your private romps won't be so private if you keep at it. I'd be more worried about yourself than about me if I were you."
Wu felt her face flush. "How dare you be so presumptuous—"
"Presumptuous? Ha!" Gao stopped in front of her and crossed his arms. "With how many times you two have been caught, I'm almost surprised that Master Li is turning a blind eye to it. And Lin actually thinks that you're managing to fool him. Even Kia Min is better at this game than you, and I would be, too."
"If that's the case, then why don't you tell him? Too scared?" Wu drawled, and she heard Jing Woo shift uncomfortably behind her.
"For what purpose? If the old man is busy playing pretend, he won't listen, or he won't care, and I'd get the fall for it, somehow. I always do."
"Don't call him that. With all that disrespect you throw around, I'm not surprised that Master Li is so hesitant on training you and instead punishing you all the time."
"When he decides to start respecting my training, maybe I'll start respecting him," Gao snarled. "When he decides that your training is not more important than everyone else's, when he decides that you are no special than anyone else, and I get some real education around here, maybe then—"
"You'll stop being a complete ass?" said Wu shortly. She knew better than to let Gao go off on a tirade by now. More harm than good ever came from it.
Gao glared at her. "I am through with you. I would love nothing more than to teach you a lesson or two, but you would cower away under Master Li's protection."
Wu rolled her eyes. "He's told me not to—"
"Exactly. Go attend to your other duties, 'senior student.' Be the example we all wish we could be."
Gao stormed past them and over the bridge, and Wu bit her tongue and glared at the spot where he had once stood, running through all the best retorts she could come up with. A punch in the face, a knee in the groin, drawing a sword out of thin air and slicing him neatly in two…
When she heard the footsteps disappear into the darkness, she spun on her heel towards the nearby boulder and raised her fist, only for a warm, strong hand to snatch it in mid-air.
"I think, my friend, that that would hurt quite a bit," said Jing Woo quietly with only the slightest bit of humor in his voice. "I know he's an infuriating man, but why do you let him get to you so much?"
Wu glanced at him and yanked her hand back, and she said nothing as he placed his hands on her shoulders gently. "He only has his words," he continued. "He's harmless otherwise. You know you could beat him in a fight when Master Li allows it."
"'Harmless?'" Wu whispered, and she turned to face him. "What about what he did to you a few months ago? What he has done to the younger students, when they disagree with him? That's hardly harmless. I want nothing more than to fight him, Woo. I want to do to him what he's done to others, just to show him that there is no honor in it, and… and…"
"If you say to avenge me, while I'd be flattered, it's not necessary. He didn't kill me, after all. I can still avenge myself. Eventually." He wrapped his arms around her and paused. "Do you think Master Li knows?"
Wu shook her head. "If he did, he would have scolded me about getting too distracted from my studies by now, don't you think? Even if neither of our training has slipped at all."
"Would it have stopped you?"
She said nothing at first. Lectures from Master Li have stopped her in the past from a myriad of little things ranging from habits to her perception of the world and the people in it. She always listened, she always obeyed, and she knew that if he had forbidden her from consorting with Jing Woo, she would have reluctantly done so.
Then again, she knew, when she first kissed him after a private match in the garden—simply because it felt like the right thing to do—that Master Li would not approve, and his stern voice had voiced his censure in the back of her head when Jing Woo had kissed back. She continued doing it anyway, for many, many times after that, her master's voice diminishing every time she did so.
Wu smiled. "No, Woo, it didn't stop me at all."
She had barely begun to breathe again after Master Li cleanly and quickly disposed of the dark sorcerer on the beach when she and Dawn Star returned to the school and made a beeline towards Kia Min, where Jing Woo was hovering over her injured leg and for once had no easy joke or quip flowing endlessly from his lips. Kia Min, at least, seemed to be in fairly good spirits, with a small smirk and little gestures teasing him for fretting too much, but he would have none of that. She glanced up, and saw Wu and Dawn Star approach, and waved to the two enthusiastically.
Jing Woo followed Kia Min's glanced and sighed in relief. "I'm glad you're alright," he said quietly. Wu smiled.
"Of course we would be," she replied. "They were unskilled and easily beat." Which was true, but they had killed, and Wu could not shake the image of the poor baker falling to two rogue bandits who snuck ahead of their gang, the mysterious firepower that turned the foliage of the beach from a vibrant green to a nauseating dark red, and the emergence of wild, mad ghosts that Wu had thought only to be village hearsay.
Wu was glad that Master Li had averted the danger her dreams had warned her about. She was unsure if she would have been able to prevent it as readily as he had.
"Yeah, that's what Gao is saying, too," said Kia Min with a sigh. "No one's paying any attention to him, though, so don't worry about him stealing your thunder, senior student." She winked and continued. "Everyone's still jittery and excited, except for this one—" She jammed a thumb in Jing Woo's direction. "—who can't seem to accept the fact that I was injured because of my foolish lack of attention, and not because I was outclassed."
Jing Woo glared at her. "Ambushes like this aren't normal, not for a town like this. And now you can't fight for a few weeks! How can you shrug this off so casually?"
Wu frowned. This was more than just concern for a good friend, and she wasn't the only one who noticed.
"You seem edgy, Woo," said Dawn Star gently. "Is something the matter?"
Jing Woo opened his mouth, and then closed it and shook his head. "No, no, I just… look, the end result of this attack could have been worse than it was. More people could have died, houses could have burned down… it's just good that we have our illustrious senior student and Master Li here." He smiled weakly, but Wu wasn't buying it. "Besides, it's just too bad that Kia Min got injured after breaking Wu's record yesterday."
Wu blinked. "Wait, what?"
He grinned, and in Wu knew that he was trying to change the subject, and she knew that she, and Kia Min, and Dawn Star, were going to let him do so. Besides, Kia Min what?
Kia Min nodded, her smile growing wider. "That's right. I managed to beat four opponents at once yesterday, beating your record by one."
"What?" Wu had had trouble fighting three students when she set the old record last month. There was no way Kia Min was that good!
Dawn Star laughed, and Wu shot her an unenthusiastic glare. At least Dawn Star seemed to be in better spirits since the attack. She had feared that they had not seen the last of it; Wu was inclined to disagree. This was merely the catalyst that most stories had to send the hero off on his journey to save the world. Most of the time, it ended more poorly than this, but Wu lucked out. She smiled to herself, and turned her attention back to Jing Woo, remembering the jests from last night, and she frowned.
"You knew about this last night, didn't you? 'Kia Min is going to one-up you again,' you liar, she already had!"
"I don't think those were my exact words."
"I'm pretty sure they were. You'll pay for that, you know."
"And would it be so terrible for me to admit that I'm looking forward to it?"
Wu dropped her jaw at his sudden bravery into admitting their relationship in front of the others. Of course Dawn Star already knew, and she would not have been surprised if he had told Kia Min—and judging from her hand covering her mouth, he had—but never had he been so bold as to try flirtatious lines within earshot of the entire school. Wu pursed her lips, her cheeks feeling warm, and she decided that the best way to handle this would be to walk away.
"I'm getting my record back," she said.
"Wait, Wu," said Kia Min quickly, before she could take a step away from the group. "You can't challenge my record yet. Smiling Mountain won't have enough opponents for you, not while I'm still injured."
Wu stared incredulously at her. "You're kidding," she said, but as she did the math in her head, she knew that Kia Min was right; Smiling Mountain would not let someone inept participate in such a match, and the only other people, like Dawn Star and Jing Woo, who could replace Kia Min otherwise wouldn't for personal reasons, or because Master Li wouldn't let them, as in the case of Gao the Lesser.
"I wish I was," she replied, and at first Wu mistook the lack of disappointment in her voice as relief that she would be able to hold this record, since Wu was going to graduate soon. But, Kia Min smiled a little too eagerly, and Wu realized what the relief in her voice actually was. "Then again, I heard of an herb that could speed up the healing process. My brother told me about it once. It's a rare grass, I think, and Old Ming might know if anybody. He's very interested in herbs. I know it's a stretch, but…"
Wu perked up; she knew she liked Kia Min for a reason. "Do you remember what it's called?"
"Wu," Dawn Star hissed. "She's better off letting this wound heal naturally. Don't make her push herself to heal your own ego."
"It's for her ego and mine," said Kia Min. "I can't stand the fact that I won't be fighting for a few weeks. I want to get back to my training, as quickly as possible, and Wu will be doing a bigger favor for me than for her."
"Yes, but Kia Min—"
"Don't worry, Dawn Star, my brother has never steered me wrong before, and neither has Wu."
Dawn Star fell quiet, shaking her head but accepting that neither of the girls' resolves could be deterred so quickly. Wu smiled apologetically at her; this wasn't the first time, and it surely wouldn't be the last.
Kia Min continued. "I'm sorry, Wu, but I don't remember what it's called. Old Ming would know. He's probably down by the beach, as always. I know Master Li wants to talk to you, but this hopefully won't take too long. I'll pay you back if you have to buy anything. I know Fen Do has been stingy with his pricings ever since Jing Woo charmed himself out of having to pay full price one time too many."
"This discussion again?" asked Jing Woo with an exasperated sigh.
"Don't complain, Woo. Remember, you still owe me."
Wu grinned. "Right, find Old Ming, talk to him about this herb, get you healed up, and get my record back. Then I'll talk to Master Li. Okay?"
She turned to Dawn Star as she said this, who only shrugged. "I guess I don't really have much of a choice in the matter, do I? Just don't keep Master Li waiting too long. Gao looks like he's about to throw a fit."
Sure enough, Gao the Lesser paced outside of Master Li's house, kicking idly at stones and stopping every so often to glower towards the direction of the house, and towards Wu, always lingering for a few seconds on her. For a moment Wu worried that he was going to storm towards them and demand why she wasn't talking to Master Li already, he wasn't learning anything because he was waiting for her, and they would cause a scene and she would never get her record back before she set off on her journey. She wrinkled her nose and turned towards the inner gates, deciding that it was best that she not deal with the boy right now.
"Alright, alright, I'll go talk to Old Ming now," she said. "Someone keep their eyes on that boy until I get back. Not Dawn Star," she added quickly.
"Of course not," Dawn Star replied. "I intend to come with you. You might be on Old Ming's good side now that you've saved the village, but just in case."
Wu sighed. "He holds grudges for too long. That was a year ago. This better had been enough to atone." She pushed back the memory of Old Ming barking at her last summer when she decided that it was too hot to do anything but splash around in the gentle waves of the river, and he had decided that she was being too loud and obnoxious for his elderly ears. It was hardly an offense worthy of a grudge, but as Dawn Star pointed out later, Wu had an image she needed to maintain in the village, and after nearly twenty years of being the upstanding citizen, she could not dare slip now. "Let's go."
The rest of the day was a blur, and Wu hurried to the garden after her long-awaited match against Gao the Lesser to piece together everything that had happened. She remembered buying Old Ming's recommended poultice from Fen Do, and bartering down Fen Do's price in a manner that had Jing Woo gloating when she returned and informed Kia Min—the student has become the master, he had said. Kia Min kept true to her promise and not only paid her back in full, but held no malice towards Wu for stealing back her record.
"It was very convenient that I broke it before I got injured. I doubt you would have gotten this poultice for me otherwise," she had said with an appreciative smile.
That was when Wu's memory became fuzzy. She remembered speaking with Master Li, though what about she could barely recall, and she remembered Gao yelling at her and her yelling back, and somehow they had wound up in the ring in a match more difficult than any other match she had been in before. She remembered being frustrated, and she remembered Gao being out of breath, and she remembered winning—and then Gao was expelled and that was all anyone could talk about. Well, everyone but Lin, who seemed to be the only person concerned about this next step in Wu's supposed destiny: the Spirit Cave.
"I asked around town, and there's old, old stories of students before us going into that cavern and never finding their way out," she had said. "You know, the senior students before you who left here and never came back. Then again, you are the strongest of us, as we're so often reminded, so you'll be fine."
Wu hugged her knees to her chest as she sat on the steps of the house in the garden. This was happening. The past few years all anyone would say to the new students about her was that she was destined for something great, and all Master Li would say when he pointed at Wu for the other students to look up to was that she had a great destiny to be fulfilled. Wu had developed many fears about her destiny, all of them eventually cast aside, but now that it was here, she was unsure of what to think or how to feel.
"These invaders discovered us by accident, but as you likely suspect, they are related to your destiny," Master Li had said. "You will have a pivotal role in some great events, my student."
She thought about the times she spent drinking tea with Dawn Star, laughing and chatting away like the gossiping women in the village; she thought about the private bouts she shared with Jing Woo; and she thought about the odd little competitions she and Kia Min made up as an odd style of friendly rivalry. She thought about how she would miss it when she was on the road towards her future, and what she would do without any of it. No one to talk to, no one to comfort her, no one to have a little bit of fun with…
"I don't want to leave," she said suddenly, startled at her revelation. "I don't want this special, fancy destiny." She closed her eyes. "Why can't I just stay?"
"Because you have to save the world, as it turns out."
Wu jumped and looked up to see Jing Woo smiling at her. She sighed. "You shouldn't sneak up on people like that," she reprimanded softly.
"And you should be more aware of your surroundings, senior student," he said as he took a seat next to her. "Do you really think a ghost, or a sorcerer, would wait for you to shake yourself out of your trance before attacking you?" Wu frowned—she had heard something like that somewhere before. Jing Woo grinned. "That was the first lesson you taught me, on our first day together. I've been remembering a lot about that day today, ever since… ever since the bandits attacked."
He sighed, and his smile disappeared. Wu bit her lip, and asked, "Are you alright?" She could not believe that he was so willing to bring this up, or open a huge opportunity for her to find out what had bothered him so much earlier in the day, but relieved that he had done so, at least, even if it had been the farthest thing from her mind.
Jing Woo shrugged. "I'm not dead. In theory, I couldn't be better. That's what kept running through my mind before I arrived here. I never did tell you how I wound up here in Two Rivers, did I?"
"I never really did ask."
"I know, and I was grateful for it, though… you seemed interested in Lin's story and Wen's story, and even Si Pat's and Kia Min's, but you never asked me. I'd always wondered why, but, I knew it really didn't matter. I just assumed that you figured out that I didn't come here under peaceful conditions."
Wu smiled softly and brushed her fingers alongside his face. "Honestly, I never asked, simply because, for some reason, I was just glad that you were here. And I'm not just giving you pretty words."
Jing Woo laughed sheepishly and turned his head away. "Well, my way of living before I stumbled into Gujin's workshop was the first thing anyone heard about me, that's why I just sort of figured that you… anyway, that's not important. I feel like I need to tell you this. I was on edge after the attack because… because it was bandits that destroyed my first home."
He closed his eyes. "They came through, set my village on fire, and killed everyone they could find. An old man hid me and a few other children away in a cellar and told us to stay there for three days, and we did, and when we emerged—" He shuddered. "Never mind. It's in the past. I just feel like you should know.
"I'm bringing this up because Master Li said your destiny has something to do with the attack on Two Rivers today. It has to mean that you really are part of something big. And Lin was telling me about the cavern beneath the school, and, well, I guess I just wanted to say, before you go down there…"
He trailed off, and Wu found that she did not have anything to say. She combed her head for any trail of words, anything at all, but the only sound she could manage was a sympathetic murmuring of his name.
Jing Woo turned back to her and stared at her for a moment, and then he leaned in and kissed her more gently and more desperately than she ever remembered him kissing her.
"Come back to me," he breathed.
Wu smiled and rested her forehead on his. "I will," she promised.
She was dreaming again. The sky was dyed a blood red and flames licked the hills and the fields, and black snow fell to the ground, into her hair, and into her eyes, and as she ran up the path from the beach she blinked back the discomfort, the stinging, and the tears.
Wu nearly tripped over a body slumped by the entrance into the town square, and she recognized the body as the man whose lifesavings she had mistaken for a bandit's loot, who she had run into on her way into the swamp. He had been making a run for the beach, she realized, to find shelter in one of the hidden caves, when a mercenary had thrown an axe into his back.
She bit her lip. She never recognized any of the bodies in her dream before.
"Wu, we have to keep going," said Dawn Star.
Wu looked at Dawn Star, who was standing next to the strange hermit she had run into in the swamp—Sagacious Zu, was it? She shook her head. She never had anyone else with her before in her dream, either. This was wrong. This was so very wrong.
"Everything you have is gone. My father has seen to it," Gao the Lesser had said in the cave, before Wu had brandished her sword and struck him down. The culprits never had an identity before. There had never been reason before.
The bandit attack yesterday should have been the end of it.
"This can't be happening," Wu whispered, and a helpless look crossed Dawn Star's face.
"If we don't hurry, you're going to be too late to save anybody," Zu urged impatiently.
Wu closed her eyes and nodded slowly. "Okay, let's go."
The three entered the town square, and Wu saw a band of mercenaries towering over fallen students and villagers. Wu drew her sword, and Dawn Star and Zu did not hesitate to do the same, and neither did the mercenaries, who pointed in their direction and charged forward. She wondered what had possessed her to be so merciful to Gao's men in the swamp, that, if she could help it, she refused to kill them, that she would have been so annoyed with Zu's unhesitating death blows, if the mercenaries all had the ability to kill.
As she drove her blade into the chest of the last standing mercenary in the square, she realized she was thankful that Gao the Lesser had declared their final bout a death match, and that she had won, because at least it saved her the trouble of tracking him down to kill him for this.
Wu scowled; she would love to kill him again. She wondered if Dawn Star could help track down his spirit, so she could do just that.
Dawn Star glanced around the square. "We can't get up the stairs. There's too much debris. I only hope that means that Gao's men couldn't make it up there, either, so there would be survivors up there."
"I wouldn't count on it," said Zu. "The damage is what I expected. No one was meant to survive."
"That doesn't mean that they're dead," Wu snapped. She stared up at the stairs to Gujin's place, and remembered that many people lived up there, and Gujin had enough weapons for all of them, and Gujin had been a guard in the west and a few mercenaries would have been no match for him. They were fine up there.
Wu looked around the town square, and she saw Fen Do slumped over the stairs to his shop, and she saw Jong Yu's shop caved in, and she saw Si Pat's body moved from the front of the school gate to the middle of the square, and two of the villagers who had been moving his body when the attack came. At the entrance to the school, where the wooden doors had been burned down, Lin sat against the stone wall, a blood smear trailing down to her head and pooling by her side.
A chill swept through Wu. Lin was dead. So were other students. "No," she whispered to herself. "No. He's alive. Don't be foolish. He wouldn't die so easily." She turned to Dawn Star, and she was very careful to be firm with her words. "We have to hurry, or Zu's right. We won't be able to save anybody."
Dawn Star nodded, and Zu grimly pursed his lips and said nothing more. He seemed uneasy, but for now Wu knew that they were better off welcoming his help. He had done so much, and she had no reason to suspect him. Besides, Master Li, and Jing Woo and Kia Min, they were going to need their help, and soon, before more students and villagers fell.
They ran into the school, and Wu felt her heart sink lower into her stomach as she passed the burning and bleeding corpses of the children Master Li had taken in, and more students who had tried to fight their way into Two Rivers to help the villagers. The pagoda had collapsed under the burning pillars and so had the little house where she and Dawn Star had spent so many hours chatting over tea and cakes, where she and Jing Woo had spent many days sparring beside the calm trickling of the stream and the cool of the shade, where she had witnessed Kia Min sneaking out of the school and Lin sneaking back into the school…
"It's all gone," Dawn Star murmured sadly as she stopped and stared at her garden.
Zu placed a hand on her shoulder. "We have to keep moving."
Dawn Star closed her eyes for a moment. "Every spring I planted flowers here, one for each student. Now, it's like each flower has wilted with each death that has happened here. Now, it's all gone."
"There are survivors," Wu hissed. "Dawn Star, please, I need you to stay strong."
Dawn Star turned to Wu, and their eyes met, and then Dawn Star nodded. "We must not lose faith," she said, and Wu could not decide if she thought she was echoing her thoughts or if she was trying to comfort her.
They continued over the barely intact bridge, and Wu coughed as something exploded on the hill on the other side and smoke caught her lungs. When the fog cleared, she looked up the hill and saw Kia Min swing her staff into the chests of two mercenaries with a skillful edge that Wu had never seen before, and a resolve in her eyes that almost intimidated her.
Kia Min turned towards them and breathed a sigh of relief. "You're here!"
"Are you alright?" Wu asked as they approached each other.
"I'm fine," said Kia Min, "but… the others… you have to keep going. Others are still alive in the school. I'll look to the villagers and save as many as I can." She paused for a moment, and a look of despair crossed her eyes. "Go, before it's too late."
Wu nodded, and Kia Min dashed down the hill towards the village. They weren't too late after all. Some of the students could still be saved, which meant…
She took a deep breath and motioned for Dawn Star and Zu to go into the main part of the school as explosions surrounded and clouded their path. They pushed through the smoke, and Wu squinted her eyes to keep her vision so that she would not be easily ambushed, but when she finally caught sight of the sparring ring, where she had spent so many happy times and trying times, and where she had learned so many lessons, she saw a sight more infuriating than all the ones before.
One mercenary stood in the center facing off a student—Wen!—and others lined the fence as they casually hung over the railings and watched with faces ranging from amused to irritated. Some laughed, others pointed, and she overheard one gloat about how he could dispose of the boy much quicker and in lesser hits. Wu dashed as quickly as she could to keep the mercenary from striking any killing blows, because Wen would not survive this. As she reached the entrance to the ring, however, Wen crumpled to the ground, lifeless.
His mother had sent him here because she had wanted him to be safe, Wu remembered him saying.
The mercenary quickly took notice of the three of them, and he rolled his eyes. "We missed some of you pitiful students? This is like crushing ants. There's no end to you people!"
"Ants?" Dawn Star screamed. "Ants! That's all their lives were to you?"
Wu locked her eyes on the mercenary and gripped the handle of her sword tightly. These men were not simply doing their job, like the man in front of the cave had claimed. They were enjoying this. They were having fun with this, they were making games out of it. Wen, Lin, everyone, all of them, deserved much better than this.
"You will pay for this slaughter," Wu snarled.
The mercenary rolled his eyes. "Yeah, yeah, that's what all the rest of your fellows said, too." He smirked. "Right before their heads hit the ground."
Wu couldn't remember what happened next. There must have been another explosion, because all she saw was red, and all she heard was white and metal clanging on metal, through flesh, and she felt blood splatter across her cheeks and across her belly and drip down her hand, and somewhere in the back of her head she heard Master Li reprimand her for losing focus so easily, that she would surely lose if she kept this up, and that he was disappointed in her. She pierced through a mercenary's battered armor, and that mercenary fell into a bloody heap on the dirt, and, when she realized that no more were coming after her, that she had killed them all, she stabbed her sword into the ground and slumped over the handle as she balanced her weapon with her wrists and her forehead.
She struggled to even out her breathing, and she tried to remember the exercises Master Li had taught her to do just that, but every word, every image was eclipsed by the memory of Gao the Lesser's final words, by the sneers of his father's mercenaries, and Wu gritted her teeth. These were Gao the Greater's men. They did this, under his orders.
Wu clenched her fists. She was going to track down and murder that man.
She caught her breath as she recognized the broken voice. "Woo," she breathed, and she stood and turned in time to see him collapse, Dawn Star just barely able to catch him before he hit his head on the stone.
Wu took two steps towards him, but she saw the wounds and the black and purple bruises that covered his body, and she froze. She heard Dawn Star reassuring him that he'd be safe, that Gao's men were gone now, and she knew that he was choking out the words she needed to hear, about what had happened when the flyers covered the village and dropped casks of fire on the people and the students. She knew that she needed to listen, but she saw the blood gush from his limbs and heard his voice and his breaths betraying his struggle to stay alive just long enough, and she could not.
She wanted to throw herself on him and never leave, the restless dead and the Lotus Assassins be damned, but she could not bring herself to move. Time would press forward, and he would die, if she moved.
"You'll be alright," Dawn Star pleaded. "Just be still."
Jing Woo smiled weakly at her, a smile that all but said, no, I won't be alright, but thank you anyway, and he too slowly turned his head to meet Wu's eyes, and she shook her head desperately.
"No," she said quietly. "No, don't you dare."
"I… I tried."
"Woo, don't you even think about it—"
"I tried so hard." He paused, and his eyes softened, and Wu remembered their kiss in the garden—so gentle and so soft—and his soft caress on her cheek before she met with Master Li to enter the Spirit Cave, and the words she felt like she needed to say before she left, the words she decided that she did not actually need to say, and the words she thought she heard him whisper as she disappeared into their master's house.
And he closed his eyes.
Wu fell to her knees. This wasn't supposed to happen. It hadn't happened in her dreams, nor in the legends and the stories and the poems, and it wasn't supposed to happen now. By the Great Dragon, how was this not a nightmare? When would she wake up?
"Wu, he told me…" Dawn Star started, and Wu closed her eyes. No, no, please no. Dawn Star continued, more subdued, and defeated. "He said that there was no warning. Just calm skies and then fire from above. He organized the students, but they were overrun." She paused. "Master Li was taken when it began. He went without a fight, giving them what they wanted, but afterwards the students… they… they were killed anyway."
"The Lotus Assassins," said Zu quietly. "They leave no one alive to tell the tale. People fear the unknown. For Gao the Greater to have them as allies is… troubling."
Wu slowly opened her eyes and fixated her gaze on a sharp pebble. A Lotus Assassin had led the first attack on Two Rivers, and now a whole hoard of them had come through, kidnapped Master Li, killed the students and… she clenched her fists.
Zu continued, "The figure your friend spoke of is Death's Hand, the leader of the Lotus Assassins. They answer to him alone, and he would not appear unless this was important. He usually acts behind the scenes." He fell quiet, and Wu remembered Master Li saying something like this. She just never dreamed for an instant that he would have infected her life so soon.
"This… student," said Zu, suddenly, "was strong to live as long as he did."
There was a tenderness in his voice that Wu had not expected to hear from the hermit, and she raised her head to look at him. He sadly stared down at her, and she remembered that he came into the village often, and she wondered if he had ever witnessed the precious moments she had shared with Jing Woo.
Of course he had. Everyone else had. Wu nodded slowly and climbed to her feet.
"Thank you," she muttered as she stared at the ground, away from Dawn Star, Zu, and Jing Woo.
"I don't know why they were so intent on taking your Master Li," he continued, and Wu could tell that his voice was now directed at Dawn Star, "but they never attack without purpose."
"Gao said something about ferreting out our hidden master and his true name," said Dawn Star. "Did Master Li tell you anything, Wu?"
"He told me that he was the Emperor's brother," said Wu, without thinking. "Gao overheard."
Zu sounded incredulous. "That's… that's not possible. Sun Li the Glorious Strategist would not have made these kinds of mistakes."
"Mistakes?" Dawn Star asked, and Wu was glad that she echoed her very thoughts. "What mistakes?"
"Well, for one, he would have known that giving himself up would not save your students."
Wu frowned and turned back to Zu. "If Death's Hand," she said his name with more spite than she had intended, "is as vicious as you say, then he had to try something."
Zu shook his head. "You don't understand. The Glorious Strategist would know his enemy, and if anything is true about the Lotus Assassins, it's that they don't leave survivors. I should know. I…" He hesitated. "I was one."
Wu said nothing at first, and she remembered the first time she saw him, when he fought mercilessly against Gao's men. She remembered his disdain when she let the mercenary in front of the cave go free, when she explained to him that killing him was unnecessary and would do them no good. He was no bandit, he had said, and he was clearly not one of Gao's men. He had not wanted to come here when they saw the flyers pass overhead. Of course, what else could he have been?
"I knew finding you in the swamp was too convenient!" she snapped, and she reached for her fallen sword. "What do you know of this?"
"It doesn't matter," said Dawn Star.
Zu did not move, but he sadly shook his head. "No, she is right to question me. I am accustomed to such suspicion."
"It doesn't matter," Dawn Star insisted again. "Whoever you are, whatever you were, you did not do this, and you do not have our master!" She shot a glare at Wu, and Wu stopped in her tracks towards her sword and glared back. How could Dawn Star be so trusting, after everything that had happened? "We need to find a plan," she said firmly. "When we know where we are going and what we are doing, then we can discuss who knows what."
"Dawn Star—" Wu began, but Dawn Star cut her off.
"Wu, this isn't the time, and you know it. Take out your grief on someone who deserves it."
Wu sighed. Dawn Star was right. Of course she was. "Gao the Greater," she said. "He ordered this attack. He has to pay for it. And whoever else supported him, who helped him, all of them. The Lotus Assassins, Death's Hand… and we need to find Master Li. We can't lose Two Rivers completely."
Dawn Star nodded. "We will find Master Li. We must."
"Then let's get Gao the Lesser's contraption in the air again," said Zu. He turned and headed for the inner gates of the school, and Dawn Star and Wu followed. However, Wu found she could not step outside of the ring, and she stood there, still, and she realized that she could not leave. Not yet.
"Wu?" asked Dawn Star, concerned. "Wu, we can't waste anymore time here. Master Li will get too far ahead for us to catch up."
Wu did not respond to Dawn Star, and she stared helplessly at her. Dawn Star said nothing more, and the look in her eyes told Wu that she understood. "Go to him," she said.
As Wu walked slowly towards the fallen body in the ring, she remembered the first time she saw Jing Woo four years ago, when he was dripping wet from the rainstorm and out of his element. His hair had been messily tied up then, because he never had cause to worry about it before, and she remembered when he did not fully understand her standing in the school, and how he had not cared even after he did learn, and how their training sessions together was always the highlight of her days.
She remembered when she first kissed him in the garden on impulse, and how he had kissed back, and she remembered how often they tried to steal those little moments from each other whenever they could. She remembered when he first made more aggressive moves, and the first time they had spent an entire afternoon uninterrupted, and how amazing that afternoon had been, and how they worked too hard to find privacy since then.
Wu remembered the words that she thought she heard him say last night before she met with Master Li. She wished she could hear him say them now.
She stood over Jing Woo, and with the memories of four years playing through her head, she slowly lifted her hands in front of her, and bowed.
- End -