Title: Ashes of Two Rivers
Summary: The night before the second siege at Dirge, and the Glorious Strategist and the last Spirit Monk seal their fates. One-shot sequel for "The Garden of Two Rivers."
Characters/Pairings: OP Wu, Sun Li, Jing Woo, Lin, and Wen. Mention of Sky/Wu, and Jing Woo/Wu.
Notes: This is a different interpretation of the dream sequence at Dirge. Though this is a sequel for "The Garden of Two Rivers," if you haven't read that fic yet and want to read this one, I recommend reading the fifth chapter, at the very least. "The Garden of Two Rivers" is structured so that each chapter can pass as a stand-alone, so hopefully it should be no problem. If you don't want to read "Garden," then the biggest key information you need to know is that Wu and Jing Woo had pursued a relationship with each other the last few months before Two Rivers was destroyed. Reading the other fic is good for the other details brought up.
Disclaimer: "Jade Empire" and its characters and setting is the property of Bioware and Microsoft. I have no rights to the game.
She knew this place, but it was all wrong.
It wasn't the flames, or the smoke. It wasn't the collapsed buildings or the barren trees and the crusty grass. She had had many sleepless nights since that horrifying afternoon with this very image, of the common area covered in suffocating black smoke, of the sparring ring covered in bodies, of her master's house—
She drew in a sharp breath, and she slowly stepped towards the building, the only one intact, she realized, and the only one unharmed by fiery casks and blades of Assassins. This was wrong. This was all wrong.
She stopped short in front of the porch and froze. There were students here. Students not dead. Students alive, and meditating. This could not be. She had seen Student Wen get cut down herself, and she had seen Lin's body outside of the school. And Jing Woo…
The door to Master Li—Sun Li's house slid open, and she recognized the armor, though she could barely recognize the face, not any longer. The kindness in his eyes now mocked, and his gentle smile sneered. She grasped the hilt of her sword, and her jaw trembled.
She had not prepared for this.
She should have.
"You have done well to restore the fountains of Dirge, my pupil," the Glorious Strategist said, smiling, mocking, "but they cannot shield you fully. Not with the power I now control."
Wu bit her lip, and she tightened her grip on her sword as her thoughts flew back to Abbot Song, and his tale about her survival. This was all wrong. This was all true, this was all real, but this was all wrong.
The Glorious Strategist laughed. "This is nothing more than a dream, my pupil. I can do nothing here, but I can influence things. Do you remember your fellow students?"
He closed his eyes and pulled his arms apart as a bronze dragon emerged—a spell that Wu had grown all too familiar with in the ruins of Old Tien's Landing and among the graves of the Necropolis. She pulled out her sword and fell into a battle stance, but the flames never came near her. They enveloped the students kneeling before their master, and when the smoke receded their bodies had blackened, and they stood in unison, as though by command.
Wu frowned and turned her attention back to Sun Li. He will not trick her again.
"They certainly remember you," he said smoothly. "They remember how you left them to die."
"This is all you can summon, 'Master?'" she snarled. "They know that I would have saved them if I could. Your plans are what killed them."
The Glorious Strategist shook his head as though he was chiding a child. "They died so there would be nothing holding you back. Their deaths insured that you would be properly motivated; without you," he raised his voice, "they would still be alive."
One of the blackened bodies charged forward and swung a fist, and Wu dodged and swung her sword at him. The body hopped backwards, and Wu stepped forward, as Student's Wen voice echoed through her head, "The school burned because of you!"
Wu stabbed at the body and gritted her teeth. Cheap tricks were awfully unbecoming of a man who waited twenty years to murder her, she thought. This would not work, and the Glorious Strategist was wasting his time.
She swung again, and twice, and the third swing made the body stumble backwards, and he grasped the tree behind him, and the ashes shed. There stood Wen, bewildered, and grasping his head. Wu drew back for an instant to catch her breath and carefully watched for any missteps.
Wen met her eyes, and his mouth hung ajar, and he breathed, "It wasn't you."
Wu lowered her sword; that was too genuine, a side that Wen had been to shy to show to anybody with standing in the school, and that she had only witnessed when she accidentally overheard a conversation between him and Jing Woo. "What…"
A scream barreled towards her from behind her, and Wu turned around just in time to feel the end of a bamboo staff jabbing her roughly in the stomach twice, and then three times, and she keeled over as she grasped for the end of the staff. Lin. This couldn't be.
"This is all your fault!" she screamed as she snapped the staff out of Wu's grasp. Her voice was not forced, she realized, nor was it imitated. "If you hadn't been at the school—"
"Lin, stop!" Wu pleaded as she stepped out of the way of the blows. Her skill had not improved through the Glorious Strategist's mechanisms; her weaknesses, her usual openings, were still present and glaring, and Wu knew that with two quick strikes Lin would be sprawling on the ground. This didn't make sense. If Sun Li had hoped to accomplish anything, why would he have sent her classmates against her with no enhancements to their training before death, when she had grown so much stronger?
As Wu ducked under Lin's swift swings, she found her answer. She knew exactly, then, what he was trying to do.
She pursed her lips. It would not work. How dare he even try? While crouched, Wu placed her hand on the ground and swung her legs at Lin's ankles. The student fell backwards and landed on her back, her arms spread and her palms slapping the ground. Wu hopped to her feet, sword in hand, and pointed the tip at Lin's throat. The ashes, she noted, had shed on impact, but Lin's angry eyes still glared accusingly at her.
"Lin, think," said Wu firmly. "Remember."
Lin panted, and she growled, "You were conveniently away—"
"Dawn Star had been kidnapped."
"—and you didn't return!"
Wu's hands trembled. "I did. I saw the flyers and came back as fast as I could. When I did, you… you were already dead. In the town square." Wu pushed back the memory of the blood pooled at Lin's side, her hand soaked in the red puddle. She swallowed the knot in her throat. "You… you came to the villagers' aid, didn't you? You fought as hard as you could…" Wu let out a long, agonizing breath. "You did well, Lin."
Lin fiercely held her ground, and her eyes studied Wu's carefully. After a long moment, her gaze softened and she looked down. "… they… they took Master Li…"
"Now I see," said Lin as she closed her eyes. Wu held her breath as the student's form faded. "It wasn't your fault."
And she was gone. Wu quickly spun to where she had left Wen—he was no longer anywhere in sight. By the Water Dragon, Sun Li had really summoned their actual spirits. They were not just tricks of her memory, they were not just her inner demons he was pitting against her.
She turned her attention back to the house, but before a resolve could settle in, she saw the blackened form of Jing Woo holding his head and muttering desperately, with Li behind him, smiling all too viciously, as though he were… frustrated?
Wu smiled. That's right. Her friendship, her bond with Jing Woo could not be so easily shattered by whatever manipulations the Glorious Strategist could conceive. This was the second mistake he made in dealing with her. The first had been not counting on the Water Dragon cultivating her recovered power efficiently enough to quickly call her to the Spirit Realm and Dirge, and now he did not have twenty years to plan his next course of action. And she was counting on a third in the morning when the Imperial Army arrived. The key to their victory in the morning was pinpointing that one mistake and exploiting it.
She approached the house, playing with words in her head to throw at him, to force him to give up on Jing Woo, or to trick him into doing something stupid, but the next quiet, derisive words out of his mouth stopped her cold: "She never truly loved you, Woo."
"That's…" Wu started, but Jing Woo had stopped murmuring, his figure frozen. Oh, no. "Woo, you can't possibly believe—"
"There is another," said Li, ignoring her. "Let me present him to you."
Wu widened her eyes. How could he have possibly known about Sky? She could certainly see how he would have known that he loved her, especially if Li had been the one to tell him, and Dawn Star and Silk Fox, that she was dead, but how could he possibly have known that she had fallen in love with him, too?
Unless knowing that Sky loved her was enough to place false images in Jing Woo's head. Images that have happened since her rebirth, but not anything the Glorious Strategist could have known about.
And unfortunately, as flames erupted from a bronze dragon and smoke engulfed Jing Woo's body again, Wu realized that her hesitation had been enough to convince him.
"That's not fair, Li!" Wu shouted. "He died! I didn't mean to move on so quickly, and—" Her protests were cut short by Jing Woo running towards her and throwing punches with a strange, vengeful resolve. Wu dodged, and she struggled to say: I never forgot about him. How could she? But as he kept swinging and as she kept evading, she knew it would do her no good. He was gone.
She knew what she needed to do. There was nothing else she could do—defeating Wen had been enough to snap him out of whatever lies Sun Li had planted in his head, and though defeating Lin had only been half the battle in shaking her out of her convictions, it had done the trick. Besides, she had defeated Jing Woo many times before. She knew his strengths and weaknesses better than anyone else at the school. They had set aside many afternoons to spar together, alone, even if they had often spent the last half of those sessions doing anything but fight the few months before he died.
Wu flipped backwards to gather some distance between her and Jing Woo, so that she could have a better view of his attacks and the openings she knew to expect. She only had a few seconds, but that was all she needed; aside from knowing him, she had gotten better at pinpointing weaknesses quickly, and nobody she had gone to school with would stand more than a few seconds against her anymore. She raised her sword, but Jing Woo was not coming.
He held back, as though he was considering his next move, which was odd, because he had never been so thoughtful in their friendly training matches. He knew better than to think while fighting her, because the handful of times he tried he found himself on the ground in that instant of hesitation. She had chided him about it, telling him that he had to be more aware than that, that an opponent would never allow him to take breaks.
Why was he letting her take a break?
Wu narrowed her eyes, and saw that through the ashes, she could barely make out his features, and she saw that there was a conflicting rage. He was hurt, she realized, hurt at the thought that she had fallen in love with someone else, but knowing that lashing out at her like this was not what he really wanted to do. He was not letting her take a break—he was hesitating.
"Oh, Jing Woo," she murmured, "have you learned nothing?"
She tossed her sword to the side, a large clank resounding through the school as it hit a small boulder, and she calmly marched towards him. Jing Woo shook himself out of his trance, and he stepped back and crouched into a fighting stance, his eyes hard but in turmoil. Wu did not break her stride, and he thrust his fist at her. She grabbed it firmly before he could land it, and she reached for the back of his head and pulled him forward, planting her lips upon his.
He stiffened, and for a moment he held his breath, unmoving, before the dry, parched taste of burnt flesh melted away into soft and warm reciprocation, and his fist loosened and he wrapped his arms around her gently, carefully, timidly.
Wu pulled away briefly and caressed his cheek. Jing Woo gaped, his face torn with a disbelief that Wu knew was directed at himself.
"Woo, I—" she started, because more than he needed to hear it, she needed to say it, because she remembered the remorse in Sky's eyes when she had returned to life and he remembered how close he had come to telling her, and then chose not to, and believing he had lost his one chance. I made that mistake once. Never again.
Jing Woo jerked out of her reach, stopping her short. There was a quiet pause as they stared at each other, Jing Woo's face ridden with guilt and shame. Wu inhaled sharply, and tried again.
"I…" he said shakily. "I'm sorry." He closed his eyes, and his body began to fade. "Forgive me."
And in a flash of light, he vanished. Wu froze, and she found that she was trembling, and she closed her eyes as a whirlpool of wordless thoughts and emotions swirled in her head. Jing Woo was gone again, and again she lost her chance—but perhaps it was never meant to be. Still, she felt tears brimming her eyes, and this time she could not blame it on the ashes of Two Rivers irritating her. But she had mourned for Jing Woo already, as she had mourned for all of Two Rivers, that first night in Tien's Landing, when she found herself by a small, trickling creek in the dead of the night, to save face in front of Dawn Star and Sagacious Zu as they struggled to fall asleep in their makeshift camp on the outskirts of the town.
Their deaths insured that you would be properly motivated.
Wu's eyes flew open, and she snapped her head towards the house that the Glorious Strategist had called his own, and she remembered how careful she and Jing Woo tried to be so that they would not call attention to their otherwise unproductive afternoons to their master, lest they received a harsh scolding, and forced to call off their friendship. But Sun Li had known the entire time. And where he would have scolded them, if he had been truly a good teacher, he instead had allowed them to continue, knowing that Jing Woo was a dead man, and Wu would have sought revenge, and she would have gone after just the right people to secure Li's victory. She wondered if he had orchestrated their relationship from the very beginning, when he had sent Jing Woo to learn the basics from her privately.
He had completely and utterly used her, and Jing Woo, and had toyed with their emotions to this very second.
"You…" she growled, and she concentrated her rage into her clawed hand as fire encircled it.
Sun Li had a strange look on his face, and Wu hoped that it was the look of a man whose plans had the exact opposite results of what he had desired. He had hoped to break her spirit before the Imperial Army arrived; instead, Wu felt her resolve stronger than it had ever been in her life.
"This was only a dream," he finally spat. "You will not be so fortunate tomorrow."
He stepped back into the house and disappeared through thin air, and Wu let the fire continue to burn around her hand. How dare he.
Sun Li the Glorious Strategist was the one responsible for the death of the villagers of Two Rivers, of the death of the students, and of the death of Jing Woo.
This mistake would cost him, and she remembered Sagacious Zu in the Lotus Assassin Fortress, and Dawn Star. Dawn Star hoped that the new revelation would regain Master Li's good side, but now Wu knew that there was no good side nor had there ever been, and now she would use Master Li's failed trick to her advantage: she would use his fallen family against him to shake his resolve and force down his guard.
Master Li was now the instrument to his own downfall, and the people of Two Rivers, and Jing Woo, would be avenged at last.