They're just children! some part of my soul cries. I ignore it. They are a threat to the nation, and threats must be eliminated. I feel the comet's power singing through my veins. It is glorious. I know I could take on these fools myself, but I don't. I have friends beside me, friends behind me, and enemies in front. They're just children! I don't even slow. One precise blast of fire kills the closest. Harmless gusts of air whistle past my ears. I kill the ones creating them. They are an annoyance. They are a threat. They're just children!
The next ones who come aren't. They are in their early twenties perhaps, or mid-thirties. They must have been alerted by the children's screams. No matter. They try to fight. They fail. They try to flee. They fall almost as quickly as the children, like autumn leaves blown in the wind. Hah. Their precious wind can't save them. Not even in their own domain. They are so naive to believe themselves invincible because they do not threaten others. It's almost a pity. They all die, of course.
I am thankful I am not assigned to the 5th wing. I can kill men, and even children. I don't think I could kill the infants. I didn't think I could kill children. I didn't think I could kill men. How different could it be to kill an infant? I don't want to know. I won't have to find out. With the comet's power within me, I am invincible.
Suddenly, I am not so sure. I don't know why. There is no good reason to feel this way, but it's nagging me all the same. The winds are different here. The air is thin in the mountains. It doesn't feel thin here. Or maybe it feels to thin. It puts me on edge. A token few stand in my way. Not for long.
It is almost amusing to watch their bodies fall, broken, like china dolls. So beautiful, but so so fragile. You can put them on a shelf (or a temple) and admire them (or revere them), but as soon as you touch them (by hand or flame) they shatter (or die).
I should not have that power. No human should have the power to break another like a pretty china doll. I falter. But I am not human. I am far too powerful to be human. Why else would the comet grant me its power? Why else would the spirits allow these little china dolls to shatter, if that was not what they meant all along? I keep going.
This must be where they keep the old men. They are all shaved bald, but their mustaches are white as snow. There is always snow on the ground here, even in summer. Now it is red. The men's bodies are tattooed. Arrows. Blue arrows. It looks almost humorous. It makes them look like toys. Or dolls. China dolls, waiting to be broken.
They are much better than the young men we killed before. And the boys. There were no boys. Only enemies. It is here the first man falls. The first with fire. His scream echoes down the mountainside, somehow both all too surreal and all too human. Just like the rest of the world, bathed in red. His screams are only sound, but they hurt as if I fell too. China dolls don't scream. Only humans scream. The monks fall all the same. Silently.
They are still little china dolls. Only this time when they shatter, the shards are sharp. The shards draw blood, but the doll is shattered just the same. Shattered, and impossible to repair. Ever. So much death. So much pain. So much suffering. I want it to end. I want to flee. I want to cry. They do not deserve my tears. Only a little child weeps for a broken china doll. I am no child. But they were. There were only men, no boys. I saw them fall. They did not exist. Their blood is on my hands. It is only the comet.
I draw strength from that. The comet is a gift from the spirits. They would not give us a gift they did not mean for us to use. We are doing what is right. Then why does it hurt so much?
I round the corner and freeze. I can't see in front of me. A wall of corpses blocks my vision. Corpses in red armor. The air in here is bizarre, pushing and pulling and weaving as though it were alive. I peer up over the mountain. That one is no china doll.
He is an old man, but a strong one. And not a merciful one. There are five men fighting him. Four. Three. Another five come. Seven. Six. He doesn't blast them aside. He doesn't try to run or evade. He just gestures. A mere flick of the wrist. With each flick, a red armored form falls, never to rise again. Unmarked.
It takes me a while to realize what he is doing. When it hits me I want to flee. The very air is his weapon. And he is claiming it from us. From inside our bodies.
He hasn't noticed me yet. I pray he never does. Two. One. None. He relaxes for an instant. This time ten troops pour in. I want to shout a warning, but my breath catches in my throat. Eight. Seven. Six. Five.
It's like a clock, counting down the seconds to my death. When the time runs out, he will notice me. And I will die, broken like a china doll. Three. Two. One. None. I move. He falls.
He is gasping for breath, barely holding on to life. My blind shot was lucky, I know. The spirits must have wanted me to win, or I would have broken like a china doll.
It is somewhat frightening to watch the master fight for breath, lying on the corpses he created, soon to be first among them. Fighting to hold on to the element that must have been his identity for his whole life. And I wrenched it away so easily. Could he have done the same to me? Could he have stolen my fire? Would he have?
I don't know what impulse compels me to approach the dying man. Perhaps it is guilt. I stole his element away, like he stole so many of my kinsmen. He is a murderer, while I am but a soldier. We came first. We attacked. He was just protecting himself, and the children. There were no children. This is what the spirits meant all along. It is his fault, but I killed him. I should never have. I should never have waited. I should never have attacked.
He smiles feebly when he sees me and beckons me closer still. I obey. He is harmless now. Helpless. I can't help but think that he must have been a very nice man before the comet, to smile at the man who felled him. Perhaps it is the comet that is driving us mad. Them. We are not mad, but enlightened. Only monks are supposed to be enlightened. Fools, all of them.
"I had always wondered how I would meet my end," the old man chuckles.
"Didn't you think it would be age?" I ask. They are a peaceful people. That must have been another lie they told us. Peaceful little china dolls, but so fragile. It is a pity to destroy works of art.
"Oh no. I had always none I would die not from years," the old man says. "Do you believe in an afterlife?"
"We can't just stop existing when we die," I say, not quite believing it myself.
"What makes you so sure we cannot?" Another gasping, shuddering breath. I can hear gurgling too, like his lungs are filling with blood. It's almost funny that he is drowning because of fire. I wonder what the Sages would think of it. They would call me blasphemous. They are the only ones who still care.
"I don't know," I reply. Another horrible sounding breath.
"It is unwise to cling to a belief if you don't know why you believe it," he says with the air of one stating the obvious. That makes me suspicious.
"Why are you telling me this?" I demand.
"I must tell it to someone," he says. Yet another hideous breath. I want it to be over. "Please," he begs. "Help me sit up."
I don't approach him. "Why?" I ask.
"I wish to meditate-" more horrible breaths. "-one last time."
I don't know why, but it breaks my resistance. I circle around the pile of corpses and prop him up. His breathing eases somewhat, but the wound is still mortal. I regret dealing it. I regret waiting so long to deal it. He folds himself into a lotus position, hands on his knees. His breathing becomes regular, but it is still hard for him, I can tell.
Outside this room, the sounds of battle fade. I assume my men think I am dead, and left me. The old man meditates. The minutes lengthen, and I feel the comet leave. I want the comet to come back. I feel diminished, almost helpless, without it's power. He doesn't notice. He still meditates. Minutes turn to hours. I don't know how he managed to hold on so long. Maybe his body just doesn't recognize that it's time for him to leave. Suddenly his eyes open. He turns to look at me. When he speaks, his voice is barely audible.
"For what?" I ask. "I killed you."
"Yes," he agrees. "You killed me. Then you stayed with me. All the way... to the end." He presses something into my hand. I tuck it into one of my pockets, not taking my eyes of his face. He closes his eyes, and with a deep sigh he breathes his last.
Another china doll. Strong enough to withstand one fall, but it still shattered in the end.
I don't know why I mourn him. I don't even know his name. That's it. How could I kill a man, and that slowly, without knowing who he is? Suddenly I feel sick to my stomach. I realize I am alone in a city of the dead. I break down and sob. Another china doll. Broken into so many shards. And one of them pierced my heart.
I reach into my pocket and pull out his gift. It's a lotus tile. I scream wordlessly and fling it down the mountain. It can't help me. It's just another mystery to torment me. I hate the man, I hate my people, I hate myself. But most of all I hate the bodies I left behind. Little broken china dolls with their little painted faces, laughing at me and my disgrace.
I run, not knowing where I am going. Not knowing why. Tears stream unchecked down my face. I look up. Ahead of me is a precipice. If I don't turn, I'll run off the edge.
I don't turn.
My body floats unsupported in the air for a few seconds, then I begin to fall. I will shatter when I reach the bottom. Just another broken china doll in a temple of the dead. I laugh all the way down