Highest Peak of Ushitora
Two thousand years ago, on the last day of the battle between Gods and Demons
Blood dripped from the blade of the sword trailing its tip in the snow, but the woman who gripped the cord wrapped hilt didn’t seem to be aware of it. Her flame-coloured hair spilled loosely about her shoulders over robes that were brighter than a thousand maples as she continued painfully up the narrow mountain path, buffeted by the shrieking of wind and swirling of snow.
When she finally reached the top of the peak and stood fully exposed to the unforgiving elements, she whispered: “Leaving my heart’s wish/ Beneath the darkening earth/ Once more, I am lost…”
She laughed crazily then, tears flickering on her eyelashes as she closed the first stanza. Then after a pause, accepting that there would be no answering couplet, she completed the remaining fourteen syllables by saying:
“I will never again hear/ the sigh of my beloved.”
…I left my heart in Shuto, my little ghosts. Please forgive me…
She exhaled and glanced over her shoulder at a man with long dark hair and black robes who materialized out of the air and bowed deeply to her, hands cupped. Straightening, he flapped open an exquisite iron fan. On the one side was written ‘reward good’ and on the other side ‘punish evil’.
Seemingly untouched by the viciousness of the weather, he stood still, unmoving, coldly immortal. His stormy blue grey eyes only showed emotion when he discovered that the blood dripping down the sword appeared to be coming from beneath the woman’s sleeve. Heart filling with dread, he watched his mistress’s tears become ice on her cheeks.
“Mu Shan,” she said, smiling gently in welcome.
Something…something isn’t right…he thought, frowning.
As the epitome of fire, the Firebird goddess would not normally be affected by something like cold weather, but while Mu Shan had been away fighting the demon army, the goddess Hong Yi* had somehow lost her godhood.
A firebird without her godhood…a firebird without her mate…what will she do now?
An instant later, a silver-haired man in stained white robes arrived, standing on the back of a crane. He slid off the bird and came to stand next to his dark-haired companion. Sporting the same stormy blue eyes, he also bowed deeply to his mistress. Although there was probably less blood on his clothing, the person known as Bai Xie An, looked to be in worse shape. It was clear that his wounds caused him pain when he straightened from his bow and leaned heavily on a huge broad sword. He only spoke when he had caught his breath.
“Reporting to my lady: it is finished…the mountain range was raised over the seal. The subjugated demons will guard the gates for eternity as you have commanded,” he said.
“Eternity? Nothing last forever, my little white ghost,” said the lady. “Even gods die…What of Xuanwu*?” she asked.
“His body has been separated and sealed under the mountain…” coughed the one in white.
“A fitting punishment for a traitor,” she said without sympathy. Her eyes glowed fiercely as the wind lifted her fiery red tresses off her shoulders.
“I received confirmation that both the dragon god, Ryujin, and the tiger god, Baihu, died in battle,” the dark- haired man reported, shifting uneasily. “The western kingdom was razed to the ground, so the remaining son of the tiger was brought to our southern lake kingdom…as for that other child…out of repentance for his family’s sins, he refused to leave the north...”
With three dead, and one sealed, our world has tilted onto its head and lost its divine direction…
The woman sighed and closed her eyes. For a moment, her lids, eyebrows, and eyelashes glowed red and tiny licks of fire fanned out from them, but then the fire went out with a resigned puff. The golden eyes that opened were once more filled with a deep calm.
“It is for the best…the time of gods and demons is at an end. It is the time of humanity. Magic will fade from this world as was foretold and those legendary creatures who have not passed on, will sleep,” she acknowledged. “Only in Shobu will the remnants persist…”
She coughed wetly then, staining her lips with crimson. Both men started forward with abrupt cries, but she waved an elegant hand, the delicate gold chains on her slender wrists and fingers, jangling.
“Don’t be worried about me,” she said, smiling.
“Mistress…” started the one in black. “You need rest. Shall we return to the Firebird palace?”
She shook her head, already feeling greyness encroaching on her vision.
“No, little black ghost, I will remain in Shuto.”
“Mistress, you must not!”
“My dear little ghosts, my beloved generals…as the only subordinates left from the four guardian palaces, you have a duty to guard the seals. The great seal here in this mountain range must be safeguarded, and the one in Shuto is a heart seal that I must guard myself. Sei…no, not Sei. Akuma cannot ever be permitted to return to this world…” she said, stumbling on her lover’s name.
That’s right…Sei no longer exists because Akuma destroyed him.
“You used the heart seal spell…” whispered the dark-haired man in shock.
“Mistress…” the silver haired man’s voice shook with unshed tears. “Why…?”
“The price…How are you still standing here?” the dark-haired man choked out in horror.
Her laughter was light and airy then, as if they had not just ended a battle that had lasted a thousand years; as if she had not been betrayed by the person she loved and trusted the most; and as if she had not just used the most severe kind of forbidden spell to seal away that same person.
The wind whipped her hair, tugging at the golden winged combs that hugged the side of her head, and tangling up the thousands of tiny, jeweled chains delicately decorating her body. For a moment, she looked exhausted.
Blinded by love…if had I not foolishly let my guard down would he have transgressed and opened the gates to hell here on earth? Forget it…I have already paid back the price of my sins to all of heaven…Regret is only for those who are still alive…
“My little ghosts, I immolated myself and threw the remains of my body into the crater where Akuma sleeps. As my love and my hatred were so strong, the shards of my spirit will remain upon the seal…At the very least, I will keep him company. I command you to build another formation over the seal and then fill it with water until it is a vast lake…only then will I sleep peacefully knowing that you will be alerted should the seal show signs of breaking…”
She turned to face them then, and they saw the gaping hole in her chest that she no longer wished to conceal, an empty place where her heart had been before she had ripped it out, still beating, and used it to seal Akuma, the demon lord.
In that moment the two men heard the high mournful screech of a Firebird. As the semi-transparent spirit form rose up from her body, it spread its four wings to full breadth and flared its tail feathers wide, beating hard against the sky. Two rings of fire sprouted from beneath her bare jewelled feet, and then enveloped her and the screeching bird as it screamed its heartache and misery for the universe to see. Both the bird and its owner began to glow, pierced through by rays of light within the growing column of fire. It burned with immense heat as if it would consume everything around it.
Her companions could only step back from the enormous tower of flame, and they were no longer able to see the face of the person within.
“Even if my body, heart, and spirit are shattered a thousand upon a thousand times, I would still do my duty as a guardian god of this world. The truth is that I’m not actually here anymore…” she said. “What you see now is only an afterimage I sent you, to remind you both of your promise to preserve the mortal realm…”
The two generals of the Firebird goddess fell to their knees as the woman’s form began to burn away and disintegrate. She seemed to look on them with great affection as they gave in to their grief and wept.
“Don’t forget…even if my spirit is scattered without the chance of reincarnation…this was my own choice…do not be sad. Do what I have asked of you…” her voice echoed.
“We have received your commands and will obey,” said the dark-haired man.
“We have received your command and will endure,” said the silver haired man.
Tapping their heads low to the ground, they both made their last bow to their dead Mistress.
Rising higher into the sky, the spirit of the great Firebird screeched one last time and then vanished, leaving only a single flame coloured tail feather to float in the whirling snow.
* 虹翼 – ‘Hong’ is the word for ‘rainbow’ and ‘Yi’ is the word for wing.
* The great black tortoise from Chinese mythology. Like the Vermillion Bird of the South, the White Tiger of the West, and the Blue Dragon of the East, Xuanwu was the guardian god of the North.