“They saw you,” Zhong mutters.
The two men have been climbing for a while. Both are sweating, but early autumn is cold up here in the north, heading into the mountains. The world lies blanketed in a thin white mist, stirring weakly in a trembling breeze.
The forest crowds around them, creeping onto the trail. Overhead the branches have spread so far across the path that you can barely see the peaks, high in the middle distance. The undergrowth runs wild in between the trees. Orange and yellow leaves twirl through the air to lie thickly in the mud.
The air smells of damp. Insects hum in a nagging, tuneless chorus, fat black flies with wings as big as the end of your thumb that drift aimlessly over the hillside.
Xiaodan glances over his shoulder. A fox howls, discordant and shrill, somewhere in the distance. Zhong starts, his eyes wide, his latest complaint seemingly forgotten.
“Who saw me?” Xiaodan prompts him.
The older man looks up. His mouth is a hard, flat line beneath the mess that three weeks without shaving has made of his beard. He scratches under one arm, reaches up and adjusts his cap. Somehow it still looks as if it’s just about to fall off.
“Back there.” Zhong gestures vaguely with one thumb over his shoulder. “In the village. They saw you. Checking that sword.”
He shivers, shifting his bag around his shoulders, and wipes his forehead with his free hand.
“I was hardly the only one with a sword,” Xiaodan murmurs.
The leaf mould is inches deep in places, and it makes musical gurgles with every step he takes.
“The soldiers had swords,” Zhong says heavily. “The invasion. You’re obviously not a soldier. There’s probably a search party after us already. I guarantee you the innkeeper heard the Court as soon as you opened your mouth.”
“At least I could talk to him without steadily backing away,” Xiaodan retorts. “At least I don’t walk around as if I’m constantly thinking about how my clothes ought to be burned.”
This is unfair. Weizhe or Jianjun or Tengfei would have been far worse, if they’d even agreed to come. But Xiaodan’s not in the mood to be reasonable.
“Don’t you blame me when they catch us.” Zhong grabs his shoulder and Xiaodan stops in his tracks. “Don’t you dare. You’re the one who insisted on chasing after this nonsense –”
“Nobody forced you to come with me,” Xiaodan snaps. “Entirely the opposite –”
“There was one time...” Zhong closes his eyes briefly. “I asked Zhaoling what was so great about you. I admit it, she says. He’s stubborn. He won’t listen to me. He’s more than a little simple –”
He shakes his head. “This is your bride-to-be we’re talking about, remember. And then. You have to understand, she says, he’s just…”
A bird soars past overhead, and Zhong breaks off to stare nervously up at the branches. “Straightforward, she says. He decides there’s something he wants and he starts thinking about how he can get it. But what she never understood was –”
“Was?” Xiaodan closes his fists.
“You’re a coward,” Zhong says flatly.
“A what?” Xiaodan blinks.
“You could have stayed.” Zhong points back the way they’ve come, into the distance. Not at the village, but Gāozhū, miles to the south-east.
“Stayed?” Xiaodan can feel his nails digging into the palms of his hands. “They won, remember? They took the city. They were cutting people down in the street.” He shivers. “Side by side with those things –”
“You could have stayed!” Zhong hisses. “You and that sword you can’t seem to stop waving around –”
“Did you see them?” Xiaodan demands. “Their... pets? Because I saw them. I swear I saw them tearing our men –” He swallows. “Men in full armour. Into pieces – what could I have done, exactly? Go on. Tell me.”
“You could have done something! Instead of… pursuing this childish fantasy that nobody but you believes in, while those, those, those monsters are subjecting my parents, my brothers, my sister, to... unimaginable indignities –” Zhong puts his hands over his face, then looks out through his fingers. “This is what I mean.”
“This?” Xiaodan says.
“The moment you encounter an obstacle to these straightforward impulses of yours,” Zhong says, “rather than deal with it like an adult, you have to come up with some even more straightforward solution, all to make yourself look like the hero simply because you dreamed it up. Because you are a coward!”
“You saw it!” Xiaodan insists. “The diary. The, the, the Light Below. Twenty leagues north of the river, through Gǔshí village and up the mountain –”
“Maybe my sister found this endearing.” By this point the other man is barely even listening. “Unfortunately I don’t –”
“It was right there,” Xiaodan continues.
“There’s nothing here!” Zhong shouts, and his voice breaks. “For pity’s sake, boy! Look! Nobody’s been this way in years!”
At that moment the soldiers step out from hiding.
There are seven of them; one Zhǎiguān officer, and six rough-looking men who seem to have been hastily conscripted in the middle of working the fields. Dirt lines their faces, and their armour is cheap boiled leather awkwardly tied around threadbare peasant clothes. Their shields are more like the lids off grain bins. Two of them are barefoot.
Their swords are real, though, and each man’s grip steady.
“Are you done?” The officer gives a thin smile. “Come back to the village with us, sir, and both of you can cool your heads in a nice warm cell until somebody turns up to collect you. I’ll tell them you surrendered quietly –”
Xiaodan has the sword out of his bag before the officer has even finished speaking, and the soldiers take a step back in unison through the mud.
Zhong clutches his temples and draws a long shuddering breath.
“Ah,” the officer says regretfully. “So your friend was right. You are delusional.”
“You don’t know anything about me.” Xiaodan shakes his head as he draws the blade, scabbard in one hand, sword in the other. “None of you know anything about me –”
He can do this. He’s trained in more esoteric disciplines than this idiot could ever dream of. Xiaodan lunges. He glides over the muck, a wave of internal energy driving him forward, as the man’s eyes widen in outrage at such a dishonourable tactic –
So what? Tsang Wai Yi, looking up at him over the brim of her cup. You think any of the Hēi Yīng would give a wet fart about your sense of honour? You take the first opening you can see, boy. If they’re not ready for you, that’s their problem.
Two of the soldiers block his path. Xiaodan feints, stepping back, then reverses his grip as one man takes the bait. Xiaodan’s sword comes up, then down into Heron Spears the Fish, and the first soldier topples backwards. Blood fountains from his ruined chest, crimson against the dead leaves.
All he can see of Zhong is a pale blue ghost at the edge of his vision, with the other three soldiers closing in. No time to spare his brother-in-law any more than a glance. Xiaodan changes his grip and drives the next man back, Eagle Taking Flight, striking high, low, high as the second soldier retreats, cowering behind his shield.
Seeing him occupied, the officer and the third soldier both try to attack him from opposite sides.
Sometimes the manuals are no help, Tsang Wai Yi comments in his memory, slowly sipping her tea. Sometimes you have to improvise –
Xiaodan ducks, turning as he crouches towards the muck and kicks out, sweeping the retreating man’s legs from under him with the momentum; he rises, still turning, seizes the third soldier’s shield and pulls; then smashes his forehead into the other man’s nose. The impact leaves a ringing in his ears, louder and louder –
Focus, Tsang Wai Yi says. If you can’t stay in control –
Xiaodan shakes his head furiously and strikes directly behind him, stabbing backwards. He can hear the officer leap aside, skidding in the leaf litter. Xiaodan spins, lifts his sword into a high stance and crooks his fingers around the scabbard in his other hand, as if to say, come on, try me.
The officer has the forest at his back. He charges, shield up, sword out to one side. Xiaodan stamps, a burst of internal energy that makes the ground briefly tremble, and the other man staggers, with no martial training he can draw on to shake off the effect.
Xiaodan strikes, Eagle Rending Flesh, stabbing repeatedly with the point, then brings the edge down as the officer reels under the onslaught. His opponent still has some fight in him; he blocks the attack, turns Xiaodan’s sword, then tries for his exposed side.
He’s fast. Xiaodan catches the officer’s blow on his scabbard, wincing as the effort strains his left arm. The two of them dance a frantic little circle, staggering through the mud as the officer forces his sword closer –
Xiaodan smashes the other man in the side of the head with the hilt of his own sword and, as the officer reels, brings the blade up then down – two-handed, Hawk Out of the Clouds, so hard it cuts clean through the man’s helmet.
He steps back, gasping for breath.
Zhong is down on his knees, wrapping a strip of cloth around one leg. Blood stains his calf, but he’s alive. The three soldiers who attacked him lie motionless where they fell.
Xiaodan wipes his sword on his sleeve – it’s red, he thinks, who’ll notice – and then he sheathes the weapon, trying to keep his hands from shaking.
None of you know anything about me –
“Are yours dead?” Zhong struggles to his feet.
“Two of them, at least.” Xiaodan returns the sword to his bag. “Let’s go.”
“Back to the village?” The older man looks at him.
“We can at least check,” Xiaodan says heavily. “The end of the trail.”
Someone laughs, high, rasping, inhuman.
A tremor rolls through Xiaodan’s guts. No, he thinks. No, no, no –
“But we’re not done,” says a voice. “That was barely a warmup. Gǔhuī wants his turn, see?”
What steps out of the woods is roughly human-shaped, but the legs are too long, with one too many joints, and it walks on fearsome-looking talons. The nose is thin and hooked, and the eyes droplets of yellow gold, obscured by thick grey membranes as it blinks. The mouth is too small, the teeth inside too sharp, the tongue a writhing purple slug.
There are plumes of coarse fibre across either side of its head, not feathers, but not quite hair, either, so matted together they look like thick scales. It wears a coat, a filthy grey jerkin, and breeches down to mid-thigh. The skin visible at its neck and wrists is patterned with smears of black and white, like some exotic seashell half-glimpsed below the waves.
“Oh, don’t go.” The creature carries a mace in one clawed hand, a sword-breaker, idly twirling the tip on its chain like a child playing with a cup and ball. “Show Gǔhuī what you’ve got.” It makes that laugh again, a short, sharp bark of almost formless noise. “Come on.”
I saw them, Xiaodan thinks. I swear I saw them tearing our men –
Men in full armour.
Into pieces –
As the creature’s attention settles, just for a moment, on the other man, Xiaodan turns on his heel and runs for his life.