The heat was stifling. Silk banners fluttered in a light breeze, covering lush green hillsides in a pallet of vibrant color. The Ming had disturbed the valley’s tranquility with a brutish display of military strength. They had brought two hundred thousand soldiers within striking distance of the valley’s temples, the quiet home to two hundred Buddhist warrior monks.
Mei had never seen so many banners, tents or horses. The host stretched for miles across the horizon, scarring the landscape with its presence, circling the plateau like a plague of colored locusts. The Ming Army was not here at the whim of the Emperor, the desire of a general, or the greed of a local governor. These men were here because an unseen force wanted them there. They had been driven to this place by fear.
Mei drank from a water skin. She was balanced among the high branches of a thousand year old ginkgo tree, the soles of her silk-bound feet warm against the cracked bark. From her vantage point, she could see the whole valley spread out before her like a landscape painting. The spires of the temples hovered in the distance amidst shrouds of smoke.
Somewhere, hiding among the army, were the Wraiths. She could feel their closeness like a twinge in the pit of her stomach. They were the shadow creatures, the forgotten shamans of history. Some she knew by name, while others she had heard of only in whispers. They were once friends of her kind, allies in the darkness, until they changed, turned wicked by greed and a desire for revenge.
She whipped her arm around in an arc, just in time to catch the arrow before it pierced her flesh. She maneuvered her feet in harmony with her body to keep balance. The tip stopped inches from her chest, a menacing barb of metal protruding between her fingers. A trickle of blood ran from her hand, where the metal had nicked her. The arrow had traveled slowly, a lucky mistake, shot from a distance or by someone weak. The markings it bore were distinctly Han, from the Ming Army.
Three men appeared from out of a thicket, their swords already drawn. They were laughing loudly, drunk on rice wine. One carried two dead monkeys, their necks bound together with rope. An archer followed them, brushing away branches. He was young, about eighteen, a little older than Mei. The bow was almost as tall as he was, but his eyes must have been keen to spot her so high in the tree.
She was no monkey to be cooked for someone’s supper. A flush of indignation rushed through her body, and she cursed her lack of vigilance. The distraction of the last few days had broken her composure, and now she was angry, an emotion best suited to the dying. She needed to refocus; she would be no use to anyone dead.
She threw the arrow down and started her descent, nimbly springing from branch to branch with astonishing speed. The archer appeared baffled. He loaded a second arrow, and tried to take aim, but she skillfully moved among branches to obscure his line of sight.
The other men rushed to the bottom of the tree, still laughing and shouting lewd taunts at her as they brandished their swords. She glanced through a gap between branches and saw that one of them was waving an erection, his leggings already around his feet.
She paused near the bottom of the tree just long enough for the archer to release his arrow. Moving out of its path with ease, she dropped the last six feet to the ground. She ran at the men and twisted through their midst without making contact, falling into a roll at the feet of the archer, who was readying another arrow. As she rose, she drew a sword from the scabbard fastened to her back, and flashed it across his throat, sending arcs of crimson into the air.
Before the young archer had hit the ground, her sword was already deep in the chest of one of his companions. The surprise remained visible on his face as spittle and blood bubbled from his dying lips. She drew her sword out with a sucking sound and ducked low to avoid a blow from another soldier, arching and bringing her foot up into the man’s stomach as she rose. He reeled backwards, sent off balance by the blow, shouting in fear as she sliced open his throat with an elegant sweep of her sword arm.
“Was that for me?” she asked the last man.
He was fumbling with his leggings, muttering curses at her. He held his sword up as she lunged, but she sidestepped him, slicing his stomach from left to right. He fell to his knees, dropping his sword, trying to hold his guts in his belly with trembling fingers. She sliced off his head to ease his agony.
Mei had no love for killing. To her it was like breathing, a necessary part of surviving from one day to the next. People would try to kill her, and she would kill them first. She was a Seer, a warrior, but this was different. She was not on a mission for the Wraiths, carrying messages through fortress walls, extracting information, learning secrets, stealing precious metals and stones, or taking revenge on the enemies of the temple. She was now an outlaw. This time she had killed to protect her own mission.
She ran from the bodies, the smell of blood more than she could stand. It carried with it the odor of betrayal, a treachery against her kind, as well as those whose kindness had kept them safe. She needed to get away from the valley as fast as possible. She had to survive.
She moved through the forest on paths known only to the monks, avoiding further army patrols and stopping only to drink from mountain streams.
When night finally fell, she was far away from the reach of her enemies, from the ones who could sense her presence. She worried for her kind, as the fate that had been thrust upon them without warning was perilous.
She stopped to rest at the edge of a clearing. The night air was cool, the moon giving off ample light to see.
Footsteps approached, light and gentle, like those of a tiger stalking a deer. Mei did not respond; she had been aware of her company for some time.
Qi knelt down beside her on the soft ground, laying his pack at his feet.
“The Ming were thick like swarming flies. I killed many,” he said with a detectable sadness in his voice, tearing some dried meat into smaller pieces. He handed some to Mei.
“I killed also,” she replied, placing a piece of meat into her mouth.
“I do not think the monks fought. I saw burning at the temple, but the armies stayed on the hills.”
Mei chewed in silence. Her thoughts were clear now, but her heart was heavy.
“They would have sent the whole army, had they resisted. They must have agreed to a deal,” she said.
She meditated in silence on how a single sentence could sum up such devastation. The monks had been her family. With the Seers gone, they stood a chance of survival, which is why she and the others had left.
“The Wraiths wanting us dead, after so many years,” Qi said, “I understand it, but at the same time, I understand nothing.”
Mei placed a hand on his as he wiped tears from his eyes. He was older than Mei, but still young.
“We know their secrets, we can sense their presence with our minds,” she said.
“We helped them, killed for them, spied for them,” he added, “we helped them survive, kept them secret so they could rule from the shadows, but why?”
“Why has no use anymore. They are powerful now, but they are also afraid.”
They sat together in silence, watching shooting stars streak overhead.
“Do you think it is true, that the Wraiths are everywhere, in other lands?”
Mei had asked herself the same question many times in the last few days.
“I don’t know. The Abbot thought so,” she said.
“But the rest of the world is so far away,” Qi said, lying down on his back.
Mei lay down beside him, staring into the heavens.
“If they destroy us here, and what the Abbot says is true, that there are others like us, then it is only a matter of time before the Wraiths destroy all of our kind,” Mei said.
“But we don’t know these others, why should we care?”
Mei rolled onto her side to look at him.
“Always why?” Mei prodded him.
He listened to her words but stayed silent.
“Others will be killed,” she continued, “We know the true face of the Wraiths, and we alone can find them and stop them. Now we must. That is why they fear us.”
“I would fear you, Li Mei,” he said, smiling.
“I would fear me too.”
Mei laughed. The sound felt alien to her. Since the Abbot had told her she must leave, that the monks could no longer protect them, she had not even smiled.
The army had begun arriving shortly after, leaving little time to prepare their departure. Monks in other temples had stood against the Ming soldiers and had fallen alongside Seers. Hundreds had died. There was no value in repeating their mistakes. Mei would return to fight another day, but for now, exile was best. The monks had bestowed them with maps, gold and many of their most cherished weapons. Five of her kind had managed to escape.
“I will go to the Japans,” Qi said.
“I will go to the West, towards the Barbarian lands, where it is said they worship the cross.”
Mei had spilled too much blood for causes she no longer believed in; she would spill blood again, but this time for her own cause, her people. She would find the Seers in the West, and if the shadow creatures were there, she would kill them, along with anyone allied with them.
From the ashes of her world, there would be a rising.