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Temple of Mirrors

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Temple of Mirrors

Wm. Luke Everest

On his first contract, Tzu-lung was hired to kill a famous swordsman.  Tzu-lung revered him.  General Wen had proven his greatness twenty years ago fighting the Tung Ma, a triad society.  He now lived in disgrace three day's trek from Chang An.  Tzu-lung didn't know why.  The pig-men of nobility wanted him dead.  Someone was going to kill him.  This way, Tzu-lung could meet his hero, and ensure Wen died with honor.

Tzu-lung passed the colorful fruits of the market stalls, ignoring the salesmen's shouts and the guards who flanked the gate, halberds glinting in the sun.

Yellow River extended east, wide enough it might have been an ocean.  He followed it through sopping rice fields, passed old mountains, weathered to look like musician's fingers, long and curved.  He avoided the villages, living off smoked meat in his pack, sleeping under trees and beside rocks.  When he reached General Wen's home, it rained.

It rained like Yellow River had been turned upside down.  The water seemed to freeze on his scalp.  The home was a shack of wood planks and thatch.  It rested beside a low cliff, surrounded by trees with leaves in flat clusters like wisps of cloud.  Water bounced off the wood, creating a white, hazy aura.  Yellow River lapped a mud bank nearby.  Tzu-lung planned to keep the fight near the trees.  Mud made footwork unpredictable.

No answer at the door.  Tzu-lung pushed it open.  Rain drummed the ceiling, leaked into a cooking pot and chimed like a bell.  Bookshelves overflowed along every wall.  On the table was a teapot painted with a phoenix, and half-wedged underneath it, a letter addressed to the Tung Ma.  There were two cups.  Tzu-lung drew his sword.

Outside, General Wen stood in the mud, sword in hand.  Rain bounced off his wide bamboo hat.  Time had been cruel.  In portraits he was tall, muscular, his black hair like a stallion's mane.  Grey hair wisped about his wrinkled face.  Time had stolen his thick muscles.  But he stood tall.

"What's your name, son?" he called.

Tzu-lung shook his head.  I can't.

Wen sneered.  "So you are Tung Ma.  You have no honor."

I can't! Tzu-lung pulled his own letter from his sash and threw it.  Wen stooped carefully to pull it from the mud.  He held it under his bamboo hat and read.

"You're mute," he said.  The letter addressed him as hero, and asked why he was disgraced.  Wen laughed.  Tzu-lung looked down in embarrassment.  Wen said, "Sometimes, son, you have to choose between honor and acclaim."

Tzu-lung had hoped for more.

"It is not time for words."

Tzu-lung beckoned Wen.

Wen laughed.  "I'm afraid not, son.  Mud makes skill count for more than strength."

Tzu-lung put his fist in his palm and held them before his heart.  Wen threw Tzu-lung's letter into the muck, followed suit with fist and palm, and they bowed.  Tzu-lung approached cautiously the mud sucking at his boots.

Wen's sword leapt for the heart.  Tzu-lung knocked the blade aside and swiped for the throat.  The blades were two serpent tongues vying for supremacy like a bad kiss.

Wen's skill was supreme.  Tzu-lung was faster, stronger, but Wen's sword was wily, and always too close.  He deserved to win.  Tzu-lung leapt back.  One boot caught, the other slipped.  He cut Wen's leg on the way down.  Wen cried out, fell to one knee, stabbed and missed.  Tzu-lung slashed Wen's throat.

Wen's face sagged, eyes widened so he appeared almost sad.  His arms went limp and his sword fell, and he fell sideways into the mud.  Tzu-lung flipped him onto his back and pulled him onto hard earth.  He bowed deeply.

They would have killed you anyway. He wished he could speak.  I'm sorry.

Inside, the teapot was still warm.  Tzu-lung sat, closed his eyes.  Had he killed Wen without honor?  It was a lucky shot, catching Wen's leg when he fell.  Wen deserved to win.  More than that, he deserved not to be hassled by an idiot like me, Tzu-lung thought, who can't do anything of value.  Wen deserved to die in peace.

Tzu-lung pulled Wen's letter from under the teapot:  Dear Puppet of the Tung Ma, hopefully unaware.  I fought for honor. Not acclaim, not money.  Thank you for letting me die a warrior.

Tzu-lung poured tea, first in the cup across from him, then his own.  He raised the glass in formal toast, sipped, and wept.

#

He always cried when he killed.  Every death he'd wrought as a soldier, he'd forced himself to remember each man's face, and he'd wept.  But this was different.  He'd taken the legacy of a great man.  The Tung Ma had beaten General Wen in the end.

The magistrate sat with one leg folded over the other.  The head of the gold-embroidered dragon hid behind a crease in his blue robe.  He was scrawny, the kind of man who couldn't do his own dirty work.  The tall wooden hat of his office seemed almost to crush his toothpick neck.

"You did well," the magistrate said, and sneered.  "Wen won't bother us again."  He laughed.  Tzu-lung fought the urge to bash the magistrate's face in with his own hat.

On these rare occasions Tzu-lung saw the advantage of being mute.

General Wen never fought for money, he thought, careful not to gesture.  And there was no honor in killing him.  And you are a cockroach.  I guess that makes me the mandibles.

The magistrate threw a sack of gold at Tzu-lung's feet.  He didn't even blink.  Was that what Wen's life was worth?

"You did us a great service."

And who is "us"?  Bastard Tung Ma.

"There is more work available."

Tzu-lung shook his head.  I'm through being the mandibles on a cockroach. He picked up the money bag and left.  He hurried.  Failure to bow to a magistrate was a major offense.  The bag was heavy.  There was enough gold to buy a house.

I'm glad I robbed the Tung Ma.

A beggar sat slumped in the road, long black hair matted on his filthy face.  Sometimes you have to choose between honor and acclaim, Wen had said.  What about honor and money?  Tzu-lung threw the money at the beggar's feet and dashed down an alleyway.

#

In his rented room, a note rested on the table.  Tzu-lung glanced at it:  an invitation from the Tung Ma.  He packed quickly, throwing bundles of clothes into his sack.

He kept his head down and walked with the crowd over yellow brick streets and red-railed bridges.  The sun was hot and Chang An smelled of dried bricks.  He walked for an hour, found another lodging house and booked a new room.  He lay on the bed, thinking of General Wen, and the money he gave up.  Enough to buy a house, to never sell his sword again.  But how could he keep the money?  What kind of dullard was he that he had to kill to live?

He lay until time became liquid:  moments and thoughts slipping into each other.  He wasn't sure if he slept, but when he looked up the sky was dim grey through the window.

Downstairs, the tea-house was quiet.  A short, pretty girl in an apron approached him and smiled.

"Would sir like a table?"

Thank you.

She led him to an empty booth, said, "I will bring the menu," and departed.  He felt sheltered, surrounded by dark wooden lattice that reached almost to the ceiling.  It was carved ornately to resemble flora.  The table was also dark.  Tzu-lung slumped into the cushioned bench, rested his head against the lattice.

Two men approached.  One was bald, thickset.  The other was swarthy, with a long, scholar's braid and goatee.

The bald one smiled, said, "May we join you?"

No.  Sorry.

"Forgive my friend's manners," said the swarthy one.  His voice was a rumble.  "My name is Fan.  His is Chou."

Tzu-lung waved his hands across his chest.  I don't want company.

"We have a proposition," Chou said.  "Just hear us out.  If the answer is no we'll leave."

"We aren't with any society," Fan said.  He gestured at the seat opposite.  "I beg you."

Tzu-lung gave in.

"You're mute, correct?" Fan said.

Yes.

"We heard there was a mute swordsman here.  We followed you from the last lodging."

Chou added, "I hear you were quite the soldier."

I never liked the work, Tzu-lung thought, but made no gesture.  He watched the men, growing impatient and letting it show.

"We know you need money," Fan said.  "We have a job for you.  There's an abandoned copper mine, far from Chung Kuo.  Probably you won't have to lift a finger, but we'll give you a cut for protection."

Chou said, "Wealth is a boat ride away."

The serving girl returned.  She smiled at each man in turn.

"Can I get you anything?"  Chou's eyes lingered on her.

Tzu-lung looked at the menu.  Expensive.  He couldn't live like this forever.  He pulled a pen out of his pocket, wrote I won't have to kill? and passed the note to Fan.

Fan shook his head.  Tzu-lung sighed, nodded.  Fan smiled wryly.  Chou grinned.  Fan held up three fingers.

"Three special blend," he said.  "We have much to celebrate."

#

From the ship's prow, Tzu-lung watched the island approach.  Jungle rose over the beach, and black mountains jutted from the jungle like monoliths.  It's a funny thing about being a hired sword, Tzu-lung thought, that you hope your employer wasted his money.

He gripped the rail.  His stomach lurched.  Each tidal pull left his gut behind, and it rushed to catch up.

"It'll be your world soon enough," Chou said, pointing one thick hand at the beach.  Fan laughed wickedly, gripping his goatee.  Tzu-lung smirked.  He forced his mind from the sickening motion of the ship.

Sunlight glimmered off the rippling blue.  The ocean stretched in every direction around the island, placid on the far horizon where the sea joined the sky, pale blue against crystalline.  All was silent save the gentle rush of the tide, and it pulled the vessel closer with each foamy breath.

They jolted to a halt against the sand.  Tzu-lung slid down the rope ladder, splashing in the shallow brine.  He waded to the beach.  His head spun.  He pressed it into the sand, as though the soft stillness could absorb the vertigo.  Chou and Fan laughed and mocked him.  They sounded far away.  Finally Tzu-lung rolled onto his back and smiled at the hot sun.

"We'll need food and fire," Fan said.  "Tzu-lung, you can stay.  Find your legs."

Chou gave a single bark of laughter.  He said, "Just don't sleep with the sun and spray on your face.  Burn you like kindling.  Seductive mistake."

Their boots thudded in the sand.  Their voices diminished.  Tzu-lung wiped the spray from his face with his sleeve.  The sun's rays felt heavy.

He found himself in a cavern.  A dream.  He rarely knew when he dreamed.  It felt surreal, like an opium haze.  Mists played around his feet.  Jagged rocks faintly peaked from the darkness.  Ahead, a faint glow.  Tzu-lung felt along the walls.  The rocks were sharp as swords.

A man, palm tree tall and white as bone, stood within a vast hollow.  The details of his face slipped from memory, visible but elusive as eels.  He clutched a staff like a thin tree.  An orb upon it emitted pale blue light, like the sky at noon.  He raised one long arm, pointed a thin, white finger.

His voice was as elusive as his face.

"Your greatest enemy lies within."

Tzu-lung woke to starlight.  A campfire crackled and spat.  His face felt like he was being roasted.  He pulled away onto cool sand.  It didn't help his face.  Chou snored, a large bundle beside the fire.  Fan sat with his head between his knees.  His head lifted and he looked at Tzu-lung.  He tossed Tzu-lung a small brown bottle.

"Ching Wan Hung.  For your sunburn," Fan said.  Tzu-lung applied the cool, sweet smelling ointment.  Fan gazed into the fire.  His eyes were troubled.

Tzu-lung gestured as well as he could, What's bothering you?

"Chou likes this stuff," he said.  "I want to get it over with."

Tzu-lung couldn't sleep either.  When he closed his eyes, he saw the tall albino.  He sat up, crossed his legs.  He pulled his sword into his lap and rubbed the blade with duck grease, the savory smell making him hungry.

#

Chou led them through the jungle.  Tzu-lung listened for danger.  There was only the rare cry or flutter of a bird, and the steady rustle of movement as the three slipped under fern leaves and around moss covered trees.

A wooden shack clung to the obsidian black cliff-side.  Tzu-lung pulled his sword an inch from its sheath.

"You first, warrior," Fan said.  Tzu-lung nodded, but Chou didn't wait.

Splintered wood lay upon the shack's floor.  Tattered rags clung to rotten chairs by a table.  There was a bookcase, rank with decay, and a vast cellar door, half rotten to reveal darkness.  It must have been an office.  Tzu-lung imagined the sticky heat, the smell of ink that wouldn't dry mingled with body odor.

"The story goes," Fan said, "that some pirates raided the mine, killed everyone.  They wanted the copper, found something better.  Rumor has it they killed each other, too."

Signs of struggle but no bodies, Tzu-lung thought.

Fan pulled a lantern out of his pack while Chou opened the cellar door.  "Let Tzu-lung do his job, Chou."

"I hired him for a second good sword-arm, not because mine's limp."  Chou smiled.  "Come along."

Tzu-lung shrugged and followed Chou into the cool darkness.  The cavern walls were glossy black, like the outside.  Stalactite's stabbed from the roof like obsidian lances.  Dilapidated carts lay smashed along the walls.  Fan held a map to the lantern.  He directed Chou.  His low mumbling echoed like a chant.  Tzu-lung followed, listening, watching the shadows.

They reached a broken door with a circle drawn in red.  Tzu-lung recognized the flaked, scab color of dried blood.  The door's hinges wailed like a banshee.  In the cavern beyond, mist clung to the floor, stalagmites jutting from it like mountains from the clouds, exactly like Tzu-lung's dream.

#

"Must be an underground river," Fan said.

Tzu-lung tapped Fan's map.

Was it on the map?

Silence dragged.  The rare splash of their footsteps echoed loudly.

Another splash in the distance.  Tzu-lung stopped.  He tapped his foot for attention.  Listen.

"Just a dripping stalactite," Fan said.

Tzu-lung hushed him.  The drip was rhythmic but unsteady.  Ra-tata-ta-ta.

That doesn't sound like water.

Chou said, "It's just a trick of the echo.  Let's keep moving.  Best to do these things quickly."

Tzu-lung followed.  They were probably right.  The drip echoed louder.  Something glowed ahead:  pale beads of light on a distant wall.  They reached a vast space.  The glowing beads surrounded them:  a thousand tiny moons, hung in empty darkness.  Chou ran across a crude bridge that crossed a chasm.  Misty darkness lay below.

"I knew there was treasure here!" Chou said.  The echo hurt Tzu-lung's ears.

Tzu-lung forced a smile.  So long as I get out alive. The drip resounded from the walls.  It was like slapping.  Ra-tata-ta-ta! Like hands slapping bare flesh.

"Come on!" Chou said.  "The path will lead to one of the walls, and we can start getting rich."  He laughed.  "What do you say?"

Do diamonds glow?

Chou led them over the cavern, the slap growing louder.  Again Fan said that it was dripping water.  He sounded nervous.  The path seemed to go on forever, dimly gleaming tracks winding over dark rock.  The tiny moons seemed no closer, the cavern's end still lost to darkness.

They disappeared, like a hundred eyes blinked shut.  Even Chou stopped.  Tzu-lung pulled his sword free, the sound like a rasped breath.  Chou and Fan did likewise.

"A passing mist?" Fan said.

Tzu-lung stamped his foot for silence.

There was no sound save for the slapping.  It seemed to grow louder as Tzu-lung focused.  Did it quicken pace?

It stopped.  Tzu-lung shifted his sword to hold it with both hands.

Tiny moons erupted from the dark, and they moved.  They encircled like a swarm of fireflies.  Tzu-lung placed his hand on Fan's lamp.  Fan was frozen.  Tzu-lung forced the lamp from his grasp and lay it on the ground.

The moons reached the ambit of light, and became eyes; wide, fang-toothed grimaces; squat figures, pallid skin; pudgy bellies and thick arms; crude weaponry:  splintered wood and pick-axe heads.  Shrill cries erupted from twisted mouths.

Chou hacked the head from one as it drew close.  Blood sprayed their pallid flesh, like red paint thrown upon white canvass.  Tzu-lung hacked wildly.  He felt his sword bite flesh, block weapons, but saw only the blur of combat.

Someone cried out like a tiger's roar, went down.  Probably Chou.  Another cry, a deep-voiced yelp.  Tzu-lung couldn't see where his comrades had fallen.  The enemy stopped attacking.  They fled, like a tidal rush back into the dark, and Tzu-lung was alone in the ambit of flickering lamplight, which glimmered in dark blood on the cavern floor.

He panted, heart like a lion-dance drum.

#

There were no bodies.  Not of his comrades, not of the things he'd slain.  On its side, the lamp leaked oil, almost empty.  Tzu-lung killed the flame.

He followed the track by feel.  The coward inside begged him to leave.  It was only a job, but he couldn't abandon Chou and Fan.  To what?  Demons?  Angry ghosts?  The darkness harbored no sign that his comrades lived.  Fan would have dropped a trinket to mark the way.  He would have thought of that.

Tzu-lung's legs turned to noodles.  Everything seemed far away.  Had he turned around?  He stared into the abyss, trying to remember.  He shook his aching head.  He fell to his knees, lay his face against the cool floor, took a deep breath and the dark swallowed everything.

#

He was cold, like he lay on a slab of ice.  Light seared red on his eyelids.  He covered his face with his arm.

Light?

He pushed himself up.  Crude steps led down from his platform to a small passage.  Ochre glow danced upon the wall and floor.  Tzu-lung managed to his feet, stumbled.  His thighs felt full of knives.

It was a short hallway of stone.  At the end:  a cavern large as a theatre hall.  A thin ledge wound around it, over a vast pit.  Small monsters danced around a blaze.  Their stomping feet and cries filled the cavern, vaguely song-like.  It was like watching a savage play from high in the rafters.  Tzu-lung pressed into the shadows.  He circled the dancers, drawing upwards.

Bars in the wall, rusty enough to look like spires of dirt.  Tzu-lung scrambled towards it.  Fan lunged to his feet.  Tzu-lung pressed a finger to his lips.  Fan nodded, crept close.  The cell was filthy.  Bones lay upon the ground, jaundiced by time.  A puddle of urine reeked from one corner.  Fan was alone.

Why leave them un-guarded?  They knew Tzu-lung was alive.

Where's Chou?

"They dragged us through darkness that lasted forever," Fan hissed.  His eyes were wide.  "They aren't human.  They're wrong.  Wrong!"

Tzu-lung gripped Fan's shoulder through the bars.  Where's Chou?

"They took Chou below.  Screaming.  Such screaming."  Something creaked below.  Fan hissed, "Look!"

Something wheeled towards the ambit of light.  In shadow, it was like a mast, propped in a mining cart.  The dancers quickened.  Light touched the mast, revealing flesh colored wrappings, red paint.  No.  Not paint.

Tzu-lung vomited.

Chou was wrapped around the pole.  It was as though they'd pulled the bones from his flesh.  He was like a rubber approximation of the man.  Breaths came in quick pants.  His heart was a steady thud, a battle drum.

"Wrong," Fan whispered.

Chou's body moved.  It leapt from the totem and began dancing, shaking its expressionless head, waving arms that sprayed blood upon the dancers.

How could they?  How dare they?  Tzu-lung sprinted.  One by one, the dancers ceased.  Tzu-lung stumbled, rolled to his feet, ripped his sword from its sheath, and he was on them.

Mute, he screamed.  He hacked whatever body part offered itself, running them down as they fled, chopping the heads from those who had frozen.  He chanted death in his mind with each sword stroke.  Chou's body flailed before him.  Tzu-lung hacked an arm from the corpse.  It howled inhumanly.  Tzu-lung hacked the legs and hot blood sprayed his face.

Get out of him.  He wept.  He thrust his blade into Chou's ample belly, twisted and ripped it free.  He hacked the body to a red ruin.

He wanted to fall to his knees, but he dragged himself, spent, up the ledge.  He couldn't stop crying.  He shouldn't have been a soldier, but it was his only talent.  Fate had been cruel, there, but crueler still when it had led him here, and crueler still to Chou.

I hate you, he thought at whatever power might listen.  I hate you so much.

Fan crouched over a pool of vomit.  Tzu-lung hacked at the bars with the blunt side of his sword, the clang resounding like a crier's bell until they broke.  He met Fan's gaze.  Nothing needed to be said.

#

Fan rushed ahead, following the tracks.  His arms flailed, he grunted and panted as their boots thudded along the stone.  Tzu-lung only communicated by giving Fan a shove when necessary.  Fan was a scholar, a weakling.

He shouldn't be here.  As if anyone should.

Sunlight burned white on the cavern wall.  It was like stepping from Hell into a palace of gold.  Fan wailed in obvious joy at the blue sky.  He stumbled to his knees, gripped a clump of sandy earth in each hand and rubbed the grit onto his face.  The air was vibrant with sweet, florid scents, mingled with sea-salt.  Something else:  the tin smell of dry blood.

Tzu-lung turned.  On the cabin floor a character had been painted in wide, uncouth strokes.  Uncouth?  He sneered at himself.  It was painted in blood, for Buddha's sake.  It read:  Farewell.

He shook his head.  I can't go with you.

The rustle of a boot on dirt, and Tzu-lung felt Fan approach, and grip his elbow.

I can't.

"Come."

Tzu-lung could sense Fan's sinking heart through the contact of his fingertips.  He couldn't sail the ship alone.

You'll just have to wait for meAnd if I don't return, you'll find a way.

"Why?"

Tzu-lung walked into the dark.

#

Because they were intelligent.  Because they had ignored him when they took Chou and Fan.  They had performed rituals, used prisons, danced.  They were vaguely human, like deformed children.

And farewell?  After what they'd done to Chou, after he'd slaughtered so many of them, farewell?

Because of the dream.  There had to be something else.  Because none of it made sense.

The misty darkness did not seem so long this time.  Light flickered through the small cavern, like a short, round hallway.  Tzu-lung crept though to find the cavern empty.  The fire crackled.  The ceiling was lost in grey smoke.

And the bodies had been moved.  Streaks of blood led into another passage.  Whatever lay beyond, it was wrong.  Of that he was certain.  It was like descending into a maelstrom:  reasonless, unfathomed darkness.  The hilt tight in his hand was like a life-rope.  It was all he understood.

Blood on the passage floor glistened like a mirror.  Cold air blew from the darkness beyond, rank with body odor.  He came upon another vast cavern, the far walls lost to darkness.

Ra-tata-ta-ta!

And the dark came alive with a myriad tiny moons.  Tzu-lung threw himself to the ground, then crept back.  His pulse beat a steady rhythm to match their fast-slapping hands.

But he didn't feel watched.  A faint blue glow emitted from the pit in the cavern's centre.  The moon-like eyes seemed trained upon it.  Tzu-lung crept forward.  Below, three creatures walked, gazing around as if bewildered.  One wore stilts, and a white and red mask, stretched like the face in Tzu-lung's dream.  He clutched a blue, glowing shard in one hand, a sharpened bone in the other.

Ra-tata-ta-ta!

The creatures moved.  The encircling eyes danced like fireflies.  The slapping ceased and they froze, renewed and they moved.  The pace quickened, the slap beat more often.  The moons came into the light, revealing twisted faces, small teeth sharpened into fangs.  The slapping became a steady din, ceased, and the crowd attacked.  A brief fight:  fists and crude blades smashing and hacking, and the shard-holder's two companions were dragged away.  Alone, the shard-holder moped.  He stumbled after his comrades.

It was a game, a cruel mockery of Chou and Fan.  Tzu-lung thought of Fan's face, pale with fear, his expression frozen within terrible memory.  Did they care nothing for decency?  Tzu-lung's throat went dry.  His hand itched to feel the reverberations of swordplay.  And they'd hurt each other.  Blood spattered the floor.  Did they feel nothing?

The other creatures watched as the shard-holder made a crude dance, then he leapt from his stilts, whipped the mask off his face and they all roared with laughter.

What were they?

A rope bridge was the only sign of civilization.  Tzu-lung crawled over it, careful not to let the wooden boards creak.

The cliff curved around the chasm, where the creatures now milled about, scuffling over the precious stone.  Blackened torches clung by rusty cuffs to the wall.  Tzu-lung smelled mildew.  Around a sharp corner, he reached a door like a crumbling plank of driftwood.

#

The darkness was absolute.  Tzu-lung put the lantern on the floor.  Matches rattled in his box.  There were only three.  He struck one and the burst of light revealed a small room, made square by crates that lined the walls.

A desk, intact, and a broken chair.  Two candles, reduced to blobs of wax stood on either side of a ledger.

The office.

Tzu-lung placed the lamp on the desk and sifted through the book:  figures, schematics.  Paper dust filled his nose.  At the end the contents changed.  Writing, hastily scrawled.  Something about natives.  Soldiers moved their village.  There was supposed to be a port.  Native men and women had fought, died.  The children had sought refuge.

Tzu-lung retched.  They were children.  He'd fought children.  He read on, fiercely, demanding an explanation.  There was something about poison, about the glowing stones.  The writing became larger, calm.

I am alone now, it read, except for them.  They mostly seem to ignore me.  They changed so fast.

Drawings.  Stick figures.  A tall man over little ones.  The writing became messy, like a child's crude hand.

Stretched.  Don't want to go home, now.  They watch me funny.  Haha.  Light going out.  Ink stinks.  They don't watch so funny when I bleed.  Light almost gone.  They want taste me.  Little bastards.  I'm big.  Next funny look, bastard knows I'm big.

Tzu-lung killed the lamp flame.  He sat against the wall, numb.  He yearned for tears, but they wouldn't come.  He remembered, when he was a soldier everyone laughed at him for crying.  He'd challenged one to a fight, killed him by accident.  Bastard turned out to be a general's son.  He thought he'd lost everything:  his job, his home, his girl.  Alone in the dark, babble from child-creatures echoing in the distance, he knew what loss really was.  It was when answers ran out.  One thing he knew:  every tribe, no matter how civilized, no matter how savage, has its exalted.

The tall one.

He thought of Fan's last word to him.  Why? Because he couldn't turn back.

#

The chatoyant gleam of their eyes could only mean night-vision.  There was no point sneaking.  Tzu-lung strode, hilt clutched tight in his hand.  It was time the grown-ups met.

Faint blue glow pulsed from a cave below.  He knew he might die, but he had to confront the tall one.  He felt lightheaded, almost euphoric.  The sound of babble grew until he strode among the child-creatures, swinging his blade for show.  They backed away, full moon eyes gleaming.  The cavern beyond was an open expanse.  A shallow lake stretched out like a palace courtyard.  Blue light glowed under the shimmering surface.  Mist clung to the water in ephemeral fingers.  In the lake's centre was the figure from Tzu-lung's dream.

Child-creatures flanked the lake, watching, retreating.  Their fear made Tzu-lung tall, powerful.  The blue glow pulsated, in rhythm with his quickening heart.  He felt the rapture of adrenaline.  It burned in his shoulders, his sword hand.

The child-creatures slapped their legs.

Ra-tata-ta-ta!

Tzu-lung stopped, shook his head like a cat.  It was poison.  Diamonds didn't glow.  That was just folk-lore.  The glowing rocks were poison.

I'm just a man.  He pointed at his chest, aimed the sword at the tall one.  And so are you.

The slapping ceased.  Tzu-lung walked into the lake.  He could feel it calling wild urges from him.  The glow was like a siren song, and Tzu-lung forced his attention onto the tall one, who remained still as a mantis.

Sometimes you have to kill.  Sometimes it's kind.  But I'm fighting you fair.

Tzu-lung threw his sword into the water.  It glimmered as it sank, and came to rest on the glowing stones.  Are you too far gone?  Will you come with me, away from the poison?  You can be human again.

The tall one grunted.  His voice was a deep growl.  "You wanna fight me toothless.  Wanna show off.  Wanna lead."

He reached one long, white arm into the water and pulled out Tzu-lung's sword.

"My kids."  He lashed down with the sword.  Tzu-lung leapt aside and it cracked the water inches from his leg.  He dove under another swipe and caught the tall one's legs, toppled him into the water.  He caught the sword arm, put his knee on the tall one's chest, watched the face writhe in agony as air bubbles escaped.  The eyes were wide, human.

The tears began, but it was different.  It felt right to cry.  It was a mute aknowledgement.  Killing was horrible, but sometimes, very rarely, it was right.  A world where we shy from blood is a world without courage, without honor, and ultimately without good.  I'm sorry.  I wish I knew your name.  I wish I could speak it.  I'd tell you I'm sorry.

The tall one stiffened.  His face was a howling mask and his limbs twitched, then drifted up and out.  Tzu-lung strode to the pool's bank, proud of the tears that streamed down his cheeks.  He beckoned, and led the child-creatures through the cavern maze until he saw daylight kiss the walls.  They were his children.  He would do right by them.

Sunlight seared his eyes.  A character was painted on the shack's floor:  Success. The child-creatures were gone.  Hands clapped.  He turned.  It was Fan.  Beside him was Chou.  Tzu-lung fell to his knees.

Am I dead?

"You are reborn," Fan said.  "You entered the Temple of Mirrors a shadow of your present self.  You have faced your demon and triumphed."

A test?

Chou sucked air.  He inflated until he was fat as a Buddha statue, blew like a hurricane wind, and Tzu-lung woke in the teahouse in Chang An.  Patrons milled about.  Chatter buzzed.

In his hand was a scroll.  Bewildered, Tzu-lung unfurled it.

Third Brother Tzu-lung,

The Temple of Mirrors is a gift.  It confronts you with your greatest fear.  In your case, an enemy with whom you sympathize.  Wen's spirit asked us to test you, for you honored him by refusing the bounty.

You are invited to join Pah Lien, the White Lotus Society, and help us destroy the Tung Ma.  Should you choose not to join us, no matter.  Use the gift in your own way.

The waitress arrived.

"Three special blend.  Where are your friends?"

Thank you.

Had it all been a dream?  No.  The smells, the colors, all was too vibrant for a dream.  He knew in his bones that it was real--the Pah Lien's "gift", his return.  He would join them.  He would help complete General Wen's work and destroy the Tung Ma.  Wen had offered him redemption.

"Can I get you anything else?"

It seemed surreal to answer such a mundane question.  Too much had happened.  Too many roads lay ahead.  Only one thing he knew he wanted:  Tzu-lung asked for one more cup.  When it arrived, he filled each cup, then toasted General Wen.

©2010

 

 

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