Venara's massive legs creaked and snapped as its huge body swayed. Xu looked around and realized they were directly in the giant's path. Xu grabbed Shun by his arm and pulled. Tian and Kui ran just as wraiths scattered in the sky. Like a four thousand year old tree with a base the size of a mountain, Venara was coming down.
Xu and his gang ran to get out of the way, but ended up hitting a beach. Xu pointed at the river. “In the water.”
The water raged high and fast, still strong from months of winter storms. Tian hesitated. Xu looked at her. Above he could see Venara falling towards them.
“We'll lose each other.”
Xu was surprised that she cared. He held her hand tight.
Xu squeezed her hand and pulled her into the freezing water. Shun and Kui jumped in behind them. The water came down from the mountain ice cold. When they hit its freezing surface, both Xu and Tian screamed out. They were sped down the river quicker than Xu expected. He held his breath as they went under water. The third time his head poked up and Xu gasped for air, he spotted Kui speeding down the river, but not Shun.
The earth shook. Even the raging river rattled as its banks absorbed the weight of Venara. A wave blew down the river. Xu felt Tian's grip tighten as the wave rushed toward them. Tian's head was above the waterline; Xu saw the moonlight reflecting in her beautiful eyes and almost forgot where they were.
“I'm not letting go,” Xu said and took a deep breath just before the wave hit. The water hit him like a punch, and for moment the only thing he felt was Tian's hand. The water flowed over him, he closed his eyes, and held his breath. He knew they were speeding down the river. Beyond that, he gave himself up to the current.
A hand slapped his face. That is how this all started-–a slap on the face from his former master. When Xu opened his eyes, he felt relief. It wasn't his master, it was Tian. She smiled at him. That's when he felt her hand still in his.
Xu stood and heaved more water from his lungs. He felt the sand under him, and heard the raging river behind them. Kui was on his knees, hacking up water from his lungs. Shun was already laying out his scrolls, trying to get them dry. Xu laughed. It would take Shun all day. The sky was fading from black to blue, behind Tian's face.
Xu looked around and saw a road, heading into a city with giant plumes of smoke rising from it. The city was not far away. Xu looked at Tian.
“I need to see what is going on. Take care of Kui.”
Kui waved his hands. “I'm fine...just need a minute,” he said. Kui coughed and then stepped into the forest.
Xu climbed up the nearest tree he could find, jumping from limb to limb until he was almost a hundred feet over the river. He looked back down the river, at the fallen body of Venara. In the east, the sun became visible in the sky over the horizon.
Venara, weak and dying, turned its head toward the light. Even at this distance, Xu could see the fear in the giant's face. The sun beamed down on the giant, and its body began to sizzle like tofu in a wok.
“Vampire...” Xu whispered, and watched with bizarre fascination as Venara burned away before his eyes. Behind him, Xu heard a horn and the sound of horses and marching boots. Xu jumped to another limb and spun around till he was facing the south, from the tree's highest point. Over the tree top he could clearly see the smoke issuing from the city.
A dozen or more homes burned. It was similar to the village they had seen the other day, but on a much larger scale. Bodies were being piled in the streets. South of the city, the army responsible marched on. The Manchus had a larger army than he imagined.
He couldn't look anymore.
Kui bent over in the woods and prepared to lose what little food he had in his stomach. Nausea flooded over him, but the vomit never came. He felt a hand on his back. Kui turned and saw a person wrapped head to toe in black fabric. Kui reached for his sword, and the stranger stepped back and held up a sword. Even his eyes were covered.
“I can smell your blood. I don't need to see to defeat you.”
Kui recognized the voice. Hosakai. Kui lowered his sword.
“I took a great risk coming out in the sun, to speak to you.”
Kui looked around, and back at the cloth-covered face.
“Xu is very close. You shouldn't have come.”
“He was lucky that Venara should have fallen so easily.”
Kui rolled his eyes. “Speak your mind and leave.”
Kui watched the cloth over Hosakai's face, and wished he could see the man's expressions.
Hosakai put a finger up. “The capital will be under siege within the week.”
Hosakai put up a second finger. “And more importantly, for you personally: Su-Yee?”
Kui closed his eyes and cursed himself. He had forgotten about her.
“She is alive,” Hosakai put down his hand.
“How do you know?”
“I just do,” Hosakai replied, and began to walk away. “I also know she is in love with you.”
Kui followed him. Hosakai's sword spun out and poked Kui in the neck. Kui stepped back. “Ouch...”
“Know this. Stay with the monk on this mission, and you'll never find her.”
Hosakai threw something at the ground. A cloud of smoke exploded, and when it cleared, Kui was alone.
Shun packed up the last of his scrolls as Tian practiced her sword stances. Xu and Kui came out of the forest at almost the same time. Xu signaled for them all to come together. He leaned over and used his sword to write a symbol in the sand. It was a symbol for choice.
“The Manchu army is marching. They are getting help. My plan is to travel the length of China, if I have to, to find the agents of evil helping them.”
Shun nodded. Tian saluted, and Kui looked at the ground. He kicked the dirt.
“I'm with you.”
Xu spun his sword around, put it back in its sheath, and walked the path.
“I've got a feeling things get weirder from here,” said Tian, and followed Xu down the path.
Who knew what adventures lay ahead?
~ ~ ~
~ ~ ~
TOMORROW's FRIDAY FICTION FEATURE:
THE RETURN OF JOHNNY STRIKE
denizen of Interzone,
for the legendary band CRIME,
returns to the Freezine of
Fantasy and Science Fiction
with his short story
THE HOMELESS MUTANTS
coming this Friday,
JAN 29, 2010.
Don't Miss Out!