The Village of Woe
They heard the sound of multiple voices sobbing and calling out in sorrow long before they walked into the village. Xu slowed his pace. Kui looked at Shun, having completely forgotten that he was missing his eyeballs. Even after a week together, the sight managed to shock him. Shun was glad he couldn't see, because even before they turned the last few steps of the path into the village, he smelled it all.
Xu stopped them at a ridge just overlooking the small village. Smoke rose from a pyre of burning horse flesh. An inn and its stables expelled smoke. The fires were dying, but they could not have been older than a few hours. Shun took a deep breath, and coughed up carbon backwash.
“I think we should not show the imperial scroll.”
Xu nodded in agreement, these were loyal Han villagers who paid taxes in coins and in food. They expected protection from the emperor.
“I don't think they will have horses,” Xu kicked the dirt. “No living ones, at least.”
The three men walked into the village. Two monks and an eyeless old man, walking into human devastation. A grandmother held her dying grandchild, who lacked a bloody chunk of his hair and forehead. Someone had hastily cut his hair into a gruesome version of the Manchu hairstyle. Men walked toward them begging, with skin burned to the bone; others were trying to empty each of the burning buildings. Xu winced as he watched a man drag a woman tied to a chair out of one burning home. The man cried out his wife's name and cursed the invaders over and over.
Xu squeezed his sword, and watched two men kick dirt over a collection of scalps that the invaders had left from their beheadings, at the north end of the village. He looked over at his traveling companions and saw that Kui shook with anger and fear. All three of them wanted to help, but it was impossible to know where to start.
“What kind of monsters would do something like this...?” Kui asked.
“Manchu soldiers did this,” said Xu before he got into character.
Xu bowed for the grieving grandmother and played the role he was dressed for: that of a Buddhist monk. “He is with the Buddha, his suffering is over.”
The child was already dead in her arms. Xu closed the child's blood-drowned eyes as the grandmother broke out in a fresh wave of sorrow. Xu turned back around. He had met more than one Manchu in his time, they were not bad people, all he could imagine is the madness that comes when you march with an army. There was too much suffering here in this village. Best to keep moving, he thought.
Xu kept walking towards the edge of town. A man burned over nearly every inch of his body reached out for his leg.
Kui looked around the village and ran to catch up with Xu.
“We can't just leave these people.”
“What can we do?”
“I don't know, you're the demon slayer.”
Xu stood still thinking about it. Shun had taken the dead child away from the grandmother, and offered to find help with his burial. The bodies were piled up behind the old stable. He looked over the dead child, directly at Xu.
“We must help.”
Shun walked with the body, leaving Xu feeling guilty.
“They don't need a demon slayer.”
Kui put up his hand.
“Don't say it again. We don't have an army. We have a demon slayer.”
Xu stepped out of the tents they had made of bamboo and sheets. He took a deep breath. It was hardly a hospital. He looked back inside and saw Shun closing the eyelids of another person. A sword to the man's gut; it had not killed him outright. The soldiers just left him there to die. Another scream emerged, but he couldn't go back in there yet. He needed air. The sun dropped slowly in the sky and he looked forward to the relief from the heat.
Across the village, Kui pushed a barrel loaded with cloth sacks of rice. The outside of the cloth was singed with black from the flames that had burned down their storehouse. The smell of the burned food had mixed with the rancid odor of burning flesh, and despite the unappetizing nature of the origins, Xu felt pangs of hunger. Kui disappeared behind the last remaining home where the villagers were stockpiling supplies. He hated to admit the kid was right, but they needed to stay and help.
“Xu?” Shun called to him from inside the tent.
Xu walked past the dead to a young woman laid out on a mat. She held on tight to Shun's hand. With his free hand he wiped sweat from her forehead.
“This is Lin, her grandfather was the villager elder.”
Xu kneeled beside her.
“Lin has told me the story of what happened last night in the village. Before she dies she needs to tell you.”
Kui lifted the ten pound bag of rice and flipped it on to the pile they made behind the house. Compared to the training at the temple, the rice felt light. The house was tiny, nothing more than a shack. All the larger pagoda style homes had been burned almost to the ground. Once the rice and preserved fruits were stacked, they were planning to load them into the house. As the afternoon dragged on, the men who worked to store the food moved faster. Despite hunger and weariness, they fought to keep going.
Kui kept unloading the wheelbarrow as the moon rose above the village. Just as he stacked the last bag of rice, the youngest of the boys helping him stopped in his tracks. Kui watched the boy freeze. The boy's head shook, then his whole body began to shake.
The boy pointed at Kui. Kui put his hand on his chest. The boy shook his head. Something was behind Kui. The young monk began to shake, too. It was then that he heard a deep breath. On the third exhale he felt heat, and the hairs stood up on the back of his neck.
~ ~ ~
Lin cried and squeezed Shun's hand. Xu wiped a tear from her face and waited patiently for her to talk.
“It was not the Manchu,” Lin said.
Xu put his hand on his forehead.
Lin shook her head. “You were supposed to think that. No one was supposed to find us before we were all dead.”
Xu looked up at Shun, He had closed his empty sockets and shook his head. At his feet a scroll was open, with one line written in Mandarin: The Tribe of the Moon. Xu looked down at the name on the scroll. He could barely see it in the fading light.
Gong! Xu turned to the sound. A man walked through the village banging a large gong.
“Warning! The Hour of the Pig is here.”
Darkness was rolling across the land. On a normal night the village lanterns would be lit. Panic broke out from beyond the tent. The survivors scrambled. Xu stood but Lin pulled him back toward her. “Run! Escape this cursed village while you still can.”
Shun was now holding an eyeball, watching them. Lin lost her strength and let go of Xu. “Go! Run!” Lin said just above a whisper.
~ ~ ~
Kui continued to look at the young boy across from him. Tears formed in the young monk's eyes. The boy screamed and finally ran away. Kui pulled out his sword and swung around in one motion. A wolf greeted him with a bark and bared teeth. Kui fell back and dropped his sword. The wolf stepped closer, it was huge, three times the size of any wolf he had seen on Shaolin mountain.
Kui rolled again and grabbed his sword. The wolf jumped closer and in the air its body twisted into a ball. Kui swung his sword at it. He heard a thud but when the beast landed it had wings and the spiked head of a dragon. The fur on it's skin reacted, and green and orange scales glistened across its body.
It was a dragon. It opened it's mouth wide and spat flames; Kui spun on the ground just in time to avoid them.
“Come here,” Xu pulled on Shun's arm. Lin kept repeating "run" over and over. Shun held his free eyeball up to Xu. Xu pushed his arm away.
“Get that out of my face,” Xu said. Shun held the eyeball down but turned it out to the village. The survivors were all heading to the last house.
“That woman is in shock,” Xu said. “Don't believe her.”
Shun turned his eyeball slowly. Lin writhed in pain on the mat, still repeating the word “Run.”
“The Manchu Army did this.”
Shun shook his head, but before he could argue, a voice cut through the night.
“Xu!” Kui screamed out once again--this time without a name.
Kui called upon his Shaolin training. If he saw his opponent as a dragon or a monster, he had no chance. He blocked out those thoughts and spun through the air with his sword. The dragon slammed a horn on its head into his sword. It pushed Kui back and flapped its wings. The dragon rose in the air and quickly passed over the roof of the house.
Kui stood up and lifted his sword. He looked for a way to climb the house and chase the thing, when it roared and flew off to the north. It flew away so fast the hot air knocked Kui back against the house.
Shun and Xu ran around the corner. Xu leaned by Kui and lifted him up. Shun raised his eyeball to the sky and just barely saw the dragon disappear to the north.
“A dark dragon,” Shun said and turned his eyeless head back toward Xu and Kui.
“What happened?” Xu asked, seeing the fear in his young companion's eyes.
“It was a wolf and then suddenly...it was a dragon.”
Xu sighed. “Ridiculous.”
Shun pointed at the sky. “I saw it.”
“It went to the north,” said Kui.
“Well if it did. Then maybe we'll see it again. In Venara.”
“It tried to kill me,” Kui said with obvious annoyance.
“Then perhaps you should start your training,” Said Xu. He walked back towards the main path. “We're moving on.”
“He refuses to see it.” Kui said to Shun, who merely grunted.
“Not for long...”