You may remember my September Stories project that I started back in 2015. Due to injury, events, and general slackitude, that project continues well past September. But it IS still continuing! Excelsior! In the interest of full disclosure, however, I must admit that this story, due to its sheer weight, broke the mold--it took me multiple days to write (whereas the others were done in only one). But I intend for the others to keep to the pattern.
If you missed any of the previous September Stories, you can find the full list here.
The Prophecy of the Seven Dynasties By Danielle Davis
He woke her with the night at its blackest, shaking and hissing urgent words in her ear. It was time, he said. Time to run. Like she had drilled with him before, Ki snatched the book from beneath her pillow. Her fingers tightened around the oilcloth tied around it and clutched the tome to her chest as she ran. Duyi's fingers clenched around her upper arm like bands of metal as he swept her down the hallway. Behind them, in another part of the house, she heard guttural curses in many voices and sharp thuds, as of something heaving bursting through wooden panels or furniture crashing against a wall.
"Hurry," Duyi whispered in her ear.
"We can fight them," she whispered back. It wasn't an impossibility, given her training and his--her father had been her shifu in many ways and he had allowed her to study with the men that came to apprentice beneath him. Duyi had been such a boy, and their love for each other blossomed from their love and dedication to their martial studies.
But her suggestion filled his face with terror. Unable to speak past it, he merely shook his head at her. The fear in his expression sealed her lips shut against further discussion or admission of her own fear, for she had never seen his courage slip in the years they had been together.
Clad only in her loose shift for the night, her bare feet were soon frozen numb as they dashed through the courtyard, already blanketed with hoarfrost that glittered like eyes in the night. The moon overhead cast its blind gaze on them, so full and bright she worried they'd be spotted like beacons in the night. She was breathless and terrified and cold and confused but she bit back her questions and panting breaths as she followed her husband off their small property and into the trees.
When they reached the border of their property, before it cut harshly away into open fields smattered with the reaching skeletons of trees, he pulled her into a quick embrace.
"You must go to my family's home, in the east." Though his tone was quiet, his darting glances into the woods surrounding them told Ki the seriousness of their situation. There was no need to ask whose presence had ejected them from their home in the middle of a winter night--the Emperor's brother, Shu Longwei, also known as Hēilóng, the Black Dragon. A known practitioner of dark and unseemly magics, Hēilóng was one of the most powerful sorcerers in all of the seven Dynasties. Rumor told that he had long since sold his soul to an underworld god in exchange for the ability to shapechange into a dragon. The tale was, undoubtedly, a myth borne from a murmured insult, but his dark features and formidable presence made the myth seem too real.
Duyi told her when Shu Longwei first contacted him. As a seller of unusual treasures, Duyi had come into possession of a book, a heavy tome of nearly crumbling pages with what appeared to be stitches of different hides sewn together over the covers. But they were unlike any hides Duyi or Ki had ever seen--scales of gold linked together like mesh, blue wiry hair with gray spots, a mottled red skin that looked like healed burnflesh and which caused welts to appear if you passed an unsuspecting hand along it. The book was magic, that much was apparent, but Duyi had still been unwilling to sell it when Shu Longwei appeared without warning in Duyi's store.
When she asked him how he acquired the book, Duyi said--with no small amount of guilt--that it had been stolen from its owner, though who it was he didn't know. But once he bought it, understanding it was a rare and valuable item, he vowed to see it returned. However, from the second Shu Longwei stepped over his store threshold, he knew the dark sorcerer wasn't the rightful owner.
There had been an argument, Duyi said, a heated one, for Shu Longwei did not take well to being denied anything he sought. That night, Duyi had brought the book home, wrapped in oilcloth, with instructions. He was scared, but Ki could tell he was trying not to show it.
"But what's inside that he wants so badly?" Ki asked, turning the heavy book over in her hands. "Is it something we can use?"
"Never!" Duyi hissed, covering her hands with his and looking with urgency into her eyes to impress the severity of the matter. "This book cannot be read by human eyes. That much I know. I was instructed to find its true owner and that this was worth my life several times over."
"That's foolishness! How could one book be worth more than a life?"
In a very low voice, Duyi responded, "Because it holds the fate of all of ours. There is a prophecy surrounding this book that says it will bring about the peace of the seven Dynasties and beyond. That is bigger than us, you agree?"
"No, I don't! What prophecy is this and why haven't I ever heard it?"
"Few have. I only learned it years ago, when I was attempting to acquire the book. I'd traveled far to get it and the old man only released it with my promise that I would find the one it belonged to. He made me swear on my life. He showed me...things...that made me believe the book held great power. He told me the prophecy and said by themselves, the words could not harm me. 'The dragon casts a long shadow that does not fade. But take care of the heart, for it holds the light.' He said that all signs pointed to Hēilóng being 'the dragon', though he didn't tell me what those signs were. He convinced me that this book was much more valuable than I."
" 'But take care of the heart, for it holds the light.' What does that even mean? What kind of things did he show you?"
Duyi had given her a pained expression that pleaded with her to understand. Then he'd put the book away without another word. But he'd told her what should happen if someone were to come for it.
He'd never spoken about it again, though Ki had tried to prize more from him.
Until now, as he pulled back from their embrace and cupped one icy hand to her cheek. "You must take it," he panted. "Take it far away. My family will give you shelter but you cannot stay there long. They will come for you soon."
"But why?" And then, because it became apparent he wasn't going with her, "Duyi, what are you planning to do? Why can't we go together?" It was hard to keep her voice low as it chattered past her teeth in a white cloud of breath.
"I must buy you time, ā Ki. You'll need it." She stammered a protest, shifting her ice-burned feet, but he placed a finger over her lips. "You must find the owner of the book. That is the utmost importance. More important than my life or yours. The book must be brought home. Its true owner will know how to use it, I'm sure."
"But how do I find him? How will I know?" she cried. "And when will you be along?"
"I will catch up." Even spoken in his urgency, she knew it was a lie. "The owner will not want the book," he continued. "But the book will tell you when you found him."
"I thought you said we couldn't read it--"
"You can't! Don't even open the pages. But it will tell you anyway."
Then he gave her shoulder a hard squeeze and backed away into the trees. Behind him, the sounds of shouting got louder as the intruders called to each other, now certainly aware that their targets weren't in the home.
"Remember, find the owner! I love you." Then he was gone, darting back through the icy grass and then quickly gone into the darkness. Ki cast one fearful glance toward their house, where a strange orange light had begun to flicker through the tangle of bare trees and dead bushes. She wiped away a tear that inched a freezing path down her cheek, then turned and race across the open fields, the book clutched tightly to her chest.
It took her three days to reach his family's homestead in the city of Xianyang. She traveled mostly at night, after having stolen a coat from a neighboring farm that had laid the garment to dry on a fencepost. It sheltered her from the worst of the night chills, though her feet were bare to the elements. By the time she hobbled to the porch of her father-in-law, Luó Feng, her feet had begun to crack along the edges from the cold and the rough paths she'd traveled.
She told her story, expecting outrage and sympathy. What she saw instead was resignation settling like a heavy blanket over both of Duyi's parents when she mentioned Hēilóng. Her mother-in-law, Kǎ mǐ yē, made it clear that, rather than seek retribution from the Emperor, they would observe the funeral rites. Both spoke in reverent, loving tones of their son as if he were long dead.
She couldn't believe it and as she lay in their strange bed that night, listening to the unfamiliar creaks of their ancient house, she felt a deep rage settle into her bones. It rested like a burning ember in her stomach. Her arms and legs felt heavy with it, full.
She was not untrained herself, not as the daughter and student of a most revered master of Kung Fu. But beyond that was her tie to Duyi, the love that bound them like a ribbon around each of their hearts. It was not a thing death could sever. It was a binding of the soul, the kind that occurred when one like being found another version of itself hidden beneath another's skin, their names written on each other’s bones. Such was her love for him that it called to her for action. For retribution. And she was bound--by her soul if not her own vow made to him on their wedding day--to answer it.
That night, with the book slumbering in its oilcloth wrapping under her pillow, she dreamed as she slept.
In her dream, she was walking alone along the edge of a high cliff. As she reached the end, she saw a rope bridge stretching like a gossamer web over a dark chasm. She knew she must cross and yet, as she glanced over the sheer edge, her head spun with dizziness such that she had to close her eyes for several moments.
She thought of turning back, of finding another way around, but then the wind howled like a chorus of ghosts from deep below, you must cross, it is the only way. Their voices like a whisper and a scream at once in her ears and in her head, she stepped forward, if only to drive the voices to silence. With her heartbeat throbbing in her neck, she grasped the rough weave of the support ropes, their surface worn to thorny, fibrous shards from the wind.
She stepped out with the blackness below her seeming to grasp upward at her feet. Above her, the sun swung across the sky toward dusk, much faster than any normal day would move. Without knowing why the situation felt so urgent, she knew she had to hurry.
The rope soon cut her palms and the soles of her feet so that she left a bloody trail down the ropes. As the wind howled around her and swung the bridge in slow, pendulous arcs, she squinted her eyes shut and kept going. Dream knowledge told her if she stopped, the rope would break as surely as it would if she turned around.
She went on. Like a living thing, the wind pried at her fingers and tried to push her feet off with perfectly timed gusts every time she took a step. It took every year of training under her father to force her fingers to release each time, just enough to slide forward along the wiry rope, and then clench again. To slide her soles over the razorblades of material underneath them, an inch this time and then another.
Overhead, the sun passed into night, where the wind cut through her clothing like needles and froze the sweat in her hair to ice whips that lashed at her cheeks. At dawn the next day, she finally reached the other side. Her fingers seemed turned to stone around the rope such that she had to pry them away with her teeth before they would work properly again. Her feet were open rivulets of raw skin. Her body felt battered from the wind and the cold.
But she'd made it across. As she turned to gaze back at the other side, where she'd started, she was startled to find the rope bridge shorter than before. Where it had taken her half the day and all night to cross, it now looked like something she could cross in the length of time she could hold her breath.
"It wasn't real," she murmured to herself. "And yet it was."
The trees on the other side stirred with a breeze and the noise sounded like a gentle breath sighing that's right, that's right.
The next morning, she left before the household arose. She packed the book into a small courier's bag, borrowed some clothes from the servants' closet, and packed a small meal for herself. As she prepared, she planned and plotted.
It made sense to inform the Emperor. He must be aware of his brother's murderous actions. And surely, a man as great as he would know what to do with the book. Perhaps the Emperor might even be the rightful owner, she mused as she walked the westward path out of her in-law's town and toward the mountains. It made sense that a powerful ruler might have use of a powerful book. Especially so if Hēilóng's magical powers came from the blood.
With Duyi's warning at the back of her mind that pursuers would be close behind, she traveled only at night. During the day, she found shelter away from the main roads and slept out the sunlight. As she slept, she dreamed strange things, of battles and movements and oddities that she'd never before heard of. Though she tossed and turned with them, her head never left the pillow of the cloth-wrapped book. It was too precious, even in sleep, to be parted from. At dusk, she woke--unsettled over dreams she couldn't remember, sore from sleeping on the ground, and strangely fatigued--and moved on.
The Emperor's temple lay a far distance to the north, nestled within the bosom of the Rang'Jizhu mountains. It was a trip that would take a month by foot. But she dared not try to hitch a ride on a passing cart or steal a donkey to hurry it along. Every pair of eyes that saw her could belong to Hēilóng, and that was a risk she couldn't afford.
The first wave of Hēilóng's men appeared on the fifth day.
Among a peaceful copse of firs, with their brown spines cushioning the sounds of her footfalls as she walked, she rounded a corner of the path to find four of them waiting. They were called a sì, a word that meant both "four"--for the number of assassins sent in a group--and which sounded like the word for "death". Any single member of a sì was deadly on her own; four of them together guaranteed nothing more than the fact that your death would be swift.
Ki stopped at the sight of them and rested her hand on the bulge of the belt tied at her waist. The four women--for a sì was always made up of women since it was well-known that Hēilóng believed women to be better masters of pain than men--gazed at her through the eye slits in their face masks. Four swords hovered in the air above their owners' heads, their tips pointed at her as if directed by unseen hands. Ki was surprised to find herself unafraid at the sight of them. Though she'd heard the sì fought with Hēilóng's dark magic on their side, it seemed perfectly natural to be facing four trained assassins and their supernatural weapons. A small part of her was oddly proud Hēilóng apparently considered her important enough to send such a ferocious contingent.
"We've come for the book," one of the women called. Dressed head to foot in tight black robes, it was impossible to tell which one spoke behind her mask of fabric. "Hand it over and we will guarantee you a swift death."
"Ignore us," another called in a mocking tone, "and we will make sure you live long enough to see your skin flayed from your body."
Ki removed her bag in a numb sort of haze. She did not feel scared, as she might have expected, nor anger. Just a vast emptiness in her, perhaps a resignation of her fate, that it should come before she'd even reached the foot of the mountains she sought.
"You may have whatever you like," she replied. Her voice emerged strong and confident from her lips. There might have been an answering flicker of doubt in the eyes of the woman to her right. "But you will not take the book. It does not belong to you."
"And you think it belongs to you?" The third voice was higher-pitched than the others and, even muffled, expressed amused surprise.
But Ki shook her head. "I will find its owner. But I am certain it is not any of you."
The wind blew the fragrant musk of decaying fir needles past her and she inhaled their scent gratefully, pleased that her last breaths would be of something so pleasant. The setting sun threw a few final rays along the edges of the swords, turning their silver blades golden and gilded in the light. This was to be the last thing she saw, she knew. And she was ready for it. There was no fighting a sì, especially when she lacked a weapon of her own.
"How can you be so certain?" another asked.
Ki opened her mouth to reply that she wasn't at all, but the voice that came instead replied in a deep baritone, a voice so deep it couldn't have belonged to her, "Because the book told me so."
One of the women screamed a command in a language Ki didn't recognize, and the swords flew toward her all at once. It's not real, the winds sang in the branches above her, and yet it is.
Without realizing she'd even taken it off, her belt was suddenly in her hands. Her body twisted as if controlled by someone else, whipping the belt forward and around in blinding arcs that sent the blades clattering to the roadside at her feet as they met her.
Even as the last one fell and she stared wide-eyed with shock at the sì, they stared back at her in equal amazement. The blades should have made a thousand cuts on her body before she could take a breath to scream. But instead, they lay defeated in the dirt. It was not something that any of them have ever heard of happening before.
With a simultaneous scream of anger, the sì sprinted toward her. Small, wickedly curved blades appeared in their hands as she stood frozen in terror, unable to make her legs unlock enough to run away.
When they were an arm's reach away, her legs buckled. But instead of sending her sprawling to the ground, they propelled her under their reaching knives. Her belt whipped backward and sideways and forward with the speed of a snake, catching one on the wrist with a dew-frozen knot, another in the eye with a razor-sharp lash. At the same time, her body dipped below her opponents' centers of balance so that she had access to kick and punch at their backs.
They twisted like cats, trying to double-back on her and swarm her from all sides. But her body kept moving and twisting, too, somehow always managing to stay a hair's breadth out of reach of the slashing blades and clawing fingers. They moved so quickly she could do nothing more than react. Even so, a part of her knew that if she had time to think about her reaction to each move, she would be dead before she could form the right thought. Innately, she knew she must let herself be swept along the tide of movement with her mind empty and receiving.
Above her, the wind whistled you cannot stop and hurry hurry. Dusk began to settle over their silent, lunging forms, a clock ticking down before they would be steeped in darkness too great to see in.
And still they came at her, one going high as another went low and the others slashed at her face and her shins. But each time, their fingers slipped off the fold of her robe or tore harmlessly through the fabric with a ripping hiss.
Then suddenly, it was over. Her hands snaked forward to wrap around one dark-clad skull and twisted, even as her legs knifed through the air to snap the necks of two others on either side. The last member of the sì stared at her in shock as she sank into a cross stance with one leg twisted behind the other.
"Who are you?" the woman in black whispered, for somehow during the fight she had ceased to be an assassin. Now she was merely a woman in her terror.
In response, Ki slipped her hand along the dirt and, in the span of a heartbeat, grasped the handle of one of the sì swords, and flipped the blade forward as she lunged. The sword pierced the woman's chest, her eyes still wide in shock and confusion.
Though the fight felt as if it had lasted years, Ki realized it had only lasted the several minutes--the time it took the sun to settle over the horizon. She blinked in the dim light. The corpses blended into the shadows with their dark clothing and she could only make out their twisted forms with effort. All at once she felt in full control of her body again and she dropped the sword as if burned. Her arms and legs felt like broken hinges unable to support her any longer. A frantic buzzing filled every nook inside her as if her body were filled with bees. She cast a terrified look at the sky, noting that the stars were barely visible in the purple-black above her.
"What kind of dark magic is this?" she whispered to herself. She turned her eyes to the dark shape of her bag in the grass. "Is this the price of that damned book? Because if it is, I don't want it. I want nothing more to do with it."
But even as she said it, she knew she would still pick up the bag and continue on her way. This was the book Duyi died for. The prize she had taken the lives of the four women of the sì died over. And Ki had a hunch more sì would follow if she didn’t hurry.
Above her, the wind sighed back, that's right, that's right. The stars gazed down like the eyes of cold gods. She shivered and moved on.
The next night, another dream: on a beach covered in small white pebbles that ground together like teeth as she walked. Waves of green-blue water splashed gently onto the stones in a soft swishing rhythm.
She did not have to look to know there was someone behind her. But when she tried to glance over her shoulder, her head would not move.
Relax, a voice said in her ear. It was warm, intimate, comforting. Like the voice of an old grandfather she had loved once and lost long ago. She sighed and her shoulders lost their tense set.
Shall we begin? The voice was so close it was impossible to tell if she was hearing it or if it was in her head.
With her eyes on the gentle peaks dancing in the sea, she nodded.
Hands touched the backs of her elbows, locking them as her arms raised with upward palms, as if holding an invisible offering. Then the unseen hands swung her arms together as quick as a strike and formed her hands into a salute. For a long moment, she stood saluting the horizon with one fist pressed into the opposite palm.
The hands moved her as easily as if she were a stuffed doll. They swept her through the fundamental movements she'd long since mastered. Even as she swept her legs high into a spinning kick or dropped into a sideways lunging attack, the hands stayed with her. She was in control and yet not in control, able to feel her muscles supporting and straining as during a normal practice, yet she was lifted higher into the air than she'd attempted before and her limbs moved with a power she'd never achieved in sparring combat.
The moves became progressively harder, going past the intermediate and advanced forms she knew into strikes she'd only seen used by masters. With the help of the invisible hands supporting and twisting her through the movements, she performed the unfamiliar moves with a grace and fluidity she should not have had. Alone on the beach, she moved through several Changquan forms she recognized, both dancer and warrior on the smooth white stones. The sea wind lifted her hair from her neck as she moved and twisted and flowed like water itself from one form to another. Though the forms were unfamiliar, they felt familiar, as if her muscles somehow remembered the moves she'd never before performed.
Finally, long after her muscles should have protested and become too wobbly to move any longer, the unseen hands stopped. With a gust of a breeze, the hands left her shoulders and she sensed she was truly alone again. This time, when she tried to look around her, she could.
Remember, remember, the sea hissed. She nodded. How could she forget?
During the nights she traveled, her body growing thin and weary from too little food and uneasy sleep plagued by nightmares and oddities. But the burning ember of rage continued to smolder as hot and eager as ever in her stomach. It could not be quenched by time. Only when she finally met Hēilóng once more and earned Duyi's revenge. That ember kept her feet moving even when the grief of losing him felt like a chasm of despair that threatened to engulf her. In those times, she told herself she could grieve later, afterward. She did not allow herself to think about what "afterward" actually meant. Until then, she would not allow herself to imagine his hands on her face or his arms around her or his voice speaking low and tender in her ears.
As she made her way through the tangled paths that wove through the Jiǎo hills, she ate what she could catch, which wasn't much. She usually bartered for food by performing small tasks around the various homesteads she passed. Many of them were indentured farmers who welcomed the extra hands, even if they did belong to a bedraggled, weary-faced woman.
Finally, after too many days, she made it to the base of the Rang'Jizhu mountains, the mound of slumbering crevices that held the Emperor's temple deep within its folds.
The ember in her stomach flared hotly. It was close. So close now.
Shortly afterward she made it to the Emperor's Valley. With the city lamps glowing like dragon eyes in the dark, she made camp. By her estimate, only a few hours' trek through the city to the Emperor's temple. She would arrive during the day, she decided. Better to meet the Emperor early, before she lost her nerve.
Her dream that night was unlike any of the others. In it, she stood on a stone path. As far as she could see in front of her, hanging vines of wisteria formed a tunnel of lavender and dark purple flowers that arced over her head. It was more flowers than she'd ever seen in her life, and the sight of it took her breath away. Then she turned and saw the same sight extended behind her, an unending path. It was both heartbreakingly beautiful and heartbreakingly lonely at the same time.
When she turned back around, a figure stood before her. Though the body was that of a man, a raven's head sat atop his shoulders. Its black eyes blinked at her, through her. It clicked its beak a few times, then shifted its feet. When it turned its head, the feathers glinted with a sheen of purple. As she watched, it fixed its eyes on hers.
"ā Ki," it said. The raven had Duyi's voice. She felt a tear crawl down one cheek.
"Duyi," she whispered. "I miss--"
"It's not what you think," the raven said. She closed her eyes, for the sound of his voice made something painful twist inside her chest. When she opened them, the figure was gone.
She woke with tears on her face. As she wiped the cool paths of them away, she sensed dawn was approaching. To the slumbering city in the valley below, she whispered what she couldn't in her dream. "I miss you, Duyi. I will avenge you. I promise."
Then she packed her things, saving the book for last. "Time to return you to your Master," she told it as she wiped her hand along the dusty oilcloth covering. She thought she felt the book shiver under her palm. It didn't surprise her anymore. She'd become used to the old, strange thing, almost as one would become accustomed to an ugly puppy that followed them home.
After the book was nestled carefully in her bag, she set off down the hill toward the city. It was likely the last journey she would ever make.
Her first impression, as she trudged up the stone steps of the Emperor's Temple--painted the exact shade of lavender as the wisteria in her dream--, was of power. Stone lions perched atop giant stone tortoises flanked either side of the steps. Each lion was frozen in a snarl and adorned with swirling curls of mane and sharp, pointed claws. Several columns, painted a vibrant red, flanked each side of the main doorway like a forest of crimson trees. Golden dragons wrapped their snake-like bodies around the foremost two columns that framed the doorway. Other smaller dragons were carved into the wood of the roof and lurked under the double eaves on each of the roof's four slopes. Yellow, glazed tiles lined the roof. It was an imposing structure, both in the height and in the creatures that gazed at her with their carved, flat eyes.
It gave her the sensation of being watched: an itchy creeping along her skin if something was crawling just underneath the surface. But the feeling didn't go away once she was inside and away from their eyes.
A thin man scuttled up to greet her, bowing deeply over his robe-clad fist, and nodded happily when she demanded to see the Emperor.
"Yes, yes, we've been expecting you," he squeaked in a voice that sounded as if it should belong to a small child. "Please follow me to his meeting room."
Through her shock, Ki managed a nod and followed the man down a long corridor draped with tapestries and elaborate paintings. The inside of the temple, which Ki would have expected to be bustling with servants and visitors and attendants, seemed empty. They passed nobody and their footsteps sounded with lonely echoes. The place felt like an empty, sacred place, one that allowed only whispers and gentle hand gestures. It felt more like a monastery than an imperial temple.
The feeling was surprisingly comforting, despite the persistent feeling of being watched.
The small man led her around a spirit screen at the end of the corridor and gestured for her to wait inside with a bow and a sweep of his arm. But where she expected to see a courtyard open to the air and filled with plants and decorative trees, she walked into a simple gray room.
Compared to the lavish decoration dripping from the corridors she'd just walked down, this room was abrupt in its simplicity. No artwork or tapestries adorned the walls. No carved figures of animals or warriors topped pedestals or wound themselves up the four white columns that formed a smaller square in the middle of the room. A wooden bench sat against one wall and a round table nestled next to it. At the other end of the room, a sliding door was open to display a simple outdoor garden with a small pond. She could barely discern the gentle gurgle of moving water.
She instantly loved the room. To her, it was the perfect room for reflection or meditation, hid like a quiet beating heart inside the belly of the grandiose dragon that was the rest of the Imperial Temple.
With light steps, she moved to the center of the room, in the square formed by the four columns. There she closed her eyes and breathed deeply, inhaling the fragrance of plum blossoms and chrysanthemum. A hint of another fragrance tickled her memory, and she frowned as she tried to identify it.
After several heartbeats, it came to her--wisteria--and her eyes popped open in surprise as she remembered the same scent from her dream the night before.
"Zhāng-Luó Mei-xiu," a voice addressed her from behind. "I am pleased to see you arrived earlier than I expected."
She turned to find a hooded figure behind her. The robe covered the man--who sounded so much like Duyi it made her stomach ache with longing. His hands where hidden inside the sleeves and the hem pooled gently at his feet. The unadorned blue silk shone faintly as the figure shifted.
A hand emerged from the sleeve and gestured toward her bag. "The book, if you please?"
"Emperor?" she asked in a timorous voice. "How did you come to expect me?"
The figure laughed. "Emperor? Not yet. But soon, perhaps."
"Hēilóng," she hissed. "The snake of the Seven Dynasties."
"A snake?" The hooded head cocked to one side. "I wouldn't expect that from you a Ki. Not after all we've been through."
Ki frowned and she clutched the bag to her stomach. Something about this wasn't right. So much about this wasn't right.
The elegant hands raised to the hood and lifted it gently back from Hēilóng's face.
Ki stared. A low buzzing filled her head, jumbling her thoughts into nothing sensible. The bag slipped from her slack fingers and thudded unheard to the floor. Dimly, she realized the room didn't have enough air. He'd done something to the air, Hēilóng must've, or else she'd be able to breathe...
He shrugged as if unaware of his effect on her; his manner careless. But his eyes were sly and mischievous as they appraised her. "This doesn't have to go this way. All I want is the book. Give me what I want, and you're free."
"Duyi," she whispered. "How...how could..."
Duyi made a tittering noise that was part laughter and part chastisement. "Not Duyi. Not anymore. There is only Hēilóng."
"It's an illusion," Ki managed, her voice a hoarse croak. "You're not really him."
"Oh, I assure you, the man that used to be your husband? This was him. But he's no more."
"What have you done?" The whispered words fanned the ember in her stomach back to life and it flared, hot and painful in her gut. This was the man responsible for her losing her beloved. This man who pretended to wear her love's face.
And yet, there was so much that seemed the same.
"I borrowed him," Duyi answered with another careless shrug. "He came back, you know, that night I came for the book. Tried to lie his way out. As if he hadn't stolen the book from me. As if he could really keep me from it."
"The book wasn't yours. He told me so."
"He lied." Duyi's face twisted in a sneer. Something inside her twisted in response at seeing such an ugly expression on a face she held so dear. At seeing that expression directed at her. "The book wasn't his to hold. So I punished him."
"What. Have. You. Done." Her voice lashed at him, poisonous and deadly, but he didn't seem to notice.
"My body was sick. The disease that consumed the Emperor’s half-brother was advanced by the time I found him but still unnoticed by those around him. I needed someone newer, fresher. And your husband needed to learn that I am not a man to play games with."
"No man can do what you claim." Though she didn't know how, she knew she had to keep him talking. Anything to buy herself time to think of a plan.
"Not without great sacrifice. There are many things you don't understand about the world, Ki, creatures that exist between the veils of the worlds. For a certain price, they will teach you things. Over time, I learned how to preserve my essence in a separate vessel. For the mere price of a body, I was taught the secret of immortality."
He gestured lazily toward her and the bag flew into his hand. She gasped.
"I gave this essence to Duyi that night at your home. Which really wasn't quite fair." He frowned in thought. "He commits an unforgiveable act and, in return, is given the honor of housing the soul of the greatest sorcerer to ever walk."
"You took something precious from me," she growled. "And mock it with your presence. You will find that there are more important things than immortality." Rage boiled in her stomach, roiling and thrashing until it spilled over down her legs, into her arms, and up her neck. She could feel the power inside her, the dream voice that whispered to her at night as she crossed bridges and fought monsters and practiced on lonely beaches. Wait, wait, it cautioned. But she could wait no longer.
He sneered at her. "What do you possibly think could be stronger than immortality, than death itself?"
She stared for a long moment at the face that she'd known most of her life. "Love."
Then she attacked.
Like an arrow, she flew at him. Her body became a projectile of punching fists and swooping, arcing kicks. She pummeled him, letting her anguish and her fury fuel her muscles into the acts she'd only dreamt about. In one moment she was a bird, soaring overhead to heights no human could attain only to drop like a stone the next, her fist cracking the ground with the force of its landing. Then she became a tornado of whirling, scratching fingers that reached for his face and eyes.
But even as Ki became as unavoidable as the wind, he matched her movement like water, flowing from one defensive maneuver to the other, remaining just out of reach, turning just so to the side to deflect her blows. He moved as if he knew the final location of every punch and kick. As if he could read her mind.
Their fight carried them through the open doors into the garden. It was a small outdoor courtyard with thin, pebbled paths that moved in curving swirls around a small pond. Corridors bordered it with doors that led to other parts of the temple. But their struggle remained housed in the sacred space of the outdoor garden, as if its serenity was a guardian that trapped their violence within its quiet walls.
Throughout it all, he kept an amused smirk on his face. It was as if the entire encounter was a game to him and one he could play all day.
The battle lasted for two days, much longer than any master would have lasted, much longer than she should have been able to. During that time nobody walked the corridor or intruded on them. A small part of Ki realized this, but she could not ponder it—every ounce of her was consumed in her effort to counter and best Hēilóng.
In the evening of the second day, she began to tire. Her punches started to miss their mark and her legs turned to logs grown thicker with each attempted kick. And still he flowed aside them as easily as before.
Finally, as dusk began to fade into the bruised shadows of night, her body would move no more. Gasping, she fell to her knees and blinked, eyes stung bloodshot from sweat, into his smirking face.
"Are you done?" he asked casually.
She trembled and braced her hands on her folded knees. It was the only thing that kept her from toppling to her side on the dirt.
He nodded as if she'd answered and sauntered a wide circle around her. "It was inevitable, you know. You should have stayed away. He did try to warn you..."
His words burned through the battle rage of her jumbled thoughts. And she thought she finally understood.
Remember, remember, the voice inside her whispered. Now is the time.
"How do you know what he said to me?" The words tripped their way out of her mouth. "We were alone when he said those things."
A bitter wind howled across her shoulders and she flinched away as it froze the sweat on her body. Though he was behind her and couldn't see his face, some part of her knew it was a reflection of his emotions. This was not a topic he wished to pursue, which meant it was a way for her to control the situation. He didn't know it, but he had just revealed a weakness.
"I'm tired of you now," he said. His voice held a petulant arrogance, as if she were nothing more than a plaything to amuse him. But then his voice turned hard. "Tell me, did you read the book?"
She clenched her jaw, determined not to answer. But he repeated the question, more forcefully, and she found the answer flowing past her lips as if someone else were speaking from inside her.
"Why?" he demanded.
Again, without her permission, her voice responded, "Because I was told not to."
"Is that all?"
"And...I'm afraid of it." Her admission was a whisper. She was shocked to hear herself answer so truthfully. It frightened her to know Hēilóng commanded a power to control another.
He made a noise of agreement. "You should be. It's a thing of great power."
"Greater than yours?" she mocked.
This time he laughed. "Even greater than mine. Which is why I've chased it. It will show me the things I've been searching for. Things older even than myself." He was quiet for a long moment, considering. Then he said, in an offhanded tone," But you did give me a very good show. So I'll tell you what. Now that you're warmed up, if you can best me in a fight, I'll give you back the thing you want. You can have your husband, as he once was."
She turned to face him with incredulous eyes. "You want me to fight my husband? But if I succeed, I will kill him."
Hēilóng chuckled. "That is a necessary risk, yes. I suppose you'll just have to try to kill him carefully." He grinned at her as she struggled to her feet.
"And what will you do?"
"Try to kill you back, of course. Not that it should be any great challenge."
"Why would you give up your vessel?"
His smile in the flickering shadows of the lamps made his teeth look long and wicked. "Because there is no chance of you winning."
The room spun to the side once she was upright. She closed her eyes and concentrated on the sound of air moving in and out of her nostrils. Her harsh breaths made a whooshing noise that reminded her of waves sluicing across small stones on a beach. She focused on that sound until the dizzying sensation passed. When she opened them, she felt empty inside. The feelings that burned so hot in her stomach were quiet and calm. Inside her felt like the ocean, vast and endlessly powerful.
She stepped forward on wobbly legs and saw Hēilóng tense in preparation for the attack. But she remembered. Oh did she remember.
For Hēilóng to remember what Duyi said, there must still be some of her husband inside to recall it. His memories were what Hēilóng remembered. Which meant he also must be able to feel Duyi's feelings for her. And like the ocean inside her, that love, too, was vast and powerful. It could cross chasms and suffer freezing razors of rain and defy gravity. It was something even death could not erase.
Confidence lent a grace to her steps that her tired muscles couldn't ignore. She walked steadily towards Hēilóng and watched the expressions that flitted fast as a heartbeat across his face. Surprise turned to confusion and then into doubt.
"Will you attempt to bore me to death, woman?" he taunted. "Attack me!" But she saw his insouciance for the mask that it was. And underneath, she saw fear.
She moved until she stood inches from Hēilóng, so close her clothes brushed his. Anger bubbled into his eyes but she saw it wasn't stronger than his fear. Fear kept his muscles taut, ready for action, but unable to move without provocation.
"I will not attack you, Duyi," she whispered as she gazed into her eyes. She pretended she saw the love in them, as she remembered it. "I will never lift an arm against you."
"Then you will die," Hēilóng hissed at her. Spit splattered across her cheeks but she didn't flinch away.
"Then I will die standing. A Duyi..." She thought she saw something flicker in the brown depths of his eyes.
Now is the time to strike, the voice inside her said.
With a deep breath, she closed her eyes and leaned in. "I love you," she breathed against his mouth as she pressed her lips to his.
Her own fear kept her eyes tightly clenched shut. The lips against hers trembled but didn't move away. For the span of those heartbeats, she felt as if she were falling. Of the ground crumbling beneath them and dropping them into a chasm so deep they'd never hit the ground. It was an endless feeling, inevitable, and so much like coming home. A tremulous wind rushed around her, stirring her hair to wild ribbons around both their faces and rushing over her skin like thousands of small fingers. But she dared not open her eyes for fear of breaking the spell, of losing those last precious moments before her death when she was reunited with her beloved once more.
The wind began to slow and her hair gradually settled against her shoulders.
"A Ki?" The voice was a whisper against her lips. It was uncertain and afraid and softer than before. It was a voice she knew well.
But still she couldn't bring herself to open her eyes until she felt the rough brush of a finger trace a path from her temple down her cheek.
She opened her eyes to meet his. The hardness of them was gone, replaced by a gentle concern. And love. It spilled from his eyes into the wrinkles in the corners of them and down into the soft creases on either side of his mouth.
"A Ki," he repeated. "How did you know?"
Her eyes searched his questioningly and his softened as he gazed back.
"The prophecy. You figured it out." His voice was an awed whisper. He looked at her as if she were a prized jewel he never thought to actually hold. His eyes devoured her face and she let herself drown in the depths of them.
"I figured out nothing," she murmured. Part of her hesitated to believe that he was back, but his face told her he was guileless.
"You figured out how to defeat him."
Duyi nodded. "When he took control of me, it was like I was locked in a closet in a dark room. I could look out a window, but I couldn't get free. But I could see everything that happened, knew his thoughts as if they were mine. I saw how the prophecy could be used against him. He was the dragon, we already knew that. But 'take care of the heart, for it holds the light'? Light banishes the dark and all shadows with it. Hēilóng thought the darkness of the prophecy meant death. So for him to 'cast a long shadow', he sought the secret to immortality so that he could rule forever. But he wanted the book to ensure nobody could use it against him.
"When you defied his attempts to retrieve it, he thought you must have read it and learned secrets to use against him. But when you finally refused to fight him, he realized his mistake: the darkness wasn't death, it was the hardness of a heart turned to stone. Which was why a heart filled with love could defeat it. Only a loving heart could be stronger than the dragon's shadow. He knew, in those final moments, that you hadn't read the book after all and the only way you could have stood against him for so long was your love for me."
His hands cradled her face carefully, as if she might break. "In saving me, you have saved the Dynasties, as well. You are the most powerful person in the world. You have done what no other could do."
She flushed and looked away. "I am no sorcerer," she murmured.
"But I am." As her shocked eyes met his, he grinned. "I could see all his thoughts, remember? With him banished, I still have the memories I saw. I know how to conjure the powers he commanded."
His eyes clenched shut and his face crumpled with concentration. A heartbeat passed, then two, and Ki realized the room around them was different, though she didn't know how. A few more moments and she became aware of the decorations on the wall surrounding the yard and the gentle lavender glow of the light around them.
"Duyi! How is the sun rising? There is no way Hēilóng could command the planet to move at his will...?"
Yet as she spoke, the light grew warmer, the sky returning to the bruised brightness of the dawn.
When Duyi opened his eyes, they were lined from the strain. He looked exhausted but triumphant. "It's harder for me to do, but I think I will become better at it with time."
"Duyi," she whispered, amazed, "that means that you are now the Black Dragon. You are the most powerful sorcerer in the world."
He nodded with a smug smile. "I am. And with you by my side, we can use that power to change the world for good. To help people instead of oppress them. There are none more powerful than us."
Her first inclination was to deflect his words, as she felt no stronger than she had before. But if she thought about it, she could feel the gentle swell and motion of an ocean inside her. An ocean of power stretched its endless fingers inside her and if she concentrated, she could touch that power. It was as strong as it had always been, before she'd known how to contain it, before she'd known what it was.
But now that she'd used it once, she could use it again. She, too, would become better at it with time.
She smiled at Duyi and nodded. "Together." The word tasted warm and rich in her mouth.
"Together," he said softly. When he said it, his love for her dripped from every syllable.
"We must find the Emperor," she said.
But when they turned to leave, Duyi paused with a small "oh!" He frowned with concentration and held out a hand. The book, covered in its oilskin wrapping, rose from where it had fallen, forgotten, and floated to him.
"My book!" Ki held out her hand to him.
Duyi turned with an eyebrow cocked in question. "Your book?"
She cocked an eyebrow back, mockingly. "Yes, my book. How do you think I was able to defeat Hēilóng? The book taught me, in dreams, as I traveled here. I just didn't realize what was happening at the time."
He blinked at her with a blank expression. "I...I thought you were just always that strong."
Laughing, she gave him an incredulous look. "Then you thought more of me than I did! That book...I don't know. It spoke to me, just not in any way I understood. But I do now."
His words, spoken so long ago, came to her mind. "The owner will not want the book. But the book will tell you when you found him." How many times on her journey had she longed to throw it away and be rid of it forever? Even now, the familiar weight of it irritated her. But it would not have shown her the things it did if she were not the rightful owner.
She laughed and Duyi smiled back, though obviously not understanding the joke. They had both assumed the Emperor would be the one to wield that kind of power. She had been the furthest from both their minds.
"We are the most dangerous people alive," she said with a smile.
Duyi grinned back and glanced around the courtyard. The western wall of the area was bathed in a warm golden glow as the sun rose from its bed in the east. No doubt the Emperor's household would be rising from their beds to find out why. It was not something that should have been possible. And yet.
"I suppose we are." He sighed. "It is a great responsibility."
Ki slipped an arm around his waist and kissed his cheek. She pressed her nose against his neck to inhale the familiar scent of him. "I can't think of anyone better for it."
He rested his cheek against her hair and they stood that way for a long time. It felt so good to hold him again. She knew they would need every bit of strength they had to withstand the journey ahead of them. But together, she had no doubt they could. For their power was vast and powerful and could not be broken.