It was the kind of war that wasn't written about in history books. There would never be a mini-series made about the conquest of Wu-Ling as he stormed across the hot sands of the desert in a murderous dust cloud. In fact, history would be lucky to remember at all the brutal march of his armies over 3,500 years ago. His war on Arabia was a blight in his history books, an overreaction to be covered up and forgotten. But there is a saying that the desert sands forget nothing. The stories of history are forever locked into them as securely as a vault. The sands remember, and I remember.
My name is Safia Al-Rashid. I was there when the armies marched, I was there when the swords of a thousand men fell over my people in a wave of hot steel cutting short the lives of a peaceful civilization. In the name of vengeance they came, to punish my tribal chief for the accidental slaying of their ambassador, a nobleman by birthright only. A hunting accident in eastern Arabia where the land grows more fertile, would cut this mans life short and as a result, Wu-Ling the "righteous" 3rd sovereign emperor of the Shang Dynasty would cut down an entire people.
Oh, there were survivors to be sure. There are always survivors, but without the support of the town most were doomed to die in the desert. I was one of the lucky one's, a survivor, although now I would have preferred that the desert had swallowed me along with my brethren. A different fate awaited me, I was captured, but there's more to it than that, much, much more to it.
I was a priestess to my people. Living on the fringes of the desert it was my role to placate the earth god and his spirits. From bargains and sacrifices with these gods, the desert had receded in the east, making way for more temperate lands that my people could live off of. Does that word bother you - "sacrifices"? It was a common practice among my people, and their blood ensured that their children would have a better life. Sacrifice in my culture was considered to be a great honor. The greatest deed one could do was selflessly give themselves up for their family and chief. Our sacrifices were willing, not prisoners, or slaves, those were not permitted the privilege of serving their people. It was a revered deed, most sacred in nature and guaranteed a place in the heavens.
* * * * * *
The warmth of the desert sun beat down on my nude form, warming my bronze skin as I went about morning ritual, sanctifying the outdoor temple for another day of worship. Priestesses were not allowed to begin this ritual until their fourteenth year and I had been completing it for seven years now. My people would arrive soon with offerings of food and wine for the ancient ones and I had to be ready for their worship. I completed the ritual and donned the white cotton robe that indicated my position. I felt a light tickle across my neck, stirring my hair and I smiled as I recognized the touch of oal'ei, a young spirit who often visited me during the sanctifying ritual.
"Good morning oal'ei" I smiled. He had been coming to me for over a year now and the older priestesses were worried that he might be growing an attachment to me. They said there was a dark energy about him, but I suggested that it may simply be his youth clouding their judgement. Young spirits were difficult to read in their intent as they still clung to many of their impulses. I believed that oal'ei was harmless, and might be a good ally to have when he reached maturity and could begin to affect change in the world.
"Good morning priestess." his voice breathed as it blew across my ear in the form of a light breeze. "I have been working on something for you." He said.
"Oh?" I replied "What have you done?"
"Watch" came the reply. I saw nothing at first, but then noticed a patch of the ground before me begin to darken and muddy, the earth then saturated and a small fount of water bubbled up from between the cracks. The spring didn't last very long and soon bubbled back down into the earth leaving behind a small puddle of muddy water.
"Very good!" I encouraged him a smile spreading across my face. Soon he would be capable of creating an oasis and then depending on his power, maybe he would be able to help return life to the land that had been baked by an angry god so long ago.
"I had hoped it would last longer." He whispered somewhat sullenly. "But it did please you?"
"Very much." I answered him. Then the warm desert breeze kicked up a little stronger and I knew that he had departed. I smiled and picked up the offering bowl and took it to the front of the temple in expectation of the day's worshipers.
* * * * * * *
That was the last happy memory of my life.
* * * * * *
The noonday sun shone on the empty marketplace and brought out the vibrancy of the colored fabrics up for barter along its walls. No one would shop here today however, as it was a particularly holy day. As expected, the temple was full and it would continue to be as the day wore on. It was the celebration of harvest and a day to give thanks to the gods of rain and fertility and to the spirits that did their bidding. Nearly everyone in town had shown up, many with 2 jugs of wine as an offering of thanks for a particularly good year. I was very busy with my duties of accepting the gifts and offerings as the elder priestesses sanctified and blessed them in preparation according to the laws.
I was pouring wine into a brass bowl when I first noticed the cloud approaching. I looked toward the high priestess ali'wan in confusion and noted that she too had seen the approaching smudge on the horizon. This was unheard of, a pact had been made with the spirits for good weather for their celebration, a sandstorm should not be possible, and yet one approached.
The ceremonies stopped as one by one people began to turn to witness the strange phenomenon. In two hundred years there had always been fair weather on this day. I glanced toward the town chief and watched his brow furrow. He bent to one knee and placed his hand upon the ground. The dust cloud was nearly upon us now and the chief quickly rose to his feet shouting orders to his bodyguards. Suddenly the men in the town began to stir, but it was too late, the dust cloud was upon us.
From out of the desert came Wu-ling's men, riding black stallions, their red banners trailing behind them. The sun gleamed cruelly off of their lances and swords as they bore down upon us. Riding through the open colonnades and tearing their way through the gold fabric walls of the temple, their horse's hooves spilled the offerings upon the floor and their weapons rose and fell among the townsfolk. The elder high priestess fell quickly and the people, unarmed in preparation for a day of peace, were no match for the armed men on horseback. The chief and his bodyguards put up a feeble struggle, but without weapons, even they fell. I stood to the left of the altar screaming at the foreigners to stop, but they paid me no attention. Lost were my cries among those of the dying. I wheeled about only to come face to face with a mounted rider, his arm drawn back and lance held high. His horse reared up on two legs, its fore hooves striking me in the chest as it struggled to balance itself. I fell to the ground, my arm held protectively in front of myself when a bright flash of light erupted before the rider and horse blinding them both. The horse, startled, lost its balance and fell to the side, crushing its rider's leg under its weight. The lance broke in two as it struck the stone floor of the temple. I rose then, puzzled as to the source of the light when a breeze blew across my ear.
"It is I priestess." came the voice of oal'ei. He had come to help.
Two men with swords drawn came my direction and were knocked backward by an unseen force. "I grow weak priestess." came the frustrated voice of oal'ei. He was too young to continue to protect me, but it was too late anyway, the sand was red with the blood of my kinsmen and the few left ran into the desert or were taken down as they attempted to flee. Lying across the altar was ali'wan a gaping wound in her side, her life spilling out of her, the chief lie dead among the worshipers, men women and children who wanted nothing more today than to offer thanks.
I was quickly surrounded by men on horseback, they approached me warily, unsure of how to deal with me. A man in a helmet approached he looked down at me and then said to his soldiers "Take the woman, burn the rest." Another man approached and bound my hands tightly.
The winds whipped around me and oal'ei screamed in his frustration.
I was loaded onto a cart amidst livestock taken from my village and surrounded by guards on horseback. I watched through tearstained eyes as we rode out of town into the desert. I could see black smoke rising from my village as the homes and buildings were razed to the ground. That was the end of Wu-Ling, 3rd sovereign emperor of the Shang dynasty's war upon my people; a slaughter in a temple on a day of peace.
* * * * * * * *
Our journey across the sands lasted about 3 weeks. oal'ei followed us the entire way, whispering soothing words to me and deviling my captors the entire trip. My captors spoke a foreign tongue but I was quickly able to learn the basics of their language during the trip. I kept my knowledge, a secret. We rode through the lowlands of China and across majestic snowcapped peaks. I had never seen snow before. My captors were kind enough to provide me with blankets to keep warm but I refused them. So great was my anger toward them that I would rather freeze to death than accept their charity. The only plea I ever made was for my release, to at least tend to the dead, to bury them according to ritual so that they might find their way to the heavens, but I was denied even this, and the shame of their earthbound spirits was mine to bear.
I was not mistreated on my journey, but for three weeks I froze and starved myself until I passed out, only to find myself awakened having been force fed in my sleep.
The weather was atrocious, clearly the spirits here were angry. Gone was the arid temperament of my desert homeland, here there was wind and rain and the temperatures changed on a daily basis as the spirits surely must have wept. It was early autumn and I saw many things that were strange to me. As we approached the city, we passed through farming villages with people bent from toil and very poor, scarcely a possession visible about them. The people were much smaller and paler than the proud Arabians who I called my brothers and sisters. They came toward our caravan begging for coin and food but were roughly shoved aside by the guards. Closer to the city, nearly against its outer walls, were merchants, and markets the size of my entire village. Again, there was an air of poverty even here amidst the artisans and craftspeople.
We arrived in the city of Anyang, as I would learn it was called, and I was taken through the city streets to the emperor's palace. Nature was trampled over inside of walls 50 feet high and easily as thick. Yet there was an odd beauty to the city, while nature was not in control here, there was a man made attempt at order and it achieved a kind of beauty even in nature's scarcity. The city was very different than the surrounding countryside, everything was manicured and orderly, gone were the beggars and peasants. The few people I did see were dressed in ridiculous styles that I can only assume were an attempt to impress the aristocracy. Clearly I was not heading to a prison.
Our caravan split and I was taken along with a small group of soldiers including the one who appeared to be in charge. I was stripped of my possessions and then re-clothed in a clean white silk robe; the material was extremely soft and smooth against my skin. A new bond was tied around my wrists with black silk ropes, my hair was brushed and I was sprayed with a perfume that made me sick to my stomach. I was then led on foot to a large stone building that was lined by guards in ornate armor, all wore swords that were equally as ornate and appeared to be more ornamental than functional. We climbed the stone steps to a large round wooden door bearing great brass hinges and door pulls. The doors were opened at our approach and I was led through them.
"I am still with you priestess." Came the voice of oal'ei "I will stay with you at the cost of my being." I said nothing, but was thankful that I at least had a single piece of my past still with me.
I was taken through hallways with high ceilings and cold stone floors, there were silks draped along the walls and many more guards inside, these stared straight ahead at our passing, and I wondered if they were even real men. I was led to a large room different than anything I had seen up to this point. There were braziers lining the walls casting a soft orange glow from their coals. Incense burned somewhere and the room was richly appointed with silks and artwork adorning the walls and finely crafted wooden chairs and lounges around the room. In the back of the room stood a richly dressed man in his early 40's. He had the same dark hair and brown eyes of all the people I had seen, but he wore ornate jewelry and it was obvious that he was a powerful man. He was speaking with a few men I could only presume to be advisors, but glanced up at our approach.
* * * * * *
Wu-ling glanced up at the interruption to see general Chou, the man he had sent to Arabia with a company of soldiers, a decision he already regretted. His elite accompanied him and they brought with them a very beautiful young woman.
Wu-ling looked at her bonds and scowled "Chou! Why have you brought a prisoner to the palace!"
* * * * *
I smiled, it was the first time since my capture that I had felt the instinct, but it was clear that my captor was being berated. He fell to the floor; face down as did his company of soldiers, leaving me the only one standing other than the wealthy man and his advisors.
"Begging your forgiveness Emperor" Chou said, clearly shaken, "The woman is not a mere prisoner, during our attack on her village, she displayed great power. She is most certainly a high priestess!" he offered in his defense.
So this was Wu-ling, The cause of all of my sorrows! I stared at him; burning his face into my memory as I imagined the ways I would destroy him.
Wu-ling paused for a moment and thought about how to handle the situation. One of his advisors leaned over and whispered something to him, which caused him to smile.
"Did you destroy the village?" Wu-ling asked Chou who was still prone.
"Yes majesty, we happened upon them during some sort of ceremony. We cut them down and razed the village."
Wu-ling frowned, a genuine sorrow etching his face. For a moment, I almost felt sorry for the man. He obviously regretted his decision, but sorrow would not bring my people back. I concentrated on my anger, and it hardened in the pit of my stomach.
Wu-ling then turned to me and said, "I am truly sorry for your loss," he paused for a moment "priestess is it?"
At that mention, oal'ei breathed words into my ear "Agree to whatever he asks priestess, tell him what he wants to hear! We can have our revenge on this man!"
I decided to trust oal'ei, the first of many mistakes I would make. I paused for a moment and then answered the Emperor in my broken Chinese "That is correct."
He smiled, surprised at my attempt at his language and asked, "You truly believe that I am sorry for the loss of your village?"
This answer was difficult to bear, but I swallowed down my ire and answered, "Yes my lord, we all make mistakes, some of which we are truly sorry for."
"And you believe this is one of those mistakes?"
"Yes." I answered fighting back the urge to vomit
"Good" he replied, "you may be of some use to me here in the palace, our last priestess met with an accident and has left us without a way to commune with our ancestors. You will fill her role." With that he turned his back and said "Show her to her quarters Chou."
* * * * * * * *
General Chou rose from the floor and led me out of the room and down the hallway. I was taken to a room with a think wooden door and tossed inside still bound. The door was closed and locked behind me. And for the first time in 3 weeks, I was alone.
I looked around the room; the bed was plush, and covered in silk sheets, far more luxurious than my quarters back in the temple. A chamber was set aside and screened from the rest of the room by sheer curtains and the floor was covered with pillows. There were lush rugs covering the stone floor and there was a barred window that overlooked a garden outside. There was a table and chair set in the wall where I was to care for my appearance. But in spite of all the luxuries of the room, it was a prison cell, nonetheless.
Oal'ei was able to cut my bonds and I dropped the ropes to the floor.
"Priestess." He whispered. "You are expected to meditate in the room with the pillows, go there and we will talk."
I stretched for a moment and walked to the room and sat on my knees, as I was accustomed to doing when meditating. I closed my eyes and Oal'ei appeared to me in my mind.
"I have been working to increase my powers priestess." He told me. "I no longer try to create, instead I destroy, and it is much easier to destroy."
"Oal'ei you should not pursue this path." I warned, "It is one that will lead to your own destruction."
"That is my concern priestess. For now, you need to know that even here, you are being watched. You will always be watched, so it is through meditation that we must communicate."
I nodded subconsciously.
"I have been watching the other priestesses on your journey here, you will be asked to be an oracle more than a priestess. These people do not value the gods input as much as that of there own ancestors. Family is sacred to them, we will use that to avenge your village."
"How?" I asked.
"They will seek your counsel. They want to use you to talk to their dead. You can lie to them to have your will enacted. In the mean time, I will continue to grow in power and I will free you from this place."
"How will you grow? You will need followers to accomplish that."
"The peasants." Oal'ei answered. "I will appear to them and exhibit my power, they will worship me because of that."
For the second time, I smiled. "What are their customs?" I asked, and Oal'ei answered, with great detail, he instructed me how to read "dragon bones" as they called them, a tortoise shell pierced by a hot pin that was then read to deign the future. I studied what he said with great care and I received my first test the very next day.
* * * * * * * *
I was woken at dawn and asked to report to the emperor's chambers immediately. I rose and dressed myself, foregoing a bath in a ruse to impress the emperor. I was escorted to the throne room and announced.
"Priestess" Wu-ling began "I trust you found your accommodations pleasing?"
"Most pleasing" I answered keeping my eyes turned to, the floor as instructed by oal'ei. It was a sign of respect he had encouraged me to follow.
"Good" he replied "And you slept well?"
"Very well" then a little bolder "Why was my presence requested?" Wu-ling frowned at my forwardness so I quickly added "certainly you must have more important things to do than see to my comfort." His face softened and my impudence was forgiven.
"Indeed priestess." He sat upon a lounge and bid me to sit with him. "I need to know when the ancestors will send rain, and what the cost. Our city has seen drought and is in need of water badly."
I was nervously excited as I planned my first revenge. I had thought of this idea last night when oal'ei first told me of my responsibilities. "I will need to consult the bones" I announced.
A piece of tortoise shell was brought to me and using a bronze pin, I inscribed the question into the shell's surface, then using the same pin, I inserted it into the glowing embers of a brazier. For effect I asked not to be disturbed while I meditated upon the question. After five minutes had passed in silence, I rose from my position and took the pin from the embers. It burned my fingers, but I ignored the pain, focusing on the greater goal. Holding the searing instrument, I inserted it with as much force as I could into the shell, to my surprise, it entered fairly easily, and the shell fractured into a myriad of cracks. I dropped the pin into a nearby bowl and sat with the shell. The emperor watched all of this with great interest. I grimaced and said, "You will not believe me emperor."
"Speak priestess." He answered.
"The bones tell me that the spirits of the ancestors are angry with you." He looked worried and maybe a little scared by this news. I continued, "The ancestors say that when my village was destroyed Chou left survivors who fled to the desert. They are angry at his failure, and since his failure is a reflection on you, they are angry with you."
I shied away from the emperor as I finished. I could tell he was angry and I honestly feared his wrath.
"How can I make them happy?" he asked. "Family is very important to me Safia, and I wish to appease them at any cost."
I was almost laughing at his naivete. This fool would do anything that I told him.
"Tell him that Pan-geng is displeased most particularly" Oal'ei whispered to me, with a laugh.
"Pan-geng is the primary ancestor who is angered by this failure."
"Very good!" oal'ei whispered.
There was a commotion in the throne room as I said this and Wu-ling fell onto his lounge, his eyes scanning the floor for answers as the others shook their heads.
"My father is unhappy!" Wu-ling stated aloud. He had to believe me at this point, there was no way I could know his father's name. "What must I do to please my father?" he asked. "Tell me please priestess."
I knew better than to try to demand my freedom, that would be too transparent, and it would end the vengeance that I would take. Instead I answered, "You must kill General Chou."
Wu-ling looked shocked. "I must kill my uncle?" He found it hard to believe that he should kill his father's brother to appease his spirit. He grabbed me roughly by the arm and pulled me toward him. "If you are lying priestess…"
His threat was cut short as oal'ei struck him with some sort of force that knocked him backward, but not off of the lounge. He looked genuinely frightened. "They are displeased." I offered again. "That is what the bones tell me. You must take this Chou and boil him alive." The emperor looked shocked, but dismissed me to my room.
I left the throne room exhilarated from my victory, but I managed to walk somberly back to my chambers. It was that simple to manipulate these people. Later that evening, I listened to the screams of Chou as he was boiled to death.
* * * * * * * * * *
Oal'ei did what he could to affect change in the weather so that my prophecies would come true, and he continued to grow in power as time passed. After 6 months of accurate prophecy in which I slew 118 of the Emperors family and key military using his own beliefs as my weapon, I was granted free reign of the city and the surrounding countryside - as long as I was escorted by a palace guard. I began riding out to the peasant villages and spreading the belief in oal'ei. Spreading validity that he was a god worthy of the peasant's worship and he grew in power ever more quickly.
I began to feel for the peasants in my travels, these were a hard working people, but for all their work, they were more or less slaves to their emperor. They were given plots of land to work, and expected to give half of their harvest to the emperor along with gifts. These were simple people, honest and good hearted, I decided that they would be spared my wrath, as they too were victims in my eyes.
I never lost sight of my goal in that time. I would have my revenge on the emperor, even if it meant my own demise.
* * * * * * * * * *
One night, oal'ei came to me in meditation. "Priestess!" He whispered excitedly. "I have grown very powerful now, and I am capable of taking form and slaying our enemies! Watch!"
Before I could protest or question him, I heard a struggle from outside my door. The scuffle lasted only a few moments and then there was a click as my door was unlocked. I moved slowly to the door and opened it. Peering out into the hallway, I saw the guards to my door both lying on the floor, as pale as sheets, there were gaping holes in both of their chests, but there wasn't a drop of blood on the ground. Standing maybe 20 feet from me was the spirit oal'ei. He had his back to me, and was visible as a pale red shadow on the wall.
"Blood magic!" I hissed, and retreated to my quarters, closing the door behind me.
"Oal'ei," I spoke aloud "Where did you learn this magic?" It was forbidden to teach or practice these rituals.
"What does it matter priestess? I can slay our enemies, but I am too weak to kill them all without crossing the realm to the physical. I will free you and reap vengeance upon our enemies, but I need passage to your world."
"And you know how this can be done?"
I was unsure. Never had a spirit learned how to enter the world of the physical. The two worlds were separate, it was possible to walk the world of the spirits, due to the soul present in human beings, but it required years of training, but a spirit physically among the living? It was unnatural.
"I'll have to consider it oal'ei" I responded.
There was another commotion outside the door and a moment later, the door was pushed open and 4 guards entered with spears. They were shouting at me to fall to my knees. I complied and saw a fifth outside bent over the bodies of the two slain guards. He looked at me from the hallway and sneered as my hands were bound behind me. I was led into a basement and flung into a cell.
"You will remain here until morning, and then we will see what the emperor thinks we should do with you." The guard told me as he locked the door behind me.
I was in a small room with a bucket in one corner and some hay on the floor. There was a small window near the ceiling and a slot in the door so that I could be watched. A guard stood watch outside my door, coughing from time to time. The room was dark and I was frightened.
Oal'ei appeared and spoke to me "Priestess, you will be executed for their deaths."
"But I did not slay them!" I answered. "I will be killed for your irresponsibility"
"I know priestess" Oal'ei said. "But you don't have to be slain. Complete the ritual of my entering the world and I will free you and destroy our enemy."
My mind was a whirlwind of fear and uncertainty. There was no teaching to handle this, it was not specifically forbidden to help a spirit try to enter the physical world, I did not even know if it was possible. I thought about my village and the cloud of dust that rode down upon my people, I thought about the lack of respect shown as Wu-ling's men rode into my temple and desecrated a holy day with bloodshed. I thought about the children of my people, the innocents who may have wandered the desert for weeks before dying. I thought about my death. If I died, no-one would punish Wu-ling for his crimes. I was desperate, and I answered foolishly.
"Tell me what I must do."
Oal'ei gave me the instructions, and used the strength he had gathered from the blood magic to find and return to me the materials that I needed to bring him into the world of man. Minute by minute the materials floated in from the cell's window as I drew a symbol of power on the cell wall. I stripped nude and began the incantation, the hairs on the back of my arm began to rise, and a wind began to blow through the cell. I chanted louder and louder until I was nearly screaming in my native tongue. The symbol on the wall blazed into life, the light cutting through the darkness of the cramped cell. I raised a sharp bone knife and ran it across the palm of my left hand as the door to my cell opened and a guard entered. Startled by what he saw, he stood there frozen. I fell forward, my bleeding hand striking the symbol and a loud boom resounded through the prison. I stepped to the side of the symbol as I prepared for the gate to open as oal'ei predicted. The wind was whipping my hair about and the floor of the cell cracked. The guard who stood in the cell with me began to ripple, his skin undulating as if something writhed underneath it. He fell to the floor screaming dropping his sword as he did so.
Something was wrong; oal'ei had not stepped through the cell wall.
"Priestess?" came the confused voice of oal'ei. He sounded frightened, unsure of himself.
The guard on the floor in front of me began to convulse violently and suddenly an arm sprang from his chest in a spray of gore, and I screamed. Oal'ei wasn't entering from the wall, he was entering from the guard!
"Priestess," came the voice again "That is not I."
"Then who is it?" I asked. The arm, black as midnight braced itself against the floor as another joined it from within the man.
"That is the one who taught me the blood magic."
"WHO is it?" I asked again, more forcefully. A head began to appear as the creature pulled itself up out of the man's now lifeless form.
"Daxrathas" oal'ei answered.
The head turned to face me, and two of the most powerful eyes fixed their unearthly gaze upon me as Daxrathas pulled himself to standing. He kicked the lifeless shell of the man aside and grinned broadly revealing a mouthful of teeth.
A horror gripped me, like a cold lump deep in my stomach as I realized the terrible mistake that I was responsible for. Daxrathas's eyes locked to mine, two glowing embers in a face. I was suddenly certain that this was the source for every cruel insanity. I wanted to scream, I wanted to run from this place, back to the desert, but I was frozen in place. My mouth moved, but no sound issued forth and Daxrathas simply continued to smile.
He took a step toward me and raised to his full height, sensing my fear he spoke "Fear me not priestess" his voice boomed, mocking the last word as he continued to my paralyzed form. "You have been promised freedom, and freedom you shall have." He said as he extended his hand toward me. "You will bear witness to my wrath." He touched me then, on my forehead, and it was as if a thousand red-hot needles stabbed at my brain. "You will bear witness for eternity." he said smiling wider as he removed his hand from me. My entire body quivered and felt on fire as he removed his touch. His hand was gone, but he had left his mark upon my soul, of that I was sure and I suddenly felt cold and weak all over.
"Go now Priestess." He said as he turned away from me.
As he turned, I was able to find my feet again. I walked from the cell almost in a trance, the doors simply opening before me. When I stepped into the courtyard, I saw more of Wu-ling's soldiers writhing on the ground. Some had given birth to terrible demons, although nothing like Daxrathas.
The cool night air roused me from my trance and I ran, along with Wu-ling's soldiers I ran, yet where they fell, I escaped. As I ran, a feeling of righteous justice came over me. I was alive and Wu-ling and his soldiers would suffer a thousand times over for what they did to my people. He would suffer, and his descendents would suffer until I drew my last breath.
I escaped from Anyang that night, the screams of the soldiers filling the heavens. I stayed in an abandoned merchants hut outside the city walls, but I slept very little, every time I closed my eyes, I saw Daxrathas rising from the dead guard, his eyes burning through my soul. I would travel to the peasant village tomorrow to seek food and from there I would begin the journey home.
* * * * * * * * * *
I arose the next morning in a panic, the small home I was in was filled with smoke and the smell of burning filled my senses. I wiped the small amount of sleep from my eyes and looked outside. The town around me was ablaze; my building however was left untouched. The bodies of craftsmen littered the ground around me; those who were not ripped apart lie in various grim poses the blood drained from their bodies.
This was not the revenge I had in mind and slowly a dread filled me as I realized that Wu-ling's men would not be the only ones to suffer from my mistake. These were craftsmen and farmers surrounding me, simple folk who wanted nothing more than to lead a quiet life. My dread grew even more as I walked through the town, passing the lifeless bodies of children. They had been propped up against the buildings as if nothing were wrong, in a grim mockery of life. I began to weep as I left for the peasant town, praying that they had somehow escaped the nightmare around me, trying to ignore the growing feeling of dread that gnawed at my soul.
* * * * * * * *
I watched helplessly as the portal glowed in the prison. My lady spilling her life-force to open the gate that I had been promised would bring me to her and gift me with a physical form. I waited for the wall to open before me so that I could step through. I was drunk on the blood of the living that I had taken from the guards. I grew in power as the wise one had promised. I had believed him, I had tasted power, and then he betrayed me.
I, oal'ei foolishly trusted another spirit, older and wiser than myself. I raged in my anger, whipping the winds around myself, I struck the dark one after he took physical form, but my blows were as insects to him. I watched as he marked my priestess. My beloved mortal was cursed before my very eyes; "gifted" some might say, with physical immortality. She then left and I ran with her, never leaving her side as we both watched the guards with dark auras give birth to demonic forms. I watched as the demons entered the world. Watched as they tore through the fabric of space and entered the bodies of men. I tried to stop them, but my hands passed through them as if they were smoke, and they simply sneered at my feeble efforts.
Desperately, I tried to enter the world through the body of a guard, but I could not manifest in the world of the physical. Try as I might, there was a resistance that I could not overcome in the bodies of those I tried to enter through. Frustrated, I sought out my priestess to apologize to her for the atrocities that I witnessed. The demons gleefully entered the world of man through any person they deemed useful, not simply the palace guards, and I watched helplessly as they tore innocents apart and drank the blood of the living.
I found my lady the following morning, sleeping on a dirt floor in an abandoned hut. I approached her as she walked out of the town, but could not bear to speak to her as I watched tears spill down her face. Instead, I journeyed with her in silence, causing the winds to blow around her to at least push away the smells of the burning corpses.
At least the demons seemed to avoid her. They watched her, in curiosity, from the shadows of the buildings, laughing at her open display of emotion. She approached the peasant village and I watched as she collapsed, falling to her knees and began wailing at the site before her. Seated in a tree were the bodies of four children, they were smiling, their arms thrown about each other's shoulders. Their eyes had been removed, and the blood was completely lacking from their frail forms. I could bear my beloved's pain no longer and I went to her.
"Priestess!" I whispered. At a lack of words I continued simply "I'm sorry." Words failed me then and I simply hovered about her. Her lip quivered in anguish and she shook silently for a moment before throwing her head back and looking skyward. Her face twisted in anger as she shouted, "LEAVE me spirit! I would have nothing more to do with you!" Her hatred radiated out from her twisted features.
"Priestess!" I begged.
"Leave me now!" She said simply, slumping forward as she began to weep.
I then did something I could not bear I left my beloved.
I raged about the nearby forest, whipping the winds around strongly enough to tear down tree limbs. I raged onward, deeper into the forests, hoping to loose myself in this foreign place. So lost was I in my grief that I did not even see the man until he spoke to me.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
"What troubles you spirit?" asked an old man seated cross-legged in a clearing. There was something different about him from the other humans I had encountered. His aura was brilliant with a wise sort of power, and his eyes were bright and clear.
"You can see me?" I asked.
"Of course I can see you." He answered, "I can see a great many things."
I was frightened, I had never been seen before, and I felt naked and exposed, but at the same time, I was overcome with curiosity. The man meant me no harm, or I surely would have sensed it. He simply sat there, waiting patiently for a response. I was intrigued so I sat upon a stump in the clearing and told him my story. I started out timidly, not sure if I should continue to speak, or not, but there was a non-judgmental quality about the old man that made me continue. I told him of the slaughter of my lady's people and her arrival in this land. I told him of my involvement with Daxrathas and the ensuing treachery. He simply sat and listened. The more I spoke, the better I felt, clearly this man understood that I had meant no harm. When I was complete, it was nearly dark, and he began to question me. He was curious to learn of the magics that caused the portal, curious to know why I had not entered the world. We talked into the small hours of the morning, and then he rose and invited me to his home. It seemed such a human thing to do, I simply couldn't resist.
We moved through the forest heading toward the setting sun. In the distance, I spied a stone structure and recognized it to be one of the monasteries I had seen in my travels, it was here that we headed. We entered the building and I watched as the humble monks swept their home in relative silence. The old man opened a large round door and we entered a private room that served as his home in the monastery. He poured some tea and asked me in greater detail about the demons. He seemed shocked to learn how easily they were entering the world now. He stroked his chin for a moment and then said solemnly "They must be stopped."
"How old one?" I asked, "I have watched them devastate the forces of Wu-ling as if they were paper dolls."
"I do not know spirit, but we must try." He answered simply.
"We?" I asked him. "Old man, I have told you that I cannot touch the demons, I simply pass through them as if they had no substance. What can I possibly do?"
"You can enter the world through me" he replied not without a touch of sadness to his voice.
I was shocked. Perhaps the resistance would be gone with a willing host. Then, a thought occurred to me, my beloved blamed herself for the demons coming. Perhaps if I found a way to force them back, she would find it in her heart to forgive me. "Are you sure you want me to do this?" I asked.
"Yes" he answered. "Just let me finish my tea first."
We sat in silence as he finished his tea and then he said simply. "It is time spirit."
I approached him with uncertainty, and then steeled myself for what I knew I must do. I gathered my resolve and stepped into the old man. The resistance was not there, I flowed into him as water into a cup. And suddenly, I was seeing the world through physical eyes. I felt a newfound power, and a strange taste was in my mouth.
"Spirit?" asked the voice of the old man.
"Yes?" I answered, but my words had a different quality to them, they sounded more like thoughts to my ears.
"Where are you?" The old man continued.
"I am here." I answered. "Where are you?"
"I am still at the table" he answered. Suddenly, I was looking down and I saw a pair of old hands resting lightly on a weathered wooden table. "I feel different, younger somehow?" He answered. "Are you trying to enter?"
"I am already here." I answered. I was confused, there was no gore, I did not see the body through which I had entered the world, and then a dawning began to come over me. "Old man, go to your mirror" I said.
Suddenly, I was rising from the bench upon which I sat. I was moving across the room toward the mirror in the corner. Then I was looking into it, and looking back at me was the face of the old man.
"Spirit, are you…."
"In me" I answered in his mind. He touched his face and smiled.
"That explains my sudden feeling of youth" he said. "You don't age, do you?"
"No, I do not" I answered. "It seems you and I have become one being." I said simply. I did not know what that meant to either of us, but I was now physical and I could enact change upon the world.
At that moment, a bell toned from somewhere in the monastery and I was roused from my thoughts. I knew that the bell meant that it was time to spar; I also knew that we were not the best fighter in the monastery and our age had diminished our abilities even more. I knew lots of things about the old man suddenly. I knew that I was (we were) 62 years old and had lived here in the monastery for most of that time. I knew that my name was Ping. I knew that we practiced daily and I knew that we usually left with aching bones and bruises.
We were moving then, shuffling down the stone hallway to the courtyard. The courtyard was a beautiful place, perfectly balanced in its simplicity. There was a large circular area in the center that was filled with white sand. I knew that by the end of the hour, the sand would have a pink cast to it. When these men sparred, they did not hold back.
We took our place, ringing the circle with the other monks, a younger man stepped into the ring, who I knew to be named Qin, I also knew that Qin was the most powerful fighter in the circle, he was about 35 years old, and even if he wasn't physically intimidating, his aura exuded health and vigorousness. He pointed at another man, Chin, and Chin bowed respectfully and entered the ring. Both men were armed with bo staves, a plain wooden staff about 6 feet long, and took ready stances. One of the older men struck a bell and the fight began. We watched as Qin defeated Chin, and then opponent after opponent, working his way down to the weaker fighters. He was fascinating to watch, and then he pointed at us, and I felt a rush of adrenaline fill my new body.
I stepped into the ring, a calm exterior belying a nervousness that I was able to suppress somehow. I moved in a fashion I was not familiar with, but that seemed very familiar to Ping. A staff was tossed to us from one of the monks still standing around the ring, and we twirled it effortlessly, slowly by my standards. We took a ready pose and Qin followed suit not far from us. The bell toned, and our sparing match began.
Qin moved very quickly for a mortal, he was not bashful and he opened with a swinging arc of his bo to strike at our legs, he was too slow however, and Ping drove his own staff into the sand underfoot and blocked the strike. Qin continued to move however, leaping into the air and spinning the other end of his staff in an arc that would have struck our head. I saw the strike coming and we dodged to the side, bringing the end of our staff up and into Qin's ribs with a solid thud. We then stepped back, and out of reach of a follow up strike that Qin might have tried to make. Ping smiled, and I knew that he had never beaten Qin's defense before.
We twirled the staff in a loose arc and smiled at Qin, who scowled at us in frustration and came in fast. He thrust his staff toward our head and it was as if the world around us slowed down, we easily stepped to the side and watched as the staff slipped by us mere inches from where our head had been. We chanced a look at Qin as the staff hung momentarily in space for what might have been a tenth of a second, but to us it seemed like an eternity. We brought our staff up once again into Qins ribs and then brought the other end around to bear on his jawline with a loud crack. We followed up impossibly fast with the other end of the staff slipping it between Qin's feet and raising it with a force that easily swept Qin off of his feet. He landed hard on his back, exhaling the wind from his lungs.
We stepped back again and took a ready position and let him catch his breath. Qin rose slowly, somewhat unsure of himself now. He looked us from head to toe and then back again, a frustrated curiosity filling him before rushing at us. We brought our staff toward him again in an arc aimed for his head, but he saw the strike coming and blocked with his own staff. He continued toward us and swung his staff in a rising motion toward our chin. My instinct took hold and we leapt into the air, flipping over backwards and landing some 15 feet from Qin. Apparently we leapt higher and further than the monks were used to seeing as several of them let out gasps at our aerobatical maneuver. We landed on the ground in a crouching position, staff raised behind us, head up and looking at Qin who stood, breathing hard. He had a confused look on his face that didn't understand how such things were possible.
The bell toned again, and I knew the fight was over. Master Shou approached the ring and asked to see me in his meditation chamber after the evening meal was complete. We knew he would want answers to what he had just witnessed, and we were anxious to tell our story, somehow, we knew that if anyone would understand what had happened, it would be master Shou. And even more importantly, he needed to know of Daxrathas and his entry into the world.
So once again, I shuffled off into the quarters of an old monk and I relayed my tale, but this time, I felt more confident that I would be accepted, and that Master Shou would know what to do.
Shou frowned in understanding.
"If what you say is true, then there will be no end to this plague" He said when we had completed telling him the story.
"That is true master" Ping answered "That is why I tried to sacrifice myself by allowing this spirit to enter the world."
"That was very foolish of you Ping." Shou scolded. It was obvious that the two men were old friends. "The spirit could never take on physical form, he is insubstantial even in his own plane of being." Shou paused and then asked "And what of you Spirit? Where do your allegiances lie?"
"My allegiances lie with my lady, she views this as a mistake, so I will do whatever it takes to right the wrong that I caused."
"Then the way is clear." Master Shou stated. "You must destroy the portal that Daxrathas is using to enter the world."
"So be it." I said without hesitation.
"Spirit," Master Shou said. "You realize that when the portal is destroyed, you will be trapped in this body forever?"
"If it means I am able to fix my errors, then it is a burden I will bear."
"Ping? You too will be forever changed."
"Master, I was willing to forfeit my life to stop this evil, I will accept this responsibility." Ping answered.
"Then you will not bear this burden alone." Master Shou said. "I will send Qin, Liu and Xiua along with you. Now go, you need your rest to endure the trials ahead of you."
* * * * * * * * * * * * *
Anyang was only two days journey from the monastery, but the forest had begun to change, even before we approached the city. The smell of smoke was thick in the air, and the sight of bodies became a common sight, some twisted beyond recognition, others propped as warnings in mock parodies of life. The land began to blacken underfoot as we approached the city, and the small enclave of monks was unable to completely mask their fear. We approached the Merchant city where I had last seen my lady and it was eerily quiet. The small buildings were now charred skeletons among the darkened earth, and the bones of the dead were visible everywhere. The guards that usually roamed the streets and stood vigil at the gates were yellowed husks in battered armor with no more substance than dried leaves.
We approached the main gate with an eerie feeling that we were being watched. Dark shapes moved in the shadows, and figures crept around the edges of our sight.
"Through here" I told Ping without speaking, and he pushed open the main gate with the help of the others. The interior of the city was even worse than the merchant town. It appeared that the demons must have closed the gates, trapping the city's residents inside the courtyard, some still hung from the walls, some bloodless, some covered in gore, all bearing the terrified faces of the tortured. Men, women and children alike were strung from the walls like grotesque tapestries and the smoke here was thick and clung to the ground in a mockery of nature. We waded into the mass of smoke, and began to make our way toward the prison.
The smoke hung low to the ground making it very difficult to see, but I could sense the magics of the portal ahead, and was able to guide the four of us through the haze toward the prison. We all knew that things were watching us, and that it was only a matter of time before our silent march toward the prison was noted and challenged. We were right.
Out of the smoke, a snarling black-scaled demon appeared, rushing toward Xiua and grabbing him as he moved by the three of us. Its arm impacted Xiua with a sickening thud, and we heard a distinct crack as he swung his arm into the monks flesh. The demon flung Xiua to the ground where he lay trying to catch his breath, a grimace of pain spreading across his face. The demon spun around to address the rest of us and Qin lashed out with his staff, catching the creature in the jaw and rocking its head backward. Liu followed through with a sweeping kick to the demons legs and it pinwheeled its arms in the air as it fell hard to the ground. It grabbed at the Liu on its way down, and its clawed hand raked a gash across the mans calf. Liu cried out in pain, and struck at the creatures arm to remove its grip as it fell to the earth.
I began to move in to help the others when a new sensation filled my head. I knew something was wrong, and I looked behind Qin as a strange new instinct filled me. Behind him, a newcomer had joined the fight, a large demon resembling a yellow bear with spines and grotesque tusks jutting out from its lower jaw was reared back to strike him from behind.
I leapt into the air, moving faster than I ever thought possible and struck the bearlike creature in the chest, knocking him back several feet. Qin looked back over his shoulder at me and I said simply "Help the others, I'll destroy this aberration." Qin nodded and turned his attention to the black-scaled demon as I turned to watch the tusked demon rise from the ground. It stood to its full height in front of me and I couldn't help but feel a bit fearful. It roared and lashed out with a clawed hand ripping through the air where moments later my head had been. I countered with a flurry of punches to the demons solar plexus, ending in an elbow under the creatures chin, lifting him in the air and then once again to the ground. I stood in a ready stance still amazed at the speed and power of my attacks. The demon too was puzzled and was a bit more hesitant to come to it's feet.
Behind me, I heard the black scaled demon bellow and glanced in time to see it holding Liu's body stretched between it's arms as it brought him down hard over it's knee. There was a crunching sound, and the life drained out of Liu's face. I was overcome with guilt suddenly at his life's ending and the moments hesitation cost me as the yellow demon drove it's clawed hand into my gut hard. I could feel it's claws as they tried to rip through my flesh, but for some reason they were unable to penetrate my skin. I turned my grief into rage and reached down grabbing the creatures arm, I visibly noticed my muscles rippling under my skin as they seemed to grow larger before my very eyes. I wrenched the demons hand from my body and snapped it's arm in half like a twig. The bearlike creature bellowed in pain and I followed up with a strike to it's midsection that hurled the beast through the air and into the wall of the prison building. The wall cracked from it's impact and the creatures head slammed backward into the cold stone, bouncing off like an egg. The bearlike demon fell forward and stopped moving.
I turned my attention to the black demon who was reeling under a series of blows from Qin and a halfhearted strike by Xiua. It was obvious that Xiua would not make it through the journey, but he still fought with the heart of a tiger. I felt larger, and I knew I was imposing when the demon stopped paying attention to Qin and looked in my direction. For a moment, I thought I saw fear in its eyes.
"Yes, fear me hellspawn!" I heard my voice say, and realized that oal'ei was speaking through me.
"The demon tried to turn and run, and something strange happened, I focused my energies and a bolt of light streaked from my hands and knocked the demon through the remains of a nearby building. Qin turned to look at me, and seeing my size I could read the amazement visibly on his face.
Xiua collapsed to the earth, a thin trickle of blood escaping his lips. Sadness overcame me momentarily, but I knew that if we did not succeed, then the world would suffer the same fate as Xiua and Ping lying before us.
"Are you alright?" I asked Qin. He nodded in silence, but rubbed at a wound on his right arm.
"What's that then?" I asked.
"A scratch." the usually silent monk replied. I smiled at him and we entered the prison.
The building was changing, what appeared from the outside to be a simple stone building was vastly different when we entered through the round doors outside. It was as if reality had cracked somehow and hell was beginning to spill forth. The walls were covered in blood, and seemed to be breathing. The air was thick, and it seemed harder to breath inside. There was a musty, smoky smell that pervaded the air, and there was a sense of dread that almost seemed tactile. Even the normally unshakable Qin gripped his staff a little tighter and higher.
Something seemed wrong, and we both knew it. We were walking in to easily, but there was no turning back, so we continued through the twisted halls of the prison. We descended down a flight of steps and I arrived at the door to Safia's cell. We pushed the door, and it swung open easily. Only then did I realize why we had been unchallenged in our journey. Standing in the center of the cell was Daxrathas, his jet-black form stood imposingly, as we opened the door; he opened his mouth in a smile and spoke.
"You were a fool to come to this place." He laughed. Daxrathas nearly radiated fear and Qin stood frozen by my side. I spoke next, only it was not me, it was oal'ei saying "I know you demon. Your time in this realm is limited."
My words were enough to stir Qin from his fearfulness, and he snapped his staff in the air ahead of him. Daxrathas seemed nonplussed.
"Mortal, your blood will fill my belly this day."
We all stood facing one another for a moment, but it was Qin who moved first, like lightning, he rushed forward from my side with a shout. He raised the staff and brought it down toward Daxrathas, who simply moved his arm to block. The staff impacted Daxrathas' forearm and it sounded like the staff hit a mountainside. To punctuate this, the staff snapped in half.
Before Daxrathas could react, I moved in, kicking Daxrathas in the chest, but it felt as if I had struck rock, and I bounced off of him with little result. Daxrathas turned his attention to me and lashed out with a backhand that knocked the wind out of me and sent me sailing across the room. I hit the stone floor and slid a few feet to a stop near the wall, just in time to see Qin, in a bold move squaring off to the demon. He landed a mighty blow to the demon's face, but Daxrathas simply cocked his head and smiled at him. He then struck out with his right arm and locked his fingers around Qin's throat. He raised his arm, picking the struggling monk up off of the floor. Qin's face immediately turned bright red as he struggled to release the demons grip from him.
Daxrathas smiled a mouthful of razor sharp teeth at Qin and said "See little man? Your blood will fill my belly this day, but first, I will enjoy watching your life slip from you."
I shook the stupor from my head and look up to see the portal glowing, only a few feet from where I lie on the floor. Oal'ei's voice then filled my head "Old man, the portal is providing him a link to the underworld, destroy it and you might destroy him as well!"
I rose from the floor and willed my body to grow even larger which it did with a rippling series of muscle adding itself to mine. I turned to face the wall and reared back unleashing a mighty blow to the wall. The stone cracked around the portal and Daxrathas let loose a bellow of rage behind me. I turned in time to see him fling Qin's body against a nearby wall, he impacted with a crunch and slid to the floor unmoving. Daxrathas looked uncertain for the first time since the fight began, but he locked his blazing eyes on mine and sneered.
"What's wrong hellspawn?" I heard myself saying. His gaze was less intimidating now, and he seemed smaller than when we first began the fight. "I do not fear you!" I said, this time in my own voice as I dropped into a ready stance near the wall. He then charged at me and I at him, we impacted near the center of the room and the walls shook with the force. He glared directly into my eyes and for a moment, I felt as if he were trying to wrench my soul from me, but the feeling quickly passed and I struck him with all my might in the stomach. The demon doubled over, howling in pain, but not for long, soon he was straightening himself and grabbing for my throat. His hands locked around my neck and began to squeeze as he said, "You will NOT be my undoing mortal, but I shall be yours!"
Oal'ei replied from within me in a voice that was not mine "Not this day Daxrathas" And he punctuated his words by placing my hands on Daxrathas' chest as a blast of energy flooded forth separating the two of us. I landed on the ground and Daxrathas went end over end crashing into the wall on the far side of the prison. As he fell to the ground, I heard a crack behind me and turned to see Qin, his eyes bloodshot and his face still bright red standing in front of the portal. He held the remains of his staff in one hand and was striking the wall repeatedly with it, cracking loose the stone of the portal. Each time he struck the portal, Daxrathas shook in pain as he tried to rise from the floor.
I turned my attention from the wounded demon, to the portal, I reared back again and struck the gate near the point which had already cracked and felt the wall give as my hand passed through the stone. The wall buckled and pieces of stone fell away as a gaping section collapsed where the portal used to be.
Daxrathas screamed as the portal was destroyed and his form turned to a thick smoke which dissipated as it drifted upward, from where the demon used to be.
Qin collapsed to the floor, breathing heavily, it was clear that the man had sustained internal injuries from his impact with the wall, but he seemed like he might make it.
"Are you alright?" I asked Qin
He mustered his strength and scowled at me as he nodded his head yes as if to say 'How else would I be?'
I helped Qin to his feet and we left the prison, to journey back to the monastery, the world having had no idea how close it had been to extinction. Qin and I became close friends in the years to come and lived long lives, talking of the battle occasionally as we sipped tea, and Oal'ei, the spirit who had lead us to the great battle lived on in my shell never dissipating as Daxrathas had. His control over me had weakened significantly with the closing of the portal, yet I retained the abilities he had given to me.
He told me of his great love Saffia, and of the experiences he had endured, but when I offered to try to find her, he steered me from the course. Saying always that she wished to be left alone. I was fearful of her however, if she had been "gifted" with immortality, then she could one day perform the ritual again if she desired. Oal'ei seemed less concerned with this possibility, yet agreed that someone should be in check to her, and so as I aged, we devised a way to pass along not only my knowledge, but my spirit as well to a worthy chosen. As the generations progressed, we did just that, passing down the spirits of all who served so that if we were ever needed, we would be there, to put a final end to Daxrathas.