43: Dragon and Goddess

The training grounds took a few hours to find so Mingzhu and Disung set up a temporary camp until nightfall. For the entire afternoon, under the setting sun and pink sky, they spied on the soldiers. They practiced combat, learnt commands and endured the exercise regime. Mingzhu estimated two hundred men but Disung wanted to be precise, correcting her number to one hundred and eighty-nine.

“Are you from the mountain clan?”

Another question. Can’t he just keep quiet for once? It irritated Mingzhu. He never stopped talking! Either he made jokes, asked about the mountain clan or whistled to endless songs. It seemed like the older he became, the more his immaturity grew.

“Do they still roam every two years? I remember it being a hassle. The temple was my favourite home but the winters were coldest up there. Which did you like?”

“Shut up!”

Disung grinned and with his smugness, Mingzhu’s stomach sank; he was up to something. “I would if you answered my questions. Otherwise, I might keep talking when you are sneaking into camp…”

“Just shut up.”

“Ah but telling me to shut up only entices my curiosity further. What do you think I will ask next? How many questions will you endure? The more you ignore, the more I shall ask. When did you leave the mountain clan? Is your family still in the mountain clan? Have you met all the Masked Masters? Have they been replaced over the ten years? Is it true the Fox is rogue? Are others rogue? Did—”

“Fine! I yield! You win, bastard!” Mingzhu yelled, unable to take his annoying questions anymore. When his smile widened, she knew she fell into his trap.

“What do you want then?”

“I want to know about the mountain clan. It has been over ten years since I saw it, not that I remember much. I learnt most things from my mother and her stories. She told them to me every night, while we lived in a cave.”

“So you do remember nothing,” Mingzhu stated. Although she suspected this, her mixed reaction still baffled her. A flicker of relief fluttered in her stomach but a moment later, her insides sank. Why did she want him to remember?

“My memory is hazy from the trauma. The Fox attacked my family and killed my father. I have nightmares about the screams from the clan, the bodies of children and the discarded masks from Masters. It haunts me, no matter of the time that has passed.”

“The clan continues to suffer too,” Mingzhu said softly.

She risked glancing at Disung and saw him leaning towards her, intent on listening to her every word. If he moved any closer, they would be touching. The idea must have made her annoyed again, as the fluttery, tickling feeling returned.

“They still travel between the temples, ruins and cave castle. At the end of each spring, they move homes. Since that day, they did not return to those ruins. Instead, they built tree houses as another home. It looks incredible. The houses are made of twigs, weaved leaves, animal hides and anything else available. And they built them so the branches are hidden from view, as if the homes themselves are floating.”

“Do you still live there?”

“No. I cannot.” Mingzhu refused to elaborate, despite the plead in Disung’s warm eyes. “My sister and I lived elsewhere... in the land. We stayed in Shanhe and sold herbs from the mountain ranges. We built a new home from an abandoned farmhouse.”

“We must have drunk from the same pool of wisdom! My mother and I did the same except we made our cabin from the trees around us. It took seasons to finish. I would like to take you there one day.”

“Where did you live before that?”

“Oh, in caves mainly. It depended on seasons. No one wanted to take in refugees from unknown lands with odd accents. So we spent a year in the wild.”

“Juan liked living in the wild. At least, I think she did. She found hope in every situation by grabbing onto the smallest of comforts. We could be starving and she still smiled… Did you meet her in the palace?”

“I saw her,” Disung replied, gazing at the sky. “She was a beauty and I heard she shared kind words. Every man grew jealous of Zhao Cheng’s marriage.”

“Do you believe she killed him?”

Disung shifted uncomfortably on the ground. “No. Truth be spoken; I believe she was the victim.”

The soft response tightened Mingzhu’s chest. Something lodged in her throat, causing her eyes to water sensation. She bit her lip in hopes of keeping her emotions under control. I knew it, she thought. I knew you stayed sweet, sister. To distract herself from the overwhelming sadness that began to crush her, she changed the conversation route.

“You never thought to return to the mountains?”

The sadness crept back in Disung’s expression. He leaned back, uncomfortable with the conversation direction. It looked strange to see his carefree expression leave.

“No. We did not know if anyone else survived or if that home still remained.” Disung leaned back, the carefree expression fading at the memory replaying in his mind. “How did you survive the Fox’s rampage?”

There it was again; he kept blaming the Fox. It made Mingzhu wonder what he did remember. This was the perfect chance to tell the truth and amend for her wrongdoings in the past. He needed it. The words were so simple. I caused the mountain clan’s destruction, not the Fox. Yet, the explanation remained stuck in her throat. Her heart tightened at the image of Disung’s fury if she confessed. All the weeks’ mischief, from insults to pranks, would be forgotten in the storm of anger. No longer would he grin nor tease her. Why did she care so much? When did she crave his attention? Was this truly irritation?

She needed to tell him. Hesitantly, she opened her mouth but the words died again. “The Pheasant killed the murderer and saved me. My sister and I left after that. So many died that day and I thought you were among them. How did you survive?”

“My father saved us. The Fox was after someone else and we got in the way. He tried to kill us too but my father fought him. He died saving us.”

Mingzhu didn’t know how to respond. She let the awkward silence settle and watched the sky. The sun sank behind mountains and above, orange consumed the pink before fading into a deep purple. Anticipating the arrival of night, a few rogue stars appeared.

“How did we meet before the Lotus Palace?” Disung asked to rekindle the conversation. “I was certain we met when I first saw you. Those flaming eyes, unique hair and scowl all seemed scarily familiar but I cannot remember anything about you.”

“We were rivals as children.”

Disung raised an eyebrow and his lips curled into a disbelieving smile. “We were?”

“I hated you with every part of my being.”

“Hated. So that must mean you like me now.”

Mingzhu rolled her eyes. “The only reason I did not kill you was because of your father. If not for his kindness, wisdom and patience, I would be lost. I owe everything to him.”

“Be careful with your words. I might get jealous if you talk about him like that.”

“You should be since you are not a Masked Master.”

Disung’s jaw dropped and his eyebrows jumped. It looked comical. “He was a Masked Master?!”

The shock of this truth clicked into place, like the final move in a wooden puzzle. Mingzhu mulled over this, realising the twisted truth in Disung’s mind, as the darkness stole the sky. Far below the hill, the training camp illuminated by flaming torches. This signalled the time to act and Mingzhu felt a small bit of relief as the truth waited another day. She would tell him. He deserved the closure. Yet, right now, she chose to be ignorant and focus on their mission.

Under the mask, which covered most of her face, cooled charcoal smeared Mingzhu’s eyelids, emphasising her light eyes. Wild berry juice stained her lips a dark pink and she smudged some down to look unkempt. Her ruffled hair cascaded down her back to reflect the dishevelment of the wandering demi-goddess. To complete this look, she wore plain white robes, stolen from a farm yard whilst drying.

“Will they recognise your performance?” Disung asked, playing with the remaining charcoal.

“Of course.”

The people of Hirane passed down a tale for generations, telling of a legendary love between dragon and demi-goddess. In the early years, long before the land divided in two, a god descended from the heavens and became the guardian of the forest. During the day, he walked as a human, but at night, he flew as a majestic and powerful dragon. One night, under the inky sky, a fire appeared in the ancient trees and the dragon sought to save his home. However, the fire did not touch any plants. It crackled and danced on air, following the mesmerising movements of a person’s delicate hands. The woman was a demi-goddess, cast aside by the gods for her human emotions, yet isolated by humans due to her magical ability which controlled fire. Her name was Hirane.

Their eyes met across the forest, golden pupils staring at bright green irises. Their connection caused every katsura branch to stand straight and animals scurry away, convinced a storm approached. Their love only grew from then on, like a flower blooming in the spring. They spent endless seasons together, relishing a companion able to empathise with their difference. However, the lovers could never remain together.

The gods frowned upon the odd relationship, both due to envy and disgust. They feared that the half-cast and purest of gods would create great peril if not separated. To prevent any disasters, the gods whispered into humans’ ears and caused fear and chaos to consume them. Driven by these primitive emotions, they hunted the dragon god and goddess.

The humans trapped the dragon and stabbed him with magical weapons, gifted from the jealous gods above. The dragon, soiling the earth with is golden blood, knew his fate. Yet, he could not leave his lover. Instead, with the last of his energy, he turned himself to stone. Here, he remained, waiting for Hirane to find him once again and set fire to his breath. Until then, the remanence of magic in his stone granted wishes.

As for Hirane, she learnt of her lover’s death from passing spirits. Full of rage, she burnt down anything that blocked her path and spent her lifetime wandering the forest in search of the dragon god. This endless walk led to her demise but even when her body was left to decay in the ground, her spirit continued the journey.

Throughout the generations, the story remained the same and many prayed to Hirane and the dragon god. This formed an idea in Mingzhu’s head after seeing the mask. Then, when they spotted the training camp in the same region as the village, she felt confident in her plan. 

“Will it suffice?” Minghzu asked about her outfit, feeling unusually sheepish. A wave of nervousness washed over her under Disung’s scrutiny.

“You look as magnificent as a goddess,” Disung replied, sincerity and excitement mixed into his voice. For a reason beyond Mingzhu’s comprehension, she felt both shy and giddy from the answer. “I dare say you look more beautiful than that maid friend of yours that everyone fawns over.”

The mention of Meifan squeezed at Mingzhu’s heart. They had not spoken since the day of their fight, nor saw much of each other. Their sleeping residence rooms changed based on new positions and their duties never crossed paths. Whenever they did spot the other, they kept silent. Meifan still looked both beautiful yet miserable like a goddess. It was hard not to stare and regret the terrible words spoken.

“Any changes in the camp?” Mingzhu asked, trying to shake away the anguish in her soul.

The training camp nestled in a valley, easy to find based on Disung’s knowledge of preferred army settlements. Tents scattered the open land and in any large spaces, either horses were kept or it was prepared with training dummies and weapons. There were no identifiable symbols to represent the different sections of the camp, such as medic or meeting tent. Disung gave insight to this, explaining medics and cooks posted closest to the stream, while the most valuable people and information camped at the North.

“No banners. Mainly tents. This camp must have been established by Hong Huli.” Disung elaborated further, “Hong Weishan flaunted everything he accomplished with Shanhe’s symbol. Also, he prided on building sustainable grounds. The tents show this arrangement is temporary or new.”

“Let us break these rotten eggs,” Mingzhu said and ran down the hill before Disung could stop her.

The light breeze weaved through the longer grass around Mingzhu’s feet, making it appear like she was floating out from the forest and darkness. She wandered into the training camp, indifferent to the guards that ordered her to halt. Those familiar with the tale of Hirane scampered away, convinced the angry spirit returned. In the original legend, it was told she still wandered the forest at night, in search of men that killed her lover.

An officer, identifiable by his bronze belt and navy robes, blocked her path. His sword threateningly cursed at her in the flaming torches. The man’s face was grimy with beads of sweat smearing the dirt down his neck. The black beard along his jawline stood to attention like the soldiers behind him.

“You do not belong here. Leave immediately.”

Mingzhu ignored him and scanned the approaching men. There were twenty so far, with a few hobbling from tough combat sessions. Most looked youthful and only turned eighteen, the conscription age, recently. Mingzhu hid her smirk as a burst of confidence ran through her; escape would come easy. 

“You were ordered to leave. Do not curse me or my men at the repercussions,” a newcomer shouted. Wearing an armoured uniform, he stepped forward with a loud clank and reached out to Mingzhu. This cued the beginning of the performance.

After attempting to grab Mingzhu, the man found himself restrained by his pinned elbow, which had been twisted behind his back. The applied pressure released a sharp pain in his arm and forced him to lower himself. To stop his struggle, Mingzhu kicked the soft spot behind his knees to drop him to the ground and held a knife at his throat. It happened too fast for anyone to move. Still got it, Mingzhu gleefully thought to herself. Master would be impressed.

“What do you want?!” The officer from earlier demanded.

“You ask this of me, knowing full well I want revenge! It was your kind that killed my dragon! He was my only happiness and you took him from me! Just as you took the flower of a woman in the forest! Just like you plan to take lives from innocent that oppose you!”

While she talked, the men observed her short height and pettiness. After realising the spirit they faced looked meek and tiny, they grew confident to attack. A recruit aimed a punch, learnt from his combat training, to defeat the woman. Mingzhu dodged this with ease; she kicked her prisoner forward and stabbed the attacker’s pressure points with her locked fingers while he juggled his commander. Many other men jumped at the opportunity to use their training but followed similar, crippling fates.

The Pheasant’s style looked comical to the men, for an individual always remained either on only a foot or a hand while the rest of their body sliced the air. Just like a bird collecting food, attacks were short, sharp jabs to specific points on the body. It was suitable for a woman, especially one so small, and the soldiers were surprised they were defeated by this childish technique. Mingzhu bounced from her foot, to her hand and kick anyone in her way with unpredictable attacks. Then, by the time she landed back on her feet, she jabbed an unsuspecting man at his most vulnerable points, forcing him to fall. To further aggravate the young soldiers, no one landed a blow on her. She dived and weaved like flowing water, unable to be captured.

The hardest opponent was the officer. Unlike the others, he had experience in combat and held his ground. He grabbed Mingzhu’s legs whenever she kicked, using it to topple her forward to his advantage. Then, he rained consecutive punches down on her. She rolled away, ignoring the aches of her forearms from shielding the blows, and flipped herself to standing, before cartwheeling away from his own frontal kicks. A punch to her sternum from him caught her off-guard and winded. She couldn’t breathe. It felt as if her body shattered. Panic rose. While stuck in this state, the officer clipped the bottom of her jaw, then her temple. Pain clawed around her head. Everything went blurry. She couldn’t fail like this. She needed to fight. Without thinking, she dropped to the ground and knocked the officer off his feet with a spinning kick. It didn’t work; he simply stumbled then regained his stance. Yet, it was enough run away and just in time, as she saw light rising from the tents ahead.

Mingzhu climbed on the ration bags ahead. She ignored the pain that consumed her body and stood straight, facing the men as if unaffected. Behind her, the fire she sneakily started before the grand entrance grew in strength. Embers filled the night sky around her, looking like fireflies drawn to their demi-goddess master.

In a confident voice, Mingzhu roared her warning. “Too much blood has stained my forest and too much innocence has been lost. Anyone who dares continue to do train to kill shall feel the wrath of Hirane!”

The spirit pretended to unleash her curse, raising her arms to welcome the flames behind to consume the training camp. In the same moment, tents exploded in the North, as if controlled by her. This shocked Mingzhu but she continued her performance, determined to remain undeterred. The fire continued its destruction, jumping from tent to tent, while small balls of fire fell from the sky, also baffling, at the flickering of her fingers. A few soldiers yelped, others froze in fear. When their eyes turned back to the pile of ration bags instead of the blaze, the woman disappeared.

From inside the tent, where she fell, a giddy laugh bubbled inside Mingzhu. The feeling remained while she bolted away into the dark pathways between tents. It had been years since she felt so alive and carefree. The fight against so many enemies stroked her ego and the brush with near-doom awakened her senses. She imagined the mountain clan’s appeased expressions at her work, which far extended from their original action to stop war. The lack of letters and orders felt miniscule now. Mission or no mission, she was proving to be still valuable to them. This, she decided, was her new task; prevent the war.

Unfortunately, all good things had to end. Too distracted by the new sensations, Mingzhu met her demise. She narrowly dodged the outstretched sword that flung in front of her but slammed into the massive bicep. The hit against her collarbones forced her backwards, until she lay staring at the sky. She gasped for air. Pain radiated throughout her body, spreading like poison. Moving felt impossible. Adrenaline was slipping.

A teenager stared down at her with arrogance only nurtured to an extreme extent from noble upbringing. “Time to unmask the spirit.”