He cannot escape it. The ice, the gleaming white, the frigid air, everything encased in crystalline hardness. Winter had descended from snow-capped Tengri itself and wrapped him tight in its icy fingers.
Is that his death sinking inexorably into his flesh, burning away heat and warmth from his blood? Is that his past, glancing at him from behind the ice? His thousand, thousand faces watching him, twisted, warped, perfect in the crush of snowflakes crusted thick on his lashes?
What is this noise he hears? Is that Wei’s dying gasp, breathy – filtering across an impossible distance, across death? Or is it the throaty chuckle of the wind, a broken whisper in his ears? Perhaps it’s a weeping child, a keening falcon? Had the vengeful gales of the North forgotten themselves a moment, smashing onto the hard, snow drowned rises of land instead of whipping past time and disappearing into nothing, as is their wont?
He sucks in a breath and finds it solidified in his throat. He tries to blink and cannot, his eyelids have turned into stone. Time itself is frozen mid-leap in this kingdom of winter and snow.
He thinks he should feel afraid, but he doesn’t.
They have made camp. He is at its centre, by the largest fire roaring dully in the cool night air, watching his instructions carried out. There are still soldiers weaving hurriedly between rows of tents, arms full of bows, quivers, rope, bundles of dried meat, small squares of yak fat and pails of water.
His awaits his generals. His soldiers will be finished soon; their discomfort with working slowly and unhurriedly is always a reliable source of amusement for him. Accuracy isn’t ever compromised – whenever the opportunity presents itself he takes care to give them ample time for setting camp.
He knows they are onto him, he would be disappointed otherwise. His smile is wide while pretending obliviousness to the barely muffled dark mutterings and exasperated looks being sent his way. It’s a particular angry bewilderment. Specific to those knowing only way to live - by orders, every moment of their life geared towards a higher purpose - when given free time not knowing what to do with themselves. The Xiongnu - deadly against mightiest foes, helpless in the face of peace. He looks on in mock concern. Still, they accept it with good grace reminding themselves of others whose idiosyncrasies resulted in blood and death.
Now they are together: before they were pollen grains from a million different flowers, blown over from distant lands, eddying in powdery, bright currents in the wind.
Remnants, they are the parts of the land that couldn’t be killed.
His warriors, handpicked, painstakingly groomed into legends by his own hands are each the last of their people. All of them are living, breathing giantesses and giants of hundreds of years of life and culture distilled into human form.
They have their ways of getting back at him too. They had soon learned to fill the empty hours with polishing their already sparkling spears, arrow heads and swords, older women and men teaching the younger ones falconry, grooming war steeds until they looked ornamental, hesitant voices retelling half forgotten tales. Unknown to them this still gave him a different pleasure – reminders of the warmth of his home. A reminder of the happiness their way of life brings which they were fighting to preserve and protect. How could he not allow it?
He can see it now, by the flickering firelight. Some of them carry it in the heft of their tall, ebony bows, some in the chequered etchings on their iron helmets, some in the jasmine crushed between their palms, some in the stitches making up the multitude of shapes on their saddle, cloak, and scarf, some in the length and twists of their braids…
Others aren’t so privileged.
They have been left bereft of tradition. Their armouries were burnt to the ground long ago. The metal of their weapons, plate and cup all melted and minted into the Emperor’s coin. Hair, carefully shorn before has grown long in the wild. Nimble fingers forget whether it was two turns or three when pleating it, was it one stroke of the blade sideways or vertically, four times or five?
He sees the furtive hunger in their eyes as their fellows complete their rituals. Idle hands curled tightly into fists.
They may come from a hundred different lands but war still has its way of making equals out of men. Their hair is the same dark brown of dust. All clothes carry shades of brown, grey and black. They cannot weave, cannot stitch. Their needles, threads and dyes long trampled into bloody, muddy waters. No time to collect fur, wool for weaving. No hearth remains to gather around and to work blanketed in its warm light. They are all hunters now. They reflect the land they travel. The meat, the spices, the way they cook dictated by whatever they can find.
He turns to the sky for time and finds it dark and moonless. They have made good time. Only a single full moon stands between the Han Empire and its destruction. The result is assured.
A few of his generals are some distance away, others joining them on their way over to him. Battle plans occupy his thoughts, mind flitting through a hundred formations, images from uncountable battles vying for attention.
He relives the wet, miserable morning, when they gave chase to a battalion of the Empire’s best and drove them to the very edges of Lake Baikal. He and his group of fifty had spread out first in mock terror and then suddenly drawn close and tightened around the bewildered soldiers like a noose. They had crushed the Chinese in their midst.
The harsh flapping of his falcon claiming its perch on his shoulder draws him out of his mind. He blinks and the turquoise gleam of the Lake, the clamour of the heavy thumping of hooves beating against the earth and booming, triumphant laughter fade to nothing.
Most of the soldiers have settled in for the night and his generals have gathered for their pre-battle meeting. The first speaker of the night is the unaccompanied crackle of burning wood. Acquiescent quiet is the response it receives. His comrade-in-arms know better than to interrupt.
The tranquil silence and the liquid green of the savannah wreathed in smoke is even more ephemeral than his most faded memories. His thousand-strong army seems to be part of the prairie itself. Soldiers woven into the fragrant, swaying feather grass, each distant figure burnished in silver starlight.
A blink, the sight spread out in front of him blurs and a long lost memory suddenly comes to life.
He is five and in the plains of Mörön – rolling hills speared with monuments created by his long gone ancestors. It is bone deep awe which grips him at the first sight of the famed greenstone deer warriors. They tower over him, massive pillars holding up the sky. Their stern features exuding deadly grace and eyes glimmering with the promise of unimaginable carnage.
A blink, the image is lost to him.
His years return to him, swift and the power to raze mountains with them. He is Shan Yu, victorious in the face of death a hundred times over. Creator of the mightiest Empire this land has ever known.
He rises then. The sun ascending the sky and blazing over the earth at its zenith.
His generals around him, acutely attuned to every small change in his demeanour, are overwhelmed by the sudden spike in intensity. The large fire between them barely registers in his presence. Unconsciously they shrink back, as though they might burn if they come too close.
His gait is that of a panther on the hunt, his words as potent and deadly as the wolfsbane lacing their arrows.The land favours its son, giving them flashes of its true face through this man. He carries it in his blood every step of the way.
He gestures for them to start and listens. The reined in intensity in his eyes keeps their vigilance high.
The last speaker finishes.
He gives them his decision: it is time for myths to walk the earth once more.
Their minds scream they are hurling themselves straight into the jaws of death but their hearts! Their hearts are beholden to this man. This man has wrought every claim of his into reality, beloved of the land and its people. The fear dissipates. There is unanimous agreement.
Just before they leave at dawn he walks between the ranks, stares down the fear lurking in his people's eyes, and soothes their skittish horses.
Last clan-meet, the mention of survivor soldiers from massacred clans had the clan heads exchanging concern and outrage. He approved most of the suggested after the furore. Finally he commanded that each clan that stayed behind would give two feathers from their aviaries for every soldier they were sending to the front. They complied with the strange request - they were curious but time was a coveted commodity. The final day, all leaders had gathered in the open air on horseback. Nineteen said their farewell, after leaving their clan members in the care of remaining twenty three, rode out to the east to organise their host. Stoic faced, he and the others watched them leave. Then each clan head proffered a carefully wrapped bundle of precious feathers as they offered him their thanks and left for home. He finally had something which could stand for a symbol of unity among his soldiers, cracks in his ranks were intolerable.
The feathers were stowed away, rolled up in leather awaiting the right time. It was now.
He finally climbs his own steed and chatter dies completely. He waits for the runners to finish handing out the feathers. Small, sleek, and white rippled with soft brown, one for each rider.
There are only the soft snorts and shuffling of horses – a traveller passing would think he’s gone past a massive herd not an army moments away from riding out to war. All eyes are on him as he takes a feather, his own, catching the sunlight like the edge of a blade as he raises it in the air and with slow deliberation ties it to his scarf.
When they ride out every rider has a feather on their person. Some have been gifted with a new tradition; others have been given an anchor. They belong somewhere again, a long carried film of pain clears a little from eyes.
These are the ties that bind them. Ones which they accept willingly.
Memories fade with time. They find that they all bleed red now. A hundred different languages and dialects and accents coalesce to one.
A flinty eyed woman who leads the hunt every night once says, “A thousand different colours when mixed do not retain their individual nature; they become muddy black, not even pure ebony.” She stabs at the campfire. Another voice answers her, a weary one, saying he’d heard different: white, not black. The woman gives a bleak laugh.
“Isn’t it the same?” she asks. “Both mean nothingness; both are absence.”
He catches her eye and allows them to soften enough to let understanding shine through. She was there in the beginning. Since the time twenty years past he had led a group of thirty to the western reaches of the land and they had taken the vast expenses into their care. It was thick with unending clusters of mighty oak, silvery birch and perfumed cedar. They hardly had room to stand; the place was teeming with herds of flighty red deer, graceful antelopes, and loping gazelles; skulks of small, golden furred foxes. Life pulsed there, alive with the chorus of pheasants, twittering swallows, fat magpies and noises from a thousand other creatures.
How could so much death have come from it?
He came home flush with the delight that comes only from discovering the novel. His parents didn’t smile and indulge him as they had done before. As they had on his return, the year earlier - with coarse sand lining his robes and skin burnt to ruddy brown. Or three years before when they were more alarmed by his frostbitten fingers than finding out that their third child had left them without a single word to trek a small glacier.
His confusion grew to alarm as he was ushered into the main room.
After a few minutes of tense silence his father told the gathered family that their seldom heard of Chinese neighbours have been known to protest fiercely whenever any of the Xiongnu breached the west.
When he pressed for the reason his mother answered instead:
“It is a matter of belief, son. To us the land is but a gift we owe, one which we draw our own livelihood from but cherish more than life itself.”
Steam rose from the bowls of tea they held in their hands and obscured faces from sight. He can still remember the beads of moisture on his elder sister’s forehead, her eyes intent.
His mother continued, “The Chinese, however, believe that it can be owned and marked for your own. Claimed forever and bartered like a possession if need be. They have wanted to draw borders for a long time – barring exceptional circumstances no one has a higher claim to any part of the land. We find it honourable to concede in favour of the other whenever it comes to conflicts of claim. We do not begrudge them this either. You know that well.”
His father gave him a questioning look, his eyes asking silently – “Well, do you, son?”
He looks at his father offended. The lines around his father’s mouth and eyes fade to smooth skin and he receives a flicker of a smile.
He sees his father’s brief touch to his mother’s hand.
“But?” he prompts impatiently.
She says, “This Emperor insists on levelling the land entirely. His intentions are to use the land for agriculture or to convert it into a centre for metal forgery.”
She gives him a quelling when he makes to say it’s not as though their own people haven’t done the same.
“He has no care for the forests or the animals. We do not cut down old trees, we build around them. When we have no other choice but to cut them down we plant ten for each tree felled. We do not hunt the young for game. We do not encroach where animals feed. We do not leave them to starve. We do not sow the seeds for plants which destroy the ones which exist. The Emperor has no such qualms; his ministers do not even consider it to be something worth discussing. They have callously rejected which we hold so dear.”
Her voice gradually lost all inflection with each passing word, hardening to steel. Lulled by her gentle demeanour at home he forgets at times that she was - is - a warrior too. It takes moments like these, recognising the flatness of her voice in his own after a kill, for him to remember that the woman who has given life to him has also taken it from many.
“His people aren't starving because of infertile land. Our neighbours aren't destitute. This is an endeavour fuelled by greed and the desire for power for its own sake.”
With a frown creasing her forehead, his mother reminds them that her own tribe had been one of the few who had fought with the Han in the past.
She smiles when she sees him concerned for her - in her particular way, quick and eyes full of mirth. Without preamble, she takes a sip of her tepid tea, and tells him to fight for his principles, if he thinks he is good enough that is.
He had expected caution and rebukes, not a dare!
Her laughter rings out over his indignant gasp of a shout and exclamations of twin outrage from his father and sister.
She gives them a fluid shrug and says with light carelessness, she was alive wasn’t she, here with them in this room. As though thriving in years fraught with war when thousands died was nothing.
His father favours her with a wry smile while the rest all shake their heads at her brazenness – a familial gesture of disapproval passed down through generations like the thin band of silver around his father’s wrist. The discussion drew to an uneasy close when he told them that yes, he would take up arms.
His sister threw her arms up and left with a swing of her thickly braided hair. His parents gave him a pair of infuriatingly sweet smiles throughout his sister's mutterings about cheeky brats who have time for shenanigans while she had to take care of the clan.
So then it was that he finally came to lead a group of like minded upstarts from all the clans in the land. Young women and men from his previous expeditions who knew of his prowess. Others who were charmed by his words and blazing golden eyes. A few experienced civillians who desired vengeance, having been thwarted by the Chinese in the past.
The cycle of victories and defeats began. Snatches of a wall began to spring into areas which had been untouched by human hands before. Forests levelled, animals killed, streams and rivers choked. All he was fighting to protect lost.
The clans took the threat seriously then, and for the first time they all fought together. Victory was glorious.
His own clan was the closest to the so called wall. He remembers the last time he saw his sister, rolling her eyes as she slung her bow and quiver of arrows over her shoulder. Her eyes were still affectionate as she gave him a nod of approval when she watched him riding out in the opposite direction to hers to rally his followers. Then she rode out with the best of the clan to fight the war he had started.
It was her horse that returned in her stead, soaked in her blood.
The true objective lost; loss and success began to coalesce into one. Slowly it became a meaningless dance; a shuffle forward, a shuffle backward – land gained, land lost. Back and forth, back and forth…
So they are all together for the moment, but they will scatter.
They have no home; they are strangers to their own people. Their clans treat them as heroes as is their right. They feel like guests at best.
There is no lack of love neither that of respect.
It isn’t enough. True understanding demands something else.
They cannot return to their innocent past and they won’t stand having the innocence of their own snatched away only to feel like they belong again. Only to see parents, children, lovers, cousins instead of strangers once more.
They pick up survivors from raided camps and their numbers mount. They take care to train orphans for survival and leave them in groups dotting the land. The wave is cresting, all of them drawing together, tight like smooth hair being drawn together with string. It will break, he knows it, they all know it but for now it is time to rise, to swallow the sky in a mighty spread of wings. With nowhere to go but forward into ruinous war, life thrown to the side death seems a reward almost. Their carcasses will rain down and while they will rot and disintegrate in the burnt earth, congealed over with blood in time it will grow fertile again and the seeds they’ve sown will flower.
They will truly belong to their land once more.
The moon is half full.
He sits with the camp auditor and watches over her shoulder as she writes ration records with careless efficiency. His soldiers are prepared; rations distributed and equipment battle ready. The scratch of bamboo quill on paper and the low murmur of his generals discussing strategy in the warm room lulls him into a hesitantly peaceful state of mind. He remembers a simpler time.
His hand is more precise than all of Wei’s sharp eyed apprentices. It frustrates him that this task demands a very different sort of precision - one which is useless without exact control, delicately maintained. A blade doesn’t catch frustratingly in flesh and bone when he pours his strength into it. The papers tear, ink blots, the bamboo stub breaks, black soaks the floor, the table is upturned, he is up, hands fisted, breath coming a little faster. He leaves.
He comes back again a week later, just after nightfall; his strength spent in the hunt and bone weary. He marks a steady stroke for the first time. It’s miniscule. An incision of soot on a sandy expanse of – he chides Wei for turning his frustrations to poetry. He turns away from the paper and catches a flash of mirth in those dark eyes, sunlight on fish scales. So he relents and indulges his friend, a loop of silence hangs loosely between them and is then suddenly pinned to paper in a sharp stroke with their sudden laughter.
Others of his age have surpassed him long ago in this and he doesn’t like to lose. He hasn’t touched his quill to ink since his first successful mark. He hangs the paper, stretched taut with daggers, on an opening in his wall. The slightest slip in control tears the sheet and he begins anew.
Hours later, he idly wonders as he gently stretches his aching arms and cramped fingers so he can pick up a sword in the morning, whether there is any truth to the accusations he hears about his being a masochist.
There are reams and reams of torn up paper littering the floor of his room. Wei only looks at him affronted when he offers to stop with a sigh for fear of wasting his friend’s life’s work. Goodness knows he’s torn into numerous students himself for ruining their weapons. Wei gathers the shredded sheets and takes him to his study.
It would be far from the first time that Wei’s antics would leave him concerned for his friend’s state of mind.
As per habit he voices his fears when Wei fills up his arms with ruined paper and flippantly asks him to tear it even smaller. He disappears into the cool, dark depths of the room, leaving him irritated on top of befuddled, a combination which may just achieve what his friend's words didn't.
He looks at the weightless burden in his arms and guilt takes the edge off a little. He begins hesitantly and stops after a few half-hearted attempts. Wei appears with a jug of water and his folded up bag of instruments. He takes one glance at the still un-shredded pile of paper and raises his eyes heavenwards and thrusts a bowl in his face.
Wei tears up the shreds even smaller, grinds them under stone and gives him cool water to sip as he looks on in alarm. He soaks it in water and begins to work.
Creation from ruin; not everything is lost forever when it’s destroyed.
From then on he drives Wei to exasperation by refusing to work on any paper other than the reams he started with. The day his inkless stroke flows out from his limbs to lie seamlessly on the paper he discovers that extreme constraint has its pleasures too. Cutting is cleaner from then on.
The paperwork is done and as per tradition, a fresh length of thick silk is laid down in front of him. He takes the brush and the characters he marks on his standard are still as bold and decisive as the swing of his sword in battle. The standard bearer carries it out of his tent carefully.
He walks the length of the camp three nights before their offensive. This night he prevents three drunken murders, leaves the dead bodies hanging on a stooping willow next to his tent. Come morning, it will be the first sight to greet his people.
It is one of the hardest lessons he has had to learn: first to accept flaws in his own reflection and then to find the courage to tear them out. To accept what he condemns in his enemies exists in his own home too.
There was a time when it wasn’t so, when acceptance eluded him. Pain tore at him. After climbing jagged peaks he would look at his torn hands and couldn't tell the pain from his limbs and heart apart. It drove him for a time, seeking out those particularly famed for cruelty in their raids. Disbelief and rage mounting as their leaders who continually extolled the virtues of justness and fairness trampled those very ideas underfoot and the clan with it. The Imperial Army need not deliver destruction - his own leaders were doing it much better than they ever could.
Then one day it wasn’t enough to redirect his frustrations for the pain inflicted by his own on his own on outsiders. Why must he listen to sounds of muffled pain from the neighbours every night? Why should his cousins growing into womanhood seek out places to cry unwatched, unheard? Why should the armourer try to adjust her gait to the bruises on her thighs from the previous night? Why should a young boy be thrown out of his home at midnight, his mother hardly able to move from heavy blows, clinging pathetically to the ankles of the head huntress – her mother’s lover, the supposed protector of their family - to make her stop?
In the face of this monster rearing its head from their midst he grasped his blade and drove it through the cruel mouths, the feet that had chased innocents to their deaths and to madness, hands which were raised against their own children, eyes which shone with amusement when humiliating those under their power…
He revulsion and fear from his clan. No punishment awaited him even though he was ready to accept it willingly. It was a sacrifice he was prepared to make.
His people raise the powerful to the sky but pour justice into the very fibres of their children. If some of theirs oppress others based on blind power, they were not kin anymore. The pus needs to be ripped into, it needs to be washed out of the wound, and fresh blood must overflow for the healing to begin.
Those in power who remained, gave their silent approval. There had been no opposition to the two sisters from taking over the rationing. Then many others followed and began to piece their lives together. Contracts were redrawn, positions reassigned, wealth redistributed, and they learnt the meaning of peace and security for the first time. Their elders advised them but never led by hand.
The clan would not protect them from pain which they could protect themselves from. For they are wrought like iron and steel from the day of their birth - mind and body both. Each generation must learn to fend for itself, to root out pain and suffering of their own accord and then rebuild and construct their lives in their own image.
He recognises those faces grown into adulthood in the ranks, and a few he also calls his generals. They are now formidable in their competence and stand shoulder to shoulder with him against all adversaries. The protector is protected. He cannot imagine a greater success. A greater honour.
He waits for dawn.
He smiles now. He’s spent years grim faced. It did him a lot of good but now he doesn’t care for good. He is told by friends and foes alike that he looks more terrifying than when he scowled. He begins to lose the everyday smile, smiles only when he feels happy and lets it out full force. They cower. He smiles wider.
He wears his finery. It’ll be soaked in blood and brains soon enough but why should he deny himself the pleasure of always having something soft and smooth against his skin in his sharp edged world. Something worth fighting for and all that. Silk, red and almost as slick as blood and cool, is what he favours the most.
They ride to the final front and the night before the attack his greatest defeat haunts his dreams.
It was the time he had lost to the Emperor’s army.
He comes out of prison years later. The blade is a foreign creature to him. He doesn’t know the footwork anymore, the right hold or the correct stance. He attempts to follow the teachings of the masters of his time, after all that’s how he began.
He can’t do it.
He tries again. Failure drives him away in despair, but he comes back time after time, bloody, weary and parched for the taste of the person he once was. He laughs a little blackly at the bleakness that overtakes him when he grips his sword. It was supposed to be courage flowing from the hilt to his blood, fortifying him.
Some days it’s all he can do to get himself to hold the thing in his hands. Other days pass as he circles the sword warily, as though it was an enemy which could strike at any moment.
He works through it.
Some of his clan get wind of his situation and a rider is sent out with a newly forged sword. He finds it wrapped in a cloth with his name on it in the familiar hand of the smith.
It is left at the foot of the mountain where his cave is; the neighing of the horse lasts until he appears at the mouth of the cave to kill the one who had dared to disturb him with such audacity. He may not have known how to carve people up with a sword anymore but his hands were still strong enough to crush rocks. By the time he has made his furious descent the rider is long gone. His fury bows under the weight of the guilt when his eyes land on the bundle bearing his name.
It is like a shard cloven from a jagged mountain. He hefts it and finds it unevenly weighted. The torture he was put through left his body permanently disfigured. He finds that it wasn’t skill he lacked but the right weapon.
Months pass in toil and one day enemies come looking for him, his hiding place revealed. He isn’t satisfied by his skill and expects death.
It does come. For the four men who had come for him.
Freedom skims his soul briefly and the taste of it is enough to drive him forward.
Before the return to his old life he comes to a place far, far away from the grasps of all he is and is not. A tea house, precariously balanced on the lip of a cliff between two billowing waterfalls.
Salty, buttery tea keeps him company as time crumbles to nothing. He hears girls speak about their hair; he finds himself telling them that he received his from his grandmother. Dark as night, sinfully smooth but it catches no light. They freeze at his interruption. He continues to eat not expecting a response, aware his words were unsolicited. His solitude has left him hemmed in. No one’s seen the world he has seen; his thoughts and those of others seem to pass through each other, untouched. He could scream and he has, he could weave words into something beautiful and he did once and many times after but it never mattered, never understood for what it was truly.
It’s no wonder then, that when a few of them look to him, curiosity written plain on their faces, the fear melting away from their kohled eyes, a part of him thaws. The one which was hard to begin with, in his solitary years turned to solid ice. He sought fire for it everywhere but found none, his own wasn’t enough. They don’t act on it - to them, he is a passing curiosity. The absurdity of a throwaway gesture holding such sway on him doesn't sit well.
He has been away from home too long. He has received his share from these strangers and doesn’t seek out more. Greed has never taken him anywhere good.
Night falls and the shadows, slanting in through the gaps in the wooden beams overhead spread themselves over the room. They grow thicker and wider, draping every nook and cranny until for a moment there is nothing but black. A match is struck somewhere. Haloes of light dot the room, diluting the dark a little. He thinks he can recall something similar, a crisscross of waxy, yellow drops of light. So bright he had thought they might burn right through the night sky and engulf it in golden fire. Perhaps it was the start of the year in a province untroubled by nightmares of fire and burning.
He is alone now. A man misplaced in the sky between stars. Even shoulder to shoulder the distance between him and the world is that which spans between stars, small worlds, untold distances apart, doomed to never cross.
Once, while still a fugitive, the group he’s travelling with comes across a landscape so similar to his home that he turns away and marches 6 miles opposite the ledge like soft green cliffs - putting oak, stream, fields between him and the place he can’t bear to go. He stops a moment to catch his breath and traces the journey of the stars across the sky perforce of habit. He isn’t home. It would not do to return home to find it somebody else’s. He thought the fierce boy who hunted bare handed had long been put to sleep inside him. His ghosts are thankfully only ever his own.
He was never the fastest or the strongest or the cleverest or the kindest among his people. He wondered then, as a youth, when he was called upon to negotiate peace with other nations, hurtling through the night and the bright watery dawn with history lessons and advice of patience and words against stubbornness swirling in his mind, that why it was he who was chosen for such tasks.
The strange looks he received from his peers when he complained about it don’t help to alleviate his confusion.
They arrive, finally, and it finishes in seconds.
Ashy steam rises from the cooling ruins, burned black and then rained on. There are no bodies. Ashes don’t feature so prominently in vows of revenge, the rows upon rows of headless bodies, a forearm dismembered and mangled, coagulated blood holding tight to torn up petals at the wrist, a succession of bodies; man, woman, child, smaller child, do belong in dreams of revenge. So they don’t leave any of it behind.
Life has thrown its game pieces in front of him as always. Strewn on the stone cold ground. He takes a deep breath, contemplates the many, many times he has taken those pieces and hurled them to the cutting winds, or stamped them to powder, or found them as shackles on his limbs. He thinks also of the few times they had hinted at better winds, faintly falling together like the puzzles Wei hated so much. He grins at the memory.
Snow shifts on his face. He relaxes and there is half a fingertip worth of breathing space in front of his face. An old trick of childhood. Puff out your face and swallow deep lungfuls of air before hiding in the snow. Slowly let the warmed breath out and if the snow is soft, it could throw off the careful calculations of the boy looking for them. Avalanches have swamped him countless time, he feels a yawn building. Also a God damn it, do I really have to claw my way out to life for the twelfth time to hunt the future. Again? He has won life a hundred times over and lost it that many times. The powers that be deciding on test after test could try for variety at the very least.
The top of the mountain is indeed empty.
The cool moisture sheening his face something of a curiosity. Li Fang did say he was running a high fever. He licks his lips and tastes pure water. The unadulterated essence of life.
He leans his head back into the ice and a moment later: he throws his fist up, up and out. Breaking out into the world. Breaking out of his crackly shell once more. Hand wide open to snatch up life, once more until it slips out of his grip, bounding into the horizon and forever beckoning to him to follow. He the smitten fool, following always, hoping each time that perhaps it is to be this time the top of the mountain may have something for him. Something to offer beyond life. Beyond death.