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A Breath Away

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         Receiving the sutras after their perilous journey was something that Sanzang was sure he’d remember for his entire life. The seven days had passed quickly. He didn’t even recognize the Western Heavens until WuKong teased him for it. And he’d even lost his mortal coil along the way, proving that even a benevolent person could achieve Buddhahood. WuKong had refused to leave his side the entire time. And as they were being lead back home by the deities, the monkey still kept a firm grip on the monk’s hand.

         It was for the best when the divine clouds suddenly part under their feet, dropping them so suddenly they couldn’t even cry out. And as they drop, Sanzang felt sure that WuKong would make this right—the monkey always had a knack for correcting situations like this. The King’s hand gripped his firmly, and they discovered that the drop was slowed. Amber eyes narrow as he yanks Sanzang up, catching him much like a bride as they drop to the safety of ground.

         “Without a mortal shell,” WuKong murmurs. “I can carry you now. But more importantly, I can teach you to fly.” He could give back to his master, gifting him the very freedom that WuKong had desired for so long. To share the joy of freedom, to share the joy of feeling the wind and sky bend to his will, he’s sure his humble master would enjoy such things. The ground is safe, and the sutras are sprawled all over the ground. Sanzang gasps, and WuKong is quick to set him down.

         It’s a rush to secure the sutras, some of them managing to land into the lake water and others bend at awkward angles. “We’ll have to let them dry before we can do much of anything, WuKong,” Sanzang’s voice is shaking. He was terrified that some of the sutras would be damaged. The King’s hand presses on his shoulder, and when the monk looks up, he pales with fright.

         The sky was pure black. It writhed with demons and monsters alike, staring down at the pilgrims with hatred so palpable that the monk could taste it. “Don’t be too frightened master,” WuKong tuts, pulling his staff from his ear. It’s easily the thickness of a rice bowl, but the monkey’s long fingers wrap around it with familiarity and ease. “They are nothing but spirits now. Let Old Monkey take care of this while you and Pigsy and Sandy take care of the sutras.”

         As the monkey begins to move away, Sanzang is quick to grab his hand. WuKong doesn’t stare down at him, but he does pause. “Return to my side when you’ve completed your task.” It was a request. It was an order. Monkey’s laugh is reassuring before he let’s go of his first disciple. “Pigsy! Sandy! Gather up the sutras! We need to protect them from the oncoming storm!”

         His command is met with enthusiasm. And the second and third disciples are quick to obey. Gathering the sutras and tidying up what they could, they join Sanzang in adjusting the waterlogged tomes. WuKong stands at the front of their group, his staff held just in front of him. A barrier, the likes of which Sanzang hadn’t seen the monkey produce before, comes from him. Once it’s in place, the demons descend. Howling, screeching, angry they descend onto the group. The barrier does not waver in its protection, nor does the group halt in its efforts to protect the sutras.

         Every now and then, Sanzang would chance a glance upwards. WuKong didn’t flinch, but he can tell the monkey was under heavy strain. At one point, the barrier cracks. WuKong doesn’t cry out in pain even as a spirit slices into his side. “Brother,” comes from the second disciple. Brandishing his rake, he’s quick to dispose of the spirit. But the damage had been done. And Sanzang watches as the barrier slowly mends itself, and the strain seems doubled on WuKong’s face.

         “Pigsy. You and Sandy need to care for the sutras. Let me see what I can do for WuKong.” It’s what comes out of his mouth, but truthfully, what could the monk do? This seemed like such an impossible task, but he strides forward, just behind the King. Each spirit that slammed against the barrier hissed before dissipating into smoke. His hands rise, gripping either side of the staff alongside his disciple. WuKong doesn’t startle, merely gritting his teeth.

         “Baldy,” he hisses. “I can do this.” The barrier shimmers for a moment, and Sanzang understands at once exactly what WuKong was doing to create such a thing. The darkness in such creatures, the evilness that seeks to corrupt and shatter the pilgrims, all consisted of yin properties. To combat it, WuKong had manifested yang into a barrier. Unable to face such purity, unable to face such a light, they returned to dust from which they’d come.

         “You can do this,” Sanzang states. “But not alone.” It takes the monk a moment to understand how to manifest his own yang, and he’s pleasantly surprised to see how well it meshes with WuKong’s. The barrier, now strengthened, holds for an entire night. WuKong doesn’t say anymore. Neither does the monk, the two of them understanding that what was done was done out of necessity.

         When the night reluctantly turns to day, the demons have spent their energies. It was futile to go against the wishes of Buddha. It seemed that even in this case, it was even more futile to go against Sanzang and his group. Sagging, Sanzang sighs. “At least I can be of more assistance,” he states. It pleased him that he could at least support his disciple without resorting to violence. WuKong shifts, his staff falling from his grasp before falling backwards against his master.

         Startled, the monk can only yelp as he falls onto his behind, his disciple in his lap. It takes some doing, but he’s able to rearrange the monkey so that he could partially inspect him. His side, filthy and stained with blood, was still knitting together. It was a slow process. But the disciple himself seemed exhausted, as if he’d used far too much energy in order to keep the barrier up despite his master’s assistance. “I just gotta,” he slurs out, “rest a while.”

         Slumping, the first disciple falls unconscious. Unsure of what to do, Sanzang first attempts to pick up the disciple. It fails miserably. Strength of the spirit was something that Sanzang could easily boast about should he be that sort of monk. But strength in body he most definitely did not possess. Not like his disciples at least. Hearing feet approaching them, Sanzang clutches the first disciple close to him. He’s unsure if he could make such a barrier again without the guidance of his first disciple, but he was willing to make such an attempt.

         Coming forward, much to his surprise, is a villager. One that he vaguely remembers from an earlier part of his journey. “Ah! You’ve come back! It’s been many years, hasn’t it, Tang Monk?” The villager was leading a horse who dutifully pulled a small cart. One that could, should Sanzang find the strength, carry WuKong. “Have you completed your journey yet?” Unsure of how to answer, the monk opens his mouth to speak. And, blessedly, the pig beats him to it.

         “Master! The sutras aren’t in perfect condition, but they can be transported!” Pausing, he stares between his master, the first disciple, and the villager. “Perhaps… It’d be best to continue this back at the village, where brother monkey can rest?” The suggestion spurs them all forward, and they were greeted at the village with a celebration of their arrival. Truthfully, the monk wanted nothing to do with it, only wanting to watch over his first disciple. Even at their most insistent, they could not budge the monk from his disciple’s side.