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there will be killing ('til the score is paid)

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Mulan doesn't ever regret it.

She prays for her father in the shrine nearly until dawn, but she doesn't know what she expects the ancestors to do for him. The ancestors have great power, but even they can't stop a sword from tearing open a man's chest. And neither can Mulan. The thought crosses her mind, once, lingering. But she knows nothing of the sword, she'll be caught in a moment, and whatever brief treason she manages to commit won't save Baba in the end.

When the sky begins to gray with light, Mulan catches herself praying that Baba will fall ill, will try to mount up and will break his leg in the courtyard; she makes herself stop and presses her face to the floor, pinches out what remains of the stick of incense with dry fingers. It burns her skin, makes her fingertips throb; it's so much less than what she deserves.

Without the faint light of the burning incense, the shrine is dark, darker than Mulan had expected. She presses her cheek to the stone and looks at the shadows, at their firming edges as dawn draws nearer.

That's where it comes from: the shadows. Its voice isn't a voice, it burns through her mind instead of her ears, and later she can't remember the words it uses. But the words aren't important. It knows what she wants and it knows how to get it, and when it offers, she says yes.

It's an old spirit, Mulan can tell that as soon as it touches her. It's cold like the shadows it came from, and heavy with the weight of many years. It settles like frost onto her skin, loops and coils that creep around her waist, across her back, up one arm and down the other, around the thin skin of her throat. She stares at herself in the shining stone floor, and with slow deliberation wipes the paint from her face. She doesn't need it anymore.

Mulan walks out of her family's home barefoot. The ground's probably cold with the night's chill, but Mulan can't feel it - or can feel it but is made not to care.

She crosses the Yellow River by walking through it. She could swim, but she doesn't need to; she can breathe, still, but she doesn't have to.

She reaches the mountain passes more quickly than the army does - more quickly than the army can. Shan Yu is laughing with his men, toasting them over a fire kindled with the half-burnt timbers from a home in one of the towns they've pillaged; Mulan walks into the tent and grabs his sword by the blade when he draws it. She yanks him close by it while he is still laughing, smirking down at the little Chinese girl who's come to kill him.

Her hands are strong now, but it would be hard to get to his heart through all those thick ribs. She tears his throat out with her fingers instead.

His men cry out, though Shan Yu himself no longer can; the ones who have swords draw them, and a narrow man with a bow pulls an arrow from his quiver.

He shoots Mulan three times before she's done hewing through the others with Shan Yu's sword, and the spirit twitches and shudders under her skin - not in pain, but in eagerness. It does so many things for her, but it can't change all the rules, and she nearly slips in the last man's blood, which covers her feet; it takes her a moment to recover her balance, and the spirit is so, so impatient.

It bursts free of her skin with a stinging lash of cold that makes the wind of the high mountains feel like a spring breeze. It forms a great dark shape over the suddenly sputtering fire, almost like a dragon - except dragons are kind, wise, good teachers. Then again, this spirit is teaching Mulan so many things; maybe it's a sort of dragon after all.

She can't see what it does to the narrow man through the red-smoke opacity of its body, but there is a sound like a sigh and then the spirit slides back underneath her skin; and it leaves maybe half of the narrow man behind, bloody and ripped open like a chicken the fox was startled away from. But the spirit sounded so satisfied. Then again, Mulan thinks, maybe what the spirit hungers for isn't meat.

Mulan leaves the arrows that have struck her where they are. They don't hurt, and she almost likes the way they look.

Or maybe it's the spirit who does.

The Hun army falls to Mulan, eventually.

The spirit's old and strong, but she doesn't know how far its powers stretch; so she takes her time. She stalks the Huns through the high mountains, bleeding their numbers away as they crawl closer and closer to the pass, and perhaps the satisfaction is the spirit's, but it feels like it's hers. The first time Mulan catches herself smiling as she watches a man gout blood into the snow, she's startled, and she spends the rest of that day reminding herself of the sound of Mama's voice, the feeling of Baba's hand on her hair. What would they think of her?

But she watches the Huns move toward the pass and she knows she can't let that thought stop her. Mulan is trying to save their lives; she'd sacrifice far, far more than her mind, her heart, to do it.

So when the second time comes, the third time, she accepts it. Maybe this is the price. She'll pay it.

Mulan kills the last huddled group of them all at once, within sight of the highest foothills. That makes it - sweeter, this thing that pleases the spirit and has started to please her. The Huns think they're close to getting away, the great city of the emperor no longer their target but instead their salvation; their despair is the sharper for it.

The final man dies alone, shivering, pleading raspily in a language Mulan doesn't know. He's thin: the Huns have been afraid to hunt, afraid to split up and wander away from each other in Mulan's mountains. Their fear felt good, too.

Mulan kills him kindly, Shan Yu's rippling sword going in through his eye and out the back of his head. Shan Yu's sword would have been too heavy for her before, but she likes the feel of it, so she's kept it. She doesn't clean it, but in the same way that her arms never grow weary, the sword never rusts.

As she's watching the man's remaining eye go dull, there's a shout - a wordless cry of surprise. Mulan turns to look, and there, down the slope in the snow, there's some tiny detachment of the emperor's army.

They owe her, she thinks, amused. There's maybe thirty or forty of them at most; she lost track of the Huns she's killed several days ago, but at last count there had been many times that number. These men would have died weeping in the pass.

Mulan has no idea what she looks like, but she knows it can't be anything these soldiers were expecting. She's still short and thin, no sign of the spirit's work in her flesh except the cold red lines that curl over her skin; she has Shan Yu's bloody sword in her hands and maybe half a dozen arrows in her side, the narrow man not the only Hun to carry a bow. Nothing can touch her, not the arrows or the sword-blades or the mountain wind, and her old clothes are half torn off her body. Modesty is the least of the rules she's broken.

But the Huns are dead.

Mulan smiles.

Long, long after the sudden end to the war, Li Shang and his men will tell the tale to anyone who asks: there is a woman, they all say, in the high mountains, with dragon eyes and a rippling sword and a sweet, sweet smile. Every man in that battalion is offered a substantial reward for what they must have done to save China, but not one of them ever takes it.

In a thousand years, no enemy of China ever tries to cross that mountain pass and lives.