Of Wizards and Monks

Xiaoxiao whinnied and Eryu Qishi-Ma patted her neck.

“Easy girl,” he said, stroking her, feeling her soft dappled grey hair on his palm. “Easy now. Not long to go now. Almost there.”

With his other hand, he tugged on the rope to pull the train of horses along behind him. They also whickered and tossed their heads; they did not like climbing in the shadow of the mountain, away from their beloved fields below.

“Come on!” he called to them, his voice soft and mellifluous. It would not do to spook them, after all. “Here, my beauties! Come on! Not far now!”

He clucked his tongue and made kissing noises to encourage them, and they slowly settled down and continued to clop along the narrow rocky trail. Boulders rose up on either side of the uneven path, like little mountains in themselves, dwarfed by the true giants surrounding them. The serpentine track wound through the mountains, following the path of least resistance like a meandering river, taking the gentlest inclines to the top. It was far from a fast route.

Eryu sighed as he contemplated the peaks above, black triangles cut into the clouds rolling across the blue sky, and then smiled crookedly as he turned to behold the plains below, cloaked in shadow thanks to the crags’ arrogance in dominating the east before the sun could fully rise. He could not help but smile; the plains had been his home for years now, and he would have it no other way. The grasslands stretched away below him as far as the eye could see, a swathe of green cracked by a slim stream and dotted with grazing horses. The stream appeared to him like a little blue ribbon, the horses like ants.

He watched the horses for a moment, his horses, the smile still tugging up his lips. He could just about make out his ranch, looking like a lone little white brick in the distance. His wife would be down there somewhere, perhaps training a calf or tending a mare or checking hooves for stones. His three daughters would be playing with one another or running around with the horses or annoying their mother. He hoped they would be alright until his return.

Turning back to face and continue to ascend the mountain was tough; it panged his heart to tear his gaze away from his ranch, but he had a job to do. The monks up on top of the mountain at Shri-Gwafa Monastery were expecting him to deliver the horses before dusk, and he intended to do so. Eryu clucked his tongue again and urged Xiaoxiao on. Leading four horses while riding a fifth was not easy at the best of times; trying to manoeuvre them all up a thin, tortuous trail was a task to stress even a master.

Eryu wasn’t sure he considered himself a master – he had only been rearing horses for about a decade after all – but he considered himself an adept at this particular path given that he had been climbing and descending it for as long as he could remember. He had lived either on top of or in the shadow of these mountains all his life; fifty-five years old and he had never travelled more than a few leagues in any one direction. The thought made him smile. He had everything he needed right here; his wife, his daughters, his friends, his horses, his home.

Whistling cheerfully, his mood suddenly lifted, he pressed on. He was looking forward to seeing the hermit monastery and its inhabitants again, despite missing his wife and children. The monks were his first family, after all. Like all those who lived at the monastery, Eryu had been left there by unknown parents shortly after birth and raised by the monks. He had been a monk himself for forty-four years, though no one would guess it looking at him now. He had foregone the shaved head and face when it had no longer been necessary, and now he wore a thin beard, little more than stubble, and his short grey locks waved in the wind.

He still favoured the colours of the monastery, though; for some reason, wearing anything but the ochre-orange of the Shri-Gwafa made his head ache. He supposed he had become used to the fabric and colour over his first forty-four years. Breaking out of that routine had been far from easy, and parts of it – like the need to wear a bright robe – still lingered in him. Still, overall, he was glad of his decision to leave now. The monks lived celibate lives; if he had stayed, he would never have been able to marry his wife, Mu-Zhu Bu Che, or sire his daughters, Niao, Ying and Lie-Huo. From the moment he had met Mu-Zhu he had known he would leave the monastery to marry her; she had made him laugh so much he had snorted water out of his nose. She still did.

He missed his brothers sometimes, though; those he had grown up with and known throughout his formative years. Thinking of them always put a smile on his crooked lips, just like the sight of his fields and ranch. He put names to the faces floating through his mind. Ramusan, who had always been complaining during their youth, had grown up to be one of the finest instructors at the monastery. Hao-Ma had been a devout student and unperturbable meditator in her youth; now, she spent her days foraging for supplies and medicines, never content to be at rest. Tun-Tsao had been a grumpy youth, the only monk ever to come close to a fist fight; now, he was at peace and rumoured to be a likely successor to the abbot.

Eryu’s smile widened as he recalled Abbot Puren. The old man had been like a father to him for as long as he could remember. He had scolded and disciplined and instructed Eryu in his youth, at which time the boy had not always found him of the most pleasant demeanour, and had become his closest friend in his adult years. Stern but kind, the wizened abbot always seemed as old as the hills, and yet every time Eryu visited the mountaintop he was still spry. His reputation as one of the wisest men in the world was well-founded; he had been Abbot of the Shri-Gwafa, one of only two remaining monasteries in Quing Tzu dedicated to the dead God of Wisdom, for thirty years now.

His predecessor, the Abbess Shai-Lin, had been like a mother to Eryu, but she had been watching death inch closer for months now and he feared what he would find when he asked after her at the monastery on this visit. The last time he had seen her, she had been shrunken and gaunt, her yellow skin stretched taut over her protruding skeleton; not at all the way he wanted to remember her. Thinking about her, he prayed to Wu Chang’yo for her; he had never kicked that habit, either.

Rounding a corner, he laid eyes on the monastery in the distance; an ancient, stepped structure, wider at the top than the base like a fan, carved into the saddle between two summits. Encrusting the left peak like black mould, its squared head humbly gazed up at the surrounding mountains, nested in their centre. He could just about make out the Ghuru-Mai as well, a simple twenty-foot structure out in front of the first set of steps leading to the monastery’s first tier; a decorative stone pole, undulating with curves and etched with ancient words of power and pictographs from Quing Tzu’s history that the monks used as a centre for their equinox celebrations, stringing it with banners and parading around it with the highest reverence while they sung their psalms. The Ghuru-Mai was said to have been built by the first abbot as a conduit to the Gods. Eryu remembered the occasions with fondness.

He scratched his big, bulbous nose for a second in perplexity. Something struck him as wrong about the scene; something he could not quite place a finger on until he realised that it was the smoke. There was too much of it, far too much … almost as though the monastery were aflame, he thought, his mouth suddenly dry.

He recalled then the riders he had heard pass him in the night. He had bivouacked down, eating, smoking baui and sleeping in a crevasse in the mountains that was well hidden, but which he – having lived here so long – knew well. In the depths of night, he had heard hoof beats thundering past as if the travellers were hounded by Demons. He had gathered that they had been headed up the mountain on the same track as he, but had been unable to guess at their numbers thanks to all the clatter.

He had thought it odd at the time, but had not attributed it to anything sinister, imagining that the riders might have been delivering urgent news to the monastery or that they had simply been foolish, galloping through the mountains at night where a horse could easily throw a shoe or hit uneven ground and buckle entirely. He had met enough fools in his life to think that a likely scenario. Now, however, as he watched white vapours pirouette up into the firmament from the monastery and his stomach churned like a bed of worms, he wondered if the midnight riders had not had a macabre purpose after all. His bushy eyebrows shot up in fright.

He had been on the verge of dismounting to allow Xiaoxiao to walk awhile without his weight, but instead he dug his heels into the dappled grey mare’s flanks, flung aside the reins of the other mounts and cried, “Hyah! Hyah! Onward, Xiaoxiao! Get me to the monastery!”

The sun was past its zenith, albeit hidden by pestilent clouds, by the time he arrived at Shri-Gwafa Monastery. His heart felt like it was cleaving at his ribs with an axe in an effort to escape it was pumping so hard. His stomach, previously worm-ridden, now fell away entirely. A chill spread through him from his core to his tips, as if his heart were radiating cold, and his fingers and face were numb. He licked his crooked lips, wondering surreally when they got so big. The chill completed its conquest of his body, and he began to shiver violently.

He slowed Xiaoxiao from her mad gallop to a numb walk when he was fifty yards from the Ghuru-Mai. He could see even at that distance that there was blood striping the great pole and bodies in orange tunics strewn by its base. He dismounted and ran over to the carcasses with a heartbroken cry of “Brothers! Sisters!”

Sundered by sword and spear, they lay in pools of their own blood side by side, their eyes glazed over in death, staring faraway into nothingness. Eryu fell to his knees, broke down and wept as he spoke the poetic epitaph over their bodies, oblivious to the world as sobs wracked his chest and tears burned hot tracks down his cheeks. Finally, though, the niggling voice warning him to be careful, to be vigilant, won out. He wiped his eyes, gasped in a few deep breaths and set to closing the eyes of the dead. Sobs still tore out of him from time to time as he touched the faces of those he had known for decades and loved like brothers and sisters.

As he passed each, he whispered their name and said, “Be one with the chi, my friend. Be at peace.”

This grisly task done, he gazed up at the temple from which, now that he was nearing coherency once more, he could hear shouts and screams emanating. The smoke spiralling up into the sky had thickened, and he could see that a good deal of the monastery was ablaze. He sprang up the narrow stone steps set between great basalt blocks with the hems of his knee-length orange tunic flapping. Xiaoxiao neighed and stamped, forgotten, behind him.

All he saw on that first level were more bodies, all clad in orange; too many for him to close all their eyes before he was noticed, he suspected, feeling needles in his heart. He moved swiftly on, ascending a carven staircase on the right of the large building where the monks wove clothes to sell to outsiders. Smoke and flame flickered out of the doorways of the house of looms, like Dragon tongues. Eryu pressed on, the sounds of commotion growing in his ears, the worms in his belly returning.

The low, black stone living quarters for the youngest monks on the second tier looked ready to collapse, wreathed entirely in arcane flames, just like the living quarters for the elder monks on the next level. On that third tier, Eryu heard a voice call out weakly and he hurried toward the source of the sound. He found an old bald man of Ishambrian descent that he knew well, a man whose white beard contrasted strongly with his dark complexion. His orange tunic was slashed open, as was his belly beneath. It looked to Eryu a little like a tomato had cracked and was gushing juices, but it smelled like a tomato gone rotten. The sight and scent made Eryu’s gorge rise, but he forced himself to lock eyes with his old friend, breathing through his mouth.

“Ghamran!” he exclaimed, his voice cracking. “Tell me, my old friend, what has happened here?”

“Wizards!” Ghamran spat blood on Eryu’s tunic with the word. “Poxy wizards … attacked us, Eryu! They came out of nowhere … blasting fire … and ice … They slaughtered the little ones … like sheep! Take … my staff! Help us … Eryu!”

“Wizards?” Eryu muttered, his brow furrowing. “Rest now, Ghamran. Rest easy, my friend. I will take care of it. They will not take the monastery while I live, I swear it!”

He took the simple, straight ash stave from the old man’s limp grasp and felt a thrill surge through his frame as the old, familiar power rushed through him from the crystals embedded in the wood. He had learned to sense chi without the crystals, but with the stave in hand he felt the energy tingling in all his veins him like rapids, frothing at the mouth, eager for action. He buzzed with the eldritch potential.

Ghamran closed his eyes and smiled slightly and wheezed. Eryu was not sure if he had died; regardless he moved on, feeling a weight of fear and anticipation settling on his chest like an anvil crushing him, making it hard to breathe. The tons of carved stone fanning out above him loomed over him like it was ready to bury him in rubble. As he rushed up a set of stone steps to the fourth level, he felt like he was in a nightmare, moving through molasses. Roars and shrieks from ahead urged him on; he feared he would be too late.

There were a score of small shrines on that tier; basalt statues under small shelters depicting the Gods, half-man, half-animal, half-stone, half-fire or half-water. All were spotted with bloodstains, surrounded by orange-clad corpses. These were more freshly-killed, still dripping with gore, still partly frozen or smouldering from the spells that had slain them. Eryu coughed, trying to clear the lump in his throat; the younger monks had barely had enough training to properly defend themselves against fully-trained Wizards. They hadn’t stood a chance.

On the fifth level towered the house of the masters, a mighty pagoda that had been sculpted into the cliff face with several tiers of wide, overhanging eaves beneath a pointed, tiled roof tipped by a metal finial; an undulating metal spire that served as a lightning rod, attracting the beneficence of the Skyfather. It too spouted flames from its doorways like a Dragon coughing and was encapsulated by a moat of blood in which floated face-down, murdered monks. This time, though, Eryu spotted a cadaver not clad in the ochre-orange of the Shri-Gwafa and hastened over to investigate, stepping carefully over the monks’ bodies but caring little when blood splashed his riding boots or breeches. His brain was a haze, hidden by the spray from the waterfall of overflowing emotion. He felt like he could hear the falls roaring in his ears and wondered numbly if he was going mad.

He flipped the body over with his toe and stared down into a bearded face, younger than he had expected. The dead man was pale and waterlogged, veins standing out on his skin like purple calligraphy. Eryu didn’t bother closing his eyes; he had no respect for this man. The man’s robes tugged at the horse-breeder’s imagination; oddly bright and intricately patterned, they were not the clothes of a rural Wizard. This man had come from an urban centre, where fashion was important, Eryu surmised; perhaps even from the provincial capital.

The ex-monk felt a snarl twisting his normally peaceful face as his considered the implications; as rogues were uncommon, the Wizards had not likely come of their own initiative. They had most likely been sent. And only one man had the power to command Wizards in the capital; the Shenzhan, the provincial governor himself. Eryu tried to imagine why the Shenzhan would want his brothers and sisters slain, but hit dead ends. Then, it struck him like a brick in the face that the Shenzhan did not want the monks killed particularly; he wanted what they had. This was a robbery.

“The library!” he practically whimpered, taking the stairs up to the sixth and final level at a run.

The top level of the monastery was devoted to the Temple of Wu Chang’yo, the God of Wisdom. In ages past, the first monks had asked themselves – how does one commemorate the God of Wisdom? The answer they had come up with was, in Eryu’s opinion, perfect. They had built him a library for a temple; one of the grandest libraries in Quing Tzu and indeed all the world. In this library were safely ensconced thousands upon thousands of books, tomes, documents, scrolls, memoirs, maps and all manner of bibliophile’s delights. Eryu adored the place; aside from the monks, the library was one of the main reasons he had never wanted to move away. He had read hundreds of books from that library and still only felt like he had scratched the surface, like scoring a shallow line in ice fifty-feet thick.

The knowledge, the wisdom, contained within those thousands of tomes was immeasurable, so when Eryu saw the building ablaze his heart near stopped.

Unlike the stylized pagoda, the temple, or library, was a squared, fortress-like structure with its main body embedded in the mountain and arms outstretched on either side as if to embrace, so that it had a basalt courtyard in the front surrounded on three sides. It was far larger than the pagoda, too, rearing high and wide like a mighty stone behemoth with bookshelves carved into the rock inside all the way up to the top. Simplistically sculpted and relatively unadorned, it nevertheless had a grand stone dome on top of the main body that served as an observatory, and rounded watchtowers on the wings, neither of which rose as high as the main body where it was built into the cliff face.

Stumbling up the last set of stone steps with his eyes fixed on the mammoth temple, Eryu observed with weeping eyes that it was flickering with flames at the base, but that the inferno had not yet spread to the library’s heights. The fire seemed to roar to life one second, only to be smothered the next, over and over. Eryu realised that there must be some monks left alive, battling the Wizards inside, trying to put out the flames every time their assailants set a new blaze.

Eryu knew what he had to do. He slowed to a purposeful walk as he neared the temple, closed his eyes for a moment and took a deep breath, letting out a silent prayer to Wu Chang’yo for his wife and daughters to forgive him for endangering himself and for some of the monks to survive this nightmare. When he opened his eyes again, he had assumed a whole new mind-set. Gone was Eryu the horse-breeder. Eryu the avenger, the ex-monk, was at hand, and his heart was broken to see his home so sullied.

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