Captain Huma Irotomo stormed across Crab River with the rest of the Pianjumao army towards the gigantic statue of the Cloud Emperor carved into the gorge wall. The Cloud Emperor frowned down at the footsoldiers of the army as if in disapproval – as well he might, thought Huma, since they were there to hollow the statue-city of cultists and eliminate the pagan cult once and for all.
“For the Emperor!” cried General Tian Shayen in the vanguard, waving his naginata in the air so that it glinted in the dawn light eking mistily into the high-walled arroyo.
“For the Emperor!” Huma and the rest of the army echoed him, brandishing their own spears, glaives and naginata.
His leather boots soaked through and his feet and socks wet and cold, Huma splashed out of the shallow river with a roar to further his furore. Alongside a thousand others clad exactly as he was in a greened bronze laminar cuirass, greaves and pauldrons with a peaked, open-faced helm topped with a horsehair plume like a ponytail, Huma started tramping up the winding path leading to the base of the two-hundred-foot statue of the Cloud Emperor. The soldiers were forced into a tightly packed mass only a few abreast on the narrow beige stone road, unable to approach the statue from any other angle thanks to the rugged terrain. Sharp boulders stuck up on either side of the warriors as they slalomed their way forwards, and their formation lengthened into something like a snake.
When the sun peeked over the gorge walls, blinding anyone who dared glance up, the arrows came. Invisible in the sun’s glare, the arrows fell on the troops with only the slightest whine as warning. Huma managed to throw his round greened bronze shield up over his head just in time for an arrowhead to clang off it loudly. Another followed it, and another, in an erratic pitter-patter that made his arm ache.
“Keep moving!” General Shayen bellowed, his own shield raised.
Scores if not hundreds had been slain by the salvo, Huma reckoned, but the rest of the army hastened on, picking up their pace to take their revenge. Arrows hailed down on them sporadically after that, the statue’s defenders clearly trying to conserve ammunition. The sun was fully visible in the bright blue sky by the time they reached the foot of the statue and Huma stared up into the judgemental stone eyes of the bearded and moustached Cloud Emperor, sitting on his throne with his hands on his knees. Not for the first time, Huma wondered if he was doing the right thing. Who was he to deny a God? Emperor Bujing insisted there was no God but him now, however, and any who disagreed felt the Emperor’s executioner’s steely bite. More than one Shenzhan had been condemned to the chopping block for failing to alter their belief in the old Gods. A mere soldier, Huma knew he would have no chance of survival if he spoke out against the Emperor. It was said Bujing had spies everywhere.
Baying for blood, the soldiers ran up the winding road, following it up the statue’s right leg, across its midsection to its left thigh and on up across its torso in switchbacks, towards the sole entrance at its mouth. When they finally reached the plateau atop the left shoulder, however, panting and sweaty, they were confronted by an unflinching mass of men and women in red robes, all pointing spears at the intruders. Flanked by a two-hundred-foot fall on one side and a sheer cliff on the other, on a sloping plateau where the flat ground was only some five feet wide, the soldiers could only approach the army of cultists two abreast, while the flat ground widened nearer the statue’s head, allowing the cultists to stand five abreast. The soldiers stood no chance, Huma could see, and he watched from the path below the shoulder as soldier after soldier was knocked off the shoulder to fall, screaming, to his death hundreds of feet below at the bottom of the gorge.
General Shayen kept them at it for longer than Huma would have guessed, and all the while he had to defend himself from those shooting arrows out of the statue’s mouth with his shield. Eventually, after some two hundred men had been slain trying to take the shoulder at the cost of only a few of the defenders, General Shayen signalled and a horn sounded the retreat. Its tail between its legs, the army fled back down the meandering road all the way to the bottom of the statue, splashed back across the gorge and took the pass on up to Laomao town from whence they had come. Marching through the high-walled pass, the sinking sun and red rock turning the atmosphere ruddy, Huma brooded gloomily on their loss. There would be no celebration or reward tonight, he knew.
Laomao awaited them with its stone arms spread wide in consolation, a semi-circular town carved into the craggy orangish mountains with a wide, dusty plaza at its heart. Far from a hub of commerce, it was a quiet remote town that had, up until recently, been the epitome of tranquillity. Then had come Emperor Bujing and the regime shift. Now, the Shenzhan and the entire Pinajumao army had descended on the town like locusts, throwing the economy into disarray.
After seeing the soldiers to the barracks, a blocky beige building poking out from a cliffside, Huma followed his feet to his own home. As a Captain, he could afford a small peak-roofed house in town. Inside, barely any decorations or furniture interrupted the flow of space – just as Huma preferred it. The large windows were empty of glass in the hopes of catching any breeze that flitted past; the south of Quing Tzu, where Laomao was to be found, was infamous as a heat-blasted, cracked and withering desert. The only natural vegetation for leagues grew on the banks of the Crab River. Cleaned and dressed in a fresh tunic and leggings, Huma was perusing a treatise on Tzunese warfare by candlelight later that evening when a knock sounded at the door.
“General Shayen,” he said in greeting once he had opened the door, bowing. “Welcome. To what do I owe the honour of your presence?”
“At ease, Captain Huma,” said the general, marching through the threshold, stiff-backed and still in armour. He held his helmet under one arm. His hair was still predominantly black despite the fact that he had lived through more than fifty winters. He spun on his heel once inside to face Huma, who was two decades his junior. “I’ve come to make a request of you. I’ve been speaking to the Shenzhan, and we have come to the conclusion that a head-on assault on the cultists in their home is unfeasible.”
Huma barely held back a snort of derision. He could have saved them both some trouble and told them that days ago.
Instead, he said vaguely, “Mmhmm?”
“We need a different approach,” the general said gruffly, clasping his hands behind his back. “A more insidious one. The Shenzhan and I have decided we need a man on the inside.” He took a deep breath. “There’s no easy way to ask this, so I’ll just come right out with it, no beating around the bush. I don’t want to waste your time. I’ll just say it so that we can move on. Here we go. I’ll just come right out with it. Ahem. The Shenzhan and I would like you to be that inside man.” Huma gaped. “We would like you to infiltrate the cult, live with them for a short time and find a way to help our army take the statue.”
“Why me?” Huma blurted, flustered.
The general fixed him with a knowing look. “I know your mettle, Huma. You are fast, strong and supple, but more importantly you have a brain rattling around between your ears. You’re a quick-thinker, Huma, don’t try to deny it. You’re the man for this job. I just know it.”
Huma swallowed. “I – I don’t want to go, gen-”
General Shayen held up a hand to forestall him. “I know, I know, Huma. You’d rather remain with us, and I can’t say I blame you. Who’d want to go and join those abominable cultists in that Gods-forsaken statue of theirs? But somebody must go. And you are the most qualified for the job.”
Huma was silent a moment, knowing his next words toed the line of treason. Shayen had given him a free pass, though, by admitting his own paganism. “Can we not find a way to return to the status quo that the townsfolk had established with the wind-riders before our arrival? I have spoken to those who live here. They say that, before Bujing became Emperor and decreed himself the one and only God, they lived in harmony with the cultists. They used to trade food with them, so the wind-riders had no need to attack. Unlike now. Now, the townsfolk are too scared of the Emperor’s decree to trade with the cultists, and so the cultists have started to steal food. It seems simple to me – allow the trade to continue and no harm befalls anyone.”
The general frowned at him. “Those are dangerous words, Huma. You should be careful where you utter them. You know that’s not possible. It’s not our place. We are soldiers, Huma. We do as we’re told. And right now, we’ve been told to find a way to sack that statue and slay the pagans holed up inside. Every last one. The country is changing, Huma, so we might as well make sure we’re on the winning side. There’s no defying the Emperor. If we fail, he’ll send another thousand troops. Heck, another ten thousand if he has to. You know that. So, don’t go asking questions above your paygrade. Do your job and we can all get out of here back to somewhere with a little greenery, eh?”
Huma nodded with a sinking heart. “Yes, general. I’ll do it.”
The general grinned as he threw an arm around the captain’s shoulders, and Huma grimaced at the bitter aroma of the man’s sweaty armpit. “Atta boy! I knew I could count on you.”
Just a couple of days later, Huma was climbing up the statue once more at midday, this time treading the winding road at a sedate pace in simple moccasins, a light and welcome breeze billowing his green tunic and pale leggings. He was greeted at the top on the left shoulder by two spear-wielding guards.
“What is your business here?” one of them snapped, pointing his weapon at Huma and making the captain’s pulse quicken.
“I … am a wayward soul,” responded Huma, bowing, “come seeking asylum from the world. I seek only to serve the Cloud Emperor for all my remaining days. Would you grant me the solace I seek?”
The guard, clothed in red robes as were all cultists, eyed him suspiciously for a long moment.
Then, he straightened and stopped pointing his spear. “We’ll need to check you are unarmed. Then, you can head inside and ask for Mother Charmer.”
Huma nodded. “Mother Charmer. Thank you.”
Once the guards had patted him down and found no weapons – for he had none – Huma was allowed to pass and enter the statue of the Cloud Emperor’s mouth. He did so with more than a degree of trepidation, staring at the teeth above and below him with a gulp as he passed into cool shadow. He had never before been inside the statue. A basalt shrine in the shape of a sphere was the focal point of the low-ceilinged room, surrounded by wooden pews and wicker chairs in which sat a few folk, men and women both. The floor undulated, sculpted into the shape of a tongue. Huma asked a passing woman where he could find Mother Charmer and was directed three floors down to the Cloud Emperor’s heart. When he asked how he was to descend the levels, the woman gave him a funny look that softened as she took in his plain garb.
“Follow me,” she said, beckoning. “I’ll show you.”
He followed the skinny, middle-aged woman to a square hole in the stone floor, where multiple ladders leaned, offering a way down. Traversing the ladders, and two more like them, he found his way to the appropriate floor. This level was sectioned off into multiple areas by garish hangings. He once more asked for directions. A man led him to an old grey-haired woman in conversation with an old man with close-cropped white hair and a thin, friendly, stubbly face, who was smoking a simple wooden baui pipe.
“Gods watch,” Huma said as he approached the woman and bowed. “My name is Huma Irotomo. I’ve been sent to find Mother Charmer, because I wish to serve the Cloud Emperor.”
The woman inspected him like a horse at auction, her wrinkly golden face thoughtful. “Hmm, do you now? We shall see. We shall see.” She looked to the man. “What think you, Father Shomo?”
Father Shomo regarded Huma for a nerve-grating minute before tapping out the pipe, nodding slowly and speaking in a lackadaisical baritone. “Yes, he’ll do nicely, I reckon. If he can pass the test, of course.”
“Of course,” agreed the woman. Staring into Huma’s eyes, she asked, “Are you sure this is what you want, young man? To commit yourself to us?”
Huma nodded. “I am.”
“What makes you so sure?”
The question caught Huma off guard. He blinked. “I, erm … that is …” He let his shoulders slump. “There is nothing left for me out there. No friends, no family, no woman, no children. Nothing but a sword. And I’m tired of the sword.”
The woman narrowed her eyes at him, and he wondered if he had given too much away.
Then, she relaxed and even smiled a little. “I understand. Sometimes the youthful dreams of glory just … fade away as we age.”
Huma nodded, surprised to feel his eyes burn. “Yes.”
“Still, you must pass the test to become one of us,” Mother Charmer informed him. “If you are ready, Father Shomo can take you to it now.”
“Now?” Huma asked, surprised.
Were they ready for him? Had they known he was coming? Was this a trap?
Huma nodded slowly. “Very well. I am ready.”
Mother Charmer nodded. “Shomo, see to it, will you?”
Father Shomo nodded, put away the pipe and bestowed on Huma a slow, lazy smile. “With me, boyo. I’ll show you something grand.”
By use of ladders reaching up through squared stone holes throughout the statue, Father Shomo led Huma back up to the very top. He enlisted some help from a younger man on the way, who helped pass him a large cloth-and-wood kite up through the holes. Huma eyed the kite with some trepidation. As he climbed up to one of the uppermost floors, he was surprised to find an allotment, where a few herbs and vegetables grew in the sunlight pouring in. He guessed the cultists must have brought in earth from outside and seeded it. It wasn’t much, but it was innovative – and it reminded him of their desperation. Huma and Father Shomo eventually slid open a secret stone door with a few grunts of effort and emerged onto a narrow sandstone ledge between the statue’s nape and the cliff face and from there climbed a ladder to the top of its head. Huma almost slipped on the rounded edge but stood straight and firm once on the flatter middle. He gawked stupidly at the vista laid out before him.
“It’s breath-taking,” he whispered.
Father Shomo nodded, careful to keep the fabric of the kite flat against the rock with his foot to prevent the whistling wind from sweeping it away. “I know. I never tire of it.”
From the top of the statue’s head, Huma could gaze out over the gorge in all of its misty glory from a vantage point as high as any of the surrounding cliff walls. He could even see atop the cliffs to the sparse scrubland beyond in places. He could see down the pass all the way to Laomao, a lumpy mass in the distance like curdled milk coating the cliff. Crab River was but a small blue ribbon glimmering in the afternoon sun far beneath him, but even from that distance he could hear its perpetual swish and roar, if only faintly.
“Thank you for this,” he said earnestly, “but what are we doing up here?”
Father Shomo raised an eyebrow. “You want to be one of us, don’t you?”
Father Shomo tapped a wicker sandal on the kite. “Only those completely devoted to the Cloud Emperor may live with us here, Huma. To prove your devotion, you must put yourself entirely in the God’s hands. You must submit to his will. You must fly like the birds in the sky, with only the wind and the God’s will between you and a terrible fall.” He studied Huma’s distraught expression. “If you are not prepared to do this, we understand and you may leave whenever you are ready.”
“Fly?” Huma repeated numbly, mind awhir. “Is that thing strong enough to support my weight?”
“Oh yes,” replied Shomo, flexing one length of wood. “Definitely. I myself have flown a kite many times.”
“But where would I land?”
“Wherever the God takes you.”
“And then I bring the kite back here?”
“How does it work?”
“Very simply. We strap you on here, you launch yourself off the head and …” He waved.
“Away you go.”
Huma could not think of a way out, and – if he was honest with himself – a boyish delight was building up inside at the thought of soaring through the sky like an eagle.
He nodded. “I’d kick myself for turning down such an opportunity.”
He allowed Father Shomo to strap him to the kite with lengths of hemp rope, flat on his back.
Shomo then pulled him to his feet, saying, “The wind’ll take you any second now. Don’t fight it. Just let it take you!”
One more thought crossed Huma’s mind then. “What if it blows me into a cliff?”
“Then, you’ll die!”
Huma suddenly had more questions, but a gust came whipping up the gorge and bore him aloft.
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