To Win, To Lose
The spirit that had once been Emperor Sun Hai disintegrated with a blast of powerful, bone-rattling energy that sent an already battered and bleeding Wu the Lotus Blossom tumbling to the cold stones that created the floors of the Jade Empire's Palace's throne room. Her long black hair had long since fallen from its usual bindings, and hung in sweaty strands across a face that was smeared with grime and perspiration. A face that had been contorted with sadness and pain for so very long. It seemed so long since she had smiled, but in reality, it had just been a few moments since she had almost got that confession out of Sky...
She attempted to push herself to her feet, wincing at the pain from the bloody stab wound in her side. The emperor's crescent moon staff had left a long, deep puncture wound that was welling blood and dying Wu's plum colored silks crimson. She fingered the sensitive red area around the wound, but didn't dare to actually probe the true problem herself. She wanted someone skilled to do it, so she wouldn't bite off her tongue with the pain.
Gritting her teeth and clutching her throbbing side, she took a few tentative steps and judged herself capable of walking. She retrieved her blade, the Dragon Sword from where it lay amongst the ashes of the deceased emperor. The heart of the Water Dragon, a green diamond shaped jade stone, also lay amongst the remains.
Then she heard the sound of echoing, heavy footsteps on the many royal staircases behind her and she whirled around, thinking her fellows had awoken from their incapacitated state. It was true, her friends were slowly rising, Silk Fox was looking around in an awed fashion, as if she could not believe her father had struck her down. Dawn Star was standing over Sky who was coming to slower, for he had been closer to the emperor and had been thrown against one of the large marble columns during the energy blast.
Wu wanted nothing more than to run to him, to wrap him in her arms and feel his calloused hands close around her own. To laugh and flirt carelessly as they had done so many times to keep the evil at bay. His silver tongue wagging carelessly with his joking and flirtatious nature, making her giggle or blush or feel completely electrified. But the figure on the stairs that was making his way slowly towards her captured her attention above all else in the room.
"Master Li!" the joyous cry ripped itself from Wu's chest, and she ran to him as best she could, sobs tearing through her body. Here was her father figure. Here was the man who had saved her and raised her as his own. With him, she was safe. Home.
Wu stopped in front of him, resisting the urge to flop into his arms and sob as she had at the school as a child whenever Gao had bullied her. After all, he was Emperor now, Emperor Sun Li the Glorious Strategist. Her master. She bowed low, pressing her hands together and dropping her head in respect. He continued past her, yet she did not raise her head or leave her bow. He is the Emperor. she kept thinking. Each time she did, little jolts of adrenaline seemed to course through her body. She had helped put him on the throne. After all the evil this adventure had caused, at last they were finished. He would set things right.
He reached down and sifted away the ashes of his brother's corpse, retrieving the gleaming heart of the Water Dragon. He examined it carefully, then turned slowly to look at Wu with a face that was leaking pride. She rose from her bow as tears pressed at the corners of her eyes and smiled up at him.
"You have made me proud." he said, his voice laden with his gratitude. "Everything has gone as it should." Wu's swayed a little with her pain, but could not bring herself to worry about something so simple as a wound. Her master had returned!
"We came for you, Master." she said, breathing heavily. He smiled, not taking notice of her affection, intent upon studying the jade heart.
He looked up, his eyes narrowing. "It warms me to see that you have remembered the basics of what I taught." he said, looking her up and down. Wu's smile faltered slightly, for his voice had taken on a tone she had never heard in all twenty of her years with him.
He threw the heart high up into the air, and Wu gasped her gaze following its tumultuous path.
"Even the flaws," he cried, his hands shooting out towards his student. At first Wu couldn't even process the quick, stabbing pains. He jabbed her with light punches in vital areas, her sides--including the injured one causing her to scream in agony. A jab to the neck cut off her scream and caused her to gasp. The he pulled his arm back and dragged energy from the air as she had seen him do on the beach at Two Rivers. The energized blow hit her sternum, causing her ribcage to collapse with a sickening crack.
Sinking to her knees, Wu's eyes widened in pure shock and resounding horror before rolling upwards ever so slightly. A strangled gurgle escaped her parted lips and she collapsed to the ground. She lay there, unmoving, body spread eagle with one arm bent back behind her at an awkward angle, and her jaw slack with eyes that stared off into the nothingness that was death.
With a grimace, the new emperor kicked the body of his dead student down the wide staircase that lead to where her still rising companions watched with unbelieving eyes. Raising the Water Dragon's heart in a triumphant gesture, he started down the stairs ready to kill them all should they be willing to try to 'avenge' their friend.
Sky had only just stood when she fell. It was sickening to watch, yet he couldn't look away. She screamed in agony when he hit her side and chest, and then she fell and was no more.
"No!" screamed Silk Fox, her arm outstretched in a weak gesture. Dawn Star's eyes were wide with shock, and she covered her mouth with her hands. Sky only later realized in one of his many replays of that moment--Dawn Star had been stifling a scream.
Wu's body seemed to roll in slow motion down the stairs, her mouth lolling open and her usually warm brown eyes staring in shock at a master that had just brutally murdered her. The body came to a stop at Silk Fox's feet with a sickening crunch.
"Master Li!" screamed Dawn Star, sobs choking her words like constricting snakes. "Why?" it was wretched sounding, and Sky could barely make out anything as it was, so wrapped up was he in Wu's dead face, never to be happy, never to whisper those last words she had said to him again.
If you can't say it, I will. I love you, Sky.
"She was your student! And I am the princess! You will not get away with this! " yelled Silk Fox, taking off the silk veil she had kept over all of her face but her large brown eyes.
"And she was a very good student. A shame ,really, that she had to die for me to come to power, but no matter." replied Li, dusting off the jewel. He was so intimidating, even in the garb of a peasant, that Lian and Dawn Star took a step back.
"How could you say that!" wailed Dawn Star, tears streaming down her cheeks.
"Get out of here Dawn Star. I have no wish to kill the you or the others, but if you try to avenge her or help Lian reclaim the throne I will not hesitate." he said, waving a dismissive hand. "You have one day to disappear." and with that, he gave them a mocking bow and disappeared in a flash of blue light and pulsing energy.
Lian looked torn between what she should do, her long sword hanging uselessly at her side. She looked as if she wished to tear throughout the entire palace, searching for her uncle to cleave his head from his shoulders, but her shoulders sagged and she wilted, the Heavenly Lily slowly losing its petals until it stood bare and exposed to the harsh reality that was the real world.
Then Silk Fox returned and the Princess faded altogether.
"Whirlwind!" she snapped her face hardening into a mask of authority. "Grab the body." she said, her flawless facade only cracking when she glanced over at Wu's lifeless form huddled at the foot of the marble stair.
Throughout all of this Sky had fallen to his knees and was weekly staring at Wu. His insides were wrenching and it seemed his heart was pulling him one way and his mind another. He briefly heard the Princess call his name, then Dawn Star's soothing voice, but he answered neither, his tongue as heavy as lead in his mouth. How could they understand the grief that had forced him to his very knees? His everything lay huddled at the foot of the imperial stairs, her body slowly losing the warm glow of life and fading into the pale white sheen of death.
He heard a panicked cry from Silk Fox and then felt himself being tossed over the Black Whirlwind's stout shoulder, the smell of alcohol, metallic blood, and sweat a gruesome perfume coating the hairy man. He felt the big man's axes swinging in deathly arches and swipes. The rocking of the man's large and heavy strides. But all else was lost to him. She was gone. His Wu was gone. And her words, oh her sweet words, that would haunt him forever for the prospect they had dwindled before him on a thread made of glass. He would never again here those perfect words, or see her pale pink lips form those agonizingly sweet syllables again.
I love you, Sky.
The world was a muddy blur to the companions for the next week. It seemed to Dawn Star that Princess Sun Lian had died alongside Wu in the palace, and that the capable yet vindictive Silk Fox had completely taken over the body of the rightful ruler of the Jade Empire. She was moody and often lost her temper at the silliest things that before she would have smiled at behind her silken veil, behind which she thought to hide her true self. She snapped at Wild Flower for dropping firewood and made the young eight year-old sniff to keep back her tears at the black-clad woman's rebuke. Silk Fox had now abandoned the veil and let her angry gaze flow over all, hiding the grief Dawn Star knew touched every one of them.
Wild Flower once more seemed to be struggling with the demons inside her. Without Wu's presence, Ya Zhen seemed to be attempting to break through Chai Ka's protective walls. The girl would often gasp during a conversation and squeeze her eyes closed for a few moments before returning back to her normal self.
Hou seem discouraged, but he continued to cook and do the dishes, even if his body slumped over his pot or he sighed deeply whenever he thought no one was looking. Whirlwind was drinking nonstop. Dawn Star thought the loss of Wu had affected the old warrior more than he let on, because he often refused the offers to spar that Dawn Star proposed in hopes of raising his spirits.
Kang continued to tinker with his machines, revealing his feelings through his machinery, as per usual. Though he was often content just to sit and stare off into space. Yet unlike Sky, his staring held life and light.
Sky had not left his tent for days. They had been camping in a shady clearing in Lord Yun's recovering forest. He had been kind enough to accommodate them after all Wu had done for him, and was sympathetic upon hearing the news of her death. He often sent Spear Catches Leaf down with food or blankets for the friends to share.
Sky had not left the tent Wu's body had been placed at. Often at night he would stay up late at night, watching her still face by the red glow of the fire that filtered through the sheltering canvas of the tent. To his dismay, it remained still and lifeless, though no signs of decay ever made themselves clear. By now, her body should have begun to smell, or rot, but neither natural phenomena had occurred. It was torture. He almost wished he had been given a rotting stinking corpse so that it would be harder to tell himself she was only sleeping, that soon, she would wake up and clasp his calloused hands and whisper words of love and promises of a future into his willing ears.
They had wrapped the body in the plum silk shroud given to them by a generous Baker Bei and Seamstress Lan, who were only to eager to help with the burial of their savior who had protected their engagement from falling apart. They sent flowers and a handmade embroidered burial shroud that Lan had labored over for days. Wu lay peacefully in the corner, her glassy brown eyes covered in layers of silk and twine. She lay in there. The young woman that had caused his heart to pound like an Imperial War drum, his blood to boil, and his skin to flush with happiness whenever she complimented him or flirted with him on one of the many bridges that arched over the canals of the Imperial City, lanterns lighting up the night and reflecting their golden light over the crystalline waters and her silky black hair...
A hand landed on his shoulder, drawing him out of his day dream. His memories of what had once been.
"Sky?" asked a voice he had heard arguing for him for the past week as he moped in his tent. He looked up, tears seeping beneath his dark lashes. Dawn Star came and sat near him, her hand sliding to rest on his arm.
"I have had a vision." she said, eagerness creeping into her voice while her eyes remained on the floor. "I have been worried," she confided. "that the group would fall apart without Wu's leadership. But," she paused and bit her lip, wondering how to phrase what she knew she had to say. "The Water Dragon is keeping us together. Guiding us. She...she told me that we should go to Dirge." Dawn Star wished that Sky would react, that life would return to his features and he would smile and wag his silvery tongue at his companions once more, bringing happiness and light-heartedness back to the group. But it was not so.
"Why?" he asked, his voice quivering.
She sucked in a tentative breath, unsure what her information would do to him, what effect it would have.
"Something is holding Wu to this world, Sky. She is unable to rest. Even now she wanders their realm, going mad." This caused Sky's head to snap up. His eyes widened and pity for his love welled up in his warm brown gaze. Dawn Star looked away from his pained sadness, for she felt she was intruding on something private. She decided to continue talking.
"Wandering spirits are held here by something from their life. A wrong doing, such as with the drowned orphans in Old Tien's Landing, or love for someone such as the father of Aishi the Mournful Blade in the Imperial City." she paused, searching his face for a reaction to what she had said. She could see wheels turning in his head, but she was unsure what they were doing.
"I believe that Wu is held here by the power of the Water Dragon, but also something else. Two things in fact. One is the manner of her death. To you she died by her master's hand. To her, he was a father, a protector, a master, a friend. All of her life was a lie. I think that would have anchored her to the mortal world one way or another. But I also think that..." she didn't want to say it, didn't want him to hate her for it.
"I think you might be holding her here as well. Or rather, her love for you."