It was dark, and smoke filled the air. We were running, the seven of us: my best friend Ran, a girl I didn’t know, all three of our mothers, and my older brother.
We could barely see where we were going, and not just because of the smoke and darkness. Tears filled my eyes, and choked sobs came from my left. I couldn’t tell whose they were. My mother gripped my hand tighter and pulled me along as I slowed. We ran, and ran, but eventually made it out of town.
We slowed, catching our breaths, and looked back. Hé Biān, the only home I’d ever known, was in flames. A green haze covered the eastern side, near the river that had given the town its name, and orange flames flickered across the rest. I could almost make out what was left of my house from here. I looked away. I didn’t want to see the aftermath of what had happened.
Ran was brave, the only one of us not openly weeping. She was always like that. Strong, not afraid of anything. It was reassuring. The other girl and I dried our tears just looking at her, and quickly got up as our mothers gestured for us to, quietly, get up and begin to move.
I stayed close to my brother, who made sure I was moving well enough to keep up. Like Ran, he seemed calm. His face completely blank as he looked back at the town, only shifting as he looked at me, a small smile creeping across his face as he took my hand this time and led me into the darkness.
Some corner of my mind noticed Ran’s lips quivering as we started to move, but it was discarded in the moment.
The terror I’d felt as all this began started to fade. We’d made it! And maybe everyone else had too. Everyone except…no, don’t think about it. I thought, as tears filled my eyes again.
We ran some more, for what must have been hours before we stopped to rest. All of us were too tired to move, but too afraid to sleep, so we huddled against a tree, holding each other, my mother and brother on either side of me. It was almost comforting enough to let me relax.
Eventually, we got up to move again. The sun would be up soon, and we needed to make it out of the forest before then.
We didn’t make it far before a shout came from behind. They found us! My heart began to beat faster, painfully crashing against my rib cage. I coughed, as if that would dispel the pain, but it didn’t help. The lights danced behind us, almost enticing, but I knew they hid…them. The creatures with the bug-like faces that walked like men. It was exactly like grandmother’s stories. Demons, monsters, creatures that came in the night to snatch children or lure travelers off the roads.
They must have gotten tired of living in the forest and came to take our homes for themselves. Some spread plague or spat fire from their hands. It was said many were strong enough to demolish a house with just a wave of their hands. What stories there were terrified everyone, villages wiped out to nearly the last person. I hadn’t been supposed to hear them, but I’d snuck out of bed as the adults were talking once and didn’t sleep well for weeks afterward. Maybe this was my punishment for being bad, like grandmother had always said would happen.
They shouted again in their strange tongue, if it even was a language, as guttural and wet as it was.
A flash of light, brighter than the ones bobbing in the darkness, appeared with the sound of thunder behind it, and I fell.
My brother and I rolled down a slope, and above I heard a scream from my mother. “No!”
She tried to run toward the lights, but was held back by the woman I didn’t know. She was dragged off, screaming the whole way, by her and Ran’s mother along with the other children. I tried to call out, let them know we were fine, but nothing came out but a croak. I tried to get up, but my head hurt and all the strength seemed to leave me, and my brother was holding me down. I was too tired…
“Xu! Fai!” Xu’s mom calls one last time, before mom and the other woman drag her off.
I follow in a daze. I can’t believe it. Xu can’t be…
I begin to sniffle as we run, almost breaking down in tears even as the things follow us. Be strong for your mother. Keep each other safe. The words return, with the lingering feeling of a strong hand ruffling my hair.
I can’t stop now. It’s hard, but I choke back my tears, gritting my teeth. The other girl sees me and tries to follow my lead but fails. She manages to keep running as we speed up, and the voices behind us get louder and closer until it almost feels like they could reach out and touch us. More of the killing thunder strikes out, tearing chunks out of trees around us.
My mom pants as she tries to quietly confer with the other moms. I overhear them, though I know I’m not supposed to. “We’ll…never lose them in the forest. We need to…head for the mountains.”
“The trees are the only…things keeping us alive right now!” the other woman replies. Xu’s mom is silent, for a moment.
“If we… buy the kids time they could make it… from the edge of the trees.” She croaks, voice cracking.
“That’s…there’s no guarantee it will even…” the other woman trails off.
“It’s the only chance they have.” My mom finishes. All three nod, slowly.
Louder my mom addresses me and the other girl.
“We’re heading for the mountains. We can hide there, and they can’t follow.”
The other girl looks up, face drawn, at her mother.
“When we reach the edge of the trees, run as fast as you can. Don’t slow down, don’t look back. Scream for help as loud as you can.”
I’m confused. The mountains are visible now, but I’d never heard of anyone living up there.
Even in the half-light, my mom can tell I’m confused. She manages to let out a little laugh.
“You’re always… so cute when your face scrunches up…like that.” She wheezes. “Just run, and scream. Don’t…think about it too much.” She says.
“I love you, Ran.” I hear at the same time the other girl’s mom tells her the same thing. Xu’s mom mutters something to herself, but I don’t catch it.
We reach the edge of the trees, the monsters on our heels and run. Out of the corner of my eye I feel my mom fall back and guess the other women do too. I try fight back tears again, but this time it doesn’t work.
“H-help!” I scream as I run toward the mountain, trying to block out the sounds of thunder and the wet laughter from the hunched, black bug things. I hear the other girl do the same next to me, or try. “H-“ she chokes, before simply crying “Mommy!”.
We continue screaming, not daring to look back for fear the things might be right behind us. In between our cries we hear their footsteps come closer, and an ominous scraping sound.
We scream, and run, until hope dies.
Then, a green flash illuminates the sky, just as the sun’s first true rays peek over the mountains.
In our shock we almost slow down. There was a temple there now, which wasn’t before. Steps wind up the mountain passes, barred by a gate that suddenly looms before us. Too afraid to slow down, we almost crash into it, before it opens.
Beyond stand three people, an old man with a long, flowing beard standing in the center flanked by a younger man and a woman.
The bug things slow and chatter to each other in their weird language, sounding confused. We run past them, to the staircase, and only then do we stumble and fall under our momentum, crashing to the ground hard enough to clack my teeth together.
In the few seconds it takes to get my breath and sit up, screams have started ringing out behind us, this time from the bug men. Not long after, the screams stop, and the gates crash shut with the three people still standing where they were when we first saw them. They move as one. Smoothly, like dancers.
“I-is mommy…” the other girl starts, before breaking off.
“Shh, sh, shhhhh. The woman says. “Try not to worry. You are safe now. They’re all gone, and won’t bother you anymore.”
“There’s another boy out there. My friend, Xu. And his…” I trail off as I remember the great gout of blood that shot out of his brother’s chest.
“Xu’s out there somewhere. He’s got to be okay.” I say, with more confidence than I feel.
“Rest now. Sleep…” the woman says, and my lids begin to close against my will…
I wake up with a pressure on my chest. At first, I think my cat, Mao, is sleeping on me again. “Get off!” I laugh and push at the pressure. Whatever it is barely moves. I blearily open my eyes. It’s difficult, with how gummy they are and how weirdly weak I feel. The first thing I see is my brother’s face, and I yell.
It’s not that weird for him to do stuff like this, to mess with me when I sleep in, and I nearly laugh again before I notice the blood, and take a look around myself for the first time.
I’m not in bed, I realize with a start, before the memories of last night rush back to me. Hiding from the monsters, father rushing off to fight them, running…tumbling down the hill with Fai.
I expect him to move as I shove him off, but he’s motionless, and cold. I look down and nearly throw up. The entire front of my body is sticky, coated in the same blood that soaks the front of Fai’s shirt. My breath catches and I sit there, quietly sobbing for a while.
Eventually, I come to my senses. I need to move; the things might still be around. I try to bring Fai with me, but he’s too heavy. I cry, tears soaking his still face and staring eyes, and leave him there.
At first, I wander aimlessly, too caught up in everything to think. I’m lost, and don’t know where to go. I panic for a while, before I hear it. The sound of the river, flowing strong.
If you ever get lost, follow the river and it will take you home.
My father’s advice fills my head. It was one of the first things he told me when I was old enough to play outside with the other children. He knew we’d wander, just like he and his brother had when they were little. And one day we might find ourselves facing the same problem his brother had when he’d never been seen again.
I find the river and follow it for a while, before stopping. What was the point? Hé Biān was gone, or at least it wouldn’t be safe to go back with the monsters there. I stand, aimless again. Then I start heading back the way I’d come, following the river backward. It was the only way I knew that wouldn’t let me end up back home by accident.
It wasn’t too long before I found myself stumbling out of the forest. My head was pounding by this point, and I’d had to stop several times as I got dizzy and needed to sit down.
I blinked as I looked up. I must be dreaming. There was something there, a gate. And a temple nestled into the mountain.
No one had ever mentioned something like this. But few people ever left town toward the mountains, either. Maybe it wasn’t real.
But it couldn’t hurt to ask for help.
“Hello?” I call, weakly at first. “Does anyone live here?”
There is no answer.
This time I gather up all my strength, take a deep breath, and shout. “Hello!?! Can anyone help me!?!”
It comes out frantic, and the exertion takes my knees out from under me, but the sound echoes over the mountains. I collapse, and nearly pass out again. It is several minutes before I get an answer, but I cry in relief as the gates open.
A tall, bearded man walks out.
“Your friends were right to believe in you, it seems.” He says, bending down to pick me up.
“You can rest now. It’s safe.”
“My friends? So Ran is…” I trail off, suddenly dizzy again.
“Don’t speak. It looks like you hit your head. You’re lucky you managed to walk even this distance in your condition. The girl believed you were miles away, but you’d never have made it that far.”
“Uh huh.” is all I manage. As the need to keep walking disappeared, my energy was rapidly draining. My consciousness starts to slip…
And the man lightly slaps me across the face. I startle awake again, though quickly begin to drift off once more.
He slaps me again, a little harder this time.
“Do not sleep. It’s dangerous with a head wound like that. You might not wake up again.”
“Okay…” I mumble, and then try to drift off.
“Keep talking. I am An. What’s your name?”
“Xu.” I mumble again, getting annoyed now.
“That’s a good name. Do you have any friends?”
“Ran. M’brother. Oth’r kids.” I manage, words slurring now.
“Ran is one of the girls that arrived ahead of you, right? You’re lucky. You get to live here with your friend, and make new ones.”
“Ah. Here. I have to leave you now, but Mistress Anya will take good care of you.”
He lays me down, which surprises me even in my fog. Those stairs looked so tall, but this feels like a bed.
They mutter something to each other, but I can’t hear it. I start to drift again, and my mind goes blank…
Again, I awaken, this time in the present. There is a brief moment of panic as I realize I could just be living through a memory my future self was reviewing, but it passes after a moment. There’s nothing I can do about that.
Just like there was nothing I could do in the past. It was always so vivid. As if I were there, feeling and thinking everything the exact same way I’d felt it the first time. I could barely keep a hold of my current identity, and only enough to note facts, details my conscious mind hadn’t found significant at the time.
What was different from my other forays was the…detour. That was Ran’s memory, I was sure. Filling in the gaps in my own recollections. That hadn’t happened when I could only reach back as far as our first days in the temple, so what had changed? Was it because we were all dreaming at once…but I hadn’t seen Chou’s memories. Or Thom’s, for that matter. Then again, I’d never been as close with her. Hadn’t even known who she was before everything, and Thom I had even less of a connection to, even if we were friends now.
Too much to think about right now. My mind feels full, swirling with too many thoughts. The monsters. My mind finally registers, latching onto something visceral. The stark terror in my chest remained the same. What were they? Where had they come from? Were they the threat the Sifu were afraid of sending us into?
I shake my head. Puzzles for another time. I’m famished, unusually for first thing in the morning.
Heading outside, I see why. It’s clearly not morning and is well into the afternoon, I realize with a shock. I haven’t overslept since…ever, in my memory.
I hear movement in the rooms on either side of mine, but nothing from Thom’s quarters. I knock, and when I get no answer, throw the door open.
He gasps awake, blankets twisted over his head and screams loudly into them, before throwing them off. He stares, eyes wide, as if he’s still asleep, before he comes to his senses. He stares at me, and then at the sun, fear slowly melting off his face as if the light is calming to him.
I stare back, surprised at many things, not least that much lack of control on his part. I’m not the only one surprised, as several children in the hallway turn and stare into the room.
“Why does he get to sleep in?” one of the youngest pouts, before being shooed along by his minder.
“Because he’s an older student. When you grow up, you’ll get privileges too.” She says, but throws a stern, disappointed look at Thom and I as they hurry along.
It’s not long before Ran and Chou come out to investigate and have their own reaction to how late it is. By that time Thom has mostly calmed himself. We all look disturbed, but try to hide it as we head to the dining hall.
Apparently, we don’t hide it well enough. Or perhaps word has gotten around about Thom’s lapse. Either way, not long after we sit down we are accosted by Sifu Ma.
“Come with me. It is clear your discipline has lapsed under the eye of Sifu An.” He says, exuding an aura of disgust at our late lunch. A shiver of fear runs down my spine. He soon speaks the words we’re all dreading.
“It’s rarely been done before, but there’s precedent for remedial exercises for a graduate class that lets their pride and entitlement overtake them.”
Food forgotten, we leave, accompanying Sifu Ma toward the Chamber of Mirrors.