The attack had come in the small hours before dawn. It had happened so swiftly, so savagely, that the villagers could do nothing save seek shelter in the old temple. It was small and humble. But solid. Built of stone, rather than wood. It was the sturdiest building in the village. But that wasn’t saying much. Now the attackers hammered at the barred doors and walls of the temple unceasingly. The sound of their fists was like thunder. Wei closed his eyes, trying not to hear the screams that still echoed from outside. Not everyone had made it to the safety of the temple.
He looked around. Barely more than a dozen of them were here, all told. He could hear an infant wailing as its mother tried to soothe it. Nearby, someone was praying softly and intently. Wei touched the hilt of his sword. It hadn’t done him much good, not that he’d thought to use it until it was too late. He looked back at the doors. Through the gaps in the wood, he glimpsed the gleam of jade and shuddered. They made no sound save that which came from their bludgeoning fists. They did not speak or even cry out. From a distance, they’d looked like soldiers. But as they’d drawn closer, he’d realized that they weren’t men at all. Instead, they’d resembled pottery left too long in the kiln. Glistening chunks of jade sprouted from their heads and limbs in irregular patches, and they moved jerkily but swiftly. All too swiftly.
Wei did not know what to call them. They had come out of the forest as silently as ghosts and been over the palisade walls before the first alarm bell had run. They had killed the other guards. He had lived only because he had fled. These were not human foes of the sort he had once faced on the battlefield. These were something else. They were not alive. Not the way he understood life, at least. He thought of the jade clinging to them. Growing from the strange creatures like barnacles from the hull of a ship. Jade was meant to purify, to heal. That was what he had been taught as a boy. Everyone know it was so, and had been since time immemorial.
As a boy, when he’d been ill, his grandmother had placed a sliver of jade beneath his tongue, so that it might take the sickness from him. He couldn’t say whether it had worked or not, but he’d certainly felt better afterwards. But the jade that encrusted their attackers was different. It radiated sickness -foulness. The life it gave was twisted and malign. These things were proof of that.
“Do you smell that?” Min asked.
Wei looked down at his wife, crouched beside him in the dark. She was pale, her eyes wide with the same fear that held all of them.
“Smoke,” she clarified.
“Something is on fire. The village is on fire,” someone muttered – a farmer huddled as far from the temple doors as he could get. “The smoke will claim us before those things can.”
“It is mercy,” an old man said. He sat serenely nearby. Of them all, he was the only one who did not seem afraid. Then, he was blind and had been for as long as Wei could recall. Perhaps since he could not see them, he did not know enough to be afraid.
“Mercy?” a woman said, angrily. “Where is the mercy in this? Huddled here, waiting to either suffocate or be torn apart.”
“It is as the gods will,” the old man said. “We should pray for their forgiveness.” A murmur sped through the huddled villagers at this. Wei looked at Min.
“Prayers will do us no good, I fear. The gods are not listening.” He spoke more loudly than he’d intended, and felt all eyes on him. He fell silent.
“The gods are always listening,” the old man said reproachfully.
“Then where are they?” Min said, leaping to her husband’s defense. “Why do they not protect us?” Outside, their attackers seemed to grow frenzied at the sound of her anger and redoubled their efforts. Min lowered her voice to a whisper. “Where are they?”
From the frown on the old man’s face, Wei guessed he’d been wondering the same thing. Finally, the old man said, “This attack is because we have turned from them. We have no made our faith known. This is our punishment.”
“What is our crime?” Min said. “Not praying enough?”
He had no answer for that. The old man bowed his head and began to pray. Wei reached out and hugged Min to him.
“Right now, I’m more concerned with what those things are. I’ve never seen anything like them.”
“Maybe it is the sickness,” one of the villagers said. Wei frowned. The cursed jade spread like a disease, gleaming shards sprouting from the ground or even the flesh of beasts without rhyme or reason. It made the healthy sick, and the sick into monsters. Jade-infected beasts wandered the land. He’d seen it growing on men and women, young and old – glistening tumors that leeched the life from the afflicted. It had even spread to the water. It was no wonder the animals had taken sick, and that their fields were falling.
Some had claimed that the corrupted jade was a punishment sent by the gods. Others thought it was a curse upon the land, cast by some sorcerer or fell god. To Wei, it seemed as if the land were suffering from some sickness. A disease of some sort that spread to the air and the water, and soon to all who inhabited it.
“If the gods are silent, perhaps it is because they are afraid,” Min said softly, as the doors shuddered and groaned. “I know I am.” Wei didn’t reply. As a boy, he’d heard stories of the evil times before the gods came to rule, when the lands were overrun with monsters. When the world had been out of balance and a great demon rose up, its eyes set on Heaven. The pounding of fists increased in volume. The whole temple seemed to shudder as if it might crack apart and collapse at any moment. He wondered if that demon had come again. Perhaps that explained the absence of the gods – another war in heaven would surely concern them more than the suffering of a few peasants.
“When I was young, I was told stories about the great heroes of legends,” Wei said. “It was said that they arose when need was the greatest. Maybe they are on their way, even now.” He’d intended the words to be hopeful, but he felt a sudden flush of shame as he spoke. His cowardice had saved his life. He had run while others had died. Min looked at Wei, seemingly reading his thoughts.
“You did what you could,” she murmured. “If you had no run, we would bother be dead.”
“It was not enough,” he said softly. “I am – I was a soldier.” But the truth was, he hadn’t been a very good one. He was a farmer at heart, not a fighter. “I should have done more.”
“Should you have died then?” she hissed, glaring at him. “Should you have let them kill you, the way they killed the others?” He had no answer for her. He turned to the doors. The pounding continued. Unceasing. Unrelenting. They would not stop until they had what they wanted. But what did they want? Why had they attacked? Was this going on elsewhere, or only here? The thought chilled him. What if all of China was similarly affected? In his mind’s eye, he saw armies of clay warriors encrusted with jade, marching across the land, destroying everything in their path. Unconsciously, Wei’s hand tightened about the worn hilt of his sword. It made him feel no safer. A sword was nothing more than a tool – it was up to a person to wield it, for good or ill.
Min began to cough. She was not the only one. Smoke hung thick in the air. He could feel heat radiating from the stone walls. Soon, the temple would become an oven. They would be dead by then, of course. A mercy. Unless someone did something. He looked down at his sword. Once he’d been so proud to bear. When the call had come for every household to yield up their sons and fathers, Wei had gone gladly along with so many others. He had been proud to serve his country and his people. At least in the beginning.
War had soon lost its glamor. He had seen too many men die – and for what? Nothing seemed to change. When one war ended, another soon began. If the gods were watching, they did not seem to care. Maybe war was but entertainment for them. Blasphemous as the thought was, it made a grim sort of sense. Else why would they allow it? But this wasn’t war. This was something else. Something he didn’t understand.
It was as if the very substance of the world were under assault. A sickness that grew worse by the day, consuming more and more of the land. What would remain of the world in the end, if it was left unchecked? Only monsters, he suspected. Or worse, nothing at all.
“Listen,” Min coughed suddenly. “Listen!” Wei looked at her, and then back at the doors. The thudding of fists had ceased. Had they given up at last? Perhaps the fire had driven them back. He licked his lips, wondering if he had the courage to check. He looked at Min and she shook her head. He frowned. He swallowed his fear and rose.
“Wei – don’t,” Min said, reaching for him. He tries to smile.
“Someone has to,” he said. Carefully, he made his way towards the doors. He paused, listening. There was no sound at all save the crackle of flames. He glanced back at Min and the others. Then, one hand on his sword, he reached for the bar that held the doors closed. Just a quick look. But as he touched the bar, he heard the tell-tale crack of splintering wood, and saw the doors bulge inwards.
He heard Min shout his name, and felt the thunder of renewed blows against the temple. Even as he drew his sword, the first jade-marked fist punched through the doors and knocked the bar aside. Fingers hardened clay reach for him as he fell back. He slashed at the groping hand wildly.
“Help me – someone help me reinforce the doors!” Only Min came to his aid. The others merely screamed or tried to put as much distance between themselves and the doors as possible. Wei cursed and hacked at the swiping limbs. But his blade did little to hamper them.
One of the creatures forced its way through the gap, contorting itself to fit better. It glared blindly at him with carven eyes and a blank expression on its face. Its head swiveled and it fixed its gaze on Min, who was desperately trying to yank the bar back into place. It reached for her, and Wei shouted. He brought his blade down with all his strength, cracking the clay forearm. It whipped towards him and he struck at it again and again, until it fell back through the whole.
He heard the crash of the bar falling back into place as the creatures began to pound at the door once more. Min raced to his side and backed away from the shuddering doors. Despite the bar, they were beginning to buckle. Smoke boiled in through the gaps and clay limbs studded with jade tore at the wood. They would be through in moments.
“What do we do?” Min asked. Wei didn’t look at her. He didn’t want her to see the fear in his eyes.
“Pray for a hero.”