With a shout, the rider urged her steed over the remnants of the broken gate. As the horse’s hooves slammed down onto the hard-packed earth on the other side of the wall, Hua Mulan leaned forward, sending her spear into the clay skull of the first of the creatures. She jerked the weapon loose as the body crumbled, and swept it out in a scything arc to meet the rest of the unliving warriors. They cracked like pots, shattering into jagged shards.
Her arm jolted with the force of the blow, and she whispered a prayer of thanks for her father’s training. Without it, she would have neither the strength nor the skill to attempt such a feat. She urged her horse forward, but the animal shied back as flames roared up. The village was on fire, and she could hear the screams of those trapped in the small temple whose roof she could see over the top of the surrounding buildings.
Her horse bucked, turning in a panicked circle. It was not a war-horse, though it had done well up until now. She slid from the saddle, just as more of clay warriors loped through the flames towards her, their forms glowing red from the heat. She hurled her spear at the closest of them, knocking it sprawling.
The rest closed in, and she snatched her bow from where it hung on her saddle, nocked an arrow and loosed it. Three more followed, quick as thought. The arrows punched through clay skulls with hard-earned accuracy. She slapped the horse on its flank, sending the animal fleeing to safety as a fifth warrior lunged for her, its curved blade raised for a killing blow. She leapt aside, drawing an arrow from the quiver at her side.
The clay warrior turned, following her, and she stabbed the arrow into its head as hard as she could. For a moment, she thought the blow had been in vain. Then it tottered and fell. Panting slightly, she turned to see the one she’d impaled with her spear rising unsteadily to its feet. It tore the weapon loose from its crumbling midsection and thrust it at her. She drew her sword just in time, blocking the blow. Before the creature could recover, she decapitated it. It collapsed in on itself, and she retrieved her spear from its remains.
A shout went up from the men and women who’d followed her into the village. Her army, such as it was, was small – some twenty people in all. It consisted of every able-bodied man and woman she could gather from her own village, and those close by. Those who were willing to follow her, and more importantly, willing to fight. Some few bore blades or spears, but the rest were armed only with farming implements.
But she was a soldier. And these things, whatever they looked like, were not. Though they bore weapons, they fought without a shred of tactical or strategic acumen. They sought only to kill, to destroy, with no thought of self-preservation. So far, she’d managed to out-think them. Her followers corralled them, came at them one at a time where possible. One on one, the jade-infected automatons were a match for any villager. But put them up against two, or three, and their advantage dwindled. Especially if her people stayed out of their enemy’s reach, as she’d taught them over these last few, hard days.
“Form up,” Hua Mulan said, silencing the cheers with a gesture. “They will regroup and come for us. We must be ready.” They obeyed without question. Their loyalty had been hard-won over the past few days, and now verged on something uncomfortably close to worship. She shied away from the thought. She was just like them, trying to survive in a world that had suddenly turned impossibly hostile.
She had never believed in monsters, or magic. That the gods existed was a given, but she had never seen one that she knew of. They held themselves remote from the world, which was only as it should be. It was for mortals to decide their own destiny, even as she had chosen hers. But if ever there had been a time for the gods to intervene, it was now. The land writhed in torment, riven by cancerous strands of malign jade. No one knew where it had come from, only that it was deadly. It caused sickness and made monsters.
Mulan had seen evidence of its fell power first-hand, in her own village. Her own home had come under attack by clay warriors like the ones she had just dispatched. The attack had convinced her that the surrounding villages might need help. So she had gathered as many as could be spared from every village in the area – men and women both. The old traditions did not matter so much, in the face of such evil. Anyone who could wield a weapon, improvised or otherwise, was welcome in her army. Together, they had fought the enemy wherever they appeared, driving them back and ensuring the safety of the people. So far, her ragtag group seemed to be the only organized resistance in this region.
She sheathed her sword, and then readied another arrow. She paused, listening. All she heard was the crackle of the flames and the creak of broken wood. The village was only the latest to suffer such an attack. It seemed to her as if all of China were once again under attack – only these foes were not men, but something else. Something other.
The thought chilled her to the marrow. What could she – or anyone – do against such horrors as those she had seen in the past days? She glanced down at the broken shards of what had once been a face, and felt her skin crawl. The clay eyes moved, following her. There was still life there, though its body was broken into pieces. She tore her gaze away from the fragments and said nothing.
Her people’s courage balanced on a knife edge – she had led them to victory up until now. But only small victories, over handfuls of unliving opponents. This village was bigger than most, and the force that had attacked it was likely larger as well. Not just a five or six clay monstrosities, but a dozen or more.
Something told her that she was getting close – to what, she could not say. But there was a feeling in her gut; as if she were approaching the enemy camp. As if she could see the smoke of their fires on the horizon. Something was close, maybe an answer, or maybe just a larger battle. Either way, she would meet it head on. Not for herself, but for those who followed her. Who looked to her for leadership.
Smoke boiled through the air, stinging her eyes. A chorus of coughing rose from her followers, as they bound their mouths and noses with wet rags to help them breath. The smell reminded her of other battlefields. Overhead, carrion birds circled. Jade shimmered among their feathers and her uneasiness grew.
The land was dying. She could feel it. If only there was some cure, some magic that might banish the affliction. But what did she know of such things? She tightened her grip on her bow, and tried to focus on the matter at hand. She knew how to fight, how to lead – this was her duty now. She had fought to defend China once, she would do so again. She had not sought command, but she had the responsibility now nonetheless.
She glanced back at those who followed her. Men and women, old and young alike, united. Some returned her gaze, and nodded or tried to smile. She turned away. She would not fail them. Not while there was breath left in her body.
The temple came into sight. She stopped, eyes wide. The creatures covered the small structure like a heaving shroud. They tore at it with their hands and weapons, as if intent on smashing the building to flinders. She could hear screams from within. In moments, they would be inside.
On the steps of the temple, several creatures stood back from the destruction. These turned as Mulan stepped into the open, and raised bows. Archers – they had archers, now?
She whirled. “Take cover!”
Arrows hissed through the smoke, and men were knocked from their feet, dead or dying. Mulan snatched an arrow from her own quiver and sent it whistling in return. But she was one, and they were many. Arrows thudded into the ground and buildings around her as her followers sought cover. She stayed where she was, braving the storm so as to give them time. She drew and loosed, sacrificing accuracy for speed.
As the archers continued their volley, two clay swordsmen raced towards her. She was forced to cast her bow aside and draw her sword as they reached her. She parried the first blow and responded in kind. They traded blade-strokes as the second creature circled them, waiting for its chance to strike. As she fought, she tried to catch a glimpse of the temple. It would not last much longer. Sturdy as it appeared, the creatures were ripping great divots from the walls. Her followers were still huddled, enduring the rain of arrows. She was the only one in position to reach the temple.
Her opponent mistimed a strike and she slid beneath its guard, instinctively ramming her blade into the spot where its heart should have been. But there was no heart to pierce, no blood to spill. It took her only a split-second to recover, rip her blade free and behead the creature. Without pause, she turned and parried the stroke of the second, before whipping her blade through its midsection. Fragments spattered her armor as she stepped back. Arrows snaked towards her and she cut them from the air, moving faster than she had ever moved before, knowing that if she slowed – if she hesitated – she would die, and the others with her.
They were counting on her. She would not fail.
She raced towards the temple steps, slicing arrows from the air. Drawing the aim of the clay archers away from her followers. Behind her, she heard a shout, and knew her people had understood. They pounded forward in her wake, chanting her name as a battle-cry. The sound crested like a wave, carrying her up the steps. One archer fell to her blade, and then another. As the last of the archers fell, the closest of the inhuman warriors turned away from their assault on the temple, to face this new threat.
As one, they swept to meet her. She swung her sword until her arms ached and her shoulders burned with fatigue. Fragments of clay and jade littered the steps of the temple in her wake. The sound of her own name echoed in her ears, chanted by her companions. They drew strength from her and she from them.
She felt that new strength flood her limbs as she split an opponent in two. It was as if with her people behind her, there was little she could not do. The pieces of another attacker fell away and she heard an audible gasp. One of her followers stumbled back from her, eyes wide. Others did the same. For a moment, she thought she’d been injured. She looked down at herself and saw a strange radiance suffusing her form. Not the sickly light of the jade – but something clean and wholesome. A clear light, a warm light. It filled her and covered her and she felt no fear of it. She turned back to the temple.
The last of the monsters hesitated, their mask-like features twisting with what might have been fear. But the moment passed quickly, and they came at her in a rush. She met them with no hesitation, her sword carving trails of light through the smoky air.
In moments, it was done. The remains of the last of the clay warriors crunched beneath her feet as she approached the broken doors of the temple. “You can come out,” she said. “You are safe now.” She stepped through, and felt a rush of…something. A warmth unlike any she had ever known. The shadows of the temple were driven back by the strange light that limned her form, revealing the villagers.
They were kneeling in a circle, their heads bowed, voices joined in a communal intonation. She made to speak again, but fell silent as she realized that they were praying. But their entreaties were not to any god or devil. Instead it was her name that they whispered. Suddenly uncertain, she stepped back and turned to leave.
Outside, those who had followed her into the village were kneeling as well. They looked up at her with adoration – and perhaps fear. She looked at her hands. The light was fading now, but she could feel it inside her. Waiting.
Hua Mulan looked up, and saw a newborn seed of light shimmering in the heart of every man and woman kneeling before her. Radiant threads connected her to each of them. Nor were these strands the only ones – more of them stretched away and out past the walls of the village, connecting her to others who were not here. She knew, without knowing how, that only she could see these strands of hope – of faith. But what she did not know was why.
“What is this?” she murmured, half-afraid someone might answer. She sheathed her sword, and tried to still the trembling in her hands.
“What have I become?”