Continuing Readers: Back to Zhang and life in the prison.
The days passed with little change as we awaited the sentencing. Each day we rose at the crack of dawn rudely awakened by the noise of insults shouted by the prison guards and to acknowledge our names on the roll call list. If one of us were slow to answer, the disobedience was immediately met with a smack from the warden’s bamboo rod. Next we were allowed cell by cell to use the privy. There was little privacy for the women, only a thin rice paper screen. Often we women were ogled and jeered at by the guards, so I learned quickly not to waste time. Our daily rations were tasteless; consisting of watered down rice porridge, a stale mantou and a small cup of water.
There was little to do in confinement. When I attempted to do some stretches to pass the time, the guard rattled the cell door and threatened to send me into solitary confinement if I were to continue doing any “suspicious activity” that would destroy the cell. I wanted to roll my eyes but obediently sat on the floor wordlessly. When he finally left but not without staring lewdly at me and Shen-xiaojie, I heard the other occupants whispering amongst themselves, most likely amused by what had occurred. I paid them no mind.
A curious event happened one day. A couple of monks from the city’s sect came with freshly made buns to distribute to the prisoners. The depressing atmosphere in the prison seemed to brighten with the sight of the monastic robes and enormous baskets that came down the hallway. A guard led the way, while another followed a few paces behind the monks to ensure their safety. The prisoners crowded at the doors, holding out their hands through the bars and begging to be served first. Shen-xiaojie and I looked at each other. I had told her that I knew some monks from my travels, but were they people that I knew? I joined the other occupants of our cell and waited for the monks.
The small procession reached our cell. The smiling monk closest to our cell handed out buns to us in order and murmured a blessing for each of us. I was last. As he gave me a bun, he murmured a blessing, for which I thanked him. For a brief moment, his kindly eyes lingered on me and then he turned away, continuing the trek. I watched them go, while the others ate their buns greedily. Then, I quietly savored my bun, a small joy in this misery.
I awoke to the sounds of shouting. “How dare you wake me at this hour! It’s not even dawn yet!” “What? More prisoners?” The shadows flickered on the wall.
“Stop that wailing, girl!”
My eyes were bleary with sleep as I tried to make out what was happening. I raised a finger to my lips when I saw that Shen-xiaojie was awake as well. The flame from the torch came closer. I saw the occupants of the cell from across the hallway stirring in their sleep, as we watched the night warden, two guards with two captives and a torch bearer come down the hall. As they came closer, I tried to catch a glimpse of the captives, but the warden’s shadow suddenly fell over us as he fumbled for his keys to open the door to our cell. The door fell open. One of the captives was roughly pushed into our cell. Instinctively, I reached out to catch the newcomer, who shivered in my arms. I looked up coolly and met the eyes of the guard who, to my surprise, winked and gestured to the newcomer. I blinked in confusion at his manner. Then, schooling his features, he turned on his heel and headed out of the cell. The cell door banged shut. The other captive was taken further down the hall to another cell.
As the light from the torch passed from view, I glanced down at the newcomer. My eyes widened in surprise.
It was Wei! Oh, poor Wei! I hugged her tightly. Then, I took in her bedraggled appearance; she wore a slave woman’s clothing and had minor scratches here and there. “The slave market,” she whispered as if reading my thoughts. Of course, she would not have been released easily like the others. There was shifting in the background as one of the occupants moved in their sleep.
“Is she someone that you know?” Shen-xiaojie whispered to me. I had nearly forgotten that she was there. I nodded in response to her, and then I reached for both Wei’s and Shen-xiaojie’s hands. To avoid having the others eavesdrop, we would have to communicate by writing on each other’s palms. There would be a lot to tell in the few hours before dawn.
Wei only knew some basic characters, so I pieced together her narrative and wrote direct questions for clarification. Simultaneously, I had to translate Wei’s responses for Shen-xiaojie. In summary, everyone was alright. An was the other female captive that was brought in with Wei. I was surprised to learn that Wei and the others had met up with Chun’s group and even agreed to work together to bring down the Chengxiang. An and Ganzorig had found allies in the city and convinced them to infiltrate the guards. The monks were allies of Fuxin and Yijian-fashi sent to scout the jail. When asked about the time for the jailbreak, Wei wrote the character for ‘night.’ I assumed that there would be a distraction, probably ‘fire’ according to Wei. That is if everything went according to plan.
The others? I wrote on Wei’s palm.
Two groups. Find person. Find door.
I thought quickly. The door most likely referred to the demon portal. I wrote: Who?
Little sister. Chun.
The image of the girl who accompanied Chun during our first meeting rose in my mind. Just as I wanted to ask Wei the reason that they were looking for Chun’s little sister, the morning ritual at the jail began anew.
Throughout the rest of the day, it took discipline to control that feeling of anticipation. I could tell the other occupants in the cell were eyeing Wei with suspicion and wanted to intimidate her. Between Shen-xiaojie and me, we kept a close watch on their movements. Day gradually became evening. There was an unusual flurry of activity among the guards. I glanced at Wei, but she made no reaction. The warden hollered something and there followed pounding and more shouting from outside. And then the smell of burning wood permeated the air. Wei whispered, “It’s about to begin.”
Chaos. Fearful prisoners roused and screamed for help. Guards, a mix of our allies and actual guards, began opening up the cells. What followed was a stampede as people fought to get out first. I clutched onto both Wei and Shen-xiaojie as we awaited our turn. Finally the door swung open. From behind, the other occupants jostled and pushed us aside to escape. Shen-xiaojie fell. Wei and I helped her up. “Are you alright?” I asked. She nodded and gingerly rose to her feet.
“Hui-jie! We can’t stay here!” Wei urged, dragging us into the hallway. “We have to go.” Judging from the empty cells, most of the prisoners had gone except for those who were too weak to move. I felt my heart torn as I considered trying to help them or to escape with my friends. Wei grabbed me by the shoulders, forcing me to look at her. She shook her head to dissuade me; she knew what I had been thinking.
“Alright, let’s go,” I finally agreed.
“Wait… where are the others? I did not see them pass by!” Shen-xiaojie asked. Her face was white with worry. A guard came running up to us then.
“Hurry! Don’t stay here! It’s going to collapse soon!” he called as he grabbed Shen-xiaojie Yang’s arm.
“What about our parents! My brother!” She shrieked, trying to get him to stop.
“They’re coming! Don’t worry, xiaojie!”
Wei pulled my arm urgently. I looked behind us as we ran, hoping to see some familiar figures, but smoke flooded in. In the haze, I saw a group of shadowy figures heading this way. My heart leapt at the sight: An was leading my mother and Shen-furen. My father and Shen-shaoye came last.
We barely made it into the courtyard. The flames shot up just as my father and Shen-shaoye leapt through the exit, burning whatever else that was trapped inside. I fell heavily to the ground as I tried to shield myself from the debris that crashed to the ground.
“Are you alright, Hui-jie?” Wei asked in concern.
I coughed but managed to say, “I’m fine. Yourself?”
She nodded. I struggled to my feet. The last few captives were being guided through a hole in the wall to safety by our allies. The rioters were still protesting from the sounds of it. The real prison guards and the warden were knocked unconscious to prevent them from getting help. However, it would not be before long until the imperial army arrived if things kept up. We had to hurry. But for now… my parents! I observed that Shen-xiaojie was in a tearful reunion with her brother and mother as I ran past. I called out for my parents, and they turned to me in surprise; their eyes became watery with sudden emotion. Just as I reached them, a blur of black materialized before me. Someone screamed.
I nearly careened into him and ducked in time as he lashed out at me. Following the momentum, I rolled to the side a safe distance away from him and the burning jail—awaiting to counter his next move. I gritted my teeth and realized belatedly that we were surrounded. It was the Imperial Owls!
An was engaged in holding off a black-masked assailant from my parents in the far right corner of the courtyard. The guard who previously helped us fought alongside Shen against two assailants. Wei, I saw, had drawn out her blades (I did not know how she managed to smuggle them in) to protect Shen-shaoye’s sister and mother. That left me and… Black Owl. How could I ever forget what he did to my sister, to Eagle Peak Monastery, and to countless others? It all came flooding back.
“It’s over, Zhang Huizhong!” he gloated. “There is nobody here to rescue you and your friends. Everyone that you love will perish, and this kingdom will be ruled by the undefeatable Chengxiang!” He let out a maniacal laugh.
I gritted my teeth in frustration. How could we get out of this? Our escape was effectively cut off. If only I had something to defend myself with. I inched toward one of the fallen guards while keeping my eyes on him. “I wouldn’t do that if I were you,” a quiet voice said suddenly in my ear. I flinched and tried to elbow the presence behind me, but he caught my arm and twisted. I cried out in pain and attempted a kick at him, but he knocked me to my knees. I felt a cold blade graze against my throat and my wrists held behind me. I hissed in pain, but stopped struggling.
“It’s futile to struggle, girl.” Black Owl knelt before me and roughly gripped my chin in his hand. I glared at him indignantly.
“You… monster!” I spat at him. He did not even flinch, but instead smiled so cruelly. The dark shadows cast by the burning fire made his countenance seem more sinister than usual. I suppressed an urge to shiver.
He leaned close to my face. I nearly gagged at the stench of death that clung to him as he spoke, “You have spirit, girl. This will make killing you all the more enjoyable and pleasurable especially so since we have a wonderful audience here!” He licked his lips and released his grip.
Suddenly to the assailant holding me, he ordered, “Kill her!”
The blade was raised. In the horrifying seconds that followed, I heard both Shen-shaoye and Wei call my name. Time seemed to slow as the blade inched closer and closer. Closing my eyes, I braced myself for the blow. Dear sister, I have failed. Forgive me.
The sound of metal shattering resounded in the air followed by exclamations of surprise. I opened my eyes. The assailant behind me inadvertently loosened his grip as he stared at his now empty hand. Black Owl’s eyes flashed furiously as he stood up. “Who dares challenge me?” he roared as he scanned the surrounding buildings intently.
What just happened? The blades of his allies had shattered, but those of mine were spared. There was movement in one of the shadowy walkways as a lone figure made a sudden movement as though he planned to attack Black Owl from behind. However, Black Owl caught sight of the figure and sent a burst of qi energy in that direction. The figure dodged and ran. Black Owl fired a few more qi energy bursts. One of them hit a pillar and the roof of that part of the walkway collapsed, forcing the figure to leave the safety of the walkway and into the courtyard a few feet from us. Before the figure had time to react, Black Owl drove a fist into the figure’s stomach, forcing him to his knees.
Black Owl grinned with sadistic pleasure as he prodded the figure with his foot. “Well, well, if it isn’t Li Tiexin, the coward!” Black Owl sneered, towering over the figure. “Are you here to ruin my fun?”
The figure did not answer.
“Well, coward. Stop stalling. Answer my question!” Black Owl snarled and grabbed the figure by the front of his robes, pulling him to his feet. From my angle, I saw that the struggling figure had a white owl mask. It was him— the Metal Breaker—I realized with a shock. The assailant behind me was transfixed by the exchange as well.
I held my breath, as I watched Tiexin’s body relax and very calmly, he answered, “Yes. The party is over.”
Then, he ripped his owl mask from his face and threw it at Black Owl, breaking free from his grip. In the span of a few heartbeats, Tiexin bowled into Black Owl and threw him off balance. In the same moment, I jerked my wrists free from my distracted captor, causing him to stumble. I grabbed some debris and knocked him out.
I hurried over to one of the fallen guards and picked up a sword. I surveyed the scene around me. Wei, Shen-shaoye, and the guard had overpowered the two assailants and were tying them up. An was fine as well, naturally dispatching the unarmed guards within minutes. Suddenly, Tiexin cried out, for Black Owl had trapped his legs, preventing him from escaping. I ran forward, slashing at Black Owl’s unprotected side. Black Owl retreated. I stepped in front of Tiexin as he breathed raggedly and got to his feet. “Thank you.” I thought I heard him say.
I turned to regard his young countenance for a moment and then nodded. “Let us stand together and take down this foe.” The young man nodded grimly and joined me.
Together we attacked. With every opening Tiexin gave me, I slashed at Black Owl’s unprotected side. When he tried to escape with qinggong, we both grabbed him by his feet and pulled him down. At last, Tiexin managed to pin him to the ground despite Black Owl’s attempts to flee. I held the blade against his throat—the same way he had done to me at Eagle Peak. The others gathered around at a safe distance, watching.
“Give it up. Your allies have been captured or eliminated. You, Black Owl, will have to answer for your crimes!” I pressed the blade closer to his throat.
Instead of fearing for his life, Black Owl rasped with laughter, causing my blade to vibrate. My eyes narrowed. Tiexin struggled to hold him down. “How hilarious! Do you still think that you can best our master? The Chengxiang may have already opened the Portal! You are much too late.” Without warning, Tiexin was thrown off as Black Owl jumped to his feet. Before he could move, a sword pierced his stomach from behind. His eyes widened in shock, and his body fell heavily to the ground.
Shen-shaoye had delivered the final blow. “That was for all those who died by his hand,” he murmured, looking down at Black Owl’s stilled form.
I dropped the blade that I was holding and slumped to my knees, suddenly weary. I felt Wei, my mother, and An crowd around me in concern.
“Umm… is it safe to come out now?” a voice called. We all looked up to see a girl coming toward us from her hiding place along with a few monks and martial artists who entered the courtyard from the hole in the wall.
“Meiyu!” Tiexin called and ran over to the girl, whom he embraced tightly.
“What happened?” asked one of the people who came up from the hole in the wall, surveying the scene.
An rose and spoke with the man, gesturing at the fallen bodies and captured men. “Do not worry, Hui-jie! Everything will be alright. Those people are the allies that An and Ganzorig met in the city. A few are from the martial arts school here in the city. They will take care of everything here,” Wei explained reassuringly.
Then she addressed my mother, “Furen, it would be best if you, daren, Shen-furen, and Shen-xiaojie went with these people to the safe house. The capital will be in uproar the next few days so it would be best if all of you remained in hiding.” She bowed her head respectfully. My mother nodded in assent. “Huizhong,” she murmured as she took my hands in hers and drew me close. “Stay safe, my child. You too, Wei.” We both bowed our heads in acknowledgment. I helped my mother to her feet.
Tears threatened to spill, but there would be time later for a proper reunion. I watched as the men escorted my parents towards the hole in the wall. Shen-xiaojie ran up to me and hugged me tightly before leaving with her mother. I watched Shen-shaoye gazing after his sister and mother as they left with an indescribable expression. I do not know what came over me but somehow my feet found its way to Shen-shaoye’s side. Gently, I placed my hand on his shoulder. He was surprised by my presence but then wordlessly his hand enveloped mine. My heart seemed to beat faster in that brief moment we shared.
An eagle cried overhead. I drew back from him. We both watched as Gerel swooped down and landed onto An’s outstretched arm, bearing a message on her leg. Everyone gathered around. “We’d better hurry!” she called after perusing the message. “Ganzorig says that it’s beginning. Gerel will show us the way through the desert.”
“I am coming too!” Tiexin announced after saying goodbye to Meiyu, who had followed the others to the safe house. “What?” he said nervously as all our eyes turned to him. “I am… on… your side.”
Shen-shaoye crossed his arms. “How do we know that? Why were you even here in the first place? You could be playing with us.”
“I was—uh… taking a walk,” Tiexin stammered as he shifted nervously. He was young, barely a man at his age, I observed. While I did not know what missions he performed when he was with the Imperial Owls, it did not mean that he could not be an ally.
“Wait,” I said, holding up my hand as Shen-shaoye was about to retort. “That’s not the issue of importance here.”
I took a deep breath and composed myself before speaking, “Tiexin, were you present when my sister, Huiliang, died?”
The young man’s gaze wavered slightly, but he answered steadily, “Yes.”
I continued, “Since the beginning of this journey, I have constantly thought about how I was going to avenge my sister when I finally catch up to those who were present on that night. Now that Black Owl is dead… I am not sure if I feel satisfied or even relieved. At one time, I was a fool to think that this one act will bring her back.”
He did not answer and continued to stare unblinking.
“No,” I said softly. “It can never bring her back. Nothing can but I am grateful that you stepped in to fight Black Owl with us; otherwise, we all could have died here.” I gestured to all of us.
“That is why, Tiexin, I need to know… if you would swear on your life to help us to stop the evil Chengxiang. If you break this oath, then I will not hesitate to kill you. Well, what would it be?”
I watched as the young man closed his eyes, thinking. After a few moments, his clear, resolute eyes met mine.
“I sw—” he broke off mid-sentence as his face turned white with horror. He staggered as if hit by an invisible force.
“What’s happening?” An demanded. Gerel shrieked and flapped her wings in terror. We watched in horror at the sky: A wind rushed up and dark clouds materialized in the west. Lightning was beginning to flicker.
“It’s— the Portal. It’s—” Tiexin choked out.
There was commotion among the monks that were present. They were shouting. “It’s been opened!” “Dark energy is spilling out into the Heavens!” “If only we had the holy relic of Yan Jun!”
I could not sense the dark energy that they were talking about, but I knew instinctively that something ominous was coming. It looked as if the mental strain was too much for Tiexin. He yelled out in frustration and ran off through the main gate. I moved to run after him but Shen-shaoye grabbed my arm, halting me. “Let the coward go! He never intended to join us anyways,” Shen-shaoye said scornfully. I did not say anything. Frankly, I was a bit disappointed.
“Let’s hurry to the West Gate! There is a man named Choejor waiting there with horses!” An called, taking charge. “Follow me!”
“Wait!” a martial artist came up to us bearing weapons. “We recovered these for you, Zhang-xiaojie and Shen-shaoye. The monks have also blessed your weapons so these should be more than enough against the yaoguai.” He held out my blades. I bowed my thanks and hurriedly strapped them onto my waist. Shen-shaoye took his sword as well. We were as ready as could be.
The man waved us off as we followed An into the streets towards the gate. Gerel took flight and flew overhead.
The streets were deserted, but I saw a few monks roaming around also drawn by the dark energy. They did not take notice of us thankfully. “How are we going to get past the guards?” Wei asked An in between breaths as we ran. That was a good question.
An frowned. “We will just have to get through them somehow.”
The sound of hooves thundered from behind us. I glanced behind to see Tiexin riding a furious pace on a horse. “Zhang-xiaojie!” he shouted as he came closer. He slowed the horse beside our group. “Wait!”
I looked up at his breathless face. Shen-shaoye glared at him coldly, “Why should we trust you? You just ran off and now you are delaying us.”
“Let’s go, guys,” Shen-shaoye made to turn away but I stopped him.
“Let’s hear what he has to say,” I said quietly. All traces of horror were gone. He seemed to have made up his mind despite his earlier fickleness.
Finally, he spoke, “While I cannot make up for your sister’s death, Zhang-xiaojie, I swear that I will fight against the Chengxiang to the death. I don’t know what he is planning to do, but after seeing the death and devastation in Dong Ying, I can’t stand by any longer!” He looked as if he meant his words as though there was a fire inside that was not there before. “I will be going whether you will it or not!” He saluted us with his right fist clasped in his left hand.
Shen-shaoye was shaking his head. Wei and An looked at me expectantly. While his earlier actions caused some doubt, Tiexin seemed genuinely sincere in this moment. I had to take a chance. I nodded slowly but not without warning him, “I will take your oath, but remember you will be killed if you betray us.”
Tiexin nodded furiously. “Hurry! I can get you out of the city.”
I mounted behind him, and we galloped toward the gate with the others following closely behind using qinggong.
We made it out of the city following Tiexin’s lead. Choejor joined us as we reached the desert sands and urged us, “We’re losing time, let’s hurry!”
We quickened our pace as fast as we could; the violent winds ripped around us, but we continued pressing onward toward the ever-growing, ominous presence at the center of the desert. I thought of those on the frontline and prayed that they were able to hold out until we arrived.