Written by David W. Landrum / Artwork by Lee Kuruganti
The Monastery
Soong Yuan noted how the landscape
had changed. Stunted trees and thick
brush made progress difficult. Nettles
and bramble bushes stung and tore the
two women as they walked. Now and
then they came across oaks towering
over the short, twisted trees that
proliferated in this stretch of country.
Crows and hawks looked down from the
branches. They had had good weather:  
clear sky and sunshine, but clear skies
meant cold nights. They had journeyed
four days now and come close to their
destination.

Soong glanced back at Mei-Zhen and
tried to fight off her negative feelings.
The princess Jing Li had commissioned
Soong to serve as a body guard to the
woman she called "The Sorceress
Mei-Zhen." The
sorceress, it turned out,
was only seventeen years old, a girl, a
child who seemed to have little magic at
her disposal. Jing had told her the young
woman needed to conserve her power
for when she faced their opponent. This
was the reason she required a bodyguard.
Still, her quiet, diminutive ward rankled
her—not by obnoxious behavior or
ridiculous talk, but by her silence and
what seem to Soong like passivity. She
gave appropriate reverence to those who
knew the magical arts, but this girl,
barely into her blood and still displaying
the awkwardness and gangly appearance of adolescence, annoyed her. Soong hoped she had not shown an
uncharitable attitude, though she imagined Mei-Zhen could discern the way she felt.

They had been walking since early morning. Soong asked Mei-Zhen if she were tired.

"I could rest," she replied.

Soong spotted a swath of open ground covered with grass. A large rock they could sit on lay to one side of it.
"Let's rest here." She pointed. "We can eat something too. I'm hungry."

She walked on to the sward. Mei-Zhen did not follow her. She had not taken four steps when a tremor in the soil
alerted her to impending danger. Soong sprang back as a shower of earth exploded in front of her and a reptilian
head with yellow eyes and a row of pointed teeth leered just two feet away. Soong had already drawn her sword
(she fought with a
dadao, a two-handed machete). She swung and struck the creature on the side of the head.
Spring dragons had thick skulls, so her blade glanced off, but she gave the thing a nasty cut. Black blood spurted.
The dragon roared. Soong drew back, thinking to blind it if it lunged at her, but it dove under the ground and
burrowed off. She could hear its incredibly fast digging as it escaped.

She turned to Mei-Zhen.

"It hesitated because it had been ordered to kill me, not you," the girl said.

"Kill you?"

"Our opponent has detected us. He will send more creatures against us. His magic is greater than I imagined."

A surge of resentment shot through Soong. Then she reflected that the dragon might have killed her if it had not
experienced a moment's confusion over her identity. Its hesitation saved her life. She should have known better
than to walk with such lack of caution onto a smooth patch of soil, especially in wild territory such as this. Spring
dragons could not burrow through roots or through rocky earth and sought smooth, open ground when they
hunted. Her anger had occluded her spirit and made her incautious. She wiped her sword on the grass and
sheathed it. Mei-Zhen stood still as a stone.

"What now, Lady Sorceress?"

"It might be a good idea to go to Baisha."

The village of Baisha lay nearest of any settlement in the Kingdom of Xiang to the territory of the Sorcerer Wang
Heng. Soong nodded wearily.

"Are you well, Soong?" Mei-Zhen asked.

"I'm a little rattled, Lady Sorceress. I behaved incautiously and put my life in danger—not to say yours. I need to be
more careful."

They found the road to Baisha. About 3000 people live there, but the town would never grow if the curse was not
lifted from the surrounding countryside. As they entered its precincts, Soong reflected on her disposition. Of the
four days she and Mei-Zhen had travelled, the last two had taken them across open country and found them
sleeping under the stars. Mei-Zhen had annoyed her, and the annoyance seemed to open up the rooms in her mind
where memories of injustice, hurt, and sorrow dwelt. Her heart had filled with painful memories. Anger, resentment,
and pain raged inside her. Soong did not know why. The disorder in her soul had deadened her focus and washed
away the centering so vital to a warrior's success. She needed to rest. She needed to align her soul once more.

They found a room at an inn. Mei-Zhen said she needed to meditate. Soong said she would go downstairs to the
tavern. It would be good to get away from Mei-Zhen, and she needed a drink.
Soong sat at a table. Prostitutes or women who wanted to be picked up by men sat at the bar. Soong wanted to
be alone. She ordered a pitcher of wine. She was on her third glass when a young man slid into the chair beside
her. She looked over at him.

"Make yourself at home," she said.

"You look so lovely. I just had to get closer."

"You don't have to belabor the obvious. I am quite lovely. I've always been."

He laughed. "I am Jiao-Lang."

"I am Soong Yuan, and I think it's time for you to leave."

"I suppose it's not a good idea to make a move on a
wuxia knight."

"Okay, I'll ask the question you set me up for. How did you know I'm a
wuxia knight?"

"One glance at your wrists told me the truth."

She looked down at her wrists. He laughed.

"Your wrists and hands are strong. You have broad shoulders and the kind of posture only a dancer or someone
who knows the martial arts possesses. You also aren't afraid to come down here and sit by yourself."

Soong did not like his impudence but liked having someone to talk with.

"Would you like some wine?" she asked. She had started to feel the effects of the liquor she had drunk. He laughed
and called the bartender by name. He brought a glass for Jiao-Lang and a plate of nuts and fruit. "I just wanted to
add," Soong said, "that the invitation to share a glass of wine is not an invitation to share my bed."

"Too bad, but thank you for telling me. There's only one reason a
wuxia knight would come here. You must be
going after Wang Heng."

"You're very perceptive."

"Like I said:  there's no other reason for you to be here. The town is loyal to the King. We don't have a problem
with bandits or gangs. No crime to speak of. So you must be coming to face him. I hope you have something more
to fight with than your sword."

"I do. I suppose I should not speak of it. You may be a spy for him."

"He doesn't need spies."

"What calling do you follow?"

"I'm a miller. A lot more grain would come to my mill if someone could drive Heng away and restore the river. All the
land from here to the Yunling Mountains falls under his control and no one dares live there. Our kingdom would
increase in size by about one-tenth if that land was habitable. But he'll be a tough nut to crack."

Soong felt herself warming to Jiao-Lang. As she did, however, more memories flew at her like bats. She
remembered when she worked as a servant girl at the estate of rich man near her village. Her family, desperately
poor then, depended on her; so when she learned being a servant meant being available to her master's guests,
she consented to that part of the job. She recalled giving sexual favors to visitors—men, now and then a woman—
who stayed at the estate. The Master paid her extra money for doing so, but she hated being a house prostitute.
Jing Li had rescued her from that and taken her into
wuxia training. Soong had lived in celibacy in the six years
since that time. She wanted to marry someday, but memories from that time in her life swarmed her heart when
any real possibility of a relationship presented itself. They swarmed her now. She wanted to say more to him but
felt paralyzed.’

"I talk too much," he said.

"No," she managed to get out. "I like your talk. Are you married?"

"I'm a widower. I lost my wife two years ago when a plague struck our town—courtesy of Wang Heng, I'm sure. I
have two children to raise now."

Jiao-Lang was handsome. She wondered why he had not remarried.

"I'm sorry for your loss."

"Thank you. And you, Soong Yuan?"

"I"—she did not know what to say. It then occurred to her to tell the truth. "Before I trained as a
wuxia I came
from a poor home and went to work as a servant—”

"You don't have to tell me what happened," he interrupted gently. "I know how the system works."

"I want to tell you what happened," she returned, astonished at her words. He spread his hands. She narrated her
story. When she finished, she looked up and met his eyes. They were no longer full of cynical glee but looked soft
and melancholy.

"I'm sorry you endured such misery," he said.

"I never told anyone," Soong replied, "not even my family." She smiled—or at least attempted a smile. "They all
think I'm still a virgin."

"You are a very beautiful young woman."

She said they should finish their wine. She had decided to drain the pitcher, leave him, and go upstairs for a well-
deserved rest. He reached over and touched her hand.

"You are a warrior. I imagine you've fought many opponents. I've found, from my losses, that the most dangerous
foes are the ones inside—in your heart. You've not overcome them, have you?"

She shook her head.

"Can I show you my mill? It's beautiful in moonlight. It will be the last beauty you see before you continue on your
quest."

They both understood what he had proposed. Soong felt as if she were in a boat on the edge of a vast lake and
had to decide if she would push off and launch into the water. After a long moment, she decided she would.

They walked through the dimly lit streets of the small town. Jiao-Lang's mill lay at the edge of the settlement.
Soong remembered hearing that the people in this district of Xiang ate wheat and barley bread more than they ate
rice. His mill rose up in the moonlight. She could hear the chattering of the brook that powered the mill wheel. The
quiet murmuring soothed her. She turned to him. He kissed her.

"Only if you want to," he said
.
She nodded. "I want to."

He took her inside.

Jiao-Lang was gentle with her. She needed someone gentle. At first Soong felt she could only give a small portion
of her soul. She had given her body many times, but in all of those times, she detached body from soul—from her
spirit and her emotion. As they moved together and pleasure spread through her loins and on up, she began to
dissolve the protective barrier she had erected to conceal her love. She felt herself respond, to move with him, to
let go of fear and shame, and to elide the misery of the days when strangers exploited the most sacred and private
human intimacy. She gave herself to Jiao-Lang. When she let go of her misery, a spasm of joy engulfed her. After it
passed, she clung to him, murmuring in pleasure. He emptied his seed into her. They lay still in the moonlit interior
that smelled of grain, wood, and hemp bags.
She had no words. He did not speak—she surmised because he sensed what she felt. After a long time she said, "I
think I'd better go back."

"Are you travelling with someone?"

"My task is to escort a sorceress who will face Wang Heng."

"That's good."

"I'm not so sure. She's only a girl."

"You're not much past girlhood yourself."

She was twenty-six. For an unmarried woman this seemed middle ground between being a girl and being an adult.

Jiao-Lang said he would heat water so they could bathe. She told him she would bathe in the stream that pushed
the millwheel.

"Cold," he said.

"I know."

As he heated water, Soong went outside and dipped in the clear, chilly stream—a discipline the devoted in all fields
practiced. She felt her body come alive with the shock and pain of cold. She had won a battle—perhaps the most
important battle of her life. She returned to the mill. Jiao-Lang dried her with a towel. She dressed.

"Before you return to the inn," he said, "let me show you my treasure."

Puzzled, she followed him. He led her into a house adjoining the mill. They moved silently into a bedroom where two
children—a boy and a girl—slept in the innocence of childhood.

"They're beautiful," Soong said.

"She was beautiful—not ugly as a mud fence like me."

He was not ugly, but she said nothing.

"Will I see you again?"

"If I live."

"You'll live. Your soul is clear now. You've let go of your demons."

"How do you know I have?"

"I’m not sure how I know, but it's true, isn't it?"

"Yes. When Mei-Zhen and I have defeated the sorcerer, I'll come back to see you. We'll take it from there, Jiao. I'm
not sure where this path will lead, but we'll see."

When Soong returned to her room at the inn, Mei-Zhen looked up from reading a scroll. The bedchamber smelled
of incense and candlewax. Centered on the table in the middle of the space, three almost burnt-out candles and a
small censor smoldered. Mei-Zhen smiled at her.

"I’m glad you returned. I'm ready to go to bed but didn't want to force you to find your way in a darkened room."

"You're reading. If you wish to finish the scroll, I'll go back downstairs."

"I'm finished." She slipped out of her smock, pants, and undergarments. Mei-Zhen had a slender body, delicate
lines, small breasts, a neat triangle of hair above her opening, and long legs. Sleeping and bathing with her had
made Soong more appreciative of her beauty. Perhaps the plainness she had first perceived in the girl arose out of
her own judgmental attitude. They climbed into the narrow bed, their bodies against each other for warmth and
simply because the bed was so damned small.

~ * ~

After breakfast, Mei-Zhen and Soong met with locals to find out as much as they could about the territory into
which they were going. A group of older men and women who could remember back to the days before Wang Heng
subverted the territory to his purposes told them the landmarks to look for.

"A monastery stood there at one time," an elderly woman told her. "He was one of the monks but turned his spirit
to evil. He enslaved the other monks. They do this evil bidding. In the midst of the monastery is a spring of water
that flows from the hand of the Goddess of Compassion. He cannot subvert its goodness. It is the key to
overcoming his rule."

"How is this so, venerable mother?"

"No one knows. The spring of water flows despite the evil all around it. If you can drink of it, I'm certain Quan Yung,
the Goddess of Compassion, will speak to you so you know the way."

Others warned her of the evils in Heng's realm: herds of wolves, hateful birds, serpents. Especially, the men said,
they should stay away from the river.

"The river is evil above all other things. Getting across it will be your most formidable task. Once you are across it,
stay as far from it as possible."

Jiao-Lang and Soong managed to slip behind a building for a few moments of kissing.

"I'll be back," she said. She went to the main street, joined Mei-Zhen, and the two of them set out toward the river.

They followed a paved road and so did not have to watch for spring dragons. What once had been a well-made
thoroughfare had grown uneven. Grass sprouted between the paving stones. They encountered gaps and
crumbling brick. The land around the road changed rapidly from verdant meadowland to scrub. Trees looked smaller
and finally ceased to grow. Serpents sunned themselves on the roadway. Once they saw some kind of large animal
peering at them from behind rocks, though it did not attack. They stopped to eat. Soong had the idea someone
was watching them. She wondered if Mei-Zhen would use her magic in the event the two of them were attacked and
overwhelmed.

They had just finished eating and packed up to resume the journey when the attack came.

It took Soong a moment to identify what was attacking her, because the forms that came at them from a grouping
of red sandstone upthrusts did not run but bounced and twirled through the air, jumping so high it looked as if
they were flying. She drew her sword, centered herself, and bent her considerable concentration on the attackers.
In an instant they were upon her. By their garments, shaved heads, and bare feet she could tell they were monks.
But unlike the serene monks she knew from her village, these were distorted and twisted by evil. They shouted
obscenities as they circled her. She did not see weapons in their hands but noticed their fingers were black and
shaped like the talons of a predatory bird.

Jing had taught her to fight in minimalist fashion, as she called it. No reason to leap, twirl, bound, or shout.
Concentrate and use the least force required to accomplish what you assessed as necessary to the task of combat.
Soong knew she would be forced to kill them. They only wanted to destroy her. Disabling and taking them captive
for questioning would yield no fruit. They could not be frightened off. She steadied her feet and the grip of her
hands on the sword.
The evil monks leaped, one on a side, coming at her from two directions. Soong swung her blade, pivoting,
ducking, swishing the sharp edge. She slashed the first one's throat. Bringing her razor-sharp sword down with
the weight of her body behind it, she cleaved the second one from the shoulder to the hip bone. He fell, his insides
gushing out. Soong twirled, looking for other attackers. None appeared. After a moment, she wiped her sword
blade on the grass and put in in the sheath that hung on her back.

She looked up. Mei-Zhen had not moved. The first monk's body, still spurting blood, lay only inches from her, the
second a foot or so away.

"Are you all right, Lady Sorceress?" Soong asked.

Mei-Zhen nodded and then, thinking she should speak said, "I am. You fight well."
Soong looked at the corpses.

"Too easy," she replied. "He apparently sent men who could be killed without much effort to make us think his
guard is weak. I imagine he has more formidable protection and we will encounter it soon."

They stood in silence, gazing down at the sight of death. Noises arose from the savannah about them. "We'd
better go," Soong told her companion. "It would be proper to bury them, but that would be dangerous and foolish.
The predators about us will have smelled blood by now. Let's get out of here before dangerous creatures swam
and we add to the substance of their meal."

They went on. The condition of the road worsened, so much they walked beside it so as not to stumble. The
villagers had said the river was some ten miles from the village, the monastery only a mile from the river. They
continued in silence and were not attacked. At length, when the sun stood at two, they heard the gurgling of
water. The road ran through a line of brambles and, fifty yards or so on, stopped. Soong and Mei-Zhen stepped up
to the ruins of a bridge that had one time spanned the river.

The water of the river was black—not muddy black, but black like ink. No trees or vegetation grew on its banks. The
current ran swiftly.

They looked on in silence.

"I must begin to use my magic," Mei-Zhen said. Without fanfare, she lifted her right hand.
The black water parted, rising in a heap upstream, quickly flowing out downstream, and revealing the bottom of the
river as it flowed away.

Soong and Mei-Zhen hurried across the empty riverbed, feet squishing. The engineers who built the bridge had
chosen a spot where bedrock supported the pylons, so the two women did not sink in mud. They made their way
to the other side. Mei-Zhen glanced at the water. The heaped-up current released with a roar and filled the empty
channel once again.

"We need to get out of here," Mei-Zhen said. "I can sense the beasts that live in the water converging. They will
attack us in large numbers. Let's go."

They hurried away from the river, careful no creature from its channel stalked them. Following an overgrown path,
they came to a waterfall.

In contrast to the river, the waterfall flowed clear and beautiful, dropping over a rock face, plunging perhaps twenty
feet into a large basin. The two of then washed their sandals and their feet in the pool, sat in the shade of the
trees surrounding it, and relaxed. Soong and Mei-Zhen noticed a dry creek-bed and saw the flow of water had been
diverted. A sturdy wall of fitted stone blocked its course to the river so the run-off from the waterfall split into two
courses that led into the forest. Because of the clean, fresh water, the trees and vegetation around them
flourished. Ash, elm, and oak trees grew as well as dogwood and plum trees, their blossoms bright in the sun.
Wildflowers and green ferns covered the floor of the small forest. For the first time in several days, they heard birds
singing.

"The spring," Soong said after a moment. Mei-Zhen looked over at her. "Heng had the monks divert this stream so
it did not feed into the river. Its water is clean and healing. It must come from the spring sacred to the Goddess of
Compassion. He had his industrious monks damn it up and redirect its flow so its healing power did not affect the
evil river. If we follow its course, we will have no trouble finding the monastery."

Mei-Zhen nodded. They were both thinking the same thing. They stripped and bathed in the basin, not fearing
predatory animals or an attack from possessed monks. The Goddess of Compassion reigned in this part of the
forest and would protect them from harm. Before they left both of them drank a double-handful of the clear water.

They dried in the sun, dressed, and continued their journey, following the stream that ended at the waterfall. It ran
clear—living water splashing over stones and down declivities that formed smaller waterfalls. They saw deer and a
small lynx. Birds sang all around them. Rabbits nibbled grass. Flying squirrels swept across their path. They saw a
sloth making its way high in the trees.
After an hour's walk, they came to the monastery.

The stream reduced to a rocky rill, though its water ran clear. Green grass grew on either side of it and a few
flowers and flowering trees flourished along it course. The land around the monastery looked desolate, just like the
countryside through which they had travelled the last few days.

The monastery from which the small current of water ran stood a ruin. Soong imagined it had once been a place of
holiness and, like convents and monasteries she had seen, once reflected this in its neatness, simplicity, order, and
cleanliness. Her eyes rested on sagging pagodas, buildings with caved-in roofs, crumbling walls, gapped pavements,
and dilapidated storage barns. She noticed a mill much like Jiao-Lang's. It seemed better maintained than the other
buildings. The mill wheel turned. She heard water flowing and a clanking of machinery that had to be the cogs and
gears of the mill as they whorled.

"Why is the mill operating?" she asked.

Mei-Zhen turned to her and gave her a puzzled look.

"The mill is running," Soong told her. "It's functional. Everything else looks as if it has fallen into ruin and disrepair."

"Meaning?"

"Meaning there is a gap. My teacher had me study the writing of Sun Tzu, who wrote on the art of war. When you
attack, you attack the empty with the full. You find the gaps in your enemy's formation and strike there. This is a
gap. It stands out as an anomaly—not affected by his magic. Strike at the gap."

Mein-Zhen looked as if she wanted to dismiss Soong's suggestion but could not dismiss it entirely.

"I've preserved my power to face his magic," she said.

"Do you plan to lay siege to his realm?"

"I suppose you could call it that."

"A siege is the lowest level of strategy. You only do it as a last resort."

"What is the highest strategy?"

"To win without fighting." Then, astonishing herself as well as Mei-Zhen's, Soong said, "Wait here. I will go to face
him."

"He'll destroy you."

"No. I've already won. You win first and then you go out to fight."

Mei-Zhen opened her mouth to speak but then stopped.

"You have led us and defended me. You have shown me your skill. My teacher instructed me to obey you."

"I respect you, Mei. Allow me to go in. If I am destroyed, it will be due to my arrogance. If I succeed, it will be
through the wisdom of the Tao. Allow me this much."

She nodded.

Soong took off her pack. She hesitated and then laid down her sword. After a moment more of thought, she laid
aside her staff. Mei-Zhen watched in silence as Soong walked through the spotty grass, past dwarfed, dying trees,
and into the compound, once a monastery, where Wang Heng lived.

She approached the crumbling wall. Passing a rusted gate half off its hinges, she moved into the courtyard.

Two tigers appeared, bearing down on her, but, she noticed immediately, not leaping and bounding as tigers
usually did when they attacked. They scurried toward her, not lifting their feet, the way common house cats hurried
along. Soong stood still. The tigers came to within a foot of her, slowed, stopped, and gazed up at her.

She looked at the oddly shaped eyes, the white cheeks, orange fur and black stripes; their huge whiskers amused
her, as did their bewilderment. After standing still and facing them a long time, she reached out to pet one of them.
It winced but Soong saw no defensive hostility in its reaction. She touched its fur. Its yellow eyes studied her. The
animal began to rumble. Soong realized after a moment that it was not growling but purring. The other came near.
She stroked its powerful shoulders and marveled at how beautiful the creatures were with the dark orange bodies,
black markings, and white feline faces. As she rubbed them and listened to the sound they made, she noticed the
look in their eyes and thought for a moment they might begin to cry. Soong knew this from her years on the family
farm that animals did not weep, but they loved and felt sorrow and joy. She saw gentleness in their eyes (like cats
they moved their heads so all parts of their faces would receive her scratching caress). When she moved on toward
the pagoda, the creatures walked with her, flanking her like guards.

As Soong approached the pagoda, she wondered what cruelties Heng might have used to enslave these animals—
she also thought of the spring dragon and the predatory birds—to his service. She also sensed human presence.
When she and the tigers were ten feet from the pagoda, two figures, armed with spears, sprang at them. Soong
halted. The tigers tensed and moved in closer to her. The attackers rushed toward them.

Soong called on her self-control. The monks, one young, one old, rushed forward but then slowed. Their feet
dribbled down to a stumbling walk and they stopped.

The tigers looked at them with curiosity. Soong thought the beasts had meant to defend her but now saw now no
reason to. The monks—one a greybeard, one hardly older than eighteen—only stood and stared. Soong considered
them a moment, turned, and continued on. The tigers followed her but, as she wished, stopped at the entrance to
the pagoda.

The place resonated silence as Soong stepped inside. The central room, a place of worship, looked dirty, unswept,
and moldy. She could see no image of the Buddha and no icons that represented the Way. Opposite the door sat a
chair. A glance told Soong the ornate chair sat in the space an image of Enlightened One had occupied. On the
once-ornate but now tarnished, shabby seat sat a man in a monk's robe, feet bare, head shaved. She knew it was
Wang Heng, though she had never seen him. He looked young, but Soong sensed the decrepitude of his spirit. He
stared, sprang up, and threw a dart at her. She caught it, careful not to touch its poisoned point, opened her
hand, and let it fall to the ground. He stood, swaying from one side to the other, and finally collapsed back into the
chair.

She walked toward him. Small currents of heat striking her legs, loins, breasts, and face told her magic radiated
from him. He wanted to stop her by casting a spell, but the magical energy had no effect. She stopped two feet
from where he sat. By now the heat had vanished. She felt nothing but the dankness of the interior room.

Soong estimated her enemy as a man who at one time possessed strength, intelligence, and comeliness—perhaps
even genuine holiness—but the overwhelming impression she received suggested someone used up, spent, and at
the end of life, though he looked young. With effort, he raised his head and gazed at her.

"In the name of what god or goddess do you come here?" he asked, voice raspy.

"I come in the power of no deity. I don't believe in the gods. I come in the power of the Way—the dharma law that
upholds all things. I come in that alone."

"The sorceress?"

"She doesn’t need to use her magic. I know you are like a sponge, Wang Heng. You are strengthened by soaking in
the fear, hate, violence, and aggression of those who oppose you and redirecting it at them."

"You are opposing me."

"There is nothing to oppose. I bring no weapon. I will not strike at you with my hands. I know victory comes from
following the Way."

"What do you plan to do to me?"

"Nothing. You are already undone. I don't need to fight you. The truth has brought you to this point. Make it easier
on yourself by not resisting but by acknowledging what simply is—the law that lies beneath all things. As you are a
monk, you know these matters better than I do."
He sat a moment. His body convulsed, his eyes went blank, and he gripped the arms of the chair. Trembling, he
seemed to come apart. His skin lost its luster and his body its form. He went from living flesh to inert matter—to
mud, to dirt, to dust. In a moment, piles of dust that once been Wang Heng lay heaped on the seat, the arms, and
the ground beneath the chair on which he had sat. His saffron robe slid off the pile of earth that been his body and
silently fell to the floor.
The tigers sauntered in, probably wondering why some of the human scents in the room had ceased. After a
moment, the two monks entered as well. They stared at the chair and then at Soong. They bowed to her.

"That isn't necessary," she said. "I am no one."

"You are our liberator."

"I only made him face the reality of what he had become."

"How many would even know to do this?" the old monk replied.

They heard noise. Mei-Zhen entered the pagoda. She looked about and saw the tigers, the monks, and the detritus
of earth that had been Wang Heng, and did not to know what to say.

"Our task is accomplished," Soong spoke into the silence that had fallen.

"So I see. You are to be commended, Soong Yuan."

"I had a very good teacher," she said, thinking of the Princess Jing Li.

~ * ~

The tigers eventually wandered off into the wood. The remaining monks, no longer ensorcelled, appeared. They
buried what little was left of two monks Soong had killed. She asked the pardon of their brother monks. They said
Soong should not blame herself. The evil magic of Heng had controlled them all. She ordered his remains—the dust
to which he had returned—gathered. The eight of them went to the river—now clear—and scattered his ashes. The
senior monks offered prayers. When night fell, Soong and Mei-Zhen bedded down in the monastery guest house.
In the dark, Soong heard Mei-Zhen speak.

"I thought the power of my magic would right the wrongs done here. Your skill prevailed instead."

"Lao Tzu once said the Way is like water. When it attacks the firm and the strong, none can withstand it."

Though Soong could not see Mei-Zhen in the dark, she sensed the young woman smiled.

"You should be a nun," she said. "You could teach many your considerable wisdom."

"Not qualified, I'm afraid." To be a Taoist or Buddhist nun you had to be a virgin. "I simply refused to exalt myself
and assumed the lowest place. Heng's strength came from those who tried to use their might to defeat him.
Through his sorcery, he brought their own power against them. But I could see his power was an illusion."

"How did you see this?"

"He could not foul the stream that came from Quan Yuan's spring. Once I saw that truth, his power of illusion
broke. You and I could see how shabby and crumbling his dwelling place had become. I imagine many saw it as
magnificent and thought him powerful. I've been taught to look for the gaps, and the fact he could not use his
sorcery on the water that flowed from the spring suggested a gap. You attack the gaps." She paused and then
asked. "I can't be a nun, but I've wondered about you. You are a very beautiful young woman, Mei-Zhen. Can you
marry?"

"It is not forbidden, but most sorceresses chose celibacy because we encounter such great evil. The sight of it
seems to pollute our souls so we often refrain and never see the marriage bed. It's better than way, I guess."

"The evil I saw as a servant girl polluted my soul. I opened myself to love only yesterday. I opened myself despite
the rape and abuse I had known in the past. I swore I would never share my intimacy with anyone, ever again, after
that. Then I met Jiao-Lang. I realized my abstinence only endorsed the evil that had been done to me. By denying
myself love—emotional and physical—I had given power to the things my oppressors did to me. I had denied
expression of my soul, the joy of giving love, the trust involved in yielding my body—and you give your soul in love
as well. In denying myself those things, I had strengthened the mark of evil my heart carried. Now I am free of it."

"And you prevailed. If I had faced his magic and we had fought with spells, as I had planned, I would have been
destroyed. I know my power is greater than his, but there are many ways to perish. Death is not the only way to
die."

They huddled together on the straw mat beneath blankets and quilts. Soong slept peacefully, dreaming of home, of
greenery, and of Jiao-Lang.

~ * ~

After breakfast with the monks, the two women departed. Already, Soong noted, vitality had returned to the land.
Green had crept into the grass—just traces, but soon the grass would show verdant. The same showed in the
trees. Predatory birds flew in the sky but did not perch in the branches and gaze at the two women as they walked
along. The river ran clear. They saw fish, turtles, and a hippo swimming in its depths. Downriver from where the
hippo lolled (they were dangerous animals, even for a sorceress and a
wuxia warrior), they found a shallow place
and forded.

The trek from the town to the monastery had seemed long; the journey back went quickly. The citizens of Baisha
turned out to greet Soong and Mei-Zhen. A celebration followed. For the next three days the people rejoiced at
Wang Heng's overthrow. Work crews went out to help the monks rebuild the monastery and invited them to the
festivities. Fireworks lit the sky at night. Soong sought out Jiao-Lang and rested in his embrace. She met his
children. Amid the festivities and rejoicing, she saw how solemn she had let herself become. She hardly even knew
how to enjoy herself anymore. In the three days, Soong learned to laugh again. The mere act of laughing seemed
to cleanse her soul.

"I can't stay," Soong told Jiao the last day she and Mei-Zhen were there. "I have obligations. But I'll come to see
you as often as I can. You can bring Kang and Zhuo to meet my parents."

"Introducing my children to your parents? That sounds promising."

"Stop being so damned ridiculous," she laughed.

"Stop being so damned solemn."

That, she thought, was something she needed to work on.

She spent a final night with Jiao. Everyone knew they were sleeping together. No one censured them. Mie-Zhen
stayed with a widow who lived alone. The people gave Soong and Mei-Zheng gifts and an escort out of town. They
journeyed back to the border of Xiang, Princess Jing Li's kingdom, where Soong planned to stay a month before
returning home to China. Emissaries met her at the border and escorted her to the capitol city where the Princess
and Chen, her lover, whom she planned to marry in the spring, lived. After four days, two young women from Mei-
Zhen's order of practitioners came to accompany her back to the house the three of them shared in China.

"You have taught me a great deal, Soong Yuan," Mei-Zhen said, bowing. "I acknowledge you as my teacher and
bow to your wisdom."

Soong did not know how to respond. She only smiled. The two women embraced and kissed. Mei-Zhen went her
way. At dinner that night, when the wine had flowed freely, Chen remarked how Soong's name had been noised
throughout the kingdom. "You defeated a sorcerer everyone feared. You fought off demonic monks and stared
down tigers. And your victory expanded our territory all the way to the Yunling Mountains."

She remembered that Chen, who liked to joke, had never joked with her. The solemnity and sadness that always
marked her behavior had made him hesitate to do so. Now he had mildly teased her. She liked the change.

"The monks weren't so demonic," she answered. "The sorcerer's own evil destroyed him. I just stood there and
watched. When the tigers were bearing down on me, I wasn't thinking of how to fight them off as much as I was
trying to figure out how not to piss my pants."

The room broke into a roar of laughter and applause. Chen slapped the table and knocked a flagon of wine over,
spilling it all over his tunic and eliciting even more laughter. He was drunk. Soong took a long, deep drink from her
cup. She would get drunk too.

There were many ways to celebrate.
THE LORELEI SIGNAL
David W. Landrum teaches literature at Grand Valley
State University in Allendale, Michigan. His speculative
fiction has appeared widely, his fairy tale revisions in
Father Grim's Book of Stories, Modern Day Fairy Tales,
Silver Blade, NonBinary Review, and The Fairy Tale
Whisperer
. His novellas, Strange Brew, The Gallery, and
The Prophetess, and his full-length novel, The
Sorceress of the Northern Seas
, are available through
Amazon.