Seconds pass like hours and Mo Jun collapses from the strain of the Raging Demon. For a long moment all is still and silent in the ruins.
To be pierced the next moment with a high-pitched giggle and joyful clapping “That was so cool!” a young voice chimes.
Meili spots her first. Sitting on the rooftop across the street, a young girl of barely 12 years dressed all in green with a gold medallion etched with a dog and the number 11.
“You really showed the fat pig what for!”
“Who are you?” Meili questioned.
The young girl stands with a flourish of her guan dao “Chang-Chan, Green Dog, #11 of the 12 Golden Butchers” Finishing with a bow, “Stick around, my big brothers and sisters will want to talk with you.”
The monks all shared a worried look, except for Mo Jun unconscious on the stone floor.
“We split up, lose her and met up at the tea shop.” Liu whispered. All nod in agreement.
While nimble Yuki darted from sight, Liu shouldered Mo Jun, and Meili bore the massive weight of the Bronze Boar Butcher, Bloody Wei. Each running in a different direction.
“No fair!” Chang-Chan shouted. Taking chase, leaping from rooftop to rooftop after Meili who was darting from alley to alley.
They raced like this for some time, Meili slowed by Wei’s bulk made the best of tight spaces and obscured vision. While Chang-Chan kept easy pace across the tile roofs; until Meili ran into a blind alley.
Chang-Chan giggled again looking down from the roof “I’ve tricked you; you’ve got nowhere to go now.”
Quick thinking Meili plucked the medallion from Bloody Wei and tossed it behind herself out of the blind alley. “Go fetch!”
“Aww, you’re mean big sister” Chang-Chan pouted, jumping down behind the alley to search for the boar medallion.
“And you’re adorable” Meili shouted back and with all the speed she had, left her burdens back in the alley for the Green Dog.
The Lucky Badger, the large teahouse and inn was once the second most impressive building in Red Jade. With the burning of Two Thunders Academy, it now dominated the town center.
Liu and Yuki entered; everyone went silent. Taking a space in the back, Mo Jun was propped up in a chair with Lui and Yuki on each side.
Pao Tan, the Cheerful Innkeeper and Proprietor of the Lucky Badger came over with a pot of green tea and 3 cups. “That was pretty impressive, what you did.” Pouring tea for each monk. “Really showed that Bloody Wei what for. Bastard Deserved it and more.”
“Thank you for the tea” Lui Zhi said, lost in thought and grief.
“He was the worst of them you know” the elderly Pao Tan went on “Needlessly cruel, threw his weight around like the biggest man there was, but even that little green puppy was stronger than him.”
With the cups filled Pao stayed for a moment in silence then went back to his other customers.
Every so often a group of which would come up. Try and talk with the monks. Lui was in no mood to talk, Mo still unconscious, and Yuki in her demon fox form left all the villagers uneasy. Those that did approach did not stay and try long, only bringing drinks, food, and thanks for standing up to the butchers.
Meili returned sometime later.
Sitting down with the rest, “I think the medallions are something more than they seem. The Butchers place more value in them than the lives of those who wear them.”
Liu nodded; the Rooster medallion that was taken from the Yi assassin had disappeared the same day it was acquired. With all that was going on he did not notice when it had happened only that it had disappeared by that night.
Villagers stopped trickling by the table long ago. The only one who would approach now was Pao Lin the innkeeper’s wife and Hostess of the Lucky Badger, with more tea and a cup for Meili.
“How long ago did the academy burn down?” Meili asked her.
“That tragedy happened barely a week ago.”
“I don’t know, we found Lei’s body in the aftermath. He was too badly burnt to tell how he died. But I would bet my last yuan it was the butchers” Tears running down her checks “We buried him behind the temple, in the garden he loved. With tokens of our thanks.”
After a moment to compose herself, Lin continued “He was the only one who stood up to them, the only one they couldn’t push around. And they killed him for it.” Then the old woman walked away.
It was late at that point, the monks resolved to leave town in the morning.
Mo Jun rose with the sun, Lui Zhi was waiting for him.
“We need to talk brother” Lui began.
“We can talk over breakfast” and they went downstairs.
The Pao’s provided eggs, fried pork belly, and congee along with green tea.
“What his happening with you, you’re seething with dark chi and I exorcised you from the area like a demon yesterday. What happened to you?”
“The wounds from the demon tiger, I bear some of its chi now.”
“We have to exorcise it from you”
“I know brother” as he spoke a whisper stirred in Mo Jun’s mind.
I am you, there is no separating us now.
With the speed of though Mo Jun replied in his mind:
I know but this man wants hope to save the past me if I tell him we are one he will seek to purge us.
Good, Now get us that scroll.
I will try but it will be easier to let them think it is safe with someone else then take it, blaming it on the hungry devils or the butchers.
“I have a new master now” Mo spoke aloud “I’m learning how to control it”
“And who is this new master?”
“A good man, I learned much in my time with him and I have much more to learn.”
“I am worried about you brother. You are walking a razors edge over the red and blue lotus hells. I would not see you fall off of it.”
“With your help I’m sure I can make it to the other side. I don’t want to fall into temptation again, I need you to keep the scroll away from me.”
“I will make sure of that.”
What is in that scroll anyway? Mo Jun thought.
Power, power enough for revenge, power to destroy the hungry ghosts. Cutting a bloody justice for our suffering and our love.
Meili and Yuki came down the stairs, to begin breakfast as well.
“Is the plan still to head out after we eat?” Yuki asked.
“Before leaving, I want to perform funeral rites for the departed Master Lei. The last thing anyone needed was for Lei to return as an èguǐ or jiangshi.” Zhi began “Lei was a Bodhist and I a Taoist, not sure if my rites will hold”
“I can show you what is to be done” Meili offered “I’m not ordained myself, I trained as a warrior monk not a priest.”
“Thank you, we leave after the funeral then. Let’s go before anything else happens”
“Leaving so soon mes amies?” came a voice by the door, “that would be tres rude. Come sit and drink with me for a moment.” It was the same yi man who had made an attempt on the life of the princess. Tall and lanky dressed in strange red clothes and feathered hat.
Meili audibly groans in annoyance, as he picks up a tea pot, sits down with the monks and begins to pour.
“What do you want foreigner?” Meili says through gritted teeth.
“Well mon chéri, I came to inquire about the strangers in our town. To see what brought them here.”
“We came to see a friend, found a tragedy and were just about to leave, satisfied?” Zhi declared.
“Your friend was Master Si?” the yi began, with an exaggerated and insincere look of sadness “Mon Dieu, that was a true tragedy.” Only to end with a grin “Such a tragedy that the master set fire to his own school and fled like a coward.”
“You would know about cowardice wouldn’t you, last I saw you; you were scurrying through the walls in fear of me.” Mo growled, “Now scurry back to your hole little rat before I give you more reasons to be afraid.”
The yi only laughed and leaned back “A, yes I remember you now. That was an interesting day.”
“It’s not everyday you fail to kill a princess” Mo said, unnerved and anger rising.
“Mon amie, if I really tried to end la petite princesse, the nation would still be in morning.” Again, he said it with such an obscene grin. This yi truly had no manners.
Meili had had enough “Just go, you filthy foreigner, do not further despoil our air with your breath. Go back among the rats and snakes to whatever dung-heap you crawled from.”
“Very well, bonne journée mes chers, garçons.” And with a tip of his hat, the Red Rooster took is leave, though redder than he entered.
The only thing left was the bill, as Meili went to pay, Pao Tan rebuffed the attempt “Heroes eat and drink free” he said and waved the monks off.
In the back of the gardens beneath a blackened peach tree was the shallow grave of Lei Si the Master of Two Thunders. Unearthing the corpse, Zhi was stunned, his body shook, and fists clenched in fury.
On Master Lei’s chest, glittering in the sunlight was a golden medallion emblazoned with the #9 and a dancing monkey.
“No, no, no” a white-hot tear slid down Zhi’s face. How could this righteous man be one of the 12? How could the butchers kill one of their own? Anger, shame, sadness, fury, all these things mingled in his mind, threatening to overwhelm him.
His grief only pierced by the voice of Master Jin Wei, dead for years, his words echoed on: Go within and retreat from the world. Blunt your sharpness, separate your entanglements, soften your light. Zhi let out his breath, how long he held it he could not say, but at this moment he let it go. “I have a job to do here. Bury a friend.”
“Abide in stillness.
The ten thousand beings rise and flourish
While the sage watches their return.
Though all beings exist in profusion
They all end up returning to their source.
Returning to their source is called tranquility.”
And so Lui Zhi performed the rites and reburied Master Lei Si.
“It looks like we are going to have company” Meili said.
She pointed to the gates out of the city a few hundred meters away was a group of 20. Conspicuous in their stillness, they did not move with the rest of the town. One tall figure in red another short one in green, and a heavily bandaged but unmistakable Bloody Wei, said this group of 20 was trouble.
“What are we going to do?” Zhi pondered.
“Maybe there is a basement” Meili said, beginning her search.
No secret doors were found but she uncovered unmistakable signs of violence. Though the fire and the rubble destroyed most of the evidence, there’s too much blood soaked into the wood and ground. People fought and died here. Near a bloody patch beneath the rubble a blackened throwing dart was found under one of the overturned braziers.
“Think it’s a message that we can’t escape?” Meili asked.
While they were searching, Mo Jun simply walked over to the group of 20. “Excuse me, could you please move, we’re trying to leave.”
A middle-aged man with graying hair in the center of the 20 came forward. “Ah, just the man we’re hoping to meet” As he came to the front, his medallion gleamed in the sun, a rat and the #1.
“Please come let’s talk with all your friends” the #1 Butcher continued, waving over the other monks. He had a broad smile across his face, his somewhat handsome features marred by a brand on his left cheek that marks him as a condemned criminal.
Once the monks regrouped, the man continued “I am Golden Rat Ban, leader of the 12 Golden Butchers. I am impressed with your skill, restraint and charm.” Ban slightly bowed his head, a polite gesture not returned by the monks. “I want to talk peacefully, I’m more than happy to exchange pleasantries but out of respect for you all I offer to be direct with what I want.” For a brief moment, Meili felt the rhythm of the universe synch with the Golden Rat’s stride.
“Very well” Lui Zhi said through gritted teeth. “Let’s go to the tea shop.
“Bring me your finest tea Lao Pan” Ban said as he entered.
The thugs cleared a large table of its prior patrons and enough seats for their leader, the monks and all the other Butchers present but the Bronze Boar. Bloody Wei was left out of the table, made to stand with the rest of the thugs.
It was a large round table, Golden Rat Ban sat followed by young Chang-Chang the Green Dog on his left, to his right sat a comely middle-aged woman dressed in violet noble finery; she too wore a golden medallion with a dragon and the #5. The Red Rooster took the seat closet to the standing thugs and Bloody Wei, who despite his disgrace still wore the boar medallion.
Lao Pan did as he was instructed, brought tea to all at the table. The look of confusion and shame evident in his eyes as he poured tea for his oppressors and the wandering monks he thought his heroes.
“As I said, I am pleased to exchange pleasantries for a time, but out of respect, I offer to be direct in what I want from you.” Ban spoke.
“Please be direct, it would be a refreshing change” Lui said.
“First” Meili interrupted “Why is that flaming cock here?” pointing at the yi.
“Lao Bo?” Ban said, looking to the Red Rooster Butcher. “He’s useful, there are places the rest of us cannot go, that he can. He’s also shockingly competent with his exotic yi fighting arts.”
“Now back to the reason we are all here.” Ban began. “Master Lei Si had a scroll with certain valuable knowledge”
“And so, you killed him to get it?” Lui said, sipping tea.
“That was a terrible tragedy, Master Lei misunderstood me.” Ban spoke sincerely “I offered a small fortune to him in exchange for the scroll”
“What of his killer?”
“Dead, Pearl Monkey and Master Lei were the end of each other.” Ban breathed deeply of the jasmine in his cup. “So now I make the same offer to you, an emperors ransom in exchange for the scroll.”
“And you are certain we have it?” Liu countered.
“I have it on very good authority” Ban said, placing a hand on Chang-Chan’s shoulder “That you have the scroll.” Chang-Chan’s face beamed with pride.
“We do have the scroll, but we are humble monks uninterested in riches” Liu said.
“How about power then? We have a few vacant positions among The Butchers” Ban offered.
“What do you mean? No…” Bloody Wei began, only to fall over dead with a dart piercing his throat.
Keen eyed Meili was the only one who saw Lao Bo flick his wrist. It was the same style of dart she found in the ruins of Two Thunders Academy.
“Wei was a deeply regrettable mistake and constant disappointment.” Golden Rat Ban offered. “As I said, we have some openings. If you won’t trade it for money, how about power?”
“What about the destruction of the 9413?” Mo Jun interjected. “Are you powerful enough to end the 3 motherless killers?”
“For the scroll, I will send every last Hungry Devil to Diyu.” Ban said.
“No.” Lui Zhi stood. “I am the Last Student of Master Jin Wei” He brought up the staff in both hands. “I bear his Xīzhàng that has passed from master to student for 10,000 years.” He entered into Ghost Phoenix’s opening form “I have fought evil men, sorcerers, and demons from hell all my life both as a Glorious Kingfisher and as a Devil Slaying Sword Monk” Lui Zhi stared daggers into Ban’s eyes. “You are a wretched thug, a lowly bandit, we are not handing over the scroll!”
Golden Rat smiled “I was going to offer to fight for it next.” Leaning forward, gripping the table with both hands. “Let’s meet in 3 days for a fair duel, it would be dishonorable to fight you outnumbered like this.”
“Whenever you’re ready” Liu offered, still in his stance.
None knew it, but the #1 Butcher was about to split the table and gut Lui Zhi where he stood, Meili again sensing the rhythm of the world following the Golden Rat’s lead, interrupted the flow of violence.
“We still need to deliver the scroll; we cannot wager it without the consent of our superiors. I offer to stay as a hostage.” Meili took a sip of tea. “You’ve certainly heard the story of the princess run away from her betrothal; I am that princess. I would make a valuable hostage to ensure the scrolls safe return.”
“Princess?” Liu uttered in shock.
Golden Rat stared in disbelief for a moment, “Of course; I didn’t recognize you at first, you shaved your head, but your face still matches the picture.” Ban laughed “Your father hired us to find you, fate is mysterious indeed.”
“It is” Meili continued, “I will stay here with you until they return with the scroll. We need time to deliver it to our superiors and have it examined. Then it can be returned back to you.”
“I know a freebooter when I see one, you march to no man’s drum.”
“This is true” Meili smiled into her cup “But my friends do, they need to return the scroll for a time, and I am free to stay. A hostage to ensure they return the scroll to you.”
Ban paused for a moment to consider. “One month, if they are not back with the scroll in one month, I will give you back to your father.”
Meili agreed, “I will join the butchers until then.”
“Regrettably, all I have to offer is the boar medallion. I do not have the dancing monkey anymore.”
“I do” Liu stated, standing up from his stance, pulling the golden disk from his robes. “Here, take a rank more fitting for your skills.” Tossing the medallion to Meili.
She grabbed from the air without looking and in one fluid motion brought it to her neck. Never taking her eyes of off Ban.
“How do you have that? It wasn’t on Pearl Monkey” Ban wondered aloud as Meili tied it around her neck.
Liu stood dumbstruck. Was the Master of Two Thunders not Pearl Monkey after all?
Golden Rat Ban stood up “Do you swear to return with the scroll within 1 month? Swear it on your honor as a member of the jianghu.” he said, extending closed right fist covered in left open hand.
“I do” Liu said after a moment of recovery, returning the gesture.
The oath was now sealed with the ritual of Bao Quan. To break such an oath would bring grave dishonor and invite every wandering warrior in the province the oath-breaker’s door, determined to teach them a lesson.
“We are done then, until we meet again in one month.” Ban intoned.
Chang-Chan took hold of Meili’s arm “It’s so wonderful to have you with us big sister! Now we have the same number as the boys.”
And so, the #1 butcher left with all his subordinates following him out. Meili, wearing the Dancing Monkey Medallion, fell in rhythm behind and to the left of Golden Rat Ban.