Yu Yan awoke before dawn, having heard the faint screams trickling from the monastery walls in her dreams and knew she was the last student of The Night’s Forest School. She had been sent to attend to the burial of an old sister, at a grove alongside the borders of the Old Kingdom and could not have returned in time to save anyone. She wept by the grave of the sister, then dried her eyes and gathered her things.
The first town she came to, offered her rumours about what had happened. It was enough to confirm the shards of grief buried deep in her chest, and she carried on, breathing through the fear which pooled in her hips and knees as Yu Yan contemplated her next action.
The monastery was destroyed by a dragon. None of her training prepared her for such a fight, and so, Yu Yan wandered home without anything in her heart beside her grief and her love for the sisters who had died beneath its poison flames to guide her.
The rains were harsh as she crossed the borders of her province, and so she sat, cross legged beneath a shelter of leaves and sticks, gathered from need when the old woman walked through the sheets of rain and asked to join her.
Yu Yan invited her in and the woman shuffled in to join her, sighing and shaking out her cloak as Yu closed her eyes and returned to her meditation.
‘You seem troubled.’ the woman said
Yu exhaled and uncrossed her legs as she peered at the old woman sat across from her in the night.
‘I offered you shelter as it is one of the rules of the Night’s Forest School -‘
The woman tittered, a sharp sound which made Yu Yan grimace and turn her head to hide her expression.
‘No such place. Pan Long saw to it.’ she said.
Yu Yan let her eyes adjust to the night and saw the woman staring at her with a challenging frankness.
‘Pan Long. I heard a dragon did it.’ she said.
The woman moved closer to her and rubbed her thin hands together, bundled like sticks with blunt, dull nails packed with dirt and callused from a life of work and care.
‘Pan Long is the dragon’s name. He came from the lake, and founded The Flaming Pearl School a century ago’ she said.
Yu leaned forward to accommodate the ache in her chest as she pressed her palms together.
‘We had no issues with other schools.’ she said.
The old woman put her hand over Yu’s wrist and squeezed her. The contact unmanned Yu and she blinked away a fresh crop of tears as she raised her head.
‘Pan Long had visions which drove him mad.’ the woman said.
Yu turned and put her hand over the woman’s, staring at her with concern and interest.
‘Tell me what you know.’ she said.
Pan Long dreamed of his own death. He had faced great foes, and earned the fear and admiration of many through his actions but after a few centuries, time overlaid a thin film on his experiences and he sought to prepare himself for the next phase of his incarnation.
A return to heaven.
He sent word to sorcerers and priests, asking for their assistance in purifying himself and settling his karmic debts.
To a man, they refused him.
His claws dripped with blood, no matter how often he washed them. His actions, all done for the glory of Heaven had been the very acts to send him from its gaze. The bodies, the treasures had damned him and so he turned to the darkness within himself and gave it voice.
He smoked sacred drugs, left the running of the school to his elder students and soaked himself in melancholic contemplation.
A final battle. The skies were streaked with fire, and ahead of him stood an opponent, surrounded by a corona of chi, bright and strong and making the details impenetrable. Pan Long imagined one of his front legs broken, and a stitch in his chest each time he moved, fighting the crawling dread and relief of his own defeat.
A fight worthy of heaven’s approval.
Yet, free of his visions, Pan Long could not bear the thought of his fate being ordained and so he sent the students of his school out to challenge rivals for their knowledge.
He led the attack on The Night’s Forest himself, eviscerating Sister Feng before the rest of the school and declaring The Flaming Pearl to be the greatest of all martial arts schools. Each roar of flame from his mouth was a call for Heaven to show him his opponent and the silent response was deafening.
Yu Yan shook her head.
‘He defies the will of Heaven.’
The old woman nodded in agreement and reached within her robes, withdrew a small scroll and turned it over in her hands.
‘Then Heaven will send an instrument in answer.’ she said.
Yu Yan glanced at the scroll then up at the old woman, her luminous eyes sat in nests of deep wrinkles and thin lips curved into a hopeful smile.
‘Who are you?’ she said.
The woman smiled and pushed the scroll into Yu Yan’s hands as she gestured outside.
‘The rain has stopped, Yu Yan.’
She arranged her robes as she got to her feet and set off from the shelter, looking back over her shoulder at Yu Yan with hope in her eyes.
Yu Yan smiled and shouted her thanks.
The scroll was written in a neat, careful hand. Blocks of text punctuated by lines describing a variation on a jum sau which made Yu Yan gasp with surprise. She set the scroll down and started to work through her forms, stopping to refer to the text and correct herself as necessary. It referred to a variation on the Sil Lim Tao Yu Yan had practiced on her own before a new Sister had insisted on any training adhering to the central doctrine of the school.
For three days and nights, she practiced. She walked by night, towards the Flaming Pearl School, without fear or hate in her heart.
Pan Long was awoken by a harsh light in his eyes, uncoiling and hissing his distaste for being raised from his sleep, ready to roar at whoever had done so.
His chamber was empty and the light came from outside. He slithered down the steps, tongue licking at his maw in blind, hungry stabs and pushed the doors open.
His tears fell without shame or difficulty as he ran towards his fate.
She was so small, he thought. He had range on her, as well as his sharp claws and teeth. Pan Long laughed with pity as he reared up, ready to strike her down.
Her smile unnerved him as she moved with a terrible softness. The corona of light roared ahead of her, and his flames splashed off it like rain from a leaf as she shuffled forwards. Pan Long weaved to the left and whipped its back legs around, smacking the tail down for balance as it pistoned its head forwards to bite at her.
Yu Yan threw both her fists into Pan’s left arm at the first elbow joint, all the potential energy in her hips driven through her knuckles and into his arm. He shrieked and leapt backwards as Yu Yan stepped forwards and gestured for Pan to come.
He leapt forwards, jaws open to bite her in half and found nothing but air and a clod of dust where she had slipped from his range. Pan screamed as the heel of her left foot punched forward, striking him in the chimu. Pan’s head rang with a deep agony which made him lurch backwards. Yu Yan waited for him, her hands moving to a third form as he thrashed against the ground, belching gouts of flame into the sky.
Pan was frightened as he regained his footing. He stared into her eyes and saw multiple images of her.
He charged towards her, roaring his hope and joy into the night.
The blow was heard across the kingdom. Trees were flattened and animals disturbed but the death of Pan Long was felt as a lifting of some terrible burden. The celestial order of things slipped back into motion. Pan Long was defeated by the last student of the Night’s Forest School and Yu Yan soon had the responsibility of two schools to merge and run.
The Night’s Pearl School, formed from both became her life’s work and she passed on the old woman’s teachings to thousands of eager students. Yu Yan’s thoughts may have been woven alongside her experiences but she was driven by the example of the old woman, now and forever.
She had broken the past with her fists and her heart, and something new had emerged, softer and more loving to replace it. No more bitter duties, only the quiet pleasures of wu wei and laughter.
She saw the old woman again.