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Under the Sun

A short story by Jason Branch, Junior Psychology Major


It was hard to explain to someone who wasn’t there; the rising smog, the stench of death and burning flesh, the palpable miasma in the skies above the ruins of where the Hall once was. The charred wooden fortress crumbled in but a heartbeat, the remains of blackened walls and ceilings crunching underfoot. It took every ounce of self-control not to heave up his meager rations from earlier that morning.

A hesitant step marked the ascent up the decrepit fort, fur-wrapped boots reaching over the bodies of fallen comrades.

Don’t look down... Don’t look at their faces.

Meng looked down. He swallowed the bile threatening to rise into his throat, avoiding the blank, glassy stare of the woman beside his foot. Bayalag, her name was. A rare migrant from the long plains of Mongolia to the harsh winters of Northern China, devoted to her culture and to her brothers and sisters and arms. Unmoving, a death mask of her final moments,determined despite the fear in her eyes. She was but one of many casualties here, and as he rummaged through the ruined Hall, he counted the bodies he knew.

Chikao, a fitting name to a curious hafu. Dead, draped over an overturned table with a cruel axe embedded in his spine.

Choda, few who were as hardy and defensive as her, prepared for both the hard rock of her homeland and the hateful winds of her new home. Bathed in a pool of her own blood, barely any sinew left to hold her head to her shoulders.

He shuddered a breath, moving quicker as to survey the further damage, only slow enough to force himself to recognize his family and give them their rites. He crossed from the foyer to the winding halls of the barracks, half underground and carved from stone, subversively warm for being midday February in Lanzhou. The sight made him want to pluck his eyes from his head, and the guilt was unbearable. Yet, he had been sent there for a reason.

Luqiu Two-Face, an old legionnaire from the civil war, named for his role as a spy within the Qin Dynasty, who took a vow of silence afterwards in shame of the things he said and did to maintain his cover. An honorable man in life, now the man lay prone, seemingly bested by fatigue and the smoke that choked his lungs. He spoke of a sister once, perhaps if Fuxi permitted... no, the task of locating her fell to another, or none at all.

Hunter, another hafu, though this one a native to China. He never told of his real name, Meng assumed yet another victim of the previous Emperor’s many savageries. That name would never be told, lost to an attack which left him bleeding out, missing leg nowhere to be found.

Mariko, ex-soldier, disillusioned by the atrocities her kinsman committed. Left sometime before Meng was taken in, but after the Han Dynasty settled. Lying curled into herself, a deep gash in her midsection which ended her quicker than Hunter, but still slowly and painfully. The robes their order wore as a sign of faith bid her no protection.

Shen Yu and Shen Mao, twin brothers. Lost their parents to a rogue snake spirit attack, swore vengeance whatever the cost. Guanyin preached justice, not revenge, a teaching all of them were familiar with. Lot of good it did them, lying halfway out of the ruined hall and in the snow, fingers inches away from each other, one last effort to stay together, even in death. Meng hoped they would find each other quickly in the heavens.

He mused quietly. There were faces he did not see, a good sign, potentially. If not all of them had perished, perhaps there was still a home to go to. Among those he recalled not seeing, there was Speaker Qinggang herself, and he let out a breath. If she made it, not all hope was lost. Then there was Kosang, her husband. He was not particularly close to Kosang, no, but he’d gladly greet a familiar face after seeing this massacre.

There was Mo-ah, who followed Xian more closely than Guanyin, but his help was invaluable. A talented alchemist and stout believer, visions he was granted allowed them to evade the worst of a resentful spirit’s wrath. Meng recalled him venturing with a near-legion of Jianjun to some ancient ruin, to what end he didn’t recall. If those warriors were safe, Meng could almost live with himself. Gods knew he didn’t deserve mercy after his absence.

His first solo-outing, Qinggang had called it. His official trial as a Jianjun. He may have been raised by them, but he wasn’t a full fledged member yet. Meng devoted himself anyway, following the commands and routines of his found family, and younger than Qinggang had see in decades, he was finally allowed to undergo a trial. Qinggang was sent a letter by one Constable Nangwa, an advisor in the Elder Counsel of Chengu to deal with a site of restless spirits not so far from their city. It was an important mission, Qinggang emphasized, one which could secure political and military allyship with the city. If he were to succeed, he would be raised to a higher rank than his other initiates, for the cruciality of it. She did not need to tell him the price of failure.

Meng took a step towards the basement, the floors barely holding up. He needed to know if there was anything to salvage. To rebuild from.

He’d gone, of course, fear and excitement coursing through his veins at the prospect of finally serving the people who’d taken care of him all those years. His instructions were clear: find the battle site, pacify the spirits lingering there, and return to the Hall. From his arrival, Qinggang would send a letter to Constable Nangwa to inform him of their success, and then would call for the beginning of his initiation ritual, blessing him with the guidance of Guanyin and her eternal protection, even in the afterlife.

The mission itself, he couldn’t say, went terribly. There was a close call with a resentful general’s spirit lurking in a large ruined building, and he feared being caught off guard, yaoguai or shambling corpse, but Meng managed with little fanfare afterwards. He’d rested briefly inside the dilapidated space, once he trusted it was safe, and let the light of Tian guide his consciousness through peaceful sleep. He supposed his task must’ve been too easy.

The first night, he did not dream, waking up the next morning with barely an ache in his shoulders and burning in his leg where a stray claw found purchase. It took little to tear it out and heal the wound, as he’d been taught. He’d felt confident that day, trusting in the good weather and skillful rationing he’d committed himself to, even while a small part of himself wished to gorge on the light packings, his efforts turning his stomach into a demanding lord eager for the feast he expected upon his return. The Jianjun never lost themselves in chaos and revelry, but allowed a subdued night of merriment upon a member’s initiation. It was customary, Meng noticed, for a bottle of lychee wine to be opened up on those rare occasions, each member with the discipline to limit themselves to a single cup before the humble feast began, Qinggang waxing poetic in rare shows of romanticism of the initiate’s courage, piety, and devotion. It was a ritual Meng long looked forward to.

The second night, he dreamt of fire and screaming, nameless voices and nameless bodies, and cackling, grating laughter echoing in his head. He’d acquitted it to his anxiety, the nervousness that accompanied him everywhere he went for missions, even with a senior to accompany him. He’d admitted to himself, with little shame, that he was also worried of the others’ reception of him. Would they welcome him back, with smiles and familial touch? Or would it be a solemn affair, Qinggang to judge his honesty before revealing her verdict? He’d not been worried about whether he’d be allowed to stay: initiates who returned with failure on their shoulders were rare enough, and Jianjun were glad enough to have survivors from their trials. He’d simply be put on a harder training regimen to try again later.

The third night, he dreamed. He knew he did, and yet despite the efforts to grasp the contents in his wakeful mind, he couldn’t remember. He did know that he woke up with a strange sense of foreboding. Meng did what he’d normally do, second nature to him to pray to Nuwa every morning and night, gratitude at the continuation of life and a plea to maintain such. Instead, his mind was filled with what-ifs and doubts. He could recite that prayer forward and backward, in his sleep or most distractedly. The calm that settled over his head could be attributed to the peace it brought him to truly hear his own words, but he knew that somewhere in the heavens, Nuwa watched over him.

The next three days passed with no dreams, not even a feeling that he could remember, and he’d just settled his worries when the seventh night came, and instead of the dreamless sleep that he’d expected, he stood in the reinforced wooden halls of his home, Jianjun passing, unidentifiable blurs around the sizeable living space, where Qinggang spent most of her days pouring over plans, scheming.

He stood opposite of her, scarcely four feet between them. She stood in front of her table, flurries of papers all over, with dark ink scribbled all over, her neat, sharp scrawl in anecdotes of torn out pages of books, even shapes marking maps, and letters of duty to each of the members she relied upon the most.

He met her gaze, and yet, despite the comfort he felt in seeing her face, sensed unease gnawing at his confidence. Qinggang’s eyes. Instead of the warm, trusting, comforting brown he’d learned to call home, eyes which were strict but not unreasonable, which seemed to watch over him in a way that only a mother could, he found himself staring into unyielding, inhuman, dazzling blue.

“Meng”, the one wearing Qinggang’s face said. Their voice was soft, but overpowered any other sound he thought he might’ve heard in this vision.

“You’re not Qinggang.” He said it simply, and felt simple. “Qinggang” smiled, solemn. It seemed she wilted under the statement, as though him saying it made it truer.

“No, and I am sorry for that.”

Meng frowned, confused. His companion sighed, continuing. “I’d wanted to bring her here, for you to speak to you herself. She’s very proud of you, you know. She thinks of you as her son, after her own children fell to the hunger of resentful spirits.” The other scowled at the mention of the creatures.

“Where is she, then?”

“Gone. Departed.” The specter’s eyes dimmed. “Her soul is fractured beyond repair. I... I’m sorry. Not even Wenchang Wang’s scrying could’ve prepared them for what ensued.”

Meng’s breath caught. “What- what do you mean? What are you talking about? What’s happened to her? Who-”

“A-Meng”, the specter pleaded, their figure morphing from Qinggang’s to something else, a taller form, with slight shoulders and long white hair. Before him stood Guanyin herself, a sorrowful look on her face. “I’m sorry.” Meng made a pleading noise.

“Jiangshi,” Guanyin said darkly. “They attacked in the dark of night, vengeance, I’m sure, for my Jianjun’s many justices against them. Your Hall... your kin. I am truly sorry, young one. They’re gone.”

He choked, legs waning strength under him, and Meng fell to his knees. He knew this was no deception, his pendant clutched in his hand assured him of it. Qinggang told him once, long ago, that the amulet of a divine worn around his neck in sleep, should he call on it, would reveal the truth of his dreams, and the dark forces which plagued them. Another time, she’d recalled that conversation with him, and with a small, rare smile told him that Guanyin was among the most powerful of them all, dispelling nightmares with ease.

The image before him remained, blurred by the tears streaming down his face uncontrollably. Guanyin kneeled in front of him, delicate hands on his shoulders. She spoke plainly, without preamble or mincing, of how the night brought Jianjun Hall’s end. Intermittently, she would apologize, as though it were her cruelty which slit the throats and severed the spines of Meng’s kin.

“Why...” he heaved. “Could you not warn them? Did you turn a blind eye?”

The question, though loaded with grief and anger, was not in spite of Guanyin’s gentleness. It was common for the gods to interfere little with the happenings of mortals, the notion of kindness lost among ascension. It was seen as too human, too mortal, to be kind, as it was to be sad, or angered, or hopeful. Ever stoic, the demanding nature of divinity forced Guanyin to be indifferent. It weighed heavily on her. The gods were not unkind, Meng knew, that the gods interfered very rarely, that their correspondence with mortals was few and far between. But as it was, Qinggang– no, not just her, but the entire Hall was eradicated, nothing but settled embers if his timeline was correct. In the face of his loss, Meng could think of very little he wanted to do with Guanyin.

The god did not answer his question, instead laying a small hand on his wet cheek, looking Meng down to her. If Qinggang was his mother on earth, this was his mother in the sky.

“I asked Nuwa to watch over you these past few days,” Guanyin caressed his cheek. “The netizens of the Underworld have devious plans, those of which are obscure to me at the moment. This is only the first action they’ve taken to spread their influence. I have granted visions to all who have escaped.”

Meng gasped, the first clear breath since his sobs filled the silence. “You... you mean. There are others? Survivors?”

“Not just survivors, my son. There are those who were absent, like yourself. Those who were spared from the slaughter.”

Meng could’ve weeped anew at the words, this time relief filling his heart. There were others, perhaps the Jianjun may live on, rebuild.

“My Lady! Mother! Tell me where they are and I will collect them at once! Please, I need my family!”

Guanyin held him, even as he squirmed, her hand on Meng’s cheek shifted around his shoulders, carding through his oak-brown hair. She was not surprised by Meng’s renewed energy, his grief overtaking him like storm clouds on a sunny day. Even so, despite her own haste to reunite her children, she stayed her hand. There was much unrevealed to her, and to turn over control so soon would result in another stolen victory by the lord of all demons, Zhong Kui.

“In time, son. There is yet another matter I must speak with you about.”

“What could be more important than my family, mother?” Meng asked impatiently. Guanyin

took no offense.

“It was of my Speaker and mine combined agreement of her successor,” Guanyin blinked slowly at Meng. “She thought for a long while, but came to the conclusion that it would be you, should

you succeed in your initiation.” She paused, and the Hall before him shifted into a bird’s-eye view of China, the citizens of Chengdu territory tittering below like ants. It made Meng feel

small. “I had my doubts, appointing someone so young. But she convinced me swiftly, that if it weren’t you, there would be no other.”

Guanyin smiled. “She chose well.”

Meng breathed deeply, words filling his brain quicker than he could empty his mouth, “Guanyin– my Lady.” He said with reference, his mother’s presence beside him an unexpected comfort. “It would be an honor, more than, even. Say the word and it is my command.”

Sighing, she shifted, the slow rise and fall of the sun marking Shangdi’s power even in a realm outside of her own. Regret filled her next words.

“It’s not meant to be, child. Your path lies elsewhere.”

“W-what?” Meng’s heart seized.

“Another god has claimed you, older and more powerful than I. You cannot be my envoy, because you must be His.”

He swallowed. “Who?”

Guanyin looked over the shadows the sun cast, the slivers where its pure golden energy cast the earth in ethereal glow. Its presence only emphasized the darkness where the sun didn’t reach.

Dark times, indeed.

“You must understand, my son,” she said, a rare explanation on her tongue. “The Gods are not normally permitted to intervene. This would not have been asked of you or I if it were not dire. In any other circumstance, I would select you as my new Speaker, and with my guidance, you would rebuild the Jianjun.”

Meng nodded slowly, unplacated but making efforts to keep his mind open. “I... think I understand.”

“Thank you,” Guanyin murmured earnestly. “You know the story of Hou Yi, who shot down each of the ten suns until the last, before even my influence had walls.” Meng frowned, his brow furrowing, but did not interrupt.

“The mother of the sun, Xihe, begged for the last to be spared, for the land cannot thrive without sunlight.” Guanyin held Meng tighter, reassurance for either herself or her son, it was unsure. “Otherwise, the world as you know it would’ve been plunged in darkness, and everything would die.”

“Everything?!” Meng’s eyes widened, but his gaze did not stray from the ashen remains of the Hall, which he could see from so far above.

“Yes. But you also could not thrive under the tyranny of ten suns, and so Emperor Yao tasked Hou Yi with this mission. Beyond any of our reach. Shangdi had a plan, a purpose in mind for the fate of China. A fate which created a clear divide between the light and darkness, goodness and evil.”

“He’d realized then that he had the ability to shape mankind towards good. He’d produced his own Speakers, in a way, children he called cultivators. Upon them was bestowed the power to achieve great deeds, benevolent or malign.” Guanyin sighed. “It was the presence of these cultivators which drove back evil from your lands and drove them to desperation.” She said it like it was poison on his tongue. “Perhaps they did too well in their task, seeing the destruction angry spirits can cause.”

“Then what went wrong?” Meng asked, and the question seemed to echo his crumbling heart at the sight of the ruins below.

“Cultivators indeed are quite effective at repelling evil, even more so than regular people. My Speakers are meant to seek out strength and bring them to the Gods’ light, so that we may continue to push back against Zhong Kui’s army. But he is desperate now, and seeks to eradicate everything good and holy. We just do not know how he intends to do that.”

The stars and clouds slowed, bringing the vision to an end. From the ruins of the Hall, smoke petered out until the charred remains faded into grey, an ink stain on the pristine white snow around it. Meng knew it was reaching morning, from the rising sun beyond the mountains and the emergence of birds from their nests, and he realized with a renewed pang of sorrow that the family of pheasants that settled themselves on the roof were likely also dead.

He hesitated, having dozens of questions and no time at all to ask them.

“I don’t understand. My Lady, please, there must be more you can tell me!”

Guanyin smiled bitterly. “Only this, my child. You may find a man by the name of Lang Shoushen on his way to Chang’an Palace with a companion called Kang. Go to Suzhou and find passage to the city.”

Meng looked up hopefully. “Kang’s alive? But wait, my Lady, I have no means to pay for travel, and I’ve got very little in the way of rations. Could I find work while in Lanzhou?”

“All will be well, Meng. My Speaker kept a lockbox of five hundred yuan behind a brick in the cellar of my Hall. She intended it for emergencies, such as this. She would not object to you taking them for this task I have given you. It will open for you and you alone.”

“But...” He protested. “I’ll go to Suzhou, but what then? How does this help me follow my destiny? Can’t you tell me more?”

Guanyin squeezed his shoulder, her presence fading already with every second passing. “You are under the guidance of Shangdi now. Should you need me, I will offer judgment where I can, but your decisions are your own. Listen to Huangtan Dadi, and everything will be as it should. Take Qinggang’s final gift to you, my child. Heavens guide you.”

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