The noise of battle is distracting, and it takes her almost too long to realize that the warning was shouted to her. An outlaw wearing a blue turban is charging toward her, his longspear leveled at Saki heart.
She weave hypnotically in her stance, and when he strikes, she is no longer there, she launch a series of quick, snakelike strikes to the pressure points in his exposed rib cage.
He stumbles when his attack falters, and he clutches one arm to his injured side. He looks suddently exhausted, courtesy of the disruption in his chi that your knowledge of the mystical Snake technique allowed.
With her opponent deterred, but not out of the fight, with that she drive into him with a series of fast leopard punches down the center of his body until he falls to the ground.
A classic use of the quickness of the Leopard style—delivering strike after strike with intense resolve. Once she have stopped, he curls around his center, moaning, and clearly unable to get up any time soon.
The outlaws continue toward her and her fellow students, flashes of blue catching her eye against the greens and browns of the marsh surrounding her path. It is hard to imagine that only moments ago, the nine of them were making their way back to the monastery of the Order of Energy, students on the simple assignment of escorting a wagonload of supplies home.
The students have mostly remained on the path, where their footing is more certain, but the outlaws appear to have little trouble navigating the wetlands. While they fight like untrained peasants, numbers are definitely on their side.
It's time to get serious. Drawing on the training she received before entering the Order of the Energy Tree, she prepare her next attack.
Release the bindings that secure my longspear to my back. It is only one of the many weapons she have mastered in her wanderings, and it is a good choice to keep the outlaws at bay.
Her fellow students must have heard rumors that before shr came to the Order, she were a Shi—a Death Force user—and their grins show that they had not given credence to this rumor. Now, they look eager to fight alongside someone who has trained with legendary heroes. Even Ta Sha, her rival for the place of senior student, acknowledges with a smile.
The battle that follows is hectic; the outlaws have little in the way of skill, but they make up for it in passion. They are determined to have your supplies, despite the clear skill shown by you and your fellow students. Though you are focused on keeping them from trying to kill you, you notice as you disable your opponents that they are skinny, likely the result of being poorly fed. You also note that a number of the outlaws are women.
The bandits are quickly losing their resolve to steal your wagon; they still have numbers on their side, but many have fallen, wounded or dead, at your feet. You hear the far-off sound of a whistle, and the bandits begin to disengage, quickly fading back into the marsh. Though you and your fellow students have done a formidable job of holding off the bandits, you see that your fellows have taken some injuries as well.
Retreat back to the monastery, so that my fellow students can have their wounds treated immediately.
Only one of her fellow students is badly enough injured to need help getting back to the monastery. She and Lu Jin help lever the younger student onto the back of the wagon, making room among the supplies to give him the space he needs to recline.
"Thank you for showing mercy," says Lu Jin, and you can see that it grates on her slightly to be thanking her primary rival.
Lu Jin takes a deep breath, as though deciding whether or not to share a thought, before she says, "It wasn't like this before the foreigners came. With them eating up resources—and with the Emperor standing by while his people starve and lose their land to these invaders—the people have no hope."
Lu Jin's openness is surprising, but what she says amounts to treason. Questioning the Emperor's will so openly will certainly lead her to trouble.
"The Empire is out of balance with the Heavens, and something must be done to correct it," Saki says quietly.
Lu Jin seems surprised, but also relieved, that Saki is on her side. "Not many are willing to question the Son of Heaven," she says, referring to the Emperor. "I agree that things are out of balance, and that it is up to people like us to restore the will of the heavens."
Though she speaks with passion, Lu Jin realizes that this may be going too far and, with a quick nod to acknowledge the conversation, moves off to help organize the rest of the students.
As she walk back to the monastery, Saki takes a moment to consider the path that has brought her here. As a child, she were told stories of the Order of the Peach Tree, a monastery where many great warriors were trained. But it was not just the combat skills that enticed her. Every hundred years, one member of the Order of the Peach Tree is given the honor of consulting the Dragon Sage. That monk may ask a single question of the wise dragon. It is only thirty years until the next monk of the Order of the Peach Tree is selected, and she is determined to be the order's representative to the dragon.
At the times her master ask "what is your destiny Saki" and event since then she been asking her self that same question.
A few days after the conflict with the outlaws in the marsh, Tai Bao Ho sends for her to meet him beneath the peach tree. The tree itself is ancient: you have been told that most peach trees live, at most, fifty years, but this one has grown wide around the trunk and gnarled in the branches. Despite its age, it continues to produce fruit. Some say that this is the peach tree after which the monastery was named, a true immortal tree in the breed of trees that represents immortality. Others believe it to be a descendant of the original peach tree, the result of careful cultivation by the monks who teach her.
Just as she arrive, Lu Jin approaches from the other side. She appears as surprised to see her as she is to see her.
"Greetings, my senior students," Tai Bao says in greeting.
Lu Jin bows. "Do you have training for us today, masters?"
Master Shen chuckles. "Always so eager for more, Lu Jin? As I recall, at our last bout between the senior students, Saki Tamara gave you a very fine black eye."
Lu Jin bares her teeth at her in a smile that is neither humble nor friendly.
"Unfortunately, my students, this is no simple matter of training," Tai Bao says. "Or, perhaps it is, but not of our usual devising. You told us of your experience with the bandits along the road to the Order, and I am afraid it is becoming an all too common experience in these interesting times. Too many people of the Middle Kingdom are turning to thieving and banditry to make their ends meet, and too many honest folk are made to suffer."
Master Shen grunts, and she thinks she hear him mutter something about a distinct lack of honest folk, but it is unclear.
The abbot continues: "Because you have some experience, and because we feel it will be a good test of your readiness to fully join the order, we have chosen the two of you to lead a group of students to the village of Kuei Xian, across the Baijiang Bridge, to solve the trouble locals are having with the bandits."
Lu Jin blanches momentarily, but her teachers do not seem to notice.
It is an honor to be chosen, even if I must share leadership with Lu Jin. I agree to set off at once. 'She thought to herself'
She accept immediately, bowing and turning to set off immediately. Master Shen's laugh brings her back.
"You must first prepare, my student," says the old master fondly. "First learn the risks, then lead your men. A fool who runs over the bridge without looking first may find himself in the water. Nothing is so urgent that time cannot be taken to think."
Lu Jin nods hesitantly, still looking uncertain about this task.
Of course, should she and Lu Jin fail to quell the problem, more important resources than students will have to be expended, either by the Order or by the Emperor. This would bring dishonor to everyone: her, the order, Governor Rong, and possibly the Emperor himself in the face of the foreigners at his court.
Tai Bao tells them the names of the students he expects to accompany them. Several of them were present when the bandits attacked. They are to ready their equipment and leave in the morning.
Saki is eager to discuss the situation with her, especially her own hesitations.
"I know that the people of Kuei Xian are suffering," she says, "but the people who have been driven to banditry are suffering, too."
"Maybe we can find a way to settle things peacefully," she offer.
Lu Jin looks at her hopefully. "Do you really think so?"
A wise general once said dishonesty is sometimes required to keep morale high. She have apparently taken this lesson to heart.
The Order of the Peach Tree, though farther from the Yellow Mountains than Kuei Xian, is nestled among karst mountains that increase as you travel west toward the Baijiang River. The road is a well-traveled one, a drier route than the road you so recently traversed through the wetlands south of the monastery. Despite the traditional sengfu monk garb that her and her fellow students wear—the high boots, pants, and one-sleeved robe, tied with a sash—which marks you as members of the Order, you are given no more notice than the other travelers she encounter. There are eighteen of them, total: her and Lu Jin each have a team of eight students, for good luck. Each team is nine, a symbol of permanence, and of synergy with the heavens.
We are all one team, making us eighteen, which is neither lucky nor unlucky. We will make our own fate. She says.
The steady pace also has the benefit of allowing her time to converse with her fellow students.
At the end of the first day of travel, Saki drill the students, setting up a mock combat between Lu Jin's group and her own. Her training at the monastery seldom involves squad combat, and the drill helps the students get a better idea of how to work together as a group.
The drill on the second night goes even more smoothly. She is confident that they will be able to use their skills effectively should it come to combat.
There are many stories of nature spirits in the woods in this area. Given the reputation many farmers and other country folk have for fearing spirits—a wise position, to be fair, given their greater likelihood of encountering them than people who live in cities—it might encourage the bandits to leave the area, or at least put a stop to their raids for a while.
On the third morning of her journey, the terrain has shifted from valley fields to the true foothills of the Yellow Mountains. Forests have closed around her, mostly pine, fir, and cedar here, though you know there are also bamboo forests near Kuei Xian. She is nearing what could be enemy territory, depending on how far out the raiders have roamed.
As she walk, she hear a human noise in the distance—it sounds as though it might be sobbing, or perhaps low voices. It is too far to tell.
She make her way into the woods, moving as quietly and softly as though she walk on rice paper. The sound is definitely sobbing, and she see a flash of red through the fir trees. A few steps closer and you see that a beautiful young woman is kneeling in the fir needles, crying. She wears a heavy qipao, a long dress with a high neckline made of thick, brocaded fabric. Her hair is woven up into an elaborate headpiece, clearly marking her as a member of the aristocracy.
She looks up when she sees you approach, and, were it not for the tears, she could be a model for a painting: her narrow face and close-set eyes, her thin eyebrows and high cheekbones are the ideal of courtly beauty. But there are tears, and her lovely face is contorted in pain.
As you approach, the woman looks up at you with tear-filled eyes. "Oh, kind monk, could you help me?" she calls, her voice as lovely as the rest of her appearance. "My foot has become caught in a trap!"
This still seems suspicious. I step closer, but do not yet agree to help.
"What kind of trap?" you ask.
She grins, though there is real pain on her face, and after the first flash of amusement, it turns into a grimace. "A fox trap, I'm afraid."
Behind the woman, seven fox tails flare to life, revealing that this is no true woman at all. She is a huli jing, a mischievous fox spirit that delights particularly in tormenting monks.
"Why should I help you?" you ask.
She shakes her head. "Why is it always the wise ones who find me in such a predicament?" she asks, mostly to herself. "I will make it worth your while, monk. I can offer you unimaginable pleasure," she says with a coy wink that, upon the slight shift of her body, becomes a wince. "I promise that we fox spirits are exceedingly creative."
I want information about the bandits.
"I've seen their main camp; it's not too far from here," says the huli jing. "They are mostly former farmers or poor villagers, and a motley crew at that. Still, there are near a hundred of them, which dramatically outnumbers your little group, if I counted correctly. They are becoming quite the militia; they call themselves the Blue Scarves Rebellion. Their leader is a giant of a man named Deng Ping, a skilled fighter with fists like hammers."
She tells Saki the location of the camp and describes the best way to find it.
"They have no quarrel with the Order," she says. "I think their intent is more to tweak the nose of Governor Rong, since he's done absolutely nothing to help them against the foreigners in the southern parts of the province."
She winces again. "Will that suffice?"
Saki pry open the trap and the fox spirit slips her leg out. Suddenly, she is no longer a woman, but a nine tail fox, her nine tails spread out behind her.
"Thank you," she says. "My name is Fe, and I will remember your kindness."
She offers Saki a bow in her fox form, then dashes off into the trees, leaving her to return to her companions with no further trouble.
Baijiang Bridge is a huge, stone structure that spans the width of the Baijiang River. From this side, she can see the large black turtle of a mountain that rises over Kuei Xian. Now that she here, it is time to put her plan into action.
She prepared to do battle, and, like the armies that made the Baijiang Bridge legend, she is ready to defend it. All you need is for the enemy to approach
Block the Kuei Xian side of the bridge and wait; the bandits will show themselves.
She take up her positions, making it clear that she there to block the road until her foes appear. And appear they do: row after row of men and women wearing blue turbans approach the bridge—at least a hundred all told. Those are bad odds, even for trained warriors like them.
"I have faith in our skills. We can win this battle!"
The bandits—more like a militia than outlaws—approach, keeping their formation. But Saki can see that they are frightened to face her. She grin, and their fear intensifies.
The battle begins, and it is the loud crash of bodies she were craving; she and the other students so clearly outpace these would-be warriors that the odds no longer seem so bad. Because she is blocking the bridge, they cannot approach in full force, and she see that victory will soon be hers, with a rout that will go down in the history books.
Until Lu Jin cries out, "Retreat!" In surprise, the other students look at her, and Saki realize that Lu Jin has crossed from her line into the bandits. In her hand is a blue turban, and in the chaos, she wraps it around her own head. "Retreat!" she calls again.
And then, as the bandits retreat and Lu Jin disappears among them, it is all over but the shouting.
Despite Saki success against the bandits, the morale of her group is low. The students are shocked by Lu Jin's departure, and some are open in how much they will miss her.
But those emotions fade when she return to the Order. Her teachers praise all of her at the news of her success, and Governor Rong sends gifts of thanks for her efforts. Without Lu Jin present to share the credit, she is the hero of the hour.
She have done so well that Master Shen tells her to prepare for her test to be made a full member of the Order of the Peach Tree. If all goes well, she will soon be a monk!
Though she were confident of her path to meet the Dragon Sage before, this victory confirms that she is on the right path. another step closer to achieving her goal.