Shrine of a Forgotten God, Henan
Xiáyīng wasn't lost.
Being lost, after all, required a destination which one intended to reach. A goal. Some sort of purpose. At the very least, a rudimentary grasp of geography was necessary.
Well, maybe that wasn't quite right. One could be lost in ways other than a purely physical sense. To be cast adrift from one's home, one's past, one's very way of being -- surely that could be called "lost" also, right?
The very word "lost" did seem to fit her quite aptly. After all, few could probably claim to have ever possessed half of all that had been taken from her. Even so, thinking about that "loss" could no longer even bring tears to her eyes. Instead, it only carried with it a sense of numbness, and a sort of aimless resolve -- a strong drive to leave all that behind her, which in turn sputtered out within her the moment she turned her thoughts on where, instead, to go.
Either way, she didn't like to think about it more than she had to. It was better to leave such empty feelings in the dark place where they had first been born. The tears she couldn't cry now had already been shed yesterday, and to mourn the loss of one's very ability to mourn would be so laughably piteous that it could only be seen as farce comedy.
...Hm. Yes. That was
quite profound. Perhaps it would have made a good poem, if she still remembered any of the education she had received in such pure and elegant pursuits. Unfortunately, no words, however sweet, could fill the yawning void in her stomach, nor would the deepest ocean of philosophical preponderance slake her thirst.
Oh. And she also hadn't the faintest clue where she even was. There was also that.
Even before her... fall from grace,
she had seen little and heard less of the world beyond the Severed Peak. Even discussing the affairs of the outside
had been a forbidden subject since the heirs were born. To think of leaving
-- why, the very idea had been laughable. As a child, she never could have dreamed that she would ever willfully defy that taboo.
But there were a great many things under heaven which she could not have imagined as a child, and compared to the path that had led her down the mountain's slopes, the first steps she had taken into the world beyond it had been wholly unremarkable by comparison. No... perhaps "unremarkable" wasn't the right word. "Disappointing," maybe? Perhaps "sobering..."
Sad. It was sad.
She had walked for days before she found a village. Her hopes had soared at the familiar sight of houses, only to fall again when she got closer and saw their sorry state. Anything taller than one story had long since collapsed, and the rest more resembled charred toothpicks than functional masonry. There hadn't been a single soul alive in the entire place.
"Alive" being the operative word. It had taken her almost three whole days to bury all of the bodies, and by the time she was done she had exhausted all the water she had carried with her from the Dragonspring. That was around when she remembered what "hunger" felt like, and it finally occurred to her that she hadn't eaten in... in...
...Huh. That was strange. She couldn't even remember how long it had been anymore. She'd kept a tally, back in the shrine, but the marks she had stubbornly clawed into the rotten wood weren't something she would have wanted to carry with her even had she been able to, and their number had long since grown beyond any hope of counting.
At any rate, her conscience had gotten the better of her. She hadn't been able to bear the thought of leaving the desolate town's former inhabitants to be picked over by the birds and dogs, and so she had done her best to give them as proper a funeral as she could. They were not so different, after all -- she had simply had the fortune to climb from her grave, whereas they...
...They had died in agony. She had seen it -- or rather, had been forced to see it. Every day as she toiled, the visions wouldn't stop. There, a house now in ruins. There, the site where a beloved child had been crushed beneath the body of a helpless mother. There, where a man fell before the broken gates, his blood spilled in vain for a home he couldn't protect. Blood. Death. Darkness. Even when she refused to look, it surrounded her.
It wasn't their fault. What happened here wasn't fair. It was only right that someone should remember a tragedy -- because if she didn't, then who would? Yet even so, that didn't make the things she saw any easier to bear. By the time the last scraps of dirt had been laid upon the shallow mound, all she could bring herself to feel was relief that finally, it was over.
The last one she buried was the man outside the gates. It felt only right. He must have been the first to fall -- standing proudly against whatever force had wreaked this carnage. The soil all around where he had lain had been baked by the sun, bearing a reddish tinge from the blood that had soaked into it. She could still see the footprints, preserved by the drought, showing where his body had been trampled over, his face stomped into the mud and the filth by the advancing enemy.
As she had extricated his crumbling body from the rubble of the gate, it had struck her that even in death, the sword in his hand was gripped so tightly that she could hardly remove it. When she finally extricated it from his grasp, the hand that had held it crumbled to dust, as though its purpose was at last fulfilled. "You did well,"
She had said without thinking. The stillness that followed was almost deafening, and for the first night since her arrival in the ruined village, her sleep had been sound, filled only with dreams too fleeting to remember. When she had awakened, she had found herself crying.
She only realized after the burial was done that, after years of isolation, her own attire was little more than rags. By comparison, even the bloodstained and soiled robes of the gatekeeper seemed almost pristine by comparison. His sword, too, though dented and chipped, remained unrusted and unbroken.
She tore up what little remained of her own robes, and used the cloth to mend the nameless warrior's garb. She had expected to feel guilty for her robbery, but strangely, all she felt was an odd sort of peace. He, too, had been like her in a way. Forced to fight a futile battle he did not want, he had not shied away from the inevitable result -- even unto the bitter end. She admired that. If only she herself had possessed that kind of resolve, then surely...
So it was that she now found herself upon an unknown road. It had been many days since then. Weeks, perhaps. Months, even. She didn't really care anymore. She had seen more towns since then. She'd been welcomed in some, and shunned in others. Yet no matter how far she roamed, the visions she saw while she was awake, and the dreams she saw when she was asleep -- those never went away. Nor could she lose the feeling that the old sword now strapped by her side yet had some purpose to fulfill.
But she was hungry, and thirsty, and tired. A town lay ahead, but she could not find it in herself to hope that she would be welcomed there. So it was that she turned instead to a small, decrepit shrine by the side of the road, long overgrown with kudzu and seemingly left abandoned. By the time she realized that it wasn't... well, there was already a visitor in the courtyard behind her, and someone else was coming out from behind the old building, and... and, on instinct, she had hidden herself away before she knew it. She had little pride left to lose, but to be mistaken for a thief come to plunder a holy place would shame even her.
Thankfully, she was well-used to avoiding notice. She tucked herself behind the frame of the temple's door, curled up, and prayed the people outside would leave. Her already miniscule presence faded to almost nothing, and her breathing became so faint that even she could hardly perceive it. Yes, if they would just leave, she would hastily depart and trouble them no longer. She didn't come to take anything, she just wanted a place to rest... But no one would see things that way, and if they met, there would only be conflict. She didn't want any trouble, so if they'd just give her a chance, she'd leave. She was sorry. She'd just been so tired, and so thirsty -- so far from home, and so... so...
Without realizing, Xiáyīng had become lost upon the road of life.