Flaming orange tongues devour the walls around us. The soldiers outside batter at the old wooden doors of the back entrance.
Gingko holds fast, the ornate mural of gingko tree branches and golden leaves glowing like painted sunshine. Her branches twine around each other and interlock as she keeps the way barred. But her light grows dimmer with each impact against her doors. Her paint has started to crack and blacken.
“I’m sorry,” Woojin whispers. They press their hand against the door, as if to try and soothe the cracks in Gingko’s paint. The wounds darken and spread as the fire roars louder.
I think this must be what the end of the world looks like.
The emperor’s soldiers have surrounded Woojin’s house. The Tiger and the Magpie defends the front entrance with everything they have, but their mural isn’t going to last much longer.
I can still hear Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven fighting the troops outside, but their song has grown weaker. They are one of Woojin’s oldest paintings, a sprawling mural of nine dragons soaring through the clouds that winds across the entire inner wall of Woojin’s gardens. They were the first to rise and defend the house when the soldiers arrived. I do not know how much of their wall mural remains. There were nine voices singing before. Now, I can barely hear three.
I take hold of Woojin’s arm and start to pull them away.
“No, wait,” Woojin protests weakly as they reach back for Gingko’s door. “Please—”
But we can’t take her with us. Her painting is bound to the door.
The Traveling Swordsman and The Warrior Monk on the Bridge wait by the door with their weapons drawn. They stand close to each other, almost shoulder to shoulder.
Woojin painted them as a set, always meant to be displayed together. Each of their paintings takes up an entire six-paneled folding screen, two halves of a single scene. Side by side, they depict a stunning panorama of warriors dueling on a crimson bridge lit by the moon.
The soldiers ram the door again, and Gingko lets out an agonized splintering sound. Her light flickers like a sputtering candle. The Warrior Monk on the Bridge steps forward, moving in front of The Traveling Swordsman with his naginata held in both hands, his shoulders squared.
I grip Woojin’s hand tightly and tug them toward the stairs.
Just as we’re about to turn down the next hallway, I look back and meet The Traveling Swordsman’s eyes. He smiles at me, one last time. I try my best to smile back. That will have to be enough. There isn’t time for anything closer to a goodbye.
Once Gingko dies, The Traveling Swordsman and The Warrior Monk on the Bridge will hold off the soldiers for as long as they can. Until their spirit bodies break apart and their paintings burn.
Woojin is weeping, but the heat of the inferno dries the tears on their face before they can fall. “Please stop,” they sob as I drag them along. I don’t know if they are speaking to me, or the emperor’s soldiers. I don’t let go of their hand.
My painting, The Butterfly Scholar, is a small ink wash hanging scroll of a young man dressed like a traditional scholar, surrounded by a swarm of black butterflies. Out of all the paintings Woojin has in their home, I am the smallest. Everyone else is anchored to the murals on the walls, the doors, the folding screens. They are all too big or heavy to be carried, except for me. Woojin carries my scroll with them, wrapped in a protective cloth and tucked safely inside their robes.
So I am the one who guides them up the stairwell. The smoke is heavy in the confined space and makes them cough. They keep their sleeve pressed over their nose and mouth and close their eyes. I squeeze their hand as I lead them out onto the roof where the smoke spills out and scatters in the night air.
There is no moon tonight, and the stars are dim in comparison to the orange glow of the inferno devouring our home. We keep low to the roof, for fear of drawing the eye of any curious soldier on the ground, but the dense plumes of smoke billowing around us seem to obscure us from view.
Down below, Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven still thrashes and batters at the emperor’s troops. Half of the wall around Woojin’s garden is demolished, most of the mural of dragons and clouds gouged out and ruined. But two of the original nine dragons remain, their paint still alive and glowing. They knock the soldiers back with their whip-like tails, guarding what is left of their painting, even as incandescence falls from their scales like snow as their spirit bodies weaken.
“Why?” Woojin whispers hoarsely. They sit with their arms hanging limp, their legs splayed across the roof tiles. I wrap my arms around them, tucking my chin against their shoulder. They are crying again.
I don’t have any answers for Woojin. I don’t understand why the emperor decided we all should die. I don’t think I want to understand it. The only thing that matters is that Woojin gets out of here alive.
My spirit body fragments into thousands of butterflies, black as ink, just like the ones in my painting. Countless wingbeats whisper through the night air as I lift Woojin up.
It is my turn to carry them now.
Down in the ruined garden, the last two remnants of Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven disintegrate into glimmering dust.
And Woojin escapes, carried away into the night sky on a procession of dark wings.
Spread the word!