Angry faces loom in my vision as hands reach for me, clawing and groping. I never would have expected to fear attack from my own people, but the world as I’ve known it has drastically changed in a matter of days. Someone tears the sleeve of my shirt, and I feel nails gauge my cheek. Fearing worse, I hastily back up until there’s no more surface on the stage left. My attackers move with me, and I only just escape them by hopping down, though a few bold ones do the same. On the ground, I am plunged into the chaos of the mob and soon lose those who are pursuing me as the crowd in the village’s center becomes even more frenzied.
Many, not realizing that most of my paintings are gone and that I’ve left the stage, are still trying to get to the dais. Others are turning on one another. Conversations are flying fast and furious, too difficult for me to follow all the signs. But I see certain things repeated over and over— lies , death , and food . It’s clear the majority of the people around me don’t believe what I’ve told them. They seem to think I concocted all this to save myself, and my heart sinks—not because they’d think so little of me but because they’ve become so enslaved by this system that they are terrified of breaking out of it.
There are a few, however, who seem to think there’s some truth to what I’ve said—but their support is almost detrimental. Some are those who’ve spoken out against the township before and are already angry and looking for a fight. They begin arguing with those who think I’m lying, and I am aghast to see actual physical altercations break out. I try to tell myself it’s all because my people are hungry and scared, that the uncertainty of the last day’s events has left them panicked and unsettled. But it’s still hard to see them degenerate into this madness, turning on one another when it’s imperative we stand together against the township.
Through the chaos, I see Zhang Jing at the back of the crowd, mostly out of the way of any danger. She is standing there wide-eyed, rooted to the spot with fear. Her gaze meets mine, and I quickly tell her, Wait, I’m coming. I don’t know if she understands, as two people in a shoving match stumble into me, knocking me to the ground. My body, already sore, hurts more than it should from the impact, but I manage to scramble to my feet before I get trampled. I’ve lost sight of Zhang Jing, but I nonetheless doggedly head in the direction I last spotted her.
Stop, stop! I sign frantically when I come across two apprentices I know from the school fighting with each other. They don’t even notice me, and without thinking, I force myself in between them to break up the fight. Don’t do this! We must unite!
They stare, astonished to find me there in their midst. I have no idea what they were fighting over, but suddenly they are united—in their hatred for me. Snarls fill their faces, and they both lunge for me, forcing me to jump back. I run into a tall man I don’t know who at first dismisses me and then does a double take when he recognizes who I am. Anger fills his face, and then he reaches for me too—
—just as a sound of unimaginable magnitude rips through our village.
Instinctively, I put my hands to my ears. Up until this point, the loudest sound I’d ever heard was the priest’s gong. No longer. This new noise reminds me of that boom a bit, but it is much, much more intense. In fact, the sound is so big, so powerful, that the very ground beneath us shakes, causing many people—including my current assailants—to pause and look around curiously. A few even glance up, and I don’t blame them. That kind of trembling is sometimes felt with thunder, but today the early morning sky is clear and full of sun.
A few shrug it off and immediately return to their squabbling. For others, it is a much-needed slap in the face, and I am relieved to see them step back from their conflict. But my relief is short-lived when I hear a new sound—an impossible sound, at least in our village. But there can be no question as the sound grows louder and louder: It is the noise made by horse hooves striking the earth, the very noise Li Wei and I were running from down below.
It can’t be , I think. There can’t be horses up here!
As the noise grows louder, I search around, trying to discern its source. I still have some difficulties gauging the location and distance of certain sounds. But as I get my bearings, I’m almost certain the horses are coming from the same direction as the initial boom. It’s a part of the mountain we rarely go, a place that was once used because of the narrow pass that led to a fertile valley and a path down the back of the mountain. Avalanches buried that narrow gap, creating an impenetrable, high wall that none have been able to get through . . .
. . . until now.
A feeling of dread builds within me, growing as the sound of the hooves gets closer and closer. Through the tumultuous crowd, I catch another glimpse of Zhang Jing, still waiting for me. But there is no time, not anymore. Go , I sign to her. Go and hide! Something terrible is about to happen!
To my relief, she turns and runs just as a new burst of noise surges behind me. I spin around in time to see a veritable army of soldiers on horseback galloping into the village’s center. With weapons raised, they ride in, uncaring of what or who is in their way. What I thought was chaotic earlier is nothing compared to what now ensues. It’s not just the soldiers and their weapons that cause the panic: The horses are equally terrifying. Like me, my people have never seen them outside of pictures. Equally rare and frightening is the sight of outsiders in our village. We’ve all seen the same faces our entire lives. New ones are a shock—especially when it’s clear these aren’t friendly.