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They had only one cannon left.
Mulan held her breath, digging her heels deep into the snow as she surveyed the valley ahead for any sign of the Huns.
From the heights above where, only minutes ago, a barrage of enemy arrows had rained down death upon them — also nothing.
All was still. Too still.
Mulan knew better than to hope the silence meant the Huns had retreated. No, with each passing second, her apprehension grew. None of the soldiers beside her — Yao or Ling or Chien-Po, or even her dragon guardian, Mushu — said a word.
Something was wrong. She could feel it.
Her eyes focused on a plume of smoke curling across the top of the hill, moving like a dark and foreboding shadow. As it thinned into the air, Mulan's brow furrowed.
There was something behind the smoke. No, someone.
Dread twisted in her gut. Even from a distance, there was no mistaking the imposing form mounted on a black horse.
The smoke lifted, revealing an endless line of Hun soldiers on horseback, rimming the hills and blocking their way. They were surrounded.
There were barely ten men left in Captain Li Shang's regiment against an overwhelming force of Huns. And the Huns had the advantage of attacking from above. Mulan knew what everyone must be thinking. How could they possibly survive?
Captain Li Shang tightened the collar of his red cape, then turned to face his soldiers. His expression was grim, but resolute. "Prepare to fight," he said. "If we die, we die with honor."
Her pulse pounding in her ears, Mulan clenched her fists and sucked in the cold, cold air. She didn't know whether her knees were buckling from fear or from hopelessness. Or both.
She didn't want to be afraid. There was no dignity in fear. But there was no hope. After all, what could she do? It was clear Shang believed they could only stand their ground and fight.
Still, she drew her sword with hesitation. There had to be another way.
With a ferocious battle cry, Shan-Yu led the charge to war. His steed raced down the snow-covered slope, followed by his men. The sound of the horses thundering down the hill was a terrible counterpoint to Mulan's racing heart. She squeezed the hilt of her sword, trying to tune out the sound, but it was impossible. Her eyes froze on the storm of white cascading over the Huns as they ripped across the snow.
"Yao," Shang said calmly, "aim the cannon at Shan-Yu."
More like a firecracker than a cannon, Mulan thought glumly. Too small to rest all our hopes on. It was barely larger than her torso, with a red dragon's head at the tip.
Yao, the shortest soldier, swung the cannon left and right, trying to find the best position to fire at Shan-Yu.
She frowned. Eliminating their leader would likely throw the Huns into disarray and slow their invasion. But even if they killed Shan-Yu, the rest of the Hun army would slaughter them.
She forced her focus ahead, knowing she needed to prepare herself mentally for battle, but she couldn't take her mind off Shang's command to Yao. Something about it felt ... wrong.
Her sword weighed heavily in her hand. She stared at the polished blade, wondering if its reflection would be the last sight she ever caught of herself. Would she die as Ping, the Fa son she'd made up so she could join the army in her father's place? If she died here, in the middle of this snow-covered mountain pass, she'd never see her father or her family again.
Mulan swallowed hard. Who would believe that only a few months ago, her biggest concern had been impressing the Matchmaker? She could barely remember the girl she'd been back then. She'd worn layer upon layer of silk, not plates of armor, her waist cinched tight with a satin sash instead of sore from carrying a belt of weapons. Her lips had been painted with rouge instead of chapped from cold and lack of water, her lashes highlighted with coal that she now could only dream of using to fuel a fire for warmth.
How far she'd come from that girl to who she was now: a soldier in the Imperial army.
Maybe serving her country as a warrior was truer to her heart than being a bride. Yet when she saw her reflection in her sword, she knew she was still pretending to be someone else. She'd never have a chance to find out who that person was, because she, Mulan, was about to die.
And the one thing she regretted most was that she'd never make her family proud of her.
The Huns drew closer. As Mulan raised her sword higher, a flash on the blade caught her eye again. Not her reflection this time, but that of a snowy overhang on a peak behind the Huns.
Her thoughts quickened as she tilted the blade from side to side, then glanced up, taking in the massive snow embankment.
She had an idea. It was crazy, and it would mean disobeying Shang's order. But if it worked ...
Mulan's heart raced with a sudden burst of hope. What was there to lose? If she didn't try, they'd all die. Even if her plan succeeded, they likely wouldn't survive ... but China — she could save China from the Huns.
No time for second thoughts.
Mulan sheathed her sword and lunged forward, grabbing the cannon from Yao.
"Hey!" he shouted after her, but Mulan was already racing toward the Huns.
It was the boldest, wildest thing she had ever done. She tucked the cannon under her arm, barely noticing as Mushu grabbed hold of her scarf so he could keep up. Up the hill she ran, and with each step she grew more determined and less afraid.
Behind, Shang shouted after her, "Ping! Come back! Ping!"
She ignored him. The Huns were descending fast. She had only moments before Shan-Yu was upon her and his army crushed what was left of Shang's troops.
Mulan stopped and planted the cannon into the snow, aiming it at the overhang, praying she had picked a good spot.
This could work — if Shan-Yu didn't kill her first. He was so close she could smell his horse's sweat, so close she could see his black eyes glaring at her.
Her blood thundered in her ears. Distantly she could hear Mushu telling her to hurry. She fumbled in her pocket for her pieces of flint and frantically tried to light the cannon's fuse.
She didn't see Shan-Yu's falcon soaring overhead. It swooped down, its powerful wing knocking her back into the snow and scattering the flint rocks behind her.
Mulan jolted up.
No no no, she thought as she swept the snow for the flint. She couldn't find it!
She looked up. Shan-Yu was charging straight for her.
She grabbed Mushu by the neck, squeezing until he choked a breath of fire. It was just enough to light the cannon. Sulfur burned into the air. Mulan crouched, holding the weapon steady as it shot off toward the overhang.
Shan-Yu's horse reared from the cannon's explosion, but Mulan was barely aware of the Hun leader. Her gaze was locked on the overhang, and on the rocket arcing smoothly toward it until it finally lodged itself into the snow.
A loud rumbling erupted. Snow plummeted off the precipice, washing down into the pass in fearsome white sheets. Avalanche!
Mulan grinned. She'd done it.
She stumbled, struggling to keep upright as the ground shook. She needed to get back to the others.
Suddenly Shan-Yu loomed above, and her grin faltered. Up close, he was like a mountain himself — broad and large, his fists alone the size of Mulan's head.
Shan-Yu's deep-set eyes narrowed with rage, and he lifted his sword with one powerful arm, ready to deliver her a crushing blow.
"Ping!" Shang shouted from behind. Before she could draw her sword to try to defend herself, Shan-Yu let out a furious cry and swung his blade.
Mulan braced herself for the blow.
It never came. Shang shoved her out of the way. It happened so fast. Before Mulan even tumbled into the snow, she heard a rush of wind, and the swipe of Shan-Yu's blade.
Then a low, pained grunt.
"No!" Mulan cried, lifting her head and pushing herself up. "Shang!"
The captain's red cape fluttered behind him, caught in the wind. For a moment, she couldn't see him, and she thought maybe, maybe it was the Hun leader's grunt she had heard. Maybe Shang had defeated him.
Then Shang's cape settled, sweeping over his back as before. And any hope Mulan had died.
She saw he was hurt, too hurt to even lift his sword. It fell from his hand into the snow with a thump. Shang staggered back, his boots grinding into the snow. He raised his fists, not about to give up.
"Is this the best China has to offer?" Shan-Yu said, laughing.
"Go, Ping," Shang rasped, as Mulan raced to help him. "Go."
She wasn't fast enough.
With one swift punch, Shan-Yu knocked Shang off his feet.
And the captain collapsed.
"NO!" Mulan screamed.
Shan-Yu laughed again and jumped off his horse, blade in his hand. He stabbed it into the snow, wiping it clean of Shang's blood. Then he advanced toward Mulan, cleaving the air with such strong strokes that the wind whipped Mulan's cheeks.
Shan-Yu was a mere step away. She was next.
Don't panic, don't panic. Mulan drew her sword just in time to block Shan-Yu's blade before it sliced her chest.
He was strong, far stronger than she was. He overpowered her easily, and Mulan knew she couldn't hold him off for long. But she hoped she wouldn't have to.
Shan-Yu's back was to the bucking avalanche of snow that was rapidly flowing toward them.
Mulan gathered all her strength and resolve. Then, the moment she saw an opening, she lowered her sword and swept her leg at Shan-Yu's ankle. It surprised the Hun, and he stumbled back, thrashing to regain his balance in the snow.
That second was all she needed. Mulan whirled away and grabbed Shang by the arm to help him up.
The captain's face was very pale. The armor concealed his wound, but his hand, which clutched his side, was stained with bright red blood.
Act first, worry later. "Come on," she said between breaths, draping his arm around her shoulder. "We can do this."
Together, they ran. Shang breathed heavily at her side, but she wouldn't let him slow down. The bottom of the hill was so close. There was a large rock there where Yao and the others had taken shelter. If they could just reach it ...
The wind bellowed, strong gusts pushing them forward. Mulan could feel the avalanche behind them. It had gathered speed, like a river released from its dam and gushing with full force and might. The cold whipped at Mulan's back, and heavy clouds of snow hurtled through the air above them. If they didn't move faster, the avalanche would swallow them.
She shouted for her horse, "Khan!"
Mulan stole a glimpse over her shoulder, just in time to see the mountain fall apart into large chunks of ice. Shan-Yu and the rest of the Hun army vanished into the snow, their shouts and cries smothered by the avalanche.
The ground roared and shuddered. Snow was everywhere, forcing itself into Mulan's eyes and nose and mouth. She clamped her mouth shut, only to have to gasp for air seconds later, the chill filling her lungs.
She focused ahead, widened her stride. Keep going. Don't look back. We're halfway there.
At her side, Shang was rapidly growing weaker, and they both knew it. Mulan was practically dragging him as she ran.
"I-I'm slowing you down," Shang said, wheezing. "Leave me and go ahead."
"Not a chance." She gripped Shang's arm so hard she could barely feel her fingers anymore. She wouldn't give up. She'd run until the end.
The avalanche thundered behind them, snapping trees and erasing everything in its path. A familiar neigh startled Mulan.
Her horse powered toward her, his black mane powdered white with snow. Mulan leapt onto his back and reached down to grab Shang — but not fast enough. The avalanche had caught up with them, and it pulled Shang into its icy tide.
No no no, Mulan thought, watching the snow carry him farther and farther away. She kneed Khan into the flow and they drifted along with the avalanche's current, Mulan searching desperately for Shang. She couldn't tell which direction was north or south, east or west — there was only out of the snow and in it. The avalanche grew stronger by the second, washing down the hill with brutal force. Snow buried them, covering them in darkness. But each time they fell, Khan kicked and leapt clear of the snow, and Mulan resumed her search.
"Shang!" she yelled. "Shang!"
A flash of red caught her eye. She spotted the captain up ahead, unconscious and sinking into the snow. "Hyah!" she said, urging Khan toward him. Shang let out a groan as she pulled him up by his shoulders and folded him over Khan's back.
Mulan turned Khan back toward the rock. It was close now, but the pulsing waves of snow were too strong. They were impossible to navigate. From this distance, Mulan could see her friends watching her struggle.
Yao stood with his bow in his hand. He waved it at them, shouting something Mulan couldn't hear.
Ling, the slim and energetic soldier with Yao and Chien-Po, pointed at the rope attached to one of the arrows. Now Mulan understood. They were going to try to pull her to safety!
Keeping one arm over Shang's unconscious body, Mulan waved her free hand to show she was ready.
Yao raised his bow and shot the arrow. It arced high into the sky, and for a moment Mulan feared that the roiling avalanche might devour it too. It landed just beside her and Mulan grasped it, tying the rope around Khan's belly. But the rope slipped through Yao's grasp!
Mulan gritted her teeth, but she didn't panic. Every second mattered now, and she had to figure out a way to save them all before they fell off the cliff.
Spotting the bow on Khan's pack, she reached for it and aimed the arrow back at her friends.
Please catch it, please catch it, she pleaded, watching the arrow and rope soar back toward Yao, Ling, and Chien-Po. She couldn't see them from the rush of the avalanche.
Mushu hollered in Mulan's ears as they swooped down with the snow, almost falling off the cliff. But she kept watching the rope, kept waiting —
Suddenly, the rope grew taut. The snow washed around them instead of with them, and Khan let out a loud neigh as he kicked against the current.
Mulan craned her neck, not daring to hope.
She could see her friends above, just along the edge of the cliff. And yes, they had caught the rope! She held her breath as the rope stretched, and the soldiers heaved together, pulling them to safety behind the rock.
Finally, Chien-Po, the strongest of her friends, lifted Shang off Mulan's lap.
They'd made it.
Mulan dismounted, pulled Khan by the reins, and grabbed Mushu. She pressed her back against the rock, squeezing her eyes shut as the tail end of the avalanche washed down the hill.
Finally, the ground stopped shaking, and the air grew still.
Mulan coughed and kicked her way out of the drifts. The others were doing the same. Mushu plucked Cri-Kee, their lucky cricket, out of the snow.
Mulan caught her breath. The sweat on her temples and neck had frozen, and she wiped the frost from her face and shook the snow from her uniform. She patted Khan's head, then turned to face her comrades. Yao, Ling, Chien-Po, and even Chi Fu, the Emperor's arrogant adviser — she could hardly believe they'd all survived. "Thank you. Thank you."
"Well, we couldn't let you die," Yao said, smiling.
Ling raised his fist in agreement. "You're the bravest of us all!"
Mulan exhaled, and slowly, her shoulders relaxed with relief. She and Shang had made it out of the avalanche alive.
At once, her good spirits faded. She moved toward the captain, whom Chien-Po had managed to keep out of the snow. Shang's face was even paler than before.
"He's still unconscious," Chien-Po said. Outwardly, his expression was serene as always, but Mulan detected a hint of worry in his voice.
"He's wounded," said Mulan. "He needs medical —"
Shang stirred, clutching the cape wrapped over his chest.
Chien-Po brightened. "Look, he's waking up."
Shang coughed and wheezed, and Mulan squeezed his shoulder. "Easy, easy."
The captain blinked, then let out a labored breath. He turned to Mulan, his thick brows furrowing into an unreadable expression. "Ping," said Shang, trying to sit up.
Mulan straightened, preparing for a rebuke.
"Ping, you are the craziest man I've ever met." He paused. "And for that I owe you my life. From now on, you have my trust."
A slow smile broke out on Mulan's face.
"Let's hear it for Ping!" her friends cheered. "The king of the mountain!"
Shang opened his mouth to join in the cheer, then winced and exhaled harshly.
Mulan caught him by the arm. "Shang?"
"I ... just need to ... sleep." Shang closed his eyes.
Excerpted from "Reflection"
Copyright © 2018 Disney Enterprises, Inc..
Excerpted by permission of Disney Book Group.
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