Chapter 3: A Dawning Comprehension
Zhang looks at the glazed-over eyes of the young warrior Meng and knows that he still needs more time. Time, the ultimate cure for all pains. He shakes his head bitterly. Pity it doesn’t work on everyone. He looks across at Xun Zhen and sees his student deep in thought. Xun Zhen looks up at him and gives him an absent nod.
Xun Zhen suddenly feels a tiny prick like a mosquito bite on his right hand. He puts his left hand into his right sleeve to retrieve his handkerchief. He can’t find it. A different handkerchief appears in front of him.
He glances at the Old Man as he takes the handkerchief and looks down again. He is not quite sure how to act around the Old Man. Absently, he lifts his right hand and he notices the scab where there should have been a dripping cut from that slash by the bandit aimed at the Old Man. His face blanches.
He looks up and the two of them locks eyes. He knows the Old Man has seen it too. “Why? Can you tell me now, the full truth? Final wish to a dying man?” Xun Zhen asks his mentor, without any anger. He finally realises that the only reason for him to cling onto his grudge with the Old Man is because he still cares deeply for his mentor. He smiles a little ironically to himself. He had come seeking closure and now he has attained it partially. His predominant wish is for their final parting to be in dignity and unblemished in every single way. Yet, he still has a burning need to know what had driven the Old Man to leave him all those years ago. He must have had a stronger reason that what he had revealed, a reason the Old Man thought I would be better off not knowing. But I can’t take this sense of unknowing into the grave with me. He gazes at the Old Man in all earnestness.
Zhang stares dumbfounded at the back of Xun Zhen’s right hand. Morning Dew? The infamous Mage’s Bane- a slow acting poison that will only kill mages but kill them with certainty, turning the store of magic in their very blood into poison. Moreover, the beauty of it is that it is completely undetectable afterwards. No means to trace back to the mastermind who so irks the School of Magic.
Finally he knows from whence his dread really came from that he dismissed as the common fault to all mortals: the fear of passing on. What a fool he was, in thinking that he himself will be the one that Fate finally catches up with. Not Xun Zhen, his most precious pupil, the son he never had. How could he have read the omens so wrong? Aye, the Fickleness of Heaven, the make and doom of them all.
Hearing Xun Zhen’s dying request, his interrupted recollection of the fateful reading years ago rushes to the fore of his mind and takes him completely.
He had attained a result. He wished he hadn’t. Losing what he most values is worse than losing his own life. Pupils he had aplenty but none as fit to succeed him in the all right ways or in one key element only: Integrity. Xun Zhen, his pride and hope. No, he will preserve it at all costs.
He made another divination a few days later, to search for the single Thread of Chance out of such a dire situation. Leave, it urged him. Leave everything behind you, let you and what you hold most dear never cross path again and both shall be safe. So Fate beckoned him and he followed.
Zhang is about to lay all bare but a feeling stops him short, telling him Not Yet. “The Time is not right but it is not long away. Your wish shall be satisfied.”
“So be it.” Xun Zhen knows that the Old Man will reveal all in due time. He just needs to hang on till then.
Xun Zhen walks over to the newly promoted Yin Yi (Shadow One). He hands over a single blue crystal. “Keep this on your person. It will protect you on your journey back.” Without me, Xun Zhen adds to himself in his own mind. There is no need to further burden the young man with unexpected departures.
Meng simply nods in acknowledgement, still in too much of a stupor to observe the right courtesy to the Imperial Master Geomancer.
Meng arranges for the three of them to walk in single file towards the east and puts the more vulnerable- the more elderly- of his two charges in the middle. They are now travelling along a dilapidated road worn in by human traffic as opposed to being built. To either side of them sprawl dense foliage and odd boulders that provide ample room for ambushers to hide in. Meng doesn’t like it. He tries to keep his eyes trained on every shadowy alcove he can see ahead but he can feel his concentration being not as sharp as usual. He unconsciously frowns as he keep his ears cocked for odd disturbances from behind. Threats can be creeping up on them any time.
“Stop,” Zhang suddenly speaks up. This takes Meng by surprise. He turns to Zhang in puzzlement.
“We have walked into a zhan– a formation. We are not truly going anywhere.” Zhang announces gravely.
“What?” Meng stares at him without comprehension.
“I see you have never heard the story of Xu Shu breaking through the Formation of the Eight Doors with Golden Locks. Never mind, we don’t have time to go into it. Just know that we are trapped via magic.” Our mission is on the brink of failure, Xun Zhen thinks gravely to himself and promptly follows on with the summary for Meng, “Of the eight doors out of the formation, we need to choose one of the right ones- the Doors of Life- to enter.” Then he turns to the Old Man. “How many Doors of Life would you say there are in this particular formation?”
“More than one for sure. They wouldn’t dare use a life and death formation. The signs would be too telling that our demise did not come by via accidents.” Zhang surmises, exchanging a quick look with Xun Zhen when he comes to the word telling. “Besides, I doubt that they can find any Geomancer reckless or foolhardy enough to not fear the backlash from a life and death formation in the scenario that it is broken by those trapped inside.”
Meng is bewildered by the exchange between the two Geomancers, which shows on his face.
“Worry not, lad, we will take care of this business.” Zhang tells Meng.
Xun Zhen doubts the remark. “How are we to identify a Door of Life?”
“We don’t have to. There is another way.”
Zhang nods. “Find the Eye of the Formation and break it, thus breaking the formation.” Stroking his thin elegant beard, Zhang follows on with his conjecture. “The best way our opponents can use a formation for is to trap us with the main goal of delay. After all, we don’t just need a Nine-Ringed Balsam, we need a fully grown one. And it is nearly fall such that a small delay can mean that we will arrive at our destination only to find a withered plant. That will serve our opponents better than having us all slain. Even ‘accidental deaths’ can be looked at askance when the stake is so high. A failed mission, on the other hand, is much less prone to suspicions. Chances are that this formation was set up such that it would expire after a few days so that the mission’s failure would be rather close and therefore convincing.”
“Old Man, time is slipping by.” Time that is critical to this mission and the whole kingdom. Xun Zhen feels that his blood is pulsing with urgency even as a tinge of affection creeps into his voice.
“Very well,” Focus returns to Zhang’s eyes and his face tightens up into a state of concentration as he promptly concludes, “A formation designed to trap us will be one for which finding a Door of Life is difficult. So we do what they did not anticipate.”
“How do we find the Eye of the Formation? We can’t tell the way while trapped.”
“Ah, but we can. Our eyes are tricked while we are inside but we can rely on some of our other senses.”
At the behest of the Old Man, they start to blindfold themselves. Meng stops them. “Can you hear a plea of help? It is faint, from a distance away.”
“Ignore it. It is a trick.” Zhang tells him.
“I thought you said only our eyes will trick us.”
“Mainly your eyes, yes, but things you hear from a distance will also be tricks.”
“Then what can we rely upon?”
“It depends on the ones trapped within. Sight and hearing are the most untrustworthy of all senses in any formation. The other ones should operate as usual. However, if one’s mind is convinced enough of a certain reality that the formation wishes to enforce, then the mind might conjure from memory what is not there to enforce the illusion.”
Meng sniffs, “I can smell a faint trace of blood coming from the right.”
“I think you are detecting the direction of our carriage. Since the entry point to this formation lies close to it, the Eye of the Formation will not be in the same vicinity. We should definitely not head towards the right.”
“Which direction should we move in then?”
Zhang looks across at Xun Zhen.
“Why me?” Xun Zhen looks uncertain. Am I the most suitable to lead? When so much depends on me? Can I trust myself to lead this mission towards success, to save a kingdom teetering on the edge of mayhem and innocent blood from being shed?
He is reminded of the sense of disorientation he felt in the aftermath of the Old Man’s departure, when responsibility was suddenly thrust upon him. He wasn’t ready for that set of responsibility. He tried his best to bear it, to lead in the best way he could. But he knew in his heart that he was not born to lead. All he had reaped from leadership was exhaustion. He abhorred leadership, abhorred the thought that he would have responsibility for more than himself.
Fate is a trickster, the Old Man was fond of saying. What Xun Zhen personally experienced indeed proved the statement correct and here comes around the second time that he will be thrust into a leadership role.
Zhang looks at the deep impressions between Xun Zhen’s brows that mimic the character of Chuan– three vertical lines with the leftmost having a tiny curve leftwards at the end. His shoulders are not strong enough for the burdens he needs to bear, Zhang reflects, just as mine aren’t. Zhang sighs. An object rots and then worms burrow holes in it. So it is with the Imperial Court. A pity that those who unavoidably suffer and often suffer first are not the ones who create the rot but the innocent populace. Those who toil endlessly but whose labors go more towards feeding the privileged rather than themselves. I couldn’t have stood by and let the innocent suffer just to preserve Xun Zhen. It was Fate.
Zhang glances at Xun Zhen again, who is still lost in his own agitation. Should I hold back any longer? Xun Zhen, he is a truth seeker. Not knowing genuinely gives him pain. Should I tempt Fate?
“Do you know why I picked you out to be my pupil?” Xun Zhen is shaken out of his reverie by his mentor’s question. He looks at the Old Man with curiosity.
“Because you have clear eyes that cleave to the heart of the matter. And it is not just your eyes, it’s an inborn sense that you have of the truth of things. That is why I gave you your name.” Zhang answers him.
“But you are the one more familiar with the Art of Qi Men Dun Jia that underlies formations such as this one?”
“Useless in terms of helping find the way within the formation. That is why I suggest we tackle the formation by searching for the Eye of the Formation instead of a Door of Life. You are our only hope out of this.”
“Are we sure that there won’t be ambushes waiting for us somewhere within this formation?” Meng asks hesitantly when Xun Zhen walks up to him to ask that the two of them change positions.
“Unless they have the one who set up this formation actually directing the ambush within it, any ambushers would be as trapped as we are. And no mage would be willing to stay within a formation he has set up because the backlash would be fatal if the formation is ever broken.” Zhang assures him.
Meng casts Zhang a somewhat doubtful look but acquiesces to have Xun Zhen leading them instead. Each of them blindfolds himself briskly and puts his hands on the shoulder of the person in front of him so that they would not be separated.
“Which way to go?” Xun Zhen mumbles at the front of the three-man queue. He can’t get his feet off the ground.
“Don’t think. Just move.” The Old Man’s voice speaks close to his ears, calming him.
Xun Zhen follows the directions, gingerly. Emptying himself as if in preparation for a spell, he sets forth towards the left.
As they have given up their sights, their other senses have grown sharper, unnaturally so. All manners of sounds conjured by the formation come to them as they plod on at a crawling pace- some as mundane as the louds calls of business from mirror polishers and other common peddlers, others eerie, unsettling or downright incomprehensible. They do their best to ignore the cacophony but an urge to hurry have built up within each of them. Xun Zhen keeps a tight rein over his. The poison seeping through his being and weakening him physically is actually helping him in this regards. He is taking full advantage of it to make sure he is truly leading them where he feels it right to go.
Yet, as time goes on, Xun Zhen feels that sleep is an imminently attractive prospect. The still alert part of him knows his time is running out. When his mind is totally given over to such lethargy, he will fade into oblivion.
“Have we found the Eye already?” Meng’s interjection makes Xun Zhen realise that he has actually stopped moving. He almost tips over. He bites hard on his lips and the pain allows him to concentrate hard enough so that he can still stand upright. Yet, when he tries to step forward, a series of quivers runs through the muscles of his legs. Doubts start to surface in his mind. Would the Old Man’s trust in my instincts prove wrong? How could he be so certain when I myself am unsure?
“Steady. Discard all your thoughts.” The opportune advice comes from the Old Man.
“Are you sure that I….” Xun Zhen finds it hard to finish his sentence.
“Nothing is sure until after the fact. When the present becomes the past.”
“Just concentrate on leading us forwards. Let your feet move of their own accords.”
“Surely it doesn’t have to be me who leads. There are three of us.”
“It’s too late to change leadership.” Zhang says pointedly.
“I can’t go on. How can you be so sure when I’m not?” Xun Zhen bursts out.
“Because we have no better choice.”
“What about you? Why can’t you lead us?”
“Do you sincerely believe that I can lead us out of here? You know truth has never been my pursuit. I follow Chance and nothing else.”
“You are uncertain because you have become lost in thoughts of your inadequacies and secondary details. Focus on making the next step forwards in the right direction and you will be fine. Remember what is at stake if we fail.” Zhang concludes.
Xun Zhen does not reply. They trudge on.
“Ought ought ought ought”. The chorus of the roosters announce the start of yet another day. Another day of the endlessly repeating days at a village.
Village? I haven’t been back here for a long time. What’s all the commotion about? The air buzzes. It buzzes with excitement, excitement for whatever breaks in on the incessant monotony of a village life.
I become curious. I look around at the faces standing close to me. My memories are stirring but no concrete image arises for me to associate it with a name. Idly I run through the list of names I can still remember. My best friends Da Niu (Big Cow) and Sha Wa (Third Child), one with a crooked tooth and the other able to clamber up a tree unbelievably fast on his stubby legs. Xiao Liu, the one who constantly whimpers about being bullied to his mother, the Widow Chen who will subsequently make a scene in front of someone’s front yard. That girl- I can’t even remember her name now- always wearing a red bit of cloth on her hair and constantly playing with it so that everyone will notice it….
As a thought trails off and another one is yet to form, I detect a change in the way the air buzzes. Now, it is permeated by a sense of anticipation, anticipation of something dramatic, something bad.
I cringe. I get an urge to run away. Instead, my feet glide forward as if pulled. I shouldn’t have been able to move so quickly amongst the crowd converging upon the scene. But people part before me like reeds bending to the wind.
A sense of familiarity settles in, as if I am experiencing something that I have already been through many times before. Dread is shouting at me to get back. I don’t want to see the upcoming sight, it screeches.
The first thing that I notice is the colour of dried blood. I’ve always thought it to be a rather unpleasant colour, much more so than fresh blood. It is a dead colour. Strangely, the expression of the corpse is not contorted. This is rather unlike many of those who had perished through violence and quite a few mortals who hadn’t but had deemed that death had come upon them when they are not ready. Mortals are never ready for death, even though they know that such an eventuality will come.
The real unsettling sight about the corpse is his eyes because of the emotions captured in them. I see layers that lie underneath the sense of accusation that I always remember and is the only thing that I really remember of them. In a flash, I know why this pair of eyes stayed with me all throughout the years. Instead of making you so guilty that you look away, the gaze contains just enough compassion and empathy that you want to continue looking into them. It makes you ask “Why? Why are we born to such a time, a time meant for tragedies?” It’s a pair of eyes that you get lost in, lost in the vortex of emotions in them that also get evoked and reflected in yourself.
Xun Zhen ‘wakes up’ from his recurring nightmare- he realises that he is still within the formation, with everyone depending on him to lead them out. Unlike all preceding occasions when he lives through the scene of the dead soldier brought back to his village again, there is no cold sweat and no pounding heart. All there is is determination. In how many other villages did similar or maybe even the exact same scene occur? How many lives were touched as mine had been?
He recalls his personal resolution that there be no repeat occurrence of the scene anywhere on the lands of Xia. That is why the mission cannot fail and he cannot personally fail. For that end, he cannot afford to be weak. With that in mind, he sets his steps firmly forwards.
Xun Zhen is just about to make the last step forward, with relief. A warning rises sharp and poignant within him, stopping him.
This is not right. Xun Zhen thinks. But…is this what truly arise within myself, or is that what the formation wants me to believe?
Xun Zhen ponders this for a moment with no resolution. I need to feel it again. He decides. “Let’s take a step back when I count to three.” They do so without mishaps.
Xun Zhen reaches his leg forwards with deliberate slowness. Nothing, nothing, a twitch of fear from within and then the warning. He smiles. The smile wilts just as fast. His physical weakness is pursuing him relentlessly and it has caught up again. I can’t give up yet. I can’t afford to. Therefore, I shall go on. Except, to where? Xun Zhen feels as if his entire being has turned into individual sand particles that rub against and bruise each other. He cannot think nor feel anything. How do I go on?
Once Again, Xun Zhen is drawn into a reflection on their mission. He has never allowed himself to contemplate the possibility of failure but now they are standing half a step away from failing. He feels strangely indifferent. Or rather, he is too exhausted to care anymore. He tried his best and what more can he do? What more can one do when one is only a single individual, a speck of dust among a multitude? That’s all that we mortals are, be us commoners or nobles, mundane people or Geomancers.
Regret rises sharp as a needle and pricks Xun Zhen. He should have done more for himself. He toiled day and night for the Xia kingdom and its people yet everything is on the verge of unwinding. If he knew that would be the outcome he would have sought out the Old Man straight away rather than waiting. He is still waiting. I won’t willing rest till I know the truth.
From this thought a spark springs. Only a third of a finger tall, it burns white hot, transforming the sand granules that make up Xun Zhen into liquid within heartbeats. When this liquid cools down, Xun Zhen feels as if he has been reforged into a crystalline being with newfound clarity. He feels a sense of beckoning, as if he is receiving a signal from the tapestry of the world itself that moving an inch to the right is the right way to go.
He trusts this signal and strides boldly onwards. One Pace. Two Pace. Three Paces. Four Paces. He bends down and picks up a small piece of flat rock. It buzzes in his hands as he crashes it into powder.
Xun Zhen takes off his blindfold. Looking around, he notices that they can still see their abandoned carriage from where they are standing now. The formation can indeed warp distances. “We have broken the formation.” he informs his companions. “Let’s hurry.”
“Wait.” Meng halts them with a whisper.
Xun Zhen looks at him questioningly but is too tired to speak.
“I think there is another surprise awaiting us.” Meng glances ahead pointedly. As if on cue, a band of ruffians ride into the party’s line of vision. They grin maliciously and their eyes shout “Prey!”