Note: I am already on a 5 week holiday when this post becomes alive. I shall come back in the first week of April. And then I won’t be going away for a year and more.
Chapter 4: An Everlasting Companionship
Doom is approaching. Meng knows that he can never win against that many riders descending on them. While the two mages have shown that they can look out for themselves in single combats, he does not expect that they will fare as well with the current odds. Yet, he is getting an inch to do something, to release the pent up energy inside himself.
He hears a disturbance behind him amongst the two mages. He ignores it. If he is going down, he is going down as a man. Facing his enemies with unflinching gaze.
“Xun Zhen… Your Imperial Master Geomancer has fainted.”
What? Not now, we don’t need this. But what does it matter? We’re all going to die anyway. The mission, the mission the Captain entrusted to my hands, will be a failure. But so be it. The Captain and I, neither of us will outlive the mission. Let history make of us, and the mission, what it may. Probably just a small pen stroke if even that. Meng thinks as he glares ahead into the thundering horde speeding towards them like an unerring arrow.
The muscles around his eyes feel overworked. He can feel them twitching, disobeying his will for them to be still. He is not going to show visible signs of weakness to a band of ruffians. His honour as a warrior and an Imperial Guard dictates that he does not.
Suddenly, the riders pull up their reins, stopping just close enough to the party to display their leers. There is a taunting glint in their eyes, as if they are urging, “Come on. We will like to see you trying to run, preys.”
Meng feels a sting at the corner of his right eye as a twig-like line of sweat sashays down his forehead. He feels his pent up energy curling into a tight ball and rising to his chest where it is ready to burst any second. Captain, why must you leave? Leaving me alone with sole responsibility? How am I to properly repay your trust, now?
A trill of laughter rings out, surprisingly clear in a piercing way. “The rabbits are too scared to run. There won’t be even a chase. Not a very exciting hunt, is it?” A youth with a scar running across his left cheekbone astray a piebald mare remarks to another ruffian who has pulled up a stride behind him.
Rabbits they think us, do they? Meng’s temper explodes. I will show them how ‘timid’ we can be.
“Quick, take the weight of Xun Zhen off me, so that I can prepare our means of escape.” Zhang urges Meng.
Meng turn backs to hold the comatose Xun Zhen aloof by one arm. “What is the point of escape? We will be run down like game to hunters. If we are going to die at any rate, I do not want to die a coward’s death.”
“We are not dying, lad. We have the mission to complete…”
“The mission is doomed already.”
“It is not, yet.” Zhang reproaches Meng.
“Yes, yet. They don’t want to close in for the kill yet. They want to herd us and taunt us as they chase us down. They want to humiliate an Imperial Guard and take a warrior’s honour before they take his life.”
“Calm down, lad. What you say won’t happen.”
“Did you just make another divination? Is that what the omens tell you? Did the omens tell you about the Captain earlier?”
“That’s enough. Stop talking and watch. Surely you do not want your Captain to die in vain?”
Zhang takes out two small figurines of a galloping horse from his right robe sleeve. No more than inches wide on either side, they are cut out from fine cloth. They are of a strange yellow colour, like those paper charms that Daoists make to ward against ghosts and other things belonging to the nether realm. There are immaculately fine details on each of the figurines, from the facial expression of each horse as they hold their heads aloft to the way their mane bends with their movements.
Zhang throws the two figurines in the air. “Ta Sha Lao Jun Ji Ji Ru Lu Ling,” Zhang mumbles as he closes his palms together and lines up the top three fingers of each hand in a straight line while allowing the bottom two fingers to cross over to the other side. The figurines appear as if buffeted by winds and they fill up, acquiring a soul in moments, as they rapidly expand into the size of real horses. They give a loud nicker as they paw the ground, eager to be off.
Zhang mounts the one closer to himself. When he looks in front again, Meng is already astray with the body of Xun Zhen slung over in front. Together, the two of them swerve around the group of ruffians.
Meng turns his head back briefly to look at their would-be slayers. He feels maliciously satisfied with the slack jaws that he sees on quite a few faces among them.
Meng looks back to measure the distance between themselves and their pursuers. This is already the sixth time? Or the seventh? He has lost count already. Their pursuers are determined and what little mirth he had at their expense earlier is already overtaken by dread. He feels regret and shame. If only he can hold onto a semblance of mind presence, he would not have delayed them so much. Now the riders on their tail seems unshakeable. It is all his fault. He has besmirched the Captain’s name and memory.
The old mage is right. The Captain nearly died in vain and all because of my own incompetence. How could I have given up so easily? Fallen so completely into the way of an empty-headed warrior only driven by fighting instincts? That is the anathema of all the training the Captain took us through.
Zhang observes the young warrior hunched over in despondency and feels for him. “Lad, your Captain is watching from the Heavens. He would not wish you grief. Let him gaze upon you in your full dignity.”
“I already lost my dignity. I was trained as an Imperial Guard but I acted like a broadsword wielding ruffian who knows nothing except kill or be killed. The Captain would feel ashamed of and for me if he is watching from the Heavens.”
“We all have lapses, there is no need to feel ashamed. Learn your lessons and move on. The Captain would understand. He will feel compassion for you rather than shame.”
“How can you know? You are not the Captain.” Meng cannot help but look back again and is alarmed at seeing the closing pursuit.
“I am a mentor too. I also have a protege that I am willing to lay down my life for. We are two of a kind, your Captain and I.”
“Thank you.” Meng blurts out with his in-held breath. “They are closing with us. We need to shake them. Can we increase speed? I am not sure how to control this horse I am riding. It does not respond to my spurrings?”
“You are approaching it the wrong way. You merely need to will it for the horse to obey. But your ego has come to the fore, interposing itself between your true will and the horse.”
“Listen to me,” Zhang speaks in a serene voice, urging Meng to relax. “Empty your mind. Get into contact with your deep conscious.”
Meng inhales and exhales rhythmically, a practice that aligns his body with his warrior’s psyche.
“Build a bridge between your wish and the steed you are riding. Think of it as a real creature of flesh and blood.” The words come to him on a breeze, easily seeping into him.
He pictures himself on his own steed, Wind-rider. He ruffles Wind-rider’s mane affectionately and gives it a firm pat on the neck. Wind-rider half-turns to look back at him and makes a soft nicker. Meng gently urges it forward with his knees and Wind-rider glides into a gallop with its powerful forelegs.
The winds tickle Meng’s face in greeting as they rush past.
“The deed is done.” Meng opens his eyes and looks back. Indeed he cannot see any more riders on their tails.
Puffs of dusky yellow smoke are churning in the distance. Approaching riders and a fair number of them.
Meng meets eyes with the old mage riding half a horse’s stride back at his right shoulder. Too much coincidence. He starts to swerve left but his peripheral vision has caught movement. He hears his trusted whisper that says Wait.
Turning his gaze a little to the left and training in on this direction, he sees movement resolving into another large cluster of approaching riders. Between the two bands converging on them, they will be hemmed in.
Meng looks across at the old mage who doesn’t seem perturbed. “What would you have us do?”
“Remember what I told you about control of these horses? Your will is what counts. Simply wish for a way out and it will be done. Wait and see for yourself.”
Meng is frustrated. Why can’t these mages ever talk straight? What does he mean by wait and see for myself? To see what? The horses suddenly developing wings and flying us out of here?
“We don’t change course?” Meng asks skeptically.
“No, it is not needed.”
Silently, they ride towards a closing snare. Meng looks back over his shoulder and idly wonders whether they can backtrack to avoid the trap ahead.
“What about we backtrack? Surely we have shaken off the pursuit already.”
“Have you ever wondered about the ambushes and traps lying in wait for us? This is a secret mission, why are our opponents always a step ahead of us?”
“I… no, I never thought about that,” Meng concedes, “But what has that got to do with the situation now?”
“Do you really think that we will have shaken off the pursuit so easily given what we already experienced?”
Meng is lost for words.
“Have you thought about how they kept getting in front of us?”
“You mean there’s a traitor amongst us? But that’s impossible!”
“I said no such thing. They don’t need a traitor when they can pay the right mage to cast the right spell so they can keep track of us.”
“Can you do something about this? You know, counter their magic with yours?”
“You don’t understand magic at all, lad, do you? We mages are not immortals. Magic is only something we mages wield like you wield a weapon. Can you ask any swordsman to intercept an arrow and somehow cut it?”
The two of them stop. Meng turns his mount in a quarter circle so that he can glance to the left or right, what was front or back to them, at will. His heart sinks when a dust cloud rises on his right. The old mage is right. There must have been a leak somewhere. His hands clench into a fist.
Despite the old mage’s assurance, Meng cannot help craning his neck continuously between the left and right. The first figure to emerge from the blur at the left is a gaunt, almost stick-like man with a deathly pallor. His cheeks are completely sunken in as if they have collapsed inwards. Belying such apparent weakness, however, a mad gleam shines forth like rays of light focused through a small opening. His warrior instinct tells him that it is not just any mere madness, the man will be trouble in a fight. Over to the right, he cannot yet distinguish any figures yet.
Time seems to be warped. It passes disportionately slow relative to the distance and the speed of the riders. Tong tong tong tong. Meng worries that his heart is going to fall out of his chest any minute as he continues observing the two group of riders converging on them. Like two stake boards closing in to impale them as if they are tomb raiders. The mount under him starts fidgeting as if in response to his own wish to… to do something other than stand still.
He gazes to the right. Now he can see that the band of riders as being relatively larger in size compared to the group approaching from the left. Two men ride in the front. One is a muscular thug with a beard that juts out like needles. The other almost makes Meng laugh if not for the tension he feels- a comical figure with a bald head and a pockmarked face who looks like a toad.
Meng almost feels impatient as he waits to be snapped up by the two closing jaws. He turns back to the band of riders closer to them, counting out the estimated distance to them. Fifty miles, forty, thirty, twenty, ten. Suddenly, he feels a lurch as the mount under him steps onto the air as if scaling an invisible mountain track. It keeps climbing steadily as Meng feels disbelief. It is as good as the horses having really grown wings, he thinks as they fly out of the grasp of the closing noose.
Despite the passing wind scratching at Meng’s face, he is exhilarated beyond what a good ride provides him with. He is captivated by the sights he sees of the earth that they usually trod on as he looks down while flying on horseback. How amazing it is, to see as birds would see! To see the contours of the land undulating like waves or meandering like a lazy carp! Meng sees patterns from particular landmarks, a prancing rabbit here, two quiet maidens combing their hair by a river over there. It is like when he was a child when he used to see picture from clouds, a long-lost skills suddenly reacquired.
As Zhang observes the unconscious upturn in the corners of the young warrior’s mouth, he feels a temporary sense of relief. The young lad is a simple man, after all. The best cure for a wound is simply to not remember, however temporary. Besides, who is to say that frequent moments of temporary non-remembrance won’t make it into a resemblance of continuity? Zhang smiles too, unbeknownst to himself. The two have a lot of similarities, Xun Zhen and the lad. Both so simple at core. So pure. Alas, not to last. He is saddened again as his eyes light on the unconscious figure lying prone across the young warrior’s Jia Ma or Horse of Jia.
“Have you ever flown before?” Zhang turns towards the voice and a pair of eyes full of thirst for knowledge and enthusiasm greets him.
“I did not hear what you just said.” Zhang replies.
“Oh, I asked whether you had flown before.”
“Yes, once.” The pair of bright eyes eagerly proclaims Tell me more. Zhang cannot help but give in to the request.
“I was not much older than you back then, I was a student myself. We were journeying to explore a ruin and my mentor introduced me to flying just like how you were introduced.” Zhang chuckles at the recollection, “I thought he was making fun of me by not giving me prior warning and watching me fumble instead. We had some good times together, my teacher and I, and he wasn’t above pulling a trick or two on his students. But no, he wasn’t being playful that time. If he had told me earlier my misapprehension might have interfered with these horses taking to the air in the first place.”
“I almost forgot, I better teach you the incantation for these horses. You never know, it might become useful later on.”
The horses pause in mid-air and hang motionless. “What is happening?” Meng looks at the old mage quizzically.
“The horses cannot fly any higher. They’ve reached their limit.”
“Oh, then what do we do now?”
Zhang smiles, “It’s time for us to use our feet again.”
The two of them dismount after the horses spiral down from the air to trod upon the ground. Meng uprights the still comatose figure of the Imperial Master Geomancer and holds him up under his left elbow. Meng abruptly stops. He senses killing intent coalescing into a sharp needle ahead of them. “We’ve been fighting and running without rest for a long time now, let us rest a while here.” Meng suggests offhandedly as he flops on the ground.
Zhang frowns. Meng signals with his eyes for Zhang to sit next to him.
Before Zhang can speak, Meng whispers under his breath, “There is an ambush ahead. I can sense the killing intent.” Out loud, his words are completely different. “It’s been an arduous journey but we are finally safe now. Let them try to catch up with us again.” He pretends to snort contemptuously.
Meng feels his insides churning like a stew simmering in a pot. Here is another trap descending upon them, like a cage falling down atop our heads. This time it might be too late to side-step or even roll aside.
Xun Zhen feels his own consciousness emerging from amidst fog clouds, white as newly made cotton and as thick. He opens his eyelids and sits up. Completely confused over the surroundings, the words slip out of him, “Where am I?”
Zhang sees Xun Zhen sitting up and feels a pang. The last stage of Morning Dew, like the recovery before the final departure from the mortal realm. It is all destined, no one can truly escape from the Threads of Fate.
“We are almost there. Taking a much needed break.” Meng proclaims in a booming voice. This is followed by a small twitch that his left eye makes.
Xun Zhen is puzzled. “W…”
Meng signals him to silence and then promptly changes hand gestures to encourage him to speak up. “From here on, we can start watching out for the plant. It likes to grow in moist places out of the sun. Look among cracks between boulders, under shades of other plants.”
Meng whispers, “Is it true what you are saying?”
Xun Zhen shakes his head, once, so slightly that Meng almost misses it. What is going on? Xun Zhen mouths.
Ambush. Meng mouths back. “Right, we will start looking then.”
The three of them pretend to spread out to start a search. “What does the plant look like?” Meng calls over his shoulder as he bends to examine the plants growing on the side of the mountain more closely.
“As its name indicates, each of its flowers has nine rings on the periphery of its petals. Its flowering season has already gone past so we are looking for its plant stalk. One with thorns protruding out from the central stem….”
“They all look pretty alike to me.” Meng says in frustration after doing some careful shuffling of the plants in front of him. “Wait, what about this one? Is this it?” He suddenly makes a loud exclamation.
The two mages converge on the ‘discovery’. “So what do we do now?” Meng whispers urgently. “By the way, is that description real?”
Zhang, knowing that his own powers are useless, does not speak. He gazes at Xun Zhen who will take this on hand. Meng follows his gaze.
“Yes, it is, they will know something’s up otherwise. Can I have the crystal I gave you back?”
“Oh,” Meng sets to searching for the crystal on his own body, finally finding it being tucked into his waistband, “here it is.” He hands it over to the Imperial Master Geomancer. He waits expectantly to see what the mage would do with the crystal.
Xun Zhen puts the crystal in between his palms and closes his eyes. After an interminable pause when he reopens his palms, a dull gray prism lies on it. He motions for the three of them to squat down and gather closer together and then closes his eyes again.
“I have turned us invisible. We just need to be careful about not making noise.”
“What about the horses?” Meng whispers.
“Xiu (Put Away).” Zhang pronounces and the two horses shrink unbelievably fast into their original size and then flutter back into the palms of the old mage, so quick that Meng can hardly register the transition. “The next time you want to summon them again, just say the word Hui (Return) and they will appear again.” Zhang tells Meng, handing over the fabric figures of the two horses onto Meng’s safekeeping. Something within Meng flutters but he puts them away as ordered.
The three of them carefully creep past the ambushers. Meng can feel his muscles seizing up due to apprehension
[over the two mages even though they have proved themselves to be experienced
in moving efficiently and silently across mountain terrain]
. After what seems like years, they make it past the ambushers. Meng looks back and breathes out a sigh of relief when he sees the ambushers still squatting down among the foliage with backs turned to them.
They’ve already spent two hours climbing the mountain and equally as long in searching for the plant they need. In that time, Meng’s mind cannot help but drift off, to where his Captain now lies. They didn’t have time for a proper burial, being on the road and given the urgency of their mission. Meng wonders how far along the Huang Quan Lu (Path of the Yellow Fountain), the path leading to the nether realm, the Captain has walked. Has he already climbed the Wang Xiang Tai (Observatory of Homeland) and gazed upon where he has been raised and his family back there? But then the Captain wouldn’t have seen him there. Mayhaps he will still be able to make it to the Captain’s mortal home when he comes back to visit on the Seventh Day. So that they can have a final parting.
“This is what we have come for.” The old Geomancer announces, nodding towards a plant that has already withered. It is the only one of its kind as far as Meng can see.
Meng nearly trips over himself as he backs away from where he stands. Is that what they have come for? A withered plant?
“Look more carefully.” The kindly mage tells him, pointing at a spot next to the withered plant where a new sapling can be seen.
“But we need a grown plant, not a sapling for the cure.” The Imperial Master Geomancer dampens Meng’s hopes. Is the Captain’s life to go to waste?
Zhang turns to his student. “The time has come. I left because I wanted to grasp the single Thread of Chance for us. I did not want to lose that most dear to me- you, the pupil that I’m proudest of. I would have liked to give you more time to fit into the place that I vacated. I see that you have not adjusted easily and I’m sorry for the grief caused you by my oversight- I never planned for such lack of time between us. But Fate has his own will and he is a trickster who doesn’t like to be bested. Thus we come to here and now. The cycle of events started with me, I shall complete it.”
Having said those words, Zhang starts pulsating with a green light that shrouds his entire being. Then the light becomes him. At first, the light is a shade of dark green akin to old leaves on a ficus tree. Then it begins to grow lighter and lighter in shade, as the sapling steadily grows.
When the sapling has fully matured, Zhang the being of light is almost transparent. He waves to the two of them before he finally winks out of existence altogether. Meng stares agape at the empty space where he occupied just seconds ago, frozen.
Xun Zhen moves forward reverently and carefully works to separate each of the plant’s roots from the soil so as to not harm it in any way. Just as he is about to clear the last of its roots and lift it up, a single drop of dew that somehow manages to cling to the inner edge of one leaf falls down into the space recently vacated by the Nine-ringed Balsam. It turns into a seed, the seed for the precious plant that he had just attained.
Xun Zhen places the prize of their mission into a rectangular container with a clasp, to protect its potency. He hand this over to Meng. “Bring this back to the Palace. I will not be coming back with you. Bury me with my mentor so that I can forever be close by and remember his wisdom even in my after life.” He slowly sits down with a content smile.