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.
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.”
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.
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
“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
“Did you just make another
divination? Is that what the omens tell you? Did the omens tell you about the
“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
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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
can you know? You are not the Captain.” Meng cannot help but look back again
and is alarmed at seeing the closing pursuit.
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.”
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?”
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.”
to me,” Zhang speaks in a serene voice, urging Meng to relax. “Empty your mind.
Get into contact with your deep conscious.”
inhales and exhales rhythmically, a practice that aligns his body with his
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
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.
of dusky yellow smoke are churning in the distance. Approaching riders and a
fair number of them.
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.
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.
looks across at the old mage who doesn’t seem perturbed. “What would you have
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.”
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?
don’t change course?” Meng asks skeptically.
it is not needed.”
they ride towards a closing snare. Meng looks back over his shoulder and idly
wonders whether they can backtrack to avoid the trap ahead.
about we backtrack? Surely we have shaken off the pursuit already.”
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?”
no, I never thought about that,” Meng concedes, “But what has that got to do
with the situation now?”
you really think that we will have shaken off the pursuit so easily given what
we already experienced?”
is lost for words.
you thought about how they kept getting in front of us?”
mean there’s a traitor amongst us? But that’s impossible!”
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.”
you do something about this? You know, counter their magic with yours?”
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?”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
you ever flown before?” Zhang turns towards the voice and a pair of eyes full
of thirst for knowledge and enthusiasm greets him.
did not hear what you just said.” Zhang replies.
I asked whether you had flown before.”
once.” The pair of bright eyes eagerly proclaims Tell me more. Zhang cannot help but give in to the request.
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.”
almost forgot, I better teach you the incantation for these horses. You never
know, it might become useful later on.”
horses pause in mid-air and hang motionless. “What is happening?” Meng looks at
the old mage quizzically.
horses cannot fly any higher. They’ve reached their limit.”
then what do we do now?”
smiles, “It’s time for us to use our feet again.”
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.
frowns. Meng signals with his eyes for Zhang to sit next to him.
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.
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.
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?”
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
“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
Xun Zhen shakes his head, once, so
slightly that Meng almost misses it. What
is going on? Xun Zhen mouths.
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
“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
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.
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
(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
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
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
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