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The Red Dawn Elixir (朝霞丹)
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Thread: The Red Dawn Elixir (朝霞丹)

  1. #1
    Senior Member whiteskwirl's Avatar
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    Default The Red Dawn Elixir (朝霞丹)



    This is a wuxia novel I am working on. It is hosted at my website, but I thought I would also post it here. I am writing this novel as I go, no outline, so hopefully it won't end up a huge mess. I do have a basic idea for the story, though. This is just the first draft, so all comments and criticisms are welcome. Your opinions will help me when I go back to revise it later. Table of contents is below. Thanks for reading!


    Table of Contents

    Prologue: Enter the Rivers and Lakes
    Chapter 1: White Birch Town | 1 | 2
    Chapter 2: Trailing Danger | 1 |
    Last edited by whiteskwirl; 09-09-15 at 01:53 AM.

  2. #2
    Senior Member whiteskwirl's Avatar
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    Default Prologue: Enter the Rivers and Lakes

    ENTER THE RIVERS AND LAKES


    Dear friend now in the misty predawn when the roads lie lacquered in rime and the shop windows shuttered against the sharp air that bites the nostrils and now when the drunk and destitute hoist themselves up and slunk down cobbled back alleys and dark narrow lanes with itinerant dogs and vagrant felines seeking the day's design, and now along these open lanes leading to the brothels or the marketplace where stalls sit still and empty like a barren offering, or else down to the shabby temples where incense burns the solemn fumes of a higher realm, and in the shadows of arching gateways and against the crumbling packed walls of the town where the increment rosy glow of morning has yet to touch, no soul shall walk save you.

    Among the rammed earth walls and broken-tiled roofs of homes wherein reside all manner of personage, hiding by day behind the face of a sootblacked smith or a ruddy-cheeked merchant under whose clothing a frosty-edged blade nestles cold inside its leather cradle, or in the face of a bored man before the cookfire wielding with deft hands a wok, nimble fingers that could as easy block the flow of blood to your heart with a fleet tap as roll out pastry skins translucent as gossamer wings, or among the clamoring masses now filling the streets with their varied modes of dress and conduct, obscuring to all under heaven the truth that lies behind the visage, the benign gaze of routine or the minatory glare of intent.

    Inside the inns and taverns dim and gloomy under the feeble light of oil lamps take whatever seat is offered you and do not let your eye linger too long on the motley crew peopling the card table in the back corner. The wildhaired scoundrel with one eye might not have the patience to brook a stranger's interest, but more than the calm gentleman resting half-lidded at the table adjacent, a fan folded beside a score of empty wine bowls acting as tally for the accounts he will soon settle with both the shopkeep and with himself.

    Do not be alarmed at the gleaming hilts of swords sleeping in their wooden scabbards or the clink of metal under a stranger's clothes, but perhaps the silent wanderer in torn dress and disheveled hair should not rouse your anger when he fails to give way along the road in his passing. His days are longer than yours, his troubles borne on his face so that they will not smother his heart. You would not guess his skill with palm strikes and you would not believe the blood and sweat he has devoted to making a life of accumulating enmity, and under a roadside pavilion looking out on the river, do not suppose the young couple are not also harboring deeper sentiments. She might be in the fresh of her youth yet her sleeves conceal needles and his eyes flash a shimmer no one would mistake for kindness.

    Along winding circuitous rivers under towering craggy cliffs and before perilous peaks on the horizon where a thin line of water falls like a jade rainbow you cannot help but feel small, and now through forests wooded with pine and bamboo or thickets of juniper and yew, past streams and down ancient paths leading to an old bridge stained with the blood of a quarrel still talked about upon crossing, breathe in the misty vapors as you watch from a promontory an old man with a fishing pole and wicker hat stroll the far mountain roads while singing a tune in a dialect you don't recognize.

    We are come to a world within the world. Within this shapeless boundary residing among the common and law-abiding another life teems. Baleful or benevolent, violent or passive, gratitude and revenge coil together like lovers, the righteous uphold justice drifting along the white path or the black, who can say which is which, while the brigands in the greenwood argue their color. Right and wrong, love and hate, who knows how high the sky or how deep the earth? All lives fugitive in their running.

    The night is silent. Save for a bell tolling far away, carried on the breeze and what does it toll? Each chime a condemnation of humanity or the counting down of what remains? Know ye who enter here the world of the rivers and lakes the days are not endless. The red earth scatters and blows away like leaves brushed off a dusty path and you but a desiccated withered scrap among the dross. In the distance lanternlight burns amber like feral cat's eyes in the dead of night and the calm wind carries with it the plaintive notes of a flute and in the trees the very air thrums with life.

    Then comes the dawn.


    If you enjoyed this, please view this page on my website, just clicking the link and visiting the page will help my google search results. Thanks for your support!
    Last edited by whiteskwirl; 03-17-15 at 01:34 AM.

  3. #3
    Senior Member whiteskwirl's Avatar
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    Default CHAPTER 1, PART 1

    Originally posted at The Martial Grove

    CHAPTER 1: WHITE BIRCH TOWN



    Dark of night, snow ripping through hard wind scouring his face. In a numb hand a windlantern swung with each heavy step, its yellow light solitary on what he hoped was the road back to White Birch Town. His chest heaving in ragged breaths as the last of his energy sapped away into the cold, his pace slowing. The flaps and jagged edges of his clothes whipping, the dark stain on his belly dried and hard like plaster. On his back he carried a leather bag, and he gripped it with white knuckles as if it were dangling off a cliff and he trying to save it. The bag sat heavy on his back and hunched him over as he fought against the screaming wind and driving snow that hit his face like tiny pellets.

    He shielded his hand over his eyes and ventured a look up, but all he could see in the glow of the lantern was the snow flashing past him like silver insects. To stop here long enough to store up some energy for the final push, if he was wear he hoped he was, would be fatal. He would stand there statued in the storm and fall over before freezing completely, and some person strolling by days later would find him and probably just pass on and not even tell anyone about him. But it was difficult to keep moving.

    Forced to continue with his head down, he trudged on, focusing on the light reflected off the snow as if to absorb its warm energy into his body as he went, and he kep on like that some minutes, not thinking, just breathing and looking at the snow underfoot and not thinking, don’t think about anything.

    He looked up and squinted, did stop and stood there for several minutes, not thinking about how he shouldn’t stop, but looking for ahead because he thought he saw something, a light in the distance. He looked around, but it was pointless, everything outside the cone of his lantern light was black like lacquer, and he didn’t dare turn his whole body around to scan his surroundings for fear of losing his bearings. There was definitely something there.

    Somehow he found the energy to move on, this time with his head up braving the wind and snow, looking for that something he thought he had seen. Finally the something resolved itself into an amber orb of light, swinging in its catenary like his lantern. A few more steps, a few more minutes and he could see it better and his heart quickened. It was a lantern jostling at its post in front of the gate to White Birch Town. The other one must have blown away for there was only the single lantern. He couldn’t make out its form, but the shape of its light and its consistent rocking told him he was going to make it, the town was just ahead, he really have been on the road as hoped. Now all he had to do was muster up enough strength to get to the gates.

    It was the middle of the night, long past curfew. The gates would be locked up, everyone in bed, and this was the kind of night for a deep sleep. How could he get in? But he wasn’t worried because he knew the gate guard, Old Wang. The old man, once roused from his slumber, would let him, just as before.

    Now his attention was on the lantern. He stared at it hardly blinking and went on. The storm was still lashing his face when he saw the gates form out of the edges of darkness and he watched as the lantern resolved and grew in shape and rose higher and higher as he got closer until he was looking up at it, and then he lowered his head and found the wooden gates not more than a few inches in front of his face. He hunched over and rested his hands on his knees, then clutched at his stomach and grimaced.

    A banging as his fists pounded the wood.

    “Old Wang! Old Wang! Open the gates, it’s me! Qin Xiong!”

    He paused to catch his breath, his mouth dry, and then he started up again, screaming as loud as he could against the howling storm.

    “Old Wang! Open the gates, it’s Qin Xiong! Open the gates!”

    He leaned against the gates and rested for a moment, gaining his breath, holding his belly. The windlantern he has set down by his feet.

    No response.

    The old man would be fast asleep, but Qin Xiong was sure his voice was loud enough to wake him. It had to be. Finally, over the top of the wall came a thin voice.

    “Who is it? It’s past curfew!”

    Qin Xiong’s head shot up and he picked up the lantern and backed away from the gates, raising the light before him to see the source of the voice. But it wouldn’t reach far enough and he saw only darkness at the crenels of the wall.

    “It’s Qin Xiong! Are you Old Wang’s servant? Come on, open the gates!”

    The voice came back. “I can’t open the gates, it’s past curfew!”

    “To hell with curfew, I’m freezing out here!”

    “It’s against the rules!”

    Qin Xiong swore. “Are you that servant, Little Pang?”

    “It’s Tang! the voice said. “Master Wang’s asleep, you’ll have to come back in the morning!”

    “I can’t wait until morning! You little bastard, just open the gates! You want me to die out here?”

    There was no response.

    Qin Xiong was starting to worry. “Little Pang, open the gates! Old Wang let us in that last time!”

    No response.

    Qin Xiong went back to the gates, set down his lantern, and proceeded to bang on the wood, yelling obscenitites and calling for Old Wang. After a minute he slumped to his knees and let his bag drop to the snow and leaned against the gates. He was breathing hard. He fixed his eyes on the snowflakes whirling in the slant of light projected from the lantern. Like a swarm of gnats. The cold was sinking into his bones and he could not get his breath. He yelled again but didn’t know what and there was no response.

    But wait. How did we get here?

    Go back.

    ☐☐☐

    The first time Qin Xiong approached the gates of White Birch Town he was with his sworn brother, Luo Chenglong. They were on foot and the ground was not yet covered with snow but stood bare under a grey sky so low and dark it was like the heavens were pressing down on the earth as if to crush it. A few spits of flakes here and there fluttered in the still air, presaging the storm to come. It was the latter half of the first month, during the middle period of “Rain Water”, when the “swan geese arrive”, yet up here in the far northeast the skies still entertained winter.

    The two walked along the only road leading to White Birch Town, walked with heavy feet, fatigued, ready to lie down for a while and sleep. They had been traveling for over a month from south of the Yangzi, wounded and tired. Everywhere they stopped they would rest as much as they could, spending hours regulating their breathing or sleeping, trying to regain their strength. They had been in a fight in the south and they had lost badly and though their wounds had sealed up, yet inside their bodies were still weak and weary, their internal energy all but depleted from the battle that very well could have been a fight to the death. Their pride was wounded as well, but that would heal faster, all the more so up here in Liaodong, the northeasternmost section of Shandong province, close to the border with Jianzhou, a Jurchen-controlled area, to the east, and the nation of Chaoxian to the south. This latter border was defined by the expanse of the Changbai Mountain range which lined the entire northern border of Chaoxian. The section looming in the distance behind White Birch Town was known as Thousand Mountains for its many peaks.

    In this secluded town out on the fringe of the empire they would be able to lie low and heal themselves and think what to do next. The sworn brothers had not planned to come this far, but every time they stopped somewhere they stayed a few days and then carried on, never discussing amongst themselves where they were headed, or when they would stop for good. But with mountains on the horizon like a great wall it seemed natural they should set down here and recover.

    Problem was, once they had walked the long road to White Birch Town and had arrived at the gates the sun had long set and they carried windlanterns to light their way. It was past curfew. White Birch Town was a walled town, the walls made of packed earth faced with stone, the latter facing considered necessary because of the possible threat of Jurchens to the northeast, though these days the Jurchens were passive and even conducted trade with the Ming empire at Kaiyuan and Fushun. Like most walled towns there was a curfew, after which time all the gates to the town would be closed and locked until the next morning. During that period no one could go in or out of the town.

    Which left Qin Xiong and Luo Chenglong standing outside as the temperature dropped scratching their heads and wondering how they could have forgotten about this commonality.

    They were both tough, stalwart fellows, you know the sort, the kind of men you could take one look at and know they could rough you up. Qin Xiong, standing on the left looking at the wooden doors as if he had never seen such a thing before was the shorter of the two, but they were both imposing figures, Qin Xiong because of his robust physique, a tree trunk of a man, but come on, not that round, just a big fellow, a short beard lining his jaw and sharp slanting deep eyebrows that gave his face a look that made you think he was always dissatisfied with something, which was not at all the case. Rather he cracked jokes and though he had a short temper he could as quickly be calmed because he was easily distracted. A child at heart, you might say. He was known among the rivers and lakes as Double Killer Rods Qin Xiong because he used a pair of iron rods, just a bit shorter in length than your average sword, with four blunt edges. They were weapons good for defending a sword or sabre strike, and could alternately be used to inflict blunt force trauma when on the attack. Right now the rods were in the leather bag slung over his shoulder. He did not plan to use them any time soon.

    On his right was his sworn brother Luo Chenglong. He was the taller of the two, but thinner, not like skinny or twig-like or anything, but in comparison to his brother Luo Chenglong was the slimmer, the kind of guy you know could mess you up, but not the sort to make you shrink back upon sight, perhaps because his brows were level and lighter, he looked like everything was generally okay for him, and it was. The way he gambled you’d think he shit silver, but he was affable and more levelheaded than his brother. They made a good team that way. He was known as Turning Horse Sabre Luo Chenglong because of his special backthrust techniques with his goosequill sabre. Now he stood beside Luo Chenglong with a thoughtful expression, as if he were thinking up a plan.

    He was.

    He shouted, “Hey! Gate guard! Open the gates!”

    Qin Xiong looked at him. “What are you doing?”

    Luo Chenglong said, “You don’t want to stand out here all night do you?”

    “It’s past curfew, they won’t let us in.”

    “Hey! Is anyone awake in there? It’s cold out here, let us in! We’ll freeze to death!”

    They stood in silence a moment, looking up at the top of the wall, its crenellations lost to the darkness. Luo Chenglong yelled some more and finally a voice responded.

    “It’s past curfew! Come back tomorrow!” It was the voice of a youth, maybe some teenager. Not the gate guard, that was for sure.

    Qin Xiong said, “Who’s that?”

    “Little Tang! Master Wang is asleep. Just come back tomorrow!”

    Luo Chenglong said, “Is Master Wang the one who guards the gate?”

    “Yes, he’s in charge of it. But he’s asleep now, come back tomorrow. It’s past curfew!”

    “I know it’s past curfew, but it’s freezing out here! You know there’s no other place to set up for the night around here! You have to let us in anyway!”

    “Can’t, it’s against the rules!”

    Qin Xiong grumbled, “Against the rules. That little bastard. I’ll show him some rules.” Louder, he said, “Just wake up Master Wang and let him decide! It’s not up to you anyway you little bastard!”

    Luo Chenglong shot him a look. “Insulting him probably isn’t the best idea.”

    “He thinks he can lord it over everyone, but he’s just a lowly assistant. Only the gate guard can decide if we can come in or not, am I right?”

    He was right, but Little Tang shot back with some insults of his own and then there was silence. Qin Xiong stood there fuming and stamping his feet, but part of that was from the cold. Now that the sun had dropped the temperature was plummeting rapidly, not that it had been warm earlier. Luo Chenglong looked around as if there might be some other way inside, but of course there wasn’t. So he did all he could do. He yelled some more.

    After several minutes of this another voice hailed them from above. It was an older man’s voice. “Ho! Who goes there?”

    Luo Chenglong responded. “Just two weary travelers! We know it’s past curfew, but can you let us in? It’s very cold out here and there’s no place else to go!”

    Qin Xiong said, “Are you Old Wang?”

    “That’s right. Hm, it’s past curfew already. I can’t open the gates. You’ll have to come back tomorrow.”

    “Can’t you make an exception for us this time?” Luo Chenglong said. “If you don’t let us in we’ll die out here in the cold!”

    Old Wang sighed and thought for a moment. Then he said, “Well, I suppose there’s no help for it. If you don’t come in you’ll freeze to death out there. Go open the gates.” He said louder, “But this is my favor to you! You’ll only get the one!”

    Qin Xiong picked up his windlantern and stood there with a smirk on his face at the thought of that bastard assistant being made to get out and open the gates for them after just minutes ago refusing them entry. It’s not your decision to make, he thought to himself. You little bastard.

    The gates were unlocked and slowly opened. It was late and they were cold, but finally Luo Chenglong and Qin Xiong had arrived at White Birch Town.

    to be continued…




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  4. #4
    Senior Member whiteskwirl's Avatar
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    Default Chapter 1: White Birch Town (Part 2)

    Originally posted at The Martial Grove

    Chapter 1: White Birch Town (Part 2)


    They slept in the guardhouse that night, much to the chagrin of Little Tang, who received a smack in the back of the head by Qin Xiong for making them wait so long outside. All the inns were closed so there was option but to stay in the guardhouse upon Old Wang’s suggestion. He was more amiable than his assistant.

    The next day Qin Xiong and Luo Chenglong found lodging at an inn. To save expense they shared a room and slept in the same bed. During the day they both sat across from a low table in their room and practiced regulating their breathing. This was part of the process of recovering the internal energy that had been unbalanced and weakened in their fight in the south. Luo Chenglong sat with his brows knit during these sessions, his thoughts still lingering on the reason he and his sworn brother needed this rest. And he was thinking about his luck.

    The brothers had run away from the Blue Stone Gang down in Fujian province, the result of a disagreement over a game of Ma Diao that escalated into enmity with a group of high-level martial artists that tended toward the black path. Blue Stone members would take offense if you took them as part of the Greenwood, but in fact they were not far from it. They made their income from running gambling houses and their members were known as scoundrels and part-time brigands, though the latter would be denied should anyone have the guts to accuse them of it. In any case, they controlled their area completely, so much so that even government troops gave them a wide berth and the local county magistrate turned a blind eye. Rumor was the magistrate had been bought, but this too would be denied. No one dared bring it up, though.

    Luo Chenglong had disagreed with another’s style of play—he didn’t use the word “cheating”—which led to similar accusations thrown at him, and the result was a fight that left the Blue Stone member bloody. The Blue Stone Gang evened the score, however, led by their chief, Shi Gongwei, which in turn led to Luo Chenglong and Qin Xiong going in together to re-even the score. Which led to their embarrassing defeat and self-imposed exile to the far notheast.

    He felt responsible for his sworn brother Qin Xiong getting hurt, and he regretted the damage done to their reputations among the martial fraternity. What reputation their was, anyway. They had made names for themselves as capable fighters who helped the weak and oppressed, but they were still considered lesser pugilists. Maybe secondrate if the evaluator was being generous. But once word got around—and no doubt it had by now—about their resounding defeat at the hands of Shi Gongwei of the Blue Stone Gang, Luo Chenglong and Qin Xiong would surely not be considered anything but thirdrate. So Luo Chenglong sat with a frown on his face as he regulated his breathing, his thoughts interrupting his process and reducing its efficacy.

    Qin Xiong, on the other hand, sat with a look of content, relaxed. It was easier for him to rest because he didn’t take the blow to their reputation as heavily as Luo Chenglong—because he hadn’t thought about that yet. Once it occurred to him that others within the martial fraternity would learn of their defeat he would be bothered by it, but now his thoughts were on recovering. And Three Lotus House.

    Three Lotus House was in White Birch Town’s pleasure quarter. Actually, it was the pleasure quarter. While his sworn brother had a penchant for gambling, Qin Xiong had a predilection for frequently courtesans. This was his way to relax, and with the itinerant lifestlye he and his brother shared, going to the pleasure quarters was the only place to get women—neither brother was married, nor had any prospects, though Qin Xiong, before the fight that led he and his brother up north, had been beginning to think of finding a wife. He had not expected to be moving so far away from his hometown so soon, but this business with Luo Chenglong and the Blue Stone Gang had changed things. But what did it matter? Qin Xiong and his sworn brother had been roaming around for years now. This was just another unexpected journey. The cold and the seclusion would give them the chance to recover their internal energy and figure out what their next move should be.

    So after their breathing and meditation sessions, Qin Xiong went to Three Lotus House and Luo Chenglong went to the gambling dens. Although they were both going to their leisure, Luo Chenglong’s gambling was also the pair’s means of survival, providing their only income, so one could also say that he was going to work. Though he never thought of it as work.

    We’ll leave Luo Chenglong to his work and instead check in on Qin Xiong in the pleasure quarters. Three Lotus House was named after three famouse courtesans who had worked there in the past, all three with “lotus” in their names. Naming the establishment after the three beauties lent a sense of importance and elegance to the place, and of course the story behind it was completely bogus. How could a small town so far up north be home to one famous beauty, much less three? The truth was there had been a girl there once named Lotus, and she was pretty, but she was not famous and there had been no other girl by that name since then. And that girl had lived there so long ago there was no one living in the town who remembered her. Still, the name and the story behind it sounded good, and no one cared anyway. The brothel could put on airs as much as it wanted as long as it delivered good service.

    ☐☐ ☐☐ ☐☐

    The sun had set on their second day in White Birch Town. A light snow fell. The night pressed on, curfew was in effect, the streets were empty. The lanterns outside under the eaves cast their wan red light onto the roads now covered with a dusting of snow. The inner shutters were open and Qin Xiong stood before them taking in the clean crisp air, watching the streets and the snow falling slowly, lulling the world to sleep. Little Blue lay in bed with the curtains drawn, she watching him from under the quilts with heavy lids as if she might fall asleep at any moment.

    “What are watching?” Little Blue said.

    Qin Xiong started. He had thought she was asleep. “Nothing. Just watching the streets.”

    “Anything happening?”

    “No. But you can see some houses from here that still have lanterns lit.” He turned from the window and sat on the bed beside her. She sat up and coiled an arm around his.

    “Maybe they’re doing what we’re doing?” she said. She kissed him behind his ear.

    Qin Xiong smiled. “Not exactly, though. They would be husbands and wives.”

    “Do you have a wife?”

    “No.” He got back up and went to the window. In the distance a lit window drew his attention. He was thinking of what was going on in there. Not the present activity, but what would go on in there during the other parts of the day. Maybe the husband was a peddler and came home every evening after a day’s work and his wife would have supper waiting and she would help him take off his jacket and pour wine for him. It occurred to Qin Xiong that he did not even have a home like that to return to. He and Luo Chenglong spent their lives roaming from one area to the next, staying in one inn or another, or sometimes outside. A carefree life, as long as there was money, food to eat. But now with them having to pick up and move from the one stable place they had to make a living, all over some altercation at a gambling house…He didn’t know what the future held.

    He felt Little Blue watching him from the bed. Another young girl in a new place, new pretty face, another to fade away to jagged memory when they left for a new area. Long crow-black hair, willow eyebrows arched as if in question, skin white like jade, soft, smooth. Eyes deep like limpid pools of autumn water. Not like the kind of girl you would usually find in these places. But that’s how it is. In an out-of-the-way place, way up north, barbarians banging on the empire walls you could sometimes find that which was unfindable elsewhere. In this case a girl of rare beauty, who would have thought it? Not in the Southern Capital, not in the Northern, not in the other bustling cities like Nanchang or Hangzhou or Yangzhou, but in a small town on the northern border, far away from civilization. Too bad. Few would get to look at her, and she would grow old and pass away and no one would remember her. Likely didn’t have any family to do so beside those at the brothel, if you could call that family. Could you?

    Her fragrance drifted over to him and he was broke from his reverie. He went back to her and enjoyed what time he had with her,

    ☐☐ ☐☐ ☐☐

    It was deep into the night when Luo Chenglong stumbled into the room. Qin Xiong was in bed already, asleep. He had obviously come back to the inn to sleep instead of staying at the brothel. Maybe he didn’t want to pay for the full night? Luo Chenglong didn’t think on it, he was too on edge. He went to the low table and set down the warm pot of wine he had brought in with him, set out two cups. Then he went to the bed.

    “Little Brother, wake up,” he whispered, shaking Qin Xiong’s shoulder. Then he wondered why he was whispering. He said louder, “Little Brother, wake up.”

    Qin Xiong snorted and mumbled something.

    “It’s Big brother,” Luo Chenglong said. “Are you sleeping?”

    “…Huh?”

    Luo Chenglong shook him again. “Little Brother, come on, get up.”

    Qin Xiong yawned but kept his eyes closed. Seemed like he had just went to sleep when his brother was waking him up again. Yet he didn’t feel his brother’s excitement. He was too tired to feel any sense of danger or hurry. “What is it?”

    Luo Chenglong shook him again. “Little Brother, get up. I’ve got some news. I already have some warm wine for us to drink.”

    Oh, right. Qin Xiong said, “How much did you win?”

    “What? Oh, I broke even. But this is something worth much more than money.”

    Qin Xiong opened his eyes, but they immediately shut themselves again. “What?”

    “Brother, come drink some wine with me.”

    Qin Xiong opened his eyes again and yawned, rolled over. “Isn’t it late to start drinking again? didn’t you drink at the den?” He rolled back over as if that were an end of it, closed his eyes.

    Luo Chenglong sat on the bed and looked at his sworn brother. Then he said, “All right then, just listen. I was playing like usual, no problem, and then guess who I saw a few tables over?”

    “Who?” Qin Xiong said, not really asking.

    “The Five Tigers of Shandong.”

    Qin Xiong sat up. “Five Tigers of Shandong?”

    “Yep. They were at a table close to me, gambling and drinking heavily, and I overheard them talking—”

    “What are they doing way up here?”

    “That’s what I’m telling you. I had to be careful so they didn’t notice I was listening, but I caught enough of it.”

    “And?”

    “Have you heard of the Red Dawn Increasing Strength Elixir?”

    Qin Xiong frowned. “I don’t think so.”

    Luo Chenglong sighed. “Ai ya, yes you have. Usually people just call it the Red Dawn Elixir.”

    “Oh yeah, I think I’ve heard of it. Eating one of the pills increases your internal energy by a lot.”

    “Some say ten times as much, some say a hundred,” Luo Chenglong said.

    Qin Xiong said, “I thought that was a myth?”

    “Apparently not. I heard the Five Tigers talking about wanting to recover it. It seems there was an escort transporting a phial of the elixir, but the escort got lost up in the mountains.”

    “Wait, isn’t the Red Dawn Elixir from some foreign land?”

    Luo Chenglong nodded. “Chaoxian. Supposedly a concoction of the Red Cloud Immortal.”

    “So the escort was taking the elixir across the border to the Central Plains?”

    “Seems that way.”

    “Why?”

    “I don’t know. I didn’t hear them talk about that. But somehow they got word the escort has been missing for several weeks. It didn’t make its scheduled delivery.”

    “Scheduled with who?”

    “They didn’t seem to know that either. Just that the escort is probably still lost in the mountains.”

    “Seems like they don’t know a lot.”

    Luo Chenglong said, “I thought about that. But then why would they be up here?”

    “You said they were drunk.”

    “Yeah. Otherwise they would never have spoken about something like that with other people around. Even though they were drunk they still discussed it in hushed tones.”

    “How did they find out about it? Something like that would be kept secret.”

    “Of course they would have no need to mention the source of the news amongst themselves, they already know.”

    Qin Xiong said, “I don’t know, seems rather dubious. Even if it is true, what difference does it make?”

    Luo Chenglong snorted. “Really?” He leaned closer and lowered his voice as if they weren’t the only people in the room in the middle of the night. “If there really was an escort up there, and if it really was transporting the Red Dawn Elixir, and if the escort really is lost in the mountains, then…”

    “…then what?”

    “Then we can go look for it, too! Who says it has to be the Five Tigers of Shandong?”

    “You’re joking.”

    “No. Look, why should they find it? And they don’t know we know about it too. We just follow them up the mountain and then when the time is right, get to the escort before they do. If that escort really is lost up there I’m sure the guards and driver and everyone are all dead. No way they could survive up there several weeks in that harsh environment.”

    “Maybe they just left the carts and went on on foot?”

    “Then they would have made the delivery.”

    “If there was a delivery to be made. Even if there was, maybe they gave it up and went back home.”

    They were silent for a minute. Then Luo Chenglong said, “And maybe they all died up there from the cold, and the Red Dawn Elixir is real, and it is waiting up there for you and me to grab it?”

    Qin Xiong was quiet, Luo Chenglong staring at him intently, waiting for his reaction. Finally, Qin Xiong said, “What if it is?”

    “You wouldn’t like to increase your internal energy tenfold? Or even hundredfold?”

    Qin Xiong looked at him. Of course they both would. They didn’t say it, but left hanging in the air between them was the tacit understanding understanding that they were both third-rate fighters with no great reputation to speak of. Sure, local pugilists around their native Fujian region knew who they were, but even so they did not inspire awe, and outside that region they were practically unheard of. They had just been humiliated by the Blue Stone Gang, and even though they both primarily used weapons, they both were adept at hand-to-hand fighting as well. And even weapons use required good internal energy to be really effective. So of course a quick boost in their internal energy would be a benefit, it would be like jumping ahead ten or even twenty years in experience. That’s why the words “Red Dawn Elixir” had passed through everyone’s ears, why Luo Chenglong was so eager to recover it, why the Five Tigers of Shandong would covet it as well.

    But there was also no proof that the elixir really existed. It was said to come in the form of red and black round pills, which were stored in a bottle made of chicken-blood stone, all of which had been made and concocted and refined by the Red Cloud Immortal, a fabled Daoist from Chaoxian, a personage whose own existence was suspect. Among the rivers and lakes the Red Dawn Elixir was often talked about, a long with an assortment of other legendary elixirs and weapons and training manuals. Some turned out to be real, but most were seeminly the stuff of stories only.

    Qin Xiong voiced his concern. “Is it worth it to go up there to look for it? It might not be real.”

    Luo Chenglong said, “What do we have to lose? If it isn’t there or we can’t find it, we come back down.”

    “We’ll have to cross paths with the Five Tigers of Shandong.”

    “Hmph! Who’s afraid of them?”

    Qin Xiong straightened. “I didn’t say I was afraid of them. Of course I’m not afraid of those five louts.” Luo Chenglong was grinning. “What? You’re the one who ran away up here like a dog after getting whipped by that donkey****er Shi Gongwei.”

    Luo Chenglong chuckled. “All right, all right, settle down. So what do you say?”

    Qin Xiong looked at his brother. They had come this far, after all. “How are we gonna do it?”

    “It’s easy. They’re leaving in a couple days. We simply wait a bit and follow behind them. From the talk I overheard they seem to have an idea where to go look for the escort. We just come in behind them.”

    “And fight them for it? Five of them against us two?”

    “Well,” Luo Chenglong said, hesitating. “We can come up with some other plan when the time is right. A ruse will work better than a straight-up fight.”

    And that was that. The sworn brothers drank the wine Luo Chenglong had heated and then fell off to sleep.

    ☐☐ ☐☐ ☐☐

    Early morning. It wasn’t snowing, but with the cloudcover the sky was a dead fishbelly white. Who knew if more snow was on the way or not? Qin Xiong and Luo Chenglong stood outside the stables by the north gate, waiting for their guide to show up. Qin Xiong rubbed the sleep out of his eyes and yawned. He had spent one last night with Little Blue at Three Lotus House, but he was paying for it this morning. He stamped his feet in the cold and watched his smoking breath. Luo Chenglong looked more spry, dancing from foot to foot to warm up his legs as he watched the open north gate. No one was coming through. But he was thinking of the five who just a few minutes ago had left through those gates heading into the mountains, the Five Tigers of Shandong. They had left singlefile through the gates and down the path and were soon lost to sight in the morning fog. He would be seeing them again soon.

    Finally, the guide showed up, a young man who looked like a cicada that had never seen snow, like this was his first day out on his own. Qin Xiong looked him over as he walked over and immediately had misgivings. But Luo Chenglong had found him and questioned him and vouched that he would do. The boy had said he’d been in the mountains many times and had walked the path the Five Tigers were planning to travel. The boy said he had overheard the men talking about their destination and said he knew it well. Qin Xiong was dubious. Where was he when he heard them talking about that? In tha gambling dens? Wine shop? Brother Luo seemed confident in him, though, so Qin Xiong just shrugged and went to see the stable manager about getting the horses ready. They would each be riding a horse of course, plus an extra for carrying the supplies the two had spent the previous day preparing.

    Qin Xiong oversaw the preparations while Luo Chenglong spoke with the guide. His name was Pan Hong. Then Luo Chenglong came over to Qin Xiong.

    “Well?”

    “Just waiting on the horses to be fed, then we load up,” Qin Xiong said. “What about the boy?”

    Luo Chenglong nodded. “He’ll do. He described to me the path already, the key points along the way.”

    “And?”

    “Apparently the Five Tigers think the escort ran into trouble on a certain flat area up there travelers often use for temporary lodgings. There’s some caves up there to stay in.”

    “What makes the Five Tigers so sure they were stopped there?”

    Luo Chenglong shrugged. “Pan Hong only told me what he overheard the Five Tigers say. I guess we’ll find out when we get up there.”

    “We’ll have to be careful trailing them. Don’t want them to notice us.”

    “I know. We’ll follow behind at some distance so they won’t spot us. Pan Hong knows where we’re going anyway, we don’t need to have eyes on the Five Tigers all the time.”

    “It doesn’t matter,” Qin Xiong said. “If we run into trouble just leave everything to me. I’ll handle them.”

    “Ha ha. Shouldn’t we let the most skilled among us do that?”

    Qin Xiong white-eyed him and puffed out his chest. “That’s why I said I’d do it.”

    Luo Chenglong smirked, looked on past the open gates. “Whatever you say.”

    “You still won’t admit you lost that time?”

    “I didn’t lose.”

    “Hmph, I didn’t know you could be so ungenerous.”

    “I’m a year older than you, I have to yield sometimes to help the younger generation save face. Yet you still call me ‘ungenerous.’”

    They bickered in their usual way like this for a few minutes more before the stableboy came out to tell them their rides were ready to be loaded. Luo Chenglong looked at Qin Xiong. “You ready for this?”

    “I could use a few more hours sleep, but I think I’l manage.”

    “You still don’t believe in this, do you?”

    Qin Xiong didn’t look him in the eye. “Since you’re so confident the elixir is there, how dare I doubt it? Anyway, what’s one more adventure?”

    “One more? What does that mean?”

    Qin Xiong started off toward the stable. “Nothing.”

    Luo Chenglong stood there for a second, watching his departing brother’s back, then followed behind. “When we find the elixir, you owe me an apology for doubting me,” he said.

    “Fine,” Qin Xiong called back over his shoulder. “When we don’t find it, how are you going to compensate me?”

    “Hah!” Luo Chenglong laughed. “Your elder brother is never wrong!”


    END CHAPTER 1




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  5. #5
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    Originally posted at The Martial Grove

    CHAPTER 2: TRAILING DANGER




    The morning air was sharp and clear as they crested a ridge and went on, following the mess of hooftracks in the snow, remnants of the Five Tigers of Shandong who had preceded them. The Five Tigers were some several li ahead but not visible thanks to the dense pine forests they wended through, but the tracks were clear so there was no worry of losing them. The snow had held off so there was no danger of the tracks filling, and their guide, Pan Hong, had been confident that actually no tracks were needed, he knew where the Five Tigers were going. Luo Chenglong followed behind the guide, huddled in his furs against the cold, he and his brothers natives of Fujian, not used to this biting cold. Couldn't even remember the last time he had seen snow.

    Qin Xiong brought up the rear, lagging behind a pace or two. He was distracted by his fatigue, which he had assumed would go away once they got started, yet he kept yawning as they made their way along the old path. The crisp air had not perked him up as he expected it would. He wondered if maybe it was his lack of enthusiasm for the trip that made him tired as he watched his brother's back rock and jounce in his saddle. The cold air made him shiver yet he still felt like sleeping. His sworn brother ahead of him was the opposite, talking here and there to the boy leading them through the mountains, trailing the Five Tigers of Shandong, a formidable group Qin Xiong did not look forward to running into. They would do their best to remain undetected, but if Luo Chenglong was right and the Red Dawn Elixir really was up there, then it would be difficult to get it without having to deal with the Five Tigers.

    He knew the Five Tigers only by reputation, but it was enough. Eight Flashes Tiger Zhang Wen was their unofficial leader, so named for his Eight Flashes Flying Arrows and Eight Flashes Turning Fist skills. He was fast with his fists and quick with his flying arrows which he kept on a belt around his waist, not bothering to hide them. His arrows could strike anywhere he intended, so good was his aim, and he threw them so quickly you were struck before you knew it was coming. In normal hands the arrows would not be deadly, but because of Zhang Wen's true aim, it was merely a matter of hitting a vital acupoint and his victim would be out of luck.

    Yin-Yang Tiger Chu Bohe wielded his Yin-Yang Chain Whips, two sectional chain whips, one of which sported sharp edges, the other blunt as normal, but with them spinning around in front of you who could tell which was which? On the end of each whip was a solid metal dart, one sharp, one blunt. He could strike your acupoints as well, but his bladed whip could also slice you up while he held your weapon in check with the blunt one.

    The Martial-Scholar Tiger, Hao Jiu, was known for his Scholar Brushes, steel rods shaped like a writing brush which he wielded in pairs, the ends pointed and sharp, good for stabbing and striking acupoints. He was also known as “Good Wine” because his name was a homonym for that phrase, and because he liked to drink. It was said he had passed the provincial examinations but failed to pass the metropolitan examinations three times, after which he left his study and began roaming the rivers and lakes, soon joining with the others to form the Five Tigers of Shandong. He was well-versed in literature and all the classic texts, but he was even more capable brandishing his scholar brushes to dispatch foes.

    The Stone-Smashing Tiger, Ba Muyan, wielded a golden hammer, a melon-shaped golden ball on the end of a wooden shaft. His strength was unmatched among the Five Tigers, and he was also the youngest and had the shortest temper. He had been a bandit before joining the Five Tigers and “changing his ways”, though that was a matter of doubt, as was the conduct of all the Five Tigers. Various reports pegged them as bandits or chivalrous stalwarts who helped the populace. There were no consistent rumors about the Five Tigers, except that they were formidable fighters not to be messed with.

    The fifth Tiger, the Mountain-Clearing Tiger Dou Gang, wielded his Mountain-Clearing Sabre, a broad-bladed sabre resembling the kind uses to clear away brush and thick overgrowth in forests and jungles, but his sabre was heftier, its blade broader. And he was quick with it, wielding it like another master would wield a sword, brandishing it about as if it weighed almost nothing, a sign of his considerable strength.

    Together the Five Tigers of Shandong were a band to be feared, and though Qin Xiong would never admit to that emotion, yet he was wary of coming into contact with them. He and his sworn brother had just recently suffered defeat at the hands of Shi Gongwei, which had shaken his confidence. Now the thought of facing five new ferocious fighters made Qin Xiong nervous. Yet Luo Chenglong seemed not to be fazed by it, despite being the one who suffered the worse in their defeat by Shi Gongwei and his Blue Stone Gang. But if they could follow the Five Tigers and somehow find the Red Dawn Elixir first, maybe they could get out without the Five Tigers even knowing they had been there.

    For three days they followed the Five Tigers of Shandong through the mountains, wending through dense pine, the sky grey and threatening snow which yet did not fall. Qin Xiong and Luo Chenglong plodded on, their guide leading the way, the two in back shivering under their layers. The guide was leading a pack horse behind his own which carried extra provisions. At night they would enter the forest and find a clearing large enough for a small fire and huddle around it for warmth until their exhaustion drove them to sleep. They slept on bedrolls under the canopy of trees, grateful that the snow had held off, hoping to reach the destination their guide repeatedely assured them was close, very close.

    On the second day they caught sight of the Five Tigers as they crested a ridge in the distance. They seemed to be on a different mountain altogether, but it was only an illusion. The old path they followed wound around the undulating hills like a snake, first taking them one way before leading them back seemingly they they had come before again bending around another cliff and back on.

    It was late morning and the sun was out. They stopped to rest and warm their backs in the sun as they watched the Five Tigers ride singlefile along the ridge. They were in danger of being spotted, but the sun would be in the Tigers' faces and they hoped that would be enough to allow them to go undetected. But none of the Five Tigers ever looked in their direction. They, like the sworn brothers, rode with heads down as if they were criminals marching to the execution ground, their horses plodding along mechanically.

    There was apparently a lost escort somewhere in these mountains, yet how did the Five Tigers of Shandong know about it? This was what kept swirling through Qin Xiong's mind as they watched the Five Tigers ride the ridge. Did they have some connection to this escort or had they just gotten wind of the mission and had come looking to get lucky and find it? If so, who else might be roaming these hills looking for it?

    Or maybe it was already found and they were wasting their time. Qin Xiong yawned and shut his eyes, waited for Luo Chenglong and the boy to be ready to go. Luo Chenglong watched the Five Tigers with more intent, studying them as if he might learn something from the way they carried themselves or by their clothing or the gear they carried. But there was nothing to learn and he could only watch them until they curled around a bend and disappeared out of view.

    In the afternoon of the third day the party came to the edge of a cliff. The old path veered off to the right and continued along the side of the mountain, disappearing behind a bend. The cliff looked out on the mass of mountains below them, as they had ascended quite high by this point. Mist clung to the treetops below them, obscuring their view. Where they stopped now was a large area of flat land, good for a rest. This was actually a spot travelers would often stop at for the night, as the guide, Pan Hong, explained. There was a cave to the left cut into rock behind them, and it was here that travelers would often set up for the night. Running in front of the cave mouth and often further down to the left was another path, which around a bend and down back in the direction they had come. It was clear that path was steep and treacherous and rarely used.

    “Now what?” Qin Xiong said. The three all sat their horses, looking out over the edge of the cliff.

    Pan Hong pointed down the path to the right. “The Five Tigers of Shandong went this way.”

    They craned their necks to look but of course the bend of the slope prevented them from seeing where the path led.

    “Where are the tracks?” Luo Chenglong said.

    Pan Hong said, “The wind must have blown snow over them already, but they definitely went that way.”

    Qin Xiong said, “How do you know?”

    “Because the only other way to go is that way,” Pan Hong said, pointing to the path leading down to the left. “That way goes back down, and anyway it's too steep for horses.”

    “Maybe they went on foot?”

    “Then where are their horses?” Pan Hong said. He shook his head. “Anyway, the escort surely didn't go down that way.”

    Luo Chenglong said, “How much farther?”

    “Not far. Around the bend the path leads to another ridge that dips down and then on into another forest that then opens up into a big clearing where there's a big cave travelers often use to rest for the nigth before continuing on. It's so commonly used they call it 'Heavenly Cave Inn'. If the escort passed through these parts then they definitely stopped there.”

    Luo Chenglong said, “So that's where the Five Tigers of Shandong are going?”

    Pan Hong nodded. “From what I overheard they believe the lost escort should be there. They seemed confident.”

    Qin Xiong got down from his horse and stretched his back. The other two followed suit. Qin Xiong told Pan Hong to find a place to hitch up the horses and begin getting camp ready in the cave, then he motioned for Luo Chenglong to meet him over at the edge of the cliff. He was standing at the edge looking out into the distance when Luo Chenglong came up from behind.

    “Well, I guess we'll get things set up and go in and have a look come nightfall,” Luo Chenglong said. “Pan Hong says Heavenly Cave Inn is very close, we could walk there in an hour or so.”

    Qin Xiong was silent for a time, just looking off into the distance, squinting from the sun. Then he shook his head. “No. The escort's not there?”

    “What do you mean?” Luo Chenglong said.

    “If the escort even came this way, it may have run into trouble before it ever got to Heavenly Cave Inn.”

    “Yes, but we won't know until we go check it out.”

    Qin Xiong again shook his head. “If it did make it to Heavenly Cave Inn, it didn't run into trouble there. Think about it, the boy said Heavenly Cave Inn is a place frequented by travelers, he said it was in a big clearing. How could the escort suffer some calamity there? Seems it's the safest place in these mountains. If it came through there, it must have continued on.”

    “Maybe there was a blizzard or something and they got trapped.”

    “Maybe. But it's a cave, they could have holed up in there. After the storm was over they could continue on. They must have brought provisions to last them a while since they were coming from such a long distance over these dangerous mountains.”

    “It's still a possibility,” Luo Chenglong said. “They could have run out of food or lost some of it, or could have been injured before they got to Heavenly Cave Inn and then succumbed to their injuries there. A lot of things could have happened. Like you said, it could be they never made it there, but if they did they must have been stopped there. If they had made it past there we would have run across some trace of them along the way. This is the only path through.”

    Qin Xiong shook his head. “No, there's another way.” He pointed at the path leading down to the left. “They could have went that way.”

    “No way, Pan Hong said that way is steep and treacherous, horses can't go there, much less a cart.”

    Qin Xiong nodded. “Right. And that's how they ran into trouble. Maybe there was a blizzard, or they left at night hoping to make up lost time, and took that path by mistake instead of the one we just came from. If it was snowing hard or it was dark they might not have noticed how steep or bad the trail was until it was too late.”

    Luo Chenglong looked down the left path as far as he could, but the bend in the slope prevented him from seeing any detail of the conditions of the trail. He looked back down the right path, then out over the treetops off the edge of the cliff. “So you think they went down the left path...”

    “If they made it this far at all.”

    Luo Chenglong was quiet for a while, then he nodded. “Makes sense. But then why would the Five Tigers of Shandong not go down the left path themselves?”

    Qin Xiong shrugged. “Who knows. Maybe they didn't think the escort would ever try to go down such an unwelcoming path.”

    Luo Chenglong scratched his chin. “Perhaps they know something we don't.”

    Qin Xiong said, “If we check the path now we might find something before dark. If not, Heavenly Cave Inn will still be there.”

    “Yes. But if the Five Tigers of Shandong get to it first...”

    Qin Xiong scoffed. “Come on, if this whole story is real and there really was an escort, whoever sent them would be sure to sent skilled, capable people. They wouldn't entrust such an important mission to a bunch of weak-hands. How could they get suffer loss there?”

    Luo Chenglong was nodding, thinking to himself. Then he said, “You're right. It wouldn't make much sense for them to get into trouble there, but if they were in a hurry or careless or visibility was bad, it would be easy to take the wrong path.”

    “If we hurry we can check it out before it gets dark.”

    “Good, let's get going.” Luo Chenglong began walking off toward the cave.

    “Wait a minute,” Qin Xiong said. Luo Chenglong turned back. “What about him?”

    “Pan Hong? You want to send him back?”

    “Do you think we still need him? The way here was straightforward, just follow the path, and now we know where the Five Tigers of Shandong are headed. Best not to get anyone else mixed up in this.”

    Luo Chenglong smiled. “And here I thought you weren't fond of our guide. Yet you're worried for his safety.”

    “More of a liability than anything. If we run into problems, it would be better not to have to worry about him.”

    Luo Chenglong nodded. “What about the pack horse. I think we can send that back to, just keep some provisions and load them on our horses.”

    Luo Chenglong went to Pan Hong and helped him split up the supplies, then paid him and sent him back down the path they had come, leading the pack horse behind him. Then he and Qin Xiong stored their gear in the small cave and hitched their horses to a tree, grabbed some essentials, and headed down the path to the left.

    to be continued...


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