The stench of death filled every corner of the room. Fog slithered over the remains of those lost to the world through cracks in the wooden foundation. There were no windows and no doors except a large hole in the northern part of the enclosure which was covered with a large stone. Long ago, this area was a sanctuary; a temple for those in need who worshiped and lived in peace. Now, it is but a tomb for the corrupt and unjust. But it is also a tomb for a forgotten treasure. A fabled relic that could call forth the untimely destruction of the world is said to rest inside. Many have gone after this relic, and all met the same fate as those centuries before.
“Wūshī Fu! The men … are set … and ready … on your call.” The soldier straightened himself as he said this, his chest heaving from the effort of running. Xu Fu, the leader of the expedition turned slowly towards the youthful captain, all the while stroking his flowing white beard. Xu Fu studied the captain’s face for a time. It was smooth, apart from being caked with mud. There was something else though. Lines creased his young features, showing a terrible sadness behind his dark blue eyes. Finally, Xu Fu broke his intense stare and turned to look over the Cliffside where the eastern seas and his extravagant vessel lay. “Begin the march.”
The youthful captain saluted and twisted on his heel. He flagged down a messenger. With two sharp blasts of a horn, the assembled army stepped forward in precision that only China’s Terracotta warriors could perform. This was the second time Xu Fu had made this voyage, the first ending in the deaths of three thousand children. This time, however, there were no children and this time, Xu Fu had finally found what he thought to be the Penglai Mountain. The Penglai Mountain is fabled to be the resource of immortal souls and the resting place of the elixir of life. Qin Shi Huang, China’s emperor had entrusted this voyage to his court sorcerer, Xu Fu, and had already been disappointed once. Xu Fu vowed to uphold his honor and made the second voyage to prove himself to his emperor. The elixir of life was just another perk.
Xu pursed his lips and, with a flourish of his wizened hand, flicked open a fan. He then settled into a small chair attached to several poles made of bamboo. Four servants, clad in muddied robes of coarse material, rushed forward and grabbed the poles. In unison, the chair was lifted up into the air and onto the shoulders of the servants. Xu fanned himself and stared intently at the pass leading into the great, unknown Penglai Mountain. Perspiration beaded his balding head. This could be it. This could be the chance that he’d been waiting for, to gain success from the journey, to find the elixir of life!
The men marched the day away, stopping only to drink and relieve themselves. Finally, the scathing wrath of the fiery sun fell beneath the skyline, bringing forth a frigid breeze. A halt was called and the troops all but dropped to the rocky grounds. They’d gone uphill for most of the day, trudging through mud and patches of icy snow. The competing weather had the army in disarray, starving the troops of water and nutrition. Xu had his large tent set up on the only level ground found. The other men gave up trying to set their tents and instead rolled into cloaks made from the same coarse material as the servants’ robes. The servants were given nothing.
Complete darkness surrounded the mountainside, consuming every bit of naturally made light. Neither star nor moon showed this night.
The lights of the campfires sprinkled the mountainside. “Do you think they are alright?” Yon Jung asked his shipmates. They were lucky enough to be left with taking care of the ship while the others were away. Zhen looked sideways at the young ship-hand. He puffed his pipe a bit then exclaimed in a gruff voice, “Yeah, they alright boy. Now stop worryin’ and git with makin’ us some grub.”
Xu relaxed his aged body on a bamboo cot, uncomfortable, but stable. It was cushioned with thin pillows and blankets. A table was set next to the cot on which a small cup sat. “Jìnrù?” The voice came through the tent flap muffled, but it was unmistakable who it belonged to. “Jìnrù,” Xu replied. The youthful captain came in, still dressed in the muddy uniform and carrying a pot of steaming tea.
”Ah, set it there Liang.” Xu pointed at the small table. Liang set down another cup and poured them both a glass full. Xu accepted his cup with a grateful nod and sat down on the cot. Liang grabbed a chair from outside and set it in front of the Wūshī.
After a few moments of silence with the occasional slurp, Liang set his cup down then stood up and started to pace. Xu followed Liang with humored eyes as he stepped back and forth. With a sigh, Xu asked, “What is it, Liang?” “What is what?” came the reply. “Ever since boyhood, this was how you showed me something was on your mind. So I ask again, what is troubling you, Liang?”
Liang stopped pacing and sat back down with his head in his hands. “I don’t know Uncle. It has been over ten years since we began escapade. Now we are here, and something just does not feel right. It’s as though ever since we reached this mountain, something heavy is pushing down on me, crushing my heart in its dark grips. I feel as though we should never have come here, as though we should have ended our voyage long ago.” Liang fell silent, his breath coming in short gasps.
Xu Fu stared at Liang’s face, the face he’d come to love. “Something is not right here, of that I am sure. We have, however, been through much already. If we are so close to the end, why not finish it? Of all the things we have faced on this journey, this shan’t be the worse, but more the best for it is the end! I am an old man. I’m starting to shrivel up into myself. I am not the young man I used to be, but I know we must trek to the end, if not for me but for your mother.” Liang’s head shot up at the mention of his mother.
“Do not bring her in to this!” Liang quickly stood up; the chair toppled over behind him. “Thank you for your time and wisdom Uncle, but I must return to my troops.” He picked his chair up and stocked out of the tent without another look back.
Xu Fu watched him leave and again sighed. He was getting too old for this. Hiking and looking for treasure was a young man’s game, and that, he was not anymore. He finished off the now cold tea, blew out the lantern that hung from the ceiling, and fell into a fitful sleep.
An explosion of screams rang out through the once still night. The raids were upon them at last. Liang awoke with a start and ran into the room opposing his. Just as he flew through the doorway, his Father came around the corner, pulling on sheepskin boots and carrying his sword.
“No Father! I can’t let you go out there!” The small boy flung himself at his father, clinging dearly to him. The father pried Liang’s fingers from his jacket and threw the boy to the ground in a crumpled heap. “Get out of my way, boy. I must protect my country, no matter the cost. I will bring this family honor, even if you do not.” With those last words, the big man strode into the flaming night. Liang sat on the floor, holding his arm. A tear escaped his left eye. Footsteps sounded behind him then soft arms encircled his small body. Gentle fingers stroked his hair. He shoved his face into his mother’s embrace and let the tears flow, all the while listening to the cooing of his beloved mother. She knew exactly how to calm him, no matter the circumstance.
“It’s okay. Father will be back and all will be fine. The raids will end and all will be well.” Then she started to sing:
All is not lost, little one
Times like these will end
No one will hurt you
Because you are not alone
All will be fine, all will be well
No need for tears, come out of that shell
I am with you always
Forever and always
All is not gone, little one
This is the last of the war
We will fight for what is right
No matter how tired or sore
All will be fine, all will be…
Abruptly the singing stopped. It was then followed by a cough. Blood splattered the boy’s head. Liang looked up into the loving eyes of his mother. The crimson liquid dripped from the corners of her mouth and a single tear welled in her left eye. She slid out of his arms onto the ground. A large spear stuck through her bosom. Blood blossomed and poured across the ground beneath her dead body. Liang looked up into the killers face. Scars riddled it, making it look like a map of an underground waterway. The killer pulled a knife from his belt and slowly raised it above his head, a menacing spark flashed in his cold gray eyes. Suddenly, a large sword seared through the killers neck, beheading him. The knife dropped from cold, lifeless hands and fell with a soft clink to the wood paneling below. Standing behind the killer was Liang’s father. He took one look at his ex-wife and pulled Liang to his feet.
“Come boy and grab that knife. You may need it.” His father turned and left the room without another word. Liang took a look at his mother, a tear still clinging in his left eye then followed, brushing the tear away as he went.
Liang awoke in a cold sweat. He hadn’t dreamed about that night since boyhood. Shaking his head, he got up off the ground and went over to a small stream gliding down the mountain. He sat with his back against a rock and took a knife from its sheath. The blade gleamed in the moonlight, seeming to show the reflection of his dead mother, lying in a pool of blood. The illusion cleared. This knife was the same one he’d taken from the killer, the same one that he’d carried every day since then. Liang sheathed it and knelt by the stream. The cool water splashed across his face, cooling his features and disguising the small tear that had formed in his left eye.