The next morning came as sudden relief to all.
The sun rose as the men packed up camping equipment and prepared for the strenuous hike that would take place in a few hours’ time. Breakfast fires scattered throughout the area, the smoke reaching high into the air. Xu Fu awoke to his captain standing over him with a hot mug of tea and the everlasting grim look in his face.
“Xièxiè.” The tea seared Xu Fu’s lips as he took a long sip. It was bland, but the heat took the edge of the crisp, cool mountain air. Liang turned to walk out, but a sigh from Xu Fu stopped him. “Liang, about last night…”
“We leave in one hour” Liang replied without turning around, then swept aside the tent flap and was gone.
Xu Fu shivered in the rush of cool air, then sighed and took another overdrawn sip, finishing the last of the tea. He stood up and stretched his aching muscles then began to change into his uniform. The leather chest plate fit snugly over his travelling robes but still allowed him regular movement as did his soft leather boots. Soon enough, he had his uniform crisp and ready. He took up his katana and flicked out the blade in a practiced motion. The balance was perfect as was the tempered steel blade. The weapon used to be his fathers, Liang’s grandfather. After this journey, he wanted to present it to Liang as a gift. He didn’t use it much; rather it was for show more than a tool of destruction. The inlaid jewels crusted the hilt and crosspiece, giving it a brilliant gleam in the sunlight. He slid it back into its scabbard and slowly tied it to his belt. Then chaos began.
Men ran frantically through the camp, gathering their weapons and yelling orders. Xu Fu rushed out of his tent and stopped in his tracks. What used to be daylight was now as dark as the night before. The horses tethered to a log were kicking and whinnying, desperately trying to escape their bonds. Xu Fu ran toward them and pulled on the reins to try and calm them down. As the horse nearest him calmed, it lowered its head, giving Xu Fu a clear view behind it.
A mass of white mist was slowly coming down the mountain, but it wasn’t just mist. Forms of humans made up the mist. The shapes swirled in and out of focus, but they were definitely real. Xu Fu dropped the reins and fell backwards. All he could do was stare at the forms in paralyzing fear. And suddenly, just as quick as it came, the mist dissipated and the sun illuminated the mountain once again. For the first time that morning, the mountainside was completely still. Finally, the men began to move around again. They cast wary looks up the mountain as they finished packing. None of them wanted to continue up the mountain where the mist had originated, but all knew that was their destination.
Covered in mud, Xu Fu gripped the log and pulled himself onto his feet. By far, that was the strangest thing he had seen and that intrigued him. Liang came into view across the field and Xu Fu strode excitedly towards him. As he neared, he noticed that the captain was dressing a large gash on his upper arm. His face and neck were covered in scrapes and his red cape, worn to show his rank, had been ripped in several places. Xu Fu’s face filled with worry as he reached out and gripped the shoulder of his nephew. Liang turned slightly then finished tying the bandage.
“What happened to you, Liang?”
“Must’ve tripped and fallen in the mists.”
Xu Fu touched one of Liang’s many cuts. Liang winced and took a step away.
“Uncle,” Liang began, “did you notice anything…unusual about those mists?”
Xu Fu turned toward his nephew once again and looked him straight in the eye. “Not particularly. Why do you ask?” The two men stood for a moment watching each other. Liang then shrugged, straightened his shoulders and stalked off. Xu Fu watched the young man go. He wasn’t sure why he didn’t tell Liang what he saw.
Was I hallucinating? Uncle saw the mists as well, but denied anything unusual about them. I really must’ve fallen. Liang found himself staring into the stream from the night before. He was walking over to see Xu Fu for orders when the sky turned black and a deep, moist fog set before him. It happened so fast that it startled him and he dropped the tea he was carrying. When he bent to pick up the cup, it was as if something pushed him to the ground. Then the ripping and clawing began. He had fought against it, trying to strike out at his attacker, but all he reached was air. Finally he had curled into a ball and tried to protect his now tattered face. Whispers surrounded his ears.
“Death. Kill. Torment. Warning. Scratch. Tear.”
With the last word something tore at his shoulder, spilling blood down his arm. Then, as fast as it came, it dissipated, leaving him in a bloody mess on the ground. He’d looked around and found himself behind a tent with no one nearby. The men seemed frightened, but unscathed. None of them looked like they had a similar experience.
He looked to where Xu Fu stood and saw him walk towards a group of men where he started to speak to them. He then walked away and out of Liang’s sight. Liang looked back into the stream and felt, not for the first time, a deep longing for his mother.
“Captain, the men are ready to begin on your call.” His second in command stood a few steps behind him, holding the reins of a magnificent white mare. With a whistle, he turned from the stream and mounted the horse to begin the long journey up the mountain.