The Red Dawn Elixir – Chapter 1, Part 1

The Red Dawn Elixir is a wuxia serial novel by John Dishon. It is published in installments as they are finished. Table of Contents

 

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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