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