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 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…