You close your eyes and the mostly harmless ones are there. A loner or two or many. Sometimes it’s a feathered dragon painting smooth pirouettes against the darkness of your curtained eyelids, skipping from cave to cave through a wormhole in the nasal bridge. In other instances, the wrinkled face of an old crone, disembodied and wrapped in a black cowl, elicits a jump, a quickening of the heart rate, and a welcome re-entering to the known realm of the room you were in before shutting everything out. You can see the black and every other color; that interior layer of delicate skin is always dusted with a whitish, seemingly alive noise that constitutes the ideal canvas for such a lively display. The perfect theatrical backdrop.
True, the mind may not find bona fide rest for some moments after an encounter with her, the red-horned devil, or even the tentacle thing–blinking and sleeping and forcing debris out of one’s eyes carry understandable hazards. But unless you have a faulty aorta or any other such affliction that turns sudden scares into dynamite sticks, you live to tell the tale.
That is, if you don’t find them instead.
Sandra does breakfast the usual way, as if nothing had changed in the idyll of her suburban life over the past few months: steel-cut oats, coffee, orange juice, and a newspaper with headlines slightly more dreadful than the week before. The natural and earthy perfume of the petrichor wafting through the kitchen windows tells Sandra nothing about the very unnatural source of last night’s rain. Nonetheless, she takes it as a sign that, like her coffee, everything about today is just the way it is supposed to be, dripping into place with oily, hot, and bitter steadfastness, ready to be enjoyed at the end if enough patience is accrued.
Devon, meek and utterly unremarkable, awaits her departure by the stairwell, not daring to meet his wife’s dry and indifferent gaze. In fact, that is the last thing he looks forward to, in case it happens right then. He knows that, intrepid as he was in undertaking last night’s nasty bit of business, he lacks the stomach to endure the even nastier consequences. And besides, it’s not like they miss exchanging fond gazes and avid caresses. Not her at least. Not for a long time now.
One can go about finding these little gods’ neluayotl, their source, in several different ways, most of extreme complexity and with not deadly, but intoxicating and not too pleasant side effects for the seeker. Experts, however, agree that the most effective way to root one out of its hiding place is simply waiting for that time when it is most needed. They were seeded among the ilhuicatl-omeyocan, the hidden sky between here and there, for a reason, and that reason is to guide us, to steer us all through the path to enlightenment and well-being. To a great extent, their appearance signifies a gift: a soothing libation for those who pine for succor, a reprimand and a lesson for those who are being led astray. This is why to forcibly call upon them is such an uncommon and unadvised practice. If you feel you need to hail the teotl before they come to you of their own accord, well, you do not really need them at all.
Opposite to what we would ideally expect, though, such untoward tendencies are still made evident on a frequent basis. Owners of irregular and off-balance vessels have a knack for wanting that which they don’t need, to plunge with recklessness into contemptible and desirous ways in order to satisfy their whims. These are the guys and gals with unclean hearts that, simply put, end up fucking it all up.
Through these poor souls is how they come. They are the askatl’s big opportunity to play, to wreak havoc and shine through. Not being needed for anything of purpose but existing because they must in order to even the heavenly scales, the askatl live to be wanted. They curl up in their isolated pocket of twilight, awaiting with barely contained zeal the toll of the wrong bell.
Sadly, that death knell sounds way too often.
Devon steps into the shower stall and his skin starts sizzling immediately. The scalding water is his choice, his way of cleansing the disgusting mix of animal grease, ashes, and the smoke of ceremonial incenses. There is not much to wash away from his body, from his hair; this is his third lavation already. His mind, however, has other concerns, worries of a more rancid nature that water can hardly carry with it down the drain.
He stands under the streams, face upturned, impassive and oblivious to the heat but not completely idle. He thinks about his wife, reminiscing of her yet unchanged curves, the supple breasts, the firm flesh around her hips. So soon, he thinks, to have other hands touching those hills, fingers nimble and lustful—the wrong ones—hunting in the veldt of her navel and the dark and moist crevices beyond. What on earth went wrong?
The ensuing hardening is inevitable. Rage and self-pity only fuel his own desire and he acts on it with liberal violence. At least, he thinks, this will be a taint that water can dissolve.
On that particular fluid: rainwater is their conduit of choice. When the rift finally parts open, after the bleating of the goat and the rubbing of ghastly ointments and the chants, an askatl nantli queen quickly deposits thousands of eggs in an earthen bowl by the fissure. Then comes Tlaloc, lord of rain (for the ritual has a dual summoning purpose), gullible and unaware, dragging his watery tail and the eggs with him. They plummet together from the celestial domain, the deadly embryos encased inside individual drops. Once in the mundane realm, the babies fade into a brief slumber while they undergo a rapid transformation: from egg to larvae to pupae.
It is the belief of many summoners that the forces of chaos thus invoked will carry out their wishes in a prompt and swift fashion. This is, for the most part, correct: the askatl are an eager bunch. But history—and what little records are there to consult—show that no one should expect them to act at any particular or convenient moment.
No. These little bastards make themselves known only when it suits them. Or rather, at the precise moment when there’s a bigger chance for having hell break loose. That’s when they…
…pop. They pop out of their leathery husks and claw their way out of the ethereal loam where they waited. A raucous buzzing is testament to their joy of birth, but it is for their benefit only; they are still hidden from sight.
They do not remain inconspicuous for long, though.
If at day’s end Sandra wanted to go to his husband, to the home they were just starting to build together and his tiresome rants and his waxy pallor, she would have taken her car. If she had done that, she would have lived a couple of hours longer. You don’t usually try to sleep while driving, after all.
But that fire has died, quenched by the more adventurous nature of her new lover. To him she goes now, leaning against a darkened and grimy window of the tail train car. She rocks to the rhythm of the rolling caravan, picturing the pleasures those foreign hands are soon to impart, already feeling the electricity of forbidden lips coursing through her nerves.
The train stops at a crowded station. People disembark and people pour in, but she’s quick to snag a seat. Still thinking about her sinful tryst, she clutches her bag close to her stomach and shuts her eyes for a brief nap. She shouldn’t have.
The task of the first couple of workers is to secure the landing area. A trio of heavy mandibles clamp onto the seam of each pair of closed lids and Sandra, not yet asleep, can see their shiny red bodies jerking around in the gloom struggling to find a foothold. But even before registering the alien presence as an oddity, a more immediate neural stimulus takes priority.
She screams. Burning pain sears her fragile skin. Her bag drops to the floor as her hands navigate toward her face, palming gently at first but soon becoming a full-fledged slapping parade. Blood oozes through the forced stitches and her fingers smear it all over her forehead and cheeks for an even more gruesome effect. She screams, and not even the click-clack of the train wheels rolling over the rails is loud enough to quell that atrocious sound.
The other passengers, curious at first (holding on to the usual train-rider flavor of indifference), are just now beginning to panic. Phones start flooding the lines of the city’s emergency services while bodies keep a prudent distance from the afflicted.
The askatl swarm into her. At one point her now raking fingers manage to dislodge two of the reds that kept her right eye from opening. Crimson light floods in and she is able to get her bearings—more or less. She stands up and extends pleading arms towards the commuters but their own safety comes first, always, and they shy away from her. She shambles on, to and fro, and bumps her shins on the edges of the seats without negative effect; the pain inside drowns everything else.
The colony resent the degradation of their passage bandwidth but soldier on still, three or four abreast. One eye should suffice. Some bore through in a straight line, heading for the tasty brain. Others start nibbling downward, passing nose and throat, clearing a path for bodily domination.
Sandra lets her hands descend to her side. Tiny bumps swell under her skin. The agony is a constant background thrum but her energy is fading, her vocal cords already shredded. She stares with one mangled eye at the back of the train and the faint trail of light illuminating the murky underground maw until everything, not just the tunnel, turns murky and then black and silent. She falls to her knees. Her mouth hangs open like a malfunctioning ventriloquist doll. Finally, her head slumps, chin connecting with chest in a last languishing nod of departure.
Another misconception about the askatl is that as soon as they are done with their intended victim they disappear, returning to the place from whence they came. People who think this way fail to realize that while they do indeed possess a very short lifespan—as evidenced by their fast metamorphosis—the army will not stop until they cause as much damage and mayhem as possible. So, for example, if a girl in a pretty pink dress happens to shut her eyes and press her face against her mother’s legs, trying to evade the grisly reality of a woman in a train car being eaten from the inside out, the askatl won’t hesitate to take advantage of the situation.
And then onto another, and another, and yet another host. Shuttered eyes are easy to come by in those scenarios.
Devon stuffs his face with a glazed BBQ chicken leg from a famous Korean place. In the basket in front of him are two more drumsticks and half a dozen soy-garlic wings. On the TV mounted from the ceiling of the restaurant, yet another anchorman prattles on about the mysterious death of twenty in a subway car. The CDC still has a chokehold on that particular tunnel and routes are being diverted, much to the displeasure of most travelers.
As he licks his sticky fingers, he acknowledges that the acidic moral taste from before has everything but evaporated. He had waited three weeks before finally heading down to the coroner’s office to identify the body (better safe than eaten), but the eyeless, noseless, and pretty much dried up body of his wife had put a secret smile on his face. It had taken a lot of guts to do what he did, but he is now glad he went along with it. Bitch got what she deserved. He feels empowered.
A pretty Asian girl with short brown bangs enters loudly, joined by two other equally obnoxious youths. She shoots him a quick look filled to the brim with disgust and turns to mutter something into her friends’ ears. They all giggle.
Devon pauses briefly and thinks of blood and ashes and rain. He tears another chunk of flesh from the steaming drumstick and chews contentedly. He will finish his basket first and then… perhaps.
Photo by http://www.flickr.com/photos/e_monk/ under a Creative Commons license
“Yes, yes. Excellent silhouette, outstanding symmetry. Oh, and the skin tone is spot on.”
Darla knew she was good and almost smiled. But pride had never won a battle against guilt in this ever-lasting war of hers and she remained impassive instead.
“Regardless,” the old man said, not unexpectedly. “I still think we’re missing something, dear.”
She looked to the geezer standing next to her and sized him up, saw his chin resting on his right hand as if he were a scholar tasked with a monumental project: analyzing, measuring, critiquing. She felt icky and debased, as a woman and as a human being in general, knowing far too well what things boiled down to in every detailing session that she hosted.
“Perhaps if we…” he said, as his other arm darted towards the slider marked BREASTS on the operator’s deck. His shriveled skin brushed against Darla’s naked shoulder, but he paid the contact no heed. Never mind that hers was a striking figure, even at forty, with red, luscious locks, crisp azure eyes, and an alabaster skin that was scrupulously maintained. No, his lust was directed elsewhere and Darla could see it: a focused beam of compact, tangible heat waves piercing the viz screen in front of them.
“Hands off, Rowland,” she said, and slapped his arm away from the console. “You want more boobs? Here, I’ll give you more boobs.”
Sector always gave her grief about her rudeness with customers. Almost twice a week she would hear from some middle level exec or another about the latest client outrage:
‘She has no manners whatsoever.’
‘Spirited? I would think downright bitchy is more appropriate.’
‘For this amount of money one expects at least a modicum of courtesy. Yes, the work was impeccable. Still…’
She was far from giving a damn. They wanted the best Ganger designer out there? Fine, she was down. But hell if she was about to deal with more overhead than she already had to on a personal and moral level.
Now, she did not consider herself a feminist, not in the strict sense of the word, but she was familiar—and agreed up to some point—with the sayings of a few strong women of old. For example, each hour she spent in her studio reminded her of something Dame Rebecca West once stated:
‘I only know that people call me a feminist whenever I express sentiments that differentiate me from a door mat or a prostitute.’
And that was exactly what filled her with a bitter, sickening anguish: with the skills she had so furiously labored to acquire, doing what she excelled at with unparalleled mastery, she was helping populate the world with door mats and whores. And there was no point in denying men as the culpable source of this unsavory trend. Men, and the economy, of course.
At least I still have Andrew.
She sighed and moved the slider to the right in a seemingly arbitrary jerk that was anything but: years of experience told her exactly where to stop, which often was in the boundaries of ‘too much’.
“There! Perfection!” Rowland screamed, giddy with excitement. He regarded her with a patronizing smile that made her cringe in her seat.
“You’re definitely the best, honey bunch.”
“Happy to help,” she replied sarcastically, the scorn, unveiled, taking up a predominant layer of her tone.
She tapped a few keys and a panel slid out from under the work desk.
“Now, sign there and be ready to pick it up on the specified date.”
The man did as instructed and headed towards the automated doors at Darla’s back.
“Sweetie?” he said, stopping just a few steps shy of the doorway.
She swiveled on her chair and faced Rowland, one eyebrow arched.
“Her,” he said, the stupid grin still plastered on his face.
“Pick her up.” He turned around and left.
The swish of compressed air closing the doors lingered inside her head for a moment, a soft counterpoint to the anger building up in her bloodstream.
Her phone rang.
She answered immediately, not even looking at the identifier screen, just thankful for the distraction.
“Darla here,” she said after clicking the speaker button and placing the device on the desk.
“Hey, it’s me,” a male voice said groggily from the other end. “Meeting’s dragging on, only God knows for how long.”
A whirring sound, almost imperceptible to the untrained ear, caught her attention. Well-greased but unrefined cogs, mechanical wires pulling and stressing. C-polymer skin stretching, like rubber.
“Are you still there, love?”
“Yes, sorry, I’m just bogged down by this request,” she lied. “Can’t seem to get the eyebrows right, go figure.”
“That’s because neither the eyebrows, nor the nails, nor the hair, will ever be right on those things.”
She listened for the tell-tale clicks and snaps of lower-end models. They were there, she was certain, followed by the rustle of cheap fabric.
“Anyway, don’t wait for me. I’ll make it up to you soon, I promise. Gotta go now.”
He hung up. She made no motion to retrieve the phone, but remained seated, in stasis, her eyes covered with an impenetrable icy barrier.
Another quote, this time by one Henry Kissinger, of all people, came to her later that day when she was resting on her bed, nursing a still chilly—despite being more than three quarters empty—bottle of Chardonnay:
‘Nobody will ever win the battle of the sexes. There’s just too much fraternizing with the enemy.’
I see what you did there, fella.
She also thought about what happened right after the call ended.
In those moments of true shock, she knew, any expectation of coherent thought is forlorn, replaced involuntarily with a passive receptiveness for the whacky.
But was it really whacky, though? Was there a hidden streak of submission in every woman, nestled in darkness, unacknowledged, heedless of how strong the woman in question makes herself up to be? Or perhaps it was just her, more feeble and sheltered than would be deducible by a tomboy attitude and a stout, fiery temper? The phrase that popped in her mind at that stressful moment offered no suitable answer to these questions. At least none that could quench the turmoil in her midst.
Oh, Andrew. I could have built you a better one.
The man tiptoes around the bed but his steps are not light enough atop the coarse carpet and she wakes.
Where are you going, she asks
Go back to sleep, he says.
The baby slumbers in the crib, dreaming of colored horses and shiny stars or so it would seem, judging by a smile that manages to set alight the man’s determination, if not his spirit. He kisses the boy on the forehead and heads for the door. He wants to kiss the woman too, but a hurting pride lies between them and he chooses not to.
Thrushes and robins also wake early, singing away with abandon their songs of work and industry. The dawn light, on the other hand, is just as groggy as the journeying man. This is not a deterrent; he will take care of things (it is expected of him).
There is no car to make his voyage easier so he walks, slowly, in timed strides that carry a rhythm not completely of his own, but one that belongs also to the ever-flowing stream of time and circumstance.
A few steps along the way, or perhaps many, the man digs deep into his pockets and produces ninety nine cents with which he buys a newspaper from a wizened old man that seems to have spent his entire life at the same wizened old magazine stand. Neither man thanks the other, and why would they?
One more batch of cents and the man’s reserves are emptied when he procures a cup of bitter coffee: bad, but he needs it. He opens the newspaper to the section where many look for chances but only a handful find them. Sips and scans, sips and scans.
The coffee is as good an investment as he expects it to be (unlike in days before this). He feels awake, not quite alive, and still the former is something few get to say at this wee hour of the morning. The newspaper, however, works for him just the way it does for many, which translates to not so much, and he feels deep the waste of time and credit. Life is unfair like that, he knows.
More steps and the man finds himself surrounded by pretty houses with pretty fences and pretty driveways. He feels one or two pangs of regret: he has been here before, if not here exactly, somewhere with the same virginal facades, the same high-end appliances; the same hopes for a future where a thousand becomes a million, where four years and peek-a-boo become twenty and a degree. But he is that man no more and regret takes him nowhere.
He forces himself to focus on that unmowed lawn that stands out among the well-trimmed others. He knocks not on the door of man or woman, he knocks on the door of a thing with feathers. And yet is a woman who answers, old and proud, weathered but not withered.
Can I mow your lawn, he asks.
Sorry, she replies.
This one has scorn tattooed on her face and the apology does not stick.
A few more houses down the road, or perhaps many, a young couple see themselves reflected on the supplicating man (he knows he is not really begging, but it is all the same to them).
Can I mow your lawn, he asks.
Well, why not, they answer.
These two have pity tattooed on their face.
The sun conspires with the clouds to remain apart for the day and so the man bakes under a full, scorching yoke. Inch by inch (square) the lawn is mowed until it matches the rest of the pretty houses with pretty fences and pretty driveways.
Fate (which equals luck as far as the man is concerned) will not let the sun and the clouds be the only ones conspiring and does some conspiring of its own: when work was all but done, the man accidentally breaks one of the garden flamingoes that adorned the now pretty lawn of the pretty house with pretty fence and pretty driveway. He doesn’t curse; he has done his share of cursing already.
I broke your decoration, he says.
Sorry, they reply.
Sorry is indeed tattooed on both their faces, but still they do not pay.
From suburb to factory, the man draws some more steps, or perhaps many. He feels the tug of hard labour in his bones and muscles, but he bores valiantly through the tunnel of expectancy, wishing.
Do you have work, he asks.
We’re full, they reply. And full they look for at least their bellies have food in them.
Night will soon fall on him, but there is one avenue yet to follow. He walks many steps, or perhaps a few, to a street where men like him (but so unlike him) sit in the curb with cardboard signs. There are pipe workers and wire workers and soap workers and brick and mortar workers. They all await the promised vehicle that will take them to a pretty house with a pretty fence and a pretty driveway.
Anything, the man asks.
No, the men reply, and no is sadly tattooed on their faces.
A park is the next destination; he has to rest his weary self. For a moment it seems that, after all, luck is not the same as fate and he finds a half-eaten sandwich on one of the benches. He nibbles at it gingerly, savoring each particle of wheat and cream and turkey as if it were a feast.
When he is done with the sandwich (or the sandwich done with him) he heads back. Not towards home, only to something just a tad like it.
Now, here comes a twist that has nothing to do with neither luck nor fate, for it is product of man’s free will.
Someone walks by our man. A man too, well-dressed, clean. The type of man that could live in a pretty house with a pretty fence and a pretty driveway. Our man sees him and—this happens in a flash—makes up his mind.
Can you spare a dollar, our man asks.
Sorry, the man replies.
Sorry is not tattooed in this man’s face, and our man does not care. What happens next might as well be left unsaid for there is blood and turpitude and not a pang or two, but a lot of regret.
Our man walks a few steps that feel like many, an ill-begotten load burdening him in his path.
A convenience store lies outside the motel and here the man stops, for there is right to be done with what from wrong came.
He buys a Coors Light Lime for him and his aches.
He buys a large bottle of root beer for the boy (he will be thrilled).
He buys two more sandwiches to go with the one he already ate and a gallon of milk to pretend there is still wellness in his family (or that there is a family at all).
The rest of the money he saves for tomorrow’s date with the wizened old man at the wizened old magazine stand and the same bitter, hopeless cup of mud.
The man walks up the stairs, to a room where he is expected. His steps are heavy. So is his soul.
The fox spirit imbues Jian Jingsheng Jiuliang with life. Jian De meets Yifei Liu.
Busy as he was with his adoration for Spirit Drinker, Jian De could not avoid but to notice the ruckus Jinshu, the apprentice, made while fabricating blade and armor, and the ensuing commotion the army caused as it marched on towards the skirts of Tie Mao.
“I should be the one accompanying the army, not that weasel of an apprentice,” he thought, seething with envy, when Jinshu was accepted into the service of Xiong and the Shan Shi.
At the same time, the fox spirit, having passed the requisite five full moons, stole into Jian De’s habitation and seizing the absence of the sword master, located Spirit Drinker.
“True is your beauty, noble steel, but it’s regrettable the lapse in judgment it has caused,” the fox spirit said. “Become now your hidden self and help me set things straight.”
It then blew kindly on the sword, which took the shape of an equally beautiful, fair maiden.
“My name is Yifei Liu,” she said. “Long have I basked in that old man’s worship, but I’ve seen what you have seen. I will help you.”
“Thank you, essence,” the fox spirit acknowledged.
“There is a price, however,” Yifei added. “I am still Spirit Drinker and only one battle I can wage. This will be it.”
The fox spirit considered those words. A great weapon such as Jiang Jinsheng Juliang could be of great aid in the pursuit of The Way and the preservation of the Shang dinasty. But the harm it was causing now far exceeded its potential benefits. Besides, he thought, Jian De, once freed of his materialistic shackles, could be guided once again into the warm embrace of The Way and his craft.
“Agreed, then. The task is yours,” the fox spirit said and returned to his own plane.
As Jian De made his way back to his home, all dark and brooding because of his apprentice and the army he had joined, he happened into Yifei and was smitten on sight, all thoughts of Jinshu and Spirit Drinker forgone in an instant.
“Lucky are the eyes that set on such a pristine beauty,” Jian De said.
“Good morning, master Jian De. It is I who should be lucky for I am greeted by a man of such stature and importance,” she replied.
“Nothing of the sort,” Jian De said, bashful. “Say, what brings a lady like you to this piddling village?”
“Tis you, master, the object of my visit, for I am Yifei Liu, a simple woman with a simple request, one I cannot ignore even if I wanted to. I’ve been told you are the man to go to when it comes to the art of metal,” the woman said, leaning dangerously and enticingly closer to Jian De’s face.
“I am versed in the craft, yes, but I am retired, you see?” he replied, nervous. Fine beads of sweat adorned his forehead.
“Nonsense,” Yifei continued. “Your prowess with the steel is well known across the land. Now, will you refuse your services to a lady in need?”
“You are clever, for I could not. Very well, come, share some tea and tell me of this need of yours.”
They entered Jian De’s home, where he prepared two cups of steamy red tea. They both sat, facing each other, and discussed the matter while sipping the earthy, sweet brew.
“You see, a spirit came to me in a dream,” she begun, finding the fabrication funny in its irony. “He spoke of you and your feats, which are sorely needed in the East where King Zhou’s forces are gathering in order to strike a definitive blow on the insurgents,” she said.
Jian De knew what she was referring to and saw in this the perfect opportunity to exact revenge on Jinshu and what he thought of as treason on the part of the apprentice.
“Say no more and let us make haste, beautiful Yifei,” Jian De said, eager. “Guide me to this gathering place and allow me to help the Shang squash these pesky rebels like flies.
See how easily our shallow wants and needs sway our allegiances and make us stray from the path of The Way? If you want to know what happens to Jian De and his companion, read on.
An army assembles. Jian De’s apprentice asks to join the Shan Shi.
Once the details were laid out, the Fox Spirit withdrew to its realm for five full moons to prepare for the oncoming execution of Heavenly Primogenitor’s plan. Meanwhile, Jian De returned to the town of Tie Mao with its prized posession, Spirit Drinker, and retreated into a routine of meaningless adoration.
In those times when political unrest had the fate of the Shang dynasty hanging by a thread, skirmishes sprouted throughout the land on a regular basis. Since Tie Mao held a spot of high strategic value due to its proximity to Mount Kunlun, and sported easy access to a large variety of natural resources, a special, dedicated force of defenders, the Shan Shi, was always on call to assist in the defense of both town and people and to lend a hand whenever the welfare of the Shang dynasty saw itself in peril. Shan Shi’s leader, Xiong Lieren, victor in a hundred battles and scarred only by a dozen or so shallow cuts, was lauded by many as the bravest soul in all of the outer regencies.
One day, Tie Mao’s regent, Huangjin Chengzai, invited Xiong to the Courtyard of Purple Peonies to discuss some disturbing news.
“His Majesty and the imperial court have summoned us, Xiong, to aid in the quenching of a rebellion in East Lu. Forces sympathetic to Queen Jiang and her father are planning to march onto the capital in an attempt to depose King Zhou,” the regent informed.
“I shall get my men ready, then,” Xiong replied.
“Do so, but first hear what I have to say,” Huangjin interjected. “For I will be placing an immense burden on your shoulders.”
“A rumor originating in the imperial court is spreading like wildfire,” he continued. “According to this rumor, King Zhou is showing of late signs of a conduct unbecoming a monarch, indulging in wine and concubines when he should be looking out for the wellness of His people.”
“I have heard such rumors. What do you make of them, regent?” Xiong asked.
“They are true, I am afraid,” he answered. “I have witnessed firsthand the neglect His Majesty has shown towards affairs of the state and His terribly arbitrary application of justice.”
“What would you have the Shan Shi do, then?” Xiong asked, acquiescent.
“Equip your men with the best metal the land can provide and procure the fastest horses. We aid the rebels in their just cause and hope for a worthy prevalence of the Shang,” the regent concluded.
“Consider it not a burden,” Xiong said. “We stand by what is noble. Our bodies are only instruments of Heavens’ righteousness.”
And so Xiong bade the regent farewell and began preparations for the ride to the east.
Xiong selected two thousand horses from the best of breeds and the same number of the highest quality mounts, things of unrivaled beauty inlaid with pearl and ivory. He also hand-picked the most able from among his riders: men expert with either lance, sword, or bow and arrow.
Now, when it came to the matter of steel, Jian De was the one and only choice for supplying the best items in the region. He was, however, mostly preoccupied with something other than his craft at the moment.
When Xiong visited Jian De to place a substantial order for weapons and armor, Jian De would not be bothered with the task.
“My days as a metal worker are over. Take your requests somewhere else,” he said and went back to his quarters where Spirit Drinker awaited its daily dose of endearment.
Jian De’s apprentice, Jinshu Hao Yu, approached Xiong and elaborated on the situation.
“My master is afflicted with a mysterious obsession towards that sword of his,” he explained. “He won’t come anywhere near the forge and will not work on any new design, the origin of the request notwithstanding.”
“That is most unfortunate, for the fate of the Shang dynasty hangs now in the balance and the Shan Shi are to play an important part in its protection,” Xiong said.
“I am but a mere apprentice,” Jinshu said coyly. “However, I would be more than glad to help the Shan Shi and its cause with my meager skills.”
Xiong assessed the offer. All in all, he had nothing to lose, for even when Jinshu was short both in age and experience, an apprentice of Jian De was still bound to produce items of superior quality to those of the average blacksmith.
“Very well. I will send some of my men to assist you with the labor.” Xiong proposed, and set off to continue with the arrangements.
In just a couple of months, Tie Mao’s army was ready to march. Jinshu had produced superb armor and weapons with which the men were promptly outfitted, and the purest of horses had been lined up, ready to bear the weight of Xiong’s best riders.
As the throng of warriors was set to part off at the outskirts of town, Xiong saw a figure rushing to meet them. It was Jinshu.
“Lord Xiong,” Jinshu addressed the leader. “I have no purpose in remaining here if master Jian De insists on disregarding his obligations. Please, allow me to go with you and provide whatever assistance I may during the journey and battle to come.”
Xiong considered the apprentice’s petition in great detail.
Do you want to know what became of Jinshu and Xiong’s army? Read on.
Of how sword maker Jian De presented the sword Jian Jingsheng Jiuliang on Mount Kunlun and asked to keep it for himself
Four were the blades that crowned a life of craftsmanship for sword maker Jian De, son of Jian Lu; four weapons of so exquisite design and deadly edge that only one righteous wielder was allowed to use each of them for exactly one battle, after which they were to be returned to the Jade Emptiness Palace under the custody of Heavenly Primogenitor, the Grand Master of Chan Taoism. The four blades were:
Ji Yun Xun, Cloud Seeker, once wielded by Zhong Bao in a duel against Sun Lu.
Dao Yanshi Fenli, Rock Splitter, once wielded by Yun Xue in the beheading of the would-be assassin Li Wu at the Central Palace in Zhaoge.
Qiang Tiao Hu, Jumping Tiger, once wielded by Jing Zan in the battle of the Three Peaks against the hordes of Zhou Jiao.
Jian Jingsheng Jiuliang, Spirit Drinker, never wielded in physical battle.
As soon as the gleaming fourth blade left the forge, Jian De knew it was the finest of them all and quickly became his pride and joy. So enamored was Jian De of the sword that he took it with him wherever he went, bragging about it to everyone that happened to be in his way. When he was not out on errands, he would spend night and day observing its magnificent beauty.
When he finally came around to bring the sword, wrapped in the most delicate of silks, to the feet of the Eight Treasure and Cloud Radiance Throne on Mount Kunlun where the Grand Master would bestow his approval unto the steel and commit it to the servitude of The Way, he knew he could not possibly part with it without having his heart broken. He nevertheless knelt in front of the Throne, hoping that the Grand Master, in his great wisdom and kindness, would allow him to keep it.
“Master, I bring to you Jian Jingsheng Jiuliang,” Jian De said. “Among my creations its edge is the sharpest and its form the most beautiful.”
“News have come to my ears. Tales told far and wide of a fantastic new sword born at the hands of Jian De,” the Grand Master said. “Now, make me wait no longer and allow me to see it.”
Jian De, still kneeling, unwrapped the sword and offered it with his arms extended in front of him.
The Grand Master unsheathed and perused the blade attentively, cradling it first on his open palms to examine weight and sharpness and then taking his time wielding it with both left and right hands in order to assess its potential as a weapon.
“The tales did not lie. I commend you, Jian De, for this is indeed a fine blade,” he said. “Please take it to the Hall of a Thousand Edges and ready it for Heaven’s investiture,” he instructed as he returned the weapon to its scabbard.
“If I may, Master,” Jian De interjected. “Being this the best item my hands have ever crafted, I dare ask for a simple favor.”
“Speak up, then,” the Master said reluctantly.
“I, your lowly apprentice, have always pursued achievement of The Way through my art and my daily comings and goings, and have never cared much for material possessions,“ Jian De said.
“However,” Jian De added, “I humbly request, Master, that you let the sword remain at my side for what little is left of my vulgar life. I am most sure that, without the sight of its beauty and without the feel of its presence next to me, my life of steel-working would have no further meaning.”
The Grand Master pondered this request carefully; it was not in the nature of those pursuing The Way to crave material belongings with such passion and heat.
“Very well,” the Master said at last, placing the sword back on Jian De’s hands. “Spirit Drinker is yours for as long as your life or the sword itself allow you to posses it.”
“I thank you immensely,” Jian De said, overjoyed. He put the sword once again in its silk wrappings, bowed one last time and took his leave.
The Grand Master knew then that Jian De had veered off from The Way, his affection for the sword a sick and untoward feeling. To remediate the situation, for it was proper for him to tend to the spiritual needs of his apprentices, he called a Fox Spirit to his side immediately following Jian De’s departure.
“Why have you summoned me, Heavenly Primogenitor?” the Fox Spirit asked curtly.
“One of my apprentices has showed an unhealthy affection towards a thing material, which will hinder him in his path to attain The Way,” the Grandmaster said. “I have a plan to make him see his mistake, but I will require your assistance.”
The Fox Spirit, always up for a dose of well-meant mischief, grinned widely.
“Tell me of this plan of yours, then, Heavenly Primogenitor.”
The Fox Spirit and the Grand Master conversed until well into the late hours of night, discussing the particulars of a very clever ruse.
If you want to know what happened next, you must read the next chapter.