Telling The Stories Of The Great Xu
The Jurong Pass looked impossibly dark as the sun went down. Kui-Jun shifted his heavy pack around his shoulder. The Storyteller and the monk walked with their spears. It was left unspoken that Kui would carry their food and water. They were heading north towards Liaodong, the land the Manchus called home. It wouldn't be long before they passed battle fields: a couple days of peace, and then the hike would become dangerous.
“Why are we going north?”
Xu looked back at the young man briefly. His age and the naivete of living his whole life in the temple came shining through his face. “It was the mandate of the Han emperor that we investigate the growing strength of the Manchu.”
Kui took a deep breath and followed after the fallen monk. Shun laughed. "What do you fear, young man?”
“Nothing,” said Kui.
Xu laughed and walked along the path. His eyes were adjusting.
Kui looked past Xu into the darkness. He wanted to will his feet forward but something held him back. He had lived his whole life in the temple, and never really wanted more. He didn't know his real family, and accepted the life the temple had provided. There'd been a few trips to the village, but his whole life had been on the mountain. He had heard the same sounds at night on the mountain. High up near the heavens where the air was thinner, there was an impossible quiet.
The path before him seemed dark in a way no corner of the temple could match, and the insects screamed in an unending choir of screeches and clicks. What lay beyond the darkness?
Xu stopped and stared at the young boy. Xu wanted to get another hour of walking in before they made camp. At the next village they could use his imperial scroll to get horses. In the meantime, they would have to walk until their feet would not carry them any longer.
Xu whistled and shook Kui awake from his daze. The young man followed, repeating a mantra just louder than a whisper. Xu slowed down so he walked beside Kui. “There is nothing to fear, you are traveling with great warriors.”
Kui looked at the Storyteller who was walking without his eyeballs out.
“He is old, blind, and you're half drunk.”
“Ahh,” Shun laughed. “Sight is but one weapon.”
“And I have not had a drop to drink since your master ruined my morning.”
“I guess we have nothing to worry about then do we?”
Xu picked up his pace although he did appreciate the sarcasm. Maybe this young monk wasn't so bad after all.
At the campfire Kui immediately began to meditate. He sensed all the living things that swarmed their camp, curious about who they were. When they moved, the bamboo ached; he could feel the chi-energy of the forest shifting. It was part of the Shaolin Kungfu. He should have focused on his breathing, but Kui wondered about Xu. Many rumors were told of this man. Kui's eyes opened slowly and he watched Xu stoking their small fire. Sparks danced into the air and Kui felt the heat gently on his cheek. Xu's eyes locked with the young monk's.
Shun sat down beside Kui and offered him a ball of rice wrapped in nori.
“He still wonders about you.” Shun pulled an eyeball out of his pocket and scanned Kui.
Kui took a bite of the riceball. “We heard many stories about the fallen master.”
“Is that so?”
“Most were warnings.”
“Now that you have seen Master Zhen lie to the emperor's court, do you question these stories you heard?”
Kui shook his head.
Shun held his eye towards Xu. “I have heard tales of the demon slayer Xu as far south as Canton.”
Xu laughed. “Well Storyteller, we are here warming our feet. How about a tale of the great Xu. I'll tell you if it's true.”
Shun switched his eyeball to his left hand and pulled a bamboo scroll from his bag, and laid it on the ground next to his sword. The light of the fire just barely lit the words painted on the scroll. Shun scanned it with his eye.
“This tale begins eighteen winters ago, in great temple of Xuzhou.”
Xu lifted an eyebrow and smiled.
“A group of bandits from faraway lands were stealing spices and silks to take back to their treasure horde. The villagers called upon Cao Gujiu, one of the eight immortals that had traveled across the sea with the emperor's treasure fleet. With sword in hand, this immortal was given wine and sake in barrels for dispatching the white demons.”
Xu sighed. Shun held his eye out to him.
“Is there a problem with the story?”
“Yes, Cao Gujiu was enlightened and did not--”
Shun shushed Xu. “A great storyteller knows when all the details must unfold.”
Xu signaled for him to continue.
“The immortal began drinking and did not sleep or become sober for thirty days. When the monks of the temple and the villages tried to restrain him, he unleashed a deadly, occult Kung Fu. They sent a message to ask Shaolin for the help of the great demon slayer.” Shun pointed at Xu.
Kui's jaw dropped a little. “Is it true?”
Xu ignored the question.
Shun waited a few beats but without an answer, he continued. “Xu arrived in Xuzhou five days later. He walked into the temple and found the immortal doing unspeakable things with the governor's wife.”
“What things?” the young monk asked, his eyes wide.
“Quite speakable with consent, but that was not the case,” Xu said.
“So you know what those unspeakable things were, you were there.” Kui smiled.
“Now I didn't say that. Go on Shun, finish the story.”
Shun cleared his throat. “Xu unrolled the Scroll of Spirit Disposal. And placed his yellow paper magic on the floor. The immortal stood eight feet tall, with a sword the length of two arms. Its blade was forged in the flames of Hell's darkest corner. At that moment, Xu knew this was not Cao the immortal.”
Kui looked at Xu.
“Who was it?”
Xu shrugged his shoulders and pointed at the scroll on the ground. “This is Shun's story, not mine.”
Shun laughed a deep belly laugh. “If you will allow me, I will finish the story. Xu lifted his sword and challenged the demon. Xu pointed to the exit, and the woman escaped. The demon lifted his sword and ran at Xu. The sword was so tall it caught on the ceiling. Xu ran and slid under the demon's legs. He kicked the back of its massive knees and it fell on to the Scroll of Spirit Disposal. The demon screamed when it landed on the magic incantations. The screams could be heard in the village. The next discernible sound was the howl of a fox.”
“Huh, he was a fox demon all that time.” Kui could not hide his astonishment. He looked at Xu. “Is this story true?”
“What tales of the great Xu do they tell at the temple?” Xu dodged the answer like an assassin's dart. In his mind he heard the faint sobs of Wei--the Governor's wife. Whatever confidence he had been feeling before melted with the tortured sobs, just audible in his mind. He always expected others to hear the voices.
Kui sat up straight. “The one I could never forget was 'Xu and the River Nmyph.'”
“Sounds promising, but I'm so sure that...Well just tell the story.”
“Xu was sent to find a farmers wife who had disappeared in the night. He tracked her down to a cave where she offered Xu a chance to leave the temple as her lover. This was the first temptation of the fallen monk.”
“Every moment is a temptation,” Xu reminded him.
Shun had flipped the scroll over and begun taking notes. Xu tried to grab it but the old storyteller heard him coming, and spun. Xu heard the governor's laughter again.
“Finish the story young man,” the blind man urged.
“In the faint moonlight of the cave she looked beautiful, her skin smooth like silk, the curves of her body like nothing from the temple he could remember. She was a sight the likes Xu had never seen. She stepped closer and he saw that she was not wearing a stitch of clothing.”
Xu looked away from the young man telling the story. He hoped that Kui watched the fire, and was thankful Shun could not see his face. The old man would know right then and there that Xu was reacting to this story. To the memory of that woman standing before him. He had wanted to touch her. Contacting any part of her would have fulfilled him. Her hands, her arms, her legs. He just wanted to reach out to her. In his memory he could almost smell her.
“When Xu stepped closer, he heard a hiss.”
“A hiss?” Xu was confused, he didn't remember a hiss.
“And then another, and another. Soon a chorus of hisses sang to him as her hair came alive. A Gorgon with serpent locks who mocked the monk with two dozen forked tongues.”
“What?” Xu laughed.
“It is true. Master Zhen said every hair on her body,” Kui looked down at his own crotch and shifted uneasily, “every last hair was a bloodthirsty serpent.”
“Lies,” Xu grabbed his sword and felt the urge to swing it randomly at a tree.
Jiang's screams echoed in his brain, accompanied by the sound of the tree demon's tongue ripping into her back. Xu yelled just to hear his own voice over the ones in his head. “The men who never leave that temple fear women, when it is men who drive the evil acts of history. Men who amass armies in the north, a man who sits on the throne and casts us off to find his enemies.”
“Master Zhen said that Xu was still tempted--even when he saw the serpents.”
“Don't you see, they use these stories to control you. Make you afraid of the beauty
in love. To keep you bald, meditating, and a servant.”
“It didn't happen?” Kui stood. Shun closed his scroll and packed it away.
The old blind man shook his head in disgust. “Something happened to you. All these stories could not be false,” the storyteller insisted. “Why would the emperor ask for you if they were not true?”
Xu looked at his reflection in his sword. Parts of both stories were true, but the only time he had truly faced evil he failed. A little girl died. Three voices spoke together inside Xu's mind. They all three asked what he was doing on this mission. They laughed at him in the quiet moments. They taunted him every time he tried to move on.
“I don't care why. I'm here to earn money.” Xu sat back down at the fire. “Sleep, because tomorrow we head to Venara.”
“Where?” Kui asked.
“Venara,” Xu said just over a whisper.
Shun gasped and Kui smiled, then after a second regained his composure. “That is a filthy disgusting place.”
Shun reached into his pocket and pulled out his eyeball.
Xu looked serious enough. “In all your stories Shun, what have you heard about Venara?”
Shun couldn't answer. His home was filled with thousands of scrolls, dozens for almost every village in China. He had even collected tales of cities in far away lands, but Venara was elusive. People went to this village in the north to be free. Known for high-end opiums and prostitutes, political and cultural divisions were meant for the cities beyond. Once you left Venara you were never to speak of it.
“You have no stories for a reason.”
He knew the rumors, but Shun had not believed. Venara is protected by a guardian wizard who cursed any who gave away secrets from the village.
Xu laid down by the warmth of the fire.
“Are we really going there?” Kui's voice trembled.
“If an evil force plots against the emperor, I can't think of a better place to start,” Xu said and closed his eyes.