Bonds of Friendship
"You know it as well as I do," said Zuo through lips that were blue with cold. "Only one of us will survive this storm."
"How can you speak such nonsense?" replied Yang in anger.
Zuo's face took on the expression of one resigned to his fate. "Desolate Peak has claimed greater lives than ours, my friend. If we both try to make it down from this mountain, we shall certainly starve to death, if we do not freeze to death first. You're a better student than I am. Take my clothes and the last of our food and survive. I want you to take the imperial examination. Do it for us."
"Just three weeks ago, we were strangers. As orphans, we met on the road, each hoping to offer our services to the king. You are younger, stronger, and smarter. It is only thanks to you that I was able to make it this far. My death means nothing, if you can achieve your position."
A wry smile formed on Zuo Botao's lips. "Just don't forget to come back to bury me. I'll be waiting."
The older man said no more.
"If I die here," sobbed Yang, "Who will bury my friend?" Yang gathered up his friend's clothes and food. With a heavy heart, Yang set out on his trek out of the wilderness, leaving his friend's frozen body behind.
After a long and arduous journey, Yang arrived at the king's palace. He acquitted himself well in the imperial examinations, putting forward ten excellent proposals which allowed the nation to effectively address pressing problems which had plagued his nation for many years. The king was delighted by the young man's intelligence and thought, and immediately bestowed upon him a position in his cabinet and gifted him with a hundred taels* of gold and a hundred bolts of coloured silk.
Yang, having achieved his position, immediately begged leave of the king, explaining his story. The king was deeply moved by Zuo's sacrifice and granted the latter a posthumous position and provided Yang with the With the king's blessing, Yang went back to the tree where he had left his friend. Sure enough, Zuo's corpse lay where it had been left, untouched even by the wild animals of the forest.
Using the money the king had bestowed upon him, Yang gave his friend a state funeral. Zuo's body was buried in a minister's uniform, as befitting his posthumous position.
That night, as Yang slept beside his friend's grave, the latter's ghost came before him in a dream. Yang was astonished to find Zuo's ghost in tears.
"The demon of Desolate Mountain torments me," said Zuo. "Daily, it comes before me, breaking through the door of my mansion. It eats its fill and despoils what it does not consume, and leaves behind its foul excrement in its wake."
"Please, my friend," begged Zuo. "Exhume my body and bury me elsewhere. I am sorry if I seem ungrateful for the effort you have put in for me. I only wish to be left in peace in the afterlife."
Yang was overcome with indignation by his friend's plight. "How dare that demon disturb the rest of my honoured friend? Fear not, Zuo. It shall be the demon that is put to flight, not you."
Having said this, Yang woke the next morning, his eyes blazing with determination. He ordered his retainers to craft paper soldiers armed with swords, which he burned all day before Zuo's grave.
That night, as Yang slept by his friend's grave, a great storm savaged the mountain. The villagers imagined that he could hear the sounds of battle in the roll of thunder and the crack of lightning. Once again, Zuo's ghost visited Yang in his dreams.
"The demon is too strong," wept Zuo. "He has killed the soldiers you sent, every last one. Their swords break when they touch its flesh, and its skin is as hard as stone. Last night, it bounded through the broken gates of my mansion, and daubed the walls with blood from the fallen warriors."
"Don't be afraid," consoled Yang, struggling to keep the despair from his voice. "I will not let the demon hurt you."
"How can you? You are a mortal man, and we are spirits of the netherworld. Even if you wanted to help, the living have no power over the dead."
Yang nodded. "Fear not, my friend. If mere soldiers are not strong enough, then I shall send you dragons."
The next morning, Yang awoke and ordered his men into action. He selected four indomitable oaks in the vicinity and ordered them to be cut down and carved into the shape of three snarling dragons. They were placed in each corner of the grave to serve as Zuo's guardians.
That night, a storm once more raged over the mountain. The crash of thunder and flash of lightning overhead were the sounds of a titanic battle waged in the nether world. So great was the power released that echoes of it seeped through the cracks of reality into the world of the living. Pottery shattered in the houses of the villagers and great trees were torn from their roots.
Once again, Zuo appeared before Yang in a dream.
"The demon is too strong," said Zuo. "He has killed all the dragons you have sent me. Its sinews are tougher than the roots of the mightiest oak, and its bones are the bones of the mountain. Last night it came before me, picking its teeth with a dragon's claw, prancing about in a cloak of dragon scales, thanking me insolently for the meal of dragonflesh. I stared into its laughing eyes, and I know that I am next. Please, Yang, before it is too late, bury me somewhere else. If the demon eats me, not even my soul will remain."
Yang awoke at first light and went to Zuo's grave, only to find that the four great dragons had been destroyed. Tears streamed down the young man's face as he imagined the agonies Zuo must have had to endure. "Fear not, my dear friend. Forgive my half measures. I know now what I must do to defeat this demon."
Yang climbed to the top of the mountain, where he found a statue carved from black stone. The statue bore the features of the demon just as Zuo had described, and its eternal grin mocked the rage filled features of the official.
"I see you for what you are," said Yang, spitting vile curses at the stone effigy. "You are the malicious spirit of the mountain. You tried to kill us as we journeyed through your land, and were it not for Zuo's sacrifice, you would have succeeded. Even now, you give my friend no peace in death!"
So saying, Yang drew his sword of office. He raised it in both hands and smote the demon a heavy blow. But the sword broke on impact, and the demon laughed on, unharmed.
"Zuo was right," said Yang. "The living have no power over the dead." As he said this, the minister drew his dagger and plunged it into his own heart.
In his ruined mansion, Zuo sat over his broken stone table, his head bowed in despair. In a matter of hours, night would fall again. The demon would come, and Yang had not yet moved his grave. Zuo looked up just as Yang appeared before him, clutching broken sword and bloody dagger.
"Yang!" exclaimed Zuo in confusion. "But why are you here?"
"Can't you guess, dear friend?" asked Yang.
Understanding dawned upon Zuo's face at last as he beheld the fire of determination in his friend's eyes.
"No time for tears, Zuo," said Yang, holding out the sword, hilt first, for his friend. "We have a demon to kill. We defeated it once, together, and we shall do so again."
"Yang!" cried out Zuo, unable to believe his friend's sacrifice.
"You gave your life for me," said Yang. "Did you think I wouldn't return the favour?"
That night, the heavens poured out their wrath for a third and final time. A great storm of surpassing fury raged over Desolate Peak. The winds howled like wolves and the earth shook so violently it seemed the mountain would fall apart. The natives huddled in their fragile houses of mud and wood, fearing that their world was about to end. But with the coming of the dawn, the storm abated at last.
The most courageous of the villagers trekked to the top of the mountain, bearing animal sacrifices and offerings in hopes of appeasing the demon. They found Yang's corpse lying before the demon's statue. The ancient effigy itself was riven in two by a mighty blow. The villagers realised at once that something truly momentous had happened the night before.
The friendship of Yang Jiao'ai and Zuo Botao had defeated the demon.
Author's Note: Adapted from Tales of China