The Road to Leng

Summary: Corporal Gao Yifan leads a group of Chinese refugees fleeing the Imperial Japanese Army, heading for a desolate monastery. To secure sanctuary for them, he faces both supernatural terrors and an obsessive pursuer.

Corporal Gao Yifan trudged up the mountain, but his glare burnt right through it. The remnants of his uniform were covered by a bullet-riddled trench-coat with a charnel stench, the warmest outfit he'd dressed in since his flight. Beneath it was his sole remaining weapon, the heavy dadao saber issued to his underequipped militia prior to their deployment. He looked down the hillside at the ramshackle refugee settlement below, reminding him why he pressed onwards.

Gao saw the pitiful assemblage of fraying clothes and leaky tents that clustered together like a mushroom patch. Perched above them like a predatory raptor was the one-eyed woman he'd lent his Hanyang Type 88 bolt-action rifle to, on account of her steady hand and clear vision. The largest structure was a patched and tattered military tent, guarded by Grandfather Pei and his grandson Rui, each clad in uniforms too small for their skeletal frames and armed with only Broomhandle pistols. A macabre parade of a half-dozen starving sentries circled the camp, armed with weapons as old as the Qing Dynasty. If the Japanese found them, his sole hope was for an expedient death.

Gao forced himself ever upwards, his mind emptied of all thoughts but ascent. The decrepit monastery lorded over the valley like an alien interloper, its black basalt alien to the natural stone of Sichuan. Its squat, angular walls were devoid of all decoration and demarcation, totally unlike the Buddhist monasteries he'd seen elsewhere in Sichuan. He counted the tenth peculiar carved stones on the mountainside, a black post marked with characters that seemed to writhe like slithering serpents. While he barely understood the ancient pictographs, he could tell they were no form of Chinese he was familiar with.

Gao stopped for a breath, using the sword to steady his weary feet. The meandering path ahead of him was line with broken stones that required careful navigation. He breathed deep, and closed his eyes. In that interlude of darkness, he remembered Sergeant Yang chewing him out for the sloppy form of his combat drills, and the accolades for the alacrity of his overhead cut. He remembered the stench of spent cordite, the shouting of men, and the scream of artillery shells. He involuntarily dove for cover from the steel rain, only to realize it was only a memory.

Gao inhaled deeply and staggered up the path. The valley beneath the decrepit monastery was lush and green, unlike the summit of the stark, barren hill. He saw no birds perch on the monastery's ramparts, nor the call of insects. The stream that ran through the valley flowed freely from a hill opposite the monastery. He saw a woman washing and children playing in its waters as he forced himself to press onwards. He scanned the horizon, fearing a familiar foe would appear at any moment. While he did not know what group inhabited the strange keep, he did not wish to make any more enemies.

Gao slowly ascended the blasted hillside, where stone spires reached upwards like demonic fangs. He moved with the care due a lunar landscape, as his fit slipped off rocks that glistened with inexplicable wetness. The fortress grew larger with each step, as the sun's light was smothered by a sea of roiling clouds. He thought he saw another shape moving along the side of the hill, but he forced himself to ignore it. Like a peon approaching an imperial throne, he cautiously stepped towards the entrance of the monolithic structure.

Gao saw the only opening in those squat, uncouth walls was a door, painted as black as the surrounding stone. He carefully approached it, only to remember charging through a broken house as the machinegun staccato echoed down nearby alleyways. He blinked, and the blasted city transmuted into the monastery's thick wooden door, as if by some unseen magic. He blinked, trying to find his bearings as he worked up the gumption to knock. He gently wrapped on the thick door, half-hoping he'd be ignored. He immediately regretted his actions as the door creaked open.

Gao attempted to step back from the threshold, only for exhaustion to preclude that. On the other side of the door was a figure that he originally did not recognize as human. As his eyes adjusted to the dim interior light, he saw he beheld three figures closely clustered together. Two men stood in black robes, their wrists and waists embroidered with golden threads. Their faces were concealed with yellow, silken masks that concealed all but their blank, empty eyes. Each held a spade-like weapon beside them, presumably acting as servants or guards for the man between them.

Gao saw his stature alone gave him a gravitas his fellows lacked, though he was clad in similar attire. A black hood completely enveloped his head, with his yellow silk mask pulled too tight to cover the cast of a typical human face. Aside from his hood, he differentiated himself from his fellows with a yellow sash over his shoulder, emblazoned with a three-pointed star on a metal clasp. He made certain signs with his hands, gestures which simultaneously seemed obscene and inviting. He beckoned the soldier forwards, and much to his regret, Gao stepped forwards.

An inexplicable catatonic state came over Gao, as though he observed the world through another's eyes. He followed like a hypnotized prisoner behind the man and his two escorts. Not even a chill marched down his spine, as it had during his first battle. A deeper, more profound terror overtook him as he surveyed the dim corridor before him. The two walls converged towards upwards into a triangular cross-section, which nevertheless felt claustrophobic and cramped. Light filtered into the room through slits in the walls, although he saw a handful of snuffed lanterns hanging at irregular intervals down the passageway. The interior was cool and desolate, punctuated by bursts of hot, fetid air that blew down the tunnel at irregular intervals. With each step, nausea forced itself further up his throat. He remembered the stink of bloated bodies floating down the Yangtze, and narrowly avoided throwing up.

Gao found relief at the fact his unnatural march terminated at a central chamber of some sort. It was easily the size of two boxcars placed side by side, with a small stone alcove in the wall. Engraved above the alcove was the three-pointed yellow star from before. He instinctively turned away from it, as an all-too-familiar voice echoed down a nearby corridor. It was heavily Japanese-accented Chinese, coming from an undoubtedly furious speaker.

"I demand you repatriate these bandits, so they may face the Emperor's justice!" came the voice. "Or else I will annihilate this monastery. We will blast it with artillery, flatten it from the skies, and scatter the ashes to the winds!"

Gao saw the man that met him at the door vanish around the corner. "Captain Kazami, as the Abbot of this monastery, I request your silence for a moment," said the man in a slick, oily voice. "We will bring you to the man you seek."

Gao froze in his boots. His mind raced as he considered the Abbot's intentions. He'd been betrayed by collaborators once before, which cost the lives of half the refugees with him. Kazami followed him all the way up the Yangtze, intent on snuffing out his life, and those that fled with him. He savored it for a moment. The cruel Captain Kamazi Toshiro feared what lowly Corporal Gao Yifan could tell the world. His thoughts went towards the sword at his side, but his hands refused to move. The Abbot returned to the room, and two more guards entered from behind him.

"Corporal Gao, an honor to have you with us," the Abbot said, bowing slightly. Gao did not want to ask him how he knew his name. "I understand you only seek permission for the refugees to live in the valley, and I am prepared to grant that. Our monastery has never laid claim to that land, as we are self-sufficient."

Gao could not see the man's face, but he felt as though the man was grinning beneath the mask. He could not see the man's eyes in the darkness, and part of him was comfortable with that. Strange writhing movements beneath the Abbot's cloth were inexplicable through his own knowledge of human anatomy.

"Your ancestor once entreated with us," the Abbot said. "But that is a story for another day."

Gao nodded, carefully choosing his words. He returned the Abbot's bow. "Great Abbot, I merely seek sanctuary from the Japanese Army, on behalf of my fellow survivors. Please, tell me if there is anything you require from me."

The thread-like movements beneath the Abbot's robes increased, like serpents preparing to strike. "All you have to do is to meditate upon our core truths, in the company of our Japanese guest."

Gao Yifan would have refused under any other circumstances. What little care for decorum and face vanished from his mind, as he contemplated other outcomes. His mind raced with a fecundity of repressed scenarios, in which he imagined turning the tables on his one-time captor and tormentor. The fatigue and lethargy that accompanied him on the trip vanished in that instant, as he remembered the reassuring weight of the sword by his side. He was hardly a skilled swordsman, but other considerations weighted his decision like a divine burden. Given what Kamazi inflicted, a quick death in battle was a mercy.

Gao knelt on the floor of the temple, as the Abbot instructed. More monks, all armed with the spade-like weapons from earlier, surrounded the two entrances to the chamber. His sword was sheathed by his side, and he waited for the right moment to draw it. Anticipation of his coming battle was electrifying, as he remembered the glories promised by the draft-man that sent him and his friends towards the meatgrinder battle in Shanghai. His mind smoldered like the wake of an inferno, with embers ready to start another conflagration.

Gao saw the monks part to allow Kazami in. The Captain wore a mud-stained greatcoat, torn from weeks pursuing him down the Yangtze. The uniform beneath nevertheless was torn and dirty, filthy with bloodstains and muck. He still wore the broken Nambu pistol in his holster, despite having expended all of his ammunition since their last encounter. On his other hip was still the cheap, mass-produced katana the Captain obsessively clung to. He drew it and cut the air in a single movement, pantomiming a well-honed motion. The disciplined swordsman's eyes radiated hatred at Gao, like a cat beholding a mouse that escaped its clutches.

"Behold the altar," commanded the Abbot. "Have you seen the Yellow Sign?"

Gao saw the Captain turn towards the altar, and he did the same. While nothing changed at first glance, he felt something different inside. The reprehensible nausea returned with a vengeance, and repressed memories rushed forwards in cavalcade of human suffering. He remembered the frantic drilling, and desperate march to the front. He remembered the frantic fighting in the streets of Shanghai. He remembered the desperate retreat towards the capital, while the Imperial Japanese Army closed in like a constricting snake. He saw the women rounded up and disrobed, while the men and children were massacred. He saw bayonets and swords claim limbs and heads, while machineguns raked human bodies in half. He saw his commanders escorting a panicked mob of civilians down a bombed-out street while a Japanese plane strafed them. He remembered the sneering officer that led the pursuit. He remembered the Communist guerrillas helping them travel down the Yangtze past Yibin, as enemy planes passed overhead and hostile patrols drew closer.

Gao blinked, and the scenes from his past vanished. He found himself drifting above a world that could not be Earth. He saw a million dead cities, stolen from a multitude of worlds and drained of life. He saw stone spires beside steel skyscrapers, with bizarre organic growths reaching towards the highest heavens. He saw the brackish waters of a lake larger than the mightiest terrene oceans, where shadows hinted at nightmarish leviathans in the depths. He saw the scuttling ghouls picking through the necropolis of a dead civilization. He saw a royal gala reduced to feral pandemonium mad by the a pallid-masked man with more than a superficial resemblance to the Abbot. He saw renegade machines roving through a ravaged arcology. He saw gangs of bedlamites chanting the praises of the King in Yellow. He saw gibbering things moving through a frozen city, stolen from the world's bottom. He saw the districts he battled through, now grafted onto that assemblage of stolen streets. They all congealed like dried blood in the unbounded continent of captured metropoli.

Gao was ripped back to reality by Kazami's manic, high-pitched scream. The officer staggered backwards, as though startled by what remained before him. He muttered nonsensically to himself. "A white flash, and then the cities vanish. Does our war truly amount to nothing?" he asked, chuckling nervously. "Am I already on the road to Leng?"

Kazami drew his sword and swung wildly, as his discipline evaporated like dew before a midday sun. Gao rose to meet the mad officer with his own blade. He stepped backwards as the hungry blade cut through the air. He stepped out of range and looked for an opening, only for Kazami to shout and swing wildly once more. He brought up the thick spine of the dadao to meet it, resounding like a temple gong in the ritual chamber.

Gao tried to thrust the heavy tip of the blade forwards, into Kazami's chest. Something of the mad officer's reflexes remained, and he turned the thrust aside. He brought the sword between himself and Gao, looking for an opening of his own. He released one hand and grasped at Gao's sword handle. Gao struggled to pivot his sword, but Kazami pushed it away. The officer sneered, only for the Corporal to stomp his foot down his adversary's shin.

Gao felt the impact of his worn footwear on the officer's thick boot more than he imagined Kazami did. He shouted as Kazami reeled backwards. Hatred coursed through him, as he ripped his sword from the officer's feeble grip. For a single moment, Kazami looked for a non-existent exit, but instead stepped against the wall. He raised his sword above his head with both hands, shrieked like a banshee, and charged with supernal celerity.

Gao met Kazami with the movement his instructor drilled into him. He raised the blade above his head, he cocked his hips, and he let the sword's weight do the rest. Heavy steel met Kazami's bone as he approached striking distance, the tip of Gao's blade meeting the officer's wrist. The heavy blade cleaved through the Japanese man's arm like dried wood. Kazami's blade rattled on the floor as gouts of dark purple arterial blood welled up in his wrist. The monks and Abbot stood as impassive as stone statues as Gao brought the weapon down on Kazami's head. Brains and blood trickled onto the monastery floor as the movements beneath the Abbot's robes resumed.

"Few of your kind can resist the Yellow Sign," the Abbot said. "Few comprehend its eldritch truths, and horrors they imply."

"I was at Nanjing," Gao said, wiping the blood from his blade.

The Abbot chuckled as he allowed Gao to leave.