A body was rising upwards quickly through the water, bubbles of air following and popping on the surface before them, the person’s legs moving in synchronized motion. Disturbing the still serenity of the liquid from when they had been swimming calmly and casually beneath the surface to the core of the hot spring moments before, searching for the greatest source of heat that permeated from the Earth’s crust. A split second later a person’s head broke the surface, sending a spray of water, ripples and waves throughout the hot spring, all in this one motion, which crashed against the smoothened but still roughly hewn rocks around the edge that had been placed there for sitting on and lowering of oneself into rounded pool of water. The man gasped deeply and filled his lungs with air. He examined the surrounding area quickly and minutely, having sensed in the back of his mind that something was wrong presently, as snowflakes fell idly onto his submerged head. He trod water whilst he did this, his legs moving with the same synchronicity as before to keep him well afloat, looking all around him, gazing every which way his head would turn, using his arms to drag his body limply through the water as he turned. The rocks, the tall but drooping leafless trees of the forest around him and the pathway leading off out of his line of sight, all were clear. He gazed upwards through a shaft of carved rock half a mile above him. Snow was falling lightly down on the area, and he remembered the recent radio report that the National Meteorological Centre had put out: a warning against heavy snow. The shaft above him was not wide enough to make as heavy a snowfall as it would have liked, so the clouds would have to settle with the mountainside on the other side of the funnel shaped mountain that he was inside. The whole mountain had been carved out of the Kunlun Mountains Expanse on the pinnacle in an uninhabited part of Western Tibet called the Ngari Prefecture.
Xing Hu was the man’s name, a Chinaman with the common crop of black hair, trimmed short. He looked down as steam from the hot spring skated across the surface, just seeing his red swimming shorts through the water and vapour, along with his taught body. The mountain was carved out just far enough for the geothermal heat to warm the water and ground sufficiently. He allayed the disturbance of his mind to something that had been plaguing him the last few days. His head which had previously been submerged was now quite cool as opposed to the rest of his body, which still lay sunken beneath the warm water, preventing the rest of the chill from penetrating him fully. The snow that was falling on the pathway he could see was turning to water droplets and sinking beneath the soil to quench the trees. Swimming over to the side of the hot spring, creating more ripples in his wake, he raised himself out of the water onto one of the surrounding rocks, trying not to damage his hands or slip as he climbed out. Xing Hu’s body was perfectly sculpted for a man his age; with the only obvious flaw presently being the bruise he had gained from losing in a fight the previous day. He belonged to one of the three sacred beast houses at the Shaolin Buddhist temple where he resided. These people were trained to be the best of the best in martial arts. The three sacred beasts, which the temple based the Houses for its students on, were the Tiger, the Ox and the Dragon. He belonged to the Dragon House. Xing Hu allowed the water to drain off him onto the rock beneath his figure, some of which trickled back into the hot spring as overflow. Then he reached down to pick up a nearby plain white towel on a different rock and draped it over his shoulders. He started off down the path leading away from the hot spring and into the forest. He began to pat himself down with the towel as he took one last look behind him for good measure, leaving behind the translucent pool of liquid.
The monks housed here were peaceful and only trained in martial arts as a form of exercise and rejuvenation rather than combat, with the hope of reaching Nirvana through their meditative practices. Xing Hu’s House was believed to be the most powerful due to the animal that their style of martial arts was based upon, a powerful mythical creature in it’s own right. All of the House’s moves and techniques were based around which animal their House was, so that each would specialise in a particular area of martial arts. Both the Tiger and Dragon martial arts were official styles in China, but for a special reason, the style of the Ox had been added to their temple. There were eighteen people housed in the temple, five pupils to each House, and one sifu or master was assigned to a House. There were never more than eighteen people here at once normally, because no one but select few knew about the hidden society. Though they practiced martial arts, their religion was just as sacred as the beasts that governed their Houses. The students and masters were in a world of their own, separate from the outside world. In a way they were free here. Free of the violence that man had created for himself, the creed, the class, the war, and the hate. There was nothing as such on this mountain, just the peaceful tranquillity of training and making friends. Everyone here was treated as equals, but if anyone could not control their anxieties about race or class they were instantly dismissed from the temple, but free to pursue their religious needs elsewhere. Although over time the isolation from the rest of the world got to some people who would crave a fight, need an adrenaline rush which practice and meditation could not suffice for, though which was always settled peacefully after their anger had been let out, simply because everyone felt the same way so everyone understood. The only time students ventured into the outside world was once per month when it was two students’ job to fetch fresh supplies for the temple. Set on a rotary system it would mean students would not be able to venture away from the temple for months at a time.
People who entered into each of the different Houses were said to have certain traits that made them different from others. Things that made them in some ways better than an average human though this was a pompous thought and the sifus did their best to uphold the modesty of their students. Even if these traits were only minimal, it could mean the greatest difference to the outcome of that person’s life. People denoted to the Dragon House were said to have both a strong heart and power waiting to be released, but which remained dormant until it was needed. That was how Xing Hu’s sifu had put it anyway when he had enrolled here, well selected was more the word. He had won a regional martial arts competition and had been approached after the Finals by his now master. Students from the Tiger House were said to be fast as lightning and warm hearted yet fearsome if angered. Whilst the students of the Ox House were depicted as having unaccountable strength, modesty and a strong mind.
As Xing Hu walked away from the hot spring - leaving a thin trail of water droplets in his wake with the still falling snow - he listened to the sound of his feet on the stone pathway and began to wonder about something that had been bothering him these past few days. He had been meditating in the temple, when he had received an ominous vision that something dire was about to happen. For in this vision, he had seen the world, burning, all of man’s creation turning to ash, a blanket of darkness finally enveloping the Earth and hearing triumphant deathly laughter from an unknown source. It meant nothing to him but he couldn’t help but be greatly unnerved by it. Since that time he had grown wary of the slightest imbalance that he felt around him, sensing danger at every point, thinking that his vision had come to pass. He hadn’t revealed this image in his head to his sifu because of fear of the answer he may receive. There was also a shadow of a doubt that he wouldn’t have believed him anyway. Although Tomaru was an understanding man, but strict in his nature, Xing Hu didn’t feel up to challenging him with the omen until he had his own explanation. Xing Hu believed that he should research the books contained within the library, and establish his own version of what he thought it meant before he was going divulge the information to Tomaru, hoping that he may come up with a logical answer, rather than an apocalyptic one. So far though, all his efforts had been fruitless.
The air around him was still, thinner with the height of the mountain but not so less that anyone would need an oxygen mask, nothing seemed to disturb it, and not even a few birds that had been migrated here over time and other small animals had been introduced to their habitat, which were gratefully fed by the pupils, called through the late night. The trees around him were now beginning to clear as the forest thinned and he got closer to the temple. Staring at the pathway, using it as a guide he wound his way back, so his mind was allowed to wander freely. He passed through a gate the size of an archway. It was painted red and decorated with gold along the top, marking the entrance to the hallowed grounds. It looked in pristine condition as if rust would never dare to set upon it and never had, nor would it ever. The temple was now looming up ahead of him, growing bigger with every step he took; it was a large two-tiered building that sat in the shadow of the funnel shaped mountain which curved round at the base. The whole area gave the feeling that you were standing in a gigantic but misshapen Erlenmeyer or conical flask. The temple was a wooden and stone structure, the stone coming from the mountain that had been smoothed and shaped while the wood came from the trees that stood behind Xing Hu now. The colour of the temple was composed of the colours of the materials used to make it, a soft white grey and brown creamy colour of the wood that had been stripped of bark. Ornate grey stone pots were placed at intervals. Plants struggling to grow with the earliness of the year and the snow which now threatened to wilt them from the cold but also dampen them for nourishment. The temple was also the place where students and masters slept ate and relaxed. But this was only one of the two buildings that was used during a Shaolin monk’s time here, for to the right of the temple resided a square shaped three tiered pagoda which was used mainly for training and meditative purposes, but it also housed on the highest floor the library and archives of the Shaolin. To the left of the temple lay another gate in front of the curved mountain decorated the same as the one overlooking the forest as it stood proudly by the mountainside. Everyone at the Shaolin temple knew the purpose of this particular gateway, like it’s counterpart, it too looked as though rust had never been common to its structure.
Xing Hu continued walking forwards, with the full intention to go up to his room and get changed. He dried himself with the towel as he went, so he would not leave traces of water when he entered the temple. Rather than going to sleep these days like the rest of the occupants of the temple, he often found himself studying in the library, trying to come up with an answer to his vision. Hour after hour he read, mastering his sleep until it was time for their morning training before breakfast. His now pronounced tiredness was how he had earned his bruise from his fellow student; lack of sleep was starting to affect his concentration. Vladimir Blachutov was a tough Czechoslovakian albino, but thickly set with big muscles, so Xing Hu normally had an advantage of speed, but not the last time. Nevertheless he entered the temple, sliding the screen door across slowly to try to prevent its usual rattle. He instantly climbed the nearby wooden staircase, which was located a few feet away from the entrance, without bothering to examine his dark surroundings that were on the ground floor of the temple. He stepped carefully so that his feet couldn’t be heard pressing against the wood, though each of the thirteen steps gave a strained creak anyway as his weight met them. Six rooms were located on the first floor, all of them living quarters. Three belonged to each of the five students from the houses, that they were required to share, but which were fairly spacious anyway so there was no shortage of room, the other three were occupied by the sifus. Each room was also en suite, containing a toilet and a sink; the hot spring was used as a bath. Xing Hu walked along a corridor, three doors on either side of him with the sheaf of paper used instead of wood apart from around the edges, finally reaching the Dragon’s dormitory at the far end of the building and slowly slid the screen door (which was emblazoned with the insignia of the Dragon House) across as to not wake the other occupants, as with the entrance door though, this gave a low rattle as it was moved, only opening this one as far as he had to so he could squeeze in. As he entered he was now even more careful not to make any of the floorboards creak as he crept over to his living space.
There were five futons laid out on the floor, four being occupied, each was sleeping softly, their chests rising and falling effortlessly for those who were laid on their backs. There was no gender separation here, everyone was equal and were treated the same, though the two girls in their dormitory, Danielle and Veronica, demanded privacy when dressing and washing of course. All of them were spread around the room and yet it would still be easy enough to trip over a stray limb or cover. He kept his breathing to a slow pace so that he would not get frustrated for one, and secondly not risk waking one of his fellow students. They were all as highly trained as him and could sense a disturbance around them, even in their sleep. The walls were mainly bare apart from one small window that stood opposite him, through which some feeble half-light was making it’s way through, just illuminating the room enough for Xing Hu to see ahead of him, and for which he was grateful. The roof held a chandelier of extinguished candles. A fitted wardrobe stood along the left hand wall. There was also another door on the right hand side of the room, which led to the bathroom. The wardrobe was where everyone in Dragon House kept their possessions, doors separated each section so it was divided into five equally spaced areas, and Xing Hu now crossed over to this, making every effort not to stir anything in the room. After his successful passage forwards he opened his wardrobe door, which was in the centre and which like everything in the building seemed to want to creak tonight. Was it an ill omen? Perhaps he should have just gone to his futon, laid down and closed his eyes, but still, he carried on, fully opening the door, trying not to hit Yutamato’s arm which could have been hit by it. Inside was one set of plain clothes on a shelf as well as three sets of official looking uniforms that hung from wire coat hangers, emblazoned with the emblem of his house, just as the door had been, as well as numerous personal belongings that he had thought important enough to bring with him when he had left home at eighteen. Some bits and bobs, including a good luck charm his little brother had made for him and a locket given to him by his mother that contained a photo of his mother and now deceased father on their wedding day. A Polaroid picture of a girl with black hair was pinned to the inside of the door, being in this isolation, would he ever see her again? He wondered if his mother had given him the locket to tempt him into coming back home to see the girl who waited so patiently for him. It was permitted but discouraged from having a girlfriend due to the harsh lapses of time apart. Though he could not see in the darkness, he knew every inch of his little personal space and where everything was kept.
He chose to put on his set of plain clothes seeing as they were more comfortable and the uniforms were more for training and formal wear, and besides it was the middle of the night anyway, so who was likely to care how he dressed? These were the same clothes he used when going on supply runs for the temple with one of his other fellow students. Sometimes if they were close enough then they would sneak home to visit their family, but Xing Hu’s lived in Japan now. He stripped down and placed the sodden towel and trunks inside the wardrobe intending to dry them properly later, his small amount of hair however remained plastered to his head. He donned a pair of old jeans that were at least a size too big with holes in them, a red polo neck t-shirt and a pair of worn and torn trainers for his excursion into the pagoda. When he had dressed he quietly crept out of the dormitory again, taking care not to step on any of his fellow students as he went or to hit Yutamato with the wardrobe door. But then a grunt emitted from Majeh who turned over noisily on his futon, uncomfortable with his current position. Xing Hu watched in a slight horror as this happened, forgetting that he was supposed to be breathing slowly, but the sudden shock had sent his heart racing. He glanced around nervously at the other lumpy piles that were his friends to see if any of them had been disturbed by the noise, thankfully though, it had gone unnoticed by them. He hurriedly moved across the rest of the room, closing the door behind him, which thankfully for once had not creaked and then he crept once again down the long corridor and back downstairs.
Once outside again he took in a deep breath of the cold night air, liking how it tickled his lungs slightly, feeling relieved that he had not yet been discovered, although he knew it would be inevitable if his performance was slipping, someone was sure to suspect something wrong with him. If he fell asleep during meditation tomorrow then Tomaru would have his meals taken away from him for such an insult. He exited the temple then turned to his left and began walking towards the pagoda, thrusting his hands into his loose jeans pockets, now beginning to feel the night chill after the immense warmth and comfort that the hot spring provided, as the snowflakes drifted down in a constant shower. As he began to pull the heavy steel door of the pagoda open he heard the trees rustling in a slight wind and instinctively spun around and jumped into a defensive stance, looking around hastily and, realising his mistake he sighed to himself, deciding it must have been one of the animals and continued to enter the pagoda. The huge doors to the pagoda were decorated with what looked like steel pinheads around the edges, whilst in the centre of each door was the head of a large bird with a ring held in each of their beaks so that the doors could be pulled open. Xing Hu definitely needed to be careful when hauling open these doors so as not to make any noise.
The pagoda was a unique structure on the outside in terms of architecture, including the huge steel doors, being built centuries before out of the rock and wood inside the mountain shelter, but once you were in there, it was quite empty. The ground and first floors were used for training; outside was used for meditation as to be closer with nature. The ground for un-armed combat, and the first for armed, containing many weapons cases, but otherwise it was the same as the ground floor. There was only empty wooden floor space, and windows, besides the steel backs of the doors, it reminded him of a dojo but even they normally had something to identify that they were so, perhaps a shrine. The simplicity of it all baffled the mind seeing as this was the place where the stuff of legends was upheld. A spiral stone staircase leading up through each of the floors was in the corner of the room. Xing Hu continued walking towards this and started to climb the twisting stairway, taking both his hands out of his pockets so he could balance, as there was no handrail to keep him steady. His trainers made an echoing noise as he rose higher through the pagoda, hitting hard against the stone despite Xing Hu taking nimble steps. Once he reached the top of the staircase, which ended at the second floor, having ignored the first floor that had a stone landing to come out on once you were there, he stepped out onto another wooden floor, much the same as the one on the ground floor, he didn’t have to be worried about being quiet in this building as all of the other monks were in bed asleep, the door had been his last worry.
This room was unlike the others in the building; it was filled to the brim with bookcases piled high with a lot of new but certainly many older texts. There were also several wooden tables scattered around where they could sit, with chairs set at intervals along each. The sifus believed in training the mind as well as the body and encouraged reading. On the far side of the room was another room, added on to this one, obscured from Xing Hu’s sight by the winding rows of bookcases. They contained more archives including a lot of first hand information from their original sources of events that had happened throughout history. They were constantly locked because of what else was contained in there, a student could only get in if they had a sifu’s permission, which was given very rarely, even then they had to be supervised, Xing Hu had still not earned a privileged look inside this room of mysteries and secrets.
He started to light some of the candles that were contained in iron wall brackets and lanterns with a box of matches he had retrieved from his belongings and had stuffed into his back jeans pocket, in order to give some actual light in the room. Sometimes a pale sliver of the moon could be made out through the shaft of the funnel shaped mountain, but tonight the snow clouds were all that could be seen. A slight breeze was blowing in, playing with his damp hair. The candles needed replacing, they had long burned down and had formed wax icicles, giving their brackets more decoration Xing Hu thought. He walked over to one of the tables and also lit a lantern, which would provide his reading light, replacing the burnt out matches back in the box; the library was already dusty enough without the added mess of match stubs. When there was sufficient light to see, he crossed over to the bookshelves and collected a set of texts from a stack of twelve on a shelf, which weighed his arms down and took them to the nearest table before he dropped them. Xing Hu then commenced to sit down, scraping a chair along the floor as he did, and began reading about “Events Of The 18th Century And What I Thought Of Them” which appeared to be written by a aged and slightly crazy philosopher from another part of China who seemed to be rather delusional, seeming to invent things as he wrote them. Also being someone who got the dates wrong for a lot of events and being extremely biased towards anyone but himself, nonetheless, he had spawned such effective phrases as “Don’t go in to battle if you are unwilling to let yourself be killed. But if you are, be sure to bring a mop and bucket to clean up the mess”. He yawned widely, yet still he read on looking for some answers to the questions swimming around in the pool of his mind. The extract he was reading barely made any sense, which wasn’t coupling well with his tiredness.
“What most people did not seem to understand at the time, was that I was in fact the one who should have led France into a victorious overthrow of government in 1799 and not in fact that pompous short stuff of a leader – Napoleon. Still though I stood aside in order for his pomposity to reign throughout France, the worst decision the French ever made electing that glorified windbag as leader of a coup! Most of my peers could sympathise with my decision to stand down though, my best friend Herbert Whining, with a pronounced ‘h’ deduced that the French themselves were idiots and so should be ruled by one, and not someone as brilliant and astute as myself.”
Xing Hu could only wonder as to how a Chinaman had gotten to be in France at all, given how a lot of countries hadn’t tolerated them as well as black people for their skin colour and different looks, if only for servants. After an hour or so, Xing Hu could not really tell how long had passed, he felt his eyes that already contained heavy bags beginning to close from tiredness, and that he had also read the same line five times now. However he couldn’t be persuaded to move from the stiff backed chair and drag himself back to his comfortable futon and so let sleep take him.
It was hours before Xing Hu was released from the pleasure and rest of sleep as something fell to the floor, emanating a crash, the dull thud of metal on wood and the sound of glass smashing. The noise echoed throughout the pagoda, ringing in the dead of night. The lone figure of Xing Hu slumped over an open book stirred suddenly, almost knocking over a nearby lantern.
“Hmm. What was that? Who’s there?” said Xing Hu suddenly awakening; fully alert, thinking something serious was happening. He looked around him quickly with urgency, once again sensing danger, as though he was about to be attacked by some unknown force, creeping in the shadows of the bookcases. He called out in Chinese for if the person couldn’t speak Chinese, but then, everyone at the temple spoke English, so why wouldn’t they have answered the first time? Surely no one from outside could be here, that was near impossible! But, he saw nothing, heard nothing, only the bookshelves that were throwing eerie shadows across the floor due to the candles he had previously lit. He rose from his chair, slowly, as if expecting to be attacked while he was raising himself, making a light scraping noise on the wooden floor and preceded cautiously through the library being constantly aware of anything that was making noise beside him. Whoever was in here must have known that he was here too. He felt a fool for calling out and announcing his presence like that. But whoever it was must have known he was here from the lit candles anyway, maybe they even had had to walk past his sleeping body. If there was someone here at least, he had no actual proof yet, but his mind was telling him differently, his mind was telling him that something bad was afoot.
He left the lantern standing on the table, knowing that if he found the need to fight he would be at more of an advantage with both hands. His trainers were making soft noises on the wood, muffled by the dust. His breathing had become quicker, his heart palpitating under his ribcage with both the surprise and the anticipation of a hidden enemy. He edged carefully over to the other side of the far side of the room, his table was near the centre, and he suspected that if someone was here, they hadn’t come to steal a book. Carefully looking in-between the rows of bookshelves that were concealed in the darkness, looking for any sign of disturbance or misplacement, running his hands over the cool wood to remind him this wasn’t a dream. Just as he was examining the space between two bookshelves hidden in darkness he noticed something which made him ever more apprehensive, the room containing the archives, the very secrets the Shaolin were sworn to protect, was indeed unlocked and ajar as Xing Hu’s suspicions were confirmed in one fell swoop. Candlelight was spilling onto the wooden floor thrown from inside, allowing every piece of dust to be illuminated, gliding through the still air, fragments no thicker than the hair on Xing Hu’s head which had dried but was now beginning to receive a fresh dowsing from sweat. The thicker and heavier wooden door that was normally locked tight was open, the light beckoning him forward; the secrets of the room lay before him, teasing him, their mystery waiting to be opened. But he had to remember the intruder, which was now confirmed as such as Xing Hu could see the door was splintered where it had been forced open, the iron lock hanging off, only being held lopsidedly in the air by a single screw still laced in the wooden frame. He normally would have gone to alert his sifu, but the gut feeling he had was leading him on towards the door, making his feet disobey him and inch him further onwards until his hand had clasped onto the door, sliding him softly towards the intruder, did they realise he was awake now after he had called out?
He slowly pushed the door open, praying that the hinges would keep silent, and gazed around the room. There were bookcases lining the two sidewalls, but different to the ones outside, they were divided into hexagonal holes into which several scrolls had been stuffed, reaching near to the end of the room where they stopped just short. Here there were shelves lined with strange devices. The room itself was a sort of rectangular shape due to the way the layout of this floor was. A window, much the same shape and design as that which could be found in the church was at the other end of the room, overlooking the side of the mountain, so Xing Hu had never noticed such a window before, a lit three pronged candelabra stood in front of the window, flickering its rich colour to life with the flame. In front of him was what appeared to be a type of altar, composed of stone, shaped like a sort of pedestal, behind which a person was stood with their back to the door, holding under their arm rather haphazardly what looked like some of the scrolls from the bookcases, busying himself with keeping them from dropping. Glancing downwards a shape also looked as though it had just been drawn on the floor surrounding the pedestal, with strange characters that Xing Hu did not recognise. Some had arrows, some had circles, some had lines running through them converting them into different symbols, some were what looked like numbers and some were merely no more than blotches. But they were all encircled in two giant circles with the pedestal at their centre. There was the remains of some sort of brass instrument on the floor that had bent out of shape on impact as well as smashed glass around the object that looked like it belonged to the instrument, looking as though it had been knocked down from one of the shelves by the person now stood by the window.
The person must have been in a hurry and knocked it over in this haste Xing Hu deduced. Perhaps it was because of him calling out that he had realised he was not alone anymore. If he were in a hurry then he would be more anxious and make more mistakes if he chose to fight his way past Xing Hu. Assuming he would fight, breaking into a place full of monks who knew a variety of martial arts was a bad idea – peaceful monks, but defending their home was something they would readily fight for. Then again, maybe the person had assumed he would be alone when he broke in tonight. Suddenly the door that Xing Hu had been holding onto and slowly opening, ready to confront this intruder mercilessly creaked. The person stood behind the altar heard this, his movements halted instantly, realising the disturbance, but he stood perfectly still and uttered something under their breath, (confirming that this person was a man) and the candles in the room had been extinguished. He had not even moved and the candles went out, he couldn’t have blown them out from his height above the candelabra. Before Xing Hu could react to the coming darkness, the only light coming vaguely from the candles that were lit on the other side of the door now, the man started to speak again in a language which Xing Hu didn’t recognise, his voice echoing through the room, he drew himself into another defensive stance, expecting the man to try to rush past him. But that was far from what the man had in mind.
“Temi Noest! Retnur em ot het sapt erehw menods desire!” he spat. Before Xing Hu’s eyes could become accustomed to the darkness, the room was now illuminated by a bright green glow from where the pedestal stood, coming from the very pedestal itself each of the symbols were also emitting this glow. The man had turned around to face the pedestal, Xing Hu could now see his head was covered by a grey cloak hood, the rest of it towelling down his body as his hands were placed over the pedestal, but he could make out only that he had a matted beard, the hood sank over his eyes. The light shone brighter and brighter still, the man illuminating with it and blinding Xing Hu with its green intensity, so much so that he had to cover his eyes to protect them from the glare; there was excited laughter and then, nothing. As the light began to dim, Xing Hu slowly opened his eyes, allowing them to refocus and then he looked ahead of him to see that the man had disappeared along with the pedestal. He knew so even with the room being bathed in semi-darkness again. He ran as fast as he could to alert the rest of the temple.