Introduction to – The Long Dragon
2nd in the Neffi Jones time traveller series.
The battle of Muye 1046BC
Standing twice the height of a man and with a body five times longer, Kioh was a formidable fighting Lóng Dragon. Her snake-like body was as supple as the day of her last reincarnation, a thousand years ago. Standing motionless at the top of the valley slopes, the yellow scales on her back caught the late autumn sun, surrounding her in a halo of golden light.
A movement on the open plains below attracted her attention, and her red reptilian tongue flickered out over her extended white fangs, to taste the cold Autumn air. It was tainted and, as she drew more of it into the roof of her cavernous mouth, it changed into something else. It became a scent that she recognised well.
Instinctively the muscles in her thighs began to flex in anticipation of what was shortly going to be demanded from them. The soft pads on her paws opened and closed, exposing razor-sharp claws, which gouged deep grooves into the frozen earth. Her tail, which was longer than her body, started to sway from side to side. It created eddies of dust that floated silently upwards, glinting through the shafts of sunlight that slipped through the gathering late autumn clouds.
The only adornment she wore was a white pearl pendant, set in a golden claw, tucked discreetly under her chin. It had been a gift from the river gods at the time of her last reincarnation, over a thousand years ago. Like those who had gone before her, it granted her the power of wisdom and knowledge. Not all dragons were so lucky. In a few instances, a fault in the regeneration process would make the pearl darken, unleashing forces of evil. The pendant that Kioh so jealously guarded was white, and not infected with the virus of chaos, but, even so, it was different from the others. While it protected and guided Kioh in the same manner, it possessed much older powers. Kioh’s pearl, which was once in a different form, had been passed down through time to the river goddesses for safekeeping by a much older goddess called Wadjet. She was one of the original goddesses, that had become the eye of the sun god Ra. She later transformed into a hooded serpent that protected Ra and all the ancient world people. Knowing that evil forces could arise anytime in the future, Wadjet created five pendants in her own image. Each had the power to change its shape and enable the wearer to call upon the old gods for help. The river gods recognised that Kioh had been blessed by the old gods and that she would become a Chosen One in her final reincarnation.
Over the next six hundred years, and without giving any hint of its extraordinary powers, the pearl guided Kioh successfully through the turbulence of the Xia dynasty. It told her when it was time for them to give way to the Shang, who ruled for another four hundred years. Like the Xia, the Shang used Kioh’s exceptional strength to help them in their relentless march across ancient China, brutally conquering all who stood in their way. Death and destruction were a way of life, and nothing seemed capable of stopping them as they progressed north-west along the mighty Yellow River. That was until they reached the point where it was joined by a tributary called the Wei, a river that had its origins in the high mountains of the West. The land around the Wei was rich and fertile and occupied by a fierce people called the Zhou. On discovering that the Shang were advancing towards them, they formed a great army that marched out to meet them on the open plains of the Muye valley, close to the Yellow River.
Looking down from her vantage point high on the slopes that overlooked the valley, Kioh continued to watch the opposing armies as they formed their battle lines. It was an imposing spectacle, with both forces divided neatly into over five hundred fighting squares. Each of them contained one hundred heavily armoured men. Their massed ranks stretched out as far as the eye could see. In each square’s centre, selected warriors carried brightly coloured battle standards that fluttered like trapped butterflies in the rising breeze. It made the valley appear more like a fairground than a pending battlefield. After hours of manoeuvring, the first advance was made by both sides. Bronze tipped arrows rained down in continuous clouds from the ranks of bowmen placed to the front of each army. Bodies fell, only to be trampled into the earth as replacements pushed forward and the fighting squares reformed. New signals were given. The bowmen moved back as the blocks of men advanced, and the bloody hand to hand fighting started. Dagger-axes and swords flashed while long metal-tipped halberds searched for any opening in the massed ranks. Over countless years Kioh had seen this scene repeated many times, and waited expectantly for the signal that would be her instruction to create havoc amongst the Shang’s enemies.
Kioh knew that this would be her final battle in her current form. She was becoming tired of all the killing and found that she had developed an empathy with the Shang’s new enemies. This was not helped by her current Shang master, who was a fierce and evil leader, more concerned about himself, rather than his subjects. He knew little about dragon history or the gifts that she could bestow and, worse, he did not care.
Her pearl was becoming heavy, and the body clock, buried deep inside her, was ticking louder and faster. The ninth and final reincarnation was coming, and the feeling was making her tetchy and irritable. With each passing moment, the inexplicable urge to seek refuge in the high mountains of the West was becoming stronger.
The only thing that kept her from leaving immediately was the knowledge that this would be her last battle. As soon as it was over, her obligations would be finished, and she could start the long journey west and get ready for the change that was coming.
Each of her eight previous rebirths gave her unique attributes. Collectively they prepared her for the coming ninth and final reincarnation, where she would become a winged, fire breathing, red Dragon Lord. Not only would this imbibe her with unbelievable strength and wisdom, but it would also bestow on her the power to become a shapeshifter.
There were other Dragon Lords abroad in the world. Most had renounced their dragon bodies favouring a human form, which made them more acceptable to mankind. Generally, they worked unseen and unnoticed, trying to avoid attracting attention or making any conspicuous displays of their powers. Their full fighting force would only be used in dire circumstances, as the consequences of revealing themselves often created more problems than solutions. On rare occasions, when the final reincarnation did not go according to plan, rogue Dragon Lords would unleash chaos. At such times, man’s world would slip into periods of historical darkness.
The process of rebirth was complex. Kioh needed to enter a deathlike sleep, while her body transformed. Once the process started and depending upon the circumstances, it could take a year or a thousand years to complete. The events that trigger the rebirth would also determine her final form.
The battle below her progressed. The once orderly and colourful armies were now a thronging mass of shouting soldiers gripped in the fever of bloody hand to hand fighting. The frozen ground that they fought on was becoming soft and slippery with the volume of warm blood accumulating in great puddles beneath their feet. It seemed that both forces were equally matched. Despite bodies piling high, no ground was being gained by either side, and Kioh instinctively knew that she would shortly be called on to break the stalemate. From the corner of her eye, she saw the red pennant’s rise in unison at the rear of the Shang stronghold and flutter innocently in the breeze. This was her signal. With a final swipe of her tail, she launched herself into a vertical dive towards the advancing Zhou soldiers. As she hurtled down the slope, something snapped in her mind, and at the last minute, she changed direction and headed towards her master and the Shang army.
Her attack was both unexpected and brutal, and it did not take long for the bewildered Shang forces to break up in disarray. Spears and shields were thrown down in discarded heaps as they fled back along the valley floor. The last of the remaining Shang soldiers attempted to surrender and, turning their spears point down, knelt with bowed heads, to await their fate, which was swift and brutal. Kioh watched with growing disgust as the Zhou soldiers advanced. Without mercy they systematically decapitated the defeated warriors, throwing their still twitching bodies into the Yellow River, now turning as red as its banks.
With all resistance overcome, the Zhou’s king gathered his generals around him. Kioh listened to their raucous laughter and rowdy comments as they celebrated their victory and, for the first time, she felt a new emotion.
It was a sense of shame.
Having seen so many of these battles, there was a final realisation that war and killing achieved nothing. This was her final lesson.
Without a second glance, Kioh turned her back on the carnage and unnoticed, she walked swiftly out of the valley, towards the open windswept plains of the West. Her thick pads protected her paws from the rising cold of the permafrost, and her body scales were impervious to the biting wind that scourged across the flat tundra. Although she remained alert and careful to avoid the occasional settlements, the urge to reach the high mountains was overwhelming and spurred her on with increased vigour. Not stopping to feed, Kioh continued for five days and nights until she reached the tributary known as the Wei. Tasting the clear water, she knew that its source came from the high mountains and her final destination.
For an additional six days and nights, she followed the tributary until it became a stream. The stream became a brook that tumbled and cascaded over the bare rocks, which formed the mountains’ lower reaches. The ground became rough, but it did not slow her pace. Climbing higher in the mountain gorges, her body began to ache, not from the fatigue of the journey, but from the changes that were already starting to occur. The sense of urgency to reach sanctuary dominated her every thought so that as she climbed even higher, she missed the first warning tremor. Unnoticed, a small shower of pebbles slid down the mountainside and disappeared into the undergrowth. However, the further she climbed, the more she became aware that something was wrong. It was the unnatural silence as if the world had stopped breathing. Nothing moved, no birds sang, and even the wind was gone. Pausing, she listened intently. Still hearing nothing, she relaxed and took a moment to look up at the mountain peaks surrounding her and was overwhelmed by their beauty. Silhouetted against the clear blue sky, they were smothered in drifts of deep snow that sparkled in the sunlight, sending bursts of rainbow colours across the valleys below. While she continued to gaze up in rapture, there was a deep rendering sound, and the ground beneath her feet began to shake and shudder with increasing ferocity. Her claws instinctively extended but found nothing to hold onto, making it difficult to remain standing. Rocks and small boulders came hurtling down the path towards her and bounced off her steel-like scales. Just as quickly as it started, it stopped, only to be replaced moments later by another and more resonant sound that emanated from much higher in the mountains. Looking up towards the source of this new noise, she could see a black line appear at the base of one of the larger snowdrifts. As she continued to watch, it started to widen, like the mouth of a grinning giant. Millions of tons of snow and ice slowly began to slide down the mountain, directly towards her, picking up speed as it went, snapping tall fir trees like twigs.
Kioh realised immediately that she could not escape. With a sense of finality, she closed her eyes and was instantly overcome by a feeling of calmness. The pearl around her neck started to vibrate, and she knew what to do. Circling a few times, she placed her armoured back towards the advancing avalanche and crouched down. Her tail curled tightly around her body just as the first wave of snow reached her. It roared in her ears and flowed over her like water.
It crackled and groaned as it settled tightly over her coiled form, entombing her deep beneath layers of soft white crystals. The light gradually faded to darkness and unable to move, Kioh deliberately slowed her breathing, until it stopped altogether. High above her, the snowdrift settled into a quiet splendour. The sounds of nature returned, and the sunlight reflected harshly from the surface of the new snowfield. Days turned to weeks, and autumn turned to winter. The seasons marched on in their natural cycles and the drift, fed by the snows from the high mountains, increased in size and depth. With the added weight of each snowfall and the strength of the summer sun, the delicate snow crystals partially melted and then re-froze, producing layers of white ice that under pressure compacted and, as if by magic, turned crystal clear. It was so clear, that when exposed to the open sky by the occasional crack or fissure, the refracted light turned the lower levels to a pale shade of blue.
Time moved faster and, after a millennium, mankind forgot about the legend of Kioh.
After the Shang’s defeat, the Zhou dynasty flourished and spread further to the East. Over the next eight hundred years, the Zhou became as corrupt and cruel as their predecessors. Their territories were divided into small feudal states that were always at war. One of these states, known as the Qin Province, occupied the strategically important Wei valley. In the middle of all the turmoil a new leader, Qin Shi Huang, came to power. Through his vision, a strong and highly efficient army was created that overcame and pacified its neighbours. Strengthened by success, it mercilessly and relentlessly moved East, until it finally unified the rest of the warring states and created the Qin dynasty.
King Qin Shi Huang declared himself as the First Emperor, and Imperial China was born. Fearful of death, He looked for the elixir of life but failed and died early from the same potions that were supposed to extend his life. After his death, the remaining Qin leadership was assassinated and replaced by a man of peasant birth, called Liu Bang. He proclaimed himself Emperor and became the leader of a new dynasty, called Han.
All along the Yellow River, impressive cities and towns were built. New industries were developed that made Imperial China rich and prosperous. One of these was based on a super-fine material made from the cocoon of a large caterpillar that gorged itself exclusively on the mulberry tree. Apart from its ability to take on the vibrant colours from various dyes, this new material, called silk, was soft to touch and comfortable to wear. Its commercial value became immense and formed the basis of Imperial China’s new-found wealth. Caravans carrying this exotic material travelled to many distant countries along a set route that was soon known as the Silk Road. It started at the gates of the imperial capital, Chang’an, and continued west over China’s extended boundaries and into the mystic lands of Asia and beyond. As it approached the outer limits of Imperial China, the road past along a valley, set deep in the high mountains of the West and through a small village, that became the focal point of trade and commerce. Known as the Jade Gate, it allowed the Western traders to enter China and wait for the caravans to arrive from the East, carrying their precious cargos of Silk, Tea and Porcelain. Over time the village grew in size and importance to become a small city and one of the most important trading points in China’s awakening commercial world. It housed garrisons to protect the road and its traders from the marauding bandits that attacked whenever the opportunity arose.
On the colder mountain slopes, small farming villages sprang up to grow the food that the valley people desperately needed. In one of these villages, an enterprising family developed a business of gathering precious ice from the high mountain glaciers, packing it in straw and selling it to nearby valley markets. The ice was so well insulated that they could transport it as far as the Emperor’s palace in Chang’an.
Under the wise guidance of each successive Emperor, the Han Dynasty grew steadily, not only in size but also in strength and wealth. The people adopted new religions. Except for a few secret societies, they forgot about the old ways and the dragon’s path. However, this was about to change. A new and self-indulgent Emperor was seated in the Chang’an palace. High in the mountains of the West, buried deep in the blue ice of its glaciers, there was an awakening.