Opening chapter to the novel – The Long Dragon
Standing twice the height of a man and with a body five times longer, Kioh was a formidable fighting ‘long’ dragon. Her snake like body was as supple as the day of her last re-incarnation, a thousand years ago, and, as her green unblinking eyes stared down the valley slopes, the yellow scales on her back caught the late autumn sun, surrounding her in a halo of golden light. Motionless, except for her red reptilian tongue that flicked rhythmically over her extended white fangs, she tasted the cold Autumn air. It was tainted and, as she drew more of it in to the roof of her cavernous mouth it changed into something else. It became a scent that she recognised well. Fear. She knew what was coming and instinctively the muscles in her thighs began to flexed 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 hard-frozen earth, while her tail, which was longer than her body, started to sway from side to side, creating eddies of dust that floated silently upwards, glinting through the shafts of sunlight that slipped through the gathering clouds. The only adornment she wore was a white pearl pendant, set in a gold claw, that was tucked discretely under her chin. It was a gift from the river gods at the time of her last re-birth, when the land had been ruled by the Xia dynasty, and over the following four hundred years it had successfully guided her through many dangerous situations. It was the pearl that told her when it was time for the Xia to be replaced by her current masters, the Shang, and after a further five hundred and fifty years it was the pearl that was telling her yet another change was coming. As with the Xia, Kioh had been used as a key weapon by successive Shang rulers to help 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, which had its origins in the high mountains of the far west. The land around the Wei was rich and fertile and occupied by a fierce nation called the Zhou, who, on hearing about the advancing Shang, formed a great army that marched out to meet them in the open plains of the Muye valley, close to the Yellow river. Looking down from her vantage point high on the cliffs that overlooked the valley, Kioh viewed the opposing armies as they began to form their battle lines. It was an imposing spectacle, with both forces divided neatly into over five hundred fighting squares. Each of the squares contained about one hundred heavily armoured men and the massed ranks stretched out as far as the eye could see. In the centre of each square, selected warriors carried brightly coloured battle standards that fluttered like trapped butterflies in the rising breeze. It made the valley appear more like a fair ground than a pending battlefield. After several hours of manoeuvring the first advance was made by both sides. Bronze tipped arrows rained down in continuous waves 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 and the bowmen moved back as the squares moved forward and the bloody hand to hand fighting started. Dagger -axes and swords flashed while long metal tipped halberds searched for any opening in the shields of 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 the fact that her current Shang master was a fierce and evil leader, who was 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. The pearl around her neck was becoming heavy and the body clock, buried deep inside her, was ticking louder and faster. Her ninth and final re-incarnation 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 now 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 to her sanctuary and get ready for the change that was coming. Each of her eight previous re-births had given her special attributes that collectively prepared her for the coming ninth and final re-incarnation, where she would become a red fire breathing, 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 shape shifter. There were other Dragon Lords abroad in the world, but most had renounced their dragon bodies in favour of a human shape, which enabled them to become more accepted by mankind. They generally worked unseen and unnoticed, trying to avoid attracting attention or making any obvious displays of their powers, instead using them to manipulate and influence events, in order to bring harmony and happiness, wherever possible. Having learnt the lessons in their previous lives, Dragon Lords only use their full fighting powers, in dire circumstances. However, such an act would require them to return to the natural dragon state, which often created more problems than solutions. On rare occasions, when the final reincarnation did not go according to plan, rogue Dragon Lords would create chaos and anarchy in their wake, plunging the world of man into periods of historical darkness. The process of rebirth was complex and would involve Kioh going into an almost 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 re-birth would also determine her final form. The battle below her progressed and 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 that was accumulating in great puddles beneath their feet. It seemed that both forces were equally matched and 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 signal pennant’s rise in unison at the rear of the Shang stronghold and flutter innocently in the breeze. This was her signal and with a final swipe of her tail she launched herself down the cliff face, into an almost 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 and, without mercy, systematically decapitated the defeated worriers, throwing their still twitching bodies into the Yellow River, which was now turning as red as its banks. With all resistance overcome, the Zhou’s king gathered his generals around him and 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 and small bands of roaming nomads that occupied the hostile land, 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, and, on tasting the water, she knew that its source came from the high mountains and her final destination. The tributary became a stream, and the stream became a brook that tumbled and cascaded over the bare rocks that formed the lower reaches of the mountains. The rough ground did not slow her pace and, as she climbed higher into the deeper mountain gorges, her body ached, not from the fatigue of her journey, but from the changes that were already beginning to take place inside her. The sense of urgency to reach sanctuary dominated her every thought, so that as she climbed even higher, she missed the first warning tremor in the ground, which sent a small shower of pebbles down the mountain side. However, the further she climbed the more she became aware that there was something wrong. It was the unnatural silence, almost as if the world had stopped breathing. Nothing moved, no birds sang, and even the wind was gone. Pausing, she listened intently, with every sense on full alert. Still hearing nothing, she relaxed again and took a moment to look up at the mountain peaks that surrounded her and was almost 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. Then, just as quickly as it started, it stopped and the silence returned, only to be replaced moments later by a new and deeper sound that emanated from much higher in the mountains. Looking back up towards the source of this new noise she could see a black line appear at the base of one of the larger snow drifts, and as she continued to watch, it started to widen, like the mouth of a grinning giant. Then, slowly, millions of tons of snow and ice began to slide down the mountain side, directly towards her, picking up speed as it went, snapping tall fir trees like twigs. Kioh realised almost immediately that she could not escape and with a sense of finality she closed her eyes and was instantly overcome by an overwhelming feeling of calmness. The pearl around her neck started to vibrate and she knew what to do. Circling slowly a few times, she placed her armoured back towards the advancing avalanche and then crouched down while wrapping her tail securely around her relaxed body. With a roar in her ears, the first wave of snow reached her and she felt it flow 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 completely. High above her the snow drift settled into a quiet splendour. The sounds of nature returned and the sunlight reflected harshly from the surface of the new snow field. 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 snow fall 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. So clear, that when exposed to the open sky by the occasional crack or fissure, the refracted light travelled deep into the slow-moving glacier, turning its lower levels into a pale shade of blue. Time moved faster and, after a millennium, mankind forgot about the legend of Kioh. After the Shang, the dynasty of the Zhou flourished and spread further to the East and over the next eight hundred years it became as corrupt and cruel as its predecessors, so that its territories divided into small feudal states that were constantly at war with each other. One of these states, known as the province of Qin, occupied the strategically important Wei valley and 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 Emperor and Imperial China was born. Fearful of death, He looked for the elixir of life but failed and died early from the very potions that were supposed to extend his life. After his death the remaining Qin leadership were assassinated, and replaced by a man of peasant birth called Liu Bang, who later proclaimed himself Emperor and leader of a new dynasty, called Han. All along the Yellow river impressive cities and towns were built and new industries were developed that made Imperial China rich and prosperous. Among these new industries was one based on a super-fine material made from the cocoon of a large caterpillar that gorged itself exclusively on the leaves of the mulberry tree. Apart from its ability to take on the vibrant colours from a variety of dyes, this new material, called silk, was soft to touch and easy to fashion. 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 to become 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 cooler mountain slopes, small farming villages sprang up to grow the food which was so desperately needed by the valley people. In one of these villages an enterprising family developed a business of gathering precious ice from the higher mountain glaciers, packing it in straw and selling it to nearby valley markets. The ice was so well insulated that they were also able to transport it as far as the Emperors 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 and, with the exception of a few secret societies, they forgot about the old ways and the path of the dragon. However, this was about to change. A new and self-indulgent Emperor was seated in the Chang’an palace and, high in the mountains of the West, buried deep in the blue ice of its glaciers, there was an awakening.
Mike Wall – 11/12/2019 – 2893 words