Chen looked at the carnage crowding the battlefield around him as he struggled to recover from the intensity of war. The fire in his veins was cooling down as adrenaline receded, but his heart was still beating rapidly. As he wiped the blood away from his sword’s blade, he felt tears rush down his cheeks.
All over the battlefield, crows had begun to gather, feeding on the carrion with eager, pecking beaks. Chen’s head pounded as he thought about the numerous of soldiers he killed to ensure his own survival, quickly losing count. How he wished that he could be among the dead, so that he wouldn’t have to live with his role in their deaths. “The life of a military man is a different beast from the life of a sage, entirely.”
Chen felt a hand fall upon his shoulder. The young soldier expected to see his general, Han, standing beside him, sipping wine from his gourd. Instead, he faced a man in Han’s Imperial armor, except it couldn’t be Han. This man’s face was nothing but skull, his shadow-pitched eye sockets carrying blue flames in the center.
This man was Death; for that fact, Chen was certain. A crimson aura glowed around him, and he stunk worse than any of the cadavers surrounding them.
“No.” Chen stumbled back, pulling up his sword in front of him, fearful for his life. “I survived the carnage. This isn’t the day we were to meet. The oracle told me. I was to live a long life. A long, prosperous life.”
Chen tripped over a body behind him, falling on his backside. Shaken, Chen stared at the face of the corpse, its mouth gaping, the armor unmistakable. Han was right there, as dead as all the other bodies surrounding him, stripped naked.
Proud in Han’s armor, Death merely stood and looked at the young man, not uttering a word, his teeth forever fixed in a skinless smile. Chen couldn’t read that face, lacking any flesh, any life. He didn’t know why death was there, when the soldier couldn’t remember any fatal blow his armor took on the field.
There was that slash to the back, Chen thought as he slowly rose back to his feet, still holding his sword before him, and that spear piercing at my side. My armor’s hardly scratched from it. But I didn’t even feel it. Could it be that… oh god… maybe I am dead.
Chen looked at the battlefield all around him. There were nothing but dead bodies and crows everywhere. Why did the other dead not rise as he did, if Chen truly were dead? He never felt so alone, and Death’s presence only made him feel more isolated. The ground was so barren, so lacking of vitality. The sky was so red with the reflection of a rage-tainted sunset.
“You wait until now to contemplate the life of a sage, Chen?”
Chen jumped at the voice, which didn’t come from Death. He turned to the opposite direction, facing another man only a few feet away. The man was healthy looking with tan, firm skin, covered with a white glow, as ivory as the fluttering silk robe and belt he wore. Even his long hair and beard were drenched in the hue of an angelic white.
White, the color of death. Chen shuddered even more, looking at the man of flesh and heavenly glow, than he did looking at the skeleton. Yet he dresses like a tian, an immortal. Why is he teasing me? To appear in more than one form?
Chen turned to look back at the skeleton man, shocked to see that Death still stood there. The young soldier’s mind was confused, yet convinced that both men were one and the same, two sides of an equal gold coin.
“I truly am dead,” Chen said, his hands shaking. “Death in a more attractive form is the same, is he not?”
“You were contemplating the life of a warrior as different from the life of a holy man, where you not, young Chen?” the old man in white asked as he stepped forward, edging closer to the soldier.
Chen began to back away, until he remembered the man of bones was right behind him. Freezing in his tracks, the soldier thought about making a run for it, about breaking away from both forms of death, yet something in Chen’s own power held him there. Chen wasn’t subjected to their control, and yet he chose to stay.
“I don’t know if they’re all that different, Chen Shan,” the old man continued. “The battlefield is much like a man’s mind, is it not?”
Chen’s expression twisted, perplexed. “How so?”
“The chaos. The violence and death. Horses sprinting with soldiers, coming and going. Does a man’s thoughts not mirror the clashing of blades? Are his mental defenses not much like shields?” Han reached under his robes and pulled out a sword, long and sharp, shining in the sunset’s dying rays.
Gasping, Chen drew his own sword.
A third blade pressed against Chen’s neck, belonging to the man of bones. Death’s skeletal hand pressed against Chen’s left arm. The sharp edge of the bone man’s blade was close enough to slice Chen’s throat with one slight gesture.
Chen wisely dropped his weapon.
The old man in white didn’t even point his sword at Chen, and his face wasn’t even threatening. Instead, the old man looked at his own weapon, studying it as an artist studied a painting. “All beings have their thoughts, their emotions, racing through them like wild animals. Some possess more active minds than others, different natures dominate the bodies of different beings. Some lean more to wood, others to fire, or metal and earth, even water. We all fall in our own strengths and weaknesses on the five-pointed star of the wu-xing, the pentagram of elements.”
Chen looked at the old man with a worried gaze, afraid of the bone man’s sword at his neck, wishing he took the chance to run when he could have. “So where do I fall on this wheel?”
“What does it matter? You’re dead as they all are. As we all are.” The old man drew his sword back into its sheath. “An enlightened man sees the unification in the conflicts of the battlefield and of the mind. He sees how the defenses and offenses are one. That’s how, in the midst of confusion and hell, one finds peace.”
Chen laughed. “There’s no peace in battle, friend. Were you ever a warrior?”
“Always and forever. As much as I was and am a sage.”
Chen sneered. “You were a warrior like I was an acrobat. I’ve never spent a day in the theatre. You know nothing of war, other than retrieving the fallen like a scavenger after the carnage.”
“We waged our own wars, even as allies and fellow soldiers. Just as we wage our own war within ourselves.”
“This is my fault, isn’t it? This little conversation you’re trying to have with me. You heard me as I looked over this battlefield, talking to myself, thinking out loud. Wish I hadn’t brought this up. Here we are, engulfed by death at all corners, and I open a door for a philosophical conversation. I open a door for Death. All while failing to realize the fact that I’m dead.” Chen looked down at his own sword laying in the dust, abandoned as he was. Why did he fear the bone man’s strike, if he was already dead? Did he fear dying a second time? Was there any coming back from being killed again by Death? “What happens if he slits my throat? He is you, after all.”
The old man laughed. “Are you so certain of that? You don’t even know who I am. Or who he is.”
“You’re both Death. The same damned being.”
“I wouldn’t be so sure.” The old man stepped closer, not stopping until he was barely six inches from Chen’s face. “Death isn’t a person.”
The bone man let go of Chen, pulling the blade away from the young soldier’s neck and pushing him forward. Chen bumped into the old man, caught in his arms. Never had Chen felt so weak, within an instant. His spirit body suddenly felt lethargic, drained. Fear took over his mind as he didn’t trust the glowing old man, his firm grip, or focused gaze.
The old man looked at Chen with a smile. “I am Lao-Tse. The man of bones is my brother in spirit, Sun-Tzu. Just as you are our brother.”
Chen sneered. Lao-Tse, the author of the Tao Te Ching? And Sun-Tzu, the author of the Art of War? Lies. Sun-Tzu and Lao-Tse were famed philosophers and writers, deceased masters Chen Shan looked up to along with Confucius, men he always wanted to be like.
As Lao-Tse, the man in white, held the drooping Chen Shan in his hands, Sun-Tzu, the bone man, knelt down and stared the young soldier dead in the face. Was this truly what tian looked like? Lao-Tse could at least play the part of an immortal in his opulent garb, but why would the great Sun-Tzu reduce himself to a macabre skeleton, appearing more ghoul than god?
“The life of a warrior and a sage isn’t different,” Lao-Tse said. “Just as the faces of life and death yield no differences. No differences at all. You were a proud warrior, Chen. Just as you were a proud philosopher.”
Lao-Tse dropped Chen and let him fall to the ground. Chen spasmed like a landed fish pulled from freshwater, feeling energy and sensation returning to him.
Sun-Tse and Lao-Tse stood over the soldier, watching him tremor and quake. As Chen looked up, he realized both men’s eyes were pulsing with a wisdom he never witnessed from any living thing.
I can’t tell if they’re trying to enlighten me with some hidden knowledge, Chen wondered, or if they’re toying with me like a cat toys with a mouse before dinner.
Chen breathed heavy. He could move again, control his limbs, and he nearly gagged as he took big gulps of air, pulling away from the immortals standing over him. Slowly, he worked his way back up to his feet, wondering what use it was of the two tian to temporarily rob him of his energy.
“Why did you rely on the books of dead men,” Lao-Tse asked, “if the tao was within you all along, young Chen?”
“Are you kidding?” Chen asked as he pressed a hand on his throbbing ghost chest. “If you are the men you claim you are, you influenced my life. From the time my father was a soldier, and onto when he passed his legacy onto me. He quoted your books to me a thousand times! The further one goes, the less one knows. Was that not you, Lord Lao-Tse? Appear weak when you are strong, and strong when you are weak. Those were your words, were they not, Lord Sun-Tzu?” Chen hesitated on Sun-Tzu’s emotionless, skeletal face, then turned his gaze to Lao-Tse with a frown. “Does he not speak at all?”
“He speaks the language of warriors,” Lao-Tse answered. “The language of sages. Our language, yours and mine. You speak it well, do you not?”
Chen was speechless. He turned his gaze back to Sun-Tzu, and looked deep into his black eyes, peering at the azure flames within them.
“Those who know do not speak,” Lao-Tse said, “and those who speak do not know.”
Sun-Tzu’s eyes penetrated into the depths of Chen’s soul standing before him.
Motionless, Chen felt his hatred, his fear, his distrust and everything that was once a part of him subside. The thoughts that once opposed the old man in white and the bone man were now dead, no longer necessary. Wary anticipation of horrid scenarios faded into nothingness. Chen no longer feared the one calling himself Lao-Tse, or the one calling himself Sun-Tzu, nor did he care if they were who they said they were or not.
For the first time he could ever remember, Chen knew who he was.
A coat of green light rose from Chen’s heart as the last beams of sunlight died behind the horizon. Soon, Chen’s entire being was enveloped in the jade light like yolk in an unhatched egg.
Chen looked down to his chest, captivated by the power rising from his own body. “I always wondered what it would have been like to leave the military life and become an ascetic, aspiring to become one of the spiritually immortal men, like Lao-Tze. Never did I think… never did I think I was already like them. Or that I had the potential to become one of them.”
Lao-Tse nodded. “You have studied the Tao Te Ching.”
“And the Art of War.”
“I knew them front to back, like all good warriors should. I understood my responsibility was in battle, but… I would lie if I didn’t say I wished things were a little bit different.”
“Well, so did these men.” Lao-Tse stretched out his hand, addressing the sea of dead bodies surrounding the three solitary spirits. “Many of them didn’t like to kill. They didn’t like to see villages burning, nor did they like to see mothers and children crying. They didn’t like to see grown men weeping for that matter, when they sank their blades into the hearts of rivals. They did what they had to, not what they wanted. They were soldiers, like you. Never forget that.”
Chen nodded. “I understand.”
Lao-Tse nodded. “You spoke their language. You understood, every time you fought alongside your brothers. Every time you looked into a rival’s eyes. You saw yourself in them, the same way they saw themselves in you.”
“Yes.” Chen shook his head, shocked and amused by the fact that he didn’t notice it before. “All this time. The tao. The way. It shined within them as it shined within me, all at once.” Chen shook his head. “I still don’t understand. Why am I standing here now, with you? Of all of them. Why am I aware, and they still lay in silence, so lifeless in death, so empty?”
“They have their place in the way, and you have yours.”
Lao-Tse smiled. “Any more contemplations?”
With the shake of his head, Chen turned his back to Lao-Tse and Sun-Tzu. “I have too much life to live than to waste contemplating death.”
* * *
Chen gasped as he snapped back into consciousness, blood smeared over his face, his neck, his armor.
His hands reached, pushing and prying, pulling and rising. A mountain of bodies were stacked around him and on top of him, yet he wouldn’t let them stop him from life. He left and came back again.
A mountain. The bodies weren’t his opposition or obstruction, just bricks on a path to all that he was and all that was him. They were a foundation to a destiny that waited for him elsewhere, in this life and beyond. Chen would have mused about the irony of death guiding him back to life, but his will to survive trumped all thought at the moment.
Once he was free of the mountain of corpses, Chen crawled on the wet ground, stained with blood and water. The sky delivered rain in harsh pellets. Chen felt everything, not holding back from the muddy earth, the cold wind, or the merciless storm smashing down against him.
Turning to face the left, Chen was once again face to face with his dead general, Han. That gaping mouth of Han’s seemed to herald freedom. The general’s naked body, the only bare corpse among suited military corpses for miles, didn’t even desire its old clothes.
Chen desired nothing from his old life, either. Transformed, he crawled to his feet, and into a new life.
* * *
Old Chen sat in the warmth of his mountain cottage, his long hair and beard as white as snow, matching his robes.
The old man stared at his lively fireplace, warm and happy. He had much to be thankful for. As the oracle told him near the Forbidden City, many, many years ago, he lived to a ripe old age. Chen could feel his time coming, very soon, and he was ready for it. All he needed to do had been done.
For the last few years of his life, he spent his time in the tranquility of the mountains, alone, writing his own book of philosophy. Now, completed, the text rested in his hands, filled with valuable information that could be consumed like wildfire for future, eager generations.
No. Chen tossed the book into his fireplace, where Chen felt the book would serve men best.
Let a sage develop his own philosophy, Chen Shan reasoned, and a warrior forge his own role in the way.
Brian Barr is an American author of novels, short stories, and comic books. Brian has been published in various short story anthologies, including Queer Sci Fi’s Discovery, NonBinary Review No. 3: The Wizard of Oz, Dark Chapter Press’s Kill for a Copy, and various short story collections. Brian collaborates with another writer, Chuck Amadori, on the supernatural dark fantasy noir comic book series Empress, along with Pencil Blue Studios’ Marcelo Salaza for the art. His first novel, Carolina Daemonic, was published by J. Ellington Ashton Press in 2015. Brian has also written stories under the pen name Aghori Shaivite.