The red stem glows in the fading light. Crickets & cicadas chirp in the depth of the woods.
One of the many elders trees in the forest angled dangerously on the steep slope. The top of the holy mountain was crowned by a silver grey mist. He looked wearily at the hidden peaks. He had a long way to travel, but little daylight left.
Yet, he could sense the still sacredness of the place. The shaman he had met along the mountain path, & who had accompanied him to the base of the holy mountain, had sensed his apprehension, & had advised him to keep climbing until he ran into one of the immortals.
The Kunluns did not give up their mysterious secrets to the merely curious or half-willing.
The mountain streams now were so cold that he worried his fingers would freeze & break off were he to cup that water in his hands.
His breath came out in plumes of white, sharp exhales accompanying his climb. Each breath was a ragged icy pain in his chest. Nevertheless, he was a strong man, & kept going, unmindful of his discomfort, forcing his mind to keep from wandering to what would happen a few hours from now, once it was dark.
A testament to his simple village upbringing & sincerity, he took the advice of the shaman to heart & kept climbing.
Only once he feared the dark would finally swallow him whole, he felt around in his hide bag & made a small torch from pitch & twisted twine. As soon as it was done, he lit it up & resumed his slow, stubborn march.
As cold as it was, he was pleased to see that the trees did not appear to thin out as he climbed higher. His exhausted brain did not make the realisation that it was a testament to the magical aura of the heights.
The trees provided shelter from the naked wind, & would be able to provide wood for a fire or to make a makeshift shelter for the night.
And yet he kept climbing. Alone, a pinpoint of flame betraying the presence of the only living soul in a vast expansive wilderness.
He started to see eyes & faces leering at him from the shadows, but which would disappear if he happened to turn his eyes towards them. He wondered whether it was a result of the cold & exhaustion or were they primal spirits that had taken up residence here.
His hallucinations got wilder, with snakes slithering in front of his feet, & hungry ghosts dragging their sad sorry selves around with no real aim.
Old, strangely glowing animal spirits accompanied his climb for short distances, always maintaining some distance, saying nothing, rarely even looking at him.
The very last one he remembered was a silver grey silhouette of a wolf, walking at just the edge of his circle of light. He could feel the pure primal aggression & an almost furious white-hot heat radiating from it, making him both glad for such a strong companion & also apprehensive of what it would do to him if it were simply inclined that way.
His village elders had often told the children stories of the ancestral animal spirits. He remembered one
they were curled up in the house with his grandmother & she told them about the elder wolf spirit.
He remembered her admonition to treat ancestral & animal spirits with reverence & respect, with them being prone to anger & aggression, not because they were evil, because they were pure. Both sides of the polarity existed in nature, & these spirits, closely attuned to the energies of the natural world, reflected those attributes.
His mind forced back to the present moment all at once, he didn’t understand what caused it, but he could feel a tingle of apprehensive excitement vibrate through his spine.
He thought he saw a glimpse of dim orange in the woods in front of him. Brushing away the thought, he kept on trudging through the snow. His animal furs, which he had never had the chance to doubt would keep him warm, were starting to falter. Even through the thick layers, icy cold fingers of air crept stealthily in, robbing him of much needed warmth & the confidence that comes with being certain of being safely protected from the elements.
But then he saw it again, a shaky orange light barely visible through the trees.
His pace quickened.