Huan Ho sealed the last window, leaving only a crack in the shutter. Tonight, he thought, his eye on the empty streets, the neighbours’ barred shutters. Tonight he had to pass the door on the hill, or let the sickness take his mother.
She had been watching him from her bed. “They ride tonight,” she said, when he was done.
“Yes,” Huan Ho said. As on every year, the three horsemen would scour the city of Fei Weng, taking what and whom they pleased. “I’ve closed the house.”
His mother smiled, wanly. “We have nothing worth their notice.”
No riches, Huan Ho thought. The only room of the house was bare: a bed, a table, and two chairs were its sole furniture. He had sold everything of value to the pawnbroker, to pay the apothecary. Not that the drugs had done more than dull her pain. The apothecary himself had admitted defeat, had jokingly said only the Dragon’s Tears could help her now. Huan Ho had not laughed. He had taken the drugs, and waited until year’s end, for the return of the riders, praying every day that his mother would remain alive until then.
“No one knows what is worth their notice,” Huan Ho said, more dryly than he had intended. “Or why they take some, and leave some unharmed.”
His mother did not move. She said at last, “It doesn’t matter.”
If they wanted to seize her . . . then there was nothing he could do. They had been known to take the sick and the aged, as well as the mighty and the rich. They could not be stopped. Let them pass this house tonight. Let them move on, to roam the rest of the empire and seize what caught their fancy.
And then he would be free to enter the place where they came from, to find the Dragon’s Tears and heal his mother.
The bell of the Taoist temple struck midnight. He heard it echo through the house, peal after peal, like a voice calling the dead. Midnight of the last day of the year. The time of the riders.
His mother’s face was paler than usual. “Huan Ho.”
“They will not come here,” he said. The last peal of the bell faded into silence; all of Fei Weng lay waiting, the streets deserted, the wine shops closed, every opening barred so tightly an insect could not have crawled through.
The door on the hill above Fei Weng, the door of lacquered wood that was always closed, would be opening now, as the moon rose higher and higher in the sky. They would pass through it into the mortal world.
Huan Ho, his eye against the hole in the shutters, watched the empty street. Waiting.
They came without a noise, a blur of movement against the night. The hooves of their horses struck the ground, silently, raising sparks like thousands of fireflies. One wore golden clothes, and his bridle and saddlebags were golden as well; one dressed in silver, riding a silver horse, and the last one wore purest black, and a black hood covered his face.
They flowed into the street, stopping only once to enter a house, the sound of the door bursting into splinters the only noise breaking the silence. Huan Ho did not move. He prayed to every one of the Eight Immortals to make them forget this house, to pass it by. Only tonight. Afterwards it would not matter.
Two of them rode past the house, hardly glancing at the windows. But the third one, the one of purest black, stopped.
The horseman raised his head, stared straight at Huan Ho as if he could see through the shutters. There was nothing within the hood but a deeper darkness.
Please, no. Huan Ho could not move, transfixed, knowing there was no charm that would keep the rider at bay. No one knew what happened to those the horsemen took. They simply were never seen again.
At length, the rider wheeled his horse round, and rode down the street to join his brothers.
Huan Ho’s heart still beat madly in his chest. There is time, he thought. Still time to renounce. He could not hope to fool any of the riders.
His mother was watching him. Her face was gaunt, with sallow, papery skin stretched taut over her bones. She had not risen from her bed for three years.
“They passed us by,” he said.
She raised her head. He saw her grimace of pain as she moved, and knew not even the drugs made a difference now. He thought of the Dragon’s Tears, stolen by the riders from the depths of the sea, a long time ago: a flask of enamel which held the full power of the Dragons. And any child knew that Dragons could heal mortals with a touch. This would cure her. It had to.
“You should sleep now,” he said. It was all he could do to keep his voice expressionless.
• • • •
He watched her until she fell asleep. The house was utterly silent; only her laboured breathing could be heard. He knew that the riders would not come back to Fei Weng until the moon had set. The door would close then, for another year.
Time to go.
He stroked her cheek one last time, wincing as his hand caught on her protruding bones. With the drugs she took at night, she would not wake before dawn: He hoped to be back by then, or dead. None of it mattered anymore.
The door, unbarred, opened onto the deserted streets. Fei Weng cowered, awaiting the return of the riders with their plundered wealth. In moonlight, he walked past familiar buildings, all eerily closed and silent, as if the whole city had died in one night.
He carried nothing but a lantern: No mortal weapon would avail him against the riders. Take their names, said the old wives. Tell them their names, and they will have to do one thing for you. But no one knew anymore what the riders were called, least of all Huan Ho, who was neither wise nor rich nor powerful.
He had sought the names; had scoured graveyards and temples for any scrap of knowledge about the riders, had listened to countless legends by storytellers. But he had little to show for it, only heightened fears. The riders had scoured the world since the dawn of time: From the moment mankind had appeared, so had they, taking anything they pleased.
Their names are those of brothers: entwined one with the other, said the Taoist texts. They wear human shapes, yet are our greatest fears, said the inscriptions on the graves. We cannot be rid of them.
Huan Ho passed through the gates, which lay open for fear the riders would tear them down to enter the city, and took the long, winding road that led past the rice fields into the hills above Fei Weng. The air was crisp and cold, and stung his exposed skin. He walked on.
The door through which the riders came stood a little way from a fork in the road. Its wood was old and weathered, and the lacquer had cracked in many places. Faded pictures of phoenixes and dragons adorned its huge panels.
Everyone in Fei Weng knew where it was. For most of the year, it was nothing but an oddity: standing in the shadows of the hills, a door with no building, a door which would never yield no matter how hard one pushed on the panels.
But now it was open, revealing only darkness within its frame.
Huan Ho stood before the door, watching the moon above. He knew the rules: He knew what time he had, before the door closed in the wake of the riders’ passage. Not much, not even a whole night, but it would have to be enough to find the Dragon’s Tears.
Still time, part of him said. Still time to come back, and pretend nothing has happened.
He could not turn back. He could no longer watch his mother dwindle, becoming a ghost of the woman who had sung him to sleep and comforted him every year as the riders flowed past their house. He could not watch her die.
He stepped forward, into the darkness of the door.
A cold deeper than any winter’s night seized him as he passed the threshold. He felt as if he had passed into the Courts of Hell themselves. His hand, opening in a convulsive shudder, released the lantern, which shattered on the ground. Its shards crunched under his feet. Shivering, he forced himself to move forward, even though he saw nothing but shadows, heard nothing but the mad beating of his heart.
He emerged on the other side of the door on a windless, starlit plain. The constellations in the sky were the same as the ones above Fei Weng, and yet distorted in some way he could not quite identify.
So this is their world, he thought, gazing at the flat expense before him. There were shadows of rice paddies on the plain, hints of transparent trees: things not yet real, as if he stood gazing at the place where everything was born. Far away from him, a hazy palace broke the horizon line.
Huan Ho walked on the plain. As in Fei Weng, there was silence before and after him. The light of the stars traced a ghostly path for him, through the fields, towards the horizon. Once, he turned and saw the open panels of the door, and through them the white orb of the moon, like a pitiless eye to watch his trespassing. Still he walked.
He reached at last the gardens of the palace, and then stood before the gates. Embossed phoenixes covered the walls: In the dim light it seemed as if they were only sleeping, and any noise could scatter them into the sky.
The gates stood open. Ghost images drifted past him, whispering words he could not understand. A chill ran down his back, would not leave him: This was what had happened to those the riders took. This was what would happen if they found him.
The sky above held no moon: He had no way to judge what time remained to him. He hurried through the gates, and climbed the stairs to the main entrance. That also was open, and large enough to fit a dozen riders, side by side. He wondered, briefly, whether there were other riders, who exited this ghost world in other places than Fei Weng. He discarded the thought. It only wasted time.
He entered a hall so vast he could not see the end of it. The whole room was shrouded in darkness, and his footsteps echoed as if the ceiling were the height of Fei Weng’s pagoda tower.
A single door was open, on his right. Not knowing what else to do, he passed through it.
Time flowed past him, found him wandering in room after room, losing himself among shadows. He walked through lacquered corridors, with the voices of ghosts on the cusp of hearing, the slats of the floor squeaking under his steps. Empty, everything was empty. They do not live, he thought, staring past door after door. They are something else.
He found at last stairs leading downwards. His eyes had grown used to the shadows, and he could see the steps, and the decorations on the walls: turtles and phoenixes, dragons and lions, landscapes with willow trees, with hazy mountains.
At the foot of the stairs were three huge doors, one of gold, one of silver, and one of black, lacquered wood. He laid his hand on the first door, and pushed as hard as he could. The panels swung open without a noise.
Inside, shadows covered heaps of gold and pearls: everything that the gold rider had taken from the world, hoarded in this room. Riches without counting.
Huan Ho wandered in a daze through the room, lifting one thing, and then another, hoping his hand would stray towards the thing he sought. There were things from tales here: the Phoenix Pearl that would show a man his heart’s deepest desire, a chest of glowing moon-wood that would never empty, the Golden Bird that could recite a thousand stories. And swords with hilts inlaid with jewels, statues of jade so tall one of them would have paid the whole of Fei Weng for a year, pearls, porcelain, diamonds, all casually tossed inside the room.
He could not find the Dragon’s Tears. The night wore on—and still he had no idea where the moon was, or even if dawn had not broken—and he could have lost a thousand lifetimes in this room, and not seen a thousandth of the things lying there.
In the second room, Huan Ho thought, and went back to open the doors of silver. Here, no gold, no pearls, but bolts and bolts of the finest yellow silk, embroidered with dragons and phoenixes—the colour and the attributes of the imperial couple. Books of magic were piled near the back of the room, and the air throbbed with residues of spells. Huan Ho lifted one of the books, and a cloud of dust washed over him: The binding had disintegrated.
“What are you looking for?” a faint voice asked, behind him.
Huan Ho dropped the book, and wheeled round. His heart was threatening to burst out of his chest. He had thought the palace utterly deserted.
A ghostly boy with ample robes of silk stood before him. Unlike the other ghosts, he seemed to have retained much of his essence.
“Who are you?” Huan Ho asked.
“I am Eu Lang, emperor of the Undying Islands,” said the boy. He wore on his head a velvet cap topped by three golden balls: the mark of a ruler.
“How did you come to be here?”
The boy’s face twisted. “They came, last year, the horsemen, to the Undying Islands. They crashed through the gates and rode through the ranks of my army. I was mighty among the rulers of this world, but they took me from my palace, and bound me here so he could gloat over my defeat.” He raised his arms: Thin chains of silver extended from his wrists to the floor.
“The rider of silver,” Eu Lang said. “Why are you here? If they catch you, they will bind you as they did with me.”
“I need to find the Dragon’s Tears,” Huan Ho said.
“They are not in this room. Go,” Eu Lang said. “If you do not know the riders’ names, go. The moon will set soon, in your world.”
“Eu Lang, what are they? What are their names?”
“I don’t know,” the boy cried. “He taunts me, every time he comes here. He says that everything to know his name is in that room. He says I could be free if I told him. I don’t know,” he said, and hid his face. The sound of his weeping was the only noise in the room. There was something horrible about it, as if his tears did not quite belong here, but were still worth hoarding.
“I am sorry,” Huan Ho said. He took a step backwards, with the weeping sound still tearing at him.
He left Eu Lang in the room, feeling ashamed of himself for leaving, but not knowing what he could have done.
The last doors opened with a creaking noise, as if they had fallen into disrepair. Inside, it was darker than in the other rooms, and Huan Ho stood for a while on the threshold, waiting for his vision to clear. He knew time was running short. This room, he thought. It has to be this room.
The room was empty.
He could see the walls from where he was, and see that the floor was bare. Disbelieving, he stepped inside. And almost gasped as indistinct shapes, like wisps of incense, rose to follow in his footsteps. They passed through him, chilling his heart; they whispered words he could not understand, an endless lament.
In his mind rose images, of his life with his mother, and the house they shared: her playing with him when he was a child, visits to the temple to pray to the Lady of Fortune, red lanterns hanging from the rafters to celebrate New Year’s Eve, her face, lit by the fireworks above Fei Weng. But everything was shadowed with the bitter knowledge of her sickness, until his childish joys seemed meaningless, doomed to fade.
What was he looking for? A miracle? All mortals were fated to die. Nothing could save her.
No, he thought, fighting against the rising wave, against the images the ghosts conjured in him. For you, whom the riders took and bound here, there is nothing but despair. But I am stronger. I have lived five years with the knowledge she was dying. I am stronger.
Something shone, at the end of the room, so faint it was almost invisible. He walked towards it, tottering on the edge of weeping. I am stronger.
The glow came from a flask of enamel, inlaid with dragons and turtles on a background of sea waves. Shadows moved over him as he knelt. His hand closed over the flask: Its coldness released a tingle of power that went up his arm. A sip of it, and he would have the power to make rain fall. A sip of it, and death would have no hold over him; he would laugh at the passage of centuries.
No. He had come to save his mother, not to drink them himself. He had to bring them back. To let her taste of them, and be saved.
He walked back towards the door, slowly. As soon as he was free of the ghosts he broke into a run. Eu Lang had warned him: The moon was setting in the other world, his world. The riders were coming.
On the plain before the palace, the stars had dimmed, and a diffuse glow had spread to the sky, as if dawn were about to break.
Huan Ho saw the panels of the door long before he reached it. They were still open. Time, he thought, elated with his success. I still have time. Let the door remain open.
They were waiting for him past the threshold of that door, the three horsemen, one of gold, one of silver, and one of purest black. Their faces held no expression in the growing light. The moon, he thought, looking past them at the real sky, and seeing that it had almost vanished. The panels of the door were quivering, hazy.
“What have we here, brothers?” said the one of gold. His voice had the silkiness of a drawn blade.
“A thief,” said the one of silver.
“You are the thieves,” Huan Ho shouted. “You take and take from all of us and hoard things like misers, in rooms no one will ever see.”
“You are unwise to insult us,” said the rider of gold. “Many are those who tried to steal from us.” His teeth were white, pointed, like the fangs of some monstrous animal.
“Few are those who lived,” said the rider of silver. “You know the stories, boy. You know the price.”
“Name me,” said the first rider, “and I shall move aside to let you pass.”
“Name me,” said the second rider, “and I shall hold the door open for you.”
The third rider, the one of purest black, had not said a word. He was bent low over his horse, and his hands were empty, his saddlebags did not bulge as much as those of his brothers. Wisps of smoke, like those in his chamber, clung to him, and whispered eerily familiar words.
Eu Lang had said that they could be named. That everything that made them was in their treasure chambers. Huan Ho knew them to be immortal, riding out to steal.
Huan Ho did not know their names. But if he did not speak, he would die all the same. No, not die, merely join the thousands of ghosts slowly dwindling to nothing in those rooms, leaving his mother to end her life in solitude.
He remembered everything that the stories said, everything he had seen in their palace.
They do not live. They are something else.
Their names are those of brothers.
They are our greatest fears. We cannot be rid of them.
Our greatest fears. For as long as there had been men, the riders had scoured the world. No, not our greatest fears, Huan Ho thought, seeing again the contents of the three treasure rooms aligned before him, like so many temptations. Our greatest weaknesses.
We cannot be rid of them.
They were not human, but mankind had given birth to them, all the same. Brothers, born of the same source.
He said, to the first rider, whose hands were full of pearls and jade and the most valuable things of the world, “You are Greed that takes things and hoards them, all for its own sake. You are Greed that feeds itself.”
The rider smiled, and a weight was lifted from Huan Ho’s chest. “Well said.” He moved aside to let Huan Ho pass. “You may have the answer to one question.”
He had come all this way on nothing but the hollow in his stomach, and the rapid beating of his heart. He had to know. “How will these tears heal my mother?”
“These tears have no power to heal,” the rider of gold said.
Huan Ho turned aside, then, to go back into those rooms, and find within the treasures piled there something that might be worth his terror. But the first rider had moved to block his path, and there was no other path than to the door, towards the second rider and his silver horse.
Their names are those of brothers. Which meant, since he had guessed right the first time, that the second rider’s name would follow the same logic as the first.
That told Huan Ho where to search, but did not eliminate the countless possibilities. He saw, again, the books of spells, the imperial silk, the bound shade of Eu Lang over whom the rider of silver would gloat, revelling in the misery of his captive, and the inkling of an answer came to him.
His voice shaking, he said, to the second rider, “You are Power that seeks to hoard knowledge so that it may rule over all. You are Power that delights in the enslaving of others.”
The second rider smiled. “Very well,” he said, and laid his hands on the door, keeping the panels from closing. “I, too, will give you one answer, and one only.”
He hesitated, remembering the room with the silver doors, and the ceaseless, horrible weeping. What could he do for one ghost, which would matter? Did he dare waste a question? Still he had nothing to heal his mother.
“I want a favour instead,” he said, slowly. “Free the ghost named Eu Lang. Let him pass into the Courts of Hell, to be reborn.”
The rider laughed. “You are a bold one.”
“I hold your name,” Huan Ho said, simply.
“Yes,” the rider said, almost a hiss.
“Done,” the rider said. “Do not cross my path again, boy.” His eyes glittered with malice.
Huan Ho walked past him, onto the hills above Fei Weng, where he had stood at the beginning of the night, and it had all been for nothing. He had nothing but the flask, warm against his flesh, the flask that would cure no one, that would do nothing.
He could have gone home, then. He lived, and few were those who could boast of such a thing. But he could not endure the thought that all had been in vain. And so he turned to the last rider, the one of purest black, the one who had almost entered their house.
“You have not challenged me,” he said.
“It is not my way,” the rider said. His voice was low, and not unkind.
“What if I name you?”
The rider did not speak for a while. He reached out, and threw his hood back, so that his face was bathed with the last of the moonlight. His flesh was the colour of winter snow, and his eyes depths without ends. “If you name me,” he said, “I, too, will answer a question. Or do you a favour. Choose well, boy.”
The rider’s hands held only the reins of his horse. His saddlebags held treasures, but did not bulge as those of his brothers, and his room in the other world had been empty, save for the Dragon’s Tears. No, not empty. There had been ghosts, and the memories of joy. Huan Ho realised that he knew the rider, all too well.
“You are Sorrow,” he said, “Sorrow that takes from us our loved ones and our moments of happiness, and feasts on our tears.”
The rider was silent. His eyes rested on Huan Ho’s face, holding no expression.
“For years without counting we have opened the door at midnight on the last day of the year, and ridden through Fei Weng, and to the world beyond, and come back with our fill. We have been challenged, and my brothers’ names sometimes guessed correctly. But in all that time not one person has been able to say my name.” He bent down, breathing into Huan Ho’s face the smell of winter nights. “You know me.”
“Yes,” Huan Ho said, standing his ground.
“And you fear me.”
“And hate me.” He said it like a familiar litany, the words coming one after the other, without so much as a breath between them.
“No? Why is that, boy?”
Huan Ho said nothing for a while, remembering the ghosts of joy whirling in the empty room beyond the door. “Because,” he said at last, “without you, joy means nothing.”
“You are wise,” the rider said, with a cheerless smile. “What do you want to know?”
“Tell me how I can heal my mother.”
The rider shook his head, amused. “You should have stopped us before you went searching in our treasure rooms, boy, and asked this. Long ago.”
“I did what I could,” Huan Ho said.
“You named me,” the rider said, his voice quiet, almost filled with wonder. He sat in the saddle, staring at the open door. The moon above them was slowly vanishing. At last he said, “Understand me,” he said. “Just as I cannot exist without joy, so there are no miracles without a price to be paid.”
“Tell me the price,” Huan Ho said. “Do you think I haven’t given enough?”
“You,” the rider said, “have gone on an adventure. An unpleasant one, sometimes, but still, you came back through that door much the same as when you entered it. You gave nothing.”
“There is a way,” Huan Ho said, stubbornly. “Tell me.”
“You want the powers of the Dragons, to heal. Power changes things to its shape,” he said, with a nod towards his brother of silver.
“You make no sense.”
“You do not think,” the rider said, softly. He dismounted, and stood before Huan Ho. He was neither as tall nor as terrifying as he had appeared on his horse. There was something almost comforting about him.
Gently, he closed Huan Ho’s hands around the flask. “Whoever drinks of this shall have the power of the Dragons.”
Huan Ho saw, then, the price he had to pay, the change he had to undergo. Power changes things to its shape. There was no other choice. No other way for him to accomplish what he had set out to do. It is too much, he cried out in his mind. I wanted . . .
A miracle, the voice of the rider said in his mind. Yes, and did he think he could do otherwise? Just as he had squandered his second question to free Eu Lang, so he could not live, knowing he could have saved his mother.
“You have your answer,” the rider of purest black said.
“Yes.” He held the flask, feeling the warmth of it beneath his fingers. The moon was almost gone now. A choice. A sacrifice.
Slowly, he unstoppered the flask, and raised it to his lips. He held it for a while, in an ironic salute to the rider named Sorrow. And then he drank every drop of it.
It tasted of salt, at first, of brine and of the depths of the sea. And then it started to burn. He fell to his knees, clawing at his throat. The moon, growing dimmer and dimmer, loomed over him, taunting him with its coolness. The world was spinning, beating on the rhythm of his heart.
He felt himself expand, his body twisting to accommodate a new shape, new thoughts moving within his mind. Kindred. He would find his kindred in the realm under the sea. He had to. Dragons were not meant to prowl the mortal world.
Deep, deep within the deluge of changes, the ghost of Huan Ho sought to speak. A healing? What did he care for mortal lives, he who was immortal and could make rain fall with a thought?
He twisted on himself, his body writhing, longing to fly, and saw the rider of purest black, still watching him, with a faint smile on his lips.
“I am always bitterest when I come mixed with joy,” the rider said, and the echoes of his voice reminded Huan Ho of something, something that had once been his, a feeling that even now could take hold of his heart like an icy hand, and squeezed until he cried for release. This is what it felt like, to know I would lose Mother.
The rider raised a hand. “Enough,” he said, and the feeling was gone, but still Huan Ho remembered. He remembered everything that had happened since the door on the hill had opened.
The rider was still smiling. “Go to her. Use your powers to heal her, before you leave. Your place is no longer here.” And he remounted, before passing the door.
Silence filled the hills above Fei Weng. Huan Ho watched the rider of purest black through the threshold, watched him guide his horse towards his palace of stone. As the light of the moon dimmed to nothing, the panels of the door slowly drew together, and then they closed, sealing the riders from the world for another year.
In the darkness, Huan Ho thought of his mother, of the goodbyes he would have to make. He had had his wish, his miracle. It was enough. It had to be.
He sprang into the sky, towards Fei Weng, to do one last favour before taking his place within the depths of the sea.