“His father would have been a fine adventurer,” the townfolks used to whisper amongst themselves.
But occasionally, when my back was turned, and if my Grandfather was not around, they would then quickly and cautiously add, “if he was still alive....”
Other rumors I’ve heard throughout my childhood might include: my father was an arrogant prick who wasted all of his family’s money to travel across the world, or a brilliant scholar who had gone mad in pursuing forbidden knowledge.
Whatever the hearsays, only one theme seems to be unanimous - less than a month after my birth, he suddenly vanished from this face of the planet, and his whereabouts have been unknown ever since.
My close relatives all went silent, only murmuring a few loose words that he had died from an unfortunate accident. As I grew older, however, I gathered enough information to picture an indistinct image.
It felt like a mere shadow of what he actually was. But the truth did slowly emerge, as details converged, bit by bit, like piecing together a jigsaw puzzle.
In his early years, my father was said to be obsessed with religious artifacts - mysterious relics of many extinct civilizations. He then went on to become a renowned archaeologist, in a field that I never knew had existed: Prehistoric Mythologies.
He was so consumed that he even gave up the opportunity to study medicine and become a surgeon, which was a big deal back in his generation, if not in any. A huge fight eventually broke out between him and my gramps. Sick of being tormented by the lectures of “collectivism” and “social hierarchies”, my father quietly packed his bags one night and left the country for good.
He did return once, however, in early March 1990, though only to drop me off briefly before leaving for the last time. I was an infant then, and in my Gramp’s narrative, that was his only legacy.
But there was something else he had left behind upon his final appearance - something that bore much greater importance than a baby in a rugged blanket. My gramps never brought it up, and in fact, intentionally hid it away, as if it brought utter shame and misfortune upon our clan.
It was on the surface, just a heap of my father’s written notes, research materials he had collected in the years of his absence, stored and kept away in a dark corner of our old family mansion. It was the very location of those notes, along with the secrets hidden within its pages, that changed the course of my life forever, and perhaps in a way, altered mankind’s perspective of its entire history.
This secret was revealed in the most unexpected occurrence.
I remember that summer as being one of the hottest. I was a sophomore in one of the nation’s top colleges, yet I could not be spared from the dense metropolis heat. It just so happens that the air conditioning was out in our residence. Thus I left campus immediately on the last day of class and caught the first train home.
My family resided in rural China, at the foot of the Yulong Snow Mountains, otherwise known as the Mountain of Jade Dragons. It was a small village, almost hidden away from the public eye, with around nine thousand residents, most worked on tea harvesting.
Life was quiet there, and I spent most of my days wandering around, listening to audiobooks of classical literature while enjoying the good-old fresh air.
On that fateful day, around mid-July, I strolled past the town center to visit Master Lu, an old commissioner living at the village gate. He was a wise man, one of the first to teach me how to read and write, but it came with strings attached: I had to sit in for hour-long monologues on his radical political ideologies.
Somehow, I kind of understood why my father chose to leave this place.
It just so happens that Master Lu’s mansion was being renovated that day, so I poked around for a while to see if I could be of assistance. Somewhere in that process, I inadvertently bumped into a group of construction workers, who were laying out plans for their operation.
Out of pure curiosity, I peered over their shoulders and caught a glimpse of what they were actually discussing. It was a series of design papers - original drawings for the layout of this piece of architecture.
At first, there was nothing special; the structure of Master Lu’s mansion was no different from that of our Meng clan. All the other big families in the town lived in a unique, native “Mufu-style” building, which was said to be designed by a prince in the Ming Dynasty.
But upon further review, I found one slight difference, an element that could have been easily missed if not inspected carefully.
On the upper right corner of his mansion’s third floor, right there in between the junction of the eaves and the foundation of the ceiling, rests a small, almost neglectable space - a hidden fourth floor.
This is strange. If I remember correctly, the third floor of our mansion is sealed shut, with no open ends anywhere in the corridor. Gramps obviously never mentioned such an existence, but the drawings of Master Lu’s house clearly indicated a ladder connecting the narrow entrance of the fourth floor - a concealed attic.
It was high noon and the heat blistered my skin.
Yet I felt a shiver down my spine.
That evening coincided with a temple fair in the neighboring village. Being a reputed elder, it was common Hakka tradition for Gramps to attend the festival out of courtesy, accompanied by his relatives. I returned home later in the afternoon, compelling that I felt sick due to heat exposure. Soon enough, I was left alone in the mansion.
I waited restlessly for a while, counting each second with immense excitement. After about a quarter of an hour, I found myself already on the third floor, recalling the drawings of Master Lu’s house and venturing to the end of the hallway.
The overhead ceiling was covered by several layers of thick cloth, a few emblazoned with Taoist symbols - Something I would never have bothered to notice on a typical day.
I fetched a bamboo stick, a polearm used for drying clothes, and quietly plucked away the disguise.
A dark shade of red was unraveled. A miniature door, possibly made out of chestnut. I paused for a split second, realizing now for sure that Gramps had intentionally tried to seal this away.
The door was not locked.
Poking it open with ease, I turned to set up a stool and box, before tiptoeing my way up.
The attic was more extensive than I had imagined, dimly lit, with a peep of daylight creeping in from a dusty window in the very back. The air smelled like must, everything covered in a sea of dust, and the floors packed with ancient books and storage boxes.
I guarded my nose closely as I explored the attic. Glossing through the mold-infested boxes, I turned over many stacks of paper materials - almost all were of my father’s handwritten manuscripts.
Briefing his works, I initially planned on selecting a few to take down for further analysis. But in a turn of events, during my “excavation” in the attic’s southeast corner, a suspicious object abruptly caught my attention. An item too out-of-place to simply bypass.
It was a yellowed paper folder, heavy in terms of weight, and similar to those used to cache state-censored archives. Its texture was soft but crumpled, like a ripe persimmon long soaked in water. When I scooped it from a mountain of dust, it was already in a rough shape, bent in half and its sides stretched out. A vermillion round stamp imprinted on its front cover, indistinguishable from the wax seals used by the warlords of medieval Europe. This archive must have been sitting around for some time.
The red seal was engraved with the Chinese character “樞”, printed in an old script font that pre-dated the First Emperor. It roughly translates to “pivot” or, when coupled with the word “middle”, can instead be interpreted as “the center”.
European wax and an ancient Chinese character - What a rather intriguing combination. I had no clue what this represented.
With that in mind, I opened the seal.
The file contained a pile of notes, coming in different colors and sizes - some pieces were not even quadrilateral. It seemed as if they were torn from various books and then pieced back together, like Dr. Frankenstein’s monster. A discolored ribbon was the only thing holding them together.
I flipped to the first page. The upper left corner read in my father’s handwriting: “Scroll One.”
At first glance, concerning its outer packaging, I thought it could be of some sort of unclassified documents, or perhaps primary sources belonging to a higher institution. But the first line of the original text was written in the format of a time and location, now feeling more like the remnants of my father’s lost diary.
Then when I recognized the exact numbers on the date, as a hardcore military buff, my spirits were instantly lifted.
“March 29th, 1918 AD.”
A few seconds passed by. I calmed myself down and counted my fingers, one by one. From the looks of it, this “diary” would have taken place more than a century ago. No way could this be related to my father, or even my grandfather, at a place thousands of miles away from where our Meng clan was enrooted.
The location on the next line is marked: "Northern France, the Somme Front."
“The wars to end all wars.” I couldn’t help but burst out loud.
The sky turned dark at that moment, and it began pouring outside, the rain beating heavily on the roof’s brickwork, its drops of water covering everything that was about to happen.
I instinctually glanced behind. No one was snooping behind my back. I then picked up the broken pages of “Scroll One”, reading it carefully under the airy light of a wobbling chandelier.
March 29, 1918 A.D.
Northern France, the Somme Front
An army corporal, cloaked in a gray trench coat, stood warily upon the battlefield, his steel helmet covered in mud. He blurted out some orders to a battalion of fresh recruits, his German thick in a
Central European accent.
“You there, get rid of these corpses, now and at double pace!”
The trenches beneath his boots were like pandemonium - the deepest chasms of hell itself. Countless pieces of shell-shattered corpses and blood-soaked sludge mushed together in a pot of gravy. A notorious stench hung in the air; a rampant mixture of sulfur with the smell of rotting flesh emanated from every corner.
The very stench of death itself.
“Sire, I think we’ve found something!” A new recruit shouted from a short distance away.
The corporal frowned, shouldering his Mauser rifle, and marched towards that end. His bayonet, sharp and ready for blood, glinted dazzlingly in the slanting sun.
He was not short, but definitely not tall for a Teutonic man. He kept a Kaiser mustache, a fashionable trend at that time and popular amongst many Prussian officers. It looked slightly unkempt - he hadn’t been able to groom and shave for many months.
Along the way, he passed a row of freshly dug pits into which soldiers wearing gas masks were busy dumping bodies. The unmarked graves consisted of French and Belgians, but mostly those British Tommy boys, killing and being killed in a foreign land.
Perhaps “being killed” was not quite the proper description. These men did not perish in combat.
Strangely enough, this part of the frontier was supposed to be one of the most formidable lines of defense, manned and garrisoned by the elite troops of the Entente. The General Staff specifically marked this location as a key target when they drew out the general plan for this offensive, even sending in three additional artillery regiments to provide fire support.
The Howitzers pounded the opposing trenches for three hours non-stop. Yet with the sound of an ear-piercing whistle joining the chorus, the Bavarian infantry regiment was sent over the top to launch a tentative attack, initially intended as an act of decoy.
Then something unexpected happened.
The formerly impenetrable No man’s land became unimpeded. Even as the German shock troops cut through the barbed wires and approached their frontline positions, the British garrison did not fire a single shot, not mounting even a symbolic resistance.
When the guns fell silent towards dusk, it was all quiet on the Western Front.
The trenches were already littered with dead bodies along with an arsenal of weapons and supplies. For the corpses that had not been blown to pieces by the last round of artillery fire, the ones that were still barely recognizable were all crisscrossed and twisted in shape. Many whose skulls had been cracked open with blunt instruments; whose ribs had been stabbed to the heart with bayonets; and many who were cut up by the bullets from their Lewis machine guns.
By only the looks of it, the Entente soldiers were apparently “killing” each other.
The German corporal leaped down into the trench, his boots sank deep in the mud, almost tripping over a doughboy helmet half-buried in the blood-soaked soil.
“Hans, what’s going on?”
The soldiers on guard duty hastily stood at attention, and respectfully saluted him as he approached the firestep. Interestingly enough, he was actually just an ordinary private, and at most, an acting corporal, a rank that technically was non-existent.
He had no superiority over these raw recruits, but many looked up to him with fervor in their eyes.
Hans stood there, pointing his trembling finger at a hole dug into the trench walls. His face was pale as the moon, and his teeth grinding to the sound of a cackle, like a frightened animal. This was quite understandable. After all, it can be torturous, for anyone who had not seen combat, to be exposed to this sort of carnage first time on the battlefield.
But through his dull eyes, the corporal caught a glimpse of something else - something much more horrifying than this industrial slaughterhouse. Something much more ancient, and evil, like a primordial fear of the supernatural.
“Everyone step back, and load your weapons.” The corporal ordered, pushing a bullet up the rifle. He then squatted his way into the darkness of the crypt.
This style of structure was quite common in trench warfare, more than often known as a “rabbit hole”. Such shelter provided soldiers stationed here year-round a place to live during the endless stalemate, and a sanctuary from bomb shells in the heat of battle.
A gust of cold wind greeted him upon entrance. The corporal shivered violently from shoulder down, his ears echoing with the screams of fallen men and the cries of the restless dead.
There was a glimmer of light at the end of the narrow passage, a sign of relief. He picked up the pace, not sure if he was hoping for life or death at the end of the tunnel, either would be equally terrifying.
It turned out to be only a half-burned oil lamp.
“What in the name of...Was this Hans doing?” The corporal muttered in his mind, gulping down a mouthful of water, his eyes fixed straight ahead.
Just as he reached the end of the rabbit hole, stepping into a larger dwelling with his left foot, an armed British soldier suddenly emerged in plain sight.
“Freeze!!!” The corporal raised his rifle, ready to fire, his finger locked firmly on the trigger.
The British did not react in the slightest, rather simply stared at the corporal, his eyes full of rage. The soldier leaned back against the corner, standing straight and tilted sideways to some degree, as if been nailed to the wall.
He still clutched his Lee Enfield rifle in his hands, the bayonet fixed at the barrel was still stained with undried blood.
“Drop your weapon, hands on your head!” The corporal yelled, his hands shaking nervously. The British soldier’s gaze was unsettling.
After a few long and breathless seconds, the corporal still saw no movement from across the room. He eventually summed up his courage to advance forward, cautiously.
He waved the tip of his bayonet in front of the soldier’s eyes a few times. The doughboy wasn’t even looking at him.
It was only when the corporal got even closer that he could see that the man’s skin was bleached to that of a ghost, his veins swelled, his eyes severely bloodshot and bulging outward, and glared at the corporal in a manner so disturbingly, that it might just pop out at any moment.
The corporal lightly pocked at the man’s chest, and to his astonishment, the soldier collapsed straight to the ground with a loud “thud”, similar to a puppet being cut loose of its strains.
It seemed that this poor fella was long out of breath.
Within another few steps, the corporal was surprised to find several other lifeless bodies, just standing there in this rabbit hole. They were all fully dressed, armed to the teeth, and had faces of unspeakable terror; their expressions and movements froze on the spot, as if time itself had just stopped without warning. The very scenery took him back to the time of sketching wax sculptures at the Academy of Fine Arts.
A painful chapter of his life.
In this uncomfortable atmosphere, the corporal glanced around. Typically speaking, rabbit holes should be the dirtiest of all places, frequently nested by mosquitoes and flies, and the rats moved in hordes in broad daylight, carrying fleas on their backs. Disease was rampant and the living conditions unbearable.
But the rabbit hole he is standing in is clean as an emperor’s palace, its sanitary conditions compared to the outside seemed like many worlds away. Not even a rat turd could be seen.
“What’s going on in here?”
Behind came three German soldiers, with shovels hanging from their backpacks, submachine guns dangling from their arms, and their feet firmly strapped in tall, leather boots.
It is the Sturmtruppen, the newly formed Stormtrooper Battalion.
The commander in charge paused for a moment, showing a look of awe, but quickly regained his composure, waving his hand in the air. His subordinates immediately started to search these human sculptures.
The corporal was heartily relieved, that there were still living beings in this god-forsaken hole.
“Heh, these miserable chaps, possessed by the devil or some lonely evil spirits,” the commander picked up a brown, cowhide book from the clutter scattered all over the floor. He opened a few pages to read a few random sentences in very broken English, “‘Dear Annie... God bless Great Britain’... Ha ha ha! This poor gentleman Andrew, must be enjoying a pleasant afternoon tea with Satan himself.”
The corporal didn’t utter a word. He watched in silence as the commander finished turning the pages of what seemingly resembled a private diary. Each page was filled with words, written in a messy mob, except for a drawing on the side near the end. It was a symbol of unknown origins, yet it carried a strange and mesmerizing aura. The corporal’s attention glued onto it firmly.
A circle with two horizontal and one vertical - a kindred to the holy cross of the Catholic Church.
“Societas Sanguis , Domnus Evigilo...” The commander whispered in old Latin, casting a wild glance at the symbol, then mumbled a few words in a strange tongue the corporal could not understand.
“Sire?” The corporal’s back remained straight, his mind racing against time. He recalled seeing a similar image somewhere in the slums of Vienna, while collecting materials for his streetside paintings - An old pawnshop owner, obsessed with ancient Egyptian and Sub-Saharan antiquities.
“Ah, of course, the lord must be rooting on the side of our Fatherland!” the commander laughed a bit awkwardly, must have realized that he had drifted off her and there. He tucked the diary into his long coat, turning to remark, “At this rate of our progress, in less than a week we will be able to take Paris, and in half a month, drive those proud Gallic roosters and their allies into the cold waters of the English Channel.”
“Yes sir, I also firmly believe that this war will eventually go down in history as a victory for His Majesty the Kaiser.” Watching the other two Stormtroopers return outside with their war trophies, the corporal held his head up high and saluted the officer.
“Well, your Austrian accent is still as strong as ever,” the commander started to leave before taking a meaningful look at the corporal’s chest. An Iron Cross First Class medal. An honor reserved only for the senior aristocrats.
“The game has just begun, herr Corporal Adolf.” The commander snickered wickedly, before disappearing into the night.
The original script ended here.
An untimely “boom” sounded from outside the window, and bolts of lightning flashed soon after.
I was startled, my wrist jerked, almost losing grip of the archives. The chandelier overhead blinked several times, swaying back and forth. I looked up, feeling as if someone was peering in the dark.
The mansion was indeed empty.
I flipped the remainder of the papers back and forth for another round, repeatedly confirming that this so-called “First Scroll” has really ended. But that was it, not a single word more from the Great War era. It looked like the author has purposefully left it off.
I began studying the context of the archives. The handwriting is identical of my father’s, written out in an old-fashioned fountain pen, the sentences slightly scribbled, and quite frequently, had traces of ink dripping over the paper. It seemed like this was all completed in extreme haste, but no cross-outs or corrections in between the lines, a customary phenomenon in handwritten works.
The whole text seems to be completed in one fell swoop.
After going through the pages once again, my eyes locked on the only alternation in the writing - it looked extra conspicuous in a passage that only consisted of Chinese characters.
The four Latin letters had gone beyond simply a free-spirited cursive writing, going well beyond an otherworldly context. I could even sense the trembling nibs of the writer’s pen in those distorted Roman letters.
I can not imagine whether my father was filled with excitement or haunted with fear as he wrote this passage.
I knew a little bit of Latin due to personal interests, and I quickly translated its literal meaning, without the use of a dictionary.
Societas Sanguis Domnus Evigilo
The Cult of Sacred Blood, Our master shall return
I smiled smugly, proud of myself for solving my dad’s riddle with little to no effort.
“Little” did I know, these seemingly random words would become my lingering nightmare for many years to come.
I pondered for a moment and glanced at the next pile of pages in the folder.
On it was written “Scroll Two”.
Before I could make another move, the roof of the mansion vibrated vigorously. It was followed by a loud “bang” downstairs, the opening of the front door, followed by my Gramp’s muffled voice..
“Oi Little wanderer, come and get these ice-cold watermelons!”
“Little Wanderer” was my nickname, as it rhymes with my real name Meng You. A more accurate translation would perhaps be “Little Dreamer”.
Judging by the squeaks of the flooring, he had just entered our main lobby.
But the old man was supposed to be at the temple fair.
I shuddered, realizing that I had to act quick before he made his way up. I hastily sorted the scrolls back into the folder, and shoved them in a pile of books. Tiptoeing across the attic, I gently leaped to the third floor, and “snap” closed the door behind me, covering it with layers of thick cloth.
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