Aphelion Issue 275, Volume 26
August 2022
 
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The Gory Pearl of Doom

by Gary W. Feather


China's Warring States Period, 342 B.C

Lady Jin and her student, One-Eyed Nu, walked through the market place in Duan, a town in the country of Wei. Nu stopped and tested the weight of a two headed spear that a blacksmith bragged about behind his stall.

Lady Jin looked to her left and saw a familiar face. The man looked much the same as he had before, except for the red bracelet on his left bicep. The years had added a few gray hairs or a wrinkle or two, but he was still a handsome man, strong and well-muscled, and he moved with a swordsman's gait. She wished that she hadn't been hired to kill him.

"It is good to see you again, Snake-Tongue," Lady Jin said and bowed.

"I'm happy to see you, Lady Jin," Snake-Tongue said. Behind him were two other swordsmen with red bracelets. "You are as beautiful as I last saw you."

Lady Jin felt her instincts tell her that something was wrong with her old friend. His eyes gave it away. It was as if he was not there or was not in control.

"Who is the girl?" he asked her.

"This is my student, One-Eyed Nu," Lady Jin said.

Nu adjusted her eye patch and bowed. "I'm pleased to meet you, Snake-Tongue."

While Snake-Tongue returned the girl's greeting, Lady Jin noticed the other two men had slipped away from them. They approached an old woman carrying a basket of grain toward a stall with a boy standing behind it. One of the men knocked the old woman's basket on the ground. The grain that must have been precious to the poor old woman fell across the dirt. The other man kicked her.

Lady Jin watched as the two men laughed and shoved the old woman down when she tried to get up. Snake-Tongue stepped back and sat down. He looked at Lady Jin and Nu without a word.

"Stop it!" Lady Jin heard someone shout and recognized the voice of her student. One-Eyed Nu had her sword out of its wooden sheath.

Lady Jin watched her student and hoped the girl knew she was being drawn into a fight. Move cautiously, girl!

Nu waited for the two men to attack her. Nu blocked the curved sword of the left-handed man. The short attacker carried two short swords. Lady Jin could tell that he was the more dangerous man as his blades danced in the air.

Nu dodged a wild swing of the curved sword and thrust her double-edged sword at his hand. One of its edges sliced into the webbed spot between his thumb and index finger. Lady Jin was pleased as she saw his sword hit the ground. He backed away quickly while clutching his thumb-less hand.

Nu slapped aside a thrust from the other man's short sword and dodged his other sword's downward cut. A crowd had gathered around to watch the fight, but it kept back at a safe distance from the deadly fighters.

Nu held her ground in front of the farmer's stall. She dodged, counterattacked and blocked. The last block caught the man's left blade just in time as it went low to her leg.

But as he pulled it back it cut into her thigh. The cut was shallow, but bloody. A vicious smile was on his lips -- he thought he had crippled his opponent.

He attacked again and again in bloodlust. Nu quickly blocked. She kneed him in the stomach. She had missed his groin. But he retreated enough, though he was still on guard. She waited for him to charge her. He did. She dropped to the ground and rolled towards his feet. He was flung forward onto the chicken eggs on the stall.

The crowd erupted in laughter. The skinny boy behind the stall picked up a dead chicken and started beating Nu's would be attacker with it. The chicken had not been plucked and feathers flew. Many of the feathers got stuck to the egg soaked man's hair, face and clothes. The old woman, having picked up one of his short swords stabbed him in the butt. He ran. The other man was already gone.

Snake-Tongue clapped from where he sat on the ground. Lady Jin sat down beside him.

"You taught her well, Lady Jin."

"I've tried my best," Lady Jin said. She paused as the crowd broke up. "Have you come to fight me or test my student?"

"No," Snake-Tongue said. "Just watching for now. My boss wanted me to test her."

"Su Mao?" Lady Jin said.

"Yes," he said and laughed. "Did you miss me? Our love-making, maybe?"

"Yes," Lady Jin said, then feigned confusion. "Who are you?"

"I'm Snake-Tongue," he said, with a chuckle. "Don't I look like me?"

"Yes." Lady Jin said and tried to ignore his scent and her memories.

Nu came over with her sword in her sheath. She had bound up her wounded leg with a scrap of cloth, and walked with only the barest hint of a limp. She looked at Lady Jin, who gave her a nod.

Snake-Tongue stood up and bowed to the girl. "Well done." he said. Then he simply said goodbye to them both and walked away.

Both women saw the old woman and the boy approaching them. "Thank you so much for helping me," the old woman said.

"I'm glad I could help," Nu said.

"Those were Su Mao's men. Sometimes they come around here just to bully and steal," said the boy.

"Well if it wasn't them then it would be somebody else," said the old woman. "My name is Zhe and this is my grandson Ko."

The boy bowed. Nu returned the bow.

"This is my teacher, Lady Jin," Nu said and Lady Jin bowed. The two farmers bowed. "My name is One-Eyed Nu."

"Are you two wandering swordsmen -- uh, women?" said the boy.

"Yes," Lady Jin said. "We arrived here some days ago."

"That must be great to go on adventures and travel wherever you want," exclaimed Ko and shyly looked at Nu.

"It isn't always easy, but I've enjoyed it," Nu said.

"Were you able to clean up everything?" Lady Jin asked.

"Oh, yes and even a few eggs survived," said Zhe and chuckled.

"That's good," Nu said.

"Is there any way that we can help you two?" Zhe pleaded.

"Oh no. We--" began Nu.

"Do you know anything about Su Mao?" Lady Jin interrupted.

"I know he used to be poor and practically homeless," Zhe said. "Until a three years ago. When he started getting rich. Some folks whisper that it's because of black magic -- especially since children have been disappearing lately. You should be careful if you plan to go up against that man."

"Yes," said Ko. "My sister has been missing for six months. I bet he got her."

"Well," Lady Jin said. "Thank you for warning us about him."

"You're welcome," Zhe said, and held out a plucked dead chicken to Nu. "And this is for you."

"Thank you, ma'am." Nu said, accepting the gift.

Lady Jin felt a shiver go down her spine as they walked back to Li Bo's place.

Human sacrifice.

In most civilized lands that she had been to human sacrifice was considered evil. Some considered the sacrifice of children even worse. But to what evil barbarian god or demon was Su Mao sacrificing?

#### Upon returning to Li Bo's mansion they were told by Li Bo's head servant, Madam Zheng, that he wished to see them in his library.

They found him sitting on a green cushion reading from a book made of bamboo sticks held together by string. Around the room on shelves were other such rolled up bamboo sticks and a few more expensive literary works that were written on silk. Li Bo looked up and smiled at them.

"Have a seat," Li Bo said, with a gesture to the blue cushion on his left.

Lady Jin sat down on the soft cushion with Nu beside her on the floor mat that was made of fine imported grass.

He gestured at the book with his chin. "Have you ever read Sun Tzu's The Art of War?"

"Yes, Master Li," Lady Jin said. "I've a copy of it. I've found it useful in my travels."

"Good. Good," he said. "My father always warned me to always listen to its wisdom for it will save my life many times. And it has...but not now. Now I can find no answer in it."

"What has happened?" Lady Jin asked. She noticed how his eyes had changed. They were no longer strong, but weak -- the eyes of a dying man, or one who has given up on life.

"I don't know," he said. "I have been feeling strange from time to time. Sometimes my body feels week and other times it's my mind. I worry that someone has been poisoning me, but I don't know how they could have done it. Madam Zheng is very careful with my food and drink."

"Could she have done it?" Lady Jin said.

"Never!" Li Bo said. "She and her family have always served the Li family with honor. It is impossible to believe that she would betray me..." His voice trailed off. He murmured, as if thinking out loud, "That girl... I never should have stolen that peasant girl. She is too pretty. A demon. Yes."

Lady Jin thought of Snake-Tongue's eyes and wondered if what had happened to him was happening to Li Bo. Was this the work of Su Mao or his demon?

"I give up," Li Bo said and picked up a large bag off the floor. He dropped it by her thigh.

"What?"

"Take it and leave me," Li Bo said. "I have no further use of your services."

Lady Jin picked it up and handed it to Nu to examine.

"What has happened to you?" Lady Jin said. "I can still stop him."

"No!" Li Bo said. "You cannot! I saw him. I saw it!"

"What do you mean?" Lady Jin said and reached out to touch his shoulder.

"Get out!" he said. "Leave this cursed town while you still can!"

Tears fell from his eyes and he cried like a child.

Lady Jin stood up. She saw his anguish and felt something deeply unnatural about it. This was not normal behavior for this man. Lady Jin led Nu from the room and out into the hallway.

"Well, he paid us everything that we asked for," Nu said, with a throwing away gesture. "It's all here."

"Something is not right," Lady Jin as they walked to the women's quarters where they had been allowed to stay.

"What?"

"I'm not sure," Lady Jin said. "He seemed different and so did Snake-Tongue."

"Do you think that he was right? That he was poisoned?" Nu said.

"Maybe. Or perhaps something far worse happened," Lady Jin said.

"What?"

"I'm not sure," Lady Jin sighed and they walked into their room. "Let's pack up and saddle our horses."

"We're quitting the job?" Nu said, surprised.

"No," Lady Jin said. "We're going to pay Su Mao a visit tonight."

####

Lady Jin and Nu had tied up their horses in the forest near Su Mao's mansion. They were dressed in brown riding clothes that blended well with the shadows. Each carried a sack. They covered their faces with creek mud and waited until darkness covered the land.

Some hours after sunset, Lady Jin crawled up behind a guard outside the main gate. She silently slit his throat and set him on the ground. Nu did the same to the other one. Wolves howled in the distance, as if they smelled the blood.

Lady Jin could see one guard in a watch tower that stood in the courtyard on the other side of the wall. Lady Jin pulled her bow and quiver of arrows out of a leather bag. She strung the bow and notched an arrow. She held a second arrow between her left ring finger and left little finger. She pulled back on the string and quickly fired two arrows into the guard in the watchtower. He never made a sound.

Nu checked the gate and found it locked from the inside by a large wooden bolt. Nu pulled a rope with a grappling hook out of a bag. She tossed it up the wall a couple of times, until the hook caught. She tested it and climbed up the wall. Once over the wall Lady Jin followed her.

Lady Jin lowered herself down carefully and dropped the rest of the way down. She landed on the balls of her feet and felt a pain in her feet and legs from the jolt of the fall. Nothing was broken and she had felt a lot worse before.

There were four lit torches waiting for them in the courtyard. Lady Jin heard the sound of swords coming out of their sheath. She sensed that Nu was by her side.

Lady Jin pulled her sword free as two men walked out of the main building and into the courtyard. One was the man with two short swords and the other was Snake-Tongue.

"Well done, Lady Jin," Snake-Tongue said with his sword in his hand. "You made it!"

"What is wrong with you?" Lady Jin said. "And what has Su Mao done to Li Bo?"

"Not much of a man anymore, is he?" Snake-Tongue said. "That's Su Mao's magic."

"His magic?"

"Well, not really his."

"So it's true," Lady Jin said. "He is worshipping some demon."

"Who told you that?"

"None of your concern," Lady Jin said.

"Fine," he said.

Lady Jin heard the clang of blades and the moving of feet and knew that Nu was once again fighting the man with two short swords. Lady Jin dodged as Snake-Tongued sent his blade's tip towards her knee. He blocked her sword and slashed at her ribs.

Lady Jin forced out of her mind any thoughts of good times and pleasure of her life with Snake-Tongue. Now she had no choice. She must kill to survive or die in a pool of her own blood.

Lady Jin parried a sword thrust and tried to cut his wrist. She only made a shallow cut on his forearm. He blocked her next cut. He pushed her blade up and kneed her ribs. She swung her elbow and it cut his eyebrow. As they fought the blood dripped into his eye. She hoped it hurt his vision on his right side and his concentration.

Lady Jin dropped and rolled as Snake-Tongue threw a knife at her. She threw her knife and he smacked it out of the way with his sword. The two warriors circled each other. Their blades touched and slide against each other like old lovers.

Lady Jin swung twice at him with her sword and her sword quickly moved from her right hand to her left. Because of the blurred vision in his right eye he missed the move.

Her blade cut into his shoulder and the artery. Blood spurted fell from his shoulder and he dropped to one knee.

His sword fell. He looked up at her. Lady Jin stared into his eyes and saw the man that she had loved.

"Don't trust Su Mao," Snake-Tongue said. "He's not human."

He gripped his sword by the blade with shaking hands and fell on its point.

Lady Jin knelt down and briefly brushed her hand across his head. She looked up to find Nu looking at her. Nu's enemy was dead.

"Are you okay?" Nu said.

"Yes," Lady Jin lied and felt the tears in her eyes. She wiped them away.

"Let's finish this, Nu."

They walked into the building and heard crying to their left. It sounded like that of a child. They walked through the main part of the building. The noise got louder as they passed through the hallway and entered another room.

Inside the candlelit room was a creature with jaws like a crocodile -- a reptile that stood erect on two thick legs with two short muscular arms. It had three tails and one large, glowing red eye.

On the table in front of it was a crying girl with only one leg. She looked over at them and Lady Jin could see that she looked kind of like Ko.

The creature's jaws bit off the girl's other leg. The whole leg went into the huge jaws and the creature chewed.

Blood and saliva dripped from its jaws. It turned and saw them.

It smiled and swallowed.

"Ah!" it said. "You have made it at last to my humble little home on your world."

It paused and stared at the screaming child with sadness.

"Who--" Lady Jin mumbled.

The creature bit off the girl's head. Inside of eating the head it spit it on the ground. It swung its huge head at them and sighed.

"Sorry about the noise," it said. "But I prefer to eat my prey alive."

"What are you?" Lady Jin shouted.

"Would you prefer that I looked like Su Mao?" it said and shook itself as a dog shakes off water. The creature changed into a man. He or it laughed. "No? Maybe you prefer my other look." The man shook and turned into an old woman. It was Madam Zheng.

"What kind of demon are you?" Nu shouted.

"What I am and where I come from you would never understand," it said. "You also could not pronounce my name."

Lady Jin ignored her legs as they trembled underneath her. She saw the pearl hanging from a necklace around the creature's neck. She breathed in and out to control her will, her body and her qi. Does its power come from that pearl?

"We are doomed," Lady Jin said and knelt down on her left knee.

"Yes!" bellowed the creature.

"No!" screamed Nu.

Lady Jin rushed forward and cut the leather necklace with her sword. The pearl fell to the ground and rolled away.

"No!" screamed the creature as its flesh seemed to melt and flow until it became a rotted human corpse.

"Su Mao, I presume," Lady Jin. "It seems that he has already paid for his evil -- or his folly -- with his life."

Lady Jin saw the pearl rolling away from the corpse and she knelt down. She laid down her left hand and the pearl rolled onto her palm.

One-Eyed Nu followed her teacher as she took the pearl out to the courtyard. Lady Jin dug a hole with her knife and buried the pearl in the middle of the courtyard.

Jin and Nu took the remains of the girl back to her family for burial. They bought some supplies; a board for a grave maker and a peach sapling.

They returned to Su Mao's mansion. After they buried Snake-Tongue, Nu sat in the dirt and waited. Jin cried as she carved his name on the piece of wood. Before they left Jin planted the peach sapling at the spot where she had put the pearl.

THE END


© 2008 Gary W. Feather

Bio: Gary W. Feather hails from southern Illinois. He graduated from Southern Illinois University at Carbondale in 2006 with a BS in Journalism, a BA in English and a minor in East Asian Civilization. He has a green belt in Goju Kempo Karate.

E-mail: Gary W. Feather

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