Aphelion Issue 275, Volume 26
August 2022
 
Editorial    
Long Fiction and Serials
Short Stories
Flash Fiction
Poetry
Features
Series
Archives
Submission Guidelines
Contact Us
Forum
Flash Writing Challenge
Forum
Dan's Promo Page
   

The Wizard of Cai

by Gary W. Feather



China's Warring States period, 342 BC

An old man in a yellow robe lit nine candles in the darkness on a mountain. His right hand gripped a staff with a peculiar triangle shaped object on top. Before him sat a five year old girl in a ragged hemp dress. Her eyes were wide like a fawn and she was too afraid to cry. He scratched her hair with long talon-like fingernails then stroked one side of his long mustache.

"Hear me! Hungry god of the mountain! I bring you an offering! I will feed you this virgin child. Come forth! Come forth! Come forth!"

The mountain shook and the wind screamed. A ghostly image floated out of the rocks and grew into a shape that was almost human.

"What? A human dares summon me? Maybe I will eat you both!" The mountain god's voice was loud and deep, like rock scraping against rock.

"I bring you a virgin child," the wizard said, bravely. He knew that he faced not a god, but an old demon that was once worshipped like a god. "And I promise to bring you another. One for every year."

"Really?" the mountain god replied. "I once was fed virgin children long ago, but the town's people have turned their back on me. They give animal and plant sacrifices to gentler gods. They have forgotten me. They no longer fear me."

"They will again. My name is Da. I am a wizard from Zhao. I have come to Chu to find a ruler to serve. None will have me, because I practice the dark arts. So now I wish to use my powers to make my own nation out of Chu, beginning with this city called Cai."

"Why should I care?"

"Help me and you shall be the only god worshipped in my nation."

"I like your ideas," the mountain god said. "We will do this. Now I will feed."

Da laid the staff down and drew a stone knife. He grabbed the child, whose hands and feet were bound. He cut the girl's throat with the stone blade. The blood poured down to the rocks.

"Yes! Blood! Blood! Yes!" the mountain demon screamed out and his image came forward and lapped up the blood like a starved cat.

####

One-eyed Nu gulped down her mug of wine and dropped the empty mug on the short legged table. She belched.

"You could try being a lady," Lady Jin said from where she sat by the table.

"Sorry, mistress," Nu said. "I was thirsty."

"Well --" Lady Jin noticed her friend, Ya, talking to a group of men. She felt that there might be a problem. They were dressed like Chu soldiers with the symbol of the local city's baron on the jackets of their uniform. One was an older man dressed like an officer and the other was a boy dressed in clean servant clothes who stood beside him, and surrounding them in a half-circle were five spearmen.

Lady Jin got up and unhooked her sheathed sword from her dress's belt. This way she could quickly yank the sheath off with her left hand while her right hand held the hilt. She walked over to Ya's left side.

"What's wrong, Ya?"

Lady Jin noticed that the spearmen lifted their weapons slightly to be ready to fight her. But the widow Ya was on old friend of hers who had invited them into her home; Lady Jin would not repay that hospitality by allowing some bandits to rob the place, even if they were 'the law' in Cai.

"They want to talk to you," Ya said, angrily. "But I don't trust them."

"Honorable Lady Jin. We need your help to protect the late Baron Cai Su's son, Cai Kuan." The officer patted the boy's shoulder.

"Greetings, Lady Jin, I am Baron Cai Kuan. Son of Cai Su. This is one of my father's loyal officers, General Zheng."

Lady Jin was pleased to be treated with respect. Avoiding a fight was even better than winning. "Greetings to you, honorable Baron Cai Kuan, and to you honorable General Zheng," Lady Jin bowed. "Come in and sit with me and my friend."

Lady Jin led Cai Kuan and General Zheng to the table where Nu waited. She introduced them to her student, One-eyed Nu. Lady Jin, Baron Cai and General Zheng sat down while four of the soldiers stood behind Cai Kuan and General Zheng. The fifth soldier stayed at the door. Lady Jin told Ya to bring them some wine.

"Were you one of the seven warriors that protected this town and my father before I was born?" the young baron asked.

"Yes," Lady Jin, said. Her thoughts drifted for a second, filled with memories of dead friends and blood. "I was as young back then as my student is now."

"We need your help again, Lady Jin," Cai Kuan said as a mug of wine was set before him by Ya's daughter. "My father is dead. We believe that he has been murdered by a powerful wizard named Da. Uh. Mmmm. Please help us!"

Lady Jin looked at the boy as he smiled at Ya's daughter as the girl gave him a mug of wine.

He looked to be in his early teens. He tried to hide it from his men, but she could see his fear. He slowly sipped his wine.

Zheng was much better at hiding his emotions. He looked to be in his fifties. He had a scar that went from his left ear to his jawline. He had the look of an experienced cavalry officer and he gulped his wine down like an old sergeant would.

"We'll help you," Lady Jin said. "Now tell me more of this wizard Da."

####

Da stood in a locked room with two seventeen year old boys. The old wizard stood with his knees slightly bent and his eyes closed. His hands moved around, shaping and containing a glowing ball of qi.

It is said that originally there were only three types of qi; Heaven qi, Earth qi and living qi. It was in mountains, rivers, gods, demons, humans and the five domestic animals. All magic comes from qi. Some humans could call on its power to make their body stronger, to move objects, to control the weather, to burn an enemy's body and to steal an enemy's qi. But to control another's mind was a great power. This is what he had learned from the old demon of the mountain.

Da slid one foot forward and pushed the qi into one of the boys. He pulled a knife out of his robe and held it out to the boy.

"Take it, Wei," Da commanded. "Kill your brother. Obey me! Obey me!"

Wei grabbed the knife without hesitation and stabbed his brother in the heart a dozen times.

"Stop!"

Wei let his knife hand fall to his side. His brother slumped to the floor at his feet.

Da laughed. "I now have the power that will cause all kings to fall before me."

A single tear fell from Wei's eye, but no more.

####

Lady Jin pulled out some Chu coins from the bag of coins that Cai Kuan had given her. She gave them to Ya.

"Use this to take care of our horses and gear while we're gone," Lady Jin said.

"You're sure that you want to work for them?" Ya said and tossed the coins in her hand.

"We need the money," Lady Jin said.

"You could find other work," Ya said. "They say that the old wizard is powerful and is hunting what's left of the Cai family. Many people have either joined the wizard's side or fled."

"I'd like to see how powerful this wizard is," Lady Jin said. "Sometimes rumors are far from the truth."

Lady Jin joined up with Nu, Cai Kuan and his men outside Ya's house. Cai Kuan and his men escorted the women through the streets of Cai. Many of the people that they passed on the streets looked and turned away.

To hide their shame or their anger? Lady Jin wondered.

The party arrived at the Cai mansion.

A fine place for a rich family, Lady Jin thought. Then her eyes narrowed. Fine except for the dead bodies and the signs of fire! She turned, her gaze sweeping over her surroundings. If they are under siege then where are the attackers? Were they driven off?

A flash of movement alerted her. "Chu soldiers, beware! Here they come!

Lady Jin drew her sword as eleven men charged with short spears and small rectangular shields. As they approached, she noted that each wore an emblem that looked like a dark triangle -- a mountain? -- with two yellow eyes.

She knocked a spear aside, sidestepped to her left and finished with a thrust into the spearman's ribs. She noticed the others were fighting on against the other attackers, as a second spearman came at her.

General Zheng called out a command for the doors of the wall to open. No one answered. The boy baron stayed beside the general with a sword in a shaking hand.

A guard looked over the wall for a second and opened the door. More Cai soldiers came out of the gates, so that the boy baron, general, Lady Jin and Nu could get inside.

Inside an old servant appeared and kowtowed before Cai Kuan.

"Welcome home, Baron Cai Kuan," the old servant said. "Your mother, the baron dowager, wishes to see you."

"Good," Cai Kuan said. "I was able to find the swordswomen that we sought. We will come to my mother immediately."

Lady Jin could hear the fighting going on outside and ached to get back to the fight. She could tell that Nu felt the same.

"Put your sword away and calm yourself, Nu," Lady Jin said as she sheathed her own. "You shouldn't waste your energy. There'll be more fights to come."

"Yes, mistress," Nu said, sheepishly.

They entered a courtyard with white flowers surrounding the edges and saw a building with a large square platform and several servants standing below it. Next appeared nine guards and a number of local government officials and then everyone kowtowed as the baron's mother entered the room, except for Cai Kuan, who simply bowed. He then entered the building and sat beside her on the platform.

"Come forward, General Zheng Ba, Lady Jin and One-eyed Nu," the baron's mother said with a wave.

The three of them came forward and kowtowed before the steps. They walked up to the room in front of them. General Zheng walked over the platform where the boy baron sat with his mother. General Zheng sat down beside it on a cushion placed there by a servant.

Lady Jin was showed to a cushion before the platform by the old servant. She sat and Nu sat beside her on the floor.

"Bring our guests drinks," the dowager baroness said.

Lady Jin and One-eyed Nu were given cups of wine. These weren't made of cheap wood like the ones at Ya's home. The cups were made of a fine crafted bronze with artwork showing warriors battling a giant. They thanked their hosts.

"Hao, come forward," Cai Kuan said.

A man with horrible scars crisscrossing his face appeared from a tree that he was sitting behind. He crawled and kowtowed like a whipped dog. Lady Jin noticed that one of his arms was misshapen. Possibly broken once and healed poorly, Lady Jin thought.

"Now what have you learned of the wizard's whereabouts, my ugly old friend?" Cai Kuan said, raising his cup to drink.

"He has made camp in the eastern side of the city, baron," Hao smiled. He had a mouth full of rotted and missing teeth. "He controls that area quite firmly. More so than the rest of the city. He lives in old Ling Zuo's mansion."

"Good! You will show these swordswomen where it is," Cai Kuan said. He turned to Lady Jin and One-eyed Nu. "Old Ling was my great uncle. Hao will show you how to get there. He knows secret passages there that only my great uncle and those closest to him knew."

"But how --?"

Cai Kuan laughed. "Hao was one of my great uncle's servants -- and lovers."

Hao nodded his head swiftly and stared at Lady Jin.

She met his gaze without flinching.

He turned away.

"To show our appreciation," the dowager baroness said, "I have had a bathtub prepared for you, Lady Jin, and your pupil, in the bathhouse. Please enjoy it before you leave."

Lady Jin kowtowed. "Thank you, dowager baroness and you, Baron Cai, for your kind hospitality. It is more than we deserve."

A servant girl led Lady Jin and Nu outside to the bathhouse. Inside a middle aged woman was putting water into a large wooden bathtub. Lady Jin and Nu laid their swords and knives on the floor. The girl undressed Lady Jin and Nu and picked up a bowl of mashed soap beans. She scrubbed them both and poured water over them.

"The water is ready, mistresses," the old woman said.

Lady Jin put a bare foot into the water and gritted her teeth. She quickly plunged the rest of her naked body into the hot water and sat down in the tub. Nu soon joined her. Lady Jin smiled as her apprentice raised up and looked as if she wanted to jump out.

"The sooner you sit down, Nu --" Lady Jin smacked the sword girl's bare butt. "-- The sooner you'll get used to the heat."

"Okay, mistress," Nu winced as she sunk back down on her butt. "Why do the people in the south have to bathe so much?"

"The people in the eastern nations also love to bathe," Lady Jin said. "Get used to it."

"Is there anything that either of you need, mistresses?" the old woman servant asked them.

"No," Lady Jin said.

"This girl will be waiting outside to dry you off when you are finished," the woman servant said. "Just yell for her, mistresses. We call her Little Rat."

"Thank you," Lady Jin said and the servants left them alone.

"What do you think of Hao?" Lady Jin inquired.

"Ugly," Nu said.

"Don't judge someone by their appearance," Lady Jin said. "A harmless appearance can be a deadly disguise for an assassin. Remember that harmless looking boy in Jing that nearly killed you?"

"Uh...yes, mistress." Nu's face cringed and she touched the recent scar on her neck.

Lady Jin could tell that the sixteen year old girl was remembering the knife cut that had nearly severed her jugular vein.

How many scars has that girl gotten since she became my student? Lady Jin pondered. Oh my goddess. She was thirteen when we met. Trained a little by her father, but inexperienced. I remember finding her crying over her parent's corpses that had been killed by bandits. Has it been that long? Maybe I should have just left her there. She might have been happy as a wife and mother among simple farmers.

"Hao is a warrior," Lady Jin said. She rolled her left shoulder. There was an ache there. "They probably sent him to kill us."

"Why would they want us dead?" Nu asked. She massaged her teacher's shoulder and Lady Jin enjoyed the sensation for several minutes.

"They might worry that we'll turn on them, if the wizard offers a higher price." Lady Jin cupped some water in her hands and tossed it into Nu's face.

Nu squealed, for a moment a young girl rather than a seasoned fighter.

"They might also not want to pay us anymore than have," Lady Jin continued. "Hao might stab us in the back and take the money we were given."

"Really?"

"It happens, Nu." Lady Jin stood up. Water poured off her tight athletic body with its numerous scars. "Little Rat! Come here!"

The servant girl came in and dried the two warriors off. The servant dressed Lady Jin in her green silk dress and then put the yellow hemp dress on Nu. They grabbed their weapons and left the servant girl in the bathhouse.

Lady Jin and Nu went to find the young baron and his mother. The baron was now dressed in the long flowing robes of his station rather the traveling disguise that he had worn earlier. They said their polite goodbyes to their benefactors and asked their permission to leave with Hao to the wizard's mansion.

"Tomorrow morning General Zheng will lead my soldiers against the wizard's troops," Baron Cai Kuan said and waved his blue fan at them. "This will leave the wizard's home poorly defended and will give you your chance to kill him."

Hao appeared and the three walked out of Baron Cai Kuan's mansion. They journeyed through the city. Cai Kuan's mansion was in the southwest of the city and the wizard was somewhere in the east.

The city was made like most of them in China with walls around each home, government building, temple, brothel or merchant building. Then there were one or two walls around the whole city with guard towers to watch for invaders.

Some streetwalkers waved at Hao and called him by name as they passed them.

"I can show you a good time, sweetheart," one of the girls called out to Nu. "Better than that old ghoul."

Nu giggled.

As the three of them got into the eastern section Lady Jin noticed soldiers here and there. What struck her was that they had a picture of a mountain with yellow eyes above it on the front of their uniforms, just like the spearmen that had attacked them earlier. She asked Hao about it.

"It's the symbol for the wizard's god," Hao said, scratching his butt. "Some sort of mountain god that he sacrifices to."

"Does he sacrifice people?" Nu scratched her own butt.

Lady Jin sighed. Even if he did not intend to betray them, Hao set a poor example for Nu, who hardly needed anyone to teach her to behave like a peasant.

"Yes," Hao said. "But strangely none of the people in the eastern part of the city care. Its not that they are too afraid of him, but they just don't care."

"Now isn't that odd," Lady Jin said. "An enchantment over his area of the city, perhaps."

"I guess," Hao replied.

"Well, if it's only over this area, then he isn't all that powerful, mistress," Nu said. "Right?"

"True," Lady Jin said.

Eventually Hao got them to the mansion where the wizard was staying. Lady Jin looked the place over and found it to be smaller than the young baron's mansion.

"Now how are you going to get us in?" Lady Jin said.

"I have some clothes at a friends place for you," Hao said. "You'll need to hide those weapons if you want to get in. But the plan is that we start tomorrow."

"I know that," Lady Jin said. "Shouldn't we scout a little today?"

"No point," Hao said. "I have already seen enough to know the place like the back of my hand."

Lady Jin agreed and they went to a hut with walls made of grass and broken wood -- a big contrast to the larger wall of the wizard's home. Outside of the hut they found a woman with a crippled leg who was grinding millet with a mortar and pestle. She looked up and stopped when she recognized Hao.

"Hao. You're still alive," she said. "I thought some girl's husband or father would have killed or castrated you by now."

"They try, Xiu," Hao belly laughed. "But I always get away."

Xiu chuckled and shook her head. "Is one of these the swordswoman that you said the young baron was looking for to kill the wizard?"

"Yes," Hao said. "Do you have the clothes?"

"Yes," Xiu said. She reached for her cane and held up her hand. Hao gripped her hand and pulled her up. "Thank you. Come on in."

Xiu led them into the hut. She showed Lady Jin and Nu where the clothes were. Hao walked up to Xiu and brushed her dirty hair back out of her eyes. They kissed and kept Lady Jin and Nu up all night making love.

The next morning as Lady Jin and Nu got dressed into the old clothes Hao said his goodbyes to Xiu.

"I'm sorry, Xiu," Hao said and stepped back. "I've got a job to do, so we'll have to wait till another day."

"Oh you," Xiu said with her arms akimbo. "That's what you always say."

Hao led them outside, to the gate of the wizard's mansion and got them through it. He led them towards some trees and bushes, so they wouldn't be seen. They moved quietly to the mansion. Lady Jin was impressed by how silent Hao's movements could be. He had never been 'just' someone's love toy.

"Come this way," Hao said "There's a secret entrance to the mansion over here. You can take the rags off in a second."

Hao reached for a handle that Lady Jin hadn't noticed. He twisted and pulled. A small door opened to reveal a tunnel.

"You can throw off those rags," Hao said. "Let's go."

Hao crawled ahead of them. They turned left and continued on for twenty minutes. The tunnel was dusty and full of cobwebs that caused Lady Jin to cough. Hao stopped and opened a small door above them. They climbed out. Lady Jin coughed as she followed him out and saw the guards that waited for them.

"Oh shit!" Nu said.

Lady Jin looked around, but didn't draw her sword.

The reason was that the four guards had spears aimed at them and another one had a crossbow aimed at them.

The guards took their weapons and bound their arms behind their backs. The guards drove them, with a spear poke or a boot shove to where the wizard sat on his throne.

The throne was made of human bones and the wizard's hands rested on a pair of human skulls. The skull of a tiger was attached to the bony back and sat above his head. The wizard smiled.

Standing beside the throne was a boy in his late teens with the muscular arms of a wrestler. In his hands was a bronze battle axe.

On the other side of the throne stood a woman with a deep scar that went across her nose to her left ear. She also had a blue tattoo on her forehead and a wand in her hand with metal studs at one end.

Lady Jin recognized the woman as the sorceress Blue Dead. The scar was a souvenir of their first meeting five years ago, when Lady Jin had proved that her blade was more than a match for Blue Dead's magic.

"So the assassins that the boy baron hired weren't too easy to catch," Da, the wizard, laughed. "I must tell him what a fool he was to hire women as I eat his balls in front of him."

"I know her, master," Blue Dead said and touched her scar. "That's Lady Jin. She gave me this. Please let me kill her for you."

"Hush."

"Please...please...I --"

"Shut up! I'll decide what to do with her. Not you!"

The wizard tapped the right skull with his long fingernails.

Nu tried to pull away from the guard that was holding onto her. The guard raised his arm and struck her neck with his forearm. She went down to one knee, but quickly recovered. She dropped her shoulder to the floor for leverage and cupped one foot behind his ankle, then she kicked at his shin. The surprised guard flung his arms around uselessly as fell. Nu hoped up and drove her heel into his solar plexus, cracking the sternum and driving it into his heart. Blood dripped out of his lips as he died.

"Damn it, Nu," Lady Jin snapped. "I was trying to find out what's going on here."

Lady Jin kicked back at the side of the knee of the crossbow armed guard. Crack! The guard screamed as he went down and she stomped on his throat. She held her bound hands down as far as they could go and hoped up. As her feet were in mid air she swung her bound hands underneath them to the front of her body. She landed and blocked another guard's spear thrust with the rope. She slipped behind the guard and pulled the rope against his throat to stun him. She gripped his head and twisted it to kill him.

She unsheathed his knife and freed herself, then freed Nu, who still had her hands behind her back.

"Here's your swords," Hao shouted.

The swords clattered on the floor by Nu. Lady Jin snatched up her sword and Nu grabbed her own sword.

"I see that you had no problem freeing yourself," Lady Jin said and plunged her blade into another guard's ribs.

"True," Hao said. "Have you noticed that the old wizard has left with the axe boy and your friend Blue Dead?"

"Damn it!"

"Follow me," Hao said. "I know another place to sneak out of here."

The three of them ran out of the throne room and raced down the hall, until Hao stopped at a statue of a rhinoceros. Lady Jin followed him as he crawled underneath it. She raised an eyebrow when she noticed the statue had genitals. Hao smiled back at them and reached between the statue's rear legs, and gripped its penis. He pulled and twisted, and a door creaked open behind the statue.

"That's how you do it," Hao whispered, winking.

"Just get going," Lady Jin snapped.

"Creep," Nu whispered behind her teacher.

Lady Jin crawled behind Hao through the dirty and dusty tunnel. Someone used to the luxury of living in a well-lighted modern city would have gotten lost, but she and her student weren't night blind. They had better night vision than an ancient city person from all of their travels through woods, caves and other dark places. Lady Jin suspected that Hao's eyes were equally keen.

Even still Lady Jin was happy to see the sun light shinning in the tunnel when Hao opened the door leading to the outside. Once outside she did a cat stretch and stood up, then shook her aching knees.

"Now what do we do?" Nu asked.

"Are there any temples around here?" Lady Jin asked Hao. "Other than the temples to the wizard's demon."

"Yes," Hao scratched his hair. "Master Ling used to have a temple of the gods not too far from here, but that stinking wizard burned it down and broke the statues."

"Take me to it," Lady Jin said.

Hao agreed and took them back to the bushes and trees. It wasn't long before they found a burnt down building with the remains of a little road that led from the mansion to it.

Hao and Nu waited outside the ruins as Lady Jin walked into it to find what she sought. She felt a heavy heart as she went through the rubble where busted offering bowls, faded flowers and rotted food was scattered on the floor. It still had a strong burnt smell to it.

Amazing, Lady Jin thought. No animal has dared to come here and eat the food that was meant for the gods. They know better.

Lady Jin found a statue that had been destroyed beyond recognition. Then another with its head beside its broken snake body. She had seen its type before and recognized it as that of Xi Wang Mu -- Queen Mother of the West -- a goddess that Lady Jin had sent prayers to once or twice.

Lady Jin picked up a bronze ritual vessel and carried it over to the statue. She knelt before the statue. She drew her sword then set her bare weapon between her and the vessel in front of the broken goddess. She kowtowed five times.

"Oh, great goddess Xi Wang Mu! Hear my pleas of justice. An evil wizard has conquered half of this city and demands that people worship the demon lord that lives on a nearby mountain. He has destroyed this holy place and broken your very temple. Give me the strength to stop him. His power is great and he spits on the gods. I give you my blood oath and my promise to avenge you."

Lady Jin picked up her sword and sliced her left forearm with it. Her own blood poured into the ritual vessel. She looked down at the head's eyes and waited. A light passed from the cold eyes of the head to Lady Jin's living eyes. Lady Jin kowtowed.

"Thank you, Xi Wang Mu, for your gift."

Lady Jin stood and walked out of the ruins with her sword in her hands. There wasn't even a scar where she had cut her forearm.

"Now let's find this Da," Lady Jin said and sheathed her sword. "I want to go right back inside, he'll expect us to run."

"They'll still be guards there for he has a lot of them," Hao said.

"Good! Let's kill them all," Lady Jin said.

"Big talk," Hao shrugged. "But I'm not going."

"What?" Nu said.

"I was told to take you here and not to join in the fighting." Hao said.

"You coward!" Nu cursed.

"No," Hao said. "Just following my baron's orders. I observe and report back."

"No wonder the wizard is wining," Nu said. "You fu--"

"Shut up, Nu," Lady Jin said.

"Yes, mistress," Nu pouted and turned away from Hao.

"Maybe we'll meet again someday," Hao said and bowed to Lady Jin.

"Maybe we will at that," Lady Jin returned the bow.

Hao snuck off, leaving Lady Jin alone with her student.

"--cking coward." Nu said.

"It doesn't matter, Nu," Lady Jin said. "We're doing this on our own. Like we were paid to do."

Lady Jin led the way back into the tunnel and they came out of it underneath the rhinoceros. Lady Jin stopped between the forelegs and looked back at Nu.

"Why don't you pull and twist it," Lady Jin whispered with a grin. "It might shut the door behind you."

"But --" Nu looked up at the penis.

"Seriously, we might want a quick exit later," Lady Jin whispered. "If they knew where it is they'll stop us."

"Oh...all right, mistress," Nu grumbled and clutched the statue's penis in her hands. She pulled, twisted, pushed and twisted. The door shut. Nu sighed at looked back at her teacher.

"Let's go," Lady Jin whispered.

Lady Jin led the way through the dark parts of the building, so they couldn't be seen. Lady Jin, with knife in hand, snuck up behind a guard. She covered his mouth and cut deep into his throat. She slowly lowered the body, so as not to make a sound. Within the darkness they killed the two guards at the doors to the wizard's throne room, but inside they found no one. Lady Jin found a silk cloth with characters written on it that smelled recently written.

"What does it say, mistress?"

"'Meet us outside in the courtyard'," Lady Jin said.

"What should we do?" Nu said. "It might be a trap!"

"Possibly."

Lady Jin stood silently in thought.

She made a decision.

"We'll go outside through the statue's secret door again. Then we can come into the courtyard from the opposite direction, just in case they wanted to ambush us."

Lady Jin didn't grin this time when Nu opened the door with the statue's penis. She was too focused on what was to come. Once they were outside they dashed to the entrance to the courtyard.

"Stay calm," Lady Jin said to her student.

Lady Jin walked calmly through the entrance with sword in hand. The wizard waited to greet them. The only ones that were with him was Blue Dead and the teenage boy with the battle axe.

"I'm glad that you accepted my invitation," Da the wizard said.

"It's very kind of you to invite us," Lady Jin said.

"Are you ready to die, Lady Jin?"

"A warrior is always read to die, old wizard," Lady Jin replied.

"Are you ready to die, girl?"

"Yes, old wizard," Nu said.

"I'm not ready to die," Da said. "I have a plan to live for centuries. No matter what you mortals do, you will not stop me."

Da gestured to the boy and he stepped up with his battle axe. He swung a vertical cut at Nu, forcing her to step back.

She tried to stab at his throat, but he quickly beat her blade aside. The impact from the heavy axe blade jarred her hand and almost made her drop her sword. He swung his axe at her again and again.

Nu saw that she had to be careful, for his axe could easily break her sword. She tried stepping to the side and slashing at his legs. He moved out of the way and slammed the butt of his axe into her back. She fell, but rolled out of the way to avoid his downward cut. His axe blade sunk into the ground, but she wasn't quick enough to get up to take advantage of it.

Nu's back burned from the blow that he had given her. She then cut across his ribs and scratched his cheek with her sword-tip. Both fighters were breathing hard and now moved slower. Neither would be able to take a break, until the other was dead. Nu knew that she needed to endure; she hoped that he would leave a fatal opening before she did.

Nu watched. She found the mark and attacked with her blade. It went into his throat and upwards towards his brain. A smile appeared on his lips before he fell to the ground. Nu stepped her foot on his head for leverage and pulled her blade free. Nu wiped sweat out of her eyes. Her hair was drenched and sweat had poured down her arms, thus darkening the sides of her clothes. There was also blood, but most of it wasn't hers.

"He lost," Da said. "That's too bad. I suppose he is happy to be with his brother."

"I'll kill her," Blue Dead said.

"No." The wizard waved his staff. "Kill Lady Jin."

"Thank you, master."

Blue Dead picked up her heavy wand. Lady Jin knew that it was both a magical tool and a formidable weapon. She swung at Lady Jin wildly like a fool that Lady Jin knew she wasn't. The swordswoman moved her blade around the wand like a twenty-first century master surgeon. The sorceress recognized what Lady Jin was doing and tried to stop her, but she didn't see the swordswoman's blade drop down and into Blue Dead's foot. She staggered back and Lady Jin's blade flashed up and pierced the sorceress's heart.

"Mali-shah Tzeltah!" Da the old wizard shouted and qi burst out of the end of his staff. Da's qi slammed into Lady Jin's chest and she was knocked back several feet.

"Mistress! No!" Nu shouted and ran to her teacher. Nu smelled burnt flesh and smoke floated around the hole that the wizard had made. Lady Jin body felt warm, but Nu realized that it would soon grow cold. She was dead. "No!" Nu turned to blindly charge the wizard, but Lady Jin's hand grabbed Nu's wrist.

"Don't." Lady Jin said.

Nu stared in disbelief. Her teacher's eye's were like two large jade stones. Lady Jin stood up and breathed, and smelled like jasmine. Nu backed away and Lady Jin looked at the old wizard. The swordswoman continued to breathe and Da's eyes widened as he recognized the qi that he had hit her with being reconstituted into a green ball of qi between her cupped hands.

Da tried to block the ball of qi as it was thrown at him, but it burned through his defenses and destroyed his staff. Lady Jin pulled out her knife and walked up the steps to where the wizard stood. He called up more of his magic and begged the demon for help, but he received no answer. Lady Jin plunged the blade in his heart and then grabbed the battle axe to behead him. Nu followed her teacher as she carried her grisly prize by the hair back to the old temple. Lady Jin dropped the head by the broken statue of Xi Wang Mu. The earth shook and wind blew down a tree, and Lady Jin fell to the ground. Nu dashed to Lady Jin's side and her teacher opened her eyes. They were normal human eyes and not like jade at all. Lady Jin slowly sat up.

"Well, I think that worked out okay, Nu," Lady Jin said.

"What?"

"I hoped that the goddess Xi Wang Mu would want revenge for what he did to her temple and worshipers," Lady Jin said. "Also I have had some dealing with her in the past."

"Dealings?"

"Let's just say she owed me," Lady Jin said. "Of course letting one of the gods take control of your body isn't without a price."

Lady Jin leaned to the side and puked up her last meal. The puke was a green, blue and orange mess that didn't look like anything that she had eaten earlier. Nu laughed.

"That's not funny," Lady Jin snapped.

"Sorry, mistress," Nu replied. "I'll go get our weapons."

When Nu returned with Lady Jin's sword and knife she found Hao standing over her teacher. He dropped a bag by her teacher and walked away.

"What did he want?" Nu asked.

"Just to pay us," Lady Jin said and sheathed her weapons.

Nu helped Lady Jin up and the two of them made the long journey back to Ya's house.

Ya was happy to see her friends alive. Lady Jin ate some food and went straight to bed, but instead of sleeping she laid with her eyes open.

Why can't I sleep? Lady Jin thought. Why? I know why. I want that power that I was given. No. I don't. I'm a swordswoman and I don't need magic. I want it. I want the power of that goddess. I never should have done it. My sword. My training. My student.

The door opened and Nu walked in carrying a steaming bowl of something.

"Your friend Ya said that this stuff might help you sleep," Nu said and brought the bowl up to her mistress' lips.

Lady Jin sniffed and smelled an ugly brew that looked black as death. "One of her weird herbal medicines?"

"Yes," Nu said.

Lady Jin swallowed it down as fast as possible and tried not to puke. She feel asleep without saying another word and she awoke four days later.

"You're awake!"

"Yes, Nu," Lady Jin said and slowly sat up. "I'm so weak."

"Ya said that you would be," Nu said. "So she had some medicine made to help you get your strength back."

"Ughh," Lady Jin grumbled. "More of her crap?"

Nu and Ya nursed Lady Jin back to heath in a couple of days with the medicine and regular exercise of sword practice and chores.

"There that's enough," Lady Jin said as she carried in the last of the wood that she and Nu had chopped. "I think that it's time for us to go."

"Really?" Nu said. "You think that you're ready."

"Yes," Lady Jin said and wiped sweat off her forehead. "Let's say our goodbyes and leave."

Ya gave them some food and water for their journey. Ya's stable boy got Lady Jin and Nu's horses ready for travel and he wished them well as they left.

Outside of the city they were about to get on their horses when they saw Hao leading a brown ox. Lady Jin handed the reins of her horse to Nu.

"What are you doing?" Lady Jin asked him.

"Same as you! Leaving this stupid city," he said. "I plan to see the world. I was hoping that we might journey together for awhile."

"Fine with me," Lady Jin said.

The End


© 2011 Gary W. Feather

Bio: Gary W. Feather resides in rural southern Illinois, where he reads and writes about spaceships, airships, samurai, Daoist philosophy, tengu, and other things that fascinate him. He holds a brown belt in Goju Kempo karate. "The Wizard of Cai" is a sequel to Gary's earlier tale, The Gory Pearl of Doom, featured in the April 2009 Aphelion. (Aphelion also published Gary's modern-swordswoman-versus-zombies tale, The Sword in Zoe's Hand, in August 2009, and two other stories in 2010.)

E-mail: Gary W. Feather

Comment on this story in the Aphelion Forum

Return to Aphelion's Index page.