Aphelion Issue 250, Volume 24
May 2020
 
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Obscured by Madness

by Gary W. Feather



China's Warring States period: 342 B.C.

Lady Jin led the way to the docks by the river in the Chu city named Ge, where dockworkers and sailors were loading and unloading cargo. She was above average height for a woman from Chu; of course, she wasn't from that southern nation. She wore the light brown trousers and loose shirt of the barbarian tribes which was unusual for either gender in Chu where few rode horses like the steppe barbarians did, most hitched them to wagons or chariots. Lady Jin was in her earlier thirties, but had the muscles of a female leopard and the scars of numerous battles and fights. Some were deep and some were harder to see.

Behind her were her student One-eyed Nu and their recent traveling companion, Hao. Nu was dressed much like Lady Jin, but with the beauty of baby fat that stays a while with a teenage girl. Like many a young person trying to find her place in the world Nu consciously and unconsciously imitated her older friend and teacher's mannerisms and clothing.

By contrast, Hao was old, ugly, and of no use in a fight. He had been tagging along since Lady Jin and Nu had left Cai, and this continued to make Lady Jin's nerves scream and bounce. Who was he and what did he really want? Lady Jin was silent on this, but her student wasn't so tactful.

"Hello, your ladyship!" shouted a deep bellowing voice ahead of Lady Jin.

Lady Jin smiled and put aside her worries as the large fat riverboat captain waved at her, after he put down the barrel that he had been carrying. He came over and hugged her, lifting her off the ground. His arms were big as the oars used to move his large boat down the Han River and his balding head was covered by a hemp rag. He smelled of man sweat and the river that he lived on. He set her back down and Lady Jin found that she couldn't help herself from giggling, just like always, around the man.

"It's good to see you again, Kaoji," Lady Jin said.

"It is a pleasure to see you as always, Lady Jin," Kaoji said and rubbed his hairy chin. "Oh, is that little Nu! My, how you have grown!"

One-eyed Nu was treated to a similar hug that included being lifted off the ground. Nu giggled even more than her teacher had and had to adjust her green eye patch once he let her down softly. He turned to Hao.

"Who is your friend, ladies?" Kaoji said.

"That is Hao," Lady Jin said and she felt the tension in the air when she did. Nu's nostrils flared as Lady Jin spoke. "He has been...traveling with us since we left Cai."

"Oh. How do you do, Hao," Kaoji said with a polite bow.

"Just fine, thank you," Hao replied with a polite bow as he picked his teeth with his finger.

"You're welcome," Kaoji said and crossed his arms. "Now what are you all up to?"

"We need a lift to Ba in old Zhedi city," Lady Jin said.

"Old Zhedi?" Kaoji said. "Where that crazy old wizard blew up the whole place. Why would you want to go there?"

"Sorry, Kaoji," Lady Jin said. "I can't tell you. Is that okay?"

"Well I guess so," Kaoji said. "If you're sure about this"-Lady Jin nodded yes-"well okay then. I can take you. Do you want me to wait for you?"

"No," Lady Jin said. "But I'll want you to return in five days from when you dropped us off and wait for us."

"Can I assume that someone or something might be chasing after you when you show up to leave?" Kaoji laughed as he spoke.

"Most likely, Kaoji," she said and patted his arm. "Will you accept the job? Same pay as last time?"

"Okay, Lady Jin," Kaoji nodded. "We'll be leaving at sun up, so be ready to go or get left behind."

"Good. Thank you, Kaoji," Lady Jin said.

She gave Kaoji the first part of the money for the ride and the rest he would get later after their job was over.

Kaoji tossed the coins to make a sound and examined one closely to see if what was real, with his fingers and tongue. One couldn't always trust friends and Lady Jin wasn't offended for she understood the reason of it.

The three of them walked away from the riverboat captain to where they had hobbled their horses and Hao's ox before Hao asked, "Can we trust him? Will he keep quiet about where we are going?"

"Probably," Lady Jin said. More than I trust you.

"I trust him more than I trust a bastard like you, Hao," Nu said.

"Oh," Hao whined and pretended to wipe tears from his eyes. "Why do you hate me so? I have done nothing to you."

Nu's hand edged toward her sword's pommel Lady Jin grabbed the girl's hand and she could feel the beating of the girl's pulse as she squeezed it. He's baiting you and you're falling for it, girl! Lady Jin thought. She felt Nu relax and she let go of the girl's hand.

"Come on, Nu," Lady Jin ordered. "We'll sell the horses and buy new ones when we return."

"Maybe I can get something for my ox, too," Hao said and nodded as if talking to himself.

Maybe he is talking to himself, Lady Jin thought. Or maybe to someone else. That old wizard in Cai had made a deal with some mountain demon and it had given him the power to control people's minds. Could that be what he is doing talking to the demon? Maybe I'm getting paranoid.

####

The three of them walked in the light of the moon to the dock with the sun just beginning to make its appearance known to the world. It is said that once ten suns lived in the sky and there never was darkness, until the great archer god Yi killed nine of them and left only one to brighten the world. Of course there were other stories that Lady Jin had heard one about an ancient fox that had stolen jewels from the gods and as punishment he was turned into the sun.

Lady Jin walked onto the large boat and gave Kaoji's wife Ling a hug and so did Nu. Ling was plump and almost as strong as her man, with the smell of fishes and other river animals that she cut and cooked to feed everyone. The couple had three sons; thirteen, ten and three years old. They helped the best they could with their father's crew of five men. Hao was introduced around to everyone, but failed with his attempts at friendliness. The boat trip down the river was uneventful with no one injured or killed in the journey. Soon they came to an old dock that was once used by riverboats to buy and sale to the old city of Zhedi. A new city with the same name was later built by the survivors of the dead city, but even they had nothing to do with the ruins. It was said that the dead still controlled it or some things that the crazy wizard had left behind.

Lady Jin tied her shoulder-length black hair behind her with a strip of red silk. She picked up her bag that held her bow, quiver and supplies with a blanket tied to it. She put it on her back and waved at Kaoji and the others as they went away along the river. Nu was putting her bag and blanket on her back for the journey and Hao was doing something similar. She watched as her teenaged student put her hair up in a similar ponytail with a cloth made of hemp.

Lady Jin looked at the ruins of the city and felt the hair on the back of her neck stand up. She felt a premonition of doom as they walked through the dead city. There was a strange smell in the air that hinted of burnt flesh, wood and something indescribable. A few of the buildings had been burnt down, many had been strangely melted down by a terrible heat, while others had fallen apart in rubble, but few were still in pristine condition. These made the place seem more eerie for a normal fire wouldn't have done this nor was it the products of war. It was magic of the dark kind.

Once again Lady Jin felt the hair on the back her neck stand up. It was an old warning that she had learned to listen to, even though she wasn't going to quit she was going to keep her senses open. Eyes, ears, nose and whatever else that had kept her alive all these years. She leaped and rolled to her left as a large block of stone landed where she had stood.

Lady Jin drew her sword where she crouched by a half-melted building, soon Nu squatted beside her.

"Where did that come from?" Nu asked and looked about.

"I don't know," Lady Jin said. "Possibly that guard tower, but that would be quite a throw."

"Magic?"

Lady Jin looked behind her for the owner of the voice as did Nu. It was Hao. Why didn't I hear him? I should have heard him sneaking around like that. I must never forget how stealthy he can be, for that makes him dangerous.

"Could be magic," Lady Jin said.

"This place makes me want to crawl away and never come back..." Nu said with a shiver.

"...Almost as if someone or some thing is pushing you away," Lady Jin said. "Is that what you mean, Nu?"

"Right!" Nu said. "How...are you feeling the same?"

"Yes," Lady Jin said.

"Me too," Hao said.

"Look," Lady Jin said.

Two large shapes crawled down the guard tower they were larger than the biggest man, and covered in yellow fur. They ran towards the three humans on their rear feet and the knuckles of their long arms. They let out an inhuman roar and the foul odor of their mouths reached Lady Jin's nose quicker than the roar reached her ears.

"Wild men!" Nu shouted.

Wild men was the old name given to the large apes that lived in the forests of eastern Asia that were known to hunt the giant panda and even could threaten the great tiger. Sometimes they attacked humans, though it was rare.

The wild men stood over them on their hind feet and made a display of beating their chests and roaring. After that one of them reached for Lady Jin. She dodged away and slashed at a muscled arm with her straight sword's tip. The wild man bared his ape fangs. She knew the creatures only used the most simple of tools and weapons, like a rock or a stick. They were still dangerous for their size and their intelligence was much superior to that of a tiger.

Lady Jin shouted at it and backed away as it came down on its knuckles. The wild men used their knuckles for their front feet like a four legged animal did for their kind didn't walk or run on their legs very well. The creature picked up a stone as big as her head with one hand and tossed it at her. She easily dodged the attack and thought of what to do next. She slashed at its groin and legs to keep it away from her and barely escaped some feces that it threw at her, though later she would learn that a bit splashed her leg.

The creature roared about his failure and angrily pushed against a wall to bring it down, and picked up a large piece of it with both hands. It raised the large rubble over its head to throw and seeing her chance, Lady Jin leaped forward in that instance. She aimed for the heart not by going straight in, but by stabbing it through the armpit as she dashed by. The blade went in and punctured the large heart of the beast, though she had to stretch up to do it. It worked, but she lost her sword in the creature's armpit.

The creature still wasn't dead, but it was down. Lady Jin watched it and it watched her as she drew her knife, though she would rather have her sword, but an experience warrior knew that a dying animal could be extremely dangerous. Its eyes dropped and then opened again. With its last strength it reached toward her, she dodged it and shoved her knife into its neck, again and again, until she realized it was dead.

After getting her breath back, Lady Jin looked up from the great animal that she had killed to where Nu and Hao were. The other wild man was also dead. She got up and wiped the sweat and blood from her face with her sleeve, then pulled her sword free from the wild man's armpit. She pulled a rag out of a pocket to wipe her sword clean.

"You two okay?" Lady Jin said as she walked over to them.

"Yes," Hao said.

"Yes," Nu said. "I still think someone wants us out of here."

"This wasn't a chance encounter," Lady Jin said. "Someone sent them after us."

"Do you think that sorcerer that they talk about is still here and alive?" Hao asked and wiped his sword's curved blade on his trouser leg.

"Where should we go now?" Nu asked. Like her teacher she had used a rag to clean her straight sword's blade.

Hao pulled out his map that he had of old Zhedi before it was destroyed. He held it out for the others to see.

"According to this," Lady Jin pointed and she could smell animal's blood and odor on her hand. "We should be getting closer to the old sorcerer's mansion, if it still exists that is."

"Mmmmhuh..." Hao said. "Not too far...just down that way, I guess."

The three companions walked cautiously down the street and turned left at the guard tower, but no more wild men came out of it. As they continued their journey they found more and more buildings that were undamaged by the disaster that had befallen Zhede. The strangeness of that disaster and its scent made the three even more nervous as they walked with their swords out and ready for anything.

"This is it," Hao said.

"There's no sign," Nu said. "But I think that's it."

Lady Jin didn't say anything as the stared at the glowing building surrounded by a wall of stone. Most walls in China were made of dirt that was pounded within wooden frames over and over for long time until it was hard and able to withstand an assault. This looked to be all stone, but the yellowish-red glow around it made it look peculiar. Were they really seeing stone?

It was getting hard to see anything other than the glowing building for the sun nearly gone, so they sat and ate a meal of dried fruit and bread that they had brought along in their bags.

"Impressive," Hao said. "I've heard that they make walls of stone far to the west."

"The west?" Nu said. "There are only nomadic horse riders out beyond Ba, Shu and Qin."

"No, Nu," Hao said. "Beyond the steppe nomads are city dwellers just like us. Well they are different, but they have a written language and arts of their own.

"What?" Nu said, unbelieving.

"Have you been there?" Lady Jin asked.

"Not in my material form," Hao said.

Lady Jin was surprised by what she had heard, though she didn't show it or say anything more about it. Still, she wouldn't forget it. Does Hao realize what he just said?

Without saying anything else, Hao lay down and fell asleep.

Lady Jin shook her head in disgust and looked at the glowing building, she caught the smell of sulfur in the air. Is it coming from the building? She told Nu to take the first watch and went to sleep. Later Lady Jin was awakened by Nu for her time at watch, which was later followed by Hao's turn at watch.

The next morning they ate and watched the building that glowed.

"Now how do we get in?" Lady Jin said after a swallow of water.

"I think that I might know how to," Hao said and pulled out a green wand.

Of course you do, Lady Jin thought.

Hao stepped away from them and waved his wand around in a series of geometric patterns in the air. He spoke in a language that Lady Jin had never heard of.

At first Lady Jin could saw nothing, until a green circle appeared as he drew it, as if he had been writing on a bamboo stick or cloth with a brush. Other shapes appeared around Hao; ovals, triangles and rectangles, and they floated in the air like smoke. The geometric shapes floated away from Hao to the glowing building they surrounded it and circled it. They circled faster and faster, and soon they were a blur. A loud noise like thunder exploded and the light around the building became as bright as the sun.

Lady Jin and Nu dropped to the ground and covered their eyes and ears, but Hao just stood there. The sound and lights vanished. As it exploded the scent of sulfur hovered over everything and then vanished as if only an illusion. Lady Jin stood and Nu followed her example. The building was no longer glowing.

"Now we can go in," Hao said. He smiled showing his rotten and missing teeth, and wiped his nose.

"Well go ahead," Nu said. "We'll follow you."

"Of course," Hao calmly said.

Hao casually walked up to the building that was supposed to have been the home of the old sorcerer of Zhedi. His sword was in its sheath, but he still had his wand out. He held the wand in front of him like a shield.

I never knew that Hao was a sorcerer, Lady Jin thought. What else do I not know about him?

Lady Jin walked into the building behind Hao with her sword out and Nu followed her. Hao began to laugh as he saw a room with broken furniture and a square box of wood in the middle of the room. There was a door to the left side. He walked over to the door quickly without looking around and tried it. The door opened and other the other side was a wall.

"Noooooo!" Hao shouted at the ceiling.

The floating image of an old man appeared over the box and he was laughing. Lady Jin recognized the same sulfur smell that she had noticed before.

"Oh! Is that you, Hao? You must have thought your journey to find my secret was over! Ha! Ha! Ha! It isn't. You have more to do if you want that power that was mine when I lived. Just because I am dead does not mean that I can't still torment you. Ha! Ha!"

"Noooooo!"

"Is that it?" Lady Jin said. "Is the journey to find it over?"

"No," Hao said. "Please, my wise old teacher, tell me what I must do. I beg you."

"You always did beg when you need something from me," the dead sorcerer said. "You still do, don't you? Ha! Ha!"

"Please!" Hao kowtowed several times before the dead sorcerer, until his forehead bled.

Lady Jin stepped back from the mad man. What truths does he expect from ghosts?

"If you look among the ruined shelves of rotten and torn writings you will find a turtle made of jade. Rub its shell and it will tell you where to go."

Hao dashed to the broken furniture in the room and shoved his way through them. He found the shelves and tossed around the moldy books of bamboo and silk that had deteriorated to look like mud and crap, but smelled worse.

"I found it!" Hao shouted and quickly rubbed it. He rubbed till his hand was raw, but he didn't stop to change hands.

The dead sorcerer looked at Lady Jin and said, "Why are you here?"

"What?" she replied.

"Why did you come here?" the dead sorcerer said. "Do you know?"

"No," Lady Jin said. "I-"

"Ha! Ha!" the dead sorcerer laughed. "He lies. His whole life has been a lie. Lies are all that he understands. Do you understand? Ha! Ha!"

Hao ran out of the dead sorcerer's home or tomb. Lady Jin watched and looked back at the ghost as it vanished. The scent of sulfur was gone too.

"Come on, Nu," she said. "Let's follow that crazed fool."

"Yes, mistress."

Lady Jin chased after Hao, with Nu behind her. He stopped by a building that had melted. He held the jade turtle up in front of him and pointed it at the building. The jade turtle had blood on it for Hao had rubbed it, until his hand bled.

"It's here! Here! Here!" Hao shouted.

Hao climbed into the building through a hole in its side. Lady Jin sighed and shook her head. She and her student followed him inside.

The floor inside the roofless building was full of mud and debris of all kinds. Hao ran about pushing and shoving at it all.

"It's here! So close! So close!" Hao screamed.

Lady Jin wondered if she should help, but decided against it. It smelled like rotted millet in the building and she tried to breathe through her mouth. She looked at Nu.

"I don't like this," Nu said. "I never liked or trusted him. That ghost is right. He lies."

"That's probably true," Lady Jin said. "He seems mad, but for some reason I feel that we must stay."

"Why?" Nu said.

"I don't know," Lady Jin said. "And that is what's worrying me."

Hao eventually found a trapped door in the floor and pulled it up. It must have been what he was searching for.

"There's stairs down there," Hao said and looked back at them. "Did you bring the torch that I gave you, Nu?"

"Yes," Nu said and pulled the torch out of her bag. One end of it was covered in flammable pitch. She handed it to Hao.

"Good," Hao said. He lit the torch with his wand and stepped down the opening in the floor.

"There's a tunnel down here," Hao said. "Come on down!"

Nu touched Lady Jin's arm. "Do we have to? I know we do, but I don't like it."

"I feel the same way," Lady Jin said. She decided to tough it out and breath through her nose. "Let's go."

Lady Jin checked the hole and saw a rope ladder from the light of Hao's torch. She sheathed her sword and put her knife's blade carefully into her mouth, so that she had easy access to a weapon as she climbed down. She sneezed just before she got to the dirt floor of the tunnel. It wasn't too far. If she had jumped she might not have even broke an ankle or maybe not. Maybe nine feet down. Still once she was down she found the tunnel to be small, causing her to squat a little as she took the knife out of her mouth. Nu soon joined her.

"It's here! It's that way," Hao said. "I'm sure of it!"

Hao moved forward on his knees with the torch in his hands. Lady Jin and One-eyed Nu quickly followed him as if on a leash. Lady Jin was glad that she was wearing some old trousers rather than one of her silk dresses. She rubbed her nose and heard Nu sneeze. At least the smell of rotted millet is gone, Lady Jin thought.

They crawled by a few bones that were scattered in the dirt.

"Were those human?" Nu asked after they had gone a few feet past the bones.

Lady Jin took her knife out of her mouth and said, "Maybe. Someone might have tried to hide down here during the...chaos."

"They never came out?" Nu said. "Could their ghosts come after us?"

Lady Jin nodded her understanding of Nu's unease. An angry ghost was nothing to laugh at, for such ghosts could turn into demons.

"Maybe someone found them?" Hao said from up ahead, laughing. "Or some thing!"

"I don't like him," Nu whispered.

"I know," Lady Jin whispered back.

"I found another opening with a rope ladder," Hao shouted. "Maybe we can get out through it!"

Lady Jin found that she could stand up again once she reached where Hao was. There was indeed a ladder similar to the other one behind them and it looked like above their heads was an opening that was covered by a trap door or debris. Hao quickly climbed up it.

Lady sighed and put her knife in her mouth again that still held the bitter taste of wild man blood on it. She grunted at Nu to follow her, and up the rope ladder she went. She found a clean place waiting for her much to her surprise. There was a large wooden door in one wall and that appeared to be the only exit, except for the trap door in the floor. The floor was covered by a soft white mat or something. She had never seen its like before and she reached down to touch. It felt like some kind of fur. There were also strange banners or flags nailed to the walls, emblazoned with images of animals like two headed rhinoceroses and winged goats, and with a strange kind of writing on them, or what she thought was writing.

"What is this...floor covering?" Lady Jin said.

"It's the hair of a great winged horse raised in the ancient cities of the far western islands," Hao said.

"It's softer than any horsehair that I've ever known," Lady Jin said. "I've never heard of winged horses before."

Nu went down on a knee and felt the fur too.

The door opened and a large white fox walked in. It stared at them intensely with blue eyes and those eyes were completely blue. No white, no black, but just clear blue that seemed to pierce Lady Jin's very soul. She could also smell sulfur and it was stronger than before. The fox hummed and a blue light covered it as it slowly morphed into a man. A man that was still covered in white fur and with the same clear blue eyes.

"Have you come looking for me and what I have?" the fox man said.

"Yes," Hao said. "I wish it! I want to have it! I need it!"

"Do they wish it?" the fox man said.

"What is it?" Lady Jin said. "I'm not sure why we came with him."

"Of course you don't" the fox man said. "He is controlling you and your student, Lady Jin."

"How do you know my name?" Lady Jin said.

"I saw it in your mind as I saw his desire in his mind," the fox man said. "My name is *****. You cannot say or understand my name. My people once ruled beneath the oceans, but now there are few of us and even fewer know of the olden times as I do."

"I will have it!" Hao shouted and raised the green wand like a short sword. He tried his magic again, but nothing happened. He jumped up and down, and tried again.

"Your power," the fox man said. "I will not allow it to work here, but you may have that which you desire. I advise against it."

A golden wand appeared on the floor and Hao snatched it up, so that no other could have it. He held it greedily against his chest.

"Mine. Mine. Yes. Now." Hao mumbled.

The fox man looked at Lady Jin with sad look in his inhuman eyes.

"I am sorry, Lady Jin," the fox man said. "But once I send you three back, you and your student will once again be under his control."

"I understand that, sir," Lady Jin said with a polite bow that Nu quickly imitated. "What is it that you gave him and why?"

"Yes," Nu said. "He's been controlling us."

"It is an ancient and powerful magical being," the fox man said. "It isn't a device, which is what Hao believes, and he will not listen to my warnings. It will eventually feed on him and he will be dead just like the old wizard that tried to use it before-"

"The ghost?" Nu asked.

"No, Nu," the fox man "The old wizard is not a ghost. He tried to use the being and felled for it is a power that he did not understand. He is now trapped within a *********. I'm sorry that is another word that I can't translate for you. But once Hao does the same thing then you will be free. The problem is that others will try to steal it from him. Most of them will not be human. Good luck."

A flash of dark blue light burned Lady Jin's eyes for a second and when it was gone she found herself back in the ruins of the old wizard's house again. The ghost or trapped man laughed at them. The strong scent of sulfur was gone, but the lighter scent that they had smelled earlier was back. It was the old sorcerer that was trapped, but not a ghost.

"Around and around you go! You left here and came back! Ha! Ha! I knew that you would. You are all trapped in a circle!

"I am not trapped you old fool," Hao held up the golden wand. "Look! It glows with a beauty...I can barely understand!"

"Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha!" the old man replied.

"You will see!" Hao shouted. "You will see!"

"They are coming for you! Ha! Ha! They will feast on your bones and sinews! Ha! Ha!"

Lady Jin drew her sword and listened. What could be coming? More wild men -- or something worse?

"Whatever is coming we will deal with," Lady Jin said.

"Indeed!" Hao said. "You shall stop them. You 'will' protect me."

"Of course," Lady Jin said. "That's why we came."

"Right," Nu said and drew her sword. "I still don't like you, but I will stop them."

"Good. My friends," Hao said, while stroking the gold wand as if it was his pet or beloved one.

"Ha! Ha! Ha!"

"Shut up!" Hao shouted.

"Uh, that was you laughing that time," Nu said. "Not the old wizard."

"What? Ha! Ha! No. Not me. No," Hao mumbled more to himself than to anyone else.

Four skeletons walked into the room. One of them stepped forward it was dressed in what once had been a fine yellow silk robe and Lady Jin figured it must be their leader for it walked forward with its head high and didn't have a weapon. The others wore old armor and carried spears. Two more skeletons walked into the room and these carried a sword and shield.

"That is mine, human!" The robed skeleton shouted. "I will have it! It is my birthright!"

"No! Mine! Mine," Hao shouted back.

"Ha! Ha! Ha!" this was all the old wizard seemed to be able to say.

The robed skeleton looked at Lady Jin. "Do not oppose me for I must have what is mine. I have searched for hundreds of years. I will have it."

"We will stop you if we can," Lady Jin said.

Lady Jin drew her knife and Nu did the same for she had taught her student how to fight with sword and knife for just such an emergency.

What are they? Lady Jin thought. Another sorcerer and his warriors.

The three spear-armed skeletons went after Lady Jin and she focused her thoughts on the fight in order to survive. She blocked the spear with her sword and stabbed the skeleton in the eye. It laughed at her and tried to spin its spear around, but she cut through an arm bone and the spear went flying harmlessly away. She kicked it in the chest and moved onto the other two.

That skeleton felt heavier than it should have, Lady Jin thought. They have no muscle or sinews to keep their bones together or to give them weight. A solid blow should break them to pieces, or at least knock them aside, but some sort of magic makes them as solid as when they were alive. Will we be able to kill them?

The other two spear-armed skeletons got up and charged Lady Jin at once, but she rolled away from them. As she got up one of these two skeletons came at her with its spear, she knocked the spearhead aside and kicked out at its knee.

Snap! The bone broke and the skeleton fell down with a feminine sounding scream. Lady Jin stomped on its (her?) lower jaw and it broke off with a vicious crack. She blocked a spear thrust with her knife as the other two spear-armed skeletons came after her again.

She hopped over a broken table and kicked it at one of skeletons. She went after the other one and knocked its spear tip aside in order to get close and thus out of its range. She shoved a knife in its eye and as it laughed she sweep her foot under it while pushing with the knife. It went down and she stomped its head. Another spear-armed skeleton tried to stab her in the back, but she turned and took off its head with a swift spin. Then as it was trying to get up she beheaded the skeleton that she had just stomped on.

Lady Jin turned to look at Nu's progress and found that she was just finishing up on her skeletons. One was beheaded and the other missing its pelvis and legs.

"Damn you!" the robed skeleton shouted. "Don't think that we'll be the last! Others will come!"

"I don't care!" Hao shouted back from the floor where he rocked back and forth as he hugged the golden wand to his chest. "It's mine!"

The robed skeleton left with only three skeletons; the first was crawling with only its upper body left; the second was hopping along minus its lower jaw and its left leg; the third was mostly fine.

"We did it, mistress!" Nu shouted and cheered.

"Yes, we did," Lady Jin said. "But more will be coming. We'll need to get ready. Gather up the weapons and armor that was left behind."

"Yes, mistress," Nu said, smiling.

The two women went about gathering up the weapons and armor that had been left behind or was on the dead skeletons. Then they started planning on how to fight and the best places to make a strong defense against powerful and/or numerous attackers. All the while Hao sat on the floor mumbling to himself.

Why do I still want to help him? Lady Jin thought for a second, but the thought fell away from her mind.

"Do you think these could be thrown very well?" Nu said, testing the weight and balance of one of the skeleton warriors' spears. "They're not real long, like a war spear."

Nu was referring to the long spears used by infantry on the battlefield as opposed to the short spears used in combination with shields and popular with civilians.

"Perhaps, in these tunnels," Lady Jin replied. "I think we might throw a single volley at them and then fight hand to hand with the remaining two spears."

"Yes, mistress," Nu said.

The two women sat down and ate some dried fruit and bread that they had brought with them for rations. Nu had a helmet on with bits of armor roughly tied on here and there. Lady Jin had done the same.

"Maybe we could build a trap of some kind," Lady Jin said. "If we had the time."

Nu took a drink of water from the deer bladder that they used for a water container. "And if we had some 'help'," Nu said, while glaring at Hao. Hao continued to mumble to himself as he clutched the golden wand tighter.

A naked silver-skinned woman walked into the room, surrounded by tigers that rubbed against her and purred like kittens. She pointed at them and spoke in a man's deep voice, "Give me the golden wand of Osiris!"

"No," Hao shouted. "Mine! Mine! Forever mine!"

"Then die, fool!" the manly voiced woman shouted. "Attack!"

The tigers snarled in unison as if they were all one animal and attacked. Lady Jin and Nu had already had their spears ready to throw and they did. One spear hit a tiger right in the eye and it fell to the side shaking its head. Another spear hit a tiger in the chest and she dodged as its momentum sent it passed her. The other tigers still obeyed their mistress or master.

"Kill them!" the silver-skinned woman shouted.

Lady Jin picked up her other spear in time to shove it into the tiger's throat that got near her.

Lady Jin spit out some blood and pulled the spear free and fell back beside Nu, and watched the angry surviving tigers snarl at them. One tried to move around Lady Jin's side to get behind her, but she didn't fall for the feint. The tiger went back to the others and another tiger tried to test Nu in the same way. Nu made the youthful mistake of losing her patients and throwing her spear into the tiger. The tiger went down, but another one took its place and charged Nu before she got her sword out. Nu went down, but Lady Jin killed the tiger with her spear. Another tiger attacked and Lady Jin struck it in the eye with the spear's butt as she pulled it free of the dead tiger. She spun the spear around and slashed the tiger's nose. The tiger meowed like a kitten and shrunk to the size of a three month old kitten. It ran back to the silver skinned woman and jumped into her arms.

"Bastards!" she shouted and ran off with her kitten.

"Yes! You run!" Nu shouted and looked around from where she sat on the floor. "Where did the dead tigers go?"

"Magic," Lady Jin said. "This is all about damn cursed magic!"

"Mine! Mine! Mine! Forever Mine! Mine!"

"Shut up!" Lady Jin yelled at crazy Hao. "He's just getting worse."

"Why are we fighting to protect him?" Nu said.

"Do you want to leave him?" Lady Jin said.

"No," Nu said.

"Why?" Lady Jin said.

"I don't know --"

"There is something that I remember being told about Hao," Lady Jin said. She sounded like she was straining as she said it. "I don't remember it. Do you?"

"That fox said something," Nu said. She also sounded as if she fought against something.

"Yes," Lady Jin said. "That's it. Can you stand?

"Oh, I'm mostly okay," Nu said. "The armor worked well to protect my vital parts. I think."

Lady Jin had Nu to remove her armor, so that she could check her for wounds. Mostly it turned out to be a few minor cuts and bruises. Nothing serious. Nu put her armor back on with her teacher's help.

Nu went to collect up the used spears and noticed that they were gone with the tigers.

"How can they be gone?" Nu asked.

"Magic," Lady Jin said. "I suppose that they were in the tigers and once the dead tigers vanished so did the spears. Magic is like that. It has its own laws and limitations."

"Shit!" Nu stomped her foot and adjusted her eye patch. "I don't like magic."

Lady Jin walked over to Hao, who was still clutching his golden wand. "Hao, are you okay? Do you hear what I'm saying?"

"Mine!" Hao said. "You can't have it!"

"I don't want it, Hao," Lady Jin said and wondered how to reason with the madman.

"Liar!" Hao moved back away from her. "Everyone wants my sweetheart. She is mine! She loves me! Not you!"

"Do you think that it's alive?" Lady Jin in disbelief.

"Yes, Lady Jin," Hao said. "It is a living being, not a thing."

Lady Jin's body shook as if she had laid her hand on a gigantic gong to quiet it.

The word 'living being' opened up a door in Lady Jin's mind and she remembered the fox man speaking to her about the magic spell that Hao had put on her and Nu. She tried to fight and she tried to warn Nu about it. She was about to speak when Hao jumped up at that moment.

"You are trying to fight me," Hao said. "I see it in your mind. You want to take her from me. No! Mine!"

Hao ran out of the building as fast as he could. Lady Jin looked at Nu, who was shaking her head as if to clear it of something.

"It's gone!" Nu said. "Whatever was clouding my mind is gone, mistress!"

"I know," Lady Jin said. "Hao's spell on us has broken. The golden wand now controls him as he controlled us or maybe its power is stronger than his."

"To the yellow springs with him," Nu said and started taking off her armor. She kept the helmet on.

"Come on," Lady Jin said, after she had gotten her armor off. "Let's see if ole Kaoji is at the old dock yet. We need to get out of here as soon as possible before anything else appears. This place is cursed."

"I hate him," Nu said. "And I don't want to protect him anymore."

"I agree, Nu," Lady Jin said. "Let's get out of here. We need to buy those horses back before someone else gets them."

The two women gathered up their supplies that they had left and walked back through the ruins of Zhedi. Eventually they made it back to the old dock and sat down to drink a little water to wait for Kaoji to show up. They waited at that spot for a couple of days and never were attacked by anyone. On the last day they heard a noise in the distance coming from the ruins. As it neared they saw it was Hao and he was running from what looked like a group of flying vampires. Hao hoped into the river and tried to swim to the other side as the vampires continued to chase him. All the while he shouted, "Mine! Mine!"

Nu stood and pointed at Kaoji's boat as he and his crew cruised down the river.

"Now we get out of this place," Lady Jin said. "And leave that fool Hao to what he deserves."

The End


© 2012 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. "Obscured by Madness" is another entry in Gary's continuing series following the swordswoman Lady Jin and her apprentice, One-eyed Nu, as they battle bandits, warlords, and monsters in ancient China. The previous installment, The Wizard of Cai, was featured in the March 2012 edition of Aphelion.

E-mail: Gary W. Feather

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