I am not a rich man and I will never be a rich man, but I have been blessed by the gods with two things. One is the adopted family that I have come to be a part of over my many years, and who I could not love more if they were all my own blood, and the second is an abundance of stories.
I could tell you a thousand stories; I could tell you how Pious Sword rescued Iron Hammer Maiden from a marauding dragon, and became her husband. I could tell you how Thirsty Heart, the half-demon son of a witch, found his brother-- or how he fell in love with a mortal whose Chi was too pure for him to drink from. I could tell you how Ma Jun-heng the bandit ascended to nobility, and became the baron they call Little Tiger, or how Lightning Scar nearly killed the Dread Warlord and Slow Son had to finish the job for him. I could tell you the love story between the barbarian Sigrun and the soldier they call Red Ox. I could tell you how the silver-eyed demon named Sun Blindness led a little girl and a Buddhist Monk across the deadly desert of night, and was converted to Buddhism. I could tell you how Little Shield became the first female captain of the city guard of Peking, and what she did with the position.
But of all the stories, the one I wish to tell today is that of the faithful ghost and his bride.
My name is Du Hui Rui, but it is not often used. Because I live on the outskirts of Peking in a small house, and because I am under the suspicion of the Council of Sages, most call me Dog-- or Long Dog, because I am very tall. My mother was a noblewoman and accomplished witch, my father a street magician. They ran away together, but my mother died when she bore me, and when I was eleven and apprenticed to my father, his heart failed and he died as well. I was taken in by my maternal uncle, Morning Brother, and taught the way of magic. He made me his heir and had his servants teach me everything there was to know about magic and politics, but when I was twenty we had a squabble over the most trivial of matters (there are nobles in Peking who still cannot understand why the life of a street magician was worth fighting over, even if he had happened to be my father) and Morning Brother died in a duel with me.
For this unthinkably unfilial behavior to the man who made me his heir I was outcast, sent away with the clothes on my back and only the shade of a disgraced necromancer to teach me.
And I have been happy, or at least happier than I would have been as Morning Brother's heir. My shop is humble, my rent often overdue, but I am almost never without work. When the wise men of the city ask for fortunes for the slightest task, I am willing to take copper cash-- or eggs, or fruit, or a bit of meat, or whatever anyone has to trade, and I help those who cannot afford to shop in the Street of Sages. I go from town to small town where other magicians do not bother to go; I know demons, spirits, and men. In town, I tutor my apprentice, and work for the palace when Little Shield needs a mage on hand who will not argue with her. I have been content.
I heard the beginning of the tale of the faithful ghost and his bride one day after I was going through my scrolls, recording the story of a gory-minded witch who had kept resurrecting the same handsome man, marrying him off to rich young woman, killing him again, and making off with the wedding fee AND most of the funeral offerings.
Bone Cage, my partner and mentor, stood in the lab watching me write with a keen eye, occasionally correcting my calligraphy.
"In truth," he said, peering over my shoulder. "You cannot say that he was resurrected. His soul was bound to his body with a cord so that it couldn't fly away, and that let him speak, but his body was only moving because it was enchanted to do so. He was quite dead. After a while he would have begun to smell."
I started to make the necessary corrections. "Why wasn't she more thorough?" I asked, puzzled. "Why not resurrect him completely?"
"Such a thing would be impossible for a mortal," said Bone Cage, his tone grim. "To attempt it would mean to steal the pills of immortality, the elixir of life, or the peaches of immortality. And to attempt any one of those things would mean a fate worse than death. Son Wukong the monkey king has done it, but he is no mortal."
"Has a mortal ever tried?" I said, in absent-minded curiosity, and was puzzled by the sudden painful silence.
I did not realize then what I had asked. Here is the story Bone Cage told me:
Once upon a time, there was a powerful wizard. He might have been a tyrant, or consorted with demons, for he was proud and skilled beyond others, ever reaching-- but for his wife, Joyful Wing, whose heart was as pure as sunlight. Wing never let him wander too far astray, or to seek knowledge among the dead, for she was far too alive. Skilled, and challenging, and intelligent beyond all women, she was the only mortal match to the wizard and they made each other very happy when they were not bickering (which was often, but it always ended in laughter and lovemaking).
They might have lived and died happily but that the head of the Council of Sages, a powerful magic user in his own right, was jealous of this wizard, deeply jealous. He acted with admirable swiftness and efficiency; at once, he threw a lavish banquet, invited every scholar, sage, mage and monk for miles around, and poured out barrels and barrels of wine. And procured one poison cup. Poor Joyful Wing-- she saw the black pill slipped into her husband's goblet. What was she to do? Should she inform him of its presence, he would act rashly; to throw the wine away and accuse his host -- the venerable old sage over all the Council-- of murder would be an unforgivable insult. He would be put to death on the spot. But if she let him drink, he would be dead just the same, only this time the death sentence would be slow and painful. And Wing loved her husband too much to let him die at all.
She had only seconds to snatch her husband's goblet from his hand, replace it with her own, and drink down the poison in a gulp. She fell to the floor shaking a moment later.
Ah, the poor Venerable Sage. The murder of an innocent woman was not such an understandable thing as the disposal of a rival, and there is law in China even for sages. He was dragged before the court, and it was the last he saw of his office and his first introduction to the jail cell that would be his companion for the rest of his long life.
This was little comfort to the wizard, who now could only sit by his wife's side and watch her dying, slowly, of the painful poison that had been meant for him. Wing faded like a flower, color draining from her skin, life escaping her in every breath.
The wizard's love and pride and sorrow combined into a kind of madness, then. He left his bride's side and, through various nearly suicidal means, journeyed to the Western Paradise itself. Proud fool! He crept, cloaked in every concealing magic he knew, through the celestial palace by the lake, to the peach orchard where the Queen Mother of the West grew the peaches of immortality. Ah! If he had been caught then, he might only have been killed. But his magic was strong, and undetected he strained up to pick a single, perfect peach.
Then he fled. But the next day, when the Queen's handmaiden walked in the garden, she knew at once that there had been a theft, and she called on the Queen's guards. The scent of those peaches can be smelled from miles away; the dogs had no trouble, racing into the wilderness of China and finding a sleeping wizard, white with exhaustion, curled around his sacred treasure. He was woken rudely by a spear in the shoulder, and even pinned to the ground he managed to cast a fire spell that scattered the hunting dogs and many of the hunting party's horses-- but the captain of the hunt, a particularly cruel-minded immortal, did not desert his prey. Looking down at the shaking mortal, he asked why.
"I took it for my wife," gasped the wizard. "She is dying; she has been murdered. I cannot live without her. She is my life."
"Tell me where she is," said the captain of the hunt, smiling a secret smile, "and I will take the peach to her."
The wizard, all unsuspecting, told him. And the captain rode away, leaving the man pinned and bleeding. The next day he returned, as good as his word, to give the good news to the thief.
How the wizard's last blood froze in his veins as he lay dying, to hear this: "Very well. She lives. But until you meet with her again, you will have only a living death, serving the will of others as you never served heaven, and she will have no life that you know. If your love is as strong as you say, you will find each other again. If not...you will both be punished as you deserve."
And he wrenched the spear from the wizard's shoulder and lopped off his head, all in one motion-- but the wizard's shade could not depart. He was bound now to his last remains, and the immortal carved certain characters into his skull that would preserve it forever. He offered the grisly trophy to the Council of Sages, and the once-proud wizard became a servant to those who had murdered his bride.
It was at this point that the story ended, and I, horrified, could be silent no longer. "And then what?"
My mentor lowered his eyes. He appeared in the simple clothes of a scholar, his hair cut short to his head, but there was a sadness to him, an ancient sadness that was far older than he seemed to be. His eyes fell. "And so the wizard was passed from master to master. He remembered what he was commanded to remember, and forgot most of what he was not. Over the centuries he forgot his own name, for none of his masters deemed it important enough to remember. Until-" He broke off. Shades cannot truly weep, but the shadows of tears were slipping from his dry eyes and running down his skin.
"Until?" I whispered.
He spoke all in a burst: "Until he was given to Morning's Brother, and a little boy who knew no better came to his uncle's house and named him 'Bone Cage', and counted him a friend.'" His throat choked. "And I never forgot HER!" And with that, the spirit who had been a second father to me, my protector in childhood and my teacher through most of my life, vanished into a pool of smoke and sank back into the ancient human skull that he called home, not to come out though I asked him to, again and again.
I went and sat down, Bone Cage's skull in my lap, my hands covering the ancient symbols carved into it, and I wept the tears that he could not. I shed enough tears that night for both of us, and vowed to myself that some day, before I died, I would find his bride, bring them back together, and break the curse.
I never spoke my promise aloud, and years went by-- I went to the libraries of the best universities, and into every monastery I came upon in my journeys, searching for any mention of a wizard who dared steal from the gods, or a lost ghost named Joyful Wing. There was nothing, and nothing, and finally in an ancient monastery in a tiny town far, far away, I came on a wrinkled, ancient parchment that told me why.
It told the story, the very simple story, of a mortal who stole a peach from the gods. The motives were sheer fantasy, a heaping of greed on top of greed on top of too much greed to fit in the human soul and a dash of cowardice to flavor. Was I to believe that a man who would dare steal from the gods was afraid of his own death? Who had ever been stupid enough to believe it? And the ending was simple: 'then the hunt rode him down, and killed him, and that was the end of it.'
The immortal captain of the Queen's hunt had lied. He had not done what he had done within the oversight of heaven, he had fabricated a story about a truly un-pitiable, unlamentable thief, and he had tried to destroy outright the most powerful love story I had ever heard, strike it from the pages of history. My blood boiled, and I nearly set the library afire-- I made it outside in time, and vented my frustrations in a burst of magic on a nearby haystack. Fire has always been my element, and my temper is not the calmest temper in history. Then I started my walk back to the city, my blood simmering like a pot of rice all the way.
I could not bear to tell Bone Cage what I had found, but I poured out my anger to my brother, Thirsty Heart. He, at the center of his own tragic love story, was immediately enraged.
"Long Dog, this can't stand-- this is a perversion of justice, and the punishment of two souls without proper trial. If the gods knew!"
"If the gods knew, they would have done something about it by now," I snapped. "And they are unlikely to take the word of a mortal. I need proof."
"Is this something that you can do?" Thirsty Heart asked slowly, angry but thinking hard. "Brother, I never doubt your heart, and your magic is powerful, but this captain of the hunt will not be easily snared. Surely he will have arranged things his own way; he has had hundreds of years to hide his crime."
"And? It's still a murder mystery, and if there's a better detective in Peking he certainly hasn't been taking my business away from me." I jutted my chin. "I will have to retrace his steps. There must be SOMETHING-"
"May I offer another suggestion?" Thirsty Heart all but batted his eyelashes at me, slipping neatly into his role as courtesan and attendant for noblewomen. And I did not appreciate being spoken to like some hysterical silk-merchant's wife, either, but I listened. "What you are proposing is too dangerous, and would take years on years to accomplish-- if indeed there was anything to find. Why do all the walking yourself? Why not seek the information from other sources?"
"My sources are good, but don't range that far from Peking. What do you suggest?"
"I suggest that there is a spider in this town with a web that reaches far, far towards each border of China. If the information is there to be gathered, he is the one with the cash to buy it. And he has long desired to do you a favor."
"You're not talking about a spider," I grumbled. "I think you're thinking of a Tiger."
My brother bowed his head, pursing his lips, just so. I groaned.
Ma Jun-heng was born the son of a fisherman (an honest man by all accounts who had no part in what his son became). Jun-heng grew up strong and cunning, and by the time he was a young man he was already into mischief. A burly fellow, good with a knife, he found a place in the private guards of the leader of the Lu Lin, the head of all thieves and con men in Peking. Jun-heng was more intelligent than many of his fellows, though, intelligent enough to keep quiet when he had to and laugh loudly when he should. No-one suspected. When a schism broke apart the criminal underworld of the city, Ma Jun-heng climbed securely to the top of the wreckage-- and higher. He bought a title and a house in the middle of the city, and though everyone knew he was the son of a fisherman no-one said a thing. He had listened too well, laughed too innocently, gathered too many secrets for anyone to dare breathe a word against him. And under his order, the Lu Lin became organized; his control was so complete, his intolerance for any other criminal operating in his city so fierce, that he was sometimes called 'the head of Peking's second guard.'
We had hated each other at first sight. I was a fallen noble where he was a risen peasant. I had no respect for the rank that he had clawed and bitten to garner, and he had no time for my irreverence. I could not be bought, and he had no magic of his own, only money. And I had no tolerance for thieves, pimps, murderers, con-men or peddlers of mind-numbing potions and drugs-- he, on his part, did not suffer fools gladly.
But then, on one or two occasions, we had found it necessary to stand side by side and fight and I had seen why they called him Little Tiger: his bravery was true, his strength surprising. After a time, we could no longer hate each other, and lived in uneasy truce. His web did extend far; he was sensible that he had no power of birth, or of magic, and he stockpiled weapons, men, and information instead. His contacts ranged across the country. He was the best, the only man to ask.
He was also easily the most dangerous man in Peking, wise to approach with caution. This is why I strolled into his house, past startled guards who leveled swords and bows at me at once, sauntered up to the desk where he and his clerks were talking, and gave him a bright smile.
"Hello, Jun," I said, in the most informal tone possible, leaning my hip against his desk.
Little Tiger looked up, his exquisitely painted eyes crinkling around the corners. He steepled his hands, with the swish of staggeringly expensive red silk sleeves. "Master Du. How pleasant to see you." He was pleased, really he was. The day I came in and kowtowed to him would be the day he signaled his men to riddle me with arrows because he would know that I was an impostor. "Is there something you require?"
"I need your help," I said, though it pained me to admit it; my love for Bone Cage made the words come. "I will pay. Somehow."
Little Tiger tipped his head, and then waved to his guards to stand down. "Come with me, Master Du. Walk in my gardens." He stood. Immediately, his two head guards stepped away from the wall-- Red Ox, his narrow eyes suspicious, drew his great sword, and Sigrun (the blue-eyed barbarian witch) readied a spell. He shook his head at them both. "No. Let us walk alone. It will be all right," he reassured them, and they let him go, casting suspicious glances at me. I tailed him out of the room, my shabby robes looking even shabbier as we walked through a hall of beautifully painted screens and out into a perfect garden.
A babbling stream ran through the garden, and in one place the stream split into two, creating a little island. He led me across the stepping-stones, crossing the water with the easy stride of a fisherman's son and not the dainty mince of a born noble. Not a drop of water stained his luxurious robes. One or two may have stained my own, and I think my hem became a little wet.
On the island, surrounded by the masking sound and protective element of water, he crossed his arms and spoke. "Let's be frank, Long Dog. I owe you something more precious than my life. This talk of 'paying me somehow' is ridiculous."
"That was a gift. I couldn't have done anything else than what I did."
"I can think of quite a few things you could have done with the secret you discovered."
I looked around the garden, away from him, discomfited. I knew a secret that could crush him. Not unseat him, not remove his status-- no, with this knowledge I could crush a tiger's heart, destroy inexorably the unimaginable iron will that had driven him to where he stood today, and still drove him. That kind of power I dared not use, dared not rely on. To bargain because I had a knife to his neck-- I couldn't. Not and be the man that I was. That knowledge was between us forever, and he had nothing to fear from me.
"I'll pay you. Somehow. This is no trivial problem."
"You wouldn't have come to me if you had another choice," he agreed. "But tell me, what is it?"
So I told him the story of the wizard and Joyful Wing, and showed him the copy I had made of the manuscript. He read it, his face unchanging, and then rolled it neatly and handed it back to me. "This will take time," was all he said.
My heart twisted in my chest. I had half expected that he would say no outright. "What will I owe you?"
"This is worth more money than you can lay your hands on." He frowned. "You still have some voice with the Council of Sages."
"Some very, very little voice," I warned him.
"You can get me an audience with them, though."
"I don't know if I can."
"You will, when I need it." His eyes met mine, solid and challenging under their gentle shading of kohl and jade. "Or this will be a gift that I have given to you."
My eyes narrowed. He knew I would never accept a gift from him. "I'll get you your audience," I growled. "When?"
"When I need it, Master Du." He gestured for me to follow him, back across the stepping stones, back into the house. Once in front of his clerks, his face twisted into a tiger's sneer. "I knew you could never pay me. You could sell your house, your possessions, and stand on the corner begging for fifty years and not reach one tenth my price. Get out of my sight until you have a real offer to make me."
"This was lovely, Jun, your hospitality. We must do it again," I said brightly, and walked out of his house unhindered.
It took time. It was in fact nearly eight months later that the knock at my door came, early spring into summer into autumn. I opened the door, looked down-- and then back up, into the eyes of someone nearly my own height. The pale-skinned witch glared back. Sigrun was tall, haughty, exotically beautiful, and stronger than I was. She leaned a battle-ax against my door casually and sized me up.
"I have a job for you, Dog," she said, dropping an oilskin tube into my hand. I nearly fumbled it, but rescued it before it hit the floor, giving her a bright smile that said as much as 'I meant to do that'.
"What-?" I asked, or started to; she cut me off crisply.
"My master has a letter to deliver."
"I don't deliver letters for the Tiger," I said automatically. She scoffed.
"No. My master. Little Tiger only buys my services as a mercenary. I serve the Father of All, and he has a quarrel with your pantheon. He wants you to take this message to the Yama Kings in Hell, and bring back the reply to me."
"What," I said, the color draining from my face.
"You are to tell them that Wodin, the one-eyed, says that their hell is a joke."
"What," I warbled in soprano.
"And that the mead-halls of Valhalla after a week's drunk are more organized."
"-?!" I squeaked, my knees threatening to give out and deposit me rump-first on the floor.
"And if they are to prove him wrong, then they should produce a soul when they are named. Only one soul, any soul you so choose to ask for," she said, waving at me dismissively. "And if they can do it, then he will apologize and admit the superiority of the Chinese pantheon and not trouble them again for five hundred years. Of course, if their records are so shoddy that they cannot find one single soul, well. That he would be interested to hear."
I stared at her in horror, but in the back of my mind I slowly began to realize what this meant.
"I. I." I had forgotten to breathe; as spots swam before my eyes, I sucked in a deep breath. My head swam as I drowned in air. "I don't know the way-- I can't get--"
She let out a piercing whistle that nearly deafened me; footsteps clopped along the street, and a massive, sleek black horse came up to nose affectionately at the barbarian's shoulder. "This is Alfhild. She will take you."
I would have asked who put the mad idea that I should be the messenger for this quarrel into her god's head. I would have asked why it took this form, who suggested it, who knew that this particular die was so heavily loaded. But I did not have to. The Little Tiger had come through, offering me an impossible chance to go get the most definitive proof there was. A gift-- unless I got him the audience. I would get him his audience.
Sigrun shoved the reins to the great black horse into my hand and walked away, giant iron ax over her shoulder as lightly as a lady's umbrella. I stood paralyzed at the door for a little while, until I heard Bone Cage's voice calling to ask what was wrong.
It was hard to explain to my family and friends why I was undertaking this madman's errand. I left the terms of the letter vague-- both their incendiary nature, and the nature of the challenge I was to issue. As far as my friends were concerned, I was a simple messenger like any other and certainly not about to fly in the face of the underworld (not that they would have been over-surprised that I was flying in the face of someone, but this was a madness even I'd never considered before). I packed and said tearful goodbyes to Pious Sword and Iron Hammer Maiden, to their eldest daughter Number One Painted Maid who I sometimes tutored. To Little Shield, and her men of the guard. I left Bone Cage in the care of Thirsty Heart; my half-demon brother could protect him if someone should try to steal him again, and distract him with the pretty noblewomen who came to be in his company.
I was numb the day I loaded Alfhild with supplies and climbed clumsily astride her, riding out of Peking. The sun was behind a cloud, and my path looked shadowed.
It always did.
I had sworn that I would find Joyful Wing. The quest started today.
Alfhild and I rode through familiar country for some time, but the horse turned away from the beaten path after the fourth day, and we started to ride toward a horizon I had never seen before. I slept during the nights on the ground with my black hide-cloak over me; Alfhild cropped grass, and I ate sparingly of my supplies and harvested what I could on the way. After a few days I began to see mountains in the distance, ones I had never seen. Alfhild took me fast and hard when we rode during the day, and I had already lost all feeling in my seat.
It was a week before we came to the temple, one I didn't know, though I had ranged a decent way in my time. I sighed in relief and guided Alfhild to the doors. A Buddhist monastery; I wasn't a monk, but I also wasn't asking much. A warm place to sleep, some rice. No meat, but warm food and the weather off my head would be wonderful. Clouds were rolling in to the west, promising rain.
Alfhild stamped as I led her inside the gates and tugged the reins from my hands, rearing back. Her eyes rolled in her head, and she clopped outside the gate to stand like a pillar.
Perhaps, I told myself, a pagan horse wants nothing to do with a monastery. I couldn't make myself believe it.
I rapped on the door with my staff, almost wishing that nobody answered. I could go away, then, and leave this place; the horse's refusal to wait inside the gate had unnerved me. I wondered what she had seen or smelled. But torches were lit around the courtyard; someone was here. If nothing else, it was a mystery. I steeled myself as footsteps approached, and the wooden door swung open.
A fatherly monk beamed at me from the open door. "A visitor!" he said. "Come in! Come in! It's about to rain, and our house is warm." His eyes twinkled in welcome, and some of my reservations faded. I followed him inside. It was warm-- it was truly warm, the air almost as hot and moist as a summer day on the river. It reminded me of walking into a kitchen, the burst of heat from the ovens. I followed him along a long hall, lined with screened-off rooms, to a rich, red dining area, with a long table set. I could see a dish of steaming rice surrounded by covered plates.
"Where is everyone?" I asked; the silence was jarring, strange in this warm, lively place.
"Oh, busy. Busy busy," the monk tutted. "Wait here, wait here, have to finish dinner! Wait for me!" and he disappeared away into the monastery.
I took a seat near the fire, breathing deeply. I was tired, the room was warm, and I could feel the ache starting to heat out of my bones. Hunger made my stomach rumble like the thunder outside, and I cast a quick look, left and right. Nobody moved, no shadows behind the screens; I crept over to the rice-bowl, whisked a handful into my palm with the bamboo serving spoon, and retreated quickly to the fire to eat guiltily out of my cupped hands. It was astonishingly rude, but I was astonishingly hungry, and I doubted that the fatherly old monk would genuinely resent a single handful of rice. It eased my stomach, and I closed my eyes to warm myself and calm my mind.
As I let the thoughts of my journey and my tiredness slip away, I became aware of low, subtle notes of dissonance. First my ears told me that I heard no footsteps, none at all, which was strange in a monastery that was supposedly so 'busy, busy'. All I could hear was the rain that had begun to fall on the tiered roof, and the crackle of a fire deeper inside. Then, my legs resting on the floor told me that nobody was walking in this house. No steps echoed through these wooden floors. And then my nose told me that I smelled death, and cooked meat.
Cooked meat? In a monastery? When a monk begged, if they were given meat left over from someone else's meal they could eat it-- but to kill their own animals would stain their karma. How could a whole monastery full of monks have a meat diet?
I opened my last sense, my wizard's eyes, and gasped. I was staring at the dinner table, where what had to be every monk in the monastery was standing and sadly looking at the covered dishes. A room full of shades, all bodiless and waiting silently.
I leapt to my feet, rushed forward to the table, and took the cover off of one of the dishes. Steaming meat, clumsily butchered and unevenly cooked, looked up at me. Looked up-- in the middle of the grisly dish was a man's eye. I slammed the cover down, my stomach heaving, and looked at a monk's shade. His eyes were much more handsome while still set in his face; he gave me a beseeching look. I nodded grimly back. The man next to him pointed to a door, leading into a screened room. I nodded again, shut my wizard's eyes,
I had seen a great deal in Peking, but there is no preparing to look on death. Each corpse is different, each one has its own tragedies. I looked in and saw a tangle of tragedies-- a horrific jumble of limbs, ruined bodies stacked like cordwood. Some had been butchered, some looked to have been gnawed on by a wild animal. I shut the door, ran to another-- a monk lay on his mat, body contorted-- his ribs had been crushed open, his innards devoured. The room stank of offal and fear. Great, sad, shaggy corpses in another room had once been the monastery's guard dogs.
Anger rose up in me, fire licking at my skin. My walking staff leapt into my hand with a word, and I shut the door and turned into the monastery, walking past the laden table and deeper into the tomb. My heavy steps were a slow rhythm in counterpoint with falling rain, crackling fire. Where was the friendly little monk? I heard no footsteps, but I had met too many demons and spirits in human bodies. My gaze flicked behind me, and above me, looking in every direction as I went on.
I walked down a few steps and pulled open a last door, finding myself on the stone floor of a kitchen. The little monk stood in the middle of the floor, wielding a hatchet as he cheerfully butchered the corpse of one of his fellows. A great fire had been built in the oven-- was spilling out of it. The monk must have exhausted his firewood-- he had ripped down wood from the walls to feed the massive fire, the heat of which permeated the whole monastery. I could see the sad end-cap of a scroll holder, half blackened, discarded; the library must be feeding the blaze as well.
The little monk looked up, his face contorting into rage when he saw me.
"WAIT WAIT WAIT WAIT WAIT," he shouted. "I'm not ready to cook you yet!"
"Don't you have enough?" I asked him, sounding braver than I felt. "If you keep eating like a pig, you won't be able to fit into your robes."
He raised his hatchet; I raised my walking stick. He ran towards me-- I pointed my staff at him, and shouted a word that meant 'fire'.
Flames bloomed from my staff and bathed the little monk, the heat astonishing. My fire mingled with the great fire in the oven, filling the room with a blaze of light. When I lifted my staff again, the monk was lying on the floor with his hideously burned arms over his head, and his robes charred all across his back.
When he moved, I almost leapt a foot in the air with surprise. Impossible; yet he stood on both feet, and opened his mouth-- further, and further, and there was a little pop as his jaw unhinged. I readied a spell.
I never had the chance to speak it; the snake demon came surging out of him with lightning speed, like the tide out of a little bottle, crushing me against the wall with the bulk of its giant body. I fell and another flick of its tail sent an oak table crashing down on me, pinning me.
"I'm not ready to cook you yet!" the demon hissed angrily, and set the weight of its coiled body against the table. I could hear my ribs crack. I strained with my magic, and my body, but the best that I could manage was to free enough room to breath. I could only watch as it shoved a body into the fire, nudging it fearlessly into position. Its heavy scales protected it from the heat; it luxuriated in the bath of flame.
I shuddered, casting about for anything that could help. No knife, no cleaver, not even a pan I could wield like a cudgel. My staff was crushed against my side. I scrabbled, searching my surroundings desperately once again.
A faint glimmer caught my eye, and I realized that there was a bottle by the wall that I hadn't seen before. No-- not by the wall, in the wall, in a rathole. And it was slowly being shoved out, inch by inch, until it clinked free and rolled freely. A little gray body wiggled out behind it, and a puzzled looking puppy-- so tiny it could fit in my cupped hand-- shook itself free of dust and sneezed. The demon had missed the tiniest, the youngest of the guardian dogs; it must have hidden there, in that little hole, and been sealed inside when the kitchen was ransacked. But it had pushed out a bottle, and pottery shards were a better weapon then nothing. I reached out, murmuring a word that meant 'force', and the bottle rolled toward me. I was about to break it when wetness trickled out from under the stopper to stain my fingers, and a sharp scent filled the air.
The weight on my chest suddenly eased.
"NOW I'm ready to cook you," said the serpent-demon, wheeling on me. The heavy table was flipped out of the way like a fallen leaf, and the demon lunged at me, mouth gaping wide.
I flung the bottle of wine down its gullet and shouted a word that meant 'Fire!'
It screamed as the little clay bottle exploded inside it, peppering its unprotected innards with jagged shards and burning wine. I staggered to my feet, scooped up the little puppy, and ran as fast as unsteady and abused legs could carry me. Up the steps, along the hall, past the laden table, past the screened rooms, out into the courtyard and through the gate to stumble and splash into the mud, rain pelting me.
Inside the monastery the serpent thrashed; wood splintered, screens ripped, walls caved. The kitchen fell in, and the flame licked up across the fallen wood and raced through the structure until a bonfire was leaping up and making the rain sizzle.
I watched wearily, shifting my hide cloak closer around me. The puppy burrowed comfortably against my chest, and fell asleep in my hand. Alfhild snorted.
"Don't look at me," I told her. "I just wanted a place to sleep."
We went on, rather wearily on my part, and as night fell somewhere behind the sullen rainclouds I found a tree with overhanging limbs that sheltered me from the worst of the rain. I pulled my hide cloak over me, built a little fire to cook some of my own rice, and we ate and then slept-- horse, man and dog.
It was still night when I woke. The rain had stopped. An unearthly glow filled the air-- that was what had disturbed my sleep. I blinked, my blurred vision slowly sharpening until I could see the ghosts that cast it. The monks of the monastery, now liberated, stood in front of my makeshift bed. One by one, they bowed to me, turned, and walked away down the road, and though they seemed to be walking no faster than their legs could take them, they had vanished before I knew it.
They had walked away down the path that Alfhild was leading me on. I sighed and drifted back to sleep, the little puppy tucked beneath my chin and snoring.
We rode on for some time. Occasionally there were towns, and I did work for food. More often I had to hunt rabbit and birds, or fish for myself and the dog-- who, because he was small and gray and had lived in a hole in the wall, I named Mouse. Alfhild fended for herself. As we rode further, and I followed her lead, we seemed to be passing out of the world of men altogether. The unfamiliar mountains were growing larger, but still seemed unfathomably distant. The towns we came to were no longer populated by men but spirits, and I became increasingly unwilling to trust the food. We began to avoid villages.
I could see clearly in every direction, but when I woke each morning I might as well have been riding through a mist the whole way. The memories were faint and blurred. The seasons had stopped turning; I rode through a long spring, as if I skirted a path between Summer and Winter, never veering fully into either. I began to lose track of the passage of time as the days ran together-- if I had not had Mouse with me I might have gone a little mad.
But Mouse changed where the seasons did not. The little puppy who had once fit in the palm of my hand was growing, seemingly daily. He became too big for my hand, then too big for my pouch. Soon, he was the size of a rabbit, then a cat, and had to ride slung across Alfhild's neck. Not long after that he was able to run alongside Alfhild as she trotted, as tireless as she was, bounding along to keep up with her unnaturally swift pace.
He was up to my knee when we came across the lake, and much inclined to wander on his own while I broke the journey. He never went far; he would be gone five minutes, then come back and sit down primly with a determined huff as if he were a soldier reporting all clear to his general. One day, though, he came running back to me looking alarmed, and he did not sit down. He yelped and pattered in circles.
"What is it?" I reached out to sooth him, and he grabbed my sleeve and started to drag me away. "Mouse!" I got to my feet, leaving Alfhild grazing placidly. She shot me a sage look that seemed to say that I could go do whatever I liked, but she wanted no part of it, and she would be waiting here.
I followed him into the forest that bordered the lake, running after him along a narrow goat's path, until he suddenly veered into a clearing. I scrambled after, and found him pattering in circles around a sad grey heap on the ground. With a start, I realized it was a woman in a torn grey dress. Her hair lay across her face, matted with blood, and red stained her clothes and the ground beneath her. I fell to my knees by her side, fumbling for her pulse.
Her hand came up to catch my wrist firmly. Well, that proved she was alive, or something like it.
"Let me get you to my campsite," I said soothingly. "I have herbs to dress your wounds with."
"Nnn. My husband. My husband has gone mad. He will kill the children," she said pushing at me. "Stop... him."
"But-" she was badly hurt; she'd surely die.
"Stop...." and then she shuddered and went limp.
It was too late to save her, but perhaps I could prevent the death of another innocent. I snatched up my staff and bolted the way she had come, Mouse leading me along the path she had made. I could see where her blood had stained the leaves. In the deeper woods, the trees were taller and the shade darker. I took out a little silver amulet and called a word that meant 'light', and a little blue flame sprang from the silver to light our way. Mouse led me to a place where the soil was turned up and the trees scored as if great claws.
"Another possession?" I wondered uneasily, looking at the scene of the fight.
Just then, I heard a man's voice through the trees. "Come out, little children!"
I gulped, and followed it, creeping forward.
"Little children, where are you? Where is my wife? Wife, tell the children to stop hiding." The voice was fond and playful. "Love, where are you?"
I peered out from between a couple of trees and saw a huge shaggy wolf pacing back and forth, occasionally nosing at the cave formed by the gnarled roots of one tree. They had half been ripped out of the ground; the tree itself had been bashed and clawed, the earth dug out. "Children, come out!" The wolf's voice began to rasp angrily. "Ingrates!"
I saw his golden eyes roll back in his head, and he twitched and howled, foaming dripping from his muzzle. A spasm racked his body, and he shook his head from side to side as if he had stepped through a spiderweb. Then, in a sudden motion, he hurled his shoulder against the abused tree.
As the mouth of the little cave under the roots widened, I saw several pairs of wide, frightened eyes, and small shapes cowering back deeper into the shadows. The wolf snapped at them, but the entrance was still too small for his big head; he began to dig out the dirt with his paws.
"HEY," I bellowed, leaping suicidally into the open. The wolf turned on me. "TRY ME ON FOR SIZE, MANGY DOG."
The great head whipped between me and the cave, and he whirled in a mad circle, snapping at his own tail, then the cave, then me. He twitched back and forth a moment, then began to scrabble even more frantically at the cave. I bolted forward and, before I knew what I was doing, slammed the end of my staff down on his nose. I was running before I realized what I had done, but it was no good; a shadow loomed up behind me and even as I rolled out of the way a heavy paw came down on me. It was as big as my chest, easily, and it caught my staff-arm. Spittle dripped from its mouth as it leaned over me, regarding me with its mad, blind eyes, twitching back and forth. Behind its bulk, I could see a group of little forms scurrying away. I had saved the children.
Good for me. My arm would break if it put a feather's weight more pressure on me.
One little form broke away from the pack and rushed back toward us. Mouse did not bark as he sprang up between the wolf's hind legs, catching something with his teeth and hanging. The wolf reared up with a startled, shrill yipe, and I rolled away, clutching my staff in both hands, ramming it up under the wolf's chin and shouting a word that meant 'lightning.'
The bolt fell from the sky and earthed itself in the wolf's body, sending up the acrid scent of burnt hair. The wolf's jaw went slack, and the mad blind eyes closed. It toppled toward me, and I had a moment before its giant skull knocked the wind out of me to consider my lack of foresight.
When I wiggled my way out from beneath the unconscious wolf, I was matted with dirt and leaves, and covered in drool. Mouse did his best to help, tugging at my cloak with all his little strength to pull me free. The wolf slumbered peacefully, occasionally snoring-- a lightning bolt had had the soothing effect of chamomile tea. I left the great beast behind me as quickly as I could, making my way back to camp. As I did so, I became aware that I was being followed; many pattering feet sounded in the undergrowth around me, but I could see nothing until I came back to the clearing. Alfhild was standing to the far side, as close to the trees as she could get, looking with vast disapproval at the gray-dress woman who was sitting peacefully on a stump by my fire and eating my rice.
"I thought you were dead!" I said, deeply annoyed.
"It made you hurry up, didn't it?"
From the undergrowth burst a dozen red and silver foxes, who bolted into the clearing, shouting "Teacher! Teacher!" They surrounded the gray dress woman, who quieted them with a word; each of them turned into a young man or woman, and took a seat at her feet.
"And you might have told me the husband was a wolf!"
The gray-dress woman turned baleful golden eyes on me. "What did you expect the king of Wolf Lake to be?" she snapped, and went back to devouring my rations. I glared at her, but she went on eating, and licked my bowl clean before she spoke again. "Now, wizard, what are you going to do about it?"
"I'm not a doctor. I can't cure a rabid wolf."
"He isn't rabid," she barked. "He's cursed."
"Cursed? By who?"
My shoulders drooped. "Your majesty, Queen of Wolf Lake, I beg your pardon when I tell you that you are not very helpful."
She growled at me and crossed her arms. "Do something about it, or I'll eat all your supplies and your horse." Alfhild whinnied in affront, and turned an accusing eye on me.
I could hardly argue with logic like that. I glared around at the assembly, and sighed. "Stay," I told Mouse, who looked up at me lovingly and trotted to my heels. "...no. STAY." He gave me a resolute puppy look, and squared his little shoulders, willing to follow me to the end.
"At least the dog is helpful," I muttered, and stalked back into the woods.
I crept very, very quietly back to the clearing. I need not have bothered-- the wolf was still fast asleep, a pool of drool forming under its mouth. I picked a spot in cover and sat down to think, watching it. Curses. Curses. I'd broken curses on people, houses, even livestock, but never on a wolf. I didn't know who would curse a wolf, or why. I didn't know how it was cursed.
Mouse snuffled out cautiously into the clearing.
"Get back here!"
The puppy ignored me steadfastly, approaching the sleeping body timidly. He snuffed around the giant neck, and then dashed a little way back, planting himself in the middle of the clearing and looking expectantly at me.
Behind him, the massive bulk of the wolf started to rise.
"MOUSE!" The giant maw opened-- and once again, I rushed, jamming my staff into the open mouth, wedging the jaws open. It reared back and then dipped forward again; I threw myself the wolf's neck to turn its head before it could crush my puppy with the sheer weight of its head.
Scrabbling for purchase, my fingers caught in something solid. As the wolf started to dance and thrash again, I used that hold to pull myself halfway astride it, and stared at what was between my fingers. A silver rope was bound around its neck like a collar-- a rope woven of hair. No time to wonder; the wolf rolled, throwing itself to the ground, and I barely sprang free before I was crushed. I was up on my feet in a second. Just in time; the wolf finally dislodged my staff and shut its mouth with a thunderous snap. I sprang up again and grabbed hold of the silver collar in one hand, my knife in the other. I hacked at the rope as the wolf danced and tried to swing me into its mouth, and I bloodied my hands as I worked, but with a last desperate wrench I cut all the way through.
The great golden eyes opened wide, and the wolf stopped snapping at me and started ripping with its teeth at its own foot-- it ripped something away and spat it out, and I saw more silver rope fall to the clearing floor. Its right leg and hindquarters continued to dance, but one leg and its neck were stable, and a single vicious bite freed its other front paw, then it rolled over-- I leapt clear with moments to spare-- and snapped at its back legs.
The rope on the clearing floor started to writhe back toward the wolf, and it rolled away as best it could with its hind legs still bound.
I dashed forward quickly and shouted the word that meant 'fire', pointing at the writhing cord. It caught in a blaze-- and fire raced up through the air, along thin, invisible hairs that I had not seen, tracing the lines of puppet strings into the darkness. Finally understanding, I shouted 'fire' again, cutting a swathe through the cords that still bound the wolf's legs. The twitching dance stopped, and the wolf chewed one leg free while I hurried forward to slice the last of the rope off the other. I flung the cord away, and raised my hand one more time.
A silver noose fell out of the trees and wrapped my neck. My knife and staff fell from my hand as I started to strangle, clawing at the living, tightening cord around my neck. My feet lifted off the ground, drawing me up into the leaves, where a lovely young woman with somewhat singed silver hair regarded me furiously.
"YOU STOLE MY DOGGY," she howled, more tendrils of hair lashing out to pin my arms and legs.
"MY DOGGY MY DOGGY MY DOGGY!" She stamped her pretty foot on the tree branch. "I'M TELLING MY FATHER!"
"---" I said, struggling for air. I tried to gather magic into my hand, but her hair brushed it away like a feather fan. From the ground below, a mournful puppy howl rose up, and to my astonishment, my noose loosened, and the demon girl clapped her hands over her ears. My bonds loosened, and I-- a street magician's son before I was ever a wizard-- wriggled free and dropped to a branch below.
Little Mouse had run out of breath; the howl tapered off, and the demon shook her head to clear it, and then looked down at me. Her hair fanned out from her head, glittering in the sunlight, strong and sharp as wire-
This time the howl was much louder, and the form rising gracefully toward us was the wolf king. The demon girl screamed and darted out of the way of great slavering jaws that slammed shut on the air just behind her. She fled away through the trees, screaming "NOT FAIR! NOT FAIR!" and the wolf followed her a few bounds just to herd her faster.
I watched her go, and then shimmied clumsily down the tree trunk to the ground.
A man in gray fur caught my shoulders as I slid down. His hair was singed, and his nose was swollen with a blow, but he looked regal and strong. He bowed his head very slightly to me.
"Many thanks, wizard. How can I repay you?"
"Of course, your majesty," I said, summoning up a smile and pulling myself a little more steadily to my feet. "If you could go tell your wife to please not eat my horse, I would count the debt good."
He gave a ringing laugh, and his slap on the back sent me reeling to my knees. "Come with me, little mage! We have to celebrate!"
So we did, over a meal of rabbit (and not horse, to Alfhild's considerable relief), and the wolf king had told me how the demon had tricked him by offering him the handsome silver ornaments. "And then she started strangling me and jerking around like a doll, the crazy bitch," he said, earning a chorus of hisses from the fox students. They loved the story of the battle, although the wolf queen had to be dissuaded from giving me a solid punch in the nose to match the one I'd dealt her husband.
"She isn't even a demon. She's just a very badly behaved immortal," the wolf king explained to me. "Her father is the master huntsman for the Queen Mother of the West, and nobody dares give her the discipline she deserves. Spoiled children never come to good," he said, with a tolerant eye towards his students, who all pulled themselves up straight and tried to look as humble and un-spoiled as they possibly could. "And her hideous cousin has been wandering around the countryside as a monk, getting up to all sorts of mischief. No discipline these days, that's the problem, right?"
"Yes, sir!" said the fox students all at once.
I declined to comment, offering Mouse the rest of my rabbit.
That night I dreamed of a mighty huntsman playing with a feather-robed figure like a doll, and his daughter clapping. I dreamed of Bone Cage and Thirsty Heart sitting at the city gates and waiting for me. I dreamed of death, and Morning Brother consumed in fire, and demons of rage and lust that offered me power and pain.
These are my dreams, and I am used to them. I woke in the morning, ready to face the day. Foxes and wolves were gone, but they had left me a brace of rabbits wrapped up in leaves, and Mouse and I had a hearty breakfast before we set off again.
Time wore on. As we journeyed further into the land of spirits, the nights became brighter, lit with foxfire; the days dimmer, always shrouded with fog, until I barely knew one day from the next. I was often tired yet could not sleep. I craved something, but had no appetite. Alfhild led me, carefully, sometimes turning away from the path as if to avoid something, leading me back when it was safe. Mouse would follow, guarding the rear; he had grown into a fine guardian dog, barrel-chested and his shoulders nearly at my waist. I would walk with one hand holding Alfhild's reins, my other resting on his shaggy head, for I needed companionship. I felt alone, and as the distant mountains started to come closer, it was as if their shadow fell over my heart.
It had been a long time since I heard a human voice. There were whispers in the trees, strange sounds, but I ignored them steadfastly, as did the animals. The ghost-whispers echoed hollowly; there was nothing to them. They were hollow, and cold. (It is the nature of the dead to have empty voices. I had met many ghosts in my life, but only one had a warm voice, and him I loved. For Bone Cage I would go forward. I missed my mentor fiercely; I had known him since I was a child, as long as I had ever known anyone. For me, his warm, solid voice was the sound of home. I would have given so much to hear it just then. I could see his sad face, his ethereal white hair cut close to his scalp like a monk-- in my daydreams he watched out the window for the wife he had lost, and the apprentice who had vanished into the world of spirits. I tried to imagine his sudden, warm smile, as if somewhere in the distance he saw the movement of a man and a woman on horseback, coming home.)
The ghost voices gibbered, coaxed, cajoled, and seduced. I ignored them. They learned that I would flinch if they mimicked someone calling out for help-- I nearly went off the path the first time a child's voice cried out in fear. Mouse moved to block my path, ramming his shoulder against my hip so that I was forced back on course. I recalled myself at once, and from then on I gritted my teeth and kept my eyes on the road when a woman wept or a child screamed.
But one day, a girl screamed in the woods and Mouse stopped dead in his tracks. Alfhild snorted and turned her head toward the noise.
I listened with my breath held; the sound came again. "Help me!"
It was not a ghost voice.
I snatched my staff from Alfhild's saddle and started forward. "Alfhild, wait on us!" Mouse was already ahead of me, charging through the underbrush. We burst out onto a rocky beach near a wide, deep river, and at once I saw the trouble. A man all covered in thorns stood on a cloud, throwing firebolts at a snag of trees in the middle of the river, to which rough dam clung a little girl, her blond hair sodden, her rich yellow garment torn. She raised her own hand, gathering the water into a shield against the thorned man, but she was flagging and he was harrying her mercilessly. She might have been lost already, but the river was rough and surging, and the demon couldn't hover too close lest his cloud be washed away.
"Hey, friend!" I bellowed, in the most disrespectful tone possible. "What's YOUR problem?"
He turned to me and flung a fireball for good measure-- I caught the barest edge of it on my many-shields-bracelet, and the shock ran through my body like a blow. THEN he deigned to speak. "Go away, little mortal mage! I am busy here."
Mouse growled at him fearsomely, and leapt nimbly out of the way of another fireball that turned a patch of beach to black glass.
I shouted a word that meant 'wind', and caught the cloud perfectly with a well-placed gust; it caught it like a kite and swept away from the girl and towards the far bank before he regained control. Enraged, he stopped lobbing fireballs and sent a dark, poisonous wave of smoke boiling towards me in a hurricane wind that far outstripped my own efforts. I threw myself flat, raising my many-shields-bracelet again to make a shield over me; the smoke boiled and ate at it like acid before I could blow it away. By magic, I was outmatched as a mouse to a wolf, but I could not retreat and leave the girl.
This time I lifted my many-shields bracelet and made a shield around HIM. By tightening my fist I tightened the shield; by lowering my fist I lowered it, bearing him down to the water inch by inch.
But his eyes glowed red, and I shouted in pain as a thousand ghostly thorns seemed to pierce my skin; as I opened my hand and the shield dropped, I saw that my hand was bleeding from many deep wounds.
The demon laughed. "Try it again, wise little man! Try once more! These thorns were harvested from the che-thorn trees on Phoenix Mountain; no magic can touch me when I wear them." I could see now that they were sewn into his rich, royal robes. ...not a demon, but another badly behaved immortal.
"And who is the Huntsman of the Queen Mother to you?" I said, making a rude gesture.
"My uncle, little fool, and if I kill you before you meet him it will be a mercy." He raised his hand. I saw him gearing for another assault, and concocted a hasty, foolish plan.
"With me, Mouse. You get the girl, I'll take spiny." He made a sound that seemed to be assent, and together we flung ourselves flat under a wave of evil fire and into the water. I am a strong swimmer, but generally practice in lakes; the current caught me and dragged at me; I braced my staff on the rocky bottom and waded until I was too deep to touch the bottom, and then ducked under and kicked for all I was worth. Fireballs sizzled over me, but the water shielded me from the magic. Of course, it also dragged my own magic away, blocking any attempt to channel my Chi. Not even the great Sun Wukong could muster all of his magic underwater-- a mortal like me was as inert as a stone.
I swam and kicked; the current caught me, but as I stroked desperately through the water I caught on something flowing and solid, as a rope; I hauled myself hand-over-hand until I had reached the dam. Surfacing for a deep breath, I saw what had helped me; a long yellow sash, tied to a branch. The girl looked at me, and the frightened green eyes of a little goddess caught mine.
"I'll help you," I promised. "Trust the dog!" Behind me, Mouse was paddling resolutely through the water. The immortal turned on him, a hand raised, energy cupped in his palm, but I ripped a wet limb from the tree I clung to and threw it hard enough to jar his arm and scoot his cloud a few inches to the side. Then he whirled on me and I ducked back underwater just in time to avoid the force of his fire attack. I could feel the heat of it sizzle on the water.
Mouse had reached us, looking comical with his shaggy hair plastered down across him, but he dropped his jaw in a smile at the girl and I saw renewed hope in her eyes. She reached out, and he crawled across the sodden branches until she could grab his ruff and pull herself onto his back. Then in a graceful leap, he sailed off the dam and splashed into the water, paddling back to shore. The immortal saw his prey disappearing, and forgot me for a moment-- he ducked low, risking everything on one last grab for the girl's blond hair.
Instead, it was MY hand that closed around its prize-- the hem of his ornate robe.
Immortals can fly; some can hop clouds and backflip thirty-six thousand miles. They can leap incredible heights and run like the wind. But to a spirit trying to fly, a mortal-- to say nothing of a rather tall, soaking wet one-- is as heavy as a mountain. The immortal gaped, stumbled, and toppled from his cloud into the rushing river. There we fought, awkwardly, trying to get a foothold on the treacherous riverbed; he drew a sword and started to flail at me, and I raised my staff as far out of the water as I could and swung clumsily at him. Nothing was harmed except the water, which was turned into a white froth; I gave it up for a bad job, braced my staff in the river-bed, and pushed myself forward to give him a solid blow to the jaw. He recoiled dizzily, an expression of shock on his inhumanly beautiful face, one that only intensified when I grabbed hold of his robe, finding a handhold between two thorns to drag him forward and break his handsome nose against my skull.
Aglow with triumph I reared back to give him another, and the glint of sunlight on something under the water caught my eye just in time for me to dodge the stealthy thrust of a knife. I freed my staff and slammed it head-first into his chest, trying to get him away before he could stab me. He jerked back, and so did I, a pair of reactions-- but he stopped, and I did not. I was knocked back into the water, and he...
Stuck. In the wet dam and the fallen trees, the thorns on his robe buried in wet wood and tangled in a mess of branches.
He HOWLED at me with a mad rage, but I didn't stick around to hear which curses he was flinging at my ancestors-- I struck off toward shore, swimming for my life, running as soon as I could touch bottom and crawling when I realized how tired I was, up on my knees on the beach far downstream from the dam and the pinned immortal. Mouse dashed up, the little girl on his back.
"Hello," I said to her, giving her the best smile I could muster.
"Hello," she said, looking at me with great solemnity-- but it was the solemnity of a child. Her eyes were wide and worried. "I thank you very much for your help, sir, and I think we should run away before Mister Spiny gets loose."
"Young lady, you have more sense then all the sages in Peking put together," I told her gravely, and hauled myself to my feet so that we could leg it away into the forest.
The first thing to do was to find a camp and build the biggest fire that I could. A little wind magic kept the smoke from rising straight up and giving our position away too obviously. It was a risk, still, but the risk of letting the little goddess sit in her wet clothes would have been worse. There are rules for immortals, too, and this little immortal had blue lips and chattering teeth. I wrapped her in Alfhild's saddle blanket and sat next to her, close to the fire, with my hide cloak over both of us.
"Who was that, in the river? And what did he want with you?" I had my suspicions; along with rules for immortals comes rank for immortals, and she wore royal yellow.
"That was Thorned Sage," she said, holding up her small hands to the fire. "He is a scholar, mage, and warrior. He thinks he's the best, or he says that he is; but he must not be sure or he wouldn't have tried to kidnap me."
I gave her a puzzled look.
She looked up at me, biting her bottom lip. "I am the Princess Sage of Eternal Memory of Everything Written. And I know more spells than he does, so he wanted to kidnap me and make me tell them all to him."
"Because you remember everything written?" Privately, I thought that was a very large name for such a little girl. "Do you mean everything?"
"Everything ever," she said solemnly, giving a firm little nod.
"That doesn't sound like much fun."
"Not always," she admitted. "I don't get to go out much. There are always people like Thorned Sage trying to kidnap me, and when I do get to leave the palace it's usually because I have to go judge a dispute in some other kingdom and I never get to see anything but nobles arguing."
"All that hot wind and no kite," I said regretfully.
"I remember about kites," she said with a smile. "There was a poem, it was a good poem. Most of them aren't. But I liked this one, it said that spring was flowers on the ground and flowers in the sky-- doggie!" Her head lifted, and she gave a big happy grin at Mouse, who had come back to camp with a duck hanging limply from his mouth.
"GOOD dog," I said, looking at dinner and breakfast and lunch with hungry eyes. The Princess Sage of So On wiggled from under the cloak and ran over to Mouse, throwing her arms around his thick neck and resting her face in his fluffy fur (he had shaken off when he got out of the water, and now his fur was standing on end and tufted. He looked very comical, but he also looked as happy as a big dog being hugged by a little girl, which is very.)
"Where's your kingdom, Princess Sage, of... er... is there something shorter I could call you?"
"Like what?" She gave me a puzzled look.
"What do your parents call you?"
Her bottom lip stuck out. "My mother is dead, and I don't know who my father is."
Inwardly, I kicked myself vigorously several times. I gave her an apologetic look. "I'm very sorry. Er, what about Flower Poem? Flower for short."
"Flower?" she said, quietly, to herself. Mouse licked her face, and she laughed again, old sadnesses forgotten. "My name is Flower," she told him conspiratorially. "Don't tell anyone."
He gave his grave, serious 'whuff', that I'm sure meant 'No, Princess, I will guard your secret with my life,' and plopped down to play at being a pillow for a sleepy little girl who had had a very long day. Flower Poem slept; I boiled the duck in a pot with some water (from a convenient stream; I wasn't going back to that river), added a few herbs, and when Flower woke up there was a thick meaty soup to share. She ate, and together we talked until night fell, and we all lay down by the fire to sleep.
I woke up at dawn, with sunlight just spearing through the trees; I was cold, and the fire was mostly out. Flower was sitting close to it, Mouse beside her; the dog was watching as she drew with the charred end of a stick on a piece of bark.
"What are you writing, Flower?" I wondered, dragging myself upright to rekindle the fire so we could have hot soup for breakfast.
"A story," she said, frowning at her bark roll. I realized that there were many rolls lying around her, covered with dark characters. She must have been working for hours.
"What kind of a story?"
"A story everyone else forgot." With that, firmly, she drew the last character, and carefully rolled up all her pieces of bark together. She took the thin roll and tapped it one, two, three times against her palm, and then handed it to me; I reached out and took a fine parchment scroll, wrapped in oilskin.
"...what?" I looked at the cylinder in my hands, at the girl, back at the cylinder. Sliding it out a little way, I could see (in beautiful calligraphy) the words 'The Story of Joyful Wing and her Faithful Husband-', but before I could read the name, Flower said "No!" and I quickly rolled it again.
"You have to give that to the Yama Kings, when they ask what really happened," she said. "Ask the map woman, she can tell you the way. You're almost there."
"How do you know this?" I stammered.
"Your brother wrote it in a letter," she said, as if it was the most obvious thing in the world, and perhaps it was. I decided not to ponder too hard on the nature of immortals and children, or to ask if my brother thought I was all right. Instead, I heated up the soup and served it out for both of us to make a good hot breakfast.
We were just finishing up when something came crashing through the underbrush. I lifted my hand, summoning my staff and holding it out as a man barged into our clearing. He was wearing thick armor, a two-handed sword at his belt, and a helmet with a yellow plume in it. I think he was taller than me.
I braced for battle, but Flower Poem darted right past my outstretched staff and threw herself at the warrior, wrapping her arms around his bulky waist. "Hao-lung!"
"Princess! The entire kingdom's been up two nights looking for you! Where have you been?" the warrior bellowed, lifting her up and holding her tight to his chest.
"Thorned Sage broke up the traveling party and chased me away, but I held him off in the river and then Long Dog and Mouse found me and we had duck for dinner!" she said, all in a rush.
"Humph," said her bodyguard, looking skeptically at me.
"We did. There's some left if you want it," she said, frowning at him. "But not much. Mouse eats a lot."
"Yes, Princess," said Hao-lung. Hao-lung's eyes said, 'scruffy mortal wizard probably couldn't defend a boot if it was on his foot'. "Hello, mortal. I am Wei Hao-lung. You have our gratitude for helping our princess," he said, in a tone that implied anything but.
"I am Du Hui Rui, often called Long Dog," I said, bowing deeply. "It has been my pleasure."
"I'm Flower Poem!" said Flower from the warrior's big arms, and Hao-lung looked down at her in surprise.
"I really should be on my way!" I said, sweeping absolutely everything into my pack, hitching the pot to the saddle, and starting away very quickly. Mouse jumped to his feet and was trotting at my heels in quick time. Mouse is quite intelligent.
"Come back here, you!" said Hao-lung, his arms too full of princess to properly chase me.
"Ask the map woman!" called Flower, waving. "Goodbye, doggie!"
"Goodbye, Flower! Hey, Hao-lung, she wants a kite. Goodbye!" and a brisk trot took us away from them and off into the unknown once more.
Alfhild walked with purpose, now. The huge mountains in the distance were growing closer; I could see trees on their slopes, tiny pin-pricks of green dotted together into a tapestry. We crossed a wide, windswept plain that made me feel like a fly on a plate, untenanted on the ground but with dragons and other sky-creatures running over our heads, aloft on the air currents; their shadows went over us like clouds. After the plain it was back into a dark green forest of tall trees and stands of bamboo.
We began to come across abandoned firepits and the remains of campsites. Mouse found a broken jar at one of them. Snuffling at it, he came away with his gray, shaggy face stained black; he sneezed. I reached down to touch his jaw, and my fingertips came back black, too; sniffing them, I knew the sharp smell of ink. "What do you think?" I asked my companions. "A mapmaker?" My companions did not answer, but Alfhild and Mouse began to lead me along a path that followed the traces of this other traveler.
I almost felt as if there was an end in sight, now. I had started out with purpose and resolution, but time had worn on me. I missed home. I missed my family. I still meant to fulfill my promise, but any progress would be welcome-- a milestone, finally, on my long road.
Riding Alfhild, I was able to catch up with her in a matter of days. She was walking along a straight road through the forest, looking left and right but not stepping from the little goat-path she was on. She carried a five-foot scroll-case slung like a sword across her back, her dress was pure mourner's white, and she was very beautiful. Her hair was glossy black and her face was flawless, as if made of porcelain; it was a cold, hollow beauty. She looked up at me with pale eyes as I rode up to her.
"Are you looking for me?" she said, her voice easy and perhaps amused. "I have heard a big man, a big horse, and a big dog in my footsteps for three days now."
I slipped off of Alfhild (not entirely gracefully) and bowed to her. "Are you the map woman? The Princess Sage of Eternal Memory of Everything Written told me to look for you."
At the mention of the child her beautiful face softened somewhat. "If she sent you, then I will listen. And if you are lying in her name, then you will regret it. What do you want?"
"I need to find the entrance to Hell," I said at once, and then felt awkward. "I mean, there's a letter. I've been sent." I pulled it out of my jacket.
"I see." She smiled a moment. "You are an unlucky messenger."
"Tell me about it." I bowed. "I beg your help."
She nodded. "One of the Gates is close to us. I can lead you there. It's not far off my way."
"Where are you going?" I asked, mostly as polite conversation.
"Something was taken from me, and I am looking for it. I will walk every road in the land of spirits, explore every mile of China until I find it. It isn't in this forest; it's time to look outward."
I resolved to keep my mouth shut, and walked along with her silently, Mouse's bulk between us.
Come evening we made camp together without speaking a word to each other. I cooked dinner; she sat on the other side of the fire and drew the scroll holder off of her back, unrolling it across the ground, and taking an inkstone and brush from her pouch, setting several bottles beside her. She unrolled a silk bundle, taking out brushes made with bone handles and her own black hair.
Then she began to map the path we had walked that day, adding it in excruciating and exact detail with perfect, fine black lines, adding them to a border of a perfectly rendered expanse of map that flowed up from the bottom of the scroll.
Most of the parchment was blank and white; the pattern of trees, rivers, and roads didn't take up a tenth of the expanse.
"How long have you been working on this?" I asked, forgetting that I had resolved to be quiet.
"Nine hundred years," she said shortly, and I looked again at how small the massive forest was on her map, how close and insignificant the mountains seemed. I could see Wolf Lake; it looked like a stroll away. I shut up again.
She rinsed her brush in one of the bottles, and then uncorked another to sprinkle sand across the map, drying it; next, a small jade bottle was uncorked to reveal rich green ink. She began to color the forest, perfect little dabs for the tall, wide-spreading trees that surrounded us.
I sat in sheepish silence; it was she who finally spoke.
"I do not know my name, or where I am from. My first memories are of being on the estate of an immortal nobleman, who kept me as his servant. I knew only that I owed him no loyalty and that he had taken something from me. I built a dummy out of wood, and gave it my face, and dressed it in some of my clothing; then I escaped," she said. "And once he knew I was gone, it was too late. Since then, I have been searching for what he stole from me."
"What is it?" I asked, very quietly.
"I don't know. Only that I will know it when I find it. I keep this map as a record so that I know where it is not."
"Oh," I said, and shut my mouth again, this time for good.
The next day we walked along-- I next to a woman who had to number among the best mapmakers in China-- and found our way out of the trees and nearly at the foot of the huge mountains.
"I thought we were still days from them!" I gaped.
"If you go one way," said the map-woman. "If you go another, it is a day's journey. The world of spirits flows and bends like water; it took me the first hundred years to discover how to properly map it."
I immediately revised my opinion. I was walking next to the best mapmaker in, above, or below China. "I wish I had known you before. It's been months since I set out from the world of the living."
She laughed shortly. "The world of the living? Less than a day. On a fast horse? A matter of hours."
I stared. "Hours."
"I could eat dinner with my brother and my mentor tonight," I said slowly. Bone Cage and Thirsty Heart appeared in my mind, smiling at me, waving me home. Iron Hammer Maiden cooked as well as she worked metal, and even if she didn't like me as much as Pious Sword she would welcome me at her table, and I could sit among my friends and be home. Home after all this time.
"I suppose, if you wanted to. ...what's wrong with your face?"
I put a hand up to my cheek, and felt a spot of wetness. Looking away and scrubbing my face quickly, I set my jaw. "Nothing's wrong."
"Your face was getting wet. It was coming from your eyes," she said, and I was about to speak sharply to her when I realized that she was genuinely puzzled.
"My lady, have you never seen anyone cry? Have you never, after all that you've suffered?"
She shook her head. "I have never seen it. I have never done it. Not for all of my life that I can remember. I doubt I would know how."
I had no idea what to say to that; fortunately, I didn't have to. The map woman pointed at the mouth of a dark cave. "There is a gate to hell; it will lead you to the jurisdiction of the Sixth King of Yama. He is not unreasonable; deliver your letter, and then you can go home."
No. I couldn't go home, unless I brought a spirit named Joyful Wing with me. But the thought gave me some strength, so I strapped my pack close to my back, did what I could to smooth my hair and clothes and get the travel-dirt off of my hands and face, and waved the map woman goodbye.
Then I descended into hell.
It was not unpleasant, actually. There was, of course, the feeling of walking into a trap, the sensation that each step drew me forward and I could never go back. The knowledge that if I was drawn beyond the gates there would be no escaping except as a ghost on the Wheel of Transmigration, my past life forgotten. But by the learned wizard, these fears could be rationalized, and faced. I was Du Hui Rui and I had faced down men and demons in my time.
I was trembling like a little maid and more than once I ran a few steps backwards just to make sure that I could before I went deeper.
Rough cave gave way to well-carved steps, and I walked down towards light-- a grayish, empty light that leached what color there was out of my clothes. Alfhild's glossy blackness seemed to diminish; my skin seemed sallow and pale. Mouse was Mouse, which meant gray anyway. The stairs opened onto a plain, and I saw a city of stone walls stretching out across its expanse. There was no sun, only the gray light that seemed come from no-where, and the occasional echoing scream. The voices of ghosts are cold, but the sound of pain was somehow no less horrible for that. I regretted then that I'd studied mythology in any depth-- it is well and good to read about torso-severing and eye-gouging and spirits forced to climb trees studded with razor blades, but when faced with the reality of all that one has read, one tends to be unable to stop imagining it in sudden and perfect clarity.
My heart slammed in my chest like a crazy bird as I walked up to the gates, where two large demons with no necks and wicked horns lowered spears to block my way.
"What business do you have here?" growled one.
"I have a message, I said, bowing low and pulling the tube out of my jacket, and extending my hand. "From Wodin the One-eyed, to the king of hell."
It was taken from my grip, held carefully in one of the demons' large hands, and a hurried discussion ensued.
"Wait here," I was told, and one of the demons stepped into the gates.
I noticed that they were barbed with spikes-- and that they opened inwards. Easily in; eviscerated on the way out. Since I had not been told to do otherwise, I stood, head still inclined, and stared at the floor for some time. I considered running, knowing what must be in the letter, but I had no faith that I wouldn't be caught. By the time I heard the marching feet of an approaching procession, I had a stiff neck and a headache (which had fortuitously distracted me from small details like the fact that I was standing at the gates of Hell). I had even managed to tune out the occasional scream.
The gates creaked open, and I kept my head down but shot a surreptitious glance at the Sixth Judge of Hell, carried by a troop of hooded demons on a palanquin. The Yama King was a massive and stern figure, his robe a royal green, his hat high and ornamented. He did not look furious, which gave me some hope. He looked, in fact, somewhat irritated, as if he had been called away from something important to deal with a trifling problem, but intended to be reasonable about it. The look of bureaucratic resignation was a familiar and odd one to see on that snarling, ridge-browed face.
He descended from his palanquin in front of me. "Du Hui Rui, born of Du Man and the witch Du Mu Rong. Mage of Peking." His voice was deep, and it resonated like thunder in my gut; he spoke my name perfectly, each syllable forming a leash around my spirit. I tried not to shudder. "What have you brought me?"
I fell to my knees, prostrate, and banged my forehead several times against the ground. "Woe! Woe! Woe! A challenge from Wodin the One-Eyed! The direst insults!"
"Yes, I can see as much," the Judge said dryly. "He is quite descriptive. We are not unfamiliar with this one-eyed mead god, but he offers us a strange bargain. Why?"
"I do not know."
"Du Hui Rui." He spoke the name like a chastising father, but its pull on me left me gasping. "Why has he sent the letter?"
"He thinks he can win favor," I said miserably. "He knows a soul is missing from Hell."
"Does he?" The Judge snorted-- a sound something like a bull. "Our records are exacting. We can track a soul through a thousand transmigrations if we must. Give us the name of this missing soul, and Wodin the One-eyed will be eating his words by dinner."
I stayed kneeling, my face turned to the ground. "I seek Joyful Wing, who was poisoned by the Venerable Sage one thousand years ago. Do you have a record of her?"
The king held out a wordless hand, and two staggering clerks handed him a book as tall as I was, and as thick with pages as I was wide across the shoulders. He took it easily and opened it near the middle, running a clawed finger delicately down the list.
"Joyful Wing, who lived in Bei. Murdered by the current Venerable Sage of Peking, Mao Lung." The great gnarled brow furrowed. "Placed with her husband in the hell of thieves. Never reincarnated." He looked, from what I could see out of the very corner of my eye, somewhat puzzled. He tugged an abacus from his robes, slid a few beads, and scowled. "That seems overdue. But never mind. Guards, fetch me the ghost of Joyful Wing, from the chamber of flames."
I stayed prostrate with my head on the ground, trying to unobtrusively work the kink out of my neck, and waited once again. With surprising speed, the guards returned.
"Most Judicial Sixth King of Yama," the captain of the demonic ranks said rather nervously. "She is not there."
The Judge frowned. "She must have been transmigrated and the record not properly made. Go to Meng Po and ask when she was given the tea of forgetfulness, and what her name was on reincarnation."
The captain bowed low, and trotted away with haste. Another small eternity passed, and the guards came up, looking nervous and reluctant. "Meng Po has never seen her, nor heard her name."
"Meng Po has been drinking her own tea," the Judge growled, and I saw anger building in his face. I hurriedly reached to the scroll slung across my back, the one emblazoned with the seal of the Princess Sage of Eternal Memory.
"Lord, this may go some way toward explaining," I said, laying it on the ground in front of me. It was picked up by a guard and trotted quickly to the Judge, who read over the scroll. His face grew darker and darker.
"What is this fantasy?"
"I haven't read it," I said with complete honesty, willing my muscles not to tremor. "I could not say?"
"Bring him inside."
"No, PLEASE," I yelped before I could stop myself, and I tried to thrash free as two demon guards hauled me to my feet-- I might as well have tried to shake a stone wall.
"Stop squirming," rasped one, and slammed a chit into my hand. Looking down at it, I saw that the little metal disk was stamped with the words 'Official Visitor.' My hand closed around it tightly, and I let myself be marched through the gates of Hell.
Messengers ran before us, fleet-footed demons, and I tried not to look left and right at the work going on around me. Eighteen hells, ten judges--one hundred thirty-four sub-hells was the official count, but it was made some centuries ago and who knew if they had expanded. A whole country full of souls, suffering for their sins. And each one deserved to be here, but that was no little consolation for a man who had murdered his maternal uncle with flame. The Sage's Council of Peking had had little mercy for the actions of self defense. What would Hell have in store for me? For which of my crimes would I be tortured first? I had once stolen a horse as a boy. It was an accident, and I knew no better, but I was a thief. I had known women and occasionally drunken myself to a stupor.
How clearly these things came back to me, what a waste of time they seemed like when I could have spent my life eating rice, growing a garden, and being kind to small children. There were screams around me, and the smell...
It was unending, that march through the country of Hell. We passed through three Jurisdictions, past a chamber out of which resonated dull thumps-- the Chamber of Pounding, for those who killed in cold blood. Later-- perhaps days, perhaps weeks-- we passed by an arena where the roll of wheels and the whinny of demonic steeds nearly covered over the sound of ripping flesh. There, corrupt officials were torn apart by chariot.
I was sick to my stomach with it all, and I knew with the certainty of long experience that my memory would hold every sound, every half-glimpsed horror, and replay them in my dreams. I wanted to run, and knew I could not. I wanted to beg my errand off, claim it all a mistake, and crawl home to Peking.
...I loved my mentor as much as I loved my own father, and he had been cheated by an Immortal and locked into a mortal hell without even the promise of reincarnation. I did this for him, and for his wife. It was a murder mystery that only a crazy, poor mage would dare to solve, one that only the best detective in Peking had a hope in unraveling. It was my duty. My oath. And a new memory came, one that wrapped itself around my spine-- the memory of my angry weeping, as I clutched Bone Cage's skull against my body. I had sworn that I would do this.
I straightened my shoulders, set my eyes on the gray horizon, and walked with a purpose through Hell.
My feet ached when at last we came to the courtroom of Yama himself. The faces of demons were a comfort after being surrounded by the sad shades of humans, and I looked at the shadowy courtiers around the grea tusked god with reverence but no fear. I had drained my last drop of fear; there was only an emptiness where horror should be. Yama himself is said to be one of the fairest of the gods, and that gave me some comfort. He wordlessly gestured with one hand that I should kneel and wait, and I did gladly, taking the weight of my body off of bruised soles, letting my head hang down.
As I often had in the world of spirits, I felt the flow of time around me like that in a shallow and pebbled river-- at some times I seemed to be walking against it, at some times with it; here it swirled around like a little rill, tumbling over a stone and forming a spinning pool. All times were one here, everything came back around, and some of my weariness left me.
The great doors to the room of judgment creaked open once more, and in stepped Ox-Head and Horse-Face, the two chief guardians of hell. Between them strode a tall and handsome man in a huntsman's clothing, with a cord of rank around his neck. His beard was long and white, but his shoulders were broad and his back straight. He regarded me with a certain curiosity, and then looked fearlessly towards Yama, bowing deeply to him.
"Lord Yama," he said, with great grace and dignity. "I have come from the Western Heaven as summoned. How may I aid you?"
"I have a question," Yama said, his voice deep as the sea. "About a peach, two stories, and two dolls." His third, sideways eye fixed upon the man, who darted a sharp glance at me. The mention of two dolls had thrown me entirely, so I returned his glance with one of meek puzzlement.
"I endeavor to answer all that is asked of me," he said, bowing deeply.
"I find, Huntsman, two names on my records, both noted as thieves. I find two stories of peach-stealing. I find your name as the man who brought these thieves to our gates. Strange, then, that neither of these souls passed before my judges, nor me, nor Meng Po. As you know, there is no escaping hell for the dead save by drinking the tea of forgetfulness and ascending the wheel of transmigration. I am forced to believe that these souls never entered my domain." The god held out his closed hand, and then opened it; two children's dolls, one with long white hair and a blue velvet robe, one with long dark hair and a robe of feathers, lay together in his massive palm. "And yet these were found in their place. Huntsman, you have brought me dolls instead of souls. And Hell will not be content with decoys."
The Huntsman's strong jaw clenched. "I do not deny that I caught the thief who stole from the Queen Mother's orchard..."
The listening silence of Yama was deeper and louder than his voice.
"I do not deny that I made him an offer..." the Huntsman went on.
"You judged and punished him," Yama corrected him. "And falsified the records of Heaven and Hell. Such a vandalism has not occurred since Sun Wukong stormed my gates to cross himself and his followers out of the book of the living."
Apparently being compared to the most notorious living prankster in, above, or below China rankled for the Huntsman. He could not disguise his handsome snarl quickly enough.
"It is not a vandalism. The dolls are not decoys," he said, holding his patience as tightly as I held the chit in my hand.
"Placeholders." The Huntsman drew a breath, and then smiled beautifully and executed a graceful kowtow, falling to his knees and knocking his proud forehead against the floor. "My bargain with the thief was for one thousand years. One thousand years for him to reunite with his wife, before I brought him here to you for their rightful punishment. Had they broken the spell they still would have died in time and come to you. I only wished to protect the dignity of my Queen. What would be said if I brought a proud wizard to your gates, still bragging about his theft? The word would spread far and wide. I offered him only the time to learn humility."
I was empty of fear, but I still had enough anger in me to feel my blood rising. Pretty diplomacy. Pretty excuses. And even angrier at the truth I heard in his words-- 'learn humility?' Yes, he had, the proud wizard, learned that and more. Punishments such as he would have endured in hell, but worse because he had never hoped for freedom. Worse because he had known that his beloved wife would now suffer for all eternity as he had, and she innocent.
I risked a look at the demon god-- and found him sitting in quiet audience, unmoved. "I judge your bargain null, for it was not made under the jurisdiction of Heaven. You will bring me Joyful Wing, and she will take her place in the cycle of life again. You will bring me her husband, and he will be judged for his crimes."
"That I cannot do. I do not know where they are. The wizard is now in the realm of mortals, and Joyful Wing fled from my estate nine hundred years ago."
"Then why did she not seek out her husband?"
"Perhaps their love was not as strong as she claimed. Perhaps she thought only of her own freedom."
Yama's bestial face did not smile. "Perhaps she did not remember him. You keep a flask at your belt at all times; give it to me now."
The Huntsman did, and the look of rage on his face made me feel cold to my bones.
Yama tossed the flask across the space between us, and I almost acted too late-- I caught it desperately, hugging it against my chest.
"Take this flask. Find Joyful Wing and restore her. If she is found and the spell broken, she may have a full measure of life with her husband once more, and I will judge this life separately from their first. Or else when the one thousand years has ended, they will be called back for sentencing."
It staggered me, this offer. Unprecedented to begin a life anew while still in possession of memories of the old one-- at least without tricking Meng Po and earning the ire of hell. "Thank you," I whispered. "How will I find her?"
"By searching. I promise only that you will know when you have found her."
The Huntsman had regained his feet, but he made a deep obeisance. "And I will return to my place-"
"You will remain my guest until my missing souls are fully in the land of the living or the dead," Yama said, and his voice boomed through all Hell. "I bid you welcome. Du, GO."
He commanded me like a dog, and I went. Oh, I went, staggering to my feet and away. As I passed the Huntsman, I stumbled against his robe, and his hand caught my shoulder, digging into my skin.
He whispered in my ear, his voice angry. "Only two days left in the thousand years, little fool. And when they are in Hell, I am coming for you."
I stepped from Yama's hall and found myself outside the gate of Hell that opened on the sixth court, the stone stairs ahead of me, Mouse and Alfhild waiting where they had been left by the entrance. Mouse whuffed in surprise and trotted up to me as if I had been gone for no time at all.
"We have two days," I said, and Alfhild knelt down. Surprised, I climbed astride her, and she took a few cantering steps toward the gate-- and then broke into a dead run. I clung to her saddle with a yelp and held my breath as she leapt. We sailed up the tunnel, my head at one point inches from the roof, and began descending towards the stairs again. Her hooves touched lightly on the stone, one third of the way up, her muscles bunching, and she sprung again. Behind us, Mouse was bounding up the stairs twenty at a time. She landed and sprung again, with a jar that rattled every bone in my body, and then we were in the rough tunnel, and Alfhild was galloping towards daylight. Mouse caught us up as we burst out on a startled map woman, who was just turning away.
"Back already?" she said, moving to catch me as I half-slid and half-fell numb and hurting from Alfhild's back.
"Already? Weeks," I said, staring. "Two days--" My voice was an ugly rasp, and she offered me a drink of water from one of her many bottles. I sucked it down and staggered.
"Dog, you need to sleep," she said. "You look like a Jiang-Chi, only less alive."
"NO," I said, horrified, but the ground was coming up to embrace me.
I woke to the rays of dawn and the smell of sizzling food, and a terrible fear clenched every muscle in me. "HOW LONG HAVE I BEEN ASLEEP?"
"Most of yesterday," the map woman said, looking up from the fire where eggs and rice were boiling. "And not as long as you needed, either."
"You don't understand!" I snarled at her. "I have two days to find a woman who's been missing for nine hundred years and get her back to Peking, or my beloved teacher AND this poor woman are going to be dragged back to hell and punished again for a life they've already spent time atoning for, I don't know where she is, I don't know what she looks like, all I have is this and it's empty!" I drew the flask out of my vest and shook it at her. "And the Huntsman of the Queen Mother of the West is going to kill me," I remembered, but it seemed a small thing in light of the tragedy of Joyful Wing.
She stared at me for a moment, and then scowled. "Eat your rice."
"Have you been LISTENING to me?" I stared back in incredulity.
"Yes, I have. And I know that we aren't going to find this lost woman on an empty stomach, OR if we panic."
The woman nodded, her beautiful face set hard as she looked to the west. "Yes. First, because I owe the Huntsman of the West for a hundred years of abuse and slavery. Second, and most importantly, because it is right. We will use my map, and take the shortcuts that I know."
"You would help me? You barely know me."
"I know that you have come a long way for someone you love, and that you are very brave." She nodded. "I will help you. And if you will give your life to find this woman, then so would I."
Was it excessive that the greatest mapmaker in, above, or below China was also one of its greatest heroes? I wanted to throw my arms around her in gratitude. Instead, I ate my rice. Breakfast was hurried, and then she rolled out her map. "Let me see that flask; perhaps there's a clue to it..."
I handed it over-- and it slipped from her fingers, landing with a thunk and a slosh on the ground.
"I thought you said it was empty!" she gave me an annoyed look and bent to pick it up, scowling at the weight. "Hnn, what's in here, distilled essence of brick?" With one long fingernail she flicked open the metal stopper, even as I was saying "Hey, wait-!"
Water poured out, clear but smelling of salt, a little like the sea. It poured across her hands and skirt, and as she fell to her knees the water bathed her face. I watched in stunned silence as she transformed before my eyes, as the water put hints of sunshine and wind into her once flawlessly straight hair, and carved lines of joy and sorrow into her porcelain face. Her skin darkened with long days spent outdoors; her hands developed calluses.
She opened her eyes, and they were no longer gray but stained a dark brown and flooded with tears.
...tears. The bottle had held her tears. Without the pain of living, she had not been human. She had forgotten herself, and wandered...
"Wing." I stared at the object of my quest, with whom I had been walking for nearly a week without knowing it.
"Dog?" she whispered, staring down at her hands. "...he came to tell me that he had met my husband. That he had-- Oh! Proud, STUPID Rong Bai, what has he done to you?" She sobbed and pressed her hands to her face, shoulders racked with a thousand years of grief.
"He never forgot you," I said raggedly. "He wept for you. He remembered your name even when he lost his own."
"Rong Bai of Bei. His name is Rong Bai!"
"He's waiting in Peking," I said, offering her my hand. "And you can lead us home in one day!"
"Not if she's dead."
We looked up at the apparition that stepped out of the trees. The Huntsman's clothes were ragged, his neck bound with an iron collar, a broken chain still bound to it.
He pointed at me. "I have suffered Yama's hospitality because of you, dog-wizard. When I'm finished with you there won't be enough to reincarnate as a flea. As for you." He snarled at Wing, his eyes wild. "I knew he'd lead me to you. My status will be restored when I hand you and your pathetic husband over to Hell."
I shouted, calling my staff to my hand; Alfhild reared, Mouse bounded to my side, crouching to spring and growling.
And Wing darted between all of us, her map-scroll held like a cudgel. The Huntsman threw up an armored arm, sneering--
Wing feinted and turned it into an underhanded swing between his proud legs, landing a blow that made me throw my hands to my groin in involuntary sympathy. The Huntsman went to his knees, staring, his eyes watering.
Mouse barked and rushed the woman, tossing her over his back. I saw what he meant at once, and leapt astride Alfhild.
"THAT way!" Wing flung her map down and it unrolled, and unrolled, and unrolled from her hand, tracing a path away.
We went that way, and we went like the lightning. We bounded in minutes across the long stretching plain where the dragons played in the sky, but a thundering behind us made me look back, and at once I wished I hadn't. The Huntsman rode atop a horse, at the head of his massive and monstrous family-- I saw his spoiled, silver-haired daughter, and his nephew Thorned Sage. There were some wearing capes of scale, a painted woman with ox's hooves and bat wings. A woman with scythes instead of hands, a blond, pale woman with a pretty, demonic face-
"That way!" We turned down a path into the forest and suddenly they were hours behind us. But immortals move fast. Without Wing's map they'd have run us down in seconds; but Wing led us through a maze of shortcuts and one-way paths that sent the immortal army galloping on a wild goose chase, and while we never had more than a minute between us, we were always just out of their reach.
We broke out of the woods by a long river, and a horse pounded out after us-- Thorned Sage's magic had divined our route. What it had not divined was the tree-trunk hurled like a spear that caught him full in the chest and knocked him down to the ground, where his thorns stuck deep.
Hao-Lung saluted me, and uprooted another tree, aiming towards the next distant horse.
"THANK YOU!" I shouted.
"SHE LIKES HER KITE," he shouted back, and flung the next tree, knocking a demon like an ape off of his horse and into the river.
We bounded through Wolf Lake, and were joined by a pack of racing forms-- bounding gray wolves and little foxes going as fast as the wind. "MAGE," barked the Wolf King. "What do we do?"
"Tell-- Thirsty Heart-- Peking--" I managed between one impact of Alfhild's hooves and another.
"GO," The Wolf King barked at the eldest fox boy and girl.
"Yes, SIR!" they said, and they streaked away like lightning, gone before I could blink.
The Wolf Queen bayed, gathering the others. "I see that silver-haired whelp," she yelled. "Favors for favors!"
Her husband gave a joyful answering howl, and the two giant wolves broke away to throw themselves into the onrushing crowd-- fewer in number than I recalled. Hao-Lung must have had a lot of trees.
We ran on with the little foxes guiding us, keeping us straight on the course of Wing's map, which she rolled back into her hand as she went. But it was starting to fade as we left the land of spirits, and the foxes had to turn back. We went on until we were nearly back to the land of the living; Wing was growing more and more insubstantial; of course she was only a spirit here. Her map was a thin, pale glowing line that we followed along.
The Huntsman's family appeared once again behind us, but there were fewer still, and as I watched one badly-mangled demon fell from his horse and bled on the ground. He was left where he fell, as the last dozen of the brood followed along, the Huntsman in the lead. He pulled a bow from his back, and aimed an arrow.
Mouse whuffed and sprang into the air with a loud howl that echoed from along the plain; the Huntsman shot wildly and too soon, his arrow sailing above our heads while Mouse touched safely back to ground with Wing still clinging to his neck.
But the howl hadn't only startled the Huntsman. As we rode past the long-charred remnants of a monastery, shadowy figures poured out of its door. The guard dogs of the monastery had been waiting, patient and faithful ghosts, and now they surged out to protect their littlest pup from the family of the snake that had invaded their home. Their teeth could not have touched a mortal, but they sunk into immortal flesh and immortal horse like knives.
And then we were through a gap between two hills and Peking was in the distance but coming up fast. Alfhild and Mouse put on a last burst of speed. The black horse foamed; the gray dog panted like a bellows.
And one horseman remained behind us. The Huntsman had broken free, one pursuer where there had been twenty-nine. He was wounded; bruised, a spear had struck him. One hand was mauled, and his horse was staggering; wolves and dogs had attacked him. But he followed us as if Hell itself was on his heels, and Wing flattened herself across Mouse's back as an arrow sped just over her head.
I prayed that the foxes had got the message to Peking, that they had warned SOMEONE, because if not I would be leading a furious immortal into the heart of the unsuspecting city-- but my heart leapt as I saw massed bowmen across the top of the walls, and (now my heart sang) a beautiful man standing outside the gates holding a weathered human skull. Alfhild began to slow, scrabbling her hooves backward; the gate was rushing up too fast. Mouse bounded forward, and a pool of smoke poured from the skull as Thirsty Heart called my ghostly mentor out.
I will never forget Bone Cage's face when he saw Wing coming toward him. The moment of incomprehension, the denial, the grief-- and then the joy, as he flung his arms wide and leaped to sweep her off of her mount.
Everything happened at once. The earth shook, lightning speared from the clouds down onto the reuniting lovers, and a voice calling 'FIRE' was only a beat behind the deafening hiss of a rain of arrows that soared over my head and riddled the Huntsman and his steed.
Then there was a silence. Rain pattered down out of the gathering clouds, landing in the long white hair of a sorceror in blue silk, and in the curly black tresses of the woman in his arms, running down off of her cloak of feathers. The largest private army in Peking lowered their bows at a signal from Little Tiger. Thirsty Heart crawled out of the dirt where he'd flung himself to avoid being struck by lightning. Little Shield and her guard waited uncertainly in the gateway, standing abreast to defend their city, from what they were not sure.
Footsteps sounded behind me, slow and dragging. I felt a strange pain, as if the blood was trying to rip out of my veins backward, and tumbled off of Alfhild.
The Huntsman, riddled with arrows, had gotten to his feet, staggered away from the body of his fallen horse, grabbed me by the shadow, and tugged.
"One. One soul for Hell," he growled. "In a few hundred years, when I've paid you back for all you've done for me."
"Taking a man before his time is fated to end will hardly improve your bargaining position," a cool voice said. Little Tiger waved aside the city guards, to Little Shield's complete fury. The small woman glared daggers at the chief of criminals, but held her tongue. For my sake, I knew it, and winced for her.
"Let the man go. He's only a dog-wizard," the silver-tongued Tiger said dismissively. "After such prey as you've had in your life, doesn't he represent a rather significant step down?"
"Little mortal," the Huntsman sneered, giving Little Tiger a withering smile. "Do you dare?"
Tiger bowed his head in agreement. "Frequently."
"What sort of deal could you possibly make with me?"
"I have the finest mortal lawyers in my pay; while not quite to the standards of heaven, they might be able to chip a year or two off your sentence. I daresay defending a case against Yama himself is the nightmare-dream of many a law student. He might be so amused by mortal daring that he'd let you off easy."
"Clever, mortal. And you would give me this for the life of a dog wizard?"
"For the life of any man in Peking." Tiger walked closer, meeting his eyes with an astonishing boldness. "Have we a deal?"
The open-handed blow knocked him back ten feet, and when he tried to rise again one leg gave out underneath him. Little Tiger knelt in the dirt, one hand to his bleeding face.
The Huntsman laughed cruelly. "Oh, you are too amusing, little kitten. I should take you back to hell as my second soul. What did you think you were doing?"
Little Tiger looked up. And smiled like a barroom brawler, showing his blood-stained teeth. "Distracting you."
Bone Cage flung up his hands and called the lightning down again, landing all around the Huntsman and I without striking us.
"You MISSED, fool," the Huntsman sneered, before he realized that he was quite suddenly empty-handed. Lightning bright as daylight had ripped my shadow out of his grip and sent it scurrying back under my feet, and I was already running towards the gates. Oh, I ached from the long ride and my shadow was bruised and I had not eaten or drunk since morning, but I was home and stumbling forward with the last of my strength. Feathers brushed my skin, and Wing stepped forward to stand between me and the Huntsman.
"N-no," I said, trying to turn back and stop her. She ignored me and strode forward, her map held like a cudgel, and swung once more. This time the Huntsman was on the lookout for a feint-- but there was no feint. She brought the map down, grimacing with the weight, swinging it at his upraised arm.
I suppose that in his rivalry he somehow forgot that Wing was a witch to rival her husband. He learned, though, when the bone in his arm shattered like a dry twig, when his shoulder broke and splintered, when he was driven down into the dirt like a nail into wood by the weight of every tree, every river, every rock, every painstakingly recorded mountain on a map so perfect that just for a moment it contained the weight and substance of everything it seemed to be.
He went down, and this time didn't rise.
I stumbled into a blue-silk-clad form, and arms came around me, holding tightly. "You idiot!" Bone Cage sobbed angrily, clasping me against him. "You CHILD, you reckless, witless-- if you ever dare scare me that way again-!"
"My second father," I whispered, and held him as if I would never let go. "I swore I would find her."
"IDIOT," he said, and put my head against his shoulder, cradling me like a small boy.
"Faithful son," a soft voice suggested, and feathers surrounded me, Joyful Wing joining the embrace. I had not been held by a parent since I was eleven and my first father died; Morning Brother had avoided touching me when he could. I had longed to embrace Bone Cage, but he was only a shade, and I had clung tightly to his worn skull-prison because it was the closest thing I had to the warmth of a familial touch. Now his arms were strong and he was warm and living, and he called me:
"Faithful son," with his voice shaking as if he could not believe it. "My son."
"Since I was eleven and you first sang me to sleep," I told him back, tears rolling down my face.
Someone in behind the gates cleared his throat, and we turned, every man and woman present, as one.
"Please, do pardon me." Yama ducked under the gate and walked out onto the plain, a look of benevolence on his fearsome, ugly face.
Tear-stained and dazed with exhaustion, I stared. "Wha-? How?"
He looked down at me, and made a sign with his massive clawed hand. "Hell is everywhere, Du Hui Rui. A thousand blessings on those who serve justice. Ten thousand blessings on those who serve in love. You will die doing the right thing, and it will be written on the record of your life."
Not everyone is given a backhanded blessing by the king of Hell; you would think I'd remember only that. Yet what I remember most about that moment was how two pairs of arms tightened around me as if Wing and Bone Cage would have protected me even from Yama himself.
Yama picked up the battered Huntsman by the chain attached to his iron collar and tucked him into his robe like... well, a doll. And then he walked away; one, two, three steps and he was gone.
We all went inside and Little Shield had the gates shut. I was taken home and fussed over; the finest doctor in Peking (by which I mean the most competent, not the highest ranking) appeared to dress my wounds and dose me with very expensive and surprisingly efficacious pain-relieving elixirs, and left without asking to be paid. (Damned Tiger.) I slept for a while-- sleep in the land of the living was like eating food for the first time after eating snow for a very, very long while. I was starved for it, and I flickered in and out of dreams, warm, comforted, and surrounded by family. Iron Hammer Maiden cooked and brought dishes full of savory, healing food, and Pious Sword sat by my bed and read sutras to me (which have never done much for me except put me to sleep, but his warm kind voice was meant to do exactly that). Thirsty Heart was always bustling about...
And my second father and the woman I hoped would some day consent to be my second mother never once left my side. In making them whole again I had repaired something deep in myself. No amount of money could buy a single drop of love, but I was bathed in it.
That is the story of the Faithful Ghost and his Bride. And that is also the story of why I consider myself richer than the emperor himself.
It is not the only story in Peking. No, or the only story of my acquaintances. I could tell you about Ao Man, the girl who slept for twenty years, and the son of a fisherman who prayed by her bedside until Erlang Shen himself heard the prayers of a tiger. I could tell you how Empty Heart, the demon father of Thirsty Heart, tried to make Little Shield his fifth wife and how he came to regret it. I could tell you how Number One Painted Maid nearly got in trouble and how I got her out of it.
Hell (speaking only rhetorically, Lord Yama, I tap my head on the ground in respect), I know plenty of stories. I could tell you how the spirit called String of Pearls seduced a husband and wife on their wedding night; how Golden Stallion nearly ended the world over the matter of a cursed ring, and how his brother Number Two Stag put it right again. I could tell you how the ugliest and blackest-hearted soldier in the country lost his heart to two cousins-- fortunately one of them was the fabled Red Ribbon Monk, who mended his heart and his head and made him a hero of China and the protector of wounded men.
I could; but I'm not going to. Bei Rong Bai (who still keeps the name Bone Cage like a treasured gift) is making dinner, and Joyful Wing will be coming home after a long day of work, and I am going to go eat dinner with my parents.
I am the cheapest wizard in Peking, and a detective of reasonable skill. I wear a glove over one hand, until the backwards imprint of 'official visitor' fades from my palm; do not be alarmed. I will help you when the rich men in the Street of Sages will not. When demons rise, I will be there to put them down. My name is Du Hui Rui.
Conjure by it at your own risk.