SUMMARY: The tale of the Chinese slayer. PG13. Spoilers for "Fool
for Love". Written June 2002.
Master Bao throws the three coins. He sits cross-legged at the point where the path forks and pushes his long queue back over his shoulder so that it does not disturb the coins. Shuhao has seen him do this so often that she can recognise every hexagram of the I-Ching, but she cannot divine their meaning. Instead she keeps watch, alert to the motion of the moonlit trees, listening for rustles in the grass. She senses nothing untoward, so soon she finds her mind wandering back to yesterday's dream. Perhaps it is of the sort she should mention to Master Bao.
Master Bao snorts a little and nods his head, scooping the up the pieces with a single motion of his hand. "This way," he says, rising, and she follows him down the path. The way is a little rocky, and there are tree roots to trip over now and then, but both she and Master Bao are sure-footed and used to travelling at night. She has their supplies on her back and her swords by her side.
The day before, she dreamt she was one of those swords---she often dreams of herself thus, as an instrument. She remembers gleaming against a midday sky, which was strange in itself, for she seldom dreams of daylight. The weaponsmith was exhibiting her to some passerby. "Look at the fine workmanship!" he said. "Look at the engraving!" And she found herself looking at her own engraving, which seemed to form a maze. And then she was deep in the maze, and every turn she took brought her to another dead end. Only, just as she was beginning to despair, a hand reached down to her from behind a wall. She thought it was her mother's. And she reached up to grasp it, so her mother could pull her out, but Shuhao's hands were slippery with something dark and she just couldn't hold on at all. Which was when something unseen had seized her---and when she had woken, to early evening shadows and Master Bao asking for his breakfast.
They reach the banks of a fast-flowing stream and pause to find the best way to cross it. Shuhao spots where broad flat stones have been thrown into the water and she points this out to Master Bao. He's on the far shore and she is standing on the middlemost stone when she feels it, and before she even realises that she has heard a sound, she has her swords in her hands (one steel, one silver-edged and ensorcelled so that its wounds are less easily healed). The sound is a wailing, the plaintive cry of a lost infant, and on the bank she can see a beautiful child, tears streaming down his face. Master Bao steps toward it, clucking reassuringly, reaching into the folds of his clothes for paper and fire. And in a moment he has dispelled the illusion and the demon's true form is clear: a heavy-set man with wide yellow eyes. Shuhao leaps once, twice, across the water and strikes out with her blades. The demon's head rolls and its body explodes into dust.
Master Bao smiles then and tells her to have something to eat---he must find and destroy the powders the demon used for the spell. It won't take him long---it never does---and they'll be on their way again soon. Westwards, he says.
The wood gives way to a plain and the path becomes a road. There is much more traffic now: travellers on foot, farmers trailing half-laden carts, soldiers on horseback. Many passerby are injured or weak-looking. Master Bao offers to trade medical help for food, but it is the same story here as it has been for months: the harvest has been bad. People are hoarding what they have or charging high prices. One of the farmers, who has been beaten so badly that Master Bao assists free of charge, complains that she and her husband were waylaid not a mile from town and that all their produce was stolen. "And where were the magistrate's people?" she demands. "Why have these brigands not been arrested?"
A young man overhears her and comes to talk. He is carrying a gun. "The magistrate does not care because he is Manchu, and they only care for their own kind. He spends his time lining his own pockets, and the pockets of the foreign ocean men who truly run the town."
Master Bao says nothing, but finishes binding up the farmer's wounds. Shuhao thinks of her stomach. Her work makes her very hungry and she hasn't eaten properly for a week. But it seems they are only a day's journey now from the town. The magistrate will take care of them there and they will tell him about the brigands.
The next day she dreams not of swords and mazes but of rice buns filled with sweet bean paste.
They reach the town at daybreak, after a night in which they are attacked by a whole gang of demons. One sliced open Shuhao's back with a knife, so now she feels stiff and weary, and her clothes are bloodstained and torn. Master Bao promises her a day or two of rest once they have seen the magistrate.
The town itself sits inside a loop of river and is bound to one side by the slopes of gentle hills. Shuhao gets a strange feeling under her skin as she looks at it. At first she thinks she is sensing more demons, but she comes to doubt this after a while. Then she thinks the feeling must be due to bloodloss and that perhaps she's more tired than she thought. But then they reach the first buildings and she realises there is more to it than that. She stops walking.
Master Bao stops also and turns to look back at her. He answers her unspoken question.
"Yes," he says, "this was your home. This is the town you were born in."
The magistrate is a worried-looking man, flanked by three assistants and one gruff ocean man in a stiff, ungainly suit. "Just what is it that you want?" he asks again.
Master Bao tries to explain. The coins have brought him and his demon-slayer to the town. The magistrate should provide them with shelter, food and supplies. In return they will rid the town of its demons.
"We don't have any demons!" the magistrate snaps. He keeps glancing at the ocean man: the latter seems very sceptical of Master Bao.
Shuhao shuffles tiredly on her feet. This has never happened before; before now the magistrates have always known who she was and what was expected. Why is it different now? How will they pay for their food and fresh clothes? They'll have to sleep outdoors like vagabonds to save money. No sweet rice buns after all.
Master Bao seems bewildered, and she's never seen him like that. "My charge," he says, for the sixth time, "is The Slayer," as if repetition alone will make the magistrate understand. It doesn't work: they are summarily dismissed.
They find themselves standing out in the street, weary, unwashed and hungry. Master Bao says nothing and does nothing. Shuhao waits. Master Bao will know what to do.
But instead, help comes scurrying out of the magistrate's compound. It is one of the magistrate's assistants. "I am in charge of the treasury," he says. "I know who you are. I will authorise what you need."
Master Bao thanks him, but still looks confused. "How can he not know?"
"He knows," the treasurer says, "but he's afraid of the devils."
Shuhao looks up. "Then we will kill them," she says, feeling sure at last of her duty.
Master Bao places his hand on her wrist. "He means the foreign devils," he says, quietly. "The ocean men."
They go to an inn near the market where Shuhao can at last eat her fill. There is soup, buns, rice, even chicken, and she eats until she fears she'll be sick. She wants to sleep then, but Master Bao insists that she bathe first, so he can properly attend to the wound on her back. Then at last she lies down, exhausted. But now she can't get to sleep.
Instead she lies awake remembering the first time she met one of the foreigners. It was not long after Master Bao had found her. He had taken her many miles away to a monastery in the hills, where nuns taught her how to fight and scholars taught her about demons. Master Bao was one of the scholars: he knew much about magic and could speak many languages. So when a man arrived from distant Europe, it was Master Bao who went to see him. He also took Shuhao.
Shuhao had heard that the ocean men were tall and gangly, with hair and eyes of unnatural hue. So she was a little disappointed to find that Mr Bellwether was short, dark-haired and dark-eyed. Why, from the back he almost looked like a person. But he smelt wrong, like sour milk.
Mr Bellwether could not speak her tongue, although he knew a little of the language of the coast and Master Bao spoke a little of Mr Bellwether's native tongue. Little Shuhao had tried to be attentive while the two men struggled with their words, but after a while she started to fall asleep, tired from her morning lessons with the nuns. Master Bao had slapped her across the toes to wake her up.
"This man," he explained, "is my counterpart from far to the west. He guided the last slayer but two. He is here to exchange information and to warn us of what grows powerful in his homeland, in case it threatens us."
"They have slayers far away?" Shuhao asked. She had always thought of them as Han people like herself.
"The slayer always appears where she is most needed," Master Bao said. "If anything, foreign lands have more need of them than us."
Shuhao nodded. That made sense. She wondered suddenly, "What was his slayer like?"
Master Bao asked, in the foreigner's language, and Mr Bellwether's round face grew solemn and sad. He said something to Master Bao.
"Dutiful and brave and a credit to her nation. She was from `Hu-ails'."
Mr Bellwether rummaged in his bag and drew out two silver objects hung on chains. He presented one each to Master Bao and to Shuhao. "To be hung around the neck," Master Bao added unnecessarily.
After Mr Bellwether had excused himself, Shuhao asked, "Is this not a Christian symbol?" And Master Bao had replied that yes it was, but it still warded off demons nevertheless.
"The fish is a Christian symbol too," he said. "Do you suggest that we stop eating fish?"
So Shuhao had placed it around her neck. She wore it for years, until a battle with a slug-demon broke the chain and sent the cross sinking deep into the mud of a river. Until this moment, she has not thought of it since.
When Shuhao wakes it is already dark. She has a little breakfast and then she patrols the nearby streets. She only does this for a few hours, as Master Bao is anxious that she get plenty of rest before they hunt whatever ill has brought them to this place. She finds the streets eerie despite their bustle precisely because she recognises them. She's been travelling for so long that she always expects to see something new around every corner.
She studies the faces of every person she passes, thinking, is that man my brother? Is that woman over there a long-lost friend? She wonders if anyone will know her.
She falls asleep again before it is even light but wakes, restless, in the mid-afternoon. Master Bao won't wake for hours and she can't spend all her time eating. She thinks she will practice her skills in the yard, but then another plan occurs to her, and soon she is pulling on her footwear and scurrying out of the inn.
She remembers the market, so she will start there. She tries to recall what the world looked like when she was half her present height. She needs to find the alley next to the wheelwrights'---there it is! She walks down it. Left at those steps, she thinks. A long way down these streets, past the temple, until she sees the doctor's store. And then she's running, because she can see her old home and---she persuades herself---can even smell the hot scent of the kiln. Her feet fly effortlessly over the ground. And when the door opens, to a woman thicker and greyer than Shuhao remembers, there is no doubt in either woman's eyes.
Mother and daughter embrace.
Shuhao is overjoyed to be home. She never expected to be here again. But there is her eldest brother, sitting at the wheel, shaping bowls. Out in the yard is a sister-in-law, a nephew and two nieces that Shuhao's never met. And here is her mother, her hands stained with dye and smoothed with fine clay, holding her close.
"Look at you!" she says. "You became her, then, the Slayer? Bao Zhi-Jian was so sure! You're strong and healthy and, my, look at those swords!"
"I am the Slayer," Shuhao says. "I have been so for a year and a half. But I was fighting demons before then with Master Bao as training and before that---" but she barely knows where to begin. She smiles. "I am not used to telling stories. Please tell me how you are."
So they sit down next to the wheel so her brother can work as they talk and her mother can apply the careful glazes. Shuhao is so overcome by the familiarity of their voices that she can barely take in what is being said . She answers a few of their questions and her nieces and nephew grow wide-eyed.
"But where are my other brothers?" she asks, after a while. "I have to return to the inn before Master Bao misses me."
No-one speaks for a moment, and then her eldest brother says, "They have joined the Society."
Shuhao looks at him. "Of the Fists?"
He nods. "They left a few days ago. They did not say for what. They think that because their sister is a great warrior for the people that they should be ones too."
"They are stupid," her mother says. "The magistrate will have them all arrested."
Her brother shakes his head. "I do not think so. I think he would support them openly if he could." He shrugs. "But if they return soon, we will send them to see you. How long will you being staying in this town?"
"I don't know," she says, truthfully. She never knows. "This may be the only time I'll have to see you." She looks at the colour of the sky. "And I must leave."
Her mother hugs her one more time at the door. "I missed you after you left," she says, "my only daughter. But I never regretted letting you go. I knew you would turn out like this. Always righteous, always taking the correct path. I'm proud of you."
Shuhao holds these words close to herself as she races back to the inn. She's very late, but Master Bao is still lying on his cot. He's only pretending to be asleep, for she notices that his empty breakfast bowl has been nudged under the bed. He gives an exaggerated yawn and feigns waking. He must guess where she's been.
Master Bao's only family died decades ago, Shuhao knows, during the wars with Hung Hsiu-ch'uan. He never mentions them.
She listens more carefully now to the gossip at the inn. People are still bewailing the poor harvest, but there is also other news. There has been much violence at the coast and the outbreaks have been getting closer. Foreigners are fleeing; Chinese Christians are being forced to recant. The Fists have accused the ocean men of worshipping demons---they think the armies of heaven will rise to assist them with their cause.
Shuhao repeats these rumours to Master Bao. "If there are demons involved, I will find them," he promises her. "In the meantime---patrol."
But she finds few demons in the streets of the town. There are too few for a place of this size. Either something has already driven them away, or they have all left to join the tumult at the coast. She feels as if she's waiting for the onset of a storm and she can't stand it.
Her other brothers come to visit her on an evening when Master Bao is out. Her brothers are young men now, with a swagger in their steps and guns across their backs. They laugh too easily.
"You should come join us and help the Fists," they say. "You could be our figurehead. People know you are righteous and would flock to our cause.
"The foreign devils have corrupted us for too long. They control us through opium and their superior guns. But they are uncivilised, Shuhao. They squabble endlessly amongst themselves. They are fighting now over the carcass of our poor country. They are our inferiors in every way but one and that is firepower. But our courage and righteousness will defeat them."
It has been so long since she's beheld her brothers that she cannot bring herself to say no. Instead she says she will consider what they have said and talk to Master Bao.
When Master Bao returns he tells her he hasn't found any sign of demons being involved. "But they're coming," he says. "The violence is getting closer, to the north and east. We have a day, two at most."
She nods. There is little she can do to prepare. All she can do is eat, sleep and practice her fighting. She fetches them something to eat and then sits down beside him.
She has been thinking of Mr Bellwether and of the help they receive from the magistrates.
"Do we work for the Manchu?" she asks him.
"Yes," Master Bao says. His answer surprises her.
"Do we work for the ocean men?" she asks.
"Them also," he says.
She's silent for a long moment, so he looks up and reads her face. He moves to take her hands in his and forces her to look in his eyes.
"We work for the Manchu," he says. "We work for the ocean men. We work for the Han. We work for every living thing against every unliving thing. Do you you understand me?" She nods.
"I know these times are troubling. There may be war. But those wars are for other warriors, we have other battles to fight. If civil unrest breaks out, then the demons will come. They seek out the fear and lawlessness of such situations. The Slayer---she kills them. That is her mission, her only mission."
She whispers, "I understand." She hopes she does.
The streets are on fire. The Fists are here. They are burning the missionaries' compound and the opium merchants' stores. Other buildings are ablaze also, set alight by accident or design. The town is in chaos. Anyone suspected of working for the foreigners is being chased out and men armed with guns and swords roam from house to house, killing, it seems, without reason. And the demons have arrived.
Shuhao and Master Bao are outside the doctor's. The wounded are being brought here and so the demons flock for an easy meal. Shuhao swings her swords, beheading demons one by one, while Master Bao inspects each new patient to ensure that he or she is not some demon in disguise. The doctor treats each patient in turn while his assistants run hither and thither, fetching what is needed.
The magistrate is among the wounded. So is one of Shuhao's brothers and one of the missionaries. Her mother, she is glad to know, fled the day before yesterday, at Shuhao's urging. Her mother has promised not to return to the town until all the fires are out.
The demons are running from Shuhao now, racing back up the street. She has time to pause. "You can't leave the patients in the shop," Master Bao is explaining to the doctor, "but if we move them into your home, the demons cannot enter. Or at least, some of them cannot." So Shuhao helps them carry the wounded into another part of the shop.
But there's no rest after that. "The inn next," says Master Bao. "That's where they will congregate next." So Shuhao blows the dust from her blades and puts them back in their scabbards.
They race towards the market square. A dozen Fists are there, beset by half-a-dozen demons. The Fists are shooting the demons and stabbing them, which enrages but does not kill this kind of monster. The Fists are dying right and left.
Shuhao reaches the melee, swords in hand. The first demon dies before he even sees her. "Like this!" Shuhao cries, "behead them!" She slices another demon from hip to throat before she's able to land the killing blow. One Fist, faster and smarter than the others, has followed her lead, dropping his gun and slashing his sword towards a demon's neck. Shuhao fends off two of the remaining demons, sliding under their blows, kicking one to his knees. Behind her, Master Bao is also fighting, wooden stake in hand.
She kills another; the quick Fist finally manages a clean severance of his opponent's head. There are only two demons left: one for her and one for Master Bao. She hears a rip of cloth as Master Bao's demon seizes the man and tears open the cloth at his throat, but when she can spare a glance away from her fight, she sees that the demon has been repelled by Master Bao's silver cross, and that the stake has found its way to the demon's vulnerable heart. There are now five piles of dust where their assailants have been and Shuhao returns her concentration to the sixth. She feints. She lunges. And then the last demon is gone.
A shot rings out, close to her ear, almost deafening, even in the cacophony of the flame and riots. She turns her head.
To watch Master Bao flung back from the force of the shot, shattered bone and meat exploding from his face. His fingers lose their grasp on his stake as his body smacks against the ground.
For perhaps a quarter-second, Shuhao pauses, rocking slightly on the balls of her feet. Master Bao does not magically come back together. No illusion is dispelled. Her mentor gives her neither instructions nor a grudging smile. He just skids a little further back from the momentum, his remaining eye staring heavenwards. He cannot see her.
Then Shuhao's steel sword seems to move of its own accord, tearing through the air, cleaving the wrist of their attacker, sinking its blade deep into the barrel of a gun. The silvered sword moves in a more horizontal arc, divesting their enemy of his head.
The head rolls down the street. The body collapses at her feet. Neither one turns to dust.
The remaining Fists look at her. They see, as their fellow had, the crucifix at Master Bao's throat. "You're a Christian?" one of them asks. They start to turn on her, their weapons at the ready. Shuhao says nothing. She wants them to attack. She wants to kill them.
The steel sword is useless now, chipped and too firmly embedded in the gun. She drops it. But her other sword is ready when the first Fist begins to raise his gun at her. He's dead before the others have blinked.
She takes a step forward. The Fists take a step back. The smart one reads her expression and turns to run.
She can't let him escape; she's too full of rage. So she draws a knife and throws it deep between his shoulderblades, at the base of the neck. The man falls and does not rise. Some of the Fists turn now to attack her; others are fleeing into the nearest building, the temple, even though it's already been set alight. They fear her more.
Shuhao's sword moves once, twice, thrice, and two more Fists lie dead on the ground. From inside the building she can hear screaming. Her first thought is that the building must be falling apart. She ignores it.
The next Fist is in his middle years, a veteran who actually knows what to do with a sword. He will take more than two strokes. She bends and weaves, but the veteran parries, so after a while she loses all patience and closes in tight, too close to use their swords. With her free arm she grasps around his head and twists. His knees give way under him.
A man emerges now from the temple. He clings to the doorway as if his left leg has been broken and he seems to have lost his nose. He starts stumbling towards her, but then something pulls him back into the burning building. She hears a snap and a scream and nothing more.
It is then that some part deep inside of her finally reaches up through her rage. It says, demon! Kill demon! Kill demon! She sways a little on her feet, clutching her sword in both hands. She blinks several times. The bodies of dead Fists lie around her. If any are still alive, they are inside the temple.
She starts to shiver. She can't stand the sight of the blood on her sword, so she wipes it on one of the fallen men's clothes. There are still human sounds coming from behind the temple door.
Slayer, slayer, she thinks, forcing herself to breathe properly and to stop shivering. I am The Slayer. I kill demons, not men. She rubs at her face, as if to wake herself. She must go into the temple and---save these men.
She breathes deep, draws herself together, tries not to think of Master Bao lying dead a dozen yards down the road. She knows her duty. She will be brave. She steps up to look at her true foe.
And stands back in shock. He's a foreign devil, an ocean man, but unlike every other ocean man she's ever met, this one does not smell of milk.
He smells of blood.
His skin's pale as bone, his hair looks like thatch, and his eyes are the colour of the sky at noon. He has killed all but one of the remaining Fists.
He says something to her then, in a language she does not understand, but she recognises the tone: low and mocking. The surviving Fist strikes out at him, knife in hand, but the ocean devil seizes his attacker's arm easily and breaks it. The devil kicks away the Fist's lower leg and the man crumples. A foot smashes into the man's neck and crushes his throat. The devil isn't even bothering to drink from his victims, he's just pulling them apart for the fun of it. He's a savage.
But she thinks, am I any better? She's spilt human blood tonight. There's no honour in that, it's not part of her calling. She's betrayed Master Bao and she's betrayed her mother. She's the Slayer, and that's not what she's supposed to be about.
Does he know what she is? Can he tell? She thinks so---he was offhand in killing the man, but he's being more careful of his movements now that she's here. He seems to be sizing her up. He's starting to smile.
And she knows that there is nothing she can do to make right what she has done wrong tonight, but she knows that her duty still needs to be done. She must still try to kill the demon in front of her.
She thinks, "Try? Why am I thinking 'try'?", but then the demon is
upon her, and she has no time left to think and no remaining sense of
self. She is motion and she is fury: she is the warrior of the people.