Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Fighting Demons

Zhang Pi wakes to the snores of the apprentices. Slipping from his straw bed, he pads shoeless past the forge, to Master Ma's sword in its place of honor on the smithy wall. The simple white hilt smolders red in the forgelight.

When the others awake, this will seem a thievery. It is regrettable. But Pi's sword was  left behind, with his true name.

Pi grimaces, and lifts the sword, and does not feel the slightest eagerness at its perfect balance in his hand.

Outside the smithy is darkness and the demons' ceaseless laughter like the cries of agonized souls. It has been years since the demons last crossed the city walls, but Pi has heard stories enough to feel as though he was among the survivors.

Pi leaves the wall and the laughter behind, and he picks his way through moonshadow to the well and the dark waiting shape of Cho Wei.

Wei nods at him, his lean, ascetic head close-cropped, unlike Pi's shaggy mop. The moon is a watery reflection in the well-polished blade Wei holds naked in his hands. "I swore I'd put this away for good when I left the monastery."

"It would be dangerous to face a sorcerer with less." Pi does his best to sound desultory. Wei nods gravely and takes the lead as they start toward Wong Min's estate.

"How do you think he will come back?" Wei asks, a grin in his voice.

"A beetle, perhaps," Pi says. "A shit-beetle. Certainly he has not wisely used the life he has been given."

"Or the wife," Wei notes. "Not that I have noticed."

"We do this for the village," Pi says.

"Of course," Wei says.

"Beautiful as she is, she is nearly too old for child-bearing," Pi notes. "And anyway, she has given the sorcerer only girls. What could we want with her?"

"Just so," Wei says. "We are one with the Way in this."

Wong Na meets them at the gate, a vision in the moonlight, draped with gold and sapphire and jade. She smells sweetly pungent, and the guards are nowhere to be seen.

"They sleep," she whispers.

"You are brave to make this sacrifice," Pi tells her. Opium and night make her eyes huge and black.

"Very brave," Wei echoes.

A hand tinkles dismissively and she favors Wei with a smile. "Had I known he dealt with demons, I never would have allowed myself to be wed to him."

"Are you certain that he must die?" Pi asks hopefully.

Na lowers her eyes. "I would sacrifice a hundred husbands for the good of my village."

"For the good of the village," Wei murmurs.

"He can be found on his couches," Na tells them, opening the gate. "As usual. He is too fat to rise. Dealing with demons has made him lazy."

"His couches?" Wei asks, casually.

"In the center of the house," Na tells him. "Near the bedrooms."

"Ah," Wei says.

"Here." She limps toward them, her cool hand lingering against Pi's for a moment. When it leaves, a ticklish knot lays in the palm of his hand. He looks at it, and at her, questioningly. "A charm," she tells him, even as she moves to Wei. Her hand remains even longer in Wei's hand than it had in Pi's. "I have used one of his spells to deafen everyone within the estate. These will let you hear one another."

"Wise," Pi says admiringly.

Wei smiles a secret smile. "Wise," he agrees.

Pi's training comes back slowly, but it comes.

Across the compound, he hears Cho Wei at work, hears the clash of sword and the cries of the dying.  The first to fall to Pi were the opium-charmed guards; Master Ma's wondrous blade went through the three of them as though they were boneless.

Inside the main building, he surprises an old man armed with a wooden spatula. The blade rises and falls and the old man screams.

Demons and demon-spawn, all of them, Wong Na had assured them.

A woman wraps herself around a boy barely five. He is screaming; she bawls that she cannot hear him, why can she not--

Master Ma's sword sweeps through them as though they are so many dry leaves.

Men, women, boys, girls. An infant whose eyes might be red with crying or with Wong Min's demons. Zhang Pi slaughters them all, for sake of the village. For sake of humanity.

Certainly not because he has missed the killing. Or because of Wong Na's beautiful hair.

Pi meets Wei at the center of the house, past the bedrooms with their not at all suggestively tousled sheets. Wei's robes stink of blood and his sword drips red, but he flashes Pi a toothy smile.

"It is almost done," he tells Pi.

Master Ma's sword feels marvelous in Pi's hand. "I am glad you found me," he tells the monk. "Perhaps one day I will be a smith in truth, but this, tonight, is what I truly have been born to do."

"Ridding the world of demons," Wei says, smiling wider.

"What else is there?"

"What else indeed?" Wei wipes his sword on a handful of robes. "Only the demon king remains. Wong Na believes that he will sleep another hour yet."

"But he treats with demons," Pi says. "He may have sold his sleep long ago."

We shrugs. "If that is the way of it, I will not argue. It is good for a man to see his death coming. Or a demon. The moment of recognition clarifies the soul tremendously. It will help him with the next revolution."

Perhaps it is the blood they have drawn together, or the thrill of their impending triumph. But Pi feels as if he can ask Wei anything. So he does.

"Do you truly love her, Cho Wei?"

Pi watches Wei consider feigning ignorance, and discard the idea. "She is spectacular, is she not? But no, I do not love her."

"Nor do I," Pi lies. And attacks.

When it is over, Pi stands bloodied outside the door, breathing harder after these few seconds of exertion than he had after all the other bodies combined.

The door opens soundlessly, and Wong Min reclines beyond, his mouth agape. He is enormous, a hippopotamus with hands, gray-skinned and twitching as he gasps in his sleep. He is a pitiable thing, truth to tell, and for a moment Pi feels pity.

And then he thinks of Wong Na, who could perhaps one day be Zhang Na if he coaches her to her full inheritance, and he raises Master Ma's sword.

The sorcerer dies without a sound, and the silence ripples outward to the city walls and beyond. Deep within the city, surrounded by thick stone, Pi had not thought he could hear the demons' laughter, but this new silence proves him wrong.

The silence lasts long enough for Pi to leave the house and emerge into the night, long enough for him to feel the stiffness in Na's body and the coldness of her lips when he kisses her, long enough for him to walk toward the city gate realizing every error he has made this night.

But, then, there is one realization more.

The screaming he'd heard before, he realizes as he looks up at the high stone wall in horror, was the outpouring of the demons' pain and frustration.

What he hears now--the rippling, gurgling noises that tear from their throats as their claws scrabble up the stone--is their laughter.


Another Chuck Wendig challenge, this a pick-two-genres and write to a theme. The theme was "Love demands sacrifice." The genres I drew were wuxia (Chinese swords-and-sorcery, featuring a protagonist who fights for the thrill of fighting and for chivalry) and political satire. I *think* there's some satire in this; the politics is allegorical at best, so it's pretty much a fail on the Meet the Challenge criteria... but I like how it turned out anyway. The characters, btw, were drawn directly from the character generator in the sidebar.

1 comment:

  1. I liked this. It was well written and entertaining.

    The turns in the plot were fairly predictable, which is not inherently bad, but if you wanted them to be a surprise...

    I agree with you about the politics. If it's a political satire, then exactly what/who it's satiring with what aspect is lost on me. As an allegory it works better.

    I don't claim to be an expert on the form, but what wuxia I have read and seen tends to feature more heroic characters. Or at least moral ones. Pi and Wei read more like a wuxia/crime novel mash up. This is another one of those things that's really only significant in terms of the weekly challenge, because the story itself works great.