I. Massacre at Three Blind Sisters
The strangers came under a red half-moon to Three Blind Sisters. They wore strange clothes—stiff-looking black and tan suits of foreign design, with black hats and carefully-manicured beards. On their belts they carried guns. All but their leader, who dressed casually and carried no weapons, and who had an easy smile.
The boy and his sister watched the approaching men.
“He is so handsome,” the boy’s sister said. They were watching the men ride past the three Blind Sisters who gave the village its name. The stone statues, ancient guardians of this small, distant place, stared at the men without seeing. Their power had weakened over generations: Now they were little more than mute stone, and no one in the village could remember ever hearing them speak.
The boy felt a tingling at the tip of his fingers. He saw with his inner eye: The leader rode unarmed because his power was great. The aura of Qi around him was unmistakable. Unease made him close his fingers into a fist. The man, passing close to them, glanced casually their way: His eyes locked on the boy’s for one long, uncomfortable moment. Then his gaze shifted to the boy’s sister, and his smile flared up like a small sun.
There was a celebration that night in the centre of the village as the elders welcomed the strangers. Fires burned and the men ate bowls of chow mein and roast pork and thousand-year-old eggs and vegetables fried in oyster sauce, and they used chopsticks clumsily and complained about the heat of the spices—all but their leader, whose skin seemed to glow with an internal fire no chilli could ever match. There was a fire in his eyes, too, and it flamed brighter when he watched the boy’s sister, whose name was Jia.
He had eyes for no one else.
The village had been unimportant enough for long enough to make most of the villagers feel safe. When the star-stone had fallen from the sky, one clear night a generation before, a small but prosperous mining industry had formed, as the village dug for and then sold talismans of the Qi-rich stone to merchants in the wizarding trade, who in turn sold them, for a handsome profit, in distant Kunming and even farther, in Shanghai and Imperial Peking itself.
The visitors—or so their leader said—were members of an expeditionary mission seeking investment opportunities in their province, which was called Yunnan. They were English, he’d said, and their queen ruled the lands beyond the borders, where once the Burmese emperors held power.
The boy knew the Burmese lands were once rich in Qi. But Qi depletes with use. Magic goes away. And so, always, men must seek new sources of power.
The leader gave a magic demonstration for the children, making dragons of flame appear in the sky above the village, changing smooth round pebbles from the brook into ugly toads who hopped away. He found hidden objects, read fortunes, and shaped flame.
The tingling sensation at the tips of the boy’s fingers returned, worse than before. While the Englishman was making magic, his eyes remained fixed on the boy’s sister, who was not oblivious to the attention, and whose pretty face had turned as red and warm as fire. The boy had left the other children, shaping shadow to mask his passing. Though young, he knew his Qi was strong. Around his neck a talisman of star-stone, shaped into a smooth round disc, pulsed gently. He wrapped his fingers around it, letting it guide him, until he found himself, at last, standing below the three stone sisters.
The Blind Sisters towered above him, gentle, windswept faces staring into nothing. He put his hand against the warm stone. He felt peaceful there, connected to these ancient artefacts. Even the fall of the star-stone did not help revive them, though it was said they still watched over the village, offering protection and guidance.
Yet the tingling in his fingers grew, became a pain that spread up his arm. With a sudden cry he pulled his hand away from the stone. A red haze was rising in the distance, over the roofs of the village. The boy stared up at the statues. Something was happening to them. Their stone-shapes softened, their colour changing. They seemed to move, to sway in an invisible wind. The boy stared—in horror? Excitement? He did not know—as the blind faces turned, and stone mouths opened. For the first time in centuries, the Blind Sisters were coming alive.
The boy covered his ears, but the screams pierced through him like blades. The disc of star-stone against his chest flamed and exploded, sharp shards flying in all directions, and the boy cried out in pain. He ran away from the Sisters, towards the village. The red haze was growing, but the boy was nearly half-way back before he realised what he was seeing.
The entire village was in flames.
He heard shouts, panicked cries. Gunfire pierced the night, and with it came a booming laugh. A bright explosion rose above the village, a fireball that hovered for almost a full minute before swooping down. People ran screaming from it, but there was nowhere to hide, and when the fireball caught them their screams ended abruptly. The foreign men rode through the burning alleys, blocking escape. The boy saw, with numb horror, that they were gathering the young and the fit while they let the elderly die. He watched relatives perish in the flames, cousins being herded and roped together like cattle. The flames had caught easily on the bamboo and thatch of the houses.
Jia! His sister.
The boy began to run. Wrapping himself in shadows, he was not seen. Arriving at the clearing of packed earth in the centre of the village, he saw her.
The leader of the foreign men, the Englishman, was standing in a circle of flame. His hands burned unharmed, and from his fingers fire streamed forth, engulfing the entire village.
Standing beside him, as mute as stone, was the boy’s sister. Flames were in her eyes. She did not move. Crying, the boy ran forward, the shadows falling away from him.
The boy raised his hands, and fires flamed. He cast them at the Englishman—
Laughing, the man turned. In his hands, fire turned to frost. It shot out and steam rose into the air where the boy’s fire had been.
“You think you can take me, boy? You?” the man sounded amused, not angered.
“My sister!” the boy said. He felt the level of Qi rising all around him, power such as he had not known—not even dreamed of—before it came pouring through him. A toad hopped past him and he scooped it up. It became a stone again in his hand and he threw it at the foreign wizard. The man ducked, easily, but the stone exploded above him, and shards rained down upon him. When he stood up again his cheek had been cut, and blood was pouring out. The man no longer looked amused.
He raised a hand and a spear of air formed between his fingers, a wind weapon the boy knew he could not stop. He stood his ground, preparing for death—
His sister, one hand raised, her eyes dancing with the flames. The Englishman paused, seemed to reconsider. “Do you fear for her life?” he said, and some of the amusement trickled back into his voice. “You shouldn’t. I shall look after her, very well, when she is my wife.” He grinned then. “Who would have thought to find, in this Gods-forsaken place, a woman almost more beautiful than magic?’
“I won’t let you take her!”
“Brave,” the man said, and shrugged. “And foolish.”
“Please,” the boy’s sister said. Speaking came hard to her. Her lips barely moved, enslaved by flame. “Don’t hurt him. Let him go.”
“I’m afraid I can’t do that,” the man said—but he seemed uncertain. “Your people are well trained in mining for Qi, and will make valuable workers, but you are too young, and too headstrong to serve me. You consider yourself a magician, boy?” he did not wait for an answer. “Then I shall give you a chance. Live as a wizard—or die a as man.”
And then the man’s horse was suddenly there, and in one swift motion the man was horse-borne and the boy’s sister was behind him in the saddle. The boy stood frozen. The English magician barked an order and his men began to appear. Some dragged with them the remnants of the boy’s people. Others carried chests the boy knew well—star-stone talismans, an entire winter’s work, and almost the last of the deposits.
“A poor fare. But it will suffice,” the English wizard said. “We ride.”
He turned the horse around. His men followed. The boy, crying with despair, reached out to hurl one last ston—
The English wizard, turned, grinned, and gestured with his hand.
Flames engulfed the boy. A screen of fire blocked his view. Smoke stung his eyes.
“Live as a wizard!” the wizard’s voice came through the smoke, growing distant. “Or die as a man….”
The boy was trapped in the flames. His hand reached out for the talisman, before remembering it was no longer there. Closing his eyes, forcing himself to breathe deeply, to slow the beating of his heart, the boy tried to calm himself. Listening, the wailing of the Sisters spoke to him.
And with his eyes still closed, the flames licking at his clothes, the boy began to whisper the words of a spell he hadn’t known until that very moment.
II. Gunmen and Ghosts
The man who had been the boy sat alone before the fire, which suited him. A small ring of blackened stones served to hold the fire in check. The man had placed a wok over the fire and had tossed noodles and meat inside and some wild garlic. Adding a few drops of precious soy from a small stoppered bottle, he stirred the food with a pair of wooden chopsticks. As he stirred he watched the night, and waited.
Presently there came footsteps. The man listened for a moment, then relaxed. He removed the wok from the fire and served the food into two bowls. The footsteps came closer, stopped, and a voice said, “You’re a lousy cook.”
“Shanghai Joe,” the man said. “You took your time.”
“I had to be careful, didn’t I?’
The man didn’t reply. He made a gesture with his head and the second man came and sat down on the other side of the fire.
The man examined his companion. Shanghai Joe was short, dressed in the Western fashion; an eye-patch covered his left eye, and his hair grew long at the back. He was mixed-blood, and his eyes were a disconcerting blue. He claimed to be the son of a wealthy American merchant and his Chinese wife, and to having grown up in luxury in distant, wealthy Shanghai. It was more likely, the man thought, that he had been born of the union between a prostitute and a sailor, and never knew either. It didn’t matter to him. A man made his own way in life, and Shanghai Joe—wizard, killer, outlaw—was someone he could trust.
They ate in silence, shovelling chow mein with the bowls close to their mouths. When they were done, the man stretched, leaned back, and made a cigar materialise as if by magic. He stared at the fire for a moment, then chuckled and snapped his fingers. A flame danced between his thumb and forefinger, and he brought it to the tip of his cigar and inhaled.
A cloud of blue smoke escaped from his lips and into the atmosphere. “Well?” he said.
“The mine lies two days’ ride away,” Shanghai Joe said. “Just as the mapmaker said. It’s heavily guarded—”
“As could be expected—” the man said.
“—and you can’t use magic,” Shanghai Joe said.
“Oh?” the man said—but he already knew the answer.
The magic goes away. Used over thousands of years, the Qi had been steadily depleted. Now only few places remained: Deep under the sea, it was said, the Qi was still rich, and Kraken yet lived, and high up in the Himalayas the Yeti still roamed, though they were growing less numerous with each passing year, and seeking out the higher altitudes as the Qi grew scarce…
But on land, in the populous places of the world, the magic went, and where once magicians raised storms and controlled armies of the dead, those were little more than legends, now. The old wizards were ghosts … and the gunmen ruled the world. Even Shanghai Joe had two guns on his belt where once a magician would have gone bare-handed. Now he said, “It is the biggest deposit of Qi to be discovered in a thousand years.”
The place was called The Buddha’s Fist, though it did not appear on any maps. But the man had managed to track down an old mapmaker in Kunming. The mapmaker had once been on an ill-fated expedition to the region. The place did not appear on any maps, but the mapmaker remembered. And the man had been convincing. As convincing as his gun.
The mapmaker told him what he knew of the place. A giant rock had once fallen from space onto the Earth and crashed, forming a crater. Star-stone was rich with primordial Qi … and this had been a very large rock, by all accounts.
“The Qi is too concentrated,” Shanghai Joe said. “I have never felt such power! The miners dig it out and the artificers shape it into coins and talismans and these are taken away by soldiers. I tracked their path. They go across the border, into the wild Lao lands and into Burma. The mine never stops. The overseers are foreigners. But the workers are Chinese.”
“Not being able to use magic might be a problem…” the man said.
“It could also be an advantage,” Shanghai Joe said. “They can’t use it against you, either.”
“They have guns?’
“And beyond the impact area?”
“Wards, spells—when you pass the three mile radius. Nothing too complex.”
“They’re very confident.”
Shanghai Joe shrugged. “Sure. And why shouldn’t they be?”
Yunnan Province was a long way away from the Forbidden City, and the Emperor’s gaze was turned inwards. No one paid much attention to Yunnan—even now, with the British holding Burma and making advances into the Lao lands. “Any villages?”
“None.” Shanghai Joe’s face turned grim. “None that aren’t burned down.”
The man nodded. He turned the cigar in his mouth and blew out smoke. “We ride at dawn,” he said.
III. Payment in Blood
To make it this far the man had had to make a deal … and deals made by and with magicians were unbreakable. Still, he didn’t like it—what he had had to do, and what he still needed to do…. There was always a price to pay.
They rode at dawn. Far in the distance the mountains rose, and giant shapes flew so high they seemed like birds. It was said there were still dragons in the mountains; he would have liked to have seen one.
They rode in silence. Shanghai Joe hummed tunes from time to time. They both carried guns.
The man scanned the surrounding countryside for signs of hidden magic. He could feel the Qi level rising slowly the farther they advanced. There would be wards: spells to trap the unwary. Once, when he turned his head, the man thought he saw a plume of smoke rising far in the distance, at their back. He checked, but Shanghai Joe didn’t seem to have noticed it.
They rode until the sun had set, and then a little farther. “Only a day’s ride, now,” Shanghai Joe said.
The man said, “I understand.”
Shanghai Joe looked embarrassed … but there was only so much you could ask of a friend. “You could still go back,” Shanghai Joe said.
The man smiled. There was an old burn mark on his chest, and he scratched at it absentmindedly now. “I never could,” he said. “I often wished …” but he left the thought unspoken.
When he woke up in the morning, Shanghai Joe was gone.
The man rode alone, which suited him. He had the gun on his hip, though it felt strangely out of place. The Qi was rising here, and with it his awareness. He whispered spells and probed for the unseen defences he knew must be present. At noon he came to a village. It was as Shanghai Joe had described it. Nothing much remained but blackened foundation stones. Hanging from one tree he saw a skeleton, strung up with a rope around its neck. It had been dead a long time.
As he stared he felt a tingling at the tips of his fingers. Quickly, he raised his hand, pointing at the skeleton just as it began to kick. He clicked his fingers and the skeleton crumpled into a cloud of dust that fell down gradually onto the burned ground. It had been bewitched to act as watcher, unable to find peace even in death.
He did not dally in the dead village after that.
The Englishmen knew what they were doing. One of the most powerful forms of Qi still remaining was blood magic.
By killing, they had erected walls of magic around The Buddha’s Fist. The man found his progress slowing as he negotiated tapestries of woven spells. Men and women had died on this land, and their ghosts remained, enslaved by the foreigners’ sorcery. They had made a payment in blood. Where he could, the man released the trapped spirits. His progress was slow. The ghosts brought his own spirit low.
Perhaps that was why he hadn’t noticed the ambush until it was too late.
IV. A Fistful of Star-Stone
There were four of them, two mounted on blood-red horses, the other two standing on opposite sides, hands raised, lips moving silently.
A wind howled, out of nowhere. The man’s horse reared back, almost throwing him off. From the fingertips of the standing men a wire mesh seemed to erupt, unfolding in the air above him, ready to descend—
Cursing, the man’s hands became torches, bearing flame, and the net hissed and dissipated into nothing—
There was so much Qi here—too much. He heard one of the standing men shout a warning. There was a crackle of electricity in the air. The ground shook. Lightning flashed. There were no clouds. The use of magic in a concentrated environment could lead to a chain reaction….
But the mounted men had guns. They were trained on him. English soldiers, and the ones standing were their mages. The one on the left raised his hands, not in sorcery but in a universal gesture of calm; he said, “The guns are loaded with star-stone. Come without a fight and you won’t be harmed.”
“I rather doubt that,” he said. He shot flames at the English mage who then, with a curse and a wave of his hand, cast them away. That crackle of electricity again, and the sky darkened—too close to the source, by now, and The Buddha’s Fist must have been closer than he thought. A chain reaction could destroy everything….
He had been careless.
The fight was short, and bloodied. They killed his horse, dropping it from under him. When he rolled away, they grabbed him, and when he fought they broke bones. He spat out a tooth and saw the shadow of a gun rising towards him—then the butt connected with his face with a sickening sound and he didn’t even have time to feel pain.
Then there was blackness.
“That was foolish.” The voice spoke a cultured Mandarin, with only the hint of an accent.
The man opened his eyes and found himself in a dark room. There were no windows. Candles burned in the corners. He himself was bound in solid, metal shackles—both hands and feet. The shape above him was dark—he couldn’t see a face.
But the voice was familiar.
“Did you really think to approach undetected? This mine belongs to Her Majesty the Queen.”
The man spat blood. The voice above him chuckled. “You may have thought to pass through undetected by magic,” it said. “Which is possible. The concentration here is such that magical defences are difficult to erect. However….” A hand ruffled the man’s short hair. The contact hurt. “Where magic fails a pair of eyes might suffice.”
The man could have healed himself, but not here. He could feel the pulse of Qi everywhere. In the air of the room, in the aching of his bones. The Buddha’s Fist, he thought. He must be right at the source.
“You are still alive,” the voice said, “because I am, I must confess, curious. Did you come here for this?” The figure knelt before him. He saw a face he could never forget—older, now, but with the same mocking grin, and flames dancing in the man’s eyes … the English wizard upended his hand. A handful of smooth discs fell down on the floor between them. “For star-stone? My star-stone?”
“I thought it belonged to your queen,” the man said.
The Englishman laughed. “She is far away,” he said. “Here, I am the only law.”
“I didn’t come to rob you,” the man said.
The Englishman arched an eyebrow. “Oh? Why then?”
“Did you think I came alone?” the man said. “You are a fool, Englishman. You are trespassing on Imperial ground. Your presence here is an act of war.”
“Yunnan,” the other man said dismissively—though he didn’t sound so sure of himself, suddenly. “Who cares about Yunnan?”
“All of the Middle Kingdom is one,” the man said. “And you are like a mosquito landing on its flesh. Sooner or later the hand of the Emperor was going to reach down and scratch.”
“Charming analogy,” the Englishman said. “But I don’t believe you. You come alone, where the emperor would have sent an army. And you look like no government agent I have ever seen.”
“No one wants a war,” the man said. “Take your soldiers, take your loot, and go now. You have a day.”
The Englishman laughed. Then he hit him.
When the door closed behind the man, he leaned back against the cold stone wall. It, too, pulsed with raw energy. So much magic! And he couldn’t use it to free himself.
But there was more than one kind of magic in the world.
Once, several years after leaving the burned village, the man—when he was still a boy—had found shelter from the rain in a barn on the outskirts of Kunming. There had been other itinerant travellers there and one—an old, one-eyed man—showed him magic.
There had been no Qi in that place for a long time, and none that he could detect, and yet the man made doves appear out of nowhere, and pulled streamers of coloured silks out of thin air, and made coins disappear. He cut a rope clean in half and then joined it as if it had never been broken. The other men there laughed and clapped, but the boy just stared, and then said, almost accusingly: “This isn’t magic.”
“No,” the older man agreed. He had a reedy, though not unpleasant, voice. “It is illusion, boy. Most magic is.”
The boy he had been made a disgusted sound. “Then what good is it?” he said. “Smoke and mirrors, tricks to entertain children.”
“I use no smoke, nor mirrors,” the one-eyed magician said. “And you are little more than a child yourself. You might care to show more respect to your elders.”
The boy had laughed, but later that night a force of the local constabulary came and rousted them, saying that the farmer in whose barn they sheltered had complained. They were taken into the city and locked up in the jail, behind thick bars and sturdy locks. Most of the men found it more comfortable than the barn, and did not complain. But the old one-eyed magician only smiled when they locked the gate behind them. “Can you magic these locks and bars away?” he had asked.
The boy admitted he could not. But when he ran his finger along the bars, he could sense the faint power running through them—Qi-reinforced metal, impervious to magical tampering. The old man had smiled again at that. Then, removing one shoe, he pulled aside a hidden compartment in the sole. He brought out a small, strangely-shaped metal wire. Rummaging through his thin hair, another curious appendage appeared. Whistling softly, the man approached the locks and set to work.
The next morning, they were found missing from the jail, though no one was certain how they had escaped. “Vanished,” one of the other prisoners told the bemused jailers, “like ghosts in the night.”
The jailers had put it down to magic, and gave thanks that the wizards they had unwittingly locked up had not harmed them. Life was hard enough without incurring the wrath of a wizard …
When the Englishman returned his face was troubled. “My watchers have spotted smoke in the distance,” he said. “Did you have anyone following you?”
“Did you really think I came alone?”
“I cannot risk a war …”
“There was a village,” the man said.
The Englishman said, “What?”
“There was a village. It was only a small village, far from here. A star had fallen there, centuries before, and it was relatively prosperous …”
“What are you talking about?”
“You probably don’t even remember it,” he said. The man’s hands had been busy, before. Now, before the Englishman could react, he had slipped out of the unlocked shackles. When he rose he was holding a slim, long blade.
And then the blade was against the man’s neck. “You came there in friendship,” the man said. “And you looted the village of its two greatest treasures …”
“Three Blind Sisters,” the Englishman said. When he spoke, his Adam’s Apple bobbed against the blade.
The man smiled grimly in the darkness. “I’ve come for my sister.”
“There was a boy,” the Englishman said, slowly. “In the flames … you?”
“Where is she?”
“Would it matter if I told you I loved her?” the Englishman’s voice was low, bitter. “If the elders had let us, we would have been married there and then. But they would not have a foreigner marry the flower of the village.”
“You lie badly.”
“Would it matter what I said?” the Englishman asked. Then, “No, I didn’t think so.”
The blade moved; it drew blood. The Englishman stood very still. “She died,” he said softly. “The fever took her, three years ago now. We were happy…”
“I wasn’t,” he said. Then, “Remember the flames….”
The blade moved. The Englishman didn’t make a sound as he dropped, softly, to the floor.
V. Red Dawn
“You did well,” the captain said.
The Imperial Guard had moved in through the night. Now, with dawn peeking over the horizon, The Buddha’s Fist was fully occupied. In the dim light, the man could see the deep shafts leading into the mines, and already the grimy, dusty workers were lining up for their first shift. The soldiers kept order. The British force, lacking their leader, had been only grateful to retreat. No one wanted a war.
And the emperor now held the mine.
“What will happen to them?” the man asked.
The captain looked surprised. “Who?” he said.
“Them.” He gestured at the miners. Some may have come from his village, once. He could have been one of them now—a slave—if things had turned out differently.
The captain said, “They will continue to work. The mine must remain open.”
Life mining Qi was short, and hard. The man said, “And when they die?”
“Others will take their place.”
With that, they escorted the man away from the mine. When they had reached the three mile Qi boundary, the man stopped his horse. They had given him a new one, though he missed the other.
“You did well,” the captain said again. “The Emperor will be grateful.”
Yet the emperor did nothing to stop the massacre at Three Blind Sisters, the man thought. He smiled, then, and made a cigar materialise. The sun was just beginning to rise, and dawn was painting the sky. “Got matches?” he said. But before the captain could reply he said, “Never mind,” and clicked his finger—
The captain shouted, and his men, sensing something was wrong, approached at a trot, but—
There was a moment of absolute silence. The man could feel the build-up of Qi, sense electricity in the air—
Then the flame burst from his fingertips, pure, concentrated magic burning, and he brought his cigar to the flame and drew on it, and puffed out smoke. Then, with a careless gesture, he threw the flame away.
He could not hear their shouts. The flame arced through the air, racing back to the source, growing as it travelled. He rode away then, fast. No one followed. When he turned back, a red dawn had filled the sky and the ground behind him was scorched dry.
When he clicked his fingers again there was nothing but a hollow sound.
He threw away the butt of the cigar and rode away.