Prologue: Mei-mei

From the Story Arc: Navigating Enlightenment

(posted Saturday, May 28, 2005)

October 8th, 1994, Old China Town, Shanghai.

Brother Ghost stumbled out into the cool bite of night, the cold air washed over him, sparking each droplet of sweat that lathered his panting features.

“Mei-mei…”

He grunted, smashing back into the support of a rusted wall, and sank slowly to a lazy slouch. He growled, pulling a small throwing knife from a deep wound in his thigh. Rough, laboured movements… and he managed to rip off his jacket and bind a crude tourniquet. It dug in something fierce. Remembering something, he swore and untied the bandage. With shaking hands he reached into the breast pocket, removed a crackling packet of cigarettes, and redid the dressing.

The lit cigarette tasted horrific, but it didn’t matter. The rush of nicotine was working its little miracle. Euphoric, he felt a steady pulsing at the nape of his neck, a release, things slowed, and he felt his heart calming.

“Mei-mei…”

“Little sister is full of surprises, yes?”

Slowly, Ghost allowed his eyes to pry open, half-slitted and feral. His gaze wandered upwards, until they fell on the unmistakable silhouette of Brother Spirit.

“Why do you trouble me, little brother? Do you not see I desire solitude?”

Spirit sank slowly, reached out, and drew his own cigarette. Ghost gave him a wary look.

“Since when you follow my wicked ways, Ao-lan?” Ghost asked quietly.

Spirit lit up, his youthful looks oddly sinister in the glow. Rising, he inhaled deeply. The smoke seemed to add even more gravity to his stout frame.

“Quiet!” Spirit hissed. “We do not speak our true names, brother. You know this.” He scanned their surroundings. Were they overheard?

Ghost laughed ruefully. “It hardly matters, little brother. This is our home, and if they can find us here, they know. They know all.”

Ghost stifled a gasp as he painfully rose to he feet. Bringing himself to his full height, his body still paled in the bulk of his younger brother. Nevertheless, his stature, and tone, spoke with authority. He met Spirit’s gaze, and locked on.

“And watch yourself, your tone. Remember your place, Ao-lan. Mother is first. I am second. You are but third.”

Spirit recoiled, but stood his ground. His look grew sly.

“And little Jia-ning would be fourth then?”

“Pah! She is the youngest, still a child, and a girl. She does not and never will rank.”

Spirit turned, and proceeded to blow rings into the night. “You think you cover well, but it is clear you love our little sister. Dote on her. Give her your pet names when Mother isn’t around. Mei-mei. Little flower. Pretty. You spoil her. After what she did tonight, she is clearly one of us, yes? She has become Shuma, the last of the Goddess legends.”

“Don’t call her that!” Ghost hissed. “She will NOT join us, Mother never wanted that for her.”

Spirit balked, and chuckled. “Were you not watching? Did you not see? Mother’s looks are transparent to us now. Jia-ning would have been a servant, and later placed in a marriage arranged to benefit the family. Now, her power is evident. She will serve the Hand...”

Spirit felt his brother’s hands upon him, roughly pulling him about and slamming him up against the rattling wall. He felt an urge to strike Ghost, but remembered his place. This was the natural order of things. You did not strike your elders, even when they deserved it. Yes, he was third. For now.

“You understand LITTLE, Ao-lan! Think! What did Mother do when our powers came about?”

“We were sent to the Guide for training,” Spirit answered, his voice meticulously slow and paced.

“Yes! We were, what… thirteen? Fourteen? Do you remember the trials? The punishment? They were enough to kill us!”

“But they didn’t.”

“No! They didn’t! We survived! Just!”

His voice wavered, and Ghost found discipline enough to continue.

“How old is Jia-ning?”

“Six,” Spirit answered.

“Six,” Ghost repeated. “She will be expected to go through the same trials as we did. At six…”

Spirit shrugged. “Then she must conquer them, or die.” The voice was detached, uncaring.

Ghost let him go. He should have been furious, outraged at Spirit’s uncaring manor. To send Jia-ning to the Guide… death was almost certain. But he found he understood his brother then, perhaps for the first time.

As he too, wanted her to go.

********************

Their power gifts were beautiful, and deadly. Ghost hid in the shadows, and drew upon the dark to strike at his foes. Spirit’s body was incredibly dense, almost as dense as his wit, and he wielded the family sword in furious, blurring strikes that could decapitate foes. And Goddess Mother… hers was a terrible gift of fire and ice. Elemental strikes that burned and froze victims into submission and death. But tonight, at the impossible age of six, Jia-ning had revealed she possessed abilities as well.

It was a finely crafted trap. The Tsoo drew upon magic and the spirits of the netherworlds, but it was their guile that always gave them the upper hand. The Hand of the Goddess had waged a constant war with them, fighting their nefarious plots to dominate the merchant trade route of the Yangtzi. Tonight, during what was hoped a final definitive raid on a local Tsoo stronghold, the Hand had learned of the deception. It was all a ruse. The stronghold was manned by only a skeleton crew. The remaining Tsoo had managed to take the family of the Goddess as hostages. They had been rounded up in the dead of night, and held here, at the secret home of the Goddess herself.

The raid had been a move fuelled by desperation. Recent efforts on both sides had drawn heavy casualties. The small army of the Hand was nearly decimated. Yes, they would have to flee tonight, and begin again. To come here, the Tsoo must have known everything. Someone had been bought, or tortured, to gain this much information. And through meticulous planning, the Tsoo had nearly engineered a death blow to the Hand, by killing their future generations, the sons and daughters of Ghost and Spirit.

And little Jia-Ning, their younger sister.

But the dossiers on Ghost and Spirit were complete. The Tsoo realized when the powers of the next generation would likely manifest. A few of the children of Ghost and Spirit were nearing that age. If the Hand were to be exterminated, there would never be a better time. Let the families be taken, and when the Hand arrived to save them, they would all be slaughtered together. Every favour, every debt, every soul the Tsoo had caught in their foul web… everything was tapped to prepare for tonight. The Hand was made up of guerrilla fighters, and only the Goddess Mother and Brothers Ghost and Spirit were known to possess anything in the way of supernatural abilities. Talismans were forged, protective spells were bound to the Tsoo warriors, and the local boss himself, Dagger Mask, would lead the charge and personally defeat Mother Goddess.

Nothing was left to chance, and when the fighting stopped, Mother Goddess was bound, Brother Spirit was subdued, and Ghost himself was pinned down by archers and flying daggers. And Dagger Mask, his cruelty thinly disguised under a slimy tone of arrogance, stepped forward to slaughter their family, one by one, so that they might watch in despair.

He would begin with Jia-Ning.

Reaching down, he grasped her tender throat and hoisted her up, his multitude of knives hovering in the air around him. She cried out, but began to choke as his grip tightened. Helpless, the Goddess watched grimly as Dagger Mask drew his airborne blades closer, hypnotic in their movements, taunting Jia-Ning as she struggled. Her limbs began to flail, and the daggers drew blood.

She screamed. And her eyes, flying open, began to burn.

The daggers… lost grace, and their dancing movements became flailing, stuttered hops and jerks. Dagger Mask hissed.

“What sorcery is this…?”

A few daggers fell with a clatter, the rest came to a quivering stop. Dagger Mask bared his teeth in surprise, and looked down on Jia-Ning incredulously. He fought, his control slipping, his limbs shaking, and began to squeeze down on Jia-Ning’s frail neck.

But it was too late.

Jia-ning’s arms had stopped flailing, her legs had gone limp. Her eyes dripped with endless tears, but glowed with unholy light. Her frame grew taut, spread-eagled in tense power, undulating waves of force radiating from hands brilliant as beacons.

The knives quivered, then straightened… they flew, encircling them both, tips drawn inward.

Jia-ning’s hands doubled-up and clenched. The knives reared back.

Jia-ning’s fingers flew out, and the waves ignited in a bright flash. The knives flew with a crunch into Dagger Mask’s shaking body.

It had been a well-executed trap, save for the awakening of a 6 year old’s birthright.

Ghost reacted first. His guards, astonished by the spectacle of their master being filleted by this small wisp of a child, dropped their attention for a moment as Dagger Mask toppled into a sprawling heap on the matted ground. Ghost melded into the shadows. Surprised shouts redirected attention on him, but aside from a lucky blade thrown into his leg, he managed to disappear.

With the fall of Dagger Mask, the blade barrier around Mother Goddess fell, and freed she delivered a shock of cold to her younger son. Spirit woke up, instinctively grasped the hilt of his sword, and proceeded to lay into his foes with graceful sweeps of the blade.

Within seconds, the collected Tsoo force was down, and the Hand of the Goddess turned, to survey the wreckage of their home. Their families were huddled against the far corners of the room, screaming, crying, clinging to each other frantically. Around them, burned, blooded and bruised, were the red, grey and white-garbed corpses of the Tsoo.

And in the center, Jia-Ning was kneeling, sobbing, her head bowed and shaking. Dagger Mask lay before her, his knives sprouting like quills from his lifeless form and a hand angrily outstretched towards her…

********************

Ghost replayed the scene over and over again, pausing each time on the sight of his frail sister kneeling before their dead nemesis.

Throughout her young life he had personally, secretly, attended to her every cut and bruise, and held her softly to him when she was distressed with a crooning voice of lullabies and assurance. Mother wouldn’t stand such attention for her… Jia-ning was an accident, a mistake. The Goddess Mother simply held no love for this girl. Ao-lan was worse, revelling in tormenting her from the day she had arrived.

It fell to Ghost to take care of her, to love her.

But tonight, he hadn’t rushed to her. He hadn’t comforted her. Jia-ning was the reason they were alive, the reason the Hand would live on. Her rescue would likely become the stuff of Hand legend.

You wouldn’t know it, given her cold reception afterwards.

Mother Goddess had walked up to Jia-ning, and in harsh tones had ordered the girl to stop crying. She barked a few orders to the wives of Ghost and Spirit to clean Jia-ning up and care for her wounds. Spirit had merely shrugged, and went to look over his own families, making sure his sons were unhurt.

Ghost had just stood there.

“I am finished my cigarette,” Spirit’s voice cut in. “I return inside to prepare. We flee tonight.”

Yes, they had to flee. To start over. For the Tsoo had been dealt a major blow, but they would return of course.

Spirit watched his brother intently. “You coming?”

Ghost looked back. “Not yet,” he answered, motioning with his cigarette. “I am not finished this. And you know I am not to smoke in front of Mother.”

“She knows, you know. That you tar your lungs with that mess.”

“Yes, but still. We do not smoke in front of Mother.”

Spirit considered that, and nodded. Of course they didn’t, that was simply not done.

“Pah!” Spirit balked. “We cannot wait for you, we must hurry and leave.”

Ghost looked at his brother, unable to hide the pleading in his eyes. Spirit recoiled again, this time from surprise. He had never seen that look before, surely not from Ghost.

“What is it, Jie-han? You MUST come in, now! You know this.”

Ghost stood back, tried to speak, but his voice caught. He began to wheeze, hacking uncontrollably the curse of a smoker’s cough.

“What?” Spirit asked harshly. “What was that?”

“Frightened,” Ghost croaked. “I am frightened.”

He wept, for he knew. It was sure, it was loss. What lay inside the house, having her wounds tended to, was not the girl he had raised. He felt the horror resurface, as it had when her terrible hands had unleashed death. That was not Jia-ning, not mei-mei.

She was Shuma.

“The Child of Chaos,” he named her. “The last legend of the Goddess. I am frightened of Sister Shuma.”