Trials

From the Story Arc: There's No Place Like Home

Previous Story in the Arc: Guess Who's Coming To Dinner by Althea Nagy (Saturday, May 21, 2005)

Next Story in the Arc: Althea Nagy Kidnap--Transcript by Belladonna Aura (Tuesday, June 07, 2005)

(posted Saturday, June 04, 2005)

Qing came with them as Althea and Fei Li left Missus Dalles' boarding house. Behind them, Thea regretfully heard the sounds of the party moving into the parlor, where presumably the last of that vodka and wine would be consumed. She was rather glad she hadn't drunk any of it herself. This would be a bad time to be tipsy.

They parted at the tram; Thea looked away as Fei Li and Qing made their goodbyes. Her cheeks were flaming, but part of her was an ache of envy. Oh to have someone who cared for her like that!

No, it was impossible. Utterly impossible. Even if she had been pretty, which she was not, how could she get past her shyness even to be noticed? And if that miracle occurred--there was still her task to get past.

She heard the tram door open and shut, and judged it safe to look again. "Independence Port," People's Blade said, gesturing at the tram.

Within minutes, they were at the entrance to the "nest;" Thea had thought that her teleportation spell enabled her to move quickly, but Fei Li had beaten her there, then used her own tp device to pull her right out of the air. The Commissar moved towards the abandoned mine door--then turned towards her a moment, to "sidekick" her up in powers.

Thea resigned herself to another evening of falling on her nose--

But perhaps not. People's Blade had always been meticulous in other missions to come to the rescue if the tide turned against her subordinates. Maybe tonight would not be so bad--

"Now, stay behind me," Fei le said, then turned towards Althea with a smile that gleamed whitely in the gloom of twilight. "OH!" she said brightly, as if the thought was of no real consequence, "Today you finally meet your vampires!"

Thea hardly had time to think about that extraordinary statement, when Fei Li was down the tunnel, vanishing like a rabbit, and Thea sprinted to catch up. "Lai de! Come on!" Her voice ehchoed eerily among the rocks.

And suddenly without any warning, they crossed from rough-hewn tunnel into a bizarre melding of cave and high-tech base--

And Thea found herself nose-to-nose with a very surprised vampire.

She knew it was a vampire, it looked exactly like the one that had ambushed her outside the science building of the university.

That moment was still a blur in her memory; she could not recall what, if anything, she had done to save herself. The shock of seeing the creature here in front of her drove all thoughts straight out of her mind; instead, she reacted.

Too close to plant the "sticky" spell; that required time to set, time she didn't have. She struck it with a blast of dark power, and followed that with a blow to its head. She had never hit anything with her fists before coming here; she didn't like to do it now, but she had to gain some time to back up. It hit her just as she struck it, splitting her lip.

While the creature was still wavering from her little punch, she danced back three paces, tasting blood, and stole some of its power, healing herself. Now she had time to plant the "sticky" spell, which would slow it, and make it easier to hit, so she could do more damage--

She was vaguely aware of People's Blade urging her on as she launched another dark blast. "Get him!" But she concentrated on the upyr--the upyr! Hideous, deformed, and standing between her and going home--

And very like to send her to hospital--

It struck her again, this time with its own dark magic. As her body shivered with the pain, she retaliated by stealing its health again, and followed with another dark blast, ironically the first of the spells she had ever learned....

Her eyes widened in astonishment as she realized the thing was going down--

Another blast--another--

"Hao!" Fei Li cried in triumph, as the thing grunted, folded up, and went to its knees then measured its length upon the floor. Thea stood there, staring at her hands, hardly able to believe what she had just done.

"Hen hao!" the Commissar said, with satisfaction.

Thea turned towards her feeling a roil of emotions welling up, unable to sort out any of them. Confusion, elation, shock--

"I---I---I---" she said, staring at the exquiste woman beside her, unable to muster a coherent thought.

"You did well!" People's Blade replied cheerfully, just as if she had expected Althea to triumph, but was pleased to see it none the less.

"I apprehended it!" she managed, so full of wonder that she could still hardly take it in.

Then Fei Li gave her a sly, amused look. "And there are many more further inside," she said, as if this was to be a grand treat. "Come along!"

The next hour was a blur... The base was staffed by a mix of vampires and regular Council soldiers. Fei Li meticulously disposed only of the Council, leaving all but two of the upry to Althea; those two were part of a mob that swarmed her, getting out of the area of the "sticky" spell and ganging up on her. With magic, occasionally with fists, she was too astonished by her own success to even think about being afraid. Always, Fei Li was beside her, encouraging, watching---

--guarding her back so that she could concentrate on the foes in front of her, so that she was not swarmed and overwhelmed by more than she could handle. And seemingly, treating it all as a grand game and not a life-or-death struggle.

There could not possibly have been a greater contrast to that terrible trip to Hell.

There was a moment when she had to rest; her energy reserves were so low she could almost hear herself hitting the bottom of the barrel, so to speak, and she turned to Fei Le. It was a surreal moment. They stood on a grated metal floor, with a Council banner draped down a wall beside them, the damp musk of the cave around them, and the buzz and hum of the Council's strange machines filling the background. Close to tears---but tears of wonder, not frustration, anger or grief--she turned to her mentor and spoke the simple truth from her heart. Because she could see it now; she could see the way clear to her goal. Simple, straightfowrward, "work and achieve this security level and you will have to power to remove them all and go home...."

And yet, at this moment, the success was truly due to Fei Li. Fei Li who had finally given her this moment, the most precious gift she had ever gotten from anyone not her parents. "I---my General, if I were not your assisstant, I vould have no chance against these creatures, " she said, her eyes stinging. "But---someday---"

Fei Li shrugged. "Nonsense! I hardly touched him. You're the vampire slayer. I am a mere generalist." Then she giggled, sounded absurdly like a schoolgirl. "That's a pun!" she added, and waited for Althea to get it.

It took her a moment to wade through the unfamiliar clunkiness of English to find the joke. But, "Ah!" she said, seeing it at last, as the General giggled. "General---ist! Ah!"

Fei Li was still giggling as she led the way deeper into the complex.

##
It was over.

They checked the base from top to bottom, behind every piece of machinery, every hidden passage. There was not so much as a mouse with a Council badge on it left.

People's Blade stood with arms crossed over her chest, surveying the emptiness with satisfaction. "Hao!" she said, chin high. It was easy to see Shen Xue at that moment, the General looking over the scene of another of his triumphs.

Another of his, but the first, the very first, of Althea's. Oh, she had been patrolling steadily for some time now, yes, and accomplishing what was asked of her...but it was a long way from corralling thugs to defeating upyr. A very long way, on a road she could not even see....

Those same confused feelings welled up in her, but overall was a new one, an emotion she had not felt since first coming here.

Hope.

"I---am---amazed," she said, into the echoing emptiness.

Fei Li raised an eyebrow. "Oh? Why?"

Althea did not answer that question. Instead, she put her entire soul into simple words of gratitude. "Thank you, my General."

People's Blade acknowledged the gratitude with a gracious nod. "Bukeqi."

Thea groped for better words. "I neffer thought this day vould come."

Fei Li's eyes brightened and hardened a little, and Shen Xue looked out---"What day? I don't understand."

But Thea could not stop herself. The truth that had been eating at her soul for so long demanded to be set free. Part of it, anyway. "Ven I could at least see the vay to---the path home."

Fei Li scratched her head with her sword hilt. "I don't quite follow you, tongzhi. But you need not explain yourself."

The words came out, pulled out by the General's unwavering gaze. "Does my General vish an explanation?" she asked quietly. "Before this day I haf seen vun upyr. No more."

Fei Li's gaze sharpened. Now Thea knew what the mouse felt like when the hawk looked down on it. "Shi shei?" she asked, in a kind of deadly calm. "Is this true?"

Thea struggled to find a path between revealing too much and the truth. "I cannot go home until I haf taken them."

She saw. She knew prevarication when she heard it. "Oh..." Feil Li said silkily. "So you have only begun your hunt."

Thea swallowed. "Yes---" she said.

Fei Li's eyes narrowed. "Hmmm."

Lenin's Ghost! She thought, She knows. She knows there is something going on. Do I tell her the truth? They said I mustn't

The agents that had whisked her off to the plane without giving her a chance to say goodbye to her parents had been very clear on that point.

Fei Lie continued to give her that penetrating looK "Althea, you are keeping a secret from your General," she said. "But that is your choice. I will not force you to revealanything. Your actions speak for you. Today, you are a vampire slayer!"

Thea closed her eyes a moment. This conversation was a field of landmines and she was not sure where to go. "My General.....I am keepink many secrets."

Incongruously, People's Blade giggled. "Such is the way of women."

She tried to negotiate her way out of it agaim. "They are not all mine to reveal"

"Hhmmm....is that so?" People's Blade narrowed her eyes.

One last desperate attempt to leap free. "And it may be that my family vill be harmed if I reveal them."

Something looked out of Fei Li's eyes at that moment. Something old, something powerful. Thea recalled what she had been told, that there were two souls in that tiny body. One, Fei Li, Chinese street-urchin. The other---

Shen Xue, General of the Jade Emperor. At that moment, Althea knew the story was true, and knew what was looking at her, and she dropped to her knees. "Althea tongzhi, you work for me. The Blade of the People. If your family is in danger, those who menace them are in greater danger. I am very old, little one. I have ordered the deaths of thousands of foes. Threats, coercion, fear...these I have seen."

Ah, blin.....Althea thought, and yielded to the inevitable. "My General....what is on paper is a lie."

For a moment People's Blade seemed confused. "On paper...you mean, in your dossier? Wait..." She opened her comm unit, strugglee with it...a Hello Kitty melody tinkled out..."Oh!" she said wiht satisfacton. "Here it is."

Althea closed her eyes. "Vat is in my file is a lie. I am last of Nagy's is true But I did not know that until---only weeks ago."

There: it had been said, and so far---no. No one had cut off her head, or worse.

People's Blade's head came up like a hound on a scent "Weeks?"

Thea nodded "Weeks. At most."

People' Blade struggled with her device, finally figuring it out. "You were dedicated at birth, Says your file."

Thea nodded. "Is true. I did not know that"

Fei Li'e brow rose. "All your life you trained to be a vampire hunter. According to your file."

Thea sighed and looked at the floor. Metal grating. She studied the pattern. "I did not have the magic until Ivanova woke it. I vas trained all my life to grow tomatoes. I haf told Shen some of this. Not most The Nagys sent me to Moscow ven I vas 6 veeks old, to be adopted. : I vas not to know of my bloodline unless the vorst happened. All my life I haf thought I vas Althea Petrosky...."

In one blindingly fast movement, Fei Li drew her sword and swung it...stopping a centimeter from Althea's eye, and Althea flinched back---far too late to have saved herself. In fact, she hadn't even noticed the movement until it was complete.

People's Blade sheathed the sword. "You're not lying. You lack a warrior's reflexes."

Thea went back to studying the floor. "I haf a botanist's reflexes," she said sadly. "Plants.....are slow."

It was Shen Xue who said, measuringly, "Very slow indeed!" but it was Fei Li who added, "Oh...poor girl...." and pulled Thea to her feet, and hugged her. "I made you fight those vampires today... Aiyah...You're but a civilian in uniform. A conscript."

Althea carefull returned the hug, hoping she wasn't overstepping some invisible Chinese line. She fought down tears and told the simple truth. "I cannot go home unless I fight upyr. They vill never let me go home until the upyr are all in custody or dead." She heard the bleakness in her own voice---

People's Blade clasped her shoulders and looked into Thea's eyes. It was Shen Xue in there, as well as Fei Li. "I can teach you how to fight. How not to flinch. How to think quickly." The great general watched her measuringly to see how she would react.

For the second time that day, Thea felt hope, real hope. To have a teacher that could actually correct her, instead of floundering around on her own, trying to work out things for herself....

"Please?" she said, pleadingly, putting all that hope and desperation into her eyes.

People's Blade nodded. "Shi! I will! But this is not a self-defense class at the local gym."

Thea felt her eyes stinging and held back her tears. "I am....werry tired uf beink afraid. If I do not learn these things, I vill die, my General"

She knew at that moment that she had somehow stumbled on a truth. She would die. And it would not be the sort of "death" that ended in a teleport to the hospital or the acrid taste of an "awaken" pack in the back of her throat.

People's Blade stared into her eyes. "I know you will. And many have died under me. But not because I did not try to protect them. And we dont' have time for lengthy training. You will have to learn quickly. I will be very hard on you. Our job is very difficult. The Russians like to make a game out of it...they come from a grim society."

Thea sighed. "I come from that grim society, General."

For a moment, Fei Li's eyes looked into a far distance where Thea could not go. "But we Chinese understand the oneness of all things...and constant battle upsets this balance. Hmmm. How to train you... I will give this some thought."

In the General's thoughtful gaze, Thea saw her old life fade like a dream. "Alvays I thought I vas person of peace, but peace is not an option for me now," she said, sadly.

Fei Li looked at her sharply. "You say that Shen knows of your dilemma?"

Thea nodded. "A little. I told him he should not belief vat he is told uf me."

Shen Xue looked out of the eyes again. "Peace is rarely an option. It is a luxury. I dedicated my life to making peace something more common than a luxury. I will speak to Shen. For now, we will keep your secret."

Once again, Thea felt her eyes sting. "I am chust....werry tired of beink afraid," she said, softly. " I am afraid of Commissar Saviour. I am afraid uff vat she vill do ven she learns.... She is.....Marxist perfection. And I am less than perfect....considerably less."

In anyone else, Thea would have called Fei Li's expression a smirk. "She can be intimidating. Now, Althea. You have seen her fight, With her fists and feet, as well as her magical energy. But you recall, she hasn't always had powers. Before, she was a martial artist alone. Who do you think instructed her?" People's Blade grinned.

Althea shook her head. ".....you, my General?"

People's Blade nodded. " I was only 14 when I found her wandering in China. We became friends, and I furthered her education in the fighting arts. Can you imagine, a tiny little teenaged girl hitting Natalya with a stick whenever she made an imperfect form?"

People's Blade giggled with her hand over her mouth as Althea stared. "Oh, I was very hard on her! She would become so angry...shaking her fist, saying things in Russian that I still don't understand. But then she'd try again. And again. Until she had it right. Then again and again until she could do it without thinking. You don't have that kind of time, but I can give you some of what I gave Natalya. But you must do as I say, at all times. No matter how much you suffer. If you want to stop being afraid, you must face fear...every kind of fear."

She felt herself shrinking before the prospect---then thought---but it's the only way to get home...

Fei Li stepped back. "Are you willing to do this?" She drew her her sword slowly, and held it out. I"want you to take an oath. On Jade Emperor's Whisper...just as I did. Touch the edge. Feel that? this is the reality of what you are now a part of. Uncompromising. Brutal. Hard and sharp. Althea Nagy. I will accept you as my student, but I will accept nothing less than absolute obedience. If you swear this, with your heart, say so now. If you do not, you can back out with no shame."

He mouth went dry. She felt, dimly, that there was something more going on here than just giving her word. "General----I cannot go home until the upyr are gone. I cannot slay the upyr if I do not do this."

Fei Li and Shen Xue gazed at her together out of the same eyes. "This is no longer about home, or vampires. This is about life and death, and your participation in it. You cannot think of consequences. You cannot think of goals. These are distractions. You must commit to being in the moment. Do you understand?"

After a moment she shook her head. "This is---hard thinking. No, I do not understand."

People's Blade regarded her steadily. "It will get harder. Let me give you a simple example. I will not be so forthright in the future. When confronting three foes, can you win the battle by visualizing victory? No. You win the battle by striking each foe down. You visualize nothing. But you see yourself driving your blade into their bodies. And you see yourself avoiding their blows. When you have no more foes to kill, you are victorious. You cannot think. Thinking is slow. You must unite body and mind in action. This is what I will teach you. It is hard for Westerners to grasp."

Althea searched for words. They eluded her. "---I---"

At that moment, Fei Li looked almost kind. "I am your friend, Althea. I can do no less for you."

Finally Thea found something. "I am.....mostly mind."

People's Blade raised an eyebrow. "You are mind and body. No one has taught you to use both."

Althea nodded. There seemed nothing to add to that.

People's Blade straightened a little. "So...are you ready to swear? Don't worry...we'll tell you when you are victorious."

She searched through her mind, and came up with failure after failure. The trip to Hell. The encounters with what she now knew were called "Devouring Earth," and Council, and Circle of Thorns, and all the times alone and being dragged along by the Commissar that she had ended ignominiously sprawled on her face, waiting for the hospital teleporter....and she began to shake. People's Blade did not move. Thea hung her head, sensing a viod before her, a vast unknown which she stood on the brink of. Finally she said, very softly, "I haf neffer been brave before, my General. I do not know how."

People's Blade uttered a delicate little snort. "that is also a lie. I saw great bravery today."

Althea raised her head.

People's Blade gave her a significant look. "Do you think I let you fight vampires alone just for fun?"

She spoke the simple truth. "I neffer know what to think the Commissars think...."

People's Blade threw back her head and laughed. "That's our job!"

She closed her eyes and listened to the thoughts in her own head.If I don't do this---- if I don't do this, I'm dead. And maybe Mama and Papa too.

From somewhere she found a bit of courage. "I swear, my General. I must."

People's Blade nodded. "I accept your fealty. You honor me with your loyalty and commitment."

From somewhere she found another simple truth. "There is no try, there is only do. I vill stop saying "try.""

Fei Li's eyes sparkled. "Oh! Very wise words! You sound almost Chinese! I am proud of you. Stand up!" Fei Li hugged her again. "I hope you can think of me as a friend."

At that moment, Shen Xue and Shen Xue alone looked out, and Thea felt cold. Something---something unpleasant was about to happen. She braced herself for it.

People's Blade took her hand. And a hundred fragments of memories from books and classes ran through her mind of all the terrible things martial arts masters did to their pupils---

"---because after just three days of training, you will hate me with all your heart. For example, your first and most important lesson is understanding pain."

People's Blade twisted Thea's hand around and swiftly broke the little finger on her left hand.

Thea managed not to cry out---after all the pounding she had been getting she had at least learned not to scream with pain. But she bit her lower lip until it bled, and tears scalded her cheeks.

Shen Xue let go. "You may bind that, but do not use healing powers on it, or accept them. I want you to live with that pain tonight and tomorrow. Don't ignore it. Understand it."

She fumbled in the pocket of her jacket for a roll of bandage. These days, she was always using rolls of bandage....she pulled the finger straight with a wrench, and splinted it against the next in line, tying it in place.

"You will meet me in the yard at 5 am," Shen Xue continued. "Wear light clothes."

Thea bowed her head, tears of pain running down her face. "Yes, my General."

People's Blade smiled. "Hao! I am optimistic that you can be saved."

She wondered if using a cold pack on it would be permissible. Well, Fei Li had only specified healing powers....and she knew from bitter experience that icing down something like this would at least let her sleep. "I hope so, my General."

People's Blade nodded. "Good! You are clearly studying hard."

Althea felt a sudden thought, a moment of hope amid the pain, and found the words. "My General? This hurts not so much as failure."

Fei Li gently wiped the tears from her face with a Hello Kitty tissue.

"That is a good attitude," People's Blade said quietly. "You will save your parents and yourself. But you must be in every moment from here on out."

She drew a deep shuddering breath. "Yes....my General."

People's Blade gave her a measuring look---but this time she had the sense that she had not been weighed and found wanting. "Now, I am going to go home for a good night's sleep. I'd advise you to do the same. But with that finger, you'll probably be up half the night. On the positive side, the night will end quite early."

Thea smiled wanly. "This is true." Ice pack. Definitely ice pack.

"And no one will touch your family. They have my protection. And soon, yours." The Commissar took a look around and made a face. "Now, let us leave. Those chemical barrels are stinky!"