At Blue Crane Falls
The wind moved harshly amongst the pines, rustling their needles in an echo of the nearby waterfall.
Yi Qin folded her arms around her and stood, small and pale and precise against the careless grandeur of the landscape. She had not intended to come here to Blue Crane Falls. She had been on her way back to the Imperial City, to make her report to the Council of the Seven Wisest Men, and to learn where next she might be sent to banish some unwelcome ghost or troublesome demon. Hanyu had merely offered a convenient place to stop, and to ask directions as to the best road, for she was not familiar with Tsien Tso province.
“Take the south road,” she had been told, as she sat in a noodle–shop, eating daintily. “But be sure to turn to the right when you reach Zhou River, and cross it downstream, at Wufeng. Do not take the left path.”
She had asked the obvious question.
“The left path would take you to Blue Crane Falls. But you do not want to go there. It is a cursed place. Haunted.”
She had nodded sage agreement, and finished her bowl of noodles, and dabbed her lips with a crisp square of cloth. And when she had come to the river she had, of course, turned to the left, upstream. The path had become overgrown, and might have been hard to follow, had the river not been an obvious guide. She had picked her careful way amongst the grasses and the balsam, brushing them aside with delicate care, to leave as little trace of her passing as she might.
And so, perhaps twelve li upstream, she had come to Blue Crane Falls.
It might, at another time, have been a beautiful place. The river tumbled over enormous round boulders, and foamed into a pool below, with a grassy sward beside it. But the pines that grew all around were twisted and gnarled, as if tortured by the wind, and the sky was dark with autumn clouds. The air was heavy with spray from the falls, and felt chill against her skin. It offered no welcome.
Yi Qin stood, and turned, slowly looking around her. There was no sign of any ghost. There was nothing but nature; nothing but the water, and the woods, and the wind.
No. There was something; something, perhaps, that did not belong.
Yi Qin knelt, carefully pulled away the undergrowth. Beneath the weeds, there was a small shrine, that had clearly lain undisturbed for many years. The inscription was worn and hard to distinguish. She could only make out the third sign; Chou. She sought through her memory. Pang Fei Chou Po. That was the only God she could remember, of the appropriate rank.
The statue did not look like Pang Fei Chou Po, He Who Weighs Men’s Hearts In The Balance. The statue was, quite clearly, female; tall and slender, with long hair that wound around her like an embrace.
Under the covering of the vegetation, Yi Qin was surprised to find a ten–teng piece in the offering bowl. Cleansed of clinging leaves, it was untarnished. She turned it in her hands. The inscription showed it dated from the reign of Wou Tang. That meant the coin had been minted before her grandfather was born.
She straightened, brushing the mud from her knees, with the coin still clutched in her hand. A ten–teng piece was a very great offering. She wondered who might have placed it there; and wondered, too, that no wandering monk had taken it, as was the custom.
Something moved, then, at the edge of her vision. A shape; a shadow, among the shadows of the pines. She slid her right hand into the sleeve of her overdress. Her thumb rested, very lightly, on the point of one of the darts concealed there.
“Who is there?” she called. Her voice seemed to be swallowed, by the rising wind amongst the pines, and the nearby waterfall. And if there was an answer, it too was swallowed, before she heard it.
She took a breath, and held it for a moment; and then jabbed her thumb against the point of the dart. Blood welled up at once. Even as she withdrew her hand from the sleeve, she smeared the blood from thumb to index finger; then, in a continuation of the movement, lifted her hand and daubed the blood from her finger on to her brow.
The sign she drew was the Fourth Unspoken Word; The Word That Allows The Truth To Be Discerned.
“Show yourself,” she commanded. She spoke sternly, this time; as crisp and bold as she could. But the forest still seemed to soak up her voice, absorbing it into its own, constant, susurrus.
It was the wind that spoke. Or, if not the wind, something that was woven into the wind, was a part of it, and of the trees, and of the nearby waterfall.
“I am Yi Qin,” she said, turning in place, looking all around her. “I am a conjuror, in the service of the Emperor.”
“Begone,” the wind said again.
Yi Qin pressed three fingers against the base of her palm, forcing more blood from her thumb.
“Why would you have me leave this place?”
The voice was thunder. The power of it hurled Yi Qin to the ground, close to the river. Branches lashed from side to side as the sudden tempest flung itself at them. Twigs clung to her hair. She gasped for breath, and smelt the damp earth, acrid with rotten pine needles.
There was blood on her fingers, ready to be employed for the Fifth Unspoken Word; The Word That Binds And Releases Spirits. But there was no spirit. There was nothing to be seen. There was only the wind, lashing at her, unrelenting.
Yi Qin pushed herself to her feet, leaving a smear of blood on the ground. Leaning into the angry wind, she forced her way step by resisted step to the nearest pine tree, and wrapped her left arm around it to anchor her in place. She pressed her right index finger against the bark.
“This is the Fifth Unspoken Word,” she said, as loudly as she might against the storm. “I command you, spirit; come, and show yourself, that I may free you from this world, and send you to the Silent Mountain.”
“Do not do this,” a voice said, which was not the wind.
Yi Qin turned her head. There was a man standing beside her.
No; not a man. She still had the Fourth Unspoken Word, daubed on her brow.
He was a spirit. A ghost. He was tall, and the wind moved his hair and his clothing only gently, even as it still lashed around her. He wore a coat of indigo and silver. His face was long and handsome and sad.
“Tell me who you are,” Yi Qin said. Her fingertip was poised, a hair’s–breadth from the tree, ready to strengthen the spell.
She twisted her head; the wind was whipping her hair across her face, making it hard to see.
“I serve the Emperor,” she told him, through gritted teeth. “I walk the borders of his realm; the borders of the World of Breath, and the Silent Mountain. It is my duty, spirit, to banish you.”
“And I beg you, do not do this thing,” he said.
“First you command, now you plead,” Yi Qin said, “but in either case, you have given me no reason.”
“I desire to stay in this place. Is that not reason enough?”
“I must weigh your desire, against that of the Emperor. And it is the Emperor I must serve. For me to do other than he wishes….” She left the sentence unfinished.
The spirit said nothing. He spread his arms, and behind him, the wind began to rise. Yi Qin could see it; a wall of air, bending the branches of pines as it rushed towards her.
She wrapped her arms tightly around the trunk of the tree, screwing shut her eyes. The wind was a torrent, a flood. Her hair, whipped loose from its careful coils, flayed the very air. The sleeves of her overdress beat like sails in a storm. Pine needles, torn from their twigs, scratched at her face.
She clung. There was nothing to do but hold, and endure, and hope.
“Enough,” a voice said.
The storm abated in an instant. As the wind died, she opened her eyes. The spirit was standing there, his hair still stirring. He sighed. Him, or the wind.
“You are stubborn, conjuror.”
“So it has been said,” she allowed. Her own hair hung about her, tangled and ragged. “You are powerful, spirit. I will grant you that.” She reached down, and took the small knife from where it was tucked into her sash.
The spirit took a pace backwards.
“I beseech you…”
“I grow weary, of threats and entreaties both. Speak to me, spirit. Who are you?”
“I cannot speak my name. I can tell you nothing.”
“Then I see no reason to continue this conversation.” She took the knife, and placed the blade across her left palm, ready to pull it across, in one swift motion.
The spirit dropped to his knees. His long hair fell lank and still around him, the wind silenced. He bowed his head.
“Please, conjuror. Pity me.”
She stood, for a moment, the metal cold against her skin. Underneath, she could feel her own blood, hot and powerful.
“I pity all who are lost. I pity all those for whom no lamp was lit, to guide them to the Silent Mountain; all those who do not dwell in the care of Wu Feng Kai Fan. And I pity them all the more, for I must send them to the care of her sister, which is no care at all.” She paused. “But such pity does not stay my hand from what I must do.”
One clean movement; one brilliant, familiar, flash of pain. The hot, heavy sensation of blood, rising like water from a spring. She smeared her fingers with the blood, and took a pace forwards, to where the spirit knelt, his head bowed, silent.
No. Not silent.
“Please,” he said. And he looked up at her with such grief on his face as she had never seen.
She told herself she did not need to know why. It was her duty, when she happened across a spirit, to send it forth from the Emperor’s Realm, to banish it from the World of Breath.
She reached forwards, and brushed the spirit’s brow with hot, blood–stained, fingertips. He let out a sigh. But he did not vanish.
“I bind you,” she said. “But I do not banish you, spirit. I compel you, instead, to speak. And you will stay here, and tell me who you are, and I will hold you here with the strength of my blood. For there is a story here, and I would know it, and know why you do not speak to me of it.”
He bowed his head once more, his dark hair a shroud.
“I am Lao Tsung,” he said. The wind was moaning, high amongst the trees; keening, like something lost in grief.
“And why do you haunt this place, Lao Tsung?” she asked.
“I loved a Goddess. I loved her, and she loved me.” He looked up. “It is a terrible thing, for a Goddess to love a mortal.”
“It is forbidden,” Yi Qin said, quietly.
“Just so. It is forbidden, even to speak of such a thing. I would not do it, even now, but your blood compels me.”
“I will not speak of this thing,” she told him, gently. “I know something of secrets, and of the need to keep them. Tell me, who was this Goddess you loved?”
“Her name was Fei Xian Chou Wei,” he said. The name meant nothing to Yi Qin. Nothing, but….
“The shrine,” Yi Qin said. “This was her shrine.”
“This was where I first saw her. She stood by the waters of Blue Crane Falls. I did not know she was a Goddess. I fell in love with her, and I wooed her; and, after a time, I won her heart. We would sit, beside the waterfall… we would make love there, where the tumult of the waters would drown our cries of ecstasy. But we were foolish. How can you keep a secret, from a thousand Gods? So they punished her. They stripped her of her godhood.”
“They made her a mortal?” Yi Qin had heard of such a thing, once. But the spirit shook his head.
“That would have been a reward, for she would have been happy. No. They made her into the wind. Here, where we were happy; they made her into the wind. They made of her a thing that could only sigh; that could only bend the boughs of the pines. They took everything from her.”
“And you?” She pushed her hair back from her face. The ghost looked at her, and she saw in him a great weariness.
“What could I do? I loved her. They had taken everything from her. How could I do anything else?”
She understood, then. She looked at him, and understood something of why even a Goddess might fall in love with such a man.
“You stayed. You stayed here, at her side. You stayed, and you died, and no–one lit a lantern for you. And so you have remained, the ghost and the wind, together.”
He nodded. She thought there might have been a tear, gleaming in the corner of his eye. But no; that was foolishness. Spirits did not weep.
She brushed the back of her hand across her cheek. She told herself that it was the pain of the knife that had brought forth her own tears. The pain of the knife, or the fury of the storm.
“It was you who placed the offering, in her shrine. Before you died.”
“It was a token. From time to time, a monk would come. But the wind would howl, and the monk would flee, and my offering would remain. After a time, the weeds grew over the shrine, and no more monks came.”
“But you remained. You remained, with the wind.”
“In summer, she is gentle, and her caress is the touch I remember, from those stolen moments by the waterfall,” he said. He looked away from her, off into the forest, and his voice was so quiet she could barely hear it above the sighing of the pines. “But in autumn, she grows sad, and cold. And in winter… in winter, she remembers what she was, and she grows angry, and blows fierce and harsh. But I remain. I can do nothing else.”
Yi Qin let her hand fall to her side. The blood, thick on her fingers, was sluggish and cold. She plucked a twig from her sleeve, and carefully did not look at Lao Tsung.
“I should send you to the Silent Mountain. I should banish you, and commend you to the care of Hsi Lao Hai Shu, Watcher Over The Forgotten And Unlamented Dead. You would find oblivion there, of a sort. After a time, you would forget.”
“I do not wish to forget.”
“We do not always get what we desire,” she told him, very gently, looking at him once more. “Nor is it right that we should.”
He bowed his head. The wind did not rise. The wind was still, as if it held its breath.
“But sometimes,” she continued, “we get very much less than we deserve. You have lost much. What right have I, to take away the little you have left?”
Yi Qin turned away from the kneeling ghost, and placed the ten–teng piece back into the bowl. Let the villagers of Hanyu continue to warn travellers not to take the left hand road. Let the vines grow once more over the statue of Fei Xian Chou Wei, and leaves gather in her offering bowl. Let her be forgotten by all the world; all the world save Yi Qin, and the ghost who loved the wind.
She turned, and began to walk away, along the bank of the river.
Behind her, the wind moved softly amongst the pines, rustling their needles in an echo of the nearby waterfall.
Brian Dolton has so far visited twenty-five countries and liked twenty-four of them. He hopes to visit many more, and like them too. This is his – and Yi Qin’s – second appearance in Abyss and Apex (The first was The Man Who was Never Afraid). He will keep writing until they pry the keyboard from his cold, dead hands. He wonders exactly who the “they” will turn out to be. Perhaps it’s better that he doesn’t know.
Story © 2008 Brian Dolton. All other content copyright © 2008 ByrenLee Press
Art Director: Bonnie Brunish