Disclaimer: I own nothing. All Buffy the Vampire Slayer characters and Barry Hughart characters are the property of their original owners.
I shall clasp my hands together and bow to the corners of the world.
My surname is Lu and my personal name is Yu, but ever since I was born the tenth of my father’s sons and grew up to be stronger than anyone else in my village, I’ve always been called Number Ten Ox. Considering how important these faithful beasts of burden are to China, especially in the present Year of the Snake 3339 (A.D. 641), this nickname has never bothered me.
At the moment our story begins, I was trotting along a stony trail after nearly a full day’s travel with Master Li comfortably carried on my back. He doesn’t weigh anything at all, and the tiny feet of this ancient sage were neatly tucked into my tunic pockets. Keeping a wary eye out for bandits and tigers and anything else which might think a double snack of an elderly scholar and his well-muscled assistant would satisfy their appetites, I continued on with my journey into the rising hills beyond us. Master Li hadn’t spoken for the last hour or so, and I knew he was thinking hard about our latest commission.
Just yesterday, a group of terrified hill people had come to Peking, and after asking around for advice on where to find a wise man willing to work very
cheaply, they’d been directed to our small home at the Street of Eyes. Master Li had been inclined at first to be rather dismissive of their stories about numerous disappearances of people of all ages and occupations from villages scattered throughout the region. However, the longer they talked, describing how a good many men, women, and children -- sometimes entire families! -- had all vanished at night from their homes without any reasonable explanation, my mentor’s wrinkled face had tightened in real concern.
In the middle of their tale of woe, Master Li raised a frail hand to interrupt, telling our visitors he was taking the case, and we’d soon travel to their hills to see what could be done. The impoverished villagers gratefully bowed themselves out, leaving me looking with some surprise at a contemplative scholar. I must confess, I was trying to think of a respectful enough way to mention that we hadn’t been paid.
Before I could touch upon such things as money and how empty our larder was, Master Li sitting cross-legged on his sleeping mat briskly ordered me to make the rounds of every wineshop and gossip-monger in Peking I could manage for the rest of the day. I was to listen for any confirmation of what we’d just been told. Trudging away from the shack we shared, I left Master Li behind, all while trying to ignore the loud rumbles of my starving stomach.
Still, a while later at supper in our home, I was much happier. Both due to the large meal of fish stew delivered from one of the street vendors (I decided not to ask just how this had been procured), and also regarding the interesting news I was able to convey to Master Li. Putting aside the usual omens, prophecies, rumors, government announcements, and the latest scandals from the Forbidden City, there was really something odd going on in the hills at the location we’d been informed about by our recent callers.
Nodding slowly in satisfaction at this corroboration, Master Li told me to get a good night’s sleep in my bed. We’d be off at first light, and hopefully arrive at our destination in the hills near Peking just before dark.
Eyeing the sun almost touching the horizon, I picked up the pace, and opened my mouth to ask my rider if he knew where to find the nearest village. However, it was at that point when two women fell out of the sky in front of me.
Let me rephrase this. My respected teacher has a tendency to become somewhat tetchy about dramatic imprecision in my setting down our adventures. Rather, given how I was looking straight ahead when these people dropped suddenly from above, they might’ve descended from their perches atop a tree, or a tall boulder, or some other elevated structure close by. Except for the unfortunate fact during then, I was running across a completely flat and bare meadow stretching in all directions for a lengthy distance, with nothing higher around me than the grasses I was crushing under my boots.
Coming to a shocked halt, I gaped at the pair of total strangers who’d both landed lightly on their feet like a brace of cats and were staring back at myself and Master Li. We all stood there frozen, and I had the chance to closely study the young women. They were identically clad in bizarre clothing looking nothing like ordinary cloth, silk, or wool, and all of these garments were tightly fitting enough for even the most brazen of prostitutes to blush over wearing these.
The female on my right was Chinese -- from the south, I decided -- but I couldn’t place her tribe. She was much bigger than virtually any woman I’d ever met before, and the glint of her bright teeth shown through lips opened in surprise showed she had all of these in her mouth. I dazedly wondered if she was some sort of aristocrat, to explain how none of her teeth were missing or decayed. Then, I glanced at the first woman’s companion at her side, and my stupefaction increased enormously.
She was undoubtedly the ugliest person I’d ever seen in my life.
Another woman perhaps the same age, but quite smaller, with hair the color of what was produced by someone with a serious kidney disease making water, skin horribly colored fish belly-white, and worse of all were her eyes. They were deformed in such a manner to give this unlucky lady an ever-present expression of wide-eyed astonishment upon her misshapen features.
I was only able to tear my appalled gaze away when Master Li rapped a bony knuckle against the top of my skull, and demanded, “Put me down, idiot! I want to meet them!”
As ever, I obeyed orders in helping my passenger down from my back. Nevertheless, I took the opportunity during this to discreetly whisper to him, “Are you sure, sir? They might be mad, seeing how they’re so tastelessly dressed. Besides, where did they come from? It’s like they appeared out of thin air, and the smaller one could give any demon from the Lower Hells a good run for sheer hideousness--”
“Hey, watch your mouth!” barked the repulsive woman in a very odd accent, who was now glaring at me despite there should’ve been no possible way for her to hear what I’d just said. She went on to obnoxiously comment, “You’re
one to talk, with that smashed nose someone definitely took exception to in the past and clobbered with a rock! Don’t you know how to be polite? Nah, you probably go through life expecting your big muscles to impress us girls! Well, guess what? Even Faith doesn’t care to be insulted right to her face!”
Obviously from the sound of things, this wretched lady had indeed earlier escaped from an insane asylum. This made my next course of action crystal clear. So, without further ado, I advanced upon the small female looking up at me, and put out my hands to gently restrain her, until she could be sent back to her keepers and live in peace without bothering anyone else.
In the next heartbeat, I was lying flat on my stomach in the meadow grass, with my face squashed against the ground by a small foot firmly pressing onto the back of my head. From above, a disgusted feminine voice asked, “What’s with Mr. Grabby?”
I then heard from behind Master Li politely request, albeit with more than a trace of amusement lurking in his tone, “Please don’t break my assistant. At my age, Number Ten Ox would be very difficult to replace, since I don’t have all that many years remaining to train a new partner in our investigations.
A derisive sniff came from my captor, but she did take her foot off my head and move a few steps away. All to the sounds of her companion suddenly laughing in utter delight. Not daring to move except for swiveling upwards my right eye, I saw the Chinese woman unexpectedly point at me still prone on the grass, and happily exclaim, “From the name and looks of him, he can’t be anyone but the same character! And you
Her arm shifted to take aim over my body at someone else, with her finishing in total glee, “…have got to be Master Li!”
“That’s correct, young lady,” serenely replied my teacher. In the same calm voice, Master Li stated, “But you have the advantage of me. May I know your names?”
With sparkling eyes, the Chinese woman eagerly nodded, and gestured at herself, “I’m Chao-Ahn Wu, and this is Buffy Summers.” Accompanying this very strange name was a wave towards someone still out of my sight, which was none other than the tiny opponent who’d defeated me faster than anyone else I’d ever met in a wrestling match.
I didn’t have time to brood about this, since Master Li sardonically commanded me to get up. Scrambling onto my feet, I nervously glanced at where the yellow-hair woman was, only to see her several arm-lengths away completely ignoring me. Instead, she was peering at a strange little book opened in her hands. Still not paying attention to anything else, the woman with a very peculiar name incomprehensibly announced, “Yeah, Wils nailed it. We landed right on top of them! All we have to do is ask for their autographs, Chao-Ahn, and we can leave. That’ll put us in the lead for sure--”
Faster than should’ve been possible, in such a blur her actions were difficult to discern, this ‘Buffy’ broke off in her statement, spun around on her feet, thrust the book into a pocket, and then produced from her garments a pointed stake held ready, all to halt utterly immobile while she stared fiercely at the shadowed hills ahead. In another burst of unbelievable speed, Chao-Ahn was at her companion’s side, an identical wooden stick gripped tightly in the other woman’s hand.
Neither of these females showed any awareness of us behind standing them. Instead, both kept on intently looking straight at the hills covered in near darkness at sunset. A few moments later, Chao-Ahn asked from the corner of her mouth, “Buffy…?”
“Big badness there, Chao-Ahn. You feel it too?”
I’d taken a few steps back to protectively stand by Master Li, but we were enough to the side to see the taller woman frown, and hesitantly answer, “A bit, but not like you, I think.”
Buffy shrugged while still not taking her eyes away from the hills. “I’ve still got more of the Slayer sense than Faith, just like she’s got more than you and the Sunnydale Slayers, and you have versus the newbies--”
This time, what interrupted their conversation was Master Li incredulously exclaiming, “Slayers?!
But that’s impossible!”
With smooth movements, Buffy and Chao-Ahn separated, drifting to the sides and leaving a wide space between them, until we were now directly behind them. A slight inward turn of these women’s heads allowed them to simultaneously watch the hills while also glancing at Master Li eyeing them both in his extreme wonder. As usual in my elderly master’s company, I was left out of things, standing there with my mouth blankly open to catch any nearby flies.
Buffy stated in a very suspicious tone, “And how’d you know that, Methuselah?”
Exasperatedly waving his hands, Master Li responded, “I’ve come across a lot of very strange things in my long life, young lady. I’ve also heard and read about a great many more. Can we please discuss this later? For now, you’ve just confirmed my misgivings about what Ox and I were told yesterday by villagers living up there. Namely, there’s a growing nest of ch’ih-mei somewhere in those hills beyond, which you’ve just sensed.”
A cold chill went down my spine at hearing this dreadful news about an infestation of vampire ghouls. These were vile creatures of the night who crept through darkness to fall upon their innocent victims, feasting on the flesh and blood of humans.
The reactions of the two women were totally different from what I felt. They again looked directly at the hills, and matching snarls of determined rage twisted their delicate features into predator’s masks. Buffy spoke in a voice of pure iron, “We’re here, so we’ll deal with it. You with me, Chao-Ahn?”
“Always,” furiously gritted the Chinese woman.
Nodding curtly, Buffy snapped to us without looking back, “Stay there!” In the next moment, both strangers took off at a dead run. I gaped after them in total shock at seeing these ladies achieve and then effortlessly maintain a cheetah’s sprint, over twice as fast as a galloping horse. A few seconds later, they were well out of sight in the growing dusk, but from the last I saw of them, the women were inexorably racing towards the hills, to meet monsters which these young females apparently considered to be their sworn enemies.
I was jerked back into awareness by Master Li swarming up my body until he was once again perched on my back. Another hard rap by his knuckles upon my scalp was followed by him eagerly urging, “Follow them, boy! I must see this!”
“But, Master Li--!”Crack!
went my mentor’s open palm when he boxed my right ear. I yelped with the pain, but this was drowned out by Master Li’s firm command, “Move! I’m not telling you to go up against a ch’ih-mei with your bare hands, because those two won’t need anyone’s help! Track them as far as you can, but I’m certain we’ll be able to find our recent acquaintances without any trouble after that!”
As ever, Master Li was right. After a lung-searing dash, we came to a big crack in the face of a cliff at the foothills. From within this cavern entrance came screams, howls, and other terrible sounds of battle. Master Li slipped off my back and fearlessly scurried ahead along the track heading deeper into the cavern. I followed right at his heels, panting in my exhaustion, while also trying to look in all directions at once to spot an attacking vampire ghoul before this red-eyed, fanged fiend could tear out my throat with its claws.
When he stopped short, I nearly overran Master Li standing at the edge of an opening in the rock walls. Fortunately, I managed to halt and stare over his white hair into a large chamber extending in all directions, dimly lit by scattered torches flaring along the cavern sides. This feeble light revealed an appalling scene.
At the center of this space, there was a mob of more than fifty ch’ih-mei, ranging in age from mere children to oldsters, all of who were trying to kill two small women in these creatures’ midst. This pair of ladies were themselves easily massacring their adversaries. In a swirl of combat, slim forms struck, kicked, stabbed, and otherwise disposed of a vampire ghoul at every blow. Whittling down the chi’ih-mei numbers at will, Buffy and Chao-Ahn fought together with inhuman skill, working their way towards where my attention was then directed by Master Li pointing with worry.
The largest monster of them all, who’d been an immense man a half-head taller than me while living, was standing at the far end of the cavern, in front of a crude altar heaped high with corpses. Some of these bodies were still so fresh they were dripping blood. Ignoring the clash taking place behind him, this vampire ghoul waved his taloned hands in mystical gestures. On the cavern wall where he was facing, a glowing circle wider than a man’s height suddenly appeared.
This disk was illuminated by its inner radiance, a loathsome gangrene-green sheen which made me feel sick to my stomach simply to observe it. I became even more ill when the disk began to widen and flex outwards, as if something
was attempting to pass through this portal into the cavern.
A flicker of motion caught my eye, and I thankfully lowered my gaze to see both Buffy and Chao-Ahn bury their stakes deeply into the ch’ih-mei’s back, ending this foul monster’s existence as they’d already done with all the others. Not pausing to celebrate their victory, the women glanced up at the growing portal, then at each other. Without a word, the pair of superhuman females stepped to the opposite ends of the altar, which was only a crudely rectangular slab of stone laid horizontally across several stalagmites cut down to serve as supporting pillars.
Placing their hands under the slab, which had to weigh a ton or more, Buffy and Chao-Ahn heaved upwards in unison. Coming free from its supports, the altar literally flew through the air directly at the portal, while spilling its load of corpses. The stone slab smashed into the glowing disk with an ear-splitting crash.
In a gigantic burst of unwholesome green light, the portal vanished, along with whatever might have been concealed behind this threshold. I had just enough time to see the altar shatter into innumerable pieces which fell to the rough floor, when the entire cavern began to shake in turn. Grabbing Master Li, I picked up this ancient sage and spun around to start our escape before the whole cliff collapsed around our ears. Carrying my mentor in my arms, I staggered along the track leading outwards, as the earth ceaselessly shuddered beneath my boots.
I’d only managed a few steps forward when I was in turn seized by an unbreakable grip and lifted off my own feet. In the next instant, I was carried with blinding speed ahead through absolute darkness, until Master Li and I burst out into the open air, with the last rays of sunset fading away from the skies. Hearing a thunderous roar from behind, I glanced over my shoulder along with Master Li still in my arms also doing this. The cavern entrance, and also a good part of the cliff itself, was in the process of crumbling in a massive landslide which must’ve entirely smashed flat the inner cavern.
We were prudently transported a bit further on, to escape any tumbling boulders possibly coming near. The two of us stopped at the edge of the meadow where Master Li and I had started from just minutes ago. Glancing at each other in sheer relief, my mentor and I then realized something at the same time.
Our heads both tilted down, to look full into Buffy’s face smirking upwards at us. She was still nonchalantly holding me up, my feet helplessly dangling above the ground, by one slender arm wrapped around my waist. Turning her head to mutter at a grinning Chao-Ahn at her side, Buffy derisively told her companion, “Men. I bet they don’t ask for directions here, either.”
Judging by the stars, it was a half-hour later at night when Master Li announced he was ready. We’d been taken by the Slayers, as we now knew them to be, to a small, sheltered hollow with a spring among the hillsides. Both women assured us there wasn’t now any kind of vampire or demon around, so there appeared to be no problem with us sleeping rough there and heading to the nearest village in the morning to tell everyone the good news. After that, we’d travel back to Peking.
In the meantime, watched by us in the flickering light of the small campfire I’d built, Master Li laid out on the ground a sheet of fine paper he’d been carrying on him, among other things. A brush, inkstone, powdered ink, and a cupped handful of water were then all used for my mentor to put down his name in exquisite scholar’s calligraphy upon this paper. I was next, and while I did my best, the inscription I put there could never be described as anything other than solid and dull. Kind of like me, as a matter of fact.
Still, once the ink had dried, Buffy picked up the paper and she peered at it, only to cheerfully shrug in clear bafflement on how to read it. Seated next to each other, Master Li and I traded glances out of the corners of our eyes, and in shared silent agreement, we decided not to tell the young lady she was holding it upside down. Our attention was drawn back by Buffy chuckling in that strange manner of hers, “Okay, this finishes off what we came here to do. Thanks, both of you! Ready to go, Chao-Ahn?”
Smiling as she stood up, the other woman indicated her agreement with an amiable nod. We also came to our feet and bowed goodbye to the pair, with Buffy clumsily imitating Chao-Ahn returning this. The yellow-haired lady then strode away with us, side-by-side with her Chinese companion. Both of them twisted around while departing to wave farewell one last time. They soon disappeared into the darkness, and that was the last we ever saw of them.
After standing there for a few more moments, we settled back again in our seats at opposite sides of the fire. Master Li pensively watched the flickering flames for a while, until I cleared my throat in a subtle hint.
His deeply-wrinkled face glancing up at me, my mentor absently said, “Oh, yes, Slayers. Well, Number Ten Ox, it starts like this: ‘The world is older than you know…’”
Author's Note: If you want to know more about The Chronicles of Master Li and Number Ten Ox, try to find the trio of separate books or even better, the omnibus edition by The Stars Our Destination Books, either in hardcover or softcover, which prints Bridge of Birds, The Story of the Stone,
and Eight Skilled Gentlemen,
all in one volume. This edition also has wonderful art by Kaja Foglio, including a fantastic silhouette frontispiece of a landscape with a running Ox carrying Master Li on his back and being guided by this sage with a slight flaw in his character. That directly inspired this story. Enjoy!