By Ahimsa Kerp
The train chug-chug-chugged past the wild jungles and verdant tea plantations as plumes of steam drifted into the blue sky. Josephine Anson and her mother, Olivia, sat in the front car and the view was incredible; the karst cliffs rose high above the lush valley floor. Above and behind it all, mist-clad and snow-topped mountains soared like mighty emperors. It was nothing like the Kent countryside. Josephine was bored.
Her mother continued to stare out the window, perhaps not even noticing the views. There was only one thing on her mother’s mind, Josephine knew, when her eyes glassed over like that. She was thinking of father. He had left in April of 1899, a year ago almost to the day, and they hadn’t seen him since. As England’s leading Confucian scholar, he had been hired to do translating at an historic site, but his letters had stopped months ago.
And so the Anson women left from London, just like that. The dreadful boat ride had lasted forever, and things only got worse when they reached China. Here they had acquired two man-servants and guides. Her mum had tried not to tell her, but Josephine knew both carried guns. They were scary. She wondered what Peter and Elizabeth would say about it? She missed her friends.
The train was climbing into the mountains, and it began to suffer from the steep grade. It came to a near standstill as the steam engine fought against gravity. Though she couldn’t understand the language, and her mum didn’t notice, Josephine thought that the Chinese on the train were worried. There was something in their tone that made her nervous.
Before she could speak to her mother, the train stopped with a hideous jolt. Josephine was thrown forward as the low hum of conversation flared with bright panic. The world shifted as, ahead of them, the train tracks disintegrated.
The lead locomotive crumpled into pieces like wet paper as fragments of the pilot plow at the tip of the train flew high into the air. Josephine, just rising, was thrown into Olivia and the two fell from their seats as the train rocked back from the explosion. Josephine hit her head hard on the metal floor.
The door opened with a smoky blast and the car was full of sweaty, shirtless men. All had circular tattoos on their chests. The man in front, a small, middle-aged man whose bare stomach bulged over his trousers, scanned the car. When he saw the two white women, he strode toward them purposefully.
Josephine’s mum struggled to rise. “Please,” she said to her porter. “Save us. I’ll pay you triple, give you anything you want. Just save us from these bandits.” The Chinese on the train had moved toward the back of the car, as far away as possible from the foreigners.
The porter paused, consulted with his friend via a rapid succession of syllables, then nodded grimly and drew his gun.
“Yes, yes, Miss Olivia. I will do this thing.”
The pudgy man was only five feet away when the porter fired. Somehow, even at that range, the porter missed. The leader of the shirtless men laughed, his belly jiggling. He said something in Chinese that even to Josephine’s ears sounded mocking. The other porter fired his pistol. The bullet hit the man’s bare skin, just below his tattoo.
The bullet bounced off the man, his skin unbroken.
Olivia screamed. Josephine found it hard to breathe, hard to see. Her heart beat so heavily she could feel it in her throat.
The second porter dropped his gun. Several of the shirtless men came at them with drawn knives, and both porters were killed quickly.
The pudgy man looked at the two women. “Kill the Guizi,” he said. He turned his back on them as three men with bloody knives advanced. Josephine could see their tattoos more clearly now, a half circle of gold mashed with a half circle of black. She’d never been more afraid in her life, not even when she’d been stuck in the attic for two days and none of the servants could find her.
“I am an Englishwoman,” her mother said bravely. “I will gladly pay you some money, however, I need some to reach my husband in Kiuh Fow.”
“Your husband is long dead. You will meet him again soon enough, perhaps,” the pudgy man said, without even looking at her.
The men drew closer, their daggers dripping dark blood.
“In the name of Queen Victoria, please. You can kill me,” she pleaded. “But let my daughter live. She is so young, she has done nothing.”
The man sighed wearily. “She died when she entered our country. We did not ask or want her to come. As to the old hag you call Queen, well, the world she clings to is no longer hers,” he said. His tone was mild, but Josephine had never heard such words, and she felt as though she had been slapped.
“Please, please,” Olivia begged.
Josephine thought of something her father would say. “Set your heart right; put the world in order.”
The man motioned to the three killers to stop. “What is this? You speak words you do not understand. How do you know this in English?”
Her mother was staring at her in surprise too. Josephine frowned — she had to try to remember the words more clearly.
“To put the world right in order, we must first put the nation in order; to put the nation in order, we must first put the family in order; to put the family in order, we must first cultivate our personal life; we must first set our hearts right,” she said. She hoped she had spoken the words correctly.
“If your heart is right, you will not kill a defenseless girl,” her mother added.
“I do not know where you learned such words. But we of the Righteous Fists of Harmony respect the truth. Your bargain is accepted.” He made a small gesture with his hand.
“My bargain?” Olivia asked.
“Not yours. Hers. A life for a life.”
One of the Fists stepped before Olivia and cut her throat. She fell in an inelegant heap and made a mess on the floor. Then one of the men hit Josephine on the head, and she knew no more.
Josephine could not tell if she was awake or dreaming. The ground felt strangely stable, without the motion of the ship or train that she had grown accustomed to. The porters were missing, and her mother was gone. The back of her head was bandaged. She realized that she was truly awake. Perhaps she was in Kiuh Fow, and her mother must be talking with her father.
She sat up. In front of her was a small, chubby man whose piercing dark eyes stared right into her. When he saw that she was awake, he handed her a wooden bowl brimming with dark liquid.
“Drink,” he said. He did not speak loudly, but her head ached fiercely as he spoke.
She sniffed at it. An awful scent assailed her nostrils. “What is it?” she asked.
“It doesn’t smell like any medicine I’ve had before,” she said.
“You’ve never had Chinese medicine. This is ginseng, mint leaf, tang gui root, and skullcap.” They sat at a table in a crude wooden hut; behind the man she could see several dark rooms. He gestured at some of the other bottles.
“Some of these are like magic. This one will turn you invisible. And this one will make your skin immune to fire. This one — a favorite of mine — is good for prolonging your, ah, energies. But the one you hold will simply make your head feel better.”
She downed it. It didn’t taste as bad as it smelled. After she’d put the bowl down on the table, she felt much better. “Where am I? Where is my mother? May I speak with her?”
The man before her stood and bowed deeply. “We are the Society of Righteous and Harmonious Fists. I am Zhu Hongdeng. You can call me Red Lantern Zhu.”
Josephine stood uncertainly and curtsied in answer. “My name is Josephine Anson. Pleased to meet you, Red Lantern. You are the leader?”
He smiled, but there was little humor in it. “No, no, no. Our leader is Prince Duan, but we have permission from the Dowager Empress herself. We are located in a province where few Guizi, foreigners, enter.” It was a strange thought to Josephine that she could be considered a foreigner.
“What kind of doctor are you?” Josephine asked. “You’re not like any I’ve seen before.”
He smiled at her. “Many years ago, I was a wandering doctor. My people were peasants, farmers. I helped some white Christians and learned English. Then the rains stopped and no food would grow. None could afford to pay me, at first, and then none could afford to eat. We fled to the cities, only to find that we were less welcome than the Westerners who poisoned our people with drugs and religion. The diplomats and missionaries wished to carve the melon, divide our country and rule it in pieces.”
“I don’t understand. You’re fighting against the West? Why? We bring peace and order.”
“Peace and order? Do you know why the ancient order of the Fists has risen again? A German Baron attacked a Chinese woman, killing her, and when a boy tried to stop him, the German man beat him to death too. He was not punished. That was a beginning; there were others.”
“I don’t believe it,” she said. But she had heard her mother and her friends talking, and she knew they didn’t trust the Germans. “May I see my father and mother now?”
“Come with me,” he said.
She stood up and almost fell over. “Oh dear. I feel quite uneasy,” she said. Her hands grasped the table in front of her.
He looked at her kindly. “You had a serious blow to the head. And some of the herbs in that drink, as well, will be new to your body. Move slowly and try to look straight ahead.”
He led her toward the back of the hut. On their way, they passed several doorways, but most had tapestries that hid the rooms beyond from her sight. She saw one with bundles of paper gathered into precarious piles. A machine that looked like an ancient printing press was churning out yet more paper.
Red Lantern led her past that room and into one that was cluttered with books, shelves, and tools. The heavy layer of dust was visible in sunlight that came through slats in the wooden wall. Pools of dark and glossy liquid covered the bench and the floor. On the main table were boxes full of gears and springs. Everywhere Josephine could see, there were piles of sharp bamboo sticks. There was one symbol that was everywhere — two intertwining half circles with a gear in each half.
“I know that picture,” she said. “My father had a book with it on the cover.”
Red Lantern followed her gaze. “This? That is the Yin Yang, a powerful symbol of balance.”
“Yin Yang,” she repeated. “Yes, he said that.” She looked around the cluttered room. “What are all these things?”
“You can think of it as technology, though it’s really no such thing. We have more than any government in the world could guess. We are not barbarians. Some people do understand this. The American writer Mark Twain wrote that ‘The Boxer is a patriot. He loves his country better than he does the countries of other people. I wish him success.'” He paused and looked at Josephine with his dark eyes. “Do you understand what it means, to love your country?”
“Of course,” Josephine said, without thinking.
He fixed her with his intense eyes. She counted the wrinkles in his forehead as he searched for the right words.
“I suspect your father is dead, Josephine. I know your mother is. We killed her. She traded her life, and her knowledge, so that you might remain alive. Yin yang.”
Josephine leaped up. “What? Is this some kind of joke?” It rang all too true, however. She’d been kidnapped. Suddenly the portly man across from her didn’t seem wise and kind. He looked ominous and cruel.
Red Lantern remained calm, of course. “I have saved you, healed you, and am protecting you now. You are far away from any others who could help.”
“They’ll come looking for me,” she said. “They’ll kill you for what you did.” She was almost screaming now. She knew it wasn’t the proper way to behave, but she couldn’t suppress her wrath.
“Your mother was caught in something greater; it was her misfortune to represent those who enslaved us with opium, with ideology. The English Empire will continue to expand, or another will take its place. Technology is growing, and as it grows, hope and wonder are lost. Westerners come to China and bring steamboats, telegraphs, and mining equipment, without understanding the need for balance. Her death is regrettable, but it will be balanced by the good that comes to China. Yin Yang, once more.” His calm voice was infuriating.
Tears leaked down Josephine’s cheek. She didn’t want to cry, not in front of him, but her body was beginning to shake.
“We are eliminating the Guizi, the negative influences on our government. It will be a country for farmers, doctors, peasants; no land barons will grow rich from our labor. China is a troubled place. The people are afraid of officials, the officials are afraid of foreigners, and the foreigners are afraid of the people.”
“I don’t understand how you follow yin yang and yet you can just kill people,” she said, still not looking at him.
“Josephine, the yin yang is everywhere. Life and death are different aspects of the same thing. You British think of yourselves as civilized, but you bring warfare, disease, and slavery to those you aim to civilize. You are an unbalanced country, and you spread your chaos everywhere you go.”
“You’re lying,” she said. “You’re a killer and a liar.”
“I would like to show you something,” Red Lantern said.
She didn’t look up.
“I can carry you if you insist. I would rather you walked.”
She stood, and Red Lantern led her out of the room and to a large door.
They stepped into the bright sunlight. Josephine winced, temporarily blinded, and her head pounded with needles of pain. At last she opened her eyes, and gasped. It was a beautiful landscape, wild and green with more of the rocky hills she had seen from the train. That was all background, however.
There were men everywhere, more than she could count. Most were shirtless and wearing loose cotton pants. In front of the hut, several were whirling swords or long, spear-like weapons in complex patterns while chanting. Others were stretching themselves into impossible positions down by a mossy, bubbling creek. The last group was on a bare hill to the side of the hut, where they assembled heavy machinery that looked like the cannon batteries she’d seen on Fort Halstead, back at home.
“What are they doing?” Josephine asked, wondering what this had to do with yin yang.
“Preparing,” Red Lantern said.
“Preparing? For what?”
“Everything. The superior man, when resting in safety, does not forget that danger may come. When in a state of security he does not forget the possibility of ruin. When all is orderly, he does not forget that disorder may come,” the pudgy bandit leader said. His voice had a tone like her teacher’s when he read Homer to them. “As you said, they will come looking for you. I have perhaps been unwise to risk the life of all my men for yours. Perhaps I should be more ruthless, like the British.”
A shadow over the sky caught her attention. Josephine was amazed to see a man floating through the sky.
“Is he flying?” she asked, stupefied. “How?”
“All of our powers come from our ancestors. They seek to restore the balance.”
The flying man landed gracefully and bowed to Red Lantern. As they spoke, in hushed whispers, she noticed he had a tattoo of the ying yang with gears that she had seen in the workroom, but the golden half of the circle had wings on either side.
The two walked away, heads together in quiet conversation. Presently, the man nodded and leaped into the sky. Red Lantern turned to her.
“Our cause is so just that we have the spirits themselves as allies. When the time is right, millions of spirit soldiers will descend from the heavens and assist us against whoever tries to oppress us. Maybe in time, we can help liberate others who are downtrodden.”
“You truly have an army,” Josephine said, understanding beginning to grow. “But you don’t seem, beg your pardon, like a general.” Pain flared in her head again, and she shut her eyes as she fought against it.
Red Lantern laughed loudly. “You mean Red Lantern Zhu is a middle-aged fat man. That is true. But they follow me for three reasons.” He started pacing, and as he talked he looked over his soldiers training. Josephine followed his glance. In the distance she could see something glinting, but as she tried to get a closer look it disappeared.
“First, because I am a learned doctor. I can heal those who are hurt in battle; even better, I can aid them so that they cannot be hurt. With my wisdom, and the blessings of the spirits, I can turn men into weapons. Secondly, they follow me because of my blood. I am of the Ming family, the ancient rulers of China. But most importantly, I am a humble man; it takes such a person to understand the needs of the people.”
She nodded understanding.
Some of the men down by the creek shouted. Red Lantern frowned and, moving his hand above his eyes, scanned the horizon. They could see plumes of smoke or steam that were steadily advancing toward them from the valley below.
“Wenshen,” he muttered. “I did not expect them already.” He shouted something and the men at the creek leaped into the air and slid away through the sky, as graceful as dolphins gliding through the sea. Josephine gaped at the demonstration, still finding the sight hard to accept.
She watched them fly away, over the hills and down toward the valley. The figures had receded to small, barely visible dots when suddenly streams of smoke and something like fireworks launched into the air. The dots in the air fell to the earth or disappeared entirely. A thunderous boom sounded simultaneously.
At that moment, Josephine would later think, something changed. Surprise and fear rippled across the faces of the Harmonious Fists. Many jumped into the air and flew to Red Lantern. As they landed, she saw that all the men had tattoos of the yin yang symbol — some had wings; others had additional pictures she didn’t recognize. Many were young and quite obviously frightened.
Red Lantern spoke sternly and decisively, and the Fists regrouped. Some of them scrambled back to the hut and emerged, seconds later, carrying rifles. Others ran or flew to the small hill beside the creek, where the Krupp artillery was set up. Red Lantern led the girl around the back of his hut, where a ladder led them to the roof. From there, they had a commanding view both of the valley below and the snow-capped mountains behind.
Then Josephine saw what was coming and her heart skipped a beat. Multicolored monsters with wings, long tails, and reptilian snouts were inching up the steep trail. They looked different than the pictures she had seen, but she knew what they were. Dragons. There were at least a dozen of the creatures. Impossible, Josephine thought. Even after all she had seen today, the appearance of these fabled legends was hard to accept. As they drew closer, she realized they were glinting in the sun. Metal. And the wings were made of thin paper. They weren’t alive, she realized with relief. That didn’t necessarily make them less dangerous, however. Behind the dragons was something else; a silver, rectangular box that looked like a train but had no track.
Three of the Fists landed in front of the vehicles. The metallic leviathans stopped. One slowly opened its jaw and, before Josephine could blink, a plume of fire leaped from the jaws. The men melted like wax.
Red Lantern drew in a ragged breath, but his face did not change expression. He waved to the Fists on the hill and they began to fire the artillery. More of his men flew into the air, but some of the dragons in the back raised their heads. Rockets launched in an explosion of color, like deadly fireworks, and more Fists disintegrated in the air. The dragons rolled on slowly.
More of the artillery on the hill was firing now, and when they hit, the dragons blew into pieces. Some of the Fists, armed with rifles, swords, and halberds, were dismantling others of the great metal beasts. Red Lantern closed his eyes and began chanting.
For a moment, a blast of winter covered them. An ethereal mist appeared, stretching like spider webs across the sky. Josephine could hear the booming of the artillery, augmented by the lyrical chant of the man beside her. The dragons were slowly being destroyed. They were coming for her, she knew, but she felt excited watching as one crumbled from simultaneous artillery hits. The mist was slowly, reluctantly, forming into human shapes. Ghost warriors, Josephine remembered. Even under the late afternoon sun, she shivered.
The long silver vehicle that had been trailing the dragons reached the battlefield. The Fists moved back warily, awaiting whatever attack it summoned. The vehicle puffed a long jet of steam and the doors opened from the middle. Soldiers that looked like men, only stiffer, slowly lumbered out. They moved mechanically, with a jerky rhythm that baffled Josephine. As the full force emerged from the transport, she caught a glimpse of clockwork gears on their backs.
Beside her, Red Lantern stared in stupefied astonishment. “Bingma Yong. The legendary Terra Cotta Warriors! They have not been seen for thousands of years.”
The clockwork soldiers advanced dreadfully, inevitably. Swords and rifles had no effect on them. Hits from the artillery staggered them, knocked them over; but they always rose and continued their inexorable advance. Even the ghost warriors half glimpsed in the mist were not able to damage or stop the massive Terra Cotta warriors. Red Lantern stopped chanting and the air warmed. The spirit warriors slipped away, like forgotten dreams.
The Harmonious Fists were left on their own, and even with their enhanced powers they were outmatched. The golem-like warriors used their hardened clay weapons as blunt instruments, and beat any Fists who resisted them into the ground with inhuman force. Quickly, far too quickly, few were left to oppose the clockwork warriors. The Terra Cotta men reached the hill and destroyed the artillery there with brutally efficient force.
“No, no, no,” Red Lantern whimpered. He jumped from the roof, landed with an awkward thump, and charged toward the open vehicle. He dodged one of the mechanical soldiers, and then another, but the third caught him with a hard fist to the man’s head. The bandit leader crumpled like a paper lantern in the wind.
Several men emerged from the vehicle. Most were Chinese, but one was white, dressed in a scarlet, double-breasted uniform with golden epaulettes. He wore long gray mustaches that whisped upward toward his ears, and his head bore a large black hat with a gold seal and large white plumes rising into the air. Josephine instantly knew he was British. She remained crouched on the rooftop, unsure whether she should make herself known to the victors.
The man scanned the field. “Josephine Anson,” he called. “Are you here? You can come out now. You’re safe. No harm will come to you.”
Josephine stood up and waved, a little hesitantly. When he saw her, he strode quickly toward the hut. She climbed down and met him in the front. Behind them, the Chinese generals were collecting the Terra Cotta warriors.
The officer looked at her with curiosity. “I’m Lieutenant Smythe. You came from the train to Kiuh Fow?”
“Yes, that’s right,” Josephine said. “My mum and I. We were on our way to see my father —” her voice broke and she breathed deeply.
“Do not worry, you will be safe now. We’ll get you back to civilization soon, where you can get a decent meal and a cup of tea. And you’re not going to be troubled by these anymore.” He motioned to the handful of prisoners who were being rounded up. There were less than ten Fists left alive, Red Lantern among them. They were being blindfolded and bound with strange-looking cloth.
“Are the Fists broken now?” Josephine asked. She found she wasn’t sure what answer she wanted to hear. If this was her rescue, why did she feel so empty?
“No, not from this. This was just a small band; we’d never have known about them if they hadn’t attacked your train. No, the Boxers are going as strong as ever. There’s trouble in Peking; we’ll probably have to fight them there. Why anyone cares is beyond me. It’s the filthiest city in the world.” Behind him, Red Lantern Zhu and his surviving men were marched toward the trackless train. The bandit leader’s face was masked, but she recognized him.
Smythe caught her look and misunderstood. “There’s no answer for what they did to you, to your family. Look at their pitiless, yellow faces. No good, any of them. They are lucky to have us to run their country for them; they have no understanding of international economics or strategic world policy. Instead of thanking us, they kill innocent women and children.”
Josephine was only half listening to her countryman as she watched Red Lantern disappear into the metallic vehicle, surrounded by the clockwork clay soldiers. She didn’t know if she found him noble or pathetic. Perhaps, she suddenly understood, he had some of each in him. Yin yang. She thought that maybe she could understand why her mother had died, and she didn’t mind the tears that suddenly streamed down her face.
“What’s going to happen to them?” she asked.
He was silent for a few heartbeats, and she knew he was doing the thing adults do when they weren’t sure they could tell you something. So she added, “They’re going to die, aren’t they?”
He smiled uneasily at her. “Let’s not worry about that. Come, time to get going. You get to ride in our steamtank.”
She hesitated. “I need to get my things from inside.”
He smiled. “Of course, but hurry. We’ll destroy this hornet’s nest soon. Hop to it, and see you in Peking!”
She ran into the building, where she quickly found what she was looking for. She numbly walked out and into the metallic coffin, feeling the blue sky and sunshine shut away from her. All she could see was an image of Red Lantern, crumpling from the blows of the golem warriors. She did not even look at the eight or so men who worked the contraption as they welcomed her with blankets and smiles.
The trackless train crept out from the wild mountains, away from magic and dreams. The vehicles stopped twice, both times for privy breaks. When at last they had arrived in Peking, Josephine Anson was nowhere to be found.
Ahimsa is a language mercenary and peripatetic spec-fic writer who is fond of rambling hikes, craft beer, and tofu tacos. Originally from the Pacific Northwest, he has lived on four continents and is currently traveling and teaching in Asia. His short fiction has appeared in The Eschatology Journal, Eggplant Literary Productions, Third Flatiron Publishing’s Origins Anthology, the Cthulhurotica Anthology. Roar and Thunder, Interstellar Fiction and is forthcoming in Tales To Terrify and Tales of the Talisman. His (co-written) fantasy novel The Roads to Baldairn Motte was published in 2011. Follow him @ahimsakerp.