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Thread: The Secret of the Underground

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    Default The Secret of the Underground

    This is a story a started writing recently. My basic story is that all great kung fu fighters who know how to utilize Qi-gong like those Wuxia novels all moved to a secret underground City in Beijing. Please leave a suggestion if you'd like. Read on!

    The Secret of the Underground--Legend of Kasper. By Eddie Ow

    Prologue, 1st, 2nd & 3rd Chapter.


    It had been a trap, of course. Pykang could see it all clearly now. She muttered to herself, “Stupid, stupid, stupid!” Someone, probably the Red Circles, had lured virtually the entire Assembly through a gate identical to the gate at the capital, under the Forbidden City. “Princess, don’t despair. If Kang and the others return in time, we may still be in time to save the school,” Pykang’s younger sister, Princess Ai-Teh, said as she tried to comfort her. “Anyway, this place would fool anyone. Where are we, anyway?” “We are below Kyoto, Ai-Teh,” she said as she gazed around the brightly colored ornaments on the walls of the dimly lit, massive chamber, “the chamber under the Japanese version of the Forbidden City, what they call the Imperial Palace. Can you see the slight difference in the character carved into the stone in front of the gate?” she asked her sister, pointing to the stone. “Yes, now that you point it out,” came the reply. “That’s why I didn’t go on with the others. Something was nagging at me, but I didn’t know quite what it was. I wasn’t alarmed, or I would not have let the others continue, but I was curious to see what it was that seemed out of place.” Ai-Teh nodded, remembering the look on her sister’s face when they had first arrived.
    “Anyway,” Pykang continued, “The Japanese were entering their “Kyoto Period,” at that time and copied the palace, stone for stone, but only one-half of it, because their kingdom was smaller, or so they had said. That was back in our Tang Dynasty, around the end of the 8th Century.” “Well,” Ai-Teh said, “it looks exactly like our chamber in every other detail.”
    “And that, my dears, was exactly the point,” said a deep voice. “No, no, don’t move. Don’t turn around. You’ll find my crossbowmen are quite efficient.” Pykang and Ai-Teh, though both startled by the sudden threat, did not panic. Since they could not see the source of the sound behind them, and did not want to be pin-cushioned by quarrels, they stretched their other senses, as they had both been taught at their beloved school. The head master of the Middle Kingdom University (MKU) of Wushu, Zhang Tsu, would have been proud of his young students, just twenty-one and nineteen years of age, being able to detect the tell-tale deep breathing and heart pounding of the three crossbowmen hiding in the large, dark chamber. They exchanged glances, their eyes darting about; expressions flashed quickly across their faces. The Red Circles, if such these villains were, should not be able to decipher the silent battle language they had learned so well at school.
    They had a plan.
    Their hands did not move toward the hilts of the swords they always wore, in their finely tooled leather and silver scabbards, hanging from their black leather belts. Such an action would have betrayed their intentions.
    The sudden rustling of the gold silk robes of Pykang and the red silk robes of Ai-Teh distracted the owner of the voice, if only for a second. He shouted, “Shoot them, you fools!”
    It was already too late. A second can be a long time.
    The silk in the loose-fitting robes of the princesses seemed to move independently of the young women’s bodies. It was hard for the marksmen to know where to aim their crossbows. One discharged, still pointed where Pykang had been, but was no longer. The young women were moving so quickly they seemed streaks of red and gold light, instead of solid figures. The quarrel head stuck into the wall of soft stone; the vibration of the shaft made a twanging sound, then it was still. Another quarrel passed through a sheet of red silk, but instead of striking Ai-Teh, it imbedded itself in the thigh of the last hidden crossbowman. There was a gasp of pain, a spasm of muscle from the pain, and another crossbow quarrel head imbedded itself harmlessly, this time into a large, panel made of polished hardwood, standing beside the gate. In that moment, all three had discharged their crossbows, which were no longer missile weapons. They were now, at best, unwieldy clubs in the hands of startled marksmen.
    Then came the fury of the princesses. The sisters seemed, almost, to fly through the air toward the two unwounded crossbowmen. The men fell, hard, onto their backs, breathing deeply, regularly. Their heads would ache when they awoke, probably hours later. The heels of the sisters’ right hands stung slightly from the force of the blow each had given her victim. One of the first lessons they had learned in school was how to drive the lower jawbones, where they hinged near the ears, up and back, causing a sudden, sharp pressure to the brain. A sharp punch with the heel of the hand to the point of the chin was the preferred method. With the proper training, unconsciousness was the usual result. If Pykang and Ai-Teh had used their full strength, however, the two men would have never again awakened.
    After the third crossbowman viscously threw his crossbow at Pykang, his right hand grasped the handle of his knife as he prepared to draw it. That was as far as he got. Pykang had ducked below the trajectory of the crossbow by suddenly flexing her knees into a crouch. The instant it had passed over her head, Pykang used the coiled energy of her bent knees to launch herself into the face of the startled Red Circle. There was a flash of gold light, followed by Pykang’s sudden head butt to his forehead. Dreamland.
    Pykang whirled around, uninjured, to face the place the speaker’s deep voice had seemed to originate, seconds earlier. Her sister was already looking at, not the man, but a circular shimmer of red light, fading quickly. The famous Red Circle, for which the renegades are known. He was gone! Pykang hadn’t gotten a good look at him; but she had seen he had worn, like all their opponents that day had worn, the dark and hooded robes favored by the members of the Red Circle. Both women had had their backs to him until they started their attack. Ai-Teh had been the first to turn to look for him, as her sister had dispatched the final guard, but had only seen his general shape in the dimness of the room and the shadows cast by his hood. “Did you get a good look at him?” Pykang asked. “Not a good look,” came the answer, “he was about 170 centimeters tall, and probably 80 kilograms in weight. It was pretty hard to tell even that much,” she said with a frustrated puff of breath. “Well,” Pykang said, at least we do know that much.”
    They turned their attention to the three who had not escaped them. Pushing back the men’s hoods, they quickly scanned their faces. They did not know them, but from their features, they might very well have been Japanese, probably in their late twenties. Pykang looked closely at their hands. It was just as she had thought. One of them was missing the last section of the little finger of his left hand. “Sister,” she said, turning the hand so Ai-Teh could more clearly see the finger, “I’d bet he did it himself.” Seeing Ai-Teh’s eyebrows rise both in surprise and confusion, Pykang added, “When a Yakusa messes up badly enough, the only way for him to prove his loyalty to his boss is for him to punish himself, slicing his own finger off, just at the last joint. Most of them are right-handed, so it’s often the left hand they cut. Usually a little finger is enough, but it depends on how cruel the boss is and what his subordinate had done. I said ‘he’ because I don’t think the female Yakusa ever have to go through that kind of insanity, though I wouldn’t put it pass some of those bosses. Most Yakusa are brutal, merciless urban barbarians whose only saving grace is they sometimes look nice in their expensive suits. I like it best when they wear those suits to their own funerals. I can’t stand them! It figures at least some of the Red Circle would be that kind of scum.
    They exchanged glances again. “Pykang, let’s arm ourselves; I have a feeling blades alone will not suffice.” “Already on it, my sister,” said the older princess as she stripped crossbow and quarrel case from one unconscious man. Ai-Teh cocked one of the crossbows without bothering to use one of the cranking devices the guards all had. She was considerably stronger than she looked. They both were.
    The women also spared a moment or two to search the three, but there was nothing of value and, of course, nothing to further identify them. They tied the Red Circle warrior’s hands together, behind their backs, with some spare bowstrings they had found in the men’s quarrel cases.
    Though it seemed an odd time for such a thought to enter her mind, Ai-Teh recalled how she had always been a bit jealous of her sister. Well, Pykang was a little older and had more time to train, so it was natural Ai-Teh wasn’t quite the martial artist her sister was, “Yet,” she told herself. Pykang’s greater beauty had for several years inspired sonnets and songs by many of the Assembly members, Ai-Teh recalled. “Mostly the young men, perhaps hoping for the favor of a smile,” she thought. “Well, who wouldn’t want a smile from the elder princess of the MKU Assembly of Wushu?” Ai-Teh considered for a moment her sister’s “greater beauty,” but had to admit the two of them looked a lot alike, really. Both were tall, slender, longhaired, clear-skinned, slightly feline-looking females whose visages would not seem out of place in a delicate watercolor painting from the Later Sung Dynasty. The brilliant green eyes of both sisters, however, could not have been faithfully captured by the soft pastels common to that sublime period of Chinese art and music, but perhaps, if the paint was tinted with the dust of emeralds or of meteor rock, they just might.
    Yes, their family resemblance was strong, as were they.
    They were strong, but the intense physical training they had received since they could first walk, had not left its mark in bulging muscles and distended veins. Unless they were straining to lift or throw a heavy object, or perform some other feat of strength, they looked like the graceful and even glamorous princesses that they were. When their muscles flexed, however, it looked like steel cables rippling under their skin instead of mere muscle fibers.
    Ai-Teh’s musings, as she checked for any damage to the crossbow quarrels she had “liberated” from the guards, were interrupted by the growing sound of boots crashing down on the stone flooring, from further up the corridor. Perhaps it was Kang and the rest, returning. It was. “My Ladies, are you all right?”
    Kang and the princesses exchanged notes on the events of the last few minutes. Many of the others kept watch for signs of pursuit, but all listened to the conversation. They had already known, of course, that Kang had led the Assembly in what they all had thought was to be a peaceful return home after the entire community’s annual pilgrimage to the Wushu Unification Temple. For hundreds of years, the first day of spring had been a joyful day of renewal for the university community. It was always gated to, this secret place. Only Zhang Tsu, it is said, knew its actual location. He had, of course, remained behind, at the school. Someone had to, quite literally, “mind the fort.”
    This time, however, something had gone horribly wrong. When they sought to return, it was beneath Kyoto, Japan they had gone, not beneath Beijing, China. Kang, Captain of the guards for the university, and a scholar as well, had not suspected anything was amiss until, suddenly, they were under fire. Their numbers had never been high, but the population of the school and the community surrounding the school, together called the Assembly, had just been cut by over seventy-five percent in a hail of crossbow quarrels and the frantic hand-to-hand fighting that followed it. “It was the Red Circle,” said Kang, “We gave as good as we got, but so many of us died.” His eyes smoldered. “Kasper is all right. He’s the only child who survived. Maybe the little tyke’s a bit frightened, is all,” Kang added, sensing Pykang’s concern for her only child. Kasper was brought to his mother, carried by a young man who was one of the guards under Kang’s command. The man was dressed, as most of them were, in the vestments of a medieval warrior. He drew his black cloak from Kasper’s face. Mother and child were swiftly reunited.
    “Princess,” Kang urged Pykang, “we must hide a while. We have wounded who need healing. Not so many as we should, though.” Pykang and Ai-Teh both turned to stare at his face. “Be careful of the crossbow points.” He said. “Poison.” The sisters looked disgusted. Kang continued, “There are so few of us left, we can’t afford to lose any more. It will take some time and much concentration to reactivate the gate when we return, even more time if we don’t give the gate time to recharge, to reset. It will not be long before the Red Circle untangles the twisted trail back here. We left false tracks and a few traps, but there are many of them and few of us. If we hide and recover, however, we may yet get out of this alive.”
    “Lead on, then, Kang,” said Princess Pykang. “Let me carry my little nephew, sister,” Ai-Teh said reaching for the boy. “We can switch off, so neither to us gets too fatigued. We’re not out of this yet and we’ll need to be sharp when the time comes.” Pykang nodded, then kissed and cooed over her Kasper for a moment, then handed him to the younger woman. They then headed away from the gate, down the corridor that had seemed, not at all long ago, to lead, up, toward home. From its shadows the enemy would emerge, all too soon.

    Hours later…

    Running along the damp and slippery passage at unsafe speeds, they fled. The three surviving members of the Assembly’s royal family, along with their few remaining guards, sped down, deeper into the darkness of the gash in the moldy earth that was their sole escape from the death behind them. Rounding a corner, the torches carried by the guards revealed, just a little too late, the damp, forbidding, and very solid wall of stone that blocked their progress. An unladylike, “Humph!” came from Princess Pykang’s direction as she ran headlong into her sister’s back. Princess Ai-Teh barely managed to avoid slamming her own face into the wall, especially after being pushed so from behind, all the while cradling her tiny nephew in the shelter of her arm. Two of the five guards, Kang not one of them, stumbled a little, but none were injured.
    It was Pykang’s harsh whisper that brought them all back to the reality of their situation, “They are coming.” Her strained voice broke and she sobbed, “Why, oh why, do we have no choice left to us but death!”
    “But wait!” hissed Ai-Teh, “We might be able to fend them off, especially with your powerful martial skills.”
    Kang, though only in his thirties, had been senior captain of all the guards at the university. Though technically still senior captain, he was now the only surviving captain, and he was no longer in charge of scores of guards. Four guards and their captain constituted the entire surviving police and military force of the university. In fact, the eight of them and Zhang Tsu were all that remained of the Assembly.
    Nonetheless, Kang nodded his head in grim agreement, and loosened his sword in its scabbard. The other members of his squad began to make themselves ready for combat, adjusting shields and taking fresh grips on their spears.
    The movement of the shields drew Pykang’s attention for a moment.
    The guards had, when they were down to their last three quarrels, set hidden traps with the captured crossbows. The crafty Red Circle warriors had begun using quarrels with shafts that broke on impact, making them useless to shoot back at them. It that was not bad enough, just as Kang had warned, everyone who had received the barest scratch from the enemy quarrels had died a little while later. “Poison!” Pykang thought, again. She liked Ninjas even less than Yakusa. Perhaps, because of the traps, there would at least be three fewer of the Red Circles, of whatever variety, when they next met.
    “No, there are far too many of them, and now but eight of us, and one only a babe.” Her voice was as soft as an angel’s song, but carried with it an authoritative tone none of them could resist.
    The short, muscular Kang, dared to speak his mind, “Then Princess Pykang, you decide what we are going to do, since your decisions have always been proven to be for the best.” “Yes,” Princess Ai-Teh quickly added, “you decide.”
    “Yes, and thank you for your loyal support, Captain, (and you, my sister) but if my decisions were always so wonderful we would hardly be in this mess, eh? I should have known something was wrong when Zhang Tsu was not there to greet us. I should have more quickly seen the differences between the characters at the two gates,” she pointed, for the benefit of Kang and the other guards. “Look, all of you!” she said, then, when they had bent to examine the stone marking, “And now, listen! There are eight of us now, but if we stay and fight, though we subdue, kill, or rout scores of those in pursuit, none of us will live. There are still far too many of them hunting us.”
    “So stay here,” she continued, a little more loudly, “all of you!” She lowered her voice again, “I’ll go back up the tunnel to fend them off. I will, by all the power and skill within me,” she hissed, “hold them back long enough for you, Kang, and a couple of your men, to create a gate. Paint it there, on some of your shields,” she pointed, “at the very end this miserable tunnel. As soon as the gate is made, all of you must flee. Let it take you back to where we entered this underground warren, up to the gate beneath the Imperial Palace. I’m sure that gate will, at worst, be lightly guarded, since they know we are somewhere down here, far from there. They probably don’t know what a wonder at painting our good Captain is,” she said, with a small laugh. She continued, with greater seriousness in her voice, “Immediately gate home. As you know, unless special security arrangements are in place, no one can enter our underground Forbidden City gate, except from one of the six other main gates. Disable our gate, immediately as the last of you is home. I can sense the time will be very short.”
    Princess Ai-Teh stammered, “But no, sister. I mean to say, you are our Great Leader! Don’t you remember the prophecy? You, by yourself, are worth more than all of us.”
    “Nonsense, didn’t Kang just say that I make all the right decisions? And didn’t you agree?”
    “But Pykang,” Ai-Teh said, “what about the prophecy? Don’t you believe it anymore?” She was about to continue her entreaty, when, in the midst of this turmoil, a soft little cry was heard.
    It was almost as if the young Prince Kasper, who could not yet walk, let alone talk, understood his aunt’s concern for the prophecy that had guided their family for generations. His soft cry brought all in the party instantly to silence; only Kasper could be heard. His cry grew louder and more insistent.
    Princess Pykang took her son from her sister and cradled him in her arms, brushing her lips to his right ear, whispering, “Oh hush, my little one. Hush. I have to tell your Aunt Ai-Teh how you and you alone are going to fulfill the prophecy she is so aflutter about.” Turning towards Princess Ai-Teh and speaking to Kang’s back as he painted, the princess continued, “My baby, here, will carry on my legacy. Although my vision of his future is dim (it is always harder to “see” beyond one’s own death), I can still see he will do many things, great things. He will fulfill the prophecy, not I.”
    “Then I will take care of him sister, and by blood oath, I swear that he is under my protection,” Ai-Teh drew her dagger as she spoke.
    “Are you sure?” When Ai-Teh nodded, Pykang hefted Kasper while catching a guard’s eye. He said, “Aye, my Lady,” and handed his torch to the other guard who was not working on the gate, but peering intently behind them for signs of pursuit. “I’ll take him now,” he said, gathering the infant into his arms.
    “Then promise me,” Kasper’s mother said to Ai-Teh,” you will protect Prince Kasper and never let anyone outside the Assembly know where my son is,” as she spoke, she drew her own dagger.
    “I am very grateful to you, Pykang, for entrusting me with his keeping.” Without another word, they raised their daggers and each sliced their own left palm with the blade, then dabbed each other’s clothes and flesh with their blood. Only at the end did they speak, muttering the incantations of an ancient and unbreakable blood-oath.
    “Yes, then take care of Kasper, for he is of our royal blood. I know he will be grow up to be handsome and talented like his father, and I hope his path will take him to greatness and goodness.” By now, Kasper’s mother’s eyes were filled with tears, not because of her nearly certain impending death, but for the farewell a mother always has to make once in her lifetime.
    “I will make sure he will be safe,” Ai-Teh said.
    Sensing there was not much time left, Pykang pronounced her last command, “Take the baby to his father and make sure the ways of the Wushu are never taught to him. Yes, you heard me, Ai-Teh,” she said, then almost shouted the next word, “NEVER!” Ai-Teh lowered her eyes, but said nothing.
    While the two royal sisters had been discussing the prophecy and performing the blood-oath, and as two of the guards were watching for enemies, Kang and the other two guards had been busy creating the gate. Kang’s assistants, who had been gate-makers themselves for several years, placed their shields, one atop the other, against the slimy rock wall. They held them in place with their spears; the butts of the spears jammed into the dampness at their feet and the spear points piercing the leather handgrips of the shields and wedging them into the face of the wall. This had provided Kang a more-or-less flat surface upon which to paint the image of their destination. Captain Kang, an accomplished artist as well as a fine officer, painted quickly and accurately. His dark features were scrunched together in a scowl as he concentrated. The trick to gate making was to paint the magical gate as much like the physical gate of the destination as possible. As he worked upon the shields’ faces, an image of the room where they had gated, hours before, began to appear. He wondered if the three guards the princesses had rendered unconscious were still there. He doubted it, so they were no part of the illustration. The slight difference between the Chinese character at the base of their own home gate and at the base of the gate they’d last used, though, was. “E-law, EU nooh, sawdum,” he chanted the magic as he painted. He knew just how little time probably remained to them. This was the only way to life. The second gating, planned for moments after they arrived, again, in the gate room many meters above their heads, was the way back to the secret underground city he had lived in all his life.
    Kang remembered, fondly, with a part of his mind not focused on the gate, his former employer, Li Jiang Tsu. The much loved but now dead elder of one of the five secret and magical schools beneath the Forbidden City, in Beijing, had always said Kang was the best gate-maker in over 200 years. Kang’s usually fierce visage, inherited from some Mongol ancestors, softening slightly as he thought of the dead elder, Pykang’s father.
    A moment after Pykang’s loud, “NEVER,” reverberated through the tunnel, causing the other guards to become a bit startled, Captain Kang sang out, “The gate is nearly finished!”
    With a speed that was startling even to those who had seen it before, Pykang drew her sharp, silver sword and saluted the rest of the party with it, “I will see you all in another life!” With the swish of her gold silk vestments, she swiftly turned and, without a glance backward, rushed up the tunnel to her ultimate fate, death with honor in the defense of her guards, her sister and, especially, her infant son.
    The guards who still had their shields held them up to protect Ai-Teh from possible missile fire as she took Kasper from the guard and stepped into the now-finished gate, spiriting them both away to safety. Kang shouted for his guards to follow them. They obeyed instantly. Kang looked beyond Pykang’s form as she ran back the way they had come. He saw the shadows of the black-robed warriors closing on her rapidly, their presence signifying her impending doom. Captain Kang was to be the last to go through the gate. He had lingered longer than he had been ordered because he had still held some faint hope of rescuing the princess. Just then, however, she charged into the mass of their enemies, knocking many over. Her right arm was a blur of motion as she dispatched a dozen dark figures. Her bloody left hand held her dagger, which she used to deflect her enemies’ weapons. It was only when their swords ran her through and she fell, dead, did Kang step through the gate.
    It was to safety he had gated, they had all gated. The main gate was unguarded. It was a simple matter to gate home; they disabled their own gate, then, just as Princess Pykang had ordered.
    Princess Ai-Teh and Captain Kang both knew, despite the treachery of the Red Circle and the death of Princess Pykang, the strong, magically enhanced walls of the underground city would provide safety, for a time at least.

    Chapter 1: Into the Shadows

    Kasper might have thought of himself as lucky, but he didn’t. The son of a successful businessman, he lived in his father’s beautiful veranda in one of the best neighborhoods of suburban Havana. He loved the big, walled-in three-acre grounds that surrounded the two-story house. He was an intelligent lad and in very good health, but did not think of himself as lucky.
    Although his father, Lucas Edwards, was a good-looking, well-educated, and rich American of Anglo-Saxon descent, Kasper rarely saw him. It seemed he was always away, seeing to the family business. It was not easy for an American to do business in Cuba; it was only his father’s many contacts and associates in China that allowed him to thrive. Kasper, now all of eleven years of age, suffered because of his father’s unintentional neglect and suffered more because he had no mother. She had died when he was still very young, just hours old, his father said. He did not remember her, of course, but missed her all the same.
    His father had never remarried after Penny, Kasper’s mother, had died.
    Kasper was a lonely child. He had no siblings. There were no other kids in the immediate neighborhood. The cook, housekeeper, and two gardeners steered clear of him. Few Cubans really felt comfortable around him, it seemed. His father’s life had been threatened, the year before, by a thug who probably worked for a competitor. The elder Edwards had made sure, after that incident, the family and the estate was always protected. His gardeners lived in two small cabins in the back, with their wives (the cook and housekeeper). They all had some combat training, either from the military or some martial arts school. All four of them were paid to be vigilant for intruders, as well as weeds and dirt. They acted, in a quiet, not very obvious way, as bodyguards. His father’s personal secretary, Hank Lee, who always traveled with him, was armed with a pistol, armored in a bulletproof vest, and had a black belt in Jujitsu. While Kasper always had at least some of these people around him, they rarely interacted with him except in a distant, professional manner.
    He felt, at home at least, safe. But he did not feel very lucky.
    Although his father always said his mother was a typical American, a blond in fact, Kasper wondered. After all, Kasper looked quite different from his father. His father had light brown hair and blue eyes, while Kasper had dark, scraggly hair. It is true he had a blue eye, but only one; the other was green, emerald green. The little monsters, that were the Cuban bullies he went to school with, never let him forget his weird, mismatched eyes. While Kasper and his father both had the pale skin common to the majority of Americans, Kasper’s eyes (both the blue right one and the green left one) had the slight “slant” one might expect in someone with Asian blood. His father’s did not.
    Kasper fully understood why he had to learn Spanish. He lived in Cuba, after all; what else could he do but learn the language of the country in which he was raised? He also understood why his father made sure he learned English. American Standard English was something he had been tutored in since he could remember. It was, after all, his father’s native tongue. According to his father, it was also his mother’s native tongue. Why was it such a priority to his father, though, for Kasper to learn Mandarin Chinese? Was it merely because his father wanted him to continue in the family business? The import/export business might be extremely important to his father, but it did not mean much to him. Of course, Kasper noted, at eleven years of age, I might not understand what’s important in the adult world. Still, the whole “China thing” made him wonder.
    He remembered, for the thousandth time, how very odd it was he had never even seen a picture of his mother. Kasper whispered shrilly to himself, “She couldn’t have been a blond! I don’t care what Dad says.” He listened to the purring of his cat, Shadow, while thinking about his mother. Yawning and rubbing the sleep out of his eyes, Kasper turned his attention again to the television screen. He was lying on his bed, watching a cheesy kung fu movie with swordsmen flying through the air, yelling in Chinese, and flashing their swords all about. He was amused by the Spanish subtitles, but there wasn’t a lot of Chinese spoken in Cuba, after all. He had rented this particular movie on the advice of his Chinese language and culture tutor. He had given Kasper the homework assignment of watching some kind of Chinese movie or television show. Juan Zhang, his half-Cuban, half-Chinese tutor (though he looked completely Chinese to Kasper), loved Kung fu films and loved the idea of getting paid by Lucas Edwards to discuss this one with the man’s own son.
    Kasper, for the hundredth time, considered that he never really understood why his father wanted him to learn Chinese when there was no real need for it. “Oh, well, at least this movie’s pretty interesting,” he thought. Suddenly, the door burst open and in came in his dad with an angry look on his face, “Who told you that you’re allowed to watch T.V. this early in the morning, and… what is this? Ah! Such a violent movie you are watching! Didn’t I tell you that I want nothing in this house that has anything to do with fighting, even cartoons?”
    “Well Dad, you see, this is the homework that my teacher, Senior Zhang, gave me and….”
    “No excuses! You’re grounded! I’ll talk to Zhang, but you listen to me! Shut yourself in your room after you come back from school today!”
    After hurriedly dressing, Kasper stormed out of his room, furious. He packed his backpack, filling it with the books and notebooks he had left on the table in the den, where he had done most of his studying the night before. Without saying a word, he hurried out the back door. His anger burned and the burning fueled his fast-paced downhill walk to school. By the time he arrived, he was several minutes early, so quickly had his anger propelled him. He saw no reason to hide his anger, until he spotted one of the five or six bullies who continually plagued him. He pulled one of the quick “disappearing acts,” as they called them, to once again evade his tormentors.
    During recess, all of those same bullies showed up for their daily entertainment. “Ha, ha! There’s Casper, I tell yah, Casper the Angry Ghost!”
    There was a sudden chanting, in unison, “Casper the Angry Ghost!” “Casper the Angry Ghost!”
    “Oh hey!” one of them, in a red t-shirt, yelled at his back, “Why are you sneaking away from us again, Casper? Can’t you see we’re talking to you? Or do you have trouble seeing out of those weirdo eyes of yours?” The kid pulled Kasper around by the shoulder and punched him in the stomach. “Ha, ha, ha, ha! He still doesn’t know how to fight, even after all the lessons we’ve given him!”
    When Kasper collapsed on the ground, with the wind knocked out of him, the other kids egged-on Kasper’s attacker, “Kick him! Kick him!” At that moment, Kasper was only thinking one thing, “I wish I had those kung fu powers, like on the video. Oh, how I wish I knew how to fight!”
    “Kick him! Kick him!” Red T-shirt drew back his foot, about to kick Kasper in the leg.
    Suddenly, in a motion too quick for the other kids to follow, Kasper grabbed Red T-shirt’s foot as it kicked out at him. He felt a flash of strength in his muscles as he pulled the foot in the direction it had been headed, but Kasper had moved his own leg out of the way. Kasper’s pulling became a throwing action and Red T-shirt suddenly found himself ten meters away in a dusty, stunned heap on the playground.
    When he recovered enough to realize what had happened, Red T-shirt, whose name turned out to be Carlos, started screaming hysterically, “His eye, it turned red like fire! It was horrible!” An ambulance appeared a few minutes later. Carlos Red T-shirt was put on a gurney, rolled to the ambulance and lifted aboard by the two ambulance technicians. He was still screaming as the ambulance doors closed.
    Kasper spent a couple of hours in the principal’s outer office, during which time the principal’s secretary made several attempts to locate Kasper’s father by telephone. When school let out, Kasper was sent home with a note from the principal, to be signed by Kasper’s father and returned the next day. A police officer came to the house just before dinner and told his father what Kasper had done. The housekeeper had already given Senior Edwards a partial report, based on the principal’s secretary’s telephone calls. The boy, Carlos, the police officer said, had sustained only minor injuries, and was fine after having been given a sedative. The officer said Kasper might still be in big trouble if the family wanted to make an issue of it.
    Kasper had been sent to bed without dinner that night. He had also been forced to endure a long lecture from his father about the dangers of watching violence on television and of fighting, before his father would sign the principal’s note about Kasper. Despite it all, Kasper rejoiced at what he had actually done. He’d thrown that bully, that Carlos, who’d thought to kick him after he was knocked down on the ground, thrown him far enough and hard enough to take all of the fight right out of him. It was kind of weird, though, the way all that strength had suddenly come upon him.
    As soon as his father left the room, Kasper got into his pajamas. He then opened his window, about halfway since it was a warm night. There was no moon. As he opened the window, he gazed through it and he could see, probably by the light seeping through the living room curtains onto the yard, part of the driveway and some hedges beyond. The roof gently sloped down from the window to end at the rain gutter, blocking part of Kasper’s view. The roof’s edge was about three meters out from, and was maybe a meter below, the windowsill. He got into bed. He dropped straight to sleep as soon as his head rested on the pillow.

    His dreams are vivid. In them, Kasper is a mighty warrior, awaiting the fight of his life atop a small mountain of boulders, at the sea’s edge. A shadow passes in front of him as a flying form plummets toward him. Only just in time does he turn and move as Sword-Master Zhang has taught him. In a single moment he saves the villagers from certain death by killing the giant white dragon with one great swipe of his two-handed sword. The onlookers cheer. The dragon’s severed head falls, bouncing from one boulder to another as it falls to the sea. It is odd, Kasper thinks, but as the head hits each rock, it makes an explosive cracking sound….

    With a sharp intake of air, Kasper’s eyes snap open. The sword is gone. Had he dropped it? “No, wait,” he remembered, still in a bit of a mental haze, “that was a dream.” Kasper realized he had been awakened by a sound like gunfire and by a frantic voice in the darkness. His father screamed to him, again, Kasper guessed, from somewhere in the house, “Kasper! Wake up! Hide, or run for your life!” His father had been speaking English, Kasper noted, still a bit sleepy despite the racket. His eyes lit up; he was suddenly fully conscious. He rolled off of his bed into a crouch on the floor. His room was shrouded in darkness, but he could see his window. “There is some moonlight, now. I must have been asleep for hours,” he thought. He quickly crawled to the window and saw a single, dark-hooded figure running on top of the roof, towards him. The figure, a man with a sword, dodged this way and that, interposing his blade between himself and the nine-millimeter automatic pistol rounds fired by his father’s secretary/bodyguard, Senior Lee. The flashes of light from the pistol as it was fired, over and over, were just meters away from Kasper’s window. “Lee must have been on guard, up on the roof when the swordsman appeared,” Kasper thought. “That’s odd. Sometimes one of the gardeners checks out the roof at night, just as a precaution, but only rarely did Lee. Lee should be guarding my father.” Kasper was suddenly concerned about the elder Edwards. As the next shot was fired, the flash of light from the end of the barrel fully illuminated both Lee and the figure with the sword. The black costume the swordsman wore, like the kung fu warriors wear in the movies but with a facemask, made him look like a Ninja. Maybe he was.
    As the secretary paused in his attack to reload his pistol, the Ninja leapt the distance separating them, flashed his sword to the right, perhaps for balance Kasper thought, and employed a spinning kick that knocked both pistol and magazine from the hands of Hank Lee. The Ninja’s next move brought his sword around, then down in a cut that dropped the secretary, never to rise again. The Ninja, apparently, had not seen Kasper peeking out of the window, because he turned and ran to the edge and leaped headfirst off the roof, disappearing from view.
    Kasper could remain still no longer. He carefully opened the window a little more and crawled as quickly, but as quietly as he could to the edge. What he saw confirmed in his mind forever that truth is stranger than fiction. In the fifteen seconds it took Kasper to reach the edge of the roof and peer over the side, the Ninja had slain all four of the “help.” The cook, the housekeeper, and the two gardeners all lay in a bloody heap at the feet of this single figure. The only “damage” the Ninja seemed to have taken was fatigue. The Ninja, apparently a man of medium height and build, was breathing loudly and quickly. At first Kasper could not believe his eyes. “Nobody is that quick and agile,” he thought. Kasper looked to the right of the figure below and in front of him, his attention drawn by sudden movement. Three more Ninjas appeared. Having captured Kasper’s father, they brought him forth from the living room. Light flooded the yard for a moment as the curtained sliding glass door was opened to allow the four figures passage out of the house. Kasper could not make out their features because of their masks. Though his father tried to call out, the sound was muffled. Kasper saw a black strip of what looked like silk had been tied to gag him. It sounded to Kasper like he was still trying to warn his son of the danger. He was not crying out, Kasper knew with certainty, for mercy for himself. He couldn’t be, not his father.
    The Ninja who had killed the guards was apparently the leader because the other three dragged Kasper’s father right before him. The leader asked him, in a deeper voice than Kasper had ever heard before, “Where is Pykang’s family crest?” He nodded to one of his subordinates, and the gag was removed. His father croaked out, “I don’t know and even if I did I would not tell you!” It was the last thing he said that night. Edwards was struck in the forehead by the leader’s balled fist and fell unconscious.
    The leader searched Edwards and the bodies of those at his feet. The other three, at the leader’s command, began to search through everything in the house to find what they were looking for. Kasper was suddenly glad to have studied Mandarin. He realized the Ninjas, for he was now sure that was what they must be, had been using that language amongst themselves. They also might, he wryly thought, not speak English. His father’s warnings, indeed, did not appear to have led the Ninjas to search for a person. They were clearly looking for a thing. “A crest? Whose crest?” Kasper didn’t know. But, as Kasper sneaked back up the roof, through the window, into his room, he thought, “This gives me a small advantage in this situation. I will know where they are going before they get there and they don’t seem to know I’m here at all.” It was easy for “Casper, the Angry Ghost,” to stay out of their way as the three Ninja quickly searched though the house. He stayed close to his room, but stayed out of sight. The Ninja’s seemed a little anxious about showing a light. They put lights out as they moved from room to room. Minutes later, it appeared they had found nothing of interest since they were about to leave. Kasper couldn’t be completely sure, but from what he was able to overhear, it seemed they were looking for the crest and something else. He couldn’t tell what, since they referred to it as “The Item.”
    As much as Kasper loved his black cat, Shadow, he was sometimes annoyed by his own allergy to cats. It didn’t hit him often, usually only in times of stress. Kasper suddenly sneezed. He tried to muffle it, but the leader apparently thought he had heard something. He told the rest to depart and to make sure “the American” did not escape. He would make a final search of the house to be sure they had missed nothing.
    The leader flew up to the roof. That’s how Kasper thought of it when he saw it. It was just like the video he had seen earlier that day. “This is unreal,” he thought, “that seems like years ago.” The Ninja jumped the three meters from the ground to the roof. His gracefulness was just like the flight of those Chi warriors in the kung fu movie!
    Kasper was sure he had been heard. He stayed in the darkness of the room, a little to the side of the open window. Kasper felt about franticly for some kind of weapon. His questing fingers found a pair of chopsticks resting in a bowl that yesterday had contained an after-school snack. He thought about a Jackie Chan movie he had once seen (his father had never found out) where Chan had used chopsticks as weapons. As soon as Kasper had the barest hint of a plan in mind, the Ninja leader suddenly leaped through the open window. Blindly, Kasper stabbed out with one of the chopsticks. He had, by luck it seemed, struck the Ninja in the very center of his chest. His heart had skipped a few beats, so great had been the shock. As his consciousness slipped into darkness, the Ninja managed to gasp at Kasper before he dropped to the ground, “You’re just a boy!” Kasper, aghast at what he has just done, said nothing. “You’re eye…it’s horrible!” The Ninja went limp and his body suddenly vanished, leaving only a red circle of light on the floor. The light faded, as Kasper watched, thunderstruck by everything that had just happened, his mouth hanging open in awe.
    Kasper decided it was a good time to for him to disappear, as well.

    Chapter 2: Farewell to Cuba

    The judge told Kasper to approach the bench. “Kasper,” he said, in a kind and reassuring manner, “It has been a week since your father was kidnapped.” It seemed a lot longer to Kasper, since he had thought of little else since that fateful night. “No one has heard anything. There was no ransom note,” the judge continued, “nor have the police turned up anything. It is almost as if what you thought you saw that night actually happened. They all seem to have just disappeared, even your cat.”
    He paused for a moment, trying to gauge Kasper’s reaction. A tear seemed to be forming in Kasper’s eye, but the boy was holding up bravely enough, it seemed to the judge. “I want you to think for a moment before you answer this question, Kasper. Knowing what you now know, what do you want to do?”
    “Knowing what I now know?” thought Kasper. “What do I know?” It seemed to have been a terrible nightmare, not something an eleven-year-old boy should have to think about, let alone make decisions about. He remembered those minutes after the Ninja he had attacked had just disappeared. He tried to follow the three men who had his father, hoping to somehow rescue him. He started looking where he had last seen them, in the yard and driveway just outside the living room, beneath his own window. It was also there and then he had last seen Shadow, who rubbed up against his leg while he looked around. A moment later, when he turned to see where the cat had wandered off to, he was gone. He had seen, instead of his faithful cat, signs of a struggle, had seen the bodies of the five people who worked for his father, who had worked for his father, he corrected himself. The reality of it all was beginning to set in. “Maybe I am going into shock,” he thought. He looked around and saw where his father had apparently been partly carried, partly dragged away. He followed the trail, but it suddenly just stopped. There was no further sign of any of them. Kasper realized he was getting a little light in the head. There was a swimming feeling and suddenly all he could see was a field of swirling dark red light, quickly being overwhelmed by blackness. He didn’t even feel it when he fell, already unconscious, to the ground.
    The next thing he knew it was a few days later and he was sitting in the police station. He apparently had gone into shock, fallen, and hit his head on the cement driveway. He was found, still unconscious, a few minutes later because the neighbors had heard all the commotion and called the police. Kasper had been taken to the hospital for observation, because it was feared he might have gotten a concussion. Indeed, he had. All his memory, from the moment he fell until just then, “waking,” as from a trance, in the police station, was gone.
    Fortunately, he had been able to tell the police officers, the one who had arrived at his home that night and the detective who visited him, a little later, in the hospital, the story of what had happened that night, even if Kasper no longer remembered telling them anything. Anyway, much of his story, like the Ninja flying and later disappearing into red light, had been dismissed as ravings.
    There was to be a hearing, the police officer had said, about who would be made his legal guardian. There is a woman in Beijing, he had been told, who claimed to be related to him and was willing take care of him. Kasper had, however, furiously objected to that idea. He had told them repeatedly he had no relations in China. Both of his parents, he said, were Americans. But the police officers and the agents for the court, including the judge, had made it clear to Kasper his father had lied to him. According to records his father had filed with the court, his real mother was Chinese and she had a sister, named Ai-Teh. Kasper, while surprised that his earlier suspicions about his “blond” mother, were true, was happy that he finally learned his own family history. He was, however, also quite confused because he had no idea why his father had lied to him. He had asked his mother’s name. He was told it was Pykang. Kasper had bolted upright in his seat at that news, “Pykang’s Crest,” he thought, “that is what those Ninja people had been looking for!” Kasper managed to keep this discovery to himself.
    The judge cleared his throat, bringing Kasper back to the present. “What is it you want to do?” he asked. He told the judge he might as well go to his aunt, in China, but wanted to be notified the moment any news of his father was known. The judge said, “I was hoping you would say something like that.” He turned to the court reporter and said, “It is so ordered.” The judge’s gavel made a resounding boom as it struck. It seemed to Kasper to say, “And that’s final!” The judge looked at Kasper and said, “Good luck, son.”
    After the hearing, Kasper took a last stroll through the park he had always played in when he was small, and said goodbye to Senior Zhang, his tutor, who lived nearby. Tears filled his eyes. Why couldn’t he have just lived a normal life where he had a father and a mother and a few good friends? He was angry with himself for dreaming of becoming a hero, like in the movies. Some hero he made! Sure he had attacked the Ninja, but the Ninja hadn’t even seen him. It’s not like it was a fair fight or anything. Then he sort of snorted in ironic laughter. He had expected a fair fight with a Ninja? What a thought that was! He wondered if his father had been right, though, that watching that stupid movie and getting into a fight at school had somehow caused this mess. He wasn’t sure if he really believed in Karma, but you never know.
    He decided he had to go back to the house he had grown up in since it would be the last he would see of the place for who knows how long? The police had told him, though, he must not return without a police escort. Well, Kasper thought, I know they said it is a crime scene, but he was pretty sure there was no reason for the strange men to return. They had the rich American businessman, Lucas Edwards, as a hostage, for whatever reason. There was no reason they would want me, too, his thoughts continued. He shouldered the backpack that contained everything he was taking to China, and made the trek up the hill to his house. He saw a familiar dark form as he approached the house. It’s a good thing he had returned because there was Shadow! Kasper staggered a little as Shadow, all six muscular kilograms of him, sprang off the ground into Kasper’s arms. After a loud, “Yowl,” in his ear and a raspy tongue on his cheek, Shadow struggled free and dropped to the ground. He ran ahead, then turned and looked piercingly up at Kasper. It was clear he wanted to be followed somewhere. So, Kasper followed.
    The back door lock turned to his key and Shadow pounced into the kitchen as soon as Kasper opened the door. Could there be some special intelligence at work in his young pet? But, no, Shadow jumped up to the little tabletop where his food and water still sat. He must be famished, Kasper thought. But after satisfying his appetite, while Kasper took a last prowl around the kitchen and dining room he had had so many meals in, Shadow made a curious humming noise that seemed as urgent as it was unusual. [8 hours]
    Shadow, it seemed, had waited until Kasper’s attention was fully on his pet, and then ran as fast as he had ever run towards the stairs leading to the second floor. Kasper, who had a plane to catch, was concerned Shadow might disappear again. He dropped his backpack on the floor and sprinted up the stairs, only to find Shadow had stopped dead, on the third stair from the top. As Kasper tried to stop without stepping on Shadow’s tail, he saw the cat start scratching at a seam in the carpet covering the stairs. The seam was ripped apart in the few seconds Kasper stood in riveted surprise. As he watched, stunned, Shadow parted the sections of carpet with his claws. He looked up at Kasper, directly into his eyes. There was an oddly intense intelligence in them. Kasper pulled himself out of his stupor and tore the carpet away from the stair. What he saw amazed him. There was apparently a drawer, with tiny recessed handles, underneath the step. He pulled it open. It felt like it had not been moved in years, which it probably had not. There was a purple velvet bag about as long as his forearm in the drawer. He opened it and pulled from it a silver-handled double-edged dagger in a scabbard. There was a large ruby in the pommel. It had a blade so sharp it drew a bead of blood from the ball of his thumb when he barely touched it. The point came together in a manner that reminded him of a throwing knife. He hefted it. It was finely balanced. All in all, it was an amazing find! Shadow had led him right to it. Shaking his head, Kasper wiped the blood off the blade, then put the dagger back in its scabbard, also made of silver, with finely carved mysterious symbols on it. He put the scabbard back in the velvet back and put the bag down while he replaced the drawer in the stair and tried to make the carpet look the way it had before being ravaged by his astonishingly intelligent cat. He ran, Shadow in one hand, bag in the other, to the kitchen. He bent down, hid the bag with the dagger in his backpack, shouldered it, took a fresh grip on Shadow, relocked the back door and ran for all he was worth back toward the police station. The driver would be coming soon to pick him up to take him to the airport. Kasper decided he would not carry his backpack onto the plane, after all, now that it had a dagger in it. Explaining the sudden appearance of Shadow was going to be enough of a job, without having to confess to going back to the house or explaining the apparently very valuable and certainly mysterious dagger.
    As he waited for the driver to pick him up, he was silent for a while. He, at last, spoke, “I promise God, if there ever is one, I will find my father’s kidnappers, save him and return here to live a happy life with him.” He said goodbye to Cuba, “Only for a while,” he thought. An hour or so later, he took a long, last look at the tropical scenery from the plane as it was winging its way towards Beijing.

    Chapter 3: The Aunt with a Stick

    Kasper’s flight was long, but otherwise unremarkable. A government car was dispatched to take him to where his aunt lived, in the countryside just outside Beijing. He saw why, at once, his aunt had not picked him up herself or sent a driver. There was nothing drivable on the property but an ancient oxcart. Looking at the single wire leading into the house, he doubted there was even a phone there, let along Internet access. After a lifetime of wealth and modern conveniences, Kasper was sure living here was going to be a major pain.
    Unfortunately, “pain” was exactly the right word. His aunt, purported to be his mother’s sister, Ai-Teh, was a firm believer in corporal punishment. She carried a long, tapering whip-like stick with her, supposedly for the ox. Kasper, though, seemed to get hit with it more often than the ox, the dog, or even the servant boy, Liang, whose back usually had stripes of red from her frequent attacks. “He’s just lazy,” she said when Kasper first asked about the marks, “like you,” she added with a sneer. “Now, shut up and get back to work!”
    The work she had Kasper do was little different than what poor Liang had to do. Cleaning out the ox-pen, feeding the ox and the dog, cleaning up after the dog, beating carpets on clotheslines, sweeping the hardwood floors, doing the dishes, and anything else Aunt Ai-Teh (“Mistress Ai-Teh,” Liang called her) needed to have done was what they both did, on pain of, well, pain. The boys often worked together. Aunt Ai-Teh didn’t seem to care, especially since they usually got more work done together, than they were able to do separately. Kasper and Liang became close friends.
    . Ai-Teh did do the cooking, however, and her meals, though simple fare, were pretty good, Kasper and Liang both thought. Kasper began to put on a little weight. This was partly from all the hard work, partly from the good, solid meals Ai-Teh prepared, and partly from just getting older. His twelfth birthday was coming up, he realized. In three months or so, in late June, but it seemed like a lifetime before it would happen. How time crawled, he thought a little morbidly, when you are being beaten
    From what he could tell, his aunt was the most superstitious person he had ever met. She consulted her “almanac” before doing almost anything. Kasper suspected she had gotten it from the same fortune-teller who had suggested she take Kasper in. The fortune-teller had, indeed, told her fortune. It took a little time for the legal and financial details to be worked out, after Lucas Edwards’ disappearance, but when he failed to reappear, monies began to flow from the Edwards’ trust fund into Aunt Ai-Teh’s account. Of course, Aunt Ai-Teh did not trust the banks, or even the Chinese Yuan. She had most of the money converted into gold and silver coins that she hid in various places on the property. Even though still only eleven years old, Kasper had enough financial sense to realize the money should be invested in something more likely to grow in value, like real estate, for example. He thought of the only thing of any real financial value he, himself, actually had possession of, the silver dagger Shadow had found. Seeing how much his aunt mistreated him, and everyone else for that matter, he kept knowledge of the dagger from her. She was at least as greedy, he thought, as she was mean.
    Shadow might have been a problem. If Aunt Ai-Teh had not liked him, it would not have been good. The fact was, however, the stupid dog, who looked like a cross between a Great Dane and a Mastiff, had taken his own frustration from the beatings Ai-Teh gave him out on the cat Ai-Teh used to have. It finally had just run off somewhere, never to return. Or so Liang had told him. Aunt Ai-Teh was actually glad to see Shadow, especially after he had caught his first rat. Unfortunately, there were a lot of rats for Shadow to catch on and near the little piece of property Liang grew vegetables and grain on. The dog, whose name was “Dog,” (Aunt Ai-Teh was about as uncreative as she was superstitious, greedy, and mean) had tried to intimidate Shadow. Once. He got a face full of scratches for his trouble and never bothered Shadow again. Kasper wished he could do the same to Aunt Ai-Teh, but she was far too dangerous to infuriate. He wondered if his aunt might also be a little crazy.
    Or maybe she was a religious fanatic. Kasper had thought the whole “Confucian thing,” as he thought of it, was long dead in the People’s Republic of China. He had heard religion, in China, was not well thought of, nor much tolerated. He knew Confucianism wasn’t exactly a religion, but close enough. Anyway, whatever the government thought about it, Aunt Ai-Teh was a firm and fervent believer in what she called, “the wisdom of the great Confucius.” “How can you stand it, Liang?” Kasper had asked his new friend. “I just try to pretend I’m listening, and nod my head once in a while. Her eyes get all glossed over when she really gets going. I don’t think she really notices she’s told me the same old sayings over and over. Whatever you do,” Liang warned, “don’t ever seem critical of Confucius. She’d go berserk!” The worst part of Confucianism, from the point of view of Kasper and Liang, was the huge amount of respect the young had to show anyone older, especially family members. It also justified, in Ai-Teh’s mind anyway, the beatings she gave the boys.
    Living with his aunt got old fast for Kasper. Liang, who had been there over a year, was at his wit’s end. He was an orphan. His mother, like Kasper had always been told his had, really had died in childbirth. His father had been killed in a mining accident about a year before the boys had met. Like many in China, Liang had been an only child. He now had nowhere else to go. Mistress Ai-Teh’s little farm had been the boy’s own private hell. Now, he shared it with Kasper. The boys conspired together while they worked, whenever Ai-Teh was elsewhere. They planned to escape.
    Kasper had been on the little piece of property his aunt owned for about three months. He couldn’t remember the Chinese measurement, but it was a little more than an acre in size. It was fenced, all around, with old pieces of stone that had been used for various buildings over the centuries, all cemented together into an ugly but quite serviceable wall, about a meter-and-a-half tall and one-half a meter thick. The boys could jump up and see over it, or pull themselves up and over it, but it was too high for them to just look over. Besides the little plot of millet and barley Ai-Teh kept, and the vegetable patch, there were about a dozen fruit trees, a couple of trees that bore nuts, and three or four others Kasper couldn’t identify. It was never a good idea to ask his aunt too many questions, and Liang didn’t know what they were, either. They were good for climbing, though, and the boys often used what little playtime Ai-Teh gave them to climb as high as they could. Up there, several meters above the ground, they were fairly certain they would not be overheard as they gazed out of their prison, plotting their route to freedom. Neither boy had a good idea of how to survive in the countryside. They decided they would head into Beijing, which is where Liang had lived until his father had died. Kasper had always lived near Havana, a large city, though not nearly as big as Beijing. He thought they might be able to lose themselves in the city. Maybe he could contact someone, perhaps Teacher Zhang, back home, and get him to rescue both of the boys from his cruel aunt.
    Thinking of Teacher Zhang reminded Kasper of home, and especially of his father. The one kind of question he dared ask his aunt was about his father. She just kept telling him she had heard nothing, but she didn’t seem very interested. Kasper guessed she never would be very interested, as long as the money kept coming in every month.
    “The money is supposed to be used to support me,” Kasper thought. He told Liang the same thing, adding, “We’re going to get some of it before we get out of this place. You have to have money to live in a city,” he sagely told his friend. Kasper was glad he had learned Mandarin. He began to listen more carefully to his aunt, especially when she was talking to herself. She mumbled to herself all the time, usually about Confucius, but sometimes about money. Kasper was especially alert whenever she got anything delivered to her, or when she got back from the little village a kilometer away. The boys always knew when she was leaving because Ai-Teh made one or both of them hitch the ox to the cart each time. Before Kasper had gotten there, Liang had sometimes accompanied Aunt Ai-Teh when she bought the gold and silver coins. After Kasper got there, for some reason, she always had the coins delivered to the house. Where had she hidden the coins? They knew what little paper money she kept on hand was always on her person, so there was no point in thinking about it. She was a light sleeper. Just getting away in the night would be difficult, let alone trying to pick her pockets.
    One day, not long from when the boys decided they were going to escape, two deliveries happened on the same day. The first, they were sure, was a bag full of coins. It was about the right time of the month. A little later, while Ai-Teh had the boys cleaning the entire kitchen, they heard Dog barking. He almost always barked at anyone coming near the wall, but he persisted so long they were pretty sure someone had arrived. Sure enough, a delivery boy on a bicycle appeared, with something wrapped in brown paper in the carrying basket of the bike. Shadow suddenly jumped on the wall near the boy. Dog was going crazy, not just barking, he was whining in hunger. “Fish!” the boys both said, laughing. Ai-Teh went running past the kitchen window towards the boy and his bike. There was fresh mud on the soles of her shoes. Kasper ran to a window at the other end of the house and could clearly see where she had been interrupted while digging. Kasper marked the spot in his mind. “Our freedom lies buried there,” he thought.
    Unfortunately, his aunt caught him, not at the window, thankfully, but in the hall. Since he had “left his assigned post without completing his task,” he would do all of the work, in the house and in the yard, normally shared by all three of them. As she told him what additional work he had to do, she punctuated her sentences by whipping him about the shoulders and back with her stick. Kasper never hated anyone as much as he hated her at that moment. Hours later, Kasper was angry, but exhausted when he was finally allowed to rest. The boys decided to put off their departure for one more night.
    The next day they did everything they could to stay out of trouble. Ai-Teh was so happy with the money and the fish that she was almost nice to them. As soon as the boys were sure Ai-Teh was fast asleep, that night, they gave all rest of the fish and a large helping of his dog food to Dog to keep him busy. Kasper then dug up the bag full of coins, while Liang grabbed the bags of clothes, food, and other stuff they had prepared. Kasper picked up Shadow (and secretly made sure his dagger was safely tucked in the waistband of his pants, hidden by his shirt), and the boys climbed over the wall, escaping into the night. It would be a long walk, but by morning they should be well into Beijing.
    Kasper had a smile on his face. Once they got far enough away that Dog wouldn’t be able to hear them, Kasper told Liang a secret he had kept from him. He told Liang he had taken Ai-Teh’s favorite statue of Confucius, broken it in two, and buried it where the coins had been. They both had a good laugh at that.

    She smiled. “I thought they’d never leave,’ she whispered to herself, in English. At that moment, Dog started a low rumbling in his throat that usually preceded a barking fit. “Dog,” she whispered, “here, boy.” Dog trotted to his mistress. She said, “Shhhhh, be quiet. We want them to make a clean getaway.” The boys, she knew, would never guess she had used Chi powers to overhear almost all of their “secret” conversations in the trees. “I suppose I should remain here for a while, to make sure they make good their escape,” she thought. She then rolled over and went back to sleep.
    Last edited by stealth720; 05-10-09 at 04:07 AM.

  2. #2
    Junior Member jeannie_lin's Avatar
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    May 2009
    St. Louis

    Default Intriguing!

    I haven't finished reading all of this yet, but I just wanted to say that this premise is really fascinating! That they built an underground replica of the palace -- almost like a tomb. It's very mysterious, but has elements that ring very true. I like it!
    Adventures in Romance:

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