by David D. Levine
$0.99 (Short Story) ISBN 978-1-61138-223-5
Circle of Compassion by David D. Levine (short story) is the tale of a young priestess in an ancient China that never was, who must use a tiny magical charm to defeat a great army. It originally appeared in the anthology Gateways.
Su’s spirit soared above the town, with its courtyards glimmering with the torches of Chang’s remaining troops. Quickly she flew over the walls, and the moat beyond them, to the plain below the town where Yao had massed his army. Thousands of fires burned there, in rigid rows and columns. Su knew nothing of armies, but she could count, and even she could see that Yao’s army vastly outnumbered Chang’s forces.
But there, in the center of the camp, was one tent larger than the others, which swarmed with soldiers coming and going like an ants’ nest. Su swooped down upon it and through its fabric roof.
She recognized Yao Ming at once — she had seen his scarred, dark-bearded face in many scrolls and woodcuts. He wore an armored surcoat, fashioned of many palm-sized squares of rhinoceros leather, over a blue robe with black trim. At the moment he and his lieutenants were bowed in concentration over a smoking brazier.
The smoke from the brazier stung her eyes as she moved closer, trying to hear their conversation. But they were not conversing — they were praying. Foul prayers to the black demons worshipped by the Tung. She would learn nothing useful from this, so she moved behind Yao, to a low table where maps were spread out.
As she peered closer, trying to make sense of the maps’ rough markings, the prayers reached a feverish enthusiasm, the Tung men shrieking and swaying as they waved their hands over their heads. Finally they all shouted four words together, and Yao threw a handful of mulberry leaves into the brazier.
Su coughed in the choking smoke.
But… this was wrong. Smoke should not affect her spirit body.
This was no ordinary fire.
Panicking, she gathered her spirit self to flee. But before she reached the tent roof, a huge, taloned hand darted out of the smoke and grabbed her by the foot. “Ai!” she cried.
Helplessly she struggled as the rest of the black demon coalesced into being. It had the form of a huge, muscular man, barely able to stand erect at the center of the tent, but its face was distorted by enormous fangs and protruding eyes and its skin was charcoal-black. The hand that held her foot was hard as stone and ridged with muscle. “Release me, demon, in the name of Kuan Shih Yin!” But her words had no effect.
“What have you caught, oh my demon?” asked Yao. He had heard nothing.
“A spying spirit,” the demon replied, in a voice like stones grinding together.
“Bring him here!”
“As my master wishes.” The demon reached up with its other hand and grabbed Su by the neck, then pulled her down to the floor of the tent.
Her boots thumped on the dirt, and then the demon forced her to her knees.
She gasped at the pain, then gasped again at the realization of what it meant. The demon had pulled her material body into the tent!