The Master Wizard
Erik departed his sister’s house later that night. Instead of his own apartment, Erik headed to the Tates’, for he couldn’t bear the thought of Sam and Susan fretting over him.
Erik knew he’d made the right decision as soon as the door opened. Sam was so overwrought he’d turned a milky-brown shade, and Susan looked just as haggard. The two also tried to strangle him when they realized who was knocking their door.
“We thought you were dead!” Susan wailed.
The rest of the night Susan wanted to talk about it, Sam also wanted to talk about it, and Erik refused to because it was too dangerous.
“It involves Rena’s line of work,” Erik told them. “You know it’s dangerous to know too much.”
“You’re involved,” Sam pointed out.
“Which proves I’m stupid. Don’t follow my example.” Erik took in a deep breath. “Rena and I worked out a plan to get me out. I’ll let you know how it goes.”
Next day Erik executed step one. He cornered the ex-military Subject Matter Experts at his workplace and asked them if they knew Major Simo or Natalya Hades. Former Chief Warrant Officer Four Gilberto “Gil” Set and former Chief Warrant Officer Three Proserpina Sachmis were hired for their vast DOD connections and military experience. So chances were they knew the two or knew someone who knew them.
“Oh, you do not want to get involved with those cats. They crazy,” Gil said emphatically.
“How so? What do they do? Why do they want?” Erik probed.
Gil gave him a meaningful look.
“Let me put it this way, Señor. If we lose you to the clowns they work for, Willie gonna commit suicide,” he said.
Erik exhaled through his nose. “That bad, huh? And here I thought nothing could beat AMIPO’s insanity.”
“Simo will rip off your arms if you give her the chance, and Hades will desecrate your body,” said Gil. “Here, all you have to worry about is Chief Pina talking your ear off.”
“Don’t you talk smart like that Gilberto, or I’m going to poke your eyes out,” Proserpina threatened.
Gil quirked a bushy eyebrow as he gestured at Proserpina, his salt-and-pepper mustache quivering. Their back-and-forth was as funny as it was achingly familiar, and it made Erik smile with sorrow. If things didn’t work out, he was going to miss these people.
Erik didn’t mention Simo or Hades again but waited for Gil and Pina to gossip away. The two must’ve worked the DOD grapevine overtime, for on the Friday of the same week something happened that had never happened before. Willie R Mors, AMIPO’s government-side technical manager, stopped by Erik’s cubicle during his weekly visit, said a lot of flattering things (“you do excellent work, and your institutional knowledge sets you apart”), and strongly encouraged him to stay. Gil later told Erik Willie and Hades were exchanging frigid emails about stealing key personnel. Then he spent the rest of the day ragging Erik for having ‘Institutional Knowledge’.
“Though I knew Mors would object to Hades poaching you, I didn’t expect this level of alacrity. What gives?” Rena asked that same evening.
“Pink Elephant principle,” Erik replied. “DBAs who can take care of enterprise level database solutions are a dime in a dozen. DBAs who can do that and understand military force structure and have a working knowledge of munitions and personnel management are rare.”
“Aw, look at you all grown up and scheming like a man,” Rena crooned, lips puckered. Then she turned serious. “Don’t be complacent. You’re more valuable as a Pink Elephant DBA for now, but the moment people think you can be master levels in qi on top of that, all bets are off. I know it goes against your zeal for excellence, but just this once, stay mediocre.”
Erik nodded. The mere thought of giving up qi made him feel like he was carving out his own heart, but he acknowledged it was necessary. He’d rather scorch the earth than endanger Sam and Susan. Besides, he was a grown man. He will do what was needed.
Erik stopped his qi self-study that same hour. Better, he thought, to go cold turkey than tantalize himself with possibilities he can’t realize. He wasn’t sure what to tell the Bullions and the qi-aware Caneses. Particularly Moe, since he’d volunteered to take care of the IT nuts and bolts of Moe’s blog pro bono after it crashed and burned ignobly. But then, Erik figured he could always politely distance himself and respond to them less. In time, they’d forget about him, and his life would return to how it used to be.
It should work. He was a master of creating obsessions. In time, he’d find something interesting enough to replace qi.
He could still hear the trees whispering. The rocks still spoke, though he didn’t know what they were saying. Every time he ran, he was drawn towards the craggiest of forests and the most untamed of mountains. Then in the cool of the evening, as he sat at the edge of a cliff with his feet dangling, he would hear them.
The Horns of Elfland.
And each time he heard them, he wished to reply: I’m here! Answer, please, I’m dying, dying, dying…
Erik hadn’t forgotten about the qi meetup Moe mentioned. But he doubted the Farthings (whoever they were) could gather enough people to make it worth the hassle. So it was something of a surprise when he got an email about it a week after he decided to quit qi. The email’s subject and body made it sound like the meetup was an opportunity meet Moses Canes, of On Money and Life fame, and Mr. Bullion, who needed no introduction. Erik supposed it was prudent.
“You’re still going?” Rena asked when Erik told her about the meetup’s time and location.
Erik sighed. “I promised.”
“You’re too honorable for your own good,” Rena chided. “The world isn’t going to end if you don’t show. I can always get myself arrested or feign death if you need an excuse.”
Erik didn’t smile. “Don’t be drastic. Book me for babysitting and go for cream tea. That way I can go but not linger.”
“How boring and transparent of you,” Rena sneered. Nevertheless, she did as he asked (she was, after all, not stupid).
The days before the meetup passed by intermittently. Erik couldn’t bring himself to prepare for it except thinking he should do something to enhance his aura of aloofness. Or something of the like. Sam once remarked it shrouded him like a deadly contagion. Mostly, he wished he could feel excited about it.
Then the day of the meetup dawned.
Erik spent the morning lying in bed, trying to convince himself to move. He eventually rolled out and scrounged up the professional killer outfit Susan had assembled for him for a Halloween party: black turtleneck, black leather jacket, charcoal slacks, black combat boots, and aviator sunglasses. Nothing said ‘stand back’ than professional killer, he thought.
Erik had a terrible suspicion his outfit achieved the opposite effect when he arrived at the meetup location. The young people surrounding Moe and Bullion kept whispering and pointing like they were daring each other to go talk to him. When he tried to imagine why he hit a mental wall and a voice inside his head commanded: STOP. Don’t Go There.
“Hello, Erik! Glad you made it,” said Moe, waving jovially as he approached.
Erik lifted his sunglasses. “Hi, Moe. How’s the blog running?”
“Very well, since you’ve resurrected it from the dead,” Moe grinned. “Speaking of blogs, there are people I’d like you meet.”
Moe led him to a woman who had her ash-blond hair up in not one, but three rows of spiked Mohawks. Standing next to her was a stout man who sported many piercings, a shaved head, and a ginger goatee.
“Erik, this is Jenna and Jeremy Farthing. They’re the brains behind frugal is the new sexy dot com,” Moe announced.
Triple Mohawk’s right hand shot out. Erik, not knowing a better course of action, offered his own right hand. He soon found it shaken with considerable enthusiasm.
“Uh, hi,” said Erik, as his hand flopped up and down. “I don’t know your blog, sorry.”
“Well, we’re not Mr. Bullion, that’s for sure,” said Jenna Farthing. She then let go of Erik’s hand and put on an infectious grin. “I’m so glad we finally met! Moe told me so much about you! The whole PF community owes you tons, by the way. Moe said there wouldn’t be an On Money and Life anymore if you hadn’t talk him off the ledge and fixed everything!”
“It was nothing,” Erik murmured. “Frankly, I owe Moe at least ten fancy coffees for his Investing Series.”
“My blushes,” said Moe, while the Farthings beamed.
“So is this everyone? Are we waiting? I can’t stay long,” Erik said.
“Just one more,” said Jeremy Farthing. “We’re lucky she can make it. Her Saturdays are usually packed.”
Erik felt his eyebrows climb up. “Who is it?”
Both Farthings leaned in like they were about to reveal a wonderful secret.
“She’s a qi expert,” Jenna whispered. “I’m serious. We went to one of her workshops. She’s legit.”
Erik’s interest piqued in spite of himself. Though he couldn’t exclude fraud just yet, David had mentioned it was easy to spot a master level wizard.
“Her grandparents taught her qi since she could walk,” Jenna elaborated. “She studied medicine to understand the relationship between qi and body. Then she went to Oxford to study the math and science behind it and got a few doctorates for her troubles. She studied ancient languages and archaeology, too, so she’d know qi history.”
Erik was now definitely intrigued. Here was a person who’d dedicated her life studying qi at almost every possible angle. If there ever was someone who could give him accurate feedback, this was it. The promise of clarity alone was irresistible.
“What’s her name?” he asked.
That moment, someone skidded to a halt behind him, gasping for breath.
“I’m so sorry I’m late.”
Erik froze. He’d heard this voice and accent before.
“It’s all good,” said Jenna, grinning ear-to-ear. “Everyone, this is Dr. Alex Xie.”
Erik slowly turned around. The person who stood behind him was as tall as he and wore a gray tweed suit and a white button-down. Her white hair was long enough to fall loosely around her face but too short to tie back. The shock and dismay writ clear on her tan face and soft teal eyes would’ve been comic, but there was nothing funny about meeting one of the people who tried to hunt you down, but then turned around and helped you escape.
FML, Erik thought vehemently.
Xie recovered her composure, but not fast enough that others wouldn’t notice her earlier reaction.
“Hey, are you okay doc?” Jenna asked.
Xie blinked, then shook her head like she was waking up from a light snooze.
“Oh, yes, yes, of course. Pardon me, I wasn’t…well.” She stole a brief glance at Erik and said: “You’ve gathered quite a diverse group, here, Jenna. I must commend you.”
“Thanks. Cool, huh?” Jenna beamed.
Xie smiled wanly. “Indeed it is.”
The Farthings started the meetup right after the interlude. Jeremy led everyone to the picnic tables they’d reserved, and Jenna facilitated the introductions. Erik, who didn’t trust himself to speak, just tersely stated his name (“Erik Ransom”). Xie, who went last, didn’t mention her extravagant academic credentials and said: “My name is Alex Xie. I was born and raised in a family of wizards. After a short stint as a doctor, I went to the UK and read several subjects.”
Then Jenna dropped a bombshell: Xie was the author of Frost.
“Oh no, no, I’m not,” Xie said immediately. “There is no way I could’ve conceived the story on my own. No. Frost is a tale my grandmother told me. I just…embellished it a bit, and added a few personal touches.”
Of course, this made everyone clamor for more details. Erik, who still didn’t trust himself to speak, knew he was staring in a creepy way. At last, Xie gave in.
“The story has been around for at least a century. It’s used to teach aspiring wizards all the basics. The characters and settings are different depending on when and where it’s being told, but the plot is the same:
“The hero gets injured in a war. He is saved by the Grandmaster character, who uses a hitherto unknown skill X to save him. The hero wishes to pay the life debt he owes, so asks his best friend to help him find the Grandmaster, who is in hiding. The friend agrees to help, but argues the Grandmaster isn’t real, and to show why not, he makes the hero recite the Major Laws of qi.”
Xie paused and gave them all a small smile.
“It’s not always three. Sometimes it’s seven. Sometimes it’s two. The order can be different. But the core is always the same.
“One: only living things can generate qi as long as they live.
“Two: qi manifests as ‘push’ or ‘pull’.
“Three: qi can push or pull anything that is real, as long as there is something physical that acts as a medium.”
Xie smile grew as she stated: “Any corollaries or additions are there to further clarify these three main points. Anyway, the friend interrupts the hero when he states the last law and tells him skill X violates it.”
There were many nodding of heads. Quite a few people, including Moe, furiously took notes.
“The two friends go on a quest to find the Grandmaster despite their doubts,” Xie continued. “They eventually find the Grandmaster, who is usually, but not always, a person they already know. The skeptical friend wants proof, so the Grandmaster agrees to teach them skill X. But before she does so, the Grandmaster goes over the three prohibitions.”
Erik felt breathless as Xie raised a finger.
“One: do not try to bring something out of nothing. It is impossible.”
She raised another.
“Two: do not try to be and not be at the same time in the same sense. It is a contradiction.”
A third finger joined the other two.
“Three: do not trespass the hidden realms, which are: the heart of man, the face of God, and unrevealed mysteries such as the future.”
Xie summarized the rest of the story to her captive audience after answering a few questions about the prohibitions.
“Under the Grandmaster’s tutorage, the hero and his friend learn many hitherto thought impossible skills. Then the hero discovers why the Grandmaster went into hiding: her king had ordered her to commit a prohibition in enemy territory. It is implied she would’ve wiped out the hero’s nation if she did. Anyway, the Grandmaster disobeyed the king’s orders, not because she feared death or because she was disloyal to her country, but because it violated almost every commandant from God. The hero and his friend, now knowing the truth, uses qi to rip a hole in space and travel to the king’s palace. There they meet the king’s son, who had risen to the throne in his father’s place. The new king, whom the Grandmaster raised as a child, listens to their pleas for peace, and thus the war ends.”
A breathless silence fell upon the group after Xie finished speaking. For a while, no one seemed to know what to do.
Then Lucy Bullion shot her hand up. “Can I ask you a question?” she piped.
Xie nodded. “By all means.”
Lucy Bullion, there was no other word for it, pounced. “Can you really open a portal that can take you to someplace else?”
“Yes,” said Xie. “I shan’t demonstrate it here, but if you come to one my workshops, I’ll be more than happy to.”
It was like a prison break. Once Xie said this, everyone rushed to ask their many questions. Xie answered them as they came. Yes, you can control objects without touching. Yes, you can fly, but please exercise caution. No, you can’t increase your total qi capacity, it violates prohibition one. Eventually, Erik mustered the courage to ask a question himself.
“Can you push away pain?”
“Yes,” Xie replied. Was it Erik’s imagination, or did she sound cautious? “I can’t, personally, but I know people who can.”
“How does it work?” Erik asked.
“Pain is information,” Xie explained, as she eyed Erik like she gauging his reaction. “Qi can touch abstract things like information, as long as there is a physical medium. That’s all I can say about the subject. It’s outside my field of expertise.”
“What is your expertise?” Erik pressed. He was too busy speculating the reasons behind Xie’s wariness to luxuriate over the fact his hypothesis about Frost pushing away pain was correct.
“Space,” Xie answered. “The opening of portals that lead you to real places falls here. It’s what earned me the title ‘master’.”
The last comment diverted the Q&A to the topic of qi mastery levels. Xie told everyone what David had told Erik. Those who needed to touch objects were at laymen level, and most wizards stayed here. Those who could control objects without touching them could call themselves journeyman. Those who could affect at least one abstract reality were called masters.
“Then there are those terribly rare people who can touch space-time-matter in ways that may smack you as god-like. These we call grandmasters,” Xie finished.
People exchanged lots of looks, meaningful and awed.
“How long did it take you reach master level?” Moe asked.
“Ah, well, I’ve been practicing qi since age three, and I opened my first portal on my eighteenth birthday,” Xie hedged.
“Yikes!” Moe winced. “Well, there goes my hope to advance to journeyman level…”
“Staying at lay level is nothing to be ashamed of, Mr. Canes,” Xie said. “I know one colleague who can toss aside Humvees, but when she tries to control anything remotely, she flounders. I had another colleague who could manipulate objects at any distance as long as he could see them, but his weight limit was a kilo.”
“So there’s a lot of variation,” said Bullion.
“Yes,” said Xie. “Personally, I think we should do away with the laymen and journeyman distinction. Why is my first colleague at a lower level than my second colleague just because she needs to touch things? On the weight limit side of things, she’s better.”
Erik could agree with that, but he wasn’t about to say so.
“I have one more question,” he said. “Do you think it’s possible to read and alter digital information with qi?”
Erik expected a reaction from Xie, but the one he got was not among those he would’ve guessed. Xie’s soft teal eyes burned, her spine went stiff, and her face transformed to hold a look of repressed anger. Erik felt torturous hope unfurling in his chest.
“…All right,” Xie breathed. “Full disclosure: Technology hates me, and the feeling is mutual. That said,” Xie raised her voice, and Erik could see the rant coming, “I consulted several information scientists and technology experts to gain insight into your question. They all came to this conclusion: information is more than just data. There needs to be an interpreter that renders data to an intelligible mode. This interpreter, for digital information, is computers. To read digital information via qi, then, you need to be a person and a computer at the same time. This violates the second prohibition. Therefore—” Xie was thundering now— “it cannot be done and should not be attempted!”
Everyone looked stunned. Erik, on the other hand, couldn’t help it, he laughed.
“Are you laughing at me, Mr. Ransom?” Xie asked indignantly, while Moe and the Bullions stared at Erik in astonishment.
Erik grinned. “Yes, you’re hilarious.”
“I beg your pardon?” Xie cried, full of outrage.
Erik chuckled. “Just kidding. Thank you for clearing that up.”
The Q&A resumed after Xie calmed down and apologized for her outburst. Erik, who was almost beside himself with relief, ensconced himself in a nearby restroom. There, he texted Rena:
You can’t read digital data via qi. You need to be a computer and human at the same time. That’s a contradiction.
Rena response was immediate:
Terrible. 1/10. Exercise not just your body, but your mind.
BTW, when are you getting here? David is giving me the Sad Great Dane look.
Erik rejoined the group after sending a suitably acerbic reply plus estimated time of arrival. In his absence, the conversation somehow went from Q&A to making qi video tutorials available on the Internet.
“I’m certainly interested,” Xie was saying. “I don’t like the idea of children playing around and accidentally hurting themselves. God knows I did, and I had supervision.”
That set the tone of the next thirty minutes. Between the three professional bloggers (Bullion, Moe, and Jenna Farthing) and two IT professionals (Erik, and Jeremy Farthing), the group ironed out the details of filming, hosting and marketing. Xie, for her part, looked dazed at the speed and ease in which all this happened.
“I feel for you, Alex,” said Moe, full of sympathy. “IT isn’t my forte, either. In fact, the first blog I’ve ever read was my own.”
“How do you manage?” Xie asked.
“With help, lots of it,” Moe replied. “I’m lucky that I met so many good people who were willing to help. My blog wouldn’t have reached so many people without Jacob, and it wouldn’t even be up right now without Erik.”
Xie flicked her gaze at Erik. Their eyes met.
“What do you blog about?” Xie asked, looking away.
Bullion showed Xie OnMoneyAndLife.com on his phablet. Xie seemed to turn both rueful and despondent as she read Moe most famous post: Why You Need F*** You Money. Then Xie let out a sigh that seemed to emerge from the depths of her soul.
“I had sensed pursuing postgraduate studies overseas was economic suicide, but this article clenches it. I don’t know if I’ll ever find the wherewithal to do the hard maths, but do I foresee myself sobbing into a pint of ice cream, wondering about my life choices.”
Erik smiled as Moe reassured Xie that she was not alone and that he was more than happy to help her figure out her financial situation. He could see how the rest of the meetup would pan out from here. Now was his time to go.
Erik got up. Moe and Xie both gazed up at him, startled.
“You’re leaving?” Moe asked.
“Yeah, I promised Rena I’ll be back before two,” Erik said.
Moe looked regretful. “Oh, well. I guess it can’t be helped. Now tell Rena she has the nicest younger brother in the world, will you?”
Erik was of the opinion Rena thought his child-minding services were her absolute right, and nothing was going to convince her otherwise. Still, he made a noise one can interpret as affirmative and started to leave.
It was Xie. Erik stopped without turning around.
“I’m going to hold a qi workshop tomorrow at Needwood Park, eight a.m. sharp,” said Xie, after an awkward beat. “I will go over all the basics and things not mentioned in Frost. Do come if you can.”
Erik clenched his teeth. He wanted to go, badly, but he wasn’t sure if he could trust Xie. Also, just because accessing digital information via qi was impossible, didn’t mean it was safe for him to pursue qi again.
“I’ll think about it,” he said.
“Are you really going to think about it, or are you going to blow me off?” Xie asked as Erik resumed his trek back home.
Erik stopped, turned around and gave Xie a hard look.
“Doctor Xie,” he said, enunciating each word. “When I blow you off, you will know.”