When I finally reached the Junkyard, I knew things were bad. Real bad. Everywhere I looked, I saw piles of twisted metal and rubble. Now, granted, being that it's a junkyard, you would think that I'd expect to see piles of twisted metal and rubble, but this was worse. It looked different, you know, like really trashed, even by the usual standards of the place. I could see that something really big had gone down there, and I started to get real nervous. I started digging my way through the junk, looking for the Prof's workshop. I knew it had to be around there somewhere. At least, I thought it was. So, I'm throwing hunks of charred metal outta the way and getting deeper into the junk, when I hear what sounds like a welding torch going. So I dig my way toward the noise and eventually end up in what used to be the TV Room. And that's where I saw her.
"Prof!" I yelled.
The Prof turned off her welding torch, but didn't turn around. "You're late, Arthur," she said. I knew I was in trouble. She only uses that name when she's mad.
"I'm sorry, Prof. I got here as soon as I could. But I was, uh, held up."
"More like you were involved in another drunken punch-up in some dive."
"Aw, c'mon Prof, don't be mad. I got here as soon as I could, really."
"Well, it's all over. You may as well go home. Everyone else has already left." The Prof turned around and pulled off her mask, and I swear she looked about 10 years older. I felt my heart drop into my gut. Things had been bad alright.
"I really tried to make it. Really. Maybe I can help out here?" I was almost pleading at that point.
"If you want to help, get over to Canton in the 1855 juncture. The Lotus are planning some kind of major offensive, and the Hand and the Ascended are too busy fighting each other to notice. Zheng Yi Quan is supposed to meet up with Kar Fai and Iala Mané at the Two Dragons Inn. Look for them there."
"Sure thing Prof. You can count on me!" As soon as I said that, there was a crashing sound nearby, and I looked up at the ceiling, afraid the place was caving in. Instead, a girl came skipping into the room. She was Chinese, maybe ten years old, with her hair in a ponytail down to her waist. She was wearing jeans, hi-tops, and a backwards baseball cap. When she saw me, she stopped suddenly, and then smiled.
"Hi mister. Who are you?"
"Oh yes. Arthur," the Prof said. "Take Jenny with you."
Our ongoing operations to free China of the corrupting influence of the foreign devils and break the hold of the transformed animals continues to meet with success. Over the last decade, our operatives have found sympathetic ears within the Imperial court and the Jade Wheel Society, causing our influence and power to grow. Now, even some of the servants of the Lodge have turned against their masters and taken up our banner. As a result, we have managed to secure a number of feng shui sites that, although individually small, have collectively weakened the overall strength of the transformed animals. This, in turn, has led to unrest among the population, and the rise of several new rebellions. Like a spark in a dry forest, these rebellions have spread like wildfire, quickly growing in size to threaten the Manchu government. In doing so, they have inadvertently taken away more feng shui sites from the transformed animals, which has caused their power to decline further. This, in turn, has caused the rebellions to grow even stronger, and so the cycle feeds upon itself. Now we see rebellion in Huai-Pei, Kwangtung, and Kweichow, as well as, of course, the far-reaching Taiping rebellion, which only just last year captured the great city of Nanking. And according to the history books of the future, yet another rebellion will spring up among the Moslems within the next year.
As was planned, our operatives have already moved to take advantage of this situation and improve our position. Our agents have infiltrated every rebellion, and now act to prolong them as much as possible, taxing the resources of the Manchu government and, by association, their Lodge puppet-masters as well. We will ensure that the rebellions move in the direction we wish, and that they ultimately benefit our cause. We are also prepared to take advantage of the chaos more directly. Many of our most skilled and experienced warriors have assembled their brigades, and are already moving to take feng shui sites from the Lodge by force. These lightning strikes will not only distract the transformed animals, but they will both weaken them and strengthen us further, allowing the rebellions to grow in strength and longevity. The seeds have been planted, and the crop now begins to yield fruit. As we tend to the earth with diligence and patience, so shall we reap our harvest.
Your humble servant, Yung Chang April 14, 1854
Address to the council May 19, 2001
Brothers and sisters, a time of crisis is upon us. The most recent reports from 1855 indicate that the turmoil we sought to quell five years ago has grown worse. There is open rebellion throughout much of China, instigated and exploited by the Guiding Hand, which chips away at the foundations of our power. Now the Hand moves more boldly, openly attacking our feng shui sites, and rallying support for their cause with each victory. Meanwhile, our response to these provocations has been hopelessly muddled and inconsistent. Our pawns in the ruling Manchu dynasty are ineffectual, while our servants among the Order of the Wheel and the Jade Wheel Society fight each other as much as they do the enemy. With each passing day the revolutions grow stronger, the Hand seize more of our feng shui sites, and our grip on the East becomes more and more tenuous. We are locked in a downward spiral, with each defeat bringing the next all the more quickly. The heart of our problem is that we stand as a house divided against itself.
Five years ago, when we finally woke up to the threat posed by the Guiding Hand, I sent a delegation to the 1850 juncture to offer support and advice to the Unspoken Name of that period. Because of the seriousness of the situation, I chose one of our own to lead the delegation, the one we know as the Eastern King. As head of affairs for the Asian continent for the last century in our own juncture, there was no better choice for the task, and I had every confidence in his success. However, I failed to accurately predict the behavior of our counterparts in that juncture. Instead of welcoming him with open arms, the Lodge of that time has done everything in their power to quietly thwart his every action. Time and again, it seems that orders are misplaced, or forgotten, or executed incorrectly. Assistance and support comes slowly and inefficiently when it comes at all, and tasks are carried out in a haphazard fashion. As a result, our attempts to hunt down the Guiding Hand and crush the rebellions continue to meet with failure. Without unity in our ranks, the power of our chi becomes diluted. As such, our armies become weak, our pawns corrupt, and all of China rises up against us.
Now the situation has become dire, and so decisive action is called for. The Eastern King has sent a message requesting that our most experienced assassins and enforcers be sent to join him in 1855. He feels that the only way to defeat the Guiding Hand quickly is through direct confrontation, and that the best way to do this is to target their leaders. As the saying goes, "cut off the head, and the body shall fall." Under his command, our assassins will be sent to hunt down the strongest members of the Guiding Hand directly. Needless to say, this plan is not without risk. The journey through the Netherworld alone is perilous enough, but we will also be committing some of our most valuable members to the battlefield. However, as I have said, the situation is dire, and caution is a luxury we can no longer afford.
I need not remind anyone here that we live in difficult times. When we look ahead, all we see is uncertainty and turmoil. If we are to weather the upcoming storm, we must stand united and strong. Our counterparts in 1855, safe in the knowledge of their continued existence, fail to see the larger picture. Mired in foolish notions of territoriality, they stand against us when they should stand with us, and so we are left to deal with this situation ourselves. Now, more than ever, we need to act as one to deal with this threat while we still can. If we are not secure in our past, then we will indeed have no future.
I met today with this so-called "Eastern King", who presented me yet again with his latest orders from the future. He told me that we were to expect more agents to arrive here shortly, which was no surprise. However, this time the arrivals will be assassins from the Lodge of his time, who are coming to deal with the problem of the Guiding Hand directly. Of course, he dismissed my protests as if I were his servant, but this came as no surprise either. His arrogance, and that of his master, is only to be expected from one who is used to having his orders carried out without question. However, this new move is more bold than even I would have expected.
Needless to say, even a blind man could see the foolishness of this course of action. At a time when unrest threatens the stability of our reign, the last thing we need is more chaos. The Lodge of the future believes that all they need to destroy the Guiding Hand is a bigger gun, forgetting that you do not use a cannon to kill a mouse. Constantly, the Eastern King complains that our efforts to quell the Hand are ineffectual, failing to realize that without his interference, the problem would have already been solved. He speaks as if we are on the edge of a precipice, and then uses this as his justification to push us into the abyss.
Ever since the portals to 20th century opened up, we have had to bear the condescension of our future brethren. When this Eastern King arrived five years ago with his offers of "assistance," as if we needed or wanted his help, we suffered him quietly, rather than instigate a pointless conflict when unity is most needed. Now it seems my successor has misinterpreted this as a sign of acquiescence. It appears that he will soon need to be shown the error in his judgment, and be taught a lesson in humility as well.
The journal of Kinoshita 27 May, 1855
The Eastern King regarded the four individuals arrayed before him in his Peking office. They - or at least three of them - represented some of the deadliest assassins the Lodge had at its disposal. Getting them here had not been easy. Although the Unspoken Name had done much to consolidate his power over the last few years, his authority was not absolute. The revelation that the Lodge would be extinct by 2056 had thrown the council into disarray. Whereas once the families of the Lodge had acted with determination and unity, lately they had become indecisive and prone to petty squabbling. As such, some on the council had opposed his plans. His most vociferous opponent had been Natraj Thalnasser. The Patriarch of the Bear family had argued for direct military intervention, claiming that brute force was the best way for the Ascended to reassert its dominance. Fortunately, the council had wisely chosen not to support him. The council of this time had objected even more stridently to the Eastern King's plan, and had been on the verge of forbidding it outright. Only the fact that the assassins were already on their way had prevented this from happening, as the Lodge would never make its own reenter the Netherworld so soon. As it was, the Eastern King eventually had his way. A small force of Lodge killers and enforcers had arrived from the modern day. The best of them now sat in his office.
Sitting farthest to the left was Juan "El Tigre" Velasquez. A native of South America, Velasquez had spent his youth fighting in just about every brush war in the region as a mercenary, and smuggling drugs and guns across the border in his down time. Although he had passed the point where he could have retired from being an enforcer, he had chosen to continue operating in the field because he enjoyed it. His file described him as possibly the Lodge's most bloodthirsty killer. Even now, the Eastern King could see him fidgeting in his chair, his face locked into a mask of permanent irritation.
The woman sitting next to him could not have been more completely his opposite, except that she seemed to enjoy her work equally, though less obviously. Rachel McShane was born in the United States, trained as an assassin by the CIA, and responsible for over two dozen kills, most of them politicians, businessmen, generals, and other high-powered individuals whom the Lodge had marked for death. Her reputation was such that she had earned the nickname "The Talon." Whereas Velasquez preferred to get down and dirty, McShane preferred to keep things as quick, clean, and professional as possible. She now regarded the Eastern King from behind mirrored sunglasses, a faint look of boredom on her face.
The third individual gave even the Eastern King pause. Although he had requested the best, he had not expected to get Señor Ocho. The Spiders' number one assassin - and possibly the Lodge's too, aside from Draco - Señor Ocho was spoken of with awe even by the rest of the Lodge. The information in his file was brief and vague, but rumor had it that he was the one the Lodge council called upon to deal with renegade family members. In fact, it was said that he rarely filled contracts taken out on humans, which made the Eastern King wonder why he had come at all. His standing was such that, short of a direct order from the Unspoken Name or the Web of the Spider, nothing could compel him to take on this assignment.
The Eastern King frowned slightly as he looked over the last of the four. Despite being the only native of this juncture, "Monkey" Chang looked the least comfortable of the four. This was probably because he wasn't a trained assassin, had no kills to his name, and was barely a Lodge member at all. Because he wasn't from the 21st century, his file was somewhat incomplete, but it did call him a "Lodge affiliate" instead of a member, and noted that his loyalties were questionable. He was only here, in fact, because the Unspoken Name of this time had said that he had infiltrated the Guiding Hand, and as such knew more about them than any other operative at their disposal. This wasn't entirely true. The Eastern King had found his own source, one that Kinoshita wasn't aware of. It was this source that had given him information on where the Hand would strike next. It was this source that would give him the location of Quan Lo. At any rate, he suspected Monkey Chang had been sent more to spy on him for Kinoshita than anything else. So be it. He would use and discard him as he saw fit.
The Eastern King stood up, straightened his suit, and allowed himself the barest hint of a smile. Enemies surrounded him on all sides, like sharks circling their prey. He had been all but abandoned in this backwater juncture, and his supposed allies watched his every move, anticipating his failure. The slightest miscalculation would mean disaster. However, none of it mattered. It was time for the hunt to begin, and the Eastern King had set his sights on the biggest game of them all. He did not intend to lose.
"I can't see Arrr-thur. What's going on?"
"Quiet kid, and I told you not to call me that."
"Both of you be silent! You'll give us away."
"But grandpa, I can't see!"
And so it went. We were up there on a ridge of a thickly wooded hill. Well, hill isn't really right. More like a big chunk of rock that shot out into the sky. Zheng had said the place was called "Heaven's Peak," and it was a real important feng shui site. The Lotus were making a grab for it as part of some plan to cause a big critical shift in China, and since the Hand and the Ascended were too busy fighting each other to notice, it was up to us to stop them.
But anyway, I'm getting ahead of myself here. The ten-year old girl being a pest was named Jenny Zheng, and the Prof told me that she was Zheng Yi Quan's great-great-great-granddaughter, or something like that. That doesn't really make any sense to me, being as Zheng is barely old enough to be a dad himself. However, when I brought that up to the Prof she just got annoyed and told me to stop bugging her with questions. So then I asked her if she thought it was such a good idea for me to bring a little girl along, what with the high likelihood of there being violence and mayhem in the near future. But then Jenny starts going on about how she knows kung fu real good, and the Prof just told me that she couldn't stay there, so I was in charge of her, and she said it in that tone of voice that meant the discussion was over. Anyway, I never did find out how the kid found the Junkyard in the first place.
So anyway, I dragged the kid along with me to Canton, and I'll spare you all the painful details of that little trip. Anyway, we finally found Zheng in the Two Dragons Inn, just like the Prof said. He was there with this older guy who called himself Dr. Shen, whom I gathered was new to the cause, being as he seemed to mostly let Zheng take the lead, even though he was older and, from what I've seen, young guys always defer to the old guys, at least in China. Anyway, Zheng wasn't real happy that I had brought Jenny along, although when he found who she was that kind of shut him up. As it was, Zheng was just kind of agitated in general, being as he was waiting for Kar Fai to show up. See, Kar Fai had gone looking for Iala Mané, who was running late for the meeting, and the reason he was late was…sorry, I'm getting ahead of myself again. Anyway, the thing was, we really needed to get up to Heaven's Peak in a hurry to stop the Lotus from grabbing it, and so Zheng was torn between waiting for everyone to arrive and needing to get up there fast.
Anyway, the sun was starting to set and Kar Fai still wasn't back, and Zheng decided we couldn't wait any longer. So the four of us set off toward the peak, even Jenny too because, as Zheng said, we couldn't just leave her behind by herself, though I don't know how taking her to a fight with the Lotus was any better. Speaking of which, I got filled in on the story on the way up there. It seems that the Lotus had figured out that if they could grab these five feng shui sites that were, like, perfectly keyed to each of the five elements (the five elements being earth, wind, water, metal, and fire, at least that's what I think they were), it would cause a critical shift that would swing the chi flow in China over to them. Anyway, it was something like that, but the point is, if they grabbed these five sites, it would be a real bad thing. What's more, they had already grabbed the earth site before we had even found out about it, and since Heaven's Peak was the air site, we had to stop them.
So there we were, hiding behind some rocks and looking at the top of the peak at what looked like the ruins of a stone circle. There's a big fire going in the middle, and there's all these guys dressed in black, pajama-looking clothes which I immediately identify as hired thugs, mainly because I've had a lot of experience with that particular element of society. Anyway, inside the circle are a bunch of guys dressed in robes wearing weird makeup and chanting, and I know these guys are the priests, being as I've also tangled with this sort recently too. I pick out the leader of this bunch right off the bat, because he's got the fancier robes and even more makeup, and he just looks freakier in general, especially 'cause he's got these really long red fingernails. I mean really long, and he's got a squeaky voice too, which I hate. I knew he was gonna be trouble.
So we're all watching Zheng, waiting for him to tell us what to do, and he's watching the chanting in the circle and, I think, waiting for someone to tell him what to do. Meanwhile, Jenny keeps complaining that she can't see, and we keep trying to get her to shut up, and so finally she gets mad and sort of squirms her way to the front, but in the process she trips and ends up more stumbling out into the open, at which point all the guys in the circle stop chanting and turn to look at us, and, by the way, did I mention what a bad idea it is to fight the Lotus at night?
There's about half a second in which no one does anything, and then the freaky guy with the long fingernails yells "kill them" in a squeaky, girly kind of voice, and the guys in the black pajamas rush us. I have just enough time to say "Stay behind me kid," before I rush out to meet these guys. Only before I get there, Jenny comes flying over my head and slams two guys in the chest, feet first, sending them flying back ten feet. She doesn't even pause as she lands and spins around, catching another guy with a kick to the groin. He doubles over and she sort of runs up him, catches him in the jaw with a kick, and then spins in the air and plants both feet in another guy's chest, sending him flying. So I kind of do a double-take for about a second, and then I see one of these guys running right at me, yelling and waving a sword over his head. This is a really dumb way to attack someone, as I demonstrate by punching him in the face, which puts him on the ground in a hurry. Another guy tries the same thing from behind, but he gets an elbow to the gut, and then I grab his head and flip him over, knocking out two more of these guys in the process.
Right about then I was looking for a chair to break over someone's head, which, incidentally, is why I don't like fighting outdoors because, of course, there aren't any chairs, or anything else I can use, for that matter, when I'm interrupted by the sound of high-pitched chanting. I feel the hairs on the back of my neck stand up as a cold wind comes blowing out of the trees. I turn to see a bunch of shadowy, indistinct figures come flying out of the darkness towards us. They looked like people dressed in fluttering rags, sort of, but like they were out of proportion or something, and I couldn't see their faces. They weren't even flying so much as floating real fast, like they were riding skateboards, only 10 feet above the ground. Anyway, you'd think I be freaked out by this, and truth is it was kind of unnerving, but this ain't the first time I've faced the Lotus, so I steeled myself to fight these guys, whatever they were. So they rush right toward me and suddenly it's like I'm in the middle of a windstorm and I can hardly see. I feel razors tear into my skin and I start swinging wildly. Next thing I know the wind is gone. Whatever I was fighting was gone too, and there are bloody claw marks beneath my shirt, which is now all torn up.
Then I hear Zheng calling my name, and I regroup with him and Dr. Shen and Jenny, keeping my eye out for those flying things, which seem to keep disappearing. Then suddenly there's a blur of movement as more guys in black pajamas appear out of nowhere and surround us. At first I think it's more thugs, but then I get a better look at these guys. There's five of them in all, and each one is shaved bald and has some kind of weird tattoo on his face, and they're all holding these weird looking weapons. So we all take up a fighting stance, and then they're on us. One of them goes to attack me, and I get ready to clock him, when suddenly he's attacking Dr. Shen instead of me. Then one of them slices my arm from my blind side, and I turn to face him, but he's already moved out of the way. Then another one is attacking me from the other side, or anyway I think he is, except he's attacking Zheng, and another one catches me again from the other side. And then I realize they're all fighting together, using moves to keep us off balance. Jenny's fast enough that they can't seem to catch her, but Zheng and Dr. Shen are getting cut up like me. Then I see those flying things come swooping in overhead again, and I start to wonder if we're going to make it out of this alive.
Then I hear something whipping through the air, and I look up to see Kar Fai come sailing over us, waving his arms out in front of him in some kind of funky kung fu move. He hits two of the flying guys with his palms, and they both screech and vanish in a puff of smoke. Then he flips back into the middle of our group, forcing the tattooed guys to jump back. Then they all rush him, and he's a blur of feet and fists too fast to describe as he sends them flying into the trees. He doesn't stop, though, but just tells us to get out of there. He leaps into the air, and I'm right behind him as all of head back down the mountain, and then it occurs to me that we just got our butts kicked.
I beg that you forgive your unworthy servant for the tardiness with which this letter reaches you. I was attacked by an opponent of exceptional strength and ferocity during our operation in the western provinces. I am ashamed to report that I have lain wounded these past three days, my soul hovering at the very edge of this world and the next. The operation to seize the ancient monument was itself a success. As you had foreseen, the rebellions in the east have diverted the attention of the Manchu government and sapped the strength of their masters. I had prepared my group for conflict with a larger, heavily armed force. Instead, I found the region guarded only by half-empty garrisons manned by the cast-offs and miscreants of the Imperial army. As such, victory came to us swiftly, as we divided and outmaneuvered the Manchu forces and sent them fleeing before our righteous fury.
Once we had driven the Imperialists away, I sent my force to secure the area and keep watch in case the Manchu forces returned while I attuned myself to the site we had captured. As I meditated, I sensed that I was not alone. The sun was bright, the sky clear, and the mountains were still. I heard no sound, nor saw any movement, yet as I felt the chi of the earth flow through me, I knew that another was waiting to strike.
The intruder appeared from out of nowhere, making no sound until he struck. Had I not been attuned to the site, I would never have sensed his presence. He leapt through the air with inhumanly fast speed, letting out a guttural cry that was more a roar than a shout. I barely avoided his attack, only diving away at the last moment. He did not hesitate, but sprung to the attack again, striking with savage speed and strength. He fought using the tiger stance, but his movements were so fluid, so natural, that I soon realized just what I faced. He was one of the foreign devils, though not of any kind I had seen. He was short of stature, with thick, compact muscles and dusky skin. His eyes were round, and his hair long and coarse, like dark wool. Whereas my demeanor was calm, he seemed as if he was suffused with a rage so strong he could barely contain it. It took the whole of my experience and skill to counter his strikes, and even then I was grievously wounded. It seemed that my own strikes only filled him with even greater fury, and I realized that I would have to end the fight with a single, decisive strike, lest he wear me down with his rage. I watched and waited for the right moment, and then allowed an opening in my defenses, one small enough to cause him to think I had faltered. As I expected, he lunged for the opening, and with one decisive move, I struck his throat, killing him. I then succumbed to my own wounds and fell unconscious.
There was nothing about my attacker to identify his origin except his appearance and the way in which he fought, but this was enough. I believe that the transformed animals have decided to move against us directly. Though we have encountered them in other junctures before, rarely have they moved so directly and openly against us in our own time. I know not what this bodes, but it fills me with concern, especially as I have no idea how I was found so quickly. I would humbly suggest that messages be sent to all our strongholds, warning our leaders to be especially vigilant. I can only hope this letter does not arrive too late.
Your Humble Servant Tsung Jin July 7, 1855
It was dawn by the time we got back to the Inn. We had pretty much spent the whole night hoofing it back, as it wasn't safe to stop, what with the Lotus around and all. So by the time we got back we were all pretty much exhausted, not to mention low in spirits. The fight with the Lotus guys had been closer than I'd like to think about, and we were all pretty well cut up, except for the kid. She had gotten away with only a few bumps and bruises. Then again, being as she was just a 10-year old girl, by the time we made it back she had already conked out, and I had to carry her the rest of the way. Since this meant that she wasn't chattering, this was actually a plus as far as I was concerned.
Iala Mané and his group were waiting for us at the Inn when we got back. Kar Fai had finally run into them on the road, and then hurried back ahead of them to catch up with us, as he knew that Zheng was likely to go off half-cocked after the Lotus himself, which of course, he did. I can't say I thought a whole lot of them. Iala was almost as big as me, and I could see that he knew how to handle himself in a fight. The thing is, he couldn't see at all. His eyes had been burned out by demon slime during a battle, and while I had to hand it to the guy for carrying on with the fight, I'd think that being blind would be kind of a big disadvantage. Anyway, his two new recruits weren't much better. One was this old guy named Hwang who I could only charitably describe as being a stinking drunk. I mean, he was the kind of guy I'd have to scrape off the floor at the end of the night, back in my bouncing days, that is. The other one, however, was this real cutie, and what's more, she was from the U. S. of A., which I have to admit was a sight for sore eyes. Thing is, she was from the past. That is, she was from the time I was in right now, which to me was the past. Yeah, it gets me confused too. I asked the Prof about it once, but she told me…well, anyway, as I was saying, this girl - Katie, her name was - this girl Katie was what you call a gunslinger. Now, I guess when everyone is still using muskets, a pair of six-shooters is pretty impressive, and don't get me wrong, I could tell she was a real tough cookie. But the thing is, I'm used to dealing with guys with all kinds of firepower, so a pair of old guns didn't really strike me as all that big a deal.
Anyway, I guess we weren't looking all that impressive either by the time we got back, so we all went and bunked out for a while. By the time we got down to business, by which I mean eating lunch and discussing strategy, it was already the middle of the day. We found out that the reason Iala was delayed was that when he was in Shanghai he had been ambushed by a bunch of special forces types with Kevlar armor and night-vision goggles and sub-machineguns with silencers and stuff. I mean, really heavy-duty, no screwing around type of guys. Iala said they had modern-day stuff, not future stuff (though seeing as he was blind, I don't know how he could tell the difference), so that meant the Ascended were onto us. However, it didn't explain why they would send a strike team after us, as we weren't messing around with their business this time around. I thought maybe they were just trying to knock us off on general principles, but Kar Fai nixed that idea, saying that even in the modern day the Lodge wouldn't bring out guys like this except for a particular reason, and if they sent them back in time, then it had to be for a really important reason, as heavily-armed killers tend to stand out. Anyway, I would have asked Iala if he knew what it was about, but by that time he had gone upstairs to do, well, whatever it is he does. Meditate or something, I guess. I don't know. The guy is spooky.
So anyway, we get down to deciding what we're going to do next, like, should we go after the Lotus again, or should we try to figure out what the situation with the Ascended is, or should we try to get to the next site before the Lotus get there, and so on. Anyway, I'm trying to follow the discussion, when the kid starts tugging on my arm.
"Not now kid," I say. "I'm busy."
"I said not now."
"Alright, what is it already?" I figure that she has to go potty or something, but instead she just nods her head, and I can see she's got this real serious look in her eyes. So real slowly I look around the room, and I notice that the clientele has subtly shifted in tone, so that instead of peasants and shopkeepers and the like, the bar appears to be occupied entirely by what you would call thugs, low-lifes, and other unsavory types. These were the kind of people who only come to a bar to either drink or fight, and I noticed that none of them were doing any drinking.
"What's going on?" Jenny asks.
"Trouble, kid." I lean over the table and get Kar Fai's attention. He looks at me, and I nod my head. He looks around, and then gets up out of his seat, along with everyone else. We're looking at the crowd and they're looking at us, and we're just waiting for them to make a move. Then the crowd parts, and this guy steps through. He's not big or particularly tough looking. In fact, he's small and slender and lean, but I can tell this guy is trouble. Not trouble like these other punks, but real trouble. He stops when he's a few feet away and faces Kar Fai.
"Are you Kar Fai?" he says, very businesslike.
"I am Shinobu Yashida. I've wished to meet you for a long time." I watch as this guy draws his sword, real slow and calm, and I've been around long enough to know what he's going to say next. "Prepare to die."
Monkey Chang was not happy. He didn't want to be here, and he didn't want to be doing this. More to the point, he didn't like being anyone's pawn. Up until now, life had been relatively simple, and fun. He came and went as he pleased, answered to no one, and did as he liked. He never wanted to be a part of the Lodge, with all their boring rules and regulations. They were just as stiff and unimaginative as the Guiding Hand. He had fooled them into thinking that he had infiltrated the Hand on their behalf, when really he had done it simply because it had been a good laugh. Only now, he thought, it was he who was real fool. He should have known that he couldn't keep up the pretense forever. Sooner or later the Lodge was going to call him on it, and now they had. Because of some stupid Lodge politics, Chang had been given the order to assassinate Master Wu, a Guiding Hand loyalist, and his former teacher. Chang knew the Unspoken Name was testing him to see if he was really loyal to the Lodge by sending him to find out what the Eastern King was up to, and the Eastern King was testing him to see if he was really loyal to the Lodge by sending him to kill the last person in the world he wanted to see dead. Sure, Old Man Wu was a boring old fart and a pain in the butt, just like all those other monks, but he was still his former master. Chang wondered why he even cared. Maybe he had been spending too much time among the humans. Whatever the case, Chang knew that he wasn't a killer, and he wasn't happy about having to become one.
Chang listlessly swatted at a fly as he traveled through the humid wetlands on the way to the Temple of the Monkey King. It figured that they would send the old bastard to take this site. Chang had easily evaded the small patrols of monks and students that Wu had sent to keep an eye out for intruders, scampering into the trees overhead and waiting until they had passed out of sight. He was now in sight of the temple itself, a series of tall, pyramid-like towers covered with intricate stonework. Unfortunately, the area around the temple was wide open, and there were four monks in front of the entrance. There was no way Chang would be able to sneak past them. He would just have to bluff it. Chang stepped out of the cover of the jungle and bounded up the steps. The four monks turned to face him as he approached, and Chang stopped and bowed low at the waist.
"Honored uncles, I have urgent news for Master Wu. I humbly ask that you allow me to pass."
The leader of the monks narrowed his eyes. "Who are you?"
"My name is Chang, revered one, a former student of Master Wu."
"Chang… I remember you. The master is meditating and cannot be disturbed. Give me your message, and I will take it to him."
"Forgive me, O beneficent one, but my instructions were to give the news only to Master Wu himself."
The monk narrowed his eyes even further. "On who's orders do you act?"
"I act at the behest of the Perfect Master himself, O sagacious one."
'Really? The Perfect Master would not have sent you on this mission without some proof to back up your claim. Where is it?"
"I, uh, lost it on the way here."
"We have no time for your pranks, callow youth," the lead monk said angrily. "You have no business being here. Go from my sight at once!"
"Please, uncle, I must pass!" Chang took a step forward, and the monk put his arm forward, palm to Chang's chest. Instinctively, Chang grabbed the Monk's hand and pulled it aside. The monk put his other hand on Chang's chest, and Chang pulled it aside as well. The monk paused for a moment, stunned, then pulled his arms from Chang's grip and then launched a flurry of kicks and strikes. Chang parried them all, then leapt up and planted both feet on the monk's chest. He sprang backwards, sending the monk sprawling as he flipped in the air and landed on both feet. The other three monks crowded anxiously around their leader, who shook his head and then got to his feet, his face a mask of fury.
"You dare to strike me! Beat him, and show him no mercy!"
The four monks assumed fighting stances, and then rushed forward. Instead of backing up, Chang surprised them by leaping into their midst. The first monk attacked with a kick, only to strike the second one as Chang ducked aside at the last minute. The third monk then attacked with a rapid series of open palm strikes, only to hit the first. And so it went, as Chang tumbled and rolled between the four monks, always managing to move aside at the last second, always somehow managing to make his opponents hit each other. Within minutes, it was over, as the four monks lay sprawled out on the temple stairs.
Chang wiped the sweat from his brow, a smile on his face. Then he looked toward the temple entrance, and his smile faded. He straightened himself up, sighed, and headed inside. This fight had been fun, but the next one would not be.
The man known only as Mr. X walked silently down the second floor hallway of the Two Dragons Inn. No one had seen him come up here. No one ever did. All eyes had been focused on Shinobu Yashida, which was exactly as Mr. X had intended. He had watched and waited until Iala Mané had left the rest of the group and retired to his room. Then, just as Mr. X had instructed, Yashida confronted Kar Fai. Yashida was an excellent distraction, affording Mr. X the opportunity to clean up the one last loose end left by Operation: Killdeer. Mr. X stopped outside the door to Mané's room, a silenced Walther PPK in his hand. He raised the gun and noiselessly entered the room.
Iala Mané sat cross-legged on the floor on the other side of the room, deep in meditation, his back to Mr. X. Others would use the opportunity to gloat. Mr. X was not such a person. All that mattered was that Iala Mané die. The Unspoken Name wanted Mané alive, so that he could question him about the death of Adrienne Hart. Mr. X could not allow that to happen. He raised the gun, and emptied it into Mané's back.
There was a low snarl, and suddenly Iala Mané was across the room in a flash, his hand reaching for Mr. X's throat. The bullets had left no mark on his skin. Mr. X, however, had been around far too long to allow himself to be affected by surprise. He dropped his gun and blocked Mané's strike with his left arm while he thrust with his right, fingers rigid, aiming for Mané's solar plexus. Mané blocked his strike, and brought his arm up under Mr. X's, aiming for his throat again. Mr. X blocked his strike and attacked again, only to be blocked once again as well. The two continued to battle each other, locked in a deadly and intricate dance of kicks and punches. Mané was by far the stronger and faster of the two, but Mr. X was more skilled and precise, his technique honed by years of experience. As such, neither could gain the upper hand.
Suddenly, there was the sound of splintering wood, and the floor buckled slightly. The two combatants paused for a moment, each momentarily distracted. Then Mr. X met Mané's empty gaze, and the two launched themselves at each other once again. And then, just as they met, the floor collapsed beneath them.
In the movies, when one guy calls another guy out, everyone is supposed to stand back and watch them duke it out. But we weren't in any movie, and I've been in enough fights to know that whoever acts first is usually the guy who walks away. Besides, the guy had a sword, so how fair was that? While all eyes were riveted on the two of them, I kicked the chair right in front of me toward the guy with the sword. It went sailing through the air like a rocket, and I thought for sure the guy would go down. But then he moved so fast I could barely see it, and he split the chair in half in midair. Then, of course, all hell broke loose.
So all the thugs come rushing at us all at once. The first one swings his sword at me, and misses. Before he can swing again, I punch him in the face, and he goes flying backward about 10 feet. Then the next one swings at me, but I catch his arm and smash it with my elbow, then pick the guy up and toss him over the bar. Then without even looking, I grab the nearest chair and spin it around behind me, breaking it over the head of another guy who was just about to knife me in the back. Anyway, while all this is going on I'm taking in the situation. Jenny is scampering all over the place. She's small and fast, and so most of these thugs are tripping over each other trying to catch her. Plus, she hits pretty hard, for a girl. Katie was holding her own too. As soon as the fight began her guns were out, and before they could even let out a yell, three guys were down just like that. Another three guys rushed her right after, but the next thing I know, the Hwang is in the way. The three thugs try to get around him, but even though he's staggering around drunk, he's suddenly moving like a whirlwind. I mean, his moves are all twisty and weird, and most of the time it looks like he's about to fall over, but the next thing you know, the three guys are on the ground. Ok, so maybe I underestimated him a little.
Anyway, I'm thinking that we seriously need to open things up a little bit here, cause we're just way too boxed in. Zheng and the doc are holding their own, but they're still feeling beat up from the night before, and with so many guys in here, they just can't help but get hit by some of them. Meanwhile, Kar Fai is dodging and rolling all over the place while the guy with the sword is chasing him. Kar Fai hasn't been hit yet, but without a weapon, he's at a disadvantage.
So I'm busy smashing some punk's head into a table while I contemplate the situation, when suddenly this really big guy with a really, really big sword comes rushing at me. I manage to jump aside at the last second as his sword chops one of the support beams right in half, causing the ceiling to sag precipitously. But before I can reflect on the architectural ramifications of this development, the guy is after me again with that sword. Now, this guy is no ordinary mook. He's big and he's tough and he won't let up. Every time I try to back up and get some breathing room, he's right there on top of me, inflicting grievous injury to the furnishings in an attempt to separate my head from my body. Then suddenly a light bulb goes off in my head, and then next time he attacks, instead of trying to back up, I dive out of the way. He keeps going forward and smashes headlong into one of the tables.
He gets up and turns around, real angry, at which point I introduce his head to the chair I'm holding. This knocks him down again. He gets up, even angrier, but now I'm on top of him, dealing out hammer blows to his face and stomach. To his credit, he's taking it pretty well, but with me in close like that he can't really use that sword of his. Finally, he drops it and draws a knife, and then he goes for my throat. I get his wrist in a death-lock, the blade just inches away from my neck, and we're both frozen there. Finally, I turn the knife aside as I bring my knee up into his groin. The blade sinks a few inches into my shoulder, but he doubles over as I slam him in the gut. Then I pick the guy up and throw him through the nearest wall. There's the satisfying sound of bones breaking as he makes a nice big hole. I grab the next two nearest thugs, and throw them at the wall as well, making some more holes.
The others start to catch on, and the next thing you know, there are mooks flying through the walls all over the place. Suddenly, there's this loud noise that sounds like wood cracking, and suddenly everyone turns tail and gets out of there as fast as possible. It was then that I suddenly remembered my earlier concerns about the structural stability of thie establishment, and I'm out the nearest hole as well. There's a loud groan, and then the second floor comes crashing down as the walls give way entirely. I actually stop for a moment and stare in awe at the destruction. I mean, I've trashed a lot of bars my time, but I never actually wrecked one entirely. Then Zheng calls my name. He nods, and I take a look around. We're all in the middle of the street, and all around us is a small army of thugs. There's got to be well over a hundred of them, and all of them have swords and axes and knives and stuff.
The crowd parts, and the guy with the sword steps out into the open. He's covered with dust, he has a bleeding cut on the left side of his forehead, and he looks plenty pissed. He raises his sword and lets out a yell, and then they all rush us at once.
Monkey Chang crept inside the main pyramid of the Temple of the Monkey King. Like the outside of the building, every square inch of the interior was covered with intricate stonework that featured, unsurprisingly, monkeys as the predominant motif. The interior was lit by flaming torches, which cast everything in an orange glow. And there, sitting cross-legged in front of the altar, his back turned, was Old Man Wu. With his sloped shoulders and bushy sideburns, he looked very much like one of the monkey statues that were everywhere in the temple. Chang hesitated when he saw Wu sitting there. Wu hadn't heard or seen him, so now what? Strictly speaking, Chang knew he should just knife him in the back and be done with it, but that didn't feel right. Besides, he didn't have a knife. And then he realized he really had no idea what to do here. He was supposed to kill Wu, but he didn't have the heart for it. However, if he didn't, the Unspoken Name would have his head on a plate.
As Chang was contemplating his alternatives, Old Man Wu cocked his head to one side slightly, then stood up and turned to face Chang.
"Yes Sifu," Chang said reflexively.
"What are you doing here, trying to sneak up on me? I haven't seen you in years. What's the meaning of this?"
"Er, um, ah, I have a message for you. That is, you have to leave. Immediately."
"What? We only just took this site. Why would I leave?"
"Well, um, you see, we have word that the Lod…that is, the Transformed Animals have sent out assassins to hunt down the leadership of the Hand. You're too vulnerable out here, so you have to leave."
"Pah! I already know that. Let them creep out of the shadows and face us. No more skulking around like the vermin they are!" Wu, paused, then looked Chang in the eyes. "Why are you here? I received that message. The Perfect Master wouldn't have sent another messenger already, and he certainly wouldn't have sent you. Why are you really here?'
"Um, er… look, Master Wu, I can't explain, but you have to get out of here. You can't stay. You just have to listen to me. Please, don't make this difficult."
"What are you talking about? I don't have… You!" Realization dawned on Wu's face. "It's you, isn't it! You're one of them, aren't you? You're the one they sent to kill me!"
"No. Well, I mean, not exactly."
"Traitorous swine! Inhuman filth! I should have known. You learned the monkey style too quickly. I should have known. Betrayer!"
"Look, Sifu, I don't want to fight, but you have to go."
"Go? Go? The only thing I'm going to do is rip you limb from limb!" With that, Wu launched himself across the room at Chang, who back-flipped onto a nearby statue at the last second. Wu sprang up after him, amazingly agile for his age, and Chang once again back-flipped away onto another statue. Wu leapt after him again, and this time Chang somersaulted over him in mid-air, landing on the temple floor. Wu flipped onto the floor as well, and the two began trading kicks and punches, with Wu's experience and skill matching Chang's natural abilities. The two leapt into the air and both kicked out simultaneously. Their feet met, and they bounced off of each other, each landing on a nearby statue.
"Eight monkey fist strike," Wu yelled, leaping off the statue. He hit the ground, somersaulted, and then leapt toward Chang, his fists moving in a rapid striking pattern.
"Monkey avoids the Lion," Chang yelled. He leapt up and forward, his hands coming down on Wu's shoulders. He leapfrogged over Wu, then spun around to face him. Wu landed on the statue, turned, and then flipped back to face Chang.
"Monkey beats the snake," Wu yelled, performing a series of somersaults as he attacked, his fists and feet narrowly missing the retreating Chang.
"Monkey plays in trees," Chang yelled. He leapt up, his feet landing on Wu's shoulders. Wu reached up to grab him, but Chang had already somersaulted onto another statue.
Suddenly, there was a loud explosion, and huge chunks of stone came crashing down from the ceiling. Wu and Chang both sprang aside as debris rained down around them. Several more explosions rocked the temple, sending both men scampering for cover. When the dust cleared, sunlight streamed in from a gaping hole in the temple roof. Chang and Wu looked up to see several figures go streaking past, the roar of jet engines drowning out the jungle sounds.
Wu and Chang raced outside, to hear the sounds of explosions and gunfire echoing through the trees. They looked up to see the figures that had flown by turn to make another pass. Both men immediately began climbing up opposite sides of the temple walls, each moving with effortless speed. They reached the remains of the roof just as the flyers were bearing in on them. They appeared to be single-man, metal-winged gliders, festooned with rockets and machineguns. But that wasn't what made Monkey Chang gape with surprise. It was the pilots. Monkeys were piloting the gliders. Actual monkeys.
As the gliders raced toward the temple, several missiles streaked off of their wings, heading right for Chang and Wu. Instinctively, Chang leapt forward into midair. As the gliders raced by, Chang landed on top of one of them. The monkey pilot let out a howl of anger and spun his glider sideways, trying to shake off his passenger. But Chang held on, and he laughed with pure abandon, his earlier black mood dispelled. This, he thought, had to be the strangest day of his life. It was time he started enjoying it.
So what looks like every thug in China comes rushing toward us, and now I know someone is really playing for keeps. Zheng lets out a yell and goes leaping into the air. Time seems to slow down for a minute as he corkscrews in midair, and then kicks two mooks full on in the chest. He hits them like a freight train, and the two go flying backwards, taking down like four other guys with them. Katie opens up with her six-shooters, and it's like shooting fish in a barrel. I mean, these guys are hitting the ground so fast I can't keep up. But then a bunch of them are on me. I punch the first one in the gut, then elbow the next one in the face, and then… well, you get the idea.
So, as I was saying, the fight was getting pretty thick, and I suddenly realized that I couldn't see Zheng or Kar Fai or any of the rest of them, and I don't hear Katie's guns going either. Then I look, and see that Katie's on the ground, not moving, and Jenny is next to her, shaking her, with tears running down her face. Kar Fai is standing above them, trying to defend them both. He's got his hand clutching a bloody wound on his arm, and the guy with the sword is still all over him. I start tossing guys aside, trying to get to him, and I see Zheng and the Doc and even the drunk guy are trying to do the same, but I know we ain't gonna make it either.
Suddenly, I hear what sounds like someone shaking out a bunch of sheets, and I look up to see this guy some flying through the air, spinning around like a helicopter. He's got this weapon that looks like a cross between a spear and a curved sword (Zheng later told me it was called a Kwan Dao, in case you were wondering). So anyway, he comes down in the middle of all the mooks, kicking two of them as he lands, and smacking a third one with the flat of his blade. Then, if that isn't enough, I hear this loud yell from the other side of the street. I look over, and there's this little old lady - and I swear this is true - kicking guys around left and right. Literally! I mean, she's doing all kinds of kung fu, and even though she's like, half their size, these guys can't even touch her.
So anyway, this other guy who was flying through the air is also all over these guys, smacking them all with his blade and then spearing one of them who tries to axe him from behind. Then he spins around in a circle, sweeping the blade out around him, and, like, a dozen guys go flying backwards. Then he stops, plants the spear point of the weapon by his feet and extends his hand out, palm up, and makes a little "come here" gesture toward the guy with the sword.
"Hey, you think you're tough? Why don't I show you some real kung fu?" The guy with the sword gets this real pissed off look on his face.
"Who the hell do you think you are?" He says. The guy with the spear-thing actually gets, like, this hurt look on his face. He lowers his hand a bit.
"Don't you know me? I'm Fong Sai Yuk!" I might add that he's totally striking a pose at this point.
"Peasant Dog! Worthless scum! I'll chop your head off!"
"Hey," says the old lady, "you can't talk to him like that! Sai Yuk, teach him some manners!"
"Ok Mom," Fong says, grinning. So anyway, the sword guy, that is, Shinobu, sees this, and he goes nuts. He lets out a yell and goes rushing at him with is sword. Fong assumes a fighting stance, one hand forward, his spear-thing in the other behind him. Then the two meet, and all I can see is metal flashing in the sun. I mean, they're fast. Real fast. The thing is, Shinobu, he's getting angrier and angrier, but Fong is just keeping his cool. So Shinobu swings and misses, and Fong smacks him in the face with the flat of his blade, knocking him to the ground. He gets up again, his face twisted with hate, and rushes Fong again. Fong leaps into the air, spins around, and kicks this guy full on in the chest. He goes flying back, like, 20 feet and lands face first. He picks himself halfway up using his sword, and I can see his arm is shaking. He coughs and spits out a mouthful of blood, and then rushes at Fong screaming bloody murder. Fong leaps into the air and swings his blade almost too fast to see, and then the next thing you know, Shinobu drops to his knees, and his head goes rolling off his body.
Well, after that all that all the thugs decided that they'd had enough, because they all go running off in all directions. Fong leaps up into the air, spins around again, and lands next to Kar Fai, who's still crouching on the ground next to Katie. Next thing you know, his mom is doing the same thing. Fong plants his weapon on the ground, and then gives a little bow.
"Master Kar," he says, smiling, "the Perfect Master wants to have a word with you."
Standing in a shadowed alcove near the remains of the inn, Mr. X wiped away the blood from a cut on his cheek with a handkerchief as he watched the Dragons depart. Unsurprisingly, Iala Mané had survived the collapse of the building, and the others had pulled him out of the wreckage after Fong Sai Yuk had killed that fool Yashida. Now another opportunity was lost. First at Shanghai, and now again Mané had slipped through his fingers. Mr. X envisioned himself emptying his gun into Mané's body, and he cursed himself for his own stupidity. He had gotten sloppy, and let emotion dictate his actions. Instead of researching his target thoroughly, he had rushed off at the first word that Mané was alive. He had failed to adequately plan ahead. That would not happen again.
Mr. X thought back to the conversation he had overheard between the Dragons. Apparently, they were pursuing the Lotus, who themselves were seeking to capture a number of key Feng Shui sites. Interesting. The names "Dragon Mountain" and "Heaven's Peak" had been mentioned in conjunction with the elements of earth and wind. Mr. X remembered the name of a local Jade Wheel geomancer, and made a mental note to consult with him. If the Dragons' information was accurate, it should be a fairly simple matter to identify the other three Feng Shui sites. Then it was simply a matter of discreetly following the Lotus from place to place. Eventually, the Dragons would show up to confront them again. And then, there would be no more mistakes, no more escapes. Mr. X watched as the Dragons departed, and then turned and walked off in the opposite direction.
The council was in a furor today, the likes of which I have never seen, over the latest arrival from the future. Tensions were already high, a result of the misguided strategies implemented by the Eastern King. The inept fumblings of his assassins had only made the situation worse. Instead of suppressing the Guiding Hand, their failures have only emboldened them, causing them to strike more directly at our forces. Worse, our other enemies see this, and believe they can act with impunity. Earlier today, I received a report that one of our feng shui sites - an iron foundry in an outlying province - was captured by unknown forces. The report was unclear, but it suggested that either the Lotus or the Architects were responsible. Only a few days ago, the council called upon the Eastern King to answer for an incident in Canton that resulted in the death of a number of enforcers and of a high-ranking Pledged agent, all in broad daylight and in view of hundreds of onlookers! Naturally, the Eastern King brushed off the protests of the council, but I could see a stiffness in his form, and hear an edge in his voice as he spoke.
The events of this afternoon, however, far surpass anything that has come before. A few days earlier, the Eastern King informed us that the Patriarch of the Bear family of the future was due to arrive shortly. Naturally, this threw the council into disarray. For any one of us to make the trip through the Netherworld is a serious matter. That the head of one of the families would do so was unthinkable. As protocol demands, the Eastern King presented Natraj Thalnasser to the council this afternoon, so that he could explain the purpose of his visit.
It did not surprise me that Thalnasser had even less regard for etiquette and correct behavior than the Eastern King. A giant of a man, he carried himself with an air of cool detachment and a complete lack of humility. With little formality, he informed the council that the Unspoken Name of his time had approved of his plan to lend "military assistance" to our juncture. He further informed the council that he had already brought a vanguard of several hundred soldiers and Fist enforcers to assess the situation, and that a full-scale mercenary army would be following shortly. Needless to say, the council reacted with outrage, and I became concerned that violence might actually break out in the council chambers. As it was, I could not simply sit idly by as the council sputtered in impotent rage. Obviously, our brethren of the future have forgotten our traditions, and now respect only strength and authority.
I addressed Thalnasser, and reminded him that while he was in our juncture, that he was subject to our authority. I told him that the Lodge would support him, but only if he could prove that he was worthy of leadership. I told him that if he planned to fight the Hand, he had better be sure that he could defeat them. I mentioned that the river town of Wuhu had been recently taken by Hand operatives posing as Taiping rebels, and suggested that he use it as a staging ground to test their strength and resolve. Of course, I knew a direct challenge of this sort would not go unanswered by the leader of the Bear family. Thalnasser angrily departed the council chambers, loudly boasting that he would grind the Guiding Hand beneath his heel. In truth, the village does contain a Feng Shui site of some significance, but the matter is hardly pressing. What does matter is that it is far from here, and so retaking it should keep Thalnasser occupied for some time.
However, unless Thalnasser truly blunders this test - which may very well happen, considering his arrogance - all I have done is acquired more time, and I fear that it will not be enough. The Unspoken Name of the future may be a fool, but at least his actions are decisive. While we howl toothlessly, he continues to usurp more and more of our power. The army he sends will be loyal to Thalnasser, not to us. They come not to fight the Hand, but to establish his dominion over us all. Of this I have no doubt. We cannot allow this to happen, though we may already be too late. I fear that our only alternative to lying down in the dirt and baring our bellies is to shed the blood of our own brethren. With our enemies gaining more ground every day, we can ill afford this outcome. Sadly, I see few other possible alternatives. Perhaps my counterpart in the future is right after all - there can only be one Unspoken Name to lead us all.
The journal of Kinoshita 20 July, 1855
Once you got to know Fong Sai Yuk and his mom, they turned out to be all right. Sure, the kid was cocky as hell, but he was always so, well, cheerful that it was tough not to like him. Zheng did his best though. Zheng was generally a humble kind of guy, whereas Fong was a loudmouth who was always going on about how good his kung fu was. Thing is, he really was that good, and I think that bugged Zheng, although really, from what I could tell Zheng was just as good as he was. Anyway, Fong's mom was the opposite of her son. Whereas he was always smiling, all she did was complain all the time. But even though she was always crabby, she was also always fussing over everyone too, and she made a really mean stew too. She reminded me a little of my own mom. Yeah, ok, so I did get a little homesick.
I got to know both of them pretty well because we were all stuck with them for over two weeks. See, Quan Lo wanted to talk with Kar Fai, and so he sent Fong to find him. Being that Quan is the head of the Guiding Hand, he spends his time hanging out in his super-secret Fortress of Boundless Solitude, or something like that, and so that's where we was heading. Thing is, China's a big place, so it was a long trip, which did not make Kar Fai happy. He kept complaining that while we were wasting time, the Lotus was getting closer to grabbing the five elemental feng shui sites. Thing is, from what I could gather, Kar Fai and Quan Lo had a falling out some years ago, so I think that was the real reason Kar Fai wasn't too eager to meet him again. Now, we all knew that if we made a big deal about it, there'd be trouble. But for all his complaining, I knew Kar Fai wasn't going to start a fight. Fong wasn't really the enemy, and fighting with him would have been, I don't know, disrespectful or something, so that meant we were going to see Quan Lo. Besides, we were all pretty badly beat up. Katie had gotten a good knock on the head during the fight, Kar Fai's arm was all bandaged up from where it had gotten sliced, and in general, this was the second beating we had taken in two days, so the trip gave us all a chance to rest up.
So anyway, after tromping across China for almost two weeks, Fong told us we were going to have to make the rest of the trip through the Netherworld. Kar Fai grumbled that we could have just taken the portal near Canton, but Fong said that this was the safest route, being as it would cut our time in the Netherworld down to a minimum, and also because Canton was too hot right now, and so this was the best way to keep things secret. I have to admit that it made sense, you know? So anyway, we all went off into the Netherworld, and the next thing we know, a bunch of monks show up and surround us. Fong has a quick powwow with their leader, and then tells us that they're going to take us to see Quan Lo. I wasn't too happy when they brought out the black sacks, but Kar Fai told me to chill, so we let them put the hoods on us and lead us the rest of the way there.
When the sacks were finally removed, we were back in China again. Specifically, we were at a place called the Temple of the Shaolin Dragon, which was, like, the main HQ for the Guiding Hand. Anyway, it looked like those temples you see in all those old kung fu films where everyone talks and then, like, you hear the words five seconds later. Man, I used to watch those every Saturday morning. But anyway, we were taken to a room in one of the temples and given some tea to drink. Fong told us Quan Lo would see us soon, and then he took off. So we sat there and we waited, and waited, and waited some more, because, you know, big important types always make you wait around, just to let you know how big and important they are. Finally, a monk came and told us that Quan Lo would see us now, and he led us off to the main temple.
Well, as you might expect, the main temple was really big and impressive, because the second thing about big important types is that they always have places that are real big and impressive, once again, to remind you how big and important they are. Anyway, this place was decked out with giant statues of Buddha or Confucius or someone, and it had a really high ceiling and there were big candles and gongs and, you know, the works. There were a ton of monks in different colored robes all lined up waiting for us, with more of them sitting up on a raised platform in front of us. Sitting right in the middle of them was this really old Chinese guy in white robes who reminded me of this old guy who ran this fish market in Chinatown where my mom used to buy fish on the weekends. I pegged him for Quan Lo right away, because he was in the highest chair. See, the third thing about big important types is that they always get the highest chair. Anyway, he starts talking, and in like a minute or two he and Kar Fai get into it. I can't remember all the details, but the conversation basically went like this:
"Why did you bring us here?"
"What are you doing in China?"
"What right do you have to bring us here?"
"You are a traitor to China!"
"You're an old fool!"
And so on and so forth. Eventually, Quan Lo threatened to have all of us locked up, or executed, or both, if we didn't come clean. Kar Fai explained about the Lotus and their plan to grab the five Feng Shui sites and cause a massive critical shift, and how they were gonna get away with it because the Hand and the Ascended were too busy fighting each other to notice. Of course, Quan Lo didn't believe him, and he accused Kar Fai and the rest of us of being spies or saboteurs or whatever. He really wasn't making much sense, but then again, it didn't help that Kar Fai kept using words like "shortsighted," "idiotic," and "chuckle-head."
So anyway, Quan Lo is about to brand us all as liars, spies, and traitors, when Fong Sai Yuk shows up. For once, he's actually humble as he asks permission to speak. He tells Quan Lo about the fight in the inn and how he's traveled with us and he thinks we're pretty good guys and on the up and up and maybe Quan Lo should listen to what we have to say. Of course, this just makes Quan Lo more pissed off. He's about to have Fong thrown out, when this monk stands up and asks to be allowed to speak. He says how he fought alongside the Dragons in the Netherworld just recently, and how even though we're all basically decadent, undisciplined, unfocused scum, we're also brave and honorable warriors and how he thinks we're telling it straight. Then another one of the monks points out that they just received word that the Lotus just seized an important Feng Shui site that the Hand were angling for, and since that site happened to be a dormant volcano, the stuff we were saying about the five elements and the Lotus could technically possibly be true.
Now, for a minute there it looked like Quan Lo was on the verge of cooling down, when Kar Fai muttered something under his breath. I'm not sure what it was, but it sounded kind of like "dumbass." Anyway, this set Quan Lo off again, and I knew if someone didn't do something the two of them were gonna duke it out, and we'd all end up dead.
"Uh, guys, excuse me," I said, standing up. Both of them glared at me, so I figured I had better get on with it while I could. "I think what you guys have here is a communication problem. See, if I'm not mistaken, I don't think you guys like the Lotus any more than we do. And really, I think you guys know that we ain't in cahoots with the Ascended. So basically, we're in agreement here, if not exactly on the same side. However, you guys are so busy yelling at each other that we're never going to get anything done. Ok, so, Kar Fai, you're angry that Quan Lo isn't really listening to you and Quan Lo, you're insulted because Kar Fai isn't treating you with respect. So, really, what you guys need to do is, like, try to see it from the other guy's point of view. Quan Lo, just because you don't like Kar Fai, it doesn't mean everything he says is wrong. Kar Fai, I think we both know that you've been kind of disrespectful here. Now, maybe if you guys could, you know, tell each other you're sorry, maybe we could get down to business. What do you guys say?"
Now, I was feeling kind of proud of myself. I mean, I'm not much of a talker, and I usually tend to solve my problems by breaking stuff, but there I was, trying to be the voice of reason. But then I looked at everyone's face. All of the monks were staring at me in shock. So were Kar Fai and Quan Lo. It kind of occurred to me that maybe speaking up hadn't been such a good idea. Before I could find out though, a monk came running into the room. He stopped in front of Quan Lo and dropped down to his hands and knees.
"Forgive your unworthy servant, Perfect Master," he said bowing his head. "We have just received urgent news. The town of Wuhu on the banks of the Yangtze has been taken by the forces of the transformed animals."
Quan Lo glared at him. "That town is on the border of Taiping held territory. That the Manchu have retaken it is no surprise. You dare interrupt for such a trivial matter?"
"Begging your forgiveness, but the town was not taken by the Manchu forces. Our spies have informed us that the attackers were the advance guard of an army currently camped out in the Netherworld, an army from the near-future juncture. All our information points to one conclusion honored Grandfather. The transformed animals have invaded!"
Natraj Thalnasser strode through the market square of Wuhu, surveying the carnage with a sense of grim satisfaction. The battle had been swift and decisive. Although the rebels had greatly outnumbered his own forces, they had been unprepared for his sudden, brutal strike. The rebels were used to fighting the inept Manchu forces, not crack Pledged commandos. It had actually been an interesting diversion, taking on an entrenched, superior force while using antiquated weaponry. Of course, Natraj would have rather had his troops armed with the best in modern firepower, but the council had forbidden it, claiming that it would risk exposing them. Fools. What did it matter when they controlled the world? He had acquiesced for now, but with this victory, the council could no longer impede him. He had passed their little test, and now would finally do things as he saw fit. Wuhu was only 50 miles upriver from Nanking, and thus would make an ideal staging ground for his assault on the rebel capital. Once the rest of his army had arrived from the Netherworld, he would take the city in one swift stroke, smashing the largest of the rebellions and reasserting the power of the Lodge. From there, it would simply be a matter of ferreting out the remaining rebels and cementing his hold on the countryside. It was almost a shame, Natraj thought, that the rebels hadn't put up more of a fight. He had hoped for a challenge.
The sound of distant gunfire snapped Natraj out of his reverie. He looked toward the direction of the noise and saw one of his officers running toward him. The officer stopped in front of Natraj and saluted.
"The east gate is under attack sir. We estimate several hundred troops sir, about equal to our own strength."
"The rebels?" Natraj frowned. He had expected a counterattack, but not so soon, and not with such a small force. Had the rebels simply attacked without waiting for reinforcements? That would be the height of stupidity. The Manchu armies had to have been colossally incompetent to allow fools like this to gain so much ground.
"We're not sure sir," the officer replied. "They don't look like the Taiping, and they're using swords, not rifles or spears. They look like peasant soldiers, but they're too skilled and disciplined. Despite our superior firepower, they're gaining ground."
"The Hand," Natraj muttered under his breath, a glimmer in his eye. "Captain, move our troops off the other walls to reinforce the east gate, but hold two units in reserve. This may be a diversion. Now go!"
"Yes sir!" The captain ran motioned to two passing soldiers, and the three of them set off on a run toward the north wall. Natraj turned and strode toward the east gate. Finally, he would test the mettle of a true commander.
"Going somewhere, commander?"
Natraj turned sharply toward the sound of the voice. A young man sat beneath the thatched awning of an inn, a game of go spread out on the table before him, seemingly oblivious to the destruction around him. He was small, with lean, angular features and a slight smirk playing at the corner of his mouth. His hair, long like the rebels', was pulled back neatly into a queue.
"Who are you to address me, peasant?"
"My name is Wei Fong-Yi, and you may call me a student of the art of strategy, much like yourself. I've been admiring your handiwork here, and thought perhaps you might like to test your skill against mine in a game?"
Natraj stood over him, glowering. "I have no time for games," he said darkly. All around him, the other patrons of the inn began to slowly back away.
"But surely you can appreciate a game of go, can you not? It's considered one of the four accomplishments of a true Chinese gentleman. Some consider the very game itself a metaphor for warfare. Ahh, but perhaps you don't care for games of strategy. Perhaps you prefer mah-jongg?"
Natraj's lips curled into an angry sneer, and he drew his Desert Eagle from his holster and leveled it at Wei's head.
"Impudent dog! No one insults me! Prepare to die!"
"I think not." Wei darted sideways as his hands came up. Before Natraj could react, Wei's fingers moved with fluid speed over the pistol. Natraj pulled the trigger, only to hear a hollow click. He looked down to see Wei smiling, the barrel of the gun neatly disassembled in his hands. Natraj let out a roar and swung a meaty fist toward Wei's head. Wei darted aside as Natraj smashed the table into splinters, sending black and white stones scattering along with the patrons of the inn. Natraj grabbed half of the broken table and flung it in Wei's direction. Wei jumped aside as the table sailed through the air to smash into the far outer wall of the inn. Wei leapt up into a crouch on a nearby table.
"So, I guess you do want to play after all then," he said, grinning. "Well come on, let's see what you've got." Natraj growled, a low and guttural sound, and rushed toward Wei. Just before he reached the table, Wei leapt up into the air and grabbed one of the rafters. He kicked out with both feet, catching Natraj in the jaw. Natraj staggered back slightly, and then leapt forward again. Wei hoisted his legs up, just barely avoiding Natraj's lunge, and then swung down again, kicking Natraj in the back of the head. He then swung off the rafters, avoiding a backhand strike from Natraj, and then landed in a fighting stance.
Natraj whipped around, and then grabbed a nearby chair and hurled it at Wei. Wei caught it, then smashed it into Natraj's head as Natraj rushed him. Natraj didn't even slow down as he grabbed Wei and slammed him up against the wall. He brought his fist back and struck at Wei's head, only to smash a hole in the wall as Wei slipped out of his tunic and down beneath Natraj's legs. Wei rolled between Natraj's legs and then scissor-kicked backwards, toppling the giant bear. Natraj pulled himself up to his knees, only to be met with a flurry of kicks to his face. Natraj batted the kicks aside and sprung forward, catching Wei in the stomach. Wei dropped to his back and kicked up with his legs, using Natraj's momentum to send him flipping through the air and crashing into an abandoned merchant's stall outside the inn.
Natraj picked himself up from the wreckage around him. The fighting had reached the market square now. Steel flashed in the sunlight and shots rang out as the Pledged soldiers fought tooth and nail against the Hand attackers. Natraj ignored it all as he wiped away a trickle of blood from his nose. He charged again, and Wei leapt into the air and caught Natraj three times with kicks to the jaw. On the fourth kick Natraj grabbed Wei out of the air and smashed him into a nearby table, which exploded in a shower of splinters. Natraj scooped him up again with one hand, and then backhanded him with the other, sending him flying across the room into a tangle of chairs, which shattered under the impact. Natraj strode toward Wei, who leapt into the air and spun around, catching Natraj in the jaw again before landing out of reach. He hooked a chair with his foot and flung it toward Natraj, who caught it and flung it back. Wei leapt aside as the chair went sailing out onto the street, and then ducked as Natraj swung at him. Wei drove a knife hand into Natraj's ribs. Natraj flinched, and then brought his elbow down on Wei's skull, dropping him like a sack of rice. Natraj picked Wei up by his neck, and then drove a massive fist into his gut. Wei spit out a mouthful of blood, and Natraj grabbed the waistband of his pants, and flipped him up, over, and down, smashing him into the hard-packed dirt floor. Natraj picked Wei up again and slammed him up against the nearest wall. Locking his hand around Wei's throat, Natraj lifted him into the air and began to squeeze. Strangled sounds came out of Wei's mouth, and he clawed feebly at his throat. Then he struck toward Natraj's face with a knife hand, and Natraj let out a howl and clutched at his eyes.
Wei hit the ground with a thud and put his hand to his purple throat, gasping for breath. Before he could recover, he was suddenly lifted into a bear hug. He looked into Natraj's blood-filled eyes as the giant bear tightened his grip. Natraj let out a bellow of rage, and Wei cried out in pain as he felt his ribs snapping. Wei's head began to swim, and he flailed about uselessly with his arms, trying to escape. Then his hand touched the hilt of the combat knife in Natraj's belt. Summoning the last reserves of his strength, he drew the knife, and in one swift motion plunged it into the side of Natraj's neck. Natraj dropped Wei and staggered backwards. His lips were moving, but no sound escaped them. Then his eyes rolled back into his head, and he toppled over like a felled tree and was still.
Wei slumped against the wall, his breath coming in ragged, painful gasps. Around him the fighting broke as the Pledged soldiers, seeing their leader topple, lost their nerve and fled. But Wei was oblivious to it all. His vision blurred, and then dimmed. Finally, Wei lost consciousness.
The Eastern King re-read the report in his hands, then tossed it on his desk and rubbed his temples. Things were not going well at all. Toothless old goat that he was, perhaps Kinoshita had been right about the Hand. They had proved more formidable than he had anticipated. Either that, or the Ascended had gone soft, just as they feared. The information his source had provided had been accurate, but his assassins had failed him. Velasquez was dead, McShane critically wounded, and Chang had disappeared after he had stumbled into an apparent Jammer attack. Only Señor Ocho had been successful, and given his reputation, that was hardly a surprise. The Eastern King wondered idly if Chang was a really a double agent working for the Jammers, possibly lured in out of sympathy to his simian cousins. Then he discarded the idea as too ludicrous to bother with.
The failure of his assassins was only the tip of the iceberg. That idiot Thalnasser had shredded the Eastern King's tenuous connection with the council through his arrogance, and had then went off on a fool's errand, only to get himself and his advance guard killed by the Guiding Hand. Now the Bear family was without a head, a leaderless army was camped out in the Netherworld, the council of this time was ready to expel him from this juncture. Even more troubling was the recent incident in Canton. The Eastern King had learned that Mr. X had been involved. This came as a double shock: not only had he not been informed, but the events described in the report could only be attributable to insanity. Normally, Mr. X was nothing but a rumor, his presence only made known to those who needed to know. How then, to explain a brawl in the streets of Canton involving hundreds of combatants and the destruction of an inn in broad daylight? Had Mr. X wanted to make his presence deliberately known, he could have done no better, yet once again, he had disappeared without a trace.
The Eastern King leaned back in his chair, the polished leather creaking slightly as he shifted position, and watched the shadows lengthen across the room as night fell. He had failed. He had failed, and the Unspoken Name had cast him adrift. It was the only explanation, the only plausible way to account for the arrival of Thalnasser and his army, the only way to explain why he hadn't been informed of Mr. X's activities. He was on his own now, but he wasn't finished. The Eastern King once again looked over the message from Song that had arrived earlier that day. It contained the information the Eastern King had been waiting for, the information that would bring down the Guiding Hand.
The Eastern King stood up and turned to face the large picture window that looked out over the city. He watched as lanterns flickered to life in windows and in the streets as the sun finally disappeared below the horizon. It would take a week, maybe 10 days. Even with the dangerous shortcuts through the Netherworld, it would take at last that long. The situation had grown desperate, but the Eastern King still had one last card left to play. Within a week, the Guiding Hand would be nothing but a memory.
You would think after our last experience that we would know better than to take on the Lotus at night. Yet, there we were again, planning to go toe-to-toe with them under the cover of darkness, only this time there was also fog everywhere too. And also, we were in boats.
It's not like we had a choice though. Once all hell broke loose at the Temple, Quan Lo told us that he had more important things to deal with than rabble like us. Then he made the usual "don't let me catch you around here again" speech before kicking us out of the Temple. Course, I thought my speech was the reason he was letting us go, but Zheng later told me I was lucky I still had my head attached to my neck. Anyway, it was a good thing that Fong and his mom were a lot nicer. It seems the kid had been paying attention to Kar Fai during the trip, and so while we had been waiting around, he had gone and talked to a few of the scholars in the temple. He gave us a map and instructions on the quickest route through the Netherworld and to the last feng shui site the Lotus would be going for (which Kar Fai figured would be water, though don't ask me how). Then his mom packed us up with a bunch of her delicious pork roast buns, and we were escorted out of the temple the same way we came in.
Even with Fong's help, it still took us almost two weeks to get where we were going, so that by the time we got there, we had no time to spare, if you get my meaning. That's why we were heading out on the open seas, in the dead of night, with fog all around us. See, the final Feng Shui site was this place called Four Sorrows Island, which was basically a gigantic hunk of rock that shot straight up out of the water. The place got its name from the faces, each twenty-stories high, carved into the rock, one on each side of the island. If that sounds creepy, imagine what it looked like at night. Nothing like trying to sneak up on a bunch of evil sorcerers in a fog in the dead of night while a big head is eyeballing you.
Anyway, I think the gloom had kind of put a chill on everyone. Even Jenny wasn't saying anything. She was with me, along with Zheng and Dr. Shen in one boat, while Kar Fai, Katie, Iala, and Hwang were in the other. Even though we were only a few feet from each other, they were almost impossible to see. Way off in the distance, we could hear the sounds of drumming and chanting. It was so faint you almost couldn't hear it over the sounds of our oars hitting the water, but it was there. It was coming from the top of the island, and we knew the Lotus were getting ready to do their thing. The whole situation was making me uneasy. It was like I knew something bad was going to happen. You know, like that feeling you get on the back of your neck when you think you're about to get jumped. And then, when we maybe just a hundred feet from the island, I noticed something. I noticed the chanting had stopped.
Suddenly, the sea erupted right beneath our boats. It was like we were sitting on top of a geyser. I literally heard the boats splinter beneath us, and then I hear Jenny scream and I hit the water. The cold hit me like a Lousiville Slugger to the gut, and what with everything happening so fast and all at once, I couldn't get my bearings. As I broke the surface, I heard Kar Fai cursing and everyone yelling and splashing, and then suddenly I felt something drag me down, hard. The first thing I thought of was Jaws, but I didn't feel anything biting me. It was just like a vice, pulling me down under the water. I started thrashing around, but it was like being in a dream, where the faster you try to run, the slower you go.
Just when I was about to lose it entirely, Zheng shows up next to me. He sort of thrusts his arm out and yells, and it's like a shockwave ripples through the water. Suddenly, I can move normally again, and as I look down I swear I saw a pair of glowing eyes disappearing into the darkness. I break the surface again, and I still hear yelling going on all around me. I still can't see much of anything because of the fog, but then Zheng appears next to me. I ask him what the hell is going on, but he just yells at me to make for the island. Then he goes under again, and I start swimming like crazy toward that big hunk of rock. I see that big, ugly face looking down on me, and at that moment, I was pissed off. Enough was enough. It was time to start seriously kicking some ass.
Mr. X looked through a spyglass out over the sea, his position carefully concealed from the priests and cultists elsewhere on the island. The information provided by the geomancers had been accurate, and once he had caught up with the Lotus, infiltrating them had been child's play. He had stayed with them for nearly a month, watching with interest as they had first seized a dormant volcano, and then an iron foundry, each a key elemental Feng Shui site, until they had come to this miserable island. All that time there had been no sign of the Dragons until now. Mr. X peered out through his spyglass, and then cursed and lowered it angrily. With the darkness and the fog, it was nearly impossible to see. He was sure he had spotted a pair of boats approaching the island, but now they were gone. He forced himself to calm down. It was no matter. He had been patient for this long, he could be patient for a little while longer. The Dragons were bound to arrive eventually, and with them, Iala Mané. And then, finally, Mr. X would clean up a loose end that should have been dealt with a long time ago.
The Unspoken Name angrily tossed the report down on his desk. "Are you sure this information is correct?"
"Yes sir." The man in front of him was a junior member of the Spider family, his face an impassive mask. Their information was always correct.
"Go," said the Unspoken Name, tersely. The man nodded, then left the room. The Unspoken Name rubbed his chin and stared at nothing in particular. Things were not going well. In fact, if the reports were correct, things were going to hell. First, their best assassins had failed to eliminate the leadership of the Hand, and then Natraj Thalnasser had gotten himself killed leading a foolhardy military expedition into 1855. Meanwhile, Mr. X, who was ostensibly on a secret mission to bring the Dragon Iala Mané back for questioning, had vanished. And now on top of it all, The Eastern King had apparently disappeared as well.
The Unspoken name considered the situation, his face an emotionless mask. Then he picked up the phone on his desk and began dialing. The situation had spiraled completely out of control. It was time to settle things once and for all.
So I reach the island, and then I realize that, being as it's a big hunk of rock, there's no shore for me to climb up onto. For a minute I think I'm gonna panic again, when suddenly the Doc pops up out of the water next to me. "Follow me," he says, and he starts swimming toward one of the big heads. Then I realize that he's actually swimming under it. There's a cove inside the island, and what's more, there are lit torches hanging on the wall. I pull myself out of the water and grab one of the torches, and then I see there's a stairway snaking up into the rock. "This way," I yell, and then I start heading on up the steps.
By the time I make it to the top, everyone else has made it out of the water and is right behind me. We know we ain't got the element of surprise, so we just hit the ground running. The top of the island is all covered with thick trees and bushes and stuff, but there's a clearing ringed by torches, and sure enough, there's a bunch of guards and priests there too, and in the middle of it all is the guy with the long fingernails. I go running straight at him, and naturally all the guards try to get in my way. However, at this point I'm rolling like a Mack truck, and these guys are just speed bumps. I don't even notice as I plow through them. Then I hear a swishing sound, and I stop, cause I heard this sound before. Sure enough, the five bald guys with tattoos leap out of the shadows in front of me. They all draw their weird looking weapons, and then they start leaping and spinning around and making all these swirly motions with their weapons, all of which makes me really annoyed.
Then, next thing I know, Hwang is standing out in front of me, swaying on his feet. The five guys seem him, and Hwang starts weaving around and making all kinds of weird moves with his hands. The five tattoo guys actually stop jumping around and watch him, and Hwang gives these guys a raspberry, and then finishes by flipping them off. They all get pissed off and attack, but being as they're so focused on Hwang, they fail to notice Kar Fai, Iala, Zheng, and the Doc run up and lay into them with some hardcore kung-fu. I look around, and I see that Katie and Jenny are busy dealing with the rest of the mooks, which means that there's only one guy left for me.
Fingernails is busy chanting in the middle of the circle while all the fighting is going on around him. His eyes are all glowing and he's chanting like crazy and there's all kinds of blue lightning bolts crackling over his head. So naturally he doesn't see me come up right next to him. I grab him by the shoulder and spin him around, and he gets this totally surprised look on his face before I punch him in the jaw. Now, I've punched a lot of guys in the jaw in my lifetime, but I gotta say that was like, maybe, one of my top five ever. I mean, when my fist connects it sounds like a two-by-four being snapped in half, and this guy goes flying backward like twenty feet and slams into a tree, then slumps to the ground. I run on over to put him out of my misery for good, when suddenly his eyes snap open, and they're still glowing. He sticks out his hand toward me and yells something, and then there's a bright flash, and I go flying backwards. I lie there for a moment, then lift myself into a sitting position and shake my head. It feels like someone just bashed my jaw with a sledgehammer. I'm wondering what the hell the guy hit me with, when suddenly, I hear something that snaps me back into the present.
The Eastern King stood before the gates of the Temple of the Shaolin Dragon. His informant had not lied. The location of the Temple was perhaps the most closely guarded secret of the Hand, but the Eastern King had found it. It had not been easy. The woods surrounding it were heavily guarded, and he hadn't been able to avoid all of them. Still, the monks and swordsmen had been no match for him, and he had finally arrived at the gates. He could see the archers on the walls, their bows leveled at him. None had yet fired.
"Quan Lo," the Eastern King called out, his voice like a knife cutting through the cool morning air. "I come to challenge you, Quan Lo. Come out and face me if you dare."
The Eastern King stood silently, staring at the gates. Other than the twittering of the birds in the forest, the air was still. The gates did not move.
"Quan Lo, I, the Eastern King, challenge you. I have traveled long to face you. You know who I am. I have come alone, now come out and face me. Or are you a coward?"
The Eastern King waited, staring at the gates. The archers remained unmoving. The air remained quiet and still.
"Very well, I see that the Perfect Master is nothing more than a coward. I was foolish to think you were a worthy adversary. When I next return, it will be with an army, and I will grind your pathetic followers into dust and raze your temple to the ground!"
The Eastern King turned his back on the gate and started walking back into the woods, listening carefully for the sounds of arrows whistling through the air. Instead, he heard the sound of creaking wood. The Eastern King turned back toward the temple.
The gates were opening.
So I hear the kid yelling my name, and I look over to see one of the mooks has grabbed her, and is running off into the trees with her. I make to go after him, when a lightning bolt hits me square in the chest. I go flying backward like thirty feet until a convenient tree helpfully stops my backwards momentum. Now if this had been anyone else, they would have most likely been either fried or splattered, but since it's me, all I've got is a broken rib or two, which to me is mainly just an inconvenience. Then there's another flash of lightning, and I manage to duck out of the way just in time as it splits the tree in two. I see Fingernails gliding through the air toward me, his hands all crackling with energy. So I start jumping for cover as he begins tossing off more lightning bolts at me, and while he never does more than singe me, he doesn't seem to be running out of ammo either. As I'm running, I reach down and grab a sword and fling it at him, but he just raises his hand and blasts it aside. Then he lets loose with a huge blast, and I have to jump aside as another tree nearly lands on my head. I pick myself up and look up to see fingernails hovering right over me. He's got a ball of energy crackling in his hand, and I've got nowhere to go. I get ready to take it full on, when suddenly there's a loud crack. I look up to see a small red hole on his forehead. Then his eyes roll back in his head as blood begins to trickle out of the hole, and he slumps to the ground. I look over to see Katie standing a few yards back, her gun pointing above me, and smoke coming out of the barrel.
Suddenly, I see Katie's eyes widen in fear, and I hear a nasty, squishy noise behind me. I turn back around, and I see this nasty thing climbing out of Fingernail's dead body, which itself is rapidly turning to goo. It's about as big as me, and it looks kind of like a big green cockroach with lots of red eyes and sharp teeth. The thing hisses at me, and before I have the chance to be properly repulsed, the thing leaps up and jumps on top of me. Now, I hate bugs. I mean, I really hate bugs, so you can imagine my dismay at having a big, nasty, slimy one on top of me. I'm doing all I can to keep it from ripping my head off, and it's busy digging its spiny claws into my body. I try to push the thing off of me, but it's too strong. I start groping around on the ground until I find a nice thick branch from the fallen tree, and then I whack the thing in the side of its head. It goes rolling off me, and before it can get up, I jump on top of it and start wailing away at it with the branch. I finally give it one good crack, and the thing's head splatters, spraying me with green slime. I stand there breathing hard, looking down at the thing. Then I remember the kid, and I drop the branch and go running off into the dark after her.
The Eastern King brought both his arms up to block, but the force of the kick still knocked him back across the dirt a good ten feet. Quan Lo leapt into the air again, but this time the Eastern King bent backwards at the knees, letting Quan Lo sail over him. He leapt to his feet and spun around in a fighting stance. The two traded a series of rapid blows, each one blocking the other. Then Quan Lo jumped up, catching the Eastern King in the chest with his knee. The Eastern King staggered back, and Quan Lo followed up with a jump kick that sent the Eastern King sprawling onto his back. The Eastern King looked up to see Quan Lo flying through the air toward him again. The Eastern King sprung up and forward, his outstretched fists striking Quan Lo in the chest. He then planted one palm on the ground and swung his legs around, kicking Quan Lo in the chest and forcing him back. The Eastern King sprung to his feet and resumed his stance, and the two faced off against each other once again.
I go tearing off toward the last place I saw Jenny, and I can't really see, but it doesn't matter, because my blood is pumping in my ears and all I'm thinking about is that I was supposed to look after her. I kinda hear the others behind me, yelling my name, but I'm not stopping as I crash through the trees. Then up ahead of me I see moonlight, and I break out into a clearing. And then I see them. One of the mooks is standing at the edge of the island with his arm wrapped around Jenny, holding her in a tight grip. Then I see that he's got a gun pointed at Iala, and I realize that, whoever this guy is, he's no mook. Iala is standing stone still, about 20 feet away from him, and I hear him speak.
"Whoever you are, let the girl go. Your fight is with me."
"You are wrong. I have no intention of fighting with you. I intend to kill you." I see Iala tense up, but the guy sees this too, and he says "And the girl too, if I must." He kind of leans sideways as he says this, moving Jenny so that she's kind of over the edge of the cliff. Even though Iala can't see, he somehow gets the drift, and so he makes himself relax. The guy shifts again so that Jenny isn't out over the cliff any more.
"We've met before," Iala says. "You know you can't hurt me with that weapon."
"Yes, I admit I was unprepared for our last encounter. I've done a bit of checking since then. It seems you're a bit of a legend, if not in this part of the world, then at least in this time. Getting information on you wasn't easy, but fortunately I have a lot of resources at my disposal. It seems that you're not entirely human. That's why I wasn't able to hurt you. However, even your kind have weaknesses. It seems that yours in particular is silver. How quaint. It seems a bit cliché, don't you think? I never thought I would actually need to have silver bullets made." The guy then raises his arm just a bit higher, so that the gun is pointed right at Iala's head, and he cocks the hammer of the pistol.
"Fortunately, as I said, I have a lot of resources at my disposal."
The kid sees me and yells my name, and for just a moment the guy holding her is distracted. Iala uses that moment to rush him, but the guy is too fast. He turns and fires once, and I see Iala snap backwards. I'm already running, but the guy is turning the gun toward me, and I know I'll never make it. Suddenly, Jenny kicks the guy in the chest a few times, distracting him. He lets her go and she springs right toward me. I stop and catch her, and the guy regains his balance and points his gun at me. Suddenly, Iala blindsides him like a freight train. He never sees it coming. The two of them go over the side of the cliff and out of sight. Even as the others break into the clearing, I rush over to the edge and look down. By that time though, they've disappeared into the darkness. I think maybe I hear a splash, but I can't really tell for sure.
Outside the window of Kinoshita's study the moon hung full and placid in the night sky, bathing his ornamental gardens in a soft glow. Within, Kinoshita sat quietly at his desk, writing in his journal under the flickering light of an oil lamp. The night was warm, but breezy, and the song of crickets hummed softly in the air. A young Chinese servant, came to the edge of the study, his eyes cast down toward the floor. Kinoshita turned his head slightly in his direction.
"Honored master, a visitor has arrived."
Kinoshita turned his head a bit more, not quite facing the boy. For a moment both were still, then Kinoshita spoke.
"Show him in, and prepare tea for our guest."
"Yes, honored master." The boy bowed his head and backed out of the room. Kinoshita set his pen back in its inkpot, then picked up a finely grained pipe from a stand next to him. He carefully tapped a small mixture of blended herbs into the bowl, and then lit the pipe as his guest entered his study.
The man was one of the gaijin, tall, like all his kind, and just at the beginning of middle age. He wore the clothing of a European, but it was obvious to Kinoshita that it was not his normal dress. Kinoshita motioned to a mat on the floor, like his own, as the servant boy came in and poured the tea. The boy departed quietly, and Kinoshita set his pipe aside. The two men faced each other, and then, Kinoshita spoke.
"So, you have come. It seems that we have much to discuss."
The Eastern King pushed himself up on one quivering arm and spat out a mouthful of blood. Quan Lo stood about 50 feet away from him, his knees bent and his arms extended in a tai chi stance. The wind had picked up, billowing out his white robes and swirling leaves and clouds of dust around him. The Eastern King looked for any sign of weakness in his enemy. He had used every technique he knew, and had summoned the strength of his animal heritage to combat him. Yet Quan Lo had met all his attacks, and showed no signs of wavering. It was impossible. The Eastern King had the blood of dragons from a thousand generations flowing through his veins. How could one old monk hope to match him? The Eastern King met Quan Lo's gaze, his eyes burning with hatred, and saw only serenity and contempt.
The Eastern King let out a bestial roar and launched himself toward Quan Lo. In a heartbeat, Quan Lo moved from perfect stillness to sudden action, leaping into the air. The two sped toward each other at superhuman speed, and the battle was joined for the last time.
There isn't really too much to tell after that point. Zheng and Kar Fai and all the others had finished off all the priests and thugs, not to mention the guys with the tattoos, so there was nothing left to be done. We searched the water around the island as best we could, but we didn't find any sign of Iala or the guy he was fighting. I figure both of them must have sunk like stones and drowned.
With Iala gone, I don't think most of us felt like hanging around any more. Katie found a ship to take her back home. The Doc went back to his office in Canton. I don't know where the old drunk guy went. Kar Fai and Zheng decided to also stay in China for a little longer, just to make sure the Lotus weren't still hanging around. There wasn't really much to do though. Once Fingernails was dead, that pretty much took the wind out of their sails, and the sites they had nabbed were recaptured by the Hand or the Ascended or whoever. With so much fighting going on it was hard to tell who was on whose side.
So anyway, all that was left was for me to get Jenny back home. She was kind of quiet and subdued at first, and for a while I was worried about her. I never actually thought I would miss that kid's chattering. By the time we got back to the Junkyard though, she seemed to have perked up a little, and when she saw the Prof she ran up and gave her a big hug. I filled the Prof in on everything that happened. She didn't say anything when I told her about Iala, but she didn't need to. It was all in her eyes. Anyway, when I finished telling her everything, she just said "You did well Arthur." I just said "Thank you," but inside I was grinning like a goofy kid. It's not often you get that kind of praise from the Prof.
Oh yeah, I did eventually get Jenny back home again. That, however, is another story.
Address to the council September 1st, 2001
Brothers and sisters, a time of rebuilding is upon us. Over the last few years we have watched our once firm grip on the world weaken and our power decline. Attacked by enemies from the past, and facing an uncertain future, we have taken to squabbling amongst ourselves instead of uniting to face the challenges ahead of us. In doing so, our resolve has weakened, and our enemies have grown in number and in strength. We have allowed ourselves to become soft and lazy, and to forget that our survival depends upon our unity. The cost of our lack of vision has been high: Natraj Thalnasser is dead, killed in an ill-advised military adventure in 1855. Several other members of the Lodge are also dead, as well as number of valuable Pledged agents, and Thalnasser's army has been scattered and destroyed. Finally, the Eastern King has disappeared as well, leaving no trace of his whereabouts. We cannot afford these losses. This must stop. This will stop now.
Effective immediately, leadership of the council in 1855 passes to me. There will now be only one Unspoken Name for both junctures. No longer will our brethren be divided from us. The Lodge shall act as one, under one voice and one hand. With this pointless internal dissent eliminated, we can now work toward rebuilding. And there is much work to be done. The rebellions now rage out of control in 1855, and the Guiding Hand has taken a number of our Feng Shui sites. Our other enemies have seen our weakness, and have moved to exploit it as well. The Monarchs, the Lotus, the Jammers, and even the Dragons have all been active in 1855, all seeking to take advantage of the situation. Our first priority must be to regain control of the situation, lest all of 1855 plunge into chaos. Make no mistake; this will not be a simple task.
And yet, even as we look to the past, we must also look to the future. We all know what lies ahead. We must not succumb to fear and panic, but instead rise to meet the challenges that face us. Already, we are receiving reports that the monolithic empire of the Architects has begun to crack. Our information is still based more on rumor than hard fact, but it appears that the future is on the verge of civil war. We will be watching the situation very closely. It could very well present us the opportunity we need to change the course of history to come. I have full confidence that by standing united, as one, we can drive away the dark storm clouds that lurk on our horizon, and instead look forward to a bright and shining future.