Big Trouble in Ancient China

By Stefan Vincent

Flashback

I do not understand what is happening to me. Each day the pain in my head grows more intense. Always the cold slab awaits me in the morning, and always the bright lights, the strange sounds, and the pain. I think I remember a time before the cage and the pain, a time of trees and bright sunshine, but I cannot be sure.

The hairless ones jabber and squawk at me, so much that I almost think they are trying to communicate. They bring me food, but they also bring me to the slab. I do not know what they want.

I long to see my mate again, but fear I will not.


Ancient China

"Good morning, Light of Heaven. I trust the night passed uneventfully?" Gao Zhang swept into Harvest of Jade's private chamber, leaving the door ajar behind him. His smug look of confidence shattered as he noticed that the Emperor's bed was in disarray. The old man was curled in a ball, shivering convulsively and whimpering.

Zhang stooped to check the Emperor's breathing, finding it weak and shallow. He examined the low table where he prepared the special sleeping draughts every night—the goblet was tipped and nearly empty. Zhang ran his finger around the rim, then lightly touched his fingertip to his tongue. Nothing unusual. He flung the goblet against the wall and overturned the table in frustration.

"Why must you do this now, of all times? Could you not have waited?" Zhang shook his fist at the unresponsive Emperor. "My plans are not yet complete, and now I must deal with THIS?" Zhang roared in frustration.

A eunuch timidly peeked around the open door to investigate the commotion. He knew better than to interrupt Gao Zhang, but he could not ignore the crash of furniture and loud voices in the Emperor's quarters. Zhang spotted him instantly and pointed at him.

"You! Come here!" yelled Zhang. "Tell me who has entered the Emperor's chambers this night!"

The eunuch scurried into the room, his face draining of color when he saw Harvest of Jade's condition. He collapsed to his knees, then prostrated himself on the cold stone floor. "I saw no one, I swear," he said tremulously. He wasn't a guard, and he had just been passing by the Emperor's quarters this morning, but he knew he wouldn't be able to explain that to an angry Gao Zhang.

"Cur!" Zhang kicked the eunuch. "You have failed your Emperor and your life is forfeit!" A bolt of liquid fire shot from Zhang's outstretched hand, engulfing the eunuch before he could make another sound. All that remained was a faint scorch mark and a few tiny cracks in the stone floor.

Somewhat calmer now, Zhang pushed the heavy doors shut so there would be no more untimely interruptions. Deep in thought, he walked slowly back to the useless old man on the bed. He pulled the Emperor’s eyelids up, checked his teeth and gums, pulled back his hair and checked the skin around his face and neck. “Bah!” he exclaimed in disgust. "You cannot even name a successor of my choosing!" Zhang strode toward the door, then paused and looked back over his shoulder at the Emperor. "How fortunate for me that I have arrangements even for this situation."

Zhang slammed the doors shut behind him. The Emperor curled more tightly into a fetal position, and the whimpers gave way to sobs.


Flashback

He lies exhausted on the exam table. The pain has come and, miraculously, gone this time. Engrossed in their work, the two scientists do not see his eyelids flutter open. He hears the usual barrage of sounds from the humans, but today he can catch a glimmer of meaning. Perhaps the humans have finally learned to communicate with him. He listens, but realizes that their conversation is not directed at him. The male human is speaking, addressing the smaller and darker female. He likes the female, she has been gentle with him.

"Excellent work, Dr. Carter. If these brainwave patterns are any indication, you are on the verge of a breakthrough with Subject Twelve."

The door slides open with a soft whoosh. A slightly overweight middle-aged Asian man enters. He walks as if the skin-tight grey clothing chafes him.

"Ah, Rhys and the ravishing Celeste. Just the two I was looking for. Gao Zhang sends his regards." He pauses for a moment, regarding the animal on the table. "Have you declared success with this wretch of a beast yet? Or will it die like the others?" He smiles broadly, as if he has made a very witty remark.

"What do you want, Fo Shen? Or are you here just to waste my time?" Celeste says sharply.

"Your brilliant mind has seen through my ruse. My interest in your animal is merely transitory. Frankly, I find him and his kind distasteful. And what you are doing to them reminds me too much of what the Jammers once were, and what they became." Fo Shen spits at the animal on the exam table. "But your work will be invaluable when dealing with the Ascended, so I suppose there is some small merit to it."

"And your point, Fo Shen?" Rhys speaks with a deep voice, much deeper than Celeste or Shen.

"Always business, Rhys. I like that about you. The Center of the Lotus sends his greetings and inquires about your health, and you want to know why. Even after all we have done for you." Fo Shen smiles again, and winks. "You are truly a wise man."

Rhys crosses his arms and glares at Fo Shen. "My regards to Gao Zhang, and my gratitude for everything we have learned. Now?"

"Common courtesy is the grease of life, my friend. Do not spurn it so lightly. But if we must, we must," says Fo Shen. "The Buro's latest arcanowave project is progressing rapidly. My master is greatly concerned about its success—the thought of the Buro in control of two junctures is most unnerving."

"And how may we assist in resolving Gao Zhang's distress in this case?" asks Rhys.

"Always you see to the crux of the matter. You are indirectly involved, of course, seeing as our fates are intertwined to some extent due to our relationship," says Fo Shen. "The Center of the Lotus would like you to undertake a small activity with little risk to your organization but potentially disastrous to this arcanowave insult to life itself."

"And that would be?" asks Rhys.

"Merely the placement of certain information in certain places where a third party could find it, after suitable difficulty, of course. We will specify the location and arrange for the attention of the third party. You will provide the information."

"And in return?"

"We will advance your studies regarding summoning and divination. Perhaps not directly applicable to your current undertaking here, but nonetheless intriguing." Fo Shen waits, one eyebrow raised in anticipation of an answer.

"Agreed,” says Rhys. Celeste glances sharply at him, but he pretends not to notice. "Now if you will excuse us, we have work to finish. Contact me this evening to discuss the details."

Fo Shen smiles, clasps his hands together and rubs them with delight. "Excellent. I shall once again report to the Center of the Lotus that our arrangement continues to be a model of mutual beneficence." He bows slightly, then turns to leave. He pauses at the door and stares pointedly at the animal on the table. "You really should consider terminating these experiments and these animals you have altered. Ask yourself if the timestream needs another group of lunatic monkeys running around, and perhaps you will understand my feelings." The door whooshes closed.

Rhys chuckles and shakes his head. “Always the dramatic exit.” He turns back to the console.

Celeste grabs his arm and pulls him back around to face her. "Rhys, why did you agree before you knew what the hell was going on?" she asks angrily.

Rhys glares at Celeste, and calmly removes her hand from his arm. "Celeste, you know that we need the Lotus more than they need us. We've only scratched the surface of what they know. Once we learn everything they have to teach us, and strip out the superstitious trappings that come with it, we can discard them and start on the more important work here in this juncture. Until then, we do what they ask."

"You don’t actually think they trust us, do you? They'll set us up to take the blame for some scheme of theirs that goes bad."

"Of course they don’t trust us. It's a delicious game, don't you think?" His eyes seem to lose focus, seeing something far away, or far within. "I know that Gao must plan to betray us, and he certainly assumes that I know regardless of what that toady Fo Shen tells him.” Rhys’ fists are clenching and unclenching spasmodically. “And in the end, we will win. He will be blinded by his confidence in his own power, but he has no idea what the Memory Palace can do. He will not see the potential of the path we walk." A faint nimbus of energy crackles along his arms and disappears again. "They are trapped in rituals and preconceptions. They've never looked past the superstitions and the demons to see the order and beauty beneath, and the path to true power." Flecks of saliva accumulate at the corners of his mouth. "By the time the Lotus are ready to betray us, it will be too late to hold us back, and they shall regret moving against us." Rhys stops talking, but he still stares at nothing, his fists still clenched, his breath almost panting.

Celeste waves a hand in front of his face, then puts her hand gently on his shoulder and gives a little shake. "Hello? Rhys? Hello?” Rhys frowns, focuses on her. “I don't mean to interrupt this grand vision of yours, but we do have a lot of work to do if you want to make it happen. Let’s do something constructive today, shall we?”

Rhys nods. He wipes the spittle from his chin with the back of his hand, frowning as he does so.


Ancient China

Wonderful, intriguing things are afoot in the Palace this morning. What a good day to be alive! thought Oliver Chen. He walked briskly, but without unseemly haste, toward his personal study. It wasn't exactly a study, more of a safehouse or secret base kind of thing, but he liked to think of it as a study. It reminded him of the more civilized life he'd left behind in the modern juncture. But when the Pledged are called, they go, and he was no exception.

Harvest of Jade had been acting less morose than usual recently, and Gao Zhang was glued to his side at official functions. Today, Oliver thought he was beginning to understand why. His bureaucratic duties had finally brought him close enough to notice a very slight blue tinge to the Emperor's skin, and a distinctly unnatural gleam to his eyes. At first he'd wondered if Gao was using some new form of sorcery to gain more direct control of the Emperor, but Oliver's various charms hadn't indicated anything new going on in that arena. So that evening after he'd laboriously wormed his way to the observation point across from the Emperor's chambers, he saw the Emperor in his bed, looking disheveled and quite ill. Oliver saw only a few feeble motions during the hour that he observed. It was doubtful he'd been out of that bed in weeks.

Gao has replaced the Emperor with someone else, though Oliver. Or more likely, something else. His mind was elsewhere, but he wasn't so distracted that he failed to acknowledge those superior in the Palace hierarchy as he walked. He ignored those inferior to him, of course.

He reached the alcove and stepped into the shadows after a surreptitious check that no one was watching. His hands flowed smoothly across the stone, depressing the blocks in the memorized pattern, and the back wall swung open noiselessly. He quickly stepped inside and closed the door behind him, then flopped upon his chair and started to plan in earnest.

It wouldn't do to completely expose this scheme, whatever it is, he mused. If Gao is implicated, that could lead to more of a shift here than we really want. But a bit of tweaking ought to make the situation uncomfortable for Gao, and then we'll see what he does next. Oliver smiled and closed his eyes. He would need to do a little more research, but if Gao actually was using some kind of demon to replace the sick Emperor, well, there was fun to be had. Tempting a summoned demon into irrational behavior wasn't a difficult sport, but if one wanted to live through the process, well, that was another game entirely. One that Oliver thoroughly enjoyed.


Flashback

Subject Twelve lies on the exam table, curled in a fetal position. The pain still comes, but it is no longer as intense as it once was, and it leaves him entirely on some days. Today, his eyes are open and his ears are wide, soaking in knowledge and sensation. The two humans are speaking with each other again. He listens intently, and is surprised that they have finally learned to communicate.

"That last incantation was brilliant, Celeste. Where did you come up with that?" Rhys says.

"Nothing like a little anger to bring inspiration." Celeste smiles, belying her words. "Speaking of anger, will you finally tell me what it is that Fo Shen want from us? You two have been meeting far too often for this to be as simple as he claimed."

"It is simple, actually. He wants data from the Arcanotower project. Schedules, locations, the usual. Easy."

"What do you mean, easy? None of us have access to that."

"True, but Andrea is still sleeping with Kenji, is she not?" Rhys smiles. It's not a pleasant smile.


19th Century China

Quan Lo pondered the reports from Tu Shih. If they could be believed, then Gao had overstepped himself, and given them an opening they could use. Reports of the Emperor's strange behavior, of strange occurrences in the city, and even of strange lights and smells coming from the Emperor's quarters. Tu Shih concluded that Gao had been so audacious as to replace the Emperor with some kind of tool, but what sort of tool, he could not divine. Perhaps human, perhaps something more sinister.

Quan Lo decided, and acted. In his arrogance, Gao was certain to make a mistake soon, and this false Emperor would be exposed. Now was their opportunity to place the true Son of Heaven on the throne of his forefathers. He called for a messenger; Leung Mui must be told to begin work immediately.


Flashback

The pain is completely gone today. The humans are startled when I first speak with them, then make joyous noise and dance together. I wonder why they have not heard me before, for I have certainly spoken to them many times since I first began to understand their sounds.

They show me pictures of places I have never been and things I have never seen. I am eager for more. They teach me patiently. I learn quickly, but it is obvious that I have much to learn. My pace of learning increases tenfold after I learn to read, but that is still not fast enough for me. I come to know the humans called Rhys and Celeste, despite their odd names. They call me "Twelve" in their language, the significance of which escapes me for some time, then I am saddened when I learn about those who have gone before me but never reached this wondrous plateau.

I am fortunate that my mate is with me now. The humans do to her what they did to me, but the pain seems greater with her. I try to comfort her, to speak to her, but she cannot understand my new-found words. I pray that she too will soon reach this point where the entire world unfolds like a flower, rich with nectar.

The human they call Fo Shen is increasingly hostile to us both since the humans have become able to understand my speech. I silently suffer the blows he inflicts when he believes that Rhys and Celeste are not watching. The day that he kicks my mate, I cannot contain my anger and I lash out. I did not intend to cause such damage, nor do I exactly know how I did. Fo Shen moves some debris and rises unsteadily to his feet, a look of fear on his face and the smell of it strong around him. The other humans' eyes are wide, looking at me with an emotion I do not recognize. They put out the small fire and right the tables and chairs, then ask me to describe what I did. I see Fo Shen behind them, his smell of fear changing to hatred. He yells at the others about Jammers and Lotus and Gao Zhang, names I have heard him and Rhys and Celeste use before, then storms out of the room.

Surprisingly, Rhys and Celeste smile at each other, then turn back to me and continue to ask me questions. I answer as best I can, long into the night.


19th Century China

Leung Mui stood silently in the large cave, looking up at the tattered and stained banners. Tens, certainly, maybe a hundred. She had lost count. Every banner another petty bandit lord brought into the fold. Some had even learned to walk the path to enlightenment. Would that it really were a thousand, though. She did not have the force to do what Quan Lo now asked her to do. What seemed like so many just this morning was a mere handful now. The promise of help from home did little to ease her concern, there were too many pitfalls to be certain that any force of reasonable size could arrive in time.

The man given into her care by the Perfect Master shuffled slowly into the room. She was amazed that someone so ancient could still move, and then silently rebuked herself for thinking such thoughts about the rightful Emperor.

"Troubled, daughter?" he said in his gentle voice.

She bowed deeply to him. "No, honored elder. Only planning that which is to come."

"Ah, yes," he sighed. "The road will be difficult." He regarded her with piercing eyes that showed none of the age of his body. "But you will find a way, because you must."

She bowed again, but did not answer. The old man smiled at her, then shuffled back the way he had come. She remained standing in the cave for a long while afterwards.


Flashback

My mate and I are drowsing after a comfortable meal, Rhys and Celeste have long since departed this evening. My mate has the pain but still no comprehension, although I think I see a glimmer of understanding sometimes. Wishful thinking, perhaps.

The door glides open softly. A human is silhouetted in the light from the hallway. It is not unusual for one of them to be here this late, so I stir only slightly. My mate sleeps on. It is not until the creeping lack of sensation reaches my waist that I jerk awake and wonder what is happening. I cannot move my legs. I try to twist to see my mate as the numbness rises past my chest to my arms and neck. I can see and hear, but I cannot move.

The door slides shut as the human enters, cutting off the light but allowing his scent to reach me. I recognize the smell of hatred and fear commingled, and know that it is neither Celeste nor Rhys who comes this night, but Fo Shen. He has never been alone with us before. I think I would tremble, if I could move. Surely even a human could smell the fear from me now.

He speaks to me. He has never addressed me directly before. He tells me that I am a violation of nature, that I deserve to die. He stops his tirade and stares coldly at me. He tells me that first I will watch my mate die. Then he laughs, and laughs, and laughs.


Flashback

"Rhys, you need to be here. Now." Celeste's voice on the phone warbles slightly, but Rhys can understand her. The incantation she is using to disguise the conversation from prying ears needs more work.

"Why? Some new development with Twelve?" asks Rhys. He is still in his drab Buro standard apartment at this time of the morning.

"You could say that, I suppose. The lab is a wreck, even worse than the last time. There are scorch marks all over the place." Rhys hears the sounds of debris being moved and tossed aside. "Oh. I just found Subject Eleven." Pause. "She's not going to progress any further."

"Any idea what happened?"

"It looks like Subject Twelve went crazy. But—hang on a second." The line mutes. Rhys begins to pace across his apartment. It doesn't take long, and the trail is well-worn. The phone crackles when Celeste's voice resumes. "Rhys, you really need to get down here. Something doesn't feel right. If I were a suspicious woman, and I am, then I'd say that someone intended this to look like he blew his top again and ruined the lab this time."

"No sign of Twelve?"

"Other than this scrap heap that used to be his cage, no."

"That could be very bad for us, if he has gone rogue. We have no idea how long he has been able to understand our conversations, how much he has overheard. He could know a lot more about us and our special plans than I would care to have running around loose."

"I know. Get down here." The line goes dead.


Ancient China

I straighten my robes and adjust the medallion of state around my neck, then check for any bloodstains on my fingers. I am tempted to linger on thoughts of last night's amazing experiences, but this morning's audience with the merchants is vital to enhancing the flow of goods into and out of the city. These persistent murmurs of increased bandit activity must be squelched quickly.

The doors bang open suddenly, and Gao Zhang storms in, accompanied by several other of my servants, and a few large men carrying sacks. Bloody sacks. Mmmm. My thoughts unfocus for a moment, but only a moment. I regain my composure quickly. The men have closed the door behind them. And barred it, I see. My anger flares suddenly such that I cannot greet them as civil custom would ordinarily dictate.

"What is the meaning of this interruption! You dare to bring these unclean men into my private audience chamber! Gao Zhang, most favored of my servants, you presume too much!"

Zhang is often angry, and more often livid with fury, but I find him to be a useful tool. Today he appears to be having a seizure.

"Bah! Silence, you impudent wretch! You answer to me!" He strides forward and mounts the slight dais to confront me, and he places a hand upon the medallion of state. No one, not even my most trusted servant, can approach me thus. Now I would have to order him killed. A pity, but such things are necessary sometimes when one must rule for the benefit of all. I had just drawn a breath to shout for the guards when Zhang pushes me, quite forcefully. The chain snaps, leaving the medallion of state in his hands.

"Such behavior will not be tolerated! Guar—" My head rocks back with the impact of Zhang's hand.

"Explain to me this, and tell me why I should not destroy you utterly!" He rages, pointing toward the men holding the sacks. They dump the contents unceremoniously on the beautiful stonework. One contains a remnant of last night's excitement; a long droplet of saliva escapes my mouth, I cannot help myself. The other two contain something less definable, but I suspect I now know what happened to those small friends who accompanied me. Then my rage flares again at this new defilement of my chambers, the manhandling of my person, and the sheer rudeness of Zhang. I leap to my feet and push Zhang's hand aside.

"How dare you bring this into my presence! I cannot—" Zhang's next blow sends me sprawling across the dais and I roll, quite painfully, to the floor. There is blood on my lip. I wipe it on the back of my hand, then lick my hand. Mmmm. Then I bring myself back to the situation at hand, I cannot afford such lapses of judgement. But the blood trickles down my chin, and it sings to me, and—

Zhang's kick reminds me that I must attend to the immediate present before I can contemplate another evening of excitement. So be it. I grab his leg, allowing my hand to thicken and the fingers to lengthen. I flow to my feet, growing as I do so, and allow the thorns to sprout along my back, so he knows that I am serious. Zhang is now dangling from my hand, yelling incomprehensibly. I shake him, only a little, to get his attention.

"You have interrupted me for the last time, Gao Zhang." I allow my voice to become quite deep and imperial-sounding, but Zhang's followers flinch at the sound of it. "I have tolerated your excesses and your overzealous behavior for too long now. You are consuming valuable time that I should be spending with my advisors to prepare for this morning's audience." I grasp his other leg and prepare to rend him, when I realize that he is no longer yelling. He is laughing, and at an annoyingly high pitch as well. Curious, I drop him to the ground. He still laughs. One of the large men has drawn a sword, and approaches me from behind. I disembowel him with a casual swipe of my claws, then squat down to see what is happening with Zhang. Of course, I lick the blood from my hand while I observe.

Zhang's laughter subsides after a while. My hand is clean again. "You actually believe that you are the Emperor? How could I not have foreseen this?" He laughs again. Suddenly, his expression hardens. "Bind him!" he screams, and rolls aside. I glance at the others in the room. The big men have edged backward toward the door, but the others have joined hands in a small group near the dais. They chant in a language I should recognize, but do not. Apparently my other servants have misplaced loyalties as well, and will need some lessons of their own after I finish with Zhang. The tasks of the emperor are many and varied, I suppose.

I reach for Zhang, then topple as I realize that my feet are no longer feet. Somehow I have become rooted to the floor. "What have you done to me!" I bellow. "I shall teach you to behave with the full honor and respect due to me! Release me, now!"

Zhang has regained his feet and stands near the chanting men. He raises both arms above his head, then sweeps them toward me. A huge blast of fire erupts from the stonework around me.

"You cannot do this! I AM THE EMPEROR!" My scream rings off the chamber walls as the fires engulf me and I feel myself sliding back into Hell.


Flashback

Never have I experienced a world that so lacks sensation. The light is dim, sounds are muted, odors are almost non-existent. I howl in fury, for I have lost the trail of Fo Shen. I do not know how long I have been in this place, but hunger and thirst have begun to weigh on me. I wander on through the winding tunnels, straining for a sound or glimpse of my prey.

I avoid the other humans and stranger things I see, at least until I see one that reminds me of myself. It looks like it was once as I was, before the slab and the pain. Intrigued, I momentarily set aside my fruitless quest and instead follow this being. We emerge into a large cavern filled with lush vegetation and proceed to a broken-down structure of stone. The being enters, I wait. I watch. I see others of different shapes and sizes. I see some fly overhead to and from the structure.

Then the breeze shifts, and I smell food. Delicious food. Despite my better judgement, I creep toward the source of the odor. There are many beings like myself, only they seem to have metal coverings on large portions of their bodies. And humans, too, who look small next to them. All are eating. I cannot resist, and step forward. No one notices. I edge closer. One of them tosses me scraps. He is startled when I speak to him.


Ancient China

Gao Zhang had to stoop to enter the shop. The interior was dark, and smelled of a thousand commingled spices, and more sinister things that Zhang recognized as well. He blinked as his eyes adjusted, seeing a mature, dark-haired man sitting at the back of the shop. He was busily writing on a scroll.

"Welcome, Center of the Lotus." The man did not look up from his writing.

Zhang's eyes narrowed. He stifled a hot rebuke that came automatically to his lips, and kept his voice level. Too much was dependent on the outcome of this debate. The preliminary work had been done, but Kai Sheng would make no commitments except to Zhang himself.

"You presume much, Xin Kai Sheng. Perhaps too much."

Kai Sheng smiled, but continued writing and said nothing. For once, he had the leverage, and he intended to use it. He did not invite his guest to sit. Zhang's anger was famous, a bit of it now would also be to Kai Sheng's advantage.

"We worked very hard to find you, son of the Xin family. You do not seem to appreciate the fortune that smiles upon you today." Zhang paused dramatically. "I have the means to return your family to the throne of heaven."

Kai Sheng stopped his writing and turned a level stare up to Gao Zhang. "You found me because I allowed you to find me, Gao Zhang. I am aware of your feelings toward others with the knowledge, and chose not to share that fate. I suspect that your attitude may have changed recently, though."

Zhang smiled. The bargaining had begun.

It was very late that night when Zhang finally emerged from the shop. He face betrayed his fury, but he had what he needed. There would be time later to deal properly with this presumptuous dog.

The laughter inside the shop began soon after Zhang and his guards disappeared down the alley. It reverberated from the alley walls, driving frightened mice to hide in their deepest holes.


The Netherworld

Normally I do not pay much attention to the Jammers' plans for attacks and counterattacks. I believe that their philosophy is more than a little off center, but they welcomed me, and sheltered me, and took me in as one of their own without hesitation, so I try not to judge them. They have even helped me to control the special gift that Celeste and Rhys gave to me, to the point that I can now use it at will. The ability to sense, distort and disrupt the flow of chi amongst feng shui sites has been a boon to the Jammers' cause. I return their kindness to me by offering my talents whenever they can be of use, which usually entails a trip through a gate to cause damage somewhere, but I do not concern myself with the details. Even their strikes against ancient China are of little interest, since they are usually conducted against poorly-defended outlying sites. But when the Battlechimp talks of a revolution in China and an opportunity for a strike against Lo-yang, I take notice. I have learned much about the "Secret War," and about the Lotus and their time. I know that I have a chance of finding my long-sought prey in the capital city, or finding a trace of him that I can follow again.

I can see that the Battlechimp is curious that I take part in the planning sessions for this raid, but he does not violate my privacy. We plan, and refine, and plan again. This will be an audacious strike that is likely to fail, but the potential damage to the Lotus is enormous. We must time our activities so that the Imperial forces are engaged with the rebels.

I have not forgotten you, Fo Shen, nor the lesson that you taught me while you laughed.


The Future

The lab door slid open with a soft whoosh. Celeste strode in, a look of urgency on her face, but stopped short when she saw Fo Shen.

"Ah, Celeste, lovely as always. And what could be so remarkable as to spur you to such speed?" Fo Shen said with his usual smarminess.

I'm going to enjoy this, thought Celeste. She ignored Fo Shen and addressed Rhys. "There's some big news out of TacOps. Their agents have reliable information on a huge Jammer strike planned for ancient China."

Fo Shen perked up at that, but Rhys was unperturbed. "And what does that have to do with us?"

"It seems that an old friend of ours has resurfaced and taken a leading role."

"Really? The same old friend we thought we lost in that tragic lab accident?" Rhys stroked his chin and looked thoughtful, watching Fo Shen's face for a reaction.

"The very same." said Celeste.

Fo Shen glared at them both. "Fah! Enough word games! If you have specific knowledge, give it to me now. If you have rumors only, then please take yourself elsewhere while Rhys and I finish our business."

"Oh, I have specifics all right. I think you'll be very interested to see what the Jammers are going after." She handed Fo Shen a single sheet of paper covered in tiny official-looking print. Fo Shen read quickly, then gasped.

"The audacity! How dare they try such an attack!" His face flushed red with anger. "The Hall itself! Are they fools?" He continued to read. Suddenly all the color drained from his face, and his hand began to tremble. With a visible effort and a deep breath he calmed himself. "Forgive me for postponing our discussions, but as you can understand, I must relay this information at once." He rose and walked quickly out the door.

"I knew it!" exclaimed Celeste. "That bastard had something to do with it! Did you see the way he ran scared? He did something to Twelve, or tried to and screwed up. If he killed Eleven, then Twelve will never stop until he's dead."

"Celeste, I know you enjoy anything that might cause Fo Shen pain, but realize that there is a larger issue here. We must assume that Twelve knows entirely too much about us. And release of that information would be even more damaging now than when he first disappeared." Rhys began to pace across the laboratory. "We'll have to do something about him now that we know where he is. Or rather, where he is going to be."

Celeste stared at him with a stony expression. Then she spoke curtly: "My problem. I'll take care of it."


Ancient China

The three old men shuffled laboriously into the chamber. Their hands were bound, and strung together on a long lead. Their guards ordered them to halt, then turned them to face the chamber's occupant. Their hoods were removed with a quick yank. All three blinked and squinted in the bright sunlight streaming into the hall. A casual observer would have said that the men were triplets, so alike did they look. The agents had looked long and hard across China to find such a resemblance.

But Gao Zhang was not a casual observer. He approached the men without saying a word, studying them. He looked at them from all sides. The men glanced at each other in puzzlement, but no word was spoken. They had been warned by their captors that punishment would be swift and severe, and they had each had enough lessons on the journey to convince them to obey.

Their trepidation grew as the inspection dragged on. Who was this harsh-looking man dressed in court finery? Where had they been taken?

Finally, he spoke. "Thank you for your patience. You have been most kind to devote your time to this cause," said Zhang. He stepped back for one more look, then made a gesture toward the man on the right. He was untied and moved toward the center of the chamber. "Take them away and reward them appropriately." All but one of the guards led the other two old men out of the chamber. The remaining man looked around nervously, then jumped a little when he heard a thump and muffled cry from outside the chamber.

Zhang approached him and bowed low. "Yours will be the greatest of all honors. You will help to secure the rule of heaven for another generation. For that, you will be rewarded with more than what you deserve, —" Zhang nodded to the guard. The old man gasped softly as the guard's fist hit him in the back of the head with a solid thunk. He crumpled and dropped to the ground.

"— a swift death," finished Zhang.

Zhang gestured for the guard captain to step forward. "You have the traitor already prepared?"

"Yes, oh mighty Center of the Lotus. We are ready. The people are gathered outside the gates of the Forbidden City, and await the words of the Emperor."

"Good. Now take this to its proper place, revive him and have him prepared as well. The time for action has come." Zhang started to walk out of the hall, then paused and spoke over his shoulder. "Need I remind you of what happened to your predecessor, when he lost a body?" The guard paled, then bowed deeply and remained bowed. "I thought not," said Zhang as he continued on his way.


Ancient China

The Emperor was dressed in a fine yellow robe of state as he addressed the crowd. He was too high up for anyone to notice how woodenly he walked, or the look of terror in his eyes. He was flanked by two guards in full armor. Gao Zhang stood nearby as well; his eyes were closed and his lips were moving slightly.

The Emperor raised his arms and the crowd quieted. "My children!" his voice boomed over the gathering. "You have come to hear answers, and I shall give them to you." He lowered his arms and inserted each hand into the opposite voluminous sleeve.

"You have heard that I am not well, and that I will not be able to sit upon the throne much longer. This is not true! See me standing before you now, hale and hearty!" The crowd cheered vigorously. The Emperor waited patiently for them to quiet.

"You have heard that there is trouble in the countryside. This is true." Murmurs arose from the crowd, then died. "The misguided people who would rise against the rightful rule of heaven are even now marching toward this city under the banner of the Black Flag." The murmurs became much more pronounced this time, and the crowd shifted like a nervous animal.

"But do not fear, for we shall overcome these burdens, and return to the time of peace that we all cherish and love." The crowd cheered again, more vigorously than before. The Emperor removed his hands from his sleeves, and made a calming gesture. "However, my children, I am old. Too old to lead you in these momentous times." The crowd was silent, waiting. "I bring to you he who can lead you, a son of the Xin family, returned in our time of great need."

The Emperor gestured stiffly to one of the men behind him. He stepped forward and removed his helmet. He was a distinguished looking man of middle years, his black hair cropped short. A few people, planted by Gao Zhang, gave a cheer, but the majority of the crowd waited in silence.

"Now, we must—" Some people in the crowd shouted and pointed as they saw a man with a sword rise up on the wall above the balcony and launch himself down upon the Emperor. The Emperor fell heavily, the sword protruding through his abdomen. With a shouted "No!" Xin Kai Sheng pivoted and skewered the assassin. The crowd surged forward, straining to see what happened.

Xin dropped to his knees and raised the Emperor up. Blood trickled from his lips. The crowd fell silent. The Emperor strained to speak. Gao's magic made the sound carry but no one in the crowd thought to wonder why they could hear such a tortured whisper.

"My children, my time has come earlier than I expected." He coughed. Xin Kai Sheng held him steady. "The light passes from me to this brave man. He will lead you well..." The old man's head lolled to one side.

A great wailing rose from the crowd. Xin laid the body of the Emperor down gently, then bent over the body and pulled a black cloth from the dead assassin's belt. He stood and stepped forward. He waved the black cloth above his head and addressed the crowd.

"Hear me! The Emperor has been slain by the Black Flag!" The wailing quieted as he spoke, but some at the edges of the crowd started to move away from the gathering. "We must not tolerate this insult! We must prepare to fight!" There was some sporadic cheering again, no doubt led by the people that Zhang had paid to do so. Over the cheering, a faint buzzing sound could be heard. The buzzing grew louder, and the cheers died down. The man on the balcony shaded his eyes and looked toward the west. The crowd began to mill as everyone searched for the source of the sound.

Gao Zhang looked out with surprise as well, but could see nothing. "Xin!" he hissed. "What is it?"

Xin Kai Sheng shook his head and continued to search the sky. He held his spear at the ready, and signaled to the archers hidden along the palace rooftops. He had been prepared for the crowd to resist his ascension to the throne, but perhaps the archers would have a different use today.

The buzzing grew louder still until it was nearly deafening. Suddenly, a dark flying shape rose above the palace and streaked over the crowd, followed by another, and another. They had wings of shining metal and great gouts of flame sprouted from them as they flew. As they turned and flew back toward the palace, they showed the faces and arms of apes. The crowd started to scream and run.

"Gao! What are those things?"

"Demons, surely sent from the Black Flag to strike terror in the hearts of the people. You must destroy them!" Gao Zhang had not explained the Secret War to his new pet Emperor, and wasn't about to start now.

Xin Kai Sheng knew an opportunity when it flew past him. His voice, amplified by Gao Zhang's sorcery, rang out over the crowd. "Look there! The cowardly Black Flag sends demons against us now! Stand fast, and fight!" One of the flying monkeys swerved toward him, a large metal tube in its hands. The tube flashed and roared loudly. Large pieces of stonework disintegrated from the balcony but Xin didn't flinch.

"Demon!" his voice boomed again. "You threaten the mandate of heaven! Turn aside now, or I shall be forced to turn you against your former masters!" Kai Sheng stooped to pick up the medallion of state from the fallen Emperor, and brandished it toward the demon. The tube flashed again, and more stonework vanished. The crowd had largely stopped screaming, and was raptly watching this spectacle. The other two demons banked and started to circle the area.

Kai Sheng signaled to the archers. They stood, drew, and loosed at the great shape. Many of the long shafts struck home. The thing screamed in pain and flailed its arms, but its course was set straight for the balcony. Kai Sheng braced his short spear and waited for the impact. As it got closer, he realized that the thing was not quite as large as a man. He produced a blinding flash of light just as the beast struck him. He was knocked back against the pocked stone wall hard enough to make his vision go black for a few seconds. When he regained his wits, he saw his spear protruding through the beast's back. He quickly tugged it out, then loosed his incantation over the animal. The thing stirred and its head rose, but its eyes were lifeless to any close enough to see. Kai Sheng pointed his spear at the other demons still circling, and yelled "As I warned, so have I done! You cannot challenge the mandate of heaven! Now go, and do battle!" The beast roared, then turned and leapt into the air. The tube in its hands flashed again and again, this time aimed at its former comrades. One fell before it realized what was happening, then the remaining monsters clashed in mid-air and grappled. Their flames coughed and sputtered as they spun, bellowing and clawing at each other. One wingtip caught on the edge of a rooftop, sending the two demons spinning out of control. They fell behind the palace wall, then a huge fireball erupted from where they were last seen, followed by a loud CRUMP.

"You see!" yelled Kai Sheng. " We can defeat even these demons that the Black Flag sends against us! The mandate of heaven has truly passed back to the Xin family! " He gripped the black cloth in both hands above his head, then tore the cloth in two and let the pieces flutter past the edge of the balcony. The crowd cheered mightily, then surged forward. Xin Kai Sheng beamed at them proudly, his spear held in a classic warrior's pose. Gao Zhang emerged from the shadows to the balcony, took the medallion of state and placed it around Kai Sheng's neck. Then he dropped to his knees, bent at the waist, and prostrated himself. As one, the crowd also dropped.

"Very nicely done," whispered Zhang. "You will tell me how you perform that trick later."

Xin Kai Sheng ignored him, and addressed the crowd. "Rise!" he bellowed. "Let us take the battle to the Black Flag, and scour him from the earth!" The crowd roared deafeningly.

Now that was one of the strangest things I have ever seen, thought Oliver as he made his way back to his private study. He moved quickly and quietly, even though the sounds of battle were drowning out any noise he might make. It was even more important for him to get Harvest of Jade out of the palace now. Dead or alive, he would be useful later.

Zhang must have looked for a long time to find someone who looked so convincingly like the Emperor. And he actually did find a real agent to take the part of the rebel assassin in his show. I wonder if he knew? He heard gunfire ahead, altered his course to pass by a different hallway. There were more Jammers to deal with, but that new fellow was doing quite well.

I will have to find out how he does that trick, Oliver thought. He'd seen it several times now, and still had no idea what was going on. One minute Xin and his men were overwhelmed with monkeys and lunatics, the next those same monkeys were zooming around taking potshots at their own. Oliver was certain the flash of light and the waving of the medallion were just for the crowds. There was some serious sorcery involved here. It didn't appear that he needed the help of the demons that Gao had summoned, but he had a great cover story for having demons fighting on his side.

Oliver rounded a corner, then stopped cold. A monkey the size of a child was standing in the hallway, calmly ripping the spine from a demon writhing under his feet. He examined the spine without real interest, then tossed it aside. Oliver was silent, and started to edge back the way he had come, when the monkey turned and looked at him. The gaze was full of intelligence, and deep pain. The monkey sniffed once, cocked his head, and said, "You are not Fo Shen. Where is Fo Shen?"

"I don't know," said Oliver. He steeled himself for a fight, but the monkey just nodded, then padded off down the hall toward the sounds of fighting.

Oliver's heart was beating loudly in his ears. He stood in the hall for several minutes, the demon ichor congealing at his feet. Then he shook his head and moved toward his study once again. Definitely time to get out of here, he thought.


19th Century China

Shan Tsu limped into the pavilion, just after sunrise. The dust of a hard day and night's travel did little to disguise the blood and burn marks on his clothes. He bowed deeply to the Perfect Master, then waited to be addressed.

Quan Lo waved for him to sit, and indicated he should drink from the nearby basin. "You have the look of one who has a tale to tell. Speak, then you may rest."

Shan Tsu replaced the dipper in the basin, glad to have some water for his parched throat. His voice cracked in a few places from exhaustion, but he told the Perfect Master of finding the demons in the town near the Temple, of his fight with a demon with burning fists, and how the Lotus sorcerers had swept aside his men, leaving him for dead.

"So, the story of the planned attack was not just a rumor meant to mislead us. What of Fei Hong?" Quan Lo asked softly.

Shan Tsu bowed his head. "I do not know. After I awoke, I went to the Temple. There has been a terrible battle. Many brothers have fallen, but they extracted a high price for their blood. The grounds are fouled with the remains of demons, and I found evidence that those foul spawn of the Architects were also involved. I found no sign of Fei Hong or the Iron Monkey." He paused, gathering his will to tell the Perfect Master the news he had traveled so hard to deliver. Quan Lo waited patiently for him to continue. "The Temple is destroyed." Tsu bowed his head.

"And?" Quan Lo betrayed the strength of his reaction to the news by blurting the question.

"The gate is gone." Tsu's shoulders slumped. Nothing else he said this day would matter more than those words. With them went the plan to oust the eunuchs.

Quan Lo closed his eyes. "Leave me, and attend to your wounds. We will need your full strength soon. I must meditate upon this news."

Shan Tsu rose and bowed again, then limped out of the pavilion. He was amazed again at the size of the army that Quan Lo had mustered, then saddened to think of the waste now that the army had been denied its path. Leung Mui was already moving, there was no way to warn her before she reached Lo-yang. There would be no reinforcements to assure her victory.


Ancient China

Celeste found him in one of the outlying buildings of the Palace. The sounds of gunfire were distant here. His fur was burned in some patches, covered in demon ichor in others. She spoke softly. "Hello, Twelve."

He turned slowly and regarded her with pain-filled eyes. She had seen pain in his eyes before, had caused much of it herself during the process, but never anything like this. He cocked his head, but made no move to approach her. "Hello, Celeste. I would like to think this a chance meeting, but it is not, is it?"

"No." She loosed the incantation to seal the bubble around them, she could not chance an interruption if the battle swung this way. The sounds from outside dimmed.

Twelve looked casually at the shimmering interior of the bubble that filled the hallway, then back to Celeste. "They do not call me Twelve. Many things, but not that." He snorted, a mirthless sound inside the eerie quiet of the bubble. "Most recently, they call me ‘The Monkey Who Would Be King’ and say that I came here to take the Emperor's seat." He looked at her again, gauging her reaction. "I see you are not familiar with the reference. No matter." He squatted down on his haunches. "So, are you here to take me back, or kill me?"

Celeste was surprised by the question. Her eyebrows rose. She readied her next series of incantations. "Please believe me when I say I would not have chosen this path."

"Now that is a statement I understand well. I am tired, Celeste, so very tired." He started to rise, then recognized the creeping numbness in his legs. His eyes grew wide in sudden panic.

"NO!" he screamed. The ground shook. "Not like this! I will not be taken like this!" The ground shook again, much more forcefully. Celeste was knocked from her feet.

The numbness crept further up his body, his rage building along with it. As the numbness reached his chest, he let out a deafening howl. The whole world shook uncontrollably. Celeste collapsed the bubble around herself and hardened it as stone rained down from the ceiling. She could no longer see Twelve.

When the shaking at last subsided, Celeste used a small spell to shift fallen stone from the bubble, then dismissed the bubble with a gesture. She looked around at a huge swath of destruction in the Palace. After a moment, she realized that the sounds of gunfire had stopped, then she heard distant cheering.

A feeble movement caught her eye. She saw Twelve covered in dust, and pinned up to his chest beneath a massive stone slab. Blood trickled from his mouth. The arm she could see was bent at the wrong place. He spoke, but too softly for her to hear, then coughed up blood. She bent down. "I'm sorry," she said. Tears streamed down her cheeks.

"I do not care why, Celeste. The hunt is over for me," he said weakly. He waggled his fingers again, she took them gently in her hand, as she had held his hand during many long days. He drew in a ragged breath and coughed up more blood.

"Promise me one thing." He was straining. His eyes closed, he licked his lips. She smoothed the fur on his head. His eyes opened and locked her gaze. She saw the pain again, pain that transcended even this. "Kill Fo Shen." He coughed, wincing.

The tears came freely as she spoke. "I swear."

Still he held her gaze. Again he licked his lips, spat out more blood. He strained to get out one more word. He bared his teeth, then said in a strained whisper, "Slowly." His eyes rolled back and he lay still. Blood trickled from his nose, mingling with the drops of Celeste's tears.

John felt the earth move even at his vantage point. Hell of a time for a quake, he thought, but he suspected it wasn't coincidence. Too much happening downtown today. Through his field glasses he could see that a chunk of the palace had collapsed. He made some notes in his journal.

He hoped that Kar Fai was safely away with Jui Szu, on their way to her new temporary home. The action had been fast and furious there for a while, but the Lotus goons had gotten the worst of it when they tried to kidnap her. She won't recognize the old homestead when she gets back. He scanned the area around the fallen part of the palace, looking for signs of movement. With her help, maybe we'll be able to salvage something here in a few years. If those damned Taoists had agreed to help us, we might have been able to make a difference today. John understood better than most that everyone and every group had their own reasons, their own motivations, but it still rankled.

He saw a movement in the rubble, so he zoomed in. He saw a black woman stepping carefully over some fallen stonework, then she disappeared from view into a building that was still standing. Very unusual, he thought. He scratched more notes into his book.

Then he heard muted cheers, so he scanned again, and found what he had expected: Gao's new Emperor was in the center of a cheering throng. He stepped through a hole in the palace wall, his spear held high. The head of an ape was atop it.

John made a few last notes, then stuffed his belongings into his pack and started walking. He knew where the next bit of action had to take place, and he wasn't about to miss it.


Ancient China: Epilogue

Near dawn she surveyed the camp, and the remains of her force. Most of the men were wounded, many would have scars for life. They had fought well. Meeting the Imperial Guard she had been prepared for, but not for the man leading it. He had somehow turned her own forces against her. And then the demons came after sunset, ripping a new swath through the already depleted ranks.

The promised help from Quan Lo had never arrived. She didn't have enough men to prevail against this army, let alone the demons and this new leader.

She hung her head in resignation. No matter that this had been an impossible task to start, she had failed. The Black Flag was defeated and would gain no more converts. The only small success was that the true Son of Heaven was still safe, protected, away from the battlefield. Perhaps another opportunity to install him would arrive soon, but she recognized false hope for what it was.

As the first rays of the sun touched her, she could see in the distance the mass that was the Imperial camp, and beyond them the walls of Lo-yang. "So close," she whispered.

She signed to her lieutenants. They gave the orders to the men dispersed about the camp. As best as they could, they melted back into the countryside, by ones and twos, leaving the camp behind. Back to a life of banditry, most likely, but if only a few continued to walk the path of the Perfect Master, then perhaps she could count that as another small success.

At the edge of camp she removed the black cloth from her belt, stuck her spear into the ground and tied the cloth to it. The Black Flag was dead. Then she too disappeared into the countryside as the sounds of the waking Imperial forces echoed behind her.

© 2002 Stefan Vincent. All rights reserved. Permission granted to Z-Man Games, Inc. to reproduce and distribute this work in both print and electronic formats. For all other uses, please contact the author.