A Day in the Life
Six days. Eighty-three incidents. Twenty-two Defenders.
This city was insane. The second he received his issue gear and vehicle from the Defenders’ Guild, he hit the street running and never stopped. Day became night became day became night again. Sleep was the period of non-wakefulness between callouts.
At the border of the wildlands, this city was one of the most dangerous places for a Defender. Beast attacks were commonplace. Many Defenders were never assigned here. Those who did didn’t always survive their tour. It was almost unheard of for rookies to be deployed here.
But Sun had insisted. And he worked triply hard in the Academy to prove he was worthy.
After all, she was here.
And so, for his efforts, he had the honor of handling the eighty-fourth incident.
The massive serpent wound sinuously across the river’s surface, cutting swiftly through the water. Its nine heads fanned out in every direction, seeking prey. Oily streaks and shattered planks floated in its wake, the remains of boats too slow or too unfortunate to get out of its way.
Circulating qi through his body, he supercharged his limbs and pounded the pavement. Sirens howled all around him. Shutters slammed shut over windows and doors. Civilians ran in every direction. Some pounded uselessly on the barricades. Others curled up and pretended to be dead. Still more ran about like headless chickens, fleeing the beast.
“Defenders! Make way!” Sun shouted.
His infinity gun held high across his chest, he followed the beast’s trail. It was fast, but so was he. Utilizing the art of qinggong, he was as light as a feather, his limbs the match of a purebred stallion.
The gigantic beast was headed upriver, racing for the Bund. Great white domes loomed in the distance, protecting the city’s heart. There was no risk a single xiangliu would breach the barriers, but that was cold comfort to everyone caught outside.
Out the corner of his eye, Sun saw Fu sprinting up alongside him.
“Hey!” Sun yelled. “Will the police help us?”
“They won’t!” Fu replied. “They’re not trained for this! We have to slay the beast ourselves!”
“How? It’s huge!”
The xiangliu reared its heads. Its enormous torso rose above the two- and three-story shophouses that lined the waterfront. Hissing, the serpent struck. Heads battered against shutters, smashed furniture, gobbled down unlucky humans.
“Shoot it until it dies!” Fu advised.
The xiangliu weaved back and forth across the green river, never staying still, its heads dancing in every direction. And right in front of the xiangliu were even more shophouses.
Shooting was easy. Not hitting a civilian was beyond him.
“I don’t have a clear shot!” he yelled.
As his words left his mouth, the xiangliu swerved around a river bend, leaving his line of sight.
“Keep up with me, rookie!” Fu ordered.
Qi emanated from the senior Defender. Subtle energies warped the world around him. He blurred.
And reappeared down the street.
“What the devil…?”
Fu blurred again. Now he saw Fu, a swiftly-moving shadow cutting through the air. Fu rematerialized at the bend.
Sun’s smartglasses transmitted Fu’s voice into his skull.
“Over here, Sun Yao!”
“I don’t have that technique!” Sun replied, still sprinting.
“If you don’t keep up, I’m claiming the bounty!”
Sun didn’t waste his breath replying. He just kept running.
Higher-level Defenders had access to a staggering array of skills. With proper cultivation, they could develop their powers however they liked, suiting their unique personalities and preferences. Sun, fresh from the Academy, only had foundational skills. He couldn’t hope to keep up with Fu. He didn’t even know what Fu had done.
Rounding the bend, he caught sight of the xiangliu again. A barrage of bolts slammed into its back. The creature howled, all nine heads searching for the source of the gunfire.
“Rookie, shoot the water around it! Force it out on land!” Fu ordered.
Taking careful aim, Sun set his weapon to full auto and triggered a long burst. Geysers erupted around the creature. It writhed in agony. Coiling up, it leapt out of the river, slamming heavily on the pavement.
Muzzle flashes winked from the roof of a shophouse. More bolts lashed the creature’s back. Squinting, Sun saw Fu perched on the roof of the building.
Four snake heads turned to glare at Fu. The other five twisted around to face Sun. Forked tongues darted in and out, tasting the air. No shot. A xianglu was armored all over—except its underside.
“Cover me!” Sun shouted.
He charged the beast. The nine-headed snake hissed. Fu blasted away at it, but the beast didn’t seem to care. Sun had the complete attention if the five heads eyeing him.
Sun dropped to a knee. Aimed up. Now, even if he missed, the bolt would soar harmlessly into the sky. He locked on the nearest head and pressed the trigger.
Star-bright bolts blew through its neck. The head splashed into the river. Screeching, four heads plunged down on him.
Sun rocketed off the ground, pushing off with all his qi-augmented might. The heads crashed into the pavement, smashing the weathered stone. Shrapnel struck Sun’s combat suit, bouncing off his chest plate. A head curved up, staring at him.
He shot its eyes.
The xiulong hissed, rearing up in pain—and exposing its soft belly.
Sun dropped to the prone. Planted his crosshair on the soft white flesh. And held down the trigger.
Red steam. Gray dust. The snake convulsed and screeched and went limp. As its heads came crashing down, Sun rolled to his feet and sprang away.
The heads slammed into the ground with a bone-shaking BOOM. Sun counted four… well, three and a half intact heads. Somewhere in the chaos, Fu had blown off the other heads.
The air parted next to him. Fu popped out into the real world.
“Good job, rookie.”
Sun wiped the sweat off his brow. “Thanks. What technique did you use to move around so fast?”
“Spatial manipulation, fifth degree.”
Fifth? Fu must have been a cultivator for a decade.
“Must be nice to have a specialization,” Sun said.
“You don’t have one? Oh, of course you don’t have one. This isn’t even your first week on the job.”
“Yeah. I only have the basic Three Dantian Empowerment.”
They inspected the corpse, prodding the cooling flesh and examining the wounds. No heart, no breath, most definitively dead. Sun stepped aside and worked his glasses.
“Dispatch, this is Defender Sun Yao. Our target has been eliminated. Requesting coroner team at…” he looked around. “Spark House.”
“Roger. Coroner team is on the way,” Dispatch replied.
“Ask if there are any more jobs!” Fu shouted.
“Do you have anything else for us?” Sun added.
“Negative. Board is clear.”
Sun heaved a sigh of relief. “Thanks.” He hung up and added, “Defender Fu, there’s nothing for us now.”
“Enjoy the calm while it lasts,” Fu said.
The sirens went silent. The shutters began to rise. Civilians crawled out of their hiding places. They whipped out their phones and glasses, taking snapshots of the body and whispering among themselves.
“Is anybody injured? Does anyone need medical attention?” Fu yelled.
No one responded. They were too busy taking photos and videos.
The police popped up out of the holes they had hidden in and circulated the area. As Sun moved to join them, Fu laid a hand on his shoulder.
“Let them do their jobs,” Fu said. “We’ll guard the body.”
“Guard the body? There’s plenty of wounded around here.”
“If the police need us, they’ll call us. Until then, conserve your qi. The day isn’t over yet.”
Cultivator he may be, but he didn’t have unlimited stores of qi. Sun retrieved a bottle of energy tonic from interspatial storage and gulped it down. Fresh blood and qi pumped through his body. His skin flushed, his face warmed, his dantian recharged.
“Why do we need to guard the body anyway?” Sun asked.
“Scavengers,” Fu said. “Leave a dead monster alone and they’ll pick the beast apart like vultures. They’ll take the skin, meat, bones and organs and sell them on the black market. Black doctors would buy them, grind them up, mix them with all kinds of rubbish, and sell them as ‘elixirs’.”
Sun sighed. A Defender’s bounty was calculated by the weight and quality of flesh, bone and organs harvested from slain beasts. Scavengers were thieves. And there was no telling what poisons went into black market elixirs.
“Every day we descend deeper into the Realm of Beasts,” Sun said.
“I try to be.”
Fu shrugged. “So long as it keeps you sane.”
“Yes, this place is insane. I’ve never seen so many beasts in one place in my life.”
“It’s the seventh month. The gates of Hell are open, ghosts walk the land, and the beasts of the world follow them.”
“I thought it was a rumor.”
“It’s reality for us.”
“Why isn’t the City Barrier online?”
“If we kept it raised all the time, we’d starve. Planes, ships and trucks won’t be able to enter the city. It’s only ever raised during an emergency. For individual beasts like this, there’s the local Barriers.”
“Which sucks for the seventy percent of the population who can’t afford one.”
“On the bright side, we’ll always have a job.”
A dozen men in white hazmat suits approached the Defenders. Their leader waved.
“Defender Fu!” he called.
“Mr Shen. Took you look enough.”
Shen shrugged apologetically. “You know how busy it gets during the Ghost Month.”
The coroner team laid out series of gigantic plastic sheets on the pavement. Sun stepped out of their way. They must be planning to wrap up the corpse in plastic. But… how were they planning to move it?
“How do you handle massive corpses like that?” Sun asked.
“We’ve got a transporter just around the corner,” Shen replied.
Qi surged around Sun. The coroner team glowed. Six men grabbed a head each. Five more latched on to the body. Together, they hauled it across the pavement. Shen shouted instructions, guiding his men along.
“You want to take a break?” Fu asked.
“I can?” Sun asked.
“This job’s a marathon, not a sprint. You need downtime whenever you can take it. Besides, didn’t you promise to see your girlfriend?”
“She’s not my girlfriend.”
Fu laughed. “Go on, get going. If we need you, we’ll call you.”
The car was still where he’d parked it. Nobody messed with any vehicle that bore the red-and-blue stripes of the Defenders’ Guild. Nobody sane, anyway.
Inside the relative privacy of his vehicle, Sun called Liu. She picked up after the first ring.
“It’s me,” he said.
“‘It’s me’?” she echoed. “But I’m me. Who are you?”
She giggled. “You don’t call, you don’t write, you don’t visit…”
“I’m calling you now. Are you busy?”
“My shift ends in fifteen minutes. What’s up?”
“I’ve got some free time. Want to have dinner?”
“Sure! Where do you want to go?”
“I’m still trying to find my way around this city. Any recommendations?”
“We could have dinner at my place.”
“Great. Where is it?”
“Seventy-seven Hanzhou Street. Unit five-eighteen. Could you be there in an hour?”
“Sure. See you then.”
In the relative privacy of his car, he changed into the only set of civilian clothing he owned, a plain white shirt and gray slacks. He applied fresh bandages on his cuts—he’d picked up a dozen over the past six days—and washed up in a public toilet before heading to Liu’s home.
The apartment blocks of Hanzhou Street loomed over him. Fifteen, twenty, thirty stories tall, so tall he had to crane his neck just to see the top. He’d spent most of his life living in a cramped single-story home in Hongcun and a succession of tents and dorms after joining the Defenders; he still didn’t know how people could live so high in the air.
He made his way to her door. A little early, but he supposed she wouldn’t mind. He rang the doorbell.
He knocked on the door.
He called her. The phone rang and rang and rang. Then:
“The number you have dialed is currently not available. Please try again later.”
He activated his spirit sense. No one was in.
Odd. If she were running late, she would have called him. She wouldn’t flake out on him like that.
He tested the doorknob. It turned.
She wouldn’t leave the door unlocked.
Something was wrong.
For more stories that blend magic, swords, guns and martial arts, check out my latest novel Hammer of the Witches.