Hot on Her Trail
He needed a full-body protective suit, complete with self-contained breathing apparatus. He made do with his suit, helmet, and a gas mask.
Drawing a crowbar from interspatial storage, he lifted the manhole cover and set it aside. Sucking in a deep breath, he inhaled only the heavy odor of stiff rubber.
He returned the crowbar to his storage and prepared to descend…
The sirens were still screaming. The Defenders were still out there. And the last thing he needed was to be declared absent without official leave. Bringing his utility band to his face, he called Fu Da Hai.
“What the devil are you doing? Where are you?” Fu shouted.
“The missing person I told you about has been kidnapped.”
“Leave it to the police!”
“She’s a Barrier Technician, and she was kidnapped by two cultivators with the ability to erase their presence. That makes it our business.”
Fu pondered his words for a moment.
“How do you know she’s been kidnapped?”
“She’s left a trail for me to follow. Including a qi pearl that showed me what happened to her.”
Fu grunted. “Where is she?”
“The sewers? It’s a no-go zone. Beasts infiltrate the city through the sewers. We do not enter the sewers during the Ghost Month.”
“We can’t let the kidnappers get away.”
“You could run into high-level beasts down there. Nobody will save you.”
“I’m not asking for permission. I’m going in.”
“You…” Fu sighed. “I can’t spare any backup. You’ll be on your own.”
“Keep me updated.”
Sun grabbed the ladder and gingerly climbed down. It was hot. Dark. Sweat built up under his mask. Water gushed nearby.
He drew his flashlight, holding it in his left hand and clicked it on. Now he saw that he was standing on a narrow concrete platform. Dirty brown fluid gushed through an outfall by his side. Up ahead, a tunnel lead to who knew where.
A warning flashed across the eyepiece of his gas mask. High concentration of methane. A shot could ignite the gas.
He drew his jian and ventured into the darkness. He held his flashlight high above his head, angling it down and ahead of him. With the gas mask in play, he couldn’t hear much and smelled nothing.
He fired up his spirit sense.
There was so much noxious energy here, his effective range was reduced to barely fifty meters. Even so, dozens, hundreds of tiny creatures scampered about at the edge of his detection field. Rats and cockroaches and maggots and worms.
And a glowing pearl.
He found the pearl at a T-junction. Touching it, the pearl unfolded into an arrow pointing left.
Deeper and deeper he went, following the pearls. No more compressed memories, only arrows pointing the way ahead. She couldn’t afford to get caught.
He checked every corner he encountered, sword at the ready. Every few minutes, he paused and peeked over his shoulder. All he saw was the occasional rat. He kept his ears pricked, but he only heard his own heavy breathing.
His throat grew dry, but his suit’s hydration bladder was empty and he didn’t dare open his water canteen. Stupid, he should have refilled the bladder when he had a chance. He licked his lips, kept his now-warm flashlight, and followed her trail.
The string of pearls led him from narrow claustrophobic tubes to maintenance catwalks to sludge-caked channels. With so much filth and waste qi in the air, the enemy’s energy trail would be smothered. What little of it they hadn’t cleaned up. All he had to go on was her pearls.
There was no backtracking, no circling around. Whoever the perpetrators were, they were either intimately familiar with the underground or had planned and prepared for this job for a long time. They weren’t average criminals. They must have wanted something from Fang Fang.
Whatever it was, he would make sure they wouldn’t—
In his spirit sense, he saw the sewer’s inhabitants scatter.
He gripped his sword tightly. Prey always knew when predators were nearby.
He found the next pearl. Small and dim, it turned into an arrow pointing down a tunnel. The sound of rushing water filtered through his mask.
Past the tunnel, he found a storm drain. Another pearl, tinier than the first, guided him to his left. The tunnel was massive, easily large enough to fit a train and then some. Filthy water spewed from a multitude of cracks in the walls and ceiling. Sewage overflowed the central channel. There was no way to stay dry.
Sighing, he cautiously stepped into the sewage. His boot touched something soft and slippery. The wastewater came up to his ankles. He winced and forced himself to keep going. At least his boots were waterproof.
Gingerly maneuvering around the leaks, he kept going forward, looking for a sign of her passage. Smaller tunnels branched off to his left and right, but there were no pearls pointing that way. The walls were uniformly dirty, with no sign of recent passage. He kept going, sweeping the waters ahead, consulting his spirit sense.
Nothing. No signs of life anywhere. It didn’t feel right. It felt as if…
At the edge of his flashlight’s throw, ripples spread through the water.
He squinted. Angled the light down the tunnel.
Something heavy sloshed through the wastewater. Something huge.
He checked his spirit sense. Nothing.
Nothing? Or was the creature simply indistinguishable from the foul qi of the sewers?
As he framed that thought, an enormous serpentine bulk slithered into view. Muck sluiced off and around it, revealing a mass of dull white scales. Its sinuous body coiled round and round, clinging to the walls and ceiling and floor. The creature had the girth of a stout oak tree. Thickly-muscled legs ran down the length of its body, ending in ham-sized paws digging into the eroded brick. The beast’s head curled down from the ceiling, staring at him with amber reptilian eyes. It opened its long, thin jaws, revealing long rows of stained yellow teeth, and loosed a deafening bellow.
It was a jiaolong.
And it pounced.
Sun stepped aside, barely dodging its enormous jaws, and slashed. His blade slid off the pale scales. The beast roared. Out the corner of his eye, a dark mass fell on him. He turned into it, weapon ready. A heavy paw slammed into his steel. His boot slipped. He swiftly compensated, dropping into low and wide stance.
The jiaolong raised its paw for another blow. Leaping away, he slashed. The jiaolong’s scales turned his jian aside.
The creature undulated. It was turning around, trying to cut him off and crush him. He jumped into clear space. And ran.
The giant snake bellowed again, chasing him.
The textbook response was gun, grenade, or mine. He had all three in storage, but there was still too much methane. All he could use was his jian.
It would have to do.
The jiaolong had twisted round and round the tunnel, sticking to the walls. If he evaded its jaws and tried to strike it from the rear, he would expose himself to its claws—or it could simply fall and crush him under its mass. It was large, but not so large it wouldn’t fit in the side tunnels.
He had to make a stand.
The jiaolong pounced again. Sun jumped aside. Sewage splashed all over his suit. Grimacing, he wiped his eyepiece and ran. The beast chased him, winding round and round the tunnel, its claws scraping against stone and sludge.
And the end of the storm drain loomed dead ahead.
He faced the creature. Raised his flashlight to his temple. Held his jian low. Sent a wave of qi surging through his body and into his sword.
The creature stalked towards him, winding round and round and round, closing in for the kill. It took his time, its tongue darting in and out, its head swaying from side to side.
The jiaolong slinked closer, making its final approach, judging the distance between them.
He lit up its eyes.
The beast hissed once more, rearing its head back.
Keeping the light exactly where it was, he stepped to his right.
The jiaolong lunged for the light.
The jian pierced the beast’s eye, penetrated bone, and sank deep into its brain.
The beast spasmed, its limbs flailing in every direction, its body twitching. It crashed into the sewage, spattering sludge all over Sun. Shuddering, he withdrew his sword and stabbed it in the other eye.
The creature went still. It was most definitely dead.
He gingerly stepped over the beast and checked his utility band. He had no reception here. He’d have to call it in once he was on the surface.
He headed back down the storm drain, retracing his footsteps. Calming down with deep, regular breaths, he turned to his spirit sense again, seeking out signs of life.
He trudged through the sewage, heading to the far end of the tunnel. He sensed the rats returning, saw mold growing on the walls, edged around the leaking walls as best as he could. But, at the far end of the storm drain, he didn’t sense a pearl.
Fang Fang was gone.
If you enjoy martial arts, magic and monsters, check out my latest novel HAMMER OF THE WITCHES.