Stop. Breathe. Think.
Qi was a delicate, transient substance. The slightest of disturbances would dissipate it. If Fang Fang had left a pearl for him in this tunnel, the jiaolong’s passage would have destroyed it.
But there may be other tracks.
Sun Yao walked down the length of the storm drain again, this time scrutinizing every square inch of his surroundings. He peered at the walls, studying patterns of moss growth. He inspected the stalactites of sludge hanging from the ceilings. He studied the many leaking holes all around him. He surveyed the tons of dead beast-flesh sprawled across the sewer.
There was something… wrong about the jiaolong. Why hadn’t he detected it? Was it truly the noxious energy? Or had the beast been camouflaged?
The thought froze him in its tracks. Granted, the waste qi of the sewers was overwhelming, but he could still sense something as tiny and subtle as a qi pearl. How, then, had he missed the beast?
In the Academy he had learned of beasts which could render themselves undetectable. But a jiaolong usually wasn’t one of them. Not unless it was old and powerful, and if it were he wouldn’t have survived the encounter. But if someone had used a camouflage skill on it…
His prey were cultivators. They knew how to erase their tracks. They had snatched Fang Fang cleanly and quietly, and navigated the sewers with an ease that spoke of determined preparation. They were pros.
They couldn’t have missed her laying down pearls.
But they let her do it anyway.
Which meant they came here specifically to lure would-be pursuers into the jaws of the beast.
He swore. In hindsight it was blindingly obvious. He’d been too caught up in the chase to think about what the enemy would do to anyone trying to rescue her. He had to be more careful. Had to pay more attention.
If they were so professional, why would they count on a beast to take out a rescue party? Beasts had neither the discipline nor intelligence of men. The jiaolong could just as easily turn on the cultivators while they were passing through its territory, or it could wander away from the ambush site before the rescuers arrived.
It didn’t make sense.
He shook his head. He had wasted enough time. He had to keep moving.
The jiaolong’s passage would have destroyed tracks in the storm drain. This time, he turned his flashlight to the side tunnels, looking for something, anything, that would lead him to her. There would always be a sign. It was an ironclad rule of investigations: the criminal always left something behind; it was up to the investigator to probe the scene, to discover that one thing that could make or break the case…
Like this side tunnel.
The walls of the tunnel were caked in rich, moist gunk. On the left-hand wall, there were five long streaks carved into the soft sludge.
He ran to the body of the jiaolong and inspected the paws. They had four digits, not five, and the claws would have left uglier, broader tracks.
He smiled. Fang Fang must have caught on to what they were doing. Smart girl.
He sprinted down the tunnel. It led to a T-junction. And at elbow height, there was a tiny dark streak that led to the right.
He turned right.
More bends, more tunnels. Two openings down, he discovered another sign of her passage: a finger-sized line of sludge that followed the bend.
At the end of this new tunnel, there was a ladder.
He paused. There was one ambush early. Maybe there was another.
There was a door on the left-hand wall. Behind it, he sensed three qi sources. Humans sitting in a circle on the floor. Regular humans, not cultivators. Not the men he was looking for. He’d heard that homeless people lived in colonies in the sewers of the city; perhaps this was one such outpost.
Briefly he thought about questioning them. Then he discarded the thought. He had no time to waste, and people like this would be more likely to mind their own business than interfere with others’.
He swept his light back and forth, looking for tripwires, sensors, alarms, anything that the kidnappers might have left to inconvenience a rescuer. Satisfied he was safe, he clipped the flashlight to his pocket, put the sword away, and climbed the ladder.
The humans got up and rushed to the door.
Sun planted his boots against the handrail and slid down, spinning around just in time to see the door fly open. Light spilled from the room, silhouetting the men. He drew his flashlight in his left hand and lit up the newcomers.
“Do you have business with me?” Sun asked.
The three men hesitated, taken aback by his bold approach. They were dressed in dull overalls and sturdy cotton gloves. Sweet perfume and energetic dialogue floated out from the open door.
And they were hiding their right hands behind their backs.
“Who are you?” the man in the middle demanded.
“A passer-by,” Sun said, bringing his right palm up. “Please show me your hands.”
The other two fanned out, closing off the space behind them.
“Why are you here?” the leader asked. “No one’s supposed to be here.”
“I’m a Defender. Now show me your hands!” Sun boomed.
The leader advanced, bringing his left side forward. “You—”
Sun shone his light into the leader’s eyes. The man winced, backing off.
The left-hand threat grabbed Sun’s left arm.
Sun cammed his light, capturing the man’s arm. Spiraled into him and slammed his right palm into his temple. Pulled him down into an elbow strike, bouncing his head off the wall.
Grabbing his shoulder, Sun flung him at the other two thugs and moved to flank them. The leader pushed the first man away and turned to face Sun. A knife gleamed in his right hand.
The leader reached for Sun with his left hand. Sun parried the arm and smashed his right knuckles into his bicep. The blow spun the leader into Sun. Sun hacked his left forearm into the man’s neck. As the man staggered away, Sun clotheslined him in the throat, slamming the back of his head against the wall.
The last one screamed a war cry and charged, his knife held low. Sun spun around into a back kick and struck his knee.
His leg collapsed. He dropped, hitting the ground head-first, and went still.
Taking long, deep breaths, Sun looked over the bodies. They weren’t moving any more. Kneeling down, he checked their vital signs. They were all out cold. The one he’d struck in the throat was barely breathing. The other two weren’t much better.
He patted himself down, finding a shallow slice across his triceps. The second man must have nicked him. He slapped on a bandage and sent qi coursing into the wound to disinfect it.
He patted down the bodies, looking for weapons and tools, and gathered up their knives in his interspatial storage. Then he drew a bundle of zip-ties, tied their hands and ankles together in a jumbled mess they couldn’t hope to free themselves from, and rolled them on their sides to prevent asphyxiation.
Sun entered the room. Shelves lined the walls, packed with cardboard boxes. A cheap tablet rested on a flimsy work table. At the far wall, there were two televisions. One played a cheap gongfu movie, the other showed the feed from a camera. A camera pointing at a heavy plastic sheet.
Peeling away the sheet, he discovered a series of tiny holes bored into the wall. He shook his head. The sheet prevented light from escaping the holes. Without pressing his face up against the wall, he couldn’t have seen them.
Whoever the attackers were, they weren’t amateurs.
He pored over every square inch of the room, probing for trapdoors, hidden doors, passages. But he found nothing.
Labels hung from the shelves: gold, electronics, jewels. And, at the far end, he saw the words ‘beast parts’. Producing a utility knife, he opened a box of beast parts. It was filled with dried beast horns, packaged in shrink wrap and drowned in packing peanuts.
Who were these people? Were they connected to the cultivators?
So many questions, so little time. Fang Fang was still out there.
Climbing up the ladder, he hoisted the manhole cover aside and hauled himself up. He found himself in the middle of an empty street. Night had fallen, and the streetlights lit the world in amber.
He pulled the gas mask off his face and took a deep breath.
Put it back on.
He looked around. The pavement was narrow and cracked. Derelict buildings lined the roads, obscene graffiti painted and re-painted over the peeling facades. Qi glowed all around him. People and pets.
A pair of faces peered out from a nearby alley. He approached them.
“Hello! I’m a Defender. I’ve got a couple of—”
They ran off.
Tapping his utility band, he called Fu.
“Are you done yet?” Fu demanded.
“No. I slew a beast in the sewers. A jiaolong. And I had to defend myself against three thugs.”
Sun summarized his subterranean encounters as quickly as he could.
“I leave you out of sight and this happens…” Fu sighed. “Well, that’s one less beast to worry about. Where are you now?”
Sun illuminated the nearest street sign.
“Heping Avenue. I’m still looking for the victim.”
“Wei, we’re not paying you to look for your girlfriend.”
“The criminals are skilled cultivators who anticipated my every move. This isn’t an ordinary kidnap. There’s something else going on here. I’m continuing my pursuit.”
“Negative! Stay put.”
“She’s still out there—”
“Stay put,” Fu repeated. “You’ve got a dead beast and three downed suspects in the sewers. Your must preserve the scene for the police.”
“Do you have a visual on her? Any more clues?”
Sun reached for his spirit sense. Expanded it as far as he could. Probed every square inch he could sense.
“No,” he admitted.
“There you go. Preserve the scene.” Fu’s voice softened. “You have my sympathies, but the city takes priority over one woman. Once we can, we will look for her. But right now, you have your duty. Understood?”
Sun swore and paced the street. If he could just find something, anything, he could leave the scene.
But there were no more pearls, and no one else wanted to speak to him.
Police sirens howled. Returning to the manhole, he arrived as a group of police cars came rolling to a halt. He readied his badge as a powerful flashlight shone into his face.
“Police! Show me your ID!”
Sun raised his badge. “I’m a Defender!”
The light quickly lowered, revealing a fresh-faced cop. “Sorry, sir.”
“No worries. Are you my backup?”
A grizzled sergeant muscled past the cop.
“You the one who beat down the bad guys down the hole?” the sergeant asked.
“Yes,” Sun said.
“Come with us. We need your statement at the station.”
For more martial arts, magic and monsters, check out my novel Hammer of the Witches.