“You can’t be serious,” Sun said.
“It’s official policy,” the bureaucrat said. “If a Defender uses force against a regular human, the Defender is suspended from active duty and placed on no-pay leave until the Oversight Committee clears him.”
“Ms Song, it’s the Ghost Month,” Fu insisted. “You know how busy it gets. I need every man available—”
“The guidelines are clear. Not even the gods can break the rules.”
The conference room grew cold and close and quiet. The three people seated around the table studied each other, waiting for a move.
Song was right, Sun knew. Nobody cared what happened to beasts. But if the Defenders were completely unaccountable to the people, the consequences would be unthinkable.
“For what it’s worth, I’m confident the investigation won’t take too long,” Song said. “Mr Sun has been completely cooperative and the circumstances are clear-cut. He will return to full duties soon.”
“How long will that be?” Sun asked.
“Four weeks,” Song said.
“Four weeks? We may not even have a city by then!” Fu said.
She shrugged haplessly. “It’s policy.”
Fu and Sun left the room in silence. They continued walking in silence until they stepped out the front door of the Defenders’ Guild. As the first rays of the morning sun warmed Sun’s skin, he strained his ears and listened for sirens.
All quiet. For now.
“What happens now?” Sun asked.
“You’ll get the bounty for the jiaolong,” Fu replied. “As for the criminals… you sent all of them into a coma. The public needs to be assured that you did the right thing.”
“I didn’t even use qi skills.”
“It doesn’t matter. Protocols must be observed.”
“I’m off the street, then?”
“Yes. And we can’t help you with your girlfriend. I’m sorry. But we’ve got nothing to work with.”
“She’s not my girlfriend.”
“Whatever. It’s the Ghost Month, and everybody—the police and us—busy. We get tens of missing people a week during the Ghost Month. Both the Defenders and the police will be too busy to investigate cases. And most of the missing will turn up in a beast’s belly sooner or later.”
“I can’t do anything, then?”
“Not as a Defender. Not until you are cleared for duty.” Fu paused. “However, the Defenders would not necessarily refuse to act if they receive an anonymous tip about the whereabouts of a girl who may have been kidnapped by rogue cultivators.”
Sun pursed his lips. “I suppose I’ll have to make the most of my present circumstances.”
From the Defenders’ Guild it was a short stroll to the police headquarters. Inside, Sun flashed his badge at the first policeman he saw, then asked for and received directions to the Secret Societies Wing. A few more questions pointed him to the office of Detective Luo Wang.
The detective himself was inside, frowning at a screen and mashing away at his keyboard. He looked up as Sun entered.
“Defender Sun,” Luo said. “Do you have anything to add?”
“No, but I have a few questions.”
Luo wrinkled his nose in disgust. The first time they’d met was in the interview room on the first floor, where Luo had endured the self-imposed trial of questioning Sun.
“Hey, I took a second shower earlier,” Sun said.
Not to mention an intense qi healing meditation session to flush out the surviving germs.
Luo snorted. “Are you here to ask about the men you put down?”
“Yes. Who were they?”
“That information is part of an ongoing investigation. I can’t help you.”
“Do you still remember I was running my own investigation? Those men are part of it now.”
Luo leaned back into his chair and crossed his arms. “Really.”
“You sound skeptical.”
“I don’t doubt your story, but I don’t see the connection.”
“Did you really think I randomly ran into three criminals in the sewer? What were they doing there anyway? It looked like they were guarding a storeroom of illegal goods.”
“If you hadn’t hospitalized them, we might have answers.”
“They were armed.”
“Regardless, there is nothing on them that connects them to the alleged kidnapping.”
“We only have your testimony that there were qi pearls.”
“Only because by the time your cultivators showed up, the pearls had dissipated.”
“Bad luck. And you still haven’t explained the connection between your criminals and mine.”
“If you told me who they were I might have answers for you.”
“Look at it from my perspective, Defender. All I have to go on is that you claim that the kidnapped woman—Ms Liu—left a trail for you to follow in the sewer, that this trail included a single finger-sized groove in the wall, that this groove pointed to a tunnel in which those three men were allegedly guarding. I can’t build a case on that.”
“Explain the camera and the guards, then.”
“Secret societies always keep an eye their contraband. We know they have hidden caches in the sewers. You simply stumbled upon one of them.”
“Why did they challenge me then? I wasn’t interested in their cache. I was climbing up the ladder when they decided to pick a fight with me. If they’d let me go, I wouldn’t have bothered them. I think someone ordered them to stop anybody who passed that way. And I need to know who that someone is.”
“You’re asking me to divulge information about an active investigation to someone outside the police.”
“I’m a Defender.”
“Currently suspended. And you asking for information about the men you fought with. The Oversight Committee isn’t going to look kindly on it.”
“I’m not interested in your investigation. I just need a couple of facts and I’ll be on my way.”
“If word gets out that I leaked confidential information to someone with a vested interest in my case—”
“Nobody here but us.”
“And the detectives who saw you coming in.”
Sun sighed. “Detective, what exactly is your issue with me?”
“What are you going to do with the information?”
“Under normal circumstances the police handles secret societies. Defenders step in only when cultivators are involved. Yes?”
“Yes,” Luo said guardedly. “And?”
“Suppose someone discovered that a secret society was complicit in kidnapping Barrier Technicians. If so, it would be a matter of national security. The Defenders would be obliged to help the police crush the secret society responsible for such an act. If the Defenders were allowed to unleash their full power, the secret society would be destroyed overnight. I’m sure that’s an outcome you can live with.”
Luo frowned mightily. “I can’t give you any information that affects my investigation into your case.”
“I don’t want it either. Just tell me: who did the criminals work for?”
Luo pondered the question for a moment.
For more magic, monsters and martial arts, check out my new novel Hammer of the Witches.