As Lee left the inn, he heard a low metal growl. The steam engine was warmed up and ready to go. There was only one undertype steam wagon in the inn’s parking lot, and Tung was leaning against the cab waiting for him.
She slid off the metal. She stared at him, then beyond him. She clenched her fists. Her chi spiked, red and hot.
“Lee! What the hell—”
“Explain to us why you were going to abandon our client.”
“I told you! He was smuggling shengching! That’s—”
“Shengching, yes. But they were Western magical textbooks, not religious scripts. You were mistaken or lying to me. Which is which?” Lee demanded.
“It doesn’t matter! Western magic destroyed our country!”
“The Yemai are coming!” Cheung replied. “I’m teaching people to defend against our future enemies! What difference does it make if magic is Hsia or Western?”
Her chi settled. “Every difference. We are Hsia, not Westerners. Our magic makes us who we are.”
“Is there anything we can say to convince you?” Lee asked, resting his hands on his hips.
The air grew cold around her. A slight breeze rustled, growing in strength. Motes of blue-white chi gathered around her, sinking through her skin. “Show me your Western magic is better than mine.”
Lee sighed. “Fine.”
His right hand closed around the butt of his revolver and he drew the Webster and he shot her in the head.
The echoes of the gunshot hung in the air. The elder men gaped. Lee lowered his weapon.
“Ayan, drive,” Lee ordered. “Get us to the next town!”
“What the hell—” Cheung started.
“Ayan, move it! Cheung—”
“Shit,” he whispered in Anglian.
Four men boiled through the front gate, illuminated by the lanterns. They were dressed in dark green brigandines, carrying Blaser rifles. Lee pointed his pistol at the closest one and fired. That one spun around, dropping. The rest hit the dirt.
“The boiler’s still cold!” Ayan whispered from inside the cab. “We can’t move!”
“Get out of here!”
Lee sprinted, straight-arming his Webster and firing four rapid shots into the dark. A Guardsman yelled an order, and the others returned fire. He slid down, dropping behind the engine of a steam car. As bullets whizzed around him, he reloaded, holstered the revolver and—
Screaming. Lots of screaming. He poked his head up. The lanterns were gone. The front wall was consumed in flame. A human pyre—the man he’d shot—clawed at the heavens and screamed. Ammunition cooked off in rapid pop-pop-pops. A line of fire sealed off the front gate, and with it reinforcements. Glancing to his right, he saw a thin man standing tall next to the wagon, tracing arcane geometries with both hands.
Squinting against the light, Lee shouldered his Volition and fired at the nearest kneeling Guardsman. No effect. Lee cranked the lever and shot him in the face. Another Guardsman popped off a shot at him. The bullet whined off the bonnet of the car, and Lee flinched down. The Guard fired again. Lee fell to his side, aiming under the bonnet at a pair of running legs. Lee fired once, twice, and the Guard fell with a groan. A burst of stray chi flashed harmlessly to the sky. Lee worked the lever and saw the man ignite.
Lee got up. Scanned for more threats. There were only the two screaming men, flopping across the ground in a vain attempt to extinguish the flames. Cheung gesticulated wildly, keeping the fire going. Lee shot the first man, then the second. They went still. Then he opened his rifle cartridge pouch with a shaky hand, forced himself to feed a bullet into his Volition, and another, and another and—
An olive-painted steam wagon drove through the wall of flame.
Lee released the rifle, letting it swing free. Standing, he took a deep breath and drew in all the free chi he could find: the chi in the air, the chi Tung was building up, the chi released by the recent dead. It gathered in his tantien and flowed out to his fingertips, forming an electric white ball.
The wagon driver leaned out, aiming a pistol. Too little, too late, and Cheung set fire to his arm anyway. Lee breathed out, pushing the ball with hand and mind and chi. The ball expanded, becoming a beam of brilliant white light engulfing the wagon.
When the chi cleared, the wagon rolled to a stop. The driver was slumped over, his pistol dropped. His passenger lay lifelessly on the road. The wagon boiler had gone silent. The line of flame had vanished.
“Impressive,” Cheung said.
Lee blinked. Lowered leaden arms and shifted wooden feet. He nodded, took three full breaths, recalling what qi he could. He started to grab his rifle, but his fingers would not close. He walked slowly, carefully, towards the merchant, breathing deeply and rapidly.
“You too,” Lee replied. “You studied Western magic, huh.”
Cheung just shrugged, not the worse for wear.
When feeling returned to his fingers, Lee slipped in a fresh cartridge, a second, a third, a fourth and that bullet would not go in. He returned it to his pouch. Cheung disappeared around the back. Lee climbed into the cab.
“What was that?” Ayan asked.
“Do you want to know?”
Lee closed his eyes, rearranged his body, and breathed in. And out. In. And out. In and bright light slashed into his eyes. He opened them.
The windshield shattered under a hail of gunfire. Lee ducked. Ayan shrieked. Bullets slammed into Ayan with wet meaty thwocks. The wagon swerved and crashed into a lamp post. The collision rammed Lee against the dashboard, driving the air out of him.
There he sat, stunned. He blinked. Pain wracked through him. He heard stomping boots and shouting men, and he forced himself up.
Three more Imperial Guardsmen were running towards him. They had blocked off the street ahead with a steam car. He sucked in as much chi as he could and popped the door and stumbled out.
The Guardsmen shouted, aiming their rifles at him. Slowly, he raised his hands. The one in the middle shouted again, motioning with his rifle. Lee shook his head. “I don’t speak your dialect,” he said in Kuoyü.
He extended his senses, feeling for nearby people. There were just three of them. They must be a blocking force.
Which meant Lee had a chance.
The leader barked another order in dialect. The one on the left moved in while the other two hung back to cover him. Lee kept his eyes on the ground, so he could see everyone in his peripheral vision. The leftmost Guardsman snarled something. Lee blinked, shaking his head, as though he couldn’t understand. The Guardsman chuckled and raised his weapon high—
Lee went low, his hands snatching high and arresting the Guardsman’s left arm. Lee rose up, using his momentum and channeling his chi to power his knee up into the man’s groin. The chi passed cleanly through the armour, attacking his nerves and blood vessels and internal organs.
As the Guardsman howled in pain, Lee seized his left shoulder, driving him towards his comrades. His left hand shot down, produced the knife, and stabbed at the man’s face. The Guardsman held up his arms to ward off the blow. Lee went with the energy and sunk low, into the armpit where the brigandine wouldn’t protect him. The knife sunk deep. Lee bounced the blade off and back into his neck at a high angle. Slicing the knife out, Lee kicked the man away. The dying Guardsman fell against one of his fellows.
The other one pointed his rifle at Lee.
Lee ducked left, his right arm circling. He knocked the rifle off-line just as the Guardsman fired. Lee swiped his blade through a wide arc, slicing into and through the Guard’s unprotected throat. The swing ended with Lee in the perfect position for a chest strike. He did just that, charging his right palm with chi and pounding the Guardsman dead centre in the steel plate over his heart. As he dropped, Lee scanned for the last man—
Who rammed his rifle butt against Lee’s jaw.
Lee staggered, white fireballs exploding in his eyes. The Guardsman closed in. Lee’s feet remembered their training, and his next step grounded him in place. The Guardsman lowered his rifle and gathered his chi, preparing for a spear-like thrust to the abdomen. Lee stumbled out of the way, the rifle barrel brushing past naked flesh. The Guardsman rotated to meet him. Lee flicked his fingers up at the man’s eyes, shooting out tiny sparks of chi. The Guardsman flinched, raising his arms to deflect the imaginary attack. Lee shuffled left and powered his foot into and through the Guard’s ankle, breaking it. The Guardsman collapsed. Lee went down with him, grabbed his helmeted head with his right hand, bared his throat and cut it.
Lee dropped his knife. Rose to a knee. Forced weak hands to bring up his rifle and looked around. No more Guards…for now. He spent a moment scanning and breathing, replenishing his expended chi. When he felt stronger, he got back up, wiped his knife down and sheathed it.
Lee looked into the cab. Ayan was slumped over the wheel. His back was splattered over the seat. He wasn’t breathing, and didn’t have any chi left.
Lee returned to the back of the wagon.
“Cheung?” He called. His voice sounded like a strange warble. Aches and pains sprang up in strange places.
“Here,” he replied, somewhere in the rear. “Leave me. You have…to go.”
“I’m coming for you,” Lee said, clambering aboard.
“No. I can’t…I can’t feel my legs. Or my arms. I think I broke my spine.”
Lee crept forward, feeling ahead with his hands, until he touched a very small and very weak figure.
“I can get you to a—”
“It’s over,” he rasped. “No one can help me. Get…get out of here. Do what you must.”
Lee read his aura. Weak, with lots of sharp spikes. Black voids where energy should be. Stunned, but materially intact. With a deep breath, Lee channeled the last of his available chi into the man, filling up the empty spaces in his aura. It was a rush job; there wasn’t much time, but it did the trick.
“You’re fine,” Lee said. “Your brain just took a shock. That’s all. It’ll hurt soon, but you can move.”
Lee helped Cheung out of the wagon and on his feet. Cheung walked a little, wobbling, but quickly gained strength.
“Thank—thank you,” Cheung said.
Lanterns appeared behind them, followed by shouts.
“We’re not done yet,” he said. “Come on.”
“Dead. We have to go.”
They ran for the steam car of the Imperial Guard. Lee got the driver’s seat. Cheung rode shotgun.
“Where are we going?” Cheung muttered.
“Someplace that’s not here.”
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