With a tap on their screens, the cops summoned their vehicles. The Hung Syun was a man-made mammoth, a tiltrotor crossed with an armored truck, its martial purpose undeniable. Next to it, Tang’s flying wagon was a child’s toy.
There were twelve SOC operators, laden with tactical gear, and the Hung Syun needed time to rev up the rotors. Tang, Jackie and I were airborne in the lighter vehicle long before the SOC squad got off the ground.
“SOC goes in first,” Tang said. “We will stay behind. Move in only when the building is clear, or if SOC calls for your help. We have guns, you don’t.”
“We’re cultivators. We don’t need guns,” Jackie said.
Tang snorted. “Yeah, yeah, tell that to the cultivators who got shot over the years.”
“Bullets aren’t going to do much to spirits,” I said. “They’ll just tunnel right through it without causing much damage, and hit whatever or whoever is on the other side. SOC will need to dump dozens, even hundreds of rounds to forcibly dispel it. If the tiger comes out, I need to be in the stack.”
“And if you get in SOC’s way, how? You might get hurt. Or they might get hurt. They might just sit you down in one corner.” Tang shook his head. “No. They go in first.”
Ng Yong Noodle House occupied a minor side street. The road shrank dramatically, admitting only a single lane of traffic. Shophouses on either side extended to the edge of the block, all of them based on the same neocolonial template. Signboards hanging above the main entrance advertised 24-hour eateries, coffee shops, always-open automated convenience stores. Ornate support columns marked the borders between buildings. Lights spilled from tall, narrow windows on the upper floors. Three stories tall, taller than the smart streetlights, their second and third floors were safely sited in the dead zones of the elevated cameras.
We landed diagonally opposite from Ng Yong, right in the middle of the road. Tang turned on the lightbars, painting the street in red and blue.
“How large is the group that entered Ng Yong?” I asked.
Tang consulted his screen.
“Where’s the driver?”
He looked at me.
I looked at him.
Bright lights flashed from the windows down the street. We turned back to Ng Yong, just in time to hear a man scream.
“That doesn’t sound good,” Jackie muttered.
Glass shattered. A body flew out the third floor window. He slammed into the roof of a parked car, rolled off, struck the road, and flopped over.
“Civilian down! We have to go!” I urged.
Behind us, in the air, lights flashed and sirens wailed, rapidly closing in. SOC coming to the rescue, just a little too late.
The three of us burst out of the car. Sprinting towards the restaurant, Tang drew his service pistol. Jackie sucked down qi, filling his energy centres to the brim, readying himself for war. I drank down more qi, too, then brought my left hand to my hip. Staying low, we stayed close to the cars and darted between pools of shadow.
A car length away from the entrance of Ng Yong, Tang stepped out onto the road. Punching out his weapon in both hands, he oriented towards the gangsters’ vehicle and clicked on the weapon-mounted light, illuminating the driver.
“POLICE! HANDS UP!”
The driver’s hands flew up.
“I’ll handle this one! Go in and take care of the rest!” Tang ordered.
“So much for SOC going first,” Jackie muttered.
I squeezed between a pair of cars, closing in on Ng Yong. Plastic tables and chairs spilled out onto the sidewalk, laden with food and drink. Wending around them, we barged into the restaurant.
More tables and chairs were placed along the walls, forming a narrow aisle for people to pass through. Half-eaten dishes and full glasses lay abandoned. Six ceiling-mounted fans blew down on a suddenly-empty dining hall. Soft music piped from overhead speakers. A beverage cooler held a modest supply of canned and bottled drinks. At the far end, behind the stainless steel counter, I sensed a spiky ball of qi, locked in mortal fear.
“Hap haak! Come out!” Jackie ordered.
That person curled up even more tightly.
“We’re here to help!” I added. “It’s safe to come out!”
Relaxing, slightly, the person peeked above the counter, revealing the face of a young woman. A girl.
“What happened here?” I asked.
“Four men came in just now,” she replied. “They were shouting at everyone, telling them to get out. Then they headed around the back.”
“They went upstairs?”
“Ya! The staircase is just past the kitchen.”
A shock wave rattled the building. The lights flickered. The fans shuddered. Shrieking, the girl ducked back down.
“Were they armed?” I asked.
Still hiding behind the counter, she replied, “Yes! They all had parangs!”
Hailing from the jungles of the Malay archipelago, a parang was a long, heavy chopping knife. There were no jungles in Singyeung, but the original migrants had brought their tools and customs over.
“Are they cultivators?”
“Dunno! They must be, but I dunno how many of them are cultivators!”
Another blast. A man shouted in pain. She shouted too.
“The police are coming. Stay here!” I ordered.
Outside, Tang shouted at the top of his lungs.
“Over here! It’s ASP Tang! I have a suspect in custody!”
The SOC must have landed. Finally.
“Let’s go!” Jackie urged.
We rushed past the counter. The girl had balled up in a corner, quaking in fear, covering her mouth. I glanced at her long enough to ensure she was alright, then followed Jackie down the hallway.
The kitchen was right behind the counter. As I passed, a panoply of smells greeted me. Sizzling oil, raw meat, savoury soups, heavy spices. It was cramped, with barely enough room for one or two people to work.
I slowed down, taking care to avoid knocking over the stainless steel bowls and utensils stacked haphazardly on a counter. The kitchen staff had evacuated in haste, leaving the taps running. Sinks filled with dirty dishes threatened to overflow. As I passed the stoves, I detected the smell of burning food.
No time to shut everything off. We had to secure the area first.
Past the kitchen, on the right, a flight of steps headed upstairs. To the left was a tiny unisex toilet, with a sink and two cubicles. The back door stood wide open, leading into the back alley. I peeked outside, confirming that the area was clear, then closed and locked the door.
Together, Jackie and I rushed upstairs.
Upstairs, we emerged into a narrow hallway. At the far end, an open door looked into a modest bathroom. Next to that was a second flight of steps.
Soft moans drifted through a doorway to our left.
Jackie gestured at the left-hand door. As we approached, I lifted my outer shirt, revealing my Peacemaker baton on my left hip.
The Peacemaker was the last word in expandable batons. Machined from solid steel, its weight was concentrated in the striking tip. I’d added an impact ring, further enhancing its striking power. The handle sported a rapid rotation device, a pair of asymmetric handles that allowed the wielder to swiftly switch grips and doubled as a hilt. With these mods, it was less of a nightstick, more like a blunt sword.
Peeling the Peacemaker to the left, I broke it free from the holster and brought it around my back. I aimed the tip at the ground and thumbed the release button. Two steel segments silently extended and locked into place, expanding the weapon to its full twenty-one inches. I transferred the Peacemaker to my right hand and flipped it around, holding it against my forearm in a reverse grip.
I extended my awareness into the room beyond. A confused jumble of objects and energies filled my mind. I sensed a half-dozen people lying on the ground, their qi fields radiating pain and injury. I tapped Jackie’s shoulder, signalling my readiness.
Jackie sucked down more energy. Bright golden light emanated from his skin, an ethereal flame searing all it touched. With a sharp exhale, he burst through the open door. I followed, hot on his heels.
Shattered furniture lay scattered across the room, mountainous islands in a sea of playing cards and plastic chips. Sprays of fresh blood reflected the overhead lights. Broken bodies lay in insensate heaps, slumped against the walls and corners, some bleeding from massive head and arm wounds. The body closest to me had been brutalised, his face and neck and arms shredded beyond recognition. His left arm ended in a stump, the fragments of a broken transformer bracelet gleaming dully nearby.
His severed hand rested at my feet.
“Bloody hell…” Jackie muttered.
“Nothing we can do for them now,” I said. “Upstairs!”
Jackie led the charge. The third floor was arranged exactly like the second. As we stacked on the door to the main room, I heard men growling and whispering. Half-closing my eyes, I reached my awareness into the room beyond.
Two bodies lay on the floor. Three men stood in the middle of the room. The one furthest from me had the expanded aura of a mid-level cultivator. The aura of the subject on the right was shredded and torn, hard lines and gleaming chrome betraying his cybernetic limbs. At the far end, a fourth man towered over a fifth lying prone on the floor, his aura burning a ferocious, savage white.
Parang held by his side, the summoner kicked the downed man in the ribs. Bones snapped, drawing forth a pained cry.
And the other cultivator spun on his heels, turning to the door.
He’d sensed us.
Bellowing a war cry, Jackie charged through the open door. I stayed behind him, concealing myself behind his bulk.
Debris covered the floor. Overturned tables and broken chairs, mahjong tiles and gwat pai, smashed machines and plastic tokens, silent testimony to a battle we had missed. A man was sprawled across a table, his back bent at an unnatural angle. A second lay in the fetal position, blood gushing from a hidden wound.
The criminal cultivator glared at us, his teeth bared in animal fury. Waves of violet flame spewed from his crown to wash over his arms. His two companions spread out, forming a skirmish line. All three men carried long parangs, their blades and clothes drenched in blood.
Framed in a narrow window, the summoner looked over his shoulder at us. His gaze was a palpable force, boring into my own. His own clothing was perfectly immaculate, as though freshly laundered. His aura was a white-hot inferno, billowing from his chest to fill the entire room.
Supine at the summoner’s feet, his victim coughed and hacked, holding his side.
“Who the fuck are you?” the summoner demanded.
“Hap haak! Put down your weapons and surrender!” Jackie shouted.
The summoner snorted. Strange ripples passed through his aura. It was as if multiple layers of qi were trying to separate.
“Deal with them,” the summoner ordered.
The fighters charged, giving tongue to blood-curdling screams. The cultivator hung back, lifting his left hand.
Jackie let loose a scream of his own, releasing his own qi. Swirling golden light condensed in his hand, taking the form of a short staff. Taking his weapon in both hands, he rushed the fighter on the left.
Blade raised over his head, the cyborg fighter rushed to me. He was fast, faster than any man ought to be, nimbly leaping over the scattered debris. I hung back, leading with my left side, hiding the baton behind my body, and breathed.
He stepped and swung.
Rushing to my left, I shot my right hand up, shielding my head with my baton. Steel clang against steel. As the parang slid off, I brought the baton to the horizontal and jabbed it into the side of his flesh-and-blood neck. A quick pop, not much power behind it, but enough to stun him. Long enough for me to spin the baton around and torque the tip into his jaw.
The bone snapped with a sickening crack. The spiralling force twisted him around and sent him crashing against a table. I kicked him in the face for good measure, then assessed the room.
Jackie flowed into a powerful double-handed thrust, smashing the tip of his staff into his opponent’s sternum. As the fighter staggered back, Jackie thrust again and again, breaking ribs with every blow. Then he shifted grips and swung the staff around through a swift, fluid circle and struck the fighter in the jaw, flooring him.
The cultivator barked a word.
The wreckage on the floor hurtled into the air. Jagged shards, ceramic tiles, tables and chairs, a forest of hard surfaces and wicked points glowing in violet light, surrounding us in every direction.
“PHAT!” I barked.
The seed syllable reverberated in the room. Behind it was the power and majesty of every wrathful deity and Buddha.
The violet light extinguished.
The missiles fell.
The cultivator stared, stupefied.
And I rushed up to him.
He recovered at the last second, swinging his weapon wildly at my head. I punched out the baton, gripping it in both hands, moving it into the path of the parang. Baton and blade collided with a metallic scream. I reached over my right hand to seize the base of his thumb with my left, then ducked low to the right, yanked him down, and smashed the baton into his knee.
Bone broke under the colossal blow. With a cry of agony, he crumpled to the floor. I rose to my feet and stomped on his fist, forcing him to release the parang.
Sirens drifted from outside. Heavy boots pounded the stairs. Men barked orders in fierce staccatos. I aimed the baton at the summoner.
“It’s over,” I said. “Surrender.”
The summoner’s aura rippled again. This time I saw two layers of energy, sticky black overlaid with burning white. An instant later, his aura blazed white once more. His left hand reached for his collar—
“PHAT!” I shouted again.
For a heartbeat, nothing happened.
Then he realized what I’d done, and saw who and what was behind me.
“That trick isn’t going to work this time,” I said. “Drop your weapon and raise your hands.”
“STOP!” Jackie shouted.
He dashed to the window at the end of the room. I lunged towards him. My foot caught on something, and suddenly I fell.
Turning my right side forward, I folded my arm across my chest. My forearm struck the floor. I flowed with the energy, rolling diagonally on my back, rising up to—
The backs of my thighs banged into an overturned table.
Just like that, my momentum was gone, leaving me curled upside down in an awkward position.
“STOP!” Jackie shouted again.
Light flashed. Glass shattered. A tiger roared.
I twisted my hips one way, then the other, and rolled over to my side. As I righted myself, Jackie came and helped me back up on my feet.
“Where did he go?” I asked.
“He jumped out the window and into the back alley. He summoned his tiger and rode off.”
I exhaled sharply. “Missed him.”
More yells floated from downstairs. The SOC operators must be on the second floor.
The wounded man the summoner had worked over earlier was now propped against a fallen table. His left eye was a massive bruise. Blood dripped from puffy lips. Breathing in rapid spurts, he held his injured side. Approaching him, I asked, “Are you okay?”
“What did they want?”
He drew his lips back, revealing a mouthful of chipped and broken teeth.
“They wanted… to kill… Dai Gor.”
“You’re not the headman?” I asked.
He shook his head.
“I just… run… gambling hall.”
More voices carried up the stairs.
“We need to find the man who did this,” I said, gesturing at the wreckage behind me. “Where did he go?”
“He’s off to kill your headman. Where is your headman?” Jackie asked.
The 108 member sucked in a breath and shook his head.
“Clear!” an SOC operator shouted.
“Move up!” another cop yelled.
“You can talk to us or you talk to the police. Which is it?” I asked.
The gangster swore.
“Naughty Cherry nightclub.”
“POLICE! POLICE! DROP YOUR WEAPONS!”
Jackie dispersed his staff. I tossed my baton aside, raised my hands, and turned around to see Station Inspector Low and five other SOC operators training their carbines on us.
“It’s us! Mark Wu and Jackie Hung!” Jackie said.
The SOC operators paused for a second, still covering us with their carbines, no doubt scanning our faces with their helmet-mounted cameras. Then Low nodded tersely.
“Room clear. Stand down.”
The operators relaxed a fraction, lowering their weapons. Two men hung back, pulling security, while the rest tended to the casualties.
“What happened?” Low asked.
“Got here too late,” I replied. “We neutralised the fighters, but the summoner jumped out the rear window.”
Low glanced behind me and swore.
“He’s probably going to the Night Cherry nightclub,” Jackie continued. “It’s down the street, five blocks away. If you hurry now, you can catch him.”
Low hesitated, looking at us, at the bodies, at the carnage around us.
He was facing a dilemma of duties. Stay here and secure the scene, or pursue the suspect? In the absence of orders, there was only one thing he could do.
“I need to check in with HQ,” Low said.
“We’re running out of time,” Jackie urged.
Ignoring him, Low stepped outside. The remaining operators cuffed and searched the gangsters we had downed. As I knelt to retrieve my baton, I turned to the hall manager.
“Did you tell the summoner where your headman is?” I asked.
“No… choice. He used… magic.”
“Yes. Couldn’t… resist. Had to… speak.”
Bad enough that the hitman was a summoner. He was a dominator too.
Maybe the latter power facilitated the former. That could be why his aura seemed so weird. He had placed the tiger spirit under a powerful compulsion, binding its essence to his own, and it was struggling to break free.
It must be why he hadn’t used his cultivator abilities earlier. Why he hadn’t even fought us. Keeping the tiger spirit under control must be draining. He didn’t want to call it out unless he had to. He didn’t need it breaking loose.
That would not end well.
“We’ll stop him,” I promised.
Low headed back inside.
“Wrap it up! ASP Tang will take over the scene! We’re going to Naughty Cherry!”
“The suspect has domination powers and a killer spirit. You’ll need us!” Jackie said.
The leader narrowed his eyes. Looked around the room. Looked back at us. And clicked his tongue.
“Fine. You can ride along. But you stay in the rear until we call you to move up. Understand?”
“Roger that,” Jackie said.
“Let’s go before we regret this.”
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