Authors: J. Gabriel Gates
Tags: #Fiction, #fantasy, #magic, #teen martial artists, #government agents, #Chinese kung fu masters, #fallen angels, #maintain peace, #continue their quest
Chin was on his knees now, reeling, and Feng Xu grabbed him by the hair and looked into his eyes, one fanged hand poised to strike.
“Do you feel it, Chin? The Venom of the Snake is coursing through your veins already. Feel its poison, choking your heart, wrapping its coils around your brain? It is a slow, miserable death. Shall I put you out of your misery? I could impale you through both eyes now and snuff out your brainâit would be almost painless. What do you say,
? Will you beg me for mercy?”
Chin's brown eyes shone up from a face covered in his own blood. “My grandfather tried to show you a path of light, but you preferred the darkness. Let's see how you fight in it,” he said.
Chin clapped his hands together, and there was a crackle of lightning. Zhai felt a shockwave of Shen energy blast into him. It blew the flashlight out of his hand, and he heard it land somewhere behind him. As it hit the tracks, the light bulb in it shatteredâand the same thing happened to the lights the Obies had, too. Now, they were all in total darkness.
From the spot where Master Chin and Feng Xu were standing, Zhai heard the sounds of grunts and the thuds of violent blows, but he had no way of knowing who was winning. He felt a hand on his arm and started.
“It's me,” Maggie whispered into his ear. “Give me the shards and I'll sneak out.”
“How?” Zhai asked. He could see nothing in the pitch black around him.
“I can see, okay? Just give them to me.”
Zhai hesitated for only a second before realizing that she was right. The Obies had no honor. Win or lose, when the duel was over they would be trying to take the shards anyway; it was better to get rid of them now and keep them safe. He dug them out of his pocket and pressed them into Maggie's hand. Immediately, he heard her footsteps receding as she jogged away down the tracks.
Meanwhile, the unseen battle was raging on, marked only by the sounds of a thousand rapid blows. After a moment, two small sparks of illumination appeared, and Zhai saw that two of the Obies had found lighters. By the light of the quivering twin flames, Zhai could see that Chin had forced a bloodied Feng Xu to his knees, with his fist cocked back, ready to strike. Zhai knew that a blow like the one Master Chin had prepared for his enemy could be deadly.
“Go ahead, Chin,” Feng Xu said, a drizzle of blood coming from his mouth as he spoke. “Kill me, if you dare. But know that your beloved student dies with me.”
As he spoke, his eyes flicked over to where Zhai was standing. Chin's glance followed, and at that moment Zhai sensed a malevolent presence behind him, hovering over him. Slowly, he turned his head to look. It was the Black Snake God, poised to strike him from behind.
In that moment of distraction, Feng Xu lashed out, his fang-like nails stabbing into the side of Master Chin's neck. Chin fell to his knees, choking violently. At almost the same instant, Zhai heard the faint whistle as the snake's jaws sped toward the back of his head, and as fast as a gunshot he whipped around and blocked the deadly fangs with a double
then struck the Snake God's nose with one elbow as hard as he could. There was a crackle of lightning-like Shen energy, and the beast's head snapped back. The whole creature flickered twice, like a movie going out of focus, and then disappeared completely. Zhai turned back toward the others to find Chin lying on the ground with Feng Xu standing over him. The Black Snake master glared at Zhai, and then seemed to taste the air with all his senses.
“The shards are gone. The girl must have themâfind her!” he shouted, and his men sprang into motion. One of the Obies moved toward Zhai, but Feng Xu admonished him. “Forget those fools! The old man is dead anyway. All that matters now is the ring.”
And the Obies and Feng Xu all ran off soundlessly down the tunnel, their lights receding. In total darkness, Zhai felt his way down the track, toward his sifu.
“I'm here.” Chin's voice was a mere whisper, but Zhai followed it to its source and gripped his teacher's hand.
“You all right?” he asked.
“Venom . . . of the Fang,” Chin muttered. “Deadly. From his nails . . . struck me in the neck.”
Already, he was barely able to speak. His words came out slow and heavy.
“Don't worry, Sifu. I'll save you. We'll get you help,” Zhai said, although he had no idea how. Without a flashlight, it would be impossible to get out of the tunnels.
“Lily Rose,” Chin croaked.
“I'll carry you there if I have to,” Zhai said. “But how do we get out? I can't see.”
“Follow the tracks. Close eyes. Use . . . Shen.”
Zhai was about to protestâhe'd used Shen for healing and for fighting, but to close his eyes when he was already in total darkness and use the energy of the All to see?âit seemed impossible.
“Trust it,” Chin said, as if Zhai had spoken aloud.
Zhai nodded. He would trust it, because if he didn't, then the most important person in his life was going to die right here in these tunnels.
Carefully, Zhai scooped his sifu up in his arms and began walking down the train track.
At first he stumbled, but after a few moments he began to see the tracks in the darkness on the backs of his eyelids, traced out in faint streams of light, like a sketch made from the streaks of fast-moving fireflies.
“It's working,” Zhai said, and for a moment the giddy feeling of Shen flowing through him eclipsed the urgency and terror of the situation.
“Hurry,” was Master Chin's only response.
* * *
Maggie raced down the blackened tunnels, listening with dread for the sound of pursuing footsteps behind her. After a few minutes, she heard themâthe relentless thud of booted feetâgaining on her.
It was a passage from Lily Rose's magical
that had given her the power to flee her attackers in the complete darkness:
Vision not of light
Eyes not required for sight
Close them, and see right
Maggie had learned the passage by heart. It had taken several weeks of experimentation for her to realize that the axiom applied not only to her using meditation to discern the truth about the people around her; it also meant that she could close her eyes and sense the world around her even in complete darkness. She'd had fun walking around her house in the wee hours of the morning with her eyes closed and all the lights off. She had even been able to fix herself snacks in the pitch darkness, using the vision that the invisible homecoming crown projected inside her mind.
She hadn't seen any practical use for the power when she first discovered it, but she was certainly putting it to good use now. As she fled, she wracked her brain to come up with another
passage that might be helpful in escaping her pursuers, but nothing occurred to her. By the time she burst into the moonlight of the crisp, late-winter night, the Obies' footsteps seemed to be echoing all around her, although when she looked back, she couldn't see themânot yet, anyway.
Her mind whirled and her eyes scanned the terrain around her. She could try to hide in the woods, she thought, but the trees were bare. The Obies would spot her for sure. She could try to outrun them, but that seemed impossible, since they were already catching up to her. Her final option was that she could turn and fight. The last time she had fought the Snake God, her otherworldly blast of energy had sent it flyingâbut it had taken a lot out of her. She was doubtful she could demolish the demon and his minions all in one shot.
The steps were coming closer. Maggie looked up at the series of boulders that stood at the top of the tunnel mouth. If only she could fly, she could hide up there. Unfortunately, flight was one ability that the crown hadn't given her and The Good Book hadn't taught her yet. It was weirdâshe could move objects, but she couldn't make herself move through the air, which somehow didn't quite seem fair.
Her heart was racing. The footsteps were almost on top of her now. She heard the Obies shouting in Chinese and their voices sounded terrifyingly close. She was about to run again, to take off into the woods, when she spotted a large section of a rotting fallen tree trunk lying a few yards off next to the tracks, and she ran to it. If she could levitate itâand she was on top of itâthat would be almost as good as flying. She hoped it would work because there was no time for anything else.
She hopped onto a portion of the tree trunk and, standing on it, she focused her energy and willed it to rise. As it lifted from the ground, it bobbed slightly, almost causing her to slip off. She fell to her knees and then sat down and straddled it, as if it was a horse and she was riding bareback.
she commanded silently, imagining the energy in her mind was a laser beam she was directing at the trunk, and she felt it move again. Clinging to it tightly, she rode it to the top of the tunnel mound. Willing it to settle quietly into the soft earth there, she disembarked and crouched behind it, peering cautiously around one end.
Moments later, the Obies burst from the tunnel's entrance. They scattered instantly, two of them rushing into the woods to the right of the tracks and two looking to the left of it, with one charging ahead between the rails. A few seconds later, the leader came out. He barked a few words in Chinese and his men responded. The man shook his head angrily and shouted again, and they all moved together down the tracks.
When they had disappeared from sight, Maggie rose from her hiding place and rested one sneakered foot on top of the tree trunk.
“Well, it's no broomstick, but it worked,” she muttered to herself. She slipped one hand into her pocket to make sure the shards were still there, and then she headed off through the woods, away from the tunnel mouth. She considered heading back into the tunnel to check on Zhai and Master Chin, then thought better of it. If the Obies doubled back they might catch her, and she couldn't risk losing the shards they had, especially since it was now clear that they were still important.
The best plan was to head back to Hilltop Haven on foot, she decided, and she set off, proud of outwitting the Obies, escaping from them, and discovering a new ability, all in one night.
Bran Goheen's body ached all over, and his hand trembled as he brought the Styrofoam cup to his lips. It was the end of a brutal day of mixed martial arts training, filled with running, jumping rope, bag work, ground work, and sparring. He'd spent hours pounding a heavy tractor tire with a sledgehammer, then flipping the tire end-over-end down the length of Spike's Gym and back. He'd taken a heavy rope in each hand and jerked it up and down, making it undulate in waves until his arms burned so much he felt sure his muscles would ignite. Halfway through the day he threw up, but five minutes later he was back in the cage, working on his Brazilian jujitsu takedowns. He'd worked harder than he had ever worked in his life, but he still had a hard time keeping up with Rick. And despite all the distractions, he couldn't forget what had happened back in that alley in Middleburgânot even for a second.
“So what do you think of Spike's weekend intensive so far?” Rick asked. They were sitting at a smoothie place just up the block from Spike's Gym in downtown Topeka, gulping down a couple of protein shakes.
Bran laughed weakly. “You were right, man. It's pretty hardcore.”
“I told you, Spike doesn't play,” Rick said, and he went back to downing his smoothie. Just then, his cell phone rang and he answered it. “Hey, Dad. We're about to head back to the gym. . . . What?” He paused and a slight furrow creased his brow for a moment.
“Why would they want to talk to me about it?” Another pause and Rick looked at Bran, grinned and winked. “Sure, I know him from school, butâ” He frowned, annoyed, and then went on. “Yeah, I saw him that night. I had a few words with him in the parking lot, but I didn't put him in the hospital.”
Bran's heart was pounding faster than it had during the hardest part of the day's workout. Before he died, his granddad had always told him never to lie, that everything secret would come into the light sooner or later. That's what he dreaded: the moment when someone would connect him and Rick with what happened back in Middleburg.
“Uh-huh . . . good,” Rick was saying. “Don't worry, I won't. No one saw anything. His girlfriend and sister went inside before we even started talking.” Rick paused again, to listen. “Okay. See you then.” He ended the call and looked at Bran, his eyes filled with equal parts amusement and annoyance.
“The cops had the nerve to call my dad and ask where I was on Valentine's night. You believe that?” he said with contempt.
“What did he say?” Bran asked, the words coming out a whisper.
Rick shrugged casually. “He told them to go to hell and gave them our lawyer's phone number. It doesn't matter; they can't do anything. Those stupid Flats girls admitted to the cops that they didn't see anything except me walking up to Emory and talking to him. The lawyer says they can't do anything unless someone saw us actually fighting. And no one saw that,” Rick said pointedly.
No one except me,
“As long as neither of us talks to the cops or the newspaper, it'll all blow over in a week or two,” Rick said.
Bran felt sick. “You think it'll be in the newspaper?”
“Nahâprobably not. He's just a punk Flatliner. But if we have to give a statement to anybody, we'll do it through Dad's lawyer. They can't touch us.”
Bran said nothing; he had no idea where to begin.
Rick stretched his long arms out then tilted his head, first to one side and then the other, cracking his neck. “Crap, I'm starving. Let's pick up some fried chicken on the way back to the hotel. It's gonna be a long weekend, man. We need our protein.”
“What about Emory?” Bran asked quietly.
Rick was looking down at his cell phone. “Who?” he asked.
“Emory,” Bran said a little more forcefully, but when Rick looked up at him he was quick to make his voice even. “Just wondering if he's okay.”
“Oh, he's in the hospital,” Rick said proudly. “Relaxâhe'll be fine. But he's not getting out any time soon. Did you see that elbow I laid on him during the ground-and-pound? It was wicked, man. I wish somebody got it on video. Bam!” Rick mimed the move that had knocked Emory unconscious and then went back to messing with his phone.
Bran sat perfectly still, watching Rick. The Banfield heir sat slumped in the chair, his long, muscled legs carelessly sprawled, his chin raised in an attitude of arrogant defiance as he tapped out a text message. And Bran suddenly realized that Rick truly, genuinely didn't care what happened to Emory.
“What's wrong with you?” Bran asked. He hadn't meant to say it aloud; it just came out.
Rick's eyes flicked from the screen of his phone up to meet Bran's and they were empty, with a complacent kind of coldness in them, and no emotion at all. “I just told you,” he said. “I'm hungry.”
* * *
Zhai paced outside the closed door of Lily Rose's tiny guest bedroom.
Around forty-five minutes had passed since he arrived at her door with Master Chin in his arms. He had been exhausted and out of breath from running all the way from the tunnel to the Flats, carrying Chin, but they were close enough to the old woman's house that it made more sense for him to go on foot than to wait for an ambulance or for his family's driver. Besides, the paramedics would have insisted on taking Chin to the medical center in Benton. They never would have agreed to take him to Lily Rose's. But when the door opened and Lily Rose saw Master Chin, Zhai began to doubt the wisdom of that choice. All the years Zhai had known her, he'd never seen so much as a glimmer of concern cross her face, but when she saw his sifu's ashen skin and his shallow breathing, then examined the two livid, swollen puncture wounds on his neck, she'd looked like she might actually faint.
“The venom,” she'd whispered. “Oh, Lord help us. Come on, get him inside. Put him in the guest room and meet me out in the garden.”
Zhai couldn't imagine why Lily Rose would want to go for a stroll in her garden at a time like this, but he had followed her orders. He gently placed Chin on a neatly made antique twin bed, and then hurried down the hall, through the back door, and out into the yard. There he'd found Lily Rose already hard at work, her age-gnarled hands moving quickly and deftly, snapping off sprigs of herbs and flowers and placing them into a basket. She pointed to another basket and another set of clippers sitting on the stoop, then to a low green vine spilling from a ceramic pot.
“Get me twenty-five leaves from that plant,” she ordered, and Zhai had gotten to work. There was a moment when he wondered how Lily Rose could have so many flourishing plants in her garden only a few days after the last freeze of a harsh winter had subsidedâbut he didn't bother to ask her. Such things didn't matter now, with Master Chin's life in danger. Besides, over the last few months, Zhai had come to accept the seemingly impossible with the calm acceptance of a battle-hardened veteran facing enemy fire.
Once Lily Rose was content with the array of herbs, flowers, and roots they'd collected, she led him inside to the kitchen. There she got a small cast-iron pot, filled it with water, and set it on the stove to boil. She took out a mortar and pestle made of what looked like white marble, placed all the plant parts inside the bowl, and ground them down until they were as fine as flour. Then she dumped them into the pot and allowed the mixture to simmer for a few moments before she poured it into a shallow bowl.
“Fetch me a piece of burlap from that drawer,” she commanded, pointing to the tallboy in the corner. “It's the brown, coarse cloth.”
Zhai obeyed, and Lily Rose folded up the fabric and submerged it in the bowl, letting it soak. She placed the bowl onto a tray, along with a clean white dishtowel.
While she was working, Zhai's phone beeped. It was a text message from Maggie, saying that she'd made it to Hilltop Haven safely. He breathed a mighty sigh of relief. More and more he was impressed by Maggie. He wondered how she could possibly have escaped the Obies. He would ask her next time they were together, but for now it was enough to know that she was okay and that she still had the shards.
Now finished in the kitchen, Lily Rose walked wordlessly down the hall and into the bedroom, and Zhai followed her as closely and silently as a shadow.
As the old woman placed the tray on the bedside table, Zhai looked at his teacher laid out on the bed and felt suddenly ill with fear. Master Chin already looked half dead. His skin had turned a frightening shade of pale, grayish blue, and his chest moved erratically in a series of shallow, staccato breaths.
With businesslike efficiency, Lily Rose took the burlap from the bowl, squeezed the excess liquid out of it, then wrapped it in the dishtowel, and placed the whole thing over the wounds on Master Chin's neck. Instantly, a jet of steam rose from it, as if it had been placed on scorching metal. Chin bucked and a tortured groan escaped his lips, but his eyes did not open.
“It's hurting him!” Zhai said, and he reached to take the towel from his sifu's neck, but Lily Rose placed a hand on his shoulder, stopping him.
“Yes, it hurts,” she said. “But it's also the only chance we have of saving his life. If we're lucky, that poultice will pull the venom out.”
“And if we're not lucky?” Zhai asked. He had seen Lily Rose's miraculous healing powers at work when she'd helped Kate recover from her recent dagger wound, but even at her worst, Kate had never looked as bad as Chin did now.
“If we're not lucky, it won't work,” Lily Rose said. She sounded weary, Zhai thought. It was the first time he'd seen her be anything but cheerful, and that, too, filled him with fear.
“What else can we do?” he asked.
“Remember when you healed your sister?” Lily Rose asked, and Zhai remembered the extraordinary light of Shen that had filled him and helped him to rouse Li from her coma. “It will take much more faith than that to heal the wound your teacher has suffered.”
“But he can still live, right?” Zhai asked hopefully.
Lily Rose gazed down at Chin. “Within the All, everything is possible,” she said and left the room.
Immediately, Zhai stepped near his teacher's bedside and took his hand. Master Chin's callused palm felt like it was made of granite; his powerful fingers, as if they were carved of wood. Zhai had seen these hands punch through boards and blocks of solid concrete. It seemed impossible that the life could ever disappear from themâbut if Lily Rose's poultice didn't succeed, that was exactly what would happen. Without wasting another moment, he closed his eyes and let the healing light of Shen fill him.
* * *
“I didn't say I was mad at youâI said I was disappointed!” Dalton tossed over her shoulder as she stepped onto the front porch of her grandmother's house.
“That's what people say when they're mad,” Nass replied, following her. “And I don't think it's fair. What did I do wrong? I got arrested for no reason. And my phone died, because I was texting
all day, so I couldn't call. And I didn't make it to school because I was at the hospital with Emory.”
“I know,” Dalton replied, relenting a little at the mention of Emory. “I'm not saying you did anything wrongâspecifically. I'm just saying, you seem to have this uncanny knack of building up my expectationsâand then somehow I end up feeling like crap.”
“It wasn't my fault!” Nass insisted. He was trying to stay calm, but the idea of Dalton being mad at him was excruciating, especially when so many other things were going wrong, too. She was the last person in the world he wanted to disappoint, but she was right. Somehow it kept happeningâand it was so frustrating, it made him want to scream.
“Nass, I know. I'm not saying it's your fault,” Dalton returned. “All I'm saying is that it keeps happening, and it's not making me happy.”
Sitting down heavily on the porch swing Nass rolled his eyes. “Okay, so now I don't make you happy?” he said. “I mean, our friend is lying in the hospital in a coma, my family is about to be evicted,
get detained by the police because
can't figure out what happened to Raph and that stupid crystal ringâand
I'm not making you happy?
I don't know what I'm supposed to do about that.”
Just then, the door swung open, and Nass instantly felt bad for fighting on Lily Rose's porch. But it wasn't Dalton's grandma who emerged from the doorway; it was Zhai Shao. For a moment, the surprise left both him and Dalton speechless.
“Ohâhey, Zhai,” Dalton said. “You get Kate settled? Did she forget something?”
Zhai shook his head. “No, I'mâit's Master Chin. He's hurt.” And then he told them what had happened when the Obies attacked. Nass rose from the porch swing.
“So you still have the shards?” he asked.