THE CITY OF NIGHT:
THE RUBIES OF MASTER LO
by Jack Conner
All rights reserved
Cover image used with permission
At the time the man appeared from thin air, screaming and on fire, about to hurtle into a brick wall, Stevrin was trying to see down the top of the cigarette girl‘s dress. They weren’t the normal cigarettes, either, at least not all of them, but the alchemical kind that could possibly melt you. She’d just dropped a pack and was crouching gingerly to pick it up, trying not to tip over her tray, leaning over most provocatively.
Just a little more, he thought. Just a little more …
She was really pretty, blond and slim, and her thin silk blouse was unbuttoned almost a third of the way down, showing a hint of bra. As she bent over still more, he could see the lace of the bra, and then … yes yes—
The man appeared howling and smoking out of nowhere, several feet off the ground, smelling like burned bacon, and flew, as if he had already been traveling at some accelerated velocity, into the stained, lichen-covered brick wall of the fireworks vendor. There he exploded into a shower of meat and blood and chunks of bone, much of it on fire. Fortunately it rained outward, away from the volatile products, and he did not penetrate the wall. Stevrin was close enough to be pelted with burning gore.
“Damn damn damn!” he snarled, leaping back and slapping at himself. All thoughts of the cigarette girl—well, most—fled his mind.
Since this was the Hang Tree Market, the black, beating heart of Upper Lavorgna, a crowd instantly gathered to ogle the carnage. To his delight, Stevrin found himself pressed up against the cigarette girl on the first row. About seventeen, a year older than him, she looked white as a sheet.
The stench of frying flesh and the moist feel of blood soaking through his threadbare shirt refocused Stevrin’s attention on the corpse—and it was quite clearly a corpse. The man had been alive mere seconds before, but he was a mound of dead flesh now. Stevrin felt a glob of it fall out of his hair and roll down his cheek. Hastily he wiped it away. The body was partly intact; the man had struck sideways, obliterating his shoulder and hip on one side and smacking his head hard enough to crack open, just a little; a few reddish gobs jutted out of it, mixing with his hair.
But his face was more or less intact, save for soot and burns and blood. He seemed about fortyish, stocky and dark-haired, with rough skin covered in scars. He had gray eyes and a blunt, broken nose set over wide, fleshy lips. His hands were large and calloused, his clothes as rough as the rest of him. Stevrin didn’t recognize him.
“Cops,” someone said, and several of the oglers made a hasty exit. More replaced them.
Blood leaked across the cobblestones toward Stevrin’s feet. As two cops pushed their way through and knelt over the body, he slipped through the crowd and escaped. The stench of burning flesh faded, but not enough.
Stevrin almost didn’t make it to the trash can before throwing up. He’d just knocked the lid aside when he doubled over and vomited violently, again and again, until all he could do was dry heave. Gasping, he sagged back against the wall of a vendor selling dubious pharmaceuticals and sucked in deep breaths. With shaking fingers, he searched for his pack of cigarettes. Blood had spattered the pack and found its way inside, ruining them all.
“Crap.” He tossed the cigs.
The cigarette girl. Ashen-faced, she’d left the crowd and was pacing listlessly, looking as though she might be sick herself. Absently, she handed him a pack.
“On the house,” she said. “But give me one.”
He frowned. “Alchemical?”
She looked at him as though he were an idiot. “Would I give those away? You know how much those cost?”
He lit a smoke, handed it to her, then lit one for himself and took a hit. He tried to keep his fingers from shaking but didn’t make it. He hoped she didn’t notice. The sound of sirens wailed in the near distance. Soon paramedics arrived and began loading what remained of the body onto a stretcher.
“What just happened?” the girl said. Smoke curled up from her admirably kissable mouth and wreathed her pretty face, then blew away. She stared at the body being carried off. Cops were hosing the bits and pieces left on the ground toward the nearest black, crusted, wrought-iron drain. The pieces clung to the bars, wobbling and glistening, before being washed down into the darkness. “He came out of nowhere!”
Stevrin nodded. “Yep.” He wished he had something more intelligent to add, but at that point Yep was an accomplishment.
She seemed to see him for the first time. “You’ve got … him … all over you.”
Stevrin wiped at himself. “Yeah.”
“I gotta get back to work.” She paused, clearly still freaked. “You … you were watching me earlier.”
“What? Uh …”
She almost smiled. “Hey. I get off at one. Wanna walk me to the bus?”
“Really? Now you wanna talk about that—now?”
“Well, why not?”
He figured she just needed someone to talk to about what had happened, and who better than the poor guy who’d been even closer to the bloodbath than she had? It would be Stevrin’s one shot at her.
He opened his mouth to say yes, of course yes, then closed it.
“Naw,” he said. “Maybe some other time.”
She eyed him a moment, then shrugged and walked away.
Stevrin was lighting his second smoke when Harry and Jack showed up. They looked excited about something, but their excitement, or interest in whatever they’d wanted to talk about, faded when they saw the cops hosing the last few errant pieces of the dead man into the gutter while the crowd watched on, talking and staring. The black imprint of the man’s body against the brick wall was still very visible, and an odor of soot hung over everything.
“What … was it?” Jack asked. Tall and gawky, too skinny, he eyed the bits and pieces avidly. “Did somebody die?” He said the words almost eagerly. “Was it a knifing? Did you see it? Well, Stev? Huh?”
Harry crinkled his face up. “Did someone die?” From his tone of voice one might have thought the man had died just to annoy Harry. Small and runty, with wildly-sticking-up hair, Harry added, “Someone did, didn’t they?” It was an accusation.
Stevrin drew in a hit of smoke, blew it out and nodded.
Jack’s eyes gleamed. “What happened? You musta been close. Look at you!”
“I’ll tell you on the way. We’re gonna be late.”
They complained but agreed. Neither wanted to miss the title bout. Harry and Jack had been watching the pre-show fights—Returners fighting each other, mainly—while Stevrin admired the many women in the Market and perused the vendors. He hadn’t been in the mood to see the mindless undead tearing at each other.
Jack’s eyes widened as Stevrin related what happened concerning the burning man, and Harry just swore and kicked at a tin can along the ground.
“Not some other weird thing,” Harry said. “Can’t things just be normal for awhile?”
“This is normal for Lavorgna,” Jack said.
“I don’t think so,” Stevrin said. “Somethin’s up. People don’t just appear on fire outta nowhere, even here.”
They chewed on it as they entered the great tent the boxing matches took place in these days, after the old warehouse building had been sucked into a fissure in the ground during the business with the cult of Yreg-ngad, and the match began. Stevrin watched only listlessly. He’d been looking forward to it for weeks, but all he could see now was that man, flaming and screaming, appearing out of thin air and exploding against the wall. He could still smell him—still feel him; although most of the blood had hardened, it had dried and stuck his shirt to him in places, pulling at his scant body hair with every movement.
At last the bout ended—in the fifth round, Stevrin thought but couldn’t say for sure—and the boys filed out.
As they pushed their way into the madness of the Hang Tree Market, a wealthy man, borne on a litter by four Returners, passed by; though mindless and drooling, the living dead men had been fashioned so skillfully that their stitches barely showed. A couple of whalers just off a ship propositioned a woman that looked like a working girl but was really, Stevrin knew, a priestess trying to recruit suckers to her cult.
People hawked peppers, fruit, fish and oddities scoured (not without risk) from the Below. Barkers called out the merits of their carnival acts, bestiaries and peep shows, some intermingling. The market was a free-for-all, and normally Stevrin exulted in it, but at the moment he only wanted to wash the blood off and get some sleep.
It was just as he was coming around the bend, in sight of the bus stop that would take him and the others home to the peculiar orphanage they lived in, when a man stepped out of the shadows and confronted them. By the light of the two moons and a nearby gas-lamp swarming with moths, Stevrin saw the man had familiar gray eyes perched above a likewise familiar blunt, broken nose.
Stevrin’s heart stopped.
“It’s him,” he gasped. “It’s the dead man!”
He was coming straight for Stevrin.
The man looked remarkably good for being dead, especially considering that Stevrin had seen half of him hosed into the gutter an hour or so ago. But he was whole now—whole and tense with fear, his eyes wide and popping out of his tanned, weathered face. He wore different clothes, and he was alive and uncooked, but it was he.
“Get back!” Stevrin said. “The last thing I need are ghosts, damn you.”
The dead man had been marching toward Stevrin and the boys deliberately, his face set, but now he took a deep breath, smoothed his hair, and raised his hands to show that he was harmless.
“I’m not here to hurt you,” he said. “And I’m not a ghost.”
Stevrin stared. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Jack study him with widening eyes.
“It’s him?” Jack said. “Really?”
“It’s him,” Stevrin affirmed.
“Gods,” said Harry. “I knew it! This damned city …”
“My name’s Frank,” the man said, sounding as if he were trying to avoid spooking them. He took a careful step forward. “You Stevrin?”
“I ain’t got money.”
“He’s dead, you idiot,” Jack hissed. “What could he want with money?”
“I’m not dead,” the man said. He blinked and shook his head. “I mean, I know what you must’ve seen. The cops came and found me. I was betting on … I mean, I was nearby. People’d seen me. When they heard I was dead, and I was still there, they were kinda surprised. So the cops came. They were surprised too. Finally someone told me what the heck was going on. Drove me to the morgue, let me see … it.” He shuddered. “Well, I’d seen you around earlier, Stevrin, if you don’t mind me callin’ you by name, and I know’d who you were, and I figured you could help me, so I rushed back here hoping to catch you before you left. Glad I did.”
“Help you?” Stevrin said.
“The cops don’t know where to start. I thought maybe you could.” He looked at Stevrin searchingly.
“Why do you think I can help you?”
Quietly, the man said, “People talk about you, you know. You and your boys.”
“The Hell Gang?” Jack asked eagerly, sticking out his narrow chest. “I’m a lieutenant, you know.”
“Yeah. Them. You. Whatever. People say you lot’ve gone up against things that no one else could, against things that weren’t … right.”
“Okay,” Stevrin said, to speed this up, “so you think I can help you how? I mean, that body, it was you, but you’re here, right, so you’re, what? Okay?”
The man gnawed his lower lip. “I saw … it. Me. In the morgue.” He drew in a deep, shuddering breath, as if about to reveal something unpleasant or unbelievable. “There was a scratch, on the arm. I recognized it. I … got it yesterday.” The man rolled his arm up, showing the scratch, red and raw, covered in ointment of some sort. “On the body at the morgue the scratch was mostly healed.”
“So, like, the body was from the future?” Harry asked. “Is that what you’re saying?” He loved to read comics and penny novels about spacemen and monsters. The idea obviously pleased him.
Frank frowned. “Yeah. Maybe. I don’t know. But I think so. See, I put some alchemical salve on it, stuff I won in a card game last week. Supposed to make any surface cut disappear overnight. So … I think that by the time this scratch heals, some time tonight, I’ll be dead. Unless you boys can do something about it. The police obviously can’t, and I don’t know who else to turn to.” He paused, then added: “I’ll pay.”
“No, no enemies,” Frank said. “’least, not that I know of.”
Frank had bought them all drinks, and they sipped as Stevrin peppered him with questions. Frank said he worked as a dock loader at the moment and did some carpentry on the side, hence all his scars. From time to time he joined up as a sailor, and he’d been to many different ports and contracted some strange and painful diseases, but he didn’t know what could cause him to appear screaming and on fire out of thin air, and in what would’ve been his past.
“What about occult people?” Stevrin asked. “Run afoul of any priests or what-not? What about the Guild of Alchemy?”
“No,” Frank said, looking as if the very idea terrified him, and well it should. “I’ve nothin’ to do with that lot.”
When Stevrin ran out of questions, he said, “Maybe we outta take you somewhere, to the Div maybe, and keep you locked up tight all night. We’ll set a watch and make sure nothin’ happens to you.”
Frank shook his head. “Naw. Whatever’s gonna happen’ll get me wherever I am. Besides …” He glanced around furtively. “… I got somewhere to be.”
Stevrin raised his eyebrows. He got Frank’s address—he didn’t have a phone—and sent the man on his way with promises that he would do the best he could. Still white-faced, Frank reminded Stevrin that he was his last hope and disappeared into the fog, but not before giving Stevrin a down payment, what he swore was every last penny he had on him. It came out to be almost fifteen dollars, no small sum.
“Well?” Stevrin asked the other boys. “Any ideas?”
They shrugged, swilling the dregs of their beers.
“Maybe it’s something he does tonight,” Jack said. “Will do, I mean. Maybe he pisses someone off.”
“But who could do that?” Harry said. “Send him back through time? That’s not even possible!”
“Well, it is,” Stevrin said. “We’ve seen it. I think there’s somethin’ he’s not telling us.”
Harry looked ill. “I want another drink.”
“We’ve gotta stay clear-headed.” Stevrin lit a cigarette as they walked off.
“You know,” Harry said contemplatively, “I think I’ve hearda other bodies turned up burnt in the last few days.”
“Yeah?” said Stevrin. “And you’re just mentioning this?
“Don’t know if it’s related. Read it in a paper Jack swiped for the funnies. Said somethin’ about a fourth body found charred. Cops thought it was a serial killer or some gang thing. One said there could be other bodies haven’t been found yet. Didn’t think about it till just now.”
“Huh,” Stevrin said. “Gotta be the same, right?”
“So other’s’ve popped up on fire from the future or whatever?” Jack said.
“Guess Frank was just the only one to turn up in a public place,” Stevrin said.
“Looks like,” Harry nodded.
Jack looked around. “Where we goin, anyway’? Bus back to the Div is that way.”
“We’re not going to the Div,” Stevrin said. “We’re gonna follow Frank. See where he goes, who he talks to. Something tonight gets him killed, and we need to find out what. Obviously him tellin’ us got us jack.”
Jack and Harry grumbled.
“Fine, you wussies,” Stevrin said. “But Frank can’t pay up if he’s dead, and if he does pay up, and you didn’t help, I’m keepin’ the loot to myself.”
They found Frank in the gloom ahead and followed at a discreet distance. When he climbed aboard a certain bus, Stevrin and the others jumped onto the back. When he got off, the boys did likewise, careful to keep well back from him. This was the Zanshin Quarter. Foreign-looking people, most from Zanshin, that exotic land over the sea, conducted business from incense-filled shops and shadowy alcoves. The whole area smelled of strange spices and grime, and many fissures showed in the sides of buildings—scars from bomb blasts, Stevrin knew. It’d been five years since the war, and the city had never bothered fixing the damage to its poorer sections.
“Glad we’re together,” Harry said, eyeing the rough-looking men lurking in the shadows. “I wouldn’t wanna come through here alone.”
Jack punched him on the shoulder for his cowardice, but Jack’s face was grayer and grimmer than Harry’s, and his eyes darted nervously.
Ahead, Frank approached a filthy stone building. He paused to talk to a burly Zanshinese fellow that blocked the way down a staircase presumably leading to a below-ground-level door. They exchanged words, then money, and the big Eastern man allowed Frank down the stairs.
“Think that’s where he lives?” Jack asked.
“It’s not the address he gave us,” Stevrin said.
“So what now?”
Alone, Stevrin strode down the sidewalk to the Zanshinese who blocked the head of the stairway. The man was bigger than Stevrin had thought and boasted a glowing alchemical tattoo on his neck and half his face in the shape of a rearing giant salamander – one of the most feared predators of Zanshin. Zanshinese were normally small and light and fast, but this fellow was solid muscle and thicker than a boar. Thin mustachios drooped to either side of his mouth, which frowned as Stevrin neared.
“Say, bub, I saw my friend go down there,” Stevrin said. “and I remembered somethin’ I had to tell him. Mind if I pop down?”
In a thick Zanshinese accent, the man said, “Give me the cover.”
“A cover fee? How much?”
The man told him, and Stevrin whistled. Frankie was holding out on us if he could afford that. “What am I paying for?”
The man studied Stevrin contemptuously. “If you don’t know, go.”
“Maybe we can work out a deal.”
The man flexed fists that were nearly as large as Stevrin’s head. The bouncer’s glowing tattoo seemed to pulse.
“Fine, I’m goin’,” Stevrin said. Just to irritate the man, he sauntered back to Jack and Harry slowly, hands in pockets and humming a tune.
“You’re an idiot, Stev,” Harry said.
Jack looked around apprehensively. “So what now?”
Stevrin told them. Harry swore.
“I can’t do it,” he said. “I’d … I’d shake too much.”
“You’re a better pickpocket than Jack,” Stevrin said. “Not as good as me, although a better burglar, but pretty good. It’s gotta be you. Unless you’d like to be the one that goes in … “
Harry sobered. “Fine. But if he catches me I’m gonna kill you. I may have to beat you to death with my full-body cast, but I’m gonna do it.”
Circling around the building, Harry approached the bouncer from the rear. On cat feet, he crept up on the big man, reached out a hand—it was trembling, he hadn’t lied—and grabbed the bouncer’s purse off its chain. Harry could’ve done it without the man noticing, but he made sure he did.
The man proved quicker than Harry had bargained for. The bouncer almost seized him. Harry reeled back, spun, and bolted down the street. Swearing, the big man followed.
“Go!” Jack whispered to Stevrin.
As soon as the bouncer was around the corner, Stevrin rushed toward the stairs and leapt down them. An ornate green door waited at the base and for a moment Stevrin feared it would be locked, but when he wrapped a hand around the golden knob in the shape of a salamander, it twisted easily, and he stepped into a fragrant gloom.
Strange scents wrapped him, and he had to blink his eyes to see. It was a large, cavernous chamber, with a low ceiling and many thick pillars that served to divide up the space – not just one room, but several, or at least several low halls that joined into one chamber in the entranceway. Alchemical lanterns, red and green and purple, did not actually light the whole room as certain small pockets of it, only giving enough illumination to hint at the rest of it. Eastern-style carpets hung from the walls, and somewhere someone played a harp. Smoke hung thick on the air, exotic and strange, and dozens of figures lay in soiled sheets and cots along the floor, clutching pipes to their chests. They dozed, drifting in the currents of dreams, or smoked from the pipes.
Opium, Stevrin realized. Frank had vanished into an opium den. No wonder he hadn’t mentioned it, and no wonder he’d refused Stevrin’s offer of sanctuary; he must be an addict. Even the prospect of death couldn’t get in the drug’s way. Stevrin didn’t know how such an establishment could’ve killed Frank—at least not that way—but he had to assume it had contributed somehow.
A woman in an elaborately worked red-and-purple robe approached, bowing. “May I show you bed? Smoke ulkti?”
“No ulkti,” Stevrin said. “I’m lookin’ for a friend of mine. Frank.”
“You pay cover?”
She gestured to the darkness. “Make quick, boy.”
The place was so dark it was difficult to tell one lolling shape from another, save that sometimes they would bestir themselves to take a hit on their pipe. A real impressive lot they are. Of course, Stevrin had known several people who’d gotten hooked on one thing or another, and he’d seen how easy it took hold of someone. He couldn’t judge these folks too harshly.
“Come on, Frankie, here Frankie here Frankie,” he said, bending over one body, then another. Some looked more dead than alive. A few were Zanshinese, but most were locals. As a group, they looked gray and unhealthy, with sunken cheeks and withered limbs.
Stevrin glaned up just in time to see a dazzling figure round the bend. The man was tall and thin, clearly Zanshinese, clad in a golden silk robe that somehow glittered in the subdued lights of the room, which nonetheless threw shadows across his long, age-weathered face. A thin, wispy beard, more gray than black, drooped from his chin, framed by twin mustachios, and a tightly-bound queue fell down his back from an otherwise bald, age-wrinkled head.
Despite his advanced years, he moved gracefully, powerfully, and there was a strange sense of … well, of threat about him, as if just to stand near him were to risk one’s life. What Stevrin noticed most of all were his eyes, green as emeralds, as bright and shadowy as a rainforest. They weren’t just an unusual color for a Zanshinese; they were unusual for anybody. They were the eyes of a tiger.
Several shadowy figures surrounded the man—some sort of bodyguard?—but they blended so well with the darkness they were hard to see. They moved like water.
The man touched something at his waist, and Stevrin saw that he wore a thin hempen belt with numerous small pouches dangling from it. With eerily long fingers, he reached for one and handed it to one of the shadows, who bent over a figure lying on the ground and set the pouch before him.
Frank. The tall man had just given Frank his opium—or, as they seemed to call it, ulkti. Eagerly, Frank pinched some of the powder and stuffed it into the bowl of his pipe.
Someone new entered the den, an upright Zanshinese fellow in his early twenties, well dressed and handsome. Stevrin did not believe he was an addict. The tall man who must be master of the opium den saw him and waited, and the young man approached, obviously nervous and ill at ease to be in the tall man’s presence, which only made Stevrin think he’d been right in sensing a danger about him.
“Master Lo,” the young man said, bowing. “I bid you good evening on behalf of my father, who prays to the gods for your health and happiness.”
Master Lo waved this aside. “Tell me you have the items.” His voice was sharp and commanding, flecked with an exotic accent that may or may not have been Zanshinese.
The young man smacked his lips. “Well, you see, Master Lo, as it happens, and meaning no disrespect to your augustness, but my father requires more funds before he can produce the next ruby.”
“What?” Anger twisted Master Lo’s face. Stevrin would not want to be on the receiving end of that fury. Yet the young man did not flee or cringe.
“Sai-wong and I agreed on the price long ago,” Master Lo went on. “If I were not the … generous man I am … your father would be in grave trouble.”
The young man swallowed. “You don’t understand, Master—no, I’m not explaining very well. The fault is mine. I apologize. It’s not for my father’s purse that he requires the extra money, it’s that the search parties must be larger—it’s gotten too dangerous; the creatures infesting that area of the Below are like mad things—and we must hire more men, and for higher wages, to ward them off. It all requires funds that we don’t have. So,” he began again, “you see that—”
Master Lo’s glare silenced him. “I will pay you no more, save this. Tell me where the rubies are and I’ll retrieve them myself, creatures or no. I will pay you for the information, and then our business is concluded.”
“I will take your offer to my father, Master, but I doubt he will accept. He controls information, not sells it. But,” he added hastily, “I will beg him to reconsider.” The young man clearly longed to leave this place. Beads of sweat had popped out on his forehead.
“If you cannot negotiate on behalf of your father, he should not have sent you.”
“But – ”
The master snapped his fingers. Shadows leapt out of the darkness and grabbed the visitor, appearing with such suddenness that Stevrin had to suppress a gasp.
“Take Sai-thong to the black cells,” said Master Lo. “He will give us the location of the rubies if his father will not, and we will not have to pay him for the privilege.”
“NO!” screamed the young man, as the shadowy figures dragged him down the aisle toward a back room, or possibly a stairwell leading to some even darker dungeon. “You can’t do this! My father will—”
One of the shapes silenced him with a jerk, and he was gone.
Master Lo stared for a moment toward the spot where he’d vanished, then proceeded up the hall. Near its end, Stevrin saw him select more opium from a pouch and pass it to an attendant. Stevrin, wishing he were somewhere else, anywhere else, began to follow—
Frank erupted in flames.
Stevrin spun. Frank was ablaze, fire consuming him, smoke pouring off him in thick black billows. Stevrin rushed over, but there was nothing he could do. Frank screamed, head lifted back, the flesh of his face melting, and then with a clap of what sounded like thunder—the sound so loud it knocked Stevrin to the ground—he vanished from sight.
Stevrin stared, coughing. Frank had gone, disappeared into thin air, leaving only a pall of smoke behind him.
Stevrin swore. He had failed the man. Even now, if that was the right word, Frank would be traveling back in time to burst against the stall of the fireworks stand, spattering a then-Stevrin with flaming gore.
Angrily, Stevrin turned toward the shadowy shape of Master Lo just up the hall and advanced toward him, though what he would do if he caught the wizened Zanshinese he had no idea.
Before he completed his fifth step, one of the dark figures that had carried away Sai-thong, or someone just like them, rose up before him, stopping him with an upraised hand. In the other glimmered a short sharp length of steel.
“Who are you?” the shape demanded. “What do you here?”
It was a girl’s voice. Squinting, Stevrin saw that she couldn’t have been much older than himself, maybe even younger, petite and agile and dressed in black, her Zanshinese features composed in hard lines and her eyes like black jade.
She was pretty. If Stevrin hadn’t had the smoke of Frank’s burning body still clogging his nose and lungs, he might have said something else, but instead what he said was: “What the hell happened? He just went up like—like a match!”
She, of course, would have seen Frank burn and vanish. So would Master Lo and any other conscious person in the room. Yet no one acted surprised.
“His situation has been made note of,” she said, which struck Stevrin as a bizarre thing to say. “It’s no business of yours. Now you—”
“He was my father! I came here to beg him to stop smoking that crap. But I never dreamed—what happened to him?”
Her eyes grew colder, if that were possible. Did she know he was lying? “It is time for you to go.”
“Well, I’m not—”
She wasn’t in front of him anymore. Before he could react, one of his arms was twisted behind his back. Pointed metal pricked his throat.
The girl’s voice whispered in his ear, “Resist and join your father, if that’s who he really was to you.”
She marched him to the stairs and up. He didn’t resist. Once outside, the smell of opium and a burning Frank faded, replaced by the ever-present stench of soot and spices and the sea. The bouncer, who had returned, noted Stevrin and the girl but seemed reluctant to get involved; Stevrin thought he might be afraid of her.
“Consider yourself lucky,” she told Stevrin, releasing him.
“Lucky I didn’t get dragged to a torture cell like that other guy, you mean?” he said angrily, spinning, but she was gone.
“Holy crap,” Jack said, when Stevrin had finished relating what had happened. “And she was, like, hot?”
Harry popped him. “That’s what you took away from the story?”
Jack didn’t even seem to notice. “Who was she, anyway? I mean, all those guys you saw down there? The bodyguards? Are they, like, shojos?” He spoke of the legendary, half-mythical assassins of Zanshin.
Stevrin shrugged. “Why would shojos work for an opium dealer?”
“He’s not just an opium dealer,” Harry pointed out. “And it’s shojin. Shojo is singular. Anyway, I can’t believe they get items—rubies or anything else—from the Below. Gods, I hope we don’t have to go there again.”
Stevrin concurred. The boys had been to the huge system of caverns under the city, regrettably inhabited by the ruins of a long-vanished and inhuman race, more times than they were comfortable with as it was.
“We’re quit of that place,” Stevrin assured them.
“Wonder what this Master Lo’s doing to that guy he drug off?” Jack said. “What’d you call him, Sai-thong? I bet they’re tearing out his fingernails. Or maybe peeling off his eyelids. No, wait! Putting nails through his joints.” He seemed especially proud of that one.
“There’s nothing funny about that,” Harry said. “It’s horrible.”
“I need to get word to his father,” Stevrin said. “Apparently he’s a big shot among the Zanshinese. Maybe he can organize some sort of raid on the opium den, rescue his son and put a stop to whatever Master Lo’s up to. Also, he’ll know what the hell these rubies are. Somehow I think they’re responsible for what killed Frank.”
“Ah, man,” Jack whined. “Aren’t we done yet? I mean, ol’ Frank’s gone. No way to collect. We don’t even have a client anymore.”
Stevrin narrowed his eyes. “We do. He’s name’s Frank. Right now what’s left of him is rotting in some morgue shelf stinking like burnt pork, and Master Lo and his rubies are what did that to him. Well, Frank paid up, at least in part, so we owe him. We need to know about those rubies, so Sai-wong’s the place to start.”
“Sai-wong?” Harry asked, surprised. “That’s who Sai-thong’s father is?” “Yeah. You know him?”
“Anyone who reads the papers knows him! If you read anything but the funnies you would, too. He’s always mentioned in those tales of spooky stuff in the Zanshin Quarter. He sells strange herbs and things, and …” Harry’s voice grew low, dramatic “… he’s said to be a holder of secrets.”
“Great,” Jack said. “Count me out. I don’t mess with Zanshinese secret-holders and shojos and—”
Stevrin raised a hand. “You guys stay here. Keep a watch on the den for me, let me know what’s going on. I’ll find Sai-wong. Harry?”
Harry gave directions that were only very rough, as he could only remember the name of the street Sai-wong’s shop was on—a street notorious for shady dealings and sinister goings-on—and the general area. Armed with that, Stevrin set off into the streets of Lavorgna once again, fog wrapping him in its miasmal blanket. He wondered if even at that moment Sai-thong was being tortured for the whereabouts of the rubies, and he didn’t doubt for a moment that Master Lo, whoever he really was, was a master torturer. Of course, what Stevrin knew of the Zanshinese came mainly from B-movies and comic books, and he vaguely understood that not all Zanshinese were assassins and torture masters, but it seemed like they were the only ones he had any occasion to deal with. The normal ones didn’t make people burst into flames as they were transported back in time.
He found Hzien Road, the infamous boulevard of shady backroom dealings, and marched past countless Zanshinese taverns, tattoo parlors, massage parlors (both kinds), and fried slug stands (a Zanshinese staple), before finally stopping and asking a passer-by, an old woman with one black eye and one white one, where Sai-wong could be located. She stared at him impassively, then grunted and jerked her head up the block on the other side of the street.
Stevrin entered the shop to find himself surrounded by strange herbs and roots and less identifiable things, some hanging from the ceiling, some in jars, some behind the glass of the counter like meat in a butcher’s shop. The whole place stank of incense. At the counter a fat man, apparently a customer, was handing over money for an object that looked like an animal tooth to a middle-aged woman behind the counter, perhaps Sai-wong’s wife.
“I need to speak with Sai-wong,” Stevrin told her when the customer had gone.
The woman eyed him with the same impassive look the one-eyed woman had given him, only doubled. “You have no business with Sai-wong,” she said, and there was such finality in her voice that she half-convinced Stevrin she was right.
He gathered himself. “It’s about Sai-thong. His life’s in danger.”
Perhaps she was Sai-wong’s wife, and Sai-thong her son, as sudden worry entered her eyes. “Wait here.” She vanished through a bead curtain for several minutes, then returned. “Follow me.”
A younger woman had emerged to tend to the shop while the woman that was presumably Mrs. Sai-wong showed Stevrin through dark, cluttered back rooms full of mysterious-looking (and possibly stolen, Stevrin couldn’t help think) artifacts and finally into a tight, oppressively-cluttered office whose air was almost opaque with smoke. Two guards stood at the door, and two more stood behind a heavy, paper-covered desk to either side of a squat man with wrinkled skin and white hair, stroking a fat, half-bald cat.
“Are you Sai-wong?” Stevrin said. When the old man only nodded, Stevrin introduced himself and told him what had happened to his son.
Sai-wong’s expression grew grim. When Stevrin had finished, the old man barked some instructions in Zanshinese to one of his underlings, and the man bowed and departed.
“He goes to summon my forces,” Sai-wong explained. “We will break open Lo’s den and save my son, and I will use Lo’s scrotum to hold my tobacco.”
“Er … That’s what I was hoping.”
“I owe you a debt. What would you ask of me?”
Stevrin scratched his cheek. “I just want to know who the hell Master Lo really is. And what does he want with these rubies?”
Sai-wong—who, Stevrin realized, was a “Master” in his own right—nodded. “He’s a dangerous man, much feared and rumored about. He only arrived on this shore half a year ago. Before, he lived in Zanshin. There he went by a different name, though that too may have been false for all I know—To-ming, he was called—and he was the Master of the Guild of Assassins.”
“So he is a shojo.”
“Indeed. A great and terrible one, who trained others in his calling. Well, he did not become so skillful merely by mortal means. He delved deep into dark arts, conducting experiments with exotic substances and necromancy that were deemed too vile and hazardous even among his own guild. They tried to kill him, but he was too cunning. He slipped away. He knew he could not remain in Zanshin, so he crossed the sea and established himself here under a new name—and some say face. He has loyal followers who came with him. They worship him almost as the leader of a cult worships its messiah, and he trains more youths, recruited here, to become shojin. He’s building an army.”
“What about the rubies?”
“He continues his experiments in the arcane and otherworldly. The rubies come from the ruins of the Below, though only my clan knows where the rubies are located exactly. When Master Lo appeared on my doorstep some months ago seeking some item to fuel his research, I allowed my greed to temper my caution and sold him one of the rubies. I only harvest one at a time, so as not to attract the attention of the beings drawn to them. Thus I asked a steep price for it, and he paid. I don’t know what he did with it, but he soon grew obsessed and had to have more … and more. What awful experiments he was doing I can’t say, but this was when the reports of the burnt ones began to appear.”
“Like Frank,” Stevrin said, nodding. “I’ve got to find out what Lo’s up to.”
“He won’t be up to anything soon, young man, except to scream. For every scratch he’s laid upon my boy, I will apply tenfold to him, and his agonies shall sing me to sleep for years to come. I’m not the only one with black cells in which to place my enemies.”
Stevrin suddenly wondered if Sai-wong would allow him to leave. The old man must have seen his fright, as he laughed.
“You need not fear me, boy. In—”
The overhead light clicked off.
Darkness drowned the room, save for a smattering of candles throwing vague light on golden idols and ebon salamanders. The doors flung open—there were two, apparently, the main one and one hidden behind the desk; the attackers had known about both—and figures in black rushed in.
Screams surrounded Stevrin, then abruptly cut off, replaced by gurgling, then silence. Bodies fell to the floor. Ignoring Stevrin, the dimly-glimpsed attackers, who must be shojin, dispatched the bodyguards quickly and converged on Sai-wong.
The old man reached for something in a desk drawer. A blade flickered, and the reaching hand fell away. The stump spouted blood like a fountain. The master screamed. More blades hacked away his other hand, then his feet. In the time it took Stevrin to draw three breaths, the old man, de-limbed, was hauled up on the desk.
A single figure remained above the old man’s corpse.
“No one threatens Master Lo,” it said, and plunged a blade into Sai-wong’s heart. The old man gave one last convulsive heave and went still.
As if they truly were shadows, the shojin melted away, vanishing like smoke. Only one remained, petite and sinewy, poised before Stevrin, knife glimmering in her small fist. Either she had not partaken of the carnage or she had moved so quickly and deftly no blood had been left on the blade.
“G-go on,” Stevrin stammered, having to speak past the lump in his throat. He couldn’t believe the suddenness with which it had all happened. Had the shojin killed the middle-aged woman, too, the one that might have been Sai-thong’s mother or sister? And what about the young woman that had been tending the shop? Had Master Lo decided to wipe out the whole place?
“If you’re supposed to kill me, do it,” he said. “I can’t stop you.”
Color tinted the girl’s cheeks, and her eyes flashed with heat. The bloodletting had gotten her going.
“I’m not supposed to kill you,” she said. “You have no part in this, and Master Lo only moves against his enemies. Sai-wong would have sought reprisal for his son and had to be dealt with.” She paused, then, very pointedly, said, “Are you an enemy, Stevrin?”
“How did you know my—”
“Decide where your best interests lie, whether in living or dying. We are honorable people. You are an outsider and have no part in this. Consider this your last chance. Either get out of the master’s way, or …”
She started to move off, but he grabbed her wrist. Her eyes widened, whether at his audacity or that he’d been quick enough to catch her he wasn’t sure.
“Who are you?” he said.
She remained silent for a moment. “If you mean my name, I used to be called Mae.”
“You’re not called that anymore?”
“We of the Order have no names.”
“What’s the Order? That the shojin cult?”
“You know all you are going to.”
“What’s your master doing, Mae? What’s he up to with the ru— ?”
She twisted away and vanished, leaving him with the dead.
They’d killed everyone in the shop, excepting a couple who’d come to buy an aphrodisiac made from the mashed eyeball of a great squid. The couple had called the police, and sirens were approaching as Stevrin slipped away. Breathless, spattered with a few errant drops of blood, he found Jack and Harry where he’d left them outside the opium den.
“I vote getting out of their way,” Jack said, when Stevrin had related events. “You saw what happened to people that don’t.”
Harry opened his mouth to object, then closed it. Even he seemed intimidated by a master assassin involved in dark arts lording over a cult of shojin. Stevrin didn’t blame him.
“We’ve gotta stop Master Lo from getting more of those rubies,” Stevrin said, “or more people will die.”
“What does he do with them, anyway?” Jack asked.
“Gods know,” Stevrin says, “but it’s got something to do with that opium.”
“Maybe this is something the police should handle,” Harry suggested.
“First of all, who’re you kidding?” Stevrin said. “When have the police ever done anything against a power player in the Zanshin Quarter—or anywhere else, for that matter? They’re too deep in their pockets. Second, what could the cops do against someone like Lo? Brute force can’t fight a shadow.”
“Fine, so what if we did try to stop them?”
“Oh, for hell’s sake,” Jack groaned. “Don’t encourage him.”
“How would we do it?” Harry pressed.
“Well,” Stevrin said slowly, “he’ll need to reach the Below to get more rubies. That means we—”
“You said we were quit of that place!” Jack said. “Your own words: ‘We’re quit of that place’.” He imitated Stevrin’s voice mockingly.
“Yeah, well,” Stevrin said, “even the greats are wrong occasionally. But it’s necessary. Obviously Lo got what he needed outta Sai-thong or he wouldn’t have killed his pop. There’s no direct shot to the Below around here, so to get there Lo’ll have to go through the sewers. So—I guess we camp out in the big stink and follow them when they go.”
An hour later, Stevrin paced and smoked on a walkway beside a foul, gurgling stream while Jack cursed quietly and Harry tried not to throw up again. Only a few service lights flickered here and there, but it was enough to see by. The smell was so strong all three boys had retched, Harry three times, although after the second time it was just dry heaves. The acrid reek burned Stevrin’s nose and watered his eyes, and he knew he’d have to take about twenty showers to get the smell off, and his clothes … well, there was always the furnace. He and the others would have to use Frank’s down payment to buy new attire.
“We’ve waited long enough,” Jack said finally. “If we don’t get out of here the air’s gonna kill us.”
“Is that possible?” Stevrin said, directing the question at Harry, who was more learned than any of them.
Harry shrugged. “What am I, an air doctor? But it really sucks down here, Stev. This isn’t one of your better plans. If Frank was still alive, I’d say we need to jack up the price.”
“Well, he isn’t,” Stevrin snapped. Their constant carping was finally starting to piss him off. “If he was—”
Noises up the corridor. All three boys quieted and slunk deeper into the shadows as dark figures rounded a cross-channel up ahead and moved out of sight. The boys had waited out of the way they supposed the Lo party would have to go so they wouldn’t be seen by any shojin, and they’d been careful to keep their voices to the thinnest whispers possible.
Quick, furtive shadows, about a dozen of them—was Master Lo with them? it was impossible to tell—moved with purpose across a stone bridge over the nasty river and vanished around a bend. Stevrin traded significant looks with Jack and Harry, then set out after them. With obvious reluctance, the other two boys followed.
They trailed the Lo party for what seemed like forever until at last the stone corridors turned rough and jagged, becoming natural caverns under the city appropriated by the sewer contractors for the natural rivers that ran through them, now providing speed to the filth that ran down the dark stone beds. Countless archways opened all around, natural caves leading off gods knew where—well, Stevrin knew, at least where some of them went, anyway. The shojin didn’t pause or hesitate but plowed directly into one whose rough floor angled down. Into the Below.
Stevrin waited a minute, then went after them. Jack cursed silently and Stevrin punched him in the arm.
The corridor emerged at last—after perhaps twenty minutes of breathless wandering through a darkness cut only by the alchemical glow-lamps the shojin used to light their way; if Stevrin’s group lagged too far behind they lost their only light—into a great open cavern cut by a gorge that dropped away into the depths of the world and was perhaps a mile across. It was too dark for Stevrin to make out much of the details, but he’d been here before, as had the other boys, and he knew that strange alien structures hugged the sides of the massive cavern, buildings that had lain dormant for millions of years, built by the so-called Elders, that long-vanished inhuman race.
The Lo party moved down a walkway between strange humped buildings leaning dangerously out over the abyss, some with weird needle-like projections sticking even further out over the chasm, as if straining toward something in the center of all that blackness. Stevrin and the boys followed a respectable distance behind.
The shojin hesitated at various cross-streets, if that’s what they were, as if unsure of their way and having to consult directions. Several times they took a ramp-way leading up or down (as the ruined city had been arranged vertically and had no stairs, only ramps; had the Elders slithered instead of walked?). At last the party paused before a great structure set into the rock wall of the cavern, a building whose main portion was something like a huge dome; six tall towers jutted up from it at bizarre angles, each crazily-leaning tower perfectly cylindrical and dotted by small, regularly-spaced openings.
Stevrin had received an impression of great antiquity and quiet from the rest of the ruins he’d past through, a sense of emptiness … but not here. Something in the area was alive.
The shojin felt it too, as evidenced by the long blades that suddenly glimmered in their hands—and none too soon.
Ghostly, spindly shapes poured out of the main opening of the dome and drove straight toward Lo’s party. Stevrin reeled to see enormous white spiders, each taller than a man but fragile-looking, almost beautiful, with gossamer-thin legs and shining eyes red as blood.
Three shojin stood back with lamps, illuminating the scene for the rest, who didn’t wait for the tide of great spiders to reach them, a tide that stretched into the building, but charged the creatures with swords flashing. Long white limbs struck at dark figures. Gleaming blades cut the air, severing legs and cleaving carapaced white bodies. They sprayed gray-green ichor with every stroke. These things are what Sai-thong had referred to, why his father had demanded more money. No wonder.
It seemed the shojin were quite able to handle the creatures on their own, however. After over a score of the spiders had been slaughtered, the rest, chittering and screeching, fled back into the building, leaving Master Lo’s party to recuperate.
And Lo was there, Stevrin saw.
The master of assassins kicked the body of a huge spider, ducked nimbly aside as a leg twitched, and thrust his blade into the thing’s body. It shuddered and died. Master Lo shook the ichor off his weapon and turned to his people, all of whom had, amazingly, survived the brief battle.
“The structure is just where he said it would be,” Master Lo said. “But there are other creatures scattered about, and they will smell the blood of their kin. Possibly they will converge on us to investigate. You and you—” he pointed “—stay at the entrance to ward off attack if possible and to warn us if not. The rest, follow me. We’ll find the rubies and retrieve as many as we need. I am not bound by Sai-wong’s fear.”
He swept inside, and his assassins followed, vanishing into the dome building. Only one of the sentries left outside carried a glow-lamp, diminishing the light in the massive chamber considerably, and Stevrin could only now see the glints of Harry’s and Jack’s eyes and only the vaguest suggestion of their faces and the ruins they hid in. They’d sheltered in a medium-sized structure across some sort of plaza in front of the spiky dome. Stevrin was tempted to take out his cigarette lighter and examine the area more closely, but resisted.
“I think I hear something,” Harry whispered.
Stevrin strained his ears. “Just your imagination.”
“It’s those things. They’re here!”
“Oh crap oh crap,” muttered Jack, looking all around.
“There’s nothing,” Stevrin said. “Calm down. We need to think of a way to stop Lo from getting those damn rubies.”
“Good luck,” Jack snorted. “If he can kill those spiders, then—”
“Did you hear that?” Harry whispered.
He and Jack looked all around, eyes shining. The attack of the giant spiders had evidently unnerved them to the point that they could concentrate on nothing else.
“Fine,” Stevrin said, shaking his head. “Take your lighters and go check this level out, make sure we’re alone. Don’t go too far and don’t trigger your lighters till you’re out of sight of that dome building.”
The boys agreed and moved off in separate directions, each clutching a stone in one hand in his lighter in the other. Not for the first time, Stevrin was glad they all smoked.
Suppressing a sigh, he turned back to the dome. Somewhere in there Master Lo was probably finding the rubies right now.
Wait a minute. Stevrin looked again. Sure enough, one of the sentries was gone. A chill ran down his spine.
He tried to tell himself to relax. The sentry had probably just gone off scouting like Jack and Harry, or possibly to—
Cold metal pricked his throat, and a familiar voice whispered in his ear, “So you’ve made your choice, then. I’m sorry, Stevrin. It was the wrong one.”
Stevrin tried to get his breathing under control. Mae was right behind him, ready to slit his throat. He would only get one chance at this.
“Listen,” he said, not having to force the urgency into his voice. “We’re not here to try to hurt your master or stop him. We’re here to help. See, he’s looking for the rubies in the wrong place.”
“Nonsense. Sai-thong gave us precise directions, and the dome is just where he said it would be. The spiders prove it.”
“He was having you on. Trust me. You were torturing the poor bastard and he was just trying to screw with you.”
She jerked her knife hand, just a bit, and he winced as it bit into the tender flesh of his throat. A drop of blood welled out.
“Stop your lies,” she said. “Where’s your friend? I know you didn’t come here alone. I can smell him.”
“That’s impressive. I figured we all just stank like—”
She cut him again. “Where?”
A noise to the side, a faint scuttling sound.
“Hey, what’s the deal?” Harry said, coming on them and blinking his eyes. He’d flicked off his cigarette lighter when he’d rounded the corner and the flame had evidently ruined his night vision. “Why’re you talking to yourself, Stev?”
Mae didn’t hesitate but cocked her arm to throw her knife at Harry. Stevrin elbowed her in the ribs. She had prepared for that and with shocking adroitness slipped aside. The movement threw off her aim, though, and the blade whistled by Harry’s face and glanced off the stone wall behind him. Stevrin wrapped his arms around Mae and tried to tackle her to the ground, but like a puff of smoke she vanished. Pain flared in his cheek. Then she was crouching over the fallen knife, Harry stumbling back. He still held a stone in one hand but was too petrified to use it, and Stevrin couldn’t get up fast enough to help him.
Mae approached Harry warily, preparing to slit his throat.
A missile hurled through the darkness. She grunted and fell to one knee. Jack stepped out of the shadows, eyes wide and terrified.
Stevrin rolled across the dusty floor, meaning to bowl Mae over now that she was halfway down, but she spun to him, knife gleaming, and he knew he was about to die.
Harry moved at last, his throwing arm a blur.
Thunk. Mae toppled to the ground.
Wheezing for breath, Stevrin plucked the knife from her grip and shoved it through his waistband. All trembling and gasping, the boys stood over the girl as if transfixed by the sight—really only a vague, shadowy impression—of the helpless young shojo temporarily insensible.
“I think I pissed myself,” Jack whispered.
Stevrin thought he was right; the reek had grown subtly worse.
“What’ll we do with her?” Harry said. “I mean, I hate to say it, but maybe the drop-off … I mean, she would’ve killed us. If she comes to, she will. And we’re fresh out of ropes to tie her with. What d’ya think, Stev?”
They turned to him, and he frowned. Throwing her off the gorge did have an appeal, but he couldn’t countenance the murder of a helpless—well, unconscious—girl. Yet Harry was right. She would kill them if they couldn’t restrain her.
“We’ll tie her with my clothes,” he said, already tugging them off.
“Your what?” Jack said.
“Quick,” Stevrin said, “get her pajamas off her. I’m gonna put ‘em on. That way the others in Lo’s group won’t kill me when I get close. I’m gonna get into their midst and steal the rubies out from under ‘em.”
Harry and Jack stared from him to Mae.
“You want us to undress her?” Harry said. He said this as though it were an alien concept.
“And be quick about it.”
After sharing a guilty look between the two of them, Jack and Harry followed orders, perhaps with a bit more eagerness than strictly called for, and when she was naked—and she was, Stevrin saw; apparently shojin wore no underwear—he oversaw the tying up of her slender, supple limbs.
“Man, it’s so dark,” Jack said. “I can’t hardly see anything. Maybe … just a little light …” “Don’t even think about it,” Stevrin said, giving him another punch on the arm, then finished putting on Mae’s outfit, which proved a bit snug, but not too much. It covered him from head to toe, leaving only his eyes and hands visible. He doubted the other assassins would be able to tell that he wasn’t Mae, at least until it was too late, and without his clothes the stench he gave off was considerably reduced. He rubbed some dirt into his hair to conceal what was left.
“Well,” he said, “do I look like a shojo?”
“Sure,” Harry said. “I’m shakin’ in my boots.”
“It’ll have to do. Now you two don’t grope Mae too much while I’m gone, okay?”
He needn’t have bothered. Both boys had been obviously terrified of touching Mae as they’d disrobed her, flinching at her every unconscious twitch and flutter, and both seemed quite relieved to have that chore done with. They were in no hurry to get within striking distance again.
As if to confirm this, Jack said, “I don’t know whether I’m more afraid of her or the spiders back there.”
“Wait,” Stevrin said, looking at him sharply. “You did find spiders?”
“Oh. Yeah. When I was scoutin’ around.”
“Why didn’t you tell me?”
“Right. Sorry. See, I came on a huge room, like hundreds of feet across and real high, and the whole thing was spun with webs. I could just barely see ‘em, and there were these big white blobs all about. Guess they were sleepin’. I got outta there fast as I could.”
Stevrin tugged at his pajamas, straightening them. “Interesting.”
“What do mean?” Harry said, suspicious. “There’s nothing interesting about a room full of giant spiders.”
Stevrin smiled. “New plan.”
The spiders were just where Jack said they’d be, slumbering in a huge, web-spanned lair deep in the center of the building; their eyes glittered faintly by the meager illumination of the cigarette lighter, and Stevrin burned his fingers several times before he’d gotten a good enough look to satisfy himself that there were enough of the creatures to do what he needed.
“This is a stupid plan,” Jack said, not for the first time.
“Yeah, well, it’s the one I’m goin’ with. Now get back to Harry. Don’t want Mae wakin’ up with just one of you lot to guard her, do we? Now hurry. I’m about to kick this thing in gear.”
“You’re mad,” Jack said, but he said it as he was moving hurriedly away.
Stevrin eyed the chamber. There must be hundreds of enormous spiders. Just what I’ve always wanted. Spiders and webs and more spiders and webs. And … a lighter.
“Let’s just see how flammable these things are,” he muttered, flicking the lighter on again and positioning it under a strand of pale silk-like threads. He held his breath.
The flame leapt into the webbing. Immediately it blazed up. The flame spread, engulfing another strand, then another.
Aware that the spiders could kill him at any moment, Stevrin quickly set several more fires in various parts of the chamber and bolted to the room’s main entrance. In moments, a tide of giant white spiders, wrathful, scuttled toward him.
Stevrin ran. The skitters and scrapes of the spiders echoed around him almost as loudly as his madly-thumping heart. He glanced over his shoulder—once, only once—to see them clicking along floor, wall and ceiling, gaining with every second. The darkness hid his footing, but he’d studied the way well. He swept past the spot where Harry and Jack hid with Mae and burst outside, tearing across the plaza toward the dome building.
Though it was dark and the remaining sentry was far away, Stevrin saw the shojo jump in shock at the sight of (what looked like) a fellow assassin pursued by a horde of giant spiders, approaching at a dead run and bringing the spiders with it.
Breathless, Stevrin flew past him into the dome building. The shojo hesitated, then followed. Like Stevrin, he wasted no breath on words, but Stevrin knew his orders were to warn Master Lo if more spiders arrived. Stevrin slowed slightly, letting the shojo lead the way; doubtless his hearing and smell could pick out his master better than Stevrin could.
The rapid scuttling of the spiders increased in pitch and frenzy; the creatures had entered the dome building.
The shojo lead the way up a winding ramp and burst into a medium-sized chamber, where Master Lo and the other shojin picked dusty red jewels from sinister black walls bristling with alien architecture and ornamentation; the jewels seemed to form parts of some strange machinery embedded in the walls. As one shojo pried out a ruby, he or she would pass it down, finally arriving at Master Lo, who placed the jewel in a satchel slung over his shoulder.
All the shojin snapped to attention as Stevrin and the sentry ran in, sweating, the sentry shouting, “Spiders are coming!”
Master Lo drew himself up straight, whipping out his long blade. “Stand your ground,” he said. “We will deal with them momentarily.”
A half circle of shojin formed around him, and no one noticed as Stevrin slipped behind the line and positioned himself close to Lo. He just needed to wait until the spiders had distracted the assassins, grab the bag of rubies and flee through the rear doorway. He tried to see if there was another exit, but before he could study the room in greater detail, the spiders exploded into the room.
The shojin leapt into action, slicing and hacking with eerie grace, leaping from one spot to another as if not made of the same corporeal stuff as the rest of the universe, shadows with blades. Of them all, Master Lo, who after the first wave was just as exposed as the rest, proved the greatest warrior despite his age, his long sword flickering in and out like the tongue of a serpent, spilling ichor and spider guts left and right. Stevrin tried to get in close to the bag of rubies, but that long blade was too menacing, and the wall of spider limbs and mandibles daunted him. If any of the shojin wondered why one of their number hung back from the battle, none asked. Their attention was firmly focused elsewhere.
The spiders broke on the line of defenders, but they kept coming … and coming … There were just too many of the creatures, and the fire had enraged them, made them reckless.
“Back!” Master Lo said. “Fall back!”
The shojin retreated down a hall, the arachnids driving at them, relentless, and Stevrin was forced back with them. His every instinct told him to flee, fast and far. This was madness. He would be devoured or skewered, or both.
The spiders pursued the shojin down one tight, winding hall, then another, never giving up, and here, for the first time, shojin began to fall. One spider spat a gob of acid that burned through one man’s face and head. Another arachnid pinned a writhing shojo to the ground and crushed his head between iron mandibles, then began to devour him. Another sprayed webbing from its posterior, sticking a female shojo to the wall and then dispatching her with a lance-sharp foreleg.
Still, it seemed Master Lo and the shojin must prove victorious in the end. For every one of them that fell, ten or twenty of the giant bugs died, and piles of dead spiders impeded the progress of the rest. Shortly they would not be able to get at Master Lo’s party, at least until the spiders cleared the channel, and during that interval the shojin could slip away. Stevrin had merely to wait until—
“What’s that?” Master Lo said, cocking his head as he dodged a skewering thrust from a spider leg, then stabbing the offending creature through the head. “There are sounds behind us.”
They’d reached a high-ceilinged, octagonal chamber with various archways leading from it, and, sure enough, from one to the rear came the sounds of more spiders, a large group by the sound of it—the ones the shojin beat earlier, they must be. The inhabitants of this place had come to defend it.
Master Lo glared in the direction of the sounds, took a breath, then rammed his sword back in its sheath.
“What are you doing, Master?” one of the shojin said.
“Draw in a circle around me.”
They hesitated but obeyed, even as they warded off the diminishing tide of spiders to the front, a tide stemmed by all the corpses.
The sounds of the arachnids to the rear drew louder, closer.
To Stevrin’s surprise, Master Lo withdrew a long-stemmed pipe and prepared to stuff it with tobacco or opium from a very specific pouch; he sorted through several before finding it.
“No, Master!” one of the shojin said. “You can’t leave us!”
Leave us? Stevrin thought. What could he mean? And why was Master Lo choosing now, the worse moment in history, for a smoke?
Lo struck a match, touched it to his bowl, and inhaled a long, deep puff. As he did, he closed his eyes and spoke two words:
A clap of what sounded like thunder shook the room, and Master Lo blinked out of existence, utterly and completely.
Mouth agape, Stevrin stared at the spot where he’d been.
The shojin looked at each other, then turned back to the oncoming horde. They had only moments left to live and they knew it.
As the new wave of spiders erupted from the tunnel and engaged the shojin in what must be their final stand, Stevrin did what the assassins could not. With both sides occupied, the shojin keeping the spiders occupied and vice versa, he slipped down a side passageway, flicked his lighter on, and fled as fast as he could, trying to ignore the sounds of screams and ripping flesh behind him.
“I don’t believe you!” Mae said, struggling in her bonds. “You lie! The master would never abandon us!”
“Well … he did,” Stevrin said, still getting his breath back. “Want me to … take you to the bodies?”
She opened her mouth angrily, as if to demand he do that very thing, then paused, her eyes searching his face. She slumped back against the wall and, in a quieter voice, said, “No, it’s too awful,” but she said it with a lack of conviction. “We would die for him. I know he would do the same for us.”
“He used you, face it,” Stevrin said. “You and all those like you. All he wanted was the rubies.”
“What for, though?” Harry said.
“Yeah,” echoed Jack. “And how’d he disappear like that?”
Stevrin stared expectantly at Mae. Very awkwardly, they had redressed her in her black shojo outfit, it taking all three of them to do so and hold her down at the same time. It was better than her being naked, though; that had discomfited them even more. And she had refused to wear Stevrin’s clothes.
“Do you really expect me to tell you?” she said. “The master’s plans are sacred. His plans are … ” Her voice trailed away. Angrily, she kicked at a stone but failed, as her ankles were still tied together.
“He’s not your master anymore,” Stevrin said gently. “You’re your own master, and you have no allegiance to a man that betrayed you.”
She swore. “The knowledge will do you no good, but fine.” Sucking in a breath, she said, “The rubies have certain … properties.”
Through gritted teeth, she said, “Properties that, when properly refined and mixed in with other compounds, can be blended with opium or tobacco and smoked; the smoke can infuse the cells of the smoker and transform him, if only temporarily. Give him power, power to shift through space … even time. To go anywhere, anytime.”
“Gods,” said Harry.
The boys looked at each other, dumbfounded.
“Imagine an order of assassins that can move through space and time,” Mae went on. “Imagine the power they would wield. They could go into history, kill an emperor on his throne, then vanish. No nation, no army could stand against them.”
“And the man that led that order could be anything he wanted,” Stevrin said, nodding. “He could be king of the world.”
“Gods,” Harry said again. “I’m going to be sick.”
“That’s some heavy crap,” Jack agreed.
“So what’s the problem?” Stevrin asked Mae. “I mean, why is Master Lo trying out new mixtures on opium addicts? That’s what he’s doing, right, using them as lab rats?”
“Something like that.”
She looked away. “Master Lo has solved the space part of the equation. He has a compound that, when smoked, can cause him to travel instantly anywhere he chooses around the world—but not anywhen. He hasn’t yet come on the right formula to master time. Or he hadn’t.”
“Through time, yeah, of course,” Harry said. “That’s why Frank appeared in the past—well, what would’ve been the past to him, if he’d been alive to realize it. Lo was sending people through time. But it must have been unstable, right? That’s why the lab rats—victims, I mean—burst into flames.”
“Poor Frank,” said Stevrin.
“Yes, but now Master Lo has discovered the formula,” Mae went on. “That man, you said he was your father, he was one of the last subjects necessary. When Master Lo heard over the radio of his appearance and manner earlier tonight, the master was able to put the final adjustment needed on the equation. He had only to remember to administer your, ah, Frank’s mixture at the right time, which was easy enough; it had already been scheduled, after all. Before you arrived the master had already tried out three other mixtures. The last two worked, and the subjects appeared at the right place and the right time.” Her eyes gleamed. “It worked. The formula … is ready. He’s ready, the master, to use it himself. He only needed one of the rubies to do it. He’d hoped to have enough for all of us, but …”
“How long’ll it take him to get the opium mix ready for him to use it?”
She rolled her shoulders. “An hour, maybe.”
Stevrin looked at the other boys. “In an hour that bastard’ll be the master of fricking space and time. Are we gonna let that happen?”
Jack opened his mouth, then, much as Mae had done, closed it. “Naw,” he said. “Guess not. But you really owe me big for this, Stev.”
To Mae, Stevrin, “We’ll need your help.”
“I won’t kill Master Lo,” she said. “He may have betrayed us, but he’s been like a father to me. Besides, I couldn’t if I wanted to.”
“He needs to be stopped.”
She said nothing for a moment. “I thought he deserved to be a god. It seems I was wrong.” In a low, firm, angry voice, she said, “I’ll show you the secret entrance into the opium den, the one that connects from the sewers. From there you can enter the den unseen.”
“Excellent,” Stevrin said.
“After that, you’re on your own.”
“There’s a panel there,” she said, indicating an area of the slime-encrusted stone wall. Though her hands were tied behind her back, her legs were free, and she indicated with one foot where she meant. “Turn that thing that sticks out, yes, like that …” The panel swung away, revealing a tight tunnel leading to a black iron ladder. “It goes up, into the subbasements of Master Lo’s den.”
“What should we do with her?” Jack said, as they contemplated the ladder.
“Will you try to kill us if we release you?” Stevrin asked Mae.
“I could kill you right now with my bare feet.”
The boys moved back from her. She smiled.
“I think we’ll just let her work her way out of the bonds,” Stevrin said, by which he meant his shirt. The only thing he wore on his upper body now was his threadbare jacket.
“Shouldn’t take her long,” Jack muttered. “The stink down here’ll dissolve just about anything.”
“You know what you’re doing is suicide,” Mae said. “There is no way you can defeat the master.”
Jack and Harry looked pale.
“Never mind her, boys,” Stevrin said. “C’mon.”
They mounted the ladder. Stevrin thrust open the metal hatch and pulled himself up and into the lowest level of Lo’s opium den. Looking around, he saw a dark, musty hall lined with metal doors. A strange, unnatural reek, like burning plastic, filled his nostrils. It must have been strong to overcome the stench of his clothes.
Noises came from behind a certain door in the direction in which the reek was strongest. He cautiously approached it and peered past the barred grill. Instantly, he drew back.
“What is it?” whispered Harry, and made to look.
Stevrin pulled him away. Drawing the boys aside, he hissed, “It’s Lo and a few goons in some sorta lab. Grinding flakes off a ruby and mixing them into other things. Mae said it’d take him about an hour. How long’s it been?”
“About an hour,” Jack said, looking at his sometimes-functioning watch.
“Great,” said Harry. “So what first?”
“Let’s find Sai-thong,” Stevrin told them.
They located the young man inside a cell down the hall, and Harry, an expert (and somewhat reformed) burglar, opened the door for them. Sai-thong had been strapped to a bed and stuck with what looked like a hundred needles, a human pincushion. Even after the boys plucked the needles from him, obviously some sort of torture device, he could barely move.
It didn’t dampen his rage, though.
“I … will … kill … him,” he gasped, as the boys helped him sit up. “Kiiiillll …”
“Guess you heard what Lo did to your pops,” Stevrin said.
Hate blazed in Sai-thong’s black eyes. “He … will … die.”
“I was hopin’ you’d feel like that,” Stevrin said. “Your dad was gonna call his boys, stage a raid on the den. They’re your boys now. I need you to make the call.”
Sai-thong nodded dully. “Get … me … a … phone.”
“No good,” Jack said. “Stev, don’t you get it? Lo will just take a puff off his magic pipe soon as he hears Sai’s boys comin’ and—poof.”
Confusion entered Sai-thong’s eyes.
“Don’t worry about it,” Stevrin said.
“What are you thinkin’?” Harry said.
Stevrin told them, and they swore. When he was done, he said, “Harry, Jack, help our friend outta here. Get him to a pay phone.”
“What about that bouncer?”
“He keeps people out, not in. Just throw somethin’ over Sai so he doesn’t see the wounds. He might grow suspicious then.”
The boys grimaced but did as they were asked, and shortly Stevrin was alone, waiting impatiently. Had it been enough time? He sucked down a breath and got his thoughts in order. This was it. Now or never.
He inched his way toward the stairs and climbed up, smelling the earthy reek of the opium den even before he entered it. He hesitated on its edge, eyes scanning for lurking shadows, but if they were there he didn’t see them. Bracing himself, he stepped inside. Wretched shapes surrounded him, twitching and calling out in opiate fantasies. Well, at least no more of their number would be burnt alive and sent back in time screaming after tonight. One way or another.
He moved cautiously to the spot where Frank had gone up in flames. The air still stank of soot and charred flesh.
Stevrin squinted, looking for something. At first he couldn’t find it, and he feared that it had been collected or stolen. But there! A small black pouch, still slightly open.
He reached out, grabbed it, and started to tuck it away—
“Who are you?”
Ice flooded Stevrin’s veins. Crap. It could only be one voice.
“Who?” the speaker demanded again.
Stevrin didn’t turn. There hadn’t been enough time, he realized. Sai-thong’s people couldn’t have gotten here that fast. Damn it!
A rough hand grabbed him. Spun him about.
For the first time, Stevrin came face to face with Master Lo. The ancient Zanshinese man’s eyes glared into his, a startling green, like the eyes of a great cat, a monstrous predator ablaze with some secret, inner fire. His dangling mustaches struck downward with all the arrogance of a devil. And there was a smell about him, musty and strange, oddly spicy …
His eyes … his terrible eyes … engulfing, devouring …
“You will tell me who you are,” a voice said from far away … far, far away …
Stevrin drifted, lost in green clouds, floating in an emerald fog from which there was no exit, no escape, and all around was darkness and things with long sharp claws.
“Tell me!” the voice demanded.
“I … am … “ Stevrin sweated, licking his lips. Think, he told himself. Think! “Your … worst … damn … nightmare.”
Lo growled and hauled Stevrin high into the air with one hand while whipping out a dagger with the other. He coiled his arm to gut Stevrin right there and then.
“No!” Stevrin said. “Wait! I know something!”
“What?” Lo said, eyes narrowing. He gripped Stevrin tightly. He may be old, but he was powerful.
“I know where there’s—a—yeah, wait—no, really—a treasure! Oh, yeah! A pirate treasure! See, there’s this cove, and a cave, and—”
The door burst open and footsteps thundered down the stairs. Lo dropped Stevrin and wheeled to confront the intruders. Sai-thong, half supported by an underling, led ten armed, rough-looking Zanshinese men.
“You,” Master Lo said. His face twisted in rage.
“You will … regret what you did … to my family,” Sai-thong wheezed. He was still recovering from his torture.
Lo’s attention was fixed on the newcomers. Stevrin would never get a better chance than this. Holding his breath, Stevrin reached toward the string of opium pouches dangling from Master Lo’s waist and did what needed to be done, moving with the speed that the life of a pick-pocket had lent him.
“I will regret nothing,” Master Lo said, turning toward the rear exit.
Men erupted from there as well. They must have come up through the sewers. Harry and Jack must have told them the way.
“You err, Sai-thong,” Master Lo said. As he spoke, he produced his pipe and a pouch of opium. “In moments I’ll be back in time, and I’ll kill you before you have a chance to stage this farce. Farewell.”
He emptied the pouch into his bowl, struck a match and lit it. Taking a puff, he said, “The basement. An hour a – ”
He burst into fire. Flames consumed him, starting from his torso but quickly eating up his entire body, from feet to head. Soon he was all ablaze, a living human torch. Stevrin, Sai-thong and the others recoiled at the heat and smoke. The stench of burning human fat filled the air.
Master Lo threw back his head and screamed. The flesh of his face melted and his green eyes drooled down his cheeks, and then thunder clapped and he vanished from sight.
“You did it!” Harry said, popping out from the ranks of Sai-thong’s men and embracing Stevrin.
Jack was right behind him. “I didn’t think you’d switch Lo’s pouch with Frank’s in time.”
Stevrin waggled his fingers. “Like lightning, I’m tellin’ you.”
Sai-thong approached them. He was limping still, but walking on his own, which was an improvement. “I owe you a great debt.”
Stevrin started to reply, then realized the flames that had consumed Master Lo were spreading. He’d worn long robes, and some of the smoldering fabric had sprinkled out over the room, still burning, and now trails of smoke rose from all over.
“Hurry,” Stevrin said.
With Sai-thong and his men to help them, the boys rousted the opium addicts, having to carry some, and emerged coughing into the night. It had begun to rain. Before them the opium den burned, the fires hissing in the downpour. Stevrin eyed the poor wretches, all huddling on the street and sidewalks, soaked.
“You said you owed me a debt,” he reminded Sai-thong. “I was going to ask for money, but can you do something about these guys instead?” He gestured at the addicts. “Like, straighten ‘em out or something. Get ‘em off the pipe.”
“Ah, man,” said Jack, but Stevrin ignored him.
Sai-thong appraised Stevrin, then took in the addicts solemnly, as if girding himself for the task. At last he nodded. “I will do what can be done.”
Stevrin breathed easier. “Good.”
Sirens screamed in the distance, coming closer. Neither the boys nor Sai-thong and his people wanted to be here when the authorities arrived, so the two groups made their goodbyes.
“Hells,” whined Jack, as the boys marched away from the Zanshinese Quarter in the rain. “We’ll be drenched by the time we get home.”
“At least the rain’ll get some of the smell off,” Harry said. “So, Stev, what you gonna do with the ruby-ium—the stuff Lo meant to smoke?”
Stevrin stopped, drawing out the pouch so many had died for. “With this stuff I could go back in time. Or into the future. Hell, I could jump right into the nearest bank vault—or the furthest—and grab a fistful of gold.”
“So,” Jack said eagerly, “what’ll it be?”
Two dark figures emerged from the shadows.
“Give us the pouch,” one said.
Stevrin felt the blood drain from his face. Shojin, of course. He’d wondered if there were any left. Speaking around the lump in his throat, he said, “What would you do with it?”
“Bring the master back.”
“That’s what I thought. Ah, well. It’s a shame.” Quick as cat, Stevrin overturned the pouch and dumped its contents into a drain. Rainwater washed it away. “Sorry about that.”
The eyes of the shojin flashed. “You must die for that.”
“Screw this,” Jack said. “After everything?”
The shojin lunged.
A third shape intercepted them. Before Stevrin could remember to breathe, they were down, their blood mixing with the rain. They twitched once or twice, then lay still.
Cheeks flushed, breathing hard, Mae turned to him. “You’ll have no more trouble from my people,” she said.
“You couldn’t have done that a minute ago?” Jack said. “I think I wet myself.”
She ignored him.
When he could speak, Stevrin said, “What … what will you do next, Mae?”
The question seemed to perplex her. She frowned. With water trickling down her hair and making her eyes shine, she was prettier than ever.
“I don’t know,” she said, staring about her at the city, as if for the first time.
“Maybe when you do, you’ll, you know, tell me.”
She met his eyes but said nothing. A scuffing sound drew his attention. There was nothing there, but when he looked back, empty shadows occupied the place where Mae had been. Of course.
With a sigh, he turned to Jack and Harry, who were eyeing him in horror.
“Gods, Stev,” Harry said. “You and your taste in women.”
Stevrin lit a cigarette, cupping it against the rain. “Come on, boys, let’s go home.”