Now, of course, we could all see the wild-eyed young man with a ponytail, nondescript blacks, and a fully functional handgun in his grasp. Part of my mind was wondering why none of us had noticed him before. Part of my mind was noting that the spread of bullets would have hit everyone at our table because he’d started pointing at Mr Chow and then fanned across to Mr Ling. A third part of my mind noted that he was beginning to turn and was shouting something invective-laden to the effect that he’d get some of the others if he couldn’t hit his original targets. I noted as a side issue that Master Que was shouting something too, but a lot of other people were making loud unorganised sounds.
My shield had formed curved around our table but I flexed it and turned it into a ball around the man with the gun. He stopped turning and tried to shoot at Mr Chow again. I considered turning the inside of the ball reflective but decided that the police would probably like him uninjured for ease of questioning. The inside of my head started coming together again and I said quietly, “Could someone please call the police if they haven’t been called yet?”
Gow Sien Tong and the waitress emerged from under the table. Master Que was crossing the floor back to our table. Solid men came to talk to both Mr Chow and Mr Ling. A senior looking restaurant staff member was hurrying across the floor towards us. I was wondering how many bullets the gun actually held because the man with the ponytail was firing at the shield in one place – probably trying to make it fail.
On the far side of the room the tall man who I thought was probably Zhou Shung He stood and said in what I thought I was a gi-projected voice, “Please, everyone resume your seats. If we all leave now this fool may have accomplices who will escape in the crowd.”
“Misdirection.” I said it quietly the first time, and then repeated it more loudly. “He was using some sort of misdirection gi so he wouldn’t be noticed.” I considered shaking the ball to unfoot my prisoner but decided that might be counterproductive. It came to me that I didn’t know enough about guns to disable the weapon without doing something that might make it more dangerous – at that moment it seemed something of a gap in my education.
“Or bending light!” In my line of sight a little old lady, who’d been visiting with Madam Kung and whom I’d tagged as someone’s mother, had stood and grabbed at something, then shook her arm. She was holding another young man, this one with his hair cut to a hard buzz all over his head, firmly by the earlobe. “Put that nasty thing down, you fool, or I’ll take your hand off. With the safety off, thank you.” The part of my mind that was paying attention to that scene noted that there was a small, knife-shaped light near her other hand. That young man promptly dropped his weapon on the floor. Four of the solid gentlemen converged on the pair.
Meanwhile, over near the main door one of petitioning fighters tripped up someone I couldn’t see and wrapped a shape, probably a person, in a web of something that could have been water, could have been air, or could have been pure gi.
Then on the other side of the room, to my right, one of the ladies in suggestive robes screamed. From her posture there was an arm around her neck pulling her backward and she looked thoroughly terrified. Master Que had reached the top of the stairs that joined the two levels of the dining room and he hesitated, torn between the two problems. I spoke up, “Master Que, I am still a little aside from myself but I believe I can handle this. Do what is needful.”
Master Que nodded and turned towards the woman who was being held hostage. He was not the only one; at least two other people were converging on the scene. Either the hostage taker was the silent type or he/she was finding disadvantages to being invisible….
My captive suddenly imitated the dramatic ‘you’ll never take me alive’ gesture that comes at the end of the classic movie Swordsman of Yao Ri and put the gun’s muzzle under his chin. If he’d really meant to kill himself then he shouldn’t have indulged in dramatic posturing because I used that minute delay to form a shield directly over his chin from his own shadows. I think the bullet actually hit him but didn’t penetrate the shield. Under other circumstances I might have found his reaction amusing.
Mr Ling and Gow Sien Tong had sat the waitress down and were pouring her a cup of tea and offering her a cake. The elderly lady had surrendered her prisoner to four very respectful solid gentlemen and she was climbing the stairs that led to my level of the dining room, holding firmly to the handrail as she climbed. The invisible man near the main door was now hanging upside down, suspended from a purely theoretical point, and surrounded by interested onlookers. Someone beyond Master Que and my field of vision was talking to the invisible hostage taker.
Mr Chow, who was paying close attention to me and my prisoner, said conversationally, “I don’t know whether to be flattered or insulted that I was picked to be part of the diversion that lured the bosses out of the dining room to be attacked.”
The part of my mind that was talking to people answered, “Unless you were a secondary target, I suspect it was all about location. Look where we are in relation to the exits and the private room.”
“You think about this sort of thing often, Miss Sung?” He topped up my tea for me.
I gave him a grateful smile. “I’m a gi-fighter. Angles, geometry and assessing the arena are part of my business.” I switched my attention back to my prisoner, not that I’d removed my attention from him, it’s just that more of it was now focused on him. “For a professional killer, our friend with the ponytail here doesn’t strike me as very professional. Of course I believe this is my first experience with someone who could be called a professional killer.”
“He’s not,” said Mr Chow. “Teng Jing is the Black Serpents Friendly Association’s pet psycho, and I’m probably maligning both psychopaths and psychotics when I call him that. He also looks like he’s on something. Even without that I’m not sure that he understands what being dead actually means.” He took a sip of tea then he and Gow Sien Tong stood and bowed as the elderly lady who’d been talking to Madam Kung reached our table. The waitress was clinging to Mr Ling and crying on his shoulder. “A chair for you, Master Ran?”
“Thank you, yes.” She sank gratefully into the seat Mr Chow had vacated. Her voice had an unpleasant grating quality but some things about ourselves we cannot help. “Girl! I am Master Ran Ku. Who are you?”
“My apologies for not bowing, Master Ran.” I saw no point in lying to her. “I’m not sure that I can at the moment; my energies are somewhat engaged at the moment. I am Sung Nai, student of Master Que Tzu. If you would care for some tea, perhaps one of the gentlemen would be kind enough to pour for you?”
“Polite of you,” she said and let Mr Chow pour her tea. “You should drink some more yourself and have some of those red bean paste cakes – you’re probably using more energy than you think. I recognise your master from when he was younger, back when he was reasonably good looking as well as charming. Is he your father as well as your teacher?”
“No ma’am, but he has been my gi-teacher since I was six.” I picked up one of the bean paste cakes and nibbled. The relief that swept through me when the sugars in the bean paste hit my tongue made me realise that Master Ran knew her stuff.
“That would explain it,” said Master Ran comfortably. “I hope he and the others can do something for that poor girl. I have never heard that being grabbed from behind by an invisible assailant and, probably, having a gun shoved in an ear ever improved anyone’s day.” She drank some of the tea and got a surprised look on her face. “You have a nice taste in tea, Miss Sung. I am glad I accepted your hospitality.” She drank some more and observed, “Oh good! Someone has organised a sweep of the room looking for more invisible people. It would be nice to have things all nice and tidy when the police arrive.”
“Oh it would,” I agreed, “which is why I’m keeping him in there until they get here. Just so that there are no misunderstandings.”
“Wise,” agreed Master Ran. “Now, what is that fool boy of Dang doing?” I could see Zhou Shung He striding across the room, up the stairs and out of my field of vision. Mr Chow, Master Ran and Gow Sien Tong all turned or moved so they could see. I kept my eyes on Mr Ponytail but I still felt a tightly woven piece of gi-work rip and then a double action blow that felt exactly like Master Que.
I didn’t know precisely what my master and his old friend had done but Gow Sien Tong said quietly, “And they’ve both retired from the ring, haven’t they?”
“Years ago,” said Master Ran cheerfully. “Glad you don’t have to fight them? They both had the reputation of being ruthless with their opponents.” She drank some more of her tea. “Now they both nurture their younger generations, although I’ve not heard that any of the Dangs approach their father’s skill.”
“Children don’t always follow after their parents,” I observed. “There are thirteen of us at home and we don’t all want to be scholars like our parents. Older Brother Hu, for instance, wants to be an engineer.”
“So, do the two of you talk angles and geometry together, Miss Sung?” Mr Chow was trying to be funny and although it didn’t help me, it made the waitress laugh a little as she wiped the tears from her sodden lashes.
“I just get to be labour for his building projects,” I admitted. I was beginning to feel tired. I was holding Mr Ponytail up in the air, I’d used my shield to absorb the kinetic energy from over twenty bullets, and I’d already had a big day before all of this started.
Master Ran pushed the plate of little cakes at me again. “You need to keep your strength up. Eat! You,” she pointed at Mr Chow, “keep topping up her tea and make sure she keeps eating.”
Mr Chow was very humbly saying, “Yes, ma’am,” to this instruction when Master Que came back into my field of vision. The big man I assumed to be Zhou Shung He was with him.
Zhou Shung He was saying, “Well and you didn’t have to break his arm in three places. One would have done.”
“As I said, I didn’t want him to imagine that he could possibly use that gun,” Master Que replied calmly. “He dropped it from the pain, didn’t he? Now, Sung Nai how are you?”
“A little tired, thank you Master Que.” I smiled a little. “It’s been a long day.”
“And you’ve another tomorrow. Put him down and let me deal with him?” Master Que looked at me and I realized, a trifle disconcertingly, that I could see both his eyes for once.
“Thank you, sir but I think I should hand him directly to police. Rule of law and all,” I smiled at him.
Master Que sighed. “You listen to me far too closely, you know that, don’t you?”
“I strive to be appropriately filial,” I told him meekly. “Master Que, are you acquainted with Master Ran Ku? Master Ran, this is my teacher, Master Que Tzu. I have not been introduced to his esteemed companion so I cannot-.”
“He’s Dang Shui,” said Master Ran briskly. “Master Dang Shui now. When he’s not teaching his favourite occupation seems to be beating himself up about what a terrible husband and father he’s been. He was married to my granddaughter, but no-one cares about my opinion on the matter. I think those great-grandchildren of mine get their sense of entitlement from their mother, but again, who cares what I think?”
The tall man bowed to the table and said, “Grandmother-in-law, please stop. We are in the middle of a concerning matter here.”
“Of course we are,” replied Master Ran, “and Miss Sung here seems to be determined that her prisoner will not be subject to rough discipline before the authorities have him.”
“I like to think that Sung Nai knows me sufficiently well to realize that any harm to her by this person,” Master Que gestured at Mr Ponytail, “would result in the demise of the organisation for which he works.”
“You’d turn vigilante?” Master Dang sounded disapproving.
“That’s not what I said,” corrected Master Que gently as Mr Chow nudged the plate of cakes at me again.
I picked up a cake and observed dispassionately while looking Mr Ponytail in the eye, “If he went vigilante then the organisation might survive.”
Master Que gave me a sharp look. “If the police don’t get here soon you’ll have to put him down and let him out anyway. You’re beginning to get close to your final reserves. That can stretch you in a good way, but….”
“Burnout is possible,” Master Ran finished for him. “She’s been sensible with it so far. Neither bouncing around being too physical nor focusing herself too tightly on what she’s doing. The colour is unfortunate of course, but we all have to work with what we’re given.”
At this point Mr Ponytail put his gun in his pocket, bowed to me, and then laid a finger along his nose in a knowing manner before he sat down in the sphere of my shield and took up a meditation pose. Mr Chow said thoughtfully, “That’s uncharacteristic of him….”
Mr Ponytail closed his eyes, did something with his hands, and a silvery projection of him was sitting on the table in front of me. If the projection could feel then he must have been getting some very strange sensations from the teapot. The projection opened his eyes and he looked – insane. “Didn’t know I could do this, did you Lunar Jade Maiden?”
I ignored that he called me by a name almost identical in meaning to the one the Shimba had used and said, “I’m just drinking in the waijin lesson. Do you have any other secrets to show me?”
“Not worried that people can see you talking to yourself?” He grinned. “That’s supposed to be a sign of insanity, isn’t it?”
Master Que, his eye closed as normal again, interjected, “If you’re supposed to only be visible to my student, friend, it’s not working.”
The projection turned its head to look at Master Que, “Oh, you can see me too, can you Shadow Mask?”
“Of course.” Master Que was sounding implacable.
Master Ran said, “What are you two talking abo-.” Then she did something and started again, “How extraordinary!”
Mr Ponytail snarled, “Fine, so everyone can see me if they want to.”
For some reason I said mollifyingly, “Well, they are gi masters. Skilled, strong, experienced and all that sort of thing.”
“And I’m?” He was still snarling.
“A drugged madman with some very good tricks up his sleeve?” I’d no sooner said that when I realised it was probably the wrong thing, but he laughed.
“Oh yeah, this time round that’s true. The drugs don’t help with being insane but they do make it bearable, and sometimes other people can’t tell what’s me and what’s the stuff.” The projection leered at me and he went on, “What they don’t tell you before you incarnate, little Maiden, is that sometimes you get a body or a mind that don’t work. Not don’t work the same as everyone else’s but don’t work. My world’s on fire all the time, and I’m the one with the match I can’t put out. Plus I can see spirits, but that’s not from being insane.”
“So why am I privileged to receive the monologue?” He was up to something but I didn’t know what.
“I think it’s time for me to leave this incarnation,” the projection smiled. “Doing it while starting a gang war appealed to my insanity, but that doesn’t seem to have panned out. But,” it leaned forward towards me, “I know who you are, little Maiden. I know who you are yet to be proclaimed. I’m going to take you with me and screw over the whole world!”
I’d been so caught up with maintaining the shield sphere and the conversation with the projection that I missed the silver tendril coming at me. Someone else didn’t though and there was a slash through the tendril that left a violent, vivid, green-blue coloured afterimage in my eyes and mind.
“That’s quite enough of that,” said Master Dang firmly. “If you’re an Immortal Scholar or Sorcerer you should know better. Just be grateful that she’s till protecting you and I can’t demonstrate my displeasure further.”
“That’s the point, big boy,” the projection leered at Master Dang now, “I don’t care.”
“So why do you try so hard to shock?” That was Master Ran.
“He may not care but he wants to matter, said Master Que heavily. “You don’t have to be insane for that. Perfectly sane men have done far worse to achieve it. Let the police have him so that I’m not tempted to go after him myself.”
“If no-one’s going to kill me,” said the projection acidly, “I’ll just save my energy,” and then it was gone. Mr Ponytail opened his eyes again and leered at me.
I asked him conversationally, “So, why is your world on fire?”
He looked at me, still sitting cross legged in my sphere, “Kid, I just tried to kill you. Talking to me probably counts as you being insane.”
“If the answer leads to you not wanting to kill me, then I’d have to disagree.” Frankly, I thought that sounded like Master Que as soon as I said it. “You seem to have some idea of what’s going on with you and you don’t seem to like what’s happening.”
“Bad brain chemistry,” I wasn’t sure if his expression was a wry grin or a grimace. “With a structural anomaly on the side, I’m told. You can’t fix me because I can’t be fixed kid.”
“No-one deserves to have a world that’s continuously on fire.” I could feel myself getting close to the end of my reserves. It was an interesting feeling.
“Which is why I want out.” He was smirking.
“And we don’t deserve to die so people will care how you left,” I replied. “I will remember you, Teng Jing, and you will stay in this life for a while yet.” There were policemen in the room now, I think they must have come in through the kitchens, and several were coming to our table. Three of them, armed with drawn tonfas, stood under my shield sphere and I gently lowered my prisoner to the ground then released him. “Let us strive to still the fires if we can – you cannot be the only one who suffers so.” I sent the last of my energy at him and it sat for a moment over the middle of his forehead, a tiny, dirty olive-coloured jade disc until it was absorbed into him.
Teng Jing, Mr Ponytail, looked back at me, appalled. “What did you just do?”
“A small respite from a world on fire,” I replied. “Use it well.”
“If you pass out, burn out, or something, it’s not my fault.” He let the police pull him to his feet.
“Agreed,” I reached for another bean paste cake. “Keep in mind that I don’t know how long that will last.”
His last words as they led him away were, “And I’m supposed to be the insane one.”
I felt curiously light and empty, and was happy to let everyone ply me with tea, cakes, and some very nice crab-based spring rolls. I also didn’t feel at all tired and was happy to answer questions for the police as long as they, specifically Detective Fat and Detective Liew, wanted to ask them. I frankly admitted that I didn’t know exactly what I’d done to Teng Jing, except it had seemed appropriate at the time. When I told them that I’d had a conversation with his astral projection form they looked sceptical, an attitude that seemed to modify when I told them that he was a waijin user whose energy colour was silver.
In fact, Detective Liew held up a wrist that had a burn mark around it and said, “We’d noticed.”
They didn’t keep me long after that and I was permitted to leave with Master Que. Outside the restaurant the street was full of police cars, journalists, and interested onlookers. Master Que and I were pounced on by a camera team as soon as we’d passed through the police cordon and while the senior journalist and cameraman were grabbing a few words with Master Que, their more junior colleagues circled in on me.
A young woman in neatly tailored blacks shoved a microphone under my face and said, “Miss, can you tell us anything about what happened inside?”
I looked her in the eye and gushed, “Master Ran Ku was wonderful, so commanding! And Gow Sien Tong was so fast, the way he saved that waitress’ life!”
The journalist wasn’t much interested in me after that, and I waited for Master Que to break free so we could go home.
We were sitting in the taxi when I turned and asked Master Que, “Did we pay the restaurant?”
He sighed. “I’ll go back tomorrow and take care of it. How do you feel?”
“Still empty, but in a good way. Though I need to make sure I set my alarm for the morning extra loud, I think.” It was still an odd feeling, but not a bad one. It was one I could get used to.
“We’ll keep an eye on you for the next few days,” said Master Que, “and see how things go.”
I washed again before bed and was still in my nest of bedding before midnight. My eyes didn’t stay open once I was horizontal and I spent the night dreaming of taking tea by bright moonlight, my companions blanched, shadowed and masked.
This is now followed by Ripples.