John nodded in time to the music as he scanned through the spreadsheets. There was no way to avoid it: twenty-three of the newest Disciples had to go. No amount of training, even by the Shen Masters, would bring them up to a level where they could handle demons without mortal risk. He emailed the order through to Leo with a copy to the other Masters and Emma.
With a large group of the first-year students gone, the Mountain’s entire defensive force was reduced to less than two hundred. John put his chin on his hand and studied the list. One hundred of them were trained and equipped well enough to handle demons, but the eighty-nine more junior ones were underequipped, undertrained, young and mortal. They’d been brought in by Leo after the last huge losses when demon copies had devastated the Mountain army.
John rubbed his eyes and leaned back. The coming conflict could very well wipe out his beloved Mountain; not the physical Mountain, but the Disciples—the real heart of Wudang. He took a deep breath and went through the spreadsheets again. The Heavens must be defended; if necessary every single Disciple, Master, Celestial and himself would be thrown into the pyre to ensure that the Heavens did not fall.
He thought of Emma and Simone: young, human, mortal and deadly. The pyre would burn brightly with their brilliance in its flames.
Madam Emma and the Emperor of the West are here, my Lord, Zara said from John’s office anteroom.
Turn that fucking awful noise off, the Tiger said.
John muted his computer’s sound system and opened the office door for them without moving from his desk. Emma and the Tiger entered his office and sat across from him.
What the fuck have you been doing to her? the Tiger said, indicating Emma with his head. She looks fucking awful.
Emma did look older than her forty-two years: her brown hair was shot with grey and her eyes mirrored the suffering she’d endured at the hands of the demons. More than that, she’d experienced more stress and violence since meeting him than any normal human could possibly handle and she was still fighting. Everybody had tried to talk her into taking time off to recover, but with typical stubborn resilience she’d ignored them all and thrown herself into helping him prepare for the inevitable approaching conflict.
She just needs time to heal from losing our child as well as all her reproductive organs, John said, and she won’t rest until the Heavens are secure.
You two are a matched set.
‘Both of you are amazingly bad-mannered sometimes,’ Emma said, and the Tiger and John shared an amused glance. ‘I’ll bet you’re even talking about me.’
‘He’s worried about you,’ John said.
She glared at the Tiger, her sharp blue eyes intense. ‘Don’t be. I’m fine. We have too much to do. Now show us what you have there—and it’d better not be another cat video—so I can go back to work.’
The Tiger put a tablet computer on top of the mess on John’s desk and flipped it up onto its stand. A photograph of a European man in a hound’s-tooth jacket was on the screen, and Emma jolted with alarm.
‘What?’ John said.
She pointed at the screen. ‘That’s the Western King of the demons.’
John turned his attention back to the screen. So that was him. He was dark and powerfully built, with bright intelligent blue eyes that were hard with cruelty.
‘He’s using the name Ineke Prochazka,’ the Tiger said. He swiped the screen and a new picture appeared. It showed a man-sized black marble monolith etched with what was obviously a transferred photograph of the Western Demon King—or someone who looked very much like him—in a double-breasted suit and standing in front of an expensive sports car.
‘Same man?’ John said.
‘This is the gravestone of a dead Russian gangster,’ the Tiger said. ‘Their Demon King appropriated his identity to take over his network.’
John leaned on his desk to study the photo. ‘Well done. How did you find him?’
‘Huge fuss, even as far as the west of my dominion, about how this Prochazka came back from the dead. Anyone who asks too many questions,’ he shrugged, ‘disappears.’
‘Can we move on him?’ Emma said.
‘As soon as this business with our Demon King is sorted I’m sending a squad in,’ the Tiger said. ‘Your people are more than welcome to come along, Ah Wu.’
‘We’re allowed?’ she said.
The Tiger emitted a growl that was more feline than human. ‘Eastern Russia is in my territory. Fucking straight we can move on him, and it would be very much my pleasure.’
‘Any sign of our Demon King over there?’ John said.
‘Both of them are all over the place. Bio labs everywhere. The operation’s so massive I have three good people tracking it all down.’
He swiped the screen again and it changed to a bad photograph of Kitty Kwok and the Western Demon King in front of a café, both of them trying to avoid the camera.
‘Where is that?’ John said.
‘Amsterdam,’ the Tiger said. ‘They have a lab there.’
‘UK, Russia, Amsterdam . . . Damn, that’s huge,’ Emma said.
‘When was it?’ John said.
‘Six weeks ago. Second.’ The Tiger flipped to a graphic image of a body opened wide for autopsy, revealing its internal organs. He glanced at Emma. ‘You okay with this?’
She nodded silently.
John studied her: she really was completely unfazed. Fifteen years ago she’d fainted at the sight of gore and now she was unaffected. Something inside him died a little at her growing immunity to the violent life they led.
‘This is a Western demon,’ the Tiger said.
‘No way,’ Emma said.
‘How much demon essence was in it? What level? How did it die?’ John raised his hand. ‘I know. One at a time.’
‘Demon essence: as far as we could tell, none. Level: no idea. How it died: my Number Three stuck an extremely nice rapier through its head and it died like a living thing.’
‘If it had no demon essence then it was a living thing,’ Emma said.
‘It sounds like a natural human,’ John said.
‘Yeah, she thought she’d made a mistake, but look.’ He swept his hand across the screen and the same autopsy table appeared, covered in black sticky goo. ‘Same corpse twenty-four hours later. The humans think it’s some sort of flesh-eating superbug, but we know better. Fucking demon, all right.’
‘Was it a Number One?’ Emma said. ‘Only a Number One has bones and internal organs.’
The Tiger leaned his elbow on the desk and his chin in his hand. ‘That’s what I wanted to ask you, Ah Wu. You were talking about having two Number Ones. Could these demons have that as well? Because this is the second one we’ve encountered. My Number Three was on her way home to show me photos of the first which was identical when she ran into this one.’
John stared at the image, considering the implications. In the East, only the Demon King’s Number One had blood, bones and internal organs, but in the West things could be completely different. A whole range of possibilities opened up if there was more than one Western demon that was equivalent in power to a Number One . . .
The Tiger turned to Emma. ‘You were there. Did you see the Western King’s Number One?’
‘No. He had a few extremely high-level demons in his closest circle—they were insanely powerful—but I never saw a Duke or a Mother. In fact, I never saw anything analogous to our demon hierarchy.’
‘Possible,’ John said, leaning back but still studying the disturbing picture. ‘There’s no reason their hierarchy should mirror ours.’
‘Two Number Ones?’ the Tiger said.
‘I’d say several Number One equivalents, but no single Number One,’ John said. ‘More of a Western-style flat structure than our heavily hierarchical bureaucracy.’
‘Would that be more efficient in a war setting?’ the Tiger said, intrigued.
John thought about it, then shook his head. ‘No. In a war situation, you need a structured hierarchy where orders are followed immediately and without question. Your personnel are divided into small manageable groups all reporting to a higher-up. A flat structure would allow for too much questioning and feedback. Communication would be slower and more cumbersome. It would be weaker.’
‘They’d have to know that and compensate,’ Emma said.
‘Of course,’ John said. ‘But this information is invaluable. I’m glad you ran into two of them. We now know that taking out a senior demon with human characteristics isn’t removing their Number One.’
‘If there was no demon essence, then what prompted your Number Three to kill it?’ Emma asked the Tiger. ‘She’d see it as human and wouldn’t attack.’
‘Number Three was in Siberia tracking down Prochazka,’ the Tiger said. ‘She found the location of one of his villas, and went in.’ He picked up the tablet, swiped the pictures away and pulled up a video. ‘She’s wearing a headcam.’
The view swung from side to side as Number Three walked through the crunching snow towards a grey stone house surrounded by dark leafless trees.
‘Middle of nowhere,’ the Tiger said.
The Tiger’s Number Three spoke softly and her hands appeared in the camera’s view as she ordered her squad into position. ‘Two left. Three right. You two to the back door, and you to cover our backs.’
‘You did me a huge favour when you talked me into promoting her,’ the Tiger said.
‘I shouldn’t have needed to,’ Emma said.
John hushed them without looking away from the screen. Number Three had hesitated at the front door, her hand poised over the door knocker. Then she obviously changed her mind and kicked the door in.
‘Police!’ she shouted as she stormed into the entry. She checked the side doors and up the stairs in front of her. ‘There have been reports of a disturbance. Please cooperate peacefully.’
The house was completely silent. She lowered her gun and it disappeared from the camera’s view.
‘Checking silently. Back door clear,’ she said for the benefit of those watching.
‘She’s good,’ the Tiger said with admiration.
She turned left and checked the living room. It was sparsely furnished, the sofas covered in bright pink towelling bedspreads that were threadbare and stained. One of Number Three’s people met her at the door to the kitchen and they went together into the dining room on the other side.
‘Clear,’ someone said from the front of the house.
‘Three and four upstairs.’ Number Three moved around the chipped dining table. ‘I can’t sense anything up there but make sure.’ The camera view swung around. ‘There’s something alive below me and I can sense demons . . .’
A man appeared in the doorway between the dining room and entrance hall and she raised her weapon at him.
‘Put your hands on your head and turn around,’ she said.
Two more men appeared behind the first, all of them Europeans. They were tall and well-muscled and similar in appearance to the Western demons that had attacked John and Emma in the UK.
The man in front raised his hands and smiled. ‘What’s going on? Why did you break my door?’
‘Stand still and keep your hands where I can see them,’ Number Three said.
There were now five men. The front one pulled a pistol out of a holster under his jacket, still grinning. He raised it and emptied the clip at her, and the microphone on her headset went silent from the overload of noise.
‘She has metal. Did nothing,’ the Tiger said.
Number Three raised her gun and shot the man. He didn’t stop moving towards her, his grin still frozen on his face. The gun clicked in his hand. The four men behind him pulled guns out as well and emptied them at her, with similar grins on their faces. More men appeared behind them, all copies of each other. There were only three different faces within the group.
Number Three switched her rifle to full auto and strafed them, again deafening the camera’s microphone. The bullets went straight through without harming them. Demons.
‘Fuck,’ she said, and there was the sound of fabric against the microphone and the rasp of a sword being drawn.
Her squad drew their swords as well.
The Tiger grabbed the tablet and hit the fast-forward button. ‘They took them all out. She was quite sure they were hypnotised humans right up until her bullets went through them without doing anything.’
‘I would like to see that skirmish later,’ John said.
The Tiger growled softly. ‘The last thing she needs is you picking her technique to pieces. They took the demons down and achieved their objective. Leave her alone.’
‘What he said,’ Emma said to John.
John smiled slightly. ‘Very well.’
The Tiger stopped the fast forward. Number Three was standing in the entry hall. She glanced back to show the rest of her squad, men and women, moving the pieces of the dead demons into the dining room.
‘Once again: bones, blood and internal organs,’ the Tiger said. ‘If she hadn’t seen the bullets go straight through them she would probably be beating herself up for killing humans.’
Number Three turned back to the entry hall. ‘There’s something underneath here . . . I can sense it. There are humans below me.’ She looked back at the rest of her squad. ‘Everybody into the kitchen. I’m going to yang it.’
‘She has yang?’ John said.
‘I’m thinking of doing the same thing as you and promoting her to joint Number One,’ the Tiger said as the screen went completely white. ‘She has two hundred years’ experience on young Michael and would be excellent backup for him.’
‘No,’ Emma said, as the screen cleared to show a hole in the middle of the entry floor. ‘Michael would be an excellent backup for her.’
‘Didn’t think of it that way,’ the Tiger said. ‘Maybe you’re right; it isn’t deliberate discrimination at all.’
‘I think in your case it is,’ Emma said.
John raised his hand and hushed them again, and Emma reached across the desk to tap his arm. He ignored her scolding. The Tiger grinned.
Number Three jumped down the hole and moved quickly in as her people followed her.
‘Oh dear Lord,’ Emma said when she saw the cages.
‘Holy shit,’ Number Three said at the same time.
Cages lined both sides of the basement walls, five on each side, filled with naked terrified humans who wailed with terror when they saw Number Three’s squad.
She stopped in front of one of the cages. It held a huddled group of pale emaciated people, all white damp skin, jutting bones and huge hollow frightened eyes.
‘I see them as human,’ Number Three said. ‘But I saw the ones up top as human as well.’
‘They’re probably demons. Shoot one and see if it does no damage?’ one of the women in her squad said. ‘If it doesn’t do anything, then we can leave them here.’
‘No,’ Number Three said. ‘Open the cage door, and if they don’t attack they’re human.’
She drew her sword and moved to the door of the cage. The people inside scrambled over each other to get away, knocking their waste bucket over and sliding through its contents in their haste.
‘Leave them alone!’ a woman shouted from the other side of the room.
Number Three glanced in that direction. The woman was standing next to the bars of her cage, shaking with either cold or fear, but probably both.
‘We’re the police. We’re here to free you, but we have to make sure you’re human,’ Number Three said.
‘Human as opposed to what?’ the woman said. She pressed against the bars, her eyes wide with hope, then jerked away from the cold metal.
Number Three checked the humans in the first cage. They hadn’t moved. She went to the trembling woman. ‘Hold your hand out.’
The woman retreated from the bars, obviously frightened.
‘I need to know that you’re not the same thing as the creatures holding you so we can take you out safely,’ Number Three said.
‘Whatever you have to do. Just get us out of here. Please.’ The woman visibly rallied, stepped back up to the bars again and stuck her left hand between them.
‘Courage,’ John said.
‘Raw,’ the Tiger said. ‘I’m in love already.’
Number Three took the woman’s hand and concentrated. ‘I’m nearly completely sure that these are human.’
She released the woman’s hand, and the woman drew it back through the bars and stared at it, then at Three. ‘What are you?’
‘A leopard,’ Number Three said.
She moved to the door of the cage and held her hand over the lock to break it. She opened the door and watched the humans inside. The woman remained near the bars, waiting, but the rest of the captives scrambled to the back of the cage. Number Three beckoned the woman closer, and she approached to stand in front of Three.
‘You said you’re the police and you’d let us out,’ the woman said.
‘She’s not attacking.’ Number Three raised her voice. ‘Take these humans out, find something warm to wrap them in, and call for transport.’
‘Be careful,’ the woman said. She pointed towards the rear of the basement. ‘There’s another room through there, with . . . things inside.’ She shuddered. ‘Horrible things.’
Number Three glanced at the door at the end of the room. ‘I don’t think anything could possibly be more horrible than this.’
She stepped away from the cage door and the woman ran out of her cell to another cell door, where she stood fidgeting, touching the bars and then flinching away from the cold. The minute one of Number Three’s squad had the door open, the woman raced inside and threw herself into another woman’s arms. They held each other, weeping with joy.
‘Two and Five with me,’ Number Three said. ‘Watch my back.’ She went to the door at the far end of the basement. It was made of solid steel. ‘What needs a door like this to hold it in?’
She held her hands out over the steel and it melted. There were three large Western demons behind it, standing motionless against the back wall of a simple brick room. They were in True Form, three metres tall and all completely covered in black shiny skin.
‘Shit,’ John and Emma said together.
Number Three hesitated in the doorway and the demons came to life. They were so big that all three couldn’t come at her at once, but she didn’t wait for them. She closed with the nearest and swung her sword at its neck. The sword glanced off. The camera spun then lurched as the demon swiped her sideways into the wall, and she grunted with pain.
She pulled herself together and looked around. One of the other demons had grabbed a member of her squad and broken his screaming body in half, then thrown the sobbing remains onto the floor. Three raised her hands, full of shen energy, and launched it at the demon approaching her; but it did nothing. One of her squad tried to take the demon’s head off from behind but again the blow was ineffectual. The demon turned and casually swiped the soldier sideways. The soldier’s head hit the wall with a crack and she slid down, unconscious or dead.
‘Dear god,’ Number Three said as screams rose from the room outside. One of the demons had attacked the caged humans.
‘Fall back! I’m yanging the bastards!’ she shouted, and the screen blanked to white.
When the picture returned, Three was in the cage room and a black demon held one of the captive humans—the brave woman—dangling limply from its right claw.
There was the sound of gunshots and the pinging of ricochets.
‘Hold your fire, you idiot!’ Number Three shouted.
‘I saw what you did to my brothers,’ the demon said. ‘Release me and I won’t harm the humans.’
Number Three hesitated. ‘If I yang it, the human will die too,’ she whispered. She raised her voice. ‘Release the human and go, and we won’t follow you.’
‘Your word, woman,’ the demon said.
‘You have my word,’ she said with defeat.
The demon dropped the woman and she crumpled onto the concrete floor. It turned, its massive black shoulders and back shining under the harsh electric bulbs of the cellar, walked past Number Three’s white-faced companions and jumped up through the hole into the house above.
‘Hold,’ Number Three said, and her squad stood alert and silently waiting among the gently sobbing captives.
‘I don’t know what else I could have done,’ Number Three said. She raised her voice. ‘Clear. Let’s take these people out.’
She went to the woman who was unconscious on the floor and put her hand on the side of her throat. ‘She’s alive.’ Her hands moved over the woman’s pale waxy skin and she shifted her into a recovery position.
‘The bus is here, ma’am,’ one of the soldiers said.
‘Shit!’ Number Three ran to the hole, jumped through it and raced out of the front door of the villa into the snow-covered open area that passed for a yard. An ancient European bus stood there, its engine throbbing. Number Three leapt high into the air and the camera swept over the area. She landed, rolled and righted herself, then quickly checked the driver, inside the bus and the luggage compartment. She stood completely still for a long moment.
When she spoke, her voice was full of relief. ‘It’s really gone. The yang must have seriously spooked it.’
The video flickered and restarted from the beginning. The Tiger hit the pause button and the three of them sat silently.
‘What did you do with the humans?’ Emma said.
‘They were too damaged to take to the Celestial Plane. I have them in one of my places in Mongolia. It’s not luxurious, but for them it’s like heaven to be warm and fed and safe.’ He rubbed his chin. ‘Never seen a bunch of humans so fucking broken in my entire life. They’d only been there for six months, but they’re worse than any of the refugees you’ll see coming out of the war zones. Most of them will never recover.’
‘What about that brave woman?’
‘Major internal injuries. We made it to medical help just in time. It will take her a very long time to recover from this, and I am marrying that woman as soon as she’s well enough.’
‘Don’t you dare,’ Emma said, stabbing her index finger at him. ‘She deserves way better than being one of a hundred.’
‘But I can give her a life on the Celestial Plane better than anything—’
She cut him off. ‘She deserves a man who will give himself to her a hundred per cent. Not servants, not staff, but him.’
He hesitated for a moment, then smiled slightly.
‘And besides, that may have been her partner she was hugging,’ Emma said.
‘Sister,’ the Tiger said. When Emma opened her mouth to yell at him again he raised his hands. ‘No, you’re right, paws off. I’ll just make sure that she’s damn well cared for.’
‘Are the humans providing you with any useful information?’ John said, glancing back at the screen.
‘They don’t know anything,’ the Tiger said. ‘They have no idea what those black demons were. I’d love to know where they came from. I’ve never seen anything like them before.’
‘Dammit, Bai Hu!’ Emma said, exasperated. ‘I wish you’d read the reports I send you.’
‘Why? You’ve seen this before?’
She gestured towards the screen. ‘That’s what happened to me when they injected me with demon essence and it hit the AIDS in my blood. Shiny black skin that was as hard as glass and impenetrable as steel. The only thing that destroyed it was John’s blood.’
The Tiger glanced at John. John shrugged; he didn’t know what he could cure with his blood until it happened.
‘The Demon Kings were holding a small group of AIDS patients in the Glass Citadel in the Western Heavens,’ Emma said. ‘They obviously used them to make armoured demons. We were hoping the process wouldn’t work.’
‘How many of these impervious demons do you think they made?’ the Tiger said. ‘Only a very few of us have access to yang, and if there’s more than a dozen of them we’ll be in trouble.’
‘Only three of us in the North have access to yin. The Dragon won’t let his people touch it so he’s the only one in the East,’ John said. ‘I haven’t talked to the Phoenix about it lately, but last I heard she had three people, including herself, that could yang.’
‘So that’s . . . around ten altogether with access to the basic forces,’ Emma said. ‘Damn.’
‘Did your people track down the Western King?’ John asked the Tiger.
‘As I said, I have three good people working on it. The network is huge, and they move quickly and silently. Every time I hit a location it drives them further underground. Should I stop harassing them and wait for them to move instead?’
‘No,’ John said. ‘Continue to annoy them; it will keep them weak and preoccupied. You might find their centre of operations if you persevere.’
‘I agree with your wise advice.’ The Tiger folded up the tablet. ‘That’s all I have right now.’
‘Try to capture one of those armoured demons so we can see what their weaknesses are,’ Emma said. ‘If they have an army of them, we’re in serious trouble.’
‘I doubt we can,’ the Tiger said. ‘They’re completely indestructible, and if they hold humans hostage we can’t even yang them.’
‘We need to know if anyone else’s blood destroys the armour,’ John said.
‘I’ll do my best,’ the Tiger said. ‘Oh.’ He raised his hand and a red envelope appeared in it. ‘For you guys.’ He handed it to John.
John opened it, and passed it to Emma. They were invited to Michael and Clarissa’s wedding, to be held in one month’s time at a Christian church in Hong Kong Mid-Levels.
‘Her family don’t know,’ the Tiger said. ‘Number One has asked me to keep them in the dark, and pretend that he and Clarissa are setting up house on the Earthly. They don’t want to worry her family.’
‘How is she?’ Emma said.
The Tiger frowned. ‘She spends most of her time in a wheelchair, but she’s having therapy. No chance of kids for a long time, if ever; her system is still heavily damaged.’ He ran his hand over his face and his voice filled with pain. ‘I would very much like to sink my claws into the Demon King and make him pay for what he’s done to this sweet and good-hearted young woman. My son is incredibly lucky to have her and I would love to see many grandchildren from them.’
‘Getting soft in your old age, Ah Bai?’ John said.
‘I dunno,’ the Tiger said, leaning his elbow on the desk. ‘After seeing that . . .’ He gestured towards the screen.
‘Never hurts to see some soft among the hard, yang and yin in balance,’ Emma said.
John and the Tiger both looked at Emma for a long moment, then nodded agreement. The wisdom of serpents was often as unexpected as it was welcome.
The Tiger picked up the tablet and rose. ‘I’ll keep you posted.’
‘Ah Bai,’ John said.
‘See you at the wedding,’ Emma said, and stood to show him out. ‘Are Leo and Martin invited?’
‘Leo’s best man,’ the Tiger said. ‘I’m looking forward to it. It will be a shaft of light and hope in the darkness that’s gathering around our dominions.’
‘Don’t worry,’ Emma said and gestured back towards John. ‘The darkness is on our side.’
‘That I am,’ John said, and closed the office door behind them.