Book 5, 48: The District Office is Under Attack
“Bruce?” Charlotte asked.
“On it,” Bruce said. He pulled something small and jangly, like a hamster in a travel ball, covered by cymbals. (Okay, that metaphor didn’t really work unless you’d read a certain old graphic novel a million times, but who didn’t like Order of the Stick? It would be like hating Adventure Time.) Anyway, it rolled and clashed and glittered, like, you know, that hamster would do, until it stopped rolling in front of where the gate had been.
The gate reappeared, although it seemed a little more flicker-y than before. Or, no, more like a gif, where the last picture was melding into the first. It was hard to explain.
“Darn,” Bruce said. “It’s not supposed to be doing that.” He pulled out his phone. “Oh, wait, Emily said that this might happen. We’re going to have to go through –and secure both sides of the gate in case Kilbern manages to double back.”
“Okay,” Charlotte thought about it for a moment. “I’m guessing Brian is waiting on the other side?”
“Sure,” Bruce said. “It’s all part of our plan that we—“
“—Couldn’t explain because Agent Ayre was right there. Yeah, I get it. So we divide the team in two. Dora, you’re in charge. You, Rose and Twelve take this side. I hope some of our Old World friends will hang around to help you, but remember that the Beadle-Prodomus might show up any minute. Bruce and I are going through to kick Kilbern right in the milkshake.” Charlotte blushed. It was one thing to listen to songs like that and maybe repeat them while giggling with your friends. It was another thing to talk about that stuff, like, regularly.
“What? Why do I have to be in charge?” Dora asked. But, at the same time, she gave Charlotte the okay sign on the down low. Charlotte wasn’t sure whether that was because she was just kidding, or whether she’d sussed Charlotte’s plan to arrange some alone time with Bruce, and was giving it up for squad goals. That, she had to figure, was her totally self-conscious, guilty mind playing tricks. But, sometimes, the self-conscious part of your brain that figured that everyone saw right through you, was right.
“It’s because you’re wise, Dora,” Rose said, emphasising ‘wise’ like it was the worst insult in the world.
“I am not!” Dora protested, hotly.
“You totally are,” Twelve said. “And you make ‘wise’ look cute, while you’re doing it.”
Dora’s head swivelled towards her boyfriend like that girl in that movie with the exorcist, but Rose caught a glimpse of Dora’s expression and whistled. “Hey! Fight evil now, makeout session later!”
Then she turned to Charlotte. “Char Char, Bruce, you guys go,” Rose said. “Lieutenant Marvel, here, has things under control.”
Charlotte didn’t wait another second, plunging through the gate and coming up, Pearl Harmony Sword in her hand, crouched in a defensive tiger stance, sword withheld, hand out, ready to block the onrushing ambush that wouldn’t be able to lock her blade.
Nothing. Well, careful was as careful does. Charlotte inspected her surroundings. A dim office corridor, of course, just totally sucked of life. An exit sign glimmered at one end of the short corridor, blocked by something –looked like audiovisual equipment on wheel stands?—At the other end, the corridor opened up into what seemed like a larger area, where the lights were still on full brightness.
And, directly in front of her, a half-open office door. She checked the plate. “Bill Hite,” she read. “Superintendent.”
“Of course,” she hissed, because she could sense that Bruce had just appeared behind her, and she didn’t want to look completely dumb. “He was hired from Baltimore, and all those Baltimore connections!”
“Yep,” Bruce said, so quietly that only Eight Spirit Dragon enhanced senses could hear him. “Deduction. I know it isn’t much, but we can’t all be supremely skilled wuxia practitioners.”
“I don’t know,” Charlotte said, equally quietly, because Bruce probably had a gadget. “It’s not kung fu, but you’re an awesome shot, Scout. Even if you can’t keep the accent up.” Just saying it made her heart explode inside. If someone came out of that room right now and smacked her, Charlotte realised that she’d go right down on her keister, because the spot in her brain reserved for thinking about boys had just ballooned too big to leave room for balance.
“Ah only let the accent drop to give y’all a chance to figger it out,” Bruce said, right back, but now in Scout’s voice. Charlotte was staring now, and she didn’t care, because, in her head, she was hearing him say, once again, “Ah aim to kiss you . . .”
Without a hint of the smirk she’d expect Bruce to give at a moment like this, he finished the thought. “. . Miss Wong.” His hazel eyes were unpeeling her like a Christmas orange; and Charlotte didn’t mind, because she was staring back, seeing “Scout” and “Bruce,” merge, turn into one, perfect boy. . .
Damn. The mission. “So where is Kilbern?”
“Little problem. Our entrance was offset, somehow. Kilbern’s portal is in Hite’s private office, through there. I don’t think anyone would’ve gone to the trouble if there weren’t a reason . . .”
“Ahem,” came a voice from the lighted office beyond the door. “You know you kids shouldn’t be here when the office is closed, and I want you to know that I’ve called 911.”
Charlotte stepped through the door, let the pretty, no, beautiful Asian receptionist –a dead ringer for a young Joan Chen-- take in her Tatammy fatigues. “Oh, that’s cool.” And her heart skipped a beat at the sense of wrongness in the room. It was so tense that she could almost forget the reason she’d been looking at pictures of Joan Chen. Would a bob really look good on her?
You know, if she lived through this. Plus, also, saved the world, She knew this woman, and she was scared. No point showing it, though. “But I don’t think you did that, Madame Daji.”
The Fox Spirit stood up from the desk, and her secretary-lady outfit of a (very nice, actually) green-and-white pattern floral brocade blouse over a black knee length skirt flickered away, to be replaced by a shimmering white traditional tunic. The over-the-top and distinctly not-secretarial purple leather bondage pumps turned into fighting slippers. “You like it? I’m not always a death spirit, but I am for you, Charlotte Wong. I am going to kill you and take your skin back to the Ivory Court and turn it into a cape for Varakes Archlich. It’ll be a nice message to your father about the dangers of getting above your station.”
“Crap! Kilbern’s been subverted by Taco! We need to get into that office!” Bruce hissed. “Can you cover me?”
Charlotte nodded, trying to project confidence she didn’t really feel, so that Bruce wouldn’t worry. “You go get him before Auralia ends up with Taco del Zombie.”
Then, she had no time to watch to see how Bruce made it past the ancient, evil spirit; because Fox Woman came at her, sliding her legs apart from standing rest into horse stance and stomping forward with the unnatural speed that Charlotte remembered, with a wide punch that, somehow, made it through Charlotte’s block and drew a black-cut across her shoulder with that gnarled, ugly, and until now somehow unseen fingernail.
Charlotte suppressed a gasp at the sudden pain and turned her block into a grip, pulling Fox Woman’s leg and pivoting into a thigh sweep. Only, somehow, it was Fox Woman who found the balance point and pulled Charlotte over.
Taking just the slightest chance, Charlotte pulled her legs up and turned a fall into a flip, striking sideways with the Pearl Harmony Sword at where Fox Woman ought to be.
A gasp helped Charlotte orient her spinning view on her foe. The ancient demon was flipping beside her, holding the sword blade in a lock grip. Refulgent, perlescent light shone through the creature’s porcelain hands, shadowing both dainty, ladylike fingers and the gnarled, animalistic talons that had replaced a very nice manicure.
The ancient foe had been trying for a disarm, and underestimated the power of the holy sword. As Charlotte’s feet touched ground, the demon’s hands sprung free, pried apart by the unseen forces of the ever-turning Wheel. And yet, Daji was able to touch down against a wall, feet first, and bounce right back at Charlotte in a Springing Crane strike. White Crane style. Very appropriate for an ancestral death spirit, Charlotte thought, as she took the opportunity presented and moved inside the punch to counterstrike with the Eight Spirit Dragon Fist.
Only to watch as the Fox Woman took her arm in a sinuous bind. Landing lightly right in front of her, the demon somehow stabilised, and pulled Charlotte in. Her ladylike mouth opened wider than any human face ought to allow, exposing a vulpine jaw of strong and sharp teeth, all too close to Charlotte’s.
With more desperation than skill, Charlotte pulled the Pearl Harmony sword up by the hilt, so that a fraction of the blade was interposed between them. Again, the hazy, white, underwater light lit the room. Again, the fox demon recoiled. But the characters that ran along the back of her blade winked, communicating a sense of worry. “I can’t keep on pulling your butt out of the fire,” they seemed to be saying.
Or Charlotte was totally imagining it. Either way, she wasn’t exactly covering herself with glory in this fight.
“Oh, this is glorious,” Fox Woman said. “Eight Spirit Dragon masters are supposed to be very hard to beat. But your father killed one, and he was just a mortal thug.”
The reminder that her father had killed his brother –Uncle Henry’s father—still hurt. Fox Woman must have seen that pain, because she continued. “Let’s see, now. Your actual father killed his older brother; the father of the kinsman in whose house you know live, Little One. Who do you call him “Father,” in your heart, Little One? Your cousin, Henry Wong, or Wong Kwan Lee? Ah, I see the answer from your expression, even if you will not admit it to yourself. Your lack of filial piety disgusts me!”
Charlotte couldn’t help herself, springing into a reckless thrust that Fox Woman countered neatly, pivoting in to take her in a hip throw. Blinding pain filled her as the wall smashed against Charlotte, and the very bricks of the wall seemed to buckle. Desperate to get her breath, Charlotte pushed up her sword into guard while calling up her qi to heal herself. She knew only too well that her form was too ragged, that she was just asking for a disarm, holy blade or not.
Fortunately, the demon seemed more interested in gloating. “Hasn’t your cousin taught you to control your passions? Or don’t you listen? Even your Uncle David fought better than that. Would you like some lessons.”
The penny dropped. Daji had learned how to match Eight Spirit Dragon style. And from who? Her father, obviously. She was amazed, at this moment, not to be more shocked, more betrayed, than she was. Whatever: that was for another day. Right now, she had to focus on surviving and winning this fight. Bruce would stand no chance against the Fox Woman and whatever was in that office if she fell.
A chime. She had a text! The acutest reflexes of a teenage girl might have sent her hand to her phone at that, even if it weren’t totally not the time. That is, if I t weren’t for the fact that her phone started to talk.
“Rescue Master posture, Char Char!” Her Uncle Henry’s voice said, clear and yet firm. Of course, Charlotte thought. It was the perfect position to guard from against the wall.
Fox Woman’s eyes narrowed, but she did not close.
“The last time we talked,” her phone continued, “We learned that a humble knowledge of the eightfold path subdues the passionate heart. Today, we must learn to know what we know. “
Charlotte moved off the wall, feinting a Plum Flower Punch to gain space as she digested that. It was true. On Landing, she had depended too much on her native strengths, on the power of an anger that she had needed to overcome. Here? She faced a foe who had studied the methods of Eight Spirit Dragon Kung Fu. Who had learned to turn its techniques against itself. Dragon style against Crane style was an easy study. There were counters to Dragon techniques in Crane repertory, and counters to that in Dragon training. All that was basic to wushu duelling.
Crane style sacrificed fluidity to stance –especially Fox Woman’s variant. Charlotte whirled into an Eagle Striking Fish hook, a move too wide for Crane style to evade, especially with the Pearl Harmony Sword to extend her reach. Her qi moved down the blade, augmenting its holy powers, and a white spark jumped the distance to course through the demon’s body. Daji shuddered at the impact, but it did not prevent her from going low under the blow into a knee block, perfect against a foe rattled by being thrown against the wall and confronted with an emotional cheap shot.
The thing that wasn’t basic to a one-on-one kung fu duel between masters of opposing styles, was knowing why something worked, and what the opposing master would do, and where the balance of strengths and weaknesses lay. Well, let’s see. One of these combatants liked to wear shoes that the other aunts at the Fifty Shades fancon would think was a bit over the top. The other one had a pair of Tatammy fatigue boots, because the uniform code was important, but with heels for a bit of individuality, and gyrostablisers so that she could fight in them that she’d darn well earned.
Footsweep it was. Sure, cliched, but it was Uncle Henry’s signature move. Fox Woman tumbled into a helpless face plant, Charlotte brought the flat of the Pearl Harmony Sword down on the back of her skull as hard as humanly possible.
It was as nonlethal a blow as Charlotte could manage, but Daji evidently wasn’t willing to see it land, because she vanished in a puff of smoke. A very strong whiff of burning match filled the air? Was that what brimstone smelled like? And wasn’t demons disappearing in a puff of brimstone a Western thing? Well, if you could have a “Chinese and Canadian” restaurant, why not? Who didn’t like a few chow mein noodles on that last, sticky bite of sweet and sour pork?
Anyway, point was, no more demon any more. Looking at where the Fox Woman had been, Charlotte said, in case some aspect of Daji’s attention still lingered, “Thanks for the talk about my filial duties. You really gave me something to think about.” Because it was only polite.
Now, then: there was a door on the other side of the room. Charlotte had been too busy with fighting ancient death spirits to pay attention to where Bruce had gone, but she knew him well enough to be sure that he’d made it through that door, and that he was fighting whatever was beyond it, and that, even though the enemy was supposed to be more than a match for him, that Bruce was winning.
Didn’t mean that she shouldn’t hurry right in there and help, though! Because, deeper even than the part of her that still thrilled to that moment when he’d first kissed her, Charlotte was worried.