Operation Killdeer - the Limited / Standard Ed. Story

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Home > Story > Operation Killdeer story
[posted 20 Feb 2008]

1995 Daedalus Entertainment, Inc. All rights reserved.

Endgame: Operation Killdeer
by Robin D. Laws

New York, 1995

Adrienne Hart is nervous, and she doesn't like being nervous. She's not used to it. She is a self-molded person. She designed herself from the ground up specifically to avoid feeling nervous, or fearful, or not in control. To avoid feeling weakness of any sort. Her self-creation has been very successful. She rarely thinks of her days in the orphanage, of being a terrified little girl with only one friend in the world. She thinks instead of her present self: an elite assassin, the confidant of the Unspoken Name himself. The blade-sharp right hand of the secret ruler of the world. She thinks instead of how she made herself: the hours, the months, the years of grueling martial arts training. Of the two pledges she made. The first to the Order of the Wheel, the organization that led her to serve the Unspoken Name: absolute loyalty. The second to herself: control, always control. Never let any external state or situation affect you, Adrienne. Everything comes from within. There is nothing that matters to you other than your heart, your soul, and your deadly hands.

But as Adrienne Hart shifts awkwardly in a leather chair in an empty, luxurious office suite in the MacMillan Building, she tries very hard not to think the thought that has been troubling her dreams. The first pledge is interfering with the second. She has lost control. Her heart belongs to another now.

That other comes into the room. Tall, straight-backed, his features sharp and hard. She jolts up, taking a sudden shock of breath into her mouth and lungs. The other seems as agitated as she is. They are both bound to the same dilemma. They have lost their hearts to one another. This is a love that is more than inconvenient, for the other is the Unspoken Name: the chairman of the Lodge, the conspiracy that has ruled the Earth for centuries. His blood is not entirely human. Nor is that of any of the other members of the Lodge. Adrienne is human, one of the Pledged who serve the Lodge. And love between a Lodge member and one of the Pledged is forbidden. It is a taboo big enough to cause grave problems for both of them. The Unspoken Name would be removed from his post if their desire were discovered. He would likely be killed by the other members of the Lodge; a disastrous blood feud could erupt. She would certainly be killed, her combat prowess not withstanding. It is certain that she could take dozens of her fellow Pledged with her, but this is not a certitude that pleases her. Her whole life, her whole identity, is service to the Wheel. She cannot bear the thought of betraying it, and curses her own heart for betraying her. She really wants to go out and hit somebody really hard. Again and again, preferably. The Unspoken Name, her impossible lover, opens his mouth to speak. She hopes he is about to give her the opportunity to do just that.

He does not disappoint her. His words do not refer to their passion, but they do not need to: every pause between every word screams it.

"Adrienne, an assignment. Operation Killdeer. This is only a combat assignment if it goes disastrously wrong. It is still quite dangerous. You may refuse."

Adrienne does not acknowledge this last sentence. She is shamed by it. For a Lodge member to offer a Pledged a choice of turning down even a life-threatening assignment is not a kindness: it is a sign of contemptible weakness in her lover. She wants to spit in his face. She wants to embrace him, and remain in his arms forever.

The Unspoken Name continues: "You are to observe the execution of a stratagem that has been long in preparation. These briefing papers will give you the full details of the operation. In short, we have prepared a trap for a group of our more bothersome adversaries in the Dragon and Lotus camps. We have put certain--excuse the pun--wheels in motion that will cause them to fight over the Red Lantern Tavern, Canton, 1850 juncture. Our infiltrators have convinced the leadership of both camps that to allow the other to capture this feng shui site would be to allow the other an overwhelming advantage in the secret war. This is, needless to say, a fabrication. The site is useful, but far from decisive, which is why we're prepared to lose it. It is bait for a confrontation which will, ideally, cost them both dearly.

"However, we have broader objectives than simply the demise of prominent enemies. Operation Killdeer is, in a sense, an audition. We are displaying our expertise at manipulating the other actors in the secret war, for the benefit of some potential allies. You are to travel to 1850 Canton and ensure that they are properly impressed by our little demonstration. You will meet them at a noodle house down the street from the Red Lantern tavern; precise directions, as well as the code words to recognize your contacts, are contained in your briefing material."

"So I just sit back and watch the others fight?"

"If there is insufficient Lotus and Dragon bloodshed, Adrienne, intervene. Our display must be dramatic. If this alliance bears fruit, our supremacy will be cemented once and for all."

Adrienne stands and leaves the room, skipping the pleasantries. She is acting a role, that of her old business-like self. As she goes, she feels the longing of the Unspoken Name like hot sunlight on her back.

Canton, 1850

Sun Chen, legendary archer of the Guiding Hand, sits unhappily on a bench in the Red Lantern Tavern. He is not the man for this job, he thinks. He is a man to operate from a distance, to fell enemies on the open battlefield. He is not a spy, not even a close-up fighter. If something goes wrong, he will be at a disadvantage. Yet it did not even occur to him to question the orders of the Perfect Master, Quan Lo. Quan Lo told him to come here and wait; the tortoise-shell oracle has revealed that great and dangerous events will take place here soon. Sun Chen is completely dedicated to the objectives of the Hand. Therefore, he must be mistaken when he thinks himself a poor choice for this mission. In choosing him to monitor the Tavern, Quan Lo must have considered factors which elude Sun Chen. It is not possible that Quan Lo would make a strategic error. Sun Chen promises himself that he will live up to the Perfect Master's faith in him.

What Sun Chen does not consider is that even Quan Lo has limited resources to draw from. Quan Lo realizes that Wong Fei Hong or Fong Sai Yuk would be better suited to this task. But they are far to the north, defending crucial feng shui sites from mysterious attackers. Quan Lo hopes that Sun Chen can contain any troubles that break out in Canton. He has seen the tortoise shells, however. The burn marks on the shells are chaotic and full of tormented, impossible lines. He fears that he is sacrificing Sun Chen. But he must know the full import of the omens contained on the surface of the shells. For the greatest weapon of the superior man is knowledge. If Sun Chen falls, he will not be the last brave warrior to die in the name of the Hand. Quan Lo knows that the road to justice will be slick with the blood of the valiant before the struggle is over.

A hand squeezes Sun Chen's shoulder. Sun Chen starts; he is not a man accustomed to being taken by surprise. He reaches for the dagger at his belt; it is gone. The man who has touched him is already sitting down. He is wearing the garb of a traveling peddler, but it is obvious that he is a foreigner. He is much too tall, his build too broad, to be an underfed peasant. The man places Sun Chen's dagger on the table in front of him.

"Thought you might go for that. Bad idea. Your dossier says you're an arrow man. Didn't want you getting yourself hurt and all. Here, take it back."

Sun Chen gazes into the man's face. He has olive skin, curly black hair, a cleft chin. His face is deep and weathered. The words he has spoken are flat, containing neither friendliness nor malice. He meets Sun Chen's eyes calmly, confidently.

"Thought I'd introduce myself before things get hot. We're here for similar reasons. We have no reason to be friends, but we have no reason to kill each other, either. Least not this time around. We're spectators and should keep it that way. Especially you, Sun Chen. This isn't going to be a job for Arrow Boy."

Sun Chen feels the flesh on the back of his neck burning with anger. The stranger has found his secret anxiety as easily as Sun Chen would find the center of a target; the stranger exploits this weakness casually. Sun Chen can tell that he has a knack for nonchalantly slicing away at a man's pride, a knack that he uses out of habit. The archer separates himself from his rage, disowns it. He remembers the words of Quan Lo: 'The angry warrior does not persevere.' Sun Chen elects to find his own power in this meeting: the power of silence. He will wait for the stranger to reveal himself.

Instead, the stranger stands. "There's lots of people who have a reason to die tomorrow. We're not among them. You're not stupid, so don't get stupid. Don't mess with me and I won't mess with you."

The stranger leaves the tavern. Sun Chen could easily put an arrow at the base of his neck in less time than it would take him to draw a breath. Something tells him he should. But he does not.

Hong Kong, 1995

Tricia Kwok holds tight to the armrest of Johnny Tso's night-black Maserati as Johnny takes a too-tight curve onto Cotton Tree Drive at his usual reckless speed. Nothing is going to slow Johnny down: he already smells Lotus blood, mingled with the aroma of his own shotgun shells. Johnny has a special hatred for the Lotus: their Poison Thorn goons killed his folks. Only hours ago, he was happily preparing for a trip through the Netherworld to 1850. There'd be Lotus aplenty to take down there: they were making a play for the Red Lantern Tavern in Canton. Then came a call from Fast Eddie Lo himself: Lotus activity down on the docks. One of Fast Eddie's Boys had seen what might have been Big Brother Tsien himself, resurfacing after all these months. Before the others could protest, Johnny was changing his plans. Sorcerers in 19th century Canton were one thing, but right in his home town? That hit another priority level for him. Reluctantly, Kar Fai let them split up: he, Zheng Yi Quan, Kwok and Tso would look for Tsien. Donovan, McCroun, Mane, and Zheng's students would continue with the Canton operation.

Tricia feels something gnawing at the pit of her stomach. The timing of this Tsien sighting is too tight to be a coincidence. The others have learned to trust Fast Eddie, but she's never warmed to him. She's seen the police intelligence files on the guy, seen the bodies he's left behind over the years. There's more to Fast Eddie than just the typical triad profile; he had to be as deep into somebody's pocket as the demon-worshipping Tsien was into the Lotus. And Tsien hadn't been spotted for months: something was fishy, and it wasn't just the smell of the docks.

Tricia, Zheng, Kar Fai, and Johnny are at the waterfront. Tricia turns out to be right: no Big Brother Tsien, no Poison Thorns, no sorcerers, no demons. They've been had. Detoured. Tricia resolves to have a one-on-one with Fast Eddie. A heavily armed one-on-one.

Canton, 1850

Jueding Shelun pauses to luxuriate in his own brilliance. It was he who had found out about the importance of the Red Lantern Tavern, having carefully and ruthlessly interrogated countless Canton informants. It was he who presented the plan to Gao Zhang, Center of the Lotus, and fought for its adoption despite the jealous protestations of his fellow sorcerers. It was he who had journeyed to the Underworld, his retainers suffering terrible casualties on the hazardous trek, to secure the cooperation of the much-feared Thing With 1,000 Tongues. It was he who was moments away from striking a decisive blow for the Lotus, from announcing that they had joined the secret war in force. With the Red Lantern in Lotus hands, 1850 will soon fall to Gao Zhang. Like spilled mah johngg tiles, the other junctures will follow. Why? Because Jueding Shelun is a genius. And why is he a genius? Because he does not bother with the foolish subtlety of his foes, used to pursuing their own tails. He will employ sudden, brutal, shocking force.

The signal comes from below. The Thorns of the Lotus are in place. Jueding titters, in his high, unearthly voice, and pulls the crystals of materialization from the folds of his cloak. He throws them down from his rooftop perch to the hardened earth of the street below. The crystals hit with a deafening crash. The sky darkens, and noon becomes night. A portal from the Underworld opens in the street. A vast and obscene creature squirms its way through the gaping hole in the earth. It pulls itself to its full six-story height. The Thing With 1,000 Tongues. It stomps towards to the Red Lantern Tavern, the noise of its approach underscored by the hysterical laughter of Jueding Shelun.

Within the Tavern, Sun Chen's eyes widen in shock. He has encountered demons before, but none so enormous as the one now headed towards him. He withdraws his arrows, standing his ground. Around him patrons of the Red Lantern, normally a rough and self-possessed lot, are fleeing in undisguised panic. He will not panic, he tells himself. He will prove himself. In his eagerness to show that he is suited for his mission, Sun Chen overlooks its exact details. As the demon looms above him, he forgets that this is not his fight, that he is merely to observe. Sun Chen looses a rain of arrows into the writhing maw of the demon.

The street now echoes with the sound of blade raining upon blade. The Friends of the Dragon, Zheng Yi Quan's students, fight with valor even though their master is not present to see them. They face the Vassals of the Lotus, bandits and extortionists unused to serious opposition. The Friends of the Dragon lack experience; the Vassals want for morale. Their struggle is not a whip-sharp ballet of violence, but an ugly and chaotic jostling. Many fall on both sides.

Joining the battle are three of the Dragons' finest: Jack Donovan, wise-cracking L.A. cop. Iala Mane, an unpredictable warrior hardened under Africa's sun. Mad Dog McCroun, a big bruiser with the soul of a poet. Donovan and Mane take on the gigantic demon. Donovan peppers it with handgun fire while Mane gets beneath it and tries to topple its pillar-like legs. McCroun scrambles up onto the rooftop to confront the giggling sorcerer. He directs a hammer-blow of a punch to the sorcerer's face. Jueding Shelun reels back for a moment, and then levitates from the top of the roof. He opens his mouth, and a stream of fire pours from it. McCroun goes up in flames.

Adrienne Hart is watching from the interior of an antique shop. The shop keeper and his customers have already fled. She has observed the scene with a mixture of excitement and detachment. Her fighter's sinews yearn to be out in the fight, but her common sense tells her there is nothing to be gained by participating. Until she sees McCroun.

Now she can see only images of the past. Her and McCroun as children, in the orphanage. They called him Mad Dog even then. But he protected her, was her only friend. She had thought him long dead. But here he was, a secret warrior fighting for the Dragons. And probably dying before her eyes.

It takes only moments for Adrienne to vault herself through the antique shop window, to bounce from the opposite wall, and to leap onto the rooftop. The flaming corpse of Mad Dog McCroun falls past her as she leaps. She kicks the levitating sorcerer in the jaw, breaking it.

The Thing With 1,000 Tongues has seized Sun Chen in its enormous fists, ignoring Donovan and Mane. It breaks Sun Chen's back and tosses him idly into an alleyway.

Sun Chen, his vision dimming with agony, falls at the feet of the mysterious man he met the day before inside the tavern. The stranger shakes his head in mock sympathy.

"Thought you were smarter than that, Arrow Boy."

Despite his apparent calm, the man has a weapon out. Sun Chen knows enough about the secret war to recognize it as an arcanowave device. The stranger serves the Architects.

The gigantic demon turns its attention to Donovan, stomping him into juice with a single crushing stomp of its foot.

Adrienne Hart launches herself at the sorcerer as he blasts her with his breath of fire. She wraps her arms around him, and that's the end of his levitating. The two of them fall to the hard packed dirt of the Canton street. Adrienne twists herself so that Jueding Shelun takes the brunt of the impact. She hears the familiar sound of bones cracking. His and hers both.

Sun Chen dismisses the pain from his body, thinking only of the indifferent humiliation the Architect has visited upon him. Broken back and all, he throws himself to his feet, grabbing the man from behind and locking their bodies together. He cartwheels into the street, using the Architect as a shield, dashing back towards the demon. Sun Chen knows he will die now. He just wants to take the Architect with him.

Jueding Shelun staggers to his feet, as does Adrienne Hart. His jaw is broken. He raises an arm to blast her into dust. Then he sees the cartwheeling men coming towards him. He moves his smouldering hand to roast them instead. The flames envelop Sun Chen and the Architect, whose name happens to be Nirmal Yadav. Both are instantly slain.

Iala Mane has climbed the body of the Thing With 1,000 Tongues as if it is a baobab tree. He kicks into the soft, mushy cranium of the beast, sending foul green spew everywhere. It gets into Mane's eyes, burns him. He finds himself falling, spinning, but cannot control his descent.

Adrienne sees the demon falling towards her. She kicks the sorcerer into its path. Fate gives him a moment to howl in impotent rage before the vast bulk of the slain demon crushes him utterly. She staggers backwards, falling against the shattered wall of the Red Lantern Tavern. Blood is running down from the crown of her head, falling into her eyes. She is as blind as Mane, who is lying motionless but alive in the middle of the street. The last of the Vassals of the Lotus have fled with a few Friends of the Dragon in pursuit.

A man walks up behind the blinded Adrienne Hart and shoots her in the head. She falls, attracting no notice from those on the street.

The man who has just shot her is known as Mr. X. He used to have a normal name, but he has almost forgotten it. No one else knows it, not even his fellow Lodge members. Names are like socks, to be changed frequently. They mean nothing to him. He's used so many names that he sometimes confuses his old identities with the people he has murdered.

He strides contentedly over to his guests, the two people Adrienne Hart was supposed to make a connection with. Mr. X is not sorry about having to kill her. He is never sorry about anything. He is pleased. Pleased that he is able to monitor the Unspoken Names' activities, able to note this unseemly attraction and nip a problem in the bud. Mr. X does not want distractions to ruin the Ascended's new plan. This is why he is here himself, to take out Adrienne Hart and take over her mission.

The mission starts as he greets his guests. They, a man and a woman, are both Chinese, but their costumes mark them as strangers to 1850s Canton. The man wears armor that suggests an odd hybrid of the Ming Dynasty and medieval Islamic style. The woman's garb seems almost Aztec, but her arm of pure darkness attracts far more of Mr. X's attention than her attire.

The woman, with regal detachment, points her chin towards Adrienne's body.

"I thought she was one of yours."

"She became an impediment. Now, I trust our organizational capacity has been appropriately demonstrated."

"Indeed. You even got an unexpected Architect and Hand in the bargain."

Mr. X smiles. "Unexpected?" Actually, they were completely unexpected, but he isn't going to let his new allies know that.

"Now let us speak of the Molten Heart."

The three conspirators do not see Iala Mane, who has crawled within earshot. Mane plays dead, listening carefully, knowing that a new chapter in the secret war is about to begin. Mane promises himself that this new chapter will have a different sort of ending. The kind of ending in which a full accounting is taken for the slain.

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