Year of the Dragon Story

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Home > Story > Year of the Dragon > Year of the Dragon story
[posted 15 Nov 2002; updated 16 Nov 2002]

© 2001 Stefan Vincent. All rights reserved. Permission granted to Z-Man Games, Inc. to reproduce and distribute this work in both print and electronic formats. For all other uses, please email me.

Ancient China: Lo-yang, Imperial City (notes)

Fo Shen arrived early at the Hall of Brilliance, as was his habit when reporting to Gao Zhang. To his surprise and consternation, Gao Zhang was already in the Hall, pacing and speaking angrily to himself. Fo Shen checked his stride and stopped just inside the doorwayóan angry Gao Zhang was not someone to be near if you valued your continued existence.

"The Guiding Hand are moving already. How did they know of Harvest of Jadeís condition so soon? And how did they see through our ruse so quickly?" said Gao to himself. Turning, he noticed Fo Shen. "Tell me, Fo Shen, is there anyone else we should be concerned about? Do the Architects also move against us?" Gaoís voice sent ice down Fo Shenís spine. The report he had been about to make would not have gone over well in the best of circumstances, and these could hardly be worse.

"My involvement with the Purists limits my view into the BuroMil bureaucracy, esteemed one, but I have no indication that the Architects are aware of anything out of the ordinary." Fo Shen kept his voice steady, and hoped that the sheen of sweat on his upper lip would go unnoticed. "However, the Purists have come across reliable information that points to a Jammer strike against Lo-yang, and perhaps the Hall itself."

Gao Zhang stopped pacing and was silent for a moment. Fo Shen braced himself for the worst, but Gao only said, "Summon the Petals. We must discuss plans for a diversion, and I believe perhaps a certain demon who has helped us in the past would be willing to work for the promise of heroesí souls." Gao Zhang chuckled, a throaty, disturbing sound. "He should be most entertained by the prospect. While he enjoys himself with those fools who think they can unseat us, I will have time to complete the negotiations with Harvest of Jadeís replacement." Gao glared at Fo Shen. "Why have you not departed yet?"

Fo Shen cleared his throat, gently, and hunched himself over in a submissive posture. "Most honored one, I have yet to impart the news that I came so swiftly to report. If I may have a moment more of your time, I have news of a different, ah, issue, from the Purists. An issue which concerns our future operations in the Architectsí juncture and may be related to the Jammer activities."

"That can wait, Fo Shen. Go now before I lose my patience." Gao resumed his pacing. Fo Shen quickly left the Hall to do as he had been ordered, more certain than ever that his report would not be well received. At least he would survive the afternoon....

The Netherworld: Getting Out While the Getting Is Good (notes)

As he approached the next tunnel intersection, Three Rats wondered again why he had been chosen to deliver this message. Three Rats wasnít his real name, of course, but heíd been Three Rats for long enough that it came naturally to him now. His operation inside Guiyu Zui was going smoothly, and he was close to discovering what the Lotus were up to in the bowels of that wretched place. Then suddenly this job came up, specifically naming him as the messenger.

There had been no signs that the Lotus suspected him, but they surely realized that this run was as good as a death warrant for the delivery boy. Why give him this job if they didnít want him dead? And why would they want him dead if they didnít suspect? It felt like a setup. On the other hand, his duties did take him through the Netherworld more than many Lotus operatives, so he had the knowledge to pull it off right. The timing could just be coincidental, but Three Rats didnít believe in coincidence. He shook his head, smiled slightly, and chuckled under his breath. He really did enjoy this game, but he knew when to quit. Too bad he had to bow out now when it was getting really interesting.

He chose pathways that would take him to the gate he needed without crossing many of the heavily-trafficked tunnels. It was slower than he liked, but it would have to do. He approached the next tunnel mouth carefully, staying close to the walls. His gray cloak helped somewhat to blend in, but without true shadows he couldnít really hide well. He listened carefully for a few minutes, then made his way quickly across the small cave and into the next tunnel.

His true employers already knew the contents of the message, of course. Heíd seen to that before leaving Guiyu Zui. Not that they were his employers any more, but they werenít likely to realize that for some time. And to compound his surprises today, they had instructed him to deliver the message at the Lounge, as ordered. Maybe it wasnít just the Lotus who wanted him dead. Heíd considered skipping out at that point, but he was too intrigued to let go just yet.

Heíd shown up at the Lounge and put on a good performance, even if it could get him killed. Afterward he pretended to get drunk at the bar, all the while watching which customers were making sudden or secretive exits. Scattering to report to their own employers, of course. The number of people surreptitiously watching him was still far too high for his health, so heíd disappeared out one of the back windows on his way to empty his bladder. An old trick, but still effective.

He couldnít help wondering just what the hell the Lotus were thinking with this little demonstration. The only reason they could have to pass that kind of information in a place like the Genocide Lounge was that they wanted the other factions to know it. But that didnít make any sense for the strike they were supposedly planning, if they really intended it to be covert. He chuckled again. The Lotus were masters of deception, and sometimes even he couldnít decide what was real and what was disinformation. But he had no intention of returning to Guiyu Zui just to find outóthis round was over for him and he was heading for a new start.

He stopped just around a twisted corner from the next intersection. Something didnít feel right, and he wasnít one to ignore any of his feelings. He pressed himself back against the wall and examined the tunnel in both directions. Nothing visible, but he could smell something now. Like burning fleshóheíd smelled that too often to mistake it for anything else. Then he heard static from the intersection ahead. He could barely make out the sounds of a radio, or what passed for one in the Netherworld. He heard a vaguely mechanical voice, presumably answering that radio call.

"Acknowledged. Both the Buro and BuroMil agents have been neutralized. No information was passed." The radio crackled again but Three Rats couldnít make it out. "Negative. The original courier has not been detained. Resuming search."

That voice belonged to an Architect cyborg. Three Rats shivered at the memory, there was no way he could forget that sound. His mind was racing and he was already starting to edge back the way he had come. Architect cyborgs involved in an operation against their own agents? Or somehow gone rogue? Now more than ever he wondered what the hell was happening. It still wasnít worth his life to know, but it was getting close. His smile broadened anyway as he quietly reversed his path. He was already changing plans, aiming for a different gate....

Modern Juncture: Off the Coast of Monaco (notes)

The sleek modern yacht floated at anchor in the clear water. The sky was a razor-sharp blue with a few scattered clouds, with a hint of breeze just sufficient to cut the heat. Draco had just stepped on deck to enjoy the afternoon when the captain motioned him to the bridge. He spared a glance at the waiting deck chair and the tall, cold drink on the table next to it, then sighed and climbed the ladder.

The captain handed him the secure satellite phone and then stepped well out of earshot, busying himself with some paperwork on the other side of the bridge. Heíd worked for Draco a long time, precisely because he knew when to become a piece of furniture. A blind, deaf and dumb piece of furniture.

There wasnít any need to ask who was on the other end of the phone. "How may I help you this time, illustrious leader?" Draco said. It was hard to tell when Draco was joking.

A soft chuckle sounded in the earpiece. Apparently the caller had decided it was a joke. "We have an opportunity to sow more confusion amongst our old friends from China, and perhaps to solve a few problems as well."

Dracoís expression hardened slightly. "Where, and when?" he said.

Again the chuckle. "The challenge you wished to make to our problem in the past? You may make it now." Draco arched one eyebrow in surprise but made no sound. "I donít actually care whether you resolve the problem or not, just that the challenge be issued for the time and place you are receiving now." Draco glanced at the display on the phone, grunted. The voice in the receiver continued. "I believe youíll find several of our competitors present as well, all with different agendas. Merely issuing the challenge will be enough for our purposes, but I know you wonít stop there. As I said, resolve the problem if you wish, but the situation will be volatile. Your first priority is to escape unharmed." Draco smiled at that. He seemed genuinely amused.

"Accepted," he said.

"One more small task," said the voice in the receiver. "Bring Mallory along. He has been far too inquisitive after the debacle in the jungle. Test his intentions, and remove him if appropriate." Dracoís smile widened but the amusement was gone. A predator whoís just found his prey might smile like that.

The Future: CDCA Recreation Facility 12 (notes)

At first Dianzi didnít hear the intercomís chime. The buzzing of his cutting blade was nearly drowned out by the screams, after all. He caught a snippet of conversation, enough to realize someone was speaking into the lab. He grimaced, although anyone not of his kind wouldnít know the difference between that and a smile on his face. Always interruptions, he thought. Another of those annoying bureaucrats checking on his work, most likely. They could come down here and micromanage his every action, but he wasnít allowed to walk out of the facility in daylight. Faugh! He shut down the saw, wiped the blood from his disturbingly long fingers on his apron, and stalked angrily toward the intercom. The screaming from his worktable continued.

He pressed the activator stud with more force than necessary. "Repeat," he said, "and speak loudly this time." The screaming died down to a low moan punctuated with heaving sobs.

"Your presence is requested." The voice sounded vaguely mechanical, and not just because of the intercom. Dianziís breathing quickened with excitement as he recognized it. His anger vanished. "Certain opportunities have presented themselves, and we will discuss how best to capitalize on them in the Lab." The tone made clear that it wasnít just a lab, it was the Lab. "We expect to capture a subject of the desired magnitude within 100 hours."

Dianzi licked his lips. Sooner than I dared hope, he thought. Demons of that size were not easy to come by, and no easy task to capture intact. "Agreed," he said into the intercom. He knew nothing more was necessary, the intercom had already gone dead.

He rubbed his long-fingered hands together in anticipation. Such thoroughly interesting and challenging work would certainly never come from the bureaucrats. Life had purpose and meaning while he was working with Omega on their special project. Heíd gotten a bit depressed when the tests on what was left of that supersoldier had to be suspended until a demon could be captured without the Buroís involvement. Until now, he thought. His jet-black eyes glittered in the fluorescent light.

"But I have time to finish this small experiment first, I think," he said aloud. The screaming started again even before he reached for his saw.

Modern Juncture: New York City (notes)

Samís cell phone chirped once, twice, three times. "Excuse me for a moment." He rose from his seat and stepped toward the balcony rail to create the illusion of privacy.

He flipped open the phoneís mouthpiece. "Mallory," he said tersely. The phone crackled as the encryption routine kicked in, then cleared.

"Pack a bag. Weíre leaving in two hours. A car will meet you in the usual place." Sam recognized the voice, of course. As a problem solver of the terminal kind, Sam was at the beck and call of those further up the Lodgeís food chain. It wasnít unusual for him to be kept in the dark on a job until just before the finale, but that was part of the utterly consuming thrill of his work. The adrenaline rush of outsmarting the best people and defeating the best security was incomparable. At least, it had been until that fiasco in the rainforest with that screwed-up tower thing. Heíd taken a good hard look at his life within the Lodge and asked a lot of unauthorized questions, especially about that damn Mantis whoíd nearly gotten them all killed. He didnít really like what heíd learned. He was a lot more concerned about the big picture now, and here was Draco himself dragging him off to who knows where.

"Mind if I ask whatís going on?" asked Sam. His long, fiery red hair was tossed by the wind, but he took no notice.

"Ah, for you, Sam, anything. We have some outstanding business that the Unspoken Name would like us to conclude expeditiously, and your talents will be invaluable. Be prepared to travel the hard way." The phone clicked loudly, then went dead. Sam closed the phone and walked slowly back to the dinner table.

Wonderful, thought Sam. Not only do I have no idea whatís happening, weíre going through the Netherworld. Nothing like a little fear of reversion to your ancestral form to keep you in line on a trip.

"I , too, am disturbed by the behavior of the Lodge in this juncture," said his guest quietly.

"Huh?" Sam said. Brilliant, he thought. "Why would you think I have a problem with the Lodge?"

"It is written on your face, young Bear, for those of us with the experience to read. Isnít this why you wanted to talk to me? It took no small effort on your part to find me," she said.

"No, no. I just wanted to hear some of the stories about the old days, when the Lodge was fighting for existence. Thatís all." Sam took his seat, started pushing his food around with his fork.

"That is the same thing, is it not?" asked Kang Pao. "The Lodge has lost its center. You feel it as well, even if you do not admit it."

Not a comfortable line of conversation, and anyway he wasnít certain he was ready to admit any such thing. Sam decided to try a page from Dracoís playbook. He sipped water from his glass, leaned back, and raised an eyebrow. A cool invitation to continue.

Kang Pao smiled. "Lately you have begun to feel that there are perhaps others whose cause is more worthy than our erstwhile saviors and mentors. Especially after your experience in the jungle."

Sam coughed and spluttered, water shooting out of his nose. So much for the cool and collected approach. He wiped his chin, took a hard look at his guest. "How could youó?" he asked, trailing off.

It was her turn to lean back. She crossed her arms. "And now we talk, yes?"

The Middle Country: The Grove of the Master (notes)

The Perfect Master sat calmly under the ancient tree, his eyes closed in meditation. Wong Fei Hong approached silently and stopped at a respectful distance, waiting to be acknowledged.

Quan Lo spoke without preamble. "The Lotus are moving against us in this juncture. I discounted the report at first, but foul spawn have been seen near the villages around Nine Dragon Temple."

Wong Fei Hong knelt and bowed his head. "Most honored Grandfather, the Lotus are stretched thin with the unrest in their own juncture. They cannot mount a significant force here without untenably weakening their own position. It must be a diversion."

Quan Lo opened his eyes. "Possible, but do not discount the Lotus so quickly. Gao Zhang will pay any price to keep the power he has unrightfully gathered to himself." He glanced at the sky, as if judging a turn in the weather, then continued. "In any case, by accident or design, they have chosen their target well. The temple itself is insignificant, but the gate within is our key to victory in the ancient juncture. Our reinforcements for the ancient juncture are heading toward that gate and will arrive in three days. We cannot afford to lose control of that gate, even temporarily, if we hope to solidify any gains made by Leung Mui. You will prevent the Lotus from taking that gate, no matter the cost." Quan Lo paused, seemed to consider Wong Fei Hong. "Even you will need assistance for this task. I have already informed some of the brothers here to make ready to accompany you."

"With all respect, that is not necessary." Fei Hongís head was still bowed.

"Perhaps, but do not assume you face only the Lotus. We must assume this news, in one form or another, has reached other enemies. They could well try to take advantage of the confusion sweeping our ancient homeland to make gains here, or cause us trouble. And there are always the Dragons, meddling wherever the Lotus are found" Quan Lo paused, eyes on Fei Honís bowed head.

"As you ask, so shall it be done, Grandfather," said Fei Hong softly. He had not been dismissed yet, so he remained in his posture of submission, waiting patiently for the Perfect Master to continue.

"Our sometimes-impetuous friend from Canton received a challenge recently, anonymous at face value but leaving no doubt as to the sympathies of the challenger." Quan Lo shifted slightly. On anyone else, the motion would have passed without notice, but Fei Hong knew that Quan Lo had to be greatly agitated to display even that. "His foolish pride will not allow him to deny such a challenge. It can be no coincidence that the challenger names the temple as his chosen field." Quan Lo motioned with two fingers for Wong Fei Hong to rise. "Be wary. I suspect you will have a great deal more to consider than just the Lotus and their foul ilk. Time grows short." Quan Lo closed his eyes and resumed his meditation.

Fei Hong rose silently to his feet and strode back toward the walls of the hidden sanctuary. The Ascended choosing to fight in this juncture, while the uprising raged in ancient China? Most interesting. They must feel that the Perfect Masterís forces had more than a slim chance of wresting control of the Dragon Throne away from the Lotus to make such a blatant move. Or perhaps their friend from Canton had been more successful of late than Fei Hong knew, and finally goaded them into action. Either way, Fei Hong had to move fast, and he had no time for the entourage intended by the Perfect Master.

Ancient China: The Camp of the Brothers of the Green Wood (notes)

"Tricia, you know my place is here. These are my people and my juncture. I cannot allow either to be harmed." Ting Ting stood with her back to the eerie Netherworld portal, admiring the beautiful mountain vale where her camp was located today.

Tricia busied herself field-stripping her Mossberg Special Purpose while she spoke with Ting Ting. Her movements were automatic and deft, just below the level of conscious thought. "I understand how you feel. But Dr. Haynes and Kar Fai are already here, and we canít afford to attract more attention if you move your band in force against either the Hand or the Lotus right now. We need your help at the Temple." She paused briefly as she finished stripping and cleaning, then started reassembling her weapon. "You heard Johnís report too. Gao Zhang is cooking up something big, and it looks like weíll be going up against something at least as nasty as that thing that killed Jack and Mad Dog. The other factions have gotten wind of it as well, and this could get ugly fast."

Ting Ting turned and lowered herself into a lotus position in one liquid motion. "That is clearly a diversion meant to distract us from his true goals. He would not waste such efforts unless his real objective were supremely important to him. That can only mean he intends to seat a new Emperor on the Dragon Throne, and cement his power base in this juncture."

Tricia laughed her infectious laugh and looked at Ting Ting. "Youíve been spending too much time with John lately. Youíre starting to sound like him." Ting Ting smiled at that, too. Tricia admired her newly-reassembled Mossberg, pumped it once to check the action, and then began loading slugs. "What we need here isnít a frontal assault, itís subtlety and a bit of misdirection. Thereís no one better than John for that, and Kar Fai always surprises me in that department. But Iím going up against something I donít fully understand, and I donít intend to become another statistic on the martyred heroes list. I need your help to keep that from happening."

Ting Ting glanced down where she knew her followers were camped, then looked at the swirling gate. She sighed, then smiled. "You know me too well, Tricia. Allow me a moment of instruction, and then I will return with you." She stood fluidly and walked toward her campsite. Tricia stood as well, checked her Smith & Wesson, then pumped the Mossberg. She spoke softly to no one in particular, "And now itís payback time. This one is for you, Jack."

The Middle Country: When It All Goes Down (notes)

Tricia dive-rolled through the broken window just as the sorcererís second blast of fire coursed past her. She used a little trick that Jack had taught her, planting her feet and using her own momentum to come back up to a standing position. She twisted at the waist and fired the Mossberg back through the window frame. The sorcerer wasnít nearly as nimble, taking the slug full in his chest.

"Amateurs," she muttered as she pumped the Mossberg and moved out of direct view of the street, favoring her left leg slightly. Her jeans were beyond saving, but that first blast from the sorcerer hadnít done any lasting damage. The more important problem was finding Ting Ting and regrouping before the nastier Lotus thugs showed what passed for their heads.

She whirled and crouched when she heard the faint plop-squish sound behind her. Why did I have to think about nastier thugs? She braced and fired the Mossberg. Ka-BLAM! The demon took it well, slowing down a bit but otherwise waving its tentacles toward her and slavering that green smelly slobber thatís so hard to remove from carpets. Tricia fired again, and again. Throw sufficient lead at them and even demons go down. This one teetered a bit, still advancing, and then let out a hideous-smelling belch as it toppled forward. Tricia covered her mouth and nose to avoid gagging. Sheíd have to find some cover elsewhere, seeing as how this place was corrupted and on fire and everything now.

The stench must have affected her more than she realized, otherwise she would have avoided the other demonís long arms as it reached through the broken window and yanked her back out into the street. She screamed and dropped the Mossberg as a broken shard of glass caught her left forearm on the way out, but that didnít stop her from breaking her fall the way Yi Quan had drummed into her. She shook her head to clear it, then drew her Smith & Wesson. This could be very bad, she thought as she saw what had pulled her out. Not your run-of-the-mill thing that goes bump in the night, thatís for sure. Almost half again her size, it was going through some kind of complicated arm motions. "Oh great. This one knows demon-style kung fu from Hell," she said aloud. The demon stopped its warm-up, took up a fighting stance, and smiled with a sharp-toothed grin. It gestured with its lower two arms as if to say "Hit me with your best shot." So she did.

BLAM BLAM BLAM three shots to the head rocked it back and it fell over like a ton of bricks, still smiling. "Huh," she said, "Who would have guessed that?" She holstered her gun and stepped back around the corner of the building. The flames werenít widespread enough to bother her yet and she had to bandage her arm before she moved further. She was ripping her sleeve to form a crude tourniquet when the wall exploded in a spray of splinters beside her head. She rolled away, barely avoiding the grasping hand of the thing she had killed. "Right the first time. This is very bad," she muttered as she turned to run further down the alley, only to find a tall, sturdy wooden wall at the end. She grimaced at her still-bleeding arm, then drew her Smith & Wesson and turned to face the demon as it stepped into the alley. There was no sign of the wound in its head, and it was smiling again, even wider this time. What the heck, she thought, and emptied the clip. It just laughed as the bullets tore into its chest, sending sizzling red ichor flying around the alley. The ragged bullet holes closed as she watched.

"Thank you, puny woman. I so enjoy the caress of your modern firearms," it said in a deep gravelly voice. It sauntered leisurely down the alley toward her.

Perhaps I was being optimistic, she thought. She holstered her gun and centered her stance. She wasnít a master, but if she could get in one good kick, she might distract it long enough to run by it. Suddenly, she relaxed, smiled, and looked behind the demonís left shoulder. "Am I glad to see you!" she yelled.

The demon made a sound like water boiling that probably passes for a chuckle in Hell. "That is an old trick even for me." It continued to advance toward Tricia. The surprised look on its face was priceless as Little Jim grabbed two of its arms from behind, planted his foot, rotated and hip threw the thing right through the wall of the burning building.

"Jimmy, you know Iím happy to see you, but what the hell are you doing here?" said Tricia as she hugged the huge Abomination.

"Omega comes." Jimís voice was deep and he tended to talk in short choppy sentences, like a stereotypical Frankenstein. Most people assumed his brain was as slow as his speech, but Tricia had gotten to know better.

"Terrific. The more the merrier, I guess. What do the Architects want with this place? Theyíll never blend in with the natives even if they can boot out the other factions." Tricia finished her crude bandaging job and flexed her left wrist. No tendons cut, no permanent damage.

"Not Architects. Omega." Jim leaned in to look through the demon-shaped hole in the burning building.

"What do you mean the Architects arenít here? You just said Omega is coming." Tricia popped a fresh clip into the Smith & Wesson. Jim held a hand up for silence. He was still leaning in through the hole in the buildingís wall. "Donít tell me," she said. "Itís not dead yet, is it?"

Jim backed away from the wall, still listening. Tricia couldnít hear much other than the crackling of the fire. "Gone," said Jim, now looking up toward the buildingís second floor.

"Gone as in ran away to fight another day, or gone as in about to make another surprise appearance?" The window on the second floor above them shattered at that moment, and the thing somersaulted out, stretching its feet to touch the building across the alley and ricocheting back toward Jim, mouth wide and yelling in some language sheíd never heard. One of its arms was trailing behind it, apparently broken. But the other three fists were engulfed in flames, leaving a pyrotechnic trail. "Impressive," said Tricia as she shot it in the chest in mid-air. Jim bent slightly to take the impact on his back, flexed his knees and rolled, whipping the thing back against the burning building and making another demon-shaped hole beside the first. He brought his elbow down hard on its throat, then leapt away to avoid a fiery fist coming toward this face. Tricia could see the smoldering mark on his right side where the demon had caught him on the way down.

The demon coughed and sputtered, then rolled and worked itself out of the remains of the buildingís wall. The flames were now obvious inside, and smoke was starting to pour out of the holes. The demon ignored Tricia, turning to face Little Jim and resuming its stance. It yelled something unintelligible, then smiled. "At last, a worthy opponent. I will enjoy tormenting your soul in the underworld." It launched a flurry of punches at Jim, weaving a hypnotic pattern with the fire trails. Jim blocked most of them, but his t-shirt was starting to smolder in several places where the demonís fists struck home. The demon got in a double-handed strike to the solar plexus that put Jim down on one knee, shaking his head and searching for breath. "And now it ends, as it always does." It paused, glanced over its shoulder at Tricia and leered. "Donít worry, I have not forgotten about you. I have something special in mind for us later." It started a spinning roundhouse kick that might have laid Jim out, if Tricia hadnít shot it in the kneecap. Twice, just to be sure.

The demon howled in pain but didnít go down. "Get up, Jimmy! Now!" yelled Tricia. Jim hooked his hands together and swung, landing a tremendous haymaker with an audible crack as the thingís head snapped back. It flew backward and landed heavily, Tricia sidestepping as it slid past her. She shot it again in the throat as it went by.

The fire around its fists flickered and went out, and it certainly seemed more dead than before. Tricia approached carefully, keeping her distance. The demonís tail twitched, so she shot it. Then she emptied the rest of her clip into its head and chest. "Just a little insurance," she said as she popped a new clip in and stood ready, but these wounds didnít close. Jim came up behind her, still winded. There was blood on his right side. "Jimmy, youíre hurt!"

"Not important," he said. He put one big meaty hand on Triciaís shoulder. "Thank you."

"Donít mention it. Itís only fair, right?" She kicked the demonís foot, then decided that enough was enough. She wasnít sure what theyíd do if it got up again anyway. "Letís head to the temple and see if we can find Ting Ting."

She holstered her gun and started ripping what was left of her shirt to make a bandage for Jim as they walked out of the alley. "You still didnít tell me about Omega. Why would Homo Omega be here if the Architects didnít send him to grab some real estate?"

"Hunting," said Jim.

"Hunting what?"

Jim pointed back down the alley toward the demonís body. "Those. Just bigger."

"Oh great. I had to ask, huh? Just how much bigger are we talking about, exactly?"


Tricia was perched in the upper limbs of the tallest tree they could find. She was a little higher than she liked, then anything higher than ground level was too high, in her opinion. Jim hadnít ever missed a catch on the way down, so she wasnít worried. Not much, anyway.

She scanned the area around the temple with her binoculars. A few monks here and there, seeming in no hurry to do whatever it was they do. No exploding fireballs, no gleaming slime trails, no tortured screams ringing outówhere were the rest of the Lotus goons?

She had swept her view past the temple entrance and into the courtyard when she saw them. Three people dressed like monks, moving furtively toward the main doors. If that didnít look like a bunch of perps trying to be inconspicuous, sheíd turn in her badge.

She started to call down to Jim when movement in the trees to the east of the temple caught her eye. She couldnít get a good look even with the binoculars dialed all the way up, but it was more than one, and metallic. "Jimmy!" she called. "Unwelcome guests are already in the temple! And we have company, too. At least five, maybe more." Jim didnít reply, so she looked down a bit anxiously. He was already moving off purposefully. "Jim! Donít you leave me up here!"

He stopped, looked back. "Sorry. Safer. Be back soon," then started to jog.

"Dammit! Come back here!" But Jim was already out of sight. He could move fast for a big guy. She was working up her nerve to try the descent the old-fashioned way when she noticed something moving on the temple roof. She refocused her binoculars and could see a guy with long red hair apparently having a conversation with a well-dressed man in a white suit. Whatís this now? she thought. Then she saw the figure dressed in black making its way covertly across the outer wing toward the two on the rooftop. And the woman in bright red with the flying braid could only be Ting Ting, heading along the inner wall for the same place. "Great. Now I have to get myself down or Iíll miss all the fun," she muttered. She took a deep breath and started down...


Sam was getting nervous about this assignment. Slipping past the monks guarding this place had been too easy. And who were those guys in the dark blue robes trying to be stealthy in the shadows of the main hall? They certainly werenít monks and didnít look like they belonged here, but Draco had ignored them. It all smelled of a setup, but he didnít know who was going to be on the sharp end. Maybe he was just being overly sensitive after that business in the jungle. Maybe. He was starting to fidget.

"Patience, Mallory. Our quarry likes rooftops, so this is where we wait."

"Who or what are we looking for? I really donít like being kept in the dark like this."

"In due time. You will know." Dracoís eyebrow raised minutely as he glanced across the vista to the east. He had a good view of the sparse forest that surrounded the temple. Sunlight winked briefly on metal. "And perhaps we will have more opportunity than first suspected."

"Would you cut the mystic cró" Sam was cut off rudely by the kick to his kidneys delivered by the black-dressed figure who suddenly vaulted over the roofís edge. Sam went down and rolled away, coming up in a crouch. His assailantís head was shaven except for a long topknot. But he wasnít even looking at Sam any more. He was now facing Draco, sword drawn and ready.

"So, Mr. Monkey, we meet at last. Or may I call you Iron?" Draco stood nonchalantly, hands in his pockets, as if this were an ordinary conversation. "Do you see now, Sam? I told you, you would know. Was I wrong?" He addressed his voice to Sam, but his eyes never wavered from his opponent. The Iron Monkey started to circle slowly so he could also keep Sam in view.

"Youíve been quite annoying, Mr. Monkey," said Draco. He didnít move as the man in black circled around him. "Several deliciously complicated plans have been abandoned because of your efforts." The Iron Monkey now stood just behind Draco, still out of armís reach, with sword at the ready. Draco kept talking calmly. "I have been sent hereóa journey of no small risk to my person, I might addóto see that your participation in these matters ceases. Now, we can do this the easy way, oró"

"You!" The sudden yell made Sam realize he had been sucked into this hypnotic dance more than he should have been. He glanced at the newcomer to their rooftop party: a young Chinese girl dressed in red with her long black hair tied back in braid. She had a sword as well, but she hadnít drawn it yet. That could only be Ting Ting, a name and face he recognized as a Dragon agent from some of his recent digging in the Lodgeís dirt.

The Iron Monkey used the distraction to strike, aiming a vicious overhand cut at Dracoís neck. But Draco moved faster, sidestepping and catching the Monkeyís wrist in his right hand, then executing a beautiful throw. The Monkey ended up flat on his back. "I see youíve chosen the hard way. As you will." Draco twisted the Monkeyís wrist, planted his foot in the manís armpit and jerked upward. The sword dropped free. Draco still hadnít taken his left hand out of his pocket. "Sam, I believe I have matters under control here. Deal with the girl."

Iron Monkey relaxed, then suddenly pulled down on Dracoís arm, using the leverage to pivot his body and sweep. He knocked Dracoís legs out from under him and rolled aside, coming up in a fighting stance. Draco caught his fall with both hands thrown behind his head, then neatly vaulted back up to a standing position. His suit hadnít even touched the ground. He brushed some imaginary dirt from a lapel and straightened his cuffs. He raised one eyebrow at his opponent but said nothing.

Ting Ting strode toward the fight. Sam stepped in her path to block her advance. "Look, this is none of your business," said Sam. "Get out of here before this gets uglier than it has to."

"Bear, my quarrel is not with you. Melissa says that somewhere inside you is a good soul, and I would not like to be the one responsible for setting it upon the wheel too soon. Now stand aside."

Iron Monkey launched a flying kick, landing a blow on Dracoís chest and then continuing to rain kicks on him, propelling him toward the roofís edge. Draco flexed at the knees and bent impossibly backward, allowing the Monkey to overshoot. The Monkey reversed his momentum using the stonework at the edge of the roof, springing backward and somersaulting over Dracoís head. "My, we are acrobatic, arenít we?" said Draco. "Sam, if you are quite finished chatting with our young friend, perhaps its time you did as you were told?" Draco launched a lightning-fast palm strike, catching Iron Monkey full in the chest and knocking him backward off his feet. He clutched his chest for a moment and shook his head, then noticed his sword was in reach. He rolled to his feet, catching the sword as he went and coming up on guard.

"Bear, you will stand aside now," said Ting Ting. "I need answers about the Red Lantern Tavern. I doubt you can give me those answers, but he can." Sam didnít need to look over his shoulder to know she was pointing at Draco.

Iron Monkey feinted low, then cut across Dracoís chest. Draco looked down, noticing a cut in his left sleeve. "Do you realize how expensive these suits are?" he said calmly as he sidestepped the Monkeyís overhand strike, then sidestepped the follow-up strike, then stepped backward to avoid the slash aimed at his belly. On the next overhead strike, Draco clapped his hands together on the sword as it came down, stopping it inches from his head. Iron Monkey tried to force the blade down, but Dracoís grip held. A faint line of blood appeared and ran down the edge of the blade. Draco let out an explosive breath and yelled something unintelligible as he twisted his wrists. There was a sharp metallic twang as Iron Monkeyís sword broke where Draco gripped it, and the Monkey stumbled forward as their balance shifted. Draco plunged the broken end of the sword into the Monkeyís left arm, then kicked him in the midriff and stepped back. Draco let his arms fall straight at his sides, hands kept slightly away from his suit. Blood dripped down his fingers and he took several heaving breaths, but he had an exhilarated look on his face. "Classic," he said. "Brilliant. I havenít done that in years."

Sam had turned his head at the sound of the sword breaking. Ting Ting landed a snap kick to his abdomen, followed with a quick uppercut as he doubled over, then spun around with the roundhouse to lay him out. Or rather, it should have, but he just seemed to get angrier as each blow landed. He wiped the blood from the side of his mouth. With a visible effort at control, he spoke. "Look, I said it doesnít have to be this way." He blocked the next two finger strikes, leapt over the low sweep and blocked another punch. "I really donít think you want to do this."

Suddenly Draco was beside him, his bloody left hand on Samís shoulder. Ting Ting aimed her kicks at Draco, but he parried with only his right hand. High, low, parry, block. He spoke to Sam as if he were not fighting a deadly opponent. "Sam, I told you to deal with her, not dance with her. I see you need a little incentive." And with that he pushed Sam toward Ting Ting, hard enough to pick him up off his feet and send him flying. Sam crashed into Ting Ting in a tangle of arms and legs. Ting Tingís foot caught on the edge of the roof and they both went over. "Ah, perhaps a little overzealous in the excitement. No matter," said Draco to himself.

He moved, but not quite fast enough, when the Iron Monkey aimed the remnants of the sword at his back. The blade caught him along the ribs, cutting a rough swath through his suit and the flesh beneath. Draco roared and his eyes flashed an unearthly color. He brought his left arm down and pivoted at the waist, pinning the Monkeyís arms, then punched him solidly in the jaw. He reversed his motion and followed up with a vicious backhand strike that sent the Monkey sliding along the rooftop, broken sword flipping away over the edge. Draco roared again. "That was unsporting, Mr. Monkey. Perhaps itís time to finish our game." He advanced toward the Monkey, who was trying to stir himself and get back up.

The temple roof rocked violently, nearly throwing Draco off his feet. It seemed almost to bulge in the middle. He paused for a moment to regain his balance, then the temple rocked again. The roof exploded upward, raining tiles and stone and something not immediately identifiable but certainly less pleasant as a giant blue head appeared, ringed in long writhing tongues. The thing brought a big meaty arm up through the roof and roared. Draco couldnít see what had happened to the Iron Monkey.

"Apparently the main event has started. Pity," said Draco. He raised his voice. "Circumstances may conspire against us today, Mr. Monkey, but I think we shall play again soon." He jumped neatly over the edge of the roof, away from whatever it was and down to the level below.


The wildlife had long since vacated this area of the forest as the cyborgs strode carelessly through it toward the temple. Homo Omega led them at a fast pace, knowing that he would have only limited opportunity to accomplish his task. He wasnít surprised to see Little Jim waiting in the clearing near the temple, just annoyed. He held out his huge clawed hand to stop his entourage, then stepped forward alone.

"Experimental subject J-5, how pleasant to encounter you again." Homo Omegaís voice was vaguely mechanical and entirely disturbing.

Jim shrugged. "Where is Jason?"

"Jason? Jason who? You mean the dead man your friends left behind at the Arcanotower?" Omega laughed, which was even worse than his talking. "That is why you stand alone in front of me and a full complement of killing machines?" He turned and swept his arm, gesturing at the lethal-looking group behind him.

"Not dead. Jim would know. Not dead." Jim was clenching and unclenching his fists, and starting to rock back and forth.

"He most certainly is. You will never see the Jason you knew again." Omega laughed again, as if he had made some private joke. "We have business here. Go back to your pathetic little friends."

Jimís restraint broke. He launched himself forward, arms outstretched, but he never connected. Omegaís arm came up in a flash, seeming to meld and flow as the claw changed into a huge weapon. He fired on automatic, slugs pummeling Jimís body. Jim was jerked around like a rag doll, then fell to the ground, unmoving. Blood trickled out and started to pool beneath him.

Omega gestured to one of the Vivisectors. "Bind and suppress this one. We will take him as well. It will be fitting to have him involved in the project once more." He indicated a cyborg carrying capture gear. "You will stay and assist. Meet us at the temple when you are finished."


Tricia had lost her binoculars, some skin, and a lot of pride in her descent, but she was safely on the ground again and heading after Little Jim. She slowed when she caught the glint of sun on metal in the clearing ahead and crept up carefully behind a tree. A cyborg that seemed to be made at least partly of fire and something else that was human-shaped but squishy and disgusting were working on a pile of high tech gear. Is it bad guy on fire day or something? she thought. Then she saw Jim laid out flat in the dirt and the wires attached from him to the equipment, and lost her cool.

BLAM BLAM two slugs into the squishy thing. It squealed and flailed long-fingered hands as it fell into the equipment. BLAM BLAM two slugs into the cyborg, but it didnít seem to notice. It let loose with a stream of bullets from the huge automatic rifle it was carrying. Triciaís tree started to evaporate, so she dove and rolled, firing into the cyborgís chest. The other thing continued to flail around in the mess of wires and boxes and must have hit something bad, since there was a sound like eggs frying and it suddenly arched its back. At the same time, Jim curled up into a fetal position and let out a loud groan.

Tricia ran low across the edge of the clearing, dirt puffing up behind her from the cyborgís slugs. She made it to a much larger tree and took cover to the sound of bullets whizzing past. Then the shooting stopped and she heard what sounded like the gun being thrown to the ground. She risked a quick peek and saw that the cyborg had tossed its rifle aside and was now striding toward her. I normally look forward to the bad guys running out of bullets, she thought. She stood and backed away, keeping the tree between her and the cyborg. Not that it would help much.

"Allow me," said the soft male voice behind her. She nearly jumped out of her skin as she turned to fire, realizing as she did so that her gun was gone. The firm grip on her wrist kept her from making any other moves. "Your gun is there," he gestured toward the grass nearby. "You may retrieve it when we are finished. Please refrain from shooting at us for a few moments." She didnít recognize the tall man dressed like a monk, but wasnít about to argue with him. She made it a point not to argue with soft-spoken monks who could disarm her before she noticed, especially those carrying large umbrellas. The monk let go and advanced to meet the cyborg. She flexed her wrist and picked up her gun, then started circling the clearing again to get to Jim.

The monk walked casually in front of the tree, turning his back to the cyborg as it approached. Its pace didnít change. The monk leaned his umbrella against the trunk, took a deep breath, and seemed to start some kind of stretching exercise. Just as the machine reached for him, he burst into motion and ran up the trunk in a few quick strides. He pushed off and flipped over the cyborg, linking his hands around the cyborgís neck and pulling as his feet touched the ground again. The cyborg sailed over his shoulder, landing with a loud crunch against another tree. The machine started to get to its feet, but the monk was a blur of motion, landing kicks and punches all over its body, knocking it back into another large tree. Pieces of armor and mechanism scattered around the clearing. The monk stopped for a moment and seemed to gather himself, then landed a terrible two-handed palm strike to its chest. The thing literally exploded in fire and what sounded like a scream. The tree burst into flame, and pieces of cyborg started small fires where they fell.

Tricia was at Jimís side, checking his pulse. He was alive, but still bleeding and badly hurt. The monk calmly retrieved his umbrella, then walked toward them. She holstered her gun; no use pretending it would do any good if the monk turned out to be a bad guy after all.

"Thanks," she said to the monk.

"I did not do it for you. Our goals happened to coincide today."

"Whatever. Thanks anyway."

The monk knelt and deftly examined Jimís injuries. "Your friend is badly hurt. My meager skills are insufficient to help one of his kind. I suggest you get him to safety." He stood and started toward the temple at a fast walk.

"Hey, wait!" Tricia called. "There are more of those machines up ahead. You might need some help."

"There are worse things than machines at the temple today, I fear," he called over his shoulder. "Tend to your friend."


Sam came to just as fragments of stone started raining down around the inner courtyard. "What the hell?" he swore. Ting Ting was stretched out beside him, still unconscious. Her left knee was bent at a very bad angle. "That canít be good," thought Sam. He tried to get up, then winced and sat down again gingerly. "At least three broken ribs, and who knows what else." He coughed and spat out blood. "Maybe a punctured lung too. If youíre gonna get hurt, may as well do it right." He worked his way slowly to the girl and checked her pulse. Steady. No obvious bleeding although sheíd have one heck of a bruise on her, well, on her whole body. He started to chuckle but that only made him cough again. He grabbed her shirt and, ignoring the pain, dragged her away from the main door, closer to the overhanging wall so they wouldnít be hit by debris. Unless of course the overhang gave way, but better not to worry about that. Then the front of the temple exploded outward and he saw the huge thing that was causing all the ruckus.

"Now that is not something you see every day." He would have whistled if his lip werenít split. That could only be a demon, but heíd never heard of one that big before. It was ridiculously large, at least as tall as the main temple building, and covered in a warty blue skin. Heíd owned cars smaller than the claws on the thingís feet. But the worst was the hundreds of long red tongues that waved in front of its face. A bunch of normal-sized demons trailed out after it. As if demons have a normal size, he thought. He chuckled painfully again and spat more blood.

Monks were running in from the outer courtyard, a few with weapons but mostly unarmed. Several of them with spears menaced the huge demon, but it didnít slow. A sweep of its huge arm and the monks were tossed back in a groaning heap. Four long tongues lashed out and bound another monk, dragged him up and into the thingís gaping mouth. A meaty fist came down to smash a wagon in the courtyard, sending debris flying.

The other monks and demons were busy mixing it up in a wild free-for-all when the east wall of the temple started to glow. And it just keeps getting better, thought Sam. The wall seemed to shake and shimmer, and finally a large section abruptly collapsed in a cloud of dust. Several fiery cyborgs jogged through, large weapons at the ready. They picked off a demon that came too close with a hail of gunfire. Then a larger cyborg strode through, huge weapon seemingly built into one arm. No way could Sam hear what was going on, but it was bellowing and gesturing with its normal arm, if you call a claw that size normal. A few more cyborgs and a pair of man-shaped brownish things came through the hole and started setting up some kind of complicated equipment.

There was a groan beside him as the girl stirred. He put a little cautious distance between himself and her fists. Her eyes blinked open and she grimaced but levered herself up on one arm. She saw the fracas in the courtyard, then her eyes focused on the huge demon busy demolishing the complex. "That looks familiar," she said, then coughed.

"What?" asked Sam. She seemed to notice him for the first time, then saw the marks and blood in the packed dirt of the courtyard that led to where she lay. She did a quick mental double-take and decided she agreed with Melissa.

"Did I land on you or did you land on me?" she said, then smiled when he did.


Omega gestured to the distraction teams. They split up and fanned out to either side of the courtyard, efficiently dispatching the occasional monk or demon who got in the way. The capture squad was almost ready to begin. He flashed the signal and the first distraction team opened fire, high-velocity armor-piercing slugs ripping through the demonís thick warty hide. That got its attention. It bellowed, tongues flailing, and tossed aside the two monks it had been preparing to eat, looking around for the source of its pain. It crossed the courtyard in two quick steps, crushing one cyborg under a huge clawed foot. The demon grabbed another cyborg in both hands and pulled. The cyborgís arms popped free with a rending noise, then its remains burst into flame. The demon tossed what was left of it over the wall, then reached for another.

Omega gestured again, and the second distraction team opened fire from the templeís main steps. Their slugs peppered the demonís back. Little blobs of sizzling ichor flew around the courtyard, causing even more confusion among the knots of monks and demons still fighting nearby. The ichor burned whatever it landed on, whether stone, wood or flesh.

The demon bellowed and turned again. It advanced toward the steps. Tongues shot out and grabbed a cyborg, lifting it easily and pulling it into the demonís mouth. Its firing stopped with a loud crunch and a short belch of flame from the demonís mouth. A huge fist knocked another cyborg back against the temple and embedded it in the stone wall. What was left of the cyborg kept firing, although its aim was more than a little erratic. When bullets started landing among the capture squad, Omega gestured and the remaining cyborgs scoured it with gunfire until there wasnít much left except pock marks in the wall.

"Status!" roared Omega. The Vivisectors behind him shook their heads. "Still too strong? Challenging. Keep firing!" He aimed his own weapon at the thingís belly, preparing to fire, when he saw the robed figure leap from the remains of the templeís roof, over the lashing tongues, and onto the thingís head. "No!"


Wong Fei Hong was not a demonologist, but he could tell when he was facing one of the underworldís more prominent denizens, and this was about as prominent as heíd ever care to meet. The templeís caretakers could deal with the usual sort of demons but this was beyond them. When the machines had opened fire and distracted the giant demon, heíd seen his opportunity. He leapt over the thingís tongues and grabbed a warty protrusion for balance. He began raining punches on the demonís head and neck, looking for a vulnerable spot.


"Itís happening again," said Ting Ting. Sam looked at her, puzzled but not in a hurry. His breathing was still labored and his ribs were really starting to ache. She glanced at him, then back to the battle. "This looks much like what we have been able to deduce about the Red Lantern Tavern. That could even be the same demon. And there were Lodge agents there too." When Sam kept looking at her blankly, she added "Donít your seniors tell you anything?"

"Frankly, no, they donít," said Sam angrily. "All I know is that we lost an agent who happened to be in the area when a giant demon started rampaging..." Sam trailed off. "Um, I see your point. What else is there to know?" He seemed genuinely interested.

"I wish we knew. We discovered that the battle was just a ruse, a setup from the Lodge, but we donít know why, or who organized it. And this looks like the same thing. I wonder who is being used this time?" She paused and looked at him appraisingly. "Why am I telling you this?"

He coughed. "Because Iím such a nice guy?" A sudden scream from the demon and the monk brought them back to the situation at hand.


"Suppressors! Fire!" Omegaís voice carried through the sounds of the battle and the capture team opened up, bathing the demon with the energy from the wave suppressors. The equipment crackled and popped alarmingly but otherwise held.


Wong Fei Hong had found a vulnerable spot. He gathered his personal energy and prepared a titanic strike. He unleashed his blow just as the suppressor field engulfed the demon. His fist cracked the demonís skull, sending acidic ichor in all directions. He lost his balance and fell heavily to the ground, moaning as the demonís blood burned his body.


The demon fell over with a heavy thump, crushing what was left of distraction team one. Omega gestured to the remaining cyborgs who quickly began binding the demon. One of the Vivisectors busied itself trying to patch some of the demonís more voluminous wounds while the other readied the gate. The wave suppressors were still running and holding the demon in check. Omega provided cover fire, eliminating any of the remaining monks or demons who came too close.

"Attach the lifters!" The cyborgs slapped long lighted tubes along the demonís chest and legs, tying them all together with webbing. They attached a power pack, and then the whole demon floated a few inches up off the ground, tongues trailing in the dirt.

"Open the gate!" The air seemed to thicken and ripple in the hole in the courtyard wall. Two cyborgs went through the opening and disappeared, guns at the ready. One reappeared briefly and flashed a hand gesture, then disappeared again. The other cyborgs pushed the demon through the gate slowly. The Vivisectors followed, bringing their gear.

Omega was left surveying the mess in the courtyard, the gate softly rippling behind him. He walked to where the monk was still writhing in pain and kicked him solidly. "If you have cost me this project, there will be no place or time you can hide from me." He shot the monk in the leg. "So you may remember what you have already cost me." Omega turned and strode across the courtyard and through the gate. There was a loud popping noise and the gate seemed to collapse in on itself, leaving the hole clear again.


"What the hell just happened?" asked Sam. He coughed again, spitting up more blood.

"Not important right now," said Ting Ting. "That man needs our help." One of the smaller demons was plop-squishing its way toward the monk, and there wasnít a temple defender in sight. Ting Ting was pulling herself up on her good leg, trying not to retch as she exerted herself.

"And what are you going to do, fall on it?" said Sam. "Just make a lot of noise and see if we can attract it." He started yelling and waving his arms at the demon, but a coughing fit cut that off quickly. Ting Ting yelled too, but the demon was intent on the wounded man.


Tricia took a quick look into the courtyard through the hole in the wall. Jim was walking, if you called it that, but wouldnít be any help if things were still ugly. What she saw looked like those pictures of the war, only with lots of green blood and purple tentacled bodies. The temple itself was a mess, with a huge hole torn out of its front wall and a large portion of its roof missing. She could hear faint sounds of fighting from beyond the main entrance but it looked like it was all done here.

"Iím gonna have bad dreams for weeks," she said. She held her gun at the ready as she stepped into the courtyard. The remains of more of those cyborgs were scattered nearby, along with a huge indentation in the ground. Just beyond that, she could see a demon bearing down on a man who was weakly trying to crawl away from it. The man was wearing a battered robe and seemed familiar.

"Nobody deserves to go like that." She started jogging toward the pair, firing at the demon as she went. It squealed and turned toward her, waving its tentacles menacingly. She dumped the rest of the clip into it, when finally something inside it gave and it collapsed like a sack of green goo, complete with the green goo. She popped in a fresh clip just in case.

She checked the man on the ground and realized it was the same monk who had saved her in the clearing. He was breathing shallowly and was badly burned, but alive. Jim had limped his way over by then and knelt, helped her turn the man over gently.

"Alive?" he asked.

"Yes, barely. We need to get him and you some professional help. I donít see any coming around here." She could still hear the sounds of fighting in the outer courtyard. "Iíve only got two clips left. We wonít last long if this place gets hot again."

"Tricia!" Her head whipped around at the sound of her name, gun coming up. Then she recognized Ting Ting, leaning heavily on a young man with bright red hair. Or being heavily leaned upon, she wasnít sure which. Maybe more of a mutual leaning. She ran to help them.

"What happened here? It looks like you guys had a war without me." She looked Sam up and down. "And is your cute friend a good guy or a bad guy? He looks familiar." Tricia helped them over to the rubble-strewn steps and they sat wearily.

Sam smiled. "Sam Mallory. Good guy, I think." He held out his hand, winced when Tricia took it.

"Tricia Kwok, charmed. Sorry about the hand." She released his hand, cocked her head slightly. "So youíre the Mallory that Melissa talks about. If sheís telling it straight, it sounds like we all owe you for that tower thing in the jungle." She took Ting Tingís other arm and helped them walk back toward Jim and the monk. "How long have you two known each other?"

They both smiled and looked at each other. Sam held out his hand to Ting Ting and said "Sam Mallory. Pleased."

She took it lightly in hers and shook it gently. "Ting Ting. Charmed." They both laughed, except Samís laugh turned into a cough and he brought up more blood.

"Great. Two wounded comedians is all I need," said Tricia as they made it back to Jim. Surprisingly, Sam didnít even blink when he saw Jim. "We need to get you all out of here before you keel over. Any ideas?"

The groan from the wounded monk wasnít really intelligible, but she got the feeling he was trying to answer her question. "He said ĎGate. Temple.í " said Jim. Tricia looked at him with one of those "how do you know that?" looks, then let it go when he looked at her innocently and shrugged.

Tricia looked at the injured monk. "I donít think so. If there was a gate here, itís history until you can rebuild this place. If you can rebuild this place." She frowned, looked at Ting Ting and Sam. "Weíll have to do this the hard way. I hate to ask it Jimmy, but can you carry this guy? We canít leave him here." Jim nodded and picked the monk up in a firemanís carry as gently as he could. He huffed a bit but managed to stay up. "And you two I can lend another arm to again. Letís go."

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