how i lost my head

Running into the woman that paid to have you killed for your life insurance is enough to startle anyone. She strolled by, as the setting summer sun warmed the nape of my neck, wearing the cornflower dress that I bought her last summer and the black pumps that were two sizes too big – the ones that her heels popped out of with each step. I caught her distinctive gait out of the corner of my eye while I sopped up a plate of olive oil and sea salt with the remnants of a warm baguette.

I shouldn’t have been surprised, in retrospect – we’d often spent a good part of the evening sitting on the patio of the Flying Fig. We loved to soak up the warm, night air, drink a bottle of wine, eat the locally sourced food, and watch people wander up and down Market Avenue as Cleveland relaxed and settled into the weekend.

“Claire?” I pushed my chair back quickly and stood up, hoping to get her attention. “Claire?”

“Harold?” she gasped. Her eyes grew wide as dinner plates.

“It’s me, baby.”

“But,” her face blanched, “you’re dead.”

I don’t remember much about dying. I remember Charlie – that bastard – and I remember his chainsaw; I remember all sorts of unpleasant things about that chainsaw. I remember begging for my life as he fired it up and the feeling of helplessness as he took my head clean off.

The next thing I remember is waking up in the basement of the funeral home with my head firmly reattached and then sneaking out in the middle of the night. It’s the period between the two that’s a bit hazy. I found out from the paper that my body had washed up on the shore of Edgewater beach and my head had followed a day later.

I’d hoped that, when I finally ran into her, Claire would have been able to fill me in. Apparently not. “Well, I was.” I swirled my glass of Grenache and smiled, “Not so much anymore.”

A crowd passed around us, between us, behind us in that long moment: clever, pretty men and smart, well-dressed women crossing the cobblestone street, moving from the patio of the wine bar to the patio of the Brewing Company and vice versa.

She wheezed – the cigarettes were catching up with her, “This can’t be happening. This can’t be.” She wobbled unsteadily.

“Well, I don’t want to keep you,” I said. “It was good to see you, Claire.”

“It’s good to see you, too, Harold,” she backed away slowly, trying to not trip over her ill-fitting shoes. She finally turned, but continued to stare at me over her shoulder.

“Oh, and when you see him,” I said as she walked away, “tell Charlie I said ‘Hi.’”

If she were able to run in those pumps, I’m sure she would have. I watched her as she disappeared around the corner, headed toward the Bier Markt, probably to meet Charlie. I flagged my server down.

“All ready?” she asked with a smile.

“Yes,” I said, as I took the last sip of my wine, “I’m very ready.”

high cheekbones, nice skin

John couldn’t think of a single good reason for a severed head to be in his bathtub. Not one. There was no blood to speak of – just a cleanly severed head lying in the center of the tub, staring up at the ceiling.

He struggled with how to react. He thought about vomiting, but the lack of blood failed to create a visceral impact – and he’d never been particularly squeamish to begin with. Screaming didn’t make much sense either. He didn’t feel particularly threatened at the moment, and the head wasn’t staring directly at him, so he didn’t feel challenged by it. His mind examined several other possibilities before he shrugged, said “Huh,” to no one in particular, and drew the curtain on the shower.

John walked back out of the bathroom, past the coat and briefcase that he’d set down not five minutes earlier, and sat down in his large recliner. He reached down, pulled the lever to put his feet up, and sighed. He thought about turning on the television and decided against it.

“I wonder if it’s still there?” he thought to himself.

“I should look.”

“No, I shouldn’t look.”

“I should look.”

“But what if it is still there?”

“Oh God, I can’t look.”

He looked. It was still there. He wasn’t sure if he was comforted or not by the fact that it still existed. On one hand, he clearly wasn’t crazy. On the other hand – well, there was a severed head in his shower. He did notice two things that he’d been too stunned to notice earlier, though.

First, the head was fairly pretty, all things considered. It looked like it had belonged to a young woman with high cheekbones and nice skin. It seemed a shame that it was now no longer attached to a body. He wondered if she’d be the kind of girl he’d talk to in a bar. Maybe she worked in accounting in an office just like his. He shivered involuntarily.

Second, in addition to the lack of blood in the tub, there was a conspicuous lack of dirt. John was a bachelor, and, as was his prerogative, he seldom cleaned his bathroom more than once a month. Now, however, the porcelain, grout and tile positively gleamed at him. They were, he felt, malevolently clean.

He shut the curtain again. “Shit.” He wasn’t sure what he was disturbed by more – that the head was present at all, or that whoever put it there took the time to clean his bathroom first.

“God, what do I do?”

“Call an ambulance? No, that seems silly.”

“Call the police? What do I tell them? What if they think I did it? Shit. Shit. Shit.”

He vacillated for a few minutes before deciding, finally, to call his mother. “Hi, Mom.”

“Yeah, I’m ok. Well, sort of ok. I’ve got a problem.”

“Yes, I know I only call when I have a problem.”

“No, I know I should call more.”

“Yes, Dad told me about his doctor’s appointment last time I called,” he said in exasperation, “Mom, I’ve got a problem.”

“No, I’m sorry. I know I’m not the only one with problems. I care about Dad, too.”

“Yes, I’ll talk to him.”

“Hi Dad.”

“Yes”

“Yes.”

“Yes.”

“No, I’ve never had that done.”

“Yes.”

“No.”

“Yes.”

“Ok. I love you, too. Can you put Mom back on?”

“Hi Mom, look, I need to ask your advice.”

“I found a head in my shower.”

“No, a real one.”

“No, just the head.”

“I have no idea where the body is.”

“No – nobody I recognize.”

“No, I haven’t called the police yet. That’s what I wanted to…”

“Ok, ok. I’ll call them right now.”

“Ok. Goodbye.”

He hung up, rubbed his hand through his sandy, blonde hair, called the police, and then waited.

#

“Hrmph. That’s the third one this week,” the officer said as he surveyed the bathtub. He’d shown up within five minutes of the call, which both surprised and pleased John. He didn’t expect a premium to be put on already-severed heads, but he was glad that they took him seriously.

“Third one?” John said, surprised.

“Yeah, it’s been something of an epidemic,” he said, distractedly, as he picked a piece of lint off of his sleeve. “I’ve never seen anything quite like it.”

“Huh.”

The officer motioned to the tub, “You normally keep your shower this spotless?”

John had always heard that police, firemen, and surgeons had ways of coping with the horror that confronted them on a daily basis: gallows humor, irony, and the like. It helped them keep their distance and not get overwhelmed by the reality of their jobs – but the question stuck him as unnecessarily callous. “No, not usually. It wasn’t that clean this morning.”

“I see. Well, that certainly fits the pattern.” The officer drew the curtain back across the tub, turned, and smoothed down the front of his uniform.

“Pattern?”

“Yeah, these types always have a specific pattern. Whether that’s a symptom of their illness or just the method to their madness, it’s hard to say. In this case, it seems that the perpetrator is a real stickler for cleanliness.”

“That seems odd.”

“I suppose,” the officer cocked his head to the side and smiled wanly. “I suppose I should tell you this now,” he paused.

John suddenly felt uncomfortable for the first time. “Go on.”

“There’s more to this killer’s pattern.”

“Oh?”

“It seems that whoever finds the head ends up becoming the next victim.”

John blanched. “What?”

“Every time I get a call from someone, I show up, and then the next day someone else is calling about that same person.”

“Oh.” John’s eyes widened as he noticed the officer’s crisply pressed uniform and immaculately polished shoes.  The walls of the bathroom suddenly felt far too close together.

“You know,” said the officer, “you’ve got really nice cheekbones – very high. And really nice skin.” He smiled – his teeth a gleaming porcelain white. They were, John felt, almost malevolently clean.

#

Karen couldn’t understand why there was a severed head in her refrigerator. It was cleanly cut, without a trace of blood to threaten dripping into the bowl of fruit salad below it. What’s more, it looked like the entire fridge had been wiped down – it was spotless.

She closed the refrigerator door, waited a minute, and then opened it again. The head was still there, starting past her out into the kitchen. It was, she noticed, a handsome head – its sandy blonde hair framing high cheekbones and very nice skin – almost like her own.

After a moment of shock, she called the police.

the short story of esmeralda santiago

Esmeralda Santiago’s only friend was a girl named Luna who lived on the moon. Luna and Esmeralda had been classmates since kindergarten and had spent every day after school running through the woods behind Esmeralda’s house – skinning their knees on fallen, moss-covered trees, forging alliances with the fairies who lived amongst the ferns, and establishing an uneasy truce with the kingdom of squirrels who inhabited the tall oaks and maples.

“My mom is a fairy queen,” Esmeralda had told Luna as they lay in the shade of the old oak tree that stood next to the lily pond, “that’s why she’s always away – she has a kingdom to run.”

“That must be cool to have a fairy queen for a mom.” Luna said as she stared up at the great white galleons that floated on the endless blue sea.

“Mostly it is. I get lots of cool stuff that she brings back from all the places that she has to go rule over.”

“That’s cool.” Her hand darted up toward a cloud that drifted by overhead, “Oh, look, a windmill.”

“Oh, and there’s a rhinoceros.”

“Does that look like a bear?”

“A really fat one, maybe,” Esmeralda puffed out her cheeks, and then giggled.

“Fat like Fat Bobby!”

“No way. He’s way fatter.” Esmeralda held out her hands as wide as they would go. “He’s like twice the size of a really fat bear.”

“Hey! If your mom’s a fairy queen, doesn’t that mean you’re a princess?”

“Oh! Yeah, it totally does!”

“Does that mean you’re going to have to marry a prince?”

“Ew, no! Gross!”

“You’re going to have to marry a prince as fat as Fat Bobby!”

“Eew! No! That’s totally gross!”

“And you would have really fat kids!” Luna puffed out her cheeks this time.

“Yuck! Stop!”

“And maybe you’d even have a really fat dragon!”

Esmeralda laughed, “I’d take a really fat dragon. That’d be totally cool. Then I could curl up on him and take a nap.”

“Da?” Luna looked over at her friend; she was the only one besides Esmeralda’s mother who could get away with calling her Da.

“Yeah?”

“Let’s go feed the squirrels acorns!”

***

One day, Esmeralda’s mother brought home a pleasantly plump dragon. Esmeralda squealed and tossed her arms around its neck. It grunted, sighed, and laid its large, scaly head on the top of hers.

“Mom, this is so cool!” She bounced up and down as she talked. One hand gestured at her mother while the other scratched her new pet behind the ears. “I’ve always wanted a dragon!”

“Well, now you have one. What are you going to name him?”

“Hmm,” Esmeralda put her hand to her chin, “Let me think.” She looked into her dragon’s big, brown eyes and his tail started wagging vigorously - sending the contents of the coffee table he was sitting next to clattering onto the floor. “I think I’ll call him Spike.”

“Ok. Spike it is.”

Spike the dragon lived outside in the backyard in a very large dragon-house and spent most of his days nosing around the lily pond, looking for goblins to eat.

***

During the summer between fourth and fifth grade, Luna fell ill. She had always been prone to sickness, but this time she wasn’t getting better. At first, she simply wasn’t able to run around in the woods, but as the weeks wore on, she wasn’t able to go out at all.

Esmeralda spent most of her afternoons sitting at the edge of the lily pond watching Spike. Every Tuesday, though, she traveled to the moon to visit her friend. After school, she would wait by the pond for her transportation. She could hear it from a mile away, rumbling through the sky toward her. The great mechanical steed coughed and sputtered as it flew through the air. Smoke poured out of a pipe on the rear of the contraption, and every few feet it would emit a loud bang.

It resembled an old truck: red and rusted and clunky; but where it should have had side panels, it had wings that flapped up and down with a loud creak. When it landed, it blinked one of its headlights and wiggled its bumper at her.

Behind her she could hear Spike growl, so she jumped in quickly, and the truck took off, zooming into the sky. The ground receded into the distance beneath her, the house and lily pond and woods growing smaller and smaller. They soared up through the clouds, and the ocean appeared on the horizon. Then, as they left the atmosphere, the world as a whole became visible.

Esmeralda settled in as they sailed through the ether toward the moon, which glowed brightly in the distance.

***

Luna curled up on the crescent moon. The stars glowed in the night sky, the Milky Way hung directly above her, and the earth shined in the distance. Esmeralda bounced across the Sea of Tranquility toward her, pirouetting as she left the surface with each step.

“Hi Da,” Luna said sleepily as she turned toward her friend.

Esmeralda disappeared into a crater, and then reappeared a second later. “Hi Luna! How are you doing today?”

“Worn out, like usual.”

Esmeralda stopped bounding around the surface of the moon and sat down on the bed next to her friend. “I’m sorry.”

Luna offered a wan smile, “I know.”

“Maybe next time, I can bring feyberry juice. That’ll make you feel better.”

Luna was quiet. She stared at the stars overhead.

“Feyberry juice always makes you feel better, Luna. It’s got all sorts of fairy magic in it.”

Luna pale face turned red. “There are no fairies, Da!” She began to sputter, “You can’t turn into a robot, and Spike’s a dog, not a dragon, and the alchemist doesn’t give me potions, the doctor gives me medicine, and I don’t live on the moon, and the stars are just stickers.”

“I…I…” Esmeralda stammered.

“There are no fairies! There are no fairies! There are no fairies!” Luna yelled as she pounded the bed with her fists. “They don’t have magic and they can’t make me better.” She began to cry and looked away.

Esmeralda stared in silence for a moment, and then leaned over and then hugged her friend. “I’m sorry.”

Luna cried for a few minutes, was quiet for a few more, and then finally whispered, “My Mom says that I’ll be going to Heaven soon.”

“Is it going to hurt?”

“I don’t think it could hurt any more than it already does.”

“I’m going to miss you.”

“I’m going to miss you, too.” Luna returned Esmeralda’s embrace, and then collapsed back on the bed. Esmeralda lay down next to her, and they stayed that way, staring at the field of stars above them, for over an hour. Finally, Luna turned to her, “I’m tired Da, I need to go to sleep.”

Esmeralda nodded, pulled the covers up over her only friend in the entire world, walked over to the door, and blew her a kiss.

***

A month earlier, Esmeralda sat in a chair as the alchemist peered into his cauldron. Green smoke bellowed forth, creeping into the corners of the chamber and curling around her feet. Luna and her mother sat next to her, as the alchemist chanted arcane phrases.

He stared at a scroll for a few minutes, then pulled out a wand and began gesturing at Luna. The wand created eddies in the smoke, and little waves of magical energy leapt off the tip each time he came near her.

Esmeralda looked around at the alchemical equipment: the decanters and vials, the mortar and pestles, the braziers and cauldrons. She looked at the cabinets full of herbs and essences and the racks of bones and talismans. I can do this, she thought.

After several minutes of pouring over eldritch tomes and astrological charts, the alchemist scratched his chin and then pulled a glass vial out of a cabinet. He poured the contents of the cauldron into the vial, scribbled instructions on a piece of parchment, and ushered them out of his laboratory.

“I don’t want to take any more of these,” Luna told her mother.

“I know, darling,” her mother said, “But you need them to get better.”

Luna frowned, but nodded her head.

One day, I’m going to make potions for people, Esmeralda thought to herself. I bet the fairies will teach me how.

***

By six, Esmeralda was a full head taller than all of the boys in her class, and had the vocabulary of a spelling bee champion. One day, while walking through the jungle, Esmeralda saw a group of wild monkeys harassing a small, pale girl. They screeched and howled as they jumped around her, and several of them had picked up sticks.

The pale girl cowered on the ground, and Esmeralda knew she had to act. Summoning all of her power, she transformed: her arms turned into pistons, her hands into claws, her legs into tank treads, and her body sprouted armored plates. Now a heavily-armed fighting machine, she zoomed into the fray.

“You primates!” she yelled as her pneumatic-powered arms pummeled the monkeys. “Leave her alone!”

One of the monkeys squealed as its nose was crushed. “Owie, owie, owie!” it screamed as it ran off into the trees. Another monkey threw a stick at Esmeralda, which she easily ducked. She turned, picked it up, and threw it back at the monkey’s head. It squealed in pain, yelled, “No fair!” and then ran off as well. The rest of the monkeys stopped and began to back away.

“Run, you simians!” Esmeralda bellowed as she advanced toward them. She only needed to roll a few feet before they broke and scampered off. As she watched them disappear back into the jungle, Esmeralda transformed back into a six-year old girl. She extended her hand to the girl on the ground, “Are you ok?”

“Yes,” she whispered quietly, “Thank you.”

“No problem. When I transform into a robot, I can defeat pretty much anything, even talking monkeys.”

“Really? That’s so cool,” the pale girl said as she stood up and brushed the dust off of herself.

“Yeah. Hey, what’s your name?”

“Luna.”

“Mine’s Esmeralda.”

“Hi Esmeralda, how did you learn how to change into a robot?”

***

A week after her last visit, the great mechanical beast never arrived to take Esmeralda to the moon. She waited by the lily pond until the sun completed its circuit of the sky, and then went inside. After dinner, she did her homework, fed her dragon, and then put on her pajamas. The crickets chirped outside her window, and the light of the moon cast long shadows across her bed.

Sometime later, the sound of a phone rang in the night, and Esmeralda turned over and buried her head in the pillow. Then, she heard the sound of her mother climbing the stairs, and finally, the sound of her door creaking open.

“Da?”

“Yeah?” she said sleepily.

“Luna’s mom just called.”

Esmeralda sat bolt upright. “What happened?”

“Oh, Da. I’m so sorry.”

“No,” she said with a plaintive look.

“Da,” her mother walked over to the bed and sat down beside her.

“No!” Esmeralda threw off her covers and jumped out of bed. “No! No! No!”

“Da.”

“No!” She turned and ran from her room, bounding down the stairs and throwing open the front door. She could hear her mother calling from behind her as she ran out into the night. She headed toward the lily pond and the old oak tree that overlooked it.

Esmeralda had never felt so cold. She collapsed with her back against the tree, knees clutched tightly to her chest. Ice water ran through her veins, and her bones felt frozen through. A hollow emptiness churned within her belly – eating away slowly from within. She thought about crying, thought about yelling out at the top of her lungs, but instead sat quietly, trying to fold in on herself and disappear.

Spike peeked his head out of his dragon house and then wandered over to Esmeralda. He nuzzled her with his forehead, and, when she didn’t respond, he curled up around her: his head lying near the lily pond while his tail wrapped around the tree.

After a few hours, Esmeralda crawled over and lay down with her head on his belly, and the rhythm of his breathing finally lulled her to sleep.

***

Esmeralda woke in a strange land full of stone walls and steel-grey skies. Spike was gone, the lily pond was gone, and her house with her fairy-queen mother was gone. Bats flittered overhead, and Esmeralda felt the cold, damp air soak into her skin.

“Hello?” she called. Nobody answered, and the only sound was the whistling of the wind. “Is anybody there?”

She wandered through the desolate labyrinth for what felt like days. Occasionally, she would see a stray rock roll across the landscape of its own volition, and would hear a rhythmic creaking sound coming from the other side of the wall.

The light never changed: everything was washed out, nearly grey, no matter how far she walked. Her feet began to tire, so she stopped and sat. Nothing changed: the only constant was the emptiness.

She couldn’t tell how long she sat, but her feet eventually stopped hurting, so she walked again. “Hello?” she called again. This time, she heard the creaking, and it sounded close. She picked up her pace and rounded the corners of the labyrinth one after another.

Finally, she rounded a corner, and found the source of the creaking: not twenty feet in front of her, a specter, dressed in a white shroud, sat on a wooden bench. It had one hand on a wooden cradle and was gently rocking it back and forth. The specter groaned, and Esmeralda shuddered. This isn’t Heaven, she thought to herself.

From where she stood, she couldn’t see into the cradle. She didn’t want to see into the cradle – she was afraid of what she would see. “Who are you?”

No answer. The cradle simply continued to rock.

“Why am I here?”

The specter turned its head slightly, and Esmeralda notices a phrase carved into the wall behind it: “In hoc signo vinces.” She mouthed the words as she read them, “With this sign, be victorious.”

The cradle stopped rocking, and the specter turned to look at her. She saw a hollow shell filled with infinite, empty blackness, and felt a cold hand grip her soul.

“No,” she said simply. “No.”

The specter didn’t move, but she felt the cold recede.

“I won’t let you take any more.”

The specter looked away from her.

“I’ll use potions and medicine and wands and needles and fairy magic and science, and I won’t let you take any more.”

The specter began to fold in on itself – the white shroud consumed by the infinite black. A moment later, it was gone. She blinked, and the cradle disappeared. Then she blinked again, and she realized she was lying on her back next to the lily pond, while her pet dragon licked her face.

Esmeralda wiped her eyes and looked out at the stars far above, at the Milky Way that cut a brilliant path across the sky, and at the moon, where her only friend Luna used to live.

###
This was the winning entry of the Ceramic DM 2007 writing tournament. Thanks for reading!

king of snake

In the days of the Southern Song Dynasty, in the land of Hangzhou, two snake spirits took on the form of humans. One named herself Bai Suzhen, the white snake, and the other named herself Chingching, the green snake. While out wandering one day, Bai and Chingching met a simple medicinal herb merchant named Xu Xian, and Bai fell in love with him at first sight.

Bai and Xu quickly married and opened a medicine shop, which allowed them to live a comfortable life together. Xu’s skill in medicine drew disciples from all over the region, and one day a powerful monk named Fahai arrived from the Jinshan temple.

Fahai asked to study under Xu, and to prove his worthiness as a student, he revealed that Bai and Chingching were not humans, but were, in fact, spirits in disguise. Xu refused to believe Fahai and drove him away, refusing to ever take him as a student.

Fahai persisted, though, and, on the day of the Dragon Boat Festival, he convinced Xu to offer his wife some wine, as was tradition. At first Bai refused to drink the wine, but Xu was insistent. When Bai drank the wine, she became violently ill and fell unconscious.

Distraught, Xu went to find herbs to cure his wife. While he was out, the wine loosened Bai’s control over her form, and she transformed back into a snake. When Xu returned, he was horrified to find a giant snake where his wife should be, and he died from fright. Triumphant, Fahai imprisoned the weakened snake spirit in his alms bowl and returned to the Jinshan temple.

Chingching could not bear to see the fate that had befallen her sister and brother-in-law, so she retreated to the mountains to meditate. After a year spent focusing her energies, she traveled to the Jinshan temple to demand her sister’s return. Fahai refused, so she used her magic to flood the temple.

Fahai and his disciples fought back, and in the process injured Chingching. In her weakened state, Chingching could not control her powers, and the flooding extended throughout the region, wiping out village after village, killing tens of thousands of innocent peasants.

Seeing the damage being caused, Fahai released Bai under the condition that she use her own powers to stop the flooding. The white snake accepted the terms of her release, and once the waters were under control, she returned home where she used the powers of the sacred lingzhi herb to restore her husband to life.

Bai apologized to Xu for concealing her true form, and asked for his mercy. He was so moved that he forgave his wife for her deception, and the couple lived together in the medicine shop until the ripe old age of one hundred and three.

But this is not their story.

***

This story begins at four o’clock in the morning, when the ringing of a gong woke the monks of the Jinshan temple. Each of the monks rose from the wooden benches where they slept, wrapped themselves in grey robes, and made their way to the courtyard. The abbot of the temple, a middle-aged monk named Shi Yong Xin, watched closely as the adepts ran circuits of the courtyard for an hour.

When the morning exercise turned to meditation, he wandered up and down the ranks of students, smacking them with a bamboo cane when their posture slackened (indicating that they had slipped from deep concentration into deep sleep).

Finally, he led the group in the practice of wushu for another hour; he taught them the secret strikes of dragon fist, which can break through any enemy’s defense; the principles of qing gong, which allows the body to become light as a feather; and the discipline of nei jing, which harnesses the vital energies that flow through every body.

When the gong rang at seven o’clock, the monks were more than ready for breakfast: a simple bowl of rice. Prayers accompanied breakfast, and once each monk had eaten, they turned their attention to their daily chores. Shi Yong Xin wandered through the temple, watching his disciples sweep the courtyard, clean the prayer hall, and polish the bronze statues of Buddha.

Normally, he paid very close attention to each monk’s activities, and would rap them with his bamboo cane if he found any deficiencies. Today, though, his concentration was on other matters. He wandered for a while, lost in thought, until he happened upon the object of his contemplation.

“Fahai,” he said as he motioned to a young monk of eighteen years.

The monk looked up from his task of scrubbing clean the cracks between cobblestones in the courtyard. “Yes, master?”

“Come with me Fahai.”

Fahai set down his brush, stood up, and followed Shi Yong Xin through the monastery. They wandered in silence for a minute before they reached the prayer hall. The abbot ushered all of the monks out and then crossed the hall and knelt down before a bronze statue of Buddha. Fahai followed and knelt down next to his master.

“Do you remember last month when I was bitten by a snake?”

“Yes master, I went to get the sacred lingzhi herb to heal you.”

“Yes, and you returned just in time. Do you remember what kind of snake it was?”

“A mountain viper, you said. We searched the entire temple for it, but it escaped before we could find it.”

“Indeed it did escape, Fahai. But it wasn’t a mountain viper.”

“Master?”

Shi Yong Xin lit several sticks of incense and placed them before the statue. The sound of monks in the midst of labor echoed in the background. “The snake that bit me was no ordinary snake. It was the King of Snake.”

Fahai shuddered. Everyone knew tale of Madam White Snake – they knew of her imprisonment by the temple, of the destruction of the temple and the surrounding villages, and of her husband, Xu Xian, who she had brought back from the dead. Fewer knew that Xu, having been brought back from the dead, had developed magical powers that rivaled even Bai Suzhen’s. He was known by those in the martial world as the King of Snake.

“But didn’t Xu die, master?”

“Yes, he did – at the age of one hundred and three. But he has returned.”

“Returned? How?”

“That I do not know, but the King of Snake was here that night, and he stole our most sacred treasure – the scroll of the Lotus Sutra.”

“Why would he do such a thing?”

“Revenge, perhaps,” Shi Yong Xin said with a sigh. “He may also be trying to regain his power.”

The thought of the King of Snake regaining power frightened the young monk. “Well, then he must be stopped.”

“Yes, Fahai, he must. And you must be the one to stop him.”

Fahai felt his blood run cold. “Me, master?”

“You are the champion of Jinshan temple, Fahai, just as your namesake was five hundred years ago.”

“I am?”

“Yes, Fahai, it is your destiny.”

“Destiny?” This was the first time that the abbot had ever spoken of destiny.

“Fahai, we all have a destiny which we must fulfill.” He paused for a moment before continuing, “You are our strongest and most able student. Your knowledge of the sutras is exceptional, and your martial prowess exceeds that of everyone else, including me.”

Fahai was silent. He had never known a home other than the temple. Though he was comfortable traveling the surrounding countryside by himself, he always knew that the temple was waiting for him to return. From the look on his master’s face, he suspected that he was not going to return from this journey.

“The honor of this temple rests upon your shoulders, Fahai.”

“Yes, master.”

Shi Yong Xin rose and beckoned to his disciple to follow, “Come. We must prepare you.”

Before a monk of the Jinshan temple leaves to travel the world, he undergoes several purification rituals. Then, just before he walks through the front gate, the final ritual is performed. The next morning, Fahai knelt before the front gate of the temple as Shi Yong Xin and the other monks gathered ‘round.

The abbot took a sickle from his belt and began to shave Fahai’s head, chanting a sutra of protection while he worked. The other monks chanted along with Shi Yong Xin, though they still managed to clap and cheer as each lock of hair hit the ground.

Once the ritual was complete, the abbot motioned to Fahai to stand. “You must never trim your hair with any blade but this one,” he said, “Which means that you may not cut it until you return.”

“Yes, master,” Fahai was familiar enough with the custom, having undergone it several times before. Still, he expected and appreciated hearing the instructions each time.

“The length of your hair will provide a measure of your experience. The longer it is when you return, the more knowledge we will expect you to bring back.”

Fahai took a deep breath and then bowed. “I will attempt to grow it long enough to circle all of China.”

The abbot smiled. “This marks a new beginning for you, Fahai.”

“I will make the temple proud, master.”

***

Thus it was at the beginning of spring that Fahai left the Jinshan temple and set off on foot, heading north. According to Shi Yong Xin, the King of Snake was likely to head west toward India, so Fahai planned to meet up with Chang Jiang, the long river, and follow it west as it cut across the length of China.

First, though, he needed to find an antidote to the King of Snake’s venom: the magical lingzhi herb. Also known as the mushroom of immortality, it was a kidney-shaped fungus so rare that it grew on one in ten thousand trees, and only then in very few locations throughout China.

Fortunately, one of those locations was a small forest that lay directly north of Jinshan temple. It was there that Fahai had traveled to find the lingzhi herb when his master had been bitten, and it was there that Fahai now found himself. The first time he had been lucky – he had felt a voice call to him – directing him to the one tree in the forest on which the mushroom grew. At the time, he thought it had been the hand of Buddha, for his master was a pious and good man who deserved the intervention of the divine.

Now, though, as he stood at the entrance to the wood, he wasn’t so sure. He heard the voice again, but this time he detected a distinctly feminine tone. As he followed the voice, he felt a nagging sense of familiarity – and not simply from the last time he had heard it.

He spent nearly an hour following the voice, climbing through underbrush, and running up and down gullies, before he emerged into a clearing. There stood a magnificent silver birch. He immediately recognized that it was the same tree he had found previously, but he didn’t remember it looking so…beautiful.

Fahai stared up at the tree, for it had taken on the form of a woman. Her legs sprouted from the trunk, her arms merged into the branches that stretched overhead, and an exquisitely sculpted face peered back at him from a frame of leaves. “Hello?” he said softly.

“Welcome,” the tree replied.

Now that he could place a face to the voice, he had a hunch as to the tree’s identity. “Chingching?”

“Yes, Fahai. It is I,” her voice sounded like the rustling of leaves and creaking of branches.

The young monk shuddered – the green snake that had lost control of her powers and killed thousands now stood in front of him, transformed. “What has happened to you?”

“I have imprisoned myself here in order to atone for my misdeeds. Where once I created destruction, I now offer the gift of life.”

He looked at the base of her trunk – there were two small kidney-shaped mushrooms growing at the very bottom. “Though I am grateful, I do not understand why you offer the lingzhi to me.”

“You will need it to combat the venom of the King of Snake.”

Fahai accepted the truth of the statement, but something else tugged at the back of his mind. “You brought me here on purpose. To what end?”

“To help you fulfill your destiny – the same reason that I brought you here last time.”

“My destiny?” This was the second time someone had mentioned destiny to him in the last week. “What do you know of my destiny?”

“Only that I play a small part, and that the rest is for you to discover.”

Fahai frowned. He didn’t like the fact that everyone but him seemed to know about his destiny. “I thank you, Chingching,” he said, bowing deeply. He carefully cut the lingzhi off of the tree, wrapped them in a white silk cloth, and then placed them in the base of his pack.

Once he finished, he pulled out a second white silk cloth, tied it around a low branch, and then offered Chingching his blessing.

“Thank you Fahai,” she said sadly. “Perhaps once I receive ten thousand more blessings, I will have finally paid off my debt.”

Fahai smiled. “If I survive my quest, I will be certain to come back and offer you one more.”

The young monk spent the night sleeping under the watchful eye of the remorseful spirit. The next morning, he bid her farewell and then resumed his journey. A week later, he arrived at the Chang Jiang and began his long journey west. As he moved from village to village along the river, he would produce his alms bowl and beg for enough money to buy a bowl of rice.

Fahai’s hair became shaggy at the same time he wore out his first pair of sandals and at the same time his stomach began growling at him without pause.

***

Bo enjoyed being a bully. As the enforcer for the region’s governor, he was able to boss people around, demand tribute, and occasionally knock a few heads together with his club. Most days he stood around in his leather smock, showing off his biceps and looking very pleased with himself. This day, however, he had work to do.

A group of peasants had gathered at the river, for this day was the day of atonement. They would wade into the river and wash themselves with fragrant herbs in order to wash away the impurities that they had gathered over the past year. This was all well and good, Bo thought, but they were taking entirely too long. The more time they spent at the river, the less time they spent in the master’s fields. The less time they spent in the fields, the less money his master would make. The less money his master made, the angrier he would become with Bo.

Bo, therefore, meant to send the peasants back to the fields. After parading back and forth along the shore for a few minutes without eliciting a response, he walked down to the end of a wooden dock, jumped in, and waded toward them. “All right all you good for nothings!” he yelled as he swung his club over his head, “Get back to work!”

The peasants screamed and splashed toward the shore - all except one young man who was wearing a set of grey robes. He turned and glared, which made Bo unhappy; Bo shook his club menacingly in the air.

“What are you doing?” Fahai exclaimed. “This is a sacred ritual that you’re interfering with.”

“Bah – back to the field with you!” Bo roared.

Fahai reached into the folds of his robe and pulled out a rope of prayer beads. “Alas, I am not a field worker – just a humble monk.”

Bo paused for a moment. He had never beaten a monk before, but then, again, no monk had ever spoken out against him before. He looked around at the crowd of peasants who had stopped running and were now watching. Bo was not a bright man, but he realized that if he let one peasant tell him what to do, they would all think they could tell him what to do.

“You will pay for your insolence!” Bo yelled as he swung his club at the young monk’s head.

Fahai deftly ducked under the club and dashed back out of Bo’s range. “Please, I have no interest in violence, but I must defend the honor of this sacred ritual.”

“And I must defend my master’s money.” Bo raised the club above his head, jumped forward, and then brought it crashing down in a great arc.

The monk jumped back once again, just barely avoiding getting his skull crushed, and once again held up his hands in supplication. “Please, sir, I only ask that you respect the honor of this ritual.”

“And I said, get back to work!” Bo screamed as he jumped forward again, swinging wildly.

Fahai splashed back toward the shore, dodging the club with each step. As Bo careened toward him, Fahai grabbed a washing bucket and sent it flying. The bucket bounced off the big man’s forhead and fell into the river with a loud splash.

The group of peasants that stood behind Fahai laughed and pointed. Bo’s face turned crimson as his face contorted with rage. “I’m going to kill you!” he spat as he lunged toward the monk.

Fahai turned and vaulted out of the water, springing onto a wooden rowboat and then onto the dock. With a quick flick of his foot, he sent several planks of the dock shooting toward his opponent.

Bo knocked aside each of the planks and then brought the club over his head once again. “So, you are a martial artist, are you?”

Fahai nodded.

“Then feel the might of the Thundering Blade!” he exclaimed as he slammed the club into the river in front of him. A knife edge of water erupted from the end of his club and raced toward the dock, knocking Fahai into the river beyond.

The group of peasants gasped as the monk was sent flying, and then applauded as he landed on his feet with a tremendous splash. He sprang from the water, sailed through the air, and landed back on the dock. This time, he sent every remaining plank of wood careening through the air toward Bo.

The brutish enforcer was able to knock aside the first few planks with ease, but then became overwhelmed by the hail of flying debris. He put up his arms to shield his face, which left Fahai with an opening.

The young monk somersaulted off the rowboat and flew toward Bo with his feet extended over his head. “Wrathful Dragon’s Tail!” he yelled as he flipped his legs downward and slammed his heels into the big man’s head.

Bo staggered back, dropped his club, and then collapsed.

After Fahai fished the enforcer out of the water, he dumped him in the rowboat and pushed it out into the river, where the current caught it and carried it down stream. The group of peasants cheered as Fahai returned to shore. “Please,” he gestured toward the river, “continue with your purification.”

Later in the afternoon, as Fahai dried his robes in the cool spring breeze, the peasants of the village began to bring him gifts. First they brought bowls of rice, which he gratefully consumed, then bundles of nuts, bags of fruits, and even new robes.

“Please, please, I have asked for none of this,” he said to a woman who offered him a brick of tea.

“But we give it freely,” said an old man who carried a steamer full of pork buns.

“Perhaps it was your destiny to come here and protect us,” a teenaged girl said as she draped a silk sash around his shoulders.

“Yes, it must be destiny. Buddha has sent you to us,” the crowd agreed.

The thought was tempting. For the first time in a month, Fahai’s stomach was not growling at him. After a moment of contemplation, though, he shook his head. “No, I do not know what my destiny is, if such a thing even exists, but I do have a duty to fulfill.”

The villagers refused to let Fahai leave without filling his pack with as much rice and fruit as he could carry. He thanked them profusely, offered them his blessing, and then headed west once again.

***

Spring gave way to summer by the time Fahai reached the Three Gorges. The osmanthus trees were in full bloom, their white blossoms filling the air with the sweet scent of apricots and ripe peaches. He wandered through verdant fields of camellia, occasionally stopping to pick the young leaves so that he could make fresh tea.

As he stood on the high cliffs that overlooked the river a hundred feet below, his hair fluttered in the breeze. He reached up and tucked it behind his ears, then sighed. He had crossed the river a hundred times during his journey, and the trail on the northern side of the river was becoming impassible, so he needed to cross again. Time to get to work, he thought.

Fahai spent the next day building a raft from bamboo and reeds. The day after, he followed the river until he found a good spot to cross. Here, a trail led down the side of the cliffs to the tranquil river below. The young monk dropped his raft in the river, tested it to make certain that it wouldn’t sink midway, and then paddled out using an oar he had fashioned from an old tree branch.

The current was lazy at this point along the Chang Jiang, so Fahai took his time and paddled without exerting much effort. After ten minutes of paddling, drifting, and enjoying the warmth of the summer sun, he reached the midpoint of the river. He yawned, stretched, turned to look upstream, and nearly jumped off his raft.

From the center of the river emerged a beautiful woman. She had flawless, pale skin, long, black hair, and wore a diaphanous white dress that Fahai could only consider immodest. He stared, slack jawed, as she rose out of the water. Her ascent stopped only when her bare toes just touched the surface.

Fahai dropped his oar as he realized who the woman was. Bai Suzhen! She has returned, too? What is she doing here? He felt a twinge of activity below his belt. Why is she so beautiful?

“Welcome to the Three Gorges, Fahai,” the woman said as she winked and licked her lips.

“You may have managed to seduce your husband, Bai Suzhen, but you can’t corrupt me with temptations of the flesh,” He gulped. It is very lovely flesh, though.

“Oh, I don’t need to corrupt you,” she smiled, “only distract you.” Fahai tore his attention from the entrancing vision just in time to see a wave of water ten feet high roaring down the river behind her.

“Floating Leaf Step!” Fahai exclaimed as he somersaulted over the incoming wave and landed lightly on the surface of the river. The wave picked up Fahai’s raft and sent it tumbling downstream where it smashed into a thousand splinters on a rock outcropping. He dashed toward Bai Suzhen, each step creating a tiny ripple.

“When Xu and I died, we joined the gods and goddesses in Heaven, but our anger at your meddling was too great, and we were condemned to return to earth,” said Bai Suzhen as she jumped twenty feet into the air, her white dress rippling in the breeze. “Feel my Crushing Palm!” she yelled as a colossal fist of water erupted under Fahai’s feet.

The young monk tried to leap to avoid the fist, but he was a split second too slow and was knocked out of the air. “It was your deception that caused this pain, not my temple’s meddling,” Fahai said angrily as he tumbled backward along the surface of the river, carving a trough in the water. The white snake swooped toward him and lashed out with her heel, but Fahai dodged to the side, sailing up into the air toward the wall of the gorge.

He pushed off the rocks and dove back toward Bai Suzhen. “Five Headed Dragon Strike!” he yelled as threw a volley of punches at the vital areas of her body. Bai blocked the first four strikes with a superhuman speed, but missed the final strike to her heart, and screamed in pain as she was sent flying across the gorge into the opposite wall.

“Not your temple, Fahai – you,” the white snake in human form spat, “When we were exiled back to earth, you voluntarily returned.” She dropped back down to stand on the river. “Why couldn’t you just leave us alone?” Bai Suzhen disappeared under the surface, while Fahai tried to understand what he had just heard.

Was he indeed the reincarnation of the elder Fahai – the monk that had imprisoned Bai Suzhen so many years ago? Was that why he had been chosen for this journey now? He was lost in contemplation for only a split second before the river rose from its bed and twisted upward toward him; a massive set of jaws opened below his feet.

“The Great Water Dragon!” he gasped as he looked around for some method of escape. He realized that he would not have time enough to avoid the dragon, so he took the only option open to him: he dove straight down into its waiting jaws.

The current clawed at him, dragging him angrily toward the earth. Instead of fighting, though, he used it to propel himself. As he plummeted toward the ground, he spotted Bai right where he expected her to be: the heart of the dragon.

The white snake’s eyes widened in surprise as she saw the young monk speeding straight toward her. She tried to turn and swim away, but Fahai slammed into her back, driving her into the riverbed thirty feet below. Bai crumpled, and the gargantuan column of water crashed back to earth, sending a massive plume of mist and foam soaring into the air above the gorge.

Fahai grabbed the body of the white snake, braced his feet on the riverbed, and launched them both into air high above the water.

Bai looked at the young monk and a look of realization crossed her face. “I understand now,” she groaned.

“Understand what?!” he yelled

“Destiny,” Bai answered as her eyelids begin to close.

Fahai pulled her close to him, “Destiny?! What is my destiny?”

She stroked his face softly with one hand and smiled weakly. “You’ll figure it out soon enough.”

“Figure out what?” Fahai yelled, only to feel her body go limp. After a moment of silence, he let her body fall into the waiting waters far below.

***

Summer turned to autumn and autumn to winter by the time that Fahai reached the foot of the Himalayas. He spent several days begging in the few nomad villages in the area until he could afford to buy a set of heavy robes made from yak fur. He wrapped his hair, which now reached to his mid-back, around his head and secured it with a scrap of cloth. He hoped that it would keep his ears warm.

For seven days, the sun shown down upon Fahai, warming him while he traveled during the day. At night, he was fortunate enough to find plenty of wood to build a fire, and so he retained the warmth he had built up. On the eighth day in the mountains, however, the wind picked up and the snow began to fall.

He was in the middle of a rocky pass when the blizzard hit; the wind that was channeled along its length cut through his robes and the snow battered his face. He looked around for shelter but saw none. This is bad, he thought. He had no choice but to press on.

The pass wound up into the mountains, and with every step the air grew colder, the wind more bitter, and the snow heavier. Fahai couldn’t tell how much time had passed since the storm began – the snow blotted out the sun and the cold numbed him to the core; he couldn’t even feel his stomach grumble.

The snow swirled around him, and Fahai began to feel tired. He stumbled on for what seemed like hours through snow that swirled around his knees. He grew more and more exhausted with each step, until he finally decided to sit down and take a nap. Suddenly, he saw a small figure wandering through the snow in front of him. The creature stood about three feet tall, and, except for a ruddy red face, it was covered from head to toe in shaggy grey hair.

The figure looked at him and waved. “Hello!” Fahai yelled over the roar of the wind as he waved back. What can it be? A yeti?

The little figure smiled, so Fahai approached cautiously. It was indeed a yeti, but it looked like a child. He looked around, but couldn’t see any looming figures through the snow. Still, if it was a child, there must be adults nearby, and he was in no condition to fight a full-grown yeti.

“Hello little one,” Fahai said as he knelt down in the snow. “What’s your name?”

“Ang,” the little yeti said quietly.

“Hello, Ang. My name is Fahai.”

“Fa. Hai.” the little yeti pronounced each character independently, and then smiled sheepishly.

“What are you doing outside in the middle of a snowstorm, Ang?” He realized as soon as he said it that it probably sounded silly. The little yeti didn’t look the least bit concerned by the raging blizzard.

“Looking for herbs. My mommy is sick and my daddy said that herbs would make her feel better.”

“I’m sorry to hear that, Ang, but I think it might be hard to find herbs under all the snow.”

“That’s why I brought this stick,” he proudly held aloft a gnarled tree branch. “For poking in the snow.”

“Ah.” Fahai was certain that a raging yeti parent was going to come charging down the pass at any moment. Nevertheless, he hoped that he could get Ang to find him shelter from the storm. “What is your mother sick from?”

“She was bitten by a snake.”

A snake? In these mountains? Still, perhaps she ventured down into the valley. Fahai’s thoughts settled on the lingzhi buried deep in his pack. He sighed. As much as he was certain that he would need it, he couldn’t bear the thought of this little creature losing its mother.

“Ang, I think I have an herb that would help your mommy.”

“Really? Wow!” the little yeti’s eyes lit up as he smiled. “Come with me. I’ll take you!” He grabbed the young monk by the hand and led him deeper into the pass. While Fahai didn’t feel any warmer, the time seemed to pass more quickly. Before he knew it, Ang pulled him between two boulders and they emerged into a dry cave.

A small fire near the mouth of the cave illuminated the interior. Fahai looked around to see a massive female yeti, well over nine feet tall, lying under a yak-fur blanket against the far wall. Leaning over her and gently stroking her hair was an even more massive yeti.

“Daddy!” Ang exclaimed as he ran toward them.

The yeti looked up and then jumped to his feet when he saw Fahai. “Ang! You know that you cannot bring humans here!” He looked to the yeti under the blanket, then to his son, then to the intruder. He advanced menacingly toward Fahai. “You must leave, human!”

“Please forgive me,” Fahai said as he bowed deeply, “but I believe that I may be able to help your ailing wife.”

The yeti stopped. “How can a human help?”

“Your son stated that your wife was bitten by a snake. I happen to be carrying the lingzhi herb, which saved the life of my master when he was bitten by one.”

“Let him try, Lhak-pa,” the female yeti said in a weak voice.

“But he is a human, Pa-sang.”

“Not all humans are wicked, Lhak-pa.”

“How do I know that you are not here to hurt us? Humans hunt yeti.”

“I am not a hunter, but a devoted servant of Buddha,” Fahai said, then nodded to the small bronze Buddha statue that stood in the far corner of the cave. Lhak-pa stared at the young monk for a minute and grumbled. He looked at his ailing wife, then at his child, then at his wife again. Finally, he stood aside.

Fahai strode over to Pa-sang and knelt down. He rummaged through his pack and then brought out a small package wrapped in silk. He unfolded the silk and set the two small mushrooms contained within on the ground. “I believe that you must take both herbs,” Fahai said, “as you are far bigger than a human.”

He turned to Lhak-pa, “Do you have some tea? It will make eating the herb easier.”

The yeti nodded to Ang, who ran to the fire and returned with a large stone cup. Fahai helped Pa-sang sit up, and then fed her both mushrooms, followed by the tea. “Rest now. It will take some time, but I believe that you will recover fully.”

The young monk looked at the empty silk lying on the ground and sighed. He now had no protection against the King of Snake. I hope that destiny knows what it’s doing, he thought. He placed the silk back in his pack and stood up.

“You must have been destined to meet Ang when you did,” Lhak-pa said. “Humans don’t often survive in the mountains in the winter. We often find corpses after storms like this one.” Fahai nodded. “Why are you out here in the first place?”

“I am on a journey to seek out the King of Snake, who stole the Lotus Sutra from our monastery.”

“The King of Snake,” Lhak-pa face contorted, “He is the one who poisoned my wife.” The yeti pounded his fist against the wall of the cave, “Two days ago he came through this pass. Pa-sang was trying to chase him away from the cave when he bit her.”

Fahai nodded – he realized that he journey was nearly at an end. “If you help me cross these mountains, I will be able to avenge both my temple and your family.”

Lhak-pa’s ruddy red brow furled in contemplation for a minute. “I will hold the storm at bay for you. This much I owe you.” He wandered to the front of the cave and peered out as the howling winds began to die down. “I cannot offer more assistance than that, though. I must watch after my wife.”

“I understand,” Fahai said with a bow, “I thank you, Lhak-pa.” The young monk wrapped his robes tightly around himself and stepped out into the snow.

***

Fahai emerged from the pass to find himself looking out at an evergreen-covered mountainside that bordered a mist-covered valley. A narrow trail wound down the side of the mountain and disappeared into the mist five hundred feet below. Sitting on a rock outcropping, dangling his feet over the edge of the trail, was the target of his quest: the King of Snake.

Xu turned to look at Fahai. His skin was dark brown, almost black, and he wore the grey robes of a peasant. “So, to what do I owe this honor?” he said with a grin.

“You know very well that you stole the Lotus Sutra from Jinshan Temple. I have come to reclaim it!”

Xu opened his mouth and laughed. A bright green snake darted its head from his mouth and flicked its tongue. It turned toward Fahai and hissed. “Pitiful. I go to the trouble of traveling all the way across China to steal a sacred scroll, and this is who they send?”

“I am not to be taken lightly, snake. I have followed in your footsteps, defeated your wife, and survived the mountains. I will restore the honor that you took from my temple.”

“I see,” Xu chuckled as he climbed to his feet, “Did I at least kill that soft-skulled abbot of yours?”

“Shi Yong Xin is alive and well, thanks to your sister-in-law, Chingching.”

“Well, she’s always been weak. She should have finished off your pitiful little temple when she had the chance.”

“She is much stronger than you think, Xu.”

“I imagine that she thinks it her destiny to be imprisoned like that.”

“What do you think your destiny is?” demanded Fahai.

“To meet you,” said Xu, “and to destroy you!”

“Five Headed Dragon Strike!” Fahai yelled as he lunged at Xu. The King of Snake deflected each of the monk’s blows, grabbed the collar of his robe, and then stepped backward, sending both of them plummeting off the side of the mountain.

The wind roared in Fahai’s ears as he and Xu fell toward the mist below. “Cobra Strike!” Xu yelled as he jabbed at Fahai with a rigid hand, hitting him in the neck and solar plexus.

The monk gasped for breath as he clutched his neck, and Xu followed up with a flurry of kicks to his midsection. Fahai was spun around like a top from the power of the blows, and he struggled to right himself.

Fahai tried to dodge out of the range of Xu’s attacks, but the King of Snake was too quick and caught him behind the neck with a hook kick. Fahai’s head snapped forward from the force of the blow, and he was about to try and catch himself when he realized that he had been given a lucky opening. Using the momentum that had already been generated, Fahai somersaulted toward Xu, kicking his legs out behind him.

“Wrathful Dragon’s Tail,” Fahai screamed as he flipped over in midair and slammed his feet into the back of Xu’s head. The force of the blow sent the King of Snake tumbling away from him and he disappeared into the mist below. Fahai dove after him, tearing through the air and crashing into the mist, only to realize his mistake after he flew right past his opponent.

“Ha! I’ve got you now!” Xu exclaimed as thick bands of mist formed around Fahai, pinning his arms to his body. “Feel the Python’s Grasp.” The monk struggled and tumbled head over feet as the rippling coils began to constrict, squeezing the breath out of him. The two continued to fall as Fahai felt his ribs begin to crack, one by one.

The King of Snake swooped in from above and grabbed him by the collar of his robe once again. “And now, you shall feel the Adder’s Kiss,” Xu opened his mouth to reveal the small green snake, its fangs bared. He pulled Fahai slowly toward him as the snake extended itself toward the monk’s face. Fahai could see the venom drip from the ends of the snake’s fangs.

Then, as suddenly as they entered the mist, they fell clear of it, directly above a copse of pine trees. The coils pinning Fahai’s arms disappeared, and the King of Snake looked shocked as the young monk from Jinshin temple reached up and grabbed the green snake by the neck with one hand.

The next second, they crashed into the trees, and Fahai grabbed a branch with his free hand, abruptly stopping his fall. Xu’s momentum continued unabated however, and he fell through the tree, his body tearing away from the snake as Fahai held tight. Fahai heard a sickening crunch as the King of Snake’s lifeless body hit the ground.

Fahai waited for a moment before breathing a sigh of relief. Then he looked over to the lifeless snake that he held in his hand and his heart sunk; the snake’s fangs were both fully embedded in his flesh. Fahai shook the dead adder from his hand and then climbed down from the tree.

He groaned in pain as the venom worked its way into his body; it felt like his veins were burning from the inside. Collapsing against the base of the tree, he looked over to see Xu’s corpse. Without the lingzhi to heal him, he would join Xu within three days. Wait.

He sat in silence for a minute – the only sound the breeze rustling the leaves of the trees – and replayed the course of events that had led him here: his master, Chingching’s benevolence, the slaying of Bai, his defeat of the King of Snake, and the venom now running through his veins. After a minute, he smiled and laughed to himself. Of course. Now I see.

Though he would not be able to return the Lotus Sutra, Fahai had brought honor to his temple, and, he now realized, almost fulfilled his destiny – there was just one more task to accomplish. He assumed the lotus position and began to meditate. In three days, the venom would reach his heart, and Fahai would join Xu Xiang and Bai Suzhen.

Then, I will be able to keep an eye on them.

###
This was the semi-final entry for the Ceramic DM 2007 tournament. Stay tuned for the final!

three, two, one, go

Shoji checked his watch; he didn’t want to be late for his first shakedown. As he hurried down the crowded streets of Tokyo III, passing businessmen in suits and housewives in smart skirts, people gave him a wide berth. The pompadour haircut; black, leather pants; black shirt; and black, leather gloves made him look like a gangster – which, of course, he was trying to be.

After passing the Spaceport, where the whine of antigravity engines filled the air, Shoji cut through Yamamoto Square. He hurried past the hundreds of robotic solicitors that continually beamed holographic advertisements into the air in front of the thousands of tourists that passed through the center of the city each day. Finally, he used the low gravity to his advantage and bounded between the wood-paneled family sedans, growling hoverbikes, and hopped-up hot rods that sat, stopped, in the daily rush hour traffic jams, before emerging onto the sidewalk in front of Tanaka Park.

He could feel his heart pounding in his chest, so he took a deep breath and tried to calm himself. Although Ichiro, his mentor in the Green Dragon Clan, had informed him the day before that this would be an easy mark – a street performer – he wanted to make a good impression. Think tough, he thought to himself. Keep cool. Don’t be a spaz.

Shoji dashed past the ice cream stand, tilt-a-whirl, and merry-go-round before seeing his counterpart sitting slouched on a park bench. He was watching what Shoji presumed to be their mark: a woman dressed in a heavy kimono and a noh mask who was reciting her lines in time to a walking bass line that emanated from a speaker which sat off to one side. At her feet was a golden bowl, which passers-by occasionally dropped a few newyen into.

“Hi Ichiro,” Shoji said as he crouched down next to the bench.

“What’s buzzin’, cousin?” Ichiro said with a slight nod. He cocked his head to one side and frowned. “Bad news, Clyde, you look like an Ivy Leaguer.”

“I’m sorry?”

“Un-tuck your shirt, man.”

Shoji grimaced inwardly, and then hurriedly rearranged his clothes.

“You’ve got to look cool to be in this business,” Ichiro drew out the word “cool” for several more syllables than it actually possessed. “This business is all about intimidation. You’ve got to make the squares believe that you’re going to go ape if they don’t get with it. For example, you see this nest?” he pointed to his head.

Shoji had indeed noticed Ichiro’s hair – it was also a pompadour, but was easily a foot tall. He nodded.

“You know what this nest says to the squares we deal with every day?”

“No, not really,” Shoji said, more than a little puzzled.

“It says, ‘I don’t care that you have to pay the rent.’”

“How does it say that?”

“Because it says that I’m too cool to care about their problems,” Ichiro replied with a snort.

“What if they don’t think it’s cool?”

“They don’t have to think it’s cool. Only I have to think it’s cool. They just have to know that I know that they know that I think it’s cool.” He looked sidelong at Shoji, “Why? Don’t you think it’s cool?”

“Oh, it’s cool!” Shoji replied nervously, “Very cool. Really.”

“That’s what I thought,” Ichiro replied as he examined his own image in a small mirror that he produced from his back pocket. “You know, I can give you some pointers on getting yours to look like this. Not that it’ll be as cool as mine.”

“That would be great,” Shoji said as he forced a smile. “I…uh…don’t know if I can get mine to grow that long, though.”

“Implants.”

“Oh. Right.”

“I know a place where you can get a deal.”

“I’ll keep that in mind.”

“Here’s the word from the bird, man: you’ve got to get noticed if you want to move up in the organization,” Ichiro produced a small comb from the same pocket that he had produced the mirror, and smoothed a single stray hair back into place. “You do want to move up in the organization, don’t you?”

“Well, I’m really just doing this to save up money for college,” said Shoji, “I’d like to study hyperspace and become a jump gate engineer.”

“Ah, so you really are an Ivy Leaguer,” Ichiro frowned. “I dunno, daddy-o, Boss Takashi was hip with that, but Boss Oda’s a lot more demanding.”

Shoji grimaced. He had joined the Green Dragon Clan four months earlier, just before Boss Takashi had a heart attack. Under the fat man’s rule, the worst transgression was showing up late with his double bento-box lunch. Once Oda took over, though, he demanded tribute, and failure resulted in sacrifice. More than a few members of the clan had lost their little fingers in the past three months. Shoji was now worried that he wouldn’t be able to get out.

“Besides, who wants to be a square?”

“Well, my dad’s a square. That’s why I’m on Mars. He’s a terraforming engineer for the Colonial government.”

“Man, that’s not a square, that’s a cube. A square squared.”

“Actually, a square squared is…”

“Hey, cut the gas, man, the girl’s done.”

Shoji looked up to see the woman take a bow and then turn around to switch off the music. She removed her heavy kimono, revealing a silk blouse and a pink poodle skirt, and then took off her mask and glanced over at the two of them.

She got a puzzled look on her face. “Shoji?”

“Mei?” Shoji groaned. Mei was Shoji’s lab partner in Quantum Physics class, and they got along well enough that they had gone out for ice cream after school the previous week.

“What do you two want?”

“We’re here for the Green Dragon Clan’s payment,” Ichiro said, stretching out his hand expectantly.

“This isn’t Clan territory, this is Triad territory,” said Mei as she pulled a handful of multi-hued bills out of the golden bowl.

“Well, now that Boss Oda is in charge, we’re expanding our territory,” Ichiro said nervously.

“Great, now I have two groups who want my money. Why don’t you go out and find a real job, huh?” she said as she counted the bills. “Here, ten percent,” she stuck out her tongue as she handed over the newyen.

“Actually, it’s fifteen percent, now,” said Ichiro.

“You’ll take ten and you’ll be happy,” Mei spat. “Besides, you should be ashamed, shaking down your little sister.”

“Little sister?” Shoji gasped as he looked back and forth between Mei and Ichiro. Once he ignored the hair, he could see the resemblance.

“Ok, baby,” Ichiro laughed uncomfortably, “don’t have a cow. We’re cool.”

“We’re cool? We’re cool?” she crossed her arms and glared at Ichiro. “Only one of us is in any way, shape, or form cool, Ichiro, and it’s certainly not you.”

“Oh, I see, so you’re the cool one?” Ichiro said as he turned his head to the side and slid his hand along the top of his hair.

“Yeah, and maybe if you spent a little more time studying and a little less time preening, you might actually get into college and do something with your life.”

“Oh. Oh. Oh. Okay, right.” His head began to bob in anger, and with the giant hair, all Shoji could picture was a strutting rooster. “Come on Shoji, let’s blow this place,” he said as he turned away.

“Ok.” He turned to Mei, “I should go.”

Mei winked at him, “See you later, alligator.”

Caught by surprise, Shoji smiled, “After a while, crocodile.”

***

Shoji rode on the back of Ichiro’s hoverbike as they returned to the noodle house that served as the Green Dragon Clan’s headquarters. Located in a primarily residential district of Tokyo III, the noodle house saw significant foot traffic, but far less car traffic than the busy city center. Ichiro parked at the curb, and the two walked inside.

Patrons packed the restaurant, most wearing the same type of outfit that Ichiro and Shoji wore. They walked past the sea of pompadours and black leather pants to a room in the back where a black and white cat was curled up on the cushion of a gilded, baroque chair.

Shoji looked around, and was about to bow and introduce himself when Ichiro motioned to him to be silent. He pointed to a curtain on the other side of the room, which rippled with activity. A dun-colored pit bull emerged from behind the curtain, carrying a tray of sushi in its jaws. It walked over to the chair and set the tray down in front of the cat, then sat and wagged its tail expectantly.

The cat sniffed at the sushi and then nibbled off a corner. After a second, he began growling at the dog. The dog whimpered but sat obediently at the foot of the chair as the cat rose from the seat and stretched.

“This is maguro!” the cat said in a deep, gravelly voice as he climbed down from the chair. “I said toro! Toro is the fatty tuna, you imbecile!”

The cat swiped at the dog with its front paw, opening a gash on its nose. The dog whimpered. It swiped again, and the dog let out a cry of pain, but still sat motionless. Then, the cat jumped into the air, twisted its body, and slammed its back paw into the side of the dog’s face, sending a spray of blood and saliva into the air.

Oda had been Boss Takashi’s robotic cat, handed down from Boss to Boss since the inception of the Clan. He had spent over a hundred years lying in the laps of the Green Dragon’s leaders as they cut deals, ordered hits, paid bribes, and ate lunch. In addition to learning nearly everything possible about being an underworld boss, Oda had become accustomed to eating the finest raw tuna.

“Dogs really are as stupid as they look,” Oda hissed as the cyborg pit bull ran out of the room. He briefly glanced at Shoji and Ichiro before hopping back up into his chair, where he curled up and lay his head on his paws. “What?”

Ichiro stepped forward, “Boss Oda, sir, we came to turn in our tribute.”

“Good, good,” the cat said as he motioned with his tail toward a giant golden urn. “You know where to put it.”

Ichiro walked across the room and dropped in the newyen. The urn hummed for a second before announcing in a pleasant, female voice, “Three hundred.”

“Three hundred?” Oda lifted his head. “That’s it? Pathetic.”

“I’m sorry sir, it was our first day in the new territory,” Ichiro said as he bowed deeply.

Oda narrowed his eyes at Ichiro, “Fine – you get off easy this time. Next week it better be three thousand.”

“Yes, sir. Thank you, sir,” Ichiro said, bowing with each syllable – his hair frantically bobbing to and fro.

“You leave.” He then pointed to Shoji with his tail, “You stay.”

Ichiro stared at Shoji with wide eyes. “Sorry, daddy-o, you’re on your own,” he whispered as he dashed past him toward the main restaurant.

“I heard that you went out on your first shakedown today, Shoji.”

“Yes, sir,” Shoji said as he bowed deeply.

“Please, sit.” Oda motioned to the floor in front of him with his paw.

“Thank you sir,” Shoji replied nervously as he knelt down and then sat back on his feet.

“How long have you been with the clan, Shoji?”

“Um, four months, sir.”

“Ah, just before Takashi left us.”

“Yes, that’s correct, sir.”

“How do you feel about having a new Boss, Shoji?”

“You seem to be very,” he paused for a moment as he searched for the least offensive word possible, “effective.”

Oda smiled. “This operation became a bit loose under Takashi’s leadership. I’m just returning it to its former glory.”

“Yes, sir.”

Oda shifted his position, flopping over on his back and hanging his head over the edge of the cushion. He looked at Shoji upside-down. “You want to move up in the organization, don’t you, Shoji?”

“Actually, sir,” Shoji shifted his position, sitting back and putting more weight on his feet, “I’d like to become an engineer, like my father. I joined the Clan in order to earn money for college.”

Oda licked his paw and then flipped back over and frowned at Shoji. “Your father, hmm? You know, I’m aware that my predecessor was inclined to look favorably upon these mixed allegiances, but I’m not my predecessor.”

“Sir?”

“I demand total allegiance from my clan members, Shoji. It’s the only way we’re going to win this war.”

“I didn’t know we were at war, sir.”

“We’re not yet, but we will be,” Oda began to purr.

“With who, sir?”

The tip of Oda’s tail began to flick back and forth. “With the Capitoline Triad, my boy.”

“With the Triad?” Shoji began to sweat.

“Indeed. It will be a war to end all wars, and I’m going to need every soldier I can get.” Oda twisted his head and stared at the wall to his right.

Shoji looked over but saw nothing. He couldn’t get comfortable for some reason, so he shifted his position again, leaning forward on his knees this time. After half a minute, he said quietly, “Sir?”

“Mmm? Oh.” Oda turned his gaze back to Shoji, “That’s why I’m trying to weed out the weak now. You don’t want to be one of the weak, do you?”

“No sir.”

“Good,” Oda said before yawning. He curled up on the cushion, placed his tail over his head and said nothing more.

A minute later, Shoji stood up, bowed, and left.

***

The next day, Shoji stood in front of the library, trying not to sweat. The heat of the Martian sun combined with the humidity trapped by the dome which enclosed the city made the summers unbearably hot, and he was glad that he decided not to wear the leather pants today; instead, he wore jeans and a white t-shirt.

He was watching for Mei. They had planned to go to the park to get ice cream again after school, but he had to drop books off at the library, so Mei had agreed to pick him up. From what he knew of Mei, he was expecting something normal: a Europa maybe, or a little Shockwave coup. He was extremely surprised, then, to see a ’35 Inferno pull up to the curb.

The car was painted jet black with orange and yellow flames running along the side. Its blunt front end stood in contrast to a set of foot high fins on either side of the trunk. To complete the hot-rod image, it floated less than three inches off the ground. The passenger side window rolled down and Mei’s voice drifted across from the driver’s seat, “Hop in, Shoji.”

“Wow, Mei, this is unreal!” he said as he opened the door and climbed in.

“Thanks,” she tilted her head and smiled, “I modified it myself. Hopped up the engine and lowered it about three inches.”

“That’s amazing.”

“Plenty of room for back-seat-bingo, too,” she said with a wink.

“At least let me buy you some ice cream first,” Shoji said with a laugh.

“I didn’t mean you, goof,” Mei giggled as she hit the gas and blasted into traffic; Shoji was thrown back in his seat. The volume of the radio increased as the low thrum of the antigrav engine rose to a high-pitched whine; Mei tapped her hand on the steering wheel in time to the walking bass line of the of the rockabilly as she deftly dodged the tanks, rag-tops, and hot-rods that crowded Tokyo III’s streets.

Less than three minutes later, Mei swerved, cut off a truck, and skidded expertly into a free parking space. “We’re here,” she said excitedly as she jumped out of the car. Shoji sat in silence for nearly half a minute before Mei tapped on his window. “Hey, you coming?”

Shoji nodded slowly and reached gingerly for the door handle, afraid of doing anything to spook the car. Oh, thank you ancestors, he thought as he stepped out onto solid earth.

Mei cocked her head and frowned at him. “Don’t you like my driving, Shoji?”

“No, it’s fine. You’re very good at it.” Shoji replied with a smile. Just very fast.

“Good, let’s get ice cream!” she said as she grabbed his hand and led him into the park. Shoji took the time to notice that she was wearing the same pink poodle skirt that she had been wearing in the park the other day, but had accompanied it with a low-cut kimono top.

“You look great, Mei.”

“Thanks,” she replied with a coy smile.

After buying ice cream cones, Shoji and Mei strolled through the park. Mei was uncharacteristically chatty, which Shoji was thankful for. He was having trouble concentrating on anything for very long since his meeting with the Boss.

They had passed the tilt-a-whirl and were headed for the merry-go-round when Mei turned to Shoji. “So what’s your story, morning glory?”

“Huh?”

“You haven’t been talking this whole time. Did my driving really rattle your cage that bad?”

“Oh, no, I’m sorry,” Shoji laughed. “No, I just had a meeting with Boss Oda yesterday.”

“Ah, I see. I’m guessing it didn’t go that well,” she said in between licks of her cone.

“No, not really. I told him that I’m trying to save money for college.”

“What did he say?”

“He said that I had ‘mixed allegiances.’”

“Hmm,” Mei caught a drip of ice cream that was about to fall from her hand.

“Yeah. He also said that there was going to be a war with the Capitoline Triad.”

“A war?”

“Yeah. I guess he’s intent on taking over the whole city for himself.”

“Wow. That’s heavy.”

“I really don’t want to be in the Clan if that’s where this is headed.”

“So what can you do?”

“I don’t know. That’s the problem.”

“You could just tell them that you quit.”

“No. Boss Oda would never let that slide. Besides, I wouldn’t want to get Ichiro in trouble.”

“Ah, don’t worry about that drag,” Mei smiled, “he needs a little trouble to get his ass in gear.”

“Yeah, I guess.”

As they passed the merry-go-round, a familiar voice sounded loudly from behind them, “Think fast!”

Shoji turned around just in time to get an ice cream cone in the face. “Agh! Man, why do you have to be such a nosebleed?”

“Ichiro, that is so uncool!” Mei fumed.

“Heh, only to a square,” he said as he smoothed back his hair. Shoji noticed that Ichiro’s pompadour was significantly shorter than the last time he saw him.

“What happened to your nest, man?”

“Huh? Oh, well, I realized that I was spending too much time looking cool and not enough time actually being cool.”

“My mom made him cut it,” Mei said with a snort.

“Hey, Mei. Why don’t you go drop dead twice.”

“What, and look like you?”

Ichiro rolled his eyes. “Anyway, I’ve got good news, Clyde. This is like crazy, man. The ancestors want to see you.”

“What? Really? The ancestors? I didn’t think my meeting with Boss Oda went that well.”

“I guess you were on the stick man. If the ancestors want to see you, you’re made in the shade.”

“Shoji, that’s great!” Mei exclaimed as she grabbed his arm and pulled herself closer to him.

“Shoji, that’s great!” Ichiro exclaimed in a high pitched voice, as he clapped his hands together and batted his eyelids.

“Get lost, you spaz!” Mei yelled as she threw her ice cream cone at Ichiro’s head.

“Easy, baby!” Ichiro yelped as he barely ducked the flying creamy confection, “It’s deadsville here anyway – I’m going to split.” He smoothed the hair that had fallen out of place and then strutted off.

“Ugh, I hate him.” Mei said as she watched her brother disappear around the merry-go-round.

“He’s ok,” Shoji said as he put his arm around Mei’s waist. “He just tries too hard.”

“Well, he needs to try harder, ‘cause whatever he’s doing isn’t working.” She turned to him and pressed herself close. “Anyway, it sounds like you don’t have to worry – things are working out.”

“Yeah, I guess. Cool, huh?”

“What do you say we get out of here?” Mei said as she grabbed his hand and pulled him along. They made their way through the park and then climbed back into her ’35 Inferno.

“Oh, I have to show you the coolest thing about this car,” Mei smiled as she hit a button on the console. Shoji held his breath expecting to be rocketed into space, but the only thing that happened was that the windows turned an opaque black, leaving the orange glow of the dashboard as the only illumination.

“Oh?” Shoji said, puzzled.

“That’s not what’s cool,” Mei smiled, before nodding to the backseat. “That’s what’s cool.”

“Oh!”

***

Shoji took a deep breath before entering the ancestor’s shrine. He wasn’t quite sure why they wanted to see him, and he hoped that the bottle of sake he had brought would be a good enough offering for them. It’s now or never, he thought to himself as he opened the door and stepped inside.

With the advent of neural imaging, death was no longer necessarily the end of one’s existence. After death, the brain could be scanned, and a perfect replica of one’s memories and personality reconstructed. The replica could be interfaced with via computer system, loaded into a robotic head, or, for the very wealthy, even loaded into an entirely new body.

While this didn’t actually resurrect the deceased, it provided his survivors with easy access to years of experience and information, and in many cases, the comfort of hanging on to a small part of a loved one.

The robotic heads of Goro, Zenko, and Nobu, the Green Dragon Clan’s former leaders, sat on top of an altar. In front of them were incense bowls, cups full of sake, and elaborate jade dragon statues – each gifts from clan members, politicians, businessmen, and anyone else who wanted to stay on the Clan’s good side. Shoji was a bit surprised that Boss Takashi hadn’t joined them yet, but nonetheless crossed the room and knelt down in front of them.

“Greetings, ancestors,” Shoji said as he opened the bottle of sake, poured out three cups, and then placed one under each of the heads. “I bring you an offering.”

“More sake?” Goro, the first head, asked incredulously as he opened his eyes and stared at Shoji.

“What good does sake do any of us?” said Zenko, the second head, as he too opened his eyes and regarded the young gang member.

Nobu, the third ancestor, looked over at Shoji and shook his head in dismay.

“It’s not like any of us can drink any more,” said Goro.

“Now, a cigar I could probably manage,” added Zenko.

Nobu licked his lips.

“Ah, I haven’t had a cigar in three years,” Goro murmured.

“Do you have any cigars?” asked Zenko.

“No,” Shoji stammered, “but I have some cigarettes.” He reached into his pocket and pulled out a crumpled, half-full pack.

“Ah, that’ll do!” exclaimed Zenko.

“Yes, give one here!” demanded Goro.

Nobu looked at the cigarettes greedily.

Shoji pulled a cigarette from the pack, lit it, and then passed it from mouth to mouth. Though they couldn’t inhale deeply, each enjoyed several puffs.

“Excellent!” roared Goro.

“Tremendous,” sighed Zenko.

Nobu simply smiled.

“So what can we do for you?” asked Goro.

“Don’t you mean, ‘What can I do for you?’” Shoji said as he ground the cigarette out in an incense bowl. “You asked to see me.”

“Did we?” asked Goro.

“Oh yes, so we did,” replied Zenko.

Nobu nodded in agreement.

“That’s right,” said Goro. “You made an impression on Oda.”

“Yes, but not the kind you were probably hoping for,” said Zenko.

“Indeed, he was quite displeased. He mentioned that he was collecting little fingers, and that yours would be next.”

Shoji gulped, “I’m sorry ancestors.” He prostrated himself on the floor in front of their altar.

“Ha! Get up Shoji,” said Goro.

“Indeed, that’s precisely the kind of impression that we were hoping to hear about,” said Zenko.

“I’m sorry?”

“You see, we are very displeased with Oda.”

“Yes, very displeased.”

“The Green Dragon Clan was founded to bring peace to Tokyo III, not war.”

“That’s why we’ve maintained a truce with the Capitoline Triad for the past one hundred years.”

“Yes, everyone is happy that way.”

Nobu nodded in agreement.

“So why did you want to see me?” asked Shoji.

“We need you to overthrow Oda for us.”

“What? Why me? I’m not even that high up in the Clan,” asked Shoji.

“Ah, but that’s exactly why. You haven’t been indoctrinated yet,” said Goro.

“Those with a longer history might resist,” added Zenko.

“Ok,” said Shoji, now feeling a bit nauseous.

“Not by yourself, of course.”

“No, you’ll have assistance.”

“Ichiro?” Shoji asked, afraid of the answer.

Nobu giggled.

“No, Shoji,” Goro said as he shook his head in dismay.

“You will bring Takashi back.”

“Boss Takashi?”

“Indeed. You may have noticed that he is not with us yet.”

Shoji nodded.

“We have made arrangements for his return.”

“You must talk to Boss Juno; she is assisting us.”

Shoji was quiet for a moment as he tried to process everything: overthrowing Oda, talking to the head of the Capitoline Triad, and bringing Takashi back. He could feel his stomach tighten and felt a bit light headed. “Ok. What if Boss Oda asks what we talked about?”

“Tell him that we told you to shape up and do everything he says,” Goro said with a laugh.

“Indeed, he’s pompous enough to believe it,” Zenko said wistfully.

“Thank you ancestors,” Shoji said as he bowed deeply.

“Make us proud, boy,” Goro growled.

“We’re counting on you,” Zenko added.

Shoji stood up, bowed again and walked to the door. As he placed his hand on the handle, Nobu finally spoke in a deep baritone voice, “Good luck, Shoji.”

***

Juno looked into the mirror and smiled. She liked the image that stared back at her: young and beautiful, with flaxen hair and green eyes. Her cheeks were rosy and pleasantly plump, and her smile shone a brilliant white.

“Holography off,” she instructed, and the image in the mirror transformed. Instead of the beautiful visage of a young woman, she now peered into the eyes of an old and wrinkled crone. The longevity treatments, including the restricted calorie diet, had taken their toll: now her skin stretched over her skeleton like canvas over a wooden frame; the hollows around her eyes had sunken; her skin had turned a mottled grey; and she had lost every hair on her body.

She sighed, one hundred and thirty years, and yet I’m still can’t bear the thought of it ending. I wonder, though, am I getting soft in my old age?

“Holography on,” she said sadly, and the image of a young, vibrant woman replaced the crone. She slipped on a silk kimono and hobbled out into the hall. One hundred years ago she had founded the Capitoline Triad, and had quickly formed a truce with the Green Dragon Clan’s first leader, Goro. She had renewed the truce with each successor, but now the diabolical Oda was threatening war, and – well, she didn’t know what to do.

I never should have agreed to let that cat succeed Takashi, she thought, but he seemed so…sleepy.

A man wearing a pompadour and black, leather pants ran up to her and bowed. “Boss Juno?”

“Yes?”

“The man the ancestors have sent is here.”

“Very good,” Juno replied with a nod. “I’ll meet him in the drawing room.”

At least the ancestors agree with me that Oda needs to be removed, she thought as she slowly made her way down the hallway. Outside the drawing room, she readjusted her kimono, tightened her belt, and then entered.

“Greetings, Boss Juno,” Shoji said as he bowed deeply.

“Please, don’t remain standing on my account,” Juno said as she settled down in a chair. “So, the ancestors have sent you to me.”

“Yes, that’s correct. They…”

She interrupted him, “I know what they want, and I happen to agree with them.” She leaned forward slightly, and then continued, “Oda needs to be replaced.”

“Yes.”

“Yes, and we need to bring back Takashi in order to lead the Clan.”

“Right, but how do we do that?”

“Ah, technology is a marvelous thing, Shoji.” Juno half-smiled. “You only have to be willing to spend the money on it.”

Shoji looked puzzled, “I don’t understand.”

“You’ll understand quickly enough once you see him. He’s at one of my warehouses, being…prepared.”

“So I need to go get him?”

“Quite,” Juno smiled. “I’ll have my assistant give you the address. You should tell no one about this, by the way.”

“Of course,” Shoji said as he stood and bowed.

“Oh, and Shoji,” Juno said just as Shoji was about to leave.

“Yes?”

“Be careful. We’re all counting on you.”

***

The Triad warehouse was located near the eastern edge of the city, and it took Shoji nearly two hours to make it there by subway and on foot. The sun had long set, and, as he looked at his watch, he realized that it was nearly midnight. He looked around uncomfortably – if Triad members found him out here, would they believe that he was working for Boss Juno?

He stopped under each streetlight to check the directions that Juno’s assistant had given him. When he finally found the steel-sided building, he was unimpressed. A single, rusted door opened directly onto the sidewalk. He tugged on the handle, and, to his surprise, it was unlocked.

Inside, the warehouse was filled with robotics parts: barrels of pistons, titanium rods, and gears were crammed against the walls, while boxes of wires, cables, microprocessors, and circuit boards were stacked in giant piles. Shoji wound his way through the mess toward a single light bulb that hung over a work bench near the middle of the floor.

A bespectacled, middle-aged man in a white lab coat was sitting at the work bench; he appeared to be soldering together a pile of wires and gears. “Doctor Nakamura?” Shoji asked.

The man startled and looked around frantically, “Yes, who’s there?”

“My name is Shoji. I’m here to pick up Boss Takashi.”

“Oh, right,” the man said with an air of relief, “Boss Juno told me you’d be coming.” He stood up from the work bench and motioned Shoji to follow, “This way.”

Shoji stared at the various cables, wires, and actuators as the doctor led him through the warehouse. “I have to tell you,” said Nakamura, “I was a bit dismayed that you were coming so soon. He’s not exactly complete, yet.”

“Not complete?”

“You’ll see,” the doctor said. “By the way, did you bring any food?”

“I didn’t know I was supposed to. Can he eat?”

“Not technically, no, but that hasn’t stopped him from trying.”

“This is a new model, by the way. Much more advanced than the previous ancestors. Better funding.”

“Oh?”

Nakamura stopped in front of a cylindrical, stainless steal chamber, which stood a foot taller than he and was about twice as wide. A tangle of tubes and wires emerged from the top and sides, and a section of the front had a handle on it – clearly designed to be a door.

“Ready?” asked the doctor.

“Sure,” Shoji shrugged.

“Ok then,” he said as he grabbed the handle and pulled.

The creaking of steel hinges echoed throughout the warehouse as the door opened, letting light stream into the interior of the cylinder. Shoji’s eyes widened with surprise as Boss Takashi’s voice echoed from inside. “Shoji, my boy. It’s good to see you!”

***

Shoji stood outside the warehouse in the cold Martian night. He pulled out his phone and dialed Mei’s number, hoping that she was still awake.

“Hello?” Mei’s voice answered groggily.

“Mei, it’s Shoji. Can you pick me up?”

“Don’t be a goof, Shoji, it’s nearly midnight.”

“Come on, Mei. Please?”

“Shoji, I’m not coming all the way out there in the middle of the night so that you can get me in the backseat again,” she paused for a moment. “You should have called around ten.”

“No, I’m serious. I need your help.”

She sighed. “Ok. What’s going on?”

“I’ve got to deliver something, but it’s a bit…bigger…than I thought it would be.”

“What is it?”

“I can’t tell you over the phone.”

“This isn’t going to get the heat after me, is it?”

“No. Well, not the heat at any rate.”

Mei sighed. “Ok. Where should I meet you?”

Shoji sighed in relief when, less than fifteen minutes later, a ’35 Inferno screamed to a halt in front of the curb. The driver’s side door opened and Mei stepped out. “Lay it on me,” she said with a frown, “why did you drag me all the way out to nowhereseville in the middle of the night?”

Shoji opened the warehouse door and looked inside, “Boss?”

Out stepped a figure that was covered from head to toe in a silken robe. In the soft glow of the twin moons, even its face was shrouded in shadow.

Mei stared as the man pulled back the hood of the robe before removing it altogether. After a minute, she let out a low whistle, “Like crazy, man.” In front of her stood a life-size, titanium skeleton – completely devoid of muscle and flesh.

Ichiro emerged from the car and stared in amazement, “Woah. That’s the most.”

Shoji looked sidelong at Mei. “What’s he doing here?”

“You said it was something big. I thought we might need the help.”

“I kind of like the new look,” the skeleton said as he patted his ribs.

“Mei, Ichiro, this is Boss Takashi,” said Shoji.

“Boss Takashi?” Ichiro said, stunned.

“Well, a copy of me, at any rate,” Takashi said, “the ancestors decided that since things went so well under my leadership, I deserved more than just a head.”

“This is so radioactive!” Ichiro said excitedly. “Wait ‘till I tell everyone about this.”

“No!” Shoji barked, “You can’t tell anyone until…” He looked at Takashi for approval.

“Go ahead – it’ll be front page news by tomorrow.”

“…until Oda is removed from power.”

“Woah – heavy,” said Ichiro.

“The ancestors wanted me to pick up Takashi, so that he could go reclaim his position as head of the Clan.”

“So,” Mei said pensively, “where are we supposed to deliver him?”

“Back to the noodle house,” Shoji replied, “That’s where Oda is.” He looked over at the former leader of the Clan, who was staring at his metallic, skeletal hands, clenching and unclenching them, and chuckling.

“Do any of you have some food? I’m starving,” Takashi said as he looked at three teenagers.

“Oh. Oh. Oh. I’ve got this,” Ichiro said as he fished a candy bar out of his pocket.

“That’ll do.” Takashi took the proffered candy and stuffed it between his skeletal jaws. He chewed for a few moments, but only succeeded in smearing chocolate all over his face. “Hmm, as much as I like this look, I’ll have to get the process finished soon if I ever want to eat anything,” he said with a grumble.

“Shall we go, Boss?” Shoji offered.

“Yes, indeed. Let’s get this over with.”

Mei looked fearfully at Shoji, who just shrugged. “You don’t have to come, if you don’t want. You can just drop us off.”

She frowned and crossed her arms, “Not if you’re going to be there, goof.”

“Oh!” Takashi exclaimed, “I almost forgot.” He disappeared into the warehouse and then reappeared a moment later carrying a four-foot long, black metal case. “I’m going to need this,” he said as he patted the case lovingly.

***

As the ’35 Inferno pulled up to the curb in front of the Green Dragon Clan’s headquarters, Shoji began to feel nauseous. He wasn’t sure what was going to happen, and the life-size metal skeleton sitting beside him in the back seat wasn’t helping to calm his nerves.

After every one piled out of the car, Takashi pulled out the black metal case and set it on the ground. He flipped open the latches, kicked back the lid, and pulled out a massive, automatic machine gun. He looked over at Shoji, “I always bring this with me to negotiations.”

Shoji nodded nervously, but followed the skeleton’s lead and walked toward the door of the noodle house. He turned to motion to Mei to stay in the car, but wasn’t surprised to find out that she was already right behind him.

As they stepped through the door into the empty restaurant, Takashi opened fire. Shoji pushed Mei to the ground and covered her with his body as tables, chairs, and noodle bowls exploded around them. The titanium skeleton kept the trigger pressed for a full minute as even the support columns of the building were chewed to shreds by the hail of bullets.

“What was that?” Shoji exclaimed once the bullets stopped. He lifted his head up to see the extent of the damage.

“I find that it always helps to set the terms of the negotiation right up front.”

Ichiro stumbled in from the street. “What’s going on?” he yelled.

Takashi waved to him to be quiet, and Shoji looked at him and shrugged.

“Are you ok, Mei?” Shoji asked the girl who was lying under him.

She was quiet for a moment, and then smiled. “Yeah. I’m on cloud nine.”

Shoji gasped and quickly rolled off of Mei. Then he looked up to see a black and white cat wander out of the back room. It jumped up onto a broken table, sat, licked its paw, and then looked at the group assembled in front of it. It cocked its head and stared at Takashi for a full minute before glancing at Ichiro and then settling its gaze on Shoji.

“Why, Shoji?” Oda hissed.

“I told you, I’m only doing this to save up money for college.”

“I should have collected your finger while I had a chance.”

Shoji shuddered, but then Takashi lowered the gun and stepped forward. “I’m taking the clan back, Oda.”

“I see that.”

“You’re not going to make any trouble, are you?”

Oda licked his front paw and ran it over his face. “Can I still sit on your lap?”

“Of course.”

Oda turned his head and nipped at his fur for a second, then looked back at Takashi. “Will you still feed me toro?”

“Absolutely!”

“Even for breakfast?”

Takashi laughed, “Yes, even for breakfast.”

“Fine then,” Oda said with a sniff, and then turned and jumped down off the table. “I’m going back to sleep.”

After the cat disappeared into the back room, Takashi leaned down and helped Shoji and Mei to their feet. “You make a cute couple,” he smiled.

Shoji blushed, but then put his arm around her waist. She leaned against his chest and smiled. “Thank you, Boss Takashi.”

“What? A couple?” Ichiro exclaimed from near the front door.

Takashi shook his titanium skull and laughed. “I should go talk to the ancestors and thank them for sending you. Is there anything I can do for you?”

“Well, I do want to study hyperspace – is there any chance you could put in a good word at Tokyo University?”

“Tokyo University? That’s in Triad territory. How about Mars Polytechnic?”

“Don’t you start,” interjected Mei, “wasn’t the whole point of this to maintain the truce?”

“Indeed it was,” Takashi shook his head. “I’ll talk to Boss Juno. I believe her son is the Dean of Engineering at the University.”

“Thank you sir,” Shoji said as he bowed deeply.

“You know what we need?” said Takashi, “some music.” He turned, “Ichiro, find the jukebox.”

Ichiro looked around at the debris filled room; dust was beginning to settle upon the wreckage. He picked up a splintered table leg and tossed it out the door, then turned back to see Shoji and Mei locked in a kiss. He groaned. Man, what a bunch of squares.

###
This story was written for the second round of the 2007 Ceramic DM writing tournament.