Flight, part two

From the Story Arc: The Touch of the Orchid Phoenix (mature readers only)

Previous Story in the Arc: Flight, part one by People's Blade (Saturday, October 30, 2004)

Next Story in the Arc: Siege, Part One by People's Blade (Sunday, October 31, 2004)

(posted Sunday, October 31, 2004)

The Tsoo regarded Fei Li’s still form, dangling by her hand from a barbed arrow.

“Hardly a fitting end for so legendary a foe,” said the sorcerer to the Fire Dagger in charge. “Do we bring her in?”

“Bu dui,” the Fire Dagger averred. “We kill her here. Her head is as good a proof as the whole body.” The Fire Dagger pointed to an Enforcer’s bow. The Enforcer bowed his head and brought it to his lieutenant, along with a quiver of barbed arrows.

Fire Dagger nocked an arrow and drew. A respectful silence fell over the enmassed Tsoo warriors; today was a history making event. They had defeated the Tsoo’s most hated enemy. Without her, the only ones in their way were waiguoren, foreigners.

The Fire Dagger narrowed his eyes, took aim at her heart, and let out a breath. The arrow flew.

It struck the metal of the truck yards off mark and broke.

Qing held the hilt of Jade Emperor’s Whisper. The rest of the blade jutted out of the Fire Dagger’s stomach.

An outcry was raised. Furious Tsoo warriors drew their weapons and surrounded her. She held the bloody sword like a club and sobbed. At her feet collected the Fire Dagger’s blood.

“Stay back, God damn it,” she cried. “You bastards!”

The sorcerer held up a hand. “We cannot harm her. Zuo Kan’s orders are clear. However,” he said as black energy corruscated around his hand, “we can wrap her for safe-keeping.”

Jagged spikes of negative energy flowed from his hand, across the pavement, and up Qing’s leg. She cut at it to no effect.

“It’s cold, isn’t it, my dear? Cold as the night sky. Cold as sleep itself…”

Qing dropped the sword and stiffened. Her leg and arm were frozen; the pain was exquisite. The tendrils of dark energy licked at the tears dripping down her face.

“Secure her and the blade, tongzhi. She’s ready to --- ackkk!” The sorcerer clawed at an arrowhead stabbing out from his throat. Behind him, People’s Blade stood in the middle of the street, left arm hanging limp at her side, the arrow missing. She had thrown it with deadly precision to end the sorcerer’s spell.

With a gesture she summoned Jade Emperor’s Whisper. Released from the negative energy, Qing limped to her side and propped her up by her bloody arm.

“I’m done with you,” People’s Blade told the advancing Tsoo. “We’re leaving.”

Qing looked at the Tsoo warriors and the truck behind them. They were penned in. “How?”

Fei Li stomped the ground in what seemed to be a sudden fury.

A large round section burst out of the street: a manhole cover. The two women dropped into the hole.

Fei Li broke Qing’s fall with her wounded leg, causing an instant of blacked-out pain. They splashed down into rancid sewer water up to their knees. She dragged Qing up onto the concrete walkway on either side of the massive sewer pipe, and began to run.

Tsoo dropped down the hole like ants, but Fei Li and Qing had a head start. Still, Fei Li’s wounds slowed her. A fight in the sewer would wear her down as fifty Tsoo braced her three at a time. Escape was the only option.

Or escape for Qing.

“You have to go on, Qing,” she panted. “I’ll stop them here.”

“No way. I’m not leaving you behind.”

They turned a corner at a four way intersection.

“You were always most stubborn, little Orchid. They will catch you if you wait for me.”

“Unless you kill them all, I will never be safe without you.” Qing pointed ahead. “We’re reaching a large chamber. Any ideas?”

Fei Li grinned. “Just one.”

The Tsoo raced into the chamber moments later. The Enforcers pounded up the metal staircase to the service door Fei Li had slashed open. It hadn’t closed properly. Four dozen Tsoo warriors crowded the platform and pushed through the narrow door.

Beneath the stairs, clinging like a pair of locusts, Fei Li and Qing breathed a sigh of relief. In silence they crept away from the metal platform and down a sloping passage where the nauseating sewage swept past their feet. Fei Li would permit no discussion until they had travelled a full ten minutes with no hint of the Tsoo.

At last she signalled a stop and slumped against Qing. The two women sat on the dank stone floor. Fei Li’s wounds still seeped blood.

“You’re bleeding badly,” Qing said. “These cuts are filthy. You’ll get infected.”

Fei Li held up her mutilated hand. “Even worse, I leave a trail for them if they come this way. We should not have stopped.”

“Nonsense. You’re out on your feet.” Ignoring Fei Li’s feeble protest, she took Jade Emperor’s Whisper and cut off the sleeves of her sweatshirt. “Hold still.”

Qing bound the sleeves around Fei Li’s hand and leg. More material from the bottom of the shirt provided bandaging for the thigh wound. “That’s a start,” Qing said. “But you need to get to a hospital.”

“No hospitals,” Fei Li said. “We would only bring our fight to them. Red Brigade Headquarters is where we must go.”

“Aiyah! I’m stubborn?” Fei Li leaned against the wall, refusing to look Qing in the eye. “Hmph. The General, indeed.”

They sat in silence, listening to the rushing water. By now they were almost able to ignore the stench.

“I cannot protect you anywhere else, ne? At least it will buy me time enough to figure out what the Tsoo want with the scrolls.”

“Immortality.”

Fei Li waved her hand. “I know, long life, prosperity, but there must be more to it.”

“You’re not listening to your wife, General. Zuo Kan believes the scrolls grant immortality. True immortality.”

Fei Li studied her face. “Do they?”

“In a sense. I – Lan Feng, that is – knew that the courtiers planned to have Master Po and I killed when we had finished the Emperor’s work, and then destroy the work. They hated the Emperor. Master Po misrepresented our efforts while I…” She grew quiet.

Fei Li took her hand.

“While I created my greatest work. I do not brag, Fei Li. I put every ounce of my qi into those scrolls. The Emperor’s words were pretty poetry, nothing more…but I gave them power. When they came to slay me and Master Po, I was barely a shell. My heart was in those scrolls.”

“Your soul, just as Laoshi occupied his own blade.”

Qing nodded and put her head on Fei Li’s shoulder. “We both found a boat to take us through the ages. Now we’re together in a sewer. I bet I don’t smell like an Orchid Phoenix right now.”

Fei Li grunted a laugh. “Any port in a storm, the Americans say.”

Qing kissed her on the cheek. “Any port with you.”

“Then we’ll go to my headquarters and make a stand there. I can summon help from the rest of CCCP. I’ll have my army at last.” She patted Qing’s hand. “Zuo Kan will regret transgressing against the family of the Blade of the People.”

“I think we’ll be lucky to escape, let alone fight back.”

“Bu shi. Fighting back is our only hope of escape. Zuo Kan will not stop until he cheats death.”

“But he can’t,” Qing said, shaking her head. “They contained Lan Feng’s soul, because she created them. Now they are just paper and ink.”

“He won’t be pleased by that revelation.” Fei Li stood. “We mustn’t let you be the one to deliver it to him. Lai de, come on.”

Freed from the necessity of speed, Fei Li used her sword as a cane. Qing supported her by her weakened arm. They made slow progress through the sewers, Fei Li directing their course.

“How do you know so much about these sewers? They’re a maze.”

Fei Li grinned. “You’d be amazed at how many criminals come down here. Red Saviour even has a special uniform for sewer exploration. It resists odor.”

“Yuck!” Qing made a face. “I’m going to shave my head after this, unless I can wash the stink out.” She pointed out a shaft of light. “Are we close?”

“Dui, that is our exit. I am worried that it will be watched. There are few entrances in this part of town, and many Tsoo. They have had enough time to post guards all over town.”

They reached the ladder to the manhole. It was corroded and slimy, but usable.

“So,” Qing said, “how do we do this?”

“Quickly, I think. We have two blocks to our destination.”

Fei Li studied the shaft of light coming from the single hole in the cover. She regulated her breathing. Her qi flowed like a river through her, diverted by the wounds. What healing she could create with her breathing techniques had already happened. Something more was required, something for which they had no time. Hobbled and one-armed, she was no match for the gauntlet they had to run.

“Fei Li?”

“I’m thinking.”

“I know.” She wiped muck and blood off of Fei Li’s face. “I’m really scared. Not that I wasn’t before, but I feel safer in this hole than out on the street.”

“They would find us here.” She sighed. “Aiyah. I do not think I can protect you.”

“Of course you can. You are my Shuai.” Qing hugged the armored woman. “You have never failed me before. Lan Feng, that is. And you won’t fail her, or me, now.”

“Xie xie.” She didn’t want to let go of Qing. The Tsoo above might kill her in the next five minutes. “Qing…”

Qing smiled and pushed hair out of her eyes.

“I want you to know, if I die…I…” Tears welled up. “That I am finally happy.”

“Oh.”

“And I am glad that Lan Feng found you.” She kissed Qing’s quivering lips. “This is Fei Li speaking, you know.”

“Wo zhi dao,” Qing whispered.

“Without my comm unit, I cannot summon help. My goal is to get you inside Red Brigade headquarters. No matter what happens, when we start running, you do not stop. Promise me.”

“I won’t…” Fei Li held up her hand.

“I cannot die in peace unless you make this promise.”

“You won’t die!” Qing said fiercely.

“Ask Lan Feng,” Fei said. “Every parting was to be treated as the last. Death could come at any time. This is one of those times.” She held out Jade Emperor’s Whisper. “Swear it.”

Qing put her hand on the sword. “I swear. I swear I will run until I’m safe.”

“No matter what happens to me.”

Qing choked back a sob. “No matter what.”

“Hao. Now we are ready.” She climbed the ladder with a grace that belied her injuries. Qing climbed up behind her.

“Ready?” Fei Li asked. A mischievous smile played on her lips.

“Yes. Yes! I’m ready!”

People’s Blade hit the manhole cover with the hilt of her sword. It shot into the air and crashed against the concrete with a colossal sound that echoed in the sewer tunnel. She launched off the ladder into the street. Without looking to see if they were spotted, she dropped the sword, reached down and hauled Qing up.

They were in the middle of a busy intersection. A motorcycle zoomed past, nearly clipping Qing. It was still rush hour in Paragon City.

“This way!” Fei Li shouted. She was already moving, Jade Emperor’s Whisper floating into her hand as she ran down the yellow divider lines with a lopsided gait. Qing followed, watching frantically for Tsoo.

“Shouldn’t we get out of traffic?” Qing yelled back.

“No! It’s good cover! See, here they come!”

The Tsoo appeared from nowhere, on fire escapes, from alleyways, from basement steps. Dozens. They had anticipated Fei Li’s choice of destination.

“Oh my God, there’s too many!” An arrow broke a car’s window just behind the two women.

“We keep running. At the next street I’ll make my stand.”

“No!” Qing grabbed her arm. “We can make it! Remember what you said. They’ll hunt me forever if you die.”

Fei Li grimaced. Thus far the Tsoo paced the two, firing arrows as openings in traffic allowed. Cars skidded out of control as motorists ducked stray shots.

“You have to jump!”

“I can’t! My leg – ”

“I don’t care!” Qing cried. “I order you to jump!”

Fei Li wrapped her good arm around Qing’s torso and sprang from her uninjured leg. The Tsoo had been waiting for such an opportunity and unleashed a cloud of arrows at her back. She ducked her head, avoiding one that would have brained her, but two more struck her in the shoulder and back.

She crashed to the asphalt, spraying blood. The Tsoo closed in.

Qing saw that the leap had carried them nearly an entire block. The Red Brigade compound was in sight: a shabby three-story brick building with a utilitarian sign. She yanked a groggy Fei Li to her feet.

“Again! Come on, General, don’t shame yourself!” Qing put her arms around Fei Li’s neck.

With a cry of rage, Fei Li leapt again. The Tsoo who hadn’t switched to knives let fly with arrows. Two found Fei Li’s good leg, two more caught in her armor. Another caught her square in the back.

“Jesus,” Qing breathed. Tears of pain from Fei Li’s eyes caught in the wind and blew away, along with blood from the arrows. The jump had taken them thirty feet up, enough to see the roof of the Red Brigade building.

They landed in a heap, fifty feet away. Fei Li couldn’t stand; she crumbled to the ground and dropped her sword. The Tsoo ran towards them, weapons drawn for the kill.

“Fei Li, come on, get up,” Qing said as she tugged at Fei Li’s shoulder. Each tug elicited a cry of pain. “One more jump and we’re there. It’s not even a big one for you.” Fei Li dragged herself to her knees but no further. “You can’t die yet, damn it! Not yet!”

Qing picked up the sword. “I’ll fight them here, Fei Li. I’m not leaving you to die, I don’t care what I promised!”

“No,” Fei Li moaned. “You can’t. Please, run…”

“Get up, then!”

Ten Tsoo were upon them. Qing, with Jade Emperor’s Whisper, was their first target, as they tried to disarm her without injuring her. She parried the attack of the closest with a yell of fear. He slid his blade around hers and yanked, but she managed to hold on to the blade.

Heaving herself to her feet, Fei Li grabbed Qing’s collar and jumped. The leap was clumsy and poorly timed; yet it was People’s Blade leaping, and it carried them through the air and towards the second floor window of the Red Brigade building.

“Cover your eyes,” Fei Li shouted back to Qing. She raised her weak arm to cover her face, and tilted to hit the window feet first.

The bulletproof glass did not shatter, but Fei Li had enough strength in her kick to knock the entire window frame in, along with some bricks and plaster. It threw off her balance, however, smashing her to the floor, and Qing following.

A very surprised Cyriss McCloud dropped his coffee.

“General?”

The sight greeting him was horrific: People’s Blade, his General and teacher, blood-soaked, filthy, sporting over half a dozen arrows from her body; a young woman covered with sewage and blood, weeping with fury. At once he knelt at Fei Li’s side.

“Holy crap, General, what the hell happened? We have to get you to –”

“Get up.” People’s Blade’s whisper pushed through blood in her mouth.

“Eh?”

“Seal…perimeter. Contact CCCP. Go.” She closed her eyes again.

“Christ, you’re dying! I can’t leave you.” His hands hovered over the arrows.

“You have your orders, damn it,” Qing said, levering herself up

He gave the small woman a dirty look. “Who the hell are you?”

Qing drew herself up. “I am the General’s wife. Now do as you’re told!”

“The General’s…what? Okay, okay,” he put up his hands. “I’m going, I’m going.” He stood, fiddled with his comm unit for a moment, cursed and ran down the hall.

Qing turned Fei Li over on her side to prevent the arrows from digging deeper into her. Based on the movies she’d seen, Fei Li should have been dead on the street. Instead, she was shaking, teeth gritted. Blood blew from her nose in regulated time.

“Hang on, Shuai,” she said, cheek pressed against Fei Li’s.

People approached. Qing didn’t even rise to see who they were. The shouts of alarm assured her that they were friends.

A bald man in a tee shirt knelt down next to her. “Gimme room,” he said in a voice drawn from the streets. “Come on, lady.”

“I won’t leave her.”

He gently pushed her aside. “No, you won’t, but I gotta get these arrows out.” He probed the bleeding wounds. “Ah, shit, General. How could you let this happen?” He pulled out the two arrows caught by her armor and grimaced at the barbs.

“It was me,” Qing said.

“What?”

“She was protecting me. The Tsoo couldn’t have hurt her otherwise.”

“Tsoo? Shit!”

“Hey, Kostyak,” said a leather-clad woman in glasses. “There’s a mess of Tsoo out here. A hell of a lot.” The woman paused, concentrating. “Two hundred and seventy six. And counting.”

“Thanks for the update, baby, but I have to fix the General right now.”

People’s Blade gripped his hand. “Kos…” She ran out of air and coughed blood.

“I’m here, Fei Li.”

“Report,” Fei Li choked out. “Duty roster. Now.”

“General, you’re in no shape…” An angry jerk of her head cut him off. “Okay, ah, me, Cass, Cyriss…ah…Tengri, Grandmaster Te…that’s about it.”

“Artillery. Get Natalya. CCCP…” Pain stopped her.

Cyriss came back, leading Grandmaster Te and Tengri, both in exercise sweats, fresh from training. Upon sight of People’s Blade they cried out in alarm.

Kostyak pointed at Cyriss. “Get on the horn, call the main headquarters. We need –“

“I tried, Chief!” Cyriss held out the comm unit, its LED screen dim. “All our comm units are dead. Cell phones too.”

Grandmaster Te and Tengri were already setting the window back into its former position. “There is a sea of red out there, my friends,” Te said. “I think they followed Blade Shuai here.”

Kostyak waved them over. Tengri, only fourteen and fresh from Moscow, kneaded her hands in fear. Te was as calm as ever, though his brow furrowed with concern. Cass, known as Hoax, bit her lip. Cyriss kept watch over the massing Tsoo outside.

“Lady, you make it quick for us while I help the General. What’s going on here? And why,” he said, “do I see another presence with you?”

“My name’s Qing Kuo. The spirit you sense is Lan Feng. She is – I am – the General’s wife.” She let that sink in. The group registered utter surprise. “Lan Feng’s spirit inhabited me four days ago, when I was hired by the Tsoo to decipher scrolls she wrote. Fei Li saved me, and now they want me back and…and her dead.”

Kostyak knelt by People’s Blade and split his attention between listening to Qing and parlaying with the energies that held the world together. Outwardly he appeared to be squinting in concentration; but inward was a dance of probability manipulation, as he increased Fei Li’s healing rate a hundred-fold.

Cass took up the line of inquiry. “How long have you been running from the Tsoo?”

“Not long. An hour or two. They found us this morning.”

The paths of air currents followed unexpected turns around Fei Li and Kostyak, as his manipulations took hold. He grasped one of the arrows in her back. “Ready?”

“Dui,” she hissed.

He tore the barbed arrow out of her flesh, trying to keep the head in the same trajectory as it entered. Fresh blood spurted out of her. She grunted.

“Jesus, Kos!” Cass said. “That’ll kill her!”

“Not the General. She’s got her ways.”

“Again,” People’s Blade said.

One by one, he pulled the arrows out of her. He made no attempt to prevent blood loss or further damage from the barbs. They all winced with each arrow. Qing held her wounded hand. When the last arrow was gone, Fei Li squeezed Qing’s hand.

Comprehension dawned on her. “Fei Li, your hand!” Fei Li gave her another squeeze.

Kostyak propped Fei Li up. She regarded the gathered Brigadiers. “Shi, airen, I am healing. Kostyak is a man of many talents.” She allowed herself a grim smile. “We’ll need them all today. The Tsoo don’t know how many of us are here right now. Zuo Kan is taking no chances.” She paused and took deep inhalations for nearly a minute. A deep hum emanated from her throat.

“More, another big batch,” Cyriss said from the window. “I see spooks and sorcerers, too.”

“The Tsoo want my wife alive,” she continued. “Zuo Kan believes her scrolls hold the secret to immortality, and only she can unlock that secret. He is mistaken, but now is not the time to enlighten him.” Her expression became deadly serious. “I am not dead yet. I will take their army to Hell before I give Lan Feng up again.”

“We stand by you, General,” Kostyak said. “You can count on us.”

“And I will count on you. This is a war between Zuo Kan and myself, and you are all drafted. Even you, Tengri, though it pains me to sacrifice one so young.” Tengri tried to look brave. “We need only hold out until help arrives.”

“It won’t arrive,” Kostyak said. “I can feel the magic in the air. The sorcerers are cooking something up to block our communications. And if hundreds of Tsoo can camp in our front yard, they gotta be cloaking themselves too.”

“Can we disrupt the spell?”

Kostyak shook his head. “I don’t know. If I can get close enough to the casters, I can stop ‘em. Not from here, though. It’s heavy duty stuff.”

“Then we are under siege.” People’s Blade closed her eyes. A heavy silence hung over the group. When she opened her eyes again, even Tengri saw the change. Every trace of the sweet Xiao Fei Li was gone.

Shen Xue had arrived to protect his wife.