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Hong Kong Monster Tales

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1.

After a year of searching can't find her, he has to wonder if he ever will. She's still alive, because he still is, after his fashion, but the search is starting to look futile. He has almost all eternity, but he's beginning to think it would really take that. Is it even possible to search the whole world, even with eternity to work with?

When it's all beginning to feel like too much, Yakumo returns to Hong Kong.

It's been a year, much of it in all the remotest parts of Asia, alternating scouring the land with Pai's photo in his wallet with learning from some of the most belligerent old men and women in the world. Martial arts masters and mystical experts, they all seemed to regard him as an object of amusement and an excellent opportunity to brush up on their torture techniques. He bathed infrequently, changed his clothes even less, discovered how little a Wu had to eat to keep mobile and just how uncomfortable that could get even if it wouldn't kill him. He stayed in one place for no more than six weeks, and most of the travelling was on his feet.

Sick, tired, dejected, and alone, the one place he can think to go is back to Yogekisha. At least he has friends there who know what he is, who he can't endanger just by being there... since monsters are, anyway, their business.

When he turns up at the door, Ling-Ling answers it, and she wrinkles her nose at him before she says "Hello". Skipping the rest of the formalities, she drags him inside and pushes him into the shower.

While there are some things about this he does not appreciate, it's a little piece of heaven to wash off the encrusted dirt and grime, to feel the hot -- actually hot! -- water flowing over his skin. It soothes muscles that, while they can't get damaged, at least feel like they can still get tired and tense. When he comes out he pads into the office with a towel around his waist, because Ling-Ling has taken his worn, filthy clothes and he wouldn't be surprised if she's burned them.

Steve's there, and meets him with a much brighter smile than he'd thought a returning zombie would merit. The Taoist presents him a bundle of clean clothes and a cheery greeting, and a few minutes later he's sitting in an overlarge shirt and trousers, bare feet comfortable on the floor, while Ling-Ling finishes making tea and brings it in to join them.

He feels comfortable enough by that time to tell them, without too much twitching, that he hasn't found Pai, or any trace of Pai. On the plus side, he's learned a few tricks, and can probably give Ling-Ling more of a run for her money if they spar now.

"Oh, so you think so?" the Chinese woman interjects, with a slightly evil glitter under the lids of her mostly-closed eyes, as she sucks at her tea.

Yakumo resorts to a huge, embarrassed grin as his only reply to that, because he really isn't sure. Instead he shows them the gauntlets he had custom made and has been using to battle demons. Not that many demons, it's true -- two so far -- but successfully.

This is because in the last year he's only really encountered two. It's remarkable how much less trouble comes his way when he's not in Pai's company. But he'd rather she were here with him, and all that trouble, too. Yes, he'd rather...

"I needed to come back to somewhere that feels like home," he finally explains. "I felt like I kind of burned my bridges in Tokyo, so..."

"Of course!" Ling-Ling says, slapping him energetically on the arm, spilling his tea on the knee of his clean, borrowed trousers. "We're happy to have you here! Stay as long as you like!"

"You're very welcome," Steve adds. "After all, you saved my life once."

Perhaps it would sound bad if Yakumo admitted he'd forgotten about that, but it explains the enthusiasm of his greeting. Then Ling Ling's part becomes clear as well:

"Of course, we couldn't let you completely freeload, or everyone would expect it... but that shouldn't be a problem." She smirks and holds her fingers up in a victory 'v'. The pose is somewhere between 'cute' and 'demonic'. "Yogekisha is understaffed at the moment, and it's not like an experienced 'monster buster' such as Fujii Yakumo to want to lie around doing nothing!"

Steve gives her a look, but the thing is, she's also kind of right, even if she is a money-grubbing, scary freak, so Yakumo allows, "Yes, I suppose so." He's hoping to stay here perhaps as much as a few months to get his head together again, and it wouldn't be reasonable to freeload for all that time. This way maybe he'll also be able to keep up his training. Maybe he'll even find some demons to fight.

"That's settled, then," Ling-Ling announces. "We'll make you a room upstairs, and you can stay in the offices. This way we don't have to remain on guard duty all night when we have dangerous artefacts in here. We'll have twenty-four hour undead protection... And that means we can both finally go home and get some proper sleep!"

Steve's expression brightens correspondingly and the two of them pound each other's shoulders in celebration.

Yakumo stares at them with... well, it's not even suspicion, is it? The two of them couldn't manage 'subtle' if their lives depended on it. "...What?"

***

So yes, it turns out that they are guarding something at the moment, and Yakumo tries not to feel duped or disappointed by this, because he's (he tells himself) sure that they would have welcomed him even if they didn't have a specific use in mind for his presence. It's simply fortuitous that they're all able to help each other out at this time. So he resolves to do his best for them in his guard-dog duties, as well as everything else.

The artefact that they're guarding is sort of like a long, thin horn with holes and spikes along its length. It's hollow, and Ling-Ling says that if you blow through it it makes a noise, but don't. They're basically employed to sit on it until its owner can get a specially warded display case made to keep it in, because it gives off an energy which has been known to cause some rather freakish supernatural effects in the room where it's being stored, and the owner is understandably unhappy about this. Yakumo kind of wonders why anyone would want to own the ugly, nasty thing, but obviously such questions are not for him to ask.

Yogekisha aren't the ones employed to make the display case, even though Steve could probably do it. They're just guard dogs because the bigger, more reputable mystical firm making the case won't contemplate having the artefact on their premises. Because apparently the demon world is also spectacularly unhappy about this artefact being in the hands of a human. There've been four attempts to steal it so far.

"We're not even allowed to write about it," is Ling-Ling's biggest gripe. "I had to sign to it in the contract. Still, we're being paid, and we need it."

The upshot of its presence is that someone needs to be at Yogekisha at all times. Ling-Ling took it home once, but swears never again. There's something about seeing those sorts of ghastly visions in one's own home, she tells him.

So Yakumo has a place to sleep at Yogekisha, although it has to be said that mostly he doesn't sleep well. Ling-Ling sets up a camp bed for him in a storage room full of old files, and he takes the box containing the ancient horn up with him for a night filled with freakish images and unexpected noises. During the day, he's told, it can sit in the main office, and it's not so active then, anyway.

In the morning, he's lumbering about the office like a real zombie, blinking in the strip lights and coffee cup in hand, barefoot, hair damp from the shower, 'Wu' symbol forgetfully exposed beneath his dripping fringe and attracting stares from a waiting client. He has good reasons for not being at his best, having returned from the year-long Ordeal of Hell, even without sleeping next to their resident artefact his first night back. On top of the rest he's not really used to the sound and feel of a city around him anymore.

He's sitting cross-legged on a chair with a cup of coffee, squinting at the last year's back issues of Yogekisha magazine of which he understands little apart from the pictures, when Ling-Ling sticks her head out of the room she took the client into and beckons him in.

Yakumo has a feeling of foreboding. He pads into the small office and smiles nervously at the seated client. "This is Mr Fujii, one of our Japanese agents," Ling-Ling says, "He's recently returned from a long trip--" Her eyes make caustic judgements on his generally dishevelled state "--but I'm sure he's the right man for this job."

What? He's spent the best part of a year in some of the most remote and least hospitable places in the world. He still can't speak a great deal of Chinese. He needs some space to get his head in order, not start taking on the rest of the world's problems. He'd thought she'd at least give him a few days...

He sees Ling-Ling's face and mumbles a full introduction, bows and manages, "Pleased to be of service."

The client doesn't look incredibly convinced. Yakumo imagines seeing an eighteen-or-so Japanese kid in battered jeans and t-shirt who hasn't even brushed his hair and has the Kanji symbol for emptiness tattooed in the centre of his forehead and he doesn't think he would be convinced, either. The client is a dignified Chinese woman of about sixty. Right now, he can read her mind, and she's thinking that she picked the wrong entry from the phone book.

"This is Mrs Tseun Chan-Jian," Ling-Ling says, and explains the problem. Mrs Tseun's new, large, expensive house has had several strange occurrences in the weeks she's been living there and she wants someone to check it out.

He can do that. He politely excuses himself as best he can to go and see to details like his hair and his shoes and -- damn it -- a bandana while Ling-Ling sorts out the finances.

***

Mrs Tseun speaks English and Chinese, which offers him a choice of two options he's lousy at, and they communicate alternating clumsily between the two. Still, all she really needs to do is lead him home and point him at the trouble spots. He's decked out with Ling-Ling's spook-detecting machines slung around his neck: one of them an honest EMF reader but he's not convinced the other two aren't just rigged up to flash lights and beep. A pair of goggles and a head torch vie for space with the bandana that's already on his forehead. He doesn't need any of these to tell there's an abnormal energy present, but he takes some pictures with Ling-Ling's camera, some readings with the EMF meter, and jots down what he can understand of Mrs Tseun's descriptions. Human-like figure spotted here, by the cabinet. Footsteps heard crossing the hallway there, same time every night. An unexplainable scent of jasmine in this room that comes and goes.

Yakumo gives her his verdict, which is that the haunting won't harm her, but if she wants to try put it to rest they can call in Steve, Yogekisha's spirit specialist. There is nothing Yakumo can do here himself. He can't even carry Ling-Ling's anti-monster talismans on his person, so has none to use to minimise the effects of the spirit in the meantime.

Mrs Tseun feeds him tea in her kitchen with the windows open and the breeze blowing peacefully through. Climbing plants around the window sway and cast their shadows on the walls through the speckling light of the sun. It's nice, and he feels less daunted by her poise and her money and the fact she doesn't speak a language he can confidently understand. She tells him about her children and young granddaughters. She comments on how young he is to be doing what he's doing, and looks even more surprised when he tells her what he's been doing for the past year.

The encounter is ended by the noisy arrival of her grandchildren, along with a harried, pretty woman of about thirty and three barking dogs. Yakumo takes his leave, smiling, without introduction. She probably doesn't want to worry her family with her concerns about the house. He supposes it would be unreasonable to expect her to be willing to live with the haunting.

She wants to see Steve. He returns to Yogekisha on the metro. It's almost lunchtime. His first self-appointed task of the day is almost Herculean in its scope. He needs to ask Ling-Ling to lend him some money.

He's a little surprised when their conversation doesn't take as long as he expected. Then again, he has a compelling case. Even after washing, the clothes he's been wearing to walk all over Asia look like it, and his shoes are falling apart. Respectable clothing widens her options on what she can rope him into helping with. Oh, he had stuff before he left, but -- kid's stuff, he finds himself thinking, looking back on what he left behind. Besides, most of that is in Tokyo, except a few things in a box that don't fit anymore because his body has filled out since then. Reassuringly, he's put on muscle mass from all the crazy martial arts routines and the ton of walking.

So the early part of his afternoon is heroically spent clothes shopping. In Chinese. That part sort of makes him wish he'd not been so emphatic in refusing Ling-Ling's offer to help, but then again, he has the feeling that if he'd accepted the offer he'd have come out of it with a wholly different wardrobe.

He returns about 3pm, hangs his new shirts and trousers on the back of the door of the room he's using and trades off most of what he's been wearing.

He wanders back to the main office and sits pondering the box with the mystical horn in it for a while, until it strikes him that it's all unusually quiet. There's supposed to be someone to guard this thing, right? Ling-Ling was there when he left. Where is she now? Why isn't the box he's been frowning at giving off those same waves of disquiet that it was earlier and all last night?

He backtracks in his mind. He let himself in, when he got back from the shopping. The office door wasn't locked. It's business hours and Yogekisha does get walk-in clients, so it wouldn't necessarily be locked, although it strikes him as odd in the current circumstances. He remembers it being quiet when he came in, but then again he wasn't looking to talk to Ling-Ling, he was headed up to get changed out of his scummy clothes, a man with a mission. He thinks she might have been in the side office. Did she call out some kind of greeting, or at least acknowledgement?

He has the feeling he's being watched. He resists the impulse to open the box and check. He knows there's nothing in it.

He narrows his eyes and focuses and thinks that he can feel youki. It's a very minor sort of youki, but that's not anything to be sneezed at if it's strong enough to give out a detectable youki at all, and it's pretty close and he thinks that way.

Great going, Fujii, he critiques his performance. Spend a year training your body and your instincts, just to walk straight into the place without noticing.

He stands up, trying to keep his movements slow and casual. There's someone else here, and they have the artefact, and they have Ling-Ling. That, or they've already taken her out. He thinks uneasily that Ling-Ling can probably still take him in a fight, and that doesn't bode well for his chances against the intruder.

He doesn't have any weapons. They'd have been awkward to take shopping and he didn't yet replace them in his new clothes. It would be nice if Ling-Ling kept a few swords or knives on display, on the walls or the shelves, but as a matter of fact she keeps them in a locked cabinet. Nothing around him screams of its usefulness as a makeshift weapon, either.

With awkward calm he tries to home in on the direction that scratchy-nastiness of the demon's presence is coming from. It's the small office Ling-Ling was using earlier. He thinks again about being unarmed then decides, abruptly, that if it's hiding that's because it's afraid it can't take him out.

He focuses his energy like he's been taught -- like people have been trying to teach him for a year now -- and his kick takes the door off its hinges. One of the yells he hears is Ling-Ling.

The demon's bigger than he is, with a head like the thing off the Alien movies and a body that's half tail. The tail is wrapped around Ling-Ling, bizarrely holding her up next to it. The tip of the tail looks like it's trying to muffle her mouth. Right now, though, she's drawing in a big breath to yell again.

Yakumo flicks the fallen door with the upper part of one foot then kicks it again as it rises, nailing the demon in the face. Ling-Ling's yell turns into a shriek as she's showered with splinters, which becomes more shrill still as the demon's tail whips back and discards her, the creature focusing all its resources on this new fight.

Yakumo rains blows on it in a fierce flurry with the desperation of one who still doesn't really know what he's doing. It's his surprise when he realises he's managed to totally overwhelm it that causes him to hesitate.

He just about ducks a slamming tail heavy enough to break bones. He doesn't manage to avoid the claws that follow. Worse, something in his ribcage grates and catches when they try pulling back, to the dismay of all concerned. Yakumo grabs a handhold around the demon's absurdly thin neck and punches it in the face.

Too much to hope that whatever this demon type is has a glass jaw. It almost doesn't notice. It's also bringing its other arm around to, he thinks, tear his face off, and he's too busy clinging and yelling about the twisting claws buried in his belly to--

Gunshots explode in his ears. Various parts of the demon explode over him. He has a prescient sinking feeling. As the unlucky creature topples, he still can't pull away and is dragged over with it.

He hears Ling-Ling make a distressed noise as she lowers the gun and steps closer, looming over him.

"Please tell me," she says, "that those are not the new clothes."

***

2.

It's been about half a year since his last 'fatal' injury. That one wasn't even a fight: he fell down a mountainside entirely by accident. "You guys are cursed," he tells Ling-Ling, whose hands are in plastic gloves because she's just finished helping to extract the demon from his rib cage. They're a gory picture. So is the floor. They both keep looking at the ugly corpse hoping it'll disappear cleanly; evaporate or crumble to dust. Rather, he's beginning to suspect they have an even more unpleasant clean-up task ahead of them.

The moment they hear the front door, they both freeze, which isn't helpful, but then there's nowhere near enough time for them to make this scene look anywhere close to normal. Fortunately, it's Steve and not a client. He does a double-take a few steps inside, stops and blinks. Ling-Ling gives a brisk sigh of relief and narrowly stops herself from wiping Yakumo's blood across her forehead. She starts delicately trying to peel off the gloves.

"Am I interrupting something?" Steve asks.

"If I have kinks, I can assure you they don't include burying my hands in a man's guts."

Steve does a cautious circuit of the dead demon in the middle of the room. He doesn't ask what happened, and Yakumo kind of takes that as a testament to the state of Yogekisha in general. He does point out dubiously, "It's not disappearing."

"We know," Ling-Ling says. "It's incredibly inconsiderate." She looks at Yakumo. "Are you all right?" The gaping hole is only bigger after her digging around in there.

"Well, I will be," he hazards.

This is always true.

In fact, there's already a thin, reddish mist gathering on the air around him, moving in little clouds and puffs. That mist is minute bits of Fujii Yakumo returning to where they belong. Ling-Ling grimaces and steps back to give it a clear path.

"This hasn't happened to me the entire time I've been gone," he points out with the unavoidable accusation.

She responds caustically, "I remember you managing to get run over by a bus."

Ling-Ling takes some photographs for the magazine, then the three of them get the demon wrapped up in three separate bin liners and an unholy amount of tape and twine, just to be sure. Yakumo manages to mostly ignore the healing abdominal wound, though he could wish that his two so-called-friends did the same with less apparent ease. It's disheartening what people will take for granted once they've seen a guy get decapitated and walk away from it.

It's almost healed by the time they dispose of the neatly-parcel-wrapped demon in the bins out back; a pinkish, heavy scar visible through the holes in his shirt. Soon it will be gone completely. Unfortunately, his clothes won't heal the same.

He trudges upstairs to get showered and changed. When he comes back into the office, the troublesome artefact is once more in its place. Ling-Ling is just finishing mopping the floor. She seems little the worse for wear after her own encounter with the demon.

"Are you really going to publish the pictures?" he asks.

"Why not?" she says. "It'll save a few hours playing with ketchup and dummies."

Yakumo chokes a bit. It's not that this is unexpected, it's just... there they are, and they know that demons exist, so there's something wrong with the fact she's still conning the rest of the world with fake photographs. Then again, there's also something wrong with publishing genuine gory demonic corpses for the readership to gawk at.

"Speaking of which," she adds, "how about you write up some of your adventures for us?"

"I what?" He blinks. "I can't write Chinese."

"Write in Japanese and we'll work on translating them across together," she says, unconcerned. "Think about it, anyway. I know it won't win any awards, but the raw authenticity should hold its own appeal to the readership..."

He's pretty sure that he's offended, but he's not in a position to dispute her either, so just scowls and looks away. He didn't finish school but it isn't as though he's illiterate -- in his native language. Which it's been practically a year since he was able to communicate freely in. Maybe he should be more thankful for Ling-Ling and Steve's level of education.

He ponders trying to communicate the real, unembellished truth of what's out there to Yogeki's readership.

...Except whatever he writes will be translated by Ling-Ling. He gives her a suspicious look and decides to let that stand as his answer, for now. Besides, he's still not convinced of himself being able to write anything other people would actually want to read. It would be Ling-Ling writing it, he concludes, and my name on the article. No way.

"I'll... think about it," he says sourly, and from her expression she recognises that that means no.

He sighs, relents and mumbles a maybe. He's tired and short-tempered. Hopefully the horn will let him get a bit more sleep tonight.

***

The next morning he's sitting opposite Steve at the breakfast table listening to Ling-Ling argue down the phone, in pursuit of more money from their mystical-horn-guard-duty employer. Ling-Ling is complaining that the giant moth-demon with razor-sharp wings that broke in through one of the upstairs windows during the evening should be worth extra, since all three of Yogekisha's current active staff complement have been in the office all night. Steve's got a gauze bandage taped above one eye and still looks dozy. Yakumo's sliced-off limbs have reattached, although they're mostly staying that way by the aid of bandages and tape.

He's decided it's either Hong Kong or it's Ling-Ling. Who, come to think of it, hasn't seemed particularly fazed by the demon attacks, costs of the damage aside, even though a year ago she'd never seen a real-life demon before.

He thinks the feeling tingling at the back of his skull might be suspicion.

Steve groans and distracts him from his chain of thought, listing suddenly to one side before catching and correcting himself. Steve should probably be in a hospital, but this is unlikely to happen. Steve developed an allergy to hospitals after all the questions that got asked following Ryoku's nutty Kaiyanwan cult's torture sessions. Besides which, he's almost as task-focused as Ling-Ling is and they have work to do. So Steve rights himself and stubbornly chomps on a mouthful of his breakfast instead. A moment later, Ling-Ling puts the phone down with satisfaction on her face. Yogekisha's bonus has increased again.

"I'll stay here today," she says to Yakumo, "and finish cleaning up the mess... again." At least the moth-demon had surprisingly little actual body mass, for all the space it seemed to fill when it was flapping around. "You already have a rapport with the new client, so go with Steve."

"I'm really not comfortable being around these sorts of..." Yakumo begins.

She waves it off. Her eyes slide meaningfully to the side: someone needs to keep an eye on Steve today.

So an hour later he's sitting cross-legged on the floor of Mrs Tseun's parlour, listening to a concussed Steve conversing at length with a ghost. It's mostly a one-sided conversation from his perspective, although occasionally he imagines he can clearly hear the echo of words. He's a little bit psychic because of the powers his link with the Sanjiyan bestows, but he's not yet figured out how to use it. It's probably the sort of thing a Wu develops gradually over a couple hundred or so years. For Steve, though, chatting to stray spirits is something he's always been able to do.

Mrs Tsuen is in the garden, sitting under the climbing roses drinking tea, because it's probably better if she's not a spectator for this, even if she is a tough old lady. Yakumo, since he's mainly here to watch Steve, doesn't really feel he can duck out and go talk to Mrs Tseun. However, at the moment, Steve seems content to talk rather than resort to his more aggressive tactics for ousting a ghost.

"Yes," he says. "It is a very beautiful house, and I can tell you loved living here very much. You must have been very happy. But there is also great beauty on the other side."

When he gets into the description, it's almost enough to make Yakumo sorry he can't die. It's not like he'd be planning to do it anytime soon even if he could. It's just that Steve sells the idea of it really well, utter conviction in his words when he speaks of those other shores.

Yakumo even thinks he hears the thready, ephemeral voice that he's caught the odd trace of in the past half hour sigh.

"Mrs Tseun is a good person," Steve says. "She also loves this house. I promise you, she will take good care of it. You don't need to worry. You can leave. There is no obligation calling you to stay."

The pause then drags notably longer than the rest and Yakumo can't hear the reply, but he can feel agitation in the air of the room. Their spirit isn't convinced.

Steve waits for it to calm down, then says carefully, "There must be people waiting for you. How long will you keep them waiting?"

Yakumo has the impression that the ghost is sulking. Steve, carefully, looks around, frowns, and shakes his head minimally. "I'll come back tomorrow and speak to you again." He gets up from his cross-legged pose slowly, grimacing because Steve's body has scars and aches Yakumo will never have, retaining the marks of abuse from Ryoku's tortures, and starts brushing himself off.

While he's worked with Yogekisha, Yakumo has seen violent exorcisms, poltergeists, demon possession, explosions, monsters and gruesome death. He didn't expect to spend the morning listening to Steve calmly play counsellor to a ghost.

Steve notes his gaze and looks back wryly. "Most of my work was always like this," he says. "If it wasn't, I wouldn't do it. The really violent spirits and demons are comparatively rare."

No, thinks Yakumo. They all just seem to make a bee-line for Pai, and apparently now Ling-Ling.

***

Yakumo is in the office alone for the afternoon while Ling-Ling is out on a job, and Steve is at home resting. Maybe, he thinks, he's starting to feel a little guilty that he left it so long before coming back. Mrs Huang and her people seem to have placed themselves at a distance, Mei-Xing's commitments are necessarily restricted to her education, and Chin Aguri is still missing-presumed-dead. He gets the impression that these days it's largely Ling-Ling and Steve holding up the business, filling the office with cigarette smoke and drunken laughter on an evening while they compare notes on using the supernatural to wrangle money out of their clients. Yogeki the magazine runs largely on freelance contributions and things Ling-Ling made up on the spot to fill space.

He sits at Ling-Ling's desk and, experimentally, starts to jot down a few paragraphs about the Tseun case, thinking around what Steve said and trying to de-sensationalize the idea of 'busting ghosts'. He's no writer. After a few paragraphs he turns to a fresh sheet of paper and starts describing the fight with the moth demon in the office. He doesn't get very far with that, either.

When the door goes, he self consciously checks himself over and straightens his unprofessional attire, and endeavours to put on at least a professional demeanour, anticipating a client. Instead, as soon as he pulls back the last bolt, the door explodes inwards and he finds himself knocked back by an enthusiastic armful of Mei-Xing. She yells his name excitedly and squeezes his chest like a boa constrictor.

"Hey, Mei-Xing, calm down!" he chokes. "Just because I can't die doesn't mean you have to kill me!"

"You idiot!" she yells at him. "I had to wait three days for someone to finally mention to me that you were back in Hong Kong?"

He allows that that's a fair point. "I-I thought you were too busy with school..." And Steve is busy with Yogekisha, and he's been a bit down and out and didn't really want the attention anyway, so...

"You!" she accuses him simply, pulling back to point a finger at his nose, then storming past him into the office. He closes and locks the door, remembers to pull all the shiny new dead-bolts, and follows. "Those two have been like partners in crime for the last two weeks," she tells him, as she dumps a satchel on a chair and heads straight for the mystical horn artefact in its box, peering at it from all angles. "What's so threatening about this thing that they don't want me around the office while it's here?"

Oh. Yakumo realises that he's going to be in trouble, even if it's hardly his fault she just turned up anyway.

"Lots of demons keep coming to steal it," he tells her. "Hey, if you're not supposed to be here..."

She glares, then relents. "Well, you could come out with me, and we'll catch up," she offers, seeing in his face that he really is concerned. Mei-Xing has already almost ended up the virgin sacrifice of a demon-god once in her lifetime.

"I have to stay here and guard the thing," he explains.

"There's no helping it, then!" She flops down in a chair, facing the artefact. "It doesn't look like much, in that box. Steve said it makes a noise if you blow on it."

"Don't blow on it," Yakumo pleads.

She huffs. "I have been helping combat demons while you've been globetrotting, and my brother's the best Taoist in Hong Kong. I know a thing or two! Oh, here--" She dives into her satchel. "I brought with me a welcome-back-Yakumo party!" The pile of sweets and cup cakes that appears suggests the satchel has trans-dimensional depths. "It's typical of them, isn't it, that they'd leave you stuck in the office on guard duty when you've only been back in the country a matter of days?"

He finds himself grinning infectiously as she picks up a double handful of brightly coloured sweets and pours them into his hands. It seems unlikely that Mei-Xing is going to let him continue to mope or be depressed for the moment.

He sits cross-legged on the floor with his back rested on the chair next to her and eats more sugar than he's consumed in certainly the last year, and possibly ever, while they catch up. He tells her about his Year of Hell. She complains loudly and pointedly that she still doesn't have a boyfriend, because the boys at school are all scared of her. He resists pointing out that he's an undead semi-demonic freak, and he's scared of her.

After she's been there a while, she takes out an exercise book and starts scribbling figures and equations while they chatter, but she pulls it away from him when he tries to look. "Uh-uh! Ling-Ling warned me! 'Never let the zombie help with your homework'."

He doesn't see why not, and makes a mental note to challenge Ling-Ling on it later. As she guardedly angles the pages away from him, he figures he might as well do his own homework and gets out the latest of his Learn Chinese pamphlets.

A short while later, the door goes again. His head is floating in the mysteries of Cantonese and he's not as focused as last time, not prepared when, this time, it does turn out to be a client. Not, however, a new client.

"Who are you?" the man in the sharp business suit asks as he looks Yakumo up and down. An equally sharply-dressed woman stands behind him, and a tall and thick-set man in more ordinary but still businesslike clothes is behind her. The latter is sweating and pulls nervously on his collar.

Yakumo's brain has its perversities, and has therefore kicked out all the basic Cantonese he'd previously managed to master while trying to absorb the new stuff. He just about understands the question, doesn't understand anything of the exchange between the three as he hesitates, and barely manages to stammer his own name, identify himself as a member of Yogekisha, and give a lame nod -- realising he has to say and do something. If he upsets their big client, Ling-Ling will kill him. Possibly more than once, since she can. He's fairly sure from the descriptions he's been given that this is Mr Yao, the owner of the artefact in the box.

He does at least manage to stutter out a question to that effect, answered in the affirmative, before he lets them in. The agitated heavy-set man asks, "Fujii Yakumo the Wu?" behind the backs of the other two as they forge ahead and leave Yakumo holding the door.

"T-that's right." And he does wonder how that gossip is spreading around, and if the people who've heard it really know what a Wu is and what it means. "Excuse me, I am not very good at speaking Chinese. May I ask who you are?"

He may be with Yao, but he's not with Yao, that much is certain. The distance between him and the other two manifests in just about every respect, the comparative price tag of their outfits aside. Yakumo should know who he is, and doesn't. He tried to be as polite about it as he can be.

"Sek Zhuang, of Fortune Consulting," the man replies.

He nods appreciation at Sek, then hurries after the other two. He's relieved to see that Mei-Xing has had the presence of mind to scrape up the sweet wrappers and presumably bin them, though Ling-Ling may find them somewhere weird later. Sek Zhuang is the chief of the more successful firm Yao hired first, who in turn hired Yogekisha for the guard duty. They wear suits and have executive officers and call it by other names, but basically they are 'monster busters' too.

The woman acknowledges Mei-Xing's presence with a nod and they head straight for the box. By the time Yakumo's caught up, it's already open, the artefact in Yao's hands. Tentatively, he pipes up, "Excuse me...?"

"I have come to inspect my property, Mr Fujii," Yao snaps. "There have been several incidents, and yesterday the price was raised again by That Woman. I wish to reassure myself that no damage has taken place before I allow this arrangement to continue."

"V-very well..." He supposes that's understandable. Yakumo really has little idea what to do in this situation. He's sure that Mei-Xing would have more clue, but she seems content to remain a spectator, an expression of curiosity on her face regarding how he deals with it. "There's nothing wrong with it. I promise, it's guarded every hour of the day..." He supposes the security at Yogekisha doesn't look all that impressive to their visiting eyes. Steve actually has enough hidden wards up, though, to warn of most intrusions, and most demons to get in will be weakened by them. Sometimes even Yakumo can feel them itching the back of his brain.

Except now, he can feel another itch, stronger, and he thinks, suddenly, that Steve's protections aren't behind it.

Something is inside with them. His instincts conflict. It's not these three -- these three are human, or they'd have never got past him through the door. He can't sense any trace of youki. But maybe--

"Whose idea was it to come here, out of the three of you?" he asks, and he's turning, wondering if Mr Sek will be any help if this comes to fighting, because he thinks the other two won't be.

He's in time to see Sek Zhuang's expression freeze in surprise, then be caught that way forever as what's been hiding inside him peels his body off like a... a cheap suit, Yakumo thinks, but it isn't funny.

It's the most revolting thing he's ever seen, and that takes some going -- especially when most of the others were happening to his own body.

The only consolation is that he doesn't think Sek Zhuang even knew about the interloper until that moment, and barely had time to register that he was dead.

His flattened, twisted face hangs briefly lifeless from the demon's hand, then hits the floor with a wet slap.

Mei-Xing may be a crazy, violent girl, but it doesn't stop her exercising her lungs to their full capacity and screaming for all she's worth.

Yakumo doesn't blame her one bit.

***

3.

Whatever essence or seed the demon planted in Sek to grow itself up from, it's too quick to attain a threatening size. Mei-Xing stops screaming and runs to get weapons. Yakumo tries to concentrate on keeping himself between the creature and any of the humans present. It's not where he most wants to be, but at least there's no lasting harm done if he's the one it tears apart first.

Yao looks still in shock. The woman with him, though very green, has taken out some kind of spell-charm on a necklace and draws it across the air in front of her. Yakumo doesn't feel it do anything, so assumes it a short-range defence. He doesn't know if it encompasses Yao too; if she even gives a damn about her boss right now.

The demon is brushing off the last bits of Sek from its hide with disdain. The youki that Yakumo senses now from it is no trifling thing. It veiled it inside Sek Zhuang like Sanjiyan is veiled inside Pai... What the hell is it about this artefact that they all want it? Ling-Ling's brief doesn't include what it does, but it's owner isn't interested in it beyond its value as a disturbing piece of ornamentation. The thing is... he doesn't know how they all know to come for this thing. It's not possible to sense it at any great distance, or even from right outside through Steve's wards. Still, it's the first attack that's happened while Ling-Ling's not around, so maybe his weird ideas are wrong.

"Yakumo!" Mei-Xing throws an axe which he manages to catch by the handle. She gulps a bit at the line of blood drawn across his arm, and the woman with Yao gasps as it visibly starts closing up. But Yakumo is glad of the axe. He might have immortality, but it didn't come with giant claws or super-strength, and he needs a weapon to supplement his still very rudimentary martial arts skills against a creature as daunting as this one. He's also glad Mei-Xing gave him the axe and kept the sword -- she's twirling it easily, two-handed, while he wouldn't have a clue beyond which end to hold.

"What are you?" Yao asks.

"Bad news to monsters!" Mei-Xing answers for him, rather laying on the hype. But it's directed as much to the demon who's regarding them, now, like a creature with a thinking brain in its skull who's planning the best way to dispatch them all with the minimum of fuss.

Yakumo doesn't like the smart monsters.

He raises the axe two-handed. "You better get out of here!" he warns, probably unconvincingly, but trying to play along. "We'll let you leave quietly if you go now."

It chuckles at him. "Funny humans." It shrugs. Wrinkled layers of thick hide shift and scrape. "Not interested in humans. Only want horn. Like living in Hong Kong. Don't want move. Give horn, go away. No problem."

Yakumo doesn't think it's so much a case of "Hulk smash" as the fact the demon isn't any better at speaking Chinese than he is. Even if it does seem to be ambivalent about slaughtering them, it also strikes him that he's quite angry about the casual way it just reduced their fellow monster buster to so many ragged strips of meat, and actually, this is a fight he can throw himself into with resolve. Sek could have been Ling-Ling or Steve as easily. His lips stretch back over his teeth in a growl, and he launches toward the creature, swinging the axe.

Considering the kind of luck he's had the last few days, he shouldn't be too surprised its first blow almost rips him in half.

What's always surprising is how much it hurts. You'd think you'd get used to it; you don't. What he has managed to do in the past twelve months, between all the gurus and belligerent old men, is get better at dealing with it. The path of the axe in his hand barely falters. It's mostly deflected by scaly hide, but the demon is surprised enough to blink down in double-take at the huge gouge of flesh that should be attached to Yakumo's torso and is instead in the demon's clawed hand.

On Yakumo's part, there's no hesitation before he jabs forward with his right hand. At the same time, he triggers the knife in the short gauntlet at his right wrist. The demon's eyes aren't protected by its hide. It falls back, covering the injury, hissing displeasure.

Meanwhile, the upper portion of Yakumo's body that has been defying gravity in the absence of half his midriff suddenly realises this, like Wile E. Coyote sprinting out over thin air. He collapses in an emphatic and very messy flop.

The bonus is it both causes him to miss the demon's hampered retaliation and gives him a good angle to hack at its ankles while Mei-Xing attacks with a run-up and an enthusiastic cry of "Yaaaaa!"

She's knocked across the room, but her sword stays behind, stubbornly jutting from the demon's shoulder.

"Mei-Xing!" Yakumo isn't able to get up again yet, no matter how hard he tries to force his undying body.

But it seems the demon deduces that both she and he are out of the fight for the time being. It doesn't seem much interested in taking advantage of their being down to finish them off. In fact, it's remarkably disinterested in their lives. It really does only want one thing from this confrontation.

Yao has the box in his hands. The woman stands between the demon and Yao, holding up her talisman. She starts up a chant, her voice rising and pounding out harsh syllables, while Yakumo frantically tries to get his near-severed body to co-operate. To say that it hurts is an understatement, but pain kind of reaches a point where it gets monotonous dwelling on it anymore, and Ling-Ling will be furious if he lets their rich client get killed right before his eyes.

The chant and the trinket only provide pause for a second before the demon tries to dash the woman out of the way. She's tougher than either it or Yakumo anticipated, taking the blow and staying up. The talisman arcs through the air on the end of its chain and strikes the demon in the face. Behind her, Yao struggles to open the box.

"Stupid!" the demon growls, ducking its head down and charging her. This time she falls, missing her employer by inches due to some nimble footwork on his part. "Stay out of way! Only want horn!"

Yao has the horn out of the box and in his hands, where he's lifting it to his lips.

"No!" the demon rages, impotently, desperately. "Do not! " It reaches out, striving to reach Yao and strip the artefact from him before he can blow. But it's too late.

Yakumo is on all fours with his arms braced on the ground and almost at the point where he's no longer afraid to move for fear of falling apart again. He is rendered immobile, though, by the low, reverberating tone of the horn as it slides up his spine.

There's something wrong at the core of that noise. It's not pleasant, and yet he feels a sort of calm, lulling numbness creep through him, burrowing into his brain, digging into the depths and taking root, disconnecting him from all else in the world.

He receives the abrupt knowledge that he should have blocked his ears, while the immobility that's seized his hands, so they give only the barest twitch when he tries, tells him that it's too late. He manages to slide his eyes up to Yao and see that the businessman has withdrawn the horn from his mouth, and yet...

He can still hear the noise.

Yao is sweating: it seems he didn't know exactly what would happen. His hands smooth his suit and shift their grip upon the horn. The innate confidence of a successful businessman starts to bolster his wavering resolve, straighten his spine and put starch back into his expression. A self-satisfied aura follows it.

"Stay," he says to the demon, like he's giving an order to a dog. The fearsome creature twitches, but it seems can do nothing other than obey. Yakumo can see the fellow frustration behind its eyes, and also -- remarkably -- fear, and he realises this was what the demon came here prepared to kill and main to avoid.

"You..." it grunts.

The businessman's burgeoning smile glows with something that's reminiscent of Ling-Ling when faced with the promise of money. "Be silent," he orders the demon, and as it obeys him, his smile becomes fully realised and turns into a peal of broad laughter.

"It works!" he shouts. "Who knew, it really works! Liu-Tsiu...!"

The battered woman waveringly stands up. Yakumo is relieved to see that Mei-Xing is moving feebly, though she seems not to be fully conscious. However, in terms of his own situation, he feels there's an ongoing oversight that needs to be addressed.

"Sir." It's surprisingly difficult to speak, powering through the compulsion by telling himself fiercely that "Be silent" wasn't meant for him. "A little help here...?"

Yao's eyes are already wide and his facial muscles stretched as much by shock as the mixture of everything else, and his expression doesn't really change as he turns. All the same... there's something in there. Something Yakumo doesn't like one bit.

"You... I saw those wounds. You should be dead, and the horn shouldn't... You look human, but you're not. What are you?"

"A bodyguard." His nerves are strained enough to look in appeal at the impassive Liu-Tsiu, wondering if he might incite some fellow feeling. The eyes of the silently furious, restrained demon are more sympathetic. The craziness of the situation pushes Yakumo's voice up to a squeak. "Come on, man, I was fighting to protect you, too. Release me!"

"I... don't know if I want to do that," Yao says slowly, the high of his new powers transforming to more sober thought. He strokes the horn possessively between his hands. "I'm a serious collector, after all."

***

This is not what he came back to Hong Kong for, Yakumo thinks, as he stands stiffly outside the door that leads into the rooms holding Yao's collection.

All right, possibly it was within the realms of expectation that coming back would involve being enslaved by Ling-Ling for the benefit of her beloved, largely fictional magazine. Being enslaved as a guard for a demonic collector with more money and otaku-sense than sense, if an unwelcome practical approach when it came to the applications of the powers of his artefacts, hadn't been on the itinerary.

Yakumo's eyes slide across to the demon who flanks him, in position at the other side of the door. In truth, he's still more than a little pissed off about Sek, but they are in the same boat now, and that should make them allies. They can't speak because conversation between them has been forbidden by Yao, but it eyes him back out of its one good eye. No, Yakumo knows very well his companion does not want to be here any more than he does.

But what choice do they have?

He examines that question. From certain angles, when he pokes at the binds within his mind, the control feels... loose. The horn controls demons, the effects apparently permanent upon it being blown once within their hearing. Yet a Sanjiyan is an order of demon greater in magnitude, and he is a Sanjiyan's Wu, already a servitor of sorts, so it seem to him that her service ought to take precedence. Then again, he is not a very adept Wu and she is not a very old Sanjiyan. So perhaps it is just another of those things that he'll be able to do, in a few hundred... ulp... years, when he's had chance to grow into his role.

Frustration batters at the internal chains that keep him tied to that spot, obedient to Yao's orders, but though he can feel the give, ultimately the binds hold, and settle back, and nothing has changed.

He's still guarding the horn, he muses glumly. It's just that now it's not Ling-Ling's wheedling and conniving pressuring him to do it, and honestly, at least then he still had an iota of an option to say "no".

He wonders what's happening back at Yogekisha. Their enemy aren't total monsters for once, and they left Mei-Xing untouched. With her, semiconscious, and the peeled body of Sek, will the others realise when they return that it's Yao who has taken the horn and... well, himself? Or will Mei-Xing only remember fighting off the demon, and the assumption be that all of their disappearance is down to its machinations? He isn't sure she was conscious enough to hear the horn blown and fully realise what happened. If she wasn't, Yao might just get away with this.

And if she remembers, does he really want them coming here? He's glad -- of course he is -- that Yao left Mei-Xing alone, but has to admit that's especially because at the moment the primary weapon Yao wields is his own hands. Yakumo's power is the enemy's to direct, and if Ling-Ling and Steve come here...

Under normal circumstances, at least, he's sure Ling-Ling can still kick his ass. But when he has no choice about the fight and all the stops are off, he doesn't know what might happen.

Can he break the enchantment alone if he's left here for long enough? He thinks that he eventually can. It just makes him sweat buckets when he starts thinking about the length of time that might actually entail. If everyone's right about Sanjiyan and Wu, time is something he has no shortage of...

"Hi."

...And he really shouldn't be surprised that Ling-Ling is standing in front of him with a lockpick in one hand and a taser in the other, looking a little flushed and rumpled, as if she's just had a moderate work-out.

"--Hey, hey, big boy, don't jump the gun--!"

She ducks a swipe from Yakumo's demon companion and jabs the taser towards it, creating a warning blue pop of electricity, at the same time as Yakumo protests urgently, "Ling-Ling, get out of here! I'm supposed to guard the horn! I don't want to have to fight you!"

"Now wait just a minute, both of you," she lectures like a schoolmarm, holding them at bay with the taser and weaving a berating finger through the air. "Have I made a move for the horn? No. It belongs to Yao, and as far as I'm concerned, he can keep it. Our recent cheque came through fine, so he doesn't even owe us... much." The muscles of her jaw bunch a bit on that word, belying her attempt at casual dismissal. "So, not here for the horn. That means you're not obliged to attack me, doesn't it?"

Yakumo nods, breaking out a grin of relief at her logic. The demon retreats to its post and regards her warily from there.

"Is Mei-Xing all right?" Yakumo asks.

"She's fine." Somewhere, alarms start going off, and Ling-Ling looks over her shoulder, her composure ruffling. She rummages in a pocket and produces a knife more like a really big needle, which may actually be some kind of surgical implement, though not necessarily meant for humans. She looks at it as she hands it over and winces. "Sorry. Steve says the spirits told him there's some kind of lingering resonance from the horn. He thinks if you pierce your eardrums, that will work."

...For serious? Yakumo swallows hard and tries to put off being horrified until later, when he has the time to waste. For a moment he doesn't know if he can do it... for more than one reason. But he works patiently through the logic of not having any direct orders not to maim himself, and just about manages to confuse the compulsion enough to set the spike to one ear. Ling-Ling straight-arms his carefully poised and noticeably trembling hand with an exclamation about hurrying it up that he only half hears. The right side of his head explodes into pain and a rushing silence. While he's still gasping, she takes the implement from his shuddering fingers and does the other side.

He's on his knees. He manages to drag his head up. Her face is pointed down into his and her lips move. With some dizzy, pain-filled amusement, he thinks she might actually be shouting. Then she grasps what she's doing and her mouth presses tightly closed. Yakumo can feel hot stickiness oozing from his ears and moves his lips. He never realised how hard it could be to talk if you can't hear yourself. He says, "Okay". He probably says it several times, just to be certain he said it at all.

The world is strange, painfully off-kilter and missing a whole dimension he's used to needing to navigate it, but he no longer feels any compulsion to stay and guard the horn. Much the opposite.

Ling-Ling pantomimes "come on" and "hurry up" with obvious impatience.

"No, wait..." He still hasn't forgotten Sek, but they were in the same boat, and it's not one he feels he can leave the other stranded in. Though he doesn't owe the demon anything, he reaches out unsteadily and peels Ling-Ling's fingers from around the bloody spike. He pushes it toward the demon and it makes no sound, at least for him, as it scrapes across the floor. "Knock yourself out," he mouths, then hangs heavily off Ling-ling as he uses her as a prop to climb to his feet.

His balance is off but he establishes that he can stand. He can already feel healing starting to take effect, a dual itch either side of his skull, and hopes the control won't just return when his hearing comes back.

Ling-Ling's lips move but all he can be sure of is the disapproval in her face. Annoyed, she gestures sharply and silently for him to follow her. He stumbles at her back, glancing behind him once to see that the demon has picked up the knife, but so far merely stares at the implement in its hand. He has no knowledge of whether it can regenerate damage eventually, the way he does, and they round a corner before he sees anything further. Before he knows what's happening, Ling-Ling is tasering Yao's female bodyguard in the centre of the chest while he stands there gawping and useless.

She smacks him in the shoulder and he's pretty sure that what she mouths is "pay attention", but that's easier said than done when you're working in enforced silence. He mouths back at her and then realises off her look that he didn't even try to inject any actual noise.

Ling-Ling's change of expression and heightened alertness clues him in about the approach of the rest before she points and mimes with her fingers -- three or four more ahead -- and they round a corner again.

This time he's fairly determined to at least pull his own weight. What he's not expecting is Yao himself to be among the group. Yakumo punches a guy twice his size in the throat with a move he can only pull off because he doesn't have to worry about exposing himself to a potentially fatal blow, and when the big guy collapses, silently choking, ends up nose to nose with Yogekisha's former client.

Yao falls back a step. His lips move. Yakumo doesn't reply because he has no idea what was just said. Ling-Ling hurls a man over her shoulder. Yao retreats further, the remaining thug falling in with him, intimidated by the fate of his fellows.

"I'd suggest you just let us go. Much easier. On your bodyguards and you," is what he thinks Ling-Ling responds, then in swift afterthought adds something like, "I'll send our last invoice on."

Of course she does.

Yao's eyes fix on the trails of blood from Yakumo's ears. The words he mouths are, again, "What are you?" This time, Yakumo has no compulsion to answer. His explanations of before, which he managed to keep as brief as possible, he thinks Yao didn't understand the significance of. The compulsion to obey didn't extend to hammering out all the subtleties and ensuring the answer was actually understood, after all.

He's looking back at Yao and figuring out what the hell it is he is going to say -- and there must be something to say, there must be, to the man who would have enslaved him given the chance -- and he's suddenly thinking that running off and leaving the fate of that thing to the hands of chance, isn't enough... when the shockwave hits them.

It's noise that he hears even though he currently has no capacity to hear, and it's deafening. He clutches his head, but hands over deaf ears can't keep the sound out either. It's not guesswork: he knows it's the sound of the horn dying.

It's only sound, but the ground shakes under him. Cracks appear in the plaster of the walls. The lights flicker. He actually kind of wonders if the sun outside flickered too, in that moment. And he's the lucky one, he thinks now, for already having his hearing destroyed. Ling-Ling goes white as a sheet and simply drops where she stands, as does the remaining bodyguard. Maybe it's the protection of being the only person who blew the horn and commanded its power that keeps Yao on his feet, clinging to the wall for balance.

It passes, and for a long moment the absence of the horn's last scream rocks them just as much as its presence did. Ling-Ling isn't aware of it, though, and neither are the majority of the other people in the building, Yakumo suspects.

His own balance is unsteady as he takes the jerky few steps needed to carry him to Ling-Ling's side. He awkwardly picks her up, resting her across his arms. She's heavier than he expects -- heavier than Pai -- and he doesn't get anywhere near the same feeling as her head lolls against his shoulder. He straightens his back with difficulty and looks over to Yao, who's still held up by the wall. Though from there he's watching Yakumo's every move, Yakumo is sure that the 'collector' no longer represents any kind of threat.

"If I were you," he advises, speaking slowly and clearly to form both the sound and the shape of the words, "I'd get out of here. My fellow 'slave' might bear more of a grudge."

In truth, he's not sure whether, if the demon was at the epicentre of that, it could still be alive, and it's not like he owes Yao any warnings. He's also not the only one now with trails of blood on his ears, but a flicker of fear across the businessman's face indicates he got the gist. And Yakumo's pleased he did deliver the warning, because the sight is somewhat satisfying recompense.

He has a funny feeling that the anonymous demon, in destroying the horn, has just done something momentous, and that as usual he proved himself phenomenally useless, despite all that he is and is supposed to be. He was beginning to think that an artefact that could command an army of demons wasn't something that should be left intact in anyone's hands, even a collector who wasn't interested in using it, much. A shiver travels down his spine.

He decides he'll settle, anyway, for getting Ling-Ling out of there. Even if it is only returning the favour.

***

Steve is outside in the car, slumped in the driver's seat, conscious but with a nosebleed and a psychic headache. Mei-Xing is handcuffed to the seat next to him but otherwise fine, and it takes a split second for Yakumo to decide he really doesn't want to ask. In his arms, Ling-Ling is beginning to stir.

"You destroyed it?" Steve asks, surprise in his pained expression. Yakumo sort of hears him. At the moment, it's like trying to hear past a swarm of bees. Most of the agony that was boring into either side of his skull has thankfully gone.

"Not me," he replies.

"Ugh," says Ling-Ling indistinctly, and flops out of his arms to hang off the car roof. It's obvious she can't hear him when he asks if she's all right. He hopes it's only a temporary impairment. In certain circumstances it might be fodder for amusement, but he just holds open the door for her, closes it behind her, and walks around to the other side of the car to get in. The slams of the doors sound flat and muted, even past the bees.

"Yakumo, help me!" Mei-Xing yells next to his ear. She's twisted around in the front seat to face him. To her brother she snaps, "It's over! They're safe! We're going! Now won't you let me out of this?!"

Yakumo looks around half-heartedly and mumbles indistinctly about a lack of keys, so incredibly not wanting to get involved.

Steve grimaces and ventures, "When we get back to the office..." Maybe he's half thinking she'll have calmed down by then, but a safer time for him to do this is far more likely to be never, and his face holds that fatalistic look all the way back.

They leave the car a few blocks away and take a short cut down the narrow street that leads straight to Yogekisha, past the towering backs of houses with balconies and ladders crawling like an infestation down their sides. It's the perfect place for an ambush, and in fact it's happened before. That doesn't stop it from happening again.

Ling-Ling is leaning heavily on Yakumo because she still can't walk straight. The Long siblings bring up the rear, uninvolved in their surroundings or destination because Mei-Xing is still in the process of pulverising her brother, starting again on him every few steps. The demon is nothing that they recognise from a case past or present, but it makes a bee-line for Ling-Ling anyway. Yakumo has a split second's warning to get in its way. They're both bowled over, rolling on the pavement. He puts his body in the path of another blow, and from behind him Ling-Ling's gun resounds, echoing off the tall buildings until it only strikes a hollow click.

Ling-Ling abandons the gun, going instead for her camera, grunting awkwardly because she's still on the ground, supporting herself on one elbow. She manages to take a few snaps before the demonic corpse meekly melts into a puddle of goo, which slowly sizzles and shrinks.

Ling-Ling photographs the goo. Yakumo picks himself up, and he and Steve and Mei-Xing stand around blankly.

It's almost an embarrassed silence.

"All right," Yakumo says, finally, a bit indistinctly because he's still re-growing the right side of his face, which he conscientiously averts from the other three. "What did you do?"

"Me?!" Ling-Ling squeaks indignantly, although since he's not really looking at her, the instant protest is telling in itself. She stuffs the discharged gun and camera into pockets, and awkwardly hangs off the wall to climb to her feet. She still can't stand straight, although it looks like her hearing is coming back. "Why would you--"

"Ling-Ling," he says firmly. It's time he did something decisive. "I've never seen so much demonic and supernatural activity around perfectly -- well, mostly normal people. The big moth thing... that one didn't even go near the horn, and now this... Come clean. This 'demon magnet' effect... I know it wasn't like this before. You'd never seen a real demon until me and Pai came along! So, what did you do?"

"Well... demons are our livelihood, you know," she responds, snappishly. She leans back against the wall and shoves her hands into her pockets again, where they rummage and come up with cigarettes and a lighter.

Yakumo watches her light up. He can't tell if the sucked-lemon expressions of the other two, who at least are no longer fighting, are confusion or faked innocence. "Yes, they are," he agrees after a stretched moment; pointedly, because that is actually the foundation of his suspicions.

Ling-Ling sucks on the cigarette and leaves it hanging off her lip as she throws her arms up. "Okay, one little spell! Demons are real! Magic works! I'm trying to run a magazine, here. Bringing the truth about this crazy world to the ignorant, head-in-the-sand masses!"

Steve grunts, but nobody explicitly questions her interpretation of the word 'truth'.

An aghast Mei-Xing yips, "Cancel it! Some of us are just trying to survive our school years!"

Steve and Ling-Ling exchange glances and... just... whatever, Yakumo thinks. The details? He doesn't even want to know. For him, this is real, and it's never been anything but serious, a nightmare of epic proportions. He doesn't want to hear about how much they dealt in bullshit before stepping into the world where monsters are so horribly present. He doesn't want to know if they deliberately tried to drum up business together to keep turning a profit now that they know it's all real. If that's because he'd honestly prefer to be able to keep telling himself Ling-Ling did it on a whim and Steve just knew because Steve just knows stuff, he'll risk being naive.

"Cancel it," he says, and for a moment his voice doesn't sound like his voice, and when his teeth scrape his lower lip he realises he has what-the-hell-fangs...

Then the moment passes and he's poking suspiciously at his jaw while Ling-Ling and Steve look...intimidated, and Mei-Xing slightly pale. Did he do that? What did he do? "Uh..."

"If it's any consolation, it's unlikely it would work on you, halfway around the globe," Steve tries tentatively.

That's not what he was getting at. No... Yakumo hadn't even considered that yet. He rubs his forehead wearily. His face is back. Mostly. Oh, good. "Just get rid of it," he groans. "I would've thought that after being tortured by demon cultists, you'd know a demon-magnet spell was the last thing you need..."

"Steve!" Mei-Xing interjects, with that mix of annoyance, alarm and over-protectiveness that passes for her sisterly love.

Ling-Ling mumbles around her cigarette that she'll get to it when she figures out how.

He never gets a straight answer back on this, so he's never sure whether or not she ever does manage to cancel the spell. But it's possible he might be going too far whenever he starts wondering how much of what happens in the years that follow it could have played a part in.

***

Epilogue

Sick, tired, dejected and alone, the one place he could think of to go was back to Yogekisha. Yakumo muses on that thought as he attempts to read an article in the newest edition of Ling-Ling's beloved magazine.

His reading is slow and laboured, since it is, after all, in Chinese, and he has to refer fairly frequently to a small stack of books at his side, but it's reading after a fashion.

'Hong Kong Monster Tales', the article's title reads, and then goes on to describe the things he's dealt with in the weeks spent working for Yogekisha since his return; Steve's eventually-successful efforts to persuade the ghost to abandon its haunting of Mrs Tseun's house; the saga of the horn, its rich owner, and the demon who their subsequent research suggests probably gave its life to prevent one man from commanding a demon army; a dozen other incidents in the weeks since. "The world of the demonic and the supernatural cannot be simplified to 'evil forces'," the article opens, a sentiment rather close to his heart.

Mei-Xing had, thankfully, not been forbidden to help him with his homework.

She's probably the real author of this article. She turned his blunt and inelegant sentences into things he'd never have thought to say. Though when he told her that, she smacked him on the back of the head and brayed, "But I wouldn't even know what to write about!" It's not the whole truth, despite his desire to bring the world the real story, because the whole truth would be like painting a target on his forehead... but it's as close to a true story of the demon world as he can tell without inviting unwanted attention.

Ling-Ling solemnly promised to do no more than tidy up the grammar, though it's a promise he doesn't entirely trust.

Steve smiles as he places two cups of tea on the table, next to the remnant of Mrs Tseun's home-baked cake. Through in the office, Ling-Ling is on the telephone, marketing the latest issue to retailers with much fake brightness and peals of laughter. Mei-Xing is at school.

"Will you write another one?" Steve asks, sitting down opposite.

"Um..." He's not finished reading yet, but it does seem like Ling-Ling hasn't turned his words into anything unrecognisable. "Well, maybe I could send something back if I encounter anything interesting in Tibet."

An interval passes before he fully registers the meaning of what he just said, and realises he's betrayed thoughts he didn't even know he was having.

He looks up again uncomfortably. "I..."

Steve's still smiling, though, albeit with a little more irony present. "It isn't as though we expected you to stay forever," he points out.

"No," Yakumo says, "But I was thinking I was going to stay a bit longer. But now..."

How to put it? He came back to Yogekisha because he needed a rest. He seems to have had anything but a rest, and yet...

The truth is that he's already feeling rejuvenated enough; in such a short time he's gathered up the strength to return to that life of wandering, not knowing if and when he'll next eat, spending lonely nights thinking of the goal of his search. Pai... he has to find her, somehow. Just as importantly, he has to be worthy of her when he does find her, able to protect her for real. That knowledge, that determination, has started to gnaw at him more than the exhaustion that made his search seem fruitless. His short time back at Yogekisha has achieved this.

He's starting to realise it's not the physical strain of his travels but the isolation. While he's not too sure yet what he's going to do about it, the idea of planning to return after a given time...

The door sounds and Steve bobs up to answer it, with enthusiasm that smacks of the smell of clients and hence money.

It isn't a new customer, but an old one. One who's now, strictly speaking, not a customer any more. One that this time Yakumo greets with a grin, rising swiftly from his chair as she enters the room. "Mrs Huang!"

She acknowledges him coyly, an implied reprimand behind her small smile. "I would have come sooner, had I been informed you were back in town." The new issue of the magazine is tucked under her arm, pages creased open and pulled back around his article. She looks poised and elegant, fully recovered from her injuries of the year before. Two shadows hang at her shoulders, their suits and expressions fierce.

Ling-Ling almost drops the phone in her haste to get rid of the call and join them. "Madame Huang! Come in, have some cake! I'll get tea! You know you're always welcome here! You've seen the new issue? Great! I have a number of ideas for improvements, only certain resources are required to implement..."

Huang laughs gently. "Later, later. I'm here to catch up with our old friend Mr Fujii. There is always time for business later." Not according to Ling-Ling's expression, but at least it sounds like Huang's words hold the promise that Yogekisha's struggles might be somewhat alleviated for the near future, also alleviating some of Yakumo's worries. "Mr Fujii, this is a pleasantly unexpected return. How goes your quest?" Sympathetic disappointment flickers in her eyes as she reacts to the answer in his expression. "I see, your search continues still. Will you be staying long in Hong Kong?"

"...No," Yakumo says slowly, still only just coming in to the realisation as he confirms the unformed thoughts he'd half-voiced to Steve minutes before. "No, I have to keep going."

He can see, in his mind's eye, the image of Pai, halted, looking back over her shoulder, waiting for him to follow her. The expectation is bright on her face, the way it lights up specially when she looks at him, even if he doesn't understand what she sees in him that sparks it. It makes his heart ache. He has to find her.

"...But I'll be back," he says, looking around to Steve, to Ling-Ling, wanting to be sure they know he means it. "I won't let it be such a long wait before next time."

If Ling-Ling's lucky, he thinks, with a silent, inward smile, maybe he'll bring more monster tales with him.

END