His head was killing him, and just moving his hand to rub his throbbing temples made his stomach turn violently. He let his arm drop back to his belly. Hadn't had a hangover this bad in...he couldn't remember when. Maybe he should just call in sick—
Someone screamed, high and piercing and close by.
Zhao Yunlan gasped, rolled to his feet. It felt like the move left his stomach behind, and when he opened his eyes all he saw was blurry shadows. He blinked, tried to rub his eyes clear while he found his footing. It wasn't just his spinning head that made that a challenge; the ground underfoot was uneven, and damp. Rotting leaves squelched under his boots and he slipped, fell hard to one knee.
A tug at his sleeve, an anxious, high-pitched voice. "M-mister? Are you okay?"
He stubbornly squinted at the closest blur until it resolved into a face—big wet eyes, round cheeks stained with tears, pigtails adorned with yellow bows. Behind the little girl were a couple other kids, cowering fearfully between the looming trees of the mist-wreathed forest.
He wasn't that used to children, but none of them looked even ten. Zhao Yunlan made an effort to smile reassuringly around the throbbing of his head. "Hey, it's okay, it's—"
"—It's coming back!" the boy hollered, pointing over Zhao Yunlan's shoulder. The little girl screamed again, the sound driving into Zhao Yunlan's skull like a diamond-tipped drill.
Under that cry there was a weird harsh rattling, like ceramic plates scraping together. He twisted around in time to see the thing charge out of the fog. Gleaming, nauseating iridescence, like an oil slick, and way too much when it came to limbs—too skinny, too weirdly jointed, too many on one side and too few on the other. That uneven distribution turned its gait into a hobble, but a damn fast one, as it charged for them.
It looked like a nightmare, like something that shouldn't exist at all—not in this world, anyway.
Zhao Yunlan shoved the little girl behind him with one hand, with the other fumbled for his sidearm. A bullet or two through that cluster of compound eyes might slow the monster down.
But the holster under his jacket didn't have his police-issued pistol. Long barrel, wooden stock—he'd seen the piece enough times before to recognize it. His father's Dixing revolver.
Zhao Yunlan swung the gun up, took aim at the thing. If he could hold it off long enough—"Run!" he told the kids, and hoped they heard him through their panic; no chance to check if they were listening, as he braced and pulled the trigger.
The revolver was old and its kick was wild given its small caliber; his first shot went wide. He thought the next two hit, but it was like flicking water at the thing. It didn't miss a hobbling step; the kids were screaming , and it was close enough for Zhao Yunlan to smell the acrid poison coating its serrated mandibles—
—And then its blood, even more rank. Greenish goo splattered across the mud as the monster's carapace was cleaved in two by a sweep of silver. Its latter half jerked another step and then crashed to the ground before Zhao Yunlan like an offering.
Behind that bulk stood a figure, masked and hooded, shrouded in black. It held a curved sword, dripping with the monster's viscous ichor. The darkness of its flowing robes was like a hole cut out of the pale fog, like a shadow puppet, negative space made manifest.
The blade glittered in the haze—clouded sunlight? Bright moonlight? These surroundings gave few clues as to time or place, and Zhao Yunlan had thus far failed to retrieve any details from his aching head.
The kids hadn't gotten far, huddled behind the scant protection of a too-narrow tree trunk. They'd screamed themselves mute and were just gasping sobs now. Zhao Yunlan pulled himself up, did his best to hold the revolver steady, aimed at the figure's carved mask. Its shape was mostly human, but he had a hunch this gun would leave a mark.
Looked human—and sounded human, too, deep-voiced but articulate. "Zhao Yunlan," it said.
Zhao Yunlan stared at it—but then, it wasn't like the name Zhao was unknown in Dixing. And some of those bastards had more insidious ways of getting inside peoples' heads anyway. "Okay, buddy," Zhao Yunlan said. "You want to play nice, then put down the sword."
"My blade?" the figure said. The tone was strange, pitched like a question; but the figure opened its hand and the sword vanished into a wisp of dark energy. "Zhao Yunlan, why—these children—"
The figure started to step forward, and Zhao Yunlan cocked the revolver, the metallic click loud enough to be heard over the kids' whimpering. "You get one more warning," he said. "Stay back."
The figure didn't move closer, but it brought down its hand in a sharp gesture—Zhao Yunlan braced, but it wasn't calling back its weapon. Instead the black cloak and mask dissolved around it, to reveal a man—a man in glasses and a neatly tailored blue suit. And yeah, Dixingren could pass for human if they tried, and most of them did; but still, this guy didn't look like he'd crawled up from any hellish underworld. More like he'd stepped out of a classroom, or an accounting office.
"Zhao Yunlan, are you all right?" the man asked.
Zhao Yunlan didn't lower the gun, keeping his elbows locked so his arms wouldn't shake too hard and his eyes narrowed against the vise of pain around his skull. "I'm just dandy," he said. "So who the fuck are you?"
The man stared at him, eyes wide behind those auditor glasses. He opened his mouth—but whatever he said, Zhao Yunlan lost it as the ringing in his ears crescendoed into white noise, his vision blotted out by the same static.
When it receded, he was on his hands and knees, fingers clenched in the cold mud like he was trying to hold on in case gravity reversed. Maybe it already had; his stomach was flipped, anyway. There was a sour taste in his mouth and his gut was cramped; he heaved again but spat up nothing but bile, everything else already cleared out.
Definitely his worst hangover in years. He hadn't missed them.
Shit—that voice was too close, and Zhao Yunlan threw himself backwards, scrambling away from the man in glasses. The guy had snuck up on him, was reaching out with the same hand that had just been holding a sword, until he'd made it disappear.
But it wasn't just Zhao Yunlan's life on the line here—the kids were still too close, hunkered down with their arms around each other, terrified and unprotected. A second later he remembered the gun—that he wasn't holding, must have dropped it when he'd lost his lunch—dinner? Breakfast?
Now the revolver was in the mud next to the Dixingren's brown wingtips. Wiping his hand across his mouth, Zhao Yunlan staggered upright. Putting himself between the guy and the children, and maybe if he tackled him now, they'd have a chance—unless one of those other monsters showed up—
The Dixing man bent, picked up the revolver—carefully, the kind of ginger caution of someone not used to firearms . But it didn't take much knowhow to pull a trigger. Did that gun even work on Haixingren? Zhao Yunlan had no idea. He swallowed acid, raised his hands placatingly. "Hey, just—don't do anything you'll regret—" Or that Zhao Yunlan's father might regret, not to mention Zhao Yunlan himself—
"No," agreed the man in the suit, quite calmly. He hefted the revolver—then extended it toward Zhao Yunlan. Not aimed but flat in his palm, offering it back to him.
Zhao Yunlan stared. The Dixingren stared back at him, blinking anxiously behind his glasses. "It's not safe here," he said. "Youchong rarely come alone; you must be ready to defend yourself."
"I must..." Zhao Yunlan shook his head—not smart; the throbbing of his skull worsened. He prodded his head, then swore as his fingers brushed a matted spot on his scalp that made the pain surge to dizzying intensity.
"Zhao Yunlan?" The Dixing man lowered the gun to frown at him, a sharp furrow between his brows.
He moved forward and Zhao Yunlan stumbled back, putting up his hands to fend him off. "Back off!"
"You're hurt," the Dixing man said, his voice gone lower, like it mattered—marking his weakness, maybe.
"I'm fine," Zhao Yunlan said.
The man raised his hand toward his head. "Let me see—"
"No—" fucking way, but the guy still had the gun, so Zhao Yunlan swallowed it back, repeated, "I told you, I'm fine."
It wasn't the most credible line reading; the Dixing guy didn't look convinced, anyway. "You're not," he said, "and especially not here—nor are these children, if we don't find the way out of here for all of you—"
"The way out—out of the forest?" and Zhao Yunlan gestured at the tall silhouettes stretching up into the grayness above.
But the man in the suit was frowning harder. "Not the forest, this reflection—you don't remember this, either?"
Zhao Yunlan tensed, gritted his teeth against the spiking ache through his skull. "Remember what?"
"Why we're here—the children are found, but I had yet to locate our escape, when I sensed the Youchong—"
"Hold on—what do you mean, we?" Zhao Yunlan snapped, and the Dixing man immediately shut up, listening as attentively as if Zhao Yunlan were the one with the gun. "Don't try to tell me you're here to help—I saw you vanish that sword; you're Dixingren."
The man started. "So you know about—"
Zhao Yunlan smiled grimly. "Yeah, I'm not your usual beat cop."
"No," the Dixing man said. "I'm well aware." He held out the gun again. "And yes, I'm of Dixing, but I also am here to help you, and these children. I swear."
This time Zhao Yunlan grabbed the revolver. The Dixing man didn't try anything, just let him take it and withdrew his hand.
There were occasionally Dixingren who worked with the SID—his father had mentioned them, grudgingly. Criminals making deals, turning on their own people to get a little more time on the surface. But they could be useful, with their special skillsets.
"So Chief Zhao sent you?"
The Dixing man started again. "Chief—Zhao—?"
Zhao Yunlan grimaced. "Zhao Xinci—otherwise known as my dad. I take it you're here under his orders, working off your time with the SID."
"—Oh." The man frowned. Considered a moment before saying, "No—that is to say, I am working with the SID, but I don't take orders from your father."
There was one other Dixingren who worked with the SID, Zhao Yunlan suddenly recalled. Not that he'd heard much about him—if his old man was grudging about the ones he'd coerced into working for him, then he was utterly resentful of the one Dixingren who he kind of worked for.
But it did explain the guy's initial appearance. "So you're him, then—the one in the treaty. The Black-Cloaked Envoy."
Behind the glasses, the man's eyes widened. "Yes," he said after a moment, cautiously.
"I thought that 'Black-Cloaked' bit was a title," Zhao Yunlan said. "Didn't guess it was so literal." The Dixing man—the Dixing Envoy—just blinked at him again, more like a confused owl than a fearsome arbiter of underworld justice. Zhao Yunlan could see why the guy wore the mask.
"H-Hei Pao Shi?" Off to their left, the children's nervous murmuring rose to louder fear. When Zhao Yunlan glanced over, they all were goggling at him—or rather, at the guy next to him. Of course; whatever the Dixingren looked like now, they'd seen him with the sword and costume before, and hearing a title like that would hardly be reassuring.
The Envoy was also looking towards the children. His face was hard to read, but not obviously threatening, anyway.
And he hadn't used the sword, or the gun. Whatever his angle was, murder wasn't a priority, at least. Zhao Yunlan drew a steadying breath. "You're here to help me rescue these kids?"
The Envoy nodded. "Then let's do that," Zhao Yunlan said, and headed over to them. He wasn't sure if the Envoy followed—his tromping steps through the mud were loud and the Envoy's weren't, even in dress shoes. Though by the prickling at the back of his neck, the guy was watching him again.
The kids were sitting around the largest tree trunk visible through the mists—well, tree-like pillar, anyway; the general shape was natural, but its top was lost to the fog overhead, any leaves or branches hidden behind that pale wall. And when Zhao Yunlan put his hand out to lean against it, the surface was chill and hard and smoother than any tree bark, like the whole trunk had been lacquered while still rooted in the ground.
He pulled back his hand, gave it a shake like he could cast off the sense memory of that too-slick surface as he crouched next to the children. "Hey," he said. "How are you guys doing? Are any of you hurt?"
The kids peered at him, three pairs of round eyes in tear-stained faces. Finally they all shook their heads.
"Great," Zhao Yunlan said, trying for a smile.
"What about you, mister?" asked one of the girls—the screamer from before, with the yellow ribbons.
"'Mister'?" Zhao Yunlan protested. "You mean big brother—I'm Sergeant Zhao Yunlan, how about you call me Zhao-ge."
"Zhao-ge," the girl repeated dutifully. "Are you okay, Zhao-ge? When—when that monster came..."
"I'm fine," Zhao Yunlan reassured her. "It didn't touch me."
"No, before," the other girl said. "When you got that branch, and you jammed it into its mouth, like, bam! but then it was wiggling around and pow! you went flying—" and she traced an arc through the air with both arms "—and you hit that tree really hard—and then you weren't moving, not until Ah-Mei screamed."
"It looked like you were dead," the boy said, and both girls nodded, agreeing, "Yeah, dead."
"Well, I wasn't," Zhao Yunlan said. "I'm okay, and you guys are going to be, too."
"Zhao Yunlan," said the Envoy behind him—creepy, it was creepy, hearing his name in that soft low voice; he swore his heart skipped a beat every time the guy said it.
Zhao Yunlan gave the kids a grimace they hopefully would mistake for a smile, grabbed hold of the weird smooth tree trunk and hauled himself back to his feet to face Dixing's finest. "Yeah?" he said. "This mission is still on, right, your lordship?"
"You remember the mission?"
"Sure," Zhao Yunlan lied. "Find the lost kids, get out of here. Easy."
"Except I haven't yet found a feasible way out for us," the Envoy said, grimly—the guy didn't even need his black robes to bring the darkness. "And I can't risk leaving you to search—with that one dead, more Youchong will be coming, drawn to the blood."
Zhao Yunlan wanted to tell him that he didn't need a babysitter. But really they both did right now; he suspected Dixing's ambassador was more familiar with hunting monsters than childcare. He pressed the heel of his hand to his throbbing temple. "Sounds like we shouldn't stick around here. If we can't get these kids out now, can we get them somewhere safer, at least?"
The Envoy thought for a moment—or maybe was doing something else; he closed his eyes, then opened them, pointed randomly into the fog. "There's shelter, of a sort, a little ways from here."
"Okay, then," Zhao Yunlan said with a careful nod. "Let's go and figure it out from there."
He started to turn back to collect the kids, only to realize that the Envoy had gone still—frozen, looking at him with such unalloyed focus that it sent a frisson down Zhao Yunlan's spine. "What?" he snapped, quelling that shiver.
"You trust me?" the Envoy asked, quiet but intent.
Zhao Yunlan could've lied, could've told him they were best friends, comrades for life; but the sharpness of that gaze would cut through such glibness as easily as the Envoy's blade through that monster. It wasn't worth the effort. "If you wanted to kill me now, you would've already." He shrugged. "So come on—" He couldn't say it aloud; identifying him as 'Heio Pao Shi' was one thing, but actually addressing the guy like some lord in a historical drama, with a straight face...not possible. "—Hei-Laoge."
The Envoy's shoulders jerked under his bespoke suit jacket at that insolence, but he didn't say anything. Just stood silently by as Zhao Yunlan talked to the kids.
It took a little cajoling to get them up and moving, especially when he couldn't promise they were going anywhere nicer. The girl with the yellow ribbons asked hopefully, "Do you have any more candy, Zhao-ge? Those lollipops were good before..."
Zhao Yunlan frowned, dug in his pockets. His leather jacket had a few protein bars and bottles of water. In his jeans he found his phone—no signal, shocker—and a single lollipop. He considered, then held up the candy, said, "Okay, first one to get to where we're going gets it!"
That did the trick—with sugar on the line, they didn't dawdle.
The Black-Cloaked Envoy in his contrarily blue suit led the way through the thickly gathered fog. Zhao Yunlan took the rear, keeping the Envoy in sight and the three children between them. As they walked, the kids talked among themselves, muttered whispers that barely carried between the trees.
Zhao Yunlan kept one ear on them, the other on the creepily silent forest—no birds or insects; he couldn't even hear the rustling of wind through leaves above, or see any through the dense fog. The ground was muddy underfoot, the soles of his boots sinking a little into the damp earth with each step; but there was no moss, no underbrush, just the occasional clot of rotting leaves.
He tried to catch the kids' names in their chatter. The girl with the ribbons was...Ah-Mei? The other two—had probably introduced themselves already, when he'd given them lollipops; but he couldn't remember any of that.
His head was still killing him, throbbing with every step. Concussion probably, and a little retrograde amnesia wasn't that unusual, if he'd met the kids right before the attack. Of more concern was how, when he tried to think back, he couldn't remember how he'd gotten to this forest at all. Much less where this place was, or where was the path out of it.
He couldn't remember what he'd had for breakfast this morning, either, or what he'd done the night before. Trying to recall it made his head pound that much harder. He ground the heel of his hand against his eye, like he could push his sore brains back to a better fit inside his skull—
A hand grabbed his arm, and Zhao Yunlan yanked back, shying away from that unexpected touch. He forced open his eyes, and saw the oily black of one of those too-smooth tree trunks—one that he'd nearly walked into.
A couple meters ahead, the kids were stopped, looking back. And the Black-Cloaked Envoy was standing next to Zhao Yunlan, peering at him with those too-intent eyes behind his glasses. "Should we take a moment to rest?"
Zhao Yunlan shook his head, cautiously to keep from rattling his brains around even more. "No, I'm fine."
The Envoy's look sharpened, from a knife to a needle; but he only said, "Drink some water"—and reached out, so casually quick that Zhao Yunlan didn't even think to stop him. Not until after the Envoy had already pulled a bottle of water out of Zhao Yunlan's jacket pocket, twisted off the cap and handed it back to him.
At a loss, Zhao Yunlan took a couple sips, then diffidently offered some to the Envoy. When he refused, Zhao Yunlan passed the water over to the kids to share, then turned back to the Dixingren, still watching him. "So you don't need sustenance like us mere mortals?"
"You need it more; my dark energy provides me enough strength, for now," the Envoy said.
"Is that why you came dressed for an office instead of a walk in the woods?" Zhao Yunlan asked pointedly.
The Envoy made an awkward duck of his head—almost credibly shy, in spite of what he was. The fog's ambient light softened his stern features, smoothed them into nearly convincing humanity, all gentle dark eyes and sensitive lips. "I wasn't expecting... You were the one to point out that the children would be less intimidated by a professor's suit than a black cloak."
"You mean you'd rather be hiking in half a dozen layers of robes?" Zhao Yunlan said, keeping his tone light, even as his gut did an internal tap-dance routine to the beat of the hammering in his skull. It was one thing for these kids' names to have slipped his mind. But the Envoy hadn't just recognized Zhao Yunlan from a picture his dad gave him or whatever—they'd met already. Had been introduced, presumably for this mission, and Zhao Yunlan couldn't remember a second of it. Didn't have a clue what he'd said before, to a Dixingren—and not just any freak but the most powerful, most dangerous individual allowed in the upper world.
He must not have mouthed off too rudely, anyway, if the guy was still here helping out. Or maybe his father's begrudging admissions were correct and Hei Pao Shi had something resembling a sense of honor.
Or maybe he had another agenda, one that he wouldn't let Zhao Yunlan get in the way of, however obnoxious he got.
At any rate, the last thing Zhao Yunlan needed was for Dixing's mighty Envoy to realize just how hurt Haixing's interim representative was right now. Not when he had three kids to keep safe, from this place, and maybe the Envoy, too. Zhao Yunlan made himself straighten up, put down his hand and widened his squinting eyes. Smiled like the Dixingren's fixed study wasn't bothering him. "Come on, kids, let's get going. It's not much further, right?"
"No," the Envoy agreed—but then stopped, turned his head abruptly to glare into the mistiness behind them.
"What?" Zhao Yunlan said—and then he heard it, echoing faintly through the trees: the clattering scraping of exoskeletal joints. Louder than before—more than one. "Shit..."